Big Ten: Matt Alviti

Our week-long examination of positions that need improvement at every Big Ten school focuses next on the Northwestern Wildcats.

Problem position: Wide receiver

Why receiver was a problem: The trouble started in August when Christian Jones, the Wildcats’ 2013 leader in receiving yardage, went down with a knee injury. The Wildcats felt his loss in 2014 as wideouts Kyle Prater and Tony Jones were effective at times but did not account for Christian Jones’ production. Superback Dan Vitale caught 40 passes, while the season of Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler was shortened by a head injury suffered in October against Nebraska. The Wildcats struggled with drops and generally required more from the receivers to operate as needed in the Northwestern spread system.

How it can be fixed: Shuler and Vitale are back as seniors, as is Christian Jones, who took a redshirt in 2014. The Wildcats need leadership from the trio as the quarterback position goes through a transition to Zack Oliver, Matt Alviti or Clayton Thorson. With a veteran corps of receivers that includes several additional upperclassmen -- Northwestern needs more from rising senior Cameron Dickerson -- the inconsistency of 2014 must give way to reliability, starting this spring.

Early 2015 outlook: If the QB job goes to Alviti or Thorson -- both in the dual-threat category -- the job description shifts a bit for the receivers. In a best-case scenario, Northwestern finds a weapon at quarterback and running back Justin Jackson builds on a strong rookie season. Among the Wildcats’ top recruits is receiver Cameron Green, the son of ex-Chicago Bears running back Mark Green. Despite the presence of veterans, the Wildcats would benefit from new blood on the edge. The more bodies, the merrier. With Jones back, though, look for a rebound performance from the receivers.
Sadly, it's the offseason, and we're examining three items each Big Ten team must address before the 2015 season kicks off in September. Up next is Northwestern, which enters a critical offsason after two years without making a bowl game.

1. Develop a difference-making quarterback: Northwestern had a really nice run of quarterbacks under offensive coordinator Mick McCall, from C.J. Bacher to Mike Kafka to Dan Persa to Kain Colter. But after a platoon system worked in 2012, Northwestern's quarterback production and consistency has backslid the past two years. McCall's offense requires an accurate passer on the short to intermediate routes who can convert third downs and get out of trouble with his feet. Many fans wanted McCall fired after last season, but he has a track record of developing quarterbacks. He must turn senior Zack Oliver, sophomore Matt Alviti or intriguing redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson into a difference-maker. Or else.

2. Get more out of the receivers and offensive linemen: Both groups have underwhelmed the past two seasons, doing little to help the quarterback. Northwestern has recruited well along the offensive line, but struggled to develop the necessary toughness and consistency. The Wildcats must do so while replacing veteran center and line leader Brandon Vitabile. The receiving corps regains a big piece in Christian Jones, whose preseason knee injury proved more costly than Northwestern's coaches envisioned. Northwestern looks for more out of Cameron Dickerson and Miles Shuler, and must eliminate the drops that plagued the entire group throughout last season.

3. Be better prepared for adversity: Northwestern thought it had turned the corner after a 10-win season capped by a bowl victory in 2012. But the past two seasons have shown that the Wildcats still lack the depth to overcome key injuries, of which there have been plenty. Coach Pat Fitzgerald talked a lot last fall about his team's lack of maturity. Northwestern went through a lot last offseason, from the union talk in the spring -- a major, major distraction, even if coaches and players say otherwise -- to injuries and other personnel issues in the summer. Football is about bouncing back, and resiliency used to be Northwestern's calling card. It must regain that ability to better handle the inevitable bumps along the way.

Big Ten morning links

August, 20, 2014
Tis the season to name starting quarterbacks, not to lose them.

News of Braxton Miller's season-ending injury at Ohio State is dominating the headlines. But the Buckeyes won't be the last Big Ten team this year to go in search of an alternate plan at QB. Last year, 10 of the current 14 teams in the league used at least two starters at the position.

Here's a ranking of Big Ten teams most equipped to handle an injury to their top quarterback:
  1. Wisconsin: Junior Joel Stave and senior Tanner McEvoy remain locked in a race for the job, and both are likely to play. Stave, who has started 19 games, remains the favorite, though McEvoy, a safety last year, adds a running threat for the Badgers.
  2. Maryland: Junior Caleb Rowe, the backup to sixth-year senior C.J. Brown, has a strong arm and four games of starting experience from last October. Rowe improved during that month and regularly gets time in practice with the first-team offense.
  3. Iowa: Sophomore C.J. Beathard played meaningful snaps alongside Jake Rudock a year ago. Beathard will get opportunities again. And if the Hawkeyes need him full time, it's far from a disaster.
  4. Illinois: Transfer Wes Lunt appears in control of the race, with the Illini set to name a starter on Wednesday. Senior Reilly O'Toole has shown a capable arm, and sophomore Aaron Bailey has good size and running ability.
  5. Michigan: Devin Gardner missed the bowl game last year, giving the Wolverines a glimpse of Shane Morris. That experience in a 31-14 loss to Kansas State aided Morris in getting prepared for his sophomore season.
  6. Purdue: Returning starter Danny Etling won a legitimate competition this week over fellow sophomore Austin Appleby, who expects to keep pushing. If the Boilermakers need to use their depth, another to watch is touted freshman David Blough, on track now to redshirt.
  7. Ohio State: It's time to find out. Redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett is known for his steady hand, accuracy and decent athleticism. Sophomore Cardale Jones, next in line, is a big body who could be used more than Barrett as a running threat.
  8. Michigan State: Sophomore Tyler O'Connor and redshirt freshman Damion Terry have conducted a spirited battle this month, with O'Connor remaining ahead in the race to back up Connor Cook. If a replacement is needed, both options would likely receive consideration.
  9. Nebraska: Behind Tommy Armstrong Jr., who started seven games as a replacement a year ago, the Huskers have no experience. Sophomore walk-on Ryker Fyfe owns the edge over redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton, a former elite recruit.
  10. Penn State: Newcomers Michael O'Connor and Trace McSorley have adjusted well to life behind Christian Hackenberg. O'Connor is bigger and practiced with the Nittany Lions in the spring, so he's probably the first option if a backup is needed.
  11. Northwestern: Unlike a year ago, Trevor Siemian is the clear starter. Behind him, junior Zack Oliver and redshirt freshman Matt Alviti have waged a competition. Alviti brings a dual-theat similar in the mold of ex-Wildcat Kain Colter.
  12. Minnesota: Redshirt freshman Chris Streveler has emerged as the top backup to Mitch Leidner. The Gophers tinkered with Streveler at receiver last year before the transfer of Philip Nelson, so athleticism is a plus. But Streveler's inexperience is a concern.
  13. Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights need Gary Nova and his vast experience in this transition to the Big Ten. Backups Mike Bimonte, a junior, and freshman Chris Laviano possess good size, but neither QB has played a down in college.
  14. Indiana: The Hoosiers have no experience behind incumbent Nate Sudfeld. Walk-on sophomore Nate Boudreau has taken most of the snaps at No. 2, though true freshmen Zander Diamont or Danny Cameron might be given a closer look if Sudfeld misses time.
Around the league ...

East Division
West Division
And finally . . .

Big Ten Friday mailblog

February, 28, 2014
Your second mailblog of the week has arrived. Enjoy another weekend of snow (if you're in the Midwest, at least). Spring ball kicks off Saturday at Maryland, and eight teams get started next week. Good times.

Don't forget: Twitter!

To the inbox ...

Logan from just north of Piscataway writes: In response to Matt Brown's lengthy article on Nebraska, I can say that it has been quite frustrating, this past decade. I graduated from UNL in 2003, meaning that I was there for the end of the heyday. That was hard. I've watched my Big Red on four different continents, having kickoffs at all hours of the night and day, and it has worn on me, them not winning. However, I do have great faith in Coach Bo and truly do believe he is the man for the job. He's passionate and, yes, a bit gnarly with the press at times. My question: Do you feel this kind of coach helps, or is he just a distraction?

Adam Rittenberg: I think teams reflect their coach, and Nebraska at times has reflected Bo Pelini's volatile personality. It comes through the annual turnover problems and the week-to-week unpredictability (which team will show up?). Still, I think Bo is an excellent defensive coach who could produce a very good defense in Lincoln most seasons, including 2014. His players really like him, and the program hasn't had many off-field issues. So there are some things to like. Coaches always talk about how they have to be themselves, and Bo always will be a fiery guy. That's OK. But sometimes it goes too far, and the team seems to reflect that volatility.

John from Boise writes: Do you think the Big Ten would ever follow the ACC/SEC model and allow teams to schedule traditional rivals the last week of the season instead of creating conference rivals that make no sense? I mean, Penn State-Pitt is more interesting than Penn State-Mich State, Rutgers, Maryland, etc. Would make more sense and possibly help the lower attendance over the Thanksgiving weekend.

Adam Rittenberg: John, I'll look into this some more, but I think there will be an increased willingness to do so, especially with the Big Ten scheduling league games earlier in the future. Although the Big Ten wants to showcase some of its best games during Thanksgiving weekend, there are certain conference matchups that don't move the needle and others, like Penn State-Pitt, that could do much better in terms of interest/ratings. It's good to see the Big Ten embracing earlier league games, especially with the move to a nine-game league slate in 2016.

Kevin from Evanston, Ill., writes: Trevor Siemian seems to be the No. 1 QB heading into spring practices. Do you think Northwestern would be better off going with Matt Alviti as a starter this year? I feel like with Alviti as QB, they will get the best out of Venric Mark. I think with Trevor Siemian in there, Venric may not used to the best of his ability. I think we will end up seeing the two-QB system, however I feel like it may be more like last year rather than the year before. Also, exactly how good is Oliver?

Adam Rittenberg: Some good points here, Kevin. I agree Alviti's style might better serve Mark, but ultimately you have to go with the best option for the entire offense. Mark's durability is a question mark after last year (and the end of the 2012 season), so building the offense around him and the option game has its risks. Northwestern fans are optimistic about Alviti because of his success in high school, but he has to show significant improvement this spring to truly push Siemian, who has been pretty good in games when healthy. The same goes for Zack Oliver, who has been better in practice after some rough days early in his career.

I disagree Northwestern will use a two-QB system. That ship seems to have sailed. If Siemian wins the job, as expected, I think you'll see an offense that more closely resembles the 2007-10 version (pass-focused, a lot of short- to medium-length throws).

Sammy from Buffalo, N.Y., writes: As an IU fan, and as a student there I was excited when the team played night games, but was discouraged when at least half the crowd leaves at halftime. This does not only happen when the Hoosiers are losing, but it happened in every game this season. College students don't want to be at a dry stadium until 11 p.m. on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday night, especially at a school like Indiana, and the older alumni have a long drive home on a slow moving state highway. Am I wrong in thinking that night games may actually hurt the Hoosiers more than help them?

Adam Rittenberg: Sammy, it might hurt them with students, but the student-attendance problems at IU, where many traditionally gather outside the stadium but not enough go inside, aren't going away until the team starts winning more. Night games are family-friendly because many kids have their own games in the morning or early afternoon on Saturdays. I agree they can be hard on the older alumni, but there are more benefits for your real target audience (ages 18-45, plus kids), not to mention the increased exposure the program gets from playing under the lights.

Rick from Union City, Calif., writes: Hey Adam, when (not if) the BIG expands, and if they do think about adding KU and OK and possibly TX … do you think that then they will finally invite Mizzou to help create a BIG western (old Big Eight) division? I really don't think that VA or UNC will ever leave the ACC ... stopping any further southern expansion. Any thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Ah, expansion questions, how I've missed thee. The problem with Oklahoma and Texas is the likelihood of having to add other schools such as Oklahoma State and Texas Tech that don't fit into the Big Ten from an academic/profile standpoint. Remember Gordon Gee's email comment about Texas's "Tech problem?" That's still an issue. Same with Oklahoma regarding Oklahoma State. Moreover, the Big Ten is clearly making a push toward the East Coast and its big markets. These schools don't really fit into that vision.
Nine Big Ten programs will feature true quarterback competitions this spring, and we're taking a closer look at the candidates, the circumstances and the stakes of each race. First up: Northwestern.

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Northwestern had grown accustomed to two things every season: a bowl trip and development at the quarterback position.

Neither, however, happened in 2013. The Wildcats missed the postseason for the first time in six years, largely because of an inconsistent offense that rarely found a rhythm in the passing game. A two-quarterback system that had worked well in 2012, when Northwestern won 10 games, backslid because of injuries and other factors.

The Wildcats had more interceptions (9) than touchdown passes (8) in Big Ten play, and their completion percentage, typically a strength, dipped to just 60.5 in league games. Northwestern finished 67th nationally in pass efficiency.

After a 5-7 season, competition is the overriding theme this spring, including the quarterback spot, even though Northwestern welcomes back Trevor Siemian, who has 3,461 pass yards the past two seasons.

"If we're playing this Saturday, he's our starting quarterback," coach Pat Fitzgerald said of Siemian. "He's our most experienced and successful quarterback, but I know that Zack [Oliver] and Matt [Alviti] and Christian [Salem] are going to compete. That's just the way it is."

[+] EnlargeTrevor Siemian
Byron Hetzler/USA TODAY SportsTrevor Siemian is an experienced quarterback but he will face competition to be Northwestern's starter.
It appears to be a three-man race between Siemian, Oliver and Alviti, who appeared in that order during team drills Wednesday as Northwestern went through its first spring workout. Siemian clearly has the edge. If he can boost his completion percentage and show greater decisiveness after taking too many sacks in 2013, he should be the starter Aug. 30 against Cal.

The goal for Siemian?

"Total command of the offense," offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. "Every year a guy plays in this offense, [the ball] gets quicker out of his hand, and the game slows down even more. I intend for that to happen with him, and I think it will."

Siemian also is healthy after battling a bone bruise on his heel for much of Big Ten play. He sustained the injury Oct. 12 at Wisconsin, struggled to plant on his throws and only recovered fully for the finale, when he completed 70.5 percent of his passes and threw for a career-high 414 yards and four touchdowns in a win at Illinois.

The 6-3, 210-pound Siemian completed 68.2 percent of his passes in five games before the injury and just 52.4 percent between the Wisconsin game and the Illinois game.

"If you look at healthy Trevor, it's [the Illinois] game, early in the season and then what you saw the previous two years," Fitzgerald said. "When he was not 100 percent, unfair to him, it wasn't as successful as any of us would have wanted."

Siemian admits he didn't handle the injury as well as he wanted, but he finished well and, according to the coaches, responded well in the winter program.

Although Northwestern has used a two-quarterback system for all or part of the past three seasons, Fitzgerald and McCall would prefer to see one player separate himself. McCall always tailors the offense around the quarterback's skill set.

If Siemian wins the job, Northwestern could employ a pass-heavy scheme like the one it used from 2007-2010 with C.J. Bacher, Mike Kafka and Dan Persa. If Oliver, a junior, or Alviti, a redshirt freshman, prevails, Northwestern likely would maintain a sizable option element, like it did when Kain Colter called signals.

Alviti hopes he can build on what Colter brought to the offense.

"With the option game, that's going to be a big role for me, doing what Kain did in the past," Alviti said. "I've got a lot more arm strength, can throw a lot better than Kain can. He's a great quarterback and he's going to have a great career in the NFL, but he's going to be playing receiver.

"I can throw on the run a little bit more."

All three quarterbacks are working on their leadership skills. Alviti attributes much of the offense's struggles in 2013 to "a lack of leadership," which Siemian doesn't dispute.

"We had no one to go to on offense," Alviti said. "Everyone would agree with that. No one really stepped up and was the guy. That's one of the main things the quarterbacks need to do."

The quarterbacks will operate behind a line that never truly clicked last year, in part because so many players sat out spring practice with injuries. The line is healthy this spring, and Fitzgerald described the competition level as "night and day" from 2013, noting that lineups could change on each play.

Northwestern returns experience at wide receiver (Christian Jones, Tony Jones), tight end (Dan Vitale) and running back, where 2012 All-Big Ten selection Venric Mark returns after missing most of last season with leg problems. Miles Shuler, a transfer from Rutgers, adds another weapon on the perimeter.

After a season of injuries, poor play and a truncated playbook, Northwestern's offense could course-correct in 2014. Siemian wants to be the one pulling the strings.

"As a quarterback, you're the guy, so it's directly on your shoulders," he said. "I'm working to be the best leader I can for this offense. Not that I didn't last year, but this year, it's even more of an emphasis."
Let's look at what to expect this spring in the Big Ten's wild, wild West:


Spring start: March 5
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Toughening up on 'D': The Fighting Illini had one of the nation's worst defenses, especially against the run. Tim Beckman brought back defensive coordinator Tim Banks and hopes an extra year of maturity can help strengthen the front seven. Juco import Joe Fotu could win a starting job this spring, and Jihad Ward should help when he arrives in the summer.
  • 'Haase cleaning: Nathan Scheelhaase wrapped up his career by leading the Big Ten in passing yards last season. Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt likely takes over the reins, but backups Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey plan on fighting for the job, as well. Bill Cubit's offense should equal big numbers for whoever wins out.
  • Target practice: Whoever wins the quarterback job needs someone to catch the ball, and Illinois' top two receivers from '13 -- Steve Hull and Miles Osei -- both are gone. Junior college arrival Geronimo Allison will be counted on for some immediate help.

Spring start: March 27 or 28
Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • A new big three: The Hawkeyes begin the process of trying to replace their three standout senior linebackers from last season: James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey. They were the heart of the defense in 2013, and now guys such as Quinton Alston, Reggie Spearman and Travis Perry need to make major leaps forward in the spring.
  • Develop more playmakers: Iowa was able to win the games it should have won last year, but struggled against those with strong defenses because of its lack of explosiveness. Sophomore Tevaun Smith and junior Damond Powell showed flashes of their potential late in the year at wideout. They need to continue to develop to give quarterback Jake Rudock and the offense ways to stretch the field.
  • Solidify the right tackle spot: The offensive line should once again be the team's strength, but the departure of veteran right tackle Brett Van Sloten means someone has to take on that role. Whether that's senior Andrew Donnal or redshirt freshman Ryan Ward could be determined this spring.

Spring start: March 4
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Mitch's pitches: Philip Nelson's transfer means redshirt sophomore Mitch Leidner enters spring practice as the No. 1 quarterback. He's a load to bring down when he runs, but Leidner needs to improve his passing accuracy after completing 55 percent of his passes in the regular season and only half of his 22 attempts in the Texas Bowl game loss to Syracuse. Added experience should help. If not, he's got some talented youngsters such as Chris Streveler and Dimonic Roden-McKinzy aiming to dethrone him.
  • Mitch's catchers: Of course, part of the problem behind the Gophers' Big Ten-worst passing offense was a lack of threats at receiver. Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones showed promise as true freshmen and should only improve with an offseason of work. It's critical that they do, or else Minnesota might have to count on three receiver signees early.
  • Replacing Ra'Shede: The Gophers only lost four senior starters, but defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman might be the most difficult to replace. The first-team All-Big Ten selection created havoc inside defensively, and there aren't many athletes like him floating around. Scott Ekpe could take many of Hageman's reps, but the defensive line overall will have to pick up the slack.

Spring start: March 8
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Tommy's turn: Sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr. entered the offseason as the clear No. 1 quarterback for the first time after taking over for the injured Taylor Martinez (and splitting some snaps with Ron Kellogg III) last season. Armstrong showed maturity beyond his years in 2013 but needs to continue developing as a passer and deepen his understanding of the offense. Redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton could push him in the spring.
  • Get the OL up to speed: Nebraska loses a lot of experience on the offensive line, including both starting tackles (Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale), plus interior mainstays Spencer Long, Andrew Rodriguez and Cole Pensick. The Huskers do return seniors Mark Pelini, Jake Cotton and Mike Moudy, junior Zach Sterup, plus three freshmen and a junior-college transfer who redshirted last year. A strong group of incoming freshmen may also contribute. Big Red usually figures it out on the O-line, but there will be a lot of players in new roles this season.
  • Reload in the secondary: The Blackshirts have plenty of experience in the front seven, but the defensive backfield has a new coach (Charlton Warren) and will be without top playmakers Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans. The safety spot next to Corey Cooper was a problem area last season, and the Huskers are hoping Charles Jackson takes a major step forward. Warren has talent to work with but must find the right combination.

Spring start: Feb. 26
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Trevor's time?: Trevor Siemian split reps with Kain Colter at quarterback the past two seasons, serving as sort of the designated passer. Siemian threw for 414 yards in the season finale against Illinois and has a clear path toward starting with Colter gone. That could mean more of a pass-first offense than Northwestern ran with Colter. Redshirt freshman and heralded recruit Matt Alviti also looms as an option.
  • Manning the middle: Northwestern brings back a solid corps on defense but lost middle linebacker Damien Proby, who led the team in tackles the past two seasons. Pat Fitzgerald has some options, including making backups Drew Smith or Jaylen Prater a starter or moving Collin Ellis inside. He can experiment and find the best match this spring.
  • Patch it together: The Wildcats' health woes from 2013 aren't over, as 11 players will be held out of practice for medical reasons, including star running back/returner Venric Mark. Add in that the school doesn't have early enrollees, and the team will be trying to practice severely undermanned this spring. The biggest key is to get through spring without any more major problems and to get the injured guys healthy for the fall.

Spring start: March 6
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Moving forward: Purdue players wore T-shirts emblazoned with the word "Forward" during winter workouts, and no wonder. They don't want to look backward to last year's abysmal 1-11 season. It's time to turn the page and get some positive momentum going in Year 2 under Darrell Hazell. Luckily, optimism abounds in spring.
  • Trench focus: The Boilermakers simply couldn't cut it on the lines in Big Ten play, and Hazell went about trying to sign bigger offensive linemen this offseason for his physical style of play. Both starting tackles and three starting defensive linemen all graduated, and no one should feel safe about his job after last season's performance. Kentucky transfer Langston Newton (defense) and early enrollee Kirk Barron (offense) could push for playing time on the lines.
  • Find an identity: What was Purdue good at last season? Not much, as the team ranked near the bottom of the country in just about every major statistical category. The Boilers found some good things late in the passing game with freshmen Danny Etling and DeAngelo Yancey, but Hazell must do a better job instilling the toughness he wants and locating playmakers.

Spring start: March 7
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Catching on: The biggest concern heading into the spring is at receiver after the team's only dependable wideout the past two seasons, Jared Abbrederis, graduated. Tight end Jacob Pedersen, who was second on the team in receiving yards last season, is also gone. The Badgers have struggled to develop new weapons in the passing game but now have no choice. Gary Andersen signed five receivers in the 2014 class but none enrolled early, so guys such as Kenzel Doe and Robert Wheelwright need to take charge this spring.
  • Stave-ing off the competition?: Joel Stave started all 13 games at quarterback last year, while no one else on the roster has any real experience under center. Yet the redshirt junior should face some competition this spring after the Badgers' passing game struggled down the stretch. Andersen likes more mobile quarterbacks and has three guys in Bart Houston, Tanner McEvoy and freshman early enrollee D.J. Gillins, who can offer that skill. Stave must hold them off to keep his job.
  • New leaders on defense: Wisconsin lost a large group of seniors, including nine major contributors on the defensive side. That includes inside linebacker and team leader Chris Borland, plus defensive linemen Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer, outside linebacker Brendan Kelly and safety Dezmen Southward. That's a whole lot of leadership and production to replace, and the process begins in earnest this spring.
The last two seasons have shown that two-quarterback systems can work in the Big Ten.

Northwestern recorded 10 wins in 2012 while rotating Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian. Indiana led the Big Ten and ranked ninth nationally in total offense last fall while alternating between Tre Roberson and Nate Sudfeld.

[+] EnlargeJoey Bosa, Connor Cook
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesAfter taking over the quarterback job in Week 5, Connor Cook led the Spartans to 10 consecutive wins.
Given the recent success, my next statement might surprise you: Every Big Ten team would be best served picking one quarterback and sticking with him in 2014. That includes Indiana and Northwestern.

Quarterback rotations can be successful in the short term, but they are rarely sustainable or desirable. We saw this at Northwestern last fall, as the Wildcats never established a consistent offensive rhythm and operated with a reduced playbook, in part because of injuries but also because the unit lacked a clear identity. Northwestern finished 10th in the league in scoring.

Minnesota alternated between quarterbacks Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner during several games, including the Texas Bowl against Syracuse. Although the Gophers had a nice surge during Big Ten play and recorded eight wins, they also finished 11th in the league in scoring and last in passing.

Nebraska had some success using two quarterbacks (Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Ron Kellogg III) last season but did so out of necessity following Taylor Martinez's injury. The Huskers also struggled to pass the ball, finishing 11th in the league.

The strongest argument for picking a quarterback and sticking with him comes from the Big Ten's best team in 2013. Michigan State's offense was a train wreck in non-league play as the Spartans used three quarterbacks. After a Week 4 loss to Notre Dame, the coaches decided Connor Cook would be their guy. You all know what happened next, but what struck me was Cook's mindset at the time.

"We went through spring ball competition and fall camp competition, it was the most stressed out I've ever been in my entire life just trying to be the quarterback," Cook said last month before the Rose Bowl. "After I got the starting job and started a couple of games, the stress went away and it turned to focus, me being focused and knowing they're not going to use other quarterbacks in the game and not stress too much that go if I make a bad play I'm going to be pulled.

"That's when the stress went out the window."

Players like Northwestern's Siemian and Indiana's Roberson and Sudfeld are more accustomed to sharing time than Cook was, but each of them, like any quarterback, would rather be the clear-cut starter.

Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase is another good example of a player who benefited from an unambiguous role. He struggled from the middle of the 2011 season through all of 2012, raising the possibility of a rotation last season. Instead, Scheelhaase started every game and led the Big Ten in passing (3,272 yards).

[+] EnlargeTommy Armstrong Jr.
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsAfter playing well in place of Taylor Martinez, sophomore signal-caller Tommy Armstrong Jr. is the favorite to start for the Cornhuskers in 2014.
I'm all for competition at quarterback, and the Big Ten will feature plenty of it this spring and summer. Only five quarterbacks -- Ohio State's Braxton Miller, Penn State's Christian Hackenberg, Michigan State's Cook, Iowa's Jake Rudock and Michigan's Devin Gardner -- can feel pretty secure about their starting roles. Gardner has been mentioned as a possible rotation candidate with Shane Morris -- some Michigan fans wouldn't mind seeing Gardner line up at wide receiver, a position of need -- but I'd be surprised if Morris leapfrogs the senior.

I'm also OK with teams employing change-up quarterbacks for a package of plays, be it the Wildcat or something else. Michigan State could be a candidate for this in 2014 with dynamic redshirt freshman Damion Terry possibly spelling Cook from time to time.

The first few games also provide a platform to use multiple quarterbacks in settings that can't be replicated on the practice field. Former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel often did this with his younger quarterbacks, giving them a first-half series or two. It makes sense. But by Week 4, roles must be identified.

The offseason is full of Big Ten quarterback questions:

  • Will Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt take the reins at Illinois?
  • How will Gardner and Hackenberg fare with new offensive coordinators?
  • After Nelson's transfer, who emerges at Minnesota among Leidner, Chris Streveler and possibly a young quarterback such as Dimonic McKinzy?
  • Nebraska's Armstrong went 6-1 as a freshman starter, but can he hold off Johnny Stanton?
  • Can Gary Nova retain his job at Rutgers?
  • Will Danny Etling keep the top job at Purdue, or will Austin Appleby and possibly early enrollee David Blough enter the mix?
  • How does Siemian bounce back at Northwestern, and do the Wildcats look at Matt Alviti and Zack Oliver?
  • Will either Roberson or Sudfeld finally separate himself at IU?

Ultimately, these questions must be answered. The teams that avoid prolonged rotations should be better off for it.

Offseason to-do list: Northwestern

January, 16, 2014
The offseason is here, folks, and we're taking a look at what each team must do in the long months ahead before the games begin again in late August.

Up next: the Northwestern Wildcats.

1. Establish an identity on offense: An injury-plagued unit never got on track last season, finishing 10th in the Big Ten in scoring (26.2 points per game). The playbook definitely shrunk without standout running back Venric Mark, who is expected to receive a fifth season of eligibility and return this fall. Mark adds to an already strong stable of backs, but the team's most experienced quarterback, Trevor Siemian, undoubtedly is a pocket passer. Does Northwestern continue with a two-quarterback system (Siemian and Zack Oliver or Matt Alviti) or stick with one guy? Does it return to the pass-first scheme that proved effective in 2008 and 2009 or the run-pass mix that worked in 2012? These questions and others must be answered in the coming months.

2. Solidify the offensive line: After several years of progress, the group took a step back last season, allowing 36 sacks, the second-highest total in the Big Ten. Northwestern must establish chemistry earlier and build some depth before fall camp rolls around. The potential good news is everyone returns, including veteran center Brandon Vitabile. There should be plenty of competition throughout the offseason to fill the other four spots and build some depth the Wildcats lacked in 2013. If Siemian is the starter, he'll need better protection, as he lacks the mobility of recent Wildcats signal-callers like Kain Colter and Dan Persa.

3. Bolster the defensive tackle spot: Defense really could be Northwestern's strength in 2013, as the Wildcats should have their deepest group in the secondary in recent memory, as well as Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis at linebacker. Three speed rushers return at defensive end, but the tackle spot is a bit cloudy after opponents averaged 167.7 yards rushing per game against Northwestern last fall. It will be important to keep Sean McEvilly healthy and find others around him like Chance Carter, Greg Kuhar and C.J. Robbins. Coach Pat Fitzgerald talked about getting stronger up front after a disappointing 2013 season, and the defensive tackle group certainly must respond.

More to-do lists

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

November, 6, 2013
It's Wednesday afternoon. Time for another edition of ye olde mailbag:

Randy from Hopewell Junction, N.Y., writes: I'm a Spartan alum and follow them faithfully. Needless to say, last week's victory was marquee in many categories. You stated [in Monday's chat] that MSU had not played a ranked opponent this season and won. We just beat Michigan! They were ranked. ND, we should have beaten (they stole that game on cheap penalties!!!), and they are ranked. We actually held them to the fewest yardage they produced all season. But that's basically irrelevant. I think those rankings are highly, highly subjective and think that MSU could beat several of the teams listed above them at the moment. So why not a BCS bowl? if they beat Nebraska and even get to Ohio State?

Brian Bennett: You twisted my words a bit, Randy. I said that if Michigan State finished 11-2 but lost to Ohio State, then it would be possible that the Spartans would not have beaten a ranked team. And by that I meant a team that is ranked at the end of the season. The odds of Michigan or Nebraska ending up in the Top 25 is looking shaky. Yes, the Spartans beat Michigan when the Wolverines were ranked, but when voters go to submit their final ballots after championship Saturday -- and remember that the coaches' and Harris polls are two-thirds of the BCS formula -- they may simply look down the Spartans' schedule and see no ranked teams in the 'W' column.

None of that is meant to downgrade what Michigan State has done so far or what it might accomplish. I think this is a potentially very worthy BCS at-large team. However, the Spartans have never been picked for an at-large slot in the BCS era even in those years when it was deserving, like 2011. Their profile, unfortunately, is not one that makes BCS bowl reps sit up and get excited about. A loss to Ohio State, unless it was a very close, last-minute type of defeat, could even send Michigan State out of the BCS Top 14. I'd personally love to see that defense get a shot in a BCS bowl, especially against one of the top-flight offenses out there like Oregon, Baylor or Florida State. But I have serious doubts about whether an at-large bid is possible.

Troy S. from La Crosse, Wis., writes: What are the chances that the Badgers make it to the top 14 of the BCS standings to give them a shot at a BCS bowl? It seems like Brad Edwards thinks they have a fairly good shot at it and predicts them going to the Orange Bowl while you have them playing in the Capital One Bowl? This week they got jumped by 2 teams even though they won at Iowa, what else can they do? Isn't it just cruel and unusual to us Badgers fans that one of the teams that jumped us was Arizona State?

Brian Bennett: I do think Wisconsin will finish in the Top 14 if it wins out -- which is not guaranteed, especially since this week's opponent, BYU, is awfully good. Poll voters have shown that they'll keep moving teams up as long as you win, and major-conference teams that go 10-2 have excellent shots at getting ranked highly.

Wisconsin has similar problems as Michigan State working against it in regards to the schedule. Right now, the Badgers' best wins are over Iowa and a Northwestern team that has nosedived. The BYU and Minnesota games might end up being their best victories, should they get them, and the computer numbers need a major boost.

But even if Wisconsin finishes in the Top 14, that does not guarantee a BCS at-large bid. It merely makes them eligible. And while the program is an attractive one to bowls, there will be other very desirable teams out there as well from the SEC, Pac-12, ACC and possibly Big 12. The specter of Notre Dame and a BCS buster like Fresno State or Northern Illinois also remains -- remember that if either of the latter finishes in the Top 16, they get an automatic bid.

So at this point, the Badgers need a lot of things to break in their favor. That's why we're not yet ready to project them into a BCS game.

Alan from Columbus, Ohio, writes: This entire season I have been assuming, along with the national media, that Ohio State will end up in Pasadena for the Rose Bowl or BCS title. However, now the most likely game for OSU to drop is probably the B1G title game to Michigan State, which would exclude the Buckeyes from both Pasadena bowls. If that happens, do you see us getting bumped from the BCS altogether? Hopefully that won't happen, but I'd like to know what to expect in that possibility.

Brian Bennett: I don't see the Buckeyes getting excluded in that scenario, Alan. If Ohio State takes a 12-0 record into Indy, it will be no worse than No. 4 in the BCS standings and the polls. A loss would bump the Buckeyes down, obviously, but likely not outside of the top 10 or 12. While conference title game losers often have a hard time with the BCS, we'd be talking about a 12-1 team with a star head coach and a fan base hungry to travel after last year's probation (and the poor 2011 season). That would be extremely attractive to bowls, and I believe somebody would snatch up the Buckeyes.

Patrick from Ypsilanti writes: Brian, can you remind readers how the CFP selection committee will determine bowl match-ups in the non-playoff bowl games? Are there going to be caps on the number of teams from conferences that can play in these games? Is a team like Wisconsin going to be ignored next year for a big bowl in favor of either Northern Illinois or Fresno State?

Brian Bennett: Good question, because I'm not sure everybody understands that the committee will do more than select the four teams for the playoff. It will also choose the participants of the other "contract" bowls (the new word that will replace the BCS). In other words, the committee will choose the top 12 teams for the six major bowls (which includes the two semifinal host sites). There will be no limit on the number of conference teams in the pool, though some bowls like the Rose Bowl will maintain traditional conference tie-ins. And one spot will be guaranteed for the top champion of the other five conferences.

We don't exactly know yet what the criteria will be for filling out the other bowls, but it should be based on who the committee feels are the best teams. Because the non-power conference will have a spot, there could be a scenario where a team like Northern Illinois gets in ahead of a more accomplished major-conference team. But we also won't see situations where a team like Notre Dame gets a spot solely on its drawing power. This could actually hurt the Big Ten, which has done well in the BCS era because of its large fan bases, earning bids for teams that maybe would have been otherwise borderline (see Michigan in 2011). But it should create much better matchups overall.

Chance from Omaha, Neb., writes: I was doing some random browsing on Nebraska's 1999 squad (last one to win a conference championship, feels like a million years ago) and noticed the final AP poll that year. If you retroactively add the Huskers...8 B1G teams! And no Ohio State. Found that pretty interesting. Do you think we'll see the B1G ever get back to an elite level of having 3 or 4 teams in the top 10 again?

Brian Bennett: Sure, it will happen again. It was only 2006 when Ohio State and Michigan entered their game ranked 1-2. Not exactly ancient history. The Big Ten had three teams finish in the top 10 that season (and, hey, Rutgers was No. 12!). These things are cyclical, and the fact that Michigan has been down and that Ohio State -- and Penn State -- went on probation didn't help. Heck, if Wisconsin doesn't get jobbed in the desert, and Michigan State gets a better whistle in South Bend, the Big Ten could very well have three Top 10 teams this season.

As we've said all along, depth at the top of the league is something the Big Ten needs to develop over the long term. Ohio State is there every year, while Wisconsin and Michigan State have done their parts. The league needs Michigan and Nebraska to get back to an elite level and for Penn State to do the same after its sanctions end.

Mark from Iowa City, Iowa, writes: I would normally agree that calling three consecutive timeouts to ice a kicker isn't cool. However, from my perspective the Iowa fans were simply not into the game after the second timeout. When the kicker got set after the third timeout the crowd finally got loud. Kudos to Ferentz for getting the 12th man involved.

Brian Bennett: As I wrote Monday, I have no problem with Kirk Ferentz using the rules to his advantage. That's good coaching. I just have a problem with the rule. There's no reason for teams to call three straight timeouts. I'd like to see that changed. And if calling timeouts is the best way to fire up an Iowa home crowd these days ... well ...

Pert from Davenport, Iowa, writes: Why is Iowa so bad in the 2nd half of games this season? We have had a halftime lead in nearly all our games. Iowa have historically been know to be a second half team. Ferentz usually makes good halftime adjustments, but it seems to be lacking this year.

Brian Bennett: It's a great question. I thought Iowa came out looking great in each of its last three games. But then the offense stalled. Actually, that's being kind. The offense has gone into a hole and had dirt poured on top of it. Consider that the Hawkeyes last scored a point in the fourth quarter in the Minnesota game way back on Sept. 28. Its only second-half touchdown in five Big Ten games was that 85-yard pass to Jake Duzey at Ohio State, which -- let's be honest -- was a little fluky. Iowa has 16 second-half points total in conference play (it did score a touchdown in OT vs. Northwestern). That's crazy.

Part of it has to be the lack of diversification of the offense. There's only so much the Hawkeyes can do without many explosive playmakers, and other defenses seem to know it. Once Iowa gets behind and has to play catchup, it's hard to stick to the running game. Still, things shouldn't be this dire in the second halves of games.

Jon from Evanston writes: Michigan State and Wisconsin were both two teams who struggled in 2012, losing a plethora of close games while having injury issues. Consequently many people picked them to turn it around in 2013, and that has happened. Could Northwestern be that team heading into 2014? They have a young team that returns a ton of talent (especially if Mark redshirts), and have had terrible luck this year with injuries and in close games (0-4 in games that they were in until the very end).

Brian Bennett: Yes, absolutely. I would pick Northwestern as one of the top bounce-back candidates for 2014 without hesitation. This team is way too good to be 0-5 in Big Ten play, and injuries have played a huge role in that. Sometimes, things just go south for teams in a hurry. But Pat Fitzgerald has built a solid program that should be able to turn things around next year, and the Wildcats' recruiting has been on an upswing. Replacing Kain Colter won't be easy, but former hotshot recruit Matt Alviti is waiting in the wings. The '14 schedule won't be easy: Northwestern plays Cal, Northern Illinois and at Notre Dame in the nonconference portion, but the 'Cats miss Ohio State and Michigan State from the East Division. Another 10-win season might not be in the cards, but neither will an 0-5 Big Ten start.

Big Ten lunchtime links

May, 20, 2013
Serving up the links at lunch because, well, it's my job.

Recruiting Q&A: NU's Pat Fitzgerald

February, 7, 2013
Signing day was suspense-free for Northwestern, and that's just how Pat Fitzgerald likes it.

Fitzgerald and his staff wrapped up the bulk of the Wildcats' class months ago and didn't have to sweat out the faxes on Wednesday. Northwestern is hoping this latest batch of recruits can add to the program's recent success, which included a 10-win campaign and first bowl win in 64 years this past season.

I caught up with Fitzgerald to ask about this year's recruiting effort:

What were your goals for this class?

Pat Fitzgerald: Once again, we want to continue to recruit speed, and I think if you look at the class, it's a very fast, very athletic group that we felt strongly about early. With our staff being together so long, we're a little ahead of the cycle. We had 17 of the 19 guys verbally committed before their senior year. Our first priority is speed, and our second is to solidify our physicality up front. I think we added some very talented guys that will add to some good classes in front of them and will add to the depth on both lines.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Tony DingPat Fitzgerald says the national brand of a Northwestern education allows him to recruit in all corners of the country.
So do you think you'll see the impact of last season's success more in the following year?

PF: I think we've already seen the fruits of that labor. There's a lot of excitement. Basically in January, we're junior recruiting and seeing a bunch of juniors' high school coaches and talking to them about their prospects and getting on the phone with the kids. They all have watched us play and know we're a consistent winner and that we're knocking on the door to being Big Ten champions. The kids are excited about that. A bunch of juniors came up last fall to watch us play, so they've seen the plan for our new facility. And even as recently as the last 48 hours, I've had conversations with kids regarding the opportunity to play at Wrigley Field. So there's a lot of buzz, a lot of interest and a lot of positives going on.

Your highest-rated prospect is quarterback Matt Alviti. What do you like about him?

PF: Well, we've known about Matt for a number of years now. Matt's been on our campus throwing for years. I joked that I think I've known Matt longer than I've known my son, Brendan. It's kind of fitting that [Wednesday] was Brendan's birthday and we signed Matt that day. But he's a true dual-threat quarterback. He's a very dynamic athlete who can make all the throws and then some in our offense and run the ball the way we want to see our quarterback run athletically. At the end of the day, what sold me the most on Matt was watching the way he handled and managed the expectations of being the quarterback at [Park Ridge, Ill.] Maine South. That's a high-profile program here in Chicago and one with state championship expectations. He took that team over as a sophomore and handled that very well. He's a guy we've had circled for a number of years, and we feel very excited about him and the future of our quarterback position.

And Godwin ... well, I'm not even going to try to pronounce his last name ...

PF: Igwebuike. He's a talented, talented guy. He was a finalist for Mr. Ohio football and a guy who not only could be a running back but also could be a DB. Frankly, he has not made the decison on where he wants to play yet. But we evaluated him kind of like when we looked at Ibraheim Campbell. We felt like Ibraheim could be a tailback or a DB for us. I think we were right in our evaluation of him.

You have some other guys listed as athlete or running back. How much flexibility do you have with some of these guys and their positions?

PF: Well, Tommy Fuessel will be a wide receiver. Keith Watkins is going to play corner and we're excited about that. He's the one who gave us the idea of what he wanted to do. Jayme Taylor will be a superback for us. Xavier Menifield and Warren Miles-Long are running backs, and Godwin -- we'll see how that all progresses. Tyler Lancaster could play on the offensive or defensive line, so we'll see how that unfolds. The same thing with Marcus McShepard and Matt Harris. Both guys really run and are very athletic and talented on offense and defense and also in the return game. Speed and size were what we were looking for, and I believe we've added that to as deep of a roster as we've ever had.

You have a really solid nucleus from last year's team returning. So do you see this class contributing much next year or just adding depth?

PF: It's kind of the million dollar question, and it's hard for me to answer without being able to coach them. I tell all the guys in my home visit with them in December or January that they have to prepare today to start next year. If they don't prepare mentally and physically right now to get themselves ready to start, they're going to redshirt. I'm not going to waste a guy's year on covering kicks and being on kickoff return. I was that guy. I had to play, though. We had depth issues here, and I had to play before I was ready. As I look back, I wish I didn't have to do it. We have a five-step process we go through as a staff to evaluate whether or not we're going to play a kid. I'm just not going to waste a guy's year covering kicks.

You have three recruits each from Texas and California. How have you been able to build pipelines into those coveted areas?

PF: We're going to start and end our recruiting always here in Chicagoland. The backbone of this class, a quarter of our class, is from Chicagoland. We're excited about those guys from a standpoint of protecting our backyard. But when we leave Chicagoland, there's no secret to our roster. If you look at it over time, we're going to hit Ohio hard, Michigan hard, Texas, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and California. This year, we had great success in Ohio and Texas. If you add those states up, I think it's about half the class. We have a national brand with our education, and once kids get around our players -- who are our best ambassadors -- on official visits, it seems like the culture of who we are as a program sells itself.

How much more speed do you think you've added just in the past couple of years?

PF: I think we can run. It's been a priority in our recruiting classes really since I took over the program but even more so now that we're having really consistent success, winning bowl games against SEC teams, winning nonconference games against the SEC, the ACC, the Big East champion. There's no question that kids are excited about our program, and for us to take the next step we need to continue to get faster. We need to continue to get mentally and physically tougher so we play a physical brand of football. We're not there yet, but that's where we're headed.

You mentioned in your news conference about how many of these players were captains of their teams in high school. Is that something you specifically look for when recruiting?

PF: No question. I'll always talk to guys who weren't captains and I'll say, "Why weren't you a captain? If you want to be a Big Ten player and a Northwestern student-athlete, I'd fully expect that you're captain-level material. So what held you back from having that role?" I just think that, if you get guys who know how to lead and are leaders, they're going to lead in the college environment and make good choices off the field and do the right things in the classroom and spend the time it takes to be a champion. You can't be a champion in 20 hours. That's not going to happen. So hopefully we'll continue to foster that environment.

There must be a lot of competition when you name your captains, then.

PF: I'll give you an example. We only have about 80 guys on campus right now with graduation and whatnot, and I think we had over 60 apply for our leadership council. So I think that tells you where we're at as a program and where the leadership is. I hear coaches all the time who are frustrated that they don't have enough leaders. Well, if you don't recruit leaders, how do you think you're going to have them?

With the returning players, have you noticed any extra bounce in offseason workouts after the bowl win?

PF: This group is very focused and very disciplined. We're further along in that aspect than we've ever been. Obviously, if you look at what we have coming back and what we've recruited, we think this is the most talented locker room coming back we've had in a long, long time. They're really driving each other, and make no bones about it, the next step is winning a Big Ten championship. We've got to take those necessary steps to do that, and the only way to do it is by preparing in the seven months before we play the games. We're excited about it. The momentum is going in the right place, but we've got a big chunk of work to do.
The fax machines are collecting dust again around the Big Ten as national signing day is in the books and all 12 classes are signed. Earlier Wednesday, Brian Bennett took a look at the Leaders Division and how teams did in filling their most pressing recruiting needs. Now it's time to take a look at the Legends Division.


Needs filled: Iowa's passing game needs a jolt after ranking 99th nationally last season, and the team signed five wide receivers. The Hawkeyes also were mindful that they'll lose all three starting linebackers after 2013 and flipped Reggie Spearman, an Illinois commit. Cornerback Desmond King should provide immediate help in the secondary.

Holes remaining: Offensive line could soon be an issue as Iowa missed out on several targets in this year's class. The Hawkeyes also need some difference-makers along the defensive line and signed only two linemen in this class.


Needs filled: The Wolverines got the running back they wanted and needed, Derrick Green, who could contribute immediately. They also continued to address the depth issues coach Brady Hoke inherited on both lines, adding five offensive linemen ranked in the ESPN 300. Although Devin Gardner solidified the quarterback spot late last season, Michigan needed to plan for the future and signed a solid signal-caller, Shane Morris.

Holes remaining: There aren't many obvious weak spots, although Michigan could use a bit more help on the perimeter, especially at wide receiver. Top wideouts Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo depart after the 2013 season, and the depth in the secondary isn't quite where it needs to be.


Needs filled: The Spartans signed three running backs -- Gerald Holmes, R.J. Shelton and Delton Williams -- who could compete for immediate playing time at a position with very little depth. They also brought in a likely quarterback of the future in Damion Terry and bolstered the linebacking corps with ESPN 300 selection Shane Jones and Jon Reschke.

Holes remaining: Michigan State's offensive line depth still isn't where it needs to be, and the Spartans signed only one offensive lineman (Dennis Finley) this year. MSU signed only two defensive backs, although the coaches really like what Darian Hicks and Jalyn Powell bring to the field.


Needs filled: The Gophers lose a lot at linebacker and filled the gaps with junior college players Damien Wilson and De'Vondre Campbell. They need more playmakers on offense and added some at receiver to go along with an intriguing dual-threat quarterback in Chris Streveler.

Holes remaining: Minnesota loses some key defensive backs and will lose more after the 2013 season. The Gophers signed only two cornerbacks and no safeties in this class, so they could have some depth issues if current sophomores and juniors don't pan out.


Needs filled: The Huskers continued to address their depth issues at linebacker with prospects such as Marcus Newby and added more depth to the offensive line with five players. They added a potential quarterback of the future in Johnny Stanton and continued to recruit well at all the offensive skill positions.

Holes remaining: After missing out on several elite defensive linemen, Nebraska is still looking for disruptive players up front. Perhaps junior college arrival Randy Gregory fills the void. The Huskers could have used another elite secondary prospect.


Needs filled: The Wildcats will need a quarterback after the 2014 season and found an absolutely perfect fit in Matt Alviti. They also addressed the running back spot for the second straight year. Offensive line recruiting continues to be a strength for Northwestern.

Holes remaining: The class lacks an obvious difference-maker on defense, a unit where Northwestern improved in 2012 but still has a long way to go. Northwestern could have picked up another linebacker and another pass-rushing defensive end. Perhaps four-star prospect Godwin Igwebuike, listed as a running back, will contribute on the defensive side.

Big Ten signing day preview

February, 6, 2013
ESPN RecruitingNation has signing day covered. Follow ESPNU’s coverage, chat with analysts and get breaking news on our Signing Day Live page beginning at 7:30 a.m. ET through 7 p.m. ET. For more on what to expect on signing day, check out the Big Ten conference breakdown Insider.

Bold prediction: Penn State will hang on to a top-25 class, even if just by the slimmest of margins. Bill O'Brien and his staff deserve all the credit in the world for having to originally put together a class after the scandal and then reshaping it after NCAA sanctions were levied in July.

Biggest need: The Illini's offense was arguably the worst in the Big Ten in 2012, and Illinois needs help just about everywhere on offense, especially at the skill positions.
Biggest recruit: Four-star athlete Aaron Bailey is the future at quarterback for Illinois, and the coaches will expect him to be ready to take the reins once Nathan Scheelhaase moves on.

Biggest need: To just put up a fence around Indianapolis and the state of Indiana. Kevin Wilson did that, assuaging defensive line concerns in the process by adding Indianapolis linemen David Kenney III and Darius Latham.
Biggest recruit: The Hoosiers are not accustomed to landing ESPN 150 prospects, but not only did they get Rashard Fant, but they got him all the way out of Georgia.

Biggest need: After having several productive running backs over the past decade, the Hawkeyes are hurting in the backfield due to injuries and off-the-field issues.
Biggest recruit: The Hawkeyes were after Berkley Edwards for a while, but once that fell through they put the screws to former Boston College running back commit LeShun Daniels. He flipped shortly after an official visit to Iowa.

Biggest need: Brady Hoke is transitioning to a pro-style offense, and he needed a pocket passer and a running back who makes his living in between the tackles.
Biggest recruit: ESPN 150 quarterback Shane Morris is that pro-style quarterback, but he is also the unquestioned leader of Team 134 and helped put together one of the nation’s top classes.

Michigan State
Biggest need: The Spartans will lose their top two rushers from 2012, including Big Ten rushing leader Le’Veon Bell, so running back is a priority. They are bringing in two.
Biggest recruit: ESPN 300 dual-threat quarterback Damion Terry is a capable thrower and runner, and he led his high school to a state title as a senior. Andrew Maxwell did not exactly lock down the starting quarterback job with his performance last season.

Biggest need: Donnell Kirkwood is a promising player at running back, but he struggled against some of the league’s better defenses and wore down late in the season. A complement is sorely needed.
Biggest recruit: Three-star running back Berkley Edwards is the younger brother of former Michigan receiver Braylon Edwards. Berkley is one of the Gophers’ highest-rated commitments, and running back is a position that lends itself to an easy transition.

Biggest need: Nebraska needs to return to its days of the Blackshirts, as the Huskers' defense was gashed on the ground all season. The Huskers need help along the defensive line.
Biggest recruit: Elite 11 finalist Johnny Stanton is a dual-threat quarterback, but he’s a much more polished passer than Taylor Martinez, who has taken his share of lumps since his flashy start in Lincoln.

Biggest need: Now that the Wildcats are a legitimate threat in the Big Ten under Pat Fitzgerald, the next step is to get better athletes to compete with Michigan and Ohio State. Fitzgerald is doing that with Ifeadi Odenigbo in 2012 and Godwin Igwebuike in 2013.
Biggest recruit: ESPN 300 dual-threat quarterback Matt Alviti had offers from some big programs including Notre Dame, but he chose nearby Northwestern. The Wildcats have an unsettled situation at quarterback, and as a local product Alviti could be called for by the fans if the quarterback play does not improve.

Ohio State
Biggest need: Linebacker was the biggest need for the Buckeyes, and after a shaky start Urban Meyer wrapped up a nice haul at the position with ESPN 150 products Trey Johnson and Mike Mitchell.
Biggest recruit: It’s a tie between Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson, who are separated by just a few spots in the ESPN 150. Both have game-breaking ability as a receiver or out of the backfield.

Penn State
Biggest need: Despite significantly improved play from Matt McGloin in 2012, the Nittany Lions have not been blessed with quarterbacks the past decade, with the exception of a few good seasons from Michael Robinson and Daryll Clark.
Biggest recruit: While the class did field its share of decommitments, the damage would have been irreparable if No. 1 QB Christian Hackenberg bolted. By staying on, he instilled confidence in several other recruits to stay or join him in State College.

Biggest need: The quarterback situation at Purdue has been unsettled the past few seasons, which is not good when it comes to the most important position on the field.
Biggest recruit: An Elite 11 finalist, Danny Etling stuck with the Boilermakers through the coaching change. He will be looked at as the future of the program.

Biggest need: While the Badgers always have a strong stable of backs, losing Montee Ball is going to hurt, especially in the red zone. Wisconsin addressed it with top commitment Corey Clement.
Biggest recruit: The loss of Russell Wilson left a major void at quarterback, but the Badgers landed quarterback Tanner McEvoy on Monday. McEvoy is ranked No. 44 among juco prospects nationally and the expectation is he will contend for a starting job immediately.

Big Ten lunchtime links

February, 5, 2013
We're less than 24 hours away from the only day of the year where a fax machine still seems relevant to society.
National signing day is next Wednesday. To get you ready for the big day, we checked in with a pair of recruiting experts for their take on how the Big Ten is faring.

Senior national recruiting analyst Tom Luginbill and Midwest recruiting writer Jared Shanker shared their thoughts on a handful of recruiting topics related to the league. This is Part II of that discussion; you can find Part I here.

Which teams in the Big Ten have surprised you with this year's class?

Jared Shanker: Indiana definitely surprised me. If you looked at their class last summer [in 2011], when they had Gunner Kiel, you said, "Wow, that's a pretty good class." But then it really fell apart. This one's kind of the opposite. It wasn't looking too strong, and then things really started rolling during the season. They were able to get an ESPN 150 guy from Georgia [Rashard Fant]. They were able to flip Darius Latham from Wisconsin, they flipped David Kenney from Iowa, Antonio Allen was originally committed to Ole Miss. They've done a good job recruiting each state, as well as keeping some of the top talent in Indianapolis. Indiana is a basketball state, but there are some pretty good football players there, and Latham, Kenney and Allen are all four-star players from Indianapolis. So I like what Kevin Wilson has been able to do. This class really turned around, starting in October or so.

Minnesota is doing OK. Penn State is probably a surprise. You see five four-star guys. You see the No. 1 quarterback in the country in Christian Hackenberg. Adam Breneman is the No. 1 tight end. They have some other three-star guys that can contribute and even have some walk-ons who had scholarship offers elsewhere. They just dropped out of the Top 25, but they were hanging on in the Top 25 for a while.

Iowa has traditionally filled its class down the line and kept getting commitments until signing day. For the most part, Iowa was close to done by mid-summer with their class, which was pretty unique for Iowa. It's a stark contrast compared to their 2012 class, which is probably why you haven't heard about Iowa much lately. They've been out of the news. But I think they're generally happy for the most part how things turned out. They did lose David Kenney to Indiana. But if they can flip Reggie Spearman from Illinois and also add one more receiver, I think they'd probably be pretty happy.

Tom Luginbill: Since we mentioned Indiana, I would say that Northwestern continues to impress. Texas continues to be fruitful for the Wildcats. QB Matt Alviti couldn't be a better fit for their offense. If Alviti were taller, I think he would have been a national recruit and has been undervalued. Athlete Godwin Igwebuike is versatile and continues their presence in Ohio. Pat Fitzgerald and his staff may be as good as anyone in college football. They evaluate for them and don't worry about what others think. They identify who is the right fit and attack it.

How do you think Nebraska has done with this class, especially in trying to beef up its defensive front?

TL: The week of January 21st was a rough patch for Nebraska with the loss of two committed prospects in athlete Marcus McWilson and receiver Dominic Walker, who is out of Florida and now committed to Auburn. They did retain Tre'vell Dixon who was originally committed to Nebraska, broke away for a bit and came back. It has been a whirlwind for Bo Pelini and his staff. There are a lot of additions in the defensive front seven both from the high school and juco ranks including defensive end Randy Gregory, who, had he not been injured, may have ended up as our No. 1 ranked juco player overall.

JS: Nebraska might have been able to do a little better. That's not to say their class still isn't good. They have one of the best jucos in the country. Johnny Stanton was one of the better quarterbacks at the Elite 11. He's coming off an ACL tear. They've got a host of four-star guys. I still think it could have been a little bit stronger, all things considered.

They've got Randy Gregory at defensive end. They're pretty strong at linebacker, so they're looking pretty good along the defensive front but maybe not in defensive line depth. The huge numbers aren't there. You have to at least like Gregory and the linebackers, but you can just see the eye test -- they're not there yet with upper teams in the Big Ten. I think they still have some work to do to get there.

Finally, give us a handful of players who might make an immediate impact next season.

JS: I like Derrick Green [from Michigan]. Jalin Marshall at Ohio State, I think he's a guy you put the ball in his hands on a jet sweep, a screen or what have you, and there's a chance he takes it to the house. So those two guys really stick out.

I know the Illinois staff is really high on [quarterback] Aaron Bailey and is looking at him as the future. Maybe something happens with Nathan Scheelhaase and he can step in and get some early playing time. Then there's Corey Clement at Wisconsin. He's kind of a bigger back, at 5-foot-11, 200 pounds. With Montee Ball gone, maybe at least he breaks into the rotation and sees some touches as a freshman.

TL: Receiver Jalin Marshall, Ohio State; running back Derrick Green Michigan; linebacker Trey Johnson, Ohio State; tight end Adam Breneman, Penn State (if healthy); defensive tackle Darius Latham, Indiana; athlete Rashard Fant, Indiana.