Big Ten: Mauro Bondi
Bondi, who handles kickoffs for the Huskers, suffered a broken clavicle in a motorcycle accident on Thursday in Lincoln, coach Bo Pelini said in a statement released Friday.
"We wish him the best for a quick recovery," Pelini said.
The coach did not specify an amount of time that Bondi is expected to miss.
He is 1 for 1 on field goals this year as a backup to freshman Drew Brown. Bondi has accounted for 12 touchbacks on kickoffs this year. Nebraska ranks eighth nationally with 14 touchbacks. Behind Bondi, it ranked sixth nationally with 48 touchbacks in 2013.
Miami visits Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska, to face the 24th-ranked Huskers at 8 p.m. in a game telecast on ESPN2.
Illinois:The Illini might not be exceptional in the kicking game, but they're in better shape than they were when coach Tim Beckman arrived. Punter Justin DuVernois returns after a solid junior season, while Taylor Zalewski looks for a bit more consistency in his second full season as the placekicker. Zalewski made 12 of 17 field-goal attempts last fall. The return game is the real plus, as V'Angelo Bentley provides a major threat, especially on punt returns.
Indiana: Like Illinois, Indiana brings back a dynamic returner in Shane Wynn, who averaged 14 yards on punt run-backs despite limited work. Punter Erich Toth also is back for his third season as the starter. Toth placed 18 of 52 attempts inside the opponent's 20-yard line. IU suffers a big loss at kicker as Mitch Ewald, the team's career field goals and field-goal percentage leader, departs. Aaron Del Grosso and Griffin Oakes will compete at kicker, and Jake Shake (shake and bake!) could enter the mix this summer.
Iowa: Here's another Big Ten team that looks very strong on returns, as Iowa boasts the Big Ten's most dynamic tandem in Kevonte Martin-Manley (punts) and Jordan Cotton (kickoffs). Martin-Manley had two punt-return touchdowns in 2013. Punter Connor Kornbrath ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in average, but placed 27 of 65 attempts inside the opponent's 20. Iowa loses kicker Mike Meyer, a four-year starter. Junior Marshall Koehn seems likely to step up, but could be pushed by incoming freshman Mick Ellis and others.
Maryland: Notice a theme so far? Most Big Ten teams are strong in the return game, and Maryland is no exception. If Stefon Diggs returns at full strength from his leg injury, he'll be a dangerous man with punts and kickoffs in his hands. Will Likely performed extremely well in Diggs' spot, averaging 26 yards on kickoff returns and 12.8 yards on punt returns. Maryland brings back an excellent kicker in Brad Craddock (21-for-25 on field goals last year), and punter Nathan Renfro enters his third season as the starter.
Michigan: Matt Wile has done a bit of everything for Michigan, but could settle into the starting placekicker role this fall. Wile handled kicking duties late last season and also served as Michigan's punter after Will Hagerup was suspended for the season. Hagerup, the Big Ten's punter of the year in 2012, will reclaim the role if he can avoid off-field problems that have surfaced throughout his career. Wile then could focus on kicking, as Kenny Allen is the only other option there. Michigan is still waiting for big things from kick returner Dennis Norfleet and must find someone to handle punts. Top recruit Jabrill Peppers could help.
Michigan State: Special teams once again should be a strength for MSU, which returns All-Big Ten punter Mike Sadler, a Ray Guy award semifinalist who will contend for All-America honors in 2014. Kicker Michael Geiger also is back after connecting on 15 of 16 field-goal attempts as a true freshman. Macgarrett Kings Jr. and Andre Sims Jr. both put up good numbers on punt returns. Michigan State had by far the fewest kick returns (18) in the Big Ten last year and will look for a boost from R.J. Shelton and others.
Minnesota: After an above-average year on special teams in 2013, Minnesota again should be good in the third phase. Punter Peter Mortell didn't get as many accolades as Sadler or Purdue's Cody Webster, but he had an excellent sophomore season, averaging 43.3 yards per attempt with 15 of 50 yards or longer. Marcus Jones is a major threat on returns after bringing back both a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns last fall. Redshirt freshman kickers Ryan Santoso and Andrew Harte will compete as the Gophers lose Chris Hawthorne.
Nebraska: The Huskers are looking for some upgrades on special teams, particularly on punt returns, as Nebraska ranked 123rd in the FBS last fall. Primary returner Jordan Westerkamp is back, but he'll face some competition. Nebraska brings back punter Sam Foltz, who had a solid freshman season, averaging 41.6 yards per boot. Mauro Bondi is set to step in at kicker as Pat Smith departs. If Bondi struggles, incoming freshman Kris Brown could get a look this summer. Kenny Bell, who led the Big Ten in kick return average (26.5 yards per return), is back.
Northwestern: The Wildcats lose a huge piece in Jeff Budzien, named the Big Ten's top kicker in each of his final two seasons. Hunter Niswander can handle both kickoffs and punts but seems likely to slide into Budzien's spot. Northwestern's punting was a mess in 2013, ranking 118th nationally in net average (33.2 ypp). Brandon Williams departs and Chris Gradone or Niswander will take over. The big news is Northwestern brings back Venric Mark , an All-America punt returner in 2012. Primary kick returner Matt Harris is back after a solid freshman season.
Ohio State: Aussie, Aussie, Aussie. Indeed, the Aussie is back at punter as Cameron Johnston returns after an excellent debut season (I refuse to call a 21-year-old a freshman). Ohio State hopes for similar results from another first-year specialist in kicker Sean Nuernberger, an early enrollee expected to step in for the departing Drew Basil. Sophomore Dontre Wilson will continue to have a big role on returns after handling kickoffs last year. Ohio State must replace Corey Brown on punt returns and could look to redshirt freshman Jalin Marshall or true freshmen Curtis Samuel and Johnnie Dixon.
Penn State: The kicking game continues to be an area of concern.Sam Ficken owns the team record for consecutive field goals (15) and started strong last season but ended with just 15 of 23 conversions, including four misses inside 40 yards. Penn State needs a new punter after losing Alex Butterworth, and will turn to Chris Gulla. Jesse Della Valle did a good job on punt returns, but Penn State needs a boost on kickoffs after finishing last in the league (19.1 yards per return). The Lions could stick with Geno Lewis or look for a newcomer such as De'Andre Thompkins to emerge. PSU also must shore up its coverage units.
Purdue: As if the Boilers didn't have enough to address on offense and defense, the kicking game needs attention. Punter Cody Webster finished his spectacular career with All-America honors, and the Boilers finished second nationally in net punting (41.7 yards per punt). Incoming freshman Austin McGehee will take over for Webster. Paul Griggs and Thomas Meadows continue to work at kicker, as Griggs made only 50 percent of his attempts (6 of 12) last season. The kick return game is strong with Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert, but Purdue must replace punt returner Ricardo Allen. B.J. Knauf could be a good fit there.
Rutgers: The kicking game historically is a strength for Rutgers, which has a knack for blocking kicks and pulling off fakes. Rutgers loses a productive piece in punter Nick Marsh, who also handled kickoffs. The Scarlet Knights will turn to Joseph Roth as their replacement. Kicker Kyle Federico finished the season well, particularly in the Pinstripe Bowl, and returns for his junior season. Rutgers has a major weapon on returns in Janarion Grant, who brought back both a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown during his freshman season.
Wisconsin: The kicking game has held back Wisconsin in the past, so it's definitely an area to watch during the offseason. Kicker Jack Russell converted 9 of 13 field-goal attempts after taking over for Kyle French. He'll try to hold off incoming freshman Rafael Gaglianone. Andrew Endicott, who handled kickoffs last fall, also returns. Wisconsin is looking for more from punter Drew Meyer, who averaged just 38.6 yards per attempt in 2013. Top returner Kenzel Doe is back and should handle both punts and kickoffs, although Wisconsin could look to others for help, such as newcomers Serge Trezy and Natrell Jamerson.
More position breakdowns
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska came back from a pair of first-half deficits and survived a late Wyoming rally to win its NCAA-record 28th straight season opener, 37-34 on Saturday night.
The Cowboys, of the Mountain West Conference, showed surprising resolve, gaining 602 yards before a Nebraska school-record crowd of 91,185 in the 326th consecutive sellout at Memorial Stadium.
The 18th-ranked Huskers rebounded from a sluggish start to score 21 consecutive points in the second and third quarters.
But Wyoming never went away as quarterback Brett Smith hurt the Huskers with both his arms and feet. Smith threw for 383 yards and rushed for 92. He fired a pair of late touchdown passes to nearly erase a 16-point deficit. His 29-yard strike to Jalen Claiborne with 6:02 to play made it 37-27, and a 47-yard dart to Robert Herron with 1:32 left sliced the lead to three points.
Nebraska cornerback Josh Mitchell sacked Smith on a two-point conversion attempt after the first of Wyoming's fourth-quarter TDs, and the Cowboys failed to recover an onside kick after the second.
Wyoming stopped the Huskers quickly in the final two minutes to regain possession, but its final drive ended short of midfield.
It was over when: Smith scrambled wildly, using all of the final 11 seconds to throw across midfield as time expired at the end of a frantic fourth quarter. A pair of holding calls stymied Wyoming’s last possession, but it converted a fourth-and-11 to its 31-yard on a 14-yard strike to Claiborne before the errant heave fell to the turf, allowing the Huskers and their record crowd to sigh deeply.
Game ball goes to: Senior cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste came up big several times -- none more important than an interception of Smith late in the first quarter. With the Cowboys already up 7-3, the 6-foot-3 Jean-Baptiste outwrestled freshman Tanner Gentry at the goal line, ending Smith’s streak of passes without a pick at 183. On the next Wyoming possession after Nebraska went up 10-7, Jean-Baptiste delivered a big hit on Gentry. Jean-Baptiste then fought through a block to corral receiver Claiborne for no gain on a third-and-2 reception to force the Cowboys’ only three-and-out series of the first half.
Stat of the game: Eight. The number of consecutive running plays Nebraska called on scoring drives midway through the second quarter and early in the third. The eight runs totaled 144 yards and two touchdowns, turning a 14-10 Wyoming lead into a 24-14 Nebraska edge. Against a rush defense that ranked 117th nationally a year ago, the Huskers, before turning to the run, called passes on six of seven plays in the first half, resulting in two incompletions, three receptions for 14 yards, a 3-yard Taylor Martinez scramble and two punts. The turnaround began with Ameer Abdullah’s 62-yard scamper and ended with a bruising 31-yard TD burst by Imani Cross.
Unsung hero: One man cannot replace the excellence in the kicking game provided over the past seven years by Alex Henery and Brett Maher, both of whom handled place-kicking and punting duties. So Nebraska went with three guys, and they all showed well. Sophomore Mauro Bondi consistently blasted kickoffs deep; senior Pat Smith, despite missing an extra point, connected on his lone field goal try from 24 yards; and redshirt freshman Sam Foltz boomed four punts for an average of 49.2 yards.
Best improvisation: It was a bit early to say Wyoming had Nebraska on the ropes, but the Huskers, down 7-0, had already muddled through one unproductive possession when, on the third play of their second series, Martinez fumbled the snap on third-and-5. The senior QB chased it down, bought some time with his legs and threw downfield. His pass sailed long, but tight end Jake Long caught the deflection to extend the drive with a 26-yard gain. The drive ended with Pat Smith’s field goal.
What Nebraska learned: The Huskers aren't ready for UCLA, who will visit Lincoln on Sept. 14 with QB Brett Hundley, a better version of Brett Smith. Wyoming’s third-year starter tormented the Blackshirts for much of Saturday. He ran effectively and used his feet to avoid pressure in the pocket. Hundley will inflict more pain if the front seven can’t dial up additional pressure. When the Huskers got to Smith, defensive end Randy Gregory was called for roughing the passer to negate a sack. Offensively, it went about as expected until the final minutes. Martinez showed nice composure. The backs ran well, and the receivers were sure-handed.
What Wyoming learned: If it can find a way to slow opponents’ running games, the Cowboys ought to improve significantly on their 4-8 finish of a year ago. Wyoming unexpectedly controlled this game for much of the first half and simply ran out of time at the end. It features a nice group on offense, with the multitalented Smith, running back Shaun Wick and several capable receivers.
We're entering out third year of this league, and we're tied at one championship apiece. Adam escaped last season by winning seven of the 13 head-to-head showdowns (though I like to point out that my team scored more fantasy points on the season). We start with a clean slate in 2013. I get the top pick in our snake draft that we conducted yesterday. (Note: I changed my team name this year to The One Who Knocks in honor of Heisenberg and one of the greatest TV shows ever).
Here are the results of that draft:
Pick 1: Brian selects Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller
Pick 2: Adam selects Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez
Rationale: Like Miller, Martinez is a true dual threat who can pile up fantasy points. If he takes another step as a passer, look out for Big Red.
Pick 3: Adam selects Northwestern running back Venric Mark
Rationale: Mark is a big-play threat both as a rusher and as a return man, and he should pile up fantasy points early in the season.
Pick 4: Brian selects Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner
Rationale: I'll take the other one of the "Big Three" QBs to start the year. I'm pegging Gardner for a huge season, and with so much uncertainty at quarterback at other Big Ten schools, I'm making sure to snatch him up now.
Pick 5: Brian selects Penn State wide receiver Allen Robinson
Rationale: It may seem unorthodox to take a receiver before I've selected a running back, but I'm confident that there will be plenty of good running backs in this league. Meanwhile, Robinson is easily the Big Ten's top receiver, and he made life miserable for me last fall while on Adam's team.
Pick 6: Adam selects Wisconsin wide receiver Jared Abbrederis
Rationale: No matter who plays quarterback for the Badgers, No. 4 will be the primary target in the passing game. Abbrederis can stretch defenses and should have a big senior season.
Pick 7: Adam selects Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter
Rationale: Colter and Mark are virtually unstoppable in the zone-read game, and I've got 'em both. Although the passing questions linger with Colter, his running ability makes him good for fantasy points.
Pick 8: Brian selects Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah
Rationale: It's time to grab a running back, and Abdullah should run wild alongside Martinez early in the season, especially given Nebraska's not-too-taxing early schedule. He might just throw in a special teams score or two as a bonus.
Pick 9: Brian selects Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon
Rationale: A slight gamble here, as Gordon could take a backseat to teammate James White, especially early on. But there should be plenty of opportunities for both, especially in Week 1. And the talent and potential here is too tantalizing to pass on.
Pick 10: Adam selects Iowa running back Mark Weisman
Rationale: Weisman showed last season he can be dominant when healthy, and he'll play behind one of the Big Ten's better offensive lines. AIRBHG, you had better stay away.
Pick 11: Adam selects Michigan wide receiver Jeremy Gallon
Rationale: Gallon's numbers surged late last season with Gardner at quarterback, and he'll be the clear No. 1 option in the passing game as Michigan employs a more traditional pro-set offense this season.
Pick 12: Brian selects Nebraska wide receiver Kenny Bell
Rationale: I strongly considered Indiana's Cody Latimer here, but the danger is that Kofi Hughes, Shane Wynn and other Hoosiers receivers could all split the numbers. Mr. Afro Thunder is the Huskers' obvious top weapon in the passing game and could have a field day against Wyoming.
Pick 13: Brian selects Michigan State's defense
Rationale: The Spartans' elite defense actually wasn't that great in fantasy last season, as low totals in takeaways and sacks prevented it from matching real-life performance. I'm willing to bet that changes this year and will go with the best defense -- at least on paper -- in the Big Ten.
Pick 14: Adam selects Ohio State's defense
Rationale: Michigan State boasts the Big Ten's best defense, but for fantasy purposes, Ohio State's D receives much higher marks. I'm banking on Noah Spence, Adolphus Washington and other young players to step up early and often.
Pick 15: Adam selects Northwestern's kickers
Rationale: Jeff Budzien had only one miss in 2012 -- a 53-yard try at that -- and should be one of the primary contenders for the Lou Groza Award this fall.
Pick 16: Brian selects Nebraska's kickers
Rationale: The Huskers will be breaking in a new placekicker -- Mauro Bondi and Pat Smith are battling it out -- but this program has churned out big-time kickers. And while Big Red might not settle for a lot of field goals on Saturday, I expect to at least get some points on multiple PATs.
Our complete rosters for Week 1:
The Trombone Shorties
Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez
Northwestern QB Kain Colter
Northwestern RB Venric Mark
Iowa RB Mark Weisman
Wisconsin WR Jared Abbrederis
Michigan WR Jeremy Gallon
Ohio State defense
The One Who Knocks
Ohio State QB Braxton Miller
Michigan QB Devin Gardner
Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah
Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon
Penn State WR Allen Robinson
Nebraska WR Kenny Bell
Michigan State defense
2012 conference record: 7-1 (first in Legends Division, lost in Big Ten championship game)
Returning starters: Offense: 7; defense: 5; kicker/punter: 0
QB Taylor Martinez, RB Ameer Abdullah, WR Kenny Bell, OG Spencer Long, DB Ciante Evans, OT Jeremiah Sirles, DE Jason Ankrah, WR Jamal Turner
RB Rex Burkhead, LB Will Compton, DE Eric Martin, DE Cameron Meredith, S Daimion Stafford, TE Kyler Reed, K/P Brett Maher
2012 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Ameer Abdullah* (1,137 yards)
Passing: Taylor Martinez* (2,871 yards)
Receiving: Kenny Bell* (863 yards)
Tackles: Will Compton (110)
Sacks: Eric Martin (8.5)
Interceptions: Daimion Stafford (4)
1. Loaded on offense: Nebraska has a great chance to rank among the top-scoring teams in the country this year. Almost everybody is back from what was an already potent attack, and senior quarterback Taylor Martinez appeared to take another step forward with a steady, mistake-avoiding spring. The Huskers might already have the top receiving corps in the Big Ten, and Jamal Turner looks poised to raise his game to another level. Starting running back Ameer Abdullah missed most of the spring with a knee injury, but that gave Imani Cross more opportunities. Cross should emerge as a strong complementary option in the backfield. Add in some other emerging weapons like wideout Alonzo Moore, and offensive coordinator Tim Beck has to feel like he has a full toy box to play with.
2. Emergency plan in place: Though Nebraska hopes that Martinez plays every meaningful snap at quarterback, the Huskers don't have to fear the worst if that doesn't happen. Backups Tommy Armstrong and Ron Kellogg each played very well during the spring game, and Armstrong showed some nice zip on his throws. Of course, a spring game is a lot different than an actual fall Saturday. But at least Nebraska might not have to completely panic should Martinez miss any time.
3. Santos stands out: There are many questions about Nebraska's defense, which we'll get to in a minute. But linebacker David Santos isn't one of them. The sophomore proved to the coaches this spring that he's ready to step into a much larger role, and despite his youth he is becoming a leader of the green linebacker corps. Right now, he's the starting middle linebacker, though he has the speed and versatility to play on the outside as well.
1. Defensive front seven: Spring practice did little to calm questions about the inexperienced defensive line and linebacker crew. Defensive end Jason Ankrah was the only returning starter among the group this spring, and it showed, especially in a lackluster spring game performance. The defensive line is particularly worrisome, though the expected healthy return of tackle Thad Randle and the arrival of junior-college star Randy Gregory should help matters. The linebackers will no doubt make mistakes but the hope is that their speed erases problems. There's no doubt that the defensive front is Nebraska's No. 1 question, especially after a group of veterans couldn't prevent last year's massive breakdowns.
2. Ball security: The Huskers tried to address their 2012 turnover problems this spring by making every player in the offensive lineup do up-downs as physical punishment any time the ball hit the ground. Martinez showed good decision-making this spring in avoiding bad throws. Nebraska hopes the extra focus on ball security will help this fall, but that remains to be seen. Martinez has had a bad habit of fumbling during his career. Cutting down turnovers will be key, because the Huskers offense can often only be stopped by itself.
3. Kicking concerns: Replacing Brett Maher, who was one of the best in the Big Ten at both punting and field goals, won't be easy. The strong-legged Mauro Bondi will take over place-kicking and hopes to continue in the tradition set by Maher and Alex Henery. But he'll have to prove it when the lights come on. Nebraska also struggled on kickoff returns down the stretch last year. With the defense still a question mark, the Huskers need to make sure they're rock solid on special teams.
The first Big Ten 2013 spring game is in the books, as Nebraska concluded its 15-practice session on sunny day in front of more than 60,000 Big Red fans at Memorial Stadium. And we're here to recap it.
You can find coverage of the Huskers' spring game here, here, here and here.
Star of the game: No question about it, 7-year-old Jack Hoffman stole the show. Hoffman, who is battling brain cancer, lined up in the backfield wearing Rex Burkhead's old No. 22, and ran 69 yards for a touchdown as the crowd roared. The entire team celebrated with Hoffman and he finished the day as the game's leading rusher.
The idea was hatched by football operations director Jeff Jamrog and fullback C.J. Zimmerer. Burkhead has been leading a support group for Hoffman and won a service award for his work.
It was a tremendous gesture by Nebraska, and you won't see a better moment in any spring game this year.
"Jack's a young man who's touched the hearts of a lot of people," head coach Bo Pelini said. "Our football team, the student body, people have gotten behind him and he's become a big part of the team. I wasn't sure if he was going to want to do it before we brought the idea to his dad, and I thought it was a pretty special thing."
How it went down: The Red team beat the White team 32-25, with Hoffman's touchdown for the Red finishing the scoring. So what did we learn?
Not a ton. It was a fan-friendly event with several stars either held out of action or playing limited snaps, plus moments like offensive linemen fielding punts. The biggest question going in was how the rebuilt defense would look. Answer: shaky, as expected.
The offense had six scoring drives and piled up 421 yards -- in the first half. We shouldn't be surprised by that, as the Huskers' offense is explosive and full of veterans, while the defense is full of youngsters and still learning. The offense didn't turn the ball over, which is a great sign for a team that struggled with that all last year.
The defense played a little better in the second half and was missing several key players.
"I think our defense has potential to be very good, but it is going to require a lot of hard work between now and [the start of the season]," Pelini said. "There's going to be a tremendous competition to see who is out there on the field come that first game. Who that's going to be, I don't know yet. There's a lot of potential, but like I said, there's a lot of work to do between now and then."
The Huskers also showed that they have some options should something happen to quarterback Taylor Martinez. Redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong lived up to his last name with some nice throws and finished 5-of-7 for 102 yards and a touchdown. Ron Kellogg III also had a strong performance, completing 11 of 12 passes for 148 yards and a score. (Martinez went 8-of-10 for 105 yards).
"Coming out of the spring, I would probably say Tommy was a little bit ahead of Ron," Pelini said. "We have some talent at the quarterback position and some guys that made a lot of progress this spring."
Remember that Nebraska also has to replace valuable kicker Brett Maher, and Mauro Bondi gave reason for optimism by nailing a 50-yard field goal. He also missed a 55-yarder that had enough distance but was wide.
"He still has to work on some consistency things, but he has a big leg," Pelini said.
And the Huskers showed a big heart in letting Hoffman live out a dream.
OFFENSE: Jamal Turner, WR/QB, freshman, 6-1, 180
The Huskers are looking to build depth at receiver, and Turner's arrival comes at a perfect time. He enrolled early and dazzled in spring practice and particularly in the spring game, racking up 228 all-purpose yards, including an electrifying 49-yard touchdown reception. A candidate to start at receiver, the speedy Turner is taking some snaps at quarterback early in preseason camp. He could be a major factor for the Huskers in a variety of roles, including a return man on special teams.
DEFENSE: Corey Cooper, S, redshirt freshman, 6-1, 210
Nebraska's defense doesn't have many holes for new players to fill, but both Cooper and classmate Harvey Jackson could see time in the secondary this fall. Cooper was a heralded recruit in the 2010 class who picked Nebraska over his home state school of Illinois, among others. He boasts good size for a safety and could be an impact player on special teams for the Huskers this fall.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Brett Maher, K/P, junior, 6-0, 185
Maher has been around for a while, but with All-American Alex Henery on the squad, he didn't have much to do. Things change this fall as Henery departs and Maher begins handling some, if not all, of the key specialist duties. He was the Huskers' No. 1 kicker and punter in spring ball and went 4-for-5 on field-goal attempts in the spring game, converting the game-winner from 39 yards out. Incoming freshman Mauro Bondi also could be an immediate factor in the kicking game this fall.
More Fresh Faces
For this ranking, we're going to consider punters, kickers and returners only. No offense to the long-snappers or the punt-team gunners, but things like kickoff coverage units are hard to forecast. We'll give a little extra weight to teams that have returning and proven players at these spots, because it's difficult to know how new punters and kickers will fare when the pressure of real games begin.
As the guys in these positions would say, let's kick it:
2. Wisconsin: The Badgers are set at both punter and kicker, with seniors Brad Nortman and Philip Welch, respectively. Both are third-year starters who can be relied upon. Wisconsin will need to find a replacement for primary return man David Gilreath.
3. Penn State: The Nittany Lions bring back punter Anthony Fera and punt returner Devon Smith, who finished just behind Martin in yards per attempt last season. Chaz Powell and Stephfon Green are dangerous kick returners. Fera could move over to handle field goals this season if incoming freshman Sam Ficken doesn't win the job.
4. Ohio State: The Buckeyes have a veteran punter in senior Ben Buchanan and two threats to take a kick to the house in Jordan Hall and Jaamal Berry. Sophomore Drew Basil is expected to take over at place-kicker. Special teams are almost always a force in Columbus.
5. Purdue: No one in the league has a bigger leg than Carson Wiggs; the questions is whether he can consistently harness it. Punter Cody Webster averaged 43.3 yards per attempt last season, second best among returning punters. The Boilermakers' return game needs to improve.
6. Illinois: Derek Dimke was a Lou Groza semifinalist last season and broke the school record for points by a kicker. He nailed two 50-plus yarders. Ray Guy semifinalist Anthony Santella is gone, though return man Troy Pollard is back.
7. Northwestern: Brandon Williams improved at punter as his freshman year went along last season. The Wildcats at long last have an elite return option in Venric Mark. But place-kicker was a concern this spring, with Jeff Budzien and Steve Flaherty competing for the job.
8. Iowa: Kirk Ferentz's teams usually find a way to be good on special teams, so odds are the Hawkeyes will climb these rankings. But they lost a lot from 2010, including Ray Guy finalist and four-year starter Ryan Donahue, plus both primary return men. Eric Guthrie held the edge at punter after the spring. Place-kicker Mike Meyer returns after taking over that role for the final 10 games and doing a solid job.
9. Indiana: Mitch Ewald was named to the Groza watch list after a strong freshman year in which he made 16 of 19 field goals. Chris Hagerup needs to increase his punting average of 39.4 yards. The Hoosiers should have enough athletes to replace Tandon Doss on returns.
10. Minnesota: Dan Orseske's 36.1-yard average was worst among starting Big Ten punters in 2010, so that must get better. Jerry Kill must also find a new place-kicker -- NC State transfer Chris Hawthorne looks like the top option. Troy Stoudermire, one of the league's top return specialists, is back for his senior year.
11. Nebraska: Like Iowa, this is a team that will almost assuredly outperform this ranking. But boy did the Huskers lose a lot of talent and experience. It will be difficult to match the value that punter/kicker Alex Henery brought -- Brett Maher and freshman Mauro Bondi will battle to replace him -- and Adi Kunalic was a secret weapon as kickoff specialist. Top returner Niles Pau is gone, too. The Cornhuskers will likely reload, but nobody has bigger shoes to fill at these positions in the Big Ten.
12. Michigan: The kicking game looked like a disaster this spring, with neither Seth Broekhuizen nor Brendan Gibbons inspiring confidence. Incoming freshman Matt Wile might win the job this summer. This could prove to be an Achilles' heel for the Wolverines, as it was a year ago. On the plus side, Will Hagerup is the leading returning punter in the Big Ten, though he had only 33 attempts last season.
I'll be off most of Friday and Monday, so you'll be in the capable hands of Brian Bennett. He can't wait to hear from you.
Derek from Happy Valley, Pa., writes: For what it's worth Adam, as a Penn State fan and student, I don't understand why Penn State would choose to play Pitt. There are Pitt shirts on campus from WPIAL kids and nobody cares. It's not a rivalry to any Penn State fan under the age of 50, and it's only a rivalry to about half of them.Pitt will get to sell out their stadium (for what I assume Penn State will white-out), but Penn State already does that.And as a fan, I would rather go to more places like Tuscaloosa like we did last year. I could go to Pittsburgh, albeit a nice city, whenever I want. Penn State should spend it's main OOC game on teams like Oregon, LSU, Florida, Texas, and other top teams from top conferences.I know you don't really care about my opinion, but if you are trying to gauge hoe PSU fans are taking this 2 game series, you have at least one of our thoughts.
Adam Rittenberg: Derek, thanks for sharing this perspective. The Penn State-Pitt hiatus has prevented the rivalry from resonating with younger fans and students such as yourself. It's a shame because, while I'm aging rapidly but hardly ancient, I remember several Penn State-Pitt games and the excitement around the rivalry. The (Harrisburg) Patriot-News Jared Shanker recently wrote a good piece from a younger person's perspective, asking folks to educate him on the rivalry. While I certainly understand your desire to see more games like Penn State-Alabama in the future, I'd give the Pitt series a chance.
Tim from Toledo, Ohio, writes: Hey Adam,Great job with the blog! In past postings you've mentioned that you thought OSU would NOT get hammered for the infamous "lack of institutional control"? Do you still think that, in light of OTL's recent report about Pryor and Talbott? In your opinon, how hard will the NCAA come down on my Buckeyes?
Adam Rittenberg: Tim, it's hard to predict NCAA charges in advance, but if more of these allegations are proven true, lack of institutional control might be in play. I think "failure to monitor" might be a bigger concern for Ohio State because of the questions about the compliance department -- what it knew, what it didn't know, what it did to monitor players, etc. Failure to monitor is considered a small step down from lack of institutional control in terms of severity, but both charges are significant.
Matthew from East Lansing, Mich., writes: Adam I noticed that you had the Wisky running back tandem as possible Heisman candidates ahead of either Kirk Cousins or Edwin Baker. I was wondering if this was you looking ahead and thinking that the Badgers will have a better record (thus be in more national spot light) than the Spartans. Nothing against the Wisconsin running backs. They are great athletes and will rack up a lot of yardage, but I have to think that either Cousins or Baker will have a huge year (depending on if the line can gel for a run offense in Bakers case). I was just wondering on the reasoning.
Adam Rittenberg: Good question, Matthew. The two offensive lines certainly have something to do with it. Wisconsin once again should have one of the Big Ten's best lines, while Michigan State's front is a major question mark. It's never easy to replace both starting tackles and the starting center. The other element is the hype factor around Wisconsin and the fact that James White and Montee Ball are players people know nationally at a position where the Badgers are famous for producing stars. I'm not saying Kirk Cousins or Edwin Baker can't enter the Heisman mix, but both men have something to prove nationally because the default perception of them/Michigan State is the Capital One Bowl disaster against Alabama.
Kevin from Orlando, Fla., writes: Adam, always look forward to reading your view points on current Big Ten topics...great job! My question is, do you see Michigan eventually playing more 8pm prime time games in the Big House, depending on the success (based on ratings and performace, as attendance wont be an issue) of the Sept. 10th game agaisnt ND?
Adam Rittenberg: Thanks, Kevin. I'd be stunned if Michigan doesn't schedule more primetime home games in the coming years. Athletic director Dave Brandon is a progressive guy who recognizes the popularity of night college football. Tradition is nice, but noon ET kickoffs simply don't generate the same type of hype and excitement as games under the lights. Honestly, noon kickoffs just aren't cool at all. Michigan will never become LSU and play most of its home games at night, but Brandon will identify showcase opportunities where playing in prime time works, and he'll capitalize.
Tyler from Durham, N.C., writes: In a recent blog about Michigan's throwback unis for the Notre Dame game, you said that the numbers on the helmets were a nice touch because "Alabama's helmets are classic; it's good to see Michigan go this route." Huh? Are you saying the famed winged helmets designed by Frits Chrysler, which have been time and again confirmed as the best looking (and most classic) in college football, aren't as "classic" as Alabama's? Please, Adam, don't embarrass yourself like this. Retract the Alabama statement and you can put this all behind you as if you never said a thing. I'm just looking out for you, buddy.
Adam Rittenberg: A little oversensitive, are we? Michigan's helmets are great. They're the best helmets in the Big Ten. I've mentioned that on multiple occasions. The numbers are simply a nice one-time feature, and they reminded me of Alabama's headgear. Both helmets are iconic, and in no way was I knocking Michigan.
Eric from Collins, Ohio, writes: Adam, why do you have to come up with insane blog topics meant only to incite comments? These "Who has the better tradition" posts are meant simply to fire people up and put down schools that perhaps don't value their football program the way most schools in the Big Ten do. Honestly, when is your retirement? I can't wait.
Adam Rittenberg: Eric, the traditions posts were simply done to have a little fun in conjunction with EA Sports and SportsNation. All the bloggers did them, as per our instructions from the folks in Bristol. As usual, several of you took them way too seriously. And this is a blog, so "firing people up" is sort of the point, especially during a slow period time like mid-June. As for my retirement, sorry to disappoint you. I'm not going anywhere for a while.
Bryan from Kansas City, Mo., writes: I'm wondering if you have any thoughts about how Nebraska will fare this year without their secret offensive MVP of the past few years, kicker Alex Henery. With the offensive struggles in the past two years, Henery was always hitting clutch field goals and putting points on the board. Plain and simple - the Huskers wouldn't have won all the games they did in the past few years without him. I want to hear your take on how this could impact them this season, and if you have any insights on Alex's replacement.
Adam Rittenberg: Great question, Bryan. I loved watching Henery from afar, particularly in the Big 12 championship games. He was practically automatic and extremely clutch. Reminded me of Big Ten star kickers like Mike Nugent and Nate Kaeding. I agree that he played a huge role in several Nebraska wins. Nebraska's offense will have to reach the end zone a little more often this season. Junior Brett Maher will be the next man in. He hit three field goals in the spring game, including the game-winner. Mauro Bondi also is joining the team. Still, it'll be very tough to replace a guy like Henery.
2010 overall record: 10-4
2010 conference record: 6-2 in Big 12 (T-1st in Big 12 North)
Offense: 6; defense: 7; kicker/punter: 0
DT Jared Crick, LB Lavonte David, CB Alfonzo Dennard, DE Cameron Meredith, QB Taylor Martinez, RB Rex Burkhead, WR Brandon Kinnie, C Mike Caputo, TE Kyler Reed
CB Prince Amukamara, DB Dejon Gomes, DB Eric Hagg, DE Pierre Allen, G Ricky Henry, RB Roy Helu Jr., WR Niles Paul, K/P Alex Henery
2010 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Roy Helu Jr. (1,245 yards)
Passing: Taylor Martinez* (1,631 yards)
Receiving: Niles Paul (516 yards)
Tackles: Lavonte David* (152)
Sacks: Jared Crick* (9.5)
Interceptions: Eric Hagg (5)
1. Flippin' out: Nebraska entered the spring needing more options at receiver, and freshman Jamal Turner made it very clear he can contribute this season. Turner, who switched to receiver from quarterback, made the most memorable play of the spring game when he scored on an electrifying 49-yard catch and run, capping things with a flip into the end zone. He recorded 228 all-purpose yards in only seven touches in the game. Speedster Kenny Bell also drew praise this spring and should help the pass attack.
2. D-line depth: Injuries to starters Jared Crick (knee) and Cameron Meredith (shoulder) allowed other players to gain increased reps this spring. The result is what defensive coordinator Carl Pelini calls the deepest line he has had at Nebraska. Converted linebacker Eric Martin had a strong spring and looks like the replacement for Pierre Allen at end. Players like Thaddeus Randle, Jay Guy and Kevin Williams add to the depth at defensive tackle.
3. Rex 'n effect: The run game will drive Nebraska's offense this fall, and junior I-back Rex Burkhead looks ready to lead the way. Burkhead had a strong spring and capped the session with 91 rush yards on 11 carries in the spring game, gaining seven yards or more on eight carries. Burkhead seemed to grasp the new offense well, and while heralded incoming freshman Aaron Green and others will be in the mix for carries this fall, Rex is the Huskers' most reliable option.
1. Taylor Martinez: T-Magic drew some good reviews this spring and showed a greater willingness to be a public face for the team, but he struggled in the spring game (4-for-13 passing) and battled a toe injury for part of the session. We saw last season that Martinez isn't nearly the same player when he's limited, so he needs to get healthy and continue making strides this summer. Coach Bo Pelini says Martinez is his starter if the season started today, but others like Cody Green and spring game star Brion Carnes are in the mix.
2. Offensive line: The Big Ten's best teams typically boast elite offensive lines, and Nebraska's front has drawn mixed reviews the past few seasons. Nebraska must replace three starters, including first-team All-Big 12 guard Ricky Henry. Line coach Barney Cotton wants to play 8-10 men up front, which should keep players fresh in Tim Beck's fast-paced offense. Center Mike Caputo is a nice piece to build around, but Nebraska needs others to step up.
3. Oh, Henery: Nebraska fans could take the kicking game for granted in recent years as All-American Alex Henery did it all at an extremely high level. Replacing Henery will be a big storyline as the Huskers enter a league where weather can have a major effect on kicking and punting. Brett Maher looked good in the spring game, drilling three field goals, including the winner. The Huskers need continued improvement from Maher, who could handle all the kicking duties, although scholarship kicker Mauro Bondi arrives this summer.
Recruits: 20 (18 high school seniors, two junior college transfers, three players enrolled early)
Top prospects: The Huskers bring in the Big Ten's top-rated recruit in Aaron Green, ranked as the nation's No. 3 running back and No. 11 overall prospect by ESPN Recruiting. They also bolstered the offensive backfield with ESPNU 150 quarterbacks Jamal Turner and Bubba Starling, although Starling could bolt to play professional baseball. Both lines are addressed in this class with players like center Ryne Reeves and defensive tackles Todd Peat Jr. and Kevin Williams. The defensive backfield adds a key player in ESPNU 150 cornerback Charles Jackson.
Needs met: Nebraska needs a featured running back following Roy Helu Jr.'s departure, and the addition of both Green and Ameer Abdullah answers a need there. The Huskers also need to build depth at receiver and brought in two potential contributors in Taariq Allen and Daniel Davie. Life after star specialist Alex Henery begins this fall and Nebraska picked up kicker Mauro Bondi late in the recruiting process.
Analysis: If the 2011 class is any indication, Nebraska will be a formidable recruiting force in the Big Ten. The Huskers capitalized on their Texas connections with players like Green, Turner and Jackson and also did well closer to home with in-state products like Reeves. Although Nebraska didn't neglect its two lines, the overall athleticism in this class really stands out. Skill players like Green, Turner, Starling and Jackson should be able to contribute early in their careers.
ESPN Recruiting grade: B
Things kicked off Friday night as Michigan secured a verbal commitment from offensive lineman Chris Bryant, a very solid prospect. Bryant's pledge adds to the late recruiting momentum Michigan has generated under new coach Brady Hoke.
Here's more recruiting news from around the Big Ten, courtesy of ESPN Recruiting:
- Indiana secured verbal commitments from three-star offensive linemen Peyton Eckert and Gregory Lewis and defensive lineman Adarius Rayner, who originally committed to Colorado State.
- Nebraska landed a kicker as it begins life without superstar Alex Henery. The Huskers received a verbal pledge from Mauro Bondi from Boca Raton, Fla. As a senior, Bondi was 7 of 11 on field goals with a long of 44. He also had 45 of 55 kickoffs go for touchbacks and averaged 43.2 yards per punt. Nebraska also added junior college defensive lineman Joseph Carter, who had decommitted from Arizona.
- Minnesota bolstered its defensive front with a commitment from Texas prospect Michael Amaefula. The Gophers also added defensive back Derrick Wells from Lehigh Acres, Fla.
- You've got to love long-snappers and Ohio State landed one for its 2011 class as Bryce Haynes gave a pledge to the Buckeyes over Notre Dame, North Carolina and Utah State.
I'll have plenty more on the Big Ten recruiting scene throughout the week.
BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
Final Nevada 3 Louisiana-Lafayette 16 Final Utah State 21 UTEP 6 Final 22 Utah 45 Colorado State 10 Final Western Michigan 24 Air Force 38 Final South Alabama 28 Bowling Green 33
Final Marshall 52 Northern Illinois 23 Final Navy 17 San Diego State 16
Final Central Michigan 48 Western Kentucky 49 Final Fresno State 6 Rice 30
Final Illinois 18 Louisiana Tech 35 Final Rutgers 40 North Carolina 21 Final North Carolina State 34 UCF 27
Final Cincinnati 17 Virginia Tech 33 Final 15 Arizona State 36 Duke 31 Final Miami (FL) 21 South Carolina 24 Final/OT Boston College 30 Penn State 31 Final Nebraska 42 24 USC 45
2:00 PM ET Texas A&M West Virginia 5:30 PM ET Oklahoma 17 Clemson 9:00 PM ET Arkansas Texas
3:00 PM ET Notre Dame 23 LSU 6:30 PM ET 13 Georgia 21 Louisville 10:00 PM ET Maryland Stanford
12:30 PM ET 9 Ole Miss 6 TCU 4:00 PM ET 20 Boise State 10 Arizona 8:00 PM ET 7 Mississippi State 12 Georgia Tech
12:00 PM ET 19 Auburn 18 Wisconsin 12:30 PM ET 8 Michigan State 5 Baylor 1:00 PM ET 16 Missouri 25 Minnesota 5:00 PM ET 2 Oregon 3 Florida State 8:30 PM ET 1 Alabama 4 Ohio State
12:00 PM ET Houston Pittsburgh 3:20 PM ET Iowa Tennessee 6:45 PM ET 11 Kansas State 14 UCLA 10:15 PM ET Washington Oklahoma State