Big Ten: Miami Thomas

You've asked for it and you've been very patient, so here it is. The Big Ten All-Name team.

Who doesn't love a good name? And there are some very strong candidates around the Big Ten this season.

The only criteria, besides having an awesome name, is a player must be on a Big Ten roster entering the 2011 season. Incoming freshmen are eligible. Names that could have a football connotation help your cause.

Let's do this ...

Coach: Jerry Kill, Minnesota

OFFENSE

QB: Moses Alipate, Minnesota
RB: Fitzgerald Toussaint, Michigan
RB: Mika'il McCall, Iowa
FB: Jared Crank, Purdue
OL: Fou Fonoti, Michigan State
OL: Jack De Boef, Purdue
OL: Rocko Khoury, Michigan
OL: Seung Hoon Choi, Nebraska
OL: Riki Kodanko, Wisconsin
WR: Fritz Rock, Illinois
WR: Xzavian Brandon, Minnesota
WR: Tariq Tongue, Penn State
WR: Nick Toon, Wisconsin
TE: Jake Stoneburner, Ohio State

DEFENSE

DL: DeJazz Woods, Illlinois
DL:
Kyle Baublitz, Penn State
DL: Wisdom Onyegbule, Illinois
DL:
Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State
LB: Storm Klein, Ohio State
LB: Coddye Ring-Noonan, Wisconsin
LB:
Kaulana Judd, Purdue
DB: Miami Thomas, Illinois
DB: John Lowdermilk, Iowa
DB: Peniel Jean, Wisconsin
DB: Shady Salamon, Minnesota

SPECIAL TEAMS

P: Alex Butterworth, Penn State
K: Carson Wiggs, Purdue

PRACTICE SQUAD
  • Zepheniah Grimes, LB, Illinois
  • Griffen Dahlstrom, LB, Indiana
  • Curenski Gilleylen, WR, Nebraska
  • Whitney Mercilus, DE, Illinois
  • Caleb TerBush, QB, Purdue
  • Takudzwa Kubvoruno, WR, Michigan State
  • Dakota Getz, LB, Iowa
  • Darius Millines, WR, Illinois
  • Dusty Kiel, QB, Indiana
  • Chi Chi Ariguzo, LB, Northwestern
  • DeOn'tae Pannell, OL, Penn State
  • Khairi Fortt, LB, Penn State
  • Sahr Ngekia, TE, Minnesota
  • Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin
  • Silas Redd, RB, Penn State
  • Nick Stoner, DB, Indiana (nod to Adam's hometown of Berkeley, Calif.)
  • Marlandez Harris, DL, Indiana
  • Logan Link, DB, Purdue
  • Stone Pinckney, LB, Northwestern
Illinois' safeties will have an ally on the field this season.

Tavon Wilson is excited to be once again playing his natural position of cornerback, but he isn't forgetting his roots.

[+] EnlargeTavon Wilson
Chuck Rydlewski/Icon SMIIllinois' Tavon Wilson has started at cornerback and safety.
"I help my safeties a lot more because I know how hard it is back there, to cover each half of the field all by yourself," Wilson said. "If we're in Cover 2, I make sure I get my hands on [the receiver]. In Cover 3, I protect the front side when they're going to the middle.

"I've got a little more respect for the safeties now after playing the position."

Wilson moved from cornerback to safety before the 2010 season because a series of injuries hit Illinois' defensive backfield. The big loss was Supo Sanni, a projected starter at safety who ruptured his Achilles tendon in camp and had to miss the season.

After a productive sophomore season at cornerback, where he led the team with seven passes defended, Wilson made the shift to safety and once again led the team in passes defended (9) to go along with 48 tackles. Illinois' improved depth in the secondary has allowed Wilson to return to cornerback, although he practiced as a nickel safety this spring.

Wilson's versatility should help a secondary that likely will be the strength of the defense in 2011.

"Safety and corner are two totally different positions," Wilson said. "It's a different mind-set. At first, I tried to go out there and play like a corner, but I had to learn the game from a safety standpoint. It's a totally different aspect of football."

Wilson admits he "probably played a little smarter" as a safety, knowing that any risk could backfire and result in a touchdown for the opposing team.

"At corner, I know I'm a lot more aggressive and more of a hitter," he said. "I take more chances just because I know I've got some help over the top."

He won't take that help for granted.

Sanni is on track to return at safety alongside Trulon Henry, a starter last season who led the team with three interceptions. Wilson, Terry Hawthorne and Justin Green give Illinois a very nice complement of cornerbacks, and the secondary also brings back Patrick Nixon-Youman, Steve Hull and Miami Thomas, the talented corner who has battled injuries for much of his career.

"I definitely feel like we're going to have a chance to be the leaders of the defense, just because of the confidence we have in each other and the confidence everybody else has in us," Wilson said. "A lot of us have played a lot of football around here, so when things are going wrong, people on the defense expect me or one of my guys back there to make a play. We've been doing that this spring.”

Spring game recap: Illinois

April, 25, 2011
4/25/11
2:00
PM ET
Illinois wrapped up its spring session Saturday with the Orange and Blue Spring Game at Memorial Stadium. The Illini played four 12-minute quarters and the offense beat the defense 26-21 as the team used a special scoring system.

Let's take a quick look at the game.

Game coverage: Here and here and here and here.

Quotable: "Right now that position is wide open between the guys coming back and the freshmen we have coming in. Whoever wants it, go get it. And someone should want it because there are some real good linemen blocking in front of then. Someone is going to get 1,000 yards. I don't know who that is yet. We're going to run the ball well. I have no question about that. We just have to find out who that person will be. That's probably the biggest concern I have -- who is that running back?" -- offensive coordinator Paul Petrino

Highlights
  • Illinois is looking to build depth at receiver, and Ryan Lankford certainly helped his cause Saturday. As projected starting wideouts A.J. Jenkins and Darius Millines sat out with injuries, Lankford recorded five receptions for 64 yards. He capitalized on his increased reps this spring and was named the team's most improved offensive player for the session. "He's a guy who comes to work every day and he always has a smile on his face," coach Ron Zook said. "He's going to be an awfully good player for us."
  • Defensive highlights included a diving interception from Miami Thomas, a talented cornerback who has had zero luck with injuries during his college career. I remember chatting with the colorful Thomas during preseason camp in 2009 and talking about his big plans for that coming season. If he can stay on the field this fall, he should help what might be a very good Illini secondary. It'll also be interesting to see what happens with young linebackers Houston Bates and Jonathan Brown. Bates earned a spring award for best effort from a defensive player. Brown played a lot as a true freshman in 2010 and has a "chance to be a special guy," Zook said.
  • As referenced above, the race at running back is wide open entering the summer. Jason Ford had a chance to separate himself this spring but didn't do much after suffering a bruised knee early in the session. Petrino made it clear he wants to see more from Ford this summer. Troy Pollard had a good spring before suffering a concussion, while Ean Days took most of the carries Saturday and had a touchdown run. This is a spot where a freshman like Donovonn Young could contribute right away.

Recapping the Big Ten scrimmages

August, 23, 2010
8/23/10
9:00
AM ET
Scrimmages took center stage around the Big Ten this weekend as teams moved closer to the end of camp and the start of game preparations. I have links and a few thoughts on each scrimmage below, but only on the teams that put out information about what happened or had media in attendance. Those teams are: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern, Ohio State and Wisconsin.

I'll do my best with Michigan's scrimmage, which oddly was open to fans but not media.

ILLINOIS

The Illini broke camp in Rantoul, Ill., and scrimmaged Saturday at Memorial Stadium. Check out what happened here and here and here and here.

Quick hitters
  • Illinois' coaches can talk all they want about running back by committee, but it's clear that junior Mikel Leshoure is the team's top option. As he did throughout the second half of last season, Leshoure showcased his big-play ability Saturday with a 49-yard touchdown run. Leshoure finished with 102 rush yards and two scores on only 12 carries. Jason Ford also had a nice day Saturday, but Leshoure is the guy to watch out for this fall.
  • After struggling in the first camp scrimmage, Illinois' first-team defense rebounded nicely Saturday. According to Mark Tupper, the first-team defense allowed only 59 net yards in 41 plays in the scrimmage. Defensive end Michael Buchanan and linebacker Martez Wilson were among the standouts.
  • Although starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase had a shaky day, Illinois might have found another capable wide receiver in Eddie McGee, the team's former backup quarterback. McGee beat cornerback Miami Thomas on a jump ball in the end zone to record a touchdown and finished with three receptions for 56 yards.
INDIANA

The Hoosiers held a 96-play Saturday at Memorial Stadium, and you can read all about it here, here (subscription required) and here.

Quick hitters
  • Redshirt freshman Dusty Kiel has established himself as the team's backup quarterback in camp. Kiel, who has been competing with Edward Wright-Baker, had an excellent scrimmage, completing 14 of 16 passes for 129 yards and a touchdown.
  • Indiana used the scrimmage to assess its offensive line depth and limited the participation for sure-fire starters like center Will Matte and right tackle James Brewer. Coach Bill Lynch wanted to get a better read on his backup center and had Jordan Marquette, Chris Ahlfeld and Steve Fiacable take reps in the scrimmage. Ted Bolser stepped up nicely at tight end with five catches for 46 yards and a touchdown.
  • The Hoosiers' already-shaky secondary suffered a blow as safety Chris Adkins had to be carried off the field because of an ankle injury. The extent of Adkins' injury is unclear at this point.
MICHIGAN

Michigan held a scrimmage Saturday at Michigan Stadium. It was open to some fans but not media, and while I love fan reports, I'm relying mostly on this video from the school's official website.
  • I really like what I've seen from freshman running back Stephen Hopkins, both in Saturday's scrimmage and during the Big Ten Network's tour stop. He gives the Wolverines a different look in the backfield at 6-foot, 227 pounds. Michigan boasts plenty of speed backs, but Hopkins provides the type of downhill, between-the-tackles running you need in the Big Ten.
  • Quarterback Denard Robinson looked pretty smooth in the scrimmage video, both as a passer and a runner. He hit his receivers in stride and broke off a long touchdown run, juking safety Jared Van Slyke before reaching the end zone. All signs continue to point toward Robinson being named the starter, but we'll see.
MICHIGAN STATE

The Spartans held a 130-play controlled scrimmage Saturday at Spartan Stadium, closed to the media. The defense prevailed 45-32 as the team used a modified scoring system. Recaps can be found here and here.

Quick hitters
  • It was a good day for the defense and a great day for the linebackers, who should be Michigan State's strongest unit this fall. Eric Gordon recorded a scrimmage-best nine tackles, while Greg Jones added eight, including two for loss. Jon Misch had 2.5 tackles for loss and a quarterback hurry, and Chris Norman had six tackles and a pass breakup. "The linebackers were very active," coach Mark Dantonio said.
  • Wide receiver B.J. Cunningham is having a very strong camp, and he continued it Saturday with five receptions for 67 yards, including a 30-yard touchdown from Kirk Cousins. Cousins and Cunningham hooked up for two touchdowns in the team's first fall scrimmage. It's a pretty crowded mix at receiver, but Cunningham has put himself in a great position.
MINNESOTA

Minnesota held an open scrimmage Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium, and you can read all about it here, here and here.

Quick hitters
  • Minnesota's first-string offensive line stepped up nicely in the scrimmage, keeping quarterback Adam Weber safe and allowing him to complete 7 of 9 passes for 70 yards and two touchdowns. There was, however, a significant drop-off when the second- and third-team offensive linemen entered the scrimmage. "I didn't feel like some of the [second and third team] took advantage of the opportunity to go play today," coach Tim Brewster told the (St. Paul) Pioneer Press.
  • Freshman running back Donnell Kirkwood has put himself in the mix for carries this fall alongside Duane Bennett and DeLeon Eskridge. Kirkwood had 19 carries in Saturday's scrimmage with a long run of 14 yards. Offensive coordinator Jeff Horton praised Kirkwood when we talked a few weeks ago.
  • MarQueis Gray is still getting reps as a reserve quarterback, but it's coming clear his primary role this fall will be at wide receiver, as long as Weber stays healthy. Gray seems to be embracing the change, and his big frame could really help the Gophers after the loss of Eric Decker. "I am pretty sure I can find a hole somewhere to catch the ball and get upfield for Weber when he throws it to me," he told the Star Tribune.
NORTHWESTERN

The Wildcats ended their off-campus training in Kenosha, Wis., with an open scrimmage. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald held out a large group of starters on both sides, so second- and third-teamers got most of the work. Recaps can be found here and here.

Quick hitters
  • Freshman receiver Venric Mark will make an immediate impact this fall, especially for Northwestern's middling return teams. Mark had an excellent scrimmage, recording a 28-yard touchdown catch and breaking off several big returns. Generously listed at 5-8 and 165 pounds, Mark also threw a block that helped classmate Adonis Smith reach the end zone.
  • A battle could be brewing at backup quarterback. As starter Dan Persa watched from the sideline, true freshman Trevor Siemian completed 10 of 13 passes for 112 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Siemian could push redshirt freshman Evan Watkins, who completed only four of seven passes.
  • Freshman defensive end Will Hampton could work his way into the rotation this fall. Hampton recorded a tackle for loss in the scrimmage.
OHIO STATE

Ohio State held its jersey scrimmage Saturday at Ohio Stadium, as the offense prevailed 54-48 after 130-140 plays. The scrimmage was open to the media, and you can find recaps here, here and here.

Quick hitters
  • Quarterback Terrelle Pryor had a so-so day, although he wore a no-contact jersey and couldn't be the running threat he'll be after Sept. 4. Pryor completed only 10 of 24 pass attempts but did fire a 25-yard touchdown strike to Taurian Washington, considered the front-runner for the No. 3 wide receiver spot. He also found tight end Jake Stoneburner for a 25-yard gain and nearly threw an interception in the end zone.
  • Andrew Sweat appears to have a slight edge on Etienne Sabino for the third starting linebacker spot. Sabino entered camp as the favorite to start, but Sweat logged more time with the first-team defense Saturday and recovered a Brandon Saine fumble.
  • Coach Jim Tressel said he hopes to get defensive end Nathan Williams (knee) back by the Sept. 2 opener against Marshall. Meanwhile, several young defensive linemen stood out Saturday. Redshirt freshman Adam Bellamy recorded three sacks and true freshman Johnathan Hankins added one.
WISCONSIN

The Badgers scrimmaged Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium. The session was open to the media, and you can read all about it here and here.
  • Wisconsin's offense moved the ball decently but struggled to finish drives, as Antonio Fenelus picked off a Scott Tolzien pass and safety Aaron Henry broke up a pass in the end zone. It was a theme throughout the scrimmage. There's little doubt Wisconsin can control the clock and keep moving the chains with its balanced attack, but it must execute in the red zone.
  • Freshman running back James White had a good day and could push Zach Brown for the No. 3 spot on the depth chart. White had runs of 29, 26 and 22 yards, the last for a touchdown, in the scrimmage. Starting tailback John Clay, by the way, had 11 carries for 51 yards.
  • Backup quarterback Jon Budmayr had a tough scrimmage, going 0-for-9 passing on his first three series with two near interceptions. He finished 9-for-27 for 107 yards for a touchdown and an interception. Wisconsin really can't lose Tolzien and would get a big boost if Curt Phillips can return from his knee injury early in the season.

Opening camp: Illinois

August, 4, 2010
8/04/10
5:00
PM ET
Schedule: First practice takes place Thursday at Memorial Stadium. First group hits the field at 4 p.m. ET and the second group at 5:30 p.m. ET. Team practices three times in Champaign before moving to Rantoul, Ill., on Aug. 9, for 15 workouts.

What's new: Uh, like, everything. Ron Zook is still the head coach, but he has six new assistants, including coordinators Paul Petrino (offense) and Vic Koenning (defense). Illinois is breaking in new systems on both offense and defense, and redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase takes over at quarterback following the departure of four-year starter Juice Williams. The new-look staff has some familiarity, as Petrino, quarterbacks coach Jeff Brohm and tight ends coach Chip Long all worked together at Louisville during the Cardinals' juggernaut days. Illinois needs a No. 1 wide receiver to emerge after Arrelious Benn's departure to the NFL.

Sidelined: Strong-side offensive tackle Corey Lewis, a projected starter this spring, sustained a torn ACL in spring ball and likely will miss the season. Illinois needs a strong camp from Ryan Palmer as he steps into a featured role.

Key battle: Illinois has two experienced defensive line pieces in Clay Nurse and Corey Liuget, but the other two spots should bring plenty of competition. Glenn Foster had a nice spring and could be the answer at the second defensive tackle spot, while several players, including Michael Buchanan and Nate Palmer, compete at the "bandit" position.

New on the scene: Although veteran Eddie McGee can shift from wide receiver to quarterback if needed, true freshman Chandler Whitmer likely is a play away from the field. Whitmer enrolled early and impressed the coaches with his knowledge this spring. He enters the fall as Scheelhaase's backup. Also keep an eye on safety Trulon Henry, a junior college transfer and Benn's older brother. He enters camp as the backup to Supo Sanni at free safety.

Breaking out: Wide receiver A.J. Jenkins nearly left Illinois in the winter before deciding to stay and turn around his career. Zook and Petrino raved about Jenkins this spring, and he'll likely be Scheelhaase's top target. Running back Mikel LeShoure will carry the load after a very impressive finish to 2009. Cornerback Terry Hawthorne also could have a big year after making an impact as a freshman last fall.

Back in the fold: Illinois really missed Martez Wilson, and the middle linebacker finally gets to hit people again in camp after being fully cleared by doctors. Wilson suffered a herniated disk in his neck in the 2009 opener against Missouri and underwent season-ending surgery. The one-time, can't-miss recruit has one final chance to break out. Cornerback Miami Thomas also returns after tearing his ACL in camp last year.

Quoting: "The players, we didn't execute. People want to jump on the coaches and blame the coaches. The last time I saw coach Zook catch a pass or make a tackle, they were wearing leather helmets. It is on us now. They brought in new coaches, but at the end of the day, we're the ones playing." -- defensive end Clay Nurse
The spring game recap series ends with Illinois, which wrapped up spring ball Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

The defense controlled the first part of the scrimmage before the offense came on strong late behind running backs Mikel LeShoure and Jason Ford, who combined for 228 rushing yards and three touchdowns. LeShoure, who finished the 2009 season on a strong note, finished spring practice the same way, elevating hopes for Illinois' rushing attack this fall.

Not surprisingly, the quarterbacks took center stage but had mediocre to poor results. Nathan Scheelhaase, the clear front-runner for the starting job, completed 11 of 20 passes for 126 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions. Jacob Charest, the only candidate with game experience, really struggled with two picks and just two completions on eight pass attempts. True freshman Chandler Whitmer, an early enrollee who the coaches say is behind both Scheelhaase and Charest, had the best performance, completing 7 of 8 passes for 43 yards and a touchdown for the Blue team. Whitmer also took four sacks.

Illinois likely won't officially name a starter until August, but if Scheelhaase holds onto the top job, he should have some help on offense with the two running backs and wide receiver A.J. Jenkins, who capped a strong spring with six receptions for 95 yards in the spring game.

The Illini defense played without several key pieces -- linebacker Martez Wilson, end Clay Nurse, cornerback Miami Thomas -- but received a strong performance from the line. Tackle Glenn Foster ended a very good spring with nine tackles, including three for loss and two sacks.

Illinois also got production from its new "Bandit" position, an outside linebacker/defensive end hybrid spot. Michael Buchanan, the team's projected starter at the Bandit, recorded nine tackles, four tackles for loss and two sacks, while backup Nate Palmer added two sacks, an interception and a fumble recovery.

Other Illini nuggets:
  • The big negative from Saturday was the knee injury to starting offensive tackle Corey Lewis, who tore his ACL and will undergo surgery. Lewis' status for the 2010 season is unknown, and Illinois will have to fill his spot.
  • Head coach Ron Zook saw growth from linebacker Aaron Gress this spring, and the senior finished strong with seven tackles, one for loss, and an interception in the spring game.
  • Safety Nate Bussey and cornerback Tavon Wilson both recorded interceptions, and linebacker Justin Staples had two tackles for loss, including one sack.
  • Former backup quarterback Eddie McGee is playing wide receiver these days, but he saw some time at his old position Saturday. Illinois introduced the "D.C. package" -- McGee is a Washington D.C. native -- and had McGee take the snap with the quarterback lined up as a receiver. Scheelhaase certainly has the athleticism to excel as a receiver, so this could be a dangerous weapon for Illinois this fall.
  • Ball security will continue to be stressed after Illinois committed seven turnovers (four interceptions, three lost fumbles) in the spring game. Jenkins, return man Terry Hawthorne and Charest all coughed up the ball.
  • Derek Dimke continues to lead the competition at kicker and connected on the only field goal attempt of the spring game, a 44-yarder in the second quarter.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- When it comes to rebuilding projects, the Illinois Fighting Illini have a huge one in front of them.

But it's clear that the attitude has changed around here, thanks mainly to the new assistants that head coach Ron Zook hired during a tumultuous winter. I'll have more on this next week, but new coordinators Paul Petrino and Vic Koenning have increased the level of accountability for a team that has, quite frankly, been one of the nation's biggest underachievers the past two seasons.

I had a chance to speak with players and coaches and watch a portion of practice Wednesday afternoon -- a scrimmage session was closed to media -- and here are some quick thoughts.
  • Zook likely won't officially name a starting quarterback until fall camp, but it's very clear that Nathan Scheelhaase is the guy. Scheelhaase brings excellent athleticism to the position -- Petrino likens him to former Louisville star Stefan LeFors, a player he helped coach -- and is making strides as a passer. Jacob Charest also has done some good things, and while Chandler Whitmer is a bit behind the other two, Zook said the early enrollee has really benefited from going through this spring session.
  • Zook said Illinois' defensive leaders are linemen Clay Nurse and Corey Liuget, Martez Wilson and Ian Thomas at linebacker and cornerback Tavon Wilson, who has had a "superb spring," in the secondary. The head coach also recognized defensive linemen Akeem Spence, Glenn Foster and Daryle Ballew for their play this spring. Linebacker Aaron Gress also has come on strong the last week or so. "A lot of times, those junior college guys, it's that the second year that they turn it on," Zook said. Wilson and Nurse are being held out of contact following surgeries, but both have performed well.
  • The secondary has a few question marks, but Zook said sophomore cornerback Terry Hawthorne, nicknamed "black cat," continues to step up, along with corner Patrick Nixon-Youman. Cornerback Miami Thomas has started doing some individual work as he works his way back from a torn ACL in his left knee. Sophomore Joelil Thrash is seeing time at both safety and corner and has been impressive.
  • Petrino thinks the offensive line can be a strength this fall and recognized tackle Jeff Allen and sophomore Graham Pocic, who moved from guard to center, for their play this spring. "He gives us some size and some strength in there that helps us both in the running game and the passing game," Petrino said of Pocic. "That's been a pleasant surprise."
  • I'll touch on this more next week, but the defense is really getting back to the basics. "The fundamentals were so far out of whack," Koenning said. "Our tackling leaves a lot to be desired, and every day we have a normal practice, we're spending an exorbitant amount of time not on X's and O's. There's so many things we've got to cover, but if you can't tackle, it doesn't really matter."
Here's the second half of my interview with Illinois head coach Ron Zook. For Part I, click here.

Stylistically with these quarterbacks, from what you've been able to see, are they somewhat similar or are there big differences?

Ron Zook: I don't think there are big differences. The one thing I've always said about Jacob Charest is he moves around a lot better than what people think. He's a better athlete than people think. He was a heck of a wrestler in high school, a tough guy. He can drop back and throw it, but he's also got the ability to run around, which is what you think about with Nathan [Scheelhaase] and Chandler [Whitmer]. You get the ball in their hands and let them do the things that they do best.

When you have a quarterback situation like you have, do you look for leadership from those guys or elsewhere, from guys who have played more?

RZ: [The quarterbacks will] have enough pressure on them. Because of the kind of people they are, they're natural leaders anyway. That'll come. I don't think you put the added pressure on them of, 'You've got to be the leaders.' Just like you said, the guys who have been there and done that, the Jason Fords, the Mikel [LeShoures], the Jarred [Faysons], A.J. Jenkins, those are the guys, the offensive linemen. That's what's exciting about the offense, we've got a lot of guys back, a lot of guys that can make plays.

Jarred was a guy who generated a lot of excitement headed into last season. Do you look at him as a guy who can take care of that receiving corps?

RZ: He has so far, and Eddie McGee, he's a leader around here, too. He's been a very vocal guy out there in the 6 a.m.'s. A.J. Jenkins is a completely different guy. He's not the same person he was last year. He's playing with an unbelievable amount of confidence and emotion and running around out there. So all of those guys are going to bring the leadership you want.

On the defensive side, how is Martez Wilson doing? I know it was a big loss when he went down last year.


RZ: It was, because he was the bell cow, and he was a guy that everybody kind of leaned on. Now Ian Thomas has stepped it up, Nate Bussey, Corey Liuget has a lot of playing time. Clay Nurse is out there, he had a shoulder operation and he's doing everything but the doctor's won't let him go full speed. He seems like he's full speed to me. Martez is doing everything. Obviously, when we get into spring ball, he probably won't scrimmage, but the leadership he had before he got hurt is right there again. There's no trade-off.

Is anyone out for all of spring ball? Who will be limited?

RZ: I don't think anyone will miss spring. Martez will be limited in the amount of contact, as will Clay Nurse. Miami Thomas will be back. He should be OK. But in terms of missing spring, right now we have everybody.

Miami was having a really good preseason last year before he got hurt. Is he a guy you're looking for to step up in the secondary?

RZ: I want Miami just to be able to go have a chance. This poor guy has had every joint operated on -- both shoulders, both knees -- and it's always been a freak thing. I would just like for him to be able to do what he loves to do. I'm not going to put any pressure on him. I know he can play. He's just got to get healthy and go out and do it.

Anyone else in the secondary that you're excited to see this spring?

RZ: Tavon Wilson has done an exceptional job, and Terry Hawthorne as well. Both of those guys have been all we felt like they could be. And then Supo Sanni, he's ready to take the next step as well.

Ron, do you take this as an us-against-the-world mentality this year? I know the players weren't satisfied last year, you weren't satisfied. Is there something to prove for everyone?

RZ: In football, there's always something to prove. They know this: The only way you're going to get respect is you've got to go do it. From that standpoint, I don't think there's any question we have a lot to prove. They want to go out and show people that they're better than the result of last year. And as a coaching staff, you always want to prove that you're better than what your previous year was.

Is it important to keep a positive environment this spring? You mentioned the negative recruiting that went on and some of the negativity around the program? Is it important to keep things as upbeat as you can?

RZ: Our guys have never been negative. That hasn't been the issue. The positive attitude we've got going right now is as good as it's ever been around here. As I said, we've got to go do it. We've got to prove that we can do it. We've got a lot of young guys, but we've also got a lot of guys with experience. I like the feel of this team right now. I like how they're working, I like the attitude, and I like how they're competing.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

As feared, Illinois sophomore cornerback Miami Thomas tore the ACL in his knee and will miss the 2009 season, ESPN's Joe Schad reports. 

This is a tough break for Thomas, who missed most of last season after suffering somewhat of a freak injury on special teams when he tore a knee ligament against Eastern Illinois. He was in the mix for a starting job with Tavon Wilson and Dere Hicks and seemed to be having a very good camp before the injury. 

Big Ten lunch links

August, 20, 2009
8/20/09
12:00
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Study up. These will be on the test. 

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

It happens every August on cue. As soon as teams start going through full-pads practices, injuries begin to pile up.

Here are a few of note:

  • Illinois cornerback Miami Thomas suffered a left knee injury during Tuesday's practice and had to be carted off the field. Thomas is in the mix for a starting spot this fall and seemed to be having a strong camp. The self-assured sophomore, who missed most of last season with a knee injury, told me last week he already had five interceptions in camp and was going for 10.
  • A source tells The Cleveland Plain Dealer that Ohio State starting linebacker Austin Spitler strained his calf Tuesday and will be out for a few weeks, possibly more. The Buckeyes are already down a linebacker as Tyler Moeller will miss the season with a head injury, and their depth will be tested if Spitler misses an extended period of time.
  • Wisconsin seems to have caught a break as left tackle Gabe Carimi's knee injury looks minor, but the Badgers are still without starting offensive linemen John Moffitt and Bill Nagy. Moffitt, who has a strained pectoral muscle, told me he's close to returning to practice and worked with a blocking sled at Tuesday's workout. Nagy has battled hand and heel injuries, but head coach Bret Bielema expects him back by the middle of next week, at the latest.   

Illinois practice observations

August, 11, 2009
8/11/09
7:50
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

RANTOUL, Ill. -- We saw a little bit of everything during Illinois' practice Tuesday afternoon.

There was sunshine, and there was rain with drops the size of quarters (not joking). There was an appearance by Chicago Bears general manager Jerry Angelo. And I saw Juice Williams' little daughter, LaChez, steering a golf cart with the help of her mother. Very cute and slightly scary.

Oh, yeah, and there were a ton of long passes thrown.

Before I head back to Chicago, a few observations from Illinois' practice:

  • As I expected, this wide receiving corps is absolutely stacked. I don't see another group in the Big Ten that comes close in terms of talent and especially depth. Arrelious Benn made his share of plays and so did Jarred Fayson, but I was most impressed by the number of guys making tough catches. Big man Jeff Cumberland caught several downfield bombs, and Chris James, Cordale Scott, Terry Hawthorne and Chris Duvalt all made nice grabs.
  • It wasn't all good for the passing attack, as the defensive backs made their presence known. Safety Bo Flowers picked off Williams and safety Garrett Edwards squeezed an Eddie McGee pass. Cornerback Miami Thomas, who doesn't lack confidence, had two picks, bringing his camp total to five. Thomas told me he expects to have 10 picks by the end of camp.
  • Illinois is lining up with two tight ends a lot more this summer than last year. Senior Michael Hoomanawanui is the starter, but Hubie Graham and Zach Becker are both on the field for a lot of snaps.
  • Sophomore running back Jason Ford took most of the reps with the first-team offense, though senior Daniel Dufrene and sophomore Mikel LeShoure are both in the mix for the top job. Ford picked up a huge gain on a screen pass from McGee, thanks to a nice block from Fayson. He also was dropped for a loss by safety Supo Sanni.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Illinois did a lot of learning last fall, even if it didn't do a lot of winning.

"I learned an awful lot last year," head coach Ron Zook said Tuesday morning. "Our coaches learned an awful lot last year. More importantly, our players learned an awful lot last year."

Zook hopes the learning experience pays off for the Fighting Illini in spring practice, which opens this afternoon in Champaign. The team comes off an extremely disappointing 5-7 season, one that began with a top-20 ranking and tons of national buzz following a run to the Rose Bowl.

Illinois returns the Big Ten's most experienced quarterback (Juice Williams), its most NFL-ready wide receiver (Arrelious Benn) and talented players at other spots, but Zook doesn't take much for granted after last season, where the team won consecutive games only once. Team chemistry wasn't a strong suit for Illinois in 2008, but Zook already has seen major progress in that department.

"This is a team," he said. "These guys are all excited about the University of Illinois football program. ... We all learned an awful lot last year. We got away from what's important. We started worrying about winning instead of letting the wins and losses take care of themselves.

"They're excited about being type of team they know they can be."

Here are some other nuggets from Zook's pre-spring news conference.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Illinois safety Donsay Hardeman and cornerback Miami Thomas will miss spring practice while recovering from surgeries, head coach Ron Zook said Tuesday at his post-mortem news conference.

Hardeman, who worked his way into a starting role, will undergo surgery Friday to repair a disc in his neck. The junior first experienced problems with the disc Nov. 1 against Iowa, played two more games and then sat out last Saturday's regular-season finale against Northwestern.

Hardeman tied for sixth on the team in tackles (44) and recorded an interception and a forced fumble.

Cornerback Miami Thomas, who redshirted the season because of a knee injury, will have shoulder surgery in the coming weeks.

Zook also reiterated his support for junior quarterback Juice Williams. Though Williams led Big Ten starters with 16 interceptions this fall, Zook said eight were not his fault. Williams' primary backup, Eddie McGee, will continue to see some action at wide receiver in 2009.

"We underachieved," Zook said of a disappointing 5-7 season. "That may be the worst thing you can say to a coach. Maybe we overachieved last year. We got a few breaks last year that we didn't get this year. But there's no question in my mind we'll get there."

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

This will be the first of three parts as I break down the Big Ten defensive backs. Check back for rankings of safeties and cornerbacks. Despite losing several standout cornerbacks (Justin King, Jack Ikegwuonu, Terrell Vinson), the league returns a bunch of top-end players and teams have filled in the gaps nicely. 

Here's the rundown:

1. Ohio State -- All four starters are back, led by Thorpe Award frontrunner Malcolm Jenkins, who likely would have been a first- or second-round draft pick had he left school after last season. Fellow cornerback Donald Washington is suspended for the first two games but should make a significant impact when he returns. Ohio State would like more interceptions from safeties Anderson Russell and Kurt Coleman, who had none last year but still combined to break up nine passes.

2. Penn State -- King's ability to shut down an opponent's top receiver will be missed, but Penn State still has good depth at cornerback with emerging junior A.J. Wallace, returning starter Lydell Sargeant and Tony Davis, who started every game at corner in 2006 before moving to safety during an injury-plagued junior season. Anthony Scirrotto is arguably the top playmaking safety in the conference with 10 career interceptions.

3. Michigan -- The Wolverines might feature the league's best cornerback tandem in senior Morgan Trent and sophomore Donovan Warren, who combined for 93 tackles and 13 pass breakups last season. They need some help at safety after the loss of all-conference selection Jamar Adams, but Stevie Brown played well as a reserve last year and Brandon Harrison has experience and versatility.

4. Michigan State -- Safety Otis Wiley backslid a bit last year but should recapture the form of 2006, when he ranked seventh in the Big Ten in tackles and had 10 pass breakups. The Spartans ranked fourth in the league in pass defense last year and have good depth at cornerback behind veteran Kendell Davis-Clark.

5. Illinois -- Vontae Davis will push Jenkins for the title of Big Ten's best cornerback. He ranked sixth in the league in both interceptions and pass breakups last year. Dere Hicks and Miami Thomas provide depth at the other corner spot, but Illinois must replace safeties Kevin Mitchell and Justin Harrison, who combined for 155 tackles, six interceptions and 24 pass breakups last season. If guys like Travon Bellamy, Nate Bussey and Bo Flowers perform, this group will move up the list. 

6. Iowa -- There's hope here despite the losses of starting cornerbacks Charles Godfrey and Adam Shada, both honorable mention All-Big Ten selections last season. Senior Bradley Fletcher received ample experience the last two years, but the Hawkeyes would like another solid corner or two to emerge. Both starting safeties return to brace the unit. 

7. Wisconsin -- Shane Carter is a budding star at safety after leading the league with seven interceptions last season, but much like other areas on the Badgers' depth chart, health has been a bugaboo. If cornerbacks Allen Langford and Aaron Henry bounce back from ACL injuries, the unit should be strong. If not, there will be plenty of pressure on young defensive backs like Mario Goins and Jay Valai.

8. Purdue -- The Boilermakers lost their best cover man (Vinson) from a unit that ranked seventh in the league against the pass last season. To avoid a drop off, they need better play from Royce Adams and continued production from David Pender. If safety Torri Williams can finally stay healthy after a rash of ailments, Purdue's secondary should be stable. 

9. Northwestern -- This unit no longer has any excuse to be a liability. Safety Brendan Smith returns from a shoulder injury to provide the playmaking punch the Wildcats sorely lacked last season. Smith and Brad Phillips form an experienced tandem at safety, while junior cornerback Sherrick McManis should benefit from an inconsistent first season as the starter. If Justan Vaughn or a redshirt freshman (Jordan Mabin, Michael Bolden) solidify the other corner spot, Northwestern should be respectable. 

10. Indiana --  Leading tackler Austin Thomas returns at strong safety, but cornerback is the biggest question on the team. The Hoosiers lost both starting corners, including all-conference performer Tracy Porter, who ranked second in the league with six interceptions. Six players are in the mix for the two jobs, including senior Chris Phillips. If the cornerback spot is stabilized, Indiana should leapfrog several teams. 

11. Minnesota -- The personnel is there for a turnaround, but it's tough to rank the Gophers much higher without seeing junior-college transfers Tramaine Brock, Trae Simmons and Simoni Lawrence. If those players perform like coach Tim Brewster thinks they will, Minnesota will be much improved. Brock brings a much-needed edge to the back four. But the Gophers can't rely much on returning players after last season's disaster.  

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