Big Ten: Michael Mauti

Two PSU assistant coaches leave program

December, 3, 2013
12/03/13
11:00
PM ET
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Longtime linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden and quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher are no longer with the Penn State football program, according to the school.

The university's official statement said both coaches "have resigned to pursue other opportunities." It wasn't immediately clear what those other opportunities were.

Neither Fisher nor Vanderlinden returned calls from ESPN.com seeking comment.

"I've greatly enjoyed my 13 years at Penn State and all the student-athletes I had an opportunity to work with," Vanderlinden said in a news release. "I wish Coach [Bill] O'Brien and Penn State nothing but the best in the future."

O'Brien will begin a job search immediately and said he will not comment until the positions are filled. Potential candidates are not yet known.

The assistants' departures come just three days after the Nittany Lions clinched their second winning season during unprecedented sanctions. Penn State upset then-No. 15 Wisconsin on Saturday, the first time PSU defeated a top-15 team on the road since 2008, to finish the season at 7-5.

Vanderlinden's departure was considered especially surprising, given his track record. He's been a part of the staff since 2001 and oversaw a program widely known as Linebacker U. He coached several All-Americans such as Michael Mauti, Dan Connor and Paul Posluszny -- in addition to NFL stars NaVorro Bowman and Sean Lee.

He also played an important role in the commitments of at least a half-dozen pledges for the 2014 class, including four-star linebacker Troy Reeder (Wilmington, Del./Salesianum).

"At this point it does not affect my decision," Reeder said earlier in the afternoon. "Coach [Bill] O'Brien and [John] Butler will be coming down to see me today and are going to explain everything in more detail."

Vanderlinden has coached since 1978 and served as Northwestern's defensive coordinator from 1992 to 1996 -- coaching current Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald -- and then coached at Maryland from 1997 to 2000 before landing in Happy Valley.

Fisher was one of O'Brien's first hires at Penn State and helped spring former walk-on Matt McGloin to a school-record 3,266 passing yards in 2012. Fisher arrived at the school after spending one season at Miami (Ohio), where he acted as the quarterbacks coach/passing game coordinator. Before that, he was an assistant at Vanderbilt for nine seasons.

"I want to thank Penn State and Coach O’Brien for the opportunity to be a part of the program the past two seasons,” Fisher said in the news release. “It was a great experience and I am very proud of what we accomplished. Now I'm looking forward to the next chapter and making a positive impact on the next group of players I have the privilege of working with."

Tom VanHaaren contributed to this report

O'Brien, Della Valle defend coordinator

October, 29, 2013
10/29/13
5:30
PM ET
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Bill O'Brien remained calm and poised for much of Tuesday afternoon, but Penn State's head coach showed some fire when asked about the recent criticism of defensive coordinator John Butler.

The first-year coordinator took some heat over popular Penn State fan boards and on social media after PSU's 63-14 loss to Ohio State. It was the defense's worst performance since 1899, and it was the third straight game the Nittany Lions surrendered 40 or more points.

[+] EnlargeJohn Butler
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsDefensive coordinator John Butler has come under fire after the 63-14 loss at Penn State.
"John Butler is our defensive coordinator, works his tail off. The kids respect him. He's doing a hell of a job," O'Brien said, his voice rising. "I don't care what the scoreboard says or what the yardage says. This guy is our defensive coordinator. He's my defensive coordinator. I'm proud to coach with him.

"If anybody should take heat, it's Bill O'Brien -- not John Butler. I don't know where that's coming from but, hopefully, that will get squelched. That's a bunch of crap that he's taking heat."

About 10 minutes after O'Brien stepped off the dais, safety Jesse Della Valle took his place. The first question centered around Butler, and Della Valle echoed his head coach's sentiment.

"Coach Butler is a guy that's always working with us as players to develop us every single week, every single day," Della Valle said. "He's extremely passionate about what he does and his profession. And I think I speak for every player on our team when I say everyone has a lot of respect for him and really respects the work he does for our team."

Butler has been forced to operate a defense this season that's without former All-Big Ten talents Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges and Jordan Hill. Butler wasn't made available to the media Saturday and isn't scheduled to speak this week, but O'Brien said they plan to simplify the defense in preparation for Illinois.

There have been quite a few changes on defense since last season. Last year's starting safety, Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, is now at linebacker. And Trevor Williams, a wideout last season, has started at cornerback -- although O'Brien said that Adrian Amos will reclaim his old CB position instead of playing safety.

"We have a lot of good players on both sides of the ball, but I think we just need to let them go play," O'Brien said. "That's what I talked to the staff about on Sunday -- just let them go play."

Christian Hackenberg OK: The true freshman missed most of Saturday's second half with a shoulder injury, but O'Brien said he was a full participant in Monday's practice.

"He's good to go, as we sit here today," O'Brien said.

Hackenberg didn't need any extra braces on Monday. PSU's head coach intimated he was just fine and will start again Saturday.

Starting tailback: Bill Belton started on Saturday night, and O'Brien said the shifty runner is now the team's starting running back over Zach Zwinak.

"He's a much improved player, he really is," O'Brien said. "He's more patient in the running game. I think he understands how to watch film better. I think he's a better teammate."

The move came on the heels of Zwinak's renewed fumbling issues. Zwinak has fumbled eight times since last season, including twice in the last two games, on just 11 carries.

"If there's one guy making mistakes, obviously, the other two guys are going to play more," O'Brien added. "Right now, Zach has got a little bit of a fumble issue. I do think it's a little bit mental. I talked to him for a long time yesterday."

Penn State arrives at critical juncture

October, 11, 2013
10/11/13
3:30
PM ET
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The Nittany Lions have found themselves at a crossroads early on this season.

Expectations last year were low. Students walked around campus with "We Still Are ..." plastered on their T-shirts and in their minds. The team, held together by shoestrings and their dimple-chinned coach, came out of nowhere to capture the admiration of Big Ten coaches and the respect of many who sat in front of their couches on Saturday afternoons and watched the Nittany Lions pummel teams that many thought they'd get pounded by.

[+] EnlargeBill O'Brien
Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times via Getty ImagesBill O'Brien has seen more growing pains with his young team this season.
That's changed this season. Eight to 10 wins were expected. Christian Hackenberg was heralded as a savior before he moved in to a dorm. The group of tight ends smiled and referred to themselves as "TEU." The sanctions were wrongly thought to be behind them. And PSU has come out wheezing like a short-distance runner asked to run a marathon.

The defense, without Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti, isn't the same. The tremendous story of a determined Matt McGloin has given way to a talented true freshman trying to find his footing. The lack of scholarships, whether or not O'Brien wants to keep discussing them, has impacted the team.

The narrative has clearly shifted. And it sure seems as if O'Brien and the rest of these Lions are aware of that.

Last October, on the Tuesday before the Ohio State game, O'Brien took the dais like he has every week and discussed the upcoming opponent. He was asked about the importance of the home game, just as he's always been. And this was his response on Oct. 27, 2012: "I think every game we play is a very important game here at Penn State. I would say that for every team. ... And this year we only get the chance to lay it on the line 12 times; 12 Saturdays. So every game for us is a very, very big game."

Contrast that with what a feisty O'Brien said on Tuesday before this weekend's contest against Michigan. A reporter asked if he needed to emphasize to this team not to buy into the hype, that this is just another game.

"No," O'Brien said. "We tell them, 'Look, this is an exciting opportunity. Penn State-Michigan. ESPN. 5 o'clock. 108,000 [fans]. You got Nittanyville going crazy over there.'

"It'd be crazy to think this is just another game."'

It would be crazy. This isn't just another game because this isn't last season. Fans' memories are shorter than coaching tenures nowadays and some of same ones who wait around at Damon's every Thursday in hopes for O'Brien's autograph after his radio show have logged onto message boards and spit venom about how Joe Paterno never would've lost to Indiana. And how defensive coordinator John Butler should be fired.

Penn State is 3-2 right now. That has to be stated because, by the looks of the record alone, it seems as if it might be premature to inch closer to the proverbial panic button. Well, it's not.

Stephen Obeng-Agyapong said after the UCF loss that the defense's performance was just a one-time mistake, a bad day. It wouldn't happen again. Then Indiana happened. And Eugene Lewis said on Twitter, "We going to be better promise that."

You can only believe so many times that it's going to get better. And that's why Saturday's contest against Michigan is paramount to the Nittany Lions. Win; and all the concern, all the message-board fodder, all the doubt -- that can be looked back upon and labeled an overreaction. Lose, and those generalizations and critiques seem about right, especially with a tougher Ohio State team up next.

O'Brien likes to say he's not a genie. He also said Tuesday he's no psychologist or psychiatrist. Well, he's no magician either. Different reporters, fans and analysts have their own ideas about why Penn State has struggled. It's the lack of leadership or the lack of talent or maybe a play-calling problem. Maybe it's a combination of the three.

But, whatever the exact issues are, the only panacea is winning. And O'Brien isn't the only one who knows that.

"Penn State vs. Michigan has always been a big-time game," safety Malcolm Willis said. "And I'd be lying to you to tell you it wasn't."
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Mike Hull didn't have any expectations when he strolled into his linebacker coach's office on a warm spring day, but he would leave with words that played on his mind for months.

[+] EnlargeHull
Rich Barnes/USA TODAY SportsMike Hull hopes his hard work and offseason dedication pays off this fall.
The redshirt junior, whose father and uncle both played for Penn State, would routinely reflect on past greats at Linebacker U every time he'd step inside his position coach's workplace. It was difficult not to. Ron Vanderlinden's office was littered with photos and blue-and-white jerseys of the past greats he tutored -- NFL players such as Sean Lee, Paul Posluszny and Michael Mauti.

Vanderlinden's decorating spoke louder than any résumé or award. Hull knew that. So, about a week before finals, when the seasoned coached leaned in and reflected on the past greats himself, Hull listened intently. And the linebacker coach shared a tidbit that Hull said, deep down, he already knew, but Vanderlinden forced it to sink in: You're next. Your jersey or photo will be in this office soon enough.

"It just hit me then," Hull told ESPN. "I've been playing since my redshirt freshman year, but I was never really 'the guy.' And he just made it clear it's my time to step up."

That feeling, that understanding, never left last season's No. 4 linebacker. After the graduation of PSU's two Butkus Award semifinalists in Mauti and Gerald Hodges, he's "the guy" now -- and he'll be depended on more than ever these next two seasons with a corps short on experience and shorter on depth.

Hull isn't a big talker. He won't regale the media with stories about big hits and future goals. He'll wear a slight smile and speak mostly in short, punctuated sentences. To Hull, actions speak louder than words. So he showed over the summer what those words from Vanderlinden meant.

After intense, two to two-and-a-half hour workouts, players would happily head back to their dorms or apartments. Their legs would ache, pools of sweat would slide down their backs, and they didn't feel much like doing anything except, fellow linebacker Glenn Carson said, maybe take a nap. "Usually, you just want to go home," Carson added.

But Hull would linger after those workouts and head right back to the field. He'd bend over the football sled and pile on five or six plates -- about 300 pounds -- before dragging it across the gridiron. Thirty yards, then 25 yards, then 20 yards to work on his burst. He'd do that for 15-30 minutes.

His teammates would furrow their brows and contort their faces upon seeing Hull stack the sled up with twice as much weight as they were used to. Hull got a kick out of it all.

"They'd look at me like I was a little bit crazy," Hull said with a laugh. "That's what it takes if you want to be good, I guess."

Added coach Bill O'Brien: "Yeah, Mike Hull is one of the best football players on our team. ... He's a guy that means a lot to this football team."

Pick a randon player from Penn State's roster and ask him who had the best offseason. Chances are good that he'll say Hull. The outside linebacker, along with offensive guard John Urschel, received the most nods in a random sampling of eight players. Urschel said Hull was poised for a breakout season, Carson praised his strength, and Malcolm Willis mentioned Hull as a "guy who works his butt off."

It's not difficult to see why. Former defensive coordinator Tom Bradley once tried him out at safety after he ran a laser-timed 4.6, and Hull out-lifted the likes of DT DaQuan Jones on the bench-press last year at 405 pounds. "Strength" and "speed" have become buzzwords in the college football lexicon, but Hull remains unique. After all, there aren't many linebackers who run like safeties and bench like defensive tackles.

"Mike Hull has made some big strides, and I think he's ready to be a big-time player in this conference," Urschel said. "I mean, you guys have seen some big things from him, and we know he's a very, very talented player. And I think you're going to see a breakout year from him."

Hull wouldn't say exactly what his expectations were for this season, nor would he list his goals. Maybe he doesn't have a certain number of turnovers he wants to force or triple-digit tackles he wants to make.

The Penn State linebacker kept it simple when asked, then, why he worked so hard and why those words from Vanderlinden stuck with him so much.

"I just don't want to accept failure," he said. "I don't want to leave anything out on the field."

Penn State season preview

August, 9, 2013
8/09/13
10:30
AM ET
Can the Nittany Lions build off last season and play the role of BCS spoiler? Let's take a closer look at this 2013 Penn State team:

PENN STATE NITTANY LIONS

Coach: Bill O'Brien (8-4 overall, 8-4 at Penn State)

2012 record: 8-4 (6-2 Big Ten)

Key losses: QB Matt McGloin, C Matt Stankiewitch, DT Jordan Hill, LB Michael Mauti, LB Gerald Hodges, CB Stephon Morris

[+] EnlargeAdrian Amos
Keith Srakocic/AP PhotoKeep an eye out for rising star Adrian Amos, who will play more at safety this season for PSU.
Key returnees: RB Zach Zwinak, WR Allen Robinson, G John Urschel, DE Deion Barnes, DT DaQuan Jones, LB Mike Hull, DB Adrian Amos

Newcomer to watch: QB Christian Hackenberg. He was the top-rated quarterback in the 2013 class, and ESPN ranked him as the 15th-best high school prospect in the nation.

Biggest games in 2013: vs. Michigan (Oct. 12), at Ohio State (Oct. 26), vs. Nebraska (Nov. 23), at Wisconsin (Nov. 30)

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: O'Brien turned this passing offense around last season with an up-tempo style and an efficient McGloin, who tossed 24 touchdowns to five interceptions. But he'll have to start a first-year QB this season, as none of PSU's five signal-callers -- three walk-ons, two on scholarship -- were on the roster last season.

The race is between Hackenberg and Tyler Ferguson, a junior college player who missed about a month of voluntary workouts. O'Brien plans to name a starter about midway through camp. Whoever it is, he will have to learn quickly for the Nittany Lions to repeat the success of last season.

Forecast: Penn State overcame some huge question marks last year and went on to have a surprisingly successful season, but it's not going to get any easier in 2013.

The defensive front seven is short on depth and bigger on inexperience. Nyeem Wartman, a redshirt freshman, will take over for a Butkus semifinalist at linebacker. The starting DT opposite Jones -- projected to be Kyle Baublitz -- compiled just three stops last season and weighs in at just 281 pounds. A single injury at either spot would be devastating for the Nittany Lions.

On the bright side, there are clearly some strong leaders who could make up for some early missteps. Barnes was last year's Big Ten Freshman of the Year, and he's already one of the league's most feared pass-rushers. Hull is poised for a breakout season, and teammates recently called his offseason improvement the most impressive.

But out of all the defensive stars, Amos might surprise fans the most. He moved from cornerback to his natural position at safety in the offseason, and last year's 50th-ranked pass defense should be better this time around.

On offense, just about every unit has improved, with one big exception at quarterback. It'll be difficult for any newcomer to match McGloin's performance, but there's a strong supporting cast. Robinson is the top wideout in the Big Ten, Zwinak reached the 1,000-yard plateau last season, and the tight ends will play as large a role in this offense as any other team in the country.

In short, like last year, PSU is a bit of a wild card. If it receives strong efforts from its quarterback and the front seven, it should surpass last year's record. If it doesn't, it might be fortunate to get to seven wins.
Last summer, Penn State's defensive backs used outside criticism for motivation.

The Lions' secondary had to replace all four starters and Malcolm Willis and Stephon Morris reminded everyone of the gloomy forecast many had for the back four. "We're supposedly the worst unit on the team," Willis told his teammates after practices. "Everybody is doubting us, everybody is doubting our ability."

There are fewer doubts heading into the 2013 season. In fact, the secondary could be branded a potential strength for a defense that loses All-Big Ten performers up front (DT Jordan Hill) and at linebacker (Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges).

Penn State returns both starters at safety from 2012 in Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, as well as Adrian Amos, who started at cornerback last fall but moved to safety in the spring and is listed as a starter on the team's latest depth chart. The safety group also includes Ryan Keiser, a reserve in 2012 who head coach Bill O'Brien labels a potential unit leader this season.

"We feel like we have better depth there than we had last year, and we've got a good amount of returning experience," O'Brien recently told ESPN.com. "And they're very well coached. That position has to be very well coached."

O'Brien credits defensive coordinator John Butler, the team's secondary coach in 2012, for pushing the right buttons with the personnel in the back four. This spring, the coaches moved Trevor Williams and Malik Golden from wide receiver to cornerback and safety, respectively. Williams emerged from the spring as a starter.

The Lions are undoubtedly younger at cornerback than at safety -- all players listed on the summer two-deep are freshmen or sophomores -- but they have flexibility with Amos, who had 44 tackles, two interceptions and three pass breakups last season.

"He's got to be ready to play a lot of different roles for us," O'Brien said. "He's a very valuable member of our team."
Now that spring practice is over, we're examining the most indispensable players on each Big Ten team for the 2013 season.

By indispensable, we don't necessarily mean best. We mean the players who would be hardest to replace between now and the start of the season if they got hurt or suspended or sent on a goodwill mission to North Korea. That could be because of their value to the team, or because of a lack of depth at their position.

We'll pick two players from each team, usually offense and defense, but not always. Up next: the Penn State Nittany Lions.

Allen Robinson, WR, Jr.

The biggest reason not to panic about Penn State's quarterback situation is the supporting cast that will surround unproven options Tyler Ferguson or Christian Hackenberg. Penn State has excellent depth at tight end and solid depth at running back, but there are question marks at receiver behind Robinson, who won the Big Ten's Richter-Howard Receiver of the Year award last season. Robinson emerged as the league's most dynamic and dependable pass-catching option as a sophomore, recording 77 receptions for 1,013 yards and 11 touchdowns. He had five or more receptions in 10 of 12 games and nine or more receptions in four contests. Robinson formed tremendous chemistry with Matt McGloin, especially in the red zone, and Penn State's new starting quarterback undoubtedly will be helped when No. 8 is on the field. Although the Lions have some other potentially good options at receiver, Robinson is proven and would be missed if he isn't out there.

Mike Hull, LB, Jr.

It's rare when a player who didn't start in 2012 earns the "most indispensable" table, but Penn State fans won't be surprised to see Hull's name here. He essentially served as the Lions' fourth starting linebacker in 2012, recording 58 tackles, four sacks, two fumble recoveries, an interception and a blocked kick. Hull stood out on special teams and showed his natural playmaking ability throughout the season. Not only does he move into a featured role this fall, but he does so at a position where Penn State lacks depth after losing All-Big Ten selections Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges. Although returning starter Glenn Carson is back, and hopes are high for Nyeem Wartman, Penn State needs big things from Hull to solidify the middle of the defense. Hull could be an All-Big Ten-caliber player this season, and if Penn State loses him, the defense could take a step back.

More indispensable:

Michigan
Wisconsin
Minnesota
Nebraska
Indiana
Michigan State
Ohio State
Iowa

Big Ten lunch links

April, 30, 2013
4/30/13
12:00
PM ET
Spring, is that really you? Nah, just teasin'.
Travis FrederickMike McGinnis/Getty ImagesAs the 31st pick, Travis Frederick was the first Big Ten player to be drafted.
The gap between the Big Ten and the SEC not only is widening on the field, but on the NFL draft boards.

While the SEC produced a record 63 picks in the 2013 NFL draft -- eight more than any conference in any draft in the modern era and 32 more than the next-best conference (ACC) in this year's draft -- the Big Ten endured a mostly forgettable three days at New York's Radio City Music Hall. Before going any further, this post isn't meant to knock the Big Ten players who heard their names called Thursday, Friday and Saturday. They worked years for this moment and deserve to celebrate their accomplishments. Congrats to all.

But for the Big Ten as a whole, this draft was a total dud. Was it the league's worst draft ever? If it isn't, it's certainly in the conversation.

The Big Ten produced only 22 draft picks, its lowest total since 1994, when it had 21 (and 11 teams, not 12). In 1994, the Big Ten had the No. 1 overall pick (Ohio State DT Dan Wilkinson), four first-round selections and eight selections in the first three rounds.

You have to wonder how much the Big Ten's damaged national reputation is impacting its draft hopefuls. The SEC's rise has made that conference the first place NFL general managers and player personnel directors look for talent. Although Big Ten players might be comparable to their SEC counterparts in many ways, their competition level might be looked at as a drawback in the final evaluations.

This year, the Big Ten tied with the Big 12 for fourth among leagues in producing picks, but the Big Ten produced fewer selections in the first three rounds (7) than any of the power conferences. Last year, the Big Ten finished with 41 draft picks, just one behind the SEC for the top spot.

Other items of note (tip of the cap to ESPN Stats & Information and the Plain Dealer's Doug Lesmerises for several of these):

  • [+] EnlargeLe'Veon Bell
    Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesMichigan State's Le'Veon Bell was the second running back taken in the draft.
    Although the Big Ten's national reputation has been an issue for some time, it didn't dramatically impact the draft until this year. The Big Ten has produced at least 27 draft picks every year since the 21-player output in 1994.
  • The Big Ten's four biggest brand-name programs -- Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Nebraska -- combined to produce just two picks in the first three rounds (Ohio State DT Johnathan Hankins and Penn State DT Jordan Hill).
  • Nebraska endured its longest drought without a selection since 1970, as running back Rex Burkhead waited until the sixth round to hear Cincinnati call his name with the 190th overall pick. The Huskers didn't have a selection in the first four rounds for the third time in the past six seasons. With just two draftees -- Burkhead and safety Daimion Stafford, who went in the seventh round -- Nebraska had its weakest output since 1969.
  • Michigan went without a draftee in the first four rounds for the first time since 1968 and without one in the first three rounds for just the fifth time since 1970 (1976, 1989, 2006 and 2009 were the others). The Wolverines have had just five players drafted in the past two seasons.
  • Ohio State had just three players -- Hankins, defensive lineman John Simon and offensive tackle Reid Fragel -- drafted from a team that went 12-0 in 2012. Fragel's selection in the seventh round helped Ohio State avoid its smallest draft class since 1968.
  • An Illinois team that went 2-10 last season and 0-8 in Big Ten play led the league with four players drafted. It continues a mystifying trend for the Illini, who have had four players selected in each of the past four NFL drafts, even though the team has endured losing seasons in three of the past five years. Illinois has produced 10 players selected in the first three rounds since 2010, the most of any Big Ten team.
  • As expected, three Big Ten teams -- Northwestern, Minnesota and Indiana -- had no players drafted. Northwestern went 10-3 last season.

Perhaps the best draft news for the Big Ten is that future member Rutgers had seven players selected, tied for the sixth highest total.

(Read full post)

Big Ten Friday mailblog

April, 26, 2013
4/26/13
4:30
PM ET
Happy draft weekend to you. We'll have a full Big Ten recap on Monday.

Dan from Dallas writes: Hi, Adam. A couple of years ago, you referenced a very good article about demographics and college football fan bases. The basic argument in that article was that the size of fan bases (interpreted as approximate market share) was very important in conference realignment. It also was important for determining long-term balance between divisions. But by this measure, the expected B1G divisions will be vastly unequal. Using the numbers from that article, the West division will have some 7 million fans, while the East division will have almost 12 million fans. To me, this seems like a major problem when it comes to programs in the West division seeking to gain additional exposure. Am I wrong in thinking that the long-term consequences of this inequality could be similar to what happened with Nebraska in the Big XII North?

Adam Rittenberg: Dan, demographics is a great topic to discuss. It's why I was so adamant the first time around that the Big Ten should split the four major brands -- Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Nebraska -- into two divisions. There's definitely potential in the proposed divisions for the West to be forgotten or pushed aside. In seasons where Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State are all good, the national and regional spotlight will be on the East. That division will get more exposure, period. But you still have Nebraska and Wisconsin in the West, along with a Northwestern program that is making steady progress and an Iowa program that has been in the national spotlight from time to time. Nebraska is a national brand, and Wisconsin has been a better program than Penn State or Michigan State in the past 20 years. It's up to Nebraska and Wisconsin -- and Iowa and Northwestern and the rest -- to avoid a Big 12 North situation. But the potential is there. The Big Ten went competitive balance/branding in its first alignment. This time, it's all about geography, which has its pluses (rivalries, fan-friendly trips) and minuses (brand inequity).




Christopher from Middleton, Wis., writes: If Tanner McEvoy is not starting for the Badgers as QB he could be a great receiver opposite Abby. Check out his high school you tube video's and you will see he can run and catch.

Adam Rittenberg: Christopher, you're not the first Wisconsin fan to bring up the possibility of McEvoy at receiver. He's obviously familiar with the position after playing it for most of his high school career. I can see the move happening, too, but maybe not until midway through the season. Remember, he came to Wisconsin to play quarterback, and coach Gary Andersen has been adamant that McEvoy will get a fair chance to compete for the job in preseason camp. Even if that "chance" lasts only two weeks, he'll have limited time to practice at receiver, learn the routes, work with the quarterbacks, etc. If Wisconsin thinks McEvoy can help at receiver this season, it should make that move sooner rather than later.

(Read full post)

The spectacle known as the NFL draft kicks off tonight in New York with the first round. As Brian pointed out late last week, the Big Ten is in danger of going without a first-round selection for the first time since the NFL-AFL merger.

Mel Kiper Jr.'s final Big Board Insider doesn't include a Big Ten player, and both Kiper's Insider and Todd McShay's Insider final mock first rounds have no Big Ten players.

Lets look beyond the first round, as ESPN Scouts Inc. has put together a complete seven-round mock draft Insider.

How did the Big Ten contingent fare? If Scouts Inc., is correct, 42 selections will be made before a Big Ten player hears his name called. Purdue defensive tackle Kawann Short is the first Big Ten player on the board at No. 43, going to Tampa Bay in the second round. Only one other Big Ten player, Wisconsin running back Montee Ball, is pegged as a second-round pick.

Here's the rest of the Scouts Inc. Big Ten forecast (in order of predicted selection)...

Round 3: Michigan State RB Le'Veon Bell, Wisconsin C Travis Frederick, Ohio State DE John Simon, Ohio State DT Johnathan Hankins, Illinois DT Akeem Spence

Round 4: Michigan State DE William Gholston, Illinois DE Michael Buchanan, Illinois G Hugh Thornton, Ohio State T Reid Fragel

Round 5: Michigan State TE Dion Sims, Penn State DT Jordan Hill, Wisconsin T Ricky Wagner

Round 6: Michigan QB Denard Robinson (will play WR), Iowa CB Micah Hyde, Ohio State TE Jake Stoneburner, Penn State LB Gerald Hodges, Michigan State CB Johnny Adams, Purdue CB Josh Johnson

Round 7: Nebraska S Daimion Stafford, Illinois CB Terry Hawthorne, Penn State LB Michael Mauti, Ohio State DE Nathan Williams (listed at OLB)

Thoughts: Overall, it's a pretty gloomy draft forecast for the Big Ten. Denard Robinson in the sixth round? That's lower than many have predicted. Ohio State's Hankins, once considered a likely first-round selection, wouldn't be pleased to slip to No. 89 overall. The Scouts Inc. forecast also excludes Nebraska RB Rex Burkhead, plagued by knee injuries during his senior season. Other players not showing up include Minnesota QB MarQueis Gray (will play TE in the NFL), Iowa QB James Vandenberg, Penn State C Matt Stankiewitch, Wisconsin LB Mike Taylor and Michigan S Jordan Kovacs. Once again, Illinois is pegged to be one of the Big Ten's top NFL draft producers despite poor results on the field. Penn State's standout trio on defense will be waiting a while, although I wouldn't be surprised if a guy like Hill goes earlier than Round 5. Three Big Ten teams -- Indiana, Minnesota and Northwestern -- are pegged to be shut out of the draft. Future Big Ten member Rutgers is pegged to have six draft picks, led by defenders Khaseem Greene and Logan Ryan in the third round, while Maryland is pegged to have just one (TE Matt Furstenburg).

We'll have draft-related posts on the Big Ten both Friday morning and Monday after all the selections are made.

Big Ten lunchtime links

April, 24, 2013
4/24/13
12:00
PM ET
In honor of "College Football Playoff," I'm calling this intro line "Lunchtime Links Intro Line."
We're taking a page from our friends at the ACC blog and examining whether certain Big Ten teams will be contenders or pretenders in the 2013 season. The series does not include Ohio State, Michigan or Nebraska -- three teams that, in our view, have earned the "contender" label entering the fall. For each team, we'll make a case for why they're contenders and pretenders and provide our final verdict. We invite you to vote on whether a team is a contender or a pretender or send us your thoughts for mailbags here and here.

Next up are the Penn State Nittany Lions, a team that can't contend for a Big Ten championship because of NCAA sanctions but, like Ohio State in 2012, can win the Leaders division.

SportsNation

What do you expect out of Penn State in 2013?

  •  
    45%
  •  
    55%

Discuss (Total votes: 4,917)

Why they're contenders: After winning eight of their final 10 games in Bill O'Brien's first season, the Lions no longer have to adjust to new coaches and new systems. Although quarterback is a significant question mark, Penn State will surround its new signal-caller with plenty of weapons. Junior Allen Robinson, the Big Ten wide receiver of the year in 2012, returns along with the league's deepest group of tight ends. O'Brien likes what he has at running back with Zach Zwinak (1,000 yards last fall), Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch, who stood out in the spring game. The offensive line was a pleasant surprise last season and should be solid again as Ty Howle fills the center spot vacated by All-Big Ten selection Matt Stankiewitch. Penn State has good depth in the secondary, which could be the strength of the defense this season. Big Ten freshman of the year Deion Barnes returns at defensive end, and DaQuan Jones is stepping up to lead the line. Mike Hull finally moves into a starting spot at linebacker and will help fill the production void left by Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges. The biggest reason to Bill-ieve is O'Brien, who has developed players extremely well during his short time in State College. If he can develop a quarterback, Penn State should win eight or more games again.

Why they're pretenders: There's a school of thought that at some point, the severe NCAA sanctions imposed on Penn State will catch up with the program. It could be this season. Although Penn State looks good at most starting positions, depth is a concern on both sides of the ball. Linebacker U isn't very deep at linebacker, and if Hull or Glenn Carson goes down, the defense might be in big trouble. Barnes looks like a superstar at end, but he'll face increased attention this year and won't have Jordan Hill for protection on the interior. The biggest question mark is quarterback, as Steven Bench barely played last season, while junior-college transfer Tyler Ferguson and incoming freshman Christian Hackenberg have yet to take a snap in an FBS game. O'Brien is a quarterback guru and transformed Matt McGloin, but at least McGloin had a lot of experience at this level. Although kicker Sam Ficken made an impressive turnaround down the stretch last season, Penn State struggled mightily on special teams and was fortunate the kicking game only proved costly in one loss (Virginia). The Lions' division road schedule isn't easy with trips to both Ohio State and Wisconsin.

Final verdict: Contender. O'Brien has given us no reason to doubt him, and while quarterback is a significant question mark, it's also the position O'Brien knows best. The supporting cast will ease the transition for whoever lines up under center this fall. Penn State is thin on defense at positions where it traditionally produces All-Big Ten players, and while the unit can't afford to lose certain pieces, a major drop-off seems unlikely. Penn State should build some confidence during a favorable early season stretch before facing Michigan and Ohio State in a three-week span. Don't be surprised if the Lions' Oct. 26 game in Columbus once again determines the Leaders division champion.
Unless you've been living in a world without ESPN, the Internet or sports talk radio, you're well aware that the NFL draft begins Thursday night.

What will the weekend hold for Big Ten products? Who will be the top pick from the league? Which players should be garnering more buzz? Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett try to answer those questions and more in this blog debate:

Brian Bennett: Adam, another NFL draft is nearly upon us. What better way to spend 96 hours of a spring weekend than listening to analysts describe a player's upside? At least we won't have to read any more 2013 mock drafts after Thursday afternoon.

But let's get down to Big Ten business. According to our colleagues with the good hair -- Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay -- the league very well might not produce a first-round pick for the first time since the AFL-NFL merger. Last year, the first Big Ten player taken was all the way down at No. 23. What's going on here? Is there that big of a talent shortage in the conference, or is this just a blip? And do you think any Big Ten players hear their names called on Thursday night?

[+] EnlargeKawann Short
AP Photo/Michael ConroyKawann Short's versatility could make him too attractive for NFL teams to pass up in the draft's first round.
Adam Rittenberg: I think we can match them follicle for follicle, don't you? The Big Ten's draft downturn has been a trend for a number of years. First, the league was falling out of the top 10 consistently. Then, it started to only see selections in the final 10-12 picks. Now it might fall out of the first round entirely. So, yes, there is a talent shortage at the very highest levels and especially at certain positions. The three we've written about most often are quarterback (last first round pick: Kerry Collins), cornerback and wide receiver. I still think the Big Ten produces a wealth of great linemen on both sides of the ball, as well as its share of quality running backs. But the running back position isn't valued nearly as high in the first round as cornerback and quarterback.

I thought the Big Ten still would have a first-round pick even after Michigan LT Taylor Lewan announced he would return in 2012. But now I'm not so sure. Ohio State DT Johnathan Hankins and Purdue DT Kawann Short both could hear their names called, but it's far from a guarantee.

What do you think this year's draft says about the state of the Big Ten?

Brian Bennett: I think you hit on several of the reasons, and I'd add in the population and demographic shifts as another. Of course, if Lewan came out as expected, he'd probably be a top-15 pick. And if the NFL were to do last year's draft over, I'm pretty sure Russell Wilson would go in the first round, right?

Still, the downturn in top-level NFL talent, at least from a draft perspective, has to trouble the conference and offers a possible explanation as to why the Big Ten has struggled on the big stage of late. I believe that the way Urban Meyer and Brady Hoke are recruiting will mean more elite players will be entering the pros in the near future, but we shall see.

Let's talk about this year's prospects. Who do you think will be the first Big Ten player selected this weekend? And which Big Ten product do you think should be the first one taken?

Adam Rittenberg: As much as I'd love to see Wisconsin RB Montee Ball work his way into the first round, I think the first pick will be either Short or Hankins. Both are potentially great NFL defensive linemen, but I think Short has a little more versatility to his game and can be an effective pass-rusher in addition to his run-stuffing duties. Short wasn't healthy for a chunk of last season, which led to some erratic play, but he has the ability to dominate inside. So does Hankins, but he's more of a space-eater than a difference-maker on the pass rush. I think Short should be the first Big Ten player taken, and I think he will be.

You mention Wilson, who was arguably the biggest steal of the 2012 draft. Which Big Ten player will fill that role this year? Who are the value picks out there from the league?

Brian Bennett: Wilson slipped in last year's draft because of concerns over his height. And I think there may be a similar thing going on with Ohio State's John Simon. He's viewed as a tweener because he's only 6-foot-1, but there's no questioning Simon's motor, heart or leadership. As long as he can stay healthy, he'll be a productive player for a long time in the NFL.

Penn State's Jordan Hill is another guy who's shorter than the prototype for a defensive lineman but who also makes up for it with his performance and drive. I also believe Nebraska's Rex Burkhead is being undervalued, though running backs aren't the commodities they once were at the next level. A knee injury hurt Burkhead's stock, but he showed at the combine what kind of athlete he is. And I think Michigan State cornerback Johnny Adams, who was looked at as a first-round draft pick not that long ago, could be had at a good price this weekend.

Which players do you think are being undervalued? And what do you see as the draft fate for Michigan's Denard Robinson?

[+] EnlargeBurkhead
Andrew Weber/US PresswireRex Burkhead showed during pre-draft workouts that he's recovered from a 2012 knee injury.
Adam Rittenberg: You bring up some really interesting names, BB, especially Burkhead, who, if healthy and in the right system, could be a very valuable NFL player. Simon is another guy who needs to be in the right system and must overcome measurables that aren't ideal for the NFL at defensive end or outside linebacker. I wouldn't forget the group of Illinois defensive linemen -- Michael Buchanan, Akeem Spence and Glenn Foster, who wowed the scouts during pro day in Champaign. It's easy to dismiss them because they played on a terrible team, but all three have been on the NFL radar for some time -- especially Spence and Buchanan -- and have the talent to succeed at the pro level.

Ohio State tackle Reid Fragel is another guy who could be a great value, although his stock seems to be rising quickly. He started his career as a tight end but really thrived last year at the tackle spot.

Robinson will be one of the weekend's top story lines. He's clearly a work in progress as a receiver, but you can't teach that speed and explosiveness. Robinson is a risk-reward guy, but I'd be surprised if he's still on the board midway through the third round.

The Big Ten sends a fairly small contingent of underclassmen to this year's draft. How do you think those players pan out?

Brian Bennett: Michigan State has three of 'em in Le'Veon Bell, Dion Sims and William Gholston. I think there's a chance that some team reaches for Bell in the first round, and he's got the body to be a very good NFL running back for a long time. Sims also presents an intriguing option for teams, especially with the increased use of tight ends in the pro passing game. Despite Gholston's impressive physical traits, he didn't test that well in Indianapolis and had a questionable motor in college. Teams could shy away from him.

You mentioned Spence from Illinois, a guy whose stock seemed to climb as he showed some great strength in workouts. Hankins will be a second-rounder at worst. Then there's Wisconsin center Travis Frederick, who posted a slow sprint time at the combine. But how many times do centers need to sprint? I still think he'll be a good player, and one who shouldn't fall past the second round.

This is getting to be as long as the draft itself, so we should probably start wrapping things up. Any final thoughts on the Big Ten's outlook this weekend?

Adam Rittenberg: The big story lines for me, other than whether the Big Ten has a player drafted in the first round, are where running backs like Ball, Bell and Burkhead land, the Denard Watch, how the underclassmen fare and where the potential sleepers we outlined above end up. This won't be a transformative draft for the Big Ten because it lacks elite prospects at the positions we mentioned earlier, especially cornerback and quarterback. But there are always a few surprises along the way. As a Chicago Bears fan, I'm always interested to see if a Big Ten player ends up at Halas Hall.

What Big Ten story lines intrigue you heading into the draft?

Brian Bennett: You mentioned most of the big ones. I'll also be interested to see if any team takes a chance on Penn State's Michael Mauti and whether Iowa's James Vandenberg gets drafted after a disappointing senior year. I predict the Big Ten keeps its first-round streak alive -- barely -- and that Robinson stays in Michigan when the Detroit Lions draft him in the fourth round.

And then we can all put the 2013 NFL draft to bed -- and start studying those 2014 mock drafts.

Big Ten lunchtime links

April, 15, 2013
4/15/13
12:00
PM ET
Happy tax day.
 

SPONSORED HEADLINES