Big Ten: Mikel Leshoure

Did you know? Big Ten in Week 13

November, 23, 2012
Some notes and nuggets to hopefully make you smarter as you watch the final weekend of the regular season in the Big Ten. As always, thanks to the ESPN Stats & Info crew and the sports information staffs from around the league for these.
  • Nebraska owns a 17-5 record since 1990 in games on the day after Thanksgiving, including a 5-1 record against Oklahoma, an 11-4 mark against Colorado and 1-0 against Iowa, following a 20-7 win in Lincoln last year. Nebraska is 7-3 in road games during that stretch. Nebraska has won its regular-season finale each of Bo Pelini’s first four seasons and is 29-21 in the final game of the regular season since 1962.
  • Iowa leads the country with six games decided by three points or fewer (2-4 record in those games), including two contests decided by one point (1-1 record). This season marks the first time in school history that six games have been decided by three points or less; Iowa had five (4-1) in 2009. Iowa has lost two home games (Central Michigan and Purdue) this year on the final play of the game (field goal).
  • Ohio State first-year coaches are 5-11-1 in games against Michigan. Sam Willaman (1929), Francis Schmidt (1934), Carroll Widdoes (1944), Earle Bruce (1979) and Jim Tressel (2001) are the Ohio State coaches to have their first Ohio State team defeat Michigan. Urban Meyer’s 11-0 start ties his mentor -- Bruce -- for the second-best start for a head coach all-time in Ohio State history. Bruce opened the 1979 season 11-0. Only Widdoes, who went 9-0 in 1944 and eventually won his first 12 games, has opened a coaching career at Ohio State with more wins.
  • Last week against Iowa, Michigan QB Devin Gardner became only the sixth FBS player since 2000 to throw for at least 300 yards, pass for three touchdowns and rush for three scores in the same game. Collin Klein, Johnny Manziel, Keith Price, Dan Lefevour and Kellen Clemens are the only other players to accomplish the feat during that span.
  • Penn State enters the week as stingiest FBS defense in the first quarter. Nittany Lions opponents have seen 12 of their 29 drives end in three-and-out fashion and two have ended with turnovers. A big reason for the solid opening quarter is time of possession. Penn State controls the ball for an average of 8:36 in the initial quarter to just 6:23 for the opposition.
  • Michigan gives up 41.4 yards after the catch per game this season, the second-lowest average by an BCS automatic-qualifying team. The Wolverines have allowed 72.7 yards after the catch per game in their three losses and just 29.6 in their eight wins. Ohio State is giving up 113.4 yards after the catch per game this season, most in the Big Ten and fourth most by an AQ school. The Buckeyes have also allowed the most yards after contact (90.2) in the Big Ten this season.
  • After allowing an average of 15.3 points in its last six Big Ten games, Wisconsin ranks 13th nationally in scoring defense at 17.5 points per game. The Badgers also rank 11th in total defense, allowing 302.9 yards per game, and have held each of their last six opponents to fewer than 300 total yards.
  • Purdue will look to win three consecutive games in the same season for the first time since 2007 and become bowl eligible in back-to-back years for the first time since 2006 and 2007. The last time Purdue closed out the Big Ten Conference slate with three straight victories was 2006 (at Michigan State, at Illinois, vs. Indiana).
  • Northwestern enters Saturday's game with the third-best third-down conversion rate in the conference at 44.2 percent, and will put that mark on the line against an Illinois defense that leads all Big Ten teams in opponents’ third-down conversions at 29.6 percent. The Wildcats have finished in the top 20 nationally each of the last three years in third-down success rate, including 13th a year ago.
  • In each of its last two meetings against Northwestern , an Illini offensive player has broken an individual program record against Northwestern. In 2010, RB Mikel Leshoure ran for an Illinois record 330 yards in the Illini win at Wrigley Field. Last season, WR A.J. Jenkins had a school-record 268 receiving yards and three touchdowns in Illinois' win over the Wildcats.
  • Indiana has allowed just 17 sacks, one per every 28.7 pass attempts, and committed just 12 turnovers this season (10 interceptions, 2 fumbles), which is tied for the 13th-lowest mark in the country.Last season, the Hoosiers allowed 31 sacks (one every 12.2 attempts), threw 11 interceptions and lost seven fumbles.
  • Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald has 48 wins to his credit since 2006, leaving him only one shy of Lynn "Pappy" Waldorf's school record of 49 set between 1935-46.
  • Michigan State has lost five Big Ten games this season by a combined total of 13 points, including one in double overtime (Iowa) and two within the last 10 seconds of regulation (Michigan, Nebraska). MSU's last seven games have been decided by four points or fewer, the longest such streak in school history and the longest by an FBS team since at least 1996.
  • Minnesota CB Troy Stoudermire is the Big Ten record holder in kickoff return yards with 3,359. With two games to play, Stoudermire is just 158 yards shy of Tyron Carrier's NCAA record. Carrier recorded 3,517 yards at Houston from 2008-11. Stoudermire recorded 1,083 return yards in 2008 and 1,057 yards in 2009. In 2010, he had 789 yards, and he had 173 yards last year before missing the final eight games with an injury. He has 257 return yards this year.
  • Wisconsin has never lost back-to-back games in November under seventh-year coach Bret Bielema, going 3-0 after a loss in the month.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- After the 2011 season, Illinois center Graham Pocic sat down with his linemate, Jeff Allen, to compile a highlight tape for Allen to show NFL talent evaluators.

It sounded like a fun exercise. And for a little while, it was.

Pocic and Allen took great joy in reviewing the first six games from the past year. Illinois was winning and scoring points. Life was good.

Then Week 7 arrived. Cracks began to form as Illinois lost 17-7 to an Ohio State team that completed only one pass.

Pocic's and Allen's review session soon made them want to avert their eyes.

"It was really depressing," Pocic said. "All the great opportunities we had, especially after starting 6-0. Mostly I was trying to figure out what went wrong with the offensive line, with the running game, why we couldn't run the ball like we did with Mikel [Leshoure] the year before.

"It was hard to find a reason why certain things happened."

Illinois dropped six consecutive games after its record 6-0 start, and the offense bore the brunt of the struggles. After scoring 33 points or more in four of the first six games, including a combined 79 points in the first two weeks of Big Ten play, Illinois failed to tally more than 17 points during its six-game slide and finished three games with just seven points.

Even when Illinois ended its slide in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl against UCLA, it was hardly an offensive explosion (20 points).

The Illini finished the season ranked in the top 15 nationally in several major defensive categories, including points allowed and yards allowed. While the team had other problems, namely special teams, its evaporating offense was most disheartening.
[+] EnlargeReilly O'Toole
Bradley Leeb/US PresswireQuarterback Reilly O'Toole (4) and running back Donovann Young are entering their sophomore seasons with a brand-new offense.
Chris Beatty knew all about Illinois' season of extremes on offense, even though he didn't witness it firsthand. And while Beatty and Billy Gonzales, the team's new co-offensive coordinators, are spending spring practice installing their system, they're also trying to foster something less tangible.

"You get beat down a little bit when you struggle at the end of the year," Beatty said. "So you want to get some kind of swagger back. The only way to do that is to lay a good foundation as far as making some plays, getting a good knowledge base. Confidence comes with some success and knowing what you're doing.

"Those things, we're trying to build up because obviously, the last six games, there were some struggles."

When Beatty reviewed the final six regular-season games, he saw some issues along the offensive line and with the running game, and few consistent skill players aside from receiver A.J. Jenkins. But he also saw a group that lacked confidence.

"It's hard to have a swagger," quarterback Reilly O'Toole said, "with no points on the board."

The offense won't be able to light up the scoreboard until September, but spring practice has provided the platform to rebuild morale. Players like O'Toole and Pocic are excited about the multiple spread offense being installed.

Pocic said he's never been in such a complex offense. O'Toole said that while other Big Ten teams run spread offenses, Illinois' system will be unique in its flexibility and the number of angles from which the offense can attack.

"Unpredictable," wide receiver Darius Millines said of the new offense.

"We may run a play, and someone may think we're coming back with the same play, like a running play to the left. And we may play-action with it and throw deep over your head," he continued. "The defense has to be on their P's and Q's at all times."

And while the installation process is gradual and Illinois must build depth at running back, receiver and along the offensive line, there are mini-breakthroughs, like the one at Monday night's practice.

"We made some good plays and the offense was getting hyped, and we actually got rolling for a little bit," Millines said. "We actually felt how we felt in the beginning of last year. We got into a little rhythm, and our whole offense, we took that into consideration, that, 'OK, if we keep making plays, we can't be stopped.'"

The great debate: Big Ten's best RB

November, 9, 2011
The 2010 season wasn't a great one for Big Ten running backs.

The league's best running back played quarterback (Michigan's Denard Robinson). Illinois' Mikel Leshoure flew under the radar but was a nationally elite back in every sense of the word.

But after those two, meh. The league boasted some solid backs -- Edwin Baker, James White, Dan Herron, Adam Robinson, John Clay -- but no one you had to watch every time he took the field. The Big Ten's real star power could be found on the defensive line, as five players went on to become first round picks in the NFL draft.

This season, it's all about the running backs in the Big Ten. The league boasts four players averaging more than 105 rush yards per game, all of whom rank among the nation's top 21 rushers. No other league has more backs in the top 25 nationally than the Big Ten.

So who's the Big Ten's best running back in 2011? It's already one of the more spirited debates around the conference.

Let's meet the candidates (in alphabetical order):
Now let's take a closer look at each player and how they stack up.


Vitals: 5-11, 210, junior from Wentzville, Mo.

2011 stats: 162 carries for 1,076 yards and 21 touchdowns, 119.6 ypg, 6.64 ypc, 13 receptions for 229 yards and 3 touchdowns, 1-for-1 passing with a 25-yard touchdown

[+] EnlargeWisconsin Badgers running back Montee Ball
Jeff Hanisch-US PRESSWIREWisconsin Badgers running back Montee Ball leads the nation with 24 touchdowns.
Things to know: Ball leads the nation with 24 touchdowns, tying the team record set by Brian Calhoun. He needs just two touchdowns to tie the Big Ten single-season record held by three players. Ball scores a touchdown every 7.3 touches. ... Ball leads the Big Ten in all-purpose yards (145 per game). He ranks fifth nationally among FBS running backs in combined rushing-receiving yards. ... He has scored at least one touchdown in each of his last 15 games and 39 touchdowns during the span. ... Ball has rushed for at least 115 yards in eight of his last nine games against Big Ten opponents. ... Like the other Wisconsin backs, Ball has no fumbles (lost or recovered) this season. ... Despite a strong finish to last season, Ball transformed his body in the winter and spring, shedding weight to add speed while maintaining his power.

Supporting cast: Ball has the best supporting cast of the four candidates. He runs behind one of the nation's best offensive lines, a group led by NFL prospect Peter Konz. His quarterback, Russell Wilson, is a Heisman Trophy candidate and has brought a new element to Wisconsin's offense. His backup, James White, is the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year.

The quote: "He's definitely our best practice player. Nobody has practice that hard at that position since I've been here." -- Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema

Quick case for Ball: "Moneyball" is a touchdown-scoring machine and has been absolutely unstoppable for most of the season. Few backs in the country have been more effective than Ball since the middle of last season. He doesn't put the ball on the ground and consistently moves it forward and into the end zone. He didn't rest on his laurels in the offseason and got better physically.

Quick case against Ball: Wisconsin's track record of running the ball probably works against Ball with the other candidates. The Badgers always have a dominant back (or three) and terrific offensive lines. Wilson's presence also has opened things up for Ball in the run game.


Vitals: 5-11, 210, junior from Plano, Texas

2011 stats: 187 carries for 951 yards and 13 touchdowns, 105.7 ypg, 5.1 ypc, 14 receptions for 129 yards and 2 touchdowns

[+] EnlargeRex Burkhead
Jesse Johnson/US PresswireNebraska running back Rex Burkhead averages 6.16 yards per carry in the fourth quarter this season for the Cornhuskers.
Things to know: Burkhead has recorded five 100-yard rushing performances in the last seven games, including against two of the nation's better rush defenses in Michigan State and Ohio State. He turned in a heroic performance in the win against the Spartans, carrying 35 times, the third-highest total in team history. ... Burkhead has gotten better as games have gone on. He has 43 fourth-quarter carries and has averaged 6.16 yards in the final quarter. Burkhead had 109 second-half yards and 96 fourth-quarter yards in Nebraska's historic comeback win against Ohio State. ... He has lost just 32 yards on 187 carries. ... Of his 38 carries in the red zone, Burkhead has gained a first down or a touchdown on 15 rushes. He has rushed for at least one touchdown in every game this season. ... Former Texas high school star nicknamed "Superman," Burkhead did a bit of everything for Nebraska in 2010, even taking some snaps as a Wildcat quarterback.

Supporting cast: Burkhead shares a backfield with another rushing threat in quarterback Taylor Martinez, who has 712 rush yards and nine touchdowns this season. While Martinez demands the attention of opposing defenses, he also takes away some carries and scoring opportunities for Burkhead. Nebraska's offensive line entered the season banged-up and extremely young, but the group has come together nicely. The Huskers' passing attack ranks 101st nationally, and Martinez and his receivers have had their ups and downs. After Burkhead and Martinez, no other Nebraska player has more than 25 carries.

The quote: "He might not be the flashiest guy in the world. I wouldn't trade him for anybody. I have a tremendous amount of respect for him and how he plays the game." -- Nebraska coach Bo Pelini

Quick case for Burkhead: He's one of the more reliable players in the country and an absolute joy to watch. He doesn't mess around with excessive moves and blends speed and power extremely well. Unlike Ball and Coker, he doesn't operate in an offense with a strong passing threat, and he's produced against some solid defenses.

Quick case against Burkhead: His numbers don't pop off the page like some of the other candidates'. Burkhead's most impressive performance (against MSU) was more of a workmanlike effort (35 carries, 3.7 ypc) than one that wows you. He doesn't have many long runs in Big Ten play (longest is 22 yards).


Vitals: 6-0, 230, sophomore from Beltsville, Md.

2011 stats: 211 carries for 1,101 yards and 12 touchdowns, 122.3 ypg, 5.2 ypc, 15 receptions for 94 yards

[+] EnlargeIowa Hawkeyes running back Marcus Coker
Byron Hetzler-US PRESSWIREIowa running back Marcus Coker is setting records for the Hawkeyes.
Things to know: Coker leads the Big Ten in carries, rushing yards and rushing average (he ranks sixth nationally). ... He has six 100-yard rushing performances this season. His 12 rushing touchdowns tie for the fourth-highest single-season total in team history ... Coker ranks second in the Big Ten and 41st nationally in all-purpose yards (132.8 ypg). ... His 252 rushing yards yards in an Oct. 22 game at Minnesota ranks as third best single-game total in school history. ... He's one of only four backs in Iowa history to record multiple 200-yard rushing performances. ... Coker has eclipsed 120 rush yards and scored two touchdowns in each of his last four games, all against Big Ten opponents.

Supporting cast: Coker runs behind one of the better Big Ten offensive lines, led by NFL draft prospect Riley Reiff at left tackle. Iowa isn't quite as powerful up front as Wisconsin but boasts a better line than both Penn State and Nebraska. Quarterback James Vandenberg has had a very strong season passing the ball, and defenses must respect Iowa's aerial attack and receiving corps, led by star senior Marvin McNutt. Coker has been Iowa's bell cow, as no other Hawkeyes running back has logged more than 18 carries.

The quote: "Marcus is the type of back that makes your offensive line want to block for him. So we definitely love him, and we love blocking for him, and we don't want anyone else back there." -- Iowa center James Ferentz, to The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette

The case for Coker: He leads the Big Ten in rushing and has improved as the season has progressed. He boasts arguably the best combination of power and big-play potential among the candidates, recording six runs of 25 yards or more and three of 41 yards or more. While some of the other candidates are solid, reliable runners, Coker has the rare ability to simply dominate a game.

The case against Coker: He struggled with fumbles at the start of the year and hurt Iowa in its Week 2 loss to Iowa State. He benefits from Iowa's lack of depth at running back and gets more carries than other candidates. He averaged a pedestrian 4.3 yards per rush through Iowa's first five games. He feasted on mostly average defenses.

[+] EnlargeSilas Redd
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarPenn State running back Silas Redd carries a heavy workload in the Nittany Lions offense.

Vitals: 5-10, 209, sophomore from Norwalk, Conn.

2011 stats: 195 carries for 1,006 yards and 7 touchdowns, 111.8 ypg, 5.2 ypc, eight receptions for 31 yards

Things to know: Redd recorded five consecutive 100-yard games and led all FBS players with 703 rushing yards in October. He averaged 140.6 yards per game and 5.3 yards per carry during the month. He's the first Penn State player to record five consecutive 100-yard games since former All-American Curtis Enis in 1997. ... He already has eclipsed 1,000 rush yards for the season, becoming the 12th Penn State player to do so. ... He already has 118 carries more than he had all of last season and has racked up 28 or more carries in four of Penn State's five Big Ten games. ... He has lost just 19 yards on 195 carries. ... Redd worked on his body during the offseason and added 10-15 pounds to help with an increased workload. He also changed his running style, becoming a more straight-ahead, downhill power back.

Supporting cast: Redd has the weakest supporting cast of the candidates, underscoring how impressive his performance has been this season. Penn State has rotated two quarterbacks all season and had very limited success in the passing game, so the offense relies heavily on Redd to produce. The offensive line is performing better in recent weeks but hasn't been as strong as Wisconsin's and Iowa's, and even Nebraska's. Redd has gotten a bit of help from fellow backs Beachum and Curtis Dukes, but Dukes is second on Penn State's carries list with only 35.

The quote: "He can hurt you with his speed and his elusiveness outside, and he can run between the tackles. He's a pretty complete back." -- Nebraska coach Bo Pelini

The case for Redd: He has been an absolute workhorse for a struggling Penn State offense and transformed himself into a complete back in just his sophomore season. Redd had the most impressive month of any candidate (October), and he did it all against Big Ten competition. He has the weakest supporting cast and, along with Coker, he's clearly his team's main ball-carrier.

The case against Redd: The main knock on Redd is he doesn't score enough touchdowns. He has 14 fewer rush touchdowns than Ball, six fewer than Burkhead and five fewer than Coker. Redd also has had some fumbling issues that have ended promising Penn State drives.

Big Ten stock report, Week 3

September, 14, 2011
Welcome back to the one stock report you can read without having to worry about your 401(k). Here's our look at the bulls and bears of the Big Ten:

Stock up

[+] EnlargeRussell Wilson
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireRussell Wilson rates as the second most efficient quarterback in the country through two games.
Passing efficiency: Four of the top 15 most efficient passers in the country reside in the Big Ten. Wisconsin's Russell Wilson ranks second, followed by Michigan's Denard Robinson at No. 7, Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase at No. 8 and Michigan State's Kirk Cousins at No. 15. Wilson has completed 79.4 percent of his passes through two games, while Cousins has connected on 79.1 percent and Scheelhaase is at 71 percent. In addition, Northwestern's Kain Colter is completing a Persa-esque 73 percent of his throws.

Illinois' rushing attack: Losing Mikel Leshoure hasn't hurt the Illini ground game yet this season. Ron Zook's team is averaging 283 yards rushing per game, tops in the Big Ten and tied for eighth in the FBS. It's been a balanced attack, with Scheelhaase, Jason Ford, Troy Pollard and Donovonn Young all churning out at least 100 yards through two games.

Nebraska's special teams: The departure of Alex Henery has barely caused a ripple in Lincoln. Brett Maher leads the FBS in punting with a 51.3 yards-per-kick average, and he has made all four of his field-goal attempts. Freshman Ameer Abdullah ranks second nationally in kick returns and 13th in punt returns. He brought a kickoff back for a 100-yard score in last week's Fresno State game. Whoever came up with these preseason position rankings was clearly insane.

Ohio State's pass protection: The Buckeyes are one of 10 teams in the country that has yet to allow a sack. They have a veteran offensive line, even without Mike Adams, so that stat is not too surprising after two games against MAC opponents. This week's game at Miami will provide a sterner test.

Nick Toon and Junior Hemingway: Both receivers had big days on Saturday. Wisconsin's Toon had an off year last season as a junior but seems re-energized so far as a senior. He had seven catches for 69 yards and a touchdown last week against Oregon State. Michigan's Hemingway had a patch honoring Desmond Howard affixed to his No. 21 jersey before the Notre Dame game. He responded with a Howard-esque performance, catching three balls for 165 yards and a score.

Stock down

Passing inefficiency: Not all the Big Ten quarterbacks are operating at high efficiency. Nebraska's Taylor Martinez ranks 84th nationally in passer efficiency and is completing just 48.8 percent of his passes. Minnesota's MarQueis Gray is 78th in efficiency and has a 52.3 completion percentage, while Purdue's Caleb TerBush is ranked 72nd and is completing 57.8 percent. Penn State's duo of Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin have combined to connect on just 40.7 percent of their throws, making the Nittany Lions the third-least efficient passing team in the country. And though Denard Robinson ranks high in efficiency because of his long throws and touchdowns, his completion rate is just 45.1 percent.

Illinois crowds: The Illini are off to a 2-0 start and have six more home games, but so far the fans haven't been clamoring to see them. They drew an announced crowd of 45,154 for the opener and just 42,212 last week. Memorial Stadium's official capacity is 60,670. The first two opponents -- Arkansas State and South Dakota State -- weren't exactly marquee draws. Let's see if Illinois fans respond better with a ranked team coming in this week in Arizona State.

Nebraska's defense: Did the Huskers leave the Blackshirts in the Big 12? So far, the defense we heard so much about hasn't been very special. Fresno State gashed Nebraska for 444 total yards, including 169 rushing yards by running back Robbie Rouse. The Cornhuskers didn't manage a single sack in that game. "I think every now and then you need to get smacked in the face and get a wake-up call," head coach Bo Pelini told reporters Monday. "When people are telling you how good you are, sometimes you need a reality check. In this world, you get humbled in a hurry. Last week we were humbled."

Iowa's pass rush: Perhaps a step back was to be expected from a defensive line that saw three starters from last year's team get drafted in April. Regardless, the line had a tough day in Ames last weekend. The Hawkeyes struggled to get pressure on Iowa State quarterback Steele Jantz, and when they did, he was able to run away from them and keep plays alive. Iowa has only one sack in each of its first two games this season.

Kevin Wilson's fourth-down gambles: The Indiana coach has been aggressive early in his tenure, but it hasn't paid off the way he or the Hoosiers would like. With IU leading 17-14 and staring at a fourth-and-3 from the Ball State 9-yard line in the opener, Wilson decided to go for the touchdown instead of the easy field goal. Incomplete pass, Indiana eventually loses 27-20. Last week, down 23-10 to Virginia and at the Cavaliers' 8-yard line, Wilson called for the fake field goal on fourth down. Incomplete pass, Indiana eventually loses 34-31. If the calls work, Wilson looks like a genius. But they didn't. That's the nature of coaching.

Fresh faces: Illinois

August, 24, 2011
The fresh faces series resumes with the Illinois Fighting Illini. Here's a look at three true freshmen, redshirt freshmen, transfers or returning players likely to step into bigger roles this season.

OFFENSE: Donovonn Young, RB, freshman, 6-0, 215

Young and classmate Josh Ferguson have generated plenty of buzz during preseason practice. Not only have they pushed No. 1 back Jason Ford, but they've put themselves in position to rack up carries this fall. Young could be the total package of size, speed and power. Coach Ron Zook joked that it's too early to start the Heisman campaign, but Young impressed everyone who watched the recent workouts in Rantoul, Ill. The Illini will use multiple backs and he'll spell Ford at times this fall. Need another reason to like Young? His jersey number -- 5. The last two Illini players to wear it: star running backs Rashard Mendenhall and Mikel Leshoure.

DEFENSE: Ralph Cooper, LB, freshman, 6-1, 230

There's an opportunity for young linebackers like Cooper, as Illinois must replace two players -- Martez Wilson and Nate Bussey -- selected in April's NFL draft. Ian Thomas will be the starter at middle linebacker, but Cooper has looked good during camp and will be part of the rotation in the defensive midsection. He boasts good size and speed and should help Illinois stuff the run. The Illini had the Big Ten's No. 4 rushing defense in 2010, but must replace three NFL draft picks.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Justin Duvernois, P, freshman, 6-1, 190

Illinois loses first-team All-Big Ten selection Anthony Santella and will turn to Duvernois, who has a big leg and hails from one of the nation's top high school programs (St. Thomas Aquinas in Florida). Duvernois became the top option after Matt Eller left the team. Consistency will be a focal point for Duvernois, but he has the ability to be successful at this level.

More Fresh Faces

Q&A: Illinois OC Paul Petrino

August, 17, 2011
Illinois set team records for points scored (423) and points per game (32.5) in Paul Petrino's first season as offensive coordinator.

Here's the scary part: Petrino thinks the unit can be even better this fall.

Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is the biggest reason why, as he returns for his second year as the starter. Illinois boasts good depth at running back despite the departure of first-team All-Big Ten selection Mikel Leshoure, and the offensive line could be the team's strongest unit.

I checked in with Petrino after Wednesday's morning practice in Rantoul, Ill. Here are his thoughts:

How would you rate the unit a little more than halfway through camp?

Paul Petrino: I'm very happy. We've definitely come out and shown improvement. Nathan has improved 100 percent, throwing the ball really well. Our O-line is playing well, excited about our backs and our receivers have gotten better. Overall, all the way around, we've really improved. We're a lot better offense right now than we were last year.

Are there examples with Nathan where you see him taking those steps?

PP: No question. He's got such a quicker release. He's getting the ball out of his hand, he's got a lot stronger arm. Any phrase you can use about throwing the ball, he's doing better. And he understands the whole offense better. He gets us out of bad plays, gets us into good plays. Our quarterback has to do a lot at the line and in the running game, too, getting us to our best plays, and he's done a great job of that.

Can you do extend him in the passing game this year?

PP: There's throws he's making right now I wouldn't have even called for him last year in games -- or in practice, for that matter. That's great. Just got to keep it up. We'll pass more. We're still going to run the ball to win. There's no question our strength is still going to be running the ball, but we'll pass the ball more. If we can be like the bowl game and the Purdue game, throw for about 220-240 yards and run the ball like we always do, that would be perfect.

What has stood out to you about the running backs?

PP: Jason Ford is being a punisher, running hard and really doing a good job. And those two freshmen are studs, Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson, they're going to be great players. They're playing so good they keep Jason on his toes, but Jason's been running really hard, I've been really happy with him. And then Troy Pollard gives us a little different wrinkle. He has great vision and he's just a great kid and a leader. Those four guys are going to be good.

Did you have to challenge Jason a bit?

PP: Yeah. The best thing that happened to Jason was those two freshmen. They both have great attitudes, they both work hard, they're always upbeat. Jason saw, 'Oooh, I better make sure I'm busting my tail every minute to keep my job.' And then when he does that, with his talent, he's a great player.

How would you describe the freshmen from a style standpoint?

PP: Donovonn Young is just an aggressive, violent, downhill runner. Obviously not as good a player yet, but the kind of style like Adrian Peterson, just violent, downhill and hard. Josh Ferguson's just super fast. He can really cut, runs low to the ground and has great speed.

How many backs do you anticipate playing?

PP: I would say all four. Ford being the main workhorse and then Donovonn and Josh a lot. Then Troy has different little things he does for us, too.

How does the depth situation look at wide receiver?

PP: Darius Millines has been playing great. He played a bunch for us last year as a freshmen, had a great catch in the bowl game, and he's had a great camp. He's probably had the best camp of all of them. There's three of them that all played as true freshmen: Darius Millines, Ryan Lankford and Spencer Harris. You've got A.J. [Jenkins] and those three, those are our four best players. It's a pretty good group. Ryan's been playing well, been real consistent, plays with great effort. But Darius has played the best of all of them. He has been real explosive, making all kinds of big plays for us.

How is the offensive line shaping up? You have quite a lot coming back.

PP: Yeah, it should be our strength. We've got four starters back. Jeff Allen should be a great player for us. Hugh Thornton plays right next to him, and then Graham [Pocic] and Jack [Cornell]. Those four should be very good players. Then our [strong-side] tackle will be a freshman, Michael Heitz or Simon [Cvijanovic]. Michael is ahead right now.

How are things looking for the backup quarterback spot?

PP: It's pretty neck and neck. They're two different styles. Miles Osei can really run and is good at our option stuff, and Reilley O'Toole has been throwing the crap out of the ball and doing a really good job for us.

How high are your expectations for this offense?

PP: High, real high. We're always going to set our expectations high. We set the school record last year, and we're going to break it this year.

Big Ten lunch links

August, 9, 2011
Going campin' throughout Big Ten country.
Most would agree that Michigan's Denard Robinson and Northwestern's Dan Persa were the Big Ten's top two quarterbacks in 2010.

Both set Big Ten and team records (and, in Robinson's case, NCAA records). Both carried their squads at times. Both displayed leadership and made those around them better. And both are back for 2011, which is good news for Michigan and Northwestern.

Here's the twist: both also face significant challenges entering the season.

Robinson and Persa find themselves in the odd position of being proven players who have to prove themselves all over again.

The reasons are different.

Robinson will run a new offense this fall after thriving in Rich Rodriguez's spread, becoming the first player in NCAA history to record at least 2,500 pass yards and at least 1,500 rush yards in the same season. Al Borges, Michigan's new offensive coordinator, employs a West Coast style offense that will require some adjustments from the 2010 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. Robinson will be taking more snaps from center, using more play-action and throwing passes on different routes than he did in the spread.

[+] EnlargeDenard Robinson
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireMichigan's Denard Robinson is coming off a stellar season, but will be playing in a new scheme.
It's worth noting that Robinson took snaps from under center throughout high school. Coach Brady Hoke said last month that the staff is "smart enough to have elements he does well from what he did ... in the spread in our offense."

But Robinson will be moving from a system where he fit seamlessly to one that will take some adjustments. He didn't look too comfortable in the spring game, but has had more time to learn the scheme. Will Robinson remain the game-changer we saw in 2010? We should find out in September.

Persa, meanwhile, doesn't have to worry about a new offense. His primary concern is a surgically repaired right Achilles' tendon.

The senior hasn't played since rupturing his Achilles' on Nov. 13 against Iowa. He didn't begin running until late spring, although he's medically cleared for preseason camp, which began Monday.

It remains to be seen whether Persa is the same player after surgery and a long rehab from an injury you don't often see in college football. Although he set a Big Ten record for completion percentage (73.5) in 2010, he was exceptional with his legs, extending plays and scrambling for first downs and touchdowns. Persa wants to release the ball faster and run less this season, but he'll need his mobility to pick up where he left off.

Northwestern fell apart after Persa's injury, dropping its final three games. While Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said last month that he'd take Persa "at 40 percent over any other quarterback in the country," Persa's health and ability to produce could make or break the season.

Robinson and Persa aren't the only Big Ten returning starters at quarterback facing some uncertainty entering the fall.

Here are a few others:

Nebraska sophomore Taylor Martinez: T-Magic is adjusting to a new offense and must show he can stay healthy after fading in the second half of 2010. Martinez also loses leading receiver Niles Paul to the NFL draft.

Illinois sophomore Nathan Scheelhaase: Scheelhaase no longer shares a backfield with first-team All-Big Ten running back Mikel Leshoure. He also needs several receivers to emerge alongside A.J. Jenkins.

Michigan State senior Kirk Cousins: Cousins once again has plenty of weapons around him, but he'll play behind an offensive line replacing three starters from last season. The senior dealt with shoulder and ankle injuries during the second half of the 2010 season, and unlike the other quarterbacks on this list, he lacks top-end mobility.
As promised, the Big Ten workout warrior series is back. Piggybacking off of colleague Bruce Feldman's annual "Freaks" list, Bennett and I will profile four Big Ten players who go above and beyond in the weight room.

We solicited nominations from every Big Ten school, and while a portion chose to abstain this year -- there are quite a few new strength coaches in the league -- we received some good options. Let's get things started with the lone Big Ten player to make Feldman's 2011 "Freaks" list ...

[+] EnlargeJay Prosch
Courtesy of University of Illinois Sports InformationJay Prosch (35) has gained 10 pounds but reduced his body fat from 11 percent to nine percent.
Loud music helps and so do the encouraging voices of teammates, but Jay Prosch rarely needs extra motivation in the weight room.

From the moment he started getting serious about lifting, Prosch has felt right at home in the iron jungle.

"I pump myself up," the Illinois sophomore fullback said. "Weightlifting always excites me, when I know I'm about to do something I've never done."

Prosch had the feeling this past winter in the Illinois weight room after defensive lineman Akeem Spence set the team power clean record at 372 pounds.

While Prosch excelled at various lifts in high school, he never did the power clean until his arrival at Champaign. No matter. He reached 352 pounds "really easily" and then matched Spence's mark of 372. As Prosch prepared to attempt the record lift, Steve Sigler, an assistant strength and conditioning coach, asked him for a musical selection.

"They put on some Linkin Park, I got really excited and everybody kind of huddled around me," Prosch recalled. "And I got it."

Prosch reached 382 pounds, setting off a raucous celebration in the room.

"Everybody was jumping around," he said. "Everybody was really excited, coaches were really happy."

Spence, meanwhile, wasn't pleased about seeing his record fall so fast.

"I think he’s coming for me this year," Prosch said.

Prosch welcomes the challenge. He always has thrived on competition in the weight room.

He first started lifting as an eighth grader at UMS-Wright Prep in Mobile, Ala. He quickly identified an older football player who was a bit stronger, and set a goal of surpassing him. Prosch became serious about lifting in ninth grade and had "made a reputation" around the school by his junior year.

By the time he graduated, he held school records for bench-press (440 pounds), hang-clean (385) and incline press (335). His squat total of 595 pounds, meanwhile, came up 10 pounds shy of the top mark.

"It was really disappointing," Prosch said. "I was pretty upset about it."

Prosch is setting his sights on Illinois' lifting records.

Illinois measures max totals different than Prosch's high school, but his bench press has improved 60 pounds from last year. He also improved his squat total by 45 pounds, his hang clean total by 49 pounds and his power clean total by 30 pounds. Prosch is most proud of his gains with the hang clean and power clean.

"In the past, we have had two football players hang clean 396," Illinois head football strength coach Lou Hernandez said. "Jay absolutely killed 401 this winter as well. He constantly excites the room with his work."

Prosch's weight-room success is translating to the field. After playing guard and linebacker in high school, the lightly recruited Prosch emerged as a fullback for Illinois.

He played in every game as a true freshman and started six contests. He served as Mikel Leshoure's lead blocker and helped Illinois lead the Big Ten and rank 11th nationally in rushing offense (246.1 ypg).

"At my position, explosion's very important, being able to come off the line and get almost to my top speed when I hit the linebacker," Prosch said. "That's why power clean and hang clean are such important lifts for me."

Prosch had no rushing attempts and only one reception last year, but he could get more touches this season after being more involved as a ball carrier in spring practice.

The 6-foot Prosch has increased his weight from 245 to 255 at Illinois but reduced his body fat from 11 percent to nine percent, a number that should continue to drop during the season.

As preseason camp approaches next month, Prosch is a fixture in the weight room along with his workout partners Jason Ford and Zach Becker.

"Many times we find ourselves trying to slow him down," Hernandez said. "He is constantly trying to get better."

Prosch is so enamored with weight training that he wants to follow Hernandez's path after his playing days.

"I want to be a strength coach," he said. "That's really where I like to be."
Michigan wasn't the Big Ten's best team in 2010 -- far from it, in fact -- but the Wolverines' season had no shortage of excitement. As a result, the Maize and Blue won big Monday night during the Big Ten Network's fourth annual awards show.

Of the three awards won by football players or teams, three went to Michigan.

Here's a recap:

Award: Breakout Performer of the Year
Winner: Michigan QB Denard Robinson
Verdict: Good call. While Ohio State basketball player Jared Sullinger had a huge season, he arrived with a ton of hype. Robinson, meanwhile, leapfrogged returning starter Tate Forcier on the depth chart and became The Story in college football last September. He shattered team records in each of the first two games and went on to win Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors.

Award: Most Dominating Performance
Winner: Denard Robinson against Notre Dame, Sept. 11
Verdict: While Illinois RB Mikel Leshoure deserved serious consideration for his record-setting performance at Wrigley Field, Robinson's selection isn't a big surprise. When you play for Michigan and you record 502 yards of offense against Notre Dame in South Bend, you're going to get recognition. Robinson set a Big Ten record for quarterback rushing with 258 yards and recorded the nation's top highlight in September, an 87-yard touchdown scamper that marked the longest rushing touchdown in Notre Dame Stadium history.

Award: Most Courageous Performance
Winner: Minnesota FB Jon Hoese
Verdict: An excellent decision. Although Mark Dantonio's return from a heart attack and Brock Mealer's amazing recovery to walk again at Michigan's opener also were excellent options, Hoese's story didn't get nearly as much attention, even in Big Ten circles. The Gophers' fullback nearly didn't travel to the season opener at Middle Tennessee after his father, Terry, suffered a stroke the week before. Hoese ended up playing, scored three touchdowns and recovered a fumble on a kickoff to secure Minnesota's victory. Sadly, Hoese's father passed away the following Monday.

Award: Best Finish
Winner: Notre Dame at Michigan State, Sept. 18
Verdict: A no-brainer. Dantonio made the call of the year in college football as Michigan State scored on a fake field goal attempt in overtime to beat rival Notre Dame at Spartan Stadium. The play, labeled "Little Giants," sparked Michigan State to a special season as the Spartans started 8-0, recorded a team-record 11 victories and won a share of their first league title in 20 years.

Award: Game of the Year
Winner: Illinois at Michigan, Nov. 6
Verdict: This might have been the best pick among the nominees, but I was surprised games like Notre Dame-Michigan, Ohio State-Iowa and Wisconsin-Iowa didn't make the list. The Illinois-Michigan game didn't mean much in the grand scheme of things, and it was hardly a traditional Big Ten game as neither team played any defense. Still, the game produced the highest combined scoring total (132) in Big Ten history and set several other marks. It certainly wasn't boring.

Wisconsin's football team came up short in the Best Men's Team award, which went to Penn State's wrestlers. I would like to have seen Dantonio or Wisconsin's Bret Bielema up for Men's Coach of the Year.

All in all, I have few issues with the award selections.

What about you?

Big Ten awards on tap

June, 20, 2011
Roll out the red carpet and get your watch parties assembled. The fourth annual Big Ten Awards show airs Monday night at 7 ET on the Big Ten Network.

The awards -- the Tennies? the Delanys?-- honor athletes from all sports in the conference. But as you might imagine, several football players and teams are in the running. Here's a quick look at the football figures are up for a Big Ten award and their competition in that category:

Breakout Performer of the Year
Denard Robinson, Michigan
Darius Morris, Michigan basketball
Jared Sullinger, Ohio State basketball

Most Dominating Performance
Robinson vs. Notre Dame, Sept. 11
Mikel Leshoure, Illinois, vs. Northwestern, Nov. 20
Jordan Taylor,Wisconsin basketball vs. Ohio State, Feb. 12

Most Courageous Performance
Mark Dantonio, Michigan State football
Jon Hoese, Minnesota football
Brock Mealer, brother of Michigan offensive lineman Elliott Mealer

Best Finish
Notre Dame at Michigan State, Sept. 18
Illinois at Michigan, Nov. 6
Wisconsin at Michigan basketball, Feb. 23

Men’s Team of the Year
Wisconsin football
Ohio State basketball
Penn State wrestling

Game of the Year
Illinois at Michigan, Nov. 6
Ohio State at Wisconsin, Oct. 16
Ohio State at Wisconsin basketball, Feb. 12

Hope and concern: Illinois

May, 26, 2011
The Hope and Concern series marches on with the Illinois Fighting Illini.

Biggest reason for hope: QB Nathan Scheelhaase

Scheelhaase turned in a very impressive freshman season and ended it on a high note against Baylor in the Texas Bowl. By all accounts, he has continued to make strides during the winter and spring, particularly as a passer. Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino has seen Scheelhaase making quicker decisions and getting the ball out faster to his receivers. Scheelhaase's ability as a runner is obvious, and Illniois likely will lean on him more after losing Mikel Leshoure to the NFL. There are some question marks at both running back and receiver, but the offensive line looks very solid. If Scheelhaase has time, he should be able to hurt defenses with both his arm and his legs.

Biggest reason for concern: Big holes in defensive front seven

Illinois loses a first-round draft pick in defensive tackle Corey Liuget and a third-round pick in linebacker Martez Wilson, not to mention valuable players like linebacker Nate Bussey and defensive end Clay Nurse. There are a lot of holes to fill, and Illinois needs players like Ian Thomas, Akeem Spence and Jonathan Brown to take their games to the next level. The secondary should be a strength, but defenses need to be led by the front seven and coordinator Vic Koenning spent much of spring practice looking for leadership. Illinois likely won't have a player as disruptive as Liuget on the interior, so it will take more of a collective effort from a defense that made strides last season but also had some inconsistent play.

More Hope and Concern
In case you missed it -- and I don't blame you after all our of Big Ten spring meetings coverage -- but colleague Bruce Feldman published his much-anticipated "Freaks" list Insider on Wednesday.

Feldman's freaks are the top workout warriors in college football, and Illinois fullback Jay Prosch is the Big Ten's lone representative on the list.
A few years ago there was a 250-pound fullback on top of this list named Owen Schmitt. Prosch, a rising sophomore, may top this list in a year or two. Illini staffers say Prosch has calves as thick as some men's waists. Still, he's been measured at 6 percent body fat. He power-cleans 382 pounds, hang-cleans 401 and can bench 405 for two reps. In high school he was a guard and a linebacker, but Ron Zook's staff loves his presence as a fullback.

Prosch is an interesting story who generated some attention this spring. He left the team in early April for eight days to be with his mother, who underwent emergency surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from her brain. Prosch returned to Champaign and drew praise from the coaches for his on-field performance.

After serving as an excellent lead blocker for Mikel Leshoure last season, Prosch saw more carries this spring as Illinois endured injuries at the running back spot. He's definitely getting it done both on the field and in the weight room.

Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa is among those who just missed the cut for Feldman's list. Persa has earned the team's "Top Cat" award as its top weight room performer for the past two years.

I'm hoping to do a more on Big Ten "freaks" in the coming weeks, so stay tuned.
The sleeper team. If it's not your favorite offseason topic, it's pretty high on the list. I can't keep track of how often I get asked to name the Big Ten surprise team or sleeper team for the coming season. Now I'm putting the question to you.

Although few folks projected Michigan State to win 11 games in 2010, the Spartans probably weren't the league’s biggest surprise last season. Illinois entered the fall with a coach on the hot seat (Ron Zook), a freshman quarterback (Nathan Scheelhaase), two new coordinators (Paul Petrino and Vic Koenning) and countless questions. The Illini ended up winning their first bowl game since 1999.

While Illinois might not be as big of a surprise team this year, it is certainly in the mix after losing standout players like defensive tackle Corey Liuget, linebacker Martez Wilson and running back Mikel Leshoure. Northwestern has made three consecutive bowl games for the first time in team history, but the Wildcats could qualify as a surprise if they were to, say, win the Legends division.

Minnesota, Indiana and Purdue were the only Big Ten teams not to qualify for bowls in 2010. The Gophers and Hoosiers have new coaches, while Purdue hopes to end a three-year bowl drought. All three teams have a chance to surprise some folks in 2010.

It's your turn to weigh in on the Big Ten's surprise team in 2011.

Big Ten lunch links

May, 6, 2011
Did you guys get your public forum gift bag? There's an iPod Touch in here.