Big Ten: Miles Shuler

Wide receiver has been a bit of an albatross for the Big Ten, although last season brought a mini renaissance with four 1,000-yard receivers and another (Illinois' Steve Hull) who nearly got there (993 yards). The bad news is all five of those players depart, leaving question marks on the perimeter. There are more certainties at tight end as players such as Ohio State's Jeff Heuerman, Rutgers' Tyler Kroft, Minnesota's Maxx Williams, Northwestern's Dan Vitale and Penn State's trio of Kyle Carter, Jesse James and Adam Breneman all return. Whether you believe Michigan's Devin Funchess is a wide receiver or a tight end, he's back, too. And he's really good.

Our position previews continue with the wide receiver/tight end group.

Best of the best: Maryland

The Big Ten rookies face some challenges in their new conference, but the Terrapins bring a talented and extremely deep group of receivers. Stefon Diggs and Deon Long lead the way as both men return from broken legs that shortened promising 2013 seasons. Levern Jacobs, Nigel King and Amba Etta-Tawo all did nice jobs last season, as each eclipsed 30 receptions. The return of Marcus Leak, who showed the ability to stretch the field in 2012 before missing last season, provides yet another option for senior quarterback C.J. Brown. Wide receiver undoubtedly will be Maryland's strength entering the season, and in terms of depth, no other Big Ten squad comes close. The Terps need a tight end to emerge after losing Dave Stinebaugh.

Next up: Michigan State

I considered several teams here -- Nebraska, Ohio State, Northwestern, Michigan, Indiana, Penn State, even Iowa -- but few programs are bringing back more than three reliable options in the passing game. Michigan State, a laughingstock at receiver in 2012, bounced back nicely last season as the offense stabilized behind quarterback Connor Cook. The Spartans had six receivers or tight ends finish with 17 or more receptions and six players with multiple touchdown receptions in 2013. Five of those players are back as only wide receiver Bennie Fowler, MSU's leader in receiving yards (622) and receiving touchdowns (6), departs. Tony Lippett and Macgarrett Kings lead the group after combining for 87 receptions last year. Aaron Burbridge and Keith Mumphery also return along with tight end Josiah Price, who emerged late last fall. DeAnthony Arnett finally could be ready to contribute. Good depth here.

Sleeper: Northwestern

We've been high on this group for years but the production hasn't been there on a consistent basis. A two-quarterback system and a primary signal-caller (Kain Colter) best suited to run the option made it tough for the wide receivers and tight ends to truly blossom. Things should change this year with a single quarterback (Trevor Siemian) and an offense that should have much more of a passing lean. Christian Jones and Tony Jones are both proven receivers whose numbers should climb this fall. Like MSU's Arnett, Prater also could be on the verge of big things several years after transferring in, and Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler fills the all-important slot role. Tight end Dan Vitale has 62 receptions in his first two seasons and could be a star this fall.

Problem for a contender: Wisconsin

The Badgers barely had enough wide receivers to get through practices this spring, but they'll need a significant boost on the perimeter when the season kicks off. Gone are top wide receiver Jared Abbrederis and top tight end Jacob Pedersen, who accounted for 63.7 percent of the team's receiving yards in 2013. Factor in the loss of running back James White (39 receptions for 300 yards last season), and Wisconsin returns only one player, Jordan Fredrick, with 10 or more receptions last season and none with more than 150 receiving yards. The Badgers need a lot of help here: Fredrick and Alex Erickson to develop, Kenzel Doe to build on a good spring, Robert Wheelwright to stay healthy and blossom and several incoming freshmen -- keep an eye on Krenwick Sanders -- to contribute immediately. Veteran Sam Arneson likely steps into the top tight end role.
It goes against the offensive lineman's credo to crave attention. Despite his size, he would rather go undetected, often a strong indicator that he's doing his job well.

Indiana's offensive linemen are no exception. They don't seek out the spotlight. But it's time to recognize what they've been doing the past few years, because few seem to notice.

[+] EnlargeIndiana Hoosies' offensive line
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsIndiana's offensive line has quietly become one of the premier units in the Big Ten.
Let's be as clear as possible: Indiana's offensive line is the most underrated unit in the Big Ten.

You might disagree, but I doubt you've actually paid attention to Indiana's line. Maybe because it's Indiana. Maybe it's because the Hoosiers run an up-tempo spread offense rather than a traditional, road-grading one that typically shines a brighter light on the five men up front. Whatever the reason, the Hoosiers line rarely gets much love.

But it's a huge reason why Indiana has had the Big Ten's No. 2 offense in each of the past two seasons. Despite two true freshman starters in 2012, Indiana led the Big Ten in fewest sacks allowed: one for every 31.8 pass attempts. Last season, the line overcame several major injuries -- IU started nine linemen and used seven different lineups -- and prevented sacks in six games. The offense averaged more than 300 pass yards and more than 200 rush yards for the first time in team history.

"When I came in with Coach [Kevin] Wilson, both of us having an offensive line background, we wanted to build a unit that has great flexibility, the ability to run the ball," Hoosiers offensive line coach Greg Frey told ESPN.com "Our goal, as it is with any offensive line, is to control the game. We’re going to pick up that third-and-1. If you need more time to throw, we're going to give you more time."

Strong offensive lines are normally stocked with veterans, but Indiana has excelled with youth. Five Hoosiers linemen have earned freshman All-Big Ten honors since 2011, including two in each of the past two seasons. Tackle Jason Spriggs and guard Dan Feeney both earned freshman All-America honors in 2012, when they set team freshman records by starting all 12 games.

Indiana lost Feeney to a foot injury days before the 2013 season and lost two other starters, Peyton Eckert and David Kaminski, to season-ending injuries in October. But others stepped up, players such as Collin Rahrig, a former walk-on who started 10 games at center, earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors. Ralston Evans, who suffered a major knee injury before the 2011 season and appeared in only one game in 2012, started all 12 games at right tackle last season.

"When we were at Michigan, coaches came up and said, 'Who the hell is this right tackle you’ve got?'" Frey said. "I said, 'Don't tell me. Tell him he did a good job.' These guys work hard. There’s a good culture there."

Indiana returns 130 career offensive line starts, most in the Big Ten and third most in the FBS behind Appalachian State and UTSA. Frey, who previously coached lines at Michigan, West Virginia and South Florida, thinks this could be his deepest group.

It's a close group, too, one that spends a lot of time together off of the field. If a Bloomington restaurant offers a food special, the Hoosiers' linemen are quick to find it.

Frey doesn't change his expectations for the line in 2014. They've always been high.

"The ability to be a leader or a presence on the team, that part of it changes," he said. "There’s some credentials there, a little bit of background, some personal expectations.

"We have more voices there who are respected."

But will the group gain respect? It will take more than yards and points.

"They realize the more you’re winning in college football, the more people know about you," Frey said. "Not that it matters in the grand scheme of things, but you'd like to see the fruits of their labor be recognized. Everybody likes to be recognized a little bit.

"Hopefully as we go on, that will naturally happen."

Indiana's offensive line tops my list of the Big Ten's most underrated position groups. Here are four others ...

Minnesota's secondary: Jay Sawvel does an excellent job with Minnesota's back four. Fourth-round draft pick Brock Vereen will be tough to replace, but safety Cedric Thompson had a good spring and Eric Murray could become an elite cornerback this season. Derrick Wells adds a playmaking presence at corner and Briean Boddy-Calhoun, who opened last season as a starting cornerback, returns from injury.

Penn State's running backs: Quarterback Christian Hackenberg grabs the headlines and justifiably so, but he'll need help in the backfield from a talented group of ball-carriers. How many people know Zach Zwinak has nearly 2,000 career rush yards? Bill Belton had an excellent spring and could be the offense's top playmaker, and junior Akeel Lynch has a nice speed-power mix.

Northwestern's receivers/tight ends: I've stumped for this group and while it hasn't quite blossomed, a two-quarterback system and a shift from a pass-heavy attack didn't help. Northwestern should be much more pass-heavy with Trevor Siemian as its sole signal caller. Christian Jones and Tony Jones are proven veterans, Rutgers transfer Myles Shuler fills a void in the slot and Kyle Prater is finally healthy. Tight end Dan Vitale is poised for a breakout season.

Maryland's linebackers: The Terps return three of four starters who combined for 233 tackles last season. Cole Farrand is a strong leader, and Matt Robinson provides a spark on the outside. Maryland will miss the disruptive Marcus Whitfield but returns five of its top six linebackers from 2013. If the group stays healthy -- a big if given Maryland's recent misfortune -- it could be very good.
With spring practice officially behind us, we're taking a look at each Big Ten team and identifying a player who announced himself as a potential key performer this fall.

These are guys who haven't played big roles yet but showed enough during the 15 spring practices -- not just some fluky, spring-game performance against backups -- to factor heavily into their team's plans.

The series turns to a team that generated more attention off the field than on it this spring, but still had some players make strides.

Spring breakout player: WR Miles Shuler

Shuler, who transferred to Northwestern from Rutgers last September, spent the 2013 season doing whatever was asked of him. Before Northwestern faced Ohio State, he played the role of Braxton Miller on the scout team. Before Northwestern faced Nebraska, he was Tommy Armstrong.

A quarterback in high school, Shuler helped his new team prepare for dual-threat signal- callers who brought the option threat throughout the fall.

Although he calls the experience "really, really fun" and "humbling," Shuler was glad to return to his primary position as a wide receiver and enter the two-deep this spring. His superb speed stood out on the practice field and allowed him to make several plays from the slot receiver role, which Northwestern features in its spread offense.

"He wants to play, he wants to be great," Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald told ESPN.com. "We had a great relationship with he and his family in high school. In recruiting, it's like everything when you finish second, you're like, 'Aw, man!' Now to see the success that he's having just in spring has been fun to watch.

"Hopefully, he can have an instant impact this fall."

Shuler had five receptions in two years at Rutgers but didn't appear to be a great fit for the Scarlet Knights' pro-style offense. He could thrive in Northwestern's system, which has featured small, fast slot receivers like Jeremy Ebert and Zeke Markshausen. The Wildcats use 6-foot-3 Christian Jones, their leading receiver, in the slot and have put tight end Dan Vitale there, too, but the 5-foot-10, 175-pound Shuler is much more of a prototype on the inside.

He provides a second speed threat at receiver alongside Tony Jones, who plays on the outside. Shuler, who says he's a bit faster than Jones, has studied Ebert, who had 137 receptions and 19 touchdowns in his final two seasons for the Wildcats.

"I watch Jeremy Ebert all the time," Shuler said. "I love what they did with him in the past, and I'm really excited to see what they'll bring for me this year. I don't know how they'll use me, but I expect it will be similar to how they used Jeremy."

If so, Northwestern's passing game, which struggled for much of 2013, will get a major jolt.

Big Ten's lunch links

May, 1, 2014
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Howdy, May. There goes one more month out of the way before football season starts for real.
  • Michigan has an established weapon in Devin Funchess and a future star in Freddy Canteen, but questions still remain about the targets for the passing game.
  • The relationship began with a somewhat unusual request, and after 10 years together, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio reflects on his time with Pat Narduzzi.
  • David Jones writes that hiring James Franklin was a risk, and the developments this week suggest there's at least a chance more things could pop up with the Penn State coach.
  • Nick Saban went out of his way to praise the Big Ten and made sure he was quoted doing so during a stop in Ohio.
  • Get to know one of Ohio State's most valuable weapons on the recruiting trail -- a graphic designer.
  • Part of the apparent down cycle for the Big Ten can be traced to the ups and downs of the 2010 recruiting classes across the league. Sam McKewon takes a detailed look at the hits and misses.
  • A former Rutgers wide receiver is trying to make an impact elsewhere in the league, and Miles Shuler appears to be on track to give Northwestern a boost on offense.
  • Wisconsin would have preferred to keep its director of football operations, but now it will have to move quickly to fill a very important job to Gary Andersen.
  • The 2013 signing class is already starting to fill out the depth chart at Iowa.
  • Former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel is scheduled for a public forum at Akron in his bid for the school's presidency.
With spring practice now in the rear-view mirror, your faithful Big Ten reporters thought it would be a good time to share some of our thoughts from the spring that was. Between us, we saw 10 of the 14 Big Ten teams in person this spring and we followed all of them as closely as possible.

So this is a chance to share our impressions and observations. We'll start today with the West Division, where Adam got an up-close look at Illinois, Iowa, Northwestern and Wisconsin.

[+] EnlargeKirk Ferentz
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsIowa coach Kirk Ferentz has a legitimate contender for the Big Ten title.
Brian Bennett: Adam, I'm intrigued by Iowa and you went to see the Hawkeyes -- and even got into practice! Sounds like this team has a little more speed and explosiveness. How does it compare to the Iowa teams we've seen in the past, and is this a legit Big Ten contender?

Adam Rittenberg: Well, it was actually a portion of practice, but I'll take what I can get at Fort Ferentz. This is a legitimate Big Ten contender, in large part because of the schedule but also because of the team it returns. I just didn't get the sense Iowa has many major problems. AIRBHG is off torturing baby seals. The linebacker thing is worth monitoring, but Quinton Alston would have started for most teams last year. Kirk Ferentz's best teams are strong up front, and Iowa looks very solid along both lines with Brandon Scherff, Carl Davis and others.

The young wide receivers really intrigue me, especially Derrick Willies, who blew up in the spring scrimmage. Iowa hasn't had difference-makers at receiver for some time. The offense had a spike in plays last year, and coordinator Greg Davis wants to go faster and be more diverse, even incorporating backup quarterback C.J. Beathard into the mix. That intrigues me. So you've got solid line play, more weapons on offense and a cake schedule. Indianapolis-bound? It's possible.

BB: When it comes to winning Big Ten titles, Wisconsin has been far more successful than its new West brethren in the last five years. Yet the Badgers lost a whole lot of valuable seniors, especially on defense. You went to Madison. How's the revamped defense looking, and is there anyone who can catch the ball from whoever starts at QB?

AR: Fascinating team. Quarterback competitions are nothing new in Mad City, but the sheer number of questions at UW stands out. It feels like coach Gary Andersen should be going into his first year, not his second. Kenzel Doe had a nice spring at slot receiver, but Wisconsin will need help from its five incoming freshmen. The uncertainty at receiver could benefit Tanner McEvoy in the quarterback competition as Andersen wants a second rushing threat on the field (or sometimes a third when Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement play together).

I didn't get a great read on the offensive line because of injuries, but the defensive front seven will be a big story all season. So many position changes. Linebacker Derek Landisch is the leader, but who are the top playmakers? Cornerback Sojourn Shelton could be one, and the coaches really like young defensive ends Chikwe Obasih and Alec James. I really liked linebacker Leon Jacobs last summer and could see him emerging. Like Iowa, Wisconsin has a favorable schedule, but we're going to find out how good Andersen and his staff really are this season.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Siemian
Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY SportsQuarterback Trevor Siemian has taken charge at Northwestern.
BB: You also spent some time at Northwestern, whose spring was dominated by the union issue. With all those distractions and the many injuries this spring, did you get any sense whether the Wildcats can bounce back from last year's highly disappointing 5-7 campaign?

AR: If the team stays focused and aligned, not to mention healthy, the answer is yes. Northwestern spun the two-quarterback deal well for a while, but it's always better to have one QB and a clear identity on offense. It has that with Trevor Siemian, who looked good this spring, and a scheme that should rely more on the pass. Wide receiver is a strength as Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler shined at the slot. I'm interested to see how running back Venric Mark's role changes without Kain Colter on the field.

The defense could be the best in Pat Fitzgerald's tenure. Improved recruiting is paying off in the secondary as several redshirt freshmen, including safety Godwin Igwebuike, enter the mix. Defensive tackle is the big concern and overall D-line health, but the defense wasn't the reason Northwestern went 5-7. It should keep the team in most games.

BB: The last West team you saw was Illinois. Did anything you witnessed convince you the Illini can get to a bowl in 2014?

AR: I'm still thawing out from a frigid March night at Chicago's Gately Stadium. Illinois has a chance to sustain its momentum on offense. The line should be solid, quarterback Wes Lunt has a plus arm and Josh Ferguson is a big-time threat. Continued improvement at wide receiver is key as newcomers Geronimo Allison and Mike Dudek impressed. The defense still needs a lot of work, but T.J. Neal has helped fill Jonathan Brown's role, and linemen D.J. Smoot and DeJazz Woods stood out. Illinois needs more numbers in the front seven to firm up a run defense that really struggled last year.

BB: Overall, did anything you saw change your opinion on the West Division race? I'm pretty high on Nebraska and think their defensive front seven could be pretty special. I still think Minnesota will be a factor, but the lack of visible progress in the passing game (granted, the spring game debacle there means little in the big picture) was disappointing. For me, the jury's out on Wisconsin and Iowa is a big-time dark horse. What say you?

AR: Iowa is beyond dark-horse status. A veteran team took a big step last year and is poised to take another with a favorable schedule. Wisconsin likely will be the popular pick to win the division, but I have too many doubts right now. Nebraska is the wild card to me. Can we trust a Huskers team that will be better on defense? Minnesota might be a better team with a worse record because of its schedule. Northwestern could be a factor if it gets past the union distraction.

There's no alpha dog here. Should be a wild ride.

Northwestern spring wrap

April, 28, 2014
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The spring workouts are in the books and the long offseason has arrived. But before diving into summer and the painful wait for football to return, we're taking a look back at the developments from March and April and sneaking a peek at what to expect in the fall for Northwestern.

Three things we learned in the spring

  • The offense has a quarterback and an identity: The two-quarterback system Northwestern used with mixed results in 2012 and 2013 is dead, at least for now. Senior Trevor Siemian established himself as the top signal-caller and a team leader with a strong spring. Siemian has less mobility than recent Wildcats signal-callers but a stronger arm. Northwestern likely will return to its pass-first roots this season after never establishing a consistent identity last fall.
  • The secondary should be a strength: Northwestern historically has struggled in the back end of its defense, but it returns all four starters from a decent group last season and boasts unprecedented depth. The emergence of redshirt freshmen like Godwin Igwebuike, Kyle Queiro and Keith Watkins II this spring allows the Wildcats to go two or three deep at all four positions. Senior safety Ibraheim Campbell leads the group, which will be expected to generate takeaways.
  • Shuler, Prater add to receiving corps: This group has teased us before, but the combination of returning players, newcomers and a pass-driven quarterback/offense suggests big things are on the way. Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler is a natural playmaker who could star at the slot position, like Jeremy Ebert did in 2010 and 2011. Another one-time transfer, former USC Trojan Kyle Prater, is finally healthy and turned in a solid spring at the outside spot. The 6-foot-5, 225-pound Prater provides size on the edge.
Three questions for the fall

  • Defensive line health: Like the offensive line last spring, Northwestern's defensive front went through the session with limited bodies following offseason surgeries to four players, including tackle Sean McEvilly, a projected starter, and ends Ifeadi Odenigbo and Deonte Gibson. Everyone will be healthy for a vital preseason camp as Northwestern tries to firm up its run defense, a weakness during Big Ten play last season.
  • Venric Mark's role: A 1,300-yard rusher and All-America punt returner in 2012, Mark essentially has played one full game since the 2013 Gator Bowl. He should be a major addition on special teams, but his role in the offense remains to be seen. Mark had his most success running the zone read with Kain Colter, but Siemian has different strengths. Northwestern needs a stronger inside run presence, a role Mark relishes despite his size. Above all else, the Wildcats need Mark to stay on the field throughout the season.
  • Firming up the offensive line: The line took a significant step backward in 2013, possibly because of all the injury issues in the previous offseason. Northwestern had all of its linemen on the field this spring and ramped up the competition, as senior tackle Jack Konopka, a two-year starter, worked with the reserves. Center Brandon Vitabile and tackle Paul Jorgensen provide leadership for the group, but most spots remain open entering the summer.
One way-too-early prediction

Northwestern returns to the postseason and makes some noise in the West Division. Just about everything went wrong for the Wildcats from an injury and fortune standpoint in 2013. They had leadership issues that players acknowledged this spring. They had no identity on offense. Most of the core pieces return and the leadership appears much stronger. If Northwestern remains relatively healthy, it should win at least seven games and possibly challenge Iowa, Wisconsin and Nebraska in the West.
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Two years ago, the Big Ten blog ranked Northwestern's wide receivers and tight ends as the league's best. The Wildcats proceeded to finish 106th and 69th in passing the next two seasons.

Whoops.

Our prediction clearly missed the mark back then, mainly because Northwestern became more of a zone-read run-driven offense led by quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark. But maybe we jumped the gun on the Wildcats.

[+] EnlargeTony Jones
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesTony Jones is part of a deep and talented group of receivers at Northwestern.
After watching Northwestern's practice Thursday, a case can be made that the receivers and tight ends, while lacking a bona fide superstar, should be among the Big Ten's best this fall. There were familiar faces like Christian Jones, Tony Jones and Dan Vitale. Speedy Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler made play after play downfield, showing that the Wildcats have another deep threat alongside Tony Jones.

Wide receiver Kyle Prater, a one-time elite recruit who has battled myriad injuries during stints at both USC and Northwestern, is finally healthy and contributing. Sophomore Mike McHugh provides another presence outside, and Jayme Taylor complements Vitale at the superback (tight end/fullback) spot.

An offense that struggled to find playmakers in 2013 now might have a surplus.

"We're going to attack you with waves of people," coach Pat Fitzgerald told ESPN.com. "And we've proven over time that when we have that in place, I don't know how you stop us."

The Wildcats couldn't produce second and third waves of passing weapons in 2013. It might not have mattered with the way their offensive line was pushed around, but Christian Jones logged too many snaps without a break. So did Vitale.

The depth issues especially hurt with an up-tempo offense, Fitzgerald noted, because you want to rotate personnel more often. When Northwestern had to pass more after injuries to both Mark and Colter, it couldn't deliver.

"When guys got dinged, and that's going to happen, we didn't have the depth we needed," offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. "Now we can run the same personnel, but wave two is coming at you. We're still going to have our starters and they're going to get to play, but it's nice to bring some of those other guys along.

"Right now, the ball's getting spread around a lot more."

Northwestern's deepest position actually might be running back, especially when Mark and Stephen Buckley return to action this fall. Treyvon Green, the team's leading rusher in 2013, and Warren Long took most of the carries this spring. Several heralded freshmen arrive in the summer.

But it's becoming fairly apparent that Northwestern's offense will have more of a passing lean this fall. Quarterback Trevor Siemian, who left no doubt about his starter status this spring, boasts a strong arm and much less mobility than Colter. The offense could look a lot more like the units in 2007 and 2009, which ranked in the top 15 nationally in passing.

"We still have the option, but our next option off of a run play is maybe to throw something," McCall said. "That's the way it's always been in this system. When we had an option quarterback, you could pitch it off of that. Now they load the box and we pull the ball and we're going to throw it."

McCall is quick to note that during his tenure, Northwestern has yet to make it through the season without an injury to a quarterback or a running back.

Translation: the Wildcats will need all of their options.

"We have a lot of talent across the board," Shuler said. "Speed, size, quickness. We have a lot of depth, so I'm really excited."
We're previewing all of the Big Ten spring games, even the ones that are not quite spring games, like Northwestern's practice on Saturday.

When: 11 a.m. ET
Where: Ryan Field
Admission: Free. Stadium gates will open at 10 a.m. ET
TV: Big Ten Network (live)
Weather forecast: Partly sunny, with a high near 68. Wind 10 to 15 mph.

What to watch for: Just like last year, the Wildcats won’t hold an actual spring game. Instead, their 15th session of the spring will be just like a regular practice, except that fans will be invited to attend.

And, no, they didn’t scrap the spring game because of union demands. Pat Fitzgerald’s team is simply too banged up to field two squads and go at it in any kind of live scrimmage. Northwestern opened spring drills with 11 players sidelined because of injuries, including potential starting defensive linemen Sean McEvilly, Deonte Gibson and Ifeadi Odenigbo, cornerback Daniel Jones and star running back Venric Mark.

Because of the injuries, Fitzgerald hasn’t really been able to have scrimmages all spring and says he’ll have to hold some during two-a-days in August to get his players up to speed.

There will still be some story lines to watch Saturday, and in fact, you may learn more from a regular practice effort than you would from most vanilla, fan-friendly spring exhibitions. Fitzgerald has said this is quarterback Trevor Siemian’s team, which means the offense should be fairly reliant on the passing game and not so much the option. At receiver, transfer Miles Shuler has earned praise, and the oft-injured Kyle Prater has had a nice spring, Fitzgerald said this week. It's just about now or never for Prater.

Collin Ellis has moved to middle linebacker, and there's a pretty good competition for his old spot on the outside, with Jimmy Hall and Drew Smith battling it out.

Mostly, though, the Wildcats and their fans are happy to see a day that should be all about football after their spring was dominated by union talk. The vote still looms, but at least on Saturday, the team can just practice, even if it's not a traditional spring game.
The head coaches from the new Big Ten West Division, along with a player from each team, addressed reporters today on a teleconference. The East Division coaches and players will follow Thursday.

To the notebook:

WISCONSIN
  • Coach Gary Andersen has some concern about QB Joel Stave's lingering shoulder injury. Stave, who hurt the AC joint of his throwing shoulder in the Capital One Bowl, has been shut down for the rest of the spring and will undergo an MRI. "The challenge is to truly identify the situation and start the rehab process," Andersen said.
  • Wisconsin's blockbuster opener against LSU in Houston has motivated players during the offseason. The Badgers typically open seasons with FCS or lower-level FBS opponents, so this is different. "It would give me an edge if I were a player," Andersen said.
  • RB Melvin Gordon said he turned down the NFL draft to try to lead Wisconsin into the inaugural College Football Playoff. Andersen on Gordon's return: "Huge is not a big-enough word."
NORTHWESTERN
  • The two-quarterback system is dead, at least for the 2014 season, as senior Trevor Siemian has established himself as the clear starter this spring. Coach Pat Fitzgerald said, "This is Trevor Siemian's football team." Siemian added that while sharing time with Kain Colter had its benefits, he's excited for his moment. "It's been a long time coming," he said.
  • WR Miles Shuler, who transferred from Rutgers last September, will be an impact player for the Wildcats, Fitzgerald said. Shuler spent last season in several roles, including mimicking Braxton Miller and other mobile quarterbacks on Northwestern's scout team. "You just have to get the ball in his hands," Siemian said.
  • Injuries along the defensive line will prevent Northwestern from having a true spring game Saturday. Fitzgerald said the Wildcats will hold more two-a-day practices this summer to make up for the lost scrimmage time. Northwestern didn't have any two-a-days last year.
NEBRASKA
  • RB Ameer Abdullah has spent the spring trying to become a more complete back. It includes improving his pass-blocking by facing players like DE Randy Gregory and LB Zaire Anderson. Abdullah said Gregory is "the best that we're going to see in the conference, and luckily he's on our team."
  • Coach Bo Pelini described his epic Twitter interaction with alter ego Faux Pelini during the BCS national title game as "having a bit of fun." He didn't think it would go viral, although he's aware of Faux's strong following. Pelini doesn't follow Faux but his wife provides him updates "all the time."
  • Abdullah thinks WR Kenny Bell will have a breakout season after not getting the ball thrown his way as much in 2013. Bell's post routes and linear speed impress Abdullah.
  • The Huskers' spring game on Saturday will feature the offense against the defense and a modified points system.
PURDUE
  • RB Raheem Mostert and DT Ra'Zahn Howard both have stood out this spring. Mostert, who won two gold medals at the Big Ten indoor track championships earlier this year, has made a strong push for a starting spot. Howard is showing greater stamina and explosiveness after losing weight during the offseason, coach Darrell Hazell said. Veteran DE Ryan Russell also has emerged late in the spring.
  • Purdue's current lack of depth at tight end doesn't worry Hazell. Dolapo Macarthy (shoulder) will be fine by preseason camp, and Gabe Holmes should return after missing the spring because of academic issues.
  • The Boilers have dramatically reduced their turnovers and mental errors in practice this spring. "Last year, we couldn't even line up correctly," QB Danny Etling said.
ILLINOIS
  • Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, filling in for coach Tim Beckman, said new wide receivers Geronimo Allison (junior college transfer) and Mike Dudek (a freshman early enrollee) both have exceeded expectations so far this spring.
  • Cubit sees separation at times in the quarterback competition but is in "no rush" to name a starter, noting that some players take longer to develop than others. Although Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt has looked the part so far in the spring, it seems as though Cubit will let this play out a little longer.
MINNESOTA
  • Like Siemian at Northwestern, Gophers QB Mitch Leidner has taken ownership of the team this spring and appears to be the obvious starter. Coach Jerry Kill said Leidner "became a coach" during winter workouts. "Everybody sees me as the leader of this team," Leidner said.
  • Leidner admits he was fairly shocked when QB Philip Nelson decided to transfer to Rutgers after the season. Nelson and Leidner shared snaps last season, and Leidner said he came to Minnesota to compete with Nelson.
  • The running back competition already is heating up, as redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards has turned in a strong spring alongside David Cobb and others. Edwards, the younger brother of former Michigan star WR Braylon Edwards, redshirted last season because of an ankle injury. Kill sounds as if he can't get enough ball-carrying options, as recruits Jeff Jones and Rodney Smith arrive this summer.
IOWA
  • Coach Kirk Ferentz said QB Jake Rudock is "perfectly healthy" after being bothered by knee injuries late in the season. The quarterback situation has a different feel this spring as both Rudock and C.J. Beathard gained experience in 2013. "It's a situation where both guys have to be at their best," Ferentz said.
  • Brandon Scherff had only played quarterback and tight end in high school when he committed to play for Iowa. He since has blossomed into an offensive tackle whom Ferentz said could have been a first-round draft pick had he decided to skip his senior season with the Hawkeyes. "My goal is to be one of the best offensive linemen in the nation," Scherff said.
We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. The wide receivers and tight ends are up next.

Illinois: The Illini are looking for more from this group after losing top target Steve Hull, who exploded late in the season to finish just shy of 1,000 receiving yards. While running back Josh Ferguson (50 catches in 2013) will continue to contribute, Illinois could use a boost from Martize Barr, who arrived with high expectations but only had 26 receptions last fall. Another junior-college transfer, Geronimo Allison, could make an impact beginning this spring, but there's some mystery at wideout. Illinois looks more solid at tight end with seniors Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse.

Indiana: Despite the somewhat surprising early departure of All-Big Ten selection Cody Latimer, Indiana should be fine here. Shane Wynn is the veteran of the group after recording 633 receiving yards on 46 catches last season. Kofi Hughes and Duwyce Wilson also depart, so Indiana will be leaning more on Nick Stoner and Isaiah Roundtree. The Hoosiers have high hopes for early enrollee Dominique Booth, a decorated recruit who could fill Latimer's spot on the outside. Productive tight end Ted Bolser departs and several players will compete, including early enrollee Jordan Fuchs.

Iowa: Almost all the wide receivers are back from a group in which none eclipsed more than 400 receiving yards in 2013. Balance is nice, but separation could be nicer for the Hawkeyes this spring. Kevonte Martin-Manley is the most experienced wideout and has 122 career receptions. Tevaun Smith also returns, and Iowa fans are excited about big-play threat Damond Powell, who averaged 24.2 yards on only 12 receptions last season. Iowa loses its top red-zone target in tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz and will need Jake Duzey to deliver more Ohio State-like performances.

Maryland: When the Terrapins get healthy, they might have the Big Ten's best wide receiving corps. Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, both of whom sustained broken legs against Wake Forest last season, have the ability to stretch the field as both averaged more than 15 yards per reception before the injuries struck. Leading receiver Levern Jacobs also returns, alongside junior Nigel King and sophomore Amba Etta-Tawo, who averaged more than 16 yards per catch in 2013. Marcus Leak, who started seven games in 2012, rejoins the team after a year away. The Terps are unproven at tight end after losing Dave Stinebaugh.

Michigan: There's a reason why some Michigan fans want Devin Gardner to return to wide receiver for his final season. The Wolverines are thin on the perimeter after losing Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo. Redshirt sophomores Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh are both candidates to start, and Dennis Norfleet could be the answer in the slot. But there's plenty of opportunity for younger players like Drake Harris, an early enrollee. Michigan's best pass-catching option, Devin Funchess, is listed as a tight end but plays more like a receiver. The Wolverines will be without their second-string tight end, Jake Butt, who suffered an ACL tear in winter conditioning.

Michigan State: Remember all the justified angst about this group a year ago? It has pretty much gone away as the Spartans wideouts rebounded nicely in 2013. Bennie Fowler departs, but MSU brings back its top two receivers in Tony Lippett and Macgarrett Kings, who showed explosiveness down the stretch last fall. Aaron Burbridge had a bit of a sophomore slump but provides another option alongside veteran Keith Mumphery, who averaged 16.6 yards per catch in 2013. Josiah Price leads the tight end group after a solid freshman season.

Minnesota: Here's a group to watch during spring practice, particularly the wide receivers. Minnesota has proven it can run the ball and defend under Jerry Kill, but the passing game was putrid in 2013, ranking last in the Big Ten and 115th nationally. Youth is partly to blame, and while the Gophers still lack experience, they can expect more from promising players like Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones. Senior Isaac Fruechte provides a veteran presence. Minnesota looks solid at tight end with sophomore Maxx Williams, the team's receiving yards leader (417) in 2013.

Nebraska: The Huskers lose a significant piece in Quincy Enunwa, who led the team in receiving yards (753) and had three times as many receiving touchdowns (12) as anyone else in 2013. Kenny Bell is set to recapture the No. 1 receiver role, which he had in 2012, and comes off of a 52-catch season as a junior. Nebraska must build around Bell this spring with players like the mustachioed Jordan Westerkamp, who had 20 catches as a freshman, including a rather memorable one to beat Northwestern. Will Jamal Turner turn the corner this offseason? Juniors Sam Burtch and Taariq Allen also return. Cethan Carter started six games at tight end last fall and should take over the top spot there as Jake Long departs.

Northwestern: The passing game fell short of expectations in 2013, but there's reason for optimism as Northwestern returns its top three pass-catchers in Tony Jones, Christian Jones and Dan Vitale. The two Joneses (no relation), who combined for 109 catches in 2013, lead the receiving corps along with junior Cameron Dickerson. Speedy Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler provides a playmaking spark, possibly at slot receiver. Vitale, who had a somewhat disappointing sophomore season, has All-Big Ten potential at the superback (tight end) spot. Although Northwestern rarely plays true freshmen, superback Garrett Dickerson, Cameron's brother, could see the field right away.

Ohio State: A group that drew heavy criticism from coach Urban Meyer two springs ago is stockpiling talent. Devin Smith is the familiar name, a big-play senior who has started each of the past two seasons and boasts 18 career touchdowns. Ohio State must replace top wideout Corey Brown and will look for more from Evan Spencer. Michael Thomas has stood out in practices but must translate his performance to games. This could be a breakout year for H-back Dontre Wilson, who averaged nine yards per touch as a freshman. Buckeyes fans are eager to see redshirt freshmen Jalin Marshall and James Clark, and incoming players like Johnnie Dixon could make a splash right away. Ohio State returns an elite tight end in Jeff Heuerman.

Penn State: The Lions have very different depth situations at receiver and tight end. They're looking for contributors on the perimeter after losing Allen Robinson, the Big Ten's top wide receiver the past two seasons, who accounted for 46 percent of the team's receiving production in 2013. Brandon Felder also departs, leaving Geno Lewis as the likeliest candidate to move into a featured role. Richy Anderson also returns, but there will be plenty of competition/opportunity at receiver, a position new coach James Franklin targeted in recruiting with players like Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall. Things are much more stable at tight end as the Lions return three talented players in Jesse James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman.

Purdue: If you're looking for hope at Purdue, these spots aren't bad places to start. There are several promising young players like receiver DeAngelo Yancey, who recorded a team-leading 546 receiving yards as a freshman. Cameron Posey also had a decent freshman year (26 catches, 297 yards), and Danny Anthrop averaged 18.4 yards as a sophomore. A full offseason with quarterbacks Danny Etling and Austin Appleby should help the group. Tight end also should be a strength as Justin Sinz, who led Purdue with 41 catches last season, is back along with Gabe Holmes, who returns after missing most of 2013 with a wrist injury.

Rutgers: The good news is tight end Tyler Kroft returns after leading Rutgers in both receptions (43) and receiving yards (573) last season. Kroft will immediately contend for All-Big Ten honors. Things are murkier at wide receiver, where top contributors Brandon Coleman and Quron Pratt both depart. Leonte Carroo took a nice step as a sophomore, averaging 17.1 yards per catch and enters the spring as the frontrunner to become the team's No. 1 wideout. Ruhann Peele is another promising young receiver for the Scarlet Knights, who boast size with Carlton Agudosi (6-foot-6) and Andre Patton (6-4).

Wisconsin: The quarterback competition will gain more attention this spring, but Wisconsin's receiver/tight end situation could be more critical. The Badgers lose Jared Abbrederis, their only major threat at receiver the past two seasons, as well as top tight end Jacob Pedersen. Players like Jordan Fredrick and Kenzel Doe must translate their experience into greater production, and Wisconsin will look for more from young receivers like Alex Erickson and Robert Wheelwright. Help is on the way as Wisconsin signed five receivers in the 2014 class, but wideout definitely is a position of concern right now. Sam Arneson is the logical candidate to step in for Pedersen, but there should be competition as the Badgers lose a lot at the position.
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Purdue Boilermakers, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Penn State Nittany Lions, Big Ten Conference, Michigan State Spartans, Northwestern Wildcats, Indiana Hoosiers, Illinois Fighting Illini, Ohio State Buckeyes, Michigan Wolverines, Wisconsin Badgers, Iowa Hawkeyes, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Football Recruiting, Maryland Terrapins, Jacob Pedersen, C.J. Fiedorowicz, Devin Smith, Tony Jones, Tony Lippett, Corey Brown, Jeremy Gallon, Duwyce Wilson, Keith Mumphery, Justin Sinz, Kevonte Martin-Manley, Evan Spencer, Gabe Holmes, Kofi Hughes, Jared Abbrederis, Kyle Carter, Nick Stoner, Jordan Fredrick, Sam Arneson, Matt LaCosse, Ted Bolser, Steve Hull, Kenzel Doe, Christian Jones, Jamal Turner, Shane Wynn, Josh Ferguson, Kenny Bell, Devin Funchess, Josiah Price, Cody Latimer, Drew Dileo, Quincy Enunwa, Stefon Diggs, Jordan Westerkamp, Aaron Burbridge, Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson, Jesse James, MacGarrett Kings, Austin Appleby, Michael Thomas, Adam Breneman, Tevaun Smith, Isaiah Roundtree, Isaac Fruechte, Drake Harris, Cameron Dickerson, Dominique Booth, Jalin Marshall, Jake Duzey, Danny Etling, Allen Robinson, Dan Vitale, Danny Anthrop, Martize Barr, Damond Powell, Dontre Wilson, James Clark, Robert Wheelwright, Donovahn Jones, Drew Wolitarsky, Taariq Allen, Richy Anderson, Sam Burtch, Chris Godwin, Garrett Dickerson, Johnnie Dixon, Saeed Blacknall, Alex Erickson, Maxx Williams, Geronimo Allison, Cethan Carter, Cameron Posey, DeAngelo Yancey, Geno Lewis, Brandon Felder, Brandon Coleman, B1G spring positions 14, Jordan Fuchs, Miles Shuler, Levern Jacobs, Nigel King, Amba Etta-Tawo, Dave Stinebaugh, Marcus Leak, Tyler Kroft, Quron Pratt, Leonte Carroo, Ruhann Peele, Carlton Agudosi, Andre Patton

Nine Big Ten programs will feature true quarterback competitions this spring, and we're taking a closer look at the candidates, the circumstances and the stakes of each race. First up: Northwestern.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The goal for Siemian?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"As a quarterback, you're the guy, so it's directly on your shoulders," he said. "I'm working to be the best leader I can for this offense. Not that I didn't last year, but this year, it's even more of an emphasis."

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