Big Ten: Mitch Ewald

Indiana spring wrap

April, 28, 2014
Apr 28
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 Indiana.

Three things we learned in the spring
  • Moving to the 3-4 defense: Brian Knorr has taken over as defensive coordinator, and he's bringing along his philosophy from Wake Forest. The Hoosiers and Badgers are now the only Big Ten teams to run the 3-4 defense, and Indiana has switch some players' positions as a result.
  • WR Shane Wynn is stepping up: With the departures of Cody Latimer and Kofi Hughes, the Hoosiers moved Wynn to the outside, hoping he'd make up for some of the lost production. Thanks to his speed, the adjustment seems to be going well. He had five catches for 141 yards in the spring game.
  • The offense once again looks strong: Running back Tevin Coleman had a breakout 2013 season, and he wants to be "the leading rusher in the Big Ten." That's a tall order, but he's looked good this spring and the offensive line is pretty solid. IU had the No. 2 offense in the conference last season, and the Hoosiers showed this spring that they likely won't stray too far from that ranking.
Three questions for the fall
  • Who gets the most snaps under center?: Even head coach Kevin Wilson doesn't know who will end up with more playing time: pocket passer Nate Sudfeld or dual threat Tre Roberson. The two will likely split time again this season, and there's no telling who will start when. This is one of the more unique QB battles in the Big Ten, but both players obviously are talented.
  • Special teams: Gone is four-year starting kicker Mitch Ewald, Indiana's all-time leader in field goals (53), field goal percentage (80.3 percent) and extra points (161). Indiana will have to find a replacement among three redshirt freshman walk-ons, but that's not the only question on special teams. IU also needs improved play from its punters.
  • Will this defense ever even reach "average?" The Hoosiers allowed 38.8 points per game last season, and they've been a defensive doormat for what seems like ages. Since 2008, Indiana has allowed at least 34 point per game in all but one season (2009: 29.5 ppg). Indiana lost only safety Greg Heban over the offseason. Can the Hoosiers finally find some semblance of success here?
One way-too-early prediction

The defense finally takes a step in the right direction. It can't get much worse after all, and Knorr seems like the right man for the job. After spending the past few seasons regressing, Indiana finally improves this fall. It still won't be a good defense -- but it will be a better defense.
We're taking snapshots of each position group with every Big Ten team entering the spring. The series wraps up with the specialists.

Illinois:The Illini might not be exceptional in the kicking game, but they're in better shape than they were when coach Tim Beckman arrived. Punter Justin DuVernois returns after a solid junior season, while Taylor Zalewski looks for a bit more consistency in his second full season as the placekicker. Zalewski made 12 of 17 field-goal attempts last fall. The return game is the real plus, as V'Angelo Bentley provides a major threat, especially on punt returns.

Indiana: Like Illinois, Indiana brings back a dynamic returner in Shane Wynn, who averaged 14 yards on punt run-backs despite limited work. Punter Erich Toth also is back for his third season as the starter. Toth placed 18 of 52 attempts inside the opponent's 20-yard line. IU suffers a big loss at kicker as Mitch Ewald, the team's career field goals and field-goal percentage leader, departs. Aaron Del Grosso and Griffin Oakes will compete at kicker, and Jake Shake (shake and bake!) could enter the mix this summer.

Iowa: Here's another Big Ten team that looks very strong on returns, as Iowa boasts the Big Ten's most dynamic tandem in Kevonte Martin-Manley (punts) and Jordan Cotton (kickoffs). Martin-Manley had two punt-return touchdowns in 2013. Punter Connor Kornbrath ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in average, but placed 27 of 65 attempts inside the opponent's 20. Iowa loses kicker Mike Meyer, a four-year starter. Junior Marshall Koehn seems likely to step up, but could be pushed by incoming freshman Mick Ellis and others.

Maryland: Notice a theme so far? Most Big Ten teams are strong in the return game, and Maryland is no exception. If Stefon Diggs returns at full strength from his leg injury, he'll be a dangerous man with punts and kickoffs in his hands. Will Likely performed extremely well in Diggs' spot, averaging 26 yards on kickoff returns and 12.8 yards on punt returns. Maryland brings back an excellent kicker in Brad Craddock (21-for-25 on field goals last year), and punter Nathan Renfro enters his third season as the starter.

Michigan: Matt Wile has done a bit of everything for Michigan, but could settle into the starting placekicker role this fall. Wile handled kicking duties late last season and also served as Michigan's punter after Will Hagerup was suspended for the season. Hagerup, the Big Ten's punter of the year in 2012, will reclaim the role if he can avoid off-field problems that have surfaced throughout his career. Wile then could focus on kicking, as Kenny Allen is the only other option there. Michigan is still waiting for big things from kick returner Dennis Norfleet and must find someone to handle punts. Top recruit Jabrill Peppers could help.

Michigan State: Special teams once again should be a strength for MSU, which returns All-Big Ten punter Mike Sadler, a Ray Guy award semifinalist who will contend for All-America honors in 2014. Kicker Michael Geiger also is back after connecting on 15 of 16 field-goal attempts as a true freshman. Macgarrett Kings Jr. and Andre Sims Jr. both put up good numbers on punt returns. Michigan State had by far the fewest kick returns (18) in the Big Ten last year and will look for a boost from R.J. Shelton and others.

Minnesota: After an above-average year on special teams in 2013, Minnesota again should be good in the third phase. Punter Peter Mortell didn't get as many accolades as Sadler or Purdue's Cody Webster, but he had an excellent sophomore season, averaging 43.3 yards per attempt with 15 of 50 yards or longer. Marcus Jones is a major threat on returns after bringing back both a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns last fall. Redshirt freshman kickers Ryan Santoso and Andrew Harte will compete as the Gophers lose Chris Hawthorne.

Nebraska: The Huskers are looking for some upgrades on special teams, particularly on punt returns, as Nebraska ranked 123rd in the FBS last fall. Primary returner Jordan Westerkamp is back, but he'll face some competition. Nebraska brings back punter Sam Foltz, who had a solid freshman season, averaging 41.6 yards per boot. Mauro Bondi is set to step in at kicker as Pat Smith departs. If Bondi struggles, incoming freshman Kris Brown could get a look this summer. Kenny Bell, who led the Big Ten in kick return average (26.5 yards per return), is back.

Northwestern: The Wildcats lose a huge piece in Jeff Budzien, named the Big Ten's top kicker in each of his final two seasons. Hunter Niswander can handle both kickoffs and punts but seems likely to slide into Budzien's spot. Northwestern's punting was a mess in 2013, ranking 118th nationally in net average (33.2 ypp). Brandon Williams departs and Chris Gradone or Niswander will take over. The big news is Northwestern brings back Venric Mark , an All-America punt returner in 2012. Primary kick returner Matt Harris is back after a solid freshman season.

Ohio State: Aussie, Aussie, Aussie. Indeed, the Aussie is back at punter as Cameron Johnston returns after an excellent debut season (I refuse to call a 21-year-old a freshman). Ohio State hopes for similar results from another first-year specialist in kicker Sean Nuernberger, an early enrollee expected to step in for the departing Drew Basil. Sophomore Dontre Wilson will continue to have a big role on returns after handling kickoffs last year. Ohio State must replace Corey Brown on punt returns and could look to redshirt freshman Jalin Marshall or true freshmen Curtis Samuel and Johnnie Dixon.

Penn State: The kicking game continues to be an area of concern.Sam Ficken owns the team record for consecutive field goals (15) and started strong last season but ended with just 15 of 23 conversions, including four misses inside 40 yards. Penn State needs a new punter after losing Alex Butterworth, and will turn to Chris Gulla. Jesse Della Valle did a good job on punt returns, but Penn State needs a boost on kickoffs after finishing last in the league (19.1 yards per return). The Lions could stick with Geno Lewis or look for a newcomer such as De'Andre Thompkins to emerge. PSU also must shore up its coverage units.

Purdue: As if the Boilers didn't have enough to address on offense and defense, the kicking game needs attention. Punter Cody Webster finished his spectacular career with All-America honors, and the Boilers finished second nationally in net punting (41.7 yards per punt). Incoming freshman Austin McGehee will take over for Webster. Paul Griggs and Thomas Meadows continue to work at kicker, as Griggs made only 50 percent of his attempts (6 of 12) last season. The kick return game is strong with Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert, but Purdue must replace punt returner Ricardo Allen. B.J. Knauf could be a good fit there.

Rutgers: The kicking game historically is a strength for Rutgers, which has a knack for blocking kicks and pulling off fakes. Rutgers loses a productive piece in punter Nick Marsh, who also handled kickoffs. The Scarlet Knights will turn to Joseph Roth as their replacement. Kicker Kyle Federico finished the season well, particularly in the Pinstripe Bowl, and returns for his junior season. Rutgers has a major weapon on returns in Janarion Grant, who brought back both a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown during his freshman season.

Wisconsin: The kicking game has held back Wisconsin in the past, so it's definitely an area to watch during the offseason. Kicker Jack Russell converted 9 of 13 field-goal attempts after taking over for Kyle French. He'll try to hold off incoming freshman Rafael Gaglianone. Andrew Endicott, who handled kickoffs last fall, also returns. Wisconsin is looking for more from punter Drew Meyer, who averaged just 38.6 yards per attempt in 2013. Top returner Kenzel Doe is back and should handle both punts and kickoffs, although Wisconsin could look to others for help, such as newcomers Serge Trezy and Natrell Jamerson.

More position breakdowns

Season report card: Indiana

December, 17, 2013
This is the time of year where players are preparing for or finishing up their final exams before moving on to bowl season or going home.

In that spirit, we're passing out our own final grades for the regular season for each Big Ten team's offense, defense, special teams and overall.

First to get the red-pen treatment: the Indiana Hoosiers.

Offense: A-minus

In many ways, the Hoosiers developed into an elite offensive unit in 2013. They finished second in the Big Ten in scoring at 38.4 points per game and in total offense at 508.5 yards per game. They led the league in passing for a second straight year and made great strides in the rushing game, averaging more than 200 yards per contest. Indiana scored at least 35 points eight times.

Tevin Coleman would have rushed for more than 1,000 yards if not for a late-season injury. He still went for 958 yards and 12 touchdowns in a breakout year for the sophomore. Indiana had the deepest group of receiving targets in the league, paced by Cody Latimer's 1,096-yard, nine-touchdown season. Though Kevin Wilson juggled quarterbacks Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson without any discernible pattern to the layman, both ranked in the top five of the Big Ten in pass efficiency. The offensive line shook off some key injuries to remain solid.

The only drawbacks to an otherwise outstanding season offensively were the unit's disappearance against Wisconsin and Ohio State -- when it scored a combined 17 points in lopsided defeats -- along with its slow start against Navy and sloppy finish against Minnesota in must-win home games.

Defense: F

This was supposed to be the year where the Hoosiers showed some defensive improvement under Wilson and coordinator Doug Mallory after an influx of young talent. Instead, Indiana's defense managed to get worse, allowing more points (38.8), total yards (527.9) and rushing yards (237.8) per game than last year's Big Ten-worst unit. The Hoosiers ranked 120th out of 123 FBS teams in total defense.

Indiana generated very little pass rush and couldn't stop any half-decent rushing attack. The low point came against Michigan, when the Wolverines scored 63 points and put up 751 yards, 503 of those coming through the air. The Hoosiers also never forced Navy to punt in that crippling home loss.

Wilson once again played several freshmen on defense, including T.J. Simmons, Antonio Allen, Clyde Newton, Ralphael Green and Darius Latham, but the results only got worse. The program simply can't expect to compete for anything worthwhile until the defense makes drastic improvements.

Special teams: B-minus

Indiana led the league in kickoff coverage, was second in the Big Ten in punt return average and was mediocre on kickoff returns. The Hoosiers ranked second to last in net punting. Mitch Ewald remained a reliable kicker, making nine-of-11 field goal tries and all 56 extra points.

Overall: D-plus

The Hoosiers were rarely boring and did manage to increase their win total by one over 2012 while upsetting Penn State and beating rival Purdue. But hopes were very high for a bowl game in 2013, and with eight home games and one of the most explosive offenses in the country, that should have happened. Indiana was good enough to blow out the Nittany Lions and a good Bowling Green club but put itself in too big of a hole by losing to Navy and Minnesota at home. The defense had no business being that bad in Wilson's third year. Ultimately, that's what is holding this program back and what keeps us from giving the Hoosiers' season a better grade.

Big Ten lunchtime links

September, 26, 2013
Welcome back, Ron Swanson.

Video: Indiana's Mitch Ewald

August, 23, 2013

Indiana kicker Mitch Ewald talks with Adam Rittenberg about the Hoosiers' special teams, and improving his accuracy.
The preseason watch list roll-out extravaganza continues today with two awards that are sure to get your heart pumping: the kicker and punter trophies!

OK, so it's not that exciting, but the specialists deserve their day in the sun, too. And there are some good ones in the Big Ten.

Four league players made the list of 30 preseason nominees for the Lou Groza Award, given to the nation's top placekicker, and three Big Ten punters made the list for the Ray Guy Award. Here they are:

Lou Groza
Ray Guy Award

Budzien was 19-of-20 on field goals last season, and Gibbons hit some clutch kicks through the uprights. Meyer went 17-for-21, and Ewald is set to break several career records for the Hoosiers.

On the punting side, the three players listed are the top three returning statistical leaders in yards per attempt with Michigan's Will Hagerup suspended for the season.

Expect some other names to emerge as top-flight specialists this year in the Big Ten, but these lists highlight most of the top returning performers.

Big Ten media days player lineup

July, 10, 2013
The Big Ten has announced its player lineup for preseason media days and the annual kickoff luncheon, to be held July 24-25 in Chicago. All 12 head coaches will be in attendance.

Penn State offensive lineman John Urschel will speak on behalf of the players at the kickoff luncheon on July 25. Urschel, who's a Big Ten medal of honor winner and a brilliant guy, should deliver one whale of a speech. I can't wait to hear it.

Here's the full lineup:

Tim Kynard, Sr., DL
Corey Lewis, Sr., OT
Nathan Scheelhaase, Sr., QB

Mitch Ewald, Sr., K
Greg Heban, Sr., S
Kofi Hughes, Sr., WR

Christian Kirksey, Sr., LB
James Morris, Sr., LB
Brett Van Sloten, Sr., OL

Devin Gardner, Jr., QB
Thomas Gordon, Sr., S
Taylor Lewan, Sr., LT

Max Bullough, Sr., LB
Darqueze Dennard, Sr., CB
Blake Treadwell, Sr., OG

Ra’Shede Hageman, Sr., DT
Donnell Kirkwood, Jr., RB
Brock Vereen, Sr., S

Quincy Enunwa, Sr., WR
Ciante Evans, Sr., CB
Taylor Martinez, Sr., QB

Kain Colter, Sr., QB
Venric Mark, Sr., RB
Tyler Scott, Sr., DE

Jack Mewhort, Sr., OT
Braxton Miller, Jr., QB
Bradley Roby, Jr., CB

Glenn Carson, Sr., LB
John Urschel, Sr., G
Malcolm Willis, Sr., S

Ricardo Allen, Sr., CB
Bruce Gaston, Sr., DT
Gabe Holmes, Sr., TE

Jared Abbrederis, Sr., WR
Chris Borland, Sr., LB
James White, Sr., RB
Some quick thoughts:
  • This looks like a very solid lineup. You've got the three headliner quarterbacks -- Braxton Miller, Taylor Martinez and Devin Gardner -- as well as Northwestern's Kain Colter and Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase. While only five QBs total is a low number, there are so many quarterback battles in the league that it makes sense this year. There are also several other star players, like Michigan's Taylor Lewan, Wisconsin's Chris Borland and Jared Abbrederis, Northwestern's Venric Mark and Michigan State's Max Bullough and Darqueze Dennard.
  • You may have heard a roar from the media when it was announced that Ohio State was bringing Bradley Roby. The star cornerback is one of the most engaging and fun interviews around. Let's hope he shows his full personality in Chicago. Good to see Ohio State bringing high-profile players, including two non-seniors, though this may well end up being the final year for Roby and -- possibly -- Miller. We'd love to see Nebraska's Kenny Bell in attendance, but he's an underclassman and the Huskers have a pretty good group. Martinez has slowly started to warm up to the public spotlight, and it will be interesting to see how he handles the glare of media day.
  • Should we read anything into Michigan State not bringing Andrew Maxwell? The quarterback is a fifth-year senior and a very polished public speaker, after all, but he is in the midst of a position battle. Maybe the Spartans simply didn't want the quarterback competition to overtake the conversation.
  • This is Scheelhaase's second straight year at the event, and his inclusion probably signals that he's got a firm grip on the starting QB job. I'm a little surprised not to see the Illini bring Jonathan Brown. But Corey Lewis, who has battled back from multiple knee injuries and was granted a sixth year of eligibility, is a tremendous story.
  • The guy I'm most disappointed not to see on the list? It's got to be Penn State's Allen Robinson, the best receiver in the league. He's only a junior, but it would have been nice for him to get some more national exposure. At least Urschel can fill up any reporter's notebook. All in all, it should be a vastly different experience for the Penn State contingent this year compared to last year's insanity.

What do you think of the lineup?
During a football practice, kickers are usually in their own little worlds. They're often on another field or alone in a field house practicing their crafts -- part of the team, yes, but mostly apart from it.

Mitch Ewald doesn't like that. So this spring, as Indiana would begin warmups, you could find the Hoosiers' 5-foot-10, 174-pound kicker running routes and catching passes with the receiver group.

"When Coach [Kevin] Wilson sees me, he just points and laughs," Ewald told this spring. "But when I wear the gloves, my hands are all right."

[+] EnlargeMitch Ewald
Andrew Weber/US PresswireCoach Kevin Wilson said Indiana will be counting on more than just Mitch Ewald's clutch leg in 2013.
Ewald isn't content to just do his own thing. He's a fifth-year senior who has handled Indiana's field goals and kickoffs for the past three seasons, so he feels some ownership of the team.

"I really wanted to step out of my comfort zone and be more vocal this year," he said. "Be more one of the guys rather than just the kicker specialist."

You rarely see kickers mentioned as team captains, but the Hoosiers will take leadership where they can get it. Wilson has thrown boatloads of freshmen into the fire the past two seasons, and last year's team had only three senior starters. Ewald is one of the lone true veterans who has played the past three seasons.

Wilson said that in a vote for captains this spring, Ewald finished in the top six.

"Our kids respect him a lot," he said. "Of course, that also tells you something about where our team is at right now."

Even if Ewald were to just focus on his kicking, he'd be a valuable member of the team. He has made 44 of 55 kicks during his career and was second in the Big Ten in touchbacks on kickoffs last year.

He needs just five more field goals to become Indiana's career leader and 13 to break the school's all-time extra points record. He will also likely pass Antwaan Randle El as the No. 2 scorer in Hoosiers history.

"I'd be lying if I told you I didn't know about it and wasn't looking forward to it," Ewald said. "But I'm not putting too much pressure on myself about it."

With so much experience, Ewald says he doesn't get nervous before kicks anymore, though he does have to make sure he doesn't get too hyped up and try to be too perfect with his form. He dreams of kicking another big game winner like he had to end his freshman year, when his 31-yarder in overtime sealed the victory at rival Purdue.

"He has the potential where he should be one of the upper kids in this league," Wilson said. "I think he's got the makeup of a kid who can be a kicker in the NFL."

Even if Wilson gets his wish and the Hoosiers are scoring too many more touchdowns to need the field goal unit this season, Ewald will do his best to be a leading voice on the team. And who knows? Maybe he'll help them out on a trick play, because he has been practicing his receiving skills.

Bowl or bust for Hoosiers in 2013?

April, 17, 2013
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Indiana found itself in strange and unfamiliar territory last November.

Because of the oddities in the Leaders Division in 2012, the Hoosiers went into their Nov. 10 game against Wisconsin with a chance to seize control of the division's berth in the Big Ten championship game. Indiana received more national attention that week than it normally gets in a year or more.

Of course, the story quickly faded as Wisconsin went into Bloomington and cruised to a 62-14 win, the beginning of a three-game slide to end the season for Indiana. Several Hoosiers said this spring that they weren't quite ready for the limelight last fall.

"We put too much pressure on ourselves to think about winning and potentially moving past that and onto further goals," senior kicker Mitch Ewald said.

The sour ending put a damper on the year, but there was no denying that the program made progress in head coach Kevin Wilson's second year. The team went from 1-11 in 2011 to 4-8 last year, including back-to-back Big Ten wins over Illinois and Iowa while throwing scares into Ohio State and Michigan State.

So now the Hoosiers are thinking about the next step in their development, which inevitably includes the 'B' word. Indiana hasn't been bowling since 2007 Insight Bowl, which stands as the school's only postseason appearance in the last 20 years. Yet the players are daring to make that not only their goal this year. Ewald said "that's the bare minimum of our expectations and standards."

"We haven't talked about it so much with the coaches on a daily basis," running back Stephen Houston said. "But just from player to player, we were disappointed we didn't get to send our seniors off with a bowl last year. We're taking it upon ourselves to treat ourselves to that this year."

Wilson understands that after you improve from one to four wins, the logical leap is six victories and a bowl. Yet so far he's been cautious about putting that out there as a marker for this team.

"Our whole thing has not been targeting a number of wins or a bowl," he said. "Our goals are more short term, like getting better every day and adding better chemistry and leadership, rather than worrying about the end result.

"But I think with the way we're practicing and the way were working, it's pointing in a way where you've got a chance to be successful."

There are arguments for and against Indiana's case for a bowl in 2013. Among the pros:
  • The Hoosiers should have one of the best offenses in the Big Ten. A year after leading the league in passing yards and scoring 30.8 points per game, they bring back every major contributor at the skill positions. This is a team that scored 49 points against Ohio State last year and should be much better this season. "We're so much further ahead than we were at this time last year, it's not even funny," second-year offensive coordinator Seth Littrell said.
  • No Big Ten team returns as much experience as IU, which lost only five scholarship players from 2012 and only three starters (center Will Matte and defensive linemen Adam Replogle and Larry Black, Jr.). Wilson's choice to bite the bullet and play scores of freshmen the past two years should start to pay real dividends, and one of the best recruiting classes -- on paper, at least -- in recent program history will add even more depth.
  • Eight home games on the schedule.

And now for the cons:
  • That schedule, despite the plethora of home games, is highly challenging. The nonconference portion includes the Big Ten's only regular-season meeting against an SEC club (Missouri), plus two other bowl teams from 2012 (Navy and Bowling Green). The conference schedule begins with a visit from Penn State followed by trips to Michigan and Michigan State, and November brings back-to-back road games at Ohio State and Wisconsin.
  • The defense, which has been the worst in the league in each of Wilson's two years, must prove it can stop anyone with a pulse. Replogle and Black left a gaping hole on the defensive line. While several of the incoming recruits are expected to help, it's hard to win with freshmen on defense in the Big Ten.

Wilson appears to have the full support of athletic director Fred Glass, so making a bowl in Year Three is not necessary for his job security, as long as the team keeps improving. Still, the Hoosiers players pledge to put themselves in a favorable position this season, and they insist things will be different than they were last November.

"We just have to learn how to handle success, because we will be in that situation again," Houston said. "We're right, but being right there isn't good enough. We want to be a team to be reckoned with, and we're going to take our respect."
The Big Ten postseason position/unit rankings wrap up with the specialists. This list considers kickers, punters and returners, as well as coverage teams.

Here's how the Big Ten stacked up before the season. If you missed any of our postseason position/unit rankings, check 'em out.

Let's get started ...

[+] EnlargeJeff Budzien
Jerry Lai/US PresswireJeff Bundzien made 95 percent of his field goals and converted all 50 of his extra point attempts in 2012.
1. Northwestern (preseason ranking: 10): Northwestern fans never thought they'd see this day, but the program has improved markedly in the kicking game in recent years. Jeff Budzien was the Big Ten's most consistent kicker in 2012, connecting on 19 of 20 field-goal attempts (lone miss was a 53-yarder) and all 50 of his extra-point tries. Northwestern also led the league in punt return average (16.5) thanks to All-American returner Venric Mark, who had two runbacks for touchdowns. Northwestern ranked 19th nationally in punt coverage.

2. Nebraska (preseason ranking: 1): Brett Maher had a few hiccups but still made 20 of 27 field-goal tries and all 59 of his PATs, and averaged 41.8 yards per punt. He and Budzien shared the Bakken-Andersen Kicker of the Year honors in the Big Ten. Ameer Abdullah had an 81-yard punt return for a touchdown, and Nebraska had three solid options on kick returns (Abdullah, Kenny Bell and Jamal Turner).

3. Michigan (preseason ranking: 7): Here's another team that has made major strides in the kicking game in recent years. Kicker Brendan Gibbons was Captain Clutch, converting 16 of 18 field-goal attempts, including the game-winner against Michigan State, as well as all 45 PATs. Dennis Norfleet provided a boost on kick returns, and Will Hagerup led the league in punting average (45 ypp) despite limited attempts (33).

4. Michigan State (preseason ranking: 4): The Spartans' sputtering offense gave Mike Sadler plenty of work and he delivered, averaging 43.3 yards on 79 punts. MSU finished second in the league in net punting. Dan Conroy led the Big Ten in both field goals made (23) and field goals missed (9), but he hit the game-winner against TCU in the bowl game. Michigan State struggled on kick returns, but both Nick Hill and Andre Sims averaged more than eight yards on punt returns.

5. Iowa (preseason ranking: 9): Mike Meyer improved on his 2012 performance, connecting on 17 of 21 field-goal tries and all 25 of his extra-point attempts. Iowa also performed well on returns, as Jordan Cotton led the league in kick returns (28.2 ypr) and Micah Hyde averaged 7.4 yards on 16 punt returns. Punting was a weak spot as Connor Kornbrath averaged only 37.9 yards per boot.

6. Purdue (preseason ranking: 2): The Boilers definitely missed Carson Wiggs, as their kickers connected on only 9 of 14 field-goal tries this season and missed five extra-point attempts. But there were bright spots elsewhere like punter Cody Webster, who averaged 42.3 yards per punt. Purdue led the Big Ten in kickoff returns, thanks to Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert.

7. Ohio State (preseason ranking: 3): It was a mixed bag of big plays and big breakdowns for Ohio State on special teams in 2013. The Buckeyes had a league-high three punt returns for touchdowns but also had three punts blocked and surrendered a kick return for a touchdown against Purdue. Kicker Drew Basil was used sparingly (8 of 11 on field-goal attempts), while Ben Buchanan averaged 41 yards per punt. New special teams chief Kerry Coombs has some things to sort out.

8. Wisconsin (preseason ranking: 5): The kicking game continues to be a little inconsistent for the Badgers. Punter Drew Meyer had a solid season, averaging 41.5 yards on a league-high 80 punts. But Wisconsin kickers Kyle French and Jack Russell combined to convert only 10 of 18 field-goal attempts. Kenzel Doe led Wisconsin's multi-pronged kick return attack, which ranked third in the Big Ten, while Jared Abbrederis was decent on punt returns.

9. Indiana (preseason ranking: 11): The Hoosiers had a so-so season in the kicking game. Kicker Mitch Ewald connected on 15 of 20 field-goal attempts and missed only 1 of 43 PAT tries. Tevin Coleman tied for second in the league in kick returns, while Shane Wynn provided another option there. IU's punters didn't wow with their numbers, but the Hoosiers finished fifth in net punting.

10. Illinois (preseason ranking: 12): You know it's a rough season when you hang your hat on net punting, a statistic where Illinois led the Big Ten (39.2-yard net average). Sophomore Justin DuVernois had a heavy workload and still finished fourth in the league in punting average (41.9 ypp). Illini kickers connected on 8 of 12 field-goal tries, but the return game once again struggled mightily (118th nationally in punt returns, 107th in kick returns).

11. Minnesota (preseason ranking: 6): Troy Stoudermire became the NCAA's all-time kick return yards king and Jordan Wettstein connected for the game-winning field goal in the opener against UNLV, but the Gophers had few other special teams highlights. Wettstein finished the year just 14 of 22 on field goals, and Minnesota ranked last in the league in net punting (34.4 ypp). The return game was mediocre but Minnesota fared OK in kickoff and punt coverage.

12. Penn State (preseason ranking: 8) Sam Ficken's finish nearly kept Penn State out of the basement. Ficken connected on his final 10 field-goal tries, including the game-winner in overtime against Wisconsin. The Virginia game still stings, though, as he finished 14-for-21 for the season. Penn State struggled with its punting (11th in league in net average) and finished last in the league in kick returns (18.1 ypr). There were coverage breakdowns and muffed punts. The lack of depth following the NCAA sanctions seemed to hurt Penn State the most in the kicking game, especially early in the season.

Season report card: Indiana

December, 19, 2012
We're handing out grades for each Big Ten team's performance in the regular season, judging each squad's offense, defense, special teams and overall performance. Up next in the grading line: the Indiana Hoosiers

Offense: A-minus

There was a lot to like about Indiana's offense in 2012, as the Hoosiers evolved into a prolific passing team in coach Kevin Wilson's second year, which was the first under coordinator Seth Littrell. Despite losing starting quarterback Tre Roberson to a broken leg in the second week of the season, Indiana still led the Big Ten and finished 18th nationally in passing yards per game (311.2) while splitting snaps between juco transfer Cameron Coffman and true freshman Nate Sudfeld. They boasted one of the Big Ten's most explosive receiver groups with Shane Wynn, Cody Latimer and Kofi Hughes, plus tight end Ted Bolser. While the running game wasn't dominant, Stephen Houston put up 749 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns to keep defenses honest. The Hoosiers scored 24 or more points in each of their first nine games and averaged 30.8 for the season. IU could get a little better running the ball and improve its overall efficiency, but the offense did more than enough to win games in 2012.

Defense: D-plus

The Hoosiers had nowhere to go but up after a brutally bad defensive showing in 2011. Unfortunately, they didn't go up too far. Once again, Indiana ranked among the worst teams in the country in points allowed (35.3, only slightly better than the 2011 team's 37.3 ppg allowed), rushing defense (231.3 ypg, 12 yards better than '11) and pass-efficiency defense. In fact, Indiana gave up more yards per game in 2012 than it did in 2011 despite playing more veterans and getting good years on the defensive line from Adam Replogle and Larry Black Jr. and linebacker David Cooper. The Hoosiers defense looked like it had made strides in midseason wins over Illinois and Iowa. But in its final three games against Wisconsin, Penn State and Purdue, the defense surrendered 163 points.

Special teams: C

There was nothing particularly outstanding or glaringly weak on special teams for the Hoosiers, who ranked in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten in just about every kicking game category. IU did lead the league with three recovered onsides kicks, and freshman Tevin Coleman finished second in the conference in kickoff returns. Mitch Ewald made 15 of 20 field goals.

Overall: C-minus

We're grading on a bit of a curve here, as Indiana made undeniable progress from its 1-11 disaster of 2011. The Hoosiers won two Big Ten games after going 0-8 in Wilson's first year and improbably found themselves in control of their destiny for a spot in the Big Ten title game in early November. Those dreams were quickly erased when Wisconsin came to Memorial Stadium and laid a 62-14 whooping on the home team. Indiana's finish was highly disappointing as it had a chance to get to a bowl game, but instead suffered three straight blowout losses to go 4-8. Late-game blown leads in setbacks to Ball State and Navy also left a sour taste. Wilson still has a whole lot of work to do to fix the defense but he is recruiting well on that side of the ball. This team brings just about everybody back next year, including Roberson, who will lead what should be one of the league's best offensive attacks. Getting to a bowl game will be the goal in 2013.

Previous report cards

Last year, our Big Ten fantasy league turned out to be an anti-climactic clobbering in favor of my team, Non-Gingervitis. This year, we should have an exciting race to the finish line.

Rittenberg's Trombone Shorties eked out a 120-109 victory to tie up our season series 5-5 with three weeks left to play. Who will end the year strong and claim the coveted fantasy title?

Adam got two huge performances last week from Nebraska's Taylor Martinez (46 fantasy points) and Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell (30 ), plus another 21 from Penn State's Matt McGloin. I got 30 points from Braxton Miller and 31 from his Ohio State teammate Carlos Hyde, and my waiver-wire pickups of Iowa's Damon Bullock (16) and Purdue's Antavian Edison (15) worked out pretty well. But I was killed by Denard Robinson not playing at Minnesota despite Michigan coach Brady Hoke saying all week that Robinson was fine. Even a subpar game from Shoelace would have been enough to put me over the top. Not that I'm bitter. (Hoke!!!!)

My team has some serious decisions to make this week with Ohio State on a bye and Robinson again questionable. Do I gut my roster and go for the win this week but risk losing studs like Miller, Hyde and Robinson on waivers? Or do I ride out the storm and hope to finish with back-to-back wins in Week 12 and 13 for a narrow victory?

Let's find out. I'm up first with this week's pickups:

Brian adds Wisconsin running back Montee Ball and drops Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde

Rationale: Hyde has been terrific the past several weeks, but he can't help me versus Idle. So I'll happily welcome back Ball to my team so we can relive our championship memories from 2011 -- and hopefully create some new ones if he can steamroll Indiana's defense.

Adam adds Northwestern running back Venric Mark and drops Michigan State running back Le'Veon Bell

Rationale: Bell is off this week, and while Mark faces a formidable Michigan defense, the Wolverines are better against the pass than the run, and Mark is good for at least one big play a week, either on offense or on special teams. He'll be a factor Saturday.

Brian adds Indiana wide receiver Cody Latimer and drops Ohio State wide receiver/tight end Jake Stoneburner

Rationale: My hunch on Stoneburner didn't pay off last week as he failed to score any points, and Ohio State is off this week. So I'll give Latimer a shot after his three-touchdown performance last week versus Iowa.

Adam adds Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah and drops Indiana running back Stephen Houston

Rationale: Maybe I'm a bit too Husker-heavy this week, but Abdullah has done an excellent job filling in for Rex Burkhead, and he has recorded three straight 100-yard rushing performances. With Penn State defensive tackle Jordan Hill banged up, I think Abdullah plays well again Saturday.

Brian adds Iowa's defense and drops Penn State's defense

Rationale: Nothing against the Nittany Lions, but playing on the road against the conference's top offense is not a good fantasy formula. I'll roll the dice with the up-and-down Hawkeyes, who get a badly struggling Purdue team at home.

Adam adds Minnesota's defense and drops Ohio State's defense

Rationale: Ohio State is off this week, and this pickup has a little more to do with Illinois' offensive ineptitude than anything else. Minnesota's defense has been better, though, especially against the pass, and I expect the Gophers to force some takeaways in Champaign, where they've been very good as of late.

Brian adds Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter and drops Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson

Rationale: And there's the risky move. I already have Miller on a bye and refuse to drop the fantasy MVP. I don't like the vibes coming out of Ann Arbor, where Hoke still won't say whether Robinson will play this week. I can't risk not having any quarterbacks this week, so even though I don't love Colter's matchup on the road at Michigan, I've got to make this move.

Adam adds Indiana's kickers and drops Nebraska's kickers

Rationale: Like many of my waiver pickups, this one looked pretty good at the time but hasn't paid many dividends. Indiana has received good production from Mitch Ewald in Big Ten play, and I think he'll be a factor in the game against Wisconsin.

Our complete rosters for Week 11:

The Trombone Shorties

Penn State QB Matt McGloin
Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez
Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah
Northwestern RB Venric Mark
Penn State WR Allen Robinson
Nebraska WR Kenny Bell
Minnesota defense
Nebraska kickers


Ohio State QB Braxton Miller
Northwestern QB Kain Colter
Iowa RB Damon Bullock
Wisconsin RB Montee Ball
Purdue WR Antavian Edison
Indiana WR Cody Latimer
Iowa defense
Iowa kickers
Our 2012 preseason position rankings come to a close today as we wrap up with the special-teams units.

When looking at special teams, you have to rely on what teams did last year and who they bring back, as it's extremely difficult to get a read on new kickers and punters during preseason practice. So teams that rank the highest on this list have reliable kickers and return men back in the fold. While the top and the bottom are fairly easy to sort out, the middle is pretty indistinguishable.

Let's specialize ...

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
AP Photo/Dave WeaverNebraska return man Ameer Abdullah could be contained a bit with the rule changes for kickoffs this season.
1. Nebraska: The obvious and really only pick for the top spot, as the Huskers bring back star kicker/punter Brett Maher and return ace Ameer Abdullah. Special teams should once again be a strength in Lincoln.

2. Purdue: The Boilers lose strong-legged kicker Carson Wiggs but return national kick return leader Raheem Mostert and punter Cody Webster, who finished just behind Maher in yards per punt.

3. Ohio State: Drew Basil turned into a very dependable kicker, and the Buckeyes also bring back punter Ben Buchanan. Jordan Hall is a top-flight returner when healthy, and Ohio State has other options there.

4. Michigan State: The Spartans have reliable place-kicker Dan Conroy back, along with punter Mike Sadler and kickoff return man Nick Hill. They will need to replace Keshawn Martin on punt returns.

5. Wisconsin: The Badgers' star is Jared Abbrederis, who's outstanding at returning both kicks and punts. But they need to replace both their kicker and punter. Kyle French has handled some field goals in the past, and Drew Meyer appears set to take over at punter. The punt protection unit must not allow breakdowns that cost the Badgers in big games last year.

6. Minnesota: Getting record-setting returner Troy Stoudermire back should help a team that did pretty well without him on returns a year ago. Jordan Wettstein made all six of his field goal tries after taking over the job late in the season. The Gophers need more consistent punting.

7. Michigan: The Wolverines made steady improvements on special teams, as Brendan Gibbons shored up the place-kicking situation. There is still a competition going on at punter between Matt Wile and Will Hagerup. Michigan's coverage was solid last year, but it can do better on returns.

8. Penn State: The losses of punter/kicker Anthony Fera and punt returner Justin Brown to transfers hurt. Sam Ficken will handle field-goal duties, though the punting competition remains open. No word yet on who will return punts.

9. Iowa: The Hawkeyes are still searching for a punter, and former quarterback John Wienke is in the mix. Mike Meyer was just 14-of-20 on field goals last year. Iowa's kickoff coverage a year ago was subpar.

10. Northwestern: Venric Mark leads a very strong punt return game. Kicker Jeff Budzien made only six field goals, though he was 50-of-50 on PATs.

11. Indiana: Kicker Mitch Ewald was a bright spot, but the Hoosiers' kick return game was terrible a year ago. IU will also break in a new punter.

12. Illinois: Things can only get better for the Illini, who were brutal on special teams last year. A new coaching staff should help, as well as transfer Tommy Davis, a former star return man at Northern Illinois. They must replace kicker Derek Dimke, however.

Big Ten lunchtime links

August, 13, 2012
There are two kinds of heists: those where the guys get away with it, and those that leave witnesses.

Maher leads B1G group on Groza, Guy lists

July, 11, 2012
Nebraska's Brett Maher ended the 2011 season as the consensus selection for first-team All-Big Ten kicker and punter.

While Nebraska fans certainly weren't asking, "Alex, who?" Maher did a tremendous job of filling the void left by All-American do-it-all specialist Alex Henery.

Not surprisingly, Maher appears on preseason watch lists for both the Lou Groza Award (nation's top kicker) and the Ray Guy Award (nation's top punter) that came out Wednesday. Maher is the lone Big Ten punter on the Guy Award watch list, while seven Big Ten kickers made the Groza Award list.

Here's the full Big Ten contingent on the Groza watch list:
Fera, Maher and Meyer all were Groza Award semifinalists in 2011, while Conroy was a semifinalist in 2010. The Big Ten once again looks strong at place-kicker, and the best story of the group is Gibbons, who made just 1 of 5 attempts as a freshman before connecting on 13 of 17 attempts last season, including the game-winner from 37 yards out in overtime at the Sugar Bowl (the "brunette girls" boot).

It's a bit surprising not to see more Big Ten punters on the Guy watch list. Fera, who like Maher handles both kicking and punting duties, averaged 42 yards per punt in 2011. Purdue's Cody Webster and Michigan State's Mike Sadler also would have made sense for the watch list. Fortunately, the Guy Award will reveal an expanded list of candidates Oct. 26 and announce its 10 semifinalists on Nov. 9. Three finalists are revealed Nov. 19, and the winner will be announced Dec. 6 during the Home Depot College Football Awards.

The Groza Award announces 20 semifinalists Nov. 5 and three finalists Nov. 19. The winner will be announced Dec. 6

The Big Ten hasn't had a Groza Award winner since Ohio State's Mike Nugent in 2004. Ohio State's B.J. Sander is the last Big Ten player to win the Guy Award (2003).