Big Ten: Niles Paul

Most would agree that Michigan's Denard Robinson and Northwestern's Dan Persa were the Big Ten's top two quarterbacks in 2010.

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

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

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

The reasons are different.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are a few others:

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

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

Michigan State senior Kirk Cousins: Cousins once again has plenty of weapons around him, but he'll play behind an offensive line replacing three starters from last season. The senior dealt with shoulder and ankle injuries during the second half of the 2010 season, and unlike the other quarterbacks on this list, he lacks top-end mobility.
Our preseason position ranking series comes to an end today with everybody's favorite group: special teams.

For this ranking, we're going to consider punters, kickers and returners only. No offense to the long-snappers or the punt-team gunners, but things like kickoff coverage units are hard to forecast. We'll give a little extra weight to teams that have returning and proven players at these spots, because it's difficult to know how new punters and kickers will fare when the pressure of real games begin.

As the guys in these positions would say, let's kick it:

[+] EnlargeDan Conroy
Andrew Weber/US PresswireDan Conroy was nearly perfect on his field goal attempts last season.
1. Michigan State: Kicker Dan Conroy made 14 of his 15 attempts last year, and Keshawn Martin led the league in punt return average. They will miss punter Aaron Bates and will have to improve their kickoff return game. And you know you always have to watch out for the fake when the Spartans line up for a kick.

2. Wisconsin: The Badgers are set at both punter and kicker, with seniors Brad Nortman and Philip Welch, respectively. Both are third-year starters who can be relied upon. Wisconsin will need to find a replacement for primary return man David Gilreath.

3. Penn State: The Nittany Lions bring back punter Anthony Fera and punt returner Devon Smith, who finished just behind Martin in yards per attempt last season. Chaz Powell and Stephfon Green are dangerous kick returners. Fera could move over to handle field goals this season if incoming freshman Sam Ficken doesn't win the job.

4. Ohio State: The Buckeyes have a veteran punter in senior Ben Buchanan and two threats to take a kick to the house in Jordan Hall and Jaamal Berry. Sophomore Drew Basil is expected to take over at place-kicker. Special teams are almost always a force in Columbus.

5. Purdue: No one in the league has a bigger leg than Carson Wiggs; the questions is whether he can consistently harness it. Punter Cody Webster averaged 43.3 yards per attempt last season, second best among returning punters. The Boilermakers' return game needs to improve.

6. Illinois: Derek Dimke was a Lou Groza semifinalist last season and broke the school record for points by a kicker. He nailed two 50-plus yarders. Ray Guy semifinalist Anthony Santella is gone, though return man Troy Pollard is back.

7. Northwestern: Brandon Williams improved at punter as his freshman year went along last season. The Wildcats at long last have an elite return option in Venric Mark. But place-kicker was a concern this spring, with Jeff Budzien and Steve Flaherty competing for the job.

8. Iowa: Kirk Ferentz's teams usually find a way to be good on special teams, so odds are the Hawkeyes will climb these rankings. But they lost a lot from 2010, including Ray Guy finalist and four-year starter Ryan Donahue, plus both primary return men. Eric Guthrie held the edge at punter after the spring. Place-kicker Mike Meyer returns after taking over that role for the final 10 games and doing a solid job.

9. Indiana: Mitch Ewald was named to the Groza watch list after a strong freshman year in which he made 16 of 19 field goals. Chris Hagerup needs to increase his punting average of 39.4 yards. The Hoosiers should have enough athletes to replace Tandon Doss on returns.

10. Minnesota: Dan Orseske's 36.1-yard average was worst among starting Big Ten punters in 2010, so that must get better. Jerry Kill must also find a new place-kicker -- NC State transfer Chris Hawthorne looks like the top option. Troy Stoudermire, one of the league's top return specialists, is back for his senior year.

11. Nebraska: Like Iowa, this is a team that will almost assuredly outperform this ranking. But boy did the Huskers lose a lot of talent and experience. It will be difficult to match the value that punter/kicker Alex Henery brought -- Brett Maher and freshman Mauro Bondi will battle to replace him -- and Adi Kunalic was a secret weapon as kickoff specialist. Top returner Niles Pau is gone, too. The Cornhuskers will likely reload, but nobody has bigger shoes to fill at these positions in the Big Ten.

12. Michigan: The kicking game looked like a disaster this spring, with neither Seth Broekhuizen nor Brendan Gibbons inspiring confidence. Incoming freshman Matt Wile might win the job this summer. This could prove to be an Achilles' heel for the Wolverines, as it was a year ago. On the plus side, Will Hagerup is the leading returning punter in the Big Ten, though he had only 33 attempts last season.

Iowa-Nebraska rivalry resonates for Prater

June, 24, 2011
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Shaun Prater doesn't need a tutorial on what the Iowa-Nebraska rivalry means to both sides.

In fact, Prater might be the one educating his Hawkeyes teammates before their trip to Nebraska's Memorial Stadium on Nov. 25.

For Prater, Iowa's All-Big Ten senior cornerback, the regular-season finale will mark his first visit to Lincoln since November 2007, when he helped Omaha Central High School win the Class A state football championship. Perhaps the inaugural Legends division title will be at stake when Prater at the Hawkeyes return this year.

"When the schedule came out, I was just hoping we'd play Nebraska," Prater told ESPN.com this week. "And I'm pretty glad we're playing them in Lincoln. I'll make sure this team gets ready to see a sea of red. Everyone will be wearing red, even the kids. They'll have Husker swag on the cars.

"It's a very hostile environment. It's very loud. The fans love their Huskers."

Arguably no player on the field Nov. 25 will be closer to the rivalry than Prater. Growing up in Omaha, he came into contact with plenty of fans from both the Huskers and the Hawkeyes.

Despite playing high school ball on Nebraska soil, Prater never received a scholarship offer from Bill Callahan's staff. An offer arrived shortly after Bo Pelini took over as Huskers coach, but by then Prater was set on Iowa, which had pursued the defensive back for years.

"I had a chemistry with Iowa and I felt comfortable going there," he said.

Prater still has ties to the Nebraska program. He's good friends with former Huskers wide receiver Niles Paul, a fellow Omaha native.

The two players have worked out together every summer since Prater started his career at Iowa. They form a strong pairing: Paul, a second-team All-Big 12 receiver for Nebraska in 2010, was selected in the fifth round of April's NFL draft; Prater, a consensus first-team All-Big Ten selection last fall, flirted with entering the draft after the Insight Bowl before opting to return to Iowa.

"I think he measures in at 6-2, 226 pounds, so he gives me a chance to work against more physical-type players," said Prater, who recorded 68 tackles, four interceptions and six pass breakups in 2010. "I try to press-cover him a lot, so I can get used to bigger guys."

Not surprisingly, the two discussed Nebraska's move to the Big Ten during their recent workouts.

"He thinks it's a big shocker that Nebraska's leaving the Big 12," Prater said. "But like I said, they will adjust. Bo will do a good job of having those guys compete."

Prater also knows former Huskers star cornerback Prince Amukamara as well as current players Collins Okafor, Alfonzo Dennard and Sean Fisher, who was on the losing end of the 2007 state championship game in Lincoln. Fisher might be the only player closer to the Iowa-Nebraska rivalry than Prater, as his younger brother, Cole, signed with Iowa in February to play linebacker.

As fans on both sides gear up for a rivalry to reach a new level, Prater is ready, too.

"I always used to hear stories," Prater said. "One team used to claim that the other team was cheating, they were watching their practices. It's a rivalry that's going to be a good one. We're pretty close to one another. Nebraska joining the Big Ten, I think it was a great idea.

"I'm looking forward to playing those guys."

Big Ten NFL draft wrap-up

May, 2, 2011
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The 2011 NFL draft is in the books, and it's time to take a look back at how the Big Ten fared in the selections. In case you missed it, check out my breakdown of the six Big Ten players who heard their names called in the first round.

All in all, 29 Big Ten players were drafted this year. New Big Ten member Nebraska had seven selections.

Let's start off with a rundown of the picks. I'll have some quick thoughts after each round.

[+] EnlargeJ.J. Watt
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireWisconsin defensive lineman J.J. Watt was the first Big Ten player selected in the NFL draft this year.
First round

Quick thoughts: The Big Ten had its largest first-round output since 2007, and several players look like good fits for their teams. Chicago had to be thrilled Carimi was still available, and San Diego felt the same about Liuget, projected by many as a top-15 pick. Kerrigan likely needs to contribute immediately for the Redskins, while Clayborn and Heyward enter situations where they can ease into the transition.

Second round

Quick thoughts: Mouton's selection was a surprise for many folks, but it's a testament to a good player who impressed the scouts despite playing for a lousy defense in 2010. Wisniewski enters a good fit in Oakland, where his uncle, Steve, is an assistant offensive line coach. I really like Leshoure in Detroit, where he'll enter a competitive situation at running back.

Third round

Quick thoughts: Wilson, who entered the draft after his junior season, might have been a bit disappointed to fall to the third round. But he enters a good situation in New Orleans and should have some time to develop.

Fourth round
Quick thoughts: Ballard reportedly tested positive for marijuana use and likely paid a price as he dropped down at least a round. Still, the Iowa standout should help the Vikings early in his career. I really like the Doss fit in Baltimore, which can use more playmakers at receiver. It'll be interesting to see how quickly Chekwa sees the field in Oakland.

Fifth round
Quick thoughts: What a round for the Iowa Hawkeyes. Although Stanzi waited a little longer than expected, he joins a team in Kansas City that has a lot of connections to the New England Patriots, the squad many thought would draft the Iowa quarterback. Klug is a solid player who can play either line position. I'll be interested to see how he fares with the Titans.

Sixth round

  • Penn State RB Evan Royster, Washington, No. 177 overall
  • Michigan State LB Greg Jones, New York Giants, No. 185 overall
  • Michigan State CB Chris L. Rucker, Indianapolis, No. 188 overall
  • Ohio State LB Brian Rolle, Philadelphia, No. 193 overall
  • Iowa S Tyler Sash, New York Giants, No. 198 overall
  • Ohio State LB Ross Homan, Minnesota, No. 200 overall
  • Michigan G Stephen Schilling, San Diego, No. 201 overall
Quick thoughts: This marked the Big Ten's biggest round as seven players heard their names called. Jones, the former Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, went a little later than expected, and Sash also dropped down a bit after entering the draft after his junior season. Homan, who missed some time last season with a foot injury, could end up being an excellent addition for the Vikings. Really like that pick.

Seventh round

  • Illinois LB Nate Bussey, New Orleans, No. 243 overall
  • Wisconsin G/C Bill Nagy, Dallas, No. 252 overall
Quick thoughts: While I was surprised several other Big Ten players didn't get drafted, both Bussey and Nagy are deserving. Both players played integral roles in their teams' success last fall, and both were overshadowed by other draftees (Liuget and Wilson for Bussey, Carimi and Moffitt for Nagy).

NEBRASKA'S DRAFTEES

Husker fans, I didn't forget you or your team. Nebraska actually had more draft picks (7) than any Big Ten team, and here they are.

  • CB Prince Amukamara, New York Giants, No. 19 overall (first round)
  • RB Roy Helu Jr., Washington, No. 104 overall (fourth round)
  • K Alex Henery, Philadelphia, No. 120 overall (fourth round)
  • DB Dejon Gomes, Washington, No. 146 overall (fifth round)
  • WR Niles Paul, Washington, No. 155 overall (fifth round)
  • OT Keith Williams, Pittsburgh, No. 196 overall (sixth round)
  • DB Eric Hagg, Cleveland, No. 248 overall (seventh round)
Quick thoughts: Think there might be a few "Husker Power!" chants at Redskins games this season? The Mike Shanahan-Bo Pelini connection likely played a role in the three Nebraska players heading to the nation's capital. Henery soon will succeed David Akers in Philadelphia, and the Giants had to thrilled that Amukamara still was on the board at No. 19.

Big Ten picks by team

  • Nebraska: 7 (players competed in the Big 12)
  • Iowa: 6
  • Ohio State: 5
  • Wisconsin: 5 (four picks in first three rounds)
  • Illinois: 4
  • Michigan State: 2
  • Indiana: 2
  • Michigan: 2
  • Penn State: 2
  • Purdue: 1
  • Northwestern: 0
  • Minnesota: 0
By position (excluding Nebraska)

  • DL: 7
  • OL: 7
  • LB: 6
  • DB: 4
  • RB: 2
  • WR: 1
  • TE: 1
  • QB: 1

Nebraska had three defensive backs, a running back, an offensive lineman, a wide receiver and a kicker drafted.

Draft snubs

Quite a few Big Ten players didn't hear their names called during the weekend, and they'll enter the shaky world of free agency. I was absolutely stunned no one drafted Ohio State's Dane Sanzenbacher. He was the Big Ten's top receiver last fall and brings a combination of football IQ and toughness that should appeal to football people not overly obsessed with measurables.

Wisconsin running back John Clay was the Big Ten's only non-senior who entered the draft but didn't get selected. Clay struggles with weight and his ankle problems might have contributed to him slipping through the draft.

Other Big Ten draft snubs include: Wisconsin quarterback Scott Tolzien, Ohio State guard Justin Boren, Iowa tight end Allen Reisner and Purdue receiver Keith Smith. Nebraska's Pierre Allen and Ricky Henry also will go the free-agent route.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- A leadership role can be a burden at times, but it's one Nebraska wide receiver Brandon Kinnie is willing to bear.

"It's heavy," Kinnie said, "but it's a good heavy, not a stressful heavy."

[+] EnlargeNebraska wide reciever Brandon Kinnie
AP Photo/Dave WeaverNebraska's Brandon Kinnie feels a responsibility to lead the Huskies young group of receivers next season.
Kinnie and his fellow Huskers receivers were experiencing a different type of "good heavy" in early January as they chowed down on wings and other greasy delights at a local Buffalo Wild Wings. As a senior and the Huskers' only returning receiver who logged significant playing time last season, Kinnie knew he'd have to lead an unproven group of wideouts in 2011.

Affable and chatty off the field, he'd have to be a bigger vocal presence at all times. The process began when he invited all the receivers to dinner at BW3.

"The whole time we were eating, I was thinking, 'I want to say this, I want to say this,'" Kinnie recalled. "I want to reach out and let them know, 'Hey, there’s no difference here. We're all the same.'"

Last season, Kinnie and Niles Paul weren't the same. Both players had game experience and entered the fall as Nebraska's top two wideouts. They competed for catches and pushed each other in practice.

Although Paul led the receivers, he and Kinnie had natural separation from the others, both in age and in production. They accounted for more than half of Nebraska's receptions (83 of 163) and 47.9 percent of the team's receiving yards.

"It wasn't a knock on Niles being a leader," Kinnie said. "That’s just how it was. You live and you learn. Going through the experience I did last year made me learn some things I had to learn to be a good leader, just take things that didn’t happen and change. ... It wasn't a lack of leadership or anything. It was just things we didn’t do, and I could have helped as well."

Kinnie is doing his part to unite the receiver group these days. Although Nebraska brings back talented tight end Kyler Reed, who led the team with eight touchdown receptions in 2010, the Huskers return no receivers besides Kinnie who tallied more than one catch last fall.

Nebraska needs young, untested wideouts to step up. Kinnie needs them, too.

"I have all their [phone] numbers," Kinnie said. "We talk. We text. Whenever they’ve got questions, they ask me. So it's fun. I told them, 'There's no difference between me and you guys. I may be older, but that’s it. We play for the same coaches. We deal with Bo [Pelini] yelling. We deal with coach [Rich] Fisher yelling. We deal with advisers, we deal with teachers, all that stuff. There’s no difference between us but age.’

"I think that really grabbed hold of them. I’m not walking around like, 'Oh yeah, I’m the guy that played last year, I'm this and I'm that. I'm in the corps just like y'all.'"

Kinnie's teammates appreciate his effort to take charge and bring the group together.

"Brandon's been great," junior receiver Tim Marlowe said. "He said, 'I hope you hold me accountable as I hold you guys accountable. If you see me slacking, let me know.' So he's been a great leader. We had a good night at BW3, just talking as a group outside of football."

Marlowe is among the receivers competing for larger roles this spring. Wideouts like Kenny Bell, Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Curenski Gilleylen and Quincy Enunwa are also under the microscope.

But there's no question about Nebraska's top option in the pass game this fall. The 6-3, 225-pound Kinnie looks to build on his numbers from 2010 (44 receptions, 494 yards, 5 TDs).

"BK had a great year last year, and he's going to have an even better one this year," running back Rex Burkhead said. "He just naturally came into that [leadership] role. I think he's one of the best receivers in the nation. He'll definitely come out and prove that this year."

Spring superlatives: Nebraska

March, 21, 2011
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The spring superlatives series, which examines the strongest and weakest position groups for each Big Ten squad in the spring, matches on with Nebraska.

Strongest position: Defensive line
  • Key returnees: DT Jared Crick (70 tackles, 17 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks, 10 quarterback hurries); DE Cameron Meredith (64 tackles, 8 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, 10 quarterback hurries); DT Baker Steinkuler (46 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, 4 quarterback hurries)
  • Key losses: DE Pierre Allen (65 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, 12 quarterback hurries)
  • The skinny: Crick leads a dynamic group that should anchor a very strong Huskers defense in 2011. The Huskers boast the Big Ten's best defensive tackle tandem as well as a talented pass rusher in Meredith. Allen will be missed on the other edge, but Nebraska has some intriguing options like Kevin Thomsen, Josh Williams, Jason Ankrah and the speedy Eric Martin, who shined on special teams. Junior college transfer Joseph Carter also should be in the mix at end. Crick is a game-changing type of defensive tackle, in the same mold as recent Big Ten standouts like Jared Odrick and Corey Liuget. Opponents will have a tough time running between the tackles against Nebraska.
Weakest position: Wide receivers
  • Key returnees: Brandon Kinnie (44 receptions, 494 receiving yards, 5 TDs)
  • Key losses: Niles Paul (39 receptions, 516 yards, 1 TD), Mike McNeill (21 receptions, 346 yards, 1 TD)
  • The skinny: Production has been an issue with this group, and Paul's departure creates a need for others to emerge around Kinnie, clearly the team's top option at this stage. Kinnie must take his game to another level, and Nebraska's coaches must do a better job of developing other pass-catching options aside from the tight ends and running backs. Although tight end Kyler Reed and running back Rex Burkhead will help here, a team needs more than one reliable wide receiver. Nebraska needs more from players like Curenski Gilleylen and Kenny Bell, who redshirted last season but generated buzz on the scout team.

Big Ten weekend combine recap

February, 28, 2011
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All eyes were on Indianapolis this weekend as dozens of NFL prospects, including a large contingent from the Big Ten, went through the scouting combine.

My ESPN colleagues are all over the happenings in Naptown, so check out the combine blog and the latest Scouts Inc. combine notebook.

There's more testing and timing Monday with the defensive linemen and linebackers, but some results are in, so let's take a look. I'm breaking these down into top performers by position. I'll put together an overall top performers post once the combine is finished.

Wide receivers

  • Nebraska's Niles Paul finished second in bench-press reps (225 pounds) with 24
  • Paul tied for 14th in the 40-yard dash at 4.51 seconds
  • Indiana's Terrance Turner tied for second in vertical jump at 41 inches
  • Turner finished seventh in broad jump at 10 feet, 8 inches
  • Ohio State's Dane Sanzenbacher finished second in 3-cone drill at 6.46 seconds; Turner tied for 14th at 6.77 seconds
  • Sanzenbacher finished third in the 20-yard shuttle at 3.97 seconds; Paul finished 12th at 4.14 seconds; Turner finished tied for 13th at 4.15 seconds
  • Sanzenbacher finished second in the 60-yard shuttle at 10.94 seconds; Turner tied for ninth at 11.21 seconds
Quarterbacks
  • Iowa's Ricky Stanzi and Wisconsin's Scott Tolzien tied for 13th in the 40-yard dash at 4.93 seconds
  • Stanzi finished ninth in the vertical jump at 32.5 inches; Tolzien tied for 12th at 29.5 inches
  • Tolzien tied for seventh in the broad jump at 9 feet, 8 inches; Stanzi finished 12th at 9 feet, 2 inches
  • Tolzien tied for third in the 3-cone drill at 6.84 seconds; Stanzi finished 12th at 6.95 seconds
Running backs
  • Nebraska's Roy Helu Jr. finished sixth in the 40-yard dash at 4.42 seconds; Ohio State's Brandon Saine finished seventh at 4.43 seconds;
  • Illinois' Mikel Leshoure tied for third in the vertical jump at 38 inches; Helu tied for eighth at 36.5 inches
  • Leshoure tied for fourth in the broad jump at 10 feet, 2 inches; Helu finished 10th at 9 feet, 11 inches
  • Helu finished second in the 3-cone drill at 6.67 seconds; Leshoure finished sixth at 6.82 seconds
  • Helu finished first in the 20-yard shuttle at 4.01 seconds; Penn State's Evan Royster tied for eighth at 4.18 seconds
  • Helu finished first in the 60-yard shuttle at 11.07 seconds
Tight ends
  • Wisconsin's Lance Kendricks finished eighth in the 40-yard dash at 4.75 seconds; Michigan State's Charlie Gantt finished 11th at 4.93 seconds; Iowa's Allen Reisner finished 12th at 4.95 seconds
  • Gantt tied for first in bench-press reps with 27; Kendricks tied for third with 25
  • Kendricks finished sixth in vertical jump at 34.5 inches; Gantt finished 13th at 30.5 inches
  • Kendricks finished second in broad jump at 10 feet, 2 inches; Gantt finished ninth at 9 feet, 4 inches; Reisner tied for 12th at 9 feet
  • Kendricks finished sixth in the 3-cone drill at 6.94 seconds; Gantt finished 11th at 7.15 seconds
  • Kendricks tied for second in 20-yard shuttle at 4.15 seconds; Gantt tied for eighth at 4.4 seconds
  • Kendricks tied for sixth in 60-yard shuttle at 11.9 seconds; Gantt and Reisner tied for 11th at 12.12 seconds
Defensive linemen
  • Wisconsin's J.J. Watt tied for fourth in bench-press reps with 34; Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan tied for sixth with 31
Linebackers
  • Ohio State linebacker Ross Homan finished first in bench-press reps with 32; Ohio State's Brian Rolle finished fourth with 28; Illinois' Martez Wilson tied for ninth with 23
Offensive linemen
  • Iowa's Julian Vandervelde tied for 10th in the 40-yard dash at 5.21 seconds; Indiana's James Brewer and Wisconsin's Gabe Carimi tied for 14th at 5.27 seconds
  • Michigan's Stephen Schilling and Penn State's Stefen Wisniewski tied for sixth in bench-press reps with 30; Carimi tied for ninth with 29; Ohio State's Justin Boren tied for 14th with 28
  • Carimi finished fifth in vertical jump at 31.5 inches; Vandervelde tied for sixth at 31 inches; Wisconsin's John Moffitt tied for eighth at 30.5 inches
  • Carimi finished fifth in broad jump at 9 feet, 1 inch; Vandervelde finished tied for 13th at 8 feet, 8 inches
  • Vandervelde finished seventh in 3-cone drill at 7.46 seconds; Wisniewski finished eighth at 7.51 seconds; Boren finished 11th at 7.57 seconds
  • Moffitt finished sixth in 20-yard shuttle at 4.53 seconds; Vandervelde tied for seventh at 4.59 seconds; Schilling tied for ninth at 4.62 seconds;
National Signing Day is just about a week away, so let's take a look at the recruiting needs for each Big Ten team.

In compiling these lists, I tried to look at positions that have depth issues for 2011 and/or 2012.

Let's start off with the Legends division.

IOWA

Running back: Marcus Coker's breakout performance in the Insight Bowl got Iowa fans excited for the future, but there's still a significant depth issue here. If Adam Robinson can't get reinstated, the Hawkeyes will be looking for No. 2 and No. 3 options behind Coker. As we've seen the past two seasons, freshmen backs will see the field at Iowa.

Linebacker: Iowa felt the losses of Pat Angerer and A.J. Edds this season, and it must continue to rebuild the depth at the three linebacker spots. Multiyear starter Jeremiha Hunter departs along with players like Jeff Tarpinian and Troy Johnson. Iowa needs to build around rising star James Morris.

Wide receiver/tight end: Iowa loses Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, Allen Reisner and Colin Sandeman this year. Also, receiver Marvin McNutt and tight end Brad Herman depart after the 2011 season. Although the Hawkeyes boast young talent at both positions, they need to build depth with this class.

MICHIGAN

Secondary: The Wolverines couldn't find many answers here in 2010, and though the return of players like cornerbacks Troy Woolfolk and J.T. Floyd will help, there are opportunities for freshmen to make an immediate impact. Michigan simply needs more options at both secondary spots in 2011.

Defensive line: It's crucial for coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison to begin building depth up front. Future NFL player Mike Martin departs after 2011 along with Ryan Van Bergen, so Michigan needs to solidify both line positions.

Kicker: Field goals were an adventure in 2010, and Michigan simply can't have so much uncertainty at kicker going forward. The Wolverines need a reliable leg here ASAP.

MICHIGAN STATE

Linebacker: I like some of the young linebackers the Spartans bring back in 2011, but you can't overlook the losses of multiyear starters Greg Jones and Eric Gordon, not to mention reserve Jon Misch. Michigan State should have a decent group of first-string 'backers, but wants to build depth in the defensive midsection.

Offensive line: Not only do the Spartans lose three starters from the 2010 line, but they're still not where they need to be depth-wise up front to become a consistent top-tier Big Ten program. Michigan State wants to become like Iowa and Wisconsin. The big step is to keep fortifying both lines, especially on the offensive side.

MINNESOTA

Pass rusher: Minnesota finished last in the Big Ten in sacks last season (9) and hasn't had an intimidating pass rusher since Willie VanDeSteeg in 2008. The recent departure of defensive tackle Jewhan Edwards, who led the team in both sacks and tackles for loss in 2009, underscores this need.

Offensive line: The Gophers lose three starters up front, and while they boast some promising young linemen like tackle Ed Olson, the depth just isn't there yet. Minnesota's best teams had powerful offensive lines, and new coach Jerry Kill must continue to create competition up front.

NEBRASKA

Running back: The Huskers lose standout Roy Helu Jr., and while Rex Burkhead quickly will become one of my favorite Big Ten players, he might not be an every-down back for Nebraska going forward. You always want options in the backfield, and Nebraska must continue to address its run game with the 2011 class.

Wide receiver: Nebraska loses Niles Paul and wants to identify playmakers to surround Taylor Martinez or whomever starts at quarterback. Brandon Kinnie departs after the 2011 season, and while Burkhead helps in the receiving department, Nebraska needs others to emerge.

NORTHWESTERN

Running back: Although Mike Trumpy and Adonis Smith emerged as possible answers late in the 2010 season, Northwestern needs to create real competition here. The Wildcats have lacked a dominant back during the Pat Fitzgerald era and need a dangerous rushing option to complement Dan Persa.

Defensive line: The Wildcats lose only one starter (Corbin Bryant) from the 2010 squad, but four more rotation players (Vince Browne, Jack DiNardo, Kevin Watt and Niko Mafuli) depart after 2011. Fortifying the pass rush is a major priority going forward.

Big Red update: Week 9

October, 26, 2010
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Big Red bounced back nicely Saturday in Stillwater, and it's time for us to check in on the future Big Ten member.

Record: 6-1 (2-1 Big 12)

National rank: No. 14 in BCS standings, No. 14 in AP Poll, No. 12 in Coaches' Poll

Last result: Won a 51-41 shootout against then-No. 14 Oklahoma State.

News to know: Humbled the previous week against Texas, Nebraska freshman quarterback Taylor Martinez reinvented himself in Stillwater, passing for 323 yards and five touchdowns and adding 112 rush yards in the victory. Martinez will face some better defenses next fall, but he should scare defensive coordinators throughout the Big Ten with his big-play ability. He had only three passing touchdowns all season before Saturday but matched the total in the first half against Oklahoma State. Receiver Niles Paul rebounded nicely after a case of the dropsies against Texas, and wideout Brandon Kinnie had three touchdown catches. The Blackshirts didn't have their best day, allowing 41 points and 495 yards to the Cowboys, and missed tackles were a problem. But Nebraska got the win it needed after the Texas letdown, and the Huskers now can help their future Big Ten brother Michigan State with a win this week against unbeaten Missouri.

Up next: Saturday vs. No. 6 Missouri

Big Red update: Week 8

October, 20, 2010
10/20/10
1:08
PM ET
Sorry this is coming a little late, but it's time for our weekly peek at future Big Ten member Nebraska. Big Red is feeling a little blue right now.

Record: 5-1 (1-1 Big 12)

National rank: No. 16 in BCS standings, No. 14 in AP poll, No. 13 in coaches' poll

Last result: Lost 20-13 to Texas at home

News to know: Last Saturday's matchup lost it edge with Texas' early-season struggles, and apparently Nebraska lost its edge, too. After annihilating Kansas State, Nebraska stumbled against the hated Longhorns, who jumped out to a 20-3 lead and handed Husker Nation another dose of disappointment. Redshirt freshman quarterback Taylor Martinez saw his stock drop as he completed only 4 of 12 passes and racked up only 21 rush yards on 13 carries against Will Muschamp's defense. Then again, T-Magic got no help from receiver Niles Paul, who was heckled after dropping two touchdown passes, or Rex Burkhead, who also dropped a TD. "They had more pressure on them today than us, and that's unusual," Texas coach Mack Brown said after the game. "I thought their fans hung in there with them. But I could feel some of their fans, when we got up 10-0 thinking, 'You've got to be kidding, not again.'" Ouch. Texas might get the last laugh in this tense rivalry. Nebraska looked rattled and came down to earth a little bit, although the Huskers still seem like a good bet to reach the Big 12 championship game. They face another big test this week against undefeated Oklahoma State.

Up next: Saturday at No. 14 Oklahoma State

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