Big Ten: Patrick Nixon-Youman

It's Depth Chart Monday around the Big Ten as most teams revealed new or updated depth charts for their upcoming season openers. Indiana and Iowa released depth charts last week, while Nebraska's won't come out until later this week. A few more teams unveil new or updated depth charts Tuesday, and we'll break down those as they file in.

While we won't break down the depth charts each week of the season, the first installments always carry a bit more weight as players have jockeyed for position during camp.

Here are some notes and thoughts from what we learned today:


Depth chart (page 13)
  • Suspended players Fitz Toussaint and Frank Clark both are listed -- Toussaint is the starting running back, Clark as a backup weakside defensive end -- but their status for the opener against Alabama is yet to be determined. Coach Brady Hoke will make a decision soon. While it seems highly unlikely Clark will play, Toussaint's status will be a big story this week.
  • Roy Roundtree is listed as a starter at receiver despite missing a chunk of camp following knee surgery. Although Michigan has some decent other options at wideout, it really needs "Tree" on the field at JerryWorld. Speaking of receivers, backup quarterback Devin Gardner is listed as a third-string receiver and should see a bit of work there against the Crimson Tide.
  • Depth is a bit of a concern for Michigan entering the season, and it's the main reason why the Wolverines list 12 true freshman on the depth chart, four in backup roles. Expect freshmen like linebacker Joe Bolden and safety Jarrod Wilson to see plenty of field time.
  • As for position battles, Quinton Washington claimed a starting defensive tackle spot, moving Jibreel Black back to the end position. Will Hagerup and Matt Wile are listed as co-starters at punter, but Hagerup will get the starting nod against Alabama.

Depth chart
  • Regarding position battles, Reid Fragel, a converted tight end, claimed the starting right tackle spot ahead of freshman Taylor Decker. Travis Howard maintained his starting cornerback spot ahead of Doran Grant. The team's starting wide receivers entering the fall are Corey Brown, Devin Smith and Jake Stoneburner, a converted tight end. Ohio State's only unsettled position is tight end, where freshman Nick Vannett and sophomore Jeff Heuerman are listed as co-starters.
  • Like Michigan, Ohio State will have plenty of youth on the field this fall. Coach Urban Meyer lists 13 freshmen on the depth chart, including highly touted defensive linemen Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington, spring game star Michael Thomas at backup receiver and backup middle linebacker Camren Williams. The Buckeyes have three freshmen listed as backup offensive linemen, underscoring the depth issues there.
  • With projected starting running back Jordan Hall (foot) out at least a week, Ohio State will start Carlos Hyde at running back. Freshman Bri'onte Dunn will back up Hyde.

Depth chart (page 13)
  • The Badgers put out a depth chart last week but made a few changes, including junior Zac Matthias and sophomore Kyle Costigan being listed as co-starters at right guard. Costigan had been listed as the starter, but Matthias made a push late in camp.
  • Backup cornerback Peniel Jean will miss four to six weeks after fracturing his foot last week in practice and undergoing surgery. Redshirt freshman Darius Hillary moves into the No. 2 role behind Devin Smith and likely will be the team's primary nickel back.
  • Sophomore Kyle French is listed as the starter for both field goals and kickoffs (he only occupied the kickoffs role last week). Coach Bret Bielema said freshman Jack Russell (great name) also will see time as a kicker in Saturday's opener against Northern Iowa.

Depth chart

Depth chart
  • Safeties Steve Hull and Supo Sanni, the projected starters, aren't listed on the two-deep. Earnest Thomas and Pat Nixon-Youman are listed in their places. Both Hull and Sanni are week-to-week with injuries. Coach Tim Beckman said both would practice this week and likely will be game-time decisions.
  • Illinois shuffled its offensive linemen between positions throughout camp, and there could be more changes before game day. But ... Graham Pocic is listed as the starting center after playing mostly guard in camp. Pocic has started the past 26 games at center. Redshirt freshman Ted Karras, who has recovered from a foot injury, is listed as the starting right guard.
  • Tim Kynard will start at defensive end in place of Justin Staples, who will serve a one-game suspension against Western Michigan. Offensive lineman Simon Cvijanovic also won't play Saturday for undisclosed reasons.
  • Illinois lists co-starters at both running back (Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson) and tight end (Jon Davis and Eddie Viliunas). Both Young and Ferguson should get plenty of carries against Western Michigan.

Depth chart (Page 7)
  • After a strong camp, Venric Mark will start at running back for Northwestern. The 5-foot-8, 175-pound Mark, who came to Northwestern as a return specialist, moved from wide receiver after the season. Mike Trumpy, who comes off of ACL surgery, is the backup, and Northwestern likely will spread the carries around. Treyvon Green has recovered from a scary neck injury midway through camp and will play at Syracuse.
  • USC transfer Kyle Prater is listed as a backup receiver. Northwestern will start Demetrius Fields, Christian Jones, Rashad Lawrence and Tony Jones at receiver against the Orange. Prater saw some time with the first-team offense in camp and will be part of the rotation, but he still seems to be lacking a step as he gets back into game shape.
  • The Wildcats have no unsettled starting spots, and while there are a number of young players on the depth chart, only two true freshmen, defensive end Dean Lowry and superback Dan Vitale, made the two-deep. Heralded incoming freshman defender Ifeadi Odenigbo likely will redshirt and isn't listed on the depth chart.

Depth chart (Page 6)
  • The Boilers have four unsettled starting spots, three on the offensive side. Juniors Kevin Pamphile and Justin Kitchens are battling at the left tackle spot, while juniors Devin Smith and Cody Davis are co-starters at right guard. Junior Gabe Holmes and fifth-year senior Crosby Wright are still competing for the top tight end spot. The lone unsettled spot on defense is at end opposite Ryan Russell, as Ryan Isaac and Jalani Phillips continue to compete.
  • No surprises in the starting backfield as Caleb TerBush, Robert Marve and Rob Henry are listed at quarterback in that order. It'll be interesting to see how Purdue uses Henry this year. It doesn't make much sense to waste his talents on the bench. No Ralph Bolden on the depth chart as the senior running back is still working his way back from the knee injury. The Akeems (Shavers and Hunt) will carry the rock against Eastern Kentucky.
  • The placekicking spot is also up in the air with three players -- Sam McCartney, Paul Griggs and Thomas Meadows -- in the mix to replace standout Carson Wiggs.

More depth chart fun comes your way Tuesday, so be sure and check in.

Purdue Boilermakers, Penn State Nittany Lions, Big Ten Conference, Northwestern Wildcats, Indiana Hoosiers, Illinois Fighting Illini, Ohio State Buckeyes, Michigan Wolverines, Wisconsin Badgers, Crosby Wright, Supo Sanni, Roy Roundtree, Kyle Prater, Brady Hoke, Paul Jones, Urban Meyer, Robert Marve, Quinton Washington, Devin Smith, Jake Stoneburner, Pete Massaro, Patrick Nixon-Youman, DaQuan Jones, Tony Jones, Carlos Hyde, Caleb TerBush, Shawney Kersey, Mike Trumpy, Jibreel Black, Devin Gardner, Corey Brown, Cody Davis, Carson Wiggs, Eddie Viliunas, Fitzgerald Toussaint, Rob Henry, Travis Howard, Alex Kenney, Tim Beckman, Jordan Hall, Earnest Thomas, Rashad Lawrence, Gabe Holmes, Peniel Jean, Venric Mark, Will Hagerup, Justin Staples, Jeff Heuerman, Demetrius Fields, Doran Grant, Alex Butterworth, Deion Barnes, Kevin Pamphile, Justin Kitchens, Steve Hull, Reid Fragel, Jalani Phillips, Akeem Shavers, Jon Davis, Akeem Hunt, Treyvon Green, Matt Wile, Donovonn Young, Josh Ferguson, Eugene Lewis, Joe Bolden, Bri'onte Dunn, Noah Spence, Camren Williams, Thomas Meadows, Paul Griggs, Simon Cvijanovic, Ryan Isaac, Frank Clark, Kyle French, Evan Lewis, Darius Hillary, Adolphus Washington, Ifeadi Odenigbo, Jesse James, Taylor Decker, Trevor Williams, Steven Bench, Tim Kynard, James Terry, Jarrod Wilson, Kyle Costigan, Adam Gress, Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, Jake Fagnano, Ted Karras, Matt Marcincin, Dean Lowry, Jack Russell, Nick Vannett, Mike Farrell, Dan Vitale, Sam McCartney, Zac Matthias

The folks at ESPN Recruiting stepped into the rewind machine Wednesday and looked back at the ESPNU 150 from 2008 Insider to see which heralded recruits panned out and which did not.

From a Big Ten slant, this exercise is essentially a referendum on Ohio State's class, which ranked sixth nationally that year Insider and featured eight ESPNU 150 prospects, headlined by quarterback Terrelle Pryor. Several other Big Ten squads had prospects in the 150 as well.

Overall, the results are mixed. Some players matched their hype, like Ohio State center Mike Brewster and, when healthy, Penn State linebacker Michael Mauti. Others did not or have not, once again proving that recruiting rankings should be viewed with caution.

Here's a look.

Prospects ranked from 1-25 Insider

No. 4: Terrelle Pryor, QB, Ohio State -- Helped Buckeyes win three Big Ten championships and two BCS bowls before departing in June because of multiple NCAA rules violations.

No. 18: Etienne Sabino, LB, Ohio State: -- Started the 2011 season after redshirting in 2010. Hasn't been a difference-maker for Buckeyes, but ended with a strong performance in the Gator Bowl and could be a key player in 2012.

Prospects ranked from 26-50 Insider

No. 42: Mike Brewster, C, Ohio State -- Four-year starter undoubtedly paid off for Ohio State. Brewster earned All-Big Ten honors and was an All-America candidate his final two seasons.

No. 48: Andrew Sweat, LB, Ohio State -- Sweat had a solid but unspectacular career for Ohio State. He was the team's top linebacker in 2011, and Ohio State missed him late in the season.

Prospects ranked between 51-75 Insider

No. 56: J.B. Shugarts, T, Ohio State -- Started the final three seasons at right tackle but never earned All-Big Ten honors.

No. 58: Michael Mauti, LB, Penn State -- Plagued by knee problems, but very effective when healthy. He turned in a strong 2010 season and entered 2011 as an All-America candidate before tearing his ACL in September. He'll be back in 2012.

No. 69: Dann O'Neill, T, Michigan -- Redshirted as a freshman before transferring to Western Michigan, saying Michigan wasn't the right fit. He earned third-team All-MAC honors in 2011.

No. 71: Darryl Stonum, WR, Michigan -- Turned in a nice year in 2010, but found himself in off-field troubles throughout his Michigan career. Wolverines coach Brady Hoke on Tuesday dismissed Stonum after his latest infraction that resulted in jail time.

Prospects ranked 76-100 Insider

No. 88: Mike Adams, T, Ohio State -- One of the Big Ten's top offensive linemen during his final two seasons, earning first-team all-conference honors in 2010 and second-team honors in 2011 despite playing in only seven games. He had some off-field issues with the Buckeyes and was part of the Tat-5 with Pryor.

Prospects ranked 101-125 Insider

No. 107: Jake Stoneburner, TE, Ohio State -- An excellent weapon when used in the Ohio State offense. He recorded a team-high seven touchdown receptions in 2011, but had only 14 overall receptions. He returns in 2012 and should have a bigger role in a more wide-open offense.

No. 115: Brandon Moore, TE, Michigan -- Moore has two receptions in three years as a reserve tight end for the Wolverines. He could see a bigger role in 2012 as Kevin Koger departs.

No. 119 Baker Steinkuhler, DT, Nebraska -- Started the past two seasons on the Huskers' defensive line and recorded 40 tackles, including five for loss and two sacks, during the 2011 season. He earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors and will be called upon to take a leading role for Big Red in 2012.

Prospects ranked 126-150 Insider

No. 128: Patrick Nixon-Youman, CB, Illinois -- Hip surgery a few years ago slowed Nixon-Youman's progression, but he appeared in 11 games in each of the past two seasons in a reserve role. He could play a bigger role in 2012.

No. 130: Keanon Cooper, LB, Minnesota -- Started in 2011 for Minnesota and recorded 77 tackles, including six for loss, as well as two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. He enters his third season as a starter in 2012 and will need to be a big contributor for the Gophers' defense.

No. 135: Travis Howard, CB, Ohio State -- Took on a bigger role in 2011 and recorded 44 tackles, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and five pass breakups for the Buckeyes. He'll enter the 2012 season as a projected starter and could end his career with a flourish.

No. 141: J.B. Fitzgerald, LB, Michigan -- Started only three games in his career, but appeared in 50 contests and was a valuable reserve and special teams performer for Michigan in 2011.

No. 148: Tyler Westphal, DE, Wisconsin -- Had a serious shoulder injury following his redshirt year in Madison and eventually transferred to North Dakota State.

Minnesota linebacker Brendan Beal, who has yet to play for the Gophers after transferring from Florida, is No. 133 in the rankings.
Illinois' safeties will have an ally on the field this season.

Tavon Wilson is excited to be once again playing his natural position of cornerback, but he isn't forgetting his roots.

[+] EnlargeTavon Wilson
Chuck Rydlewski/Icon SMIIllinois' Tavon Wilson has started at cornerback and safety.
"I help my safeties a lot more because I know how hard it is back there, to cover each half of the field all by yourself," Wilson said. "If we're in Cover 2, I make sure I get my hands on [the receiver]. In Cover 3, I protect the front side when they're going to the middle.

"I've got a little more respect for the safeties now after playing the position."

Wilson moved from cornerback to safety before the 2010 season because a series of injuries hit Illinois' defensive backfield. The big loss was Supo Sanni, a projected starter at safety who ruptured his Achilles tendon in camp and had to miss the season.

After a productive sophomore season at cornerback, where he led the team with seven passes defended, Wilson made the shift to safety and once again led the team in passes defended (9) to go along with 48 tackles. Illinois' improved depth in the secondary has allowed Wilson to return to cornerback, although he practiced as a nickel safety this spring.

Wilson's versatility should help a secondary that likely will be the strength of the defense in 2011.

"Safety and corner are two totally different positions," Wilson said. "It's a different mind-set. At first, I tried to go out there and play like a corner, but I had to learn the game from a safety standpoint. It's a totally different aspect of football."

Wilson admits he "probably played a little smarter" as a safety, knowing that any risk could backfire and result in a touchdown for the opposing team.

"At corner, I know I'm a lot more aggressive and more of a hitter," he said. "I take more chances just because I know I've got some help over the top."

He won't take that help for granted.

Sanni is on track to return at safety alongside Trulon Henry, a starter last season who led the team with three interceptions. Wilson, Terry Hawthorne and Justin Green give Illinois a very nice complement of cornerbacks, and the secondary also brings back Patrick Nixon-Youman, Steve Hull and Miami Thomas, the talented corner who has battled injuries for much of his career.

"I definitely feel like we're going to have a chance to be the leaders of the defense, just because of the confidence we have in each other and the confidence everybody else has in us," Wilson said. "A lot of us have played a lot of football around here, so when things are going wrong, people on the defense expect me or one of my guys back there to make a play. We've been doing that this spring.”
Let's press the rewind button on Week 8 before fast-forwarding into Week 9.

[+] EnlargeScott Tolzien
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallWisconsin's Scott Tolzien made some clutch throws in the fourth quarter at Iowa.
Team of the Week: Wisconsin. The Badgers get the nod for the second consecutive week after their second consecutive signature win, this time on the road against rival Iowa. Bret Bielema's squad had to overcome several key injuries -- running back James White, tight end Lance Kendricks -- and a red-hot Ricky Stanzi, but thanks to a gutsy fake punt call from Bielema, some clutch play by quarterback Scott Tolzien and the emergence of third-string back Montee Ball, Wisconsin rallied for a 31-30 victory. Wisconsin still needs some help to reach a BCS bowl, but it has survived the toughest part of its schedule and will be favored in its final four contests.

Best game: I give a slight edge to Wisconsin-Iowa, but Michigan State-Northwestern also provided plenty of drama. Both games featured fake punts with fun names -- "Mousetrap" and "Chain" -- that led to come-from-behind victories by the road team. We saw tremendous quarterback play in both contests -- Michigan State's Kirk Cousins and Northwestern's Dan Persa in Evanston, Iowa's Stanzi and Wisconsin's Tolzien in Iowa City -- and surprising players stepping up in the clutch (Wisconsin's Ball, Michigan State's Bennie Fowler). A ton of good stuff in both games.

Biggest play: The two fake punts are the obvious choices here, especially Wisconsin's on a fourth-and-4 from its own 26-yard line with about six minutes to play. But there were others as well. Tolzien made a huge throw to Ball for a 7-yard completion on fourth-and-5 in the closing minutes, and Michigan State receiver B.J. Cunningham came up huge on the game-winning touchdown, which he caught after Northwestern safety Brian Peters deflected the ball.

Specialist spotlight: Michigan State punter Aaron Bates and his Wisconsin counterpart Brad Nortman have received plenty of credit, and deservedly so, for executing the fake punts Saturday. Illinois continued to shine on special teams as punter Anthony Santella averaged 45.6 yards on five punts, Derek Dimke added two more field goals and Martez Wilson and Nate Bussey both blocked Indiana punts. Penn State punter Anthony Fera was outstanding, averaging 45.2 yards a punt with four placed inside the Minnesota 20-yard line. Purdue punter Cody Webster had another big day (six punts, 46.7-yard average), and Iowa's Ryan Donahue had a 71-yard punt. Northwestern kicker Stefan Demos rebounded with two field goals against Michigan State.

Game balls:

  • Michigan State DE Tyler Hoover: Hoover gave Northwestern's offensive line all sorts of trouble, recording two sacks and a forced fumble and tying Greg Jones for the team lead in tackles with nine. He tied a career high in tackles and set a personal best in sacks as he continues to blossom for the unbeaten Spartans.
  • Wisconsin DE J.J. Watt: The junior is making a serious push for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors. He followed up a dominating performance against Ohio State with five tackles, including two for loss and a sack, and a huge blocked extra-point attempt that proved to be the difference in the game.
  • Illinois defenders Corey Liuget, Justin Staples, Terry Hawthorne, Patrick Nixon-Youman and Jonathan Brown: They'll have to share one game ball, but I doubt they'll mind after teaming up to shut down Indiana. Liuget recorded a sack and five quarterback hurries, while Staples had two tackles for loss and a forced fumble. Nixon-Youman and Brown both recorded pick-sixes, and Hawthorne had an interception and a tackle for loss in his first game back from injury.
  • Penn State CB D'Anton Lynn: Lynn stepped up in a big way at Minnesota, recording a game-high 10 tackles and a 58-yard interception return that turned the momentum in the second quarter.
  • Northwestern QB Dan Persa: Anyone who hadn't seen Persa before Saturday gained a ton of respect for the Wildcats' junior quarterback. He repeatedly sacrificed his body and made plays when they seemingly weren't there, recording three rushing touchdowns in the game.
  • Wisconsin QB Scott Tolzien: Despite not having one of his top passing targets in Kendricks, Tolzien led Wisconsin to a huge road victory. He did have an ugly interception, but was otherwise brilliant, completing 20 of 26 passes for 205 yards and a touchdown.
  • Ohio State WRs Dane Sanzenbacher and DeVier Posey: One of the nation's top receiving tandems teamed up Saturday for eight receptions, 170 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Sanzenbacher had a 57-yard reception as he continues to improve his stock for the Biletnikoff Award.
  • Minnesota WR Da'Jon McKnight: The next Gophers coach will inherit a nice piece in McKnight, who continues to evolve as a go-to receiver. McKnight recorded eight receptions for 103 yards and three touchdowns against Penn State.
  • Iowa QB Ricky Stanzi: I put the poor clock management at the end of the game on the coaching staff, not Stanzi, who delivered another tremendous performance. The senior completed 25 of 37 passes for 258 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions against Wisconsin.

Now let's spin it forward for a quick look at Week 9.

Purdue (4-3, 2-1 Big Ten) at Illinois (4-3, 2-2): Purdue might have to start another new quarterback after Rob Henry's hand injury, and the timing doesn't favor the Boilers, as the Illinois defense is on fire. The game features two of the Big Ten's top pass-rushing groups, as Ryan Kerrigan leads Purdue, while Corey Liuget looks to keep his stellar season going. The winner moves one step closer to bowl eligibility.

Northwestern (5-2, 1-2) at Indiana (4-3, 0-3): This matchup features two similar teams dealing with similar senses of urgency. Northwestern aims to stop a two-game slide on the road, where it has been at its best under Pat Fitzgerald. Indiana probably needs to win this one to keep its bowl hopes alive, and the Hoosiers look to bounce back from a mistake-ridden performance at Illinois. The game also pairs two excellent quarterbacks -- Dan Persa and Ben Chappell -- and two vulnerable pass defenses. Expect a lot of points.

No. 5 Michigan State (8-0, 4-0) at No. 18 Iowa (5-2, 2-1): If the Spartans can get out of Iowa City with a victory, they can really start thinking about a run to the national title game. Michigan State certainly has the magic that Iowa had last year but is lacking this year after two fourth-quarter letdowns. Two outstanding quarterbacks meet in the Spartans' Kirk Cousins and the Hawkeyes' Ricky Stanzi, and the game also features defensive stars like Adrian Clayborn and Greg Jones. Iowa can't afford to lose and stay in the Big Ten race.

No. 11 Ohio State (7-1, 3-1) at Minnesota (1-7, 0-4): This one could get ugly. Ohio State's offense has carved up weak defenses all season, and Minnesota ranks 90th nationally in yards allowed (406.4 ypg) and 100th in points allowed (31.9 ppg). Quarterback Terrelle Pryor is licking his chops. Minnesota will need a huge performance from quarterback Adam Weber to keep pace against a banged-up Buckeyes defense that rebounded last week.

Michigan (5-2, 1-2) at Penn State (4-3, 1-2): Simply put, this is the biggest game of Rich Rodriguez's Michigan tenure. Rodriguez and the Wolverines come off of a bye week and need a win to stem talk of a 2009 redux. Penn State got the win it needed at Minnesota, but surrendered 433 yards. The Lions will be tested by Denard Robinson and co., while their quarterback situation remains unsettled after Rob Bolden's apparent concussion.

Bye: No. 10 Wisconsin (7-1, 3-1)

Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 8

October, 23, 2010
It's that time again.

Here are your best and brightest from Week 8 in the Big Ten.

Punters Brad Nortman and Aaron Bates: Did you think I'd resist the chance to give helmet stickers to punters? Ha! Both these guys are well deserving after their roles in huge fourth-quarter fakes that led to come-from-behind victories. Nortman stunned Iowa with a 17-yard run on fourth-and-4 deep in Wisconsin territory during the Badgers' 31-30 victory, and Bates hit Bennie Fowler with a 23-yard completion on fourth-and-11 in the Spartans' 35-27 come-from-behind win. Bates, who also passed for a touchdown on a fake field goal against Notre Dame, now has a passer rating of 475. Not bad.

Michigan State's receivers: Some of you scoffed when I ranked Michigan State's receivers and tight ends as the Big Ten's best group before the season. They showed why Saturday with a tremendous collective effort against Northwestern. Mark Dell and B.J. Cunningham combined for 17 receptions, 220 receiving yards and three touchdowns, while Keith Nichol had two huge catches on the game-winning drive. And who can forget redshirt freshman Bennie Fowler, the recipient of the "Mousetrap" who also had a 22-yard touchdown run.

Ohio State LB Andrew Sweat: The Buckeyes defense missed a big piece Saturday in senior linebacker Ross Homan (foot), but Sweat stepped up in a big way to fill the void in a 49-0 win over Purdue. Sweat led a suffocating defensive effort with eight tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, a forced fumble and a pass breakup. He shares the sticker with the rest of the defense, which held Purdue to nine first downs and just 118 total yards.

Illinois LB Martez Wilson: It has been a long, hard road for Wilson, but he's finally performing like the player we thought he'd be when he arrived in 2007. The junior led Illinois with 12 tackles, blocked a punt (one of two for Illinois) and recorded a pass breakup in a 43-13 win over Indiana. He shares the sticker with fellow defenders Patrick Nixon-Youman and Jonathan Brown, both of whom had interception returns for touchdowns.

Penn State RBs Evan Royster and Silas Redd: The Lions needed a lift from the run game after Rob Bolden went down with a head injury, and both Royster and Redd provided one. The senior and the freshman combined for 133 rush yards and a touchdown on only 19 carries in a 33-21 win over Minnesota. Receiver Derek Moye also came up big with touchdown catches of 42 and 9 yards.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- When it comes to rebuilding projects, the Illinois Fighting Illini have a huge one in front of them.

But it's clear that the attitude has changed around here, thanks mainly to the new assistants that head coach Ron Zook hired during a tumultuous winter. I'll have more on this next week, but new coordinators Paul Petrino and Vic Koenning have increased the level of accountability for a team that has, quite frankly, been one of the nation's biggest underachievers the past two seasons.

I had a chance to speak with players and coaches and watch a portion of practice Wednesday afternoon -- a scrimmage session was closed to media -- and here are some quick thoughts.
  • Zook likely won't officially name a starting quarterback until fall camp, but it's very clear that Nathan Scheelhaase is the guy. Scheelhaase brings excellent athleticism to the position -- Petrino likens him to former Louisville star Stefan LeFors, a player he helped coach -- and is making strides as a passer. Jacob Charest also has done some good things, and while Chandler Whitmer is a bit behind the other two, Zook said the early enrollee has really benefited from going through this spring session.
  • Zook said Illinois' defensive leaders are linemen Clay Nurse and Corey Liuget, Martez Wilson and Ian Thomas at linebacker and cornerback Tavon Wilson, who has had a "superb spring," in the secondary. The head coach also recognized defensive linemen Akeem Spence, Glenn Foster and Daryle Ballew for their play this spring. Linebacker Aaron Gress also has come on strong the last week or so. "A lot of times, those junior college guys, it's that the second year that they turn it on," Zook said. Wilson and Nurse are being held out of contact following surgeries, but both have performed well.
  • The secondary has a few question marks, but Zook said sophomore cornerback Terry Hawthorne, nicknamed "black cat," continues to step up, along with corner Patrick Nixon-Youman. Cornerback Miami Thomas has started doing some individual work as he works his way back from a torn ACL in his left knee. Sophomore Joelil Thrash is seeing time at both safety and corner and has been impressive.
  • Petrino thinks the offensive line can be a strength this fall and recognized tackle Jeff Allen and sophomore Graham Pocic, who moved from guard to center, for their play this spring. "He gives us some size and some strength in there that helps us both in the running game and the passing game," Petrino said of Pocic. "That's been a pleasant surprise."
  • I'll touch on this more next week, but the defense is really getting back to the basics. "The fundamentals were so far out of whack," Koenning said. "Our tackling leaves a lot to be desired, and every day we have a normal practice, we're spending an exorbitant amount of time not on X's and O's. There's so many things we've got to cover, but if you can't tackle, it doesn't really matter."

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

Minutes after bulldozing cornerback Patrick Nixon-Youman for a first down during an Illinois practice this spring, Mikel LeShoure recited a line all young running backs should remember.

  AP Photo/Carlos Osorio
  Jason Ford led the Illini with eight rushing touchdowns a season ago.

"Sometimes you've got to dish the hits before you can take them," he said.

Last year, LeShoure and Fighting Illini teammate Jason Ford weren't fully equipped to absorb the punishment or make opposing defenders pay. Both backs played as true freshmen and enjoyed some success, as Ford led the team with eight rushing touchdowns and LeShoure added 126 rush yards and a touchdown in nine games.

But like many freshmen, both Ford and LeShoure didn't have Big Ten bodies. They were the right size -- Ford at 6-foot, 220 pounds; LeShoure at 6-foot, 240 pounds -- but the wrong shape.

"I came in out of shape," Ford said. "I really didn't lift weights in high school because we didn't really have a weight program, so everything was kind of new to me."

A winter in the weight room has paid off for both Ford and LeShoure, who, along with senior Daniel Dufrene and sophomore Troy Pollard, are in the mix for Illinois' starting running back spot in 2009.

Ford and LeShoure got most of the work in Illinois' spring game Saturday, combining for 93 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries (5.5 yards per carry).

Ford remains around the same weight as he played at last season -- he played this spring at 222 pounds, with the hope of getting down to 220 -- but he reduced his body fat from 8.9 percent last fall to 5.9 percent in the spring. Now sturdier than stockier, Ford's size comes in handy in the red zone, where he does most of his damage.

"I feel a lot stronger, a lot quicker, a lot faster," he said. "I'm in better shape than I was last year. Last year, I got kind of winded sometimes, but this year, I feel pretty good."

  University of Illinois/Getty Images
  Mikel LeShoure has lost 13 or 14 pounds and 3 to 4 percent of his body fat since last summer.

LeShoure has lost 13 or 14 pounds and 3 to 4 percent of his body fat since last summer. Part of the weight loss came after he sustained a broken jaw in early November after an altercation with a teammate, reported to be wide receiver Jeff Cumberland.

With his jaw wired shut for six weeks, LeShoure couldn't eat normally and dropped in weight. And even after his jaw healed, he worked to keep the weight off. LeShoure now checks in between 220 to 225 pounds.

"When I got back, I didn't want to just rush and add food and stuff," he said. "I just kept my body the way it was, and it paid off. I feel a lot quicker on my feet, knees feel a little higher."

LeShoure feels comfortable with his current size, while Ford is "pretty close" to his goal weight.

"The weight room doesn't just happen," Illinois head coach Ron Zook explained. "It takes time for your body to change."

Illinois slipped to fifth in the Big Ten in rushing offense last fall after leading the league in each of the past two seasons. Expectations have been boosted for the backs this fall, and LeShoure doesn't shy away from pressure.

For starters, he wears No. 5 for the Illini, the same jersey donned by former Illini star running back Rashard Mendenhall in 2007. LeShoure decided to keep his high school number despite Mendenhall's recent success.

"You can think of it like [pressure], but also it's a challenge, too," he said. "It pushes you to get better."

Both LeShoure and Ford accepted the challenge in the offseason.

"We feel like what we did last year was not our potential," LeShoure said. "We're going to set the bar higher."

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

You wouldn't normally put "torn stomach muscles" and "good news" in the same sentence, but it holds true for Illinois cornerback Patrick Nixon-Youman. 

The Illini freshman sustained torn stomach muscles during a scrimmage April 22 and had to be carted off the field. Team officials feared Nixon-Youman had sustained fractures in his hip or lower midsection, so the health report is promising.  

Head coach Ron Zook mentioned Nixon-Youman on his Twitter page this morning, writing, "Got some good news on Pat Nixon should be fine this young man. Has been through it. Think he will be exciting."

A heralded 2008 recruit, Nixon-Youman spent last fall improving his grades before getting clearance from the NCAA. He had shown promise this spring before the injury. 

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

  • Ohio State starting quarterback Terrelle Pryor can be hit in two quarters during the team's spring game Saturday, Doug Lesmerises writes in The Cleveland Plain Dealer. 
"It's a gamble, yeah," head coach Jim Tressel said of putting his star on the line. "But we need to get better. If we don't get better, that's a gamble as well."

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

It's impossible to overlook or ignore the similarities between Vontae Davis and Tavon Wilson.

Both men come from the nation's capital and attended high schools located just six miles apart. Both play cornerback. Both have similar frames as bigger corners -- Davis at 6-feet, 204 pounds; Wilson at 6-feet, 195 pounds.

Wilson might not be the physiological freak that Davis is, but at certain times, he could be mistaken for the former Illini star.

Toward the end of a recent practice at Memorial Stadium, Wilson earholed running back Mikel LeShoure, prompting a chorus of hollering from his fellow Illinois defenders. For a moment, the sophomore looked a lot like Davis, an explosive hitter who, unlike some cornerbacks, never shied away from contact.

"I wasn't trying to hit him too hard," Wilson said afterward. "He's a teammate."

Opposing ball-carriers won't be so lucky this fall, as Wilson helps fill the void left by Davis, a likely first-round pick in this weekend's NFL draft. After appearing in all 12 games las fall as a reserve corner, Wilson has been a bright spot this spring as he tries to fill Davis' starting spot in the secondary.

It would only be fitting if Wilson followed Davis, his mentor for two seasons at Illinois.

"When I visited [as a recruit], Vontae was my host," Wilson said. "He told me once I get here, he'd look out for me and make sure I learned the defense and stuff. We spent all our time together.

"He'd make me stay after practice to work on some stuff, watch film. He just gave me pointers."

Wilson still talks with Davis about three times a week. Though their conversations focus mainly on Davis' preparation for the NFL draft, Davis still keeps tabs on Wilson's progress through message boards and other sources.

"Vontae's one of those guys, he always wanted to help people," Illinois head coach Ron Zook said. "Vontae was instrumental in helping us recruit Tavon. They went to different high schools, but out there, they all know each other and know the history. Tavon's a guy who has come in and tried to model himself after Vontae."

Wilson (pronounced Tay-von) senses the opportunity at cornerback this spring, where several players are in the mix for starting spots, including senior Dere Hicks, Patrick Nixon-Youman, Supo Sanni and Travon Bellamy, a converted safety. Miami Thomas will join the mix this summer after being held out of contact this spring.

After recording 11 tackles last fall, Wilson has felt more confident and comfortable this spring, particularly in man-coverage. Illinois played a lot of zone last fall with Davis, but likely will go man-to-man more in 2009.

"He's a big corner, he's a 200-pounder, he likes contact," Zook said of Wilson. "He's a reactor, which is very, very important for corners. I'm proud the way he's progressed this offseason.

"He's got a chance to be a heck of a football player."

Just like Davis.

"We're similar type players," Wilson said. "Vontae, he's a little more explosive than me, but I'm still young, so I can get there."

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Last season, Illinois fans got a taste of good Juice (total offense records in three stadiums, including the Big House) and bad Juice (nine interceptions in the last five games).

Those in attendance Wednesday at a blustery Memorial Stadium for Illinois' full-pads scrimmage saw both sides of Juice Williams but left with a slightly sour taste about the Illini senior quarterback.

Williams looked solid in 7-on-7 red zone drills, firing touchdowns to Jeff Cumberland and dynamic Florida transfer Jarred Fayson. But Williams threw at least four interceptions, two of which went to cornerback Travon Bellamy, who appeared to injure his neck after making a pick in the end zone. Walk-on cornerback Nattiel Perkins also picked off a Williams pass.

"We got the best of him out there," cornerback Tavon Wilson said with a smile. "We compete like that every day, though."

Illini fans shouldn't be too concerned about Williams, who has loads of experience and a ton of weapons at his disposal. But seeing that limiting turnovers was one of head coach Ron Zook's top two goals for spring ball -- limiting big plays on defense was the other -- Wednesday's mistakes shouldn't become a habit.

There were several bright spots at the practice, and here are my other observations.

  • Illinois' rushing game will be much better in 2009, and Williams shouldn't have to carry such a large load as a runner. Sophomore backs Jason Ford and Mikel LeShoure both performed well in the scrimmage, delivering just as many hits as they took. The physical development of both players is obvious -- more on that in the coming days -- and as bigger backs, they can do some damage this fall. Ford broke free for a big gain late in the scrimmage, and LeShoure rocked Patrick Nixon-Youman after catching a screen pass.
  • Ford and LeShoure rotated with both the first- and second-team offense because both Daniel Dufrene and Troy Pollard are banged up. Don't be surprised, though, if the two sophomores are Illinois' primary backs this fall.
  • The Illini should have the Big Ten's top wide receiver corps this fall. Even without All-America candidate Arrelious Benn, who had class Wednesday and missed practice, the Illini receivers showed plenty of promise. The 6-5 Cumberland is a huge target, and Fayson already looks like one of Williams' favorite targets.
  • Former NFL coaches Jim Haslett and Rick Venturi attended practice for the second straight day. Haslett, the former Saints and Rams coach, will coach the Orlando franchise in the newly formed United Football League. They were in town to see Zook, their former colleague from the New Orleans Saints, and the three spent a lot of time breaking down film.
  • Several Illinois coaches raved about Tavon Wilson's progress when we talked earlier in the day, and he didn't disappoint. The sophomore defended a screen well during the red zone portion and rocked LeShoure on a run, eliciting cheers from his fellow defenders.
  • After playing two years at outside linebacker, junior Martez Wilson worked mainly in the middle on Wednesday. It makes sense since he's by far the team's most experienced linebacker. Wilson, who has recovered from a stabbing incident in December, still looks huge at 6-4 and 240 pounds. He had some good and bad moments during practice but teamed with Rahkeem Smith to drop LeShoure for a loss.
  • I was impressed with third-string quarterback Jacob Charest, who made several nice throws to Cordale Scott.
  • Suspended defensive tackle Josh Brent was at practice, watching from the sideline and hanging out with several recent Illini players, including former defensive lineman David Lindquist. The feeling is that Brent is expected to rejoin the team at some point.
  • The first-team offense: Williams at quarterback, LeShoure and Ford at running back, wide receiver Cumberland, wide receiver Chris Duvalt, wide receiver Fayson, tight end Hubie Graham, offensive lineman Corey Lewis, offensive lineman Jeff Allen, offensive lineman Eric Block, offensive lineman Jon Asamoah.
  • The first-team defense: defensive lineman Rahkeem Smith, defensive lineman Antonio James, defensive lineman Clay Nurse, defensive lineman Corey Liuget, linebacker Martez Wilson, linebacker Russell Ellington, linebacker Ian Thomas, cornerback Tavon Wilson, cornerback Patrick Nixon-Youman, safety Bo Flowers, safety Garrett Edwards.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

  • Nick Sheridan had impressed Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez before his leg injury, while young players like Vincent Smith and Martell Webb have stood out, Pete Bigelow writes in The Ann Arbor News.
  • More on the Sheridan situation, plus tackle Stephen Schilling has moved from tackle to guard, Angelique Chengelis writes in The Detroit News. 
  • Minnesota has a bit more depth at quarterback, and freshman MarQueis Gray will see the field right away, Marcus Fuller writes in the (St. Paul) Pioneer Press. 
"He's probably further ahead than I thought he would be," coach Tim Brewster said. "Obviously, you can see his talent. His talent jumps out at you, but what has impressed me is his ability to learn and pick things up. He has some real presence about him."