Big Ten: Pete Massaro

Nine Big Ten players have been named to the Capital One Academic All-America teams. That leads all FBS conferences.

Here are the honorees:

First team

Burkhead, Ward and Massaro earned first-team honors for the second time, becoming three of just five players nationally to achieve that distinction.

Second team

To be eligible for the academic All-America honors, a player must be in at least his second year of athletic eligibility, be a starter or key performer, and carry a cumulative 3.30 grade point average.

The Big Ten's five first-team selections were more than any other conference. The league has now led all FBS conferences in academic All-Americans for eight straight seasons, with 64 total honorees over that span.

Congrats to these players for this outstanding achievement.

Big Ten Tuesday personnel roundup

September, 18, 2012
Some key personnel notes and nuggets from around the Big Ten ...

  • Running back Damon Bullock (head) is doubtful and running back Greg Garmon (elbow) is questionable for Saturday's game against Central Michigan. Although Garmon's injury looked pretty gruesome against Northern Iowa, he has a better chance of playing, head coach Kirk Ferentz said. Mark Weisman will start for Iowa following his three-touchdown performance, while fellow walk-on Michael Malloy will be the backup.
  • The good news at running back is that Jordan Canzeri, who suffered a torn ACL in March during spring practice, has been medically cleared and should play at some point this season, Ferentz said. It's amazing how quickly some players come back from ACL tears these days.
  • Quarterback MarQueis Gray is clearly a very fast healer. How fast? Gophers coach Jerry Kill said Tuesday that there's a chance Gray is available as a backup Saturday night against Syracuse despite suffering a high ankle sprain last week. Gray is still sore, Kill said. It would be a pretty big surprise to see him return so soon from an injury that can take up to six weeks to heal, but the senior seems to be ahead of schedule. Kill said Minnesota has a plan if Max Shortell struggles or gets hurt -- whether it includes using true freshman Philip Nelson remains to be seen.
  • Cornerback Martez Shabazz will miss at least another week with a dislocated toe.
  • Senior defensive end Pete Massaro (shoulder) and linebacker Nyeem Wartman (knee) have been ruled out for Saturday's game against Temple. Massaro, who has dealt with injuries throughout his career, missed last week's contest with Navy. Standout redshirt freshman Deion Barnes will start in his spot.
  • Running backs Derek Day (shoulder) and Bill Belton (ankle) are both day-to-day for the Temple game, with Day having a better chance to return than Belton, coach Bill O'Brien said. "They're running backs," O'Brien said. "That's the nature of the position, so the next guy has got to be ready to go." That next guy would be junior Curtis Dukes.
  • Left tackle Donovan Smith (ankle) also is day-to-day after missing the Navy game. Smith's chances to play this week depend largely on how he moves around in practice Tuesday and Wednesday. "If he comes out today and he's gimpy, then [he] probably won't play," O'Brien said. Mike Farrell started in Smith's place against Navy.
  • The Hoosiers are off this week, but starting quarterback Cameron Coffman possibly could play if there was a game. Coffman left last week's loss to Ball State with a hip pointer, and Nate Sudfeld entered the game and performed well. Coach Kevin Wilson said Coffman remains the starter, at least right now, for next week's Big Ten opener at Northwestern. "He's just not full tilt pushing off yet," Wilson said. "We'll see. We'll get him checked out here later today. ... We'll decide tomorrow and Thursday how much he needs to do. It will be our trainer's call. Will it be best to take the whole week on the low key or does he need the reps?"
  • Sophomore quarterback Tre Roberson, who suffered a season-ending broken leg Sept. 8, said Tuesday that he "should be back" by spring practice. He said he can throw and put a bit of pressure on his surgically repaired leg.
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.

Big Ten mailblog

July, 31, 2012
Catching up on some mail over the weekend.

JD from Avalon, N.J., writes: Funny how no Penn Staters are on the list? In his most recent season, Pete Massaro was better than every Big Ten player on the list and Sean Stalney was just as good as a part timer last season. Gotta love the bias.

Adam Rittenberg: JD, understand your sensitivity to these issues right now. Sean Stanley certainly could have been included on the Ted Hendricks Award watch list. He's just as deserving as Craig Roh or Cam Meredith, in my view. Massaro, on the other hand, is coming off of several serious knee injuries. Much like Wisconsin's David Gilbert and Ohio State's Nathan Williams, Massaro has to prove himself again this fall. I don't think you need to have him on a preseason watch list. He can earn his way into consideration.

Antwon from Cleveland writes: Adam the big ten takes a lot of criticism nationally do you think one of those reasons is because they focus so much on getting to the rose bowl and not the national championship?

Adam Rittenberg: Antwon, I think it's more that the Big Ten doesn't win enough Rose Bowls or national championships. The league has just one national title in the BCS era (2002) and just three Rose Bowl victories (1998, 1999, 2009). The struggles in those two areas really work against the Big Ten's national reputation. While nothing helps a league's rep more than winning a national title, the Big Ten would benefit from doing better in Pasadena. I think more Big Ten teams need to start thinking national title because that's what leagues are judged on, but the Rose Bowl remains significant, and it's critical that the Big Ten starts performing better in its signature postseason game.

SpartanBadger from Carmel, Ind., writes: Hi Adam, As a graduate of both Michigan State and Wisconsin (living in Indiana), I'm split on what the league should do for this year. While I support a selection committee especially if MSU takes second in a tough division race, I also don't think Wisconsin should be penalized if it takes second in its division because of either OSU or PSU being ineligible. We only have to look at Alabama last year who didn't even win its own division, but took home the crystal trophy. What is your thought on the league moving forward with this idea of a selection committee, or do you just see them sticking with the status quo and taking the next eligible team? My only thought as I write this to you is what if OSU and PSU go 1 and you then go with the third place team?? Could be a crazy year of B1G football! Here's hoping to see at least one of my teams in Indy again!

Adam Rittenberg: SpartanBadger, not sure if you saw our video interview with commissioner Jim Delany, but he said the selection committee proposal didn't gain serious consideration from the league. This isn't a surprise. It would be a pretty dramatic step to install a selection committee for one year, especially so close to the season. That said, I agree with Pat Fitzgerald and some of the other Legends Division coaches about the division imbalance, and it would be unfortunate to see a really good Legends Division team face a mediocre Leaders Division squad in Indy. No one wants to see a game like Oregon-UCLA (2011 Pac-12 championship) in the Big Ten. The ideal situation is for Wisconsin or another Leaders team to win the division outright, but it wouldn't surprise me to see both Ohio State and Penn State high up in the final standings.

Dirk from the Big Apple writes: Oh ho! Now we have an interesting situation. The NCAA did quite a bit to mortally wound the Penn State football program. Their well thought-out plan was to hurt the program but allow the players to leave. Make the program weak so they can focus on the "important" things. It's very early in the process, and the players have a lot of time, but I'm not seeing a mass exodus. In fact, 6 of their 2013 recruits have affirmed their commitment to Penn State. So what happens now? If the team moves forward with quality recruits, wins some games, and does better than just limping along, what kind of message does that send? It would prove that the only real way to hurt a program is to give the death penalty. Of course, there's a lot of assumptions here, such as winning some games and the players staying committed. But I think it would be a really big slap in the NCAA's face if Penn State found a way to succeed. Your thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Dirk, I think we have to wait several seasons to fairly judge the impact of the NCAA's penalties on Penn State's program. It's a good sign that the recruits reaffirmed their commitment to PSU, but there's a long way until national signing day, so a lot could change. Also, it's possible we could see more departures after the 2012 season than before it. Penn State should still have a solid team this season, particularly on the defensive side. Although some players will depart before Sept. 1, the scholarship issues won't really take full effect until 2013-14. If Penn State still can field decent teams with 65 scholarship players and limited recruiting classes, we can then judge whether the NCAA penalties were too light.

Trotter from Des Moines, Iowa, writes: Since the end of last year's college football season and up to this point for the upcoming season it has been James Vandenberg being the best pocket passer in the B1G, but Denard being the obvoius #1 choice. Call me a homer being an Iowa fan from dead-moines, but in my mind the best QB is the one that makes his team around him better and has that legit chance of going pro talk. Denard isn't playing QB in the NFL and if he does I'm going to tryout for the Minnesota Vikings at receiver (5'9'' 160lbs). Either way my point is that is seems pretty sound from writers/bloggers Vandenberg is the best QB in the B1G(overall) that a good or bad thing ranked against other QB's from other leagues like Matt Barkley (USC), Tyler Wilson (Arkansas), Landry Jones (Oklahoma). Does it show strength at QB in the B1G, or weakness? I ask because looking after Vandenberg, Denard and Martinez arent pocket passers and I dont have faith that this will be their year, and Braxton Miller is unproven to me. Thanks!

Adam Rittenberg: Trotter, your definition of best quarterback has two parts: 1) make his teammates around him better and 2) has the best pro potential. These requirements can be very different. A great quarterback can make those around him better and still lack pro potential. The college game is different, and a playmaking quarterback like Robinson can be a more valuable overall player than a pro-style guy. Former West Virginia star Pat White was an unbelievable college quarterback who lacked pro potential. I'd still take him on my team over some guys who projected better to the next level. It's a close call for me between Robinson and Vandenberg for the No. 1 quarterback spot. They're vastly different players, and both have their strengths and weaknesses. We agree that Vandenberg has more pro potential at QB than Robinson does.

Regarding your question, the Big Ten quarterback contingent is a bit different from those from other leagues because there are so many dual-threat, running types and not many true pro-style threats. Vandenberg is the only true proven pro-style quarterback in the Big Ten entering the 2012 season. Michigan State's Andrew Maxwell could work his way into that category, but he has yet to start a game in college. Perhaps Wisconsin's Danny O'Brien fits the label as well, but he has yet to play a Big Ten game. The others, as you mention, are more known for their explosive running skills (Robinson, Miller, Martinez, Minnesota's MarQueis Gray, Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase, Northwestern's Kain Colter). I don't think anyone is comparing Vandenberg with Barkley and Wilson at this point, although a strong senior season will put James in the conversation.

Steve from Pittsburgh writes: Regarding the ESPN article on Redd going to USC: "USC, which was sanctioned by the NCAA in 2010 over improper benefits, is at its limit of 75 players, so a spot would have to open up for Redd to transfer to the school. USC believes at least one player will be academically ineligible, opening up a spot for Redd. The backup plan would have a walk-on giving up a scholarship."1) USC would be looking forward to one of their current players to not do well in school so they get a better player to win games;2) USC would be willing to have an innocent kid give up their scholarship (who might otherwise not have a chance to pay for school) to have a better player to win games.Can you please explain how this shows emphasis on academics?

Adam Rittenberg: Steve, I agree that it looks bad on USC's part, but if their roster size will accommodate Redd, they're not breaking the rules by adding him. I don't think any team "hopes" for a player to be academically ineligible. But it happens a decent amount, opening up roster spots. If Redd's arrival costs a walk-on the chance to be on scholarship, that's unfortunate. Teams accommodate walk-ons with scholarships when they can, but they also don't shy away from adding transfers who have to take up a scholarship spot. Again, it definitely raises questions about the NCAA's intent to see a team on probation adding a Penn State player. But USC, like the other teams, isn't breaking any rules.

Adam from San Diego writes: Hey Adam, whatever happened to ranking the B1G's non-conference opponents? There was a post on July 19 and July 20 and then nothing. We're down to the top 20, but no update on the list in 10 days. Did you guys give up? I want my list!

Adam Rittenberg: Patience, Adam. Big Ten media days arrived last week, and all our efforts went into coverage for the two-day event in Chicago. We'll resume the nonconference schedule rankings Wednesday with Nos. 20-11.

Alex G. from Iowa writes: I don't know how much contact you have or can have with B1G players, but I want to try to challenge you and do something no other blogger on ESPN is doing: do a poll of several players, a few from each team, and release results on the blog. I just read that Denard Robinson considers Kinnick Stadium the toughest place to play on the road in the B1G. You just did your list of B1G stadiums and Kinnick ended up at #5. I just think it would be interesting to see the players point of view (and if possible, even coaches) so the B1G fans can know what the players think of the conference

Adam Rittenberg: We're ahead of you on this, Alex. Stay tuned.
Illinois' Whitney Mercilus practically came out of nowhere to win the Ted Hendricks Award as the nation's top defensive end in 2011.

Can the Big Ten make it two in a row?

Five Big Ten defensive ends appear on the preseason watch list for the Hendricks Award, which goes to an elite defensive lineman who primarily plays the end position.

Here's the Big Ten contingent:
Both Simon and Gholston look like leading candidates for the Hendricks Award. Simon earned third-team All-America honors in 2011, while Gholston might be the league's most physically gifted defensive lineman. He comes off of a big performance in Michigan State's Outback Bowl victory. Simon earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches last season, while both Gholston and Buchanan were consensus second-team All-Big Ten selections.

There aren't any obvious snubs, although several defensive ends could have made the watch list, including Penn State's Sean Stanley, Northwestern's Tyler Scott, Purdue's Ryan Russell and Michigan State's Marcus Rush. Three possible candidates return from injuries in Penn State's Pete Massaro, Wisconsin's David Gilbert and Ohio State's Nathan Williams.

The Hendricks Award issues a midseason watch list in November, and the winner is announced Dec. 5.
With media days in our rearview mirror, we jump back into our preseason Big Ten position rankings. Last week we unveiled our rankings for individual defensive linemen. Now it's time to look at the defensive line units as a whole.

Remember, these rankings are based heavily on last year's performance and who returns to the fold, with potential considered as well. Let's get to the guys up front who make the entire defense go.

[+] EnlargeJohn Simon
Phil Sears/US PresswireJohn Simon leads one of the Big Ten's best defensive fronts.
1. Ohio State: The Buckeyes have a chance to field one of the top defensive lines in the country. John Simon is a beast, while Johnathan Hankins has as much potential to dominate his position as any Big Ten player. Nathan Williams could be a big contributor coming back from knee surgery. This group is already really deep, and with standout freshmen like Noah Spence, Adolphus Washington and Se'Von Pittman coming in, it could be scary good.

2. Michigan State: The Spartans will rival Ohio State for the league's top defensive front. You know all about end William Gholston and his unlimited potential. Marcus Rush gets overshadowed at the other end spot, but he put up an outstanding freshmen season. Anthony Rashad White should be an anchor inside. The big question is who replaces Jerel Worthy, but the team is flush with candidates. This is another very deep defensive line.

3. Purdue: Don't be surprised by this high ranking. Kawann Short might be the top defensive lineman in the league, and is poised for a monster senior season. Bruce Gaston gives him a veteran running mate. Defensive end Ryan Russell is coming on and might be due for a major breakout this season. This should be the strength of Danny Hope's defense.

4. Penn State: Devon Still is gone, but the Nittany Lions should continue to be strong up front. Jordan Hill looks to follow Still's lead and become a superstar as a senior. Sean Stanley is a speedy rusher off the edge, and Pete Massaro returns from a knee injury. DaQuan Jones and Deion Barnes could become bigger contributors.

5. Illinois: Star power lifts the Illini to this high ranking, as defensive end Michael Buchanan and tackle Akeem Spence should be among the very best at their positions in the league. It's just a matter of finding out how the others -- like end Justin Staples and tackle Glenn Foster -- raise their games around them to help make up for the loss of sack master Whitney Mercilus.

6. Nebraska: Too low for the Huskers? Perhaps. They do bring back several veterans, like Cam Meredith, Chase Rome and Baker Steinkuhler, while expecting more from Eric Martin. Still, this group did not dominate enough for my taste last season, and seems to lack the one true pass-rushing stud. But Nebraska has the potential to have a very stout line.

7. Michigan: It's probably wrong to doubt a line overseen by Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison. Yet this unit lost three starters from a year ago, including stars Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen. A lot depends on how Will Campbell performs as a senior, and whether Craig Roh can take his game to the next level. There isn't much experience at all behind the starters.

8. Wisconsin: Can David Gilbert stay healthy and emerge as a fearsome pass-rusher? That's the key to the Badgers' defensive line, without a doubt. Tackles Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer are rock solid, though the loss of Jordan Kohout hurts the depth inside. Brendan Kelly should be good against the run. But Wisconsin needs a fast player on the perimeter, and that's where Gilbert comes in.

9. Iowa: This is a frighteningly young and inexperienced group heading into the season for Iowa, though that doesn't mean it lacks talent. Steve Bigach is the closest thing to a seasoned veteran. The Hawkeyes will need a lot of players to raise their performance, including Dominic Alvis and Carl Davis.

10. Northwestern: This has been a trouble spot for the Wildcats, and could be again in 2012 with the loss of both starting tackles. Tyler Scott and Quetin Williams are back at end, and expectations are high for redshirt freshman Deonte Gibson. Can Will Hampton and Brian Arnfeldt hold the fort down inside the tackles?

11. Indiana: Defensive line is one of the few places where the Hoosiers have experienced veterans. Seniors Adam Replogle and Larry Black lead the way at tackle. Bobby Richardson and Ryan Phillis showed some things as freshmen pass-rushers last season. Still, this group must play better overall.

12. Minnesota: The Gophers have had trouble putting consistent pressure on quarterbacks for the past couple of seasons, and now they're replacing both interior linemen. Jerry Kill has talked highly of 6-foot-6, 300-pound junior Ra'Shede Hageman's offseason, and Roland Johnson comes over from junior college to help out. D.L. Wilhite and Ben Perry will bring speed, but not much bulk to the defensive end spots.
Before spring practice, Penn State defensive backs Malcolm Willis and Stephon Morris sat in their apartment, brainstorming a way to motivate the secondary.

They decided to tell their teammates the truth. At least the truth according to those outside the program.

At the end of each workout in the spring and now in the summer, Willis and Morris gather the other Lions defensive backs.

[+] EnlargeMalcolm Willis
Rob Christy/US PresswireMalcolm Willis has challenged Penn State's younger defensive backs to step up this season.
"We huddle them up, we talk to them and say, 'We're supposedly the worst unit on this team,'" Willis told "Everybody is doubting us, everybody is doubting our ability. We know what we can do. We know the ability we have and what we're capable of."

The outside skepticism makes sense. Penn State loses all four starters from 2011: safeties Nick Sukay and Drew Astorino, and cornerbacks D'Anton Lynn and Chaz Powell. Although players like Willis, Morris and sophomore cornerback Adrian Amos have been very much in the mix -- they combined for 65 tackles, two interceptions and nine pass breakups in 2011 -- depth is a significant question mark, especially with the offseason departures of cornerbacks Derrick Thomas and Curtis Drake.

The Lions will need their young defensive backs to step up in a big way. And that's who Willis and Morris direct their message to following workouts.

"Every day we say that, these younger guys, they're hyped up, they're juiced up and they want to do extra work," Willis said. "Right after that, they want to go watch some film with us, or they want to go work on their footwork, just giving that extra effort and that extra attention to detail. It really shows me these guys want to be great this year."

Penn State's defensive fortunes could hinge on the secondary this season. While there are significant changes in State College, namely the arrival of new defensive coordinator Ted Roof and his "multiply aggressive" scheme, several elements remain the same.

The front seven, as usual, should be very strong. First-team All-Big Ten linebacker Gerald Hodges returns, along with Michael Mauti, back from a knee injury. Pete Massaro also returns at defensive end and joins a line featuring tackle Jordan Hill, end Sean Stanley, tackle DaQuan Jones and end Deion Barnes, an extremely promising redshirt freshman. The line and linebackers also both return their position coaches -- Larry Johnson and Ron Vanderlinden, the only two holdovers from the previous staff -- while the secondary has a new boss (John Butler).

Add in the new scheme, which includes some Cover 3 but not nearly as much as the system under Tom Bradley, and the secondary can be seen as one giant question mark.

"A lot of people say we're the weakest group on the team," Willis said. "We were like, 'We need to motivate these guys to let them know what people think.' Reading it is one thing on the Internet, but when somebody says it to your face, it has to hit a nerve. And you really have to be offended by it."

Willis and Morris are getting the desired result so far. Willis has been impressed with the way fellow safeties Stephen Obeng-Agyapong and Tim Buckley have approached the offseason. Obeng-Agyapong is projected to start alongside Willis, while Buckley saw some time with the first-team defense this spring.

"When I see the D-backs, I see a whole bunch of hard-working people," wide receiver Justin Brown said. "They're always out there trying to get better, trying to do one-on-ones, anything to help the defense.

"I don't see any weak link."
This week, I asked you to select the Big Ten's strongest position and weakest position entering the 2012 season. The results are definitive and, quite frankly, not very surprising.

Strongest position: Running back (53 percent)

Weakest position: Wide receiver (59 percent)

Now it's time to explore position groups that could make the jump from good to great in 2012. Again, these aren't groups that are already playing at elite levels, but ones that could get there this coming season. Colleague Travis Haney provided the national view Thursday and included Ohio State's defensive ends among his "high-ceiling" groups Insider.

I'd expand that to include Ohio State's entire defensive line. While All-America candidate John Simon anchors the group at end, and decorated incoming recruits Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington also play on the edge, the Buckeyes aren't too shabby on the inside, either. Junior tackle Johnathan Hankins, a potential first-round draft pick in 2013, is back in the fold alongside veteran Garrett Goebel and promising young players like Michael Bennett and Joel Hale. There's little doubt the Buckeyes' defensive line will take a big step in 2012.

Here are some other Big Ten groups that have high ceilings:

Illinois' defensive line: The Illini lose All-American Whitney Mercilus, but Michael Buchanan is ready to step into the lead pass-rusher role after a big spring. Akeem Spence is an underrated defensive tackle with legitimate pro potential, and Illinois returns experienced players like Justin Staples and Glenn Foster. Tim Beckman made an excellent move in retaining line coach Keith Gilmore from the previous staff.

Michigan's secondary: One of the nation's worst units a few seasons ago took a big step in 2011, and could take another one this fall. Michigan returns four players with starting experience, including safety Jordan Kovacs, the leader of the defense this fall. J.T. Floyd and Blake Countess form a very good cornerback tandem. Thomas Gordon gained valuable experience last year, and Michigan has recruited well to the secondary in recent years.

Northwestern's wide receivers: This has been a position of strength for Northwestern in recent years, but the Wildcats haven't had a group as deep as this one. Demetrius Fields leads the group, although Christian Jones might have the highest ceiling. Speedster Tony Jones returns from injury, while classmate Rashad Lawrence should be much improved as a junior. Cam Dickerson stood out this spring, and if USC transfer Kyle Prater gets his NCAA waiver, look out.

Michigan State's linebackers: The Spartans' front four once again figures to be among the Big Ten's top units, and the linebackers could get there, too. Max Bullough and Denicos Allen enter their junior seasons with a lot of game experience under their belts. Think Greg Jones-Eric Gordon, The Sequel. Chris Norman and Steve Gardiner add a veteran presence, and players like Taiwan Jones and TyQuan Hammock are in the mix as well.

Penn State's defensive line: A good group in 2011 could be even better this season. Jordan Hill anchors the line at defensive tackle, and Penn State gets a major boost by getting Pete Massaro back in the fold. If Massaro can stay healthy, he has a chance to provide the pass-rushing threat Penn State has lacked. The Lions have experience with senior end Sean Stanley and junior tackle DaQuan Jones, and they should be very excited about redshirt freshman end Deion Barnes.

Nebraska's wide receivers/tight ends: Brandon Kinnie is the only significant departure in the group, which should be a bigger part of the offense if quarterback Taylor Martinez continues to progress. Speedster Kenny Bell looks like a No. 1 wideout, and Quincy Enunwa should see his numbers increase. Tim Marlowe provides a veteran presence, and the Huskers have some talented young players in Jamal Turner and incoming freshman Jordan Westerkamp. Nebraska also brings back two senior tight ends (Ben Cotton and Kyler Reed).
Four days after naming Matthew McGloin as Penn State's starting quarterback entering the fall, new Nittany Lions coach Bill O'Brien has issued his summer depth chart. Penn State opens preseason practices Aug. 6.

The first thing you'll notice is 13 offensive positions listed. Penn State can only have 11 players on the field at once, but as O'Brien explains in a news release, "We will be a multiple personnel grouping team, particularly at wide receiver and tight end." Translation: this isn't the old Penn State offense. Get ready for a lot of passing.

BO'B adds that aside from quarterback and a handful of other positions, Penn State will have competitions at most spots when camp kicks off in August.

O'Brien announced three position changes today: sophomore Adrian Amos moves from safety to cornerback, sophomore Kyle Baublitz moves from defensive end to defensive tackle; and redshirt freshman Anthony Zettel moves from defensive tackle to defensive end. The Amos move makes sense after Curtis Drake, who moved from wide receiver to cornerback this spring, left the program.

Four positions feature co-starters on the depth chart. They are:
All four should be interesting competitions, particularly the one at middle linebacker, where Carson started in 2011 and recorded 74 tackles and two forced fumbles. Fortt has shown promise at times, racking up 33 tackles, including six for loss, as a reserve last fall.

Some more notes and thoughts on the Lions' two-deep:
  • Penn State has redshirt freshman Donovan Smith listed as the starting left tackle, while Adam Gress, one of the standouts of spring practice, checks in as the starting right tackle. The right side looks strong with Gress and John Urschel, but there are some question marks on the left side.
  • Garry Gilliam is listed as one of the starting tight ends ("Y" position) ahead of promising freshman Jesse James, who impressed me while I was at practice in April. It's interesting to see redshirt freshman Kyle Carter listed ahead of junior Kevin Haplea at the other tight end spot ("F").
  • Two secondary spots seem fairly set -- junior free safety Malcolm Willis and senior cornerback Stephon Morris -- while the others should be interesting to watch in August. Senior Jake Fagnano is a somewhat surprise starter at strong safety ahead of Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, while Amos and Thomas will compete at the right cornerback spot.
  • Penn State's starting defensive line looks strong with Jordan Hill and DaQuan Jones at the starting tackle spots, and Pete Massaro and Sean Stanley at the starting end spots. The key is whether several former heralded recruits like Baublitz and C.J. Olaniyan, or promising young end Deion Barnes, bolster the depth up front.
  • Bill Belton is listed as the No. 2 running back behind Silas Redd. Curtis Dukes isn't listed, but O'Brien confirmed last week that Dukes is rejoining the squad after clearing up some academic issues. The 6-1, 242-pound Dukes should be in the mix for a good chunk of carries.
  • Justin Brown and Devon Smith, who had an off-field issue this spring, are listed at two of the starting wide receiver spots. Kersey is listed as Brown's backup, while the speedy Alex Kenney likely will push Smith.
  • Anthony Fera handled the double duties of kicker and punter quite well in 2011, converting 14 of 17 field-goal attempts and averaging 42 yards per punt. He's once again listed as the starter at both spots entering camp.
  • Amos and Belton are listed as the top two kickoff returners. Amos shared the role with primary returner Chaz Powell last fall. Brown is listed as the top punt returner, followed by Belton.
  • Two young players worth watching are the men wearing jersey No. 18: James and Barnes.

Thoughts on the Penn State depth chart?

Big Ten Friday mailblog

May, 4, 2012
Hoping you have a great weekend.

Ryan from Maryville, Mo., writes: I keep hearing various media pundits claiming that home sites for a college playoff wouldn't work. Shouldn't these people, conference presidents, commisioners, and media members be focusing more on the benefits associated with home sites? The stadium size argument is moot, the need for guaranteed ticket sales would be eliminated, travel costs for fans and teams would be less, almost every stadium now has luxury boxes, tv revenue is a non factor, and the atmosphere would be amazing. I don't get it, why not? Sure there's bound to be some minor logistical hurdles but nothing impossible.

Adam Rittenberg: You're preaching to the choir, Ryan. And you're absolutely right that the drumbeat should be louder for some of these games to take place on campus. Yes, there are some facilities that would provide challenges, including TV production (not as much space for as many cameras). That's quite significant, given the dollars TV puts up to broadcasts these events. But from the fan perspective, on-campus sites are infinitely better. And in most cases, there's plenty of room to hold the supplementary events. The media contingent would make do. We have done that for years, and finding enough room for us shouldn't be a significant factor at all. Yes, a playoff game at TCU might be a bit tough. But how often is that going to happen? Maybe once every six years? In most cases, the host venues would be more than capable of hosting these events. I was a bit surprised to hear Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman say a playoff will be "kind of a corporate event, rather than a school event," and then not advocate more for on-campus games.

The Roaming Badger from South Bend writes: Hi Adam, I've been thinking about your blog post about leveraging draft success into recruiting success. I know every team wants more superstars, but I feel the Badgers problem isn't necessarily a lack of stars, but a lack of depth. Do you think the Badgers would be better off bringing up the top of the class by spending their energy to add a couple of 5 star recruits every year or focusing on bringing up the bottom of the class and signing more 3/4 star recruits than 2 star guys?

Adam Rittenberg: This is a really good point, Badger. You can say Wisconsin's three losses stemmed from a lack of depth in areas like special teams and the secondary. Wisconsin would really be helped by adding more top-line defensive backs in the coming years, but you always want to build greater depth so there's not such a drop-off in the kicking game. The lack of depth undoubtedly shows up in the all-important third phase for UW. So my answer is both: aim for more elite prospects, but also make sure the overall depth is improving. Not sure it's a question of prioritizing one over the other. You can do both.

Steven from Colorado Springs, Colo., writes: With Urban Meyer and Ohio State running a more spread/speed oriented offense. Do you think this will change how other Big Ten teams recruit? For instance more hybrid linebackers like Nebraska recruited before this year.

Adam Rittenberg: I don't think so, Steven. There's a belief that the spread is now just coming to the Big Ten. Teams like Purdue and Northwestern have used it for more than a decade. And the majority of teams now run some version of the spread. But you still have power teams like Wisconsin, Michigan State and Iowa, and Penn State will be a pro-style offense under Bill O'Brien. Nebraska's coaches have been open about the need to recruit more linebackers in the coming years. If they felt they could keep their previous defensive structure in the Big Ten, they would. But they know they need to change it up. Big Ten defenses need speed, but they'll always need size, too. So, I don't think you'll see a fundamental shift in how teams recruit.

Greg from Norristown, Pa., writes: Hey Adam, you keep saying that MSU will most likely be the best defense in the league this year. But in your recent post about Mauti and Massaro you say PSU's front seven might be the best in the league this year. Is PSU's secondary the only thing holding it back from stealing that "best defense" title from MSU? The starters in the secondary actually look fairly good, but I totally get the lack of depth back there, especially at safety, causing people to have a lack of confidence in PSU's overall defensive potential.

Adam Rittenberg: Yes, Greg, Michigan State's strength in the secondary is the difference between those teams. The Spartans have the most dynamic lineman of the two squads in end William Gholston, but Penn State has an edge at linebacker with Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti leading the way. Michigan State's secondary, led by cornerback Johnny Adams, gives it an edge. Michigan State has recruited and developed defensive backs extremely well under head coach Mark Dantonio. Players like safety Isaiah Lewis and corner Darqueze Dennard could have big years this fall. Penn State has some nice pieces in Malcolm Willis and Stephon Morris, but the overall depth is a concern.

Fake Harry Husker writes: Adam, I challenge the vast and far reaching tentacles of the mothership at ESPN to find just ONE former or current player from Nebraska that feels that they were mistreated in any fashion by Ron Brown due to his religious views. Have any of the kids that he has coached thru the years actually been impacted in a negative manner by Ron Brown? Does Ron Brown actually discriminate on the basis of a players sexual orientation? I challenge Wojo or any pundit at ESPN to sit down and interview former or current players to find out if Ron Brown is actually a "bigot" that forced his beliefs down their throats. As with any story, there are two sides that need to be told. It is unfair and frankly untolerable that ESPN continues to only tell one side of the Ron Brown story. Take the challenge, Adam, and interview those former and current players and provide the quotes that detail the terrible bigoted ogre that is Ron Brown.

Adam Rittenberg: Harry, I don't think the issue is whether Brown discriminates against his players. From what I know, his players love him and regard him as an excellent figure in their lives. It's not about them. The question is whether Brown, as an employee of a state institution and a member of a high-profile football program, should be using his position to trumpet his views on a controversial topic as much as he does. No one cares if Brown is in the private sector and wants to voice his views. But the reason he gets all these opportunities to voice his opinion is because he's a longtime Nebraska football assistant coach, plain and simple. There's definitely a question about whether he's abusing that position.

Wes from Indianapolis writes: Do you agree with my thinking that Indiana can be a much improved team and still not win a B1G game again this season? It would appear that their "talent equal" opponents are all road games this season (NW, Illy, and Purdont, with the possible exception of Iowa) and all the "only talent equal would be those carrying the water bucket" opponents are all home games (Sparty, Bucky, and Wisky) Do you concur or have I suffered through too many bad seasons? Thank you for all your good work.

Adam Rittenberg: Wes, while another winless Big Ten campaign is possible, I think the Hoosiers break through this year. It's never easy to win on the road, but Evanston, Champaign and West Lafayette aren't the most hostile venues in the Big Ten. Indiana will put up points this year. The question, as always, is whether the Hoosiers can stop anyone on defense. If the defense takes just a few steps toward respectability, Indiana should be able to get over the hump in one or more of those games. That said, the home schedule looks challenging, especially if Iowa improves on its performance from 2011. Remember that Indiana came very close to beating Iowa in 2010 in Bloomington, and Wisconsin wasn't overly dominant in its last trip to Memorial Stadium.

Steve from Washington D.C. writes: Hey Adam, I have a proposal for the playoff system that I don't think anyone has mentioned yet. Why can't the two semifinals be played the week after the conference championships, and before the bowls are selected? That way the losers of the semifinals could still be selected for BCS bowls, and the winners would play in a real national championship game. I just think this would preserve the tradition of having every top team in a bowl, while having a true national champion selected by a playoff system. It would also preserve the B1G/Pac-12 Rose bowl if neither has a team in the national championship. What do you think?

Adam Rittenberg: Steve, while this would be great, I think the push back would be conflicts with final exams. I know some schools on the quarter system have finals the second week of December, and there's no way the presidents would approve a plan that would have football teams practicing during finals week. It wouldn't be as big an issue for schools on the semester system, but because you have finals taking place anywhere between, say, Dec. 7 and Dec. 23, depending on the school, it really takes that time frame out of consideration. We can roll our eyes and say the academics excuse is merely convenient for the presidents to protect their beloved bowls, but the reality is they will never go for something where teams are practicing during finals week.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Maybe it's a blessing that Mauti follows Massaro in the alphabet.

Much like seating assignments in a class, football lockers are often distributed according to surnames. As a result, Penn State senior defenders Pete Massaro and Michael Mauti share adjoining lockers in the Lasch Building.

The arrangement has worked out well, especially in recent months as both men work their way back from the same major knee injury. The two players share a shockingly similar injury history. Massaro, a defensive end, tore his right ACL in the 2009 spring game, and then his left ACL in the spring of 2011. Mauti, an outside linebacker, tore his right ACL in preseason practice in 2009 and missed the season. After a strong start to last season, he tore his left ACL in Week 4 against Eastern Michigan.

The two men share four torn ACLs suffered in the same sequence (right, then left), and more months of combined rehab than games played for Penn State.

[+] EnlargeMichael Mauti
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarMichael Mauti missed most of last season after going down in Week 4 against Eastern Michigan.
"His locker's right next to mine, so every day, we're talking," Mauti told "We always share stories and we always share feelings. We've kind of [laughs] mastered the self-therapy, just how long and tedious this whole process is, and what it does to you."

Both players participated in some drills this spring, though neither engaged in all the contact drills. Massaro said in mid April that his knee is "80-85 percent" recovered, and Mauti said if Penn State kicked off preseason drills in mid May, he'd be cleared to do everything.

But the rehab process remains challenging, even for two men who are all too familiar with it.

"It's such a slow recovery," Massaro said. "That's the hardest part about it. That's what eats at you the most. Talking to Mauti, when you tear your second ACL, that's something everyone thinks about. It's my second one. It's another nine, 12 months of my life that I'm not going to be who I am on the football field. Even now, I look at my tape from last spring and where I was playing at the end of the season a few years ago, and you can tell you don't have that athleticism back, and that you're not as strong in the knee and the leg as you were."

Communication was critical for Massaro this spring, as he made sure to keep team doctors, coaches and trainers, particularly new head athletic trainer Tim Bream, in the loop about how his knee felt. If he felt uncomfortable doing certain movements during practice, he told defensive line coach Larry Johnson.

The fact Massaro had suffered both of his ACL tears during the spring made it even more important to proceed with caution.

"There's times I want to be going full speed, times where the offensive line will challenge the defensive line, and I want to get in there and show what I can do," he said. "But I really have to take it slow because if I get too ahead of myself mentally, that's when problems start to happen and other injuries start to arise."

When healthy, Mauti and Massaro are two of Penn State's better defenders. Mauti was well on his way to All-Big Ten honors last season, recording 21 tackles, including three for loss, plus an interception and three pass breakups, in the first three plus games. He worked through some injuries to record 67 tackles, including 5.5 for loss and two sacks, as a starter in 2010.

Massaro has played only one season (2010), but racked up eight tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. He was having a superb spring last year before the ACL tear.

Although the rehab process isn't over, both Massaro and Mauti are on track to return and enhance a defensive front seven that could be the Big Ten's best in 2012.

"That'll be the way it should be," Mauti said. "I'm just excited to play with him. It's about time."
Penn State opens spring practice without Joe Paterno for the first time in decades Monday. New coach Bill O'Brien, who's won some supporters by the way he has recruited and carried himself of late, will conduct his first official practices. I recently caught up with O'Brien for a brief preview of the Nittany Lions' spring:

Are you settled in now as the Penn State coach?

Bill O'Brien: I'm settled in. We had a good winter, and we're ready to go for spring. We've got a bunch of really good kids want to be coached and want to play well and win. So I'm settled in.

We'll get to spring practice in a second, but first I wanted to ask you about how well you've recruited the past couple of months. I know you can't talk about specific recruits, but how have you been able to sell the program through some difficult times?

O'Brien: We just talk about Penn State. We talk about our vision for the football program here. We talk about the university. There are 160 majors to choose from here. It's just a great college town, we have a 108,000-seat stadium, a tremendous football facility, a great, brand-new weight room, and a great indoor facility. We just sell Penn State, and there's a bunch of things about Penn State to sell. The student body, the coaching staff here, the players on our football team here. So all we do is talk about Penn State.

How has the reception to that pitch gone?

O'Brien: We feel good about the reception. Again, this is a special place that obviously people recognize and have great respect for, so we've gotten a good reception.

What are your main objectives this spring?

O'Brien: We want the kids to understand how fast we want to play, the tempo we want to play at. We want to get in our base systems on offense, defense and special teams, and we want these guys to understand how we want them to play football. We want them to play fast, play hard, play tough, be situationally smart. So those our are goals.

The players have been doing things this offseason to learn the offense, so how far along do you expect them to be when you get started?

O'Brien: It will be baby steps. We'll put it in one day at a time. We're not in a rush to get a bunch of things in. We're just in a rush to find out who our best football players are, so that's what we'll begin to do on Monday.

How much do you really know these players?

BO'B: I really know them from winter workouts and just speaking to them in my office. I've been very impressed with this group. We have about 124 guys on the team and we have a bunch of hard-working guys. I've been very impressed and proud to be associated with them.

Let's talk about the quarterback situation. Is it a true open competition this spring?

O'Brien: Yeah, its definitely an open competition. Every position on the team is an open competition. Now, obviously guys who have experience have the upper hand because they've played, but nobody has a starting position right now. Guys are going to get a bunch of reps, we're going to play fast and we'll evaluate the roster as we go along.

What are you looking for in a quarterback?

O'Brien: He's got to be a good decision-maker. He's got to be accurate when he throws it. He's got to take care of the football. He's got to have really good knowledge of defensive alignments, the coverages and fronts and pressures. He's got to be a good leader. He's got to mentally tough and physically tough. That's basically what I'm looking for.

Two spots that were hit hard by graduation were the secondary and the offensive line. What's the outlook like for those positions this spring?

O'Brien: I feel good about both those positions. I made a couple of position moves to move some guys over to the secondary, and you guys will get that when we start spring practice. So we've got better numbers over there. And I feel good about the offensive line. We've got four guys on that offensive line that are dean's-list students. We've got smart guys guys that play hard and love Penn State, and so I feel good about both positions.

How about the receiver position, where Derek Moye was the No. 1 guy last year?

O'Brien: It's tough to replace a guy like Derek Moye, and I wish he had more eligibility. But we feel very good about our receiving corps. We've got Justin Brown, Shawney Kersey, Devon Smith, Brandon Moseby-Felder and Christian Kuntz. We've got a number of guys with good size that can run. And they've got two jobs: get open and catch the ball. So we'll see how that goes as we go through spring.

You're going to be very involved on offense, so how will you split your time this spring in practice?

O'Brien: We've got a great staff on offense and on defense, so I'll be able to be involved with every facet of the football team, absolutely no problem.

Have leaders emerged yet from this offseason?

O'Brien: There's a lot of leaders. There really are. We have a lot of good kids. Once you come back and ask me that after spring, I'll have a better feel. But I think we've got the potential to have a lot of strong leaders on this team.

How do you replace Devon Still on defense? Can you do it with just one guy?

O'Brien: It's hard to replace a guy like Devon Still. He's a potential first round draft pick. But we feel really good about our defensive line that exists right now with Jordan Hill, DaQuan Jones, Pete Massaro, Sean Stanley, James Terry, C.J. Olaniyin. I could go on and on. We're deep up front.

How much will we be seeing you use the tight ends in your offense, even in spring practice?

O'Brien: Yeah, we'll definitely be using the tight ends quite a bit.

Lastly, how do you think the team has responded this offseason during winter workouts and other activities?

O'Brien: I've been very impressed with this football team, just with their work ethic. I'm proud to be their coach. Now we've got to put it out on the field and see how it translates to playing football. But to this point, I've been very impressed with them.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

August, 26, 2011
A few questions and answers for ya. Enjoy the last weekend before the season!

John from Au Gres, Mich., writes: Hi Adam,I really enjoy the blog, I check it out daily. Rethink your prediction of "worst case" for Michigan State, 5-7 or 6-6. A 7 loss season for MSU means they lose every competitive game on the schedule (ND, tOSU, Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan, Wiscy, and Northwestern). Two of those are home games. Think about your reference to 2010, you only point out the losses at Iowa and to Alabama on the road. Don't the get credit for winnin at Michigan, at Happy Valley and at Northwestern? They were at least 3-2 in tough road games in 2010. 10-2 isn't a bad best case, but so much rides on that tOSU game. Win that one, and look out.

Adam Rittenberg: John, I totally agree with you about the Ohio State game. It sets the tone for the rest of the Spartans' season, as the Buckeyes are the only Big Ten team (besides Nebraska) that Mark Dantonio hasn't beaten in his MSU tenure. Keep in mind that this is a worst-case scenario, and yes, Michigan State could lose all of its road games plus Wisconsin and maybe Michigan at home. The road wins against Michigan, Penn State and Northwestern were nice last year, but all three of those teams went 7-6. Meh. If things go badly -- Kirk Cousins injury, offensive line struggles, defense doesn't generate as many turnovers -- a seven-loss season is possible.

Vasav from Tokyo writes: 7 years later...inviting them back. I've got a sick feeling. I know we can't make it go away. I hope we don't make ourselves fools twice. I like that Dave Brandon is a feisty sonofa*****.But mostly...I really don't know what to think of this. Good or bad? There's not much upside, and there's a ton of downside. But Michigan Arrogance is back. And that cannot be a bad thing.

Adam Rittenberg: Vasav, I love the move, but then again, I'm not a Michigan fan who still cringes whenever Appalachian State is mentioned. It shows Dave Brandon has a sense of humor, and its a smart branding opportunity because more people are going to pay attention to that game rather than one against another FCS school (Appalachian State could be FBS by then, who knows). Sure, it'd be terrible if Michigan lost again to Appalachian State, but the Wolverines shouldn't put themselves in that position again. Either way, from an outside perspective, it's interesting.

Justin from Upper Arlington, Ohio, writes: Adam, are there actually an inordinate amount of leg injuries in West Lafayette over the past five years? Or does it just seem that way because of the timing in which they have occurred and the high profile positions (i.e., offensive skill positions) that have been affected the most? If the former, do they need to take a look at their strength and conditioning program; the turf on which they practice and play; the Omega-3 fatty acid content of their training table, etc.?

Adam Rittenberg: Justin, the conspiracy theories are out there, but these all could be unfortunate isolated incidents. The fact that most of the injuries have involved high-profile players undoubtedly brings more attention to the situation. That doesn't mean Purdue isn't very concerned about the rash of knee injuries. The school has to evaluate at all the areas you list. Purdue in March hired a new director of sports performance in Duane Carlisle, who comes from the San Francisco 49ers. It's important for the athletic department to continue to be proactive about this topic, but pinning down the problem isn't easy.

Tyler from Omaha writes: Adam,Like any Husker fan, I travel to away games quite frequently. I've met some great fans (namely Auburn and Virginia Tech), and some not so great (Colorado and Missouri). I'm planning on trips to Madison, Minneapolis, and Ann Arbor this year, with trips to the rest of the B1G over the coming years. What can I expect?

Adam Rittenberg: Tyler, I think you'll enjoy yourself in those three cities. There's great tailgating before games, particularly in Madison, but also in Ann Arbor and Minneapolis. You'll probably encounter some knucklehead fans, who are everywhere, but for the most part you'll be treated well. You're also seeing three exceptional stadiums: the Big House, Camp Randall (my personal favorite) and TCF Bank Stadium, which is new but terrific. Both Madison and Ann Arbor will be buzzing the night before games, so definitely take a walk around downtown. Minneapolis is a huge city with plenty of things to do.

Mike from Allentown, Pa., writes: Hey Adam,I was wondering if you could explain, or maybe shoot down, the double standard I keep reading about on the blog. Why is it that Larry Johnson is held to a different standard than a position coach at other schools? Specifically, I keep reading about how Penn State's D-Line won't be able to re-load (partly due to injuries) with the talent they currently have on the roster. Why does it seem like there's a lack of faith that LJ can't coach up the younger guys to step up, and make an impact? It just seems like a QB coach as say Alabama can reload the QB position, but LJ can't? I'm not saying Penn State should be ranked #2 in the nation, but Alabama lost a lot of experience at QB but everyone has faith they can reload. What would it take for LJ to get on that level, and get the same respect as others who are the best at coaching a given position?

Adam Rittenberg: Mike, I have a ton of respect for Larry Johnson, and it wouldn't surprise me if he develops Penn State's defensive line this season. But you're looking at a group that underperformed last season, and there are some depth issues at end because of injuries. Several Big Ten coaches told me Pete Massaro, who suffered a knee injury during spring, was Penn State's best threat on the edge. Can Jack Crawford stay healthy and reach his potential? Who else steps up at defensive end? Penn State reloaded for years under Johnson, but last year represented a drop-off and there are additional question marks entering this fall. But that doesn't mean he can't get it done again.

Mike from Richmond, Va., writes: Ridiculous that you have Persa so high on your list. Based upon the unknow, if this were basketball the seeders would have dropped NW several seeds for this injury.Argue this: given what we know right NOW, Cousins has the much better chance at success leading his team than Persa.

Adam Rittenberg: Mike, you bring up some good points. We compile the top 25 list before preseason camp because we need to complete it before the season. When camp started, Persa's injury didn't appear to be as big of a question mark as it does right now. If we were starting the top 25 now, we might have dropped him a bit lower. But Persa still could be very effective for Northwestern, particularly with his passing and decision-making. Yes, his feet are a big part of his game, but he could be a different type of player and still very effective. Cousins has a chance to be very good, too. Both he and Persa have excellent receivers and tight ends. Cousins has the better running backs, while Persa has a more seasoned offensive line. It'll be interesting to see how they fare.

Marty from Omaha writes: Does anybody in the B1G have a better throwback 70s look than Marcel Jones?

Adam Rittenberg: I love it, Marty. Very impressive fro/beard combo. He's the retro tackle.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

August, 19, 2011
Enjoy one of the last non-football weekends.

Derek from Syracuse, N.Y., writes: Adam,I appreciate your Anti-Penn State antics, just makes the trend of '05 and '08 all the more likely to be fulfilled based on their history of non favoritism. I understand your unrest with some units of Penn State but to say another 7 win season is in the works is extremely brazen. Many of the the points made in your "Over/under" were offense related but you don't give the defense any credit when it is chop full of returning experience and we all know that especially in the Big Ten defense makes games. Even if there initially are some hiccups in the Offense the D should hold out until they can build momentum, i need to ask where is the love??

Adam Rittenberg: Derek, I really like what Penn State has coming back in the secondary and at linebacker. The defensive line, though, concerns me as Penn State has little proven depth at end. Larry Johnson typically produces excellent D-lines, but the group took a step back last year and Pete Massaro's injury this spring really stings. Devon Still should have a huge season inside, but Penn State must generate a pass rush from somewhere. They always say it starts up front, and if Penn State doesn't shore up that group, the linebackers and defensive backs will be taxed.

Phil from Winchester, Va., writes: With Tressel gone, who will be calling the plays on offense for the Buckeyes and will we see much difference in the playcalling? Tressel was not the most inovative playcaller. I expect the offense to rely on the running game, but the versatility of players like Jordan Hall and Jake Stoneburner could allow the offense to not be so vanilla.Thanks in advance for the respons

Adam Rittenberg: Phil, offensive coordinator Jim Bollman will be the primary playcaller, although I would think he'll get input from the other offensive assistants. Luke Fickell has made it clear he'll stay out of the way, unlike Tressel did. I definitely agree this will be a run-based offense, and I'm very interested to see how Ohio State will utilize its different running backs, especially a guy like Jordan Hall who can catch the ball out of the backfield. Jake Stoneburner is another good name to bring up. He looks like he could be a difference-maker, but will Ohio State truly feature a tight end in the offense? Need to see it to believe it.

Josh from Springdale, Ark., writes: How come so many so called experts aren't talking about Persa and Northwestern? Persa is like a Stanzi when he plays they win. I think they are a very underated team.

Adam Rittenberg: Josh, I think Dan Persa is getting a decent amount of national hype, especially after Northwestern launched the PersaStrong Heisman Trophy campaign for him. But few people are talking about Northwestern as a division title contender because of its defensive woes late last season and the questions about Persa's health following a long rehab from Achilles surgery. The Wildcats certainly can make some noise in the Legends division if their defense tightens up and Persa utilizes his many weapons to attack the opposition. While Ricky Stanzi and Persa are very different players, they both inspire a ton of confidence in their teammates.

Dave S. from Pittsburgh writes: I highly disagree with you about Pryor. He did agree to come back to Ohio Sate, this is true. When Tressel resigned, Pryor withdrew. He was in good status academically and was eligible to play after his suspension ended. Generally, players enter the supplemental draft because of academics, dismissal from the team or early graduation. Pryor left Ohio State because he, "didn't want to be a distraction." Him withdrawing from Ohio State did not make him eligible for the supplemental draft.His lawyers pursued Ohio State to effectively ban him from Ohio State athletics and recruits. They did not ban him from the university, itself. This in turn made him eligible for the draft. The NFL has to approve his eligibility, also. I think a dangerous path to the NFL has been created. I have issues with players being able to create there own ineligibility and be rewarded for it. The rules for this draft were not meant for the path he took.

Adam Rittenberg: Dave, thanks for the note, but you're leaving out an important point. The NCAA launched a separate investigation into Pryor, his use of cars while at Ohio State and other issues late this spring. That investigation eventually led to two things: Pryor reportedly mentioning cash he received from Ted Sarniak (a claim Ohio State has denied) and Pryor eventually not cooperating with NCAA investigators. That's what led to his status change with the football team. While he could have returned to school, he would have been ineligible for the entire 2011 season. It's certainly a unique case, but when the NFL talks about a status change for players entering the supplemental draft, Pryor seemed to meet the requirement.

Brian from Waterloo, Iowa, writes: Why didn't you press the AD's harder about the 9 game schedule eliminating the better non-conference match-ups? Assuming that playing another BCS team requires a home and away, and ignoring neutral site games, it's mathematically impossible to play multiple non-con BCS teams and have 7 home games every year. Having a protected game means you would need to pay 2 others to visit your stadium EVERY year. Seems like the same system we have now. You and many others have pointed this out. It's about time someone got straight answer from these guys.

Adam Rittenberg: Brian, I did ask the ADs about this topic, and their response was that the games against FCS schools or lower-level FBS schools were more likely to go away than games against other major-conference programs. You're absolutely right about it being much like the system we have now, as teams will play one marquee non-league game and several fairly cushy home games. So if the system isn't going to change with nine league games, I don't know what you're expecting the ADs to say. Even if the Big Ten kept eight league games, you wouldn't see many teams playing multiple premier nonconference games in the same season. There's too much risk, even though we'd all love to see more of these contests.

Jason from State College, Pa., writes: You're darn right Penn State fans are going to kill because you don't know what you are talking about. The line issues you speak of are imaginary. The D-line will be top three. The O-line is top two. Without Green, they merely tie with Sparty for the best collection of backs in the Big Ten. They have the best receivers in the league to with the top Linebacking corps and secondary. No Adam, the correct choice is the over. A realistic worse case scenario is 9 and 3 and they are the only Big Ten capable of running the table though they will like drop two games. Simply put, when Penn State is good, and they will be, Wisconsin cannot beat them home or away. They are schematically disadvantaged and far too slow.

Adam Rittenberg: Jason, please pass the Kool-Aid, my friend. Defensive line top 3? Have you looked around the conference? While the offensive line certainly could improve, most impartial fans would take Wisconsin's line, Iowa's line or Ohio State's line in a nanosecond. We'll see about the running backs, although I like the combination of Silas Redd (speed, moves) and Brandon Beachum (power). The thing you're totally ignoring is the schedule. Penn State has four games -- Alabama, Nebraska, at Ohio State, at Wisconsin -- where it likely will be an underdog. Along with several other toss-up games, including Lion killer Iowa, a 7-5 record isn't out of the question. While eight or nine wins wouldn't shock me, and Penn State will be a better team, a broader perspective is needed here.

Kurt from Traverse City, Mich., writes: Hi Adam, with 19 returning starters at Michigan, league MVP in Denard, and a defense that brings back a healthy Woolfolk, JT Floyd, Mike Martin, and more depth, experience and much better defensive oriented coaching in Hoke and Mattison, isn't Michigan capable of wiinning the Big Ten this year?

Adam Rittenberg: Kurt, if things fall right, Michigan could win a crowded Legends division. But a lot of issues would have to be resolved. I'm not sold on Michigan's defensive depth and worry about what happens to that line if Mike Martin misses any extended time. Just having defensive-oriented coaches doesn't mean you're automatically going to have a much better defense, especially in Year 1. The back seven on defense still has a ton to prove. But if Michigan builds some early confidence, Denard Robinson settles into the offense and the defense gets some good health and some good fortune, the Wolverines could surprise people.
Whatever it takes.

According to Penn State defensive tackle Devon Still, this is the motto the Nittany Lions defensive line adopted this spring. D-line coach Larry Johnson had the players repeat those three words every time they broke the huddle in practice.

[+] EnlargeDevon Still
Rob Christy/US PresswireThere are "a lot of expectations" for Penn State defensive tackle Devon Still and the rest of the Lions defensive line.
"[Johnson] really wants to get it out there to us that we have to do whatever it takes to win," Still said. "Whether it's getting our grades, pushing one another on the football field or during workouts, just whatever it takes as a group to get it done, we have to do it."

The message hits home for Still and Penn State's other defensive tackles. Given the amount of uncertainty at the defensive end position, Penn State's interior linemen need to do whatever it takes to elevate their play in 2011.

While everyone still wants to know who starts at quarterback for Penn State this season, the more significant question points to the defensive end position. Pete Massaro's season-ending knee injury early in spring ball meant the Lions went through the session without any proven ends. Jack Crawford and Eric Latimore both spent the spring recovering from injuries, and Penn State had to move DaQuan Jones from tackle to the 5-technique end just to get another body on the edge.

Penn State's ideal solution is to have both Crawford and Latimore healthy and playing at a high level throughout the season. The more realistic hope is to have Still and the other defensive tackles pick up the slack.

"There's a lot of expectations," Still said.

Although most Penn State players would prefer to forget the Outback Bowl loss to Florida, Still uses it as a potential springboard. He recorded a career-high 3.5 tackles for loss and tied for second on the team with seven total stops.

"I watched more tape for the game," he said. "I saw how their blocking schemes were different than what I was getting in the Big Ten. In the Big Ten I was really getting double teamed, and nobody was coming off the block, so I didn't have a chance to make plays. With [Florida], they were hitting double teams but somebody was coming off, which gave me a chance.

"It let me know I can be a dominant player."

After missing the 2007 and 2008 seasons with knee injuries, Still has racked up 15.5 tackles for loss in the past two seasons and enters the fall as an All-Big Ten candidate.

"Being injured really took away a lot of my time here at Penn State," he said. "I have to make the best of what I have left."

Penn State also has high hopes for junior Jordan Hill coming out of the spring. Hill played in all 13 games last fall and recorded 36 tackles.

He's expected to slide into the starting spot vacated by Ollie Ogbu.

"Jordan had an outstanding spring," defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said. "Jordan is really going to be a good football player."

The wild card in the group is Brandon Ware. His struggles with both grades and weight are well documented, and he recorded only two tackles last season.

But Ware seems to finally be getting it. He has "slimmed down" to 337 pounds. His talent always has been there, and he showed it in spring ball.

"I've seen Brandon play his best football since he's been here," Still said. "He's just been more focused, and he's starting to learn that his opportunity is coming to an end. That's what I'm going to do, too. I have one more year here, so I know I have to play my hardest."

And do whatever it takes.