Big Ten: Quinton Alston

Preseason position review: LB

July, 21, 2014
Jul 21
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Linebacker was arguably the deepest and most talented position in the Big Ten last year. This season, the position takes on a new look, as stars like Wisconsin's Chris Borland, Ohio State's Ryan Shazier, Michigan State's Denicos Allen and Max Bullough and Iowa's trio of James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens have all moved on.

Who's in the best and worst shape at the linebacker spot? Let's take a look as we continue our preseason position series:

Best of the best: Michigan State
Say what? The team that lost Bullough and Allen is still ranked first here? No, we haven't completely lost our minds. We just believe in the talent on hand -- and especially defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi's ability to mold it into something special. Taiwan Jones probably would have started for most other college teams the past couple of years and looks poised to break out as Bullough's replacement in the middle. Darien Harris played well while helping fill in for Bullough during the Rose Bowl and will have an outside spot locked down. Ed Davis is a great athlete who was a third-down specialist last year; he can make up for Allen's absence as a blitzer. Backups like Riley Bullough and Jon Reschke will push the starters. This is not a sure thing, as the group has some questions to answer. But it's a safe bet that the Spartans' linebackers will come through.

Next up: Michigan
The Wolverines return all three starters to a crew that should be their best position group on defense. Jake Ryan might well be the best linebacker in the Big Ten, especially if he returns to his playmaking ways after dealing with his ACL tear recovery last fall. He moves to the middle this year, pushing James Ross III to the strong side. Ross is a little undersized for that spot but could overcome it with athleticism and instincts. Desmond Morgan has been rock solid the past couple of years. We'd like to see a few more big plays out of this group, but Ryan should be able to provide that. Nebraska and Penn State are also contenders for having the best linebacker position this season.

Sleeper: Ohio State
Outside of Shazier, the Buckeyes struggled to find standout players at linebacker the past couple of years. So his jump to the NFL stings. Still, the coaching staff is optimistic about the direction of this group. Joshua Perry started coming on late last year, including a strong Orange Bowl performance, and could step in Shazier's shoes as the leader here. Darron Lee is an excellent athlete who made waves this spring. Can senior Curtis Grant finally live up to his potential? If not, true freshman Raekwon McMillan could step into his place in the middle. The talent level here is getting back to vintage Silver Bullets days.

Problem for a contender: Iowa
Not a big problem, per se, as the Hawkeyes like what they have in former top backups Quinton Alston and Travis Perry, along with talented true sophomore Reggie Spearman. Still, any time you lose the experience and production that Iowa did -- the trio of Kirksey, Morris and Hitchens combined for 985 career tackles and 105 starts -- the transition to a new era may not always be smooth. The good news is the Hawkeyes' defensive line remains strong, allowing the linebackers more freedom to simply make plays. Don't expect this to be much of a problem for long, if at all.
Last week, we presented a poll on the Big Ten players facing the most pressure in 2014. But football, of course, is a team sport. So what about the league units that will be facing the most pressure this fall?

There's little doubt that the No. 1 unit under the gun is Michigan's offensive line. That group was not good last year, to put it kindly, allowing 36 sacks and paving the way for a paltry 3.3 yards per rush. And that was before the two best players on the line, tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield, got drafted into the NFL.

Virtually every offseason discussion about whether the Wolverines can improve in 2014 begins with the offensive line concerns. There is an inordinate amount of pressure for players like Kyle Bosch, Kyle Kalis and Jack Miller to improve. Michigan had a true freshman early enrollee, Mason Cole, taking first-team snaps at left tackle this spring. The experience level will increase with the return of Erik Magnuson, who missed the spring with a shoulder injury, and Graham Glasgow, who was suspended for part of the spring and for the opener against Appalachian State after being arrested. But there are hardly any proven graybeards around.

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Lon Horwedel/Icon SMIKyle Bosch and the Michigan offensive line are one of the units that need to improve this season.
"A lot of it was youth," head coach Brady Hoke told ESPN.com this spring about the problems on the line last year. "We've got to make sure we're doing everything we can do to accelerate their development, to put them in positions where they can be successful."

New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier has simplified many of the blocking schemes, which the players embraced this offseason. Nussmeier -- who recently talked about the offensive line issues in this podcast -- wants to incorporate a downhill running game and a physical style, and that all starts up front. He's not going to turn the Wolverines' line into a carbon copy of the last team he worked for -- Alabama -- but hopefully he can make it into a respectable group.

If not, it will be a long year for Devin Gardner and probably another disappointing one for Michigan.

Here are some other Big Ten units facing pressure in 2014:

Ohio State's defensive backs: The Buckeyes' offensive line has question marks as well, but the secondary will be under the most scrutiny. The Silver Bullets got shredded in the back end down the stretch last season, and that was with future NFL draft pick Bradley Roby around for most of it. Urban Meyer hired Chris Ash from Arkansas to be his co-defensive coordinator and defensive backfield guru, and Ash will try to mold younger players like Vonn Bell, Tyvis Powell and Cam Burrows into a more aggressive, playmaking conglomerate.

Penn State's receivers: Sure, the Nittany Lions' O-line has major concerns, but as @flaveydavie asked on Twitter yesterday: "Penn State lost one of its biggest offensive weapons (Allen Robinson) last year. Who do you see filling that void?" Good question. Robinson was a special player, but he often didn't have much help. With him gone, Christian Hackenberg needs someone to catch his passes, and that could be sophomore Geno Lewis or a true freshman like DeAndre Thompkins, Saeed Blacknall or Chris Godwin. Penn State has a wealth of tight end options but will need to push the ball down the field to be effective.

Rutgers' secondary: The Scarlet Knights' defensive backfield was hit hard by injuries and transfers last year and got picked apart while fielding the worst pass defense, statistically speaking, in school history. Several players who got thrown into the fire last year return, along with some recruits who could play right away. A new defensive coordinator should equal a more aggressive scheme. But cornerback Ian Thomas' departure -- again -- this summer was not a good start.

Wisconsin's quarterbacks: We could have easily picked the Badgers' group of largely unknown and mostly unproven receivers. But the attention will be focused on who's under center, whether that is returning starter Joel Stave or competitor Tanner McEvoy. Wisconsin hasn't had great quarterback play since Russell Wilson left Madison, and whoever gets the job will be staring down LSU's defense in the opener.

Illinois' defensive line: No Big Ten team was worse at stopping the run last year than the Illini, who gave up a whopping 238 yards per game on the ground. The problems all started with a lack of strength and push up front. Junior college transfers Jihad Ward and Joe Fotu were brought in to help shore up the unit, while there is hope for improvement from the likes of Austin Teitsma and Teko Powell. The Illini are gunning for a return to a bowl game this year, but they'll go nowhere fast if the D-line doesn't make major strides.

Iowa's linebackers: The Hawkeyes like the talent they have here with projected starters Quinton Alston, Reggie Spearman and Travis Perry. Still, all three are relatively inexperienced, because James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens were such fixtures at linebacker the past few years. That trio of senior linebackers formed the heart and soul of Iowa's defense last year, and now their former backups have to make sure the level of play doesn't drop too dramatically.
The NFL draft might not have reflected it, but the Big Ten lost several decorated defensive leaders this year. Spring practice marked a torch-passing around the league, particularly at the linebacker position, as players moved from supporting roles to the spotlight.

Let's take a look at a few of them:

Derek Landisch, Wisconsin

Vitals: Senior, 6-feet, 230 pounds; Nashotah, Wis.

Career profile: 28 games, three starts, 81 tackles, two fumbles recovered, one forced fumble, two passes defended

What they're saying: "He is a quiet leader, really a lot like Chris Borland. Not a bunch of rah-rah, but demands respect. He's done a nice job there." -- coach Gary Andersen

The skinny: Wisconsin loses almost its entire starting defensive front seven, including Borland, the 2013 Big Ten defensive player of the year and a starter for three-plus seasons. Landisch won't fill Borland's production and explosiveness by himself, but he's a solid player who should be able to guide younger players. "I'm trying to step up," Landisch said. "We need leaders on defense, we need an identity on defense."

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Rich Barnes/USA TODAY SportsPenn State LB Mike Hull says he hopes to emulate the leadership of Michael Mauti.
Mike Hull, Penn State

Vitals: Senior, 6-feet, 227 pounds; Canonsburg, Pa.

Career profile: 35 games, 154 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, three fumble recoveries

What they're saying: "Mike is very mature. He's football smart. I think he feels like it's his time. There's not a player I trust more than him." -- defensive coordinator Bob Shoop

The skinny: Hull has plenty of experience, but after understudying Michael Mauti and Glenn Carson, he steps to center stage this fall. He's a bit undersized but exceptionally strong, and while he's not the most vocal player, he understands the need to lead. "I try to be my own person, but I definitely take things from what Mauti did and what Glenn did," Hull said. "Mauti was such a great leader, demanded so much out of the guys. I want to be like the leader he was."

Quinton Alston, Iowa

Vitals: Senior, 6-1, 232 pounds; Sicklerville, N.J.

Career profile: 29 games, one start, 24 tackles, one fumble recovery

What they're saying: "James Morris really helped him out, showing how you need to lead. He takes command of the huddle when he's out there. We really like the progress that he's made. He's really got to be the quarterback of the defense." -- defensive coordinator Phil Parker

The skinny: Alston was Iowa's fourth linebacker last year and would have played more if starters Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey had left the field more. Communication is a strength of Alston's, and while he'll get help from a veteran line, he has to guide a new-look group that includes Reggie Spearman and Travis Perry.

Collin Ellis, Northwestern

Vitals: Senior, 6-2, 230 pounds; St. Gabriel, La.

Career profile: 33 games, 115 tackles, nine tackles for loss, three interceptions, six pass breakups

What they're saying: "He's always given us leadership, but playing [middle linebacker] now, he's more positioned to do that because he's making more calls and he's communicating with all the groups. The players respect him." -- defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz

The skinny: Ellis started at outside linebacker last year but shifts to the middle after the loss of Damien Proby. He's a bit undersized for the middle spot but has good speed and intelligence. Ellis recorded two pick-sixes last year and moves well laterally. He also welcomes the increased leadership. "Last year, we were getting hurt up the middle, so that's where I'm supposed to fit," Ellis said. "It's a new position and obviously there's a bit of a learning curve I have to get over, but I played a bit of it last year.

Taiwan Jones, Michigan State

Vitals: Senior, 6-3, 252 pounds; New Baltimore, Mich.

Career profile: 41 games, 17 starts, 123 tackles 13 tackles for loss, four passes defended

What they're saying: "He's a more physical type of guy to begin with, so I think he brings a physical style in the box. He should be a little more at home there." -- defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi

The skinny: Jones moves from weakside linebacker to the middle, where he replaces three-year starter Max Bullough. He has the size to play the position but must master the schematic complexities that Bullough picked up so well in his career. Jones also talked this spring about leading with confidence to get his teammates to trust him.
With spring practice now in the rear-view mirror, your faithful Big Ten reporters thought it would be a good time to share some of our thoughts from the spring that was. Between us, we saw 10 of the 14 Big Ten teams in person this spring and we followed all of them as closely as possible.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There's no alpha dog here. Should be a wild ride.
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- There are certain positions that always worry fans and others that generate a full, almost blind faith, no matter who's coming or going. Iowa's linebacker corps is one of the latter.

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Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesQuinton Alston (right) is settling into a leadership role on Iowa's defense.
No James Morris, Anthony Hitchens or Christian Kirksey? We'll be fine, Iowa fans have repeatedly said since the 2013 season ended. They point to Hawkeyes history, especially under coach Kirk Ferentz, as evidence that the team always finds ways to firm up the nerve center of its defense.

Quinton Alston loves their confidence. He's confident, too.

"We have three great guys like that, and for them to leave and the fans still think we can step into those roles even through we're quote-unquote inexperienced, that's a great honor," Alston recently told ESPN.com. "I love the tradition here."

Alston intends to continue it this fall as he steps into a leading role at middle linebacker, a spot Morris occupied for most of the past three seasons. Iowa is replacing more production at linebacker than any team in the Big Ten, and there are unknowns, like who will replace Kirksey's speed, energy and willingness to sacrifice his body.

But one question coaches aren't asking is who will lead the group.

The 6-foot-1, 232-pound Alston has 24 tackles in 29 career games but boasts only one start, back in 2012. He was undoubtedly Iowa's No. 4 linebacker last season, but the Hawkeyes' starters rarely left the field.

"We all felt like if something had happened where if we had to take James out or shift James to one of the other linebacker positions, Quinton would have been the next guy in the game," Ferentz said. "He grew up more than anything, developed a confidence level about himself and practiced at a real high rate. He's ready to go."

The turning point for Alston, according to Ferentz, came before spring practice in 2013. After appearing in six games as a true freshman in 2011, he had just five tackles in 10 games the next year and "had kind of stalled out a little bit," Ferentz said.

Even though Morris had a stranglehold on the top middle linebacker spot, Alston progressed well throughout the spring and continued to develop during the season. He excelled in practices and tried to maximize his time in games, working in third-down packages and on almost every special teams unit.

"When he was running with the twos, he took command of the huddle," defensive coordinator Phil Parker said. "That's what you need, to really understand you're controlling the defense. By doing that, his understanding of what he needs to do within the scheme has really helped him and improved this spring."

He learned a lot from the three starters, especially Morris. Their personalities "couldn't be any different," but the two academic All-Big Ten players bonded over the cerebral side of their position -- diagnosing plays and formations.

"If it was just us in the film room, he would tell me what he's looking at and what little details he can point out," Alston said. "James and Hitch, they would walk up the D-line and tell them, 'All right, watch out for this play.' And that would be the play they'd run."

Iowa's defensive line is likely the team's strongest unit and will anchor the defense this season. But linemen are noticing Alston's presence, and they're grateful for it.

"He communicates with everybody," defensive tackle Carl Davis said. "He makes sure everybody knows the new calls. If he sees something wrong with the front, he'll definitely let us know what we need to do.

"He's the linebacker, so he's in charge of the huddle."

It has been a long wait for Alston, a Sicklerville, N.J., native, who committed to Pitt as a recruit but changed to Iowa following a coaching change. But the value of patience isn't lost on the senior.

"It's not one day, you snap your fingers and you're a leader," he said. "Next to James and Hitch and Chris, I was trying to take on what they do as leaders and try to do what I could.

"They helped me out a lot. I think I can take it from here."

Spring game recap: Iowa

April, 28, 2014
Apr 28
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Optimism is building around an Iowa program with a very realistic chance to win the Big Ten West Division this season. On Saturday, the Hawkeyes wrapped up a fairly uneventful (in a good way) spring with their annual scrimmage at Kinnick Stadium. The offense beat the defense 46-31 before an announced crowd of 20,400 on a sunny afternoon. There were no official stats from the scrimmage, but our friends at The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette have you covered.

Check out more coverage here and here and here.

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Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsKirk Ferentz saw some impressive performances from his offensive players in Iowa's spring game.
Star of the game: Redshirt freshman Derrick Willies capped a strong spring by dazzling the crowd with 142 receiving yards on five catches (unofficially), including a 42-yard touchdown from C.J. Beathard. The 6-foot-4 Willies, who had similar numbers in an earlier spring scrimmage, provides the explosive threat on the outside Iowa has lacked in recent seasons. Although the Hawkeyes return some experience at wideout, it's hard not to put Willies in the top rotation. "Today was his best day," coach Kirk Ferentz said. "Now we have to try and corral him because he will be the spring game sensation, but he really did some good things."

How it went down: Iowa is determined to have a faster, more diverse and more explosive offense in Greg Davis' third season as coordinator. The spring scrimmage provided a preview of potentially what's to come for the Hawkeyes. Jake Rudock is still the team's top quarterback and senior Kevonte Martin-Manley is the most experienced receiver, but Willies and Beathard, who completed 21 of 39 passes for 349 yards and a touchdown, should be part of the plan.

Ferentz traditionally likes to stick with one quarterback, but it will be tough to keep Beathard off the field after some of the things he did this spring. Davis told ESPN.com earlier this spring that a package of plays is possible for Beathard, which Ferentz called "very realistic" on Saturday. The pass-heavy scrimmage didn't reveal much about the run game, but Iowa has plenty of options with Mark Weisman and Jordan Canzeri leading the way. Canzeri had a 16-yard touchdown in the scrimmage.

The secondary remains a work in progress, as Jordan Lomax is transitioning from cornerback to safety, and Iowa is evaluating cornerback options opposite Desmond King, who picked off Rudock in the scrimmage. The linebackers are also worth watching, although Quinton Alston has established himself as a strong leader in the middle. Iowa's defensive line should be the team's strongest group, as tackle Louis Trinca-Pasat recorded two "sacks" in the scrimmage.

"I think a lot of our positions right now won't get decided until well into August camp," Ferentz said of the defense.

Iowa exits the spring as a very solid team capable of taking another positive step this season. The quarterback situation is one to watch -- it's not a competition, but a something, as Marc Morehouse writes -- and several key starting spots will be at stake in camp.

Iowa spring wrap

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

Three things we learned in the spring
Three questions for the fall
  • How will the secondary come together?: Cornerback Desmond King is a bona fide star after his breakout freshman season, but the Hawkeyes need to find a starter at free safety, where Jordan Lomax and Anthony Gair continue to compete. Opposite King, Maurice Fleming and Sean Draper are even, and John Lowdermilk is trying to maintain an edge on Nico Law at strong safety.
  • Who will take the lead at running back?: Iowa knows it can rely on senior Mark Weisman, but he’s fought injuries and likely can’t survive an entire season of pounding between the tackles. Junior Jordan Canzeri offers intriguing athleticism. The New Yorker rushed for 481 yards last season, including a 165-yard performance at Purdue.
  • Can the defensive line live up to its billing?: These guys are good, no doubt. Anchored by tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat, both of whom started all 13 games a year ago, the Hawkeyes’ front four likely rates as the strength of the entire team. Juniors Drew Ott and Mike Hardy bring experience to the end spots. If this group improves like it did last season, look out.
One way too early prediction

Brandon Scherff will take home some hardware in December. He was denied a spot by the league’s media on the All-Big Ten first team as a junior. There will be no such worry in 2014. In fact, Scherff will vie for the Outland Trophy and earn a spot on All-America teams from his left tackle spot after opting to turn down a chance at the NFL this offseason.

Spring game preview: Iowa

April, 25, 2014
Apr 25
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Spring football ends Saturday in the Big Ten. I'll give you a moment to compose yourself. Wipe those tears away. Football will be back soon enough.

Three teams wrap up their sessions and we're taking a look at each. Here's what to expect from Iowa at its annual spring scrimmage.

When: 3 p.m. ET Saturday

Where: Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City

Admission: Free. Fans are invited to join Iowa and the Johnson County Crisis Center in bringing nonperishable food items for the ANF Food Bank Drive. Collection bins will be found at all the open entrances to the stadium. The west and south stands are open for seating, and fans can enter through Gates A, F and G. Free parking is available in all university lots around the stadium.

TV: Streaming at BTN2Go.com

Weather forecast: Mostly sunny, high of 73 degrees, winds at 15 mph

What to watch for: The Hawkeyes will pit the offense against the defense and use a modified scoring system that, in addition to standard scores, awards points for explosion plays (runs of 12 of more yards, passes of 16 or more yards), takeaways, three-and-outs, quarterback "sacks" and sudden changes (when the offense starts inside the 35-yard line and is held to a field goal or no points). Check out the points breakdown here.

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AP Photo/Scott A. MillerIowa coaches like the versatility of receiver Matt VandeBerg.
Iowa typically doesn't reveal much during its spring scrimmages, and most of the key spots are nailed down, such as at quarterback (Jake Rudock) and middle linebacker (Quinton Alston). The event provides fans a chance to check out the new linebackers, led by Alston but also featuring Travis Perry and Reggie Spearman.

The Hawkeyes look very solid up front but must fill holes at both free safety, where Jordan Lomax and Anthony Gair are competing, and at one cornerback spot, where Maurice Fleming and Sean Draper are listed as co-starters on the latest depth chart. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker said this week that John Lowdermilk is trying to hold off Nico Law at strong safety.

The receivers have generated buzz this spring as Iowa continues to ramp up the tempo, seeking explosiveness on offense. Familiar names such as Kevonte Martin-Manley, Tevaun Smith and Jacob Hillyer are back, but fans can get a glimpse of redshirt freshman Derrick Willies, a 6-foot-4 perimeter threat, as well as sophomore Matt VandeBerg, who has received high marks from the coaches. Offensive coordinator Greg Davis said VandeBerg can line up at more than one wideout spot.

Line play should be Iowa's strength this season -- as it is with the Hawkeyes' better teams under Kirk Ferentz -- so it will be interesting to see the top players work in the scrimmage. There's some competition at one defensive end spot between Mike Hardy and Nate Meier, and the left offensive guard position remains fluid.

Again, it's Iowa, so don't expect any major revelations Saturday. But the forecast looks great and fans should be geared up for a team that carries higher expectations into 2014.

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- No Big Ten coach takes the temperature of his team in spring practice quite like Iowa's Kirk Ferentz. No Big Ten coach has lived in as many different climates.

The dean of the league's coaches knows the sunniness that surrounds teams after redemptive seasons such as the ones the Hawkeyes had in 2001, 2008 or last fall, when Iowa improved its wins total by four. He also knows the polar vortex that exists, at least outside Iowa's football complex, after poor performances like the ones the team delivered in 2007 and 2012.

Ferentz also understands how quickly the weather changes, like it often does on spring afternoons in the Midwest.

So at a recent team meeting, Ferentz detoured from the typical spring minutia -- replacing seniors, creating depth, finding leaders, building identities -- and addressed a macro item: the preseason polls.

"He said we might be ranked," running back Jordan Canzeri told ESPN.com, "and even if we are, no one is to keep that in their head. There were several teams that were ranked and didn't get to go to a bowl game this past year. You never want to be cocky. Even if the stats show you're good, you still want to prepare as you would with any other team, so you don't get satisfied and complacent."

Iowa likely will be ranked when the preseason polls come out. The Hawkeyes appear in some way-too early versions. They return eight offensive starters, including left tackle Brandon Scherff, a preseason All-America candidate, along with three of four starting defensive linemen from a team that flipped its regular-season record in 2013.

The quarterback uncertainty that hovered over the program last spring, when no signal-caller had taken a snap in a game, is no longer there, as junior Jake Rudock has established himself. An unprecedented stretch of running back maladies has subsided as Iowa returns three veteran options (Mark Weisman, Canzeri and Damon Bullock) and two promising young players (LeShun Daniels Jr. and Barkley Hill). There's more explosiveness at wide receiver, and the defensive line, led by senior tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat, looks more like the elite units Iowa produced for most of Ferentz's tenure.

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David Purdy/The Des Moines Register via USA TODAY SportsWith Carl Davis and others back, Iowa's defensive line should be the team's strongest unit.
"We are a more experienced unit, probably the most experienced unit on the team," defensive line coach Reese Morgan said.

There are enough internal reasons to indicate Iowa will take another step this season, but the biggest factors in the Hawkeyes favor are external. Their new division, the Big Ten West, lacks a clear-cut favorite or a flawless team. And their schedule is undoubtedly the most favorable in the league.

Not only does Iowa miss Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State from the East Division, but it hosts both Wisconsin and Nebraska. The Hawkeyes' toughest league road game should be a Nov. 8 visit to Minnesota.

"It's a pretty favorable schedule for us," wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley said, "but every week is going to be a challenge. Nothing that happened last year really matters."

Davis looks forward to visiting Big Ten newcomer Maryland, but he had hoped to play more of the league's traditional powers. The only way Iowa sees Ohio State, Michigan State or Michigan is in the Big Ten championship game.

"When the Big Ten started, those are the teams that dominated," Davis said. "You want to be able to play those teams and beat those teams. I really look forward to it.

"I definitely feel we're in contention for a Big Ten championship. Every team says it, but we're hungry."

Ferentz has seen Iowa go from good to great in 2002 and again in 2009. He also has seen the program fall short of expectations, as it did in 2006 and 2010.

The first step to building upon success, Ferentz said, is not taking it for granted. Take Iowa's group of linebackers, which loses three multiyear starters from last year's squad: James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens.

"If we're waiting for Morris, Kirksey and Hitchens to give us 300 tackles, that ain't gonna happen," Ferentz said. "Two years ago, we had a disappointing season. Last year was a new year and this year was the flip record-wise, but it's a new year again. This team has to form its own identity, and it starts with our experienced players. We're going to need them to play their absolute best, which is what those seniors did last year."

Iowa's linebacker reset has been a top spring storyline. Quinton Alston has stepped into the lead role, earning high marks from teammates and coaches. Travis Perry and Reggie Spearman, who played as a 17-year-old freshman last fall and doesn't turn 18 until August, are likely starters alongside Alston.

The biggest challenge could be replacing Kirksey, a converted safety who brought defensive back speed to outside linebacker.

"Chris had a different skill set than the guys we have out there now," defensive coordinator Phil Parker said. "It's been a long time since we had a guy who could run that fast and still have the power and explosion to play in the box, too, or at least on the tight end. We have three or four guys we're trying to look at with that position."

Other uncertainties include the cornerback spot opposite dynamic sophomore Desmond King, free safety and the second-string offensive line, which coordinator Greg Davis lists as the unit's biggest concern.

Iowa players understand that their margin for error remains slim.

"The determining factor is going to be winning those close games," Martin-Manley said.

Iowa won several such contests in 2009, its last truly special season. The 2014 team also could reach rarefied air, but Hawkeyes won't get caught with their heads in the clouds.

"That's what we do here; we work hard," Davis said. "That's something you get used to the longer you're in this program. The grind becomes normal, and I feel like all our hard work will be able to pay off."

Video: B1G shoes to fill, Iowa

March, 6, 2014
Mar 6
1:00
PM ET

Big Ten reporter Brian Bennett reports on how Iowa will replace James Morris and a crew of solid Hawkeyes linebackers.
We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the linebackers.

Illinois: The Illini lose an All-Big Ten player in Jonathan Brown but still have decent overall depth at linebacker. Mason Monheim started every game at middle linebacker in 2013, and Mike Svetina started all but one game at the star position. Both players return as juniors. Svetina will move into Brown's spot on the weak side, while the other position could be filled by T.J. Neal, who recorded 38 tackles last season. Ralph Cooper has logged significant reps as a reserve, and Eric Finney gives Illinois some flexibility after playing the star position (safety/outside linebacker).

Indiana: This becomes a more significant position under coordinator Brian Knorr, who plans to use a 3-4 alignment. Indiana should have enough depth to make the transition as it returns two full-time starters from 2013 -- David Cooper and T.J. Simmons -- as well as two part-time starters in Forisse Hardin and Clyde Newton, who started the final four games of his freshman season. Like Simmons and Newton, Marcus Oliver played a lot as a freshman and provides some depth. The key here will be converting all the experience into sharper, more consistent play.

Iowa: If you're of the mindset that Iowa always reloads at linebacker, you can rest easy this spring. If not, keep a very close eye on what happens as the Hawkeyes begin replacing one of the more productive linebacker groups in team history: James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens. There are high hopes for sophomore Reggie Spearman, who played in 10 games as a freshman last fall. Spearman, junior Travis Perry and senior Quinton Alston enter the spring as the front-runners to take over the top spots. The biggest challenge could be building depth behind them with Cole Fisher and others.

Maryland: The good news is the Terrapins return three productive starters from 2013 in Cole Farrand, L.A. Goree and Matt Robinson, who combined for 233 tackles, including 19 for loss. The bad news is Maryland loses its top playmaker at the position in Marcus Whitfield, who recorded nine sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss last season. But the overall picture is favorable, and the depth should be strong when Alex Twine and Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil return from their injuries. Young players such as Abner Logan (37 tackles in 2013) will push for more time.

Michigan: There are a lot of familiar faces in new positions as Michigan not only has shuffled the roles of its defensive assistant coaches, but also its top linebackers. Standout Jake Ryan moves from strong-side linebacker to the middle, while junior James Ross III moves from the weak side to the strong side and Desmond Morgan shifts from the middle to the weak side. Joe Bolden, who had 54 tackles last season, can play both outside and inside, and players such as Ben Gedeon, Royce Jenkins-Stone and Allen Gant add depth. The talent is there for a big year if the position switches pan out.

Michigan State: It won't be easy to replace the Big Ten's top linebacker tandem in Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, not to mention Rose Bowl hero Kyler Elsworth, but Michigan State has some promising options. Ed Davis appears ready to step in for Allen after recording four sacks as a sophomore. Junior Darien Harris and two redshirt freshmen, Shane Jones and Jon Reschke, will compete at middle linebacker. Returning starter Taiwan Jones is back at the star position, and Mylan Hicks should be in the rotation. Depth is a bit of a question mark here entering the spring.

Minnesota: The Gophers lose key pieces in all three areas of the defense, and linebacker is no exception as two starters (Aaron Hill and James Manuel) depart. Minnesota will lean on Damien Wilson, who started in 12 games at middle linebacker in his first season with the Gophers and recorded 78 tackles. Junior De'Vondre Campbell seems ready to claim a starting spot after backing up Manuel last season. There will be plenty of competition at the strong-side linebacker spot, as Nick Rallis, De'Niro Laster and others are in the mix. Jack Lynn is backing up Wilson at middle linebacker but could work his way into a starting spot on the outside with a good spring.

Nebraska: Optimism is building for the Blackshirts in 2014, thanks in large part to the returning linebackers. The three players who finished last season as the starters -- David Santos, Michael Rose and Zaire Anderson -- all are back, as Rose will lead the way in the middle. Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry also have starting experience and return for 2014. If younger players such as Marcus Newby develop this spring, Nebraska could have the Big Ten's deepest group of linebackers, a dramatic departure from the Huskers' first few years in the conference. Good things are happening here.

Northwestern: The top two playmakers return here in Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis, who combined for seven interceptions and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2014. Northwestern's challenge is replacing the leadership Damien Proby provided in the middle. Ellis has shifted from the strong side to the middle, and Northwestern has moved safety Jimmy Hall from safety to strong-side linebacker. Drew Smith and Hall will compete for the third starting spot throughout the offseason. Sophomores Jaylen Prater and Joseph Jones should provide some depth.

Ohio State: Coach Urban Meyer has made it clear that Ohio State needs more from the linebackers, so it's a huge offseason for this crew, which loses superstar Ryan Shazier. The Buckeyes return starters at the outside spots in Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry, although competition will continue throughout the spring and summer. Redshirt freshman Darron Lee surprisingly opened spring practice Tuesday working with Grant and Perry on the first-team defense. Camren Williams appeared in all 13 games as a reserve and will be part of the rotation, along with Trey Johnson. Meyer said last month that the incoming linebacker recruits won't redshirt, which means an opportunity for mid-year enrollee Raekwon McMillan.

Penn State: Linebacker U is looking for more bodies at the position after struggling with depth issues throughout 2013. The Lions lose leading tackler Glenn Carson but bring back two players, Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman, who started most of the season. The new coaching staff is counting on Hull to become a star as a senior. Brandon Bell, who appeared in nine games and recorded 24 tackles as a freshman, will compete for a starting spot along with Gary Wooten. Penn State hopes Ben Kline can stay healthy as he provides some experience, and incoming freshman Troy Reeder could enter the rotation right away.

Purdue: Expect plenty of competition here as Purdue loses leading tackler Will Lucas and must get more consistent play from the group. Joe Gilliam started for most of the 2013 season and should occupy a top spot this fall. Sean Robinson also brings experience to the field, and Ryan Russell could fill more of a hybrid linebacker/defensive end role this season. Redshirt freshman Danny Ezechukwu is an intriguing prospect to watch this spring as he aims for a bigger role. Ezechukwu is just one of several younger players, including decorated incoming recruit Gelen Robinson, who have opportunities to make a splash.

Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights return a good deal of production here with Steve Longa and Kevin Snyder, who combined for 219 tackles, including 15 tackles for loss and five sacks. Quentin Gause also is back after racking up 53 tackles (8.5 for loss) in a mostly reserve role last season. Gause likely will claim the starting strong-side linebacker spot as Jamal Merrell departs. The starting spots are seemingly set, so Rutgers will look to build depth with Davon Jacobs, who had 30 tackles as a reserve last season, and L.J. Liston, both sophomores.

Wisconsin: Do-it-all linebacker Chris Borland is gone, along with Ethan Armstrong and Conor O'Neill, so Wisconsin must replace three of its top four tacklers from 2013. Derek Landisch and Joe Schobert can be penciled in as starters, along with Michael Caputo, who played mostly safety last season but should slide into one of the outside spots. Marcus Trotter brings experience to the rotation. The spotlight will be on younger linebackers such as Vince Biegel, who had 25 tackles last season, as well as dynamic sophomore Leon Jacobs and Alec James, a decorated recruit who redshirted in 2013.
Tags:

Purdue Boilermakers, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Penn State Nittany Lions, Big Ten Conference, Michigan State Spartans, Northwestern Wildcats, Indiana Hoosiers, Illinois Fighting Illini, Ohio State Buckeyes, Michigan Wolverines, Wisconsin Badgers, Iowa Hawkeyes, Big Ten, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Maryland Terrapins, Damien Proby, Collin Ellis, Michael Trotter, Max Bullough, Jonathan Brown, Chi Chi Ariguzo, Mylan Hicks, Mike Hull, Jake Ryan, Ryan Russell, Joshua Perry, Derek Landisch, Jimmy Hall, Denicos Allen, Ralph Cooper, Curtis Grant, Darien Harris, Quinton Alston, Marcus Trotter, Joe Bolden, Royce Jenkins-Stone, Michael Rose, Joseph Jones, Camren Williams, Vince Biegel, Cole Fisher, Jack Lynn, Nyeem Wartman, Allen Gant, T.J. Neal, David Santos, Zaire Anderson, Joe Gilliam, David Cooper, Jon Reschke, Taiwan Jones, Ben Gedeon, Shane Jones, Brandon Bell, Nathan Gerry, Marcus Newby, Forisse Hardin, Mason Monheim, Mike Svetina, Eric Finney, Trey Johnson, Leon Jacobs, Reggie Spearman, Alec James, De'Vondre Campbell, De'Niro Laster, Damien Wilson, Josh Banderas, T.J. Simmons, Clyde Newton, Marcus Oliver, Ben Kline, Drew Smith, Nick Rallis, Troy Reeder, James Ross III, Joe Schobert, Raekwon McMillan, Gelen Robinson, Gary Wooten, Ed Davis, Travis Perry, Brian Knorr, Cole Farrand, Matt Robinson, Marcus Whitfield, Jaylen Prater, B1G spring positions 14, Darron Lee, L.A. Goree, Alex Twine, Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil, Abner Logan, Danny Ezechukwu, Steve Longa, Kevin Snyder, Quentin Gause, Jamal Merrell, Davon Jacobs, L.J. Liston

Let's look at what to expect this spring in the Big Ten's wild, wild West:

ILLINOIS

Spring start: March 5
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Toughening up on 'D': The Fighting Illini had one of the nation's worst defenses, especially against the run. Tim Beckman brought back defensive coordinator Tim Banks and hopes an extra year of maturity can help strengthen the front seven. Juco import Joe Fotu could win a starting job this spring, and Jihad Ward should help when he arrives in the summer.
  • 'Haase cleaning: Nathan Scheelhaase wrapped up his career by leading the Big Ten in passing yards last season. Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt likely takes over the reins, but backups Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey plan on fighting for the job, as well. Bill Cubit's offense should equal big numbers for whoever wins out.
  • Target practice: Whoever wins the quarterback job needs someone to catch the ball, and Illinois' top two receivers from '13 -- Steve Hull and Miles Osei -- both are gone. Junior college arrival Geronimo Allison will be counted on for some immediate help.
IOWA

Spring start: March 27 or 28
Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • A new big three: The Hawkeyes begin the process of trying to replace their three standout senior linebackers from last season: James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey. They were the heart of the defense in 2013, and now guys such as Quinton Alston, Reggie Spearman and Travis Perry need to make major leaps forward in the spring.
  • Develop more playmakers: Iowa was able to win the games it should have won last year, but struggled against those with strong defenses because of its lack of explosiveness. Sophomore Tevaun Smith and junior Damond Powell showed flashes of their potential late in the year at wideout. They need to continue to develop to give quarterback Jake Rudock and the offense ways to stretch the field.
  • Solidify the right tackle spot: The offensive line should once again be the team's strength, but the departure of veteran right tackle Brett Van Sloten means someone has to take on that role. Whether that's senior Andrew Donnal or redshirt freshman Ryan Ward could be determined this spring.
MINNESOTA

Spring start: March 4
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Mitch's pitches: Philip Nelson's transfer means redshirt sophomore Mitch Leidner enters spring practice as the No. 1 quarterback. He's a load to bring down when he runs, but Leidner needs to improve his passing accuracy after completing 55 percent of his passes in the regular season and only half of his 22 attempts in the Texas Bowl game loss to Syracuse. Added experience should help. If not, he's got some talented youngsters such as Chris Streveler and Dimonic Roden-McKinzy aiming to dethrone him.
  • Mitch's catchers: Of course, part of the problem behind the Gophers' Big Ten-worst passing offense was a lack of threats at receiver. Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones showed promise as true freshmen and should only improve with an offseason of work. It's critical that they do, or else Minnesota might have to count on three receiver signees early.
  • Replacing Ra'Shede: The Gophers only lost four senior starters, but defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman might be the most difficult to replace. The first-team All-Big Ten selection created havoc inside defensively, and there aren't many athletes like him floating around. Scott Ekpe could take many of Hageman's reps, but the defensive line overall will have to pick up the slack.
NEBRASKA

Spring start: March 8
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Tommy's turn: Sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr. entered the offseason as the clear No. 1 quarterback for the first time after taking over for the injured Taylor Martinez (and splitting some snaps with Ron Kellogg III) last season. Armstrong showed maturity beyond his years in 2013 but needs to continue developing as a passer and deepen his understanding of the offense. Redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton could push him in the spring.
  • Get the OL up to speed: Nebraska loses a lot of experience on the offensive line, including both starting tackles (Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale), plus interior mainstays Spencer Long, Andrew Rodriguez and Cole Pensick. The Huskers do return seniors Mark Pelini, Jake Cotton and Mike Moudy, junior Zach Sterup, plus three freshmen and a junior-college transfer who redshirted last year. A strong group of incoming freshmen may also contribute. Big Red usually figures it out on the O-line, but there will be a lot of players in new roles this season.
  • Reload in the secondary: The Blackshirts have plenty of experience in the front seven, but the defensive backfield has a new coach (Charlton Warren) and will be without top playmakers Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans. The safety spot next to Corey Cooper was a problem area last season, and the Huskers are hoping Charles Jackson takes a major step forward. Warren has talent to work with but must find the right combination.
NORTHWESTERN

Spring start: Feb. 26
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Trevor's time?: Trevor Siemian split reps with Kain Colter at quarterback the past two seasons, serving as sort of the designated passer. Siemian threw for 414 yards in the season finale against Illinois and has a clear path toward starting with Colter gone. That could mean more of a pass-first offense than Northwestern ran with Colter. Redshirt freshman and heralded recruit Matt Alviti also looms as an option.
  • Manning the middle: Northwestern brings back a solid corps on defense but lost middle linebacker Damien Proby, who led the team in tackles the past two seasons. Pat Fitzgerald has some options, including making backups Drew Smith or Jaylen Prater a starter or moving Collin Ellis inside. He can experiment and find the best match this spring.
  • Patch it together: The Wildcats' health woes from 2013 aren't over, as 11 players will be held out of practice for medical reasons, including star running back/returner Venric Mark. Add in that the school doesn't have early enrollees, and the team will be trying to practice severely undermanned this spring. The biggest key is to get through spring without any more major problems and to get the injured guys healthy for the fall.
PURDUE

Spring start: March 6
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Moving forward: Purdue players wore T-shirts emblazoned with the word "Forward" during winter workouts, and no wonder. They don't want to look backward to last year's abysmal 1-11 season. It's time to turn the page and get some positive momentum going in Year 2 under Darrell Hazell. Luckily, optimism abounds in spring.
  • Trench focus: The Boilermakers simply couldn't cut it on the lines in Big Ten play, and Hazell went about trying to sign bigger offensive linemen this offseason for his physical style of play. Both starting tackles and three starting defensive linemen all graduated, and no one should feel safe about his job after last season's performance. Kentucky transfer Langston Newton (defense) and early enrollee Kirk Barron (offense) could push for playing time on the lines.
  • Find an identity: What was Purdue good at last season? Not much, as the team ranked near the bottom of the country in just about every major statistical category. The Boilers found some good things late in the passing game with freshmen Danny Etling and DeAngelo Yancey, but Hazell must do a better job instilling the toughness he wants and locating playmakers.
WISCONSIN

Spring start: March 7
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Catching on: The biggest concern heading into the spring is at receiver after the team's only dependable wideout the past two seasons, Jared Abbrederis, graduated. Tight end Jacob Pedersen, who was second on the team in receiving yards last season, is also gone. The Badgers have struggled to develop new weapons in the passing game but now have no choice. Gary Andersen signed five receivers in the 2014 class but none enrolled early, so guys such as Kenzel Doe and Robert Wheelwright need to take charge this spring.
  • Stave-ing off the competition?: Joel Stave started all 13 games at quarterback last year, while no one else on the roster has any real experience under center. Yet the redshirt junior should face some competition this spring after the Badgers' passing game struggled down the stretch. Andersen likes more mobile quarterbacks and has three guys in Bart Houston, Tanner McEvoy and freshman early enrollee D.J. Gillins, who can offer that skill. Stave must hold them off to keep his job.
  • New leaders on defense: Wisconsin lost a large group of seniors, including nine major contributors on the defensive side. That includes inside linebacker and team leader Chris Borland, plus defensive linemen Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer, outside linebacker Brendan Kelly and safety Dezmen Southward. That's a whole lot of leadership and production to replace, and the process begins in earnest this spring.

Big Ten Monday chat wrap

December, 23, 2013
12/23/13
5:15
PM ET
Since I'll be traveling to the Orange Bowl next week, today marked the final Big Ten Monday chat of the 2013 calendar year. Did we go out on top? I'll let you be the judge with this full transcript and some choice highlights:

Steve (Gaithersburg): The common belief, voiced by your own Adam Shefter, is that the reduction in the size of Bill O'Brien's buy out is an indication that he might jump ship. I think the opposite is true -- why would PSU agree to reduce the size of the buy out? What's in it for them? The best answer -- B O'B has agreed to NOT jump ship at least this year. What do you think of that logic?

Brian Bennett: Hmmm....maybe. Or maybe Penn State did it to help keep O'Brien happy. Remember that he was blindsided by the NCAA sanctions and certainly was a big fan of that. I think there's a very good chance he goes to the NFL. We shall see very soon.

Tom (Lincoln Park): So it's looking more and more like we're going to see Shane Morris' first start at Michigan. What's the level of PANIC going to be like in Ann Arbor if Morris struggles?

Brian Bennett: Panic? After his first career start, in what amounts to a mostly meaningless bowl game? Unless he looks just entirely incapable of being a QB, I don't see any reason to panic. Especially since Gardner is coming back next year. The Wolverines could very well struggle offensively in this game, however.

Faygo (Silver Spring, MD): Season's over, it's bowl time, you're headed for Florida and Adam is going to the 100th Rose Bowl. This old Spartan will treasure this season, of course, but off the top, what's your five favorite moments from this Big Ten season?

Brian Bennett: Oh, boy. Going to miss some. Nebraska's Hail Mary. The Game. Michigan State's celebration in Indy. Minnesota celebrating with Jerry Kill. Penn State rallying to beat Michigan. Not sure those are my top five, but there's five good ones.

Brett (Iowa City): Alright, let's talk Hawkeyes for a minute. From what you've seen with the younger talent on the team, how do you think the Iowa defense will measure up for the 2014 season after losing the triumvirate of linebackers and cornerback BJ Lowery?

Brian Bennett: It's a good question, and that won't be easy. The good news is that the defensive line stepped up in a major way this year and should be a strength in 2014. Desmond King looks like the next in a line of standout CBs. When I talked to the three senior LBs last week, they each told me the position would be in good shape with young guys like Reggie Spearman, Quinton Alston and Chad Gilson. But their experience will really be tough to replace. You'd also hope the Iowa offense takes another step forward with Rudock back.

Mike (Psu Class of 13) (NYC): What are some big name coaches Penn State will go after if B.O.B. leaves? Could they go after Narduzzi or maybe someone like Gruden, Cowher, or Dungey? Evenutally they will want to coach again I think.

Brian Bennett: David Jones had a really good piece on that this morning, and he listed Mike Munchak No. 1 on the list. Makes a lot of sense, since Munchak very nearly got the job two years ago. PSU would at least have to feel out Al Golden, but I'm not sure why he'd leave Miami now. Narduzzi would be a very interesting choice.

John (Louisville KY): Who do like to win the Big Ten next year?

Brian Bennett: Penn State volleyball? I haven't analyzed the schedules yet and we have to wait to see which big names go pro and which come back. I'm going to favor Ohio State among the top choices as long as Meyer is around. Michigan State should be really good. Wisconsin loses a lot but has a favorable schedule after the opener. Those jump to mind first.
Iowa's version of a spring game was April 14, but that wasn't the end of the Hawkeyes' spring practice. The team held three more practices after the open workout, and head coach Kirk Ferentz put a bow on his team's spring drills with a news conference Tuesday.

Here are a few highlights from what Ferentz had to say:

-- Ferentz said several players had emerged over the course of the spring. He singled out the defensive line, which went into the spring as a real question mark because of its youth and inexperience. Ferentz said sophomore Louis Trinca-Pasat might have made the most progress.

"He was kind of on the ropes back in December, quite frankly," Ferentz said. "A young guy who really was starting to question where his heart was and how important it was to him, and it showed up in his performance. He was out there, he looked OK, but nothing to write home about.

"In the spring, he's really just quietly emerged, and by the second half of spring ball, he's playing as well as anybody on the field either side of the ball. So he's clearly taken some steps."

Ferentz also said Steve Bigach and Joe Gaglione played well in spring, while Darian Cooper and Riley McMinn showed the typical inconsistency of inexperience. But "the group as a whole, kind of took some steps forward," which is vitally important to the Hawkeyes' chances this season.

The other position group Ferentz praised for its improvement was the tight ends. He said Jake Duzey and Henry Krieger-Coble had good springs.

-- Offensive lineman Casey McMillan and receiver John Chelf suffered knee injuries that required surgery. But Ferentz thinks both will be back this summer. Defensive linemen Carl Davis and Dominic Alvis missed the spring with injuries but should be back by the first week of June. Linebacker Shane DiBona, coming off an Achilles injury, had a setback and will not play again in his career.

-- Running back Jordan Canzeri, who had an offseason ACL injury, wants to try to get back for this season. Ferentz said, "Everything is going fine, but that's touch and go, to say the least."

The two healthy tailbacks, De'Andre Johnson and Damon Bullock "improved pretty much each and every day," Ferentz said. But he's still understandably concerned about the depth there. In a lighter moment, someone asked Ferentz if he'd be open to accepting a graduate transfer, a la Danny O'Brien and Russell Wilson.

"I think I'd consider anything if we thought it would work," he said. "In fact, if you know of any running backs right now ..."

-- Iowa's leadership group for 2012 will be seniors Bigach, Greg Castillo, James Ferentz, Micah Hyde and James Vandenberg, juniors Casey Kreiter, James Morris, Brad Rogers and Brett Van Sloten, sophomores Kevonte Martin-Manley and Brandon Scherff and freshmen Quinton Alston, Austin Blythe and Jake Rudock.

-- Ferentz said "anywhere on defense," receiver and punter remain unsettled positions. The best news is that it's still early.

"We still have a lot of room for improvement, typical of any football team," Ferentz said. "But I think this team, especially with our youth and experience, we're going to see a lot of transition and a lot of things happening here between now and September. That's going to be fun to track, fun to watch. It's really in the players' hands how they want to approach it and how much they want to improve."

Iowa recruiting analysis

February, 3, 2011
2/03/11
1:30
PM ET
IOWA HAWKEYES

The class

Recruits: 23 (22 high school seniors, one junior college player)

Top prospects: Iowa landed two of the nation's top 20 guards in four-star prospect Jordan Walsh and three-star lineman Austin Blythe. The Hawkeyes had a key signing-day addition in Darian Cooper, rated as the nation's No. 21 defensive tackle by ESPN Recruiting. Ken O'Keefe's offense values the tight end position and Iowa got a good one in Ray Hamilton. Jake Rudock could end up being Iowa's quarterback of the future.

Needs met: The Hawkeyes lose quite a bit at receiver and tight end both now and after the 2011 season, and they addressed both positions in this class. Hamilton is one of three tight ends to go along with two wide receivers. Running back depth has been a major issue in each of the last two seasons, and Iowa added four of them, led by the mammoth Rodney Coe.

Analysis: There's a lot to like in this class, especially two or three years down the road. Iowa took care of its needs -- running back and receiver -- but also landed a potential huge steal at the most important position on the field in Rudock. Walsh and Blythe provide depth along the offensive line, and it'll be interesting to see how quickly defensive recruits like Cooper and linebacker Quinton Alston see the field.

ESPN Recruiting grade: B-

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