Big Ten: Rex Burkhead

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Only twice in its illustrious history has Nebraska averaged 200 yards rushing and 200 yards passing in the same season.

Only once – last season – has it reached 250 rushing and 200 passing.

Through six games this fall, the Huskers sit at 285 rushing and 205 passing. Granted, three of the Big Ten’s top four rushing defenses – Michigan State, Iowa and Michigan – await Nebraska in November, and the other top unit against the run, Ohio State, might well be there for the Huskers in Indianapolis on Dec. 7 if things go as planned in Lincoln.

Regardless, credit the Nebraska offensive line, whose members talked in August of ranking as a vintage Huskers group. That’s a mouthful at a school that won six Outland Trophies and 13 NCAA rushing titles in the 1980s and 1990s alone.

[+] EnlargeSpencer Long
Reese Strickland/US PresswireSpencer Long will miss the rest of the season with a knee injury, forcing a shift on the Nebraska offensive line.
These guys have held their own, though, allowing a FBS-low three sacks in the season’s first half.

Now they meet their biggest challenge, the test the Nebraska linemen hoped they would never face: the loss of Spencer Long. How they respond will define the way they are remembered.

“From here on out, we’re playing for Spencer,” said junior Mike Moudy, Long’s likely replacement at right guard next Saturday when Nebraska visits Minnesota. “We’ve got the drive to compete for him. Without him, we wouldn’t be where we’re at. But everyone’s just taking that in stride and saying we’re going to give our all to Spence.”

Long meant so much to his teammates. He was a throwback to the great linemen of Huskers past – a walk-on from Elkhorn, Neb., who toiled on the scout team, earned his scholarship, then all-conference honors and a recognition as a captain in his fifth-year senior season.

He started 33 games. He remains a top student, majoring in pre-med. He’ll probably be a doctor, even if the NFL delays his continued studies.

He went down on the fifth play from scrimmage last week in the Huskers’ 44-7 win at Purdue. Long was hustling around the backside of a rush by Imani Cross and fell over the legs of defensive end Ryan Russell. Long’s left knee buckled.

Coach Bo Pelini was among the first to reach him on the ground. Long underwent surgery Thursday to repair a torn MCL. Don’t bet against his return in time to work for NFL scouts ahead of the May 8-10 NFL draft.

“What happened to Spencer sucks,” senior left tackle Jeremiah Sirles said. “There’s no way around it. His career got cut short here at Nebraska, but a lot of young guys have got great opportunities now.

“We’re going to honor Spencer with our effort. We’re going to honor Spencer with the way we play, because he was our captain. We followed him.”

Who will they follow now? Perhaps Sirles, a veteran of 34 starts, fellow seniors Andrew Rodriguez at right tackle and center Cole Pensick. With Moudy and junior Jake Cotton at left guard, the offensive line is still a seasoned group.

Coaches have talked this week of shifting Pensick, using untested Ryne Reeves or Givens Price or even pulling the redshirt from junior college transfer Chongo Kondolo.

It will work best if Moudy sticks. He fits the pedigree at 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds, another top student who has worked in the program for four years. As recently as last season, Moudy spent time on the scout team. Pelini said he noticed a big jump in the spring.

What happened?

“Probably just wanting to play, “Moudy said. “The desire to play. I kind of got tired of sitting on the scout team. I had to take another step mentally.”

Long, with Cotton and offensive line coach John Garrison, aided Moudy in his ascent.

He began to prove himself at Purdue. Moudy allowed one sack but otherwise played well.

The other linemen chided him for the mistake.

“He did a great job,” Sirles said, “but he’s going to held to the same standard Spencer was held to. People are like, ‘Oh, that’s not fair.' But we all hold ourselves to a high standard. It doesn’t matter who’s out there playing.”

Injuries such as this one are all too common over the past two seasons at Nebraska. Senior defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler went down last year during the Huskers’ regular-season finale against Iowa.

The defense did not respond well as Wisconsin and Georgia gouged Nebraska for 115 points in subsequent games.

I-back Rex Burkhead, a leader and motivational figure in the same vein as Long, missed six games of his senior year with a knee injury last season. In his place, the Huskers found a new star, Ameer Abdullah, and hardly missed a beat.

Which path will the offensive line take over the next six weeks? It figures to define their legacy.

Player of the Week: Big Ten

October, 7, 2013
Ameer Abdullah would prefer to go unnoticed.

That's not happening now, though.

The junior I-back from Nebraska is the Five Star Player of the Week for his 225-yard rushing performance Saturday against Illinois in the Cornhuskers’ 39-19 victory.

Abdullah literally carried the load as November-like weather blew into Lincoln and slowed the passing game.

“I thought Ameer played great,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “I thought he would, and he did. The game plan and the running game was good. I thought it set up well for Ameer. On top of that, he made a lot of guys miss.”

Adbullah, who is averaging 136 rushing yards per game this season, established a single-game career-best mark, remaining on pace to exceed the 1,137 yards he gained last season.

The 5-foot-9, 180-pound back did his dirty work a year ago as a replacement for Rex Burkhead, who missed six games with injury. This fall, Abdullah is the full-time workhorse.

The role suits him well. He has topped 100 yards in four of five games, bringing his career total within 23 yards of joining 28 Huskers who have rushed for 2,000 yards. His output on Saturday marked the highest total by a Husker since Roy Helu ran for a school-record 307 yards against Missouri in 2010.

And still, Abdullah deflected praise in the aftermath, offering tributes for his offensive linemen, fullbacks and receivers. He talked for all of two minutes at the post-game press conference before disappearing into the cold afternoon -- just as he would prefer.
Iowa running back Mark Weisman has been a very busy man.

Last Saturday, he carried the ball 35 times in Iowa's 27-21 win against Iowa State. According to the school, only five Hawkeyes ball-carriers have heard their number called more often in a game. Weisman's workload came a week after he logged 30 carries, then a career high, in a win against Missouri State.

Just three games into the season, Weisman has 85 carries, 10 more than any other FBS player (Boston College's Andre Williams has 75) and 21 more than any Big Ten back (Ohio State's Jordan Hall has 64). If Weisman continues this pace, he'll finish the regular season with 340 carries, which would break Sedrick Shaw's team record of 316, set in 1995.

[+] EnlargeMark Weisman
David Purdy/Getty ImagesMark Weisman made 35 carries against Iowa State. Workhorse running backs are still typical throughout the Big Ten.
If Iowa reaches a bowl game, that number goes up to 368.

Take that, AIRBHG!

"John McKay's quote comes to mind, 'The ball's not that heavy,'" Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday, referring to the former USC and Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach.

Weisman's workload might be unique in most leagues, but not the Big Ten. A Big Ten back -- Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell -- led the nation in carries last season with 382, and another, Wisconsin's Montee Ball, was third with 356. Ball and Nebraska's Rex Burkhead both ranked in the top 10 nationally in carries in 2011.

The Big Ten has had at least one player rank in the top 10 in carries in eight of the past nine seasons. Michigan State's Javon Ringer led the nation with 390 totes in 2008, and Wisconsin's Brian Calhoun topped the chart with 348 in 2005.

The league's continued emphasis on the run game and power football contributes to the trend. You see more big, burly ball-carriers in the Big Ten than other leagues.

Bell, who played last season at about 240 pounds, certainly fits the description. The 6-foot, 236-pound Weisman came to Iowa as a fullback and has the frame to take a pounding.

"It takes a special guy to run the ball 390 times, like Le'Veon did," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. "You can do it game to game 25 times, but that guy's got to get hot. They're plenty durable enough to do that."

Ferentz has had several bell-cow backs at Iowa, including Doak Walker Award winner Shonn Greene, who ranked fifth nationally with 307 carries in 2008.

"It's not easy for anybody who's playing a lot of plays," Ferentz said. "They've really got to take care of themselves and they've got to be mentally tough, too, because anybody who's playing college football, most of them are sore by now."

Ferentz credits Weisman for staying in "phenomenal shape," but he also doesn't want to overwork the junior.

"It's really important that we utilize the whole group and really bring them along," Ferentz said, "so Mark can be at his best the whole season."

We're counting down our Top 25 Big Ten players for the 2013 season. This list is based on past performance and potential for the upcoming season only. We do not consider NFL potential for purposes of these rankings.

The next man in the rundown stepped in for "Superman" in 2012 and delivered some heroics of his own ...

No. 13: Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska, junior, 5-foot-9, 190 pounds

2012 postseason ranking: No. 20

2012 numbers: Carried 226 times for 1,137 rush yards with eight touchdowns; 24 receptions for 178 yards and two touchdowns; 17 kick returns for 360 yards; 16 punt returns for 209 yards and a touchdown (81 yards)

Why he's here: Quarterback Taylor Martinez's development might have been the biggest reason for Nebraska's offensive surge in 2012, but Abdullah's emergence in the backfield also played a significant role. The Huskers expected to ride Rex Burkhead like they had in 2011, but Burkhead missed most of the season with knee problems. Abdullah had been primarily a returner in 2011 but transitioned well to the featured back role for the Huskers.

The Alabama native recorded six 100-yard performances, averaged at least five yards per carry in eight contests and reached the end zone in seven of Nebraska's first nine games. He continued to be a threat in the return game and finished fourth in the Big Ten and 31st nationally in all-purpose yards (134.6 per game). Abdullah earned second-team All-Big Ten honors from the league's coaches.

The junior once again joins Martinez as Nebraska is one of just two FBS teams to return two 1,000-yard rushers from last season. He enters the fall as the team's clear-cut No. 1 back and will need to take on a heavy carries load as the Huskers lack depth at running back. "I'm hungry, just as hungry as I was my freshman year, and I'm anxious to prove things that I feel I need to prove," Abdullah told the Associated Press.

Abdullah's production slowed a bit toward the end of 2012 as Nebraska faced better competition, so it will be interesting to see how her performs in November, as the Huskers begin their defining stretch against Northwestern, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State.

The Countdown

No. 25: Jonathan Brown, LB, Illinois
No. 24: Mark Weisman, RB, Iowa
No. 23: James White, RB, Wisconsin
No. 22: Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin
No. 21: John Urschel, G, Penn State
No. 20: Tyler Scott, DE, Northwestern
No. 19: Jack Mewhort, OT, Ohio State
No. 18: Deion Barnes, DE, Penn State
No. 17: Kenny Bell, WR, Nebraska
No. 16: Jared Abbrederis, WR, Wisconsin
No. 15: Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
No. 14: Kain Colter, QB, Northwestern
The injury bug bites some teams more than others in certain seasons, and Big Ten squads like Michigan State and Minnesota had a hard time avoiding it in the 2012 campaign.

The Spartans and Gophers had more starters miss games than any of their Big Ten brethren, according to Phil Steele, who recently examined the starts lost for each FBS team last season. Steele looked at offensive starts lost, defensive starts lost, total starts lost and percentage of total starts lost to injury.

No Big Ten team finished among the top 15 nationally in total starts lost, but three squads finished in the top 30 (Michigan State, Minnesota and Michigan).

Here's a look:

Michigan State: 28 starts lost (27 offense, 1 defense); 9.79 percent of total starts
Minnesota: 26 starts lost (22 offense, 4 defense); 9.09 percent of total starts
Michigan: 23 starts lost (8 offense, 15 defense); 8.04 percent of total starts
Indiana: 22 starts lost (16 offense, 6 defense); 8.33 percent of total starts
Illinois: 21 starts lost (7 offense, 14 defense); 7.95 percent of total starts
Wisconsin: 19 starts lost (9 offense, 10 defense); 6.17 percent of total starts
Iowa: 18 starts lost (16 offense, 2 defense); 6.82 percent of total starts
Ohio State: 14 starts lost (3 offense, 11 defense); 5.3 percent of total starts
Penn State: 14 starts lost (10 offense, 4 defense); 5.3 percent of total starts
Nebraska: 12 starts lost (9 offense, 3 defense); 3.9 percent of total starts
Purdue: 8 starts lost (3 offense, 5 defense); 2.8 percent of total starts
Northwestern: 5 starts lost (2 offense, 3 defense); 1.75 percent of total starts

There's no doubt injuries hurt both Michigan State and Minnesota in 2012, especially on offense, as both teams were banged up along the line for most of the season. You have to wonder how much the injuries hurt Michigan State, which dropped five Big Ten games by a total of 13 points.

It's important to note that chunks of the total starts lost totals can be attributed to one player missing much of the season, like Michigan CB Blake Countess tearing his ACL in the opener, Indiana QB Tre Roberson suffering a season-ending injury in Week 2 or Nebraska RB Rex Burkhead missing six games with recurring knee problems.

Most teams had an imbalance in offensive and defensive starters lost. Like Michigan State and Minnesota, Iowa lost multiple starting offensive linemen to injury. Michigan, Illinois and Ohio State, meanwhile, were hit a lot harder on defense.

Northwestern's strong health certainly contributed to the Wildcats' 10-win season, although the loss of cornerback Nick VanHoose to injury late in the year loomed large in close losses to Nebraska and Michigan. Not surprisingly, Steele's research shows teams that lost six or fewer starts to injury had a tough time improving the following season.

Injuries are tough to predict and vary year to year, but Michigan State and Minnesota are hoping for better fortunes in 2013.

Big Ten lunchtime links

May, 31, 2013
Big Friday night plans. I'm going to go see E. Gordon Gee at The Improv ...
What a month for Jack Hoffman.

[+] EnlargeJack Hoffman and President Obama
Official White House Photo by Pete SouzaBarack Obama greets Jack Hoffman who gained national attention after scoring a TD in Nebraska's spring game. Hoffman is battling pediatric brain cancer.
The 7-year-old cancer patient and Nebraska Cornhusker super fan began April by providing the coolest/most inspirational/most memorable play of a spring game in college football history, when he ran 69 yards for a touchdown in the Red-White Game at Memorial Stadium. Hoffman's run quickly became the top play on "SportsCenter" and gained attention far beyond the sporting world. His incredible story of enduring two surgeries for a brain tumor, already known by many Nebraska fans, quickly spread around the country.

Hoffman's April ended with a visit to the White House, where he met President Obama.

"I thought it was awesome," Hoffman told the Associated Press.

He went to Washington with his parents and former Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead, Hoffman's favorite player. Hoffman wore Burkhead's No. 22 jersey in the Oval Office.

Obama and Nebraska Sen. Deb Fischer had been talking about Hoffman after the President watched Hoffman's run during the spring game. Obama told Fischer that Hoffman should come visit at the White House.

From the AP:
Jack met first with Obama, and then he introduced the president to parents Andy and Bri, little sisters Ava and Reese, and Burkhead. Obama spoke briefly to Burkhead about his NFL prospects and thanked him for all he has done for Jack. The Hoffmans, in turn, thanked Obama for meeting with them.

"It was just such a great opportunity for us to visit him and raise national awareness for pediatric brain cancer," Andy said. "He talked about his commitment to research and science."

It looks like #TeamJack has another new member, a very famous one.

The Hoffmans are scheduled to return home today. The calendar flips to May on Wednesday. For little Jack, it'll be tough to top April.

Big Ten lunchtime links

April, 29, 2013
So if the Big Ten East is the "Big Boy Division," does that make the West the "Andre 3000 Division?"
Travis FrederickMike McGinnis/Getty ImagesAs the 31st pick, Travis Frederick was the first Big Ten player to be drafted.
The gap between the Big Ten and the SEC not only is widening on the field, but on the NFL draft boards.

While the SEC produced a record 63 picks in the 2013 NFL draft -- eight more than any conference in any draft in the modern era and 32 more than the next-best conference (ACC) in this year's draft -- the Big Ten endured a mostly forgettable three days at New York's Radio City Music Hall. Before going any further, this post isn't meant to knock the Big Ten players who heard their names called Thursday, Friday and Saturday. They worked years for this moment and deserve to celebrate their accomplishments. Congrats to all.

But for the Big Ten as a whole, this draft was a total dud. Was it the league's worst draft ever? If it isn't, it's certainly in the conversation.

The Big Ten produced only 22 draft picks, its lowest total since 1994, when it had 21 (and 11 teams, not 12). In 1994, the Big Ten had the No. 1 overall pick (Ohio State DT Dan Wilkinson), four first-round selections and eight selections in the first three rounds.

You have to wonder how much the Big Ten's damaged national reputation is impacting its draft hopefuls. The SEC's rise has made that conference the first place NFL general managers and player personnel directors look for talent. Although Big Ten players might be comparable to their SEC counterparts in many ways, their competition level might be looked at as a drawback in the final evaluations.

This year, the Big Ten tied with the Big 12 for fourth among leagues in producing picks, but the Big Ten produced fewer selections in the first three rounds (7) than any of the power conferences. Last year, the Big Ten finished with 41 draft picks, just one behind the SEC for the top spot.

Other items of note (tip of the cap to ESPN Stats & Information and the Plain Dealer's Doug Lesmerises for several of these):

  • [+] EnlargeLe'Veon Bell
    Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesMichigan State's Le'Veon Bell was the second running back taken in the draft.
    Although the Big Ten's national reputation has been an issue for some time, it didn't dramatically impact the draft until this year. The Big Ten has produced at least 27 draft picks every year since the 21-player output in 1994.
  • The Big Ten's four biggest brand-name programs -- Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Nebraska -- combined to produce just two picks in the first three rounds (Ohio State DT Johnathan Hankins and Penn State DT Jordan Hill).
  • Nebraska endured its longest drought without a selection since 1970, as running back Rex Burkhead waited until the sixth round to hear Cincinnati call his name with the 190th overall pick. The Huskers didn't have a selection in the first four rounds for the third time in the past six seasons. With just two draftees -- Burkhead and safety Daimion Stafford, who went in the seventh round -- Nebraska had its weakest output since 1969.
  • Michigan went without a draftee in the first four rounds for the first time since 1968 and without one in the first three rounds for just the fifth time since 1970 (1976, 1989, 2006 and 2009 were the others). The Wolverines have had just five players drafted in the past two seasons.
  • Ohio State had just three players -- Hankins, defensive lineman John Simon and offensive tackle Reid Fragel -- drafted from a team that went 12-0 in 2012. Fragel's selection in the seventh round helped Ohio State avoid its smallest draft class since 1968.
  • An Illinois team that went 2-10 last season and 0-8 in Big Ten play led the league with four players drafted. It continues a mystifying trend for the Illini, who have had four players selected in each of the past four NFL drafts, even though the team has endured losing seasons in three of the past five years. Illinois has produced 10 players selected in the first three rounds since 2010, the most of any Big Ten team.
  • As expected, three Big Ten teams -- Northwestern, Minnesota and Indiana -- had no players drafted. Northwestern went 10-3 last season.

Perhaps the best draft news for the Big Ten is that future member Rutgers had seven players selected, tied for the sixth highest total.

(Read full post)

Big Ten Thursday mailbag

April, 25, 2013
Answering some of your emails before it gets all drafty in here:

Dash from Tucumcari, N.M., writes: "It's out of my control, but I wasn't happy with it," Steven Bench said. "I'm a competitor, so I'm not going to agree with that decision. But, at the same time, it's his decision and it's out of my control. I feel that it kind of left me no choice. I don't want to back anyone up. I want to play. I came here to play football." Comment: What? You can't have it both ways. If you are a "competitor," than being number two in a close race should tell you that you can win the job in fall camp and/or be the guy ready to step in and take it should something happen to the guy above you. I am a college football fan, not a Penn State fan and I say to him: Good riddance. Penn State fans should be rejoicing to hear that a non-competitive athlete who therefore, is likely to crumble when everything isn't perfect, has opted to transfer. That's my two cents from the peanut gallery...

Brian Bennett: Dash, I agree that Bench's transfer was jarring, and it's odd to see a guy who was supposedly so close in the competition transfer before duking it out in fall camp. However, we don't know exactly what coach Bill O'Brien told Bench about his status. According to this report, Bench was told he would not receive any more first-team reps in practice, which suggests that he might have fallen behind both Tyler Ferguson and incoming recruit Christian Hackenberg. Remember that Bench is a only sophomore, and he can transfer and be eligible right away at another school. Going somewhere else, probably a program smaller to Penn State, and being able to potentially start for three years as opposed to being the No. 3 quarterback does make sense for him. You've got to respect O'Brien's honesty if he indeed told Bench exactly where he stood, but that honesty cost the Lions some depth at quarterback.

Dan from East Lansing writes: The one thing I don't understand with aligning MSU in the East and IU in the west is that the majority of MSU's alumni outside of MI is located in Chicago and the majority of the IU alumni are in DC outside of IN. IU actually played a home game vs PSU in DC b/c of this. Common sense tells me switch these 2 teams and it makes the divisions more fair and it gives each alumni base more chances to see their team. Thoughts?

Brian Bennett: Hey, I'm with you, as I've been arguing that Michigan State should have gone to the West for competitive balance reasons. But I think the Michigan-Michigan State factor was much bigger for the league than alumni bases or evening out the competition. It seems clear that the Big Ten wanted to keep those schools in the same division to avoid needing a permanent crossover to preserve that rivalry. I'm also interested in seeing how the division alignment affects recruiting, because it's no secret that there are more prospects in the eastern part of the league than in the West. That's good news for Michigan State, but how about for a team like Purdue, which will be playing the majority of its games in the Central Time Zone? That's something to monitor.

Hayden B. from Lavista, Neb.: Hey Brian, I've been thinking about underrated B1G players in this draft more and more as the draft gets closer. Who do you think are some B1G players that could be grabbed in the last round that are not expected to be drafted or expected to drop to the last round? I see a couple players like Eric Martin (a remarkable hitter), Kyler Reed (A speedy, great handed TE), Micah Hyde (possibly the most underrated DB in this draft), or any other low rated B1G players. Who do you see dropping or sneaking into the draft?

Brian Bennett: Well, it sure looks like just about all Big Ten players are lowly rated coming into the draft. If we're talking about guys not getting much buzz right now, I'd start with Rex Burkhead, who in our latest mock draft was not even projected to be selected. That's just silly. I also think Minnesota's MarQueis Gray is a good enough athlete to make an impact, possibly at tight end. Some other names I'd include are Wisconsin linebacker Mike Taylor, Penn State center Matt Stankiewitch and Hyde. This could be one of the worst drafts in history for the Big Ten in terms of number of selections and high-round picks. But what's more important is how many guys get to the league and actually do something there.

Joe from Dayton, Ohio, writes: Will Riley Bullough start at RB for the Spartans this year?

Brian Bennett: Bullough's story -- going from linebacker to running back late in spring practice, and suddenly becoming the top option -- is really interesting. It also says a lot about the state of Michigan State's running backs. Mark Dantonio has said all along that three freshmen coming in -- Delton Williams, R.J. Shelton and Gerald Holmes -- would all be given long looks this summer. My bet is that one of them ends up leading the team in rushing. If nothing else, Bullough has shown he can play the position and add a strong power element to the backfield. If none of the freshmen are ready early, Bullough could wind up starting, though I see him more as a complementary player.

Mark F. from Surprise, Ariz., writes: Brian, how do you see Iowa's new offense this year? I'm hyped up on it for few reasons. One, Vandenberg wont be missed. Ruduck or Sokol can fill his shoes and can't be anymore ineffective in the passing game. Two, Weisman and Bullock are gonna be on the field at the same time. With Bullock spending time in the y-back position and Weisman's abilities, do you see that opening up the entire passing game? And last, with an experienced and healthy offensive line back, does that increase every other aspect? I think with Weisman, Bullock, and a healthy offensive line, the receivers and quarterback will be much more productive. With that and Iowa's experienced defense, I think Iowa wins 9 games.

Brian Bennett: Mark, it's good to hear from a Hawkeyes fan who's bullish on the 2013 team, because I haven't heard from many of those this offseason. In talking with Greg Davis yesterday, it was clear that he's really excited about two things: the offensive line, which will be deep and experienced, and the running game. As he mentioned, having Damon Bullock and Mark Weisman healthy and together (knock on wood) allows for so many different looks in the running game, and when you combine that with some no-huddle, Iowa should be able to get some favorable matchups, like Bullock in the slot facing a linebacker. The goal is to run the ball so well that it opens up things in the play-action pass game.

My biggest concern, other than the inexperience at quarterback, is the playmaking ability at receiver. Iowa's wideouts did not show an ability to get separation or make plays after the catch last year, so I wonder whether they'll be good enough to actually implement a more vertical passing game, even off play-action. Still, I do think the Hawkeyes' offense has to get better than what we saw toward the end of last year, when the offensive line was in rough shape because of injuries. I'm not so optimistic to predict nine wins, especially with a pretty tough schedule that includes Wisconsin and Ohio State as crossover opponents.

Shocked from Rochester, Minn., writes: Wisconsin has won the last three conference championships (granted there's an asterisk on 1), look to have another talented team in 2013, and have continued to play at a high level after enduring major coaching changes, so what gives with the contender/pretender voting? As I'm writing this, 53% of about 1,000 people have voted WI to be a pretender (a percentage that's sure to be higher after disregarding Badgers fans' votes). Is it the perception that WI can't compete with OSU in their division, are there a lot of haters voting, any other ideas?

Brian Bennett: At last check, Wisconsin finished the polling as a pretender. That is surprising, for the reasons you mentioned. The Ohio State obstacle is a legitimate concern, as is the coaching transition. But if I had to guess, I'd say the voting mostly reflects the fact that a lot of other teams' fans just don't like Wisconsin. It happens when you win a lot.

Ryan from Johnstown, Ohio, writes: Brian, does college football really need three SEC vs Big Ten bowl games in the state of Florida? Personally, I'd like to see some more variety. I say that between the Capital One Bowl, Gator Bowl, Outback Bowl, and Russell Athletic Bowl they change the tie ins to create the following match ups: SEC vs Big Ten, SEC vs ACC, ACC vs Big TenS, EC vs Big 12. And then have the Big 12 give the Big 10 the Holiday Bowl (against the Pac 12) in exchange for letting them into Florida during bowl season.

Brian Bennett: The three SEC matchups in Florida are a bit much, but I still like those better than having two games in Texas. Personally, I always like it when the Big Ten goes against the SEC. Anyway, the entire bowl structure is about to undergo an overhaul. Conference commissioners have discussed adding more flexibility to the system, where there can be more choice in deciding the best matchups and more variety in the destinations and opponents. Ideally, the Big Ten would have access to several bowls in Florida, Texas, Arizona and California and at least one on the East Coast. Then it could mix and match to find the best slots and avoid situations like Iowa and Nebraska going to the same bowl two straight years. Let's hope.

James from Michigan writes: With Michigan going only 8-5 last season I have heard a lot of Wolverine fans using the talent level as a scapegoat. Normally as a State fan I assume Michigan fans are just looking for excuses, however after looking at Michigan's 2013 NFL draft prospects I really only see Denard [Robinson] getting selected. Furthermore, I don't see anyone outside of Taylor Lewan getting drafted in 2014. Is there actually some truth to the "cupboard is bare" plea? Particularly on defense?

Brian Bennett: While Michigan's 8-5 record last year had a lot to do with the schedule, top-level talent has certainly been an issue of late. The Wolverines will now have gone three straight years without producing a first-round draft pick, and this could be one the program's most fallow drafts ever. Michigan State has had much more NFL talent, especially on defense, the past couple years. You have to go back to the failed Rich Rodriguez tenure as an explanation. Not only did Rodriguez recruit a different type of player for his spread offense, but there was the typical attrition you see in major coaching changes. As Kyle Meinke points out in this piece, 35 out of 73 players from the 2008, 2009 and 2010 recruiting classes did not finish their careers at Michigan. The good news is that the Wolverines under Brady Hoke are bringing in some elite talent on the recruiting trail, and while you can never guarantee that a great high school player will make it to the NFL, it sure increases the odds. And Hoke is recruiting players for a pro-style system. At the very least, Lewan will break the first-round drought next April.

Big Ten lunchtime links

April, 24, 2013
In honor of "College Football Playoff," I'm calling this intro line "Lunchtime Links Intro Line."

Big Ten lunch links

April, 23, 2013
Happy college football playoff naming day.
Unless you've been living in a world without ESPN, the Internet or sports talk radio, you're well aware that the NFL draft begins Thursday night.

What will the weekend hold for Big Ten products? Who will be the top pick from the league? Which players should be garnering more buzz? Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett try to answer those questions and more in this blog debate:

Brian Bennett: Adam, another NFL draft is nearly upon us. What better way to spend 96 hours of a spring weekend than listening to analysts describe a player's upside? At least we won't have to read any more 2013 mock drafts after Thursday afternoon.

But let's get down to Big Ten business. According to our colleagues with the good hair -- Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay -- the league very well might not produce a first-round pick for the first time since the AFL-NFL merger. Last year, the first Big Ten player taken was all the way down at No. 23. What's going on here? Is there that big of a talent shortage in the conference, or is this just a blip? And do you think any Big Ten players hear their names called on Thursday night?

[+] EnlargeKawann Short
AP Photo/Michael ConroyKawann Short's versatility could make him too attractive for NFL teams to pass up in the draft's first round.
Adam Rittenberg: I think we can match them follicle for follicle, don't you? The Big Ten's draft downturn has been a trend for a number of years. First, the league was falling out of the top 10 consistently. Then, it started to only see selections in the final 10-12 picks. Now it might fall out of the first round entirely. So, yes, there is a talent shortage at the very highest levels and especially at certain positions. The three we've written about most often are quarterback (last first round pick: Kerry Collins), cornerback and wide receiver. I still think the Big Ten produces a wealth of great linemen on both sides of the ball, as well as its share of quality running backs. But the running back position isn't valued nearly as high in the first round as cornerback and quarterback.

I thought the Big Ten still would have a first-round pick even after Michigan LT Taylor Lewan announced he would return in 2012. But now I'm not so sure. Ohio State DT Johnathan Hankins and Purdue DT Kawann Short both could hear their names called, but it's far from a guarantee.

What do you think this year's draft says about the state of the Big Ten?

Brian Bennett: I think you hit on several of the reasons, and I'd add in the population and demographic shifts as another. Of course, if Lewan came out as expected, he'd probably be a top-15 pick. And if the NFL were to do last year's draft over, I'm pretty sure Russell Wilson would go in the first round, right?

Still, the downturn in top-level NFL talent, at least from a draft perspective, has to trouble the conference and offers a possible explanation as to why the Big Ten has struggled on the big stage of late. I believe that the way Urban Meyer and Brady Hoke are recruiting will mean more elite players will be entering the pros in the near future, but we shall see.

Let's talk about this year's prospects. Who do you think will be the first Big Ten player selected this weekend? And which Big Ten product do you think should be the first one taken?

Adam Rittenberg: As much as I'd love to see Wisconsin RB Montee Ball work his way into the first round, I think the first pick will be either Short or Hankins. Both are potentially great NFL defensive linemen, but I think Short has a little more versatility to his game and can be an effective pass-rusher in addition to his run-stuffing duties. Short wasn't healthy for a chunk of last season, which led to some erratic play, but he has the ability to dominate inside. So does Hankins, but he's more of a space-eater than a difference-maker on the pass rush. I think Short should be the first Big Ten player taken, and I think he will be.

You mention Wilson, who was arguably the biggest steal of the 2012 draft. Which Big Ten player will fill that role this year? Who are the value picks out there from the league?

Brian Bennett: Wilson slipped in last year's draft because of concerns over his height. And I think there may be a similar thing going on with Ohio State's John Simon. He's viewed as a tweener because he's only 6-foot-1, but there's no questioning Simon's motor, heart or leadership. As long as he can stay healthy, he'll be a productive player for a long time in the NFL.

Penn State's Jordan Hill is another guy who's shorter than the prototype for a defensive lineman but who also makes up for it with his performance and drive. I also believe Nebraska's Rex Burkhead is being undervalued, though running backs aren't the commodities they once were at the next level. A knee injury hurt Burkhead's stock, but he showed at the combine what kind of athlete he is. And I think Michigan State cornerback Johnny Adams, who was looked at as a first-round draft pick not that long ago, could be had at a good price this weekend.

Which players do you think are being undervalued? And what do you see as the draft fate for Michigan's Denard Robinson?

[+] EnlargeBurkhead
Andrew Weber/US PresswireRex Burkhead showed during pre-draft workouts that he's recovered from a 2012 knee injury.
Adam Rittenberg: You bring up some really interesting names, BB, especially Burkhead, who, if healthy and in the right system, could be a very valuable NFL player. Simon is another guy who needs to be in the right system and must overcome measurables that aren't ideal for the NFL at defensive end or outside linebacker. I wouldn't forget the group of Illinois defensive linemen -- Michael Buchanan, Akeem Spence and Glenn Foster, who wowed the scouts during pro day in Champaign. It's easy to dismiss them because they played on a terrible team, but all three have been on the NFL radar for some time -- especially Spence and Buchanan -- and have the talent to succeed at the pro level.

Ohio State tackle Reid Fragel is another guy who could be a great value, although his stock seems to be rising quickly. He started his career as a tight end but really thrived last year at the tackle spot.

Robinson will be one of the weekend's top story lines. He's clearly a work in progress as a receiver, but you can't teach that speed and explosiveness. Robinson is a risk-reward guy, but I'd be surprised if he's still on the board midway through the third round.

The Big Ten sends a fairly small contingent of underclassmen to this year's draft. How do you think those players pan out?

Brian Bennett: Michigan State has three of 'em in Le'Veon Bell, Dion Sims and William Gholston. I think there's a chance that some team reaches for Bell in the first round, and he's got the body to be a very good NFL running back for a long time. Sims also presents an intriguing option for teams, especially with the increased use of tight ends in the pro passing game. Despite Gholston's impressive physical traits, he didn't test that well in Indianapolis and had a questionable motor in college. Teams could shy away from him.

You mentioned Spence from Illinois, a guy whose stock seemed to climb as he showed some great strength in workouts. Hankins will be a second-rounder at worst. Then there's Wisconsin center Travis Frederick, who posted a slow sprint time at the combine. But how many times do centers need to sprint? I still think he'll be a good player, and one who shouldn't fall past the second round.

This is getting to be as long as the draft itself, so we should probably start wrapping things up. Any final thoughts on the Big Ten's outlook this weekend?

Adam Rittenberg: The big story lines for me, other than whether the Big Ten has a player drafted in the first round, are where running backs like Ball, Bell and Burkhead land, the Denard Watch, how the underclassmen fare and where the potential sleepers we outlined above end up. This won't be a transformative draft for the Big Ten because it lacks elite prospects at the positions we mentioned earlier, especially cornerback and quarterback. But there are always a few surprises along the way. As a Chicago Bears fan, I'm always interested to see if a Big Ten player ends up at Halas Hall.

What Big Ten story lines intrigue you heading into the draft?

Brian Bennett: You mentioned most of the big ones. I'll also be interested to see if any team takes a chance on Penn State's Michael Mauti and whether Iowa's James Vandenberg gets drafted after a disappointing senior year. I predict the Big Ten keeps its first-round streak alive -- barely -- and that Robinson stays in Michigan when the Detroit Lions draft him in the fourth round.

And then we can all put the 2013 NFL draft to bed -- and start studying those 2014 mock drafts.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

April, 19, 2013
We'll recap the Michigan State, Penn State and Wisconsin spring games on Monday. Wishing you a happy and safe weekend. After this week, we need it.

To the emails ...

Andrew from Fremont, Ind., writes: Adam you went to Purdue this spring and after seeing my beloved Boilers my question is: Is 2013 the year the Shillelagh returns to its rightful place in West Lafayette? I realize Notre Dame is coming off a flop in the BCS National Championship, but Purdue put the fear of God in to the Irish last year before falling 17-20. One thing Coach Hope was noted for was playing up the supposedly much better teams, and I really think one criteria for a first successful season for Hazzell could be a win over Notre Dame.

Adam Rittenberg: Andrew, you're right that Purdue and Notre Dame played a very competitive game last year, and the Boilers benefit from getting the Irish at Ross-Ade this fall. But Notre Dame likely will be a heavy favorite, and if Purdue has any hope of the upset, it needs a flawless performance along the line of scrimmage. Notre Dame appears to have a significant edge up front, especially with its defensive line, led by Louis Nix III and Stephon Tuitt. Purdue's offensive line must be able to match that. The Irish also could be improved offensively this season as quarterback Everett Golson and others boast more experience. From watching Purdue practice, I saw a lot of speed on the field, but size-wise, the Boilers are lacking a bit.

Spencer from Columbus, Ohio, writes: That's great about Sparty's D, but what about their O? All of us here in Columbus can't believe they hired Jim Bollman as the OC!!!! We are moving forward at the speed of light with Urban and Tom Herman and Sparty took a step back to the stone age!

Adam Rittenberg: There's a multitude of questions surrounding Michigan State's offense, and the coordinator changes are among them. While Bollman's hiring was greeted mostly with skepticism, it's important to note that Dave Warner will call the offensive plays. It's fair to ask whether Michigan State has modernized its offense enough, and we'll learn more this fall, but few complained about the Spartans' offensive structure in 2011, when the team won the Legends division and the Outback Bowl. I wouldn't expect that structure to change much under Warner, who worked under Dan Roushar and has been on the staff for years. But Michigan State's coaches also are stressing the quarterback run more, and the need for quarterbacks to improvise when plays break down rather than always waiting for plays to develop. Offensive creativity is a must in today's college football, and Michigan State needs to move more in that direction.

Adam from Chicago writes: Hey adam,I have a question about the three person qb race at iu. I know many believe Tre Roberson is the frontrunner and the best option because of his dual threat ability to run and pass, but I feel that his passing ability is far behind sudfeld's and coffman's. With indiana's up tempo offense and their success last year offensively, I feel that coffman or sudfeld are the better options. your thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Adam, you make a good point about the nature of Indiana's offense, and I'll add to it by pointing out the Hoosiers' strength at wide receiver. IU might have the league's top receiving corps this fall with Cody Latimer, Shane Wynn, Kofi Hughes and others. You want to maximize that threat in the offense. Roberson told me this spring that he's still a bit rusty with all the time off and is still looking to find the rhythm as a passer. Remember, Roberson passed the ball well in the season opener last season (26-for-36, 280 yards, TD) after an inconsistent freshman season. The coaches think Roberson can effectively run the offense as a dual-threat quarterback, but if Sudfeld or Coffman separates himself as a passer, I doubt they'll hesitate to use them instead. Sudfeld really seemed to take step forward this spring, and both he and Coffman passed the ball well in the spring game. Kevin Wilson places a premium on completion percentage in his offense.

"Right now, if you had completed 63 percent of your balls last year, you would have been 60th in the country," Wilson told me last summer. "I remember [the target] was 58 percent when I was at [North] Carolina in the '80s, and that would have been in the bottom half of college football. It used to be, you thought two out of three [passes completed] was great. Now it's three out of four. That's where the spread has evolved, too."

Bottom line: Indiana's quarterback needs to be accurate, especially with such a strong receiving corps at his disposal. If Roberson can't meet those standards, he won't be the guy.

Ryan from Madison, Wis., writes: Any word on the status of the non-conference series scheduled between Wisconsin and Maryland in 2020 and 2021? Is there a pretty good chance that the games will just be converted into conference games?

Adam Rittenberg: Yes, the games definitely will become league games, and the dates might be changed based on Big Ten schedules, division alignment, etc. A more pressing example of this is the Penn State-Rutgers series in 2014 and 2015. I've been told these games will be league contests -- almost certainly division games, too -- and even though they're scheduled for mid-September, it's unlikely those dates will be changed.

Jason from Northville, Mich., writes: Do you see any Big Ten players high on the watchlists for national awards?

Adam Rittenberg: Jason, I do. Starting with the Heisman Trophy, Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller will enter the season as one of the leading candidates. Other Big Ten players like Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez could work their way into the mix. Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan is one of the top candidates for the Outland Trophy. Other potential award candidates include Penn State receiver Allen Robinson (Biletnikoff), Northwestern running back Venric Mark (Doak Walker), Northwestern kicker Jeff Budzien (Lou Groza), Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby and Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard for the Jim Thorpe Award, and Michigan State linebacker Max Bullough, Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland and Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier for the Butkus Award.

Mike from Papillion, Neb., writes: Why isn't Rex Burkhead getting any love on the draft boards? Even though his knee injury hindered his senior season, I still think he is a solid pick for any team looking for a great player with a variety of skills. He reminds me a lot of Wes Welker, and I think he can be just as successful. He has the work ethic to get a lot better and play for many years if the knee injury doesn't come back.

Adam Rittenberg: The knee problems definitely hurt Rex's stock a bit, but so does the position he plays. NFL teams have become increasingly leery of drafting running backs, even those with no injury history, in the early rounds. Burkhead showed in 2011 that he can handle the load as a featured back, but he doesn't appear to project to the NFL in the same way. His versatility is what truly stands out, and while I don't know whether the Wes Welker comparison jives, Burkhead can help a team in a variety of ways. He'll find a home in the NFL, and I wouldn't be surprised one bit if he has a successful pro career. But it's not a shock that he isn't projected as a high draft pick.

Spring game recap: Nebraska

April, 8, 2013

The first Big Ten 2013 spring game is in the books, as Nebraska concluded its 15-practice session on sunny day in front of more than 60,000 Big Red fans at Memorial Stadium. And we're here to recap it.

You can find coverage of the Huskers' spring game here, here, here and here.

Star of the game: No question about it, 7-year-old Jack Hoffman stole the show. Hoffman, who is battling brain cancer, lined up in the backfield wearing Rex Burkhead's old No. 22, and ran 69 yards for a touchdown as the crowd roared. The entire team celebrated with Hoffman and he finished the day as the game's leading rusher.

The idea was hatched by football operations director Jeff Jamrog and fullback C.J. Zimmerer. Burkhead has been leading a support group for Hoffman and won a service award for his work.

It was a tremendous gesture by Nebraska, and you won't see a better moment in any spring game this year.

"Jack's a young man who's touched the hearts of a lot of people," head coach Bo Pelini said. "Our football team, the student body, people have gotten behind him and he's become a big part of the team. I wasn't sure if he was going to want to do it before we brought the idea to his dad, and I thought it was a pretty special thing."

How it went down: The Red team beat the White team 32-25, with Hoffman's touchdown for the Red finishing the scoring. So what did we learn?

Not a ton. It was a fan-friendly event with several stars either held out of action or playing limited snaps, plus moments like offensive linemen fielding punts. The biggest question going in was how the rebuilt defense would look. Answer: shaky, as expected.

The offense had six scoring drives and piled up 421 yards -- in the first half. We shouldn't be surprised by that, as the Huskers' offense is explosive and full of veterans, while the defense is full of youngsters and still learning. The offense didn't turn the ball over, which is a great sign for a team that struggled with that all last year.

The defense played a little better in the second half and was missing several key players.

"I think our defense has potential to be very good, but it is going to require a lot of hard work between now and [the start of the season]," Pelini said. "There's going to be a tremendous competition to see who is out there on the field come that first game. Who that's going to be, I don't know yet. There's a lot of potential, but like I said, there's a lot of work to do between now and then."

The Huskers also showed that they have some options should something happen to quarterback Taylor Martinez. Redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong lived up to his last name with some nice throws and finished 5-of-7 for 102 yards and a touchdown. Ron Kellogg III also had a strong performance, completing 11 of 12 passes for 148 yards and a score. (Martinez went 8-of-10 for 105 yards).

"Coming out of the spring, I would probably say Tommy was a little bit ahead of Ron," Pelini said. "We have some talent at the quarterback position and some guys that made a lot of progress this spring."

Remember that Nebraska also has to replace valuable kicker Brett Maher, and Mauro Bondi gave reason for optimism by nailing a 50-yard field goal. He also missed a 55-yarder that had enough distance but was wide.

"He still has to work on some consistency things, but he has a big leg," Pelini said.

And the Huskers showed a big heart in letting Hoffman live out a dream.