Big Ten: Rick Schmeig
Four Big Ten centers make this year's spring watch list.
- Travis Jackson, Michigan State, junior
- Corey Linsley, Ohio State, junior
- Cole Pensick, Nebraska, senior
- Brandon Vitabile, Northwestern, junior
All four players started portions of the 2012 season, although Pensick only transitioned to center late in the year. Northwestern's Vitabile is the most experienced of the bunch after starting the first 26 games of his college career.
The Big Ten loses a sizable group of good centers from 2012, headlined by Wisconsin's Travis Frederick, a first-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys in last month's NFL draft. Other key departures include Penn State's Matt Stankiewitch, Iowa's James Ferentz, Nebraska's Justin Jackson, Illinois' Graham Pocic, Michigan's Elliott Mealer, Indiana's Will Matte and Purdue's Rick Schmeig.
Penn State's Stankiewitch was a finalist for last year's award. Michigan's David Molk is the last Big Ten recipient of the Rimington Trophy, taking home the hardware in 2011.
But few players have access to the type of resource Kugler did when he moved from tight end to offensive line last spring, and then from starting guard to starting center for the Boilers. Not every player has a father who coached both offensive line and tight end in the NFL and in college, and now serves as a college head coach.
While Robert Kugler goes through spring drills with Purdue's new coaching staff, Sean Kugler is in the middle of his first spring session as head coach at UTEP, his alma mater (Sean Kugler played line for the Miners and was coached by Andy Reid). Sean was hired in December following six years as an NFL offensive line coach with the Pittsburgh Steelers (2010-12) and the Buffalo Bills (2006-09). He also coached tight ends and offensive line with the Detroit Lions from 2001-05 and coached offensive line at Boise State during the 2006 season.
Robert grew up around the sport and helped out at the NFL training camps where his dad coached -- setting up drills, lugging equipment to and from the field, picking up clothes in the locker room, whatever was needed. He bonded with players like Eric Wood and Geoff Hangartner, who Sean Kugler coached with the Bills, and Steelers linemen Maurkice Pouncey and Doug Legursky. Kugler still talks to some of them to this day.
"Having my dad coach, it made me become a coachable player," Kugler said. "I take pride in that, just doing what my coaches tell me. That experience has helped me out throughout the years."
It paid off when Purdue moved Kugler from tight end to offensive line last spring. While position switches can be unsettling for players, Kugler always knew it was a possibility.
Although he came to Purdue as a tight end, he caught only two passes as a high school senior. Kugler earned Class AAAA Pennsylvania Player of the Year honors from the Associated Press in 2010 primarily because of his blocking skills at tight end and his prowess as a defensive end, where he had seven sacks, an interception and a fumble recovery.
"They told me whatever I was going develop into was what I would end up being, whether it was a tight end or a D-lineman or an O-lineman," Kugler said. "They just felt the way I was developing, it tended more toward O-line, and they switched me there. It was a good switch."
Kugler was willing to make the switch, but his body had to cooperate. He weighed only 245 pounds in the spring of 2012 after redshirting the 2011 season. He added 35 pounds by the time the season kicked off and was listed as the team's backup center on the Week 1 depth chart.
By Week 8, he had worked his way into the starting lineup at right guard and stayed there for the final six games. The graduation of Rick Schmeig opened up the starting center spot, and Kugler has claimed it this spring. He hopes to add 5-10 more pounds of "good weight" before the season.
"Getting that game experience last year made a lot of difference coming into spring ball," he said. "I just have more confidence. I'm not worried about snapping it and blocking. It's all coming together."
The Kugler football tradition isn't limited to Sean and Robert. Patrick Kugler, Robert's younger brother, signed with Michigan in February and will play offensive line for the Wolverines.
RecruitingNation rated Patrick as the No. 3 guard in the 2013 recruiting class and the 101st best overall player.
"Patrick’s probably a lot better than I am, especially coming out of high school," Robert Kugler said. " It seems like every play, he's putting somebody on the ground."
Robert expects Patrick to wear the same number for Michigan (57) that he dons for Purdue. Michigan and Purdue don't play this season, but Robert has two more years of eligibility remaining while Patrick is just getting started.
"I hope we get a chance to play against each other," Robert said. "That'd be the ultimate thing, to hold bragging rights forever. It'd be a big deal."
On Friday, we ranked the top individual players at the position. These unit rankings reflect star power as well as depth. We're heavily weighing these on last year's performance, along with potential for the 2012 season.
Away we go:
1. Wisconsin: Sure, the Badgers lost two All-Americans (Kevin Zeitler and Peter Konz) from last year's line. But they've earned the benefit of the doubt for their ability to reload up front. Left tackle Ricky Wagner is an Outland Trophy candidate, and center Travis Frederick should be one of the best in the Big Ten. The key will be how the new-look right side with Rob Havenstein and likely Robert Burge moving into starting roles.
3. Michigan State: This could be the best offensive line Mark Dantonio has had in East Lansing. Six players who started games last year are back, and there will be depth and competition at several spots. Third-year starter Chris McDonald is one of the league's top guards, while tackles Dan France and Fou Fonoti are dependable.
4. Nebraska: The Cornhuskers lost three starters from last year's line, but much like Wisconsin, this is a group that usually reloads. Guards Spencer Long and Seung Hoon Choi provide nice building blocks, with Tyler Moore, Jeremiah Sirles and Andrew Rodriguez solidifying the tackle spots. The big question here is center and who will replace Mike Caputo.
5. Ohio State: The Buckeyes had their problems up front last year and now are implementing a new offensive system. Urban Meyer wasn't happy with the group's work ethic in January but felt much better about them by the end of spring. Jack Mewhort replaces Mike Adams at left tackle, while Andrew Norwell and Marcus Hall try to live up their potential at guard. Corey Linsley earned Meyer's praise for his work at center. Keep an eye on the right tackle spot, where former tight end Reid Fragel is now the first-stringer. But true freshman Taylor Decker is pushing him.
6. Purdue: Injuries kept the Boilers from building much cohesion this spring, but this can be a sturdy group when healthy. Three starters are back, with Trevor Foy moving from right to left tackle. This is an experienced bunch, but Danny Hope wants to see more dominance. Senior center Rick Schmeig should be a leader
7. Iowa: The Hawkeyes must replace three starters, including NFL draft picks Reilly Reiff and Adam Gettis. But Iowa usually fields good offensive lines, and hopes are high for this year's edition. The leader is center James Ferentz, who now will be coached by his older brother, Brian Ferentz. Much will depend on how players like Brett Van Sloten and Brandon Scherff develop.
8. Northwestern: The Wildcats lost two valuable starters in tackle Al Netter and Ben Burkett but return three-year starter Brian Mulroe at guard and promising sophomore center Brandon Vitabile. There should be good depth up front, but can the Wildcats generate a consistent rushing attack?
9. Penn State: The good news is that the Nittany Lions played better than expected last year on the offensive line. The bad news is four starters are gone, not to mention some potential transfers in the wake of the NCAA sanctions. There is still talent here, including guard John Urschel and tackle Donovan Smith. But the least experienced line in the league will have to learn a new offensive system.
10. Illinois: There was little excuse for the Illini O-line to play as bad as it did last year with standout players Jeff Allen and Graham Pocic in the mix. Pocic is back this year at center, though he might take some snaps at tackle as well. Young players like sophomore Simon Cvijanovic and redshirt freshman Ted Karras will need to come on. This unit should be improved, but it ranks low based on last year's finish.
11. Minnesota: Jerry Kill shuffled this group last year and played a lot of youngsters. It's still a relatively inexperienced unit, but there is hope for improvement. Junior left tackle Ed Olson has the best chance to be a star.
12. Indiana: Center Will Matte is one of the most experienced linemen in the league. But beyond him are several young players, including three true sophomores who started as freshmen last year. There's nowhere to go but up.
2011 conference record: 4-4 (third place, Leaders Division) Returning starters: Offense: 9; Defense: 9; kicker/punter: 1
DT Kawann Short, CB Ricardo Allen, QB Caleb TerBush, QB Robert Marve, QB Rob Henry, RB Akeem Shavers, RB Ralph Bolden, DE Ryan Russell, WR Antavian Edison, DT Bruce Gaston, OT Trevor Foy
LB Joe Holland, S Albert Evans, LT Dennis Kelly, OG Nick Mondek, WR Justin Siller, K Carson Wiggs
2011 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Ralph Bolden* (674 yards)
Passing: Caleb TerBush (1,905 yards)
Receiving: Antavian Edison* (584 yards) Tackles: Joe Holland (94) Sacks: Kawann Short* (6.5) Interceptions: Ricardo Allen* (3)
1. Healthy QBs: After two years of dealing with injuries and inexperienced signalcallers, Danny Hope finally had enviable depth at the position this spring. With Robert Marve healthy, last season's starter Caleb TerBush a year wiser, and Rob Henry on the mend from a torn ACL, Purdue has three former starters at quarterback. Hope said the depth made for much improved offensive execution this spring, which should carry over into the fall. Now he just has to figure out whom to play and when, as it's likely more than one will see the field in the same game.
2. Defensive front and back set: The Boilermakers have a chance to be very good up front defensively, and it all starts with defensive tackle Kawann Short. He passed up the NFL draft, and could work his way into first-round status with a big senior season. Bruce Gaston returns along side him in the middle, and sophomore defensive end Ryan Russell looks like a future star after coming on strong at the end of last season. The secondary is also in great shape, with returning cornerbacks Ricardo Allen and Josh Johnson possibly forming the best tandem in the league, according to Hope. Nickel back Normondo Harris had a big spring game, and Max Charlot returns at safety. Purdue should have the ability to generate a pass-rush and defend the ball in the air.
3. More confidence: There's little doubt that there's more confidence in the air around West Lafayette. That comes from the team making -- and winning -- its first bowl game under Hope last season, and returning 18 offensive and defensive starters. This is Hope's deepest team, and it should be his best. Some are picking Purdue as a potential Big Ten sleeper, and the players believe that talk is justified.
1. Linebacker Who? While the defense looks stout up front and in the secondary, questions remain at linebacker. Joe Holland, the team's leading tackler a year ago, graduated. Dwayne Beckford missed the bowl game after a DUI arrest, and his status for the fall remains in flux. Will Lucas is the only returning starter guaranteed to suit up in September. There's talk of using some 3-4 looks under new defensive coordinator Tim Tibesar, who implemented his system in practices closed to the media this spring. Does Purdue have enough linebackers to make it work?
2. Offensive line chemistry: The Boilers' offensive line didn't get a lot of hype last season, but it produced two NFL draft picks in Dennis Kelly and Nick Mondek. Trevor Foy is moving from right to left tackle, and Kevin Pamphile and Rick Schmeig worked at multiple positions this spring. Purdue will mix in some new faces and some veterans in new places this fall, and how well that unit comes together will have a large say in how the offense flows.
3. X-factors on offense: Some things we simply don't yet know include the following: Can Ralph Bolden successfully return from knee surgery? If not, is Akeem Shavers a capable every-down back? What will happen to leading receiver Antavian Edison after his arrest on weapons charges this week? Will fellow wideout O.J. Ross make it back from academic suspension? Can kick returning dynamo Raheem Mostert make an impact at receiver? Purdue has a lot more options on offense than in the recent past, but there also remains a lot of question marks.
Did you sense any different attitude this offseason after getting to that bowl game last year?
You have quite a few experienced quarterbacks now, in fact. How are you splitting up the reps for them this spring?
DH: Well, Sean Robinson is playing on defense right now. It's hard to get four quarterbacks ready in spring ball, and he wasn't going to get as many reps as he needed to. So we're going to try him some at the linebacker position. That leaves TerBush and Robert Marve, who's finally healthy. I think Robert did some good things last year, but I think he's in position to take some big steps in his development because this is the first time since he's been here that he's been able to get a lot of reps without concern about an injury or an eligibility situation. Then Rob Henry is back. He's a little bit limited right now because he's coming off knee surgery, but I'm really pleased with where his recovery is, and most of the time when he's out there right now you can't tell much of a difference. But you have to limit his reps a little just because you don't want to overdo it and create a swelling issue. So the numbers are kind of taking care of themselves in some ways. We went into the spring with TerBush as No. 1 and all those other guys are competing.
Your leading rusher, Ralph Bolden, tore his ACL again, but you have two pretty good running backs in Akeem Shavers and Akeem Hunt. How do you feel about the depth at running back this spring?
DH: We had a real strong running attack last year. We were fifth in the Big Ten in rushing. The past couple of years, we've been able to establish a strong running game. I like the progress that we've made and having good running backs is a big part of that, and any more, having a couple of running backs you can play is a big part of it. We had a lot of different guys rush for us last year, probably 10 different guys who were utilized as ball carriers. We really like Akeem Shavers. He's a fast, physical back who finishes runs. Akeem Hunt is an excellent sprinter who's a member of our track team and was a state champion track performer in Georgia. So he's a class sprinter in a lot of ways for a football player.
We've also got a kid we redshirted last year in Doug Gentry, and he's a skilled player. We have Gavin Roberts, who has good size but was injured last year. He's a big back we can utilize in the backfield. Then we've got a couple fullbacks in Derek Jackson, who weighs about 240 pounds, and Kurt Freytag. So we've got some guys still in the stable even though Ralph is out. And we've utilized Antavian Edison and Raheem Mostert some as ball carriers out of their slot position, and both those guys are really skilled players. So we've got some athletes who can tote the mail, and we spread the wealth out around here.
Were you upset about the new kickoff rules because you have such a weapon at kick returner in Raheem Mostert?
DH: Well, we all play by the same rules. You'll have to make decisions about bringing some out, so the return man is going to have to be a good decision-maker. From a kickoff standpoint it might change some things. You can kick them all deep and try to force the touchback if you want to, but you're going to be giving the opponent the ball at the 25. Or you can kick the ball high and deep and try to pin them down and do a great job covering. So there's going to be some game planning and schemes involved. I think it will all even out. ... I don't think it's going to shut down all kick returns, but I think there will be about 25 percent less, is my guess.
- Defense will hold the key to success for Illinois this season. Safety Supo Sanni used basketball to help his rehab from an Achilles tendon injury.
- Indiana linebacker Chad Sherer might miss the season with a knee injury. Kevin Wilson is feeling upbeat about his team (subscription required).
- Iowa has found lots of talent in its own backyard. The Hawkeyes are getting a new, younger look at linebacker.
- Greg Mattison sees improvement in the Michigan defense, but it's not all the way there yet. Al Borges says the offense will be "gunning" more than any he's overseen in 24 years because of Denard Robinson. Physical play in practice has quite a few Wolverines banged up.
- Kirk Cousins is the face of Michigan State's program. Dan France is trying to clean up his mistakes and hold onto the starting left tackle job.
- Minnesota receiver Da'Jon McKnight puts his former hoops skills to good use on the football field. Linebackers Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper should be ready to go for the Gophers' opener at USC.
- Nebraska backup quarterback Brion Carnes is waiting for his time to shine. Junior college transfer Joseph Carter is pushing for playing time at defensive end. True freshman Tyler Moore is battling for a starting job on the Huskers' offensive line.
- Former walk-on Jacob Schmidt has risen to the top of the depth chart at running back for Northwestern.
- Former blue-chip recruit Curtis Grant is experiencing some growing pains but wants to avoid a redshirt this year for Ohio State. Luke Fickell acknowledged a poorly-kept secret: Joe Bauserman and Braxton Miller are his top two quarterbacks. Mike Vrabel appears to be making a successful transition to coaching.
- Joe Paterno is still getting it done in recruiting despite not going to high schools in person. Stephfon Green is back on the Nittany Lions -- at least according to him. Recruit Malik Golden is being ticketed for cornerback.
- Purdue quarterback Caleb TerBush is confident despite his lack of experience. Rick Schmeig is the anchor for the Boilers' offensive line.
For those still unconvinced, Marve offered up an interesting display Friday at his first meeting with reporters this spring. Rather than answer questions by himself, the quarterback chose to be surrounded by members of Purdue's offensive line, a group that will play a huge role in his success or failure in 2010.
The (Lafayette) Journal and Courier's Mike Carmin has a detailed account of the unusual interview session with the Miami transfer, considered the front-runner to win Purdue's starting quarterback job.
When asked about the health of his knee after tearing his ACL last spring, Marve replied like this:
"I tore my ACL. You tore your ACL," Marve said, looking at converted tackle Colton McKey. "My knee feels good. Anybody else have knee problems? The whole offensive line. I'm good, we're all good."
When asked about the quarterback competition this spring, Marve answered:
"Like I said, these boys make it easy," Marve said of the linemen. "As long as Brew's [Andrew Brewer] got it, I got it. As long as [Rick] Schmeig's got it, I got it. Trevor [Foy], the whole nine yards. We're going to have fun. Like I said, we all came to Purdue for a winning season. I feel like we have a great chance to win the Rose Bowl."
There's no mystery to what Marve tried to do Friday: show that he's a team guy and share the spotlight with others, especially players who don't get much of it. Which is fine for now. Head coach Danny Hope seemed to enjoy the approach, saying, "I'm not surprised to see him sharing his first interview with his teammates. That was great."
Sure, it comes across a little forced, and it shouldn't become a habit. But by all accounts, Marve has made a concerted effort to clean up his act at Purdue, and he's succeeding.
A time will come when Marve needs to face the media on his own. That's what all quarterbacks do. And barring a surprise, he'll be the starter in 2010. As Carmin writes, Marve "will likely become the face of the program."
Soon enough, the face must stand alone.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Purdue's first set of spring practices under head coach Danny Hope is in the books, as the Boilermakers finished up Saturday with the Black & Gold game at Ross-Ade Stadium. The offense prevailed 36-29 in a game that featured a modified scoring system.
The spread offense is still very much alive in West Lafayette, but Purdue might not be as much of a pass-oriented team as it was under Joe Tiller. The ground game came along very nicely this spring, and an unlikely sophomore has put himself right in the mix for the starting running back position.
Sophomore Ralph Bolden capped a very impressive spring with 153 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries in the spring game. With Jaycen Taylor still rehabbing from a torn ACL and heralded freshman Al-Terek McBurse awaiting the go-ahead from the NCAA Clearinghouse, Bolden showed impressive skills and durability throughout the spring. He gained 406 rush yards in Purdue's three spring scrimmages.
Though his smallish frame (5-foot-9, 184 pounds) might raise red flags, Bolden should be a big part of Purdue's offensive plan this fall.
"He's probably the fastest kid on our offense," offensive coordinator Gary Nord told The (Lafayette) Journal and Courier. "He was clocked at 10.5 in the 100 meters in high school. We have to find ways to get him the ball."
Dan Dierking added 95 rush yards on 19 attempts as the offense racked up 299 yards on the ground. The passing game didn't exactly struggle, either, putting up 421 yards. Projected starter Joey Elliott had a nice day, completing 20 of 33 passes for 193 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
Other notable items from Purdue's spring game:
- Don't expect the second coming of Dustin Keller this fall, but the tight end position will play a much bigger role at Purdue than it did in 2008. Even without projected starter Kyle Adams, who sustained a minor knee injury, three tight ends (Jeff Lindsay, Jeff Panfil and Crosby Wright) combined to catch 12 passes for 134 yards in the spring game.
- Keith Smith has established himself as Purdue's No. 1 wide receiver and registered game highs in both receptions (8) and receiving yards (99) in the spring game. Smith, who caught a touchdown pass from Elliott, enters the fall as a starter along with Aaron Valentin. Purdue needs another wideout to emerge this summer.
- Oft-injured linebacker Jason Werner recorded an interception in the spring game, a good sign for a Purdue defense that looks a bit thin at linebacker. The Boilers' defense recorded five takeaways in the game, including an interception by safety Logan Link and a fumble recovery by defensive tackle Kawann Short, who also had two pass breakups and a tackle for loss. End Gerald Gooden also stood out with a sack and a fumble recovery.
- Purdue's resurgent run game this spring can be attributed to an improved offensive line, which returns four starters and avoided the injuries that crippled it a year ago.
- Short and backup quarterback Caleb TerBush received Purdue's Newcomer Award for making the most progress in their first round of spring practices. Offensive guard Rick Schmeig and cornerback Charlton Williams received the Most Improved Award.
- Purdue also announced its captains for the 2009 season: Elliott, defensive tackle Mike Neal, Werner, safety Torri Williams and center Jared Zwilling.