Big Ten: Rocco Cironi

Big Ten mailblog

May, 4, 2010
5/04/10
5:30
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As Bill Raftery would say, send it in!

Josh from Minnesota writes: Adam, your blog keeps me going through organic chemistry class. Thanks! So I have an issue with the non-conference schedule's of teams you put ahead of the Gophers in your power rankings last year and this spring. I would love to see the Gophs go 9-3 via blasting Akron, Temple, etc. 63-0 the first few weeks like Iowa and Wisconsin do, but I would much more like to see the Gophers play USC, Cal, UNC, Texas, etc. Can we get some respect for playing quality opponents?!

Adam Rittenberg: It's somewhat unfortunate, Josh, but there's no RPI in college football, and nonconference schedules hardly ever matter for teams. I think it's great what Tim Brewster and Joel Maturi are doing at Minnesota by scheduling teams like USC, Texas and Cal. It's certainly a departure from the Glen Mason era, as Mase scheduled for 7-5 (3-5 Big Ten) seemingly every year. I look at Minnesota's schedule this year -- especially the home slate with USC, Ohio State, Penn State and Iowa -- and think 6-6 or 7-5 would be pretty decent given the competition. But Minnesota fans are sick and tied of 6-6 or 7-5. The bottom line is actually winning those games, which Brewster hasn't done in his tenure. He needs to win trophy games, November games or games against elite nonconference foes like USC. Beefing up the schedule is great, but you only get respect if you win those games.


Kasey from Chicago writes: I noticed you have ILLINOIS ranked at number 10 in your latest power rankings. I have to admit that is a little disheartening for an Illini fan, but does Illinois like it? Illinois has a history of either under-achieving or over-achieving. Like in '03 or '07 when they weren't supposed to make it nearly as far as they did, or in the last two seasons when nearly everybody thought they would at least make it to a bowl game. My question is, do the Illini want to come in the under dog? I think Illinois can possibly lead the Big Ten in rushing yards, and upset one of the big three.

Adam Rittenberg: Illinois certainly is embracing the underdog, Kasey, and there is some history to the Illini doing better when expectations are low. Several Big Ten teams follow this pattern of exceeding expectations when they're low and falling short when they're high. Illinois will have its struggles at quarterback, but as you point out, there's a lot to love about the run game with Mikel LeShoure and Jason Ford. I'm not sold on the defense, but Vic Koenning was a great hire and should have a positive impact.


Mike from New York writes: Hey Adam,I need a little clarification on ND. It sounds like they turned down an offer by the B10 a decade ago, but you wrote that if a school is going to join the B10, it needs to ask to join first, and then the B10 will vote on it. Are these rules different than they were before, or did ND ask to join, get voted in, and then snubbed the B10 at the last minute?

Adam Rittenberg: Mike, you're right in that candidates first must apply for admission to the Big Ten before a vote can take place. But the Big Ten will formally discuss admission with any candidate before letting things get to the application process. Notre Dame ultimately didn't decide to apply, and so no vote was taken. But I'm sure the Big Ten made it clear to the Irish that if they applied, they would be admitted, as long as all parties agreed upon the terms. So Notre Dame turned down an offer to apply, not an offer for admission (because technically, these don't exist).


Matt from Farmington Hills, Mich., writes: Adam, I am trying to figure out where your unequivocal support of Michigan State football comes from. The Spartans finished last season with 6 wins. Among the teams they lost to: Central Michigan, Notre Dame, and Minnesota. No doubt, the team has some solid returners from last season. And, there are some good incoming freshman players who may see the field... but T-4 with Penn State in the BT Power Rankings? Starting the season 4-0? Explain to me how this team is so much different from last year's.

Adam Rittenberg: I realize that buying into Michigan State is a risky proposition, given the Spartans' history. But Michigan State probably loses fewer truly valuable seniors than any team in the Big Ten. Wide receiver Blair White and offensive linemen Joel Nitchman and Rocco Cironi had value, but other than that, I don't see many huge departures. Penn State, on the other hand, loses three valuable linebackers, a first-team All-Big Ten quarterback in Daryll Clark and the Big Ten's co-Defensive Player of the Year in Jared Odrick. Back to the Spartans, they totally shot themselves in the foot against Central Michigan, fell victim to inexperience against Notre Dame and lost one of the most bizarre games I've ever seen at Minnesota. No excuses, but it wasn't like they were torched by those teams. Michigan State has a much more stable situation on offense than Penn State, although the Lions will have a stronger defense. As for starting the season 4-0? Who will beat Michigan State in that stretch? A rebuilding Notre Dame team that must visit East Lansing? I'd be surprised if the Spartans weren't 4-0.


Chris from Arlington, Va., writes: Hey Adam,Love the blog, check it everyday. Could you put a list together of all the Big10 undrafted Free agents? I'm a PSU fan and I'd like to say that I'm casting my vote for [Matt] McGloin right now. I dont' think they need someone to win games for them, just to distribute to the WRs and Royster/Green/Redd(if they don't redshirt him.) I feel that if they can get him under control and not "trust his arm" so much, that he can be solid until Paul Jones or Robert Boldin get their feet under them. As for Newsome, just use him as a wildcat threat...What do you think?

Adam Rittenberg: Chris, I'm still waiting for all the official lists of free-agent signings to come out before posting a master list with Big Ten players. But thanks for reminding me. Penn State certainly could survive with a game manager at quarterback if it can run the ball effectively with Evan Royster and company. I'm not sure McGloin can be that guy and still avoid costly interceptions. He certainly made some questionable throws in the spring game, although that's only one scrimmage. Honestly, I don't think any of us can cast our votes right now. We need to see more from McGloin, Newsome, Jones and maybe even Robert Bolden in fall camp. Let's be patient with that position.


Will from St. Paul, Minn., writes: I understand, do not agree with, but understand why you put the Gopher's at number 9 on your power rankings. I was a little confused with your opening though. Did you mean to say that there is a huge gap between the bottom teams in the conference compared to the middle like the gap between top and middle? If so, you truly believe that Northwestern, Purdue, and Michigan are a clear level above Minnesota, how?

Adam Rittenberg: I think there's a gap, but not a huge one. Minnesota, Illinois and Indiana all have some major question marks on defense, and both the Gophers and Illini are coming off of miserable performances on offense in 2009. Is Michigan way ahead of those teams? No, especially from a defensive standpoint, but the Wolverines will score a lot of points this fall, I'm fairly certain of that. I can't say the same about Minnesota or Illinois. And I have major doubts that Indiana will be able to stop anyone, because the Hoosiers haven't done so for more than a decade. Northwestern is a solid middle-of-the-pack team, and Purdue ended 2009 strong and, despite the injuries, leaves me with fewer questions than Minnesota, Illinois or Indiana. Can Minnesota rise to the middle of the Big Ten? Absolutely, but I need to see more.
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Last spring, all eyes were on the quarterback position at Michigan State, with an occasional glance toward the running backs.

Both backfield positions are pretty much settled this year, as Kirk Cousins is the clear No. 1 quarterback and sophomores Larry Caper and Edwin Baker will share carries at running back. The Spartans are also well stocked at both wide receiver and tight end, losing only one major contributor in Blair White and gaining a potential star wideout in converted quarterback Keith Nichol.

[+] EnlargeDantonio
Brett Davis/US PresswireMark Dantonio knows he has some holes to fill on his offensive line.
So where's the drama for Michigan State's offense in spring ball? Look no further than the offensive line.

The Spartans lose three linemen with significant starting experience -- center Joel Nitchman, tackle Rocco Cironi and guard Brendon Moss -- from a front five that allowed the fewest sacks (14) in the Big Ten last fall. Head coach Mark Dantonio will lean on left guard Joel Foreman and left tackle D.J. Young, and center John Stipek started three games while Nitchman was out with an injury.

But other than those three, the Spartans have plenty of question marks up front, which means plenty of competition this spring.

"You'd like to have your two-deep solidified coming out of [spring practice]," Dantonio said Tuesday. "We have enough people. Guys have made strides. But the key is, have they been playing? Have they been coached? Have they actively been doing this?"

The right side of the Spartans' line is wide open, as a large group of players competes at both spots, including Jared McGhaha, Chris McDonald, J'Michael Deane, John Deyo and Antonio Jeremiah, a converted defensive lineman. Several redshirt freshmen also are in the mix, including tackles Henry Conway and David Barrent.

"There's some youth in there that we're trying to polish up," offensive coordinator Don Treadwell said.

Dantonio said McGaha is "making a move" at tackle this spring, while McDonald is working as the team's starting right guard right now. Redshirt freshman Nate Klatt is pushing Stipek for the starting center spot.

Both Dantonio and Treadwell singled out Klatt for his play this spring.

Michigan State finished second in the Big Ten in passing last fall, while the run game slipped to 73rd nationally. Don't expect those trends to continue, as the Spartans want to re-establish the run behind Caper, Baker and, hopefully, a solid line.

"We didn't run it as well as we needed to run it, that's the bottom line," Dantonio said. "We've got numbers [at offensive line] and they've all improved, and you see the result of that."
Here's the second half of my interview with Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio. For Part I, click here.

Toward the end of last year, you had some defensive linemen emerge, guys like [Jerel] Worthy and [Blake] Treadwell. Who are you excited about up there?

Mark Dantonio: We got two great young players last year in Treadwell and Worthy playing pretty well. They'll only get better, although Worthy's a bit jammed up because of an injury. At defensive end, Tyler Hoover's a guy who will begin to play more and better. He's going into his third year now, he's 6-foot-6, 265, he's an outstanding athlete. Denzel Drone, Corey Freeman, Colin Neely comes back with a lot of time under his belt. And Kevin Pickelman, he's up to 280 pounds now, and he's going to have an outstanding spring. Really, we've got 13 players back on defense with substantial time as a starter at one point in time. And 13 on offense who have started at one point in time. We do have players back, but we have to solidify depth issues.

How about the secondary? You lost a couple guys there, but you have quite a few who have played. How does that unit need to improve?

MD: We have four guys back with plenty of experience. They've all started at one point in time, whether it was [Trenton] Robinson or [Chris L.] Rucker or Marcus Hyde or Johnny Adams. So that gives us a nucleus on which to build. And then guys like Jairus Jones are going to come in and play, and some of our young freshmen, Dana Dixon. We need to get better at the back end. We need to get better as a football team.

When you talk about defense, you talk about points scored, and usually you look at third-down efficiency, how you play in the red zone, and turnovers. When you look at us, we were No. 2 in the conference in sacks [35]. Third-and-long, we were fine, 75-80 percent. But third-and-short and third-and-medium is where we fell down. We didn't play well enough in the red zone, and then we didn't come up with enough turnovers. So that's where it starts to look you in the face statistically. I'm not that concerned with the yards, as long as it doesn't lead to touchdowns. You never know where those yards come from. But you need to get off the field on third down, you need to have turnovers, you need to play well in the red zone, and we'll work to correct that.

Pass defense, it's a total team thing, so you need to be able to transition from the defensive line, from playing the run to stopping the pass, to create a pass rush in a four-man scheme. Our linebackers also have to play better. On the flip side of it, we were 25th in the nation versus the run, and that's something we can build on.

Greg Jones, in talking about why he was coming back, mentioned how he wants to improve in pass coverage. Are there things you can see him doing to be more involved there?

MD: He made a statement for our football team, not just as a player but as a captain, as a team member, being unselfish and coming back here. Everyone always can improve. Certainly I can improve. So when you're in the same place in the same system, you always look for major improvement. Greg's a pass rusher, too. He had 9.5 sacks, so you can't negate that aspect of our defensive football team, but he will become better at the [middle] linebacker, having been full time in there last year. And that's the exciting thing. He provides a catalyst for our defense, and we can play around him.

I wanted to ask you about the offensive line. It's tough when you lose players like Rocco Cironi and Joel Nitchman. How do you see that group shaping up? And also Arthur Ray, how is he progressing? Will he be able to play?


MD: Arthur is able to run, he's able to jog, he's able to do some drills on his own. He's able to, at this point in time, lead a normal life, and that's a tremendous thing for a young man who has been on crutches for the last year and three quarters. His bone is healing. He hopes to play in the near future, within maybe a year. We'll have to petition the Big Ten office for that. We would have room for that at this point, but that's something the doctors have to decide on, and his family. But me, personally, and our entire football staff and team, are thrilled to have Arthur out there every single day, just seeing him walk and catch a ball and run around. He's reconditioning himself to be a football player. Where that takes him? Time will tell. But I can look at him now and say, 'There is a possibility.' So we'll have to make that decision probably next spring at this time.

And then just with the offensive line as a whole, what's your outlook there?

MD: Offensive line and kicker are the two areas where we have to develop the most. We have a kicker with no experience back. [Dan] Conroy kicked one field goal [in 2009], but for the most part, it's been [Brett] Swenson's job for four years. So Kevin Muma and Conroy will compete for that, and it'll be interesting to see how that plays out. Offensive line wise, we have progressed and we have been able to take the past program's offensive linemen and they've been very, very productive for us. Joel Foreman has been the only guy that we've recruited that we've used extensively last year, although D.J. Young is a guy who came on with us. So two guys. But for the most part, Cironi, [Brendon] Moss, Nitchman, they were the last staff's young people.

So it's time now for our guys. Two of our guys have three years in, four others have two years in, and then we have some guys that have one year in. They have to grow up, they have to get experience and that experience has to show in spring, fall camp and then through our first couple games. That will be a work in progress, but I do think we have talent at that position. There's so many moving parts there that they have to understand what to do and do it at a high rate of speed.
After a brief break, the spring superlatives series marches on with Michigan State, which opens spring practice next week. Obviously, a lot hinges on whether seven suspended players are reinstated, but I would expect most of them to be back before the season. Although four of the suspended players are wide receivers, most or all should return for 2010, making the position less of a concern.

Here's a look at the strongest position and weakest position for the Spartans, who return a lot at the skill spots but look thin on both lines.

Strongest position: Linebacker

  • Key returnees: Greg Jones (154 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, 9 sacks, 8 quarterback hurries, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery); Eric Gordon (92 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 blocked kick); Chris Norman (11 tackles, 1 tackle for loss).
  • Key losses: Brandon Denson (68 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, 1 interception); Adam Decker (14 tackles, 1 fumble recovery).
  • The skinny: Jones' return for 2010 provides a major jolt to a defense that must improve upon last year's performance. The Big Ten co-Defensive Player of the Year owns 359 career tackles, and he's constantly in the opposing backfield. Jones wants to become a bigger factor in pass coverage, which would help a suspect Spartans secondary. Gordon is one of the league's more experienced linebackers and should be ready for a big senior season. The Spartans must fill one starting spot, and Norman will compete with Steve Gardiner and several others for playing time there.
Weakest position: Offensive line

  • Key returnees: Guard Joel Foreman, guard Jared McGaha, right tackle D.J. Young, tackle/guard J'Michael Deane (suspended)
  • Key losses: Center Joel Nitchman, left tackle Rocco Cironi, guard Brendon Moss
  • The skinny: Some might point to the secondary, which significantly underachieved last fall, or spots like defensive end or kicker as greater concerns, but Michigan State must replace three fifth-year senior starters up front. I wasn't blown away by the Spartans' offensive line last year, but Nitchman stood out and Cironi's value showed after he went down with a fourth-quarter injury in the Alamo Bowl against Texas Tech. You never want to replace both your left tackle and your center in the same year, so Michigan State has a big challenge ahead this spring. Foreman, an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection in 2009, needs to lead the group this fall.
Let's take a look at three issues facing each Big Ten team heading into spring practice:

ILLINOIS

Spring practice starts: March 30

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:
  • The quarterback competition. Four-year starter Juice Williams departs, and a host of young players (and one older one) are in the mix to replace him. New offensive coordinator Paul Petrino wants to shape his system around the starting signal-caller, so he'll be looking for some separation this spring. Jacob Charest got valuable playing time behind Williams in 2009, and Eddie McGee, a part-time wide receiver, has extensive playing experience at quarterback. They'll compete with redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase and true freshman Chandler Whitmer, an early enrollee.
  • Fixing the defense. New defensive coordinator Vic Koenning brings an impressive résumé to Champaign, but he'll be challenged to fix a unit that hasn't been right since J Leman and Co. left following the Rose Bowl run in 2007. Koenning wants to identify leaders on defense this spring and will look to players like end Clay Nurse and linebackers Ian Thomas and Martez Wilson. Illinois' most pressing needs likely come in the secondary after the team finished 100th nationally against the pass in 2009.
  • Line dance. Illinois needs to get tougher and better on both lines to turn things around in 2010. The Illini tied for eighth in the Big Ten in sacks allowed last fall, and while the run game got going late, top lineman Jon Asamoah departs. Perhaps a bigger priority is finding a pass rush on defense after finishing last in the league in both sacks and tackles for loss in 2009.
INDIANA

Spring practice starts: March 23

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:
  • Rebuilding the back seven on D. Indiana loses three starters in the secondary and two linebackers, including blog favorite Matt Mayberry. The Hoosiers brought in three junior college defenders, two of whom, linebacker Jeff Thomas and cornerback Lenyatta Kiles, will participate in spring practice. Needless to say, jobs are open everywhere, and coordinators Brian George and Joe Palcic will be looking for playmakers to step up. Several players are moving from offense to defense, including wideout Mitchell Evans to safety.
  • End game. Indiana loses a lot of pass-rushing production as multiyear starters Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton depart. Both starting jobs at defensive end are open this spring, and IU will look to Darius Johnson, Terrance Thomas and others to step up and make plays.
  • Willis watch. Indiana hopes 2010 is the year when running back Darius Willis becomes a superstar. Getting him through spring practice healthy will be a key first step. Willis has been impressive on the field, but he has struggled with injuries for much of his career. IU's passing attack should be very strong in 2010, and if Willis can elevate the run game, the Hoosiers should put up a ton of points.
IOWA

Spring practice starts: March 24

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:
  • The offensive line. Rebuilding the offensive line is far and away Iowa's top priority heading into the 2010 season. The Hawkeyes are stacked at running back and boast a strong passing attack, but they'll struggle if things aren't solidified up front. Tackle/guard Riley Reiff blossomed last season and guard Julian Vandervelde also returns, but Iowa will look to fill three starting spots this spring.
  • Refilling at linebacker and cornerback. Iowa's defense has been one of the nation's most opportunistic units the last two seasons, and players like Pat Angerer, A.J. Edds and Amari Spievey were three big reasons why. All three depart, so Iowa needs to reload at linebacker and find a shut-down corner (Shaun Prater?). The spotlight will be on guys like Prater, Tyler Nielsen and Jeff Tarpinian this spring.
  • Sorting out the running back spot. Iowa is absolutely loaded at running back, but there's only one ball to be carried on a given play. The Hawkeyes likely will use a rotation in 2010, but who will be the featured back? Jewel Hampton will try to reclaim the top spot, which he lost because of a knee injury last summer. Adam Robinson filled in extremely well for Hampton in the lead role, and Brandon Wegher was one of the heroes of the Orange Bowl win.
MICHIGAN

Spring practice starts: March 14

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:
  • Defense, defense, defense. Head coach Rich Rodriguez always will be known for his spread offense, but he won't be around much longer at Michigan if the defense doesn't significantly improve. A unit that ranked 82nd nationally last season loses its two best players (Brandon Graham and Donovan Warren) and must find contributors at linebacker, safety and cornerback. Help is on the way from the 2010 recruiting class, but Michigan can't afford a bad spring on defense.
  • Devin Gardner. The heralded quarterback recruit enrolled early and will enter the mix this spring. Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson are the front-runners at quarterback, but Gardner might be the ultimate answer for the Wolverines. His ability to pick up the system and push Forcier and Robinson this spring will determine whether he sees the field in the fall or takes a redshirt.
  • Running back. Carlos Brown and Brandon Minor depart, but Michigan once again should be good at the running back spot. Vincent Smith will miss spring ball as he recovers from knee surgery, but several others, including Michael Shaw and Fitzgerald Toussaint, will be competing throughout the 15 workouts. Shaw, who scored two touchdowns on 42 carries in 2009, could create a bit of separation with a good spring.
MICHIGAN STATE

Spring practice starts: March 23

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:
  • Team morale. The residence hall incident and the subsequent fallout really rocked the Michigan State program. Head coach Mark Dantonio has yet to address the status of several suspended players, and the final outcome could impact the depth chart, particularly at wide receiver. It's important for Michigan State's team leaders -- Greg Jones, Kirk Cousins and others -- to unite the locker room in the spring and do all they can to prevent further problems.
  • Line dance. Michigan State needs to improve on both the offensive and defensive lines in 2010, and it all starts this spring. The Spartans must replace left tackle Rocco Cironi and center Joel Nitchman, and they also lose top pass-rusher Trevor Anderson at defensive end. As strong as the Spartans should be at the skill positions, they need to start building around linemen like Joel Foreman and Jerel Worthy.
  • Keith Nichol. The versatile junior could be moved to wide receiver, but he'll get a chance to push Cousins at quarterback this spring. Nichol's skills are too valuable to waste on the sideline, particularly if Michigan State has a pressing need at receiver, but he still could be a factor at quarterback if his improves his accuracy. The speedy Nichol could run the Wildcat in addition to serving as a wide receiver, if MSU chooses to go that route.
MINNESOTA

Spring practice starts: March 23

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:
  • The coordinator and the quarterbacks. Minnesota will welcome its third offensive coordinator in as many seasons, though Jeff Horton doesn't plan to overhaul the system like Jedd Fisch did a year ago. Horton's primary task will be developing quarterbacks Adam Weber and MarQueis Gray, who both struggled last fall in the pro-style system. Weber has the edge in experience, but he needs to regain the form his showed in his first two seasons as the starter. Gray brings tremendous athleticism to the table but must prove he can succeed in a pro-style offense.
  • The offensive line. Head coach Tim Brewster has insisted that when Minnesota gets the offensive line on track, things really will get rolling. The Gophers need better players and arguably tougher players up front, and the line should benefit in Year 2 under assistant Tim Davis. The group should be motivated by finishing last in the Big Ten in rushing in each of the past two seasons.
  • Young defenders. Minnesota loses most of its starting defense from 2009, but fans are more excited about the young talent returning on that side of the ball. Spring ball could be huge for players like Michael Carter, D.L. Wilhite and Keanon Cooper as they transition into leading roles. The Gophers' biggest losses come at linebacker, as all three starters depart.
NORTHWESTERN

Spring practice starts: March 29

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:
  • Identify a running back. The Wildcats produced an impressive string of standout running backs under former coach Randy Walker and at the beginning of Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure, but they struggled in the backfield in 2009. Northwestern returns the Big Ten’s most experienced offensive line, so identifying a primary ball carrier or two this spring is vital. Arby Fields and Scott Concannon showed a few flashes last year but must get more consistent, while Mike Trumpy will be an interesting addition to the mix.
  • Polishing Persa. Dan Persa steps in at quarterback for second-team All-Big Ten selection Mike Kafka, and he’ll try to walk a similar career path. Kafka transformed himself in the offseason a year ago to become an extremely consistent passer, and Persa will need to do the same. Persa could be the best running quarterback Northwestern has had since Zak Kustok, but his size and the nature of the offense suggests he’ll need to make strides with his arm. NU also needs to see progress from backup Evan Watkins, as it lacks overall depth at quarterback.
  • Reload in the secondary. Northwestern loses three starters in the secondary, including all-conference selections Sherrick McManis and Brad Phillips. Fitzgerald will lean heavily on cornerback Jordan Mabin and safety Brian Peters to lead the group, but he needs a few more players to emerge this spring. Defensive backs like Justan Vaughn have experience and must transition into featured roles.
OHIO STATE

Spring practice starts: April 1

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:
  • Running back competition resumes. Brandon Saine and Dan Herron finished strong in 2009, but they can’t get too comfortable. Several young running backs, including Jordan Hall, Jaamal Berry, Jermil Martin and Carlos Hyde, will be competing for carries this spring. Saine likely has the best chance to lock down a featured role at running back, but if the hype about Berry pans out, it’ll be a dogfight.
  • Pryor’s evolution. After Ohio State’s victory in the Rose Bowl, both Terrelle Pryor and Jim Tressel talked about the game being a key juncture in Pryor’s development. The junior quarterback must build on his performance this spring, especially from a passing standpoint. Ohio State can be a more balanced and more effective offense in 2010, but Pryor needs to keep making strides.
  • Safety squeeze. The Buckeyes didn’t lose much from the 2009 team, but the safety spot took a hit as first-team All-Big Ten selection Kurt Coleman as well as key contributor Anderson Russell depart. Jermale Hines looks like the answer at one spot, and he’ll enter the spring with high expectations. Ohio State needs to build around Hines and identify playmakers for an increasingly opportunistic unit.
PENN STATE

Spring practice starts: March 26

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:
  • Quarterback, quarterback, quarterback. No surprise here, as Penn State’s quarterback competition will be one of the Big Ten’s top storylines until September. Two-year starter Daryll Clark departs, leaving a major void under center. Sophomore Kevin Newsome played a bit last fall and has been in the system for a full season. He’ll enter the spring with a slight edge, but Matt McGloin and early enrollee Paul Jones also will be in the mix before Robert Bolden arrives this summer.
  • Getting better up front. All-America candidate Stefen Wisniewski leads an offensive line that will have more experience and needs to make strides this spring. The line struggled against elite defensive fronts last year (Iowa, Ohio State) but should have more cohesion after another offseason together. The tackle spots will be interesting to watch, as Dennis Landolt departs. Penn State’s defensive line needs to shore up the middle after losing Big Ten co-Defensive Player of the Year Jared Odrick.
  • Linebacker U. put to the test. Penn State has a proven track record of reloading in the defensive front seven, but it loses a lot of production, especially at linebacker. All three starting spots are open this spring, and the spotlight will turn to players like Nate Stupar, Bani Gbadyu, Chris Colasanti and others to fill the production and leadership gaps left by Sean Lee, Navorro Bowman and Josh Hull.
PURDUE

Spring practice starts: March 24

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:
  • Marve watch begins. The starting quarterback job is open, and all eyes will be on Miami transfer Robert Marve. One of the nation's most decorated recruits in 2007, Marve started for the Hurricanes in 2008 but ran into problems and transferred. Slowed by an ACL injury last summer and fall, Marve will have every chance to establish himself this spring as he competes with Caleb TerBush.
  • Wide-open secondary. All four starters depart in the secondary, creating plenty of competition back there this spring. Players like safety Albert Evans and cornerback Charlton Williams will be in the spotlight as they try to nail down jobs. Purdue should be better in the front seven in 2010, but you can bet opposing quarterbacks will attack an unproven secondary.
  • The run defense. It's a huge priority for Purdue to improve against the run after finishing last in the Big Ten in rush defense in each of the past two seasons. Linebacker Jason Werner's return for a sixth year is huge, and Purdue boasts one of the Big Ten's top D-linemen in Ryan Kerrigan. Those two must provide leadership and foster more cohesion from the younger players around them. New D-line coach Gary Emanuel will be instrumental in the process this spring.
WISCONSIN

Spring practice starts: March 13 (break from March 29-April 2)

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:
  • The secondary. Wisconsin looks pretty solid on the defensive line and at linebacker, so getting the secondary up to par will be key this spring. Safety Jay Valai is a vicious hitter, but can he become an All-Big Ten-caliber safety? Aaron Henry joins Valai at safety after struggling at cornerback in 2009. Wisconsin also will look for continued progress from corners Devin Smith and Niles Brinkley.
  • Replacing Schofield. Bret Bielema told me earlier this week that the competition at defensive line is once again heating up this offseason. Wisconsin must replace first-team All-Big Ten end O'Brien Schofield, who ranked second nationally in tackles for loss (24.5) in 2009. J.J. Watt has superstar written all over him, but Wisconsin will look for more pass-rush ability from David Gilbert and Louis Nzegwu.
  • The wide receivers/tight ends. Wisconsin showed at times last fall that its passing attack could be dynamic, and it will look for big things from several players this spring. Wideout Nick Toon certainly has what it takes to be a star in the Big Ten, and Lance Kendricks showed in the Champs Sports Bowl that he's a capable successor for Garrett Graham at tight end. The Badgers will look to David Gilreath, Isaac Anderson and Kyle Jefferson to fill the No. 2 wideout spot.
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Big Ten team recruiting needs

January, 20, 2010
1/20/10
11:43
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National Signing Day is right around the corner, and Big Ten teams will look to add depth and identify a few immediate contributors in the upcoming recruiting classes. What do these squads need the most?

Here's a look:

ILLINOIS

Offensive line: The line hasn't been great the last two seasons, and Illinois loses standout Jon Asamoah and center Eric Block. Illinois looks strong at running back in 2010, but someone needs to create rushing lanes.

Safety: The Illini defense hasn't been the same since the departures of safeties Kevin Mitchell and Justin Harrison following the 2007 season. Ron Zook could really use a safety or two who could step in and contribute right away against the run and in coverage.

INDIANA

Defensive end: The Hoosiers lose two multiyear starters at end: Jammie Kirlew, a two-time All-Big Ten selection, and Greg Middleton, who led the nation in sacks in 2007. Indiana's pass rush will suffer unless it builds depth at end and throughout the line.

Secondary: Indiana loses starting safeties Austin Thomas and Nick Polk as well as its top cornerback, Ray Fisher. Expect the Hoosiers to go very heavy with defensive back recruits as they try to shore up an area that has been problematic during the last decade.

Offensive line: The situation on the line certainly is better than it was a year ago, but the departure of talented left tackle Rodger Saffold creates a void. Indiana is the type of team that always could use more depth up front so the drop-off between starters and backups isn't so dramatic.

IOWA

Offensive line: Iowa loses four linemen who started most or all of its games last year, including All-Big Ten performers Bryan Bulaga and Dace Richardson. The Hawkeyes can't expect freshmen to come in and start right away up front, but they need some insurance if injuries crop up.

Linebacker: Standouts Pat Angerer and A.J. Edds depart, and while Iowa has some guys ready to step in, it can always use depth in the defensive midsection. The Hawkeyes defensive line should sizzle in 2010, but they need sure tacklers at linebacker, too.

MICHIGAN

Secondary: There's no mystery here, as the Wolverines really struggled with breakdowns in the back four and lose standout cornerback Donovan Warren to the NFL draft. Michigan needs to bolster its talent level at both cornerback and safety to have improved results in 2010.

Linebacker: The Wolverines linebackers struggled in 2009, and there are opportunities for young players to step in here and contribute. Obi Ezeh and Jonas Mouton are back, but it's obvious this is another area Michigan must upgrade this coming season.

Specialists: Michigan loses both of its starting specialists, including All-Big Ten punter Zoltan Mesko, a Ray Guy Award finalist. This is always an area where a strong true freshman can step in and contribute immediately.

MICHIGAN STATE

Trenches: Line play was a weakness for the Spartans in 2009, and they'll be looking to upgrade on both sides of the ball. They lose top pass rusher Trevor Anderson as well as left tackle Rocco Cironi, center Joel Nitchman and guard Brendon Moss on the offensive line.

Secondary: This unit turned out to be a major disappointment, considering the preseason expectations. Michigan State loses safety Danny Fortener and corners Ross Weaver and Jeremy Ware, and there should be ample opportunities for freshmen to step in and play.

Linebacker: Probably not a critical need, but Michigan State needs to start preparing for life after Greg Jones. The Spartans also lose Adam Decker and Brandon Denson from the 2009 team, and Eric Gordon will depart with Jones after 2010.

MINNESOTA

Cornerback: The Gophers lose both of their starters, Traye Simmons and Marcus Sherels, and will be looking to build depth behind Michael Carter in 2010. I'm very excited about what Minnesota returns at safety, but the situation at corner seems a bit unsettled.

Offensive line: Minnesota will stick with the pro-style offense no matter who becomes its next coordinator, but for the system to truly click, the Gophers really need to upgrade their line. The team returns quite a few linemen for 2010, but it'll look for improved depth up front.

Running back: After finishing last in the Big Ten in rushing each of the last two seasons, Minnesota certainly will look to get better here. Kevin Whaley's departure creates a spot for a newcomer to compete with Duane Bennett and DeLeon Eskridge for carries.

NORTHWESTERN

Secondary: The Wildcats lose three multiyear starters in the secondary, including All-Big Ten honorees Sherrick McManis and Brad Phillips. They'll need to build depth around safety Brian Peters and corner Jordan Mabin to avoid a major drop-off.

Defensive line: Corey Wootton's departure leaves NU without a proven pass rusher who can command double teams. The Wildcats also will look to build depth at defensive tackle after losing Adam Hahn and Marshall Thomas.

OHIO STATE

Safety: This is one of few spots where Ohio State loses two long-time contributors in Kurt Coleman, a first-team All-Big Ten selection, and Anderson Russell. Though Jermale Hines played a lot in 2009, the Buckeyes want to build depth around him.

Wide receiver: If the Buckeyes' offense builds off of its Rose Bowl performance, the wideouts figure to be more involved. Ohio State should be fine for 2010 with DeVier Posey and Dane Sanzenbacher, but it could lose both after the season and needs to start grooming replacements. These recruits also could help the return game, where Ohio State loses Ray Small and Lamaar Thomas.

PENN STATE

Quarterback: Two-year starter Daryll Clark is gone and Pat Devlin transferred following the 2008 season, creating a wide open competition at quarterback heading into 2010. Kevin Newsome and Matt McGloin will compete, but Penn State always wants others in the mix there.

Linebacker: Penn State rarely has trouble reloading here, but it loses all three starters, including back-to-back first-team All-Big Ten selection Navorro Bowman. The Lions will look to build depth and identify an early contributor or two for the 2010 season.

Tight end/wideout: The Lions lose both Andrew Quarless and Mickey Shuler, so expect them to add a tight end or two in the incoming class. Quarless was a major part of the passing attack and Shuler hauled in two touchdowns, so Penn State won't neglect this position.

PURDUE

Secondary: A no-brainer here, as Purdue loses all four starters in the secondary, which has ranked in the upper half of the league against the pass. The Boilers likely need a newcomer or two to contribute right away in 2010.

Linebacker: Jason Werner hopes to return for a sixth year, but Purdue can't take any chances with a position that has struggled a bit the last two seasons. Danny Hope likes his young linebackers (Antwon Higgs, Dwayne Beckford), but he's looking for more.

Wide receiver/tight end: Purdue can never have enough pass receivers, and Hope will look to build around All-Big Ten performer Keith Smith in 2010. The Boilers lose No. 2 wideout Aaron Valentin, and Smith and tight end Kyle Adams depart after 2010.

WISCONSIN

Defensive line: All-Big Ten defensive end O'Brien Schofield departs, and the Badgers will be pretty young up front in 2010. It's important that Wisconsin builds depth behind players like J.J. Watt and Jordan Kohout.

Tight end: Lance Kendricks certainly eased concerns about this spot in the Champs Sports Bowl, but Wisconsin still loses All-Big Ten selection Garrett Graham as well as reserve Mickey Turner. No team in the Big Ten features the tight end spot as much as Wisconsin, so it'll be important to find a few recruits.

Best of the Big Ten bowls

January, 11, 2010
1/11/10
1:00
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After a successful Big Ten bowl season, let's take a look back:

Team of the postseason: Ohio State. The team everyone loves to hate silenced its critics with a terrific performance on both sides of the ball against a favored Oregon team in the Rose Bowl Game presented by Citi. Ohio State snapped the Big Ten's six-game slide in BCS games and the league's six-game slide in the Rose Bowl.

Best game: The Outback Bowl. It didn't result in a Big Ten win, but arguably no bowl game had more plot twists as Northwestern made a furious comeback against Auburn. Wildcats quarterback Mike Kafka set an NCAA record for most plays by one player (98 -- 78 pass, 20 rush), and Auburn had to win the game three times in overtime before finally prevailing 38-35 after Northwestern's trick play on fourth down didn't reach the end zone.

[+] EnlargeJake Ballard
Jeff Gross/Getty Images Jake Ballard's catch on third-and-13 helped keep Oregon's offense off the field.
Biggest play: Terrelle Pryor's 24-yard pass to a leaping Jake Ballard on third-and-13 in the fourth quarter of the Rose Bowl. Ohio State led by only two points at the time, and Ballard's catch kept the drive alive, as Ohio State eventually went in for a touchdown.

Best drive: Two really stand out to me. Ohio State marched 81 yards in 13 plays and burned 6:01 off of the clock in the fourth quarter against Oregon Pryor hit DeVier Posey for a 17-yard score to cap it all off. Penn State trailed 17-16 in the fourth quarter when Daryll Clark led a 12-play, 65-yard drive that ended with the game-winning field goal and burned 5:57 off of the clock.

Offensive Player of the Postseason: Ohio State's Pryor. He finally turned in the complete performance we've all been waiting for, and he did it on a huge stage. Pryor set career highs in both completions (23) and passing yards (266) as he fired two touchdowns against Oregon. He also had a game-high 72 rushing yards. Pryor earned Offensive Player of the Game honors.

Defensive Player of the Postseason: Iowa defensive end Adrian Clayborn. As we mentioned countless times during Virtual Pressbox, Clayborn was a beast against Georgia Tech. Clayborn recorded nine tackles and two sacks in Iowa's FedEx Orange Bowl victory and helped derail Georgia Tech's triple option offense. He was named Orange Bowl MVP.

Special Teams Player of the Postseason: Penn State kicker Collin Wagner. The horrible field conditions at the Capital One Bowl were a major story, but they didn't bother Wagner, who went 4-for-4 on field-goal attempts in Penn State's victory.

Coach of the postseason: Iowa defensive coordinator Norm Parker. The veteran defensive guru rendered the triple option offense totally ineffective for most of the game. Parker had his players prepared for Georgia Tech, and it showed in a dominant defensive performance. Honorable mentions go to Ohio State defensive coordinators Jim Heacock and Luke Fickell, Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Doeren and Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley.

Surprise performance: Everybody knew about Garrett Graham, but it was another Wisconsin tight end, Lance Kendricks, who stole the show in the Champs Sports Bowl. Kendricks became Scott Tolzien's go-to receiver, recording a career-high 128 receiving yards on seven receptions. He had the second most receptions by a Wisconsin player in a bowl game, behind only Pat Richter's 11 in the 1963 Rose Bowl.

Bowled over: Fortunately, Minnesota quarterback MarQueis Gray and Northwestern kicker Stefan Demos will have other opportunities to step up for their teams. But the postseason will sting both men for a while. Gray fumbled deep in Iowa State territory as Minnesota was driving for the potential game-winning field goal late in the fourth quarter of the Insight Bowl. Speaking of field goals, Demos missed three, including the potential game-winner, plus an extra-point attempt in the Outback Bowl.

Best calls: They didn't result in victories, but I loved Michigan State's fake field goal and Minnesota's fake punt call. Michigan State's fake to Charlie Gantt went for 18 yards and set up the go-ahead touchdown on the next play. Minnesota punter Blake Haudan passed to safety Kyle Theret, who had a monster performance in the Insight Bowl. The play went for 40 yards and Minnesota scored its first touchdown moments later.

Second guessing: I'm still somewhat in shock about Iowa's decision to run a fake field goal midway through the fourth quarter when it led Georgia Tech by only three points. The decision didn't end up hurting the Hawkeyes, who forced a turnover on the ensuing possession, but it could have been disastrous. Also, Michigan State seemed to lose the momentum in the fourth quarter against Texas Tech when it ran the ball on third-and-long to set up a field-goal try. Yes, quarterback Kirk Cousins had struggled and left tackle Rocco Cironi was out, but field goals weren't going to beat the Red Raiders.

Craziest stat line: Northwestern's Kafka completed 47 of 78 passes for 532 yards with four touchdowns and five interceptions. He added 30 rush yards and a touchdown on 20 carries. He had thrown 117 consecutive passes without an interception until his first pick in the opening quarter.

Memorable post-game quote: After an odd question about Iowa representing the heartland, quarterback Ricky Stanzi, standing on the victory podium, replied, "Of course. There's nothing better than being American. So, this is the greatest feeling. If you don't love it, leave it! USA, No. 1!"

Fresh faces: Two freshmen running backs stood out in their postseason debuts. Iowa's Brandon Wegher had 113 rush yards and a touchdown on 16 carries in the Orange Bowl, while Michigan State's Edwin Baker went for 97 rush yards and a score on just 12 carries in the Valero Alamo Bowl.
A shorthanded Michigan State team put forth a great effort, but made too many mistakes on both sides of the ball to beat Texas Tech. The Spartans blew a fourth-quarter lead and didn't have enough offense to rally in the end, losing 41-31. The Big Ten drops to 3-3 in bowls, so it all comes down to Iowa's performance Tuesday against Georgia Tech in the FedEx Orange Bowl.

How the game was won: Michigan State couldn't hold a 31-27 lead as Texas Tech backup quarterback Steven Sheffield led an impressive scoring drive midway through the fourth quarter. The Red Raiders were more aggressive with their decisions down the stretch, and it paid off. Sheffield and starting quarterback Taylor Potts flummoxed Michigan State's defense and outplayed Spartans signal caller Kirk Cousins, who completed just 13 of 27 passes for 220 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions, and he imploded in the second half. Texas Tech too many times capitalized on a soft Spartans' secondary.

Turning point: After Michigan State played it safe and settled for a field goal, Texas Tech interim head coach Ruffin McNeill and receivers coach Lincoln Riley played it bold down the stretch. They went to Sheffield for the first time, and the backup led an eight-play, 77-yard scoring drive. The Red Raiders completely regained the momentum, and Cousins threw an interception on Michigan State's ensuing series. The Spartans never recovered.

Player of the game: For Texas Tech, it's got to go to Potts and Sheffield. For Michigan State, freshman running back Edwin Baker introduced himself to the college football world tonight. The heralded high school prospect had 12 carries for 102 yards and a touchdown. After being overshadowed by classmate Larry Caper for much of the fall, Baker showed that the Spartans have another solid option in the backfield.

Best call: Down 27-21 in the fourth quarter, Michigan State lined up for a 43-yard field-goal attempt, but ran an excellent fake, as punter Aaron Bates threw to tight end Charlie Gantt for an 18-yard gain. Then, on first-and-goal from the 8-yard line, wide receiver Keshawn Martin found fellow wideout Blair White in the end zone. Both Bates and Martin played quarterback in high school.

Second guessing: Michigan State led 28-27 and faced third-and-12 from the Tech 29-yard line, but called a simple run play that didn't gain much. The Spartans had been aggressive and innovative with their play-calling for much of the game, and playing it safe there seemed out of place, even with left tackle Rocco Cironi injured. Texas Tech responded with the go-ahead touchdown and reclaimed all the momentum. Lesson: you've got to go for touchdowns against Texas Tech.

What it means: Few thought a Spartans team playing without 14 players would hold a fourth-quarter lead against Texas Tech. The Spartans deserve credit for fighting hard, but a 6-7 record wasn't what anyone had in mind heading into this season. There's a very exciting young nucleus in East Lansing, but this program still hasn't turned a corner yet. Cousins and Keith Nichol will continue to compete at quarterback, but the talent at running back and wide receiver is very good. Head coach Mark Dantonio's biggest offseason priority will be a defense that must get tougher, especially in the secondary.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Everything on offense starts with what happens up front, and line play will make or break the season for several Big Ten teams. The league loses a handful of standout linemen, including Rimington Trophy winner A.Q. Shipley, but several teams should reload nicely.

There's a lot to like about the top three, and I don't see any truly bad units in the league.

1. Iowa -- Shonn Greene was the nation's most dominant running back last year, but he had plenty of help. Iowa returns three starters and several key reserves from a line that propelled Greene to 13 consecutive 100-yard rushing performances. Junior Bryan Bulaga is the league's premier left tackle, while Kyle Calloway provides depth on the other side. The Hawkeyes boast more guard depth than any Big Ten team, a group that includes Dace Richardson, who has resurrected his career after a string of injuries.

2. Ohio State -- A major disappointment in 2008, Ohio State's line should be much improved thanks to experience, the addition of guard Justin Boren and some excellent recruiting. Boren brings a much-needed spark to the line and impressed just about everyone this spring. Center Mike Brewster is a year older, and senior Jim Cordle has shown impressive versatility in shifting to right tackle. The left tackle spot concerns me a bit, but Ohio State has recruited extremely well here.

3. Wisconsin -- The Badgers lose starting guards Andy Kemp and Kraig Urbik, but they always find a way to control the line of scrimmage and return several key pieces. Center John Moffitt and left tackle Gabe Carimi will contend for All-Big Ten honors, and Bill Nagy looks solid at one of the guard spots. If right tackle Josh Oglesby takes a step forward and lives up to his potential, Wisconsin will once again have one of the league's top lines.

4. Northwestern -- The team hopes its skill-position losses will be offset by a much better offensive line, which returns four starters. Northwestern did a good job of limiting sacks last year but should be much better at staying on blocks and buying time for athletic quarterback Mike Kafka. Left tackle Al Netter and center Ben Burkett are both All-Big Ten candidates, and the Wildcats boast plenty of depth after recruiting extremely well to this position.

5. Michigan -- No group will make a bigger jump in Year 2 of the spread offense than the line, which returns four starters. Michigan should be very solid up the middle with center David Molk and guards Stephen Schilling and David Moosman. If the Marks (Ortmann and Huyge) hold up at the tackle spots, a run game led by Brandon Minor will surge. Despite several player departures, Michigan has recruited several standout linemen who will provide depth this fall.

6. Michigan State -- I like the Joels (Foreman and Nitchman), and left tackle Rocco Cironi returns from a shoulder injury, but this group still needs to prove itself. Despite Javon Ringer's success last fall, the line was just average and must fill several gaps. Hopes are high for J'Michael Deane and Jared McGaha after spring ball, and if those players make progress Michigan State will move up the list.

7. Penn State -- The line rivals the secondary as Penn State's biggest concern entering the fall. In addition to Shipley, the Lions lose tackle Gerald Cadogan and guard Rich Ohrnberger. Only one starter (right tackle Dennis Landolt) returns to the same position he occupied in 2008. Stefen Wisniewski will be fine at center, but Penn State needs tackle DeOn'tae Pannell and others to make a lot of progress during camp.

8. Illinois -- With so much talent at the skill positions, expectations will be high for the Illini line, which drew mixed reviews in 2008. Right guard Jon Asamoah will contend for All-Big Ten honors, and Illinois really likes young right tackle Jeff Allen. The team must fill a big hole at left tackle, though veteran Eric Block slides over from guard to center. This could end up being a very respectable group.

9. Minnesota -- Perhaps no offensive line in the Big Ten intrigues me more than Minnesota's, which is going through a major transition in both scheme and technique with assistant Tim Davis. The Gophers are returning to their roots as a power-run offense, but they'll have to adjust quickly to all the changes. Left tackle Matt Stommes could be a pro prospect if things fall right, and the mammoth Jeff Wills lines up on the other side of the line. Notre Dame transfer Matt Carufel joins the mix as a starting guard.

10. Purdue -- Injuries decimated the two-deep last year, and Purdue used seven different starting lineups up front. The Boilers are much healthier entering the fall and should be much better. Young players like right guard Ken Plue gained valuable experience last fall, and he rejoins veterans Jared Zwilling, Zach Reckman and Zach Jones. The big question is how quickly the group jells as Purdue wants to stress the run game more this fall.

11. Indiana -- Much like Purdue, injuries hit Indiana's line especially hard last fall. The Hoosiers have two proven veterans in left tackle Rodger Saffold and center Pete Saxon, both of whom have started for three seasons. If those two can lead the way and young players like Justin Pagan and Will Matte continue to develop, Indiana will be much improved here.

Michigan State spring wrap

May, 6, 2009
5/06/09
9:30
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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Michigan State Spartans
2008 overall record: 9-4

2008 conference record: 6-2

Returning starters

Offense: 7; Defense: 8; Special teams: 2

Top returners

WR Blair White, WR Mark Dell, C Joel Nitchman, TE Charlie Gantt, LB Greg Jones, DE Trevor Anderson, S Danny Fortener, K Brett Swenson

Key losses

RB Javon Ringer, QB Brian Hoyer, RT Jesse Miller, DT Justin Kershaw, DE Brandon Long, S Otis Wiley

2008 statistical leaders (* returners)

Rushing: Javon Ringer (1,637 yds)
Passing: Brian Hoyer (2,404 yds)
Receiving: Mark Dell* (679 yds)
Tackles: Greg Jones* (127)
Sacks: Trevor Anderson* (8)
Interceptions: Otis Wiley (4)

Spring answers

2009 Schedule
Sept. 5 Montana State
Sept. 12 Central Michigan
Sept. 19 at Notre Dame
Sept. 26 at Wisconsin
Oct. 3 Michigan
Oct. 10 at Illinois
Oct. 17 Northwestern
Oct. 24 Iowa
Oct. 31 at Minnesota
Nov. 7 Western Michigan
Nov. 14 at Purdue
Nov. 21 Penn State
1. Quarterback options -- The Spartans' quarterback competition is far from over, and that's not a bad thing. Sophomores Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol both performed well this spring and put up the exact same totals (357 pass yards, 4 TDs) in the Green-White game. The coaches are comfortable with either player, and both quarterbacks have the athleticism that will allow the offense to expand.

2. Safety depth -- Several key contributors in the secondary missed spring ball with injuries, but the Spartans bolstered their depth at safety with Trenton Robinson. The redshirt freshman continually impressed head coach Mark Dantonio, who mentioned Robinson every time he met with reporters. Robinson could push for a starting spot alongside Danny Fortener or Kendell Davis-Clark.

3. High and tight -- The tight end spot might be phased out for many college teams, but not Michigan State. The Spartans could have more depth at tight end than any Big Ten team -- Wisconsin's right there, too -- as Clemson transfer Brian Linthicum joins Charlie Gantt and Garrett Celek.

Fall questions

1. Ringer's replacement -- Arguably no player in the Big Ten did more for his team last fall than running back Javon Ringer, and Michigan State continues to look for a capable successor or two. None of the four candidates created much separation this spring, and incoming freshman Edwin Baker and Larry Caper will have opportunities to compete in preseason camp. Head coach Mark Dantonio wants to identify 2-3 reliable backs.

2. Offensive line -- Dantonio saw promising signs from a revamped line toward the end of the spring, but some doubt still remains. Junior J'Michael Deane and sophomore Jared McGaha must continue to develop on the right side of the line. Left tackle Rocco Cironi also returns from a shoulder injury and needs to re-establish himself.

3. Pass-rush help -- The Spartans finished eighth in the league in sacks last season (26) and need to identify a second pass-rusher to complement Trevor Anderson. The starting end spot opposite Anderson remains up for grabs, and redshirt freshman Tyler Hoover could land it after a solid spring. Colin Neely also is in the mix.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- It's pretty miserable outside right now, so thankfully Michigan State held practice Tuesday afternoon on its indoor field. Media were allowed to stay for nearly 13 practice periods, the most all spring, so I clearly picked a good day to visit Sparta.

The quarterback competition is clearly the burning issue in these parts, so let's get right to it.

Head coach Mark Dantonio said before practice that sophomores Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol would split reps evenly in Saturday's Green-White Game, as they have throughout the spring. Michigan State is a long way from choosing a starter, but there's still an opportunity for both players to distinguish themselves.

"You can inch somebody ahead of the other guy, but they've both performed very well this spring," Dantonio said. "They both have strong arms. They both can create and have running ability, some a little bit more than the other. They both have good leadership skills and they're extremely hard workers. And they both have three years left.

"With that being said, you don't want to name somebody and then all of a sudden, have to reverse your thinking later on."

Both players had their moments during team periods and 7-on-7s at Thursday's practice. Cousins, who performed well as Michigan State's backup last fall, has excellent mechanics and a strong arm. He looks a little smoother on his passes than Nichol, who has a bit of an awkward motion but still get the ball out fairly quickly.

Many have characterized Cousins as the pure passer and Nichol as the versatile athlete, but offensive coordinator Don Treadwell said it's a misperception.

"It's deceptive," Treadwell said. "It's not like one guy's a runner and one guy's a pocket passer. Those guys both are able to move their feet very well, get out of trouble and keep their eyes down the field at the same time."

The competition is neck-and-neck, but Cousins looked a little more impressive at Tuesday's workout.

The sophomore showed good zip on his passes, hitting Mark Dell on several deep out routes during team drills and 7-on-7s. Dell definitely appeared to be his favorite target. After overthrowing wideout Cam Martin on a deep post, a disgusted Cousins muttered, "That's six points."

Cousins also had a nice gain on an option keeper, taking a rare hit (he and Nichol wore red "no contact" jerseys) and popping back up and nodding his head. His run delighted starting left tackle Rocco Cironi, who is out for spring ball following shoulder surgery.

"It's fun to get in there, run and get hit," Cousins said. "You feel like a football player instead of a quarterback."

Nichol had a bit of a slow start in team drills, but he heated up during 7-on-7s, hitting Chris D. Rucker on a go route and finding Keshawn Martin on a deep out. It would have been nice to see Nichol run more, but he moves his feet well.

The quarterbacks traded off on each play during 7-on-7s. There were no interceptions, though Cousins fumbled a snap during red-zone drills.

Other observations from Michigan State's practice:

  • The competition at running back also remains tight, and a fourth player, redshirt freshman Caulton Ray, has entered the mix. Sophomore Ashton Leggett created some separation a few weeks ago before being slowed by a knee sprain, but he was back at practice Tuesday. Leggett, Ray and senior A.J. Jimmerson each had nice gains during team drills.
  • None of the running backs had much success during red-zone drills, as Jones, Wilson, Neely and others recorded tackles for loss. Sophomore Andre Anderson, who most resembles Javon Ringer in body type and running style, had a nice burst. He runs very hard for a smaller guy.
  • I got the best look at the backs during a 1-on-1 drills against the linebackers. Anderson looked particularly impressive in the open field, juking All-Big Ten performer Greg Jones and reserve Jon Misch.
  • Cousins and Nichol both rotated with the first-team offense, but the top offensive line consisted of: left tackle Brendon Moss (in place of Cironi), left guard Joel Foreman, center Joel Nitchman, right guard Jared McGaha, right tackle J'Michael Deane. Dantonio singled out the offensive line as a group that has progressed more than he had envisioned during spring ball, though there's still a long way to go.
  • Dell, Blair White and B.J. Cunningham took most of the reps as first-team wide receivers. Michigan State will use the tight ends a ton this fall, and several players made catches during team drills, including Garrett Celek and Brian Linthicum, a transfer from Clemson who looks impressive. There's also some buzz about third-team wideout Milton Colbert, a 6-5, 211-pound walk-on who might just work his way into the rotation. Colbert definitely passes the eye test.
  • The first-team defense: defensive end Colin Neely, defensive tackle Kevin Pickelman, defensive end Trevor Anderson, nose tackle Oren Wilson, outside linebacker Eric Gordon, outside linebacker Brandon Denson, middle linebacker Greg Jones, safety Danny Fortener, safety Trenton Robinson, cornerback Chris L. Rucker, cornerback Ross Weaver. Several players are banged up in the secondary, including safeties Kendell Davis-Clark and cornerback Jeremy Ware.
  • The option might not be a major part of the offense next fall, but it will certainly be used more with Nichol and Cousins taking snaps. Michigan State ran several option plays Tuesday and also could incorporate more misdirection into its scheme.
  • Individual practice periods are usually pretty boring, but Michigan State's running backs were worth watching because of a familiar face. Ringer, who remains in town leading up to this weekend's NFL draft, was on the field helping running backs coach Dan Enos in a direction drill. The All-American wore a New York Jets T-shirt but told me afterward he dons apparel from all the teams for whom he worked out. So don't get too excited, Jets fans. Former Spartans right tackle Jesse Miller also attended practice.
  • Place-kicker Brett Swenson, an All-America candidate, looked solid on field goals and even took a pitch on a fake and raced around right end.
  • The Spartans paid homage to Michigan native Kid Rock and played his version of "Sweet Home Alabama" to simulate crowd noise during team drills.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Throughout his rise from spread-offense afterthought to Heisman Trophy candidate, Javon Ringer has expressed his gratitude for Michigan State's offensive philosophy shift under coach Mark Dantonio.

Michigan State scrapped the spread for the increasingly rare power-run offense. Ringer loves the system, and evidently, so do the five large individuals blocking for him.

The Spartans' front five has blossomed into arguably the Big Ten's best offensive line and one of the best in the country. The two major statistical gauges for line play are rushing yards and sacks allowed, and Michigan State is one of the few teams that shines in both areas.

Oklahoma State and option-heavy Air Force are the only FBS teams besides Michigan State to rank among the top 25 nationally in rushing offense and the top 10 nationally in sacks allowed. The Spartans rank 25th in rushing (203.4 ypg) and fourth in sacks allowed with only one surrendered through the first five games.

"Those guys have pride in putting their hand down on the ground and becoming physical," Spartans offensive line coach Dan Roushar said. "There's very few offenses in college football that are structured like ourselves or the University of Iowa or Ohio State a year ago, where you've got a tight end and two backs in most of your formations or two tight ends and one back.

"With that, you see a lot more eight- or nine-man fronts, so you're job up front becomes a little more challenging."

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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Like any good running back should, Michigan State's Javon Ringer pays close attention to the five large men who determine whether he sees daylight or the business end of a linebacker's arm.

Ringer has noticed an interesting dynamic developing with the Spartans offensive line.

"I can almost just sit there in the huddle and just look at 'em and see how the left side, they're more just serious faces and everything, and the right side, they're just relaxed," Ringer said.

Relaxed is one way to describe Michigan State's right side, which features guard Roland Martin and tackle Jesse Miller. Chatty and entertaining would also apply to the two fifth-year seniors.

"You have real funny guys that are really silly all the time, then you've got guys who say mean things that tend to be funny," Martin said. "There'll be jokes we'll make about each other, right out in the open, and everybody's like, 'Wow, why would you say that? That was horrible.' But I'm not gonna tell you any of those.

"Me and Jesse are silly, serious guys. You've got (center Joel) Nitchman, who's 90 percent serious. He's got personality, though. And then everybody else is real serious."

Offensive lines always talk about unity and chemistry, but the mix of personalities seems to work for Michigan State, which ranked second in the Big Ten in scoring offense (33.1 ppg) last season. The Spartans lost both starters on the left side, tackle Pete Clifford and guard Kenny Shane, and are looking for new players to fill the gaps.

Junior Rocco Cironi, who Martin describes as "bright serious" and "his own kind of guy," will protect quarterback Brian Hoyer's blind side at left tackle. Redshirt freshman Joel Foreman, one of several players highlighted for his offseason performance, enters practice with the edge at left guard.

"The left side, they know, 'We're the guys who are young. We're the ones replacing the seniors who left,'" Ringer said. "So they're probably more like, 'We've got to get serious. We've got to know what we're doing.' On the right side, they know everything."

Cironi, who apprenticed behind Clifford, recognizes the responsibility he now possesses.

"I love the pressure," he said. "I played [left tackle] all through high school. I'm used to being on an island by myself."

Is it the same way in the offensive line meeting room?

"We have a nice mix of personalities going on," Martin said.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

 
 Matthew Emmons/US Presswire
 Tackle Alex Boone is one of four returning starters on the Buckeyes' offensive line.

All of the previous positions I ranked (quarterback, running back, wide receiver/tight end) matter little without sturdy offensive lines to block for them. And despite lingering questions about its speed, the Big Ten continues to churn out elite linemen. The league has had three offensive linemen selected in the top 5 of the NFL draft in the last two years, including former Michigan tackle Jake Long, the No. 1 overall pick in April. Several elite players return this fall, including Ohio State tackle Alex Boone and Penn State center A.Q. Shipley, but offensive lines should always be graded as a group. Four teams look very solid up front. The rest of the league? Not so much.

Here's the rundown:

1. Ohio State -- Led by Boone, who passed up NFL bucks for another national title push, the Buckeyes bring back four of five starters up front. Sophomore Bryant Browning emerged at right tackle in spring ball and joins a group that helped Beanie Wells finish 11th nationally in rushing last season. If the first-team unit stays healthy, the offense will surge this fall.

2. Penn State -- All five starters return to a unit that mirrored Ohio State in both sacks allowed and rushing production last season. Shipley and guard Rich Ohrnberger solidify the interior line along with Stefen Wisniewski, who last year became the first true freshman offensive lineman to start at Penn State since 1999. Hopes are high for whip-smart left tackle Gerald Cadogan.

3. Wisconsin -- The Badgers lost no starters and feature All-Big Ten candidates throughout the line. So why isn't this unit rated higher? Wisconsin finished 91st nationally in sacks allowed with 33 last season, a number that must go down with a new starting quarterback. Four-year starter Kraig Urbik and Andy Kemp form the league's best guard tandem, and sophomore left tackle Gabe Carimi held his own last fall after succeeding Joe Thomas.

4. Illinois -- If not for two vacancies, the Illini would be higher on the list. They allowed just 16 sacks last fall, the second fewest in the league, and had the Big Ten's top rushing attack. All-conference candidates Ryan McDonald and Xavier Fulton return. If Ryan Palmer solidifies the right tackle spot, this group will have a big season.

5. Michigan State -- Replacing all-conference left tackle Pete Clifford became a priority this spring, and Michigan State filled the gap with talented junior Rocco Cironi. If Cironi can effectively protect Brian Hoyer's blind side, the interior line should be solid with returning starters Roland Martin and Joel Nitchman. Depth is a concern, and several incoming freshmen could help.

6. Purdue -- Health is the biggest question for Purdue after mainstay Sean Sester, Zach Jones and Zack Reckman missed spring practice with injuries. Head-coach-in-waiting Danny Hope needs all three returning starters at full strength in camp. The all-important center spot could feature an intriguing competition, as freshman Andrew Brewer joins the mix with Cory Benton and Jared Zwilling.

7. Iowa -- A veteran group could definitely climb the list, but after hemorrhaging for 46 sacks last fall, significant improvement is needed. Guard Seth Olsen anchors the line in his third season as a starter. Though several other full-time or part-time starters return, Olsen's spot appears to be the only safe one entering preseason camp.

8. Michigan -- Strength coach Mike Barwis will try to work his magic with a group that returns only one starter, right tackle Stephen Schilling. A lot hinges on junior Mark Ortmann, who succeeds Long at left tackle. If Ortmann steps in smoothly and David Moosman locks up the center spot, the Wolverines might be fine. Coach Rich Rodriguez needs linemen who can fit in his system, and if need be, he'll look to incoming freshmen like Ricky Barnum.

9. Indiana -- The left side looks strong with Rodger Saffold and Pete Saxon, but there are questions elsewhere. A lot is riding on a talented group of sophomore linemen that includes potential starters Alex Perry and Mike Stark. Sacks were a problem at times last season, and the Hoosiers must generate a stronger rushing attack outside of quarterback Kellen Lewis.

10. Minnesota -- Of all the Gophers' problems last season, the offensive line wasn't one of them. Minnesota allowed a league-low 13 sacks and ranked third in pass offense. But the departures of left tackle Steve Shidell and center Tony Brinkhaus raise questions up front. Hopes are high for sophomore left tackle Dominic Alford, but a young group must build chemistry.

11. Northwestern -- The Wildcats lost mainstays at both center and left tackle, and right tackle Kurt Mattes is the only returning starter who secured his job. A lot is riding on three young players -- freshman left tackle Al Netter, sophomore left guard Keegan Grant and freshman center Ben Burkett. If those three step up, a veteran group of skill players will put up points.

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