Big Ten: Ross Els

Big Ten Monday mailbag

February, 24, 2014
Feb 24
We're not celebrating any presidents on Monday, so I'm back to a twice-weekly mailbag. Keep those cards and letters flowing. Or, you know, email me. Yeah, that's probably better.

David from Minneapolis writes: In your QB race Take Two the other day, you mentioned Wisconsin as your race to watch. While I agree that starting a new QB with no or limited experience out of the gate this year against LSU wouldn't be ideal, would you not want to consider the schedule for the next couple years as well? Over the next three seasons UW opens with LSU (twice) and Alabama. Wouldn't risking this year's game with LSU be worth it to possibly have Gary Andersen's type of QB ready to go by next fall and the year after for those big SEC games? Almost taking this year to develop him and the young receivers so you can have sustained success going forward?

[+] EnlargeJoel Stave
Mike McGinnis/Getty ImagesJoel Stave will face some competition for the starting QB job at Wisconsin.
Brian Bennett: David, I don't think any coach thinks like that, nor should one in a situation like Wisconsin. You're promised nothing but the present in college sports. Andersen is going to do what he thinks gives his team the best chance to win in every game. If he wants to go with a younger, more mobile quarterback, he could always do that later in the season. Connor Cook didn't start the opener for Michigan State, but that turned out pretty well last season. Joel Stave has a huge experience edge that makes him the overwhelming favorite to start the opener vs. LSU. Other candidates Bart Houston, Tanner McEvoy and D.J. Gillins are going to have to outplay him to see the field.

Rob from New York, N.Y., writes: Brian, in an Insider article arguing that Iowa has a shot at winning the B1G West, KC Joyner used as a presumption that Wisconsin was in a state of decline. Your boy Adam reiterated a similar point (though more focused on just 2014) in your article about next year's West outlook. Now, I don't think the Hawkeyes are going to be bad or that Wisconsin will definitely win the West, but it's a little rich to hear the same guys who argued that Wisconsin was on the cusp of "elite" suddenly assuming it is in decline mere weeks later. Losing the last two games hurts, but there's not much shame in losing to the No. 4 team in the country in an effective road game. And losing a stellar senior class hurts this upcoming year, sure (and to be fair, that was more Adam's point), but that's less about the *program* and more cycles of recruiting. So, let's hit the brakes and understand the following: Andersen has a highly regarded class coming in that will vastly improve the speed overall but especially on the outside (a weakness Bret Bielema routinely failed to cure), the offense will have a real competition at QB with four viable options, and all the young'uns will have another year of experience in what is a very new system.

Brian Bennett: Rob, if there's any talk about a "decline" for the Badgers, it's simply about 2014. And it's only because Wisconsin lost a huge and highly productive group of seniors, has no proven receiving targets and must reload in the defensive front seven. This is a program that has shown it can maintain a high level of success year in and year out, but it's hard for any team to avoid taking a minor step back when guys such as Chris Borland, Jared Abbrederis, Jacob Pedersen and Beau Allen depart. There are good young players on the roster, but they have to prove themselves. Then again, with Wisconsin's schedule after the LSU opener, this year's team might put up a better record than last year and not be quite as good.

Glenn G. from Vancouver writes: I was pleased to hear Troy Calhoun's comment asking for some evidence of injury relative to the hurry-up offense. With the increase of hype over substance in sports reporting (your and Adam's work excluded), don't you think that if there was a sniff of an injury trend here the sports media would have blown it WAY out of proportion by now? Oregon has been running that game for what, five or six years? I haven't heard a peep. It's possible I don't hear very well, but what I do hear is some powerful coaches making a political play to give their teams an edge. What do you think the reality of the injury situation is, and what is the likelihood the rules committee will pass the slowdown? Restore my faith in common sense!

Brian Bennett: Glenn, solid statistical information showing that hurry-up offenses affects injuries would be very difficult to compile (though here is one admirable attempt, which appears to suggest the opposite of the slow-down crowd's argument). As you said, there has been very little talk in recent years of that happening and no real anecdotal evidence, either. Bielema has not been making new friends while suggesting the up-tempo offense and a Cal player's death belong in the same argument. I agree that the injury argument seems like a pretty convenient excuse made by coaches who don't favor that style of play. If fast-paced offenses really caused more players to get hurt, wouldn't programs like Oregon and Baylor have a rash of injuries in practice?

[+] EnlargeDarrell Hazell
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesPurdue didn't win a conference game in Darrell Hazell's first season.
Jpeezy from Chicago writes: Unlike Wednesday's Purdue fan, I do not believe in Darrell Hazell. I know it's pretty early to write him off, but hear me out. Initially, I was disturbed at how difficult it was for Purdue to get plays called, get 11 guys on the field and not commit costly pre-snap penalties through the first few games of the year. As that got better, execution flaws took their place. For example, calling screens to combat pressure is a good idea, but the line and running backs couldn't release at the same time or in the same direction with enough consistency for the defense to respect the threat. Further, it troubled me that the coaching staff didn't adjust to the lack of execution by at least sprinkling in some easier-to-execute pass plays like quick passes to the flat or slants to get defenses off their back until late in the season. Does it seem reasonable to attribute these concerns to the installation of a new coaching staff? Does a coach at a program like Purdue get a pass for a couple years where you just look the other way?

Brian Bennett: Like you, I was pretty astonished at Purdue's inability to simply administer the basic parts of the game early in the season. Some of that can be attributed to a new staff, but that really should never happen at this level. I'd have more concerns about Hazell if he hadn't already demonstrated that he could win at Kent State. Sure, the MAC is not the Big Ten, but that league was very competitive two years ago when Hazell's Golden Flashes nearly beat Northern Illinois in the MAC title game. My bigger concern for the Boilermakers is whether Hazell's preferred physical, run-first style of offense is the right fit for this program. Purdue is likely never going to out-recruit and out-athlete upper-tier Big Ten teams, so running a version of Tressel-ball without elite players becomes problematic. The spread offense was a great equalizer. Let's see how Hazell adjusts, and I think he's a bright and very capable coach.

Jim M. from San Francisco writes: Do you anticipate a step up in the effectiveness of Nebraska's special teams this year, given the apparent added depth, as well as the addition of several recruits with return abilities (assuming one or more of them do not redshirt this season), and the lack of much of a punt return game last season?

Brian Bennett: Jim, predicting performance on special teams is a tricky matter and an often overlooked aspect of the game. I find it incredibly hard to believe, though, that Nebraska can't improve its 2013 punt return average of 3 yards per attempt, which ranked 121st out of 123 FBS teams. The Cornhuskers have too many good athletes for that to happen again, and it's clearly a sign that the approach needs to change. While half the battle of returning punts is simply catching the ball cleanly, knowing when to signal for a fair catch, etc., I'd certainly expect Bo Pelini and special teams coordinator Ross Els to review and revise the punt return unit and figure out a way to provide the offense with better field position.

Big Ten lunch links

June, 18, 2013
Former Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez is enjoying life in the wild, wild West.

Big Ten lunch links

June, 13, 2013
The Derecho is gone, and the Blackhawks are three games from the Cup. Good times.

Big Ten lunchtime links

June, 7, 2013
Happy National Doughnut Day. Mmm ... doughnuts. Is there anything they can't do?

Check out College Football Live today, when Andre Ware ranks the top 5 quarterbacks in the Big Ten (ESPNU, 3:30 p.m. ET).
There has been plenty of recent news on the recruiting trail around the Big Ten, and we're a bit overdue for a scorecard, so here's the latest rundown. Teams are sorted based on most verbal commitments for the 2014 class.


Total commits: 9
ESPN 150 commits: 8
The latest: Michigan's recruiting once again is off to an extremely fast start, as the Wolverines not only are piling up commits but quality players. Defensive end Lawrence Marshall on Saturday became the eighth ESPN 150 prospect to pick Michigan. No other FBS team has more than five ESPN 150 players pledged for the 2014 class. Barring a surprise turn, Michigan will sign a top-5 class in February. The Wolverines currently rank No. 3 in the RecruitingNation rankings.


Total commits: 9
ESPN 150 commits: 1
The latest: Penn State has filled out most of its 2014 class before mid May, and the Lions are adding quality prospects like ESPN 150 athlete De'Andre Thompkins, wide receiver Chris Godwin and linebacker Troy Reeder. The Lions picked up two more commits late last week in defensive back Marcus Allen and linebacker Jared Wangler. Bill O'Brien and his staff have to be selective because of scholarship restrictions, but they've also been aggressive in piling up early commits. Penn State is No. 13 in the latest class rankings.


Total commits: 8
ESPN 150 commits: 0
The latest: Northwestern is quietly putting together the best class in coach Pat Fitzgerald's tenure. The Wildcats are 19th in RecruitingNation's class rankings after an excellent week that ended with them landing talented running back Auston Anderson on Thursday. Anderson's pledge came on the heels of four-star athlete Dariean Watkins choosing Northwestern. Although Northwestern hasn't landed an ESPN 150 prospect, it boasts several commits (QB Clayton Thorson, Watkins) who are close.


Total commits: 8
ESPN 150 commits: 1
The latest: Urban Meyer's assistants are all over the recruiting trail -- and letting us know about it on Twitter -- and after a six-week drought without a commitment, the Buckeyes added one Sunday in wide receiver Lonnie Johnson. The Gary, Ind., native had offers from Indiana, Purdue and Nebraska, among others, but gives Ohio State a four-star prospect at a position of need. Ohio State checks in at No. 14 in the latest class rankings.


Total commits: 6
ESPN 150 commits: 0
The latest: The Spartans' total hasn't changed since they picked up linemen Brian Allen and Enoch Smith Jr. during spring game weekend, but they're closing in on prospects like tight end Matt Sokol and defensive end Rashawn Pierce. The downside is that Michigan State lost Marshall to rival Michigan after many believed Marshall would go green. Michigan State also had been pursuing Watkins, who verballed to Northwestern.


Total commits: 4
ESPN 150 commits: 1
The latest: Gary Andersen's staff has added just one 2014 commit (defensive tackle Craig Evans) since taking over in late December. Although Evans pledged in March, the Badgers staff has been active on the recruiting trail and extending plenty of scholarship offers. Wisconsin made a late addition to its 2013 class last week by picking up junior-college cornerback Tekeim Reynard.


Total commits: 4
ESPN 150 commits: 0
The latest: The Illini added to their quarterback depth earlier this month by picking up a commitment from Ohio prep signal caller Chayce Crouch. Crouch led his team to the state championship game last season and had received scholarship offers from several MAC programs, as well as some interest from other Big Ten schools. Illinois also has injected some more spice into its in-state rivalry with Northwestern by picking up defensive end recruit Tito Odenigbo, the younger brother of Wildcats defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo.


Total commits: 3
ESPN 150 commits: 1
The latest: The Hawkeyes haven't added to their total since getting a pledge from offensive lineman Lucas LeGrand in early April. But with three in-state prospects -- headlined by guard Ross Pierschbacher, the nation's No. 47 player and highest-ranked Big Ten commit, according to RecruitingNation -- Iowa still is off to a decent start. Iowa is extending its recruiting reach to Georgia and recently offered defenders Henry Famurewa and Bradley Chubb.


Total commits: 3
ESPN 150 commits: 0
The latest: The Gophers added two verbals during spring game weekend in athlete Dimonic McKinzy (early All-Name team nominee) and defensive tackle Steven Richardson. In-state running back Jeff Jones, a three-star prospect, headlines the class so far. Like the previous coaching staff, Jerry Kill and his assistants are targeting Texas for recruits like linebacker Everett Williams and defensive end Noah Westerfield.


Total commits: 2
ESPN 150 commits: 0
The latest: The Huskers wait for their second 2014 commitment ended last week as Texas defensive back Jason Hall pledged for Big Red. At 6-foot-2 and 192 pounds, Hall brings excellent size to Nebraska's defensive backfield. Although Nebraska should continue to add to its total in the coming weeks and months, recruiting coordinator Ross Els told last week that the Huskers likely won't see a surge until prospects start coming to campus on official visits this fall.


Total commits: 1
ESPN 150 commits: 0
The latest: Purdue is going back to its recruiting roots under new coach Darrell Hazell, as its first verbal for 2014 comes from the fertile state of Texas. The Boilers recently added wide receiver Trae Hart to the mix. I'll have more on this later in the week, but Boilers recruiting coordinator Gerad Parker said the program is ramping up its efforts in the Lone Star State, mindful of the success former Purdue boss Joe Tiller had there.


Total commits: 0
ESPN 150 commits: 0
The latest: After signing an excellent recruiting class in February, Indiana's efforts for 2014 are off to a slow start. Indiana and Colorado are the only programs from a big-five conference (ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, SEC and Pac-12) without a verbal commit for next year. Things should pick up when camps kick off next month in Bloomington.

Future Big Ten members Rutgers and Maryland also are recruiting for the Big Ten, so here's a quick look at how they're doing ...


Total commits: 9
ESPN 150 commits: 0
The latest: The Scarlet Knights recruited well under Greg Schiano, had six players selected in April's NFL draft and continue to bring in quality players under Kyle Flood. After a productive March and April, Rutgers began May by adding a pledge from defensive tackle Pete Mokwuah. Running back Joshua Hicks and defensive end Justin Nelson headline Rutgers' 2014 so far. Rutgers also went into current Big Ten territory for quarterback Tyler Wiegers from Detroit Country Day School.


Total commits: 3
ESPN 150 commits:
The latest:
The Terrapins added two pieces to their 2014 class in recent weeks in running back Johnathan Thomas from Massachusetts and athlete William Ulmer from Washington D.C. Maryland has plenty of local and regional players on its radar for 2014, as the areas surrounding College Park consistently produce a ton of FBS talent. The Terps picked up most of their 2013 recruits before the start of the season, but they might have to be more patient after a 4-8 record in 2012.
Most muttering about the Big Ten's new division alignment came from fans of teams in the seemingly loaded East division.

Their teams suddenly have a tougher path to their top goals, whether it's the Big Ten championship game, the College Football Playoff, a top bowl game or merely any postseason spot. The main complaints from the West -- mostly from Cornhusker country -- pointed to the potential lack of exposure their teams would receive by not playing as often in mega venues like Michigan Stadium, Ohio Stadium and Beaver Stadium, not to mention in the new Big Ten markets of New Jersey/New York City (Rutgers) and Maryland/Washington, D.C./Northern Virginia (University of Maryland).

The theory is less exposure could damage recruiting, not only in the Big Ten's fertile new territories but in the existing ones like Ohio and Pennsylvania.

But four recruiting coordinators from future Big Ten West division programs contacted by this week don't sound concerned about division placement hurting their recruiting reach.

"I really don't think coming into the West division will affect us from a standpoint of kids trying to see what we're about," said Ross Els, Nebraska's recruiting coordinator and linebackers coach. "The biggest thing for us is to obviously get the TV exposure out on the East Coast, whether we're playing the guys in the East or not. With the Big Ten Network market picking up in Jersey and Maryland, it's going to help us, even though we are on the West side."

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
AP Photo/Nati HarnikAlthough West division teams like Nebraska will get less live exposure on the East Coast, the visibility they'll get from the Big Ten Network makes up for it.
The power of TV can't be minimized, Els said, noting that recruits in Texas, a former Nebraska recruiting hotbed, have less awareness of the Husker program because Husker games aren't televised as often as they were when Big Red played in the Big 12.

"But we are seeing the positive in the Midwest and now hopefully on the East Coast because we're on TV and that's what the kids are watching," Els said. "I'm interested to see what the response will be when we start playing Rutgers and Maryland or at least them watching us on TV more often. I think we'll even take another step as far as familiarity, but that's unproven right now."

Although West division teams will be getting less live exposure on the East Coast and in states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, the Big Ten's television exposure more than makes up for it, several coaches said. Every Big Ten home football game is nationally televised on Big Ten Network, ESPN or ABC, and most non-league road games are picked up by a national outlet.

Although players' family members still want to see them play live, they won't miss games if they can't make the trips.

"The Big Ten is a national brand, and with the Big Ten Network, you still can sell a lot of games being on TV, crossover games closer to home and have an opportunity to play new teams like Rutgers and Maryland," Wisconsin recruiting coordinator and running backs coach Thomas Hammock said. "With TV and having access to games online ... there’s probably less value placed on closer to home and more of the exposure of how much you can watch them play."

All of the West division teams assign coaches to recruit New Jersey andn Maryland. Purdue head coach Darrell Hazell, a New Jersey native, and running backs coach Jafar Williams, a Philadelphia native who played wide receiver at Maryland, handle the area for the Boilers.

Hammock, who hails from Jersey City, N.J., will continue to recruit his home state, where he plucked ESPN 150 running back prospect Corey Clement (Glassboro, N.J.) for the 2013 class. New Badgers assistant Chris Beatty, who grew up in Virginia and coached high school ball there, will target the areas around the University of Maryland.

Although the new markets already are priority areas for programs like Purdue, the effort there likely will ramp up in the coming seasons.

"It's certainly an area we want to pay attention to because of Coach Hazell's roots and Jafar's," Purdue recruiting coordinator and tight ends coach Gerad Parker said. "[The new additions] certainly perked our eyes because now we have a tie-in with the conference."

Matt MacPherson, Northwestern's recruiting coordinator and running backs coach, lists Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas as the three most important areas for the program's recruiting efforts outside of Illinois. The Wildcats have played at Penn State in two of the last three seasons, but the new alignment means they'll likely visit State College and Columbus just once every four years.

Still, MacPherson doesn't anticipate changing the team's recruiting plan because of the division alignment.

"When you're talking to a kid about the reasons for coming to Northwestern, you're talking not only a four-year decision but a 40-year decision, the rest-of-your-life-type decision," he said. "A lot of the kids we recruit and the families we recruit to can see beyond making that decision based on whether you're going to play in a certain football stadium one or two times in your entire career.

"I don't see it affecting us a whole lot as far as where we spend our time and resources, at least not until there's some evidence to say otherwise."

Although many Wisconsin fans didn't like the Leaders/Legends alignment because they moved away from regional rivals Minnesota and Iowa, former Badgers coach Bret Bielema often pointed to the recruiting/exposure advantages of playing Ohio State and Penn State every year. Hammock, meanwhile, had "no reaction" to Wisconsin being in the West, noting that the Badgers must play the schedule in front of them.

Some even see recruiting advantages to being in the West division.

"Being able to recruit the Midwest and push up to Chicago, being on that side of the line doesn't hurt us," Parker said.

Only time will tell how West division placement impacts teams' recruiting on the East Coast and in the eastern half of the league. But the coaches don't sound worried.

"Sure, we won’t be playing in the state of Ohio every year or every other year, but when people talk about the teams in the East, they normally talk about the teams in the West also," Els said. "So hopefully our exposure will still be pretty good in Big Ten country, regardless of which side we're on."
College football coaches aren't known for their patience, especially in the warp-speed realm of recruiting, but Nebraska assistant Ross Els knows there's no other choice.

Els, the Huskers' linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator, knows what's happening elsewhere: Michigan (eight verbal commits for 2014, seven in the ESPN 150), Ohio State (seven commits for 2014), Michigan State (six commits), Penn State (six commits), Northwestern (five commits) ... and so on.

Nebraska, meanwhile, has just one pledge for its 2014 class in safety/tight end Luke Gifford, who lives just down the road from campus in Lincoln.

[+] EnlargeRoss Els
AP Photo/Nati HarnikNebraska's location doesn't make recruiting easy. But recruiting coordinator Ross Els said that the program's staff and facilities help the cause.
"I want to be done now," Els told "The problem is we aren't going to get a ton of commitments, obviously, until we get kids on campus. And because of our small population base around here, it's hard to get kids to come visit us right away when we're not paying for it. It's expensive."

Nebraska's location makes it challenging for prospects to pay their own way on unofficial visits before their senior years. Els had to interrupt our interview to take a call from a recruit in Texas. The recruit asked about the cost of an air ticket to Nebraska.

The Huskers will gladly pay for recruits to take official visits after the start of their senior year in high school, but the value of the official visit has changed as recruits are committing earlier and earlier.

For example, Michigan has made early commits a hallmark of its recruiting under coach Brady Hoke. The Wolverines had six verbal commits for the 2012 class before May 1, 2011. They had 20 of 25 recruits verbally committed before the start of the 2011 season. Michigan accelerated the process even more for the 2013 class, as two players (quarterback Shane Morris and cornerback Dymonte Thomas) committed in 2011 and 12 committed before March 2012. Michigan once again added a small portion of its recruits (six of 27) after the 2012 season kicked off.

Nebraska has had to be more patient, if if not by choice. The Huskers had three verbal commits at this time last year, and only 10 of the eventual 25 signees pledged before the season. Big Red made its big recruiting push in the weeks before signing day as it hosted prospects on official visits. The 2012 class followed a similar pattern, as only five of 17 signees committed before the season.

"Some kids will make the circuit," Els said. "They'll go along that East Coast and hit four or five schools. Well, when you come to Nebraska, where else are you going to go? No place is really very close. They have to make a special trip. ... It's not an excuse. It's just a fact that it's hard to get kids up here early.

"Once we do, we've got a great shot at them because of the facilities, the people. So I'd love to be done, but we'll take 'em when we get 'em."

Els said Nebraska doesn't shy away from recruits who are anxious to make verbal commitments. In those cases, the coaches strongly encourage them to get to campus.

Nebraska often doesn't land recruits in a hurry to decide if they aren't in "that magical 500-mile radius we talk about," Els said, but because the Huskers recruit nationally, many of their targets will make several trips (unofficial and official) before finalizing their choice closer to signing day.

Els has a simple message to Husker fans anxious about the 2014 class: be patient.

"You can't compare us to Ohio State and Michigan and Notre Dame," he said. "We will not fill up that quickly. If we're filling up that quickly, it's either because we just won the national championship and everybody wants to play for us, or we might be not very selective in who we're taking. We don't throw offers out there just to throw 'em out there."

Big Ten Friday mailblog

November, 9, 2012
Week 11 is nearly here. Enjoy.

Steve from Albuquerque, N.M., writes: Who will get the most pursued Nittany Lion this offseason, Deion Barnes, Allen Robinson, or Bill O'Brien?

Adam Rittenberg: All three men likely will have chances to leave, but I'd expect all three to remain. It will be interesting if any NFL teams pursue O'Brien, who has excelled both as a coach and as a motivator in his first season as a head coach. My sense is he wants to see things through in State College, where his legacy likely would be much greater than if he went to the NFL, which spits out coaches every few years. Barnes and Robinson both have stated they intend to remain with Penn State, but that likely won't stop other teams from recruiting them. Both men can be multi-year starters at Penn State and play for coaches (O'Brien, Larry Johnson, etc.) who know what it takes to get them to the NFL. While every player wants to compete for championships, it won't stunt Robinson's or Barnes' long-term development if they remain at PSU.

Michael from Ft. Picklett, Va., writes: Adam, I have been wondering. Why is it that the Huskers are not able to land the top prospects? Is it location? I see Ohio State and Michigan are able to take about anyone they want. What can the Husker do to improve? I feel this is the reason the Huskers are not able to be as dominate as the teams of the 90's.

Adam Rittenberg: Michael, Nebraska still gets some top prospects, but there are some challenges for the program. The location doesn't help, because Nebraska has to extend itself nationally more than other programs. And for recruiting purposes, being in the Big Ten provides some challenges, too. Nebraska's recruiting success in Texas stemmed in part from the pitch that players could play near home a few times a year (Texas, Texas Tech, Baylor, Texas A&M). That's not there any more. Dirk Chatelain addressed the Texas recruiting issue this week, noting that Nebraska recruiting coordinator Ross Els still thinks the team can have a good presence in the Lone Star State. I guess time will tell, but I'm not so sure. The key is for Nebraska to increase its presence in the Big Ten footprint, particularly Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania. The Husker coaches have ties to the region and should be able to pluck more high-level prospects in the years to come. A Big Ten championship this season -- plus a Rose Bowl championship -- certainly will help.

Nate from Iowa writes: Adam, I have one that if you are brave enough to answer it will start a great debate on the message board below. I had a very spirited debate with a good friend that wasn't settled and wonder if you can give your input. No one can deny the great legacy and tradition of the Nebraska Cornhuskers. 5 National titles, 3 Heisman Trophy Winners, Top 5 All-time Wins in NCAA Football. But can you really say that Iowa, although they haven't beat Nebraska since the 80's, hasn't had more success than Nebraska in the past 10 years? I'm not one to measure success on wins alone, I look at the entire picture. What are your thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Nate, if you're going purely by on-field results, you can make a case for Iowa against Nebraska from 2002-2011. Keep in mind Nebraska endured a major dip in its program under Bill Callahan, while Iowa had a historic run from 2002-04 and another surge in 2009, when it won an Orange Bowl championship. Both teams were very good in 2009, but Nebraska since has been the stronger program, winning nine or more games in each of the past four seasons. The Huskers have lacked the major breakthroughs Iowa had in 2002, 2004 and 2009, but they've been a little more consistent as of late. It's a fun debate, and you can make good arguments for either team.

Rob from Omaha writes: Adam -- You and Brian have been down on Michigan State and Maxwell, but really a 9 point differential from 5-5 to 9-1. I think Maxwell has played very well this year, a few poor decisions and a couple balls that sailed, but otherwise, I think he is very strong. Assuming no early departures, I say Sparty is a top 5 program next year. What are you thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Rob, love the optimism, but a top-5 program? That's setting the bar very high for a team that will finish with at least five losses (no matter how close they are). I guess it's possible, but that's an enormous jump to make. I also have a hard time seeing how Maxwell has played "very well" when he's completing barely than half of his passes (54.2 percent). While at times people have been too hard on him, as his receivers are either unproven or unreliable, a drop-back quarterback with limited mobility needs to be completing at least 65 percent of his passes to be doing very well in my book. While Ohio State's Braxton Miller completes just 56.9 percent of his passes, he does so much more as a runner to help his team win. Maxwell needs to get a lot better for Michigan State to contend for the Big Ten title in 2013, and I think he could make those strides. But it might be tough for Michigan State to maintain this type of defense year after year, especially if/when coordinator Pat Narduzzi leaves to become a head coach. The offense also will have question marks, namely line depth and possibly running back if Le'Veon Bell bolts for the NFL. I agree that Michigan State will be an improved team next year and most likely a contender in the Legends division, but let's pump the brakes on the top-5 talk.

Chris from High Point, N.C., writes: Hey, Adam, with the lack of depth at LB for the Buckeyes and all of the talent that they are seemingly stockpiling on the D-line, do you think that some of those players might switch to LB or work in a modified role like Nathan Williams? Thanks for considering my question.

Adam Rittenberg: Chris, some players might work in a rush-end role like Nathan Williams or former Buckeye standout Thaddeus Gibson. Freshman Noah Spence, at 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, might fit into that spot. But for the most part, Ohio State's younger defensive linemen are big enough and strong enough to play up front, and likely wouldn't work well at linebacker. I agree building depth at linebacker is a challenge for Ohio State, but you don't want to force a player at a spot where he doesn't naturally fit physically. Keep in mind, too, that Ohio State has a lot of youth at linebacker that could turn out to be good in the long run, players like Joshua Perry, David Perkins and Camren Williams. Linebacker will be a fascinating position to watch in 2013 as those guys get a little older.

Solomon from Ann Arbor, Mich., writes: Hey Adam, in your Week 11 predictions, you predict that Iowa "ensures the Boilers won't be bowling for the second straight year." This isn't quite true as Purdue played in the Pizza Bowl last year and beat WMU 37-32. Just keeping you honest.

Dan from Carmel, Ind., writes: You stated in this week's predictions that Purdue won't go bowling for the 2nd straight year, better check that, they played in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl in 2011. Not that it should help Hope keep his job.

Adam Rittenberg writes: I think that sentence has been misunderstood, and for that, I apologize. I was trying to say a loss would prevent Purdue from going bowling for a second straight year, not that a loss would keep Purdue home for a second straight year. I should have been more clear, but I'm well aware Purdue played in the postseason last year and gave the Big Ten one of its three bowl wins.

William from Denver writes: Adam, what do you think are the chances of Fitzgerald leaving for Auburn or Arkansas if, big IF, those coaching positions open up?

Adam Rittenberg: Almost zero chance, William. You don't turn down Michigan, which would have been a really good fit, and then leave for mid-level SEC jobs where you have no connections. Also, Pat Fitzgerald is a Big Ten guy through and through, and I don't see him enjoying some of the challenges in the SEC (not talking about on-field competition, if you catch my drift). It wouldn't surprise me if an SEC team or two pursued Fitzgerald, but I'd be really surprised if he leaves Northwestern any time soon. He received a 10-year contract last year, and Northwestern recently approved the on-campus facility he really wanted. Fitzgerald has ties to Chicago and wants to see things through at Northwestern with the new facility.

Big Ten lunchtime links

March, 21, 2012
Let's hit the links:

Big Ten lunch links

February, 9, 2012
It's a progressive culture. Most of them travel by zipline.
The NCAA has put Nebraska on two years probation and agreed to a self-imposed fine stemming from an impermissible benefits case involving textbooks and school supplies.

Nebraska last summer self-reported violations that student-athletes had inadvertently received recommended course textbooks. In the school's report to the NCAA, Nebraska self-imposed two years of probation and a $28,000 fine. The NCAA on Wednesday increased the fine to $38,000, payable to a charity. The probation period runs through Jan. 31, 2014. The report also stated Nebraska has implemented a new process for distributing textbooks to scholarship athletes.

While Nebraska has to be pleased that no further penalties were imposed, it would have been surprising if the NCAA had come down harder.

In other Nebraska news, coach Bo Pelini announced Wednesday that assistant Ross Els will serve as recruiting coordinator and special teams coordinator. Defensive coordinator John Papuchis previously had served as the team's recruiting coordinator.

Big Ten lunchtime links

June, 20, 2011
Hope everybody had a happy Father's Day.

Opening spring ball: Nebraska

March, 11, 2011
Nebraska doesn't officially open spring practice until Saturday, but let's get a head start on the Big Ten's newest member with this spring snapshot.

The big story: Bo Pelini has reshaped his coaching staff, and the biggest change comes on the offensive side, as Tim Beck takes over at coordinator for Shawn Watson. Nebraska's offense backslid toward the end of the 2010 season, and Beck isn't afraid to start over with the system and his philosophy, so some changes can be expected. Nebraska likely will run some version of the spread, but who calls the signals and what elements are emphasized remains to be seen.

Position in the spotlight: Quarterback. The competition is on as Taylor Martinez tries to show Beck that he deserves the right to retain the top job. Beck spoke highly of incoming freshman Jamal Turner in a recent interview, and other signal callers like Cody Green also are in the mix. Martinez dazzled us in the first half of the 2010 season, but he'll need to adjust to Beck and the new system and turn in a strong spring.

Coaching changes: In addition to promoting Beck, Pelini hired four new assistant coaches. Ross Els (linebackers) and Corey Raymond (secondary) will work with a talent-stocked defense, while Rich Fisher (receivers) and John Garrison (assistant offensive line) will aid Beck in the offensive makeover. Fisher is the most interesting new arrival. He most recently coached high school football and also served as a golf teaching professional in the Boston area after leaving the college coaching ranks in 2003. Nebraska also had Ron Brown move from tight ends coach to running backs coach.

Keep an eye on: Kenny Bell. Nebraska needs some playmakers to emerge at receiver, and Bell could fit the bill. He boasts top-end speed and will have a chance to claim an enhanced role this spring after redshirting in 2010.

Spring game: April 16
Our Big Ten spring preview continues with a look at the Legends Division.


Start of spring practice: March 23
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • Succession plan for Stanzi: Remember James Vandenberg? The plucky young quarterback who nearly led Iowa to a milestone win at Ohio State in 2009 returns to the spotlight as Iowa looks to replace three-year starter Ricky Stanzi. Vandenberg had only eight pass attempts in 2010, so it'll be interesting to see how he adjusts to a potential featured role. John Wienke and A.J. Derby also will be in the mix.
  • A new-look defensive front: Iowa loses three multiyear starters along the defensive line, all of whom likely will go onto the NFL. Mike Daniels and Broderick Binns return, but Iowa must begin building depth around them after not playing a large rotation of linemen in 2010. It'll be a big spring for reserve defensive linemen like Lebron Daniel and Steve Bigach.
  • Rhabdo fallout: Iowa expects the 13 players hospitalized last month with rhabdomyolysis to be ready for spring ball, but there are questions about how the group responds to the rigors of practice. Expect the staff to take every precaution to make sure the players are ready to go. Iowa's internal investigation into what happened could reach its conclusion during the spring practice session.

Start of spring practice: March 19
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • Hoke springs eternal: All eyes will be on new coach Brady Hoke as he oversees his first 15 practice sessions as the leading man in Ann Arbor. Hoke and his staff introduce new offensive and defensive systems, and Hoke likely will spend much of his time with a defense that reached historic lows during former coach Rich Rodriguez's tenure. An adjustment period can be expected, but Hoke wants to get things rolling as soon as he can.
  • Denard Robinson: The 2010 Big Ten offensive player of the year thrived in Rodriguez's spread offense. How will he be used in coordinator Al Borges' system? Will Robinson's unique talents still be maximized? After making major strides last offseason, Robinson must continue to grow as he adjusts to a new offense. This is also a big spring for backup quarterback Devin Gardner.
  • The move to the 4-3: Michigan is going back to a 4-3 defensive alignment under coordinator Greg Mattison, and the transition begins this spring. The defensive front has to lead the way, and the personnel is there to get it done. The Wolverines are a little thinner at linebacker, but saw some encouraging signs from Kenny Demens this past fall. Others must emerge at the position this spring.

Start of spring practice: March 29
Spring game: April 30

What to watch:
  • Familiar face, new leadership: Dan Roushar takes over as Spartans offensive coordinator, and while you shouldn't expect many dramatic changes, the veteran assistant will put his personal touch on the system. Roushar wants to fully re-establish the run game Michigan State displayed in the early part of the 2010 season. It'll also be interesting to see how he works with quarterback Kirk Cousins.
  • Reloading at linebacker: Michigan State loses two of the more productive linebackers in recent team history in Greg Jones and Eric Gordon. Returning starter Chris Norman will take on an enhanced role, and the spring will be big for younger linebackers like Max Bullough, Steve Gardiner and Denicos Allen.
  • Elevating the O-line play: You can bet Roushar will have an eye on his old position group, the offensive line, as it replaces starters at both tackle spots and at center. If Michigan State can get its offensive line play where competitors like Iowa and Wisconsin have it, the Spartans will be Big Ten title contenders for years to come. Michigan State has some nice pieces like veteran guard Joel Foreman, but it must build depth this spring.

Start of spring practice: March 24
Spring game: April 23

What to watch:
  • A time to Kill. Jerry Kill conducts his first 15 practices as Minnesota's coach and he has no shortage of challenges. He and his assistants must install new systems on both sides of the ball and, perhaps more importantly, get across their expectations for the players going forward. Kill wasn't overly thrilled with his first impression of the squad, so he has a lot of work to do.
  • Gray back at QB: After a season playing primarily wide receiver, MarQueis Gray is back at his preferred position of quarterback. Kill and his assistants made no secret of the fact that they see tremendous potential in Gray, a dual-threat signal-caller who could end up being a terrific fit for Kill's offense. It will be interesting to see how much Gray can absorb this spring as he prepares to lead the unit.
  • Kim Royston's return: Minnesota's defense got a huge boost when the NCAA somewhat surprisingly granted safety Kim Royston a sixth year of eligibility. Royston, who had a strong season in 2009 before breaking his leg last spring, is ready to go and should provide some much-needed leadership in the secondary. New defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys will be on the lookout for playmakers and leaders this spring, and he'll find one in Royston.

Start of spring practice: March 12
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • New vision on offense: Nebraska likely will have a championship-level defense in 2011, but will the offense bounce back from a poor finish to last season? Tim Beck is the man pegged to get things back on track. Coach Bo Pelini promoted Beck to offensive coordinator, and Beck will begin to implement his vision for the unit this spring. Nebraska figures to stick with the spread, but what version Beck wants to use remains to be seen.
  • The quarterbacks: Taylor Martinez stiff-armed the transfer rumors, and in January said he looked forward "getting healthy and getting my strength and speed back." The big question: Will he also get his job back as Nebraska's starting quarterback? Martinez can help himself with a strong spring, but Cody Green also is in the mix and things could get very interesting if Bubba Starling decides to stick with football rather than pursue a pro baseball career.
  • New faces on staff: In addition to promoting Beck, Pelini hired three new assistants: Corey Raymond (secondary), Ross Els (linebackers) and Rich Fisher (receivers). Raymond takes over a talented group that must replace three standout players, including cornerback Prince Amukamara. It'll be interesting to watch Fisher, who most recently coached in high school and also served as a golf teacher, as he transitions back to big-time football.

Start of spring practice: March 7
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • Rebuilding the defense: Northwestern figures to have one of the Big Ten's top offenses this fall, but there are major issues on the other side of the ball. The Wildcats' defense flat-lined in the final three games, surrendering 163 points and getting dominated at the line of scrimmage. It's a big spring for coordinator Mike Hankwitz, who must fill gaps at spots like linebacker, but more importantly must restore the aggressiveness seen in 2008 and part of 2009.
  • The backup QB race: Dan Persa is still rehabbing his surgically repaired Achilles' tendon and won't do much in spring ball. It provides an opportunity for Northwestern to hold an extensive competition to see who backs up Persa this coming season. Kain Colter provided a spark in the bowl game and could be the answer. Evan Watkins needs a bounce-back spring, and Trevor Siemian will be in the mix after redshirting this past fall.
  • Here's the kicker: Northwestern loses four-year starting specialist Stefan Demos and will look to identify a replacement this spring. Neither Jeff Budzien nor Steve Flaherty has attempted a field goal in a game -- they have combined for two PAT conversions -- so the race will be wide open. Special teams has cost Northwestern at inopportune times over the years, but it could be an area of strength in 2011 if the kicker situation is sorted out.
It wasn't exactly a big secret in Husker country, but Nebraska coach Bo Pelini has confirmed several staff changes.

The biggest one is the promotion of running backs coach Tim Beck to offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Pelini also tabbed Corey Raymond as secondary coach, Ross Els as linebackers coach and Rich Fisher as wide receivers coach. Veteran Nebraska assistant Ron Brown moves from tight ends coach to running backs coach.

UPDATE: Pelini also has confirmed the promotion of John Garrison to full-time assistant. Garrison will work with Barney Cotton and coach the offensive linemen.

Departing the program are offensive coordinator Shawn Watson and receivers coach Ted Gilmore. Nebraska announced the resignation of secondary coach Marvin Sanders two weeks ago.

The staff makeover means Nebraska will have a new look on offense as it transitions to its new league. Although the Huskers made two changes to their defensive staff, we know what to expect from the Pelini brothers on that side of the ball.

What does this mean for Nebraska's offense? Beck hasn't been a play-caller at the college level but served as Kansas' passing game coordinator during the Jayhawks' breakthrough season in 2007. He's a terrific recruiter and did an excellent job with the Huskers' running backs. Beck also has a strong bond with Pelini that should help them going forward.

It's safe to assume he'll stick with a spread system, but what type of spread? Will we see shades of Oregon's offense in Lincoln next fall? How will the system suit Taylor Martinez and the other quarterbacks?

To clear up any confusion, the spread can work in the Big Ten. We've seen it work at places like Purdue, Northwestern, Michigan and Penn State. But Nebraska's execution must be sharp against what I believe will be a superior group of defenses than it saw in the Big 12.

I'm looking forward to talking with Beck about his vision.

It's hard to fault Nebraska for changing things up on offense. After a blistering start to 2010, the unit took a nosedive in mid-November and didn't produce nearly enough in losses to Texas A&M, Oklahoma and Washington.

So change isn't a bad thing. But Nebraska has to know who it is on offense. Spring practice will be huge for the Huskers to figure out their identity and who leads the charge this fall.