Big Ten: Russell Wilson
Meyer hasn't spent his entire career in the Big Ten, but the Ohio State coach has a pretty good handle on the quarterback landscape in college football. Informed last month that a Big Ten quarterback hadn't been selected in the first round of the NFL draft since Penn State's Kerry Collins in 1995, Meyer's jaw dropped.
"You're kidding me? Wow," he said. "That shouldn't be. Man, there hasn’t been a first-rounder? [Terrelle] Pryor probably would have been. Well, Tom Brady should have been. I never ...
"You've got me shocked."
Even a few questions later, Meyer couldn't get past the flabbergasting factoid.
"Wow," he said. "Twenty years?"
Several factors have contributed to the Big Ten's downturn, but quarterback play belongs high on the list. The league hasn't had an All-American quarterback since 2006, when Ohio State's Troy Smith won the Heisman Trophy. Only one Big Ten quarterback has been selected in the first three rounds of the NFL draft since 2008. That player, Wisconsin's Russell Wilson, started his career in the ACC.
"It's been awhile since the Big Ten had a top-drawer guy," former Purdue coach Joe Tiller said. "An elite-type quarterback certainly would help the conference."
To be clear, a first-round designation isn't the best way or the only way to measure a conference at one position.
"So Drew Brees sucks just because he was 5-11 and three quarters and he goes Pick 32?" Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said. "You would never want Tom Brady, ever. He's horrible! You’ve got to take Akili Smith or somebody."
Brees slipped to the first pick of the second round in 2001 because of his height. Brady is among the best to ever play the position, and Wilson just helped the Seahawks win the Super Bowl. At least five NFL teams will start Big Ten quarterbacks this season.
But the volume isn't there.
"Drew should have been a first-round guy, but let's say he was," Tiller said. "Hell, him and Kerry Collins, for cryin' out loud? That's a long time [without more]."
The Big Ten doesn't have as much trouble churning out elite linemen and running backs. Does the league's ground-and-pound image turn off top quarterbacks? Does the weather? Coaches say no.
"The weather is a positive," Penn State coach James Franklin said. "When the NFL scouts are going to grade these people, they want to know how they're going to play in all these different conditions."
Although many Big Ten programs use offenses that fit the league's stereotypes, those who emphasize quarterback-friendly systems can find the pieces. When Mike White came to Illinois in 1980, he brought with him two junior-college quarterbacks from California, Dave Wilson and Tony Eason. That fall, Wilson set an NCAA record with 621 yards against Ohio State. He was a first-round pick in the NFL supplemental draft in 1981. Two years later, Eason was the No. 15 overall pick, 12 spots ahead of a guy named Marino.
"I had the confidence when I hit the Big Ten that it wasn't a passing conference and I probably had an edge," said White, who coached at Illinois from 1980-87. "We proved that you could throw the ball in the Big Ten. Our kids loved it."
So did the fans. On Illinois' first play of the season, Wilson launched the ball downfield ... nowhere near his intended receiver.
"I think we got a standing ovation," White said.
Quarterback-friendly programs such as Illinois, Iowa and Purdue produced stars during that time. The Big Ten had six first-round quarterbacks between 1982-90. In 1997, Tiller arrived at Purdue and introduced a pass-driven spread offense. Brees began shattering league records.
But those were the exceptions, not the rule. Big Ten teams have often used run-driven offenses with game-managers under center.
"More and more guys just went back to the system that they had confidence in," White said. "I don't think they came in with a passion for the forward pass and how you can make it work, so consequently, it just became Big Ten football again."
Kevin Wilson notes some Big Ten teams haven't built around the quarterback spot and that, more than weather or league reputation, might hurt the strength of the position. But things appear to be improving.
Wilson runs a fast-paced, pass-heavy spread offense at Indiana. Michigan, which has great tradition at quarterback, is back to using a pro-style offense. Michigan State has a nice run of quarterbacks with Brian Hoyer, Kirk Cousins and now Connor Cook. Penn State returns Christian Hackenberg, the Big Ten's freshman of the year in 2013.
"I don't think people can be fairly critical of the quarterbacks in the Big Ten," said Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo. "It's a pretty good group this year. Hackenberg could be the first guy taken, whenever he decides to go.
"He's a rare talent."
A few more rare talents at quarterback -- along with the right coaches and systems -- could give the Big Ten the boost it needs.
@AWardESPN are people underestimating Rutgers in there first big 10 season?— Michael Isselin (@MichaelIsselin) July 16, 2014
Austin Ward: There is no reason to think Rutgers won't eventually be able to compete in the Big Ten if it is able to use the league's resources to its advantage, but it certainly seems like it's going to be a difficult transition in the short term. For starters, joining the East Division did the Scarlet Knights no favors, and on top of that they drew both Nebraska and Wisconsin from the West to give them about as rude of an introduction to the league as possible. Considering their struggles in a weaker conference a year ago, a sub-.500 finish thanks to their bowl-game loss to Notre Dame and some lingering questions about how explosive the offense can be, I think even climbing into contention for a postseason appearance might be a stretch for the Scarlet Knights this fall.
@AWardESPN How important will QBs be in the race for the B1G West, who is the best of those QBs, and why is it Wes Lunt?— Aaron Rench (@ARench89) July 18, 2014
Ward: Typically, sizing up the quarterbacks is a pretty handy way to forecast the favorites, but the West is something of an exception this offseason. Nebraska has some uncertainty even with Tommy Armstrong Jr. returning, and Wisconsin doesn't exactly have Russell Wilson under center this fall either, yet the running games those two programs boast are strong enough that they have generally been accepted as the top candidates to advance to the Big Ten title game on that side of the league. Wes Lunt's physical tools and the dynamic offense he will lead if he can finally, officially win the starting job make him an intriguing pick as the best of the bunch, and it seems a safe bet that he will put up impressive individual numbers. But don't count out Jake Rudock as somebody capable of giving Iowa steady production and turning that team into a threat in the West, provided he can cut down on the turnovers and the coaching staff actually does open up the attack a bit more this season.
@AWardESPN other than Raekwon/Bosa (obivous) who do you see making the biggest impact on defense of the 1st and 2nd yr players?— Michael Doty Sr (@MdotySr) July 18, 2014
Ward: The recruiting work Urban Meyer has done on the defensive side of the ball is starting to show up on the roster, and the Ohio State Buckeyes are going to need some of their younger, highly touted players to have a big impact if they are going to make a serious run at the playoff this season. Joey Bosa, as mentioned, might be one of the most destructive defensive linemen in the country this fall, and he is obviously going to be critical in generating a pass rush that could take some pressure off the revamped secondary. But it is a new full-time starter in the back end that might actually have the greatest influence in restoring Ohio State's proud defensive tradition, and Vonn Bell already raised the sky-high expectations when he snagged that one-handed interception in the Discover Orange Bowl. His spring was cut short by injury, but Bell is a young guy the Buckeyes desperately need to deliver..
Of course, he’s not the only Big Ten player to ever enter his senior year with big expectations. In the past 20 years, six other conference players earned Heisman votes before their final seasons and were preseason candidates a season later. (Thirteen non-seniors in all earned votes, but seven left early for the NFL draft. Another, Northwestern's Damien Anderson, played in just eight games the season after and isn't listed below.)
Although it’s still anyone’s guess exactly how Miller will fare this season, here’s a look at players who found themselves in similar positions and how they performed in the season after receiving Heisman votes:
Heisman votes as a junior: 22 first-place votes; finished fourth overall. Led the nation with 1,923 rushing yards (6.3 yards per carry) and also finished with an NCAA-best 33 rushing TDs.
How he fared the next year: Without quarterback Russell Wilson, some experts predicted Ball would struggle to equal the numbers from his junior campaign. Sure enough, with a rotating quarterback carousel, that’s exactly what happened. The Badgers threw just 289 times that season and Ball finished with a career-high 356 carries. Ball’s importance and talent were still undeniable but, as defenses zeroed in against him, he watched his yards-per-carry average fall by more than a yard.
How the team fared: Wisconsin leaned on Ball heavily -- just take a look at this box score against Utah State -- and fared well when it counted. The Badgers won the Big Ten championship, embarrassing Nebraska in a 70-31 blowout, and earned a spot in the Rose Bowl. They finished 8-6.
Heisman votes as a sophomore: Six first-place votes; finished sixth overall. Went 182-of-291 passing (62.5 percent) for 2,570 yards, 18 TDs and 11 INTs; rushed for 1,702 yards (6.6 ypc) and 14 TDs.
How he fared the next year: Speculation swirled on whether Robinson would transfer before the season because the firing of Rich Rodriguez meant he had to deal a new coaching staff and some offensive changes. But Robinson stayed and performed well – even if his numbers decreased across the board. Running back Fitzgerald Toussaint was able to take some pressure off Robinson, and the change in statistics wasn’t dramatic. After all, Robinson still rushed for more than 1,000 yards and passed for more than 2,000. It wasn’t as impressive as 2010, but Robinson was still named team MVP and earned a spot on the All-Big Ten second team.
How the team fared: Michigan fans were just fine with Robinson’s drop-off because the team soared in Brady Hoke’s first season. Robinson guided the Wolverines to an 11-2 finish -- their best record in five years -- and helped Michigan win the Sugar Bowl.
Heisman votes as a junior: Five first-place votes; finished fifth overall. Finished second in the B1G with 1,562 yards (4.9 ypc) and had 14 rushing TDs
How he fared the next year: Hart became a team captain and turned in an even stronger performance. If it wasn’t for an ankle injury that sidelined him for three full games, Hart likely would’ve been in the Heisman race again. Through nine Michigan games, he led all BCS runners with 154 yards a game – and he was still a finalist for the Doak Walker Award and a consensus pick as first-team All-Big Ten. Overall, his importance was pretty difficult to ignore. After opening the season with two losses, Hart helped to shift the tone by guaranteeing a win against Notre Dame – Michigan won 38-0 –and then winning eight straight. He finished the year with 5.1 ypc and matched his 14-touchdown total despite carrying the ball 53 fewer times.
How the team fared: The Wolverines put an early end to their national title hopes by losing to Appalachian State in the opener. Michigan failed to repeat its Rose Bowl berth but rebounded after a slow start to go 9-4 and win the Capital One Bowl.
Heisman votes as a junior: Three first-place votes; finished fourth overall. Led the conference in every major passing category: passing yards (3,909), passing TDs (25), pass attempts (554) and pass completions (337) and threw 12 interceptions.
How he fared the next year: Brees’ consistency was pretty darn impressive, as all of his numbers were nearly identical even though Purdue didn't have much of a running game. He again led the Big Ten in those same statistical categories and improved his standing in the Heisman race -- he finished third as a senior with 69 first-place votes. Plus, he won the Maxwell Award and was named the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. Brees’ success is pretty well documented, but something fans might have forgotten: He rushed for 521 yards and 5.5 yards per carry as a senior. Brees really could do it all.
How the team fared: The Boilermakers shared the Big Ten title and improved their victory total from the year before, from 7-5 to 8-4. They earned a berth in the Rose Bowl.
Heisman votes as a sophomore: 87 first-place votes; finished fourth overall. Led the NCAA with 387 rushing attempts and had 1,785 yards (4.6 ypc) and 17 TDs; caught 27 passes for 168 yards and one score.
How he fared the next year: Autry fared a bit better in 1996, as Northwestern’s passing attack improved and defenses could no longer key on him. In 1995, he literally accounted for half of the offense’s total yards (1,953 of 3,916). In 1996, he carried the ball 107 fewer times – his 280 attempts were still the fourth-highest in the conference -- but he matched his 17 rushing TDs from the previous season and increased his average by more than a half-yard, up to 5.2 yards per carry. He dropped a bit in the Heisman voting, but that was mostly because his rushing yards dropped with a smaller workload. Autry still dominated.
How the team fared: Northwestern shared the Big Ten title and improved its record to 9-3 – but lost in the Citrus Bowl. Autry’s Wildcats shocked the B1G that October when they overcame a 16-0 deficit against Michigan by rallying in the fourth quarter.
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Rajiv from Tallahassee, Fla., writes: Do you think that there are any programs in the B1G that would automatically get or deserve a spot in the playoff if they ran the table in any given year? Secondly, suppose a team like Northwestern or Minnesota ran the table and then beat a 12-0 Michigan State team in the BIG Championship. Should one of those teams get an automatic bid? Don't think that situation would happen, but certainly an undefeated Ohio State would garner more recognition than Northwestern.
Adam Rittenberg: Rajiv, it's my belief that any major-conference team that runs the table and wins a league title game to go 13-0 would make the field of four. Why else would you expand the field from two to four? Most Big Ten teams are playing at least one marquee non-league opponent, so even if their league schedule is a little soft like Iowa's or Wisconsin's this year, a perfect mark would be enough to get them in, regardless of their reputation. It would be incredibly disappointing if the committee functions like poll voters and gives preferences to historically strong teams. There would have to be odd circumstances -- two or more undefeated teams from major conferences -- for a 13-0 Big Ten team to be left out.
Adam Rittenberg: Jason, I think your first point about Penn State making strides and moving past some of the more severe sanctions is a motivator for the school's position. There's no full relief from the sanctions, since Penn State has had two bowl-eligible teams stay home and continues to operate with reduced scholarships. But the school clearly feels that cooperation with the NCAA is the best route. Penn State also has aligned itself with the Freeh Report, which the Paterno family claims isn't credible. Ultimately, PSU seems too far down the road in lockstep with the NCAA to dramatically change its position.
Adam Rittenberg: Paul, quarterback play in the Big Ten has been down for some time. The league hasn't had a quarterback selected in the first round of the NFL draft since Penn State's Kerry Collins in 1995. That's stunning. Although quarterbacks such as Drew Brees (Purdue), Tom Brady (Michigan) and Russell Wilson (Wisconsin) have gone on to win Super Bowls, the league isn't mass-producing elite signal-callers. Something needs to shift, and it could be the quality of quarterback coaches in the Big Ten. Besides Indiana's Kevin Wilson, are there any true QB gurus in the B1G?
Your second question is a bit tricky because there are some major-conference teams elsewhere with dire QB situations. But Braxton Miller, Connor Cook and Christian Hackenberg could start for any FBS squad.
Adam Rittenberg: Moss, it just doesn't seem to add up. A league should be able to build its brand, generate revenue for its schools and win championships on the field. What do you mean by not paying attention? What do you want the Big Ten to do for its underperforming teams? That's the hard part. Commissioner Jim Delany gets criticized a lot, but he has significantly increased the resources for Big Ten programs, which can pay coaches more and invest in their facilities. Ultimately, the Big Ten can move its campuses to the south and west, where more of the elite players are. But I don't agree the league is neglecting its programs by trying to expand its brand.
Adam Rittenberg: That fear is real, Robert, as Ohio State's quarterback situation beyond 2014 seems cloudy. Miller's injury this spring allowed Jones and Barrett both to get some significant work in practice. While both struggled in the spring game, Jones enters the summer as Miller's primary backup. Ohio State would be wise to get at least one, if not both, into games this season, even in mop-up time. Collier seems like more of a project, and all three men need some time to develop. I don't think it's realistic to expect Ohio State's next quarterback to match Miller's big-play ability.
As Penn State fans were quick to point out to me on Twitter, two Big Ten quarterbacks became champions Sunday as former Nittany Lions signal-caller Michael Robinson, now the Seahawks' fullback, helped the Seattle offense have a big night.
For those saying the Big Ten can't claim Wilson because he played his first three years at NC State, it comes down to this: He had his best season at Wisconsin and finished his career there. He counts.
It was a fairly quiet night, statistically speaking, for former Big Ten players in the big game.
Here's a recap:
- Wilson completed 18 of 25 passes for 206 yards with two touchdowns; he added 26 rushing yards.
- Defensive end Cliff Avril (Purdue) recorded three tackles, one for loss, and had two pass deflections.
- Robinson had one reception for 7 yards and served as Marshawn Lynch's lead blocker; he also had a tackle on special teams.
- Linebacker O'Brien Schofield (Wisconsin) had a tackle for loss.
- Safety Chris Maragos (Wisconsin) had a tackle on special teams.
- Tight end Kellen Davis (Michigan State) and defensive tackle Jordan Hill (Penn State) weren't active for the game.
- Running back Montee Ball (Wisconsin) had 1 rushing yard on six attempts and two receptions for 2 yards.
- Wide receiver Eric Decker (Minnesota) had one reception for 6 yards (targeted five times) and one punt return for 9 yards.
- Defensive end Shaun Phillips (Purdue) had four tackles.
- Cornerback Marquice Cole (Northwestern) was active but didn't record any statistics.
Wisconsin fans had a lot to celebrate as a former Badgers quarterback -- Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell -- called plays for another in Wilson, who had a nice exchange with his former Badgers backfield mate after the game.
- Thanks to Russell Wilson and others, Wisconsin received some excellent pub during Super Bowl XLVIII. Badgers recruit Dareian Watkins overcame some rough obstacles early in his life.
- Doug Lesmerises projects Ohio State's offensive depth chart in 2014 following signing day. Buckeyes AD Gene Smith talks football expectations and other topics in a Q&A.
- Nebraska had a very busy weekend on the recruiting trail.
- Michigan State's recruiting profile is on the rise, Mike Griffith writes.
- Matt Daniels lists 10 reasons why Illinois fans will praise or curse Tim Beckman's name.
- Nick Baumgardner looks at where Michigan's 2014 recruits might fit in next season.
- Malik McDowell's father has some interesting thoughts on what the top recruit is thinking as signing day approaches.
- Indiana adds three more recruits, including one who flipped from Purdue, on the final weekend before signing day.
- New Penn State assistant Herb Hand makes a bigger impact off the field. A look at how the NCAA sanctions are still impacting Penn State.
- A good look at questions surrounding the Northwestern unionizing attempt.
Don't forget: Twitter.
B1G in Memphis writes: I agree in principle with Kain Colter's call for the organization of student athletes if it seeks to prevent injuries or compensate student athletes for injuries sustained in their college careers. However, the concept of paying student athletes that many have suggested seems unreasonable to me. You couldn't just pay the revenue sports players, because that would be discriminatory to female athletes (Title IX, anyone?). And if you paid all athletes, athletic departments would have an incentive to eliminate non-revenue sports.
Chase from Detroit writes: Adam, I think the other side to the this Brendan Gibbons story is missing here. The program and university definitely need to answer questions about when Gibbons' separation from the university was official, how the information should have been released, and why the investigation took so long. But let's not forget the fact that Gibbons was investigated by the police and faces no legal charges. How is his situation any different from Jameis Winston from FSU, Keith Appling and Adreian Payne from MSU, or Prince Shembo from ND? All of these guys were involved in serious sexual assault investigations, but there was never enough evidence or cooperation to face legal charges like Gibbons. Shouldn't Michigan also be commended for taking a hard-line stance even where there were no legal charges?
Adam Rittenberg: Chase, while Michigan seems to have its policy correct now, we don't know the full story of how the university responded to the initial allegations. Did the alleged victim feel the university responded swiftly and appropriately in her case? It's unfortunate that an incident in 2009 only has repercussions four years later, essentially after Gibbons' playing career. But it does seem like Michigan will approach these situations correctly going forward. I don't think that calls for a ton of praise, though.
Nathan from Burlington, Vt., writes: Adam, I'm a die-hard Rutgers fan. This year was pretty disappointing for us. I expect us to have a .500 record our first year in the B1G but have high hopes for 2015. We have a great recruiting class coming in. Do you think we have a shot at being a top team in 2-3 years in the B1G?
Adam Rittenberg: Nathan, you mention the recruiting class, and that's what it will take for Rutgers to rise up in the Big Ten, particularly in a tough division like the East. Rutgers will have to lock down its borders and keep the best in-state players at home, which is no easy task given how many Big Ten programs recruit in the Garden State. I also think Rutgers must make strong financial investments in its program, including the coaching staff, to keep pace with the deep-pocketed Big Ten. Should be interesting.
Rob from Chicago writes: What questions must Michigan answer? The timing of the incident is known. The timing of when it was reported to the school is known. The expulsion came at the end of the school's investigation and its own determinations. No criminal charges were ever filed, and there is not an ongoing investigation by the police. (A fact dropped from your attack piece.) Without criminal charges, its akin to the Jameis Winston case. There was no suspension there. Maybe ask MSU the tough questions about [Max] Bullough? ... If we are going to ask tough questions, ask that one as well.
Adam Rittenberg: Yes, Rob, it's always about what the other school did in its case, never about yours. The glee that certain fan bases take about the troubles of rival teams really bothers me, but whatever. The question here is when Michigan's athletic department and Brady Hoke knew about two things: the initial letter stating the school had determined Gibbons engaged in unwanted sexual conduct, and when the school had decided to suspend Gibbons. If Michigan knew all of this in November and still let Gibbons play at Iowa, that's a problem in my view -- if not a legal/official one, a moral one.
Drew from Kennebunk, Maine, writes: What does Indiana have to do to fix its defense, which has been last in the Big Ten the last three years running, and one of the worst in the nation. They hired a new DC recently, but is coaching the issue here, or something else? Is it more of a lack of talented defensive players, rather than coaching?
Adam Rittenberg: Love Kennebunk and that entire area, Drew. Talent certainly is the biggest factor when it comes to IU's defense, and Indiana played a bunch of freshmen in Kevin Wilson's first two seasons. New coordinator Brian Knorr will inherit a group with a lot of starting experience. IU will never have the best defensive talent in the Big Ten, but with improved recruiting and a good scheme, the defense can rise to a respectable level, which might be enough because the offense is so strong. If Indiana has a mediocre defense last season, it probably wins seven games.
Max Wittek from Los Angeles writes: Hey Adam, I'm an unrestricted free agent eligible to play immediately after graduation this spring. What are the chances of me continuing the QB transfer tradition in Madison? If the Badgers pursue me, am I Danny O'Brien or will I be Russell Wilson? How's the weather compared to LA?
Adam Rittenberg: Weather is awesome, Max. Just like L.A. I'd be a little surprised if you ended up in Madison, especially since Wisconsin has several younger quarterbacks it's looking to develop. Bart Houston is only a redshirt sophomore, and Joel Stave still has two seasons of eligibility left and a lot of experience under his belt. I don't know if the desperation is the same as it was when Wilson and O'Brien came to Madison.
Matt from Plymouth, Minn., writes: With Jeff Jones canceling his visits to Florida and Michigan, it's looking more and more like he will end up a Gopher after all. How big is this going to be for Jerry Kill and the Gopher program if they end up with this year's top in state player?
Adam Rittenberg: It's huge, Matt. Minnesota has lost many of its top in-state prospects to other programs over the years. There are a limited amount of great players in the state, so to be able to keep one at home is really significant. Jones is a guy who could step in right away and help David Cobb in the run game.
- Former Michigan kicker Brendan Gibbons is apparently not facing charges for the incident that seems to have led to his expulsion from the school.
- The Wolverines have seen some of their recruiting momentum slip away. Could Michigan State capitalize on that given its strong finish on the field last season?
- Ohio State has found itself a new president, and he was a popular guy with at least one coach during his stint at UC-Irvine.
- The Buckeyes are keeping their current athletic director around for a while, and Doug Lesmerises takes a look at the contract extension signed by Gene Smith.
- Former Minnesota quarterback Phillip Nelson has picked his next school, and he'll be staying in the Big Ten as he heads to Rutgers.
- Should likely defensive coordinator Joe Rossi be judged for the performance of the Scarlet Knights in the bowl game against Notre Dame?
- Iowa has fired an athletic department employee over missing funds from ticket sales on the Hawkeye Express.
- Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst has been on the job for a year, and he's crammed plenty into that relatively short timeframe.
- Penn State's new passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach knows better players can make for better coaches, and Ricky Rahne is set to work with another talented signal caller in Christian Hackenberg.
- A Madison-based company landed Russell Wilson for his first solo Super Bowl commercial, and it struck gold when the former Wisconsin quarterback actually led Seattle to the NFL championship game.
- Some takes on the unionization plan led by Northwestern players here and here and here.
- Former Michigan kicker Brendan Gibbons was expelled from school for violating the sexual misconduct policy.
- A closer look at Big Ten recruiting as signing day approaches.
- St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Florida remains a top recruiting target for Ohio State coach Urban Meyer.
- The son of Purdue hoops great Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson could make an immediate impact on the Boilers' defensive line.
- New Indiana defensive coordinator Brian Knorr will employ a complex scheme in Bloomington.
- Rutgers is poised to fill its coordinator vacancies, as The Fridge joins the staff. Former Minnesota quarterback Philip Nelson could head to Rutgers but also is considering Kansas State.
- A closer look at Dwight Galt, Penn State's new strength coach.
- Faith helped guide former Wisconsin stars Russell Wilson and Montee Ball to the Super Bowl.
Wilson and Ball both celebrated other championships Sunday, as they helped their respective NFL teams -- Wilson is the starting quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks, Ball is the 1A running back for the Denver Broncos -- win conference titles and advance to Super Bowl XLVIII. For all the hand-wringing about playing the Super Bowl outdoors in likely frigid weather at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., the two former Badgers likely won't mind it one bit.
Wisconsin is sending four former players to the Super Bowl -- safety Chris Maragos (Seattle) and linebacker O'Brien Schofield (Seattle) are the others. The Badgers lead all Big Ten teams and rank second nationally behind the University of Tennessee for most players on active rosters in the Super Bowl.
The game will also feature two offensive coordinators -- Seattle's Darrell Bevell (Wisconsin) and Denver's Adam Gase (Michigan State) -- who attended Big Ten schools.
Let's take a look at the complete list of players and coaches with Big Ten connections who are participating in Super Bowl XLVIII. (I'm guessing Big Ten fans are glad they don't have to take ownership of Richard Sherman.)
- RB Montee Ball (Wisconsin)
- CB Marquice Cole (Northwestern)
- WR Eric Decker (Minnesota)
- DE Shaun Phillips (Purdue)
- DE Cliff Avril (Purdue)
- TE Kellen Davis (Michigan State)
- DT Jordan Hill (Penn State)
- S Chris Maragos (Wisconsin)
- FB Michael Robinson (Penn State)
- LB O'Brien Schofield (Wisconsin)
- QB Russell Wilson (Wisconsin)
- Offensive coordinator Adam Gase graduated from Michigan State in 1999 and worked with the football coaches while in school.
- Offensive line coach Dave Magazu was a graduate assistant at Michigan in 1983.
- Defensive line coach Jay Rodgers played quarterback at Indiana and started 15 games between 1996-98. He was a recruiting intern at Ohio State in 2000.
- Head coach Pete Carroll was Ohio State's secondary coach in 1979.
- Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell played quarterback at Wisconsin, helping the Badgers to the Rose Bowl during the 1993 season. He set 19 team records and left as the Badgers' all-time passing yards leader (7,686).
- Assistant offensive line coach Pat Ruel served as Michigan State's offensive line coach under Nick Saban from 1998-99.
- Running backs coach Sherman Smith was an Illinois assistant from 1992-94, working with both tight ends and running backs.
In between, he has grown, well, kind of old. He got married two springs ago. He will be 23 if and when Wisconsin closes its season in a bowl game. Three years ago, he hosted his current quarterback, Joel Stave, on Stave's official visit. The two have since connected for seven scores over the last two seasons, and even Stave sometimes gets that you again? feeling that Big Ten defensive coordinators have become all too familiar with.
"That seems like forever ago for me," Stave said of his visit. "And the fact that he's still the playing is pretty incredible. But he's continued to do such a good job for four years. He's one of those guys you don't mind having stick around."
But Abbrederis would rather avoid such sidebars. That Buckeye game was a loss -- his Badgers' second this year, two weeks after an officiating gaffe cost them a chance to win at Arizona State -- and that was all that mattered. Wisconsin's last 12 losses since 2010 have all been decided by a touchdown or less, including three tight Rose Bowl defeats, leaving an admonition that continues to drum inside the senior's head.
"He's been around for some unbelievable losses," Wisconsin receivers coach Chris Beatty said. "So that's where I think a lot of it comes from -- 'Hey, I just want to win,' and it doesn't matter.
"He's one of those guys that says, 'Hey, if it means I've got to push, crack and go block a safety, I'll go block a safety. I just want to win. It doesn't matter if I'm catching passes or not.' And that's the most evident thing to me, is he's just a winner. Stats and all that stuff are secondary."
Abbrederis leads the Badgers in receiving yards (114.4 ypg) for the third straight season. His exploits as a return man were highlighted in 2011, when he finished third nationally in punt return average (15.75). He was still a walk-on that season, just like his first two years in Madison, paying to play while enduring a nagging toe injury as his seemingly imminent scholarship was delayed a year after Wisconsin added a quarterback transfer by the name of Russell Wilson.
Both Beatty and first-year Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen were familiar with Abbrederis before their arrivals in Madison, since their former schools (Illinois and Utah State, respectively) faced Wisconsin last year. Abbrederis missed the meeting with the Aggies because of a concussion and a chest injury. That was the only college game he has sat out.
This past July, he showed up to Big Ten media days in Chicago sporting marks under both eyes, a result of a broken nose suffered during summer workouts.
"You get what you see with Jared," Andersen said. "There are no secret agendas, no hidden agendas. He comes to work every day and he has a smile on his face. He loves life. That was my first impression of him and that carries through today."
Beatty was initially struck by the size of Abbrederis, who is listed at 6-foot-2, 190 pounds and whose prep coach said he was 175 pounds soaking wet as a high school junior. Then, he was hanging with some of Wautoma High's offensive linemen by squatting upward of 390 pounds. One year earlier, a broken right femur and ACL injury had cost him most of his first year as the varsity's starting quarterback, leaving him wheelchair-bound for parts of his recovery before he made it back in time to place in that spring's state track and field meet.
"That was the start of seeing that ‘If there's a challenge, I'm going to rise above it,'" said former Wautoma assistant and current head coach Mike Klieforth. "And he's done that every time he's had that challenge; he's met it and exceeded it."
“Abbrederis has risen from walk-on to go-to threat while playing for three offensive coordinators in the last three years, but signature wins have remained just out of reach -- be it the trio of shortcomings in Pasadena, the three different overtime defeats in 2012 or the 2011 loss at Michigan State, a game that ended with Abbrederis, moonlighting as a defensive back, mistiming his jump on a Hail Mary that deflected into a completion for the Spartan win.
You get what you see with Jared. There are no secret agendas, no hidden agendas. He comes to work every day and he has a smile on his face. He loves life. That was my first impression of him and that carries through today.” -- Wisconsin coach Gary Anderson
"We've been in some big games, some close ones, came up in short in a lot of them," said Abbrederis, who gained 346 all-purpose yards but lost a fumble late in a Rose Bowl loss to Oregon two seasons ago. "But I think that's just Wisconsin. The way we work, you always kind of have that chip on your shoulder to improve and get better, kind of always the underdog. So it's just the mentality, and also just being a walk-on, you kind of have that chip on your shoulder to make it and get better."
Abbrederis has caught the attention of former Badger walk-on receiver Luke Swan, now in his third year with the program as a graduate assistant. Swan sees a lot of himself in Abbrederis -- another undersize, in-state native with a strong Christian faith who grew into a starting role. And Swan appreciates his new pupil's need for feedback and initiative to get better.
"He really takes things personal, whether it's individual failures or team failures, they're very much links for him," Swan said. "He sees the small margin for a win and a loss, the small margin between being good and being great as a team. So I think he kind of has that constant quest of understanding that big perspective."
Five years ago, before his final high school game, Abbrederis wanted to show his teammates how much they meant to him. He penned a letter thanking them all, and it was passed around on the 90-minute bus ride to Camp Randall for the WIAA Division 4 state title. Then Wautoma went out and blanked previously undefeated Big Foot, 20-0, with Abbrederis rushing for one touchdown, throwing for another and picking off two passes.
Said then-Wautoma coach Dennis Moon: "You just want to play to the best of your abilities, above and beyond your abilities, when you've got a guy like that around you."
Let's check out a few ...
Matt from Omaha writes: You guys are currently have a countdown of the per season top 25 players in the B1G. If you could do a top 25 of the most hyped players in the B1G that haven't taken the field, but expect to play well this year, who would you have on it?
Adam Rittenberg: Good question, Matt. Let's have some fun with this one. Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg would have to be near the top. ESPN rated him as the No. 1 pocket-passing quarterback in the 2013 recruiting class, and Penn State fans have waited a while to get a glimpse of Hackenberg, who looks like the team's signal caller of the future. Ohio State's Dontre Wilson also would be up there, as he brings explosiveness to a Buckeyes offense looking for players to fill the Percy Harvin position in Urban Meyer's offense. Michigan running back Derrick Green is another newcomer with plenty of hype behind his name. Veteran Fitzgerald Toussaint wants to be Michigan's bell cow in the backfield, and Green will miss a bit of time with a minor injury, but there's a decent chance the freshman gets a fair share of carries this season.
Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory, a junior-college arrival, certainly would be in the Top 10 as Husker fans hope he can spark a questionable line. Michigan State redshirt freshman Riley Bullough, who moved from linebacker to running back in the spring and drew good reviews, certainly is one to watch, although he also is reportedly banged up. Others who would make the list include Purdue QB Danny Etling, Indiana CB Rashard Fant, Penn State TE Adam Breneman, Illinois WR Martize Barr, Wisconsin WR Robert Wheelwright, Ohio State WR Jalin Marshall, Illinois LB Eric Finney, Indiana DT Darius Latham and Northwestern S Godwin Igwebuike.
Derek from Minneapolis writes: Please help me settle an argument in my family. I argue that the Badgers' best offense ever was in 2011 when they had Russell Wilson, Montee Ball and still lost 3 games. My brother argues that it was the ground attack the year before with Clay, Ball and White all getting 900+ yards. My dad argues that the Ron Dayne years would be the hardest to stop. Which offense do you think is the best and why? We have several beers wagered on your response.
Adam Rittenberg: This is certainly a good problem/argument to have if you're a Wisconsin fan. All three are great options. My sense is to go with the 2011 offense because of the Wilson and Ball, quite possibly the most talented offensive backfield we've seen in the Big Ten in the past decade. If you actually look at Wilson's numbers that year, they'll blow you away, while Ball stats speak for themselves. The only reason I'm hesitant is that the 2010 offensive line was superior to the 2011 version. Wisconsin didn't completely dominate opponents as often in 2011 as it did in 2010, and needed Wilson to work his magic in the pocket quite a bit. The Dayne offenses were great, too, but more one-dimensional than the 2010 and 2011 teams. Ultimately, I have to go with the 2011 version, factoring in a healthy Peter Konz for the entire season. I still can't fathom how Wisconsin managed to lose three games with the backfield of Wilson and Ball.
Brian from Whiteman Air Force Base writes: Hey Adam, I was reading your article ranking Ameer Abdullah at No. 13 in the B1G, and read something that didn't make sense to me. You said that Nebraska doesn't have a lot of depth at RB, when I don't believe that's the case at all! Behind Abdullah, you have manbeast Imani Cross, and the 2 best freshman RBs out of Cali and Texas (Newby and Taylor) now on campus. RB is the least of my concerns going into the season! What was your reasoning behind that?
Adam Rittenberg: Let me ask you this question, Brian. How much better would you feel about the Huskers' depth if Braylon Heard and Aaron Green were still on the roster? Heard and Green are two talented backs, and both opted to transfer from Nebraska. Fans love freshmen because they followed them in recruiting and fell in love with them, but they're still freshmen, totally unproven at the college level. I'm not saying Terrell Newby and Adam Taylor won't be studs at Nebraska, but both have a lot to prove. Cross impressed me last year and might soon emerge as Nebraska's featured back. But to say the Huskers are deep at running back with Abdullah, Cross and two freshmen is inaccurate. The depth would be much better if Heard and Green were still on the roster.
James from Columbus, Ohio, writes: Less than three weeks until Thursday night kickoff. Who starts at QB for Indiana? Rank 'em 1 through 3.
Adam Rittenberg: Very tough question, James, as the race is still too close -- and still too early -- to call. All three players continue to compete, although Indiana will trim the candidate pool to two fairly soon. My sense all along has been if Tre Roberson can make up for lost time, he'll be the starter when Indiana opens the season because of his explosive speed to complement his passing. But Cameron Coffman brings a gunslinger mentality that the coaches like, and Nate Sudfeld continues to impress in practice. Sudfeld, who had a good spring, certainly can't be ruled out of the mix. Check back with me in 10 days or so for a better prediction. For now, I'll go with Roberson, but I reserve the right to change my mind.
Sam from Chicago writes: Hi Adam, it's gotta be nice to actually talk about things that are going on actually ON the field! At Northwestern, where do you see the greatest opportunity for a true freshman to step in and get some playing time?
Adam Rittenberg: Indeed it is, Sam. The offseason is too long. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald doesn't like to play a lot of true freshmen, preferring to redshirt as many guys as he can. The Wildcats have some holes to fill in the interior of both lines, but I don't see a true freshman stepping in at those spots because of the physical demands. I'd keep an eye on freshman safety Godwin Igwebuike. Cornerback Nick VanHoose praised Igwebuike when we talked earlier this week, and while Northwestern has decent depth at safety, Igwebuike could work his way into the rotation. VanHoose also singled out freshmen corners Keith Watkins and Matthew Harris for their play. You typically see true freshmen see time at running back or receiver, but Northwestern has excellent depth at both positions.
Kevin from Grand Rapids, Mich., writes: Hi Adam-As a Spartan fan I was used to many years of fast starts followed by the usual November swoon, especially during the John L days. I always contended that although most of those teams were mediocre, the schedule played a huge role it. Specifically, soft out of conference games followed by some weaker B1G competition pumped up the record and then a brutal stretch of games to end the season killed it. Looking at the current B1G schedules, this screams Nebraska. I can totally see a hot start (7-0, 6-1) only to be followed by a 1-4 ending. Will Bo suffer the same fate as John L if this happens?
Adam Rittenberg: It would have to be a total collapse, Kevin, and even then, I don't know if Nebraska would part ways with Bo Pelini, who has averaged 9.6 wins per year as the Huskers' head coach. Nebraska learned a hard lesson after dumping Frank Solich, as the program entered a downward spiral under Bill Callahan. Although Pelini's current boss, athletic director Shawn Eichorst, didn't hire him, I don't get the sense Eichorst wants to rock the boat too much right away. You bring up a good point about Nebraska's schedule being backloaded, and the Huskers will need to be at their best in November, but they also get three games at home (Northwestern, Michigan State and Iowa), where they've lost only once since joining the Big Ten. I'd be stunned if 1-4 happens.
Derrick from New York writes: Who's your first draft pick in this years B1G Ten Fantasy Draft?
Adam Rittenberg: You'll have to wait a little longer for that, Derrick, as we'll do the draft closer to the season. But let me remind you, and Mr. Bennett, and the whole wide world that I'll be picking second overall. Why, you wonder? Because I throttled Bennett last year and intend to do the same this fall. The Gingers have no shot. They'll hear the sad Trombone [Shorty] again in late November.
- Ryan Lankford is ready to contribute for Illinois -- at receiver, not punter (probably). Wes Lunt is happy to have the transfer process behind him.
- Indiana's recruiting gained steam in June.
- Dozens of former Iowa players put down roots in Iowa City once their playing days were done. The Hakwyes are looking for some mayhem makers on defense.
- A pair of Maryland high school teammates committed to Michigan. The Wolverines are getting their targets in recruiting.
- Michigan State has more ability at quarterback than at any time during Mark Dantonio's tenure, so says the coach. Catching up with six incoming Spartans freshmen.
- Speculating on a Minnesota defensive depth chart.
- How Nebraska stacks up in the preseason mags.
- Nick VanHoose is an important figure for Northwestern this season.
- Carlos Hyde could be the first back to rush for 1,000 yards under Urban Meyer. Land-Grant Holy Land is doing an Buckeyes' all-decade team. Former OSU defensive lineman Se'Von Pittman has transferred to Akron.
- Penn State assistant Anthony Midget talks about the progress of the Nittany Lions' safeties. Selling tickets is another job for Bill O'Brien.
- A kicker/punter became Purdue's sixth commitment for 2014.
- Gary Andersen is winning over the Wisconsin alumni. Russell Wilson brought his passing academy to Camp Randall Stadium.
- Part of Maryland's lawsuit against the ACC was thrown out, but most of the case is still going forward.
- Brian Christopherson ranks the top 20 Big Ten players for 2013.
After a winter to prepare as the Wolverines' starter, Gardner wanted offensive coordinator Al Borges to operate without restrictions. Whatever Borges intended to throw his way, Gardner would be ready.
"Coach Borges can call anything he wants, from any formation, set or anything," Gardner told ESPN.com. "I talked to him about it, and he said he's very comfortable with me, calling anything at any time."
He exceeded most expectations in Michigan's final five games, accounting for multiple touchdowns in all five contests and at least three scores in four. But not surprisingly, there were some limitations to his game, like with audibles at the line.
"I definitely understood when I needed to get out of a play, but I didn't ever really change plays to a better play last year," he said.
Gardner now has the luxury of advantage audibles, as Borges calls them, which are based more on wants than needs.
"If I see they're in a defense where the play we have called, it'll be fine, but there's a much better play that will give us a better play, he's let me do that," Gardner said.
"Any play in the playbook," he said.
It took some time this spring for Gardner to get comfortable with his new freedom/responsibility, but he said every check he has made at the line has turned into a "plus play" for the offense. Borges is willing to loosen the reins for his top quarterback as long as there's "good rationale" for making changes.
But don't expect Gardner to operate like Peyton Manning does this season.
"We don't want him calling the whole game," Borges said, "but there are instances where there are things he can take advantage of. There are situations where I don't call the right play, and he's got to get us out of that."
Gardner devoted three weeks of the offseason exclusively to studying defensive fronts. The junior felt he had a good grasp on identifying pass coverages, but seeing where pressure would come from required more work.
It has helped him with his audibles during scrimmages this spring.
"Devin is really smart with numbers," Wolverines left tackle Taylor Lewan said. "He understands the concepts of football, the concepts of our schemes. The zone power, the downhill run stuff, the zone-power combos, the isos, Cover 1, Cover 2, and how to change the play to put us in the best situation to be successful."
According to Gardner, the offense Michigan ran at the end of the 2012 season has remained practically the same. The spread isn't totally dead -- "We're almost no spread offense now, with a few spread principles," Borges said -- but the Wolverines will primarily operate from a pro-set. Gardner said he's taking 70 percent of snaps from under center, and Borges doesn't want Gardner carrying the ball more than 10 times a game.
It doesn't mean Michigan won't use Gardner's athleticism. Borges has studied what NFL teams like the Seattle Seahawks (Russell Wilson), the San Francisco 49ers (Colin Kaepernick) and the Washington Redskins (Robert Griffin III) are doing with dual-threat quarterbacks like Gardner.
"Any pieces that look like they might fit with what we do," Borges said. "College football isn't pro football. It's different, but you can implement a lot of the same things they do because they do so many things well."
Could Gardner be one of the next dual threats to reach the NFL? Like his goals card, Gardner's potential seems to have no limitations.
"The kid has really worked hard," Borges said. "The game's important to him, and now he gets an opportunity he's been waiting for."
If the new NCAA rules for targeting had been in place, that number would have swelled to seven or eight, according to Big Ten coordinator of football officials Bill Carollo. The NCAA's playing rules oversight panel on Thursday approved a new rule that requires the ejection of players flagged for targeting or contacting defenseless opponents above the shoulders. The current targeting penalty includes only a 15-yard penalty. The new policy, which goes into effect for the 2013 season, requires the penalty plus an ejection.
"It's a very serious penalty," Carollo told ESPN.com on Thursday. "It's a big change. However, I think it will be a big positive point for the game. When we look back in 3-5 years, I think we're going to say this is a really big moment."
Player safety has become an increasingly bigger point of emphasis for officials in recent years, especially with increased education about the effects of concussions. The Big Ten has led the charge nationally, and while the number of unnecessary roughness penalties in the league has remained about the same, Carollo has seen a slight decrease in helmet-to-helmet targeting fouls.
The hope is that the numbers continue to drop because of the new, stricter policy.
"The impact is not that we're going to throw out a lot of guys," Carollo said. "The impact is we're going to have a lot of coaches and a lot of players adjusting to the rules. It may take a little bit of time, a few months of practice and a few weeks in August, and maybe even a couple games, but I think we'll get some positive results.
"The impact will be positive from the standpoint that players will continue to work hard to lower the target zone and to take the head out of the game."
Carollo and others in his position will spend the coming months working with officials to define targeting as clearly as possible. It can be a tedious process, as there can be helmet-to-helmet contact without obvious targeting, while intent "has nothing to do with it," Carollo said.
Officials will make mistakes -- Carollo has told Big Ten coaches that one out of every 10 high hits called on the field technically was a legal hit -- but their consistency on the field must be as strong as possible. They also have a safety net of sorts in the replay booth. The replay official will review every on-field targeting penalty that carries an ejection and will rule whether the ejection should be upheld.
"Now we're asking replay to get a little bit involved more in the judgment call," Carollo said. "They do [currently] have some judgment, a few rules where they can create penalties, but the replay person in the booth is not the eighth official. The game is being officiated by the seven men or women on the field.
"Now he'll buzz down once it’s targeting, and he'll confirm that hit. ... The targeting calls are going to stand unless there's indisputable video evidence that shows it's nowhere near above the shoulders."
Carollo supports the use of replay in these instances but doesn't want to "make a 5-minute production out of it." The onus remains with the on-field officials.
Carollo also expects to review targeting ejections -- submitted to him by coaches after games -- along with Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, and, in some cases, reduce the penalty impacting the following contest.
Not surprisingly, Carollo received some "good rebuttals" from "defensive-minded" Big Ten coaches about the proposed change at their annual meeting last month. He told them the policy change was inevitable and showed them plays that may or may not be targeting, including a block by Nebraska receiver Kenny Bell against Wisconsin cornerback Devin Smith in the 2012 Big Ten championship.
Bell was flagged for a personal foul, negating a touchdown. Carollo thinks the hit merited a penalty, but not an ejection for targeting the head.
The coaches also reviewed the now-famous hit against Michigan's Vincent Smith by South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney in the Outback Bowl, which didn't draw a penalty.
"The tackler had his helmet up," Carollo said. "It was helmet-to-helmet, but it wasn't targeting. The helmets kissed, if you will, with the helmet up like that. The helmet came, the ball popped out, all at the same time. It looked vicious because [Smith's] helmet popped off, but technically, it was probably a legal play. That's in the gray area where it's close."
Carollo doesn't expect football to stop becoming fast and violent and noted that many "really vicious" hits are completely legal. But officials are going to err on the side of player safety whenever a blow to the head is involved.
The it's-just-football excuse no longer flies.
"It may be 'just football' for the last 50 years," Carollo said. "But going forward, we're trying to get that play out of the game."
In addition to another revision of the rules on low blocks, the rules committee also approved a rule requiring at least three seconds to remain on the clock in order to spike the ball to stop the clock at the end of halves. Carollo said the change stems from the 2012 Rose Bowl, where Wisconsin's Russell Wilson attempted to spike the ball for one more play with two seconds left, but the clock ran out.