Big Ten: Ryan Palmer
What's new: Uh, like, everything. Ron Zook is still the head coach, but he has six new assistants, including coordinators Paul Petrino (offense) and Vic Koenning (defense). Illinois is breaking in new systems on both offense and defense, and redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase takes over at quarterback following the departure of four-year starter Juice Williams. The new-look staff has some familiarity, as Petrino, quarterbacks coach Jeff Brohm and tight ends coach Chip Long all worked together at Louisville during the Cardinals' juggernaut days. Illinois needs a No. 1 wide receiver to emerge after Arrelious Benn's departure to the NFL.
Sidelined: Strong-side offensive tackle Corey Lewis, a projected starter this spring, sustained a torn ACL in spring ball and likely will miss the season. Illinois needs a strong camp from Ryan Palmer as he steps into a featured role.
Key battle: Illinois has two experienced defensive line pieces in Clay Nurse and Corey Liuget, but the other two spots should bring plenty of competition. Glenn Foster had a nice spring and could be the answer at the second defensive tackle spot, while several players, including Michael Buchanan and Nate Palmer, compete at the "bandit" position.
New on the scene: Although veteran Eddie McGee can shift from wide receiver to quarterback if needed, true freshman Chandler Whitmer likely is a play away from the field. Whitmer enrolled early and impressed the coaches with his knowledge this spring. He enters the fall as Scheelhaase's backup. Also keep an eye on safety Trulon Henry, a junior college transfer and Benn's older brother. He enters camp as the backup to Supo Sanni at free safety.
Breaking out: Wide receiver A.J. Jenkins nearly left Illinois in the winter before deciding to stay and turn around his career. Zook and Petrino raved about Jenkins this spring, and he'll likely be Scheelhaase's top target. Running back Mikel LeShoure will carry the load after a very impressive finish to 2009. Cornerback Terry Hawthorne also could have a big year after making an impact as a freshman last fall.
Back in the fold: Illinois really missed Martez Wilson, and the middle linebacker finally gets to hit people again in camp after being fully cleared by doctors. Wilson suffered a herniated disk in his neck in the 2009 opener against Missouri and underwent season-ending surgery. The one-time, can't-miss recruit has one final chance to break out. Cornerback Miami Thomas also returns after tearing his ACL in camp last year.
Quoting: "The players, we didn't execute. People want to jump on the coaches and blame the coaches. The last time I saw coach Zook catch a pass or make a tackle, they were wearing leather helmets. It is on us now. They brought in new coaches, but at the end of the day, we're the ones playing." -- defensive end Clay Nurse
2009 overall record: 3-9
2009 conference record: 2-6 (9th)
Offense: 5, defense: 6, kicker/punter: 2
RB Mikel LeShoure, WR Jarred Fayson, LT Jeff Allen, DT Corey Liuget, DE Clay Nurse, LB Ian Thomas, LB Martez Wilson, CB Tavon Wilson
QB Juice Williams, WR Arrelious Benn, LG Jon Asamoah, TE Michael Hoomanawanui, WR Jeff Cumberland, DE Doug Pilcher, S Garrett Edwards
2009 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Mikel LeShoure* (734 yards)
Passing: Juice Williams (1,632 yards)
Receiving: Arrelious Benn (490 yards)
Tackles: Ian Thomas* (95)
Sacks: Clay Nurse* (5.5)
Interceptions: Garrett Edwards, Tavon Wilson*, Russell Ellington*, Doug Pilcher, Terry Hawthorne* (1)
1. Scheelhaase steps up: Illinois didn't announce its starting quarterback this spring, but anyone who watched practice or talked with the coaches knew that redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase took the lead. Scheelhaase is an exceptional athlete who shows good maturity and made big plays in several spring scrimmages. He still needs work as a passer but brings some dynamic skills to the backfield.
2. Jenkins emerges at receiver: A.J. Jenkins nearly left Illinois after a disappointing 2009 season. He comes out of spring practice as the team's No. 1 wideout and a potential successor to Arrelious Benn. Jenkins was "a changed man," according to head coach Ron Zook, and clicked immediately with new offensive coordinator/receivers coach Paul Petrino. He should be a major asset for the new starting quarterback this fall.
3. Defensive line builds depth: Illinois loses veteran defensive lineman Doug Pilcher but the squad should be better and deeper up front in 2010. Zook singled out defensive tackles Akeem Spence, Glenn Foster and Daryle Ballew for their play this spring. They join returning starters Corey Liguet and Clay Nurse, who participated in everything but full-contact drills this spring following shoulder surgery. Liuget and Nurse are natural leaders up front, and if Josh Brent returns from his academic struggles, Illinois could be very good along the line.
1. Quarterback: Jacob Charest isn't out of the race for the top job, but he'll need to close the gap with Scheelhaase during the summer and early in preseason camp. True freshman Chandler Whitmer is also in the mix, though the coaches say he's behind Charest and Scheelhaase. Illinois has some good leadership at other spots (receiver, defensive line, linebacker), but it must identify the No. 1 guy at the top position on the field.
2. Offensive line: Corey Lewis' torn ACL could be a big blow for a group adjusting to a new offense and new assignments for the guards and tackles (strong side/weak side). Illinois needs a strong preseason camp from Ryan Palmer, the favorite to fill the starting spot opposite Jeff Allen. The Illini need to run the ball with their talented backs and protect their young quarterbacks as well as they can, so building chemistry along the line is huge.
3. Safety squeeze: I still think Illinois' defense hasn't been the same since safeties Kevin Mitchell and Justin Harrison departed following the 2007 season. The Illini look pretty solid at cornerback with Tavon Wilson, Terry Hawthorne and several others, but the safety spot remains a question mark. Travon Bellamy and Supo Sanni are the top options coming out of spring, but they must continue to be pushed, especially if Walter Aikens isn't reinstated.
Junior offensive tackle Corey Lewis, a contender for a starting spot on the strong side opposite Jeff Allen, suffered a torn ACL in Saturday's spring game and will undergo surgery in the near future. Lewis is listed as the starting strong-side tackle on the post-spring two-deep, but Ryan Palmer now moves into the top spot. Keep in mind that Illinois will use an unbalanced line with strongside and weak side guards and tackles.
Other depth chart nuggets:
- Nathan Scheelhaase and Jacob Charest are listed as co-starters at quarterback, although it's clear that Scheelhaase emerged from spring ball as the frontrunner for the job.
- Walt Aikens, indefinitely suspended following his arrest Friday on felony possession of stolen property charges, is listed as the backup strong safety behind Travon Bellamy.
- Mikel LeShoure is the No. 1 running back ahead of Jason Ford, and while both players will get their share of touches this fall, LeShoure has a chance to be special if he can build on his performance from late last season.
- It's interesting that veteran Clay Nurse is listed as a co-starter at defensive end with sophomore Whitney Mercilus. Nurse underwent offseason shoulder surgery and did everything but full contact drills this spring. Head coach Ron Zook praised Nurse's play and calls him a leader on defense, so Mercilus must have really made an impression.
- Zook singled out defensive tackles Akeem Spence, Glenn Foster and Daryle Ballew for their play this spring, and it's reflected on the depth chart. Foster is listed as a starter at one spot, while Spence and Ballew are co-backups behind veteran Corey Liuget.
- Michael Buchanan is the starter at the new "Bandit" position, a rush end or linebacker-end hybrid, ahead of Nate Palmer.
- Derek Dimke is listed as the starting placekicker ahead of Matt Eller, although the competition should continue there.
- The starting wide receivers are Jarred Fayson, A.J. Jenkins and converted quarterback Eddie McGee. Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino called Jenkins the team's No. 1 wideout this spring.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
It's time to look inside five Big Ten teams.
Penn State -- Despite Navorro Bowman's emergence, there has been some concern about linebacker play this year, and the picture only got cloudier last Saturday. After Michigan's run game started strong, the Nittany Lions called for reinforcements and put freshman Michael Mauti and sophomore Bani Gbadyu in the game. The two young players stepped up, combining for 10 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble. Both Mauti and Gbadyu could once again see increased playing time in place of Tyrell Sales and possibly Josh Hull against No. 9 Ohio State (ABC, 8 p.m. ET). Mauti's speed on the edge should help against Buckeyes quarterback Terrelle Pryor.
Wisconsin -- A week after saying the 2009 season had no impact on his starting quarterback decision, Badgers head coach Bret Bielema certainly appears to be looking toward the future at that position. Junior quarterback Dustin Sherer will make his second consecutive start Saturday against Illinois, and sophomore Scott Tolzien will take more snaps this week in practice with the second-team offense. Fifth-year senior Allan Evridge, who started Wisconsin's first six games, has effectively been moved to third string. Sherer and Tolzien will compete for the starting job next season with Curt Phillips and James Stallons.
Illinois -- Freshman offensive tackle Corey Lewis could see increased playing time against Wisconsin after performing well in his debut against Indiana. Lewis can play either tackle spot and spelled left tackle Xavier Fulton for several series last week. Sophomore Ryan Palmer will remain sidelined for some time with a foot stress fracture, and Lewis likely will be needed against the Badgers. Lewis also can play on the defensive line. "I wanted to get Corey in there," head coach Ron Zook said. "We kind of joked about that when we told him we were going to play him because he's 18 now and old enough. He's excited about it and I noticed a little different intensity out of him."
Purdue -- Head coach Joe Tiller admitted this week that Purdue's offense has become too basic and needs to diversify after four straight losses. In previous years, the Boilermakers entered every game with two "deceptives" in the offensive plan. This season, the outside-the-box, high-risk, high-reward plays have not been included. That will change Saturday against Minnesota (ESPN Classic, noon ET). "From this point forward I want to see, when the game plan is presented later in the week, two deceptives," Tiller said. "Now, I'm not guaranteeing you they're going to get called, but we're going to have 'em as a possibility anyway, which we haven't had." Purdue ranks ninth in the league in scoring offense (22.3 ppg).
Michigan -- Despite a third consecutive loss, the Wolverines might have found their featured running back last Saturday at Penn State. Junior Brandon Minor had 117 rush yards and two touchdowns against the Big Ten's No. 2 rush defense (103.9 ypg). Minor's emergence allows head coach Rich Rodriguez to take pressure off of true freshman Sam McGuffie and, to a lesser extent, true freshman Michael Shaw. McGuffie has carried the load for much of the season but needs more time to grow into a top role. Minor's ability to run inside and grind out yards will benefit Michigan down the stretch. The junior claimed the top spot on this week's depth chart.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
The briefing begins with an item I meant to post yesterday. My apologies.
An independent report showed that Iowa made mistakes in its investigation of an alleged sexual assault involving two former football players, but the school didn't attempt to cover up the incident. The report said head football coach Kirk Ferentz, athletic director Gary Barta and others adhered to school policies. Here are the findings and recommendations.
"The university's response to the alleged sexual assault was inadequate. While the substance of the response was not acceptable, there was no cover-up or attempted cover-up and no pressure to deal with it informally," lead investigator James Bryant said in his presentation.
It looks like Ferentz has dodged a bullet here, as the report showed he never instructed two football players to move back into the dorm room where the alleged incident occurred.
Getting back to the gridiron, here's what's going on around the league:
- The Big Ten Network's Dave Revsine still has faith in Ohio State quarterback Todd Boeckman and Northwestern's offense and defense in the red zone. The MAC gets a great chance to take down two Big Ten teams this weekend, Jeff Rabjohns writes in The Indianapolis Star.
- Illinois true freshman Jeff Allen has slimmed down and looks ready to step in for injured tackle Ryan Palmer next week at Penn State, Loren Tate writes in The (Champaign, Ill.) News-Gazette.
- Indiana has geared its defense to stop the run and currently ranks fourth nationally in rushing defense, LaMond Pope writes in The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. Don't know how much it'll help against Nate Davis and pass-happy Ball State.
- Injuries continue to sidetrack talented Iowa tight end Tony Moeaki, Eric Page writes in the Quad City Times. Safety Tyler Sash is the latest young defender to step up for the Hawkeyes, Scott Dochterman writes in The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette.
- Michigan hasn't missed the postseason since 1974, but it could happen this fall, John Heuser writes in The Ann Arbor News.
- The Michigan State-Notre Dame rivalry seems more civil than in past seasons, Joe Rexrode writes in the Lansing State Journal. Inspirational Spartans player Arthur Ray Jr. is back in school and expects to return to the field next fall, Shannon Shelton writes in the Detroit Free Press.
- Minnesota freshman running back DeLeon Eskridge has grown up fast, Marcus Fuller writes in the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
- A prince doing a paper route? Northwestern linebacker Prince Kwateng has worked diligently to reach this point, Jim O'Donnell writes in the Chicago Sun-Times.
- Jim Tressel isn't about to give up play-calling duties at Ohio State, Doug Lesmerises writes in The Cleveland Plain Dealer. Tressel's steady approach helps the Buckeyes avoid upsets but might hurt the team in big games, Lesmerises writes in his blog.
For one big game, when a team needs to be at a peak mental, emotional and physical state for a dogfight with an elite opponent, give me Urban Meyer or Pete Carroll. Week in and week out, when you want to make sure Minnesota doesn't jump up and bite you, give me Tressel.
- Penn State's captains lead in different ways, Cory Giger writes in The Altoona Mirror. As the Nittany Lions' line gets thinner, Jared Odrick is blossoming at tackle, Jeff McLane writes in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
- Central Michigan coach Butch Jones has high praise for Purdue's Curtis Painter, David Goricki writes in The Detroit News. Purdue's recruiting pipeline to Florida behind coach-in-waiting Danny Hope continues, Tom Kubat writes in The Journal and Courier.
- Wisconsin linebacker Jonathan Casillas will use the next few days to rest his injured left knee, Jeff Potrykus writes in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
RANTOUL, Ill. -- I rolled up to Camp Rantoul just as Illinois players finished stretching before Wednesday's morning practice. Though the team worked out in shorts, the workout had plenty of intensity -- and four-letter words from a geeked-up coaching staff.
Here's a closer look:
- First, the injuries. Backup running back Troy Pollard sat out with an ankle injury and starting tackle Xavier Fulton missed practice with an ankle injury he sustained in Monday night's scrimmage. Both players are expected back soon.
- During the first set of team drills, true freshman running backs Jason Ford and Mikel LeShoure rotated with the second-team offense behind projected starter Daniel Dufrene. Though Ford didn't join the team until preseason practice -- LeShoure practiced during the spring -- the standout from Belleville, Ill., seems to be catching on quickly.
- Arrelious Benn is fully healthy for the first time since the first few practices of last summer, and Illinois plans to take advantage. The sophomore wideout often lined up in the backfield and took option pitches from quarterback Juice Williams. He also remains Williams' top passing target, as he showed by catching several touchdowns in 7-on-7 drills.
- Williams looked good overall, consistently finding Benn and several other targets. He still has the tendency to throw too hard, gunning the ball to Marques Wilkins on a 5-yard slant [Wilkins somehow held on]. After Williams was forced to scramble during a play in team drills, offensive coordinator Mike Locksley asked, "Where's your outlet, 7?"
"He came back ahead of the game," Locksley said. "He's come in in awesome shape. Like most quarterbacks at this time, he's got a little bit of sore arm, so we're resting it up a little bit by limiting his throws. But mentally, he's right where we want him to be. The leadership part of it is there."
- Backup quarterback Eddie McGee seemed to struggle Wednesday, particularly near the goal line. He threw an interception to sophomore safety Garrett Edwards. Then Ashante Williams stepped in front of a receiver to pick off a McGee pass in the end zone. "You can't make mistakes in the red zone like this, 10!" Locksley shouted. Williams also broke up a Juice Williams pass to Chris Duvalt, and cornerback Dere Hicks recorded an interception.
- Illinois lost both starters at safety and rotated several players at both spots on Wednesday. Sophomore Travon Bellamy is the likeliest candidate to start, but Donsay Hardeman and Bo Flowers are also getting reps with the first-team defense.
- The receivers could be better than many have forecasted, including yours truly. They'll create matchup problems with Jeff Cumberland, a 6-foot-5, 251-pound junior, and boast speed with both Duvalt and Chris James. Cumberland and James likely will start alongside Benn. Wilkins seemed to be getting a lot of work Wednesday. And look out for Alex Reavy, a sophomore walk-on who is working heavily with the second-team offense. True freshman Cordale Scott looks ready to play at 6-foot-3 and 208 pounds, and coach Ron Zook expects all the freshmen wideouts -- Scott, Jack Ramsey and A.J. Jenkins -- to play this fall in an accentuated passing attack. Ramsey and Scott also could be factors in the return game, as Illinois might want to rest star cornerback Vontae Davis as much as possible.
"Right now, they're swimming a bit," Zook said, "but once those guys get it down, which they will, it's got a chance to be a deep group, a very explosive group. That's exciting."
- Running backs coach Reggie Mitchell had an animated exchange with fullback Rahkeem Smith after a carry during 7-on-7s. "Hey dog, how much you weigh?" Mitchell asked the 255-pound junior. "You go and run full steam."
- Early in practice, pairs of reserve offensive linemen went through resistance training by attaching what looked like a bungee cord between them. Things were going well until Randall Hunt's cord came off the harness, nailing teammate Ryan Palmer just above the groin. Ouch.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
|Matthew Emmons/US Presswire|
|Tackle Alex Boone is one of four returning starters on the Buckeyes' offensive line.|
All of the previous positions I ranked (quarterback, running back, wide receiver/tight end) matter little without sturdy offensive lines to block for them. And despite lingering questions about its speed, the Big Ten continues to churn out elite linemen. The league has had three offensive linemen selected in the top 5 of the NFL draft in the last two years, including former Michigan tackle Jake Long, the No. 1 overall pick in April. Several elite players return this fall, including Ohio State tackle Alex Boone and Penn State center A.Q. Shipley, but offensive lines should always be graded as a group. Four teams look very solid up front. The rest of the league? Not so much.
Here's the rundown:
1. Ohio State -- Led by Boone, who passed up NFL bucks for another national title push, the Buckeyes bring back four of five starters up front. Sophomore Bryant Browning emerged at right tackle in spring ball and joins a group that helped Beanie Wells finish 11th nationally in rushing last season. If the first-team unit stays healthy, the offense will surge this fall.
2. Penn State -- All five starters return to a unit that mirrored Ohio State in both sacks allowed and rushing production last season. Shipley and guard Rich Ohrnberger solidify the interior line along with Stefen Wisniewski, who last year became the first true freshman offensive lineman to start at Penn State since 1999. Hopes are high for whip-smart left tackle Gerald Cadogan.
3. Wisconsin -- The Badgers lost no starters and feature All-Big Ten candidates throughout the line. So why isn't this unit rated higher? Wisconsin finished 91st nationally in sacks allowed with 33 last season, a number that must go down with a new starting quarterback. Four-year starter Kraig Urbik and Andy Kemp form the league's best guard tandem, and sophomore left tackle Gabe Carimi held his own last fall after succeeding Joe Thomas.
4. Illinois -- If not for two vacancies, the Illini would be higher on the list. They allowed just 16 sacks last fall, the second fewest in the league, and had the Big Ten's top rushing attack. All-conference candidates Ryan McDonald and Xavier Fulton return. If Ryan Palmer solidifies the right tackle spot, this group will have a big season.
5. Michigan State -- Replacing all-conference left tackle Pete Clifford became a priority this spring, and Michigan State filled the gap with talented junior Rocco Cironi. If Cironi can effectively protect Brian Hoyer's blind side, the interior line should be solid with returning starters Roland Martin and Joel Nitchman. Depth is a concern, and several incoming freshmen could help.
6. Purdue -- Health is the biggest question for Purdue after mainstay Sean Sester, Zach Jones and Zack Reckman missed spring practice with injuries. Head-coach-in-waiting Danny Hope needs all three returning starters at full strength in camp. The all-important center spot could feature an intriguing competition, as freshman Andrew Brewer joins the mix with Cory Benton and Jared Zwilling.
7. Iowa -- A veteran group could definitely climb the list, but after hemorrhaging for 46 sacks last fall, significant improvement is needed. Guard Seth Olsen anchors the line in his third season as a starter. Though several other full-time or part-time starters return, Olsen's spot appears to be the only safe one entering preseason camp.
8. Michigan -- Strength coach Mike Barwis will try to work his magic with a group that returns only one starter, right tackle Stephen Schilling. A lot hinges on junior Mark Ortmann, who succeeds Long at left tackle. If Ortmann steps in smoothly and David Moosman locks up the center spot, the Wolverines might be fine. Coach Rich Rodriguez needs linemen who can fit in his system, and if need be, he'll look to incoming freshmen like Ricky Barnum.
9. Indiana -- The left side looks strong with Rodger Saffold and Pete Saxon, but there are questions elsewhere. A lot is riding on a talented group of sophomore linemen that includes potential starters Alex Perry and Mike Stark. Sacks were a problem at times last season, and the Hoosiers must generate a stronger rushing attack outside of quarterback Kellen Lewis.
10. Minnesota -- Of all the Gophers' problems last season, the offensive line wasn't one of them. Minnesota allowed a league-low 13 sacks and ranked third in pass offense. But the departures of left tackle Steve Shidell and center Tony Brinkhaus raise questions up front. Hopes are high for sophomore left tackle Dominic Alford, but a young group must build chemistry.
11. Northwestern -- The Wildcats lost mainstays at both center and left tackle, and right tackle Kurt Mattes is the only returning starter who secured his job. A lot is riding on three young players -- freshman left tackle Al Netter, sophomore left guard Keegan Grant and freshman center Ben Burkett. If those three step up, a veteran group of skill players will put up points.