Big Ten: Sidney Stewart

The spring superlatives series, which examines the strongest and weakest position groups for each Big Ten squad in spring ball, continues with Northwestern.

Strongest position: Wide receiver/tight end (superback)

  • Top returnees: Jeremy Ebert (62 receptions, 952 yards, 8 TDs); Drake Dunsmore (40 receptions, 381 yards, 5 TDs); Demetrius Fields (25 receptions, 291 yards, 2 TDs); Charles Brown (16 receptions, 198 yards); Rashad Lawrence (12 receptions, 178 yards)
  • Key losses: Sidney Stewart (40 receptions, 454 yards)
  • The skinny: New receivers coach Dennis Springer inherits the deepest position group on the roster. Ebert, a first-team All-Big Ten selection, headlines the receivers along with Dunsmore, who can be more productive than he was in 2010. Both players will be featured a lot this fall. The big upside with the group comes from three rising sophomores -- Lawrence, Tony Jones and Venric Mark -- all of whom saw the field as true freshmen last fall. All three players possess big-play potential, which Northwestern needs as it struggles to stretch the field at times.
Weakest position: Linebacker
  • Top returnees: Bryce McNaul (62 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble); David Nwabuisi (26 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble); Ben Johnson (21 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, 1 interception, 1 fumble recovery)
  • Key losses: Nate Williams (96 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 3 quarterback hurries, 1 forced fumble; Quentin Davie (71 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 3 interceptions, 6 quarterback hurries, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery)
  • The skinny: A group pegged to be the strength of the defense struggled to meet expectations in 2010. Northwestern got steamrolled in losses to Illinois, Wisconsin and Texas Tech, and in the second halves of defeats against both Penn State and Michigan State. Two productive starters depart and there are questions about who can fill the gaps. McNaul boasts talent and leadership ability but has struggled to stay healthy throughout his career. Northwestern needs more from both Nwabuisi and Johnson and a surprising surge from a guy like Roderick Goodlow this fall. The kicker spot also is a concern after the departure of four-year starter Stefan Demos.
The good stuff is about to get started around the Big Ten, but five games are already in the books.

I'll weigh in on Minnesota-South Dakota in a bit, but here's what happened in the other four contests.

Wisconsin 27, San Jose State 14: For the second consecutive week, Wisconsin walks off the field with a win but knowing it has a lot to clean up. Up 17-0 at halftime, the Badgers struggled to put away a San Jose State team that got crushed by No. 1 Alabama seven days earlier. Wisconsin's offense achieved tremendous balance and running back John Clay had another big game (23 carries, 137 rush yards, 2 TDs), rumbling for a first down that allowed the Badgers to run out the clock. Scott Tolzien threw an interception for the second consecutive game but still had decent numbers and hooked up with tight end Lance Kendricks three times for 60 yards and a touchdown. The defense played decently until late in the third quarter, when San Jose State's Chandler Jones broke several tackles on a 37-yard touchdown. All in all, not bad, but I'm a little concerned about the Badgers heading into the Arizona State game.

Michigan State 30, Florida Atlantic 17: The Spartans improve to 2-0 thanks to another impressive effort from the run game and specifically sophomore Edwin Baker, who piled up 183 yards on 15 carries, including an 80-yard touchdown run. As Larry Caper sits out with a hand injury, Baker has certainly made a good case that he should be Michigan State's starting running back. Florida Atlantic dominated possession time, but Michigan State cashed in on its opportunities. There were some negatives, namely two turnovers and some shaky pass defense against Florida Atlantic quarterback Jeff Van Camp. But overall, a solid "road" win. The Spartans also have to be extremely pleased with kicker Dan Conroy, who converted attempts from 50, 44 and 41 yards. The performance establishes Conroy as the starter as Michigan State tries to replace standout kicker Brett Swenson.

Northwestern 37, Illinois State 3: Sure, it's Illinois State, but Northwestern looked much better on both sides of the ball in a rare blowout victory. Quarterback Dan Persa continued his very impressive start, completing 19 of 23 passes for 240 yards and two touchdowns with a rushing touchdown. Wideout Sidney Stewart had a big day, and Northwestern got talented superback Drake Dunsmore (2 TD receptions) more involved. Northwestern had its second-team offense in the game midway through the third quarter. The defense also looked very good, recording three interceptions, two by senior linebacker Quentin Davie. Northwestern also ran the ball a bit better, as sophomore Arby Fields had 96 rushing yards and a touchdown on 22 carries. The ground game remains a work in progress, but with the way Persa is throwing the ball, it doesn't matter.

Purdue 31, Western Illinois 21: Kind of an odd game in West Lafayette. A Robert Marve interception spotted Western Illinois an early lead before the Boilers gradually came back and took control. The defense did a nice job until struggling in the fourth quarter, allowing two touchdowns. Purdue appeared to find its running back as senior Dan Dierking racked up 103 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. Dierking has been somewhat overlooked in the running back race, but he's a big, tough runner with experience. Al-Terek McBurse also had a nice touchdown run that seemingly put away the game in the fourth quarter. Marve had a similar performance to Week 1, completing a lot of passes (23) but struggling to stretch the field (only 5 yards per pass). Purdue needs to find ways to get Keith Smith, Cortez Smith and Justin Siller in space. The Boilers are a work in progress right now, but their schedule sets up well the next month.

Big Ten predictions: Week 2

September, 9, 2010
9/09/10
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Nobody beats Mr. Perfect ... Nobody!

I achieved perfection in Week 1, which can mean only one thing: a rough week ahead. The competition gets tougher around the Big Ten on Saturday, which makes the games tougher to predict.

Let's see if I can keep the streak alive.

Wisconsin 45, San Jose State 10: The Badgers put forth a much cleaner performance in their home opener, as quarterback Scott Tolzien completes 75 percent of his passes and fires touchdowns to Lance Kendricks and Isaac Anderson. Running back John Clay once again eclipses 100 rushing yards as Wisconsin rolls to 2-0.

Michigan State 31, Florida Atlantic 20: Don't be fooled by those white jerseys, as Michigan State will feel right at home in Ford Field despite technically being the road team Saturday (ESPNU, noon ET). I don't see a rout as Florida Atlantic is a decent team that won at UAB last week. The Owls make some noise early before Spartans backs Edwin Baker, Larry Caper and Le'Veon Bell take over in the second half.

Northwestern 35, Illinois State 17: Former Purdue defensive coordinator Brock Spack has his team prepared, and the Redbirds hang around for a half before Northwestern's offense gets going. Quarterback Dan Persa finds Sidney Stewart for two touchdowns and the Wildcats finally have a breakaway run from scrimmage (not sure who carries the ball).

Minnesota 31, South Dakota 13: The Gophers employ a similar plan to Week 1 and control the line of scrimmage and possession time with their offensive line and running back Duane Bennett. A young defense stays off the field and Minnesota quarterback Adam Weber establishes a good rhythm with receiver Da'Jon McKnight.

Purdue 44, Western Illinois 10: Expect a big game from Robert Marve and the Purdue offense, which stretches the field early and often against Western Illinois. Marve tosses three touchdown passes and no interceptions and the Boilers get a boost from Al-Terek McBurse in the run game.

Iowa 24, Iowa State 13: Last year's final score (35-3) was a bit misleading because Iowa State threw five interceptions and Iowa cruised despite admittedly not playing well up front on defense. Star defensive end Adrian Clayborn answers the bell Saturday with 2.5 sacks, and Iowa pulls away a bit in the third quarter behind running backs Jewel Hampton and Adam Robinson. Both teams play conservatively on offense and keep the score down.

Michigan 31, Notre Dame 30: For the second consecutive year, these two teams provide the most exciting game on the Week 2 slate. Notre Dame attacks Michigan's young secondary early and has success with Michael Floyd, but the Wolverines rally in the second half. The Irish have no answer for Denard Robinson's speed, and Vincent Smith breaks away for a long fourth-quarter touchdown run to put Michigan in front.

Ohio State 27, Miami 20: I expect a better Jacory Harris and a better Miami team than the one Wisconsin totally outclassed in the Champs Sports Bowl. But there are too many reasons to like Ohio State in this one. Terrelle Pryor and Brandon Saine combine for three rushing touchdowns as Ohio State wins the game at the line of scrimmage. Jermale Hines comes up with a fourth-quarter interception to seal it for the Scarlet and Gray.

Alabama 26, Penn State 16: This is my Game of the Week. I'll explain my selection in a video post later today.

Illinois 24, Southern Illinois 20: The Illini are on upset alert against one of the nation's better FCS programs. Expect another slow start from the offense, but quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and running back Mikel LeShoure get it together in the second half. The defense holds off the Salukis long enough, and both Scheelhaase and LeShoure reach the end zone in the fourth quarter.

Bye: Indiana

Last week: 11-0

Season record: 11-0 (1.000)
I've had the chance to check out the Big Ten Network's preview of Northwestern. The crew of Dave Revsine, Gerry DiNardo and Howard Griffith stopped by Wildcats practice in Kenosha, Wis.

Here are a few notes and observations:
  • DiNardo pointed out that this Northwestern team is built differently from ones in the past, with the major strengths up front on both sides of the ball. Despite a lot of experience on the lines, DiNardo didn't sound too convinced that Northwestern would reach a school-record third consecutive bowl game, and he pointed out that the schedule might be tougher than it appears because several Big Ten teams Northwestern beat last year will be improved. Not sure I buy the schedule argument. Looks pretty manageable to me.
  • We didn't get a full read on the all-important running back situation because sophomore Arby Fields, who most believe will end up as the starter, sat out practice with an injury. Junior Jacob Schmidt, who provided a nice boost in short-yardage situations last year, had a very good day, including a big burst up the middle during team drills. Northwestern typically uses smaller backs in the spread offense, but both Schmidt and true freshman Adonis Smith bring good size to the mix. Smith is listed at only 5-10, 185 but looks a lot bigger. "Smith is to me the guy who has an opportunity to come and be special as a freshman," Griffith said.
  • The running game is clearly the focus of camp, as quarterback Dan Persa and superback Drake Dunsmore both mentioned it during interviews with the BTN crew. "We take it personal that we didn't run the ball very well last year," Persa said.
  • Persa looked good during the practice, making different types of throws and showing good accuracy. He displayed nice touch on a deep fade to Jeremy Ebert in individual drills and made a nice throw to Lee Coleman into tight coverage during team drills. The receivers looked good as well, as Ebert and Sidney Stewart ran some nice routes and freshman Venric Mark left the BTN feeling he can play right away this fall. Dunsmore said he tweaked a hamstring early in camp but should be fine for the season.
  • Backup quarterback Evan Watkins had a nifty rollout and pass to Ebert for a touchdown during team drills. "Nice job of running the seam route there," Griffith said. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald is pleased with all the quarterbacks in camp, saying the team "hit grand slams" by adding freshmen Trevor Siemian and Kain Colter.
  • DiNardo likes Northwestern's starting linebacking corps but is unsure about the depth. Bryce McNaul certainly looks like the third starter alongside mainstays Quentin Davie and Nate Williams. Davie told the BTN crew that forcing turnovers is the defense's top priority after it tied for second in the league in takeaways with 30 last fall.
  • An experienced offensive line left a good impression in this practice. DiNardo and Griffith singled out guard Brian Mulroe and tackle Patrick Ward for their play, and DiNardo said, "This is the best offensive line we've seen at Northwestern for a while." Fitzgerald noted the athleticism on the left side of the line with Mulroe and veteran tackle Al Netter.
  • Aside from Schmidt's long run, the defensive line did a good job of filling gaps in team drills. The BTN crew likes the depth at both end and tackle, and Griffith lists tackle Jack DiNardo as his under-the-radar player. Niko Mafuli showed some good power in team drills, especially after Fitzgerald, mic'd up for part of the practice, called him out for being slow. Fitzgerald calls senior tackle Corbin Bryant an "All-Big Ten-level player."
  • Not much stood out about the secondary in this practice, although the BTN crew praised the play of safeties Jared Carpenter and Hunter Bates, who are competing to start alongside Brian Peters. "He's key for that young secondary," DiNardo said of Carpenter.
Northwestern didn't unveil a defined depth chart entering spring practice, but now that the spring session is complete, head coach Pat Fitzgerald has issued an updated two-deep. As expected, junior Dan Persa is listed as the team's starting quarterback, with redshirt freshman Evan Watkins as his backup.

A few nuggets of note:

  • Sophomore Arby Fields is listed as the starting running back ahead of junior Jacob Schmidt. Fields, the team's leading rusher last year, had a good spring but missed all the spring scrimmages because he was playing baseball. I'd be somewhat surprised if he doesn't start the opener Sept. 4 at Vanderbilt.
  • The Wildcats lose their top two wideouts from 2009, and they list Jeremy Ebert, Sidney Stewart and Demetrius Fields as the projected starters coming out of the spring. Ebert figures to be the No. 1 target, though NU needs to develop more depth.
  • All five starters return on the offensive line, but sophomore Patrick Ward, who didn't start last year, is listed as the top right tackle. Also, Brian Mulroe appears as the starting left guard ahead of Keenan Grant, while Doug Bartels and Neal Dieters are listed as co-starters at right guard. Translation: there will be ongoing competition at both guard spots.
  • Linebackers Quentin Davie and Nate Williams are set as starters, and Ben Johnson and Bryce McNaul are listed as co-starters in the third spot. McNaul had a nice spring and Johnson started early last season and brings some good athleticism, so this will be an interesting position battle to watch.
  • Northwestern moved starting linebacker David Arnold to safety to fill a need there, but Jared Carpenter is listed ahead of Arnold on the depth chart. Another good battle brewing there opposite Brian Peters.
  • Starting placekicker Stefan Demos is listed as a co-starter at punter with Brandon Williams. Northwestern really would be best served if Williams can win that job and lighten the load on Demos.
  • Jordan Mabin and Hunter Bates are the two options at punt returner, a weak spot for NU in recent years. Incoming freshman Venric Mark also could compete here.
EVANSTON, Ill. -- I thought it was an April Fool's joke when I heard temperatures might reach the 80s in Chicago today. But the pleasantly surprising forecast held up, at least for Northwestern's morning workout. The Wildcats put on pads for the first time this spring and practiced in incredible weather conditions.

Spring football, 70-degree temps and no clouds in the sky = a winning combination.

A few thoughts from Northwestern's practice:

  • Quarterback Dan Persa looked sharp for the most part, especially during the 7-on-7 portion of practice. He hit Jeremy Ebert on a deep post route and made several strong throws over the middle. He had an interception during team drills, as safety Jared Carpenter recorded the pick off of a tipped ball. But otherwise, Persa performed well. He also showed good leadership for a projected starter, checking in with wide receiver Lee Coleman after some confusion on a route.
  • Joining Persa with the first-team offense were running back Arby Fields, Ebert, Coleman, wideout Sidney Stewart and superback Josh Rooks. Starting superback Drake Dunsmore is out for the spring following shoulder surgery, and he actually had a follow-up shoulder procedure today. So Rooks is getting a lot of work.
  • Ebert's surgically repaired hip limited him throughout the 2009 season, but he should be a major factor for Northwestern this fall. The junior, who likely will be Persa's top option at wide receiver, made several receptions Thursday and had a nice gain on an end around.
  • As 2009 All-Big Ten cornerback Sherrick McManis watched from the sideline, the men vying to replace him this fall looked good. Junior Mike Bolden recorded several pass breakups and sophomore Demetrius Dugar had a leaping interception of an Evan Watkins pass.
  • Top linebackers Quentin Davie (foot, out for a few days) and Nate Williams (shoulder surgery, out for the spring) aren't practicing right now, but I was impressed with sophomore Roderick Goodlow, who recorded a tackle for loss and several other good plays. Redshirt freshman linebacker Tim Riley is also generating some buzz this spring.
  • Starting safety Brian Peters sat out practice with a hamstring injury, so Carpenter and projected starter David Arnold, a converted linebacker, got most of the reps at safety.
  • It was great to see defensive line coach Marty Long jogging around the practice field. Long underwent surgery in December to remove a growth and missed the Outback Bowl, but he's back to 100 percent. His NU predecessor Eric Washington, now the defensive line coach for the Chicago Bears, was in attendance at Thursday's practice.
  • The first-team offensive line had Al Netter at left tackle, Brian Mulroe at left guard, Ben Burkett at center, Neil Dieters at right guard and Patrick Ward at right tackle. Don't be surprised if this is the starting line entering the fall, as Ward, the team's top recruit in 2009, has been impressive. The most competitive position battle takes place at right guard between the 6-foot-8 Dieters and junior Doug Bartels.
  • Fields took all of the reps with the first-team offense and had a few nice runs, while Stephen Simmons and Scott Concannon worked with the second team. Sophomore Tyris Jones also got quite a few reps at running back.

Big Ten all-bowl team

January, 12, 2010
1/12/10
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A strong Big Ten bowl season leaves me with some tough choices for the All-Bowl team. We can certainly debate some of these, especially the O-linemen, but here are my selections.

OFFENSE

[+] EnlargeTerrelle Pryor
Harry How/Getty ImagesTerrelle Pryor acccounted for more Rose Bowl yards than Oregon's team did.
QB: Terrelle Pryor, Ohio State
He came of age in the Rose Bowl Game presented by Citi, delivering a complete performance as both a passer and a runner. Pryor accounted for 338 total yards; Oregon had 260.

RB: John Clay, Wisconsin
Clay gave Miami a taste of Big Ten football by bulldozing the Hurricanes for 121 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries in the Champs Sports Bowl.

RB: Brandon Wegher, Iowa
It seemed like no running back could stay healthy for Iowa this year, but Wegher came up huge in the FedEx Orange Bowl. The true freshman had 113 rush yards on 16 carries, including the clinching 32-yard touchdown run with 1:16 left.

WR: DeVier Posey, Ohio State
I saw a future NFL receiver when I watched Posey in the Rose Bowl. He had eight receptions for 101 yards, including a leaping 17-yard touchdown that all but sealed Ohio State's victory.

WR: Andrew Brewer, Northwestern
Brewer saved his best game for last, hauling in eight receptions for 133 yards and scoring on receptions of 35 and 39 yards in the Outback Bowl.

TE: Drake Dunsmore, Northwestern and Lance Kendricks, Wisconsin
Dunsmore had nine receptions for 120 yards, including an electrifying 66-yard touchdown dash through the Auburn defense. Garrett Graham might be the first-team All-Big Ten selection, but Kendricks stole the show in the Champs Sports Bowl with seven receptions for 128 yards.

C: John Moffitt, Wisconsin
Moffitt moved back to center because of a teammate's injury and helped the Badgers overpower Miami in the Champs Sports Bowl. Wisconsin racked up 430 total yards and held the ball for 39:15.

G: Justin Boren, Ohio State
Boren led a big and nasty Buckeyes line that generated push for the run game and helped Pryor attempt a career high 37 passes in the win against Oregon.

G: Joel Foreman, Michigan State
The Spartans' offensive line stepped up nicely in the Valero Alamo Bowl, helping to generate 148 rush yards and allowing only one sack against a Texas Tech team that rushes the passer extremely well. Foreman, an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection, deserves some props.

OT: Bryan Bulaga, Iowa
Bulaga showed why he's jumping to the NFL draft with a terrific performance against Georgia Tech star defensive end Derrick Morgan in the FedEx Orange Bowl.

OT: Dennis Landolt, Penn State
Landolt and his linemates did a good job against LSU's blitz and protected Daryll Clark on a muddy field in Orlando. Penn State allowed only one sack and rushed for 124 yards.

DEFENSE

DL: Adrian Clayborn, Iowa
Clayborn was an absolute beast in the Orange Bowl, recording nine tackles (all solo) and two sacks as he disrupted Georgia Tech's triple option attack.

DL: J.J. Watt, Wisconsin
Watt led an aggressive Badgers defensive front with a sack, two tackles for loss, two pass breakups, a quarterback hurry and a fumble recovery against Miami.

DL: O'Brien Schofield, Wisconsin
Schofield was disruptive all season and showed it in the bowl game, recording two sacks and forcing a fumble that led to a crucial field goal in the fourth quarter.

DL: Thaddeus Gibson, Ohio State
The Buckeyes defensive front made life miserable for Oregon quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, and Gibson stepped up with two tackles for loss in what proved to be his final collegiate game.

LB: Navorro Bowman, Penn State
Bowman had a game-high nine tackles, including 1.5 for loss, and forced LSU into a critical penalty in the final minute as the Lions preserved a Capital One Bowl win.

LB: Ross Homan, Ohio State
Homan ended the season as one of the Big Ten's top linebackers and turned in a terrific performance in Pasadena with 12 tackles and an interception that set up a field goal just before halftime.

LB: Pat Angerer, Iowa
The triple option will test a middle linebacker, but Angerer stepped up for Iowa with a game-high 10 tackles, including one for loss, against Georgia Tech.

DB: Kyle Theret, Minnesota
Theret was the Gophers' MVP in the Insight Bowl, recording seven tackles (all solo), two interceptions, a tackle for loss and a 40-yard reception on a fake punt that set up the team's first touchdown.

DB: Ross Weaver, Michigan State
The Spartans' secondary struggled against Texas Tech, but Weaver recorded a team-high seven solo tackles and had a forced fumble and an interception that led to 10 Michigan State points in the second half.

DB: Kim Royston, Minnesota
Royston recorded a career-high 15 tackles, tying the Insight Bowl record, including 14 solo stops against Iowa State. He also forced a fumble that turned into a Minnesota field goal.

DB: Sherrick McManis, Northwestern
McManis made plays throughout his career and finished it in typical fashion with an interception and a fumble recovery, both occurring in Northwestern's end of the field.

SPECIALISTS

K: Collin Wagner, Penn State
The horrible field conditions didn't bother Wagner, who went 4-for-4 on field-goal attempts and drilled the game winner with 57 seconds left in the fourth quarter.

P: Blake Haudan, Minnesota
Haudan averaged 49.6 yards on five punts and completed a 40-yard pass to Theret on a well-timed fake in the third quarter.

Returner: Keshawn Martin, Michigan State
Martin blossomed as the Big Ten's most dangerous kick return man this fall and averaged 24.8 yards per runback with a long of 36 against Texas Tech.

Honorable mention -- WISCONSIN: QB Scott Tolzien, RB Montee Ball, P Brad Nortman, LB Chris Borland, TE Garrett Graham, starting offensive line. MINNESOTA: WR Da'Jon McKnight, LB Lee Campbell. NORTHWESTERN: QB Mike Kafka, WR Zeke Markshausen, WR Sidney Stewart, CB Jordan Mabin, LB Quentin Davie. PENN STATE: QB Daryll Clark, RB Stephfon Green, TE Andrew Quarless, LB Sean Lee, DT Jared Odrick, CB A.J. Wallace, starting offensive line. OHIO STATE: DE Cameron Heyward, DT Doug Worthington, RB Brandon Saine, WR Dane Sanzenbacher, K Devin Barclay, K Aaron Pettrey, P Jon Thoma, starting offensive line. MICHIGAN STATE: RB Edwin Baker, WR Blair White, P Aaron Bates, LB Greg Jones, starting offensive line. IOWA: QB Ricky Stanzi, TE Tony Moeaki, P Ryan Donahue, DT Karl Klug, LB A.J. Edds, DE Broderick Binns, starting offensive line.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


Northwestern has issued its injury report for Saturday's road game against Syracuse (ESPN360, 7 p.m. ET).

OUT
QUESTIONABLE
The big name here is Simmons, who has performed very well as Northwestern's starter in the first two games (150 rush yards, 2 TDs). The junior likely sustained the injury on his second touchdown run against Eastern Michigan. If he can't go, true freshman Arby Fields likely would get the start.

Head coach Pat Fitzgerald said Wednesday that McManis is probable, and the Wildcats need him on the field to cover Syracuse standout receiver Mike Williams. Northwestern really missed McManis last week.

Matthews can be a playmaker as a runner and a receiver, so his presence would be big for the offense.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

KENOSHA, Wis. -- Midway through a recent practice, Northwestern junior wide receiver Sidney Stewart turned toward fellow wideout Andrew Brewer and provided a reminder.

"Nobody knows you, Brew," Stewart told Brewer. "Who are you, dawg?"

To be clear, Stewart wasn't experiencing memory loss from taking too many hits in practice. He knows exactly who Brewer is.

But nobody else does.

Northwestern must replace three multiyear starters at wide receiver this season, and the next group in consists mainly of players unknown outside the team's football complex.

Brewer might be the most recognizable as a former starting quarterback for NU, and Stewart and sophomore Jeremy Ebert combined for 32 receptions and three touchdowns last season. But most preseason prognosticators, including yours truly, point to what Northwestern has lost at receiver. Eric Peterman, Ross Lane and Rasheed Ward combined for 1,903 receiving yards 170 receptions and 12 touchdowns.

Last week at football media day, Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald told reporters, "On offense, none of you know any of our guys' names so I'll spare it for now."

He has relayed a similar message to the players themselves.

"We're anonymous," Stewart said Monday at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, site of Northwestern's off-campus training camp. "Unknown, unseen, unheard. Just a lot of uns. We called it U-cubed. We know there's a lot of talk about last year's group of guys. They were a great group of seniors.

"We knew that we were going to be unknown, unseen and unproven. Right now, it's our turn."

Stewart makes sure to motivate himself and his fellow wideouts during practices by telling them how unheralded they are. It has helped bond the group and create "a team within a team."

"We've got to realize we're not like everybody else," Stewart said. "There's a lot of people out here who will get talked about in a positive way. And we, unfortunately, if it's not a negative light, then we're not talked about at all.

"We like to keep that in the forefront of our minds, keep striving to be the best we can be."

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Before hitting the road, I caught a portion of Northwestern's practice this afternoon. Though I couldn't stay for most of the good stuff -- 7-on-7s and team drills -- I did notice a few things of note.

  • Junior outside linebacker Quentin Davie is a specimen. He always had the size (6-4) but lacked the mass. Davie is only listed at 225 pounds, but I'd be stunned if he wasn't at least 230, if not 235. He looks a lot stronger in his upper body. Davie also seems much more vocal in practice.
  • The wide receivers clearly have taken head coach Pat Fitzgerald message about their anonymity to heart. Earlier today, Fitzgerald said of the new skill-position players on offense: "None of (the media) know any of our guys' names, so I'll spare it." Junior Sidney Stewart spent much of practice saying, "Nobody knows who I am. Who am I? Where did I come from?"
  • Quarterbacks Mike Kafka and Dan Persa looked good during the drills I watched, connecting on their downfield throws.
  • Senior Andrew Brewer appears to be the team's top wideout, followed by sophomore Jeremy Ebert. Brewer has moved from the slot to an outside receiver spot, where his speed should be a bigger factor. Ebert, who comes off of hip surgery, fills the slot role previously occupied by standout Eric Peterman.
  • True freshman quarterback Evan Watkins certainly looks the part at 6-6 and 235 pounds. No Northwestern signal caller in recent memory resembles Watkins, who wears C.J. Bacher's old number, 18.
  • Defensive end Corey Wootton (knee) and cornerback Sherrick McManis (foot) sat out the workout. Both players are expected to miss a practice here and there, though both are fully cleared.
  • Tight end Drake Dunsmore is back from a knee injury, but he'll have to beat out Josh Rooks for the starting job. Expect Northwestern to use the tight ends (superbacks, they call them) more this year and possibly together for some plays.

Big Ten position rankings: WR/TE

August, 10, 2009
8/10/09
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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The preseason position rankings march on with the wide receivers and tight ends.

The Big Ten wasn't known for its air show last year, as only Illinois ranked among the top 25 nationally in pass offense. But most would agree the league boasts two of the nation's elite wide receivers in Illinois' Arrelious Benn and Minnesota's Eric Decker, as well as a good crop of tight ends led by Wisconsin's Garrett Graham. The overall landscape at wideout/tight end should improve this fall.

1. Illinois -- An easy choice for the top spot as Illinois boasts by far the league's best crop of wide receivers. Benn aims for a second consecutive 1,000-yard receiving season and hopes to increase his touchdowns total. Florida transfer Jarred Fayson enters the mix and should make a major impact along with Jeff Cumberland. Senior tight end Michael Hoomanawanui is one of the league's more underrated players.

2. Minnesota -- Decker certainly headlines the group and will finish his career as arguably the most decorated wide receiver in team history. But he's not alone. Junior college stud Hayo Carpenter arrives and will play alongside Brandon Green, Ben Kuznia, Da'Jon McKnight and Troy Stoudermire, who should play a much bigger role in the passing game after working more at receiver this spring.

3. Michigan State -- The Spartans return virtually everyone from a receiving corps that had some decent moments last fall. Blair White and Mark Dell both have All-Big Ten potential, and the team will look for more production from Keshawn Martin and B.J. Cunningham. The real story here is the depth at tight end. No Big Ten team boasts more as Charlie Gantt and Clemson transfer Brian Linthicum lead the way.

4. Wisconsin -- Much like Michigan State, Wisconsin brings back the core from a group that endured ups and downs in 2008. Graham enters the fall as the Big Ten's premier tight end and has Lance Kendricks and Mickey Turner behind him. The improvement at wide receiver should be the biggest difference for Wisconsin. Nick Toon could be a star this fall, and Kyle Jefferson, Isaac Anderson and David Gilreath all return. 

5.  Ohio State -- The Brians (Robiskie and Hartline) are gone, but Ohio State could be more explosive at wide receiver this season. Though Ray Small's academic situation creates some uneasiness, DeVier Posey and Dane Sanzenbacher form a nice 1-2 punch. Ohio State should be better at the tight end position with the Jakes (Ballard and Stoneburner).

6. Michigan -- This group didn't have much of a chance to shine last fall, but things should be different in 2009. The big-play potential is there with Martavious Odoms, Greg Mathews and Darryl Stonum, and redshirt freshman Roy Roundtree had a solid spring. Tight end Kevin Koger could be a very effective weapon if Michigan throws to him more. 

7. Iowa -- There are some question marks here, namely Tony Moeaki's health and Derrell Johnson-Koulianos' practice performance, but it wouldn't surprise me if Iowa climbed the list. Moeaki could bring a huge spark at tight end after the loss of Brandon Myers. Johnson-Koulianos will be motivated after his depth-chart demotion, and converted quarterback Marvin McNutt has impressed the coaches.  

8. Penn State -- I'm sure I'll hear it from Nittany Nation (as I usually do), but the loss of three multiyear starters takes a pretty big toll. It wouldn't shock me one bit if Derek Moye, Graham Zug, Brett Brackett and Chaz Powell don't miss a beat, but I need to see them excel in more featured roles. Tight end Andrew Quarless has tons of talent but needs to put it all together this fall.

9. Purdue -- The Boilers usually find a way to succeed at wide receiver, but they lose a lot in Greg Orton, Desmond Tardy and running back Kory Sheets, an excellent pass-catcher. Keith Smith steps into the No. 1 spot after recording 49 receptions last fall, but he'll need help from Aaron Valentin, converted cornerback Royce Adams and junior college import Keith Carlos. Purdue should be much better at tight end as Kyle Adams returns. 

10. Northwestern -- The program needs to prove it can reload after losing three multiyear starters (Eric Peterman, Ross Lane, Rasheed Ward). Northwestern has had high hopes for converted quarterback Andrew Brewer, but he's struggled to stay healthy. The Wildcats will lean on Brewer, junior Sidney Stewart and sophomore Jeremy Ebert, who performed well last fall. The superback position might finally be featured as Drake Dunsmore returns from a knee injury.

11. Indiana -- Last year's leading receiver (Ray Fisher) likely will start at cornerback, while the man expected to be the No. 1 (Kellen Lewis) was dismissed after spring ball. There are some major questions here, but you've got to like Indiana's young wideouts Damarlo Belcher and Tandon Doss. Sophomore tight end Max Dedmond could be a player to watch this fall.  

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The final seven Big Ten teams open preseason camp, including defending co-champs Penn State and Ohio State.

Here are three questions for the remaining seven squads during the next four weeks. If you missed Part I, check it out.

MICHIGAN

Camp opens: Monday

1. Will true freshman Tate Forcier create some early separation in the quarterback competition?

Forcier enters camp as the frontrunner after a solid spring, and he could further cement himself as the Wolverines' top quarterback in the coming weeks. He'll face some real competition now as junior Nick Sheridan returns from a broken leg and athletic freshman Denard Robinson joins the mix.

2. Who will step up alongside Brandon Graham on the defensive line?

Michigan brings back a potential All-American in Graham, who has 18.5 sacks the past two seasons. He'll need help up front, though, and the Wolverines need strong camps from Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen and William Campbell.

3. How many true freshmen see the field this fall?

The Wolverines will be much more experienced at several positions, but head coach Rich Rodriguez brought in a strong recruiting class, and several freshmen should contribute immediately. Along with Forcier, Robinson and Campbell, running back Vincent Smith impressed this spring and hopes are high for safety Vladimir Emilien. Defensive end Craig Roh also could be one to watch.

MICHIGAN STATE

Camp opens: Monday

1. Will we see any separation at quarterback before Sept. 5?

Head coach Mark Dantonio isn't planning on it and fully intends to play both Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol during non-league play. The two signal-callers paced one another throughout spring ball, but there's a chance one man might be ready to take the job.

2. Can true freshmen Edwin Baker and Larry Caper emerge as the top running backs?

None of Michigan State's older players really took charge in the spring, though Caulton Ray's emergence is intriguing. Many expect Michigan State's heralded recruits to emerge as potential starters by the end of training camp.

3. How will the secondary look by the end of camp?

Dantonio has a very good problem in the secondary -- loads of experience. Eight returning players have starting experience, and that doesn't include safety Trenton Robinson, the story of the spring on defense. The competition in the back four should be fun to watch.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Fifteen spring practices still don't mask all the warts a team has, and every head coach has a position group that keeps him awake at night. After looking at where each Big Ten team got help this spring, here's a look at the positions that still look a little shaky around the league.

Illinois' offensive line -- The Illini boast arguably more offensive firepower than any Big Ten team, but they'll struggle without improvement up front. There's youth throughout the front five, and while players like Jeff Allen boast loads of potential, there are a few unknowns heading into the fall. The line allowed five sacks and 16 tackles for loss in the spring game.

Indiana's wide receivers -- Kellen Lewis' dismissal from the program after spring practice creates a major void at receiver. Lewis was pegged to be Ben Chappell's top target, and with Ray Fisher moving from wideout to cornerback, the Hoosiers need big things from young players like Tandon Doss and Damarlo Belcher.

Iowa's defensive tackles -- This position will be a question mark for the Hawkeyes right up until the season opener, and most likely beyond. Iowa must find a way to replace mainstays Mitch King and Matt Kroul, and it lacks much experience besides Karl Klug. The team needs continued development from guys like Mike Daniels and Cody Hundertmark.

Michigan's defensive line -- Brandon Graham should be one of the nation's top pass-rushers this fall, but he needs some help up front. Michigan likes what it has in young linemen like Ryan Van Bergen, Mike Martin and incoming freshman Craig Roh. Those players will need to grow up fast so the defense can generate consistent pressure.

Michigan State's running backs -- Few players meant more to an offense than Javon Ringer did to Michigan State last fall, and the search for a replacement remains a bit murky. Aside from a brief surge by Ashton Leggett, the running back room remains very crowded as Caulton Ray entered the mix this spring. Two heralded freshmen arrive during the summer in Edwin Baker and Larry Caper.

Minnesota's offensive line -- The Gophers have the bodies up front, but they've still got a long way to go in picking up the new offensive system/philosophy. It's a fairly dramatic change for returning starters like Dom Alford and Ned Tavale, so growing pains are expected. But a talented Gophers team can't take another step forward if its offensive line doesn't come together.

Northwestern's wide receivers -- Three starters are gone at receiver, and no one really wowed during spring practice. Northwestern should get better here as Jeremy Ebert returns from hip surgery, but it's time for experienced players like Andrew Brewer and Sidney Stewart to step up as primary targets for new starting quarterback Mike Kafka.

Ohio State's offensive line -- Michigan transfer Justin Boren undoubtedly had a positive effect on the offensive line this spring, but questions remain about a group that underachieved for most of 2008. Can Mike Adams complement his physical gifts with a toughness needed to play left tackle in the Big Ten? How will Jim Cordle and Bryant Browning adjust to new positions when the games begin? Stay tuned.

Penn State's secondary -- Head coach Joe Paterno didn't hide his concern for this group, which lost all four starters from 2008. Breakdowns in the secondary doomed Penn State in its only two losses last fall. Safety Drew Astorino should be ready for big things, but cornerback A.J. Wallace must find a way to stay healthy and become a legit shutdown guy on the outside.

Purdue's quarterbacks -- Joey Elliott boasts the knowledge to be an effective Big Ten starter, but does he have the skills to get it done? He has spent a lot of time on the sideline during his college career, and Purdue would benefit from having another viable option at quarterback. Justin Siller's dismissal really stings, and the development of backup Caleb TerBush looms large this summer.

Wisconsin's linebackers -- The Badgers lose a lot of production in DeAndre Levy and Jonathan Casillas, and they don't have much proven depth at linebacker. They can ill afford an injury to Jaevery McFadden or Culmer St. Jean, and it's imperative to develop more linebackers during preseason camp.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

EVANSTON, Ill. -- The sun was shining, AC/DC had been cranked up and Northwestern players gathered for the always entertaining "board drill" just as I rolled up to the practice field.

What perfect timing.

For those who don't know, the board drill is the ultimate display of testosterone. It calls for a series of offensive and defensive players to line up across from each other, separated by a board. The object is pretty simple: push the other guy back.

Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald, who absolutely loves this drill, determined the winners. Not surprisingly, the defense seemed to have the edge in Thursday's session. As "Thunderstuck" played in the background, cornerbacks Jordan Mabin and Mike Bolden, and defensive tackle Niko Mafuli won their board-drill matchups.

Other thoughts from Northwestern's hyped-up workout:

  • Running back is the team's biggest question after the loss of four-year starter Tyrell Sutton, and junior Stephen Simmons took most of the reps with the first team. Simmons performed well during team drills, showcasing his skills as both a runner and a receiver, much like Sutton did. He caught several screen passes and had a 15-yard touchdown run during the red zone work.
  • Redshirt freshman Alex Daniel is a bit banged up, so sophomore Jeravin Matthews got a lot of work at running back with the second-team offense. Matthews, one of only two true freshmen to see the field last fall, moves over from wide receiver and brings top-end speed to the backfield.
  • Projected starting quarterback Mike Kafka looked good to me, firing several passes to senior Andrew Brewer, the starting slot receiver who might finally be ready to be a No. 1 target. I heard after the workout that Kafka wasn't thrilled with his performance, but I didn't see too many mistakes. He hit Brewer on a deep out route early in team drills and had a touchdown run late in the workout.
  • Quarterback Dan Persa got a lot of work and looked very strong both on throws and as a runner. Persa made a nice throw to Zeke Markshausen on a post route and hit superback Brendan Mitchell for a touchdown during the red zone portion.
  • It's no secret that the defense will be the strength of this team once again this fall. Though All-American candidate Corey Wootton watched from the sideline -- he's recovering from ACL surgery -- several players stood out. Senior safety Brendan Smith recovered a fumble against the second-team offense, and cornerbacks Mabin and Sherrick McManis both broke up passes.
  • Northwestern will be deep in the secondary, and Brian Peters, who was very active Thursday, provides a third option at safety behind Smith and Brad Phillips. Ben Johnson also has generated some buzz at linebacker, as well as Jack DiNardo at defensive tackle.
  • Athletic director Jim Phillips stopped by to chat about a variety of topics. He plans to meet Chicago Cubs chairman Crane Kenney and several architects in the next few weeks at Wrigley Field to determine whether the field is large enough to accommodate a college football game. If so, Phillips said Northwestern definitely will play a late-season game at the Friendly Confines, most likely in 2010 or 2011. He wants to have enough time to promote the game and ensure all the logistics are in place at a stadium that hasn't held a football game since 1970.
  • Phillips also said a new contract/extension for Fitzgerald is "No. 1 on my to-do list." Conversations are under way and going well, so expect something to be finalized before preseason camp in August.
  • Defensive tackle Adam Hahn hobbled onto the field on crutches with a large cast over his right foot. Hahn broke a bone in his foot the first week of spring ball and had surgery. D-line coach Marty Long doesn't expect him to be out long. Defensive tackle Corbin Bryant and Wootton both are making progress following knee injury, with Bryant already starting to jog a bit.
  • The first-team offense: Mike Kafka at quarterback, Stephen Simmons at running back, Andrew Brewer at wide receiver, Sidney Stewart at wide receiver, Charles Brown at wide receiver, Kevin Frymire at wide receiver, Al Netter at left tackle, Doug Bartels at left guard, Ben Burkett at center, Keegan Grant at right guard and Kurt Mattes at right tackle. Desmond Taylor, a candidate to start at right tackle, is out for the spring with an injury. When Northwestern used superbacks, Brendan Mitchell and Josh Rooks got most of the work.
  • The first-team defense (keep in mind several starters are injured): Vince Browne at defensive end, Kevin Watt at defensive end, Jack DiNardo at defensive tackle, Marshall Thomas at defensive tackle, Ben Johnson at linebacker, Nate Williams at linebacker, Chris Jeske at linebacker, Sherrick McManis at cornerback, Jordan Mabin at cornerback, Brendan Smith at safety, Brian Peters at safety.
  • Jeske's work with the first-team defense is notable. He came to Northwestern as a blue-chip recruit but endured recurring back problems that have kept him on the field. Linebacker is the one thin position on the defense, so Jeske could provide a major boost.
  • After a play finished a little too close to where we were standing on the sideline, Fitzgerald ordered all spectators to the bleachers overlooking the practice field. The coach then came over and singled me out, joking that he didn't want to pay ESPN's insurance bill if I went down. Thanks, Fitz.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Big Ten spring football gets into full swing this week, as the final three teams open practice. Only 12 days remain until the first and arguably most intriguing spring game, as Michigan wraps up drills April 11 at Michigan Stadium. Here's a snapshot of the final three squads to begin drills.

NORTHWESTERN

  • First practice: Monday
  • Big issue: The Wildcats need to replace running back Tyrell Sutton, a four-year starter, as well as several multiyear starters at wide receiver. Players like Stephen Simmons, Andrew Brewer and Sidney Stewart will be in the spotlight this spring as head coach Pat Fitzgerald looks for playmakers.

ILLINOIS

  • First practice: Tuesday
  • Big issue: Will linebacker Martez Wilson finally become a star? The athletically gifted junior was solid but not spectacular last fall, and his status coming off a stabbing incident in early December will be closely monitored this spring. Illinois needs leadership on defense, and Wilson can fill a key role.

OHIO STATE

  • First practice: Thursday
  • Big issue: Dan Herron and Brandon Saine compete for the starting running back job and try to get a leg up before freshmen Jaamal Berry and Carlos Hyde arrive. The Buckeyes also need to replenish at linebacker and cornerback.

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