Big Ten: Stephen Buckley

The Northwestern Wildcats were looking forward to getting star tailback Venric Mark back after an injury-riddled 2013 -- but it looks as if the team will have to wait a few more games.

Mark, a senior, was suspended for this season's first two games after violating an unspecified team policy, the school announced Friday evening.

"I made a mistake and am prepared to deal with the consequences of that," Mark said in a news release.

The announcement is certainly a surprising one but, overall, shouldn't affect the preseason standing of the Wildcats. Northwestern's first opponent, Cal, is basically the Purdue of the Pac-12 and has widely been panned as the likely last-place finisher of the North. Northwestern's next opponent is Northern Illinois, which may be coming off a 12-2 season but lost four starters on the defensive line and has to replace dual-threat quarterback Jordan Lynch.

Mark would be a great boost to Northwestern's offense in those two games, but his absence shouldn't hurt the Cats all that much. Especially with Northwestern's depth.

Pat Fitzgerald has three other tailbacks who saw time last season, and senior tailback Treyvon Green took over last season with Mark on the sideline. He finished 2013 with 736 yards, eight touchdowns and 5.3 yards a carry, so he's not exactly green. Stephen Buckley and Warren Long also saw time in 2013 and can pick up the slack where needed.

"We've got solid depth at that position," Fitzgerald said during Big Ten media days. "I think we've been able to turn what's been perceived as a lack of depth in our program into a position of depth right now."

Granted, the Wildcats still lost production last season when Mark was sidelined. With Mark in 2012, Northwestern averaged 4.93 yards a carry. With Mark mostly gone in 2013, that average dipped to 4.08 yards per carry. Still, Northwestern has more experience this season -- and it's not as if they are facing Michigan State's defense those first two weeks.

No doubt Northwestern would prefer to have Mark back now. But between its depth and opponents? The Wildcats should be just fine.

Spring position breakdown: RBs

February, 26, 2014
Feb 26
Spring practice is off and running in the Big Ten, as Michigan took the field Tuesday and Northwestern followed on Wednesday. We're taking snapshots of where each team stands at each position group.

We've already discussed the quarterbacks -- and will have much more on the way -- so the series begins with the running backs.

Illinois: The Illini are in a bit better shape here than they were the past two springs, as veterans Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young both return. Ferguson averaged 5.5 yards per carry and added 50 receptions for 535 yards as the primary playmaker for Illinois' revamped offense. Young added 376 yards on 93 carries. The Illini are looking for others behind the top two, and Dami Ayoola is back with the team after being dismissed in September for a rules violation.

Indiana: Tevin Coleman quietly put together a superb sophomore season and leads the Hoosiers' running backs in 2014. Coleman provides big-play ability after averaging 7.3 yards per carry with 12 touchdowns on only 131 attempts in 2013. Indiana loses Stephen Houston but brings back veteran D'Angelo Roberts, who will play behind Coleman. Younger players such as sophomore Laray Smith could get a look here.

Iowa: Not only did the Hawkeyes toss AIRBHG to the side and get through the season without any major injurie, but they bring back everyone for 2014. Senior Mark Weisman leads the contingent after rushing for 975 yards and eight touchdowns last fall. Jordan Canzeri came on strong late in the season and is showing no effects from his ACL tear in 2012. Veteran Damon Bullock also returns to the mix, and Iowa has talented younger backs such as LeShun Daniels Jr. at its disposal. Good situation here.

Maryland: The Terrapins wide receivers tend to get more attention, but the team also returns its top three running backs from 2013 in Brandon Ross, Albert Reid and Jacquille Veii. Maryland also regains the services of Wes Brown, who finished second on the team in rushing as a freshman in 2012 before being suspended for all of last season. Joe Riddle is back in the fold as well. The group brings different strengths, from power (Brown) to speed (Veii) to a mixture of both (Ross, Reid).

Michigan: Sophomore Derrick Green enters the spring as the frontrunner to be Michigan's lead back, although coach Brady Hoke wants to ramp up competition everywhere. The Wolverines struggled to consistently run between the tackles, but the 240-pound Green could change things. Hoke also is excited about another sophomore, De'Veon Smith. Michigan moved Ross Douglas from cornerback to running back, and Justice Hayes and Wyatt Shallman also are in the mix. "We've got more depth," Hoke said.

Michigan State: Things look much more promising than they did last spring, when the Spartans ended the session with a linebacker (Riley Bullough) as their top back. Jeremy Langford emerged as a very solid option during the season, rushing for 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns. He's back as the clear-cut starter, and Nick Hill also returns. It will be interesting to see if Gerald Holmes makes a push, or whether Delton Williams remains on offense.

Minnesota: Here's another team that finds itself in very good shape at running back entering the spring. David Cobb leads the group after rushing for 1,202 yards and seven touchdowns as a sophomore. Veterans Donnell Kirkwood and Rodrick Williams Jr. are still around, and highly touted redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards will take the field after missing last fall because of knee and ankle injuries. Perhaps the best news will come in the summer as decorated recruit Jeff Jones arrives.

Nebraska: Notice a theme here? Nebraska is yet another Big Ten squad that can feel very good about its running backs entering the spring. Ameer Abdullah elected to bypass the NFL draft for one final season at Nebraska, where he led the Big Ten with 1,690 yards on 281 carries as a junior. Abdullah will contend for national awards in the fall. Imani Cross, who rushed for 10 touchdowns last year, is one of the nation's top backups. Terrell Newby and others add depth behind the top two.

Northwestern: Top back Venric Mark (ankle) will miss spring practice following surgery, and reserve Stephen Buckley (knee) also is rehabbing, but Northwestern has no reason to panic. Treyvon Green, who filled in well for Mark last season with 736 rushing yards, will get much of the work. Warren Long also is in the mix after appearing in seven games as a true freshman. Northwestern also loaded up at running back in recruiting to solidify the position for years to come.

Ohio State: This will be a position to watch in the spring as Ohio State must replace Carlos Hyde, who was nearly unstoppable during Big Ten play last fall. Veteran Jordan Hall also departs, and Rod Smith will be the veteran of the group despite only 83 career carries. The Buckeyes have some talented young backs, from Dontre Wilson, who saw significant playing time last fall, to Bri'onte Dunn, Ezekiel Elliott and Warren Ball. Keep an eye on Elliott, who averaged 8.7 yards per carry in limited work last season but could emerge this spring.

Penn State: If it feels like Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton have been competing for carries forever at Penn State, it's because they have. Zwinak and Belton have been part of Penn State's running back rotation for the past two seasons and enter another competition this spring with talented sophomore Akeel Lynch, who rushed for 358 yards on only 60 carries last season. It will be interesting to see how much Lynch can push Zwinak and Belton in the team's first spring under a new coaching staff. Penn State has depth issues at several positions, but running back isn't one of them.

Purdue: The Boilers finished 122nd nationally in rushing offense last season, so the fact all of their running backs return might not spark mass celebration. Senior Akeem Hunt leads the group after recording 123 of the team's 319 rushing attempts in 2013. Other veteransBrandon Cottom and Raheem Mostert also are back, along with younger ball-carries such as Dayln Dawkins and three backs -- Keyante Green, David Yancey and Keith Byars II -- who redshirted last fall and could have much bigger roles.

Rutgers: Here's yet another team that returns basically its entire stable of running backs for spring ball. Paul James is the name to watch, as he rushed for 573 yards in the first four games last season before suffering a leg injury. James' health is a concern for Rutgers, which could also turn to Justin Goodwin, who showed some flashes following James' injury. Savon Huggins, who entered last season as the starter before losing ground, is in the mix as he looks to re-establish himself on the depth chart.

Wisconsin: How many teams can lose a 1,400-yard rusher and still claim to have the best running back group in the Big Ten? James White is gone, but Wisconsin remains in very good shape in the backfield. Melvin Gordon bypassed the NFL draft for another year in Madison after rushing for 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns on only 206 carries. Gordon should move into more of a featured role beginning this spring, although he'll be pushed by Corey Clement, who had 547 yards and seven touchdowns on only 67 carries. Jeff Lewis provides another option behind the top two.
Venric Mark's ankle injury was serious enough to sideline him for the final six-plus games in 2013 -- and earn him a chance to return this fall.

The injury also will keep Northwestern's star running back/returner sidelined for the spring.

Mark is one of 11 Wildcats players out for spring ball following winter surgeries. Northwestern opens practice on Wednesday.

Other notables sitting out include defensive tackle Sean McEvilly (foot) and defensive ends Ifeadi Odenigbo (shoulder) and Deonte Gibson (shoulder), all potential starters this fall. Cornerback Daniel Jones and running back Stephen Buckley both are recovering from knee injuries sustained during the 2013 season.

Last spring, Northwestern lacked bodies along the offensive line because of winter surgeries. It altered practices and arguably cost the Wildcats during the season. This year, the defensive line will be thin as McEvilly, Odenigbo, Gibson and tackle Max Chapman all are out for the spring session.

"Our numbers will be down there," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald told "Would you notice watching practice? Maybe not. We'll probably take more breaks during scrimmage days. It's kind of the reverse of last year, so we'll have to do a better job than a year ago.

"The depth is good; I don't think the depth is great in spring. That's going to be an area we're really going to have to improve in camp."

Season report card: Northwestern

December, 18, 2013
Final exams are either ongoing or all wrapped up around the Big Ten. We're passing out grades, too, for each team's regular-season performance.

Each team receives a grade for offense, defense, special teams and overall play.

Up next: Northwestern.

Offense: D-minus

After several big performances in non-league play and a 437-yard output in the Big Ten opener against Ohio State, Northwestern's offense slid significantly and became a liability for most of the fall. A new-look line struggled to protect, quarterback Trevor Siemian made costly mistakes and the rhythm and occasional explosiveness that defined the unit for years disappeared. Northwestern finished 11th in the league in both scoring (26.2 ppg) and sacks allowed (36), and it committed 20 turnovers.

Injuries played a significant role in Northwestern's struggles. Venric Mark, a second-team All-Big Ten selection in 2012, played only one full game because of myriad injuries. Quarterback Kain Colter also was banged up throughout the season, and head coach Pat Fitzgerald revealed after the season that Siemian played through a heel injury during the Big Ten slate. The injury bug hit the running back spot especially hard as Stephen Buckley suffered a season-ending injury against Nebraska, and Treyvon Green also was slowed.

Northwestern operated with a limited playbook and never showcased the scheme that propelled it to 10 wins in 2012. The unit struggled to score touchdowns in the red zone -- a strength from the previous season -- and couldn't overcome costly penalties. Ultra conservative play calls also cropped up in Big Ten games, and a unit that had sparked Northwestern since 2000 became hard to watch.

Defense: B-minus

In most seasons, Northwestern's defense would have been good enough to help the team to at least eight wins. The Wildcats have had an offense lean since installing the spread before the 2000 campaign, while their defense had been a liability, especially against the pass. The defense held up in most games, although it could have secured wins against both Nebraska and Iowa with one more stop.

Northwestern was extremely opportunistic, recording 23 takeaways, including four for touchdowns. The Wildcats finished fifth in the league in sacks, thanks to effective rushers Tyler Scott, Dean Lowry and Ifeadi Odenigbo. The unit struggled against elite running backs like Carlos Hyde, Ameer Abdullah and Melvin Gordon, and fell victim to some big pass plays, most notably the Hail Mary at Nebraska. Northwestern missed cornerback Daniel Jones, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener at Cal.

The defense can't be absolved from the team's failure this season, but it put the offense in position to win all but two Big Ten games (Wisconsin and Michigan State). If Northwestern had been slightly more efficient in scoring points, it finishes 7-5 or 8-4. This is a unit that returns most of its key players in 2014 and could be pretty good.

Special teams: C

Jeff Budzien proved to be Northwestern's most consistent offensive threat, connecting on 23 of 25 field-goal attempts and all 35 of his extra-point tries en route to winning his second consecutive Big Ten kicker-of-the-year award. The coverage teams also were satisfactory, but Northwestern really missed Mark, who was an All-America punt returner in 2012. Northwestern only attempted nine punt returns all season and didn't get anything special from its kick returners. Punter Brandon Williams struggled and was replaced late in the season.

Overall: D

Northwestern fell significantly short of expectations, as it returned the core from a 10-win team and has a realistic shot at the Legends Division title. The team was snakebitten with injuries and bad luck and easily could have won three-to-four more games, but it repeatedly couldn't make the key plays in close contests. Personnel losses along both lines, especially the offensive front, cost Northwestern during Big Ten play, as the Wildcats endured their longest losing streak (seven games) since the 1998 season. Fitzgerald and his staff have a lot to evaluate in their first extended offseason in six years.

More report cards
Northwestern's offense has been rooted in the same philosophy -- players, formations, plays -- since coordinator Mick McCall arrived in 2008. McCall shapes his scheme around the players first before choosing formations and plays that maximize their skills.

In the first four seasons under McCall, most of the players ended up being wide receivers and quarterbacks. Most of Northwestern's formations highlighted the wideouts and most of the plays were passes. Northwestern's offense had a clear passing lean, especially in 2009, when the Wildcats ranked 13th nationally in pass offense. The Wildcats didn't neglect the ground game, but when it came time to identify the best players, the running backs didn't make the cut.

[+] EnlargeNorthwestern's Venric Mark
Mike DiNovo/USA TODAY SportsLast season Venric Mark became the first Northwestern running back to eclipse 1,000 yards in a season since Tyrell Sutton in 2006.
"There's been some times in the past at Northwestern in the running back room where there was one guy, and that was it," Matt MacPherson, the team's running backs coach since 2006, told

MacPherson clearly has his one guy in senior Venric Mark, who earned second-team All-Big Ten honors in 2012 after rushing for 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns. Mark, who earned All-America honors as a return man, was Northwestern's first 1,000-yard rusher since Tyrell Sutton in 2006.

But MacPherson thinks Northwestern's options in the backfield go beyond Mark.

"I feel like we have four or five guys in my room right now that we can go win Big Ten football games with," MacPherson said. "That gives you a lot of flexibility, and it allows you to do a lot of different things. I came out of spring very pleased with the way they performed."

Mark remains the undisputed starter and will get the lion's share of the carries in the fall. He sat out most live-tackling drills this spring as a precaution, which allowed the other backs -- Mike Trumpy, Treyvon Green, Stephen Buckley and Malin Jones -- to get more reps.

Trumpy racked up 349 yards and three touchdowns on 76 carries as Mark's primary backup in 2012. Green endured a tough season with injuries and personal issues but bounced back and "had a great spring," MacPherson said. Both Buckley and Jones redshirted in 2012 but likely worked their way into the carries rotation with good springs.

"Our running back room has gotten deeper," McCall said. "We've got some guys that can play in a lot of different situations there. We've continually gotten better in that room."

Northwestern made a noticeable shift toward the run last fall behind Mark and dual-threat quarterback Kain Colter. After finishing no better than 45th nationally in rushing in McCall's first four seasons as coordinator, Northwestern surged to 19th nationally last year (225.4 ypg).

The rushing focus should continue as long as more running backs meet the first principle of McCall's philosophy. MacPherson thinks they will, and Northwestern might go with a two-back formation, which it used for 10-12 plays per game in 2012, more often this season.

"In my room, those eyes light up when they know we're going to start running the ball a bunch," MacPherson said, "and we're going to have two running backs on the field at the same time. That's something for them to get excited about. That just gives another aspect of competition, knowing that, OK, Venric may be the guy, but when we get into the two-back set, who's going to be the other guy?"

It's a question MacPherson is glad to be asking.
2012 record: 10-3
2012 conference record: 5-3 (third in Legends division)
Returning starters: Offense: 8; defense: 7; kicker/punter: 2

Top returners

RB Venric Mark, QB Kain Colter, QB Trevor Siemian, C Brandon Vitabile, WR Christian Jones, TE Dan Vitale, S Ibraheim Campbell, CB Nick VanHoose, DE Tyler Scott, LB Chi Chi Ariguzo, K Jeff Budzien

Key losses

G Brian Mulroe, T Patrick Ward, DT Brian Arnfelt, LB David Nwabuisi, DE Quentin Williams

2012 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Venric Mark* (1,371 yards)
Passing: Trevor Siemian* (1,317 yards)
Receiving: Christian Jones* (417 yards)
Tackles: Damien Proby* (112)
Sacks: Tyler Scott* (9)
Interceptions: David Nwabuisi and Nick VanHoose* (3)

Spring answers

1. Secondary options: Northwestern has had major issues in the secondary during the past 15 years or so, but the group took a step forward in 2012 and should take another one this fall. Improved recruiting efforts throughout the defense are starting to pay off, and it showed up at both the cornerback and safety spots this spring. Young players such as safety Traveon Henry and cornerback Dwight White had strong springs, and the Wildcats are able to go at least four deep at both spots. "Our secondary runs as well as it has at all four positions," coach Pat Fitzgerald said.

2. Depth emerging at WR, RB: The Wildcats bring back almost every offensive skill player from 2012, but they saw depth at both wide receiver and running back improve this spring. Fitzgerald and his offensive staff were pleased with the spring performances of veteran receivers Christian Jones and Rashad Lawrence. Jones and sophomore tight end Dan Vitale should boost the passing game in the middle of the field. The Wildcats also have plenty of insurance behind All-Big Ten running back Venric Mark. They can go four deep at the position as redshirt freshmen Stephen Buckley and Malin Jones both showed flashes this spring.

3. Living on the edge: Like the secondary, Northwestern's defensive line made progress last season, especially with the pass rush. There's a chance to make more this season, especially at the defensive end spot. Tyler Scott returns after tying for the Big Ten sacks lead, and the Wildcats boast three young speed rushers -- Dean Lowry, Deonte Gibson and Ifeadi Odenigbo -- who had some impressive moments this spring. Lowry is the furthest along in his development, but both Gibson and the ultra-athletic Odenigbo will be part of the rotation.

Fall questions

1. Walk that line: Offensive line is undoubtedly the biggest question mark for Northwestern entering the season. Several projected starters missed spring practice following postseason surgeries, which allowed younger players like tackle Shane Mertz and guard Adam DePietro to get a bunch of reps in practice. The Wildcats are set at left tackle (Jack Konopka) and center (Brandon Vitabile), but there will be plenty of competition at the other three spots in preseason camp. Northwestern needs to set its starting rotation fairly early and then build that all important chemistry before the season kicks off.

2. Filling gaps on defense: There's more overall depth on defense entering 2013, but Northwestern has to fill gaps in all three areas of the unit. Henry likely locked up a starting safety spot this spring, but the cornerback spot opposite Nick VanHoose will feature plenty of competition in camp between White, C.J. Bryant and Daniel Jones. Northwestern also needs a third starting linebacker, where Drew Smith and Collin Ellis will compete. And defensive tackle might be the team's thinnest spot on defense. It'll be important to see some progress there in camp.

3. Shaping the offensive identity: Northwestern seemed to run two or three different offenses in 2012 and endured a midseason identity crisis that, in my view, cost it at least one game and maybe two. That's the danger of using a two-quarterback system, which will remain for the 2013 campaign. Northwestern is looking for a bit better run-pass balance as it has enough weapons at receiver and tight end to attack defenses more through the air. Fitzgerald thinks he can win a Big Ten title with both Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian at quarterback, but figuring out exactly what the offense will be remains a challenge that continues in preseason camp.
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Northwestern running back Venric Mark stands just 5-foot-8 and weighs only 171 pounds, but he has a nose tackle-sized chip on his shoulder.

It's why his favorite run play is the inside zone. It's why he often gets in the face of defenders half a foot taller after between-the-tackles runs. It's why he runs to contact rather than away from it, like many backs his size.

"There's no question on Venric's toughness," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "He's a tough, tough guy."

But is he a durable Big Ten running back? Mark suffered some minor injuries during the second half of the 2012 season, in which he rushed for 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns and led the Big Ten with 2,171 all-purpose yards.

[+] EnlargeVenric Mark
AP Photo/Matt QuinnanNorthwestern running back Venric Mark led the Big Ten with 2,171 all-purpose yards last season.
Although Mark started all 13 games at running back for the Wildcats, he got banged up against Boston College, Nebraska, Michigan and Michigan State and eclipsed 18 carries just once in the final six games. Some question whether Mark -- with his size and style of play -- is built to last, even though he tied for fourth in the Big Ten in carries (226) last fall.

Mark greets the durability doubts much like he does those bigger, seemingly badder defenders -- head on.

"They're always talking about, 'Is he durable? Is he durable?'" Mark told "That was my first year playing running back. People see that I played my freshman and sophomore year. Yeah, but I wasn't an every-down back. So this year, I know what to expect from myself, being my last year, and everybody's going to say, 'Can he last? Can he last?'

"I'm going to let them do their job and talk. I'm just going to play."

He also won't forget what has been said or written.

"It gets on my nerves," he said.

Mark also isn't na´ve about the wear and tear his body will take this coming season. Just because he has been through a season as a No. 1 back doesn't mean he'll last through another. And he can't do a whole lot about his size. This winter, he has gained seven pounds to check in at 171 after losing some weight because of injury during the season. He hopes to play this season around 175 pounds.

To prepare himself for the pounding, Mark has been running and cutting with a 20-pound weight vest. Mark wants to emulate how Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter uses his vision to scan the field while still keeping his shoulders square when running between the tackles.

"For instance, if Kain and I, we're running 2-Knife, and I'm running inside zone, and a defender sticks his arm to turn me, [the vest] will help me keep my shoulders square," said Mark, a second-team All-Big Ten selection at running back and an All-American at punt returner. "That way, if a linebacker comes to my right or left, I can plant and still cut instead of running like this [shows his shoulders turning] where I can't make that move."

Mark also talks about the need to play smarter.

"Instead of trying to always run over people, at my size, I need to dip and drive, I need to sometimes cut back, juke," Mark said. "That will help me last longer, of course."

Mark averaged 17.4 carries per game in 2012 and had 20 carries or more just four times. He said 16 carries is the "minimum, minimum" amount he'd like to have in 2013 and would "prefer to get close to 20."

Wildcats offensive coordinator Mick McCall puts a greater value on overall touches than carries. This especially applies to a player like Mark, who averaged 18.7 yards on punt returns with two touchdowns, also serves as Northwestern's primary kick returner and had 20 receptions last season. And McCall doesn't just look at total touches, but what types of plays are being run.

"If it's inside zone 16 or 17 times, that might be a little high for Venric," McCall said. "If it's 20-25 touches but half of those are out in space, that's not bad. So we've got to manage him, how many touches he gets but more so, where he touches the ball.

"Some of it's got to be inside, there's no doubt. He does a great job in there. And as much as you want to manage it, he's still going to get dinged up. If he was a 225-pound back, look at the big backs from a year ago in our conference, they still get dinged up. That's part of that position."

McCall fully expects to play multiple running backs and multiple quarterbacks every year. And he has been pleased with the emerging depth this spring at running back with senior Mike Trumpy, junior Treyvon Green, and redshirt freshmen Malin Jones and Stephen Buckley.

But Northwestern's coaches have no doubts about their No. 1 back. And Mark expects to prove he's built to last this fall.

"He took some hits last year that he didn't need to take," Fitzgerald said. "It was similar to a quarterback going through his first year. V learned a lot on how he's got to take care of his body. The next step is just being smarter.

"He doesn't need to prove his toughness to anybody. That's always been his trademark."

Big Ten mailblog

August, 21, 2012
Great to be back. Let's get to your questions.

Next mailblog comes your way Friday, so be sure and send questions here. The season is rapidly approaching.

Rex from Oconomowoc, Wis., writes: The past three years, Wisconsin has constantly been in the conversation as a serious BCS contender yet they have been to back-to-back Rose Bowls and nothing to show for it. Do you think that this is finally the year that they win the Rose Bowl or even compete for a national title due to a much improved defense and star-power returning on offense?

Adam Rittenberg: Rex, while I think Wisconsin gets back to the Big Ten title game, I expect the league champion to come out of the Legends division this season. The Badgers likely won't be quite as potent offensively as they've been the past two seasons. While there's room for improvement on defense and some strides there could make a huge difference, the 2012 Badgers don't seem to be as strong as the 2011 version. I'm still baffled how last season's team managed to lose three times. The key really is the defense, as I expect the offense to be good and, at times, very good but not nationally elite. If Wisconsin can develop an elite pass-rusher or two and some playmakers in the secondary to complement a strong linebacking corps, the ceiling for this team will be raised.

1IllHusker from Illinois writes: Despite the criticism Taylor Martinez gets for his mechanics, isn't more important for him to get back to running the ball the way he was early on in 2010? The Huskers are undefeated when Taylor rushes over 100 yards and also undefeated when the team rushes over 185. It's a given that their passing games needs to improve to balance the offense but I think it's more important for him to regain his explosiveness on the ground. What are your thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Some good points, Husker. Martinez says he's finally back to 100 percent after the ankle slowed him down for the second half of 2010 and all of 2011. While his rushing numbers dropped last fall, the bigger effect might have been on his passing. Taylor says the ankle problem forced him into some bad habits with his throwing mechanics that he has tried to correct during the offseason. There's no doubt that having Martinez at top speed helps the Huskers, as he can take it to the house on every snap. But Big Ten defenses can contain mobile quarterbacks better than those in the Big 12, in my view. Martinez will need to pose a bigger threat as a passer for Nebraska's offense to surge this fall. His explosive running will help, but only if defenses can't load up at the line of scrimmage to stop him and Rex Burkhead.

Eric from TriBeCa writes: Hi Adam, love the blog. I've found the best/worst case fairly entertaining. I was taking a look at UofM's, and was wondering if you would be willing to say what scenario you believe to be more likely? An 11-1 national championship season, or the 6-6 disappointing season. While I think they have the talent to put in an 11-1 season, I could also see them dropping games to Bama, Air Force, @Notre Dame, @Purdue, Michigan State, @Nebraska, @Ohio State.

Adam Rittenberg: Can I tell you after the Alabama game? The opener should tell us a lot about this Michigan team and its ceiling for the 2012 season. Right now, I have a tough time seeing the Wolverines win, because of their question marks on both lines and Alabama's strength up front. But if Denard Robinson plays a big game, Michigan forces some turnovers, plays a clean 60 minutes and prevails in Texas, it really changes the complexion of the season. The Wolverines then would be on the national championship radar. A loss doesn't kill Michigan, but I think it increases the chances for an 9-3 or 8-4 type of season. My sense is Michigan will be a better team than 2011 with a worse record than 2011. Will the Wolverines tumble to 6-6? Highly doubtful. But I also don't see the Maize and Blue going 11-1. Not with this schedule. But I might feel differently after Sept. 1.

@vedderkj (via Twitter) writes: What's the word on the Northwestern backfield? Trumpy fully healed? Venric Mark durable enough? RB by Committee (again)?

Adam Rittenberg: Mike Trumpy is back in the fold and will be a part of the mix this season. But Mark seems to be transitioning well to running back, and could play a bigger role than I thought he would, even outside of the option game. His size certainly is a concern, but with him and Colter on the field together, Northwestern has a ton of speed. The younger backs -- Jordan Perkins, Malin Jones, Stephen Buckley -- also should be part of the mix. So yes, a committee system seems likely, although Northwestern would benefit more from a featured back emerging. That was the case when the Wildcats ran the ball very well between 2000-08.

Dave from Columbus, Ohio, writes: Adam -I read that a quarterback at Wisconsin has recently left the team. Do you think Bielema's call to start his newest, experienced quarterback from NC instead of another QB who has been on the team longer makes his "sell" more difficult to a high school junion/senior quarterback who now has to weigh whether Bielema will just continually take a quarterback from another college? Thanks! Dave

Adam Rittenberg: Dave, I think Joe Brennan's decision to leave had more to do with his drop on the depth chart than Wisconsin bringing in Danny O'Brien. While O'Brien moved ahead of Brennan, so did Curt Phillips and Joel Stave. As to your larger question, Wisconsin landed a highly touted quarterback recruit in February in Bart Houston. They might not sign a quarterback for the 2013 class, but their overall depth shouldn't be too bad with O'Brien back for another year, and both Houston and Jon Budmayr returning from injuries. I don't think Wisconsin will have to keep taking transfer quarterbacks, and depth certainly played a role in the Badgers adding both O'Brien and Russell Wilson. So while it might be a tough sell for a 2013 quarterback recruit, it shouldn't be an issue beyond that date.

Alex from Cincinnati writes: Isn't it a bit to soon to deem Michigan State an "established power". Sure, 2010 and 2011 were consecutive seasons with 11 wins. Good for them, but let's not jump to conclusions here. People seem to easily forget a stretch of mediocrity in the years preceding. In the 2006-2009 they went a combined 26-27 (season records of 4-8, 7-6, 9-4, 6-7). During the last 6 years they have a 1-4 record in bowl games and have yet to appear in, let alone win, a BCS bowl game. I'm sorry, but a quick flash of success doesn't immediately make you an "established power". Give it a couple seasons, and at the end of the day MSU is closer to the likes of Iowa, Illinois, or Wisconsin than it is to Michigan or OSU. So let's cool the jets on this Big Ten powerhouse talk.

Adam Rittenberg: I agree that "established power" is the wrong term (and not one I think I've used). But emerging power is a fair description for Michigan State, which has finally found some stability under Mark Dantonio. Take away the 2009 season, which featured a lot of problems both on and off the field, and the Spartans have been very solid since 2008. Dantonio has kept his staff together and elevated the recruiting, particularly on the defensive side. Michigan State also has made important financial investments into the program, the coaches, etc. I agree that right now, Michigan State is closer to Wisconsin and Iowa than Ohio State. Actually, Wisconsin is that "next team" to challenge the elite, despite the Spartans' success against the Badgers. But to dismiss Michigan State as temporary or the same old Spartans is shortsighted in my view. Dantonio has built a foundation for long-term success, and while Michigan State might not challenge for a league title every year, I don't expect to see the dramatic swings we saw with the program too often from 1991-2006.

Brady from Newell, Iowa, writes: Mr. Rittenberg, Now that the Hawkeyes seem to have lost another running back...could you offer your input on a possible depth chart with whoever else knows how to run the ball?

Adam Rittenberg: While Greg Garmon might not start Iowa's opener in Chicago, I expect him to emerge as the featured back soon enough. The Hawkeyes simply don't have many other options, especially after Barkley Hill's ACL tear. While Garmon is a young freshman, the team has to go with its most talented player. Garmon showed off his power in the most recent scrimmage and should help Iowa grind out some tough yards. It wouldn't surprise me if Damon Bullock ends up starting the opener, but unless Bullock takes some significant strides, I expect Garmon to get a shot fairly early on.

AC from Pittsburgh writes: Am I the only one that is sick of being told that Penn State fans "still don't get it"? What exactly is it that we don't get? I'm a recent graduate and I can assure you that the horrible crimes that took place are not being forgotten or brushed aside in State College. I'd argue that it's everyone else that simply "doesn't get" the hypocrisy of the entire situation. Look at other big time football schools. Do you really think if what happened at Penn State happened anywhere else that the reaction would be any different? If it were LSU's former coach who got arrested for abuse, do you really think that LSU fans would be clamoring for their own death penalty? Of course not, they'd be defending their favorite program. The issue isn't Penn State and football, it's the entire country and football. If the NCAA, and by that I mean Mark Emmert feels the need to make Penn State the example so be it. I just don't see how a man who said "...success in LSU football is essential for the success of Louisiana State University" can change his tune so quickly and hope to change the "...mindset in which football will never again be placed ahead of educating, nurturing, and protecting young people..." Can't have it both ways Mr. Emmert. Criticize me all you want but I sincerely hope people actually understand what I said before they rush to judgement.

Adam Rittenberg: AC, I think there's a lot of truth to what you write. I don't think the reaction would be vastly different in other places where football is king. One difference between Penn State and LSU is the way Joe Paterno is/was viewed compared with most coaches. LSU fans don't have the same loyalty toward Les Miles as Penn State fans have/had toward Paterno. Not saying Tiger Nation wouldn't support Miles, but Paterno's longevity and impact on the program and the community was truly unique. Has it clouded the judgment of some folks, who seem unable or unwilling to acknowledge the possibility that Paterno made major mistakes? I believe it has. But that's not all Penn State fans. Defending the program against the sanctions makes more sense than defending Paterno or the other school leaders, but people also need to realize that massive leadership failures have consequences that can go beyond the removal of those individuals. The nature of NCAA punishments always has been geared more toward the present and the future than the past. That certainly hits home for Penn State.