Big Ten: Supo Sanni

Illinois could have beaten woeful Charleston Southern with its B or C team.

It did.

Tim Beckman's squad thrashed Charleston Southern 44-0 on Saturday despite missing a large group of key players. Starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase missed his second consecutive game with an ankle injury, and he was joined on the sideline by senior center Graham Pocic, who has a knee injury. Top running back Josh Ferguson (concussion), starting linebacker Houston Bates (leg) and projected starting safeties Steve Hull (shoulder) and Supo Sanni (knee) also sat out.

Making matters worse, starting wide receiver Darius Millines, already dealing with an ankle injury, played Saturday but spent the end of the game on the sideline with his left arm in a sling.

Illinois didn't need any of the players to crush Charleston Southern and received nice performances from several reserves, including quarterback Reilly O'Toole (5 TD passes) and linebacker Mason Mondheim (1.5 tackles for loss, 1 interception).

But the Illini need to get healthy in a hurry, first for this week's tricky test against Louisiana Tech and then next week as Big Ten play kicks off against Penn State.

As of Monday, Beckman isn't certain whether any of the players would be back this week. Some of them missed practice last week.

"I can't say that anybody for sure right now," Beckman said. "... That will be determined as we go through Tuesday, Wednesday."

Scheelhaase continues to practice and make some progress with the ankle, but Beckman isn't sure the three-year starter will return for Louisiana Tech.

"We're not going to put Nathan out there unless he can better this football team," Beckman said. "... We're not being cautious with anybody. He's just not ready."

Big Ten Monday personnel roundup

September, 10, 2012
It's time to go around the Big Ten and check out some key personnel news.

  • Coach Tim Beckman said Monday that starting QB Nathan Scheelhaase (ankle) could have played at Arizona State in an emergency situation and could return this week against Charleston Southern. Scheelhaase participated in Sunday night's practice. Beckman said the quarterback situation is "wide open" with Reilly O'Toole and Miles Osei in the mix.
  • Safety continues to be an area of concern, as starter Steve Hull suffered a different injury to his surgically repaired shoulder against Arizona State. The other starter, Supo Sanni, didn't travel to ASU and is doubtful for this week's game with a leg injury.
  • Wide receiver Darius Millines is listed as a co-starter on this week's depth chart after leaving the Arizona State game with an ankle injury.
  • The news is mostly good on RB Carlos Hyde, who suffered a sprained MCL in his right knee during Saturday's game against UCF. Coach Urban Meyer said Hyde's knee didn't swell up, which is a positive. It's unlikely Hyde will play this week against California, and freshman Bri'onte Dunn is listed as the starter on the depth chart. Jordan Hall, Ohio State's projected starter before a foot injury this summer, has been medically cleared, but his status for Saturday's game is unknown.
  • DE Michael Bennett will miss a few more weeks with a groin injury that is more serious than originally thought. DE Nathan Williams, who played a good amount in the opener but missed the UCF game, likely will be questionable for the coming weeks because of the nature of his knee surgery (microfracture). True freshmen Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington logged plenty of snaps against UCF with both Bennett and Williams out.
  • Starting CB Nick VanHoose, who left Saturday's win against Vanderbilt on the second play because of a lower back injury, could return this week against Boston College. Coach Pat Fitzgerald said VanHoose has some stiffness in his back, but Fitzgerald is "hopeful" the redshirt freshman will play and start against BC.
  • Coach Danny Hope had no update Sunday night on QB Robert Marve, who left Saturday's loss to Notre Dame with a knee injury. Marve, who has suffered two ACL tears during his college career, is listed as the team's No. 2 quarterback on this week's depth chart.
  • There seems to be some confusion about why top CB Ricardo Allen wasn't on the field for Notre Dame's game-winning drive Saturday. Hope called it a coaches' decision, while Allen pointed to an ankle injury. Allen tweeted Monday: "No everyone I'm just walking around in a boot because of "coaches decision." The junior also tweeted that his ankle is improving and that he'll be ready this week against Eastern Michigan.
  • Starting SS Shelton Johnson is out approximately six weeks after suffering a broken arm against Oregon State and undergoing surgery, coach Bret Bielema said Monday. Johnson could return in less than six weeks. Sophomore Michael Trotter will start in Johnson's spot this week against Utah State.
  • Top wide receiver Jared Abbrederis could return this week as he has no structural damage following a chest injury sustained at Oregon State. Abbrederis was taken to a local hospital but released the same day and returned with the team to Madison.
  • Reserve DE Brennen Beyer will miss several weeks with a right knee injury suffered in Saturday's win against Air Force. DE Richard Ash, who missed the Air Force game with an undisclosed injury, could return this week against Massachusetts, coach Brady Hoke said.
It's time for the second half of our Big Ten personnel roundup entering season-opening weekend. In case you missed Part I, which featured most of the Week 1 depth charts, be sure and check it out.

Michigan State released its depth chart, so we'll start there. Minnesota and Nebraska will release theirs later this week.


Depth chart
  • There are two unsettled positions on defense as Michigan State lists co-starters at defensive tackle (Micajah Reynolds and Tyler Hoover) and at free safety (Jairus Jones and Kurtis Drummond). Head coach Mark Dantonio called the Reynolds-Hoover competition "a flip of the coin" and praised Reynolds' progress during fall camp. Reynolds has a 33-inch vertical leap and bench-presses more than 400 pounds. Hoover, a converted defensive end, missed all but one game last season with a fractured rib.
  • Linebacker Darien Harris and defensive end Lawrence Thomas both don't appear on the depth chart because of injuries but will be contributors this season. Harris could see the field early Friday night against Boise State. Sophomore Skyler Burkland is listed as the backup left tackle but likely won't play because of a hand injury.
  • Junior Bennie Fowler and sophomores Keith Mumphery and Tony Lippett are listed as Michigan State's top receivers. Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett, who had 24 receptions last season for the Vols, appears as Fowler's backup.

Here are some other personnel notes from around the league ...


Running back is the big question mark for the Hawkeyes after another summer of attrition. Iowa enters Saturday's opener with three primary backs -- Damon Bullock, Greg Garmon and Michael Malloy -- as well as two fullbacks in Brad Rogers and Mark Weisman.

Bullock, who had 10 carries for 20 yards, likely will get the start against Northern Illinois, although Garmon, a heralded true freshman, should get plenty of work as well. Rogers is a familiar name, and coach Kirk Ferentz praised Weisman's progress during camp.

"You play the cards that are dealt," Ferentz said. "The running back position is one where we’ve had a lot of players playing. The good news is they've performed pretty well."

Sophomore Jordan Canzeri, who suffered a torn ACL in spring practice, has returned to practice, but Ferentz said it's "weeks or months before we talk about him entering contact or anything live at all." Iowa has been cautious about live tackling involving its running backs in practice, particularly those who have game experience.


Boilers coach Danny Hope didn't sound too concerned about playing without top middle linebacker Dwayne Beckford, indefinitely suspended Monday following his latest arrest. Purdue practiced without Beckford during spring ball -- he was working his way back from another legal issue -- and rotated several players at middle linebacker. Senior Antwon Higgs appears to be the next man in, and converted quarterback Sean Robinson is behind him.

Sophomore Joe Gilliam, who recorded seven tackles last year and made one start, should be a bigger part of the plan as well.

"I thought in the recruiting process he was one of the top players in our state," Hope said of Gilliam. "I thought Joe was probably the next guy in line [behind the starters]."

  • Not surprisingly, Tre Roberson has emerged as Indiana's starting quarterback after taking over the top spot as a true freshman in 2011. Roberson beat out junior college arrival Cam Coffman and freshman Nate Sudfeld for the job. Coffman will serve as Roberson's backup. Although Roberson struggled in Tuesday's morning workout, coach Kevin Wilson has been pleased with the sophomore. "He's embraced the challenge," Wilson said. "He definitely can make some plays as a bit of a dual-threat guy. He's embraced the competition. He has been by far our most consistent quarterback."
  • Roberson will be passing the ball more in 2012, and he'll have a deeper group of wide receivers at his disposal. How deep? Wilson said that veterans Kofi Hughes and Duwyce Wilson enter the season as the team's No. 5 and No. 6 receivers (Hughes is suspended for the opener against Indiana State). Kevin Wilson had high praise for sophomore Cody Latimer, limited by a sports hernia injury last season. Speedster Nick Stoner also should be a bigger part of the mix at receiver. "It's not because they've [Hughes and Duwyce Wilson] fallen off but because we've got some good players," the coach said. "We've got some competition, we've got some depth, we've got some young speed and I just think we're close to having a more complete unit there. We're not great at receiver, but we do have more playmakers."
  • Illinois' secondary isn't anywhere near full strength as it prepares to face Western Michigan and talented quarterback Alex Carder. The team's top two safeties, Steve Hull and Supo Sanni, both are nursing injuries and didn't appear on Monday's depth chart. Also, top cornerback Terry Hawthorne has a sprained ankle that will limit him only to defense for the first few games. Illinois wanted to use the athletic Hawthorne as another option at receiver, a position with little proven depth. The bigger question is how much the ankle will limit the senior with his primary cornerback responsibilities.
  • Although the Illini will rotate plenty at running back, receiver and tight end on Saturday, they won't employ a two-quarterback system, which had been rumored during camp. Co-offensive coordinator Chris Beatty said Tuesday that he's not a big believer in rotating quarterbacks, so junior Nathan Scheelhaase will take most or all of the snaps.
  • Urban Meyer expects "six seconds of great effort" from Ohio State's freshmen in Saturday's opener against Miami (Ohio). Asked which freshman he was most curious to see, Meyer identified defensive back Devan Bogard as well as freshman linebacker David Perkins, who "really exploded the last couple of days."
  • Meyer said freshman Bri'onte Dunn and sophomore Rod Smith are "very close" for the No. 2 running back spot behind Carlos Hyde. Dunn has been a bit more consistent in camp and has a slight edge.
  • Meyer said Storm Klein's role going forward is yet to be determined and that recently reinstated linebacker is still "making up a bunch of stuff" after missing almost all of fall camp. Meyer based his decision to reinstate Klein on a domestic violence charge being dismissed against the senior, who pleaded guilty to misdemeanor disorderly conduct.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald acknowledged that it has been easier to go through the preseason this year as opposed to 2011, when talk of quarterback Dan Persa's health dominated fall camp. Although Northwestern knew all along that Persa wouldn't play in the first few games and Kain Colter would start, it has been easier for Colter this time around.

"Unfortunately, Danny had to go through that tough offseason," Fitzgerald said. "That was not fun. Kain handled the opportunity really well a year ago. ... You could definitely tell it was his first start in college football Now he's settled down, he's settled into the role."
It's Depth Chart Monday around the Big Ten as most teams revealed new or updated depth charts for their upcoming season openers. Indiana and Iowa released depth charts last week, while Nebraska's won't come out until later this week. A few more teams unveil new or updated depth charts Tuesday, and we'll break down those as they file in.

While we won't break down the depth charts each week of the season, the first installments always carry a bit more weight as players have jockeyed for position during camp.

Here are some notes and thoughts from what we learned today:


Depth chart (page 13)
  • Suspended players Fitz Toussaint and Frank Clark both are listed -- Toussaint is the starting running back, Clark as a backup weakside defensive end -- but their status for the opener against Alabama is yet to be determined. Coach Brady Hoke will make a decision soon. While it seems highly unlikely Clark will play, Toussaint's status will be a big story this week.
  • Roy Roundtree is listed as a starter at receiver despite missing a chunk of camp following knee surgery. Although Michigan has some decent other options at wideout, it really needs "Tree" on the field at JerryWorld. Speaking of receivers, backup quarterback Devin Gardner is listed as a third-string receiver and should see a bit of work there against the Crimson Tide.
  • Depth is a bit of a concern for Michigan entering the season, and it's the main reason why the Wolverines list 12 true freshman on the depth chart, four in backup roles. Expect freshmen like linebacker Joe Bolden and safety Jarrod Wilson to see plenty of field time.
  • As for position battles, Quinton Washington claimed a starting defensive tackle spot, moving Jibreel Black back to the end position. Will Hagerup and Matt Wile are listed as co-starters at punter, but Hagerup will get the starting nod against Alabama.

Depth chart
  • Regarding position battles, Reid Fragel, a converted tight end, claimed the starting right tackle spot ahead of freshman Taylor Decker. Travis Howard maintained his starting cornerback spot ahead of Doran Grant. The team's starting wide receivers entering the fall are Corey Brown, Devin Smith and Jake Stoneburner, a converted tight end. Ohio State's only unsettled position is tight end, where freshman Nick Vannett and sophomore Jeff Heuerman are listed as co-starters.
  • Like Michigan, Ohio State will have plenty of youth on the field this fall. Coach Urban Meyer lists 13 freshmen on the depth chart, including highly touted defensive linemen Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington, spring game star Michael Thomas at backup receiver and backup middle linebacker Camren Williams. The Buckeyes have three freshmen listed as backup offensive linemen, underscoring the depth issues there.
  • With projected starting running back Jordan Hall (foot) out at least a week, Ohio State will start Carlos Hyde at running back. Freshman Bri'onte Dunn will back up Hyde.

Depth chart (page 13)
  • The Badgers put out a depth chart last week but made a few changes, including junior Zac Matthias and sophomore Kyle Costigan being listed as co-starters at right guard. Costigan had been listed as the starter, but Matthias made a push late in camp.
  • Backup cornerback Peniel Jean will miss four to six weeks after fracturing his foot last week in practice and undergoing surgery. Redshirt freshman Darius Hillary moves into the No. 2 role behind Devin Smith and likely will be the team's primary nickel back.
  • Sophomore Kyle French is listed as the starter for both field goals and kickoffs (he only occupied the kickoffs role last week). Coach Bret Bielema said freshman Jack Russell (great name) also will see time as a kicker in Saturday's opener against Northern Iowa.

Depth chart

Depth chart
  • Safeties Steve Hull and Supo Sanni, the projected starters, aren't listed on the two-deep. Earnest Thomas and Pat Nixon-Youman are listed in their places. Both Hull and Sanni are week-to-week with injuries. Coach Tim Beckman said both would practice this week and likely will be game-time decisions.
  • Illinois shuffled its offensive linemen between positions throughout camp, and there could be more changes before game day. But ... Graham Pocic is listed as the starting center after playing mostly guard in camp. Pocic has started the past 26 games at center. Redshirt freshman Ted Karras, who has recovered from a foot injury, is listed as the starting right guard.
  • Tim Kynard will start at defensive end in place of Justin Staples, who will serve a one-game suspension against Western Michigan. Offensive lineman Simon Cvijanovic also won't play Saturday for undisclosed reasons.
  • Illinois lists co-starters at both running back (Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson) and tight end (Jon Davis and Eddie Viliunas). Both Young and Ferguson should get plenty of carries against Western Michigan.

Depth chart (Page 7)
  • After a strong camp, Venric Mark will start at running back for Northwestern. The 5-foot-8, 175-pound Mark, who came to Northwestern as a return specialist, moved from wide receiver after the season. Mike Trumpy, who comes off of ACL surgery, is the backup, and Northwestern likely will spread the carries around. Treyvon Green has recovered from a scary neck injury midway through camp and will play at Syracuse.
  • USC transfer Kyle Prater is listed as a backup receiver. Northwestern will start Demetrius Fields, Christian Jones, Rashad Lawrence and Tony Jones at receiver against the Orange. Prater saw some time with the first-team offense in camp and will be part of the rotation, but he still seems to be lacking a step as he gets back into game shape.
  • The Wildcats have no unsettled starting spots, and while there are a number of young players on the depth chart, only two true freshmen, defensive end Dean Lowry and superback Dan Vitale, made the two-deep. Heralded incoming freshman defender Ifeadi Odenigbo likely will redshirt and isn't listed on the depth chart.

Depth chart (Page 6)
  • The Boilers have four unsettled starting spots, three on the offensive side. Juniors Kevin Pamphile and Justin Kitchens are battling at the left tackle spot, while juniors Devin Smith and Cody Davis are co-starters at right guard. Junior Gabe Holmes and fifth-year senior Crosby Wright are still competing for the top tight end spot. The lone unsettled spot on defense is at end opposite Ryan Russell, as Ryan Isaac and Jalani Phillips continue to compete.
  • No surprises in the starting backfield as Caleb TerBush, Robert Marve and Rob Henry are listed at quarterback in that order. It'll be interesting to see how Purdue uses Henry this year. It doesn't make much sense to waste his talents on the bench. No Ralph Bolden on the depth chart as the senior running back is still working his way back from the knee injury. The Akeems (Shavers and Hunt) will carry the rock against Eastern Kentucky.
  • The placekicking spot is also up in the air with three players -- Sam McCartney, Paul Griggs and Thomas Meadows -- in the mix to replace standout Carson Wiggs.

More depth chart fun comes your way Tuesday, so be sure and check in.
We're nearing the end of our Big Ten position rankings, and it's time to finish up the defense rundowns with a look at the secondaries. Let's start off with the unit rankings.

As a reminder, we're basing these mostly on last year's performance and who returns, along with potential for the 2012 season.

The top four groups could be very good, while the next five have question marks but potential. Even the bottom three groups have realistic opportunities to make strides this fall.

Let's get rolling ...

[+] EnlargeJohnny Adams
Bruce Thorson/US PresswireJohnny Adams should help make Michigan State tough to beat through the air in 2012.
1. Michigan State: The Big Ten's most formidable defense once again should be very strong in the back four. Although All-Big Ten safety Trenton Robinson departs, Michigan State returns its other three starters, led by standout cornerback Johnny Adams. Some project Adams as a potential first-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft. Safety Isaiah Lewis could have a breakout season, and the Spartans have recruited well here to build good depth.

2. Ohio State: The defensive line has bigger names and more hype, but the secondary might turn out to be Ohio State's best unit in 2012. The Buckeyes bring back all four starters, including arguably the league's top cornerback tandem in Bradley Roby and Travis Howard. Expect Roby to take another big step as a sophomore. Hard-hitting safeties C.J. Barnett and Christian Bryant return, and Ohio State can go two- or three-deep at most positions.

3. Michigan: This group has come a very long way from the Rich Rodriguez era and should be the strength of Michigan's defense in 2012. Safety Jordan Kovacs is an excellent leader who blossomed in Greg Mattison's system last fall. The Wolverines also boast a promising cornerback tandem in J.T. Floyd and Blake Countess, and have good overall depth at both corner and safety.

4. Nebraska: While the Huskers lose the Big Ten's top defensive back in Alfonzo Dennard, they should have greater overall depth and the potential for new stars to emerge. Hard-hitting safety Daimion Stafford leads the group, and P.J. Smith provides a veteran presence at the other safety spot. Nebraska is loaded with options at cornerback, including the improved Andrew Green and juco arrival Mohamed Seisay. New assistant Terry Joseph should get a lot out of this group.

5. Purdue: The rankings already have mentioned some good cornerback tandems, and Purdue adds another in Ricardo Allen and Josh Johnson. They've combined for 48 career starts, and Allen has led the team with three interceptions in each of the past two seasons. Max Charlot returns at safety after recording 41 tackles in 2011, but there are some question marks around him.

6. Illinois: Terry Hawthorne rarely gets mentioned as one of the Big Ten's top defensive backs, but he should. The senior has been a natural playmaker throughout his career and will lead Illinois' secondary in 2012. Senior Justin Green brings experience to the other corner spot. Although the Illini return both of their starting safeties -- Steve Hull and Supo Sanni -- they need more consistency from that position this fall.

7. Wisconsin: The Badgers lose a key player at both cornerback (Antonio Fenelus) and safety (Aaron Henry), but they have a chance to improve upon last year's performance and rise up these rankings. They'll undoubtedly benefit from the return of cornerback Devin Smith from injury. Head coach Bret Bielema doesn't downplay what Smith's absence meant last season. The Badgers need more consistency out of projected starters Dezmen Southward and Marcus Cromartie.

8. Iowa: The Hawkeyes have a nice piece to build around in playmaking senior cornerback Micah Hyde, but they'll need more after a so-so season in 2011. Tanner Miller returns as a starter at safety, and hopes are high for junior B.J. Lowery at the other corner spot. Iowa's depth looks better at corner than it does at safety.

9. Penn State: Most see the secondary as Penn State's weak link, to which Malcolm Willis and Stephon Morris say, "Bring it on." Still, the Lions have questions to address after losing all four starters from the 2011 team. Morris, Willis and sophomore Adrian Amos all have been in the fire a bit, but Penn State needs them to take steps and remain on the field. Depth is a significant concern after the offseason departures of Curtis Drake and Derrick Thomas.

10. Minnesota: This is a bit of a projection pick, but I like Minnesota's potential to take a step forward in the secondary this fall. The biggest reason for optimism is cornerback Troy Stoudermire, who returns for a fifth year after missing most of last season with a foot injury. Stoudermire was on track for a big year before the injury. Cornerback Michael Carter had a strong spring and could finally reach his potential. The bigger concerns here come at the safety spots.

11. Northwestern: Three starters depart from a secondary that struggled to stop anyone and endured major communication breakdowns far too often in 2011. Northwestern is younger in the back four, but it also could be more talented this season. Sophomore safety Ibraheim Campbell comes off of a 100-tackle season, and cornerback Nick VanHoose impressed during the spring. A few veterans return, but the coaches can't be afraid to go with the youth movement here.

12. Indiana: The Hoosiers finished eighth in the Big Ten in pass defense last fall, but only because teams had their way with IU on the ground. Indiana surrendered a league-high 26 pass touchdowns and only recorded five interceptions. There's hope, though, as the Hoosiers return three starters, including top cover man Lawrence Barnett. If Mark Murphy and Greg Heban make strides, and some newcomers help right away, Indiana could be decent in the back four.

Spring game preview: Illinois

April, 13, 2012
Seven Big Ten teams hold their spring games Saturday, and we're taking a closer look at each one of them.

Next up: The annual Orange and Blue Spring Game at Illinois. Here are all the vitals:

When: 3 p.m. ET (2 p.m. local time), Saturday

Where: Memorial Stadium

Admission: Free. All seating will be in the east stands. Free parking is available in the lots surrounding the stadium and Assembly Hall.

TV: The game will be streamed live on both BTN2Go and the Big Ten Digital Network. The Big Ten Network will broadcast the game on tape-delay at 7 p.m. ET Sunday.

Weather forecast: Partly cloudy with scattered thunderstorms possible, temperatures between 66-76 degrees, 50 percent chance of rain, winds at 19-20 mph.

What to watch for: Illinois should have one of the more entertaining spring games in the Big Ten. New head coach Tim Beckman said players will approach it "as if it's a real game." The team's seniors were divided into two groups and drafted teams earlier this week. The game will be played with a normal clock in the first half and a running clock in the second half (except if the game is close in the final two minutes). Another unique tidbit: Beckman will go into the stands and select Illinois students to call two plays per half for both teams.

Beckman wants to put on a show for the fans, who should get a decent sense of the new systems Illinois is using on both sides of the ball. The Illini are employing an up-tempo spread attack on offense, and it will be interesting to see how quarterbacks Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole are adjusting. There are depth issues at both wide receiver and running back, and Illinois is bolstering the spots with players such as Miles Osei, a reserve quarterback who could see time at both receiver and running back Saturday, and starting cornerback Terry Hawthorne, who will see time at receiver. Another defensive back, Justin Green, is being used as a running back. Top wideout Darius Millines (foot) is out, so plenty of others will have opportunities to make plays.

The changes aren't as dramatic on defense, as coordinator Tim Banks uses a similar scheme to his predecessor, Vic Koenning. Illinois looks very strong in the defensive front seven, and coaches have praised players such as Michael Buchanan, Jonathan Brown and Justin Staples. Safeties Supo Sanni and Steve Hull, both projected starters, are out for the game.

Big Ten lunchtime links

September, 14, 2011
If you ever plan on calling the cops on one of my guys again, you go ahead and get two barrels.

Big Ten lunchtime links

August, 26, 2011
Use this weekend to test your grills, buy your face paint and design your signs. From here on out, football will fill the rest of your 2011 weekends.

Big Ten chat wrap: July 13

July, 13, 2011
The Big Ten chat returned today, and it was an entertaining one.

In case you missed out on the fun, here's a full wrap-up.

Some highlights:
rob (iowa): Adam whith the difficulty of Nebraskas schedule and the break Iowa gets by not playing OSU or Wisconsin and getting Michigan, MSU and NW all at home am I crazy to think Iowa has a shot at winning their division this year even with all the losses they need to replace?
Adam Rittenberg (12:03 PM): You're not crazy Rob, but keep in mind Nebraska also gets Michigan State, Northwestern and Iowa on its home turf. Nebraska's division schedule actually is very beneficial in my view, despite the tough crossover games. But you're right: if Iowa can take care of business at Kinnick Stadium and steal some wins on the road, it'll be in the mix for a division title.
Adam Rittenberg (12:09 PM): GOL!!!
Craig (Virginia): With Rob Bolden coming back, who do you think will start at QB for Penn State this fall?
Adam Rittenberg (12:23 PM): Craig, I think it will be Bolden. He was the team's top option when healthy and should have been used in the Outback Bowl, a decision both Joe Paterno and Jay Paterno regret. While I don't fully trust that he'll remain at Penn State if McGloin is named the starter, I think Bolden gets the nod for the opener.
Lucas (NYC): You say an undefeated B1G champion would go to the NC game, but Ted Miller says an undefeated Oregon would be a lock. We all know what C Low would say. Which one of them is wrong?
Adam Rittenberg (12:30 PM): There's definitely a belief that the SEC champion, whether undefeated or with 1 loss, will make the title game no matter what. I guess when you win five consecutive championships, you've earned that right. If we somehow get undefeated teams from the SEC, Pac-12 and Big Ten, someone gets left out, and it could be the Big Ten squad if Oregon or Stanford runs the table. But the chances of this happening seem pretty slim to me.
Illini Mike (Chicago IL): Hey Adam, I truely believe Illinois will fill those gaps on defense. Last year it seemed VK did a great job nuturing and developing talent. I think he'll continue that production into this year. Mark my words, towards the end of the year you'll be call Illinois the most underratted defense in the league.
Adam Rittenberg (12:42 PM): Mike, I agree Vic did a great job in his first season as coordinator. Although the defense seemed to let down in November against Michigan, Minnesota and Fresno State, the unit's overall strides shouldn't be dismissed. I think the secondary will be fine and even better than last year's unit, especially if Hawthorne and Sanni stay healthy. The front seven concerns me, especially after losing Liuget, but if Ian Thomas, Akeem Spence and others step up, Illinois should be in decent shape.
Brandon (Las Vegas, NV): Who's replacing Boom for the Bucks? My guess is a tandem of Berry and Smith with Hall mixed in every now and then. Although, I have heard rumblings of Carlos Hyde showing promise.
Adam Rittenberg (12:47 PM): Brandon, I tend to think it'll be a mix of backs as well. The NFL has showed us that you typically need two running backs, and Ohio State has several good options as well as some nice variety. Smith can be your bruiser, and both Hall and Berry can provide a change-up with their speed. I'm really excited to see who emerges among that group.

Thanks again for the questions, and my apologies to those whose questions weren't answered. Let's do it again next week!
Lucas (NYC)

You say an undefeated B1G champion would go to the NC game, but Ted Miller says an undefeated Oregon would be a lock. We all know what C Low would say. Which one of them is wrong?
Adam Rittenberg
(12:30 PM)

There's definitely a belief that the SEC champion, whether undefeated or with 1 loss, will make the title game no matter what. I guess when you win five consecutive championships, you've earned that right. If we somehow get undefeated teams from the SEC, Pac-12 and Big Ten, someone gets left out, and it could be the Big Ten squad if Oregon or Stanford runs the table. But the chances of this happening seem pretty slim to me.

Ranking the Big Ten safeties

July, 13, 2011
We wrap up our preseason look at Big Ten secondaries with a look at the safeties.

Safety isn't quite as stacked as cornerback, and the Big Ten loses some solid players like Iowa's Tyler Sash and Ohio State's Jermale Hines. There are fewer elite prospects at safety, but several teams have potential playmakers.

Here are the top 10 entering 2011:

[+] EnlargeTrenton Robinson
Rick Osentoski/US PresswireSafety Trenton Robinson is entering his third season as a starter for Michigan State.
1. Trenton Robinson, Michigan State, senior: Robinson played a big role in Michigan State's improvement as a secondary in 2010. He led the Spartans with four interceptions and tied for the team lead in passes defended with eight. Robinson, who enters his third season as a starter, had 76 tackles last season and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches.

2. Aaron Henry, Wisconsin, senior: After emerging as a playmaker in 2010, Henry should be primed for even bigger things in his second season at safety. The former cornerback made the switch and recorded two interceptions, seven pass breakups, a forced fumble and three fumble recoveries last season. Like Robinson, he earned second-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches.

3. Tyler Moeller, Ohio State, senior: Moeller will provide a huge boost for a new-look Ohio State defense as he returns from a torn pectoral muscle that shortened his 2010 season. He can play either safety or linebacker and showed impressive playmaking skills early last fall, recording two forced fumbles, an interception and 4.5 tackles for loss in just five games. If Moeller stays healthy, he'll be in the mix for All-Big Ten honors.

4. Brian Peters, Northwestern, senior: Peters boasts a lot of experience, appearing in every game the past three seasons. He also shows a knack for the football, recording three interceptions in each of the past two seasons. A second-team All-Big Ten selection in 2010 after recording 107 tackles, Peters must get a bit more consistent in coverage but looks ready to lead the defense.

5. Micah Hyde, Iowa, junior: After starting all 13 games last season at cornerback, Hyde likely will move to safety as the Hawkeyes lose two multiyear starters in Sash and Brett Greenwood. Hyde showed last fall that he's a tremendous playmaker, recording four interceptions, including the pick-six that won the Insight Bowl against Missouri. He led the team with 11 passes defended, finished second with 82 tackles and had a forced fumble.

7. Nick Sukay, Penn State, senior: Like Moeller, Sukay was doing big things in 2010 before a torn pectoral muscle ended his season. Sukay recorded three interceptions, a forced fumble and 29 tackles in just six games. He's a natural playmaker who finished third in the Big Ten in passes defended with 13 in 2009. His return makes a very good Lions secondary even better.

8. Trulon Henry, Illinois, senior: An honorable mention All-Big Ten selection in 2010, Henry will help anchor an Illini secondary that could do some big things this fall. Henry led Illinois with three interceptions and two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, three pass breakups and 64 tackles. He should be helped by the return of Supo Sanni from injury.

8. Logan Link, Purdue, senior: Link quietly turned in a solid 2010 season, finishing eighth in the Big Ten in tackles with 91. He's a solid tackler who added an interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. The former walk-on has emerged as a really nice contributor for the Boilers' defense.

9. Drew Astorino, Penn State, senior: Astorino has been the iron man in Penn State's secondary, starting each of the past two seasons as well as three games as a redshirt freshman in 2008. He has played through injuries, including a shoulder problem that impacted him last fall, when he recorded 70 tackles, an interception and five pass breakups. If Astorino stays healthy, he could blossom in his final season.

10. Courtney Osborne, Nebraska, junior: This is a bit of a projection pick, but Osborne should be able to help fill Nebraska's gaps at safety this fall. He appeared in every game last season, starting four, and recorded 41 tackles, an interception, a sack and five tackles for loss. Osborne did some nice things down the stretch and seems primed for bigger things in a bigger role.

Also considered: Minnesota's Kim Royston, Ohio State's Orhian Johnson, Michigan's Jordan Kovacs, Indiana's Greg Heban

Illinois spring wrap

May, 4, 2011

2010 overall record: 7-6

2010 conference record: 4-4 (T-4th)

Returning starters

Offense: 7; defense: 6; kicker/punter: 1

Top returners

QB Nathan Scheelhaase, LT Jeff Allen, WR A.J. Jenkins, C Graham Pocic, CB Tavon Wilson, S Trulon Henry, LB Ian Thomas, DT Akeem Spence, K Derek Dimke

Key losses

RB Mikel Leshoure, G Hugh Thornton, T Ryan Palmer, DT Corey Liuget, LB Martez Wilson, LB Nate Bussey, DE Clay Nurse, P Anthony Santella

2010 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Mikel Leshoure (1,697 yards)

Passing: Nathan Scheelhaase* (1,825 yards)

Receiving: A.J. Jenkins* (746 yards)

Tackles: Martez Wilson (112)

Sacks: Corey Liuget (4.5)

Interceptions: Trulon Henry* (3)

Spring answers

1. Scheelhaase takes next step: Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino seemed extremely pleased with the way quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase built on his first season as the starting quarterback. Scheelhaase proved himself as a runner last season, but he upgraded his passing skills this spring, displaying a quicker release and better decision-making. The redshirt sophomore should be a dangerous dual-threat signal-caller this fall.

2. Secondary steps up: Illinois must replace several standouts in the defensive front seven, but it should be very solid in the secondary this season. Terry Hawthorne, Justin Green and Tavon Wilson were among the defensive backs who stood out in spring ball. Illinois boasts depth at both safety and cornerback, as Supo Sanni returns from injury and Trulon Henry enters his second year as a starter.

3. Lankford provides depth: Top receiver A.J. Jenkins and projected contributor Darius Millines both missed spring practice after offseason surgeries, so the coaches were looking for options at wideout. Sophomore Ryan Lankford answered the bell with a very impressive spring, showing good hands and run-after-catch ability. Lankford capped the session with five receptions for 64 yards in the spring game.

Fall questions

1. Running back: Injuries prevented the coaches from getting much of a read on the group this spring. Senior Jason Ford, a likely successor to Mikel Leshoure, missed most of the spring with a bruised knee, and Petrino said he needs to see more from Ford this summer. Troy Pollard had some good moments before suffering a concussion in a scrimmage. The starting job is open heading into the fall, and there's opportunity for an incoming freshman like Donovonn Young to make a splash.

2. Linebacker leadership: Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning didn't sound too pleased with the linebackers midway through the spring, although the group picked up its play toward the end. Illinois still must replace two productive players (Martez Wilson and Nate Bussey) and identify leadership at the position. Senior Ian Thomas seems like the obvious choice to take the reins, while talented younger linebackers like Jonathan Brown, Houston Bates and Brandon Denmark must continue to make progress.

3. Punter: Illinois loses a field-position weapon in Anthony Santella, who ranked 14th nationally in punting average (44.8 ypp) and placed 19 punts inside the opponents' 20-yard line in 2010. Backup kicker Matt Eller worked as a punter this spring and Lankford auditioned as a rugby punter, but Illinois likely will see what incoming freshman Justin DuVernois can do before settling on a starter.
Illinois' safeties will have an ally on the field this season.

Tavon Wilson is excited to be once again playing his natural position of cornerback, but he isn't forgetting his roots.

[+] EnlargeTavon Wilson
Chuck Rydlewski/Icon SMIIllinois' Tavon Wilson has started at cornerback and safety.
"I help my safeties a lot more because I know how hard it is back there, to cover each half of the field all by yourself," Wilson said. "If we're in Cover 2, I make sure I get my hands on [the receiver]. In Cover 3, I protect the front side when they're going to the middle.

"I've got a little more respect for the safeties now after playing the position."

Wilson moved from cornerback to safety before the 2010 season because a series of injuries hit Illinois' defensive backfield. The big loss was Supo Sanni, a projected starter at safety who ruptured his Achilles tendon in camp and had to miss the season.

After a productive sophomore season at cornerback, where he led the team with seven passes defended, Wilson made the shift to safety and once again led the team in passes defended (9) to go along with 48 tackles. Illinois' improved depth in the secondary has allowed Wilson to return to cornerback, although he practiced as a nickel safety this spring.

Wilson's versatility should help a secondary that likely will be the strength of the defense in 2011.

"Safety and corner are two totally different positions," Wilson said. "It's a different mind-set. At first, I tried to go out there and play like a corner, but I had to learn the game from a safety standpoint. It's a totally different aspect of football."

Wilson admits he "probably played a little smarter" as a safety, knowing that any risk could backfire and result in a touchdown for the opposing team.

"At corner, I know I'm a lot more aggressive and more of a hitter," he said. "I take more chances just because I know I've got some help over the top."

He won't take that help for granted.

Sanni is on track to return at safety alongside Trulon Henry, a starter last season who led the team with three interceptions. Wilson, Terry Hawthorne and Justin Green give Illinois a very nice complement of cornerbacks, and the secondary also brings back Patrick Nixon-Youman, Steve Hull and Miami Thomas, the talented corner who has battled injuries for much of his career.

"I definitely feel like we're going to have a chance to be the leaders of the defense, just because of the confidence we have in each other and the confidence everybody else has in us," Wilson said. "A lot of us have played a lot of football around here, so when things are going wrong, people on the defense expect me or one of my guys back there to make a play. We've been doing that this spring.”

Big Ten lunch links

April, 5, 2011
Columbus today, State College tomorrow ...
Vic Koenning isn't the type of coach to ever ease up on the throttle.

That's a good thing, too. This season, Illinois doesn't have the luxury to relax on defense, even for a split second.

"There's really not a middle ground for us," Koenning, the team's first-year defensive coordinator, told me Wednesday. "We've got to be hammer-down, playing as hard as we can play with a high motor and almost be electric -- or we're not very good."

[+] EnlargeVic Koenning
AP Photo/The News-Gazette, Robin ScholzVic Koenning will likely be dialing up the pressure on Penn State freshman quarterback Rob Bolden this Saturday.
Koenning's defense has been very good for stretches this fall and certainly is showing improvement from 2009, when the unit ranked 91st nationally (403.3 ypg). Through four games, Illinois ranks in the top half of the Big Ten in several defensive statistical categories, including scoring (T-4th, 18 ppg) and red zone efficiency (4th, 75 percent conversions).

The Illini boast five players among the Big Ten's top 17 in tackles per game, and linebacker Martez Wilson finally seems to be reaching his immense potential after missing all but one game last year with a neck injury.

Asked to assess the defense through four games, Koenning, mindful of the team's 2-2 record, replied, "About .500."

"In our two losses, we had chances to close out the games," he continued. "If we had done that, we'd have been way ahead of where I thought we could have been."

The high-energy Koenning has provided a jolt to an underachieving defense, but the veteran coach also recognizes that players can't be in fifth gear all the time. Koenning said the defense has played an electric level about 80 percent of the snaps.

After short-circuiting for stretches in the opener against Missouri -- "The guys didn't know how to do it yet," Koenning said -- Illini defenders have increased their percentage of peak-energy plays. Last week, Illinois limited Ohio State's offense to 14 points in the first 51 minutes and just 290 yards for the game. Ohio State came to Champaign averaging 49.3 points but mustered only 24 against Koenning's crew.

But there still were lulls, like Terrelle Pryor's 66-yard run in the first quarter.

"You try and figure out a way to motivate them," Koenning said. "I can holler loud but I can’t holler that loud. We’ve got to bring along the next guys and we have to keep developing depth because if a guy's not playing up to what we need to do, you got to sub another guy in."

Depth is unquestionably Illinois' biggest obstacle right now. The Illini lost two projected starters in the secondary, safety Supo Sanni and cornerback Terry Hawthorne, to injuries before the season (Sanni's is season-ending).

The injury losses forced Illinois to shuffle its personnel, like moving Justin Green from running back to defensive back. Illinois' depth really hurts in the red zone, despite the decent numbers so far.

"We haven't been worth [crud] in my thoughts," Koenning said of the red zone defense. "We don't have enough safeties or enough D-linemen to play goal-line package, so have to continue to play our base package. It’s been something we need to do a better job of and work on it.

"But in fairness to us, we're handicapped down there."

It'll be interesting to see how the Illini fare in the red zone Saturday at Penn State, which has had major problems inside the opponent's 20-yard line. Penn State ranks last in the Big Ten and tied for 114th nationally in red zone offense, converting only two-thirds of its chances into points.

Don't be surprised to see Illinois try to turn up the heat on Penn State freshman quarterback Rob Bolden on Saturday.

"We feel like the quarterback, no disrespect, but he's not Terrelle Pryor yet," Koenning said. "But as far as the other positions, we feel Penn State may be as strong or stronger than the team we just played [Ohio State]. That's the respect level we have."

Speaking of respect, Illinois can gain even more by winning in State College for the first time in team history.

To do so, the Illini will look for a spark from their defense.

"You've got to challenge them to be great," Koenning said. "If you're going to challenge them to be average, you get average."
Time will tell whether the Great Experiment of Champaign works or not, but one big piece of the puzzle seems to fit.

First-year coordinator Vic Koenning is having a positive effect on the Illinois defense.

[+] EnlargeRon Zook
AP Photo/Seth PerlmanCoach Ron Zook has seen results after taking steps to improve the Illinois defense.
Yes, it's still very early, but the Fighting Illini defense is showing promising signs after two games. Illinois limited Missouri to 23 points in the opener -- the Tigers' had averaged 43 points in its previous three games with the Illini -- and kept Southern Illinois out of the end zone last Saturday in Champaign. Despite losing three projected starters in recent weeks -- defensive backs Supo Sanni and Terry Hawthorne to injury, defensive end/linebacker Michael Buchanan to suspension -- the Illini are receiving production from a variety of sources.

Again, there's long way to go, but so far, so good.

"We're playing so much harder, we're tackling better, we're chasing the football better and we're not giving up the big plays," coach Ron Zook said. "That was the biggest problem we were having last year, the big plays. They're playing as a group, they're playing as a unit, they're flying around.

"It's hard to find a play where there's not at least eight guys around the football. It's team defense."

Zook's last phrase is the important one. Illinois never has lacked individual talent during Zook's tenure on both sides of the ball.

The two-deep on defense features heralded recruits like Martez Wilson, Corey Liuget and Whitney Mercilus. But since the Rose Bowl run in 2007, Illinois hadn't played well as a defensive unit, slipping to 67th in points allowed in 2008 and 96th last fall.

Although much of the criticism in 2009 was directed toward Mike Schultz and an offense that took eight weeks to get on track despite a fourth-year starter at quarterback (Juice Williams) and an All-America candidate at receiver (Arrelious Benn), the defense didn't hold up, either. Illinois allowed 102 points in its final two games, losses to Cincinnati and Fresno State.

As part of a major staff overhaul in December, Zook demoted co-defensive coordinators Dan Disch and Curt Mallory and brought in Koenning (Mallory left for Akron, while Disch remains on staff as linebackers coach). Illinois beat out Georgia for Koenning's services, and the move seems to be paying off.

Here's what cornerback Tavon Wilson told the (Decatur) Herald & Review this week.
"Coach Vic is more of an enforcer. If the [team] leaders are not taking charge, he will. He won't sit around and let practice go mediocre. He will make sure everyone is running to the football on every play. He'll run to the football with you if he has to. That's probably the biggest difference from coaches in the past. Past coaches wouldn't let it slide, but they weren't enforcing it as much as coach Vic would. He doesn't take a play off just like he expects you not to take a play off."

The Illini are receiving strong performances so far from safety Travon Bellamy (19 tackles, 3 tackles for loss), linebacker Ian Thomas (17 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 1 fumble recovery) and Martez Wilson (14 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, 1 forced fumble.

Five players already have recorded multiple tackles for loss in the first two contests.

"Everyone's involved," Zook said. "It's not just one player that's playing hard. They're all playing hard."