Big Ten: T.J. Simmons

Offseason to-do list: Indiana

January, 19, 2015
Jan 19
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Dust has yet to settle on Ohio State’s national championship trophy; already, though, it’s time to look ahead at 2015, with a peek at three items to address in the offseason for each Big Ten team.

Up next is the Indiana Hoosiers:

1. Replace the offensive firepower: Tevin Coleman is gone. Let it sink in. The Hoosiers’ superstar running back, who rushed for 2,036 yards as a junior, is off to the NFL. And to make matters worse, gone also is top backup D’Angelo Roberts in addition to leading receivers Shane Wynn and Nick Stoner. But quarterback Nate Sudfeld, whose shoulder injury forced him out of the final six games of 2014, is back as a senior. And more good news, Indiana landed a pair of impact transfers from the UAB fallout in running back Jordan Howard and receiver Marqui Hawkins. Howard rushed for 1,587 yards last fall as a junior to earn first-team All-Conference USA honors. The 6-foot-2 Hawkins, who began his career at Florida, should quickly turn into one of Sudfeld’s top targets alongside J-Shun Harris II, who showed explosive potential as a true freshman, and Dominique Booth.

2. Refine the defensive system: Coach Kevin Wilson didn’t expect a miracle when he hired coordinator Brian Knorr from Wake Forest, introducing a 3-4 scheme in Bloomington. The Hoosiers made marginal progress in 2014. Still, they allowed 32.8 points per game to rank 100th nationally and didn’t fare much better in other categories. Four of the top six tacklers are gone, including two-time academic All-America safety Mark Murphy. But an infusion of youth last year provides reason for optimism. Sophomores Antonio Allen at safety and linebacker T.J. Simmons performed well, as did true freshman linebacker Tegray Scales, redshirt freshmen Nate Hoff at tackle and safety Chase Dutra. With continued improvement and the comfort level that comes with another offseason in Knorr’s scheme, next season could legitimately bring notable improvement on defense.

3. Continue to upgrade recruiting: The past two years have marked key improvement for Wilson and his staff on the recruiting trail. The coach, entering the fifth season of a seven-year contract, has begun to get prospects who can make a difference -- and do it early in their careers. The emergence last year of Harris and Scales is a step in the right direction. Howard and Hawkins count as recruits in the 2015 class and may represent two of the most important Indiana additions. Indiana needs to clear hurdles on the field. It needs to qualify for a bowl game, and it won’t happen without more wins in recruiting, particularly on the defensive side. Work remains in this area over the next two weeks.
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- A recent Indiana practice came down to a winner-take-all snap in the red zone.

Redshirt freshman Kris Smith ended things by sacking Nate Sudfeld (at least unofficially, since there's no tackling the quarterback in practice). That led to a scene rarely witnessed around the Hoosiers in recent years: IU defensive players celebrating something they did to secure a victory.

Even that celebration didn't last long, as new defensive coordinator Brian Knorr made his troops run sprints and do up-downs after practice as punishment for giving up too many big plays earlier in the day.

Defense has plagued this program for years. Consider that Indiana has allowed at least 34 points per game in every season since 2008, with the lone exception coming in 2009 when it gave up 29.5 ppg. Washington State is the only FBS team to have given up more points per game in that time period, and the average for all FBS teams in that span is 26.3 PPG allowed.

[+] EnlargeKevin Wilson
AP Photo/Andy ManisCoach Kevin Wilson is focused on improving IU's defense. His plan includes a new coordinator, a new scheme and increased competition.
Things haven't been trending in the right direction, either. The Hoosiers yielded a Big Ten-worst 38.8 PPG in 2013, the highest number in head coach Kevin Wilson's three seasons. Had the team played close to league- or national-average defense, it surely would have gone bowling instead of finishing 5-7 with an explosive offense that ranked 16th in the country at 38.4 PPG.

"It's not by design," Wilson told ESPN.com. "We've been able to hit a little bit better on our offensive recruiting. It's taken us time to get as many big defensive linemen. We've not had anyone stand out at linebacker since we’ve been here, and those guys impact a lot of plays. We've recruited numbers there. We've had juco guys who have played.

"We think we're starting to get it now. It's going to be our nemesis if we don’t. We need to start playing some competitive defense and get some stops."

Skepticism is understandable, given the rotten history. But with one big coaching change and a whole lot of experience returning, Wilson is hoping the tide starts to turn in 2014.

In January, he fired defensive coordinator Doug Mallory -- not an easy decision, given the power of the Mallory name in Bloomington -- and hired Knorr, a former Wake Forest assistant. He has brought in a 3-4 scheme as the Hoosiers join Wisconsin as the only other Big Ten team using that as their base. Knorr, though, insists that it won't strictly be a three-man front.

"Any more, you've got to be pretty multiple," he said. "We're able to move our guys around and get them in gaps up the field, and we'll be able to pressure as well."

Knorr has the size up front to make the scheme work. Mountainous sophomores Darius Latham and Ralph Green got most of the first-string work at tackle this spring; both are listed at 6-foot-5 and 325 pounds. Senior Bobby Richardson, who will return in the summer from an injury, is 6-3 and 290 pounds.

"This scheme is meant for us," Richardson said. "We're all pretty big, but we've still got our quicks."

Linebacker, the position Wilson mentioned as a particular bugaboo, could turn into a strength with David Cooper, Marcus Oliver and T.J. Simmons on the inside and Flo Hardin, Clyde Newton and converted defensive end Nick Mangieri on the outside. They've all played a lot and are noticeably bulked up this spring.

"We're more physical and running to the ball more," said cornerback Tim Bennett, who led the FBS with 20 pass breakups a year ago. "Coach Knorr believes in moving around and not letting the offense know what you're doing."

Wilson called the secondary "a position of development this summer," as projected starting safeties Mark Murphy and Antonio Allen missed contact drills this spring with injuries. But the Hoosiers lost only one starter on defense from a year ago -- safety Greg Heban -- and threw a bunch of freshmen into the mix once again. They also signed 15 defensive players in a well-regarded 2014 recruiting class.

Because of all that, Wilson feels like he has true competition on the defensive depth chart for the first time.

"Sometimes we had guys who've had the luxury of playing by default," he said. "It was easy to get your job, easy to get on the field. On offense, you had to fight to get on the field as a running back, wide receiver or a quarterback.

"Our defense has lacked that. Competition is what’s going to build our team, and through no one’s fault that’s been the void. You can say it’s talent, you can say it’s scheme. But it’s really been competition."

Wilson says he hasn't wanted his team to get divided the past few years, so when Indiana struggled, he'd often blame the offense for not scoring enough. While the Hoosiers have put up points at a rapid pace, that strategy hasn't led to victories. Everyone around the program is hoping the added depth and coordinator change can finally lead to more celebratory scenes like the one after Smith's sack.

"Our defensive problems are well documented and known," Wilson said. "We've got a chance to get better. But it’s all talk until we do."


We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the linebackers.

Illinois: The Illini lose an All-Big Ten player in Jonathan Brown but still have decent overall depth at linebacker. Mason Monheim started every game at middle linebacker in 2013, and Mike Svetina started all but one game at the star position. Both players return as juniors. Svetina will move into Brown's spot on the weak side, while the other position could be filled by T.J. Neal, who recorded 38 tackles last season. Ralph Cooper has logged significant reps as a reserve, and Eric Finney gives Illinois some flexibility after playing the star position (safety/outside linebacker).

Indiana: This becomes a more significant position under coordinator Brian Knorr, who plans to use a 3-4 alignment. Indiana should have enough depth to make the transition as it returns two full-time starters from 2013 -- David Cooper and T.J. Simmons -- as well as two part-time starters in Forisse Hardin and Clyde Newton, who started the final four games of his freshman season. Like Simmons and Newton, Marcus Oliver played a lot as a freshman and provides some depth. The key here will be converting all the experience into sharper, more consistent play.

Iowa: If you're of the mindset that Iowa always reloads at linebacker, you can rest easy this spring. If not, keep a very close eye on what happens as the Hawkeyes begin replacing one of the more productive linebacker groups in team history: James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens. There are high hopes for sophomore Reggie Spearman, who played in 10 games as a freshman last fall. Spearman, junior Travis Perry and senior Quinton Alston enter the spring as the front-runners to take over the top spots. The biggest challenge could be building depth behind them with Cole Fisher and others.

Maryland: The good news is the Terrapins return three productive starters from 2013 in Cole Farrand, L.A. Goree and Matt Robinson, who combined for 233 tackles, including 19 for loss. The bad news is Maryland loses its top playmaker at the position in Marcus Whitfield, who recorded nine sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss last season. But the overall picture is favorable, and the depth should be strong when Alex Twine and Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil return from their injuries. Young players such as Abner Logan (37 tackles in 2013) will push for more time.

Michigan: There are a lot of familiar faces in new positions as Michigan not only has shuffled the roles of its defensive assistant coaches, but also its top linebackers. Standout Jake Ryan moves from strong-side linebacker to the middle, while junior James Ross III moves from the weak side to the strong side and Desmond Morgan shifts from the middle to the weak side. Joe Bolden, who had 54 tackles last season, can play both outside and inside, and players such as Ben Gedeon, Royce Jenkins-Stone and Allen Gant add depth. The talent is there for a big year if the position switches pan out.

Michigan State: It won't be easy to replace the Big Ten's top linebacker tandem in Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, not to mention Rose Bowl hero Kyler Elsworth, but Michigan State has some promising options. Ed Davis appears ready to step in for Allen after recording four sacks as a sophomore. Junior Darien Harris and two redshirt freshmen, Shane Jones and Jon Reschke, will compete at middle linebacker. Returning starter Taiwan Jones is back at the star position, and Mylan Hicks should be in the rotation. Depth is a bit of a question mark here entering the spring.

Minnesota: The Gophers lose key pieces in all three areas of the defense, and linebacker is no exception as two starters (Aaron Hill and James Manuel) depart. Minnesota will lean on Damien Wilson, who started in 12 games at middle linebacker in his first season with the Gophers and recorded 78 tackles. Junior De'Vondre Campbell seems ready to claim a starting spot after backing up Manuel last season. There will be plenty of competition at the strong-side linebacker spot, as Nick Rallis, De'Niro Laster and others are in the mix. Jack Lynn is backing up Wilson at middle linebacker but could work his way into a starting spot on the outside with a good spring.

Nebraska: Optimism is building for the Blackshirts in 2014, thanks in large part to the returning linebackers. The three players who finished last season as the starters -- David Santos, Michael Rose and Zaire Anderson -- all are back, as Rose will lead the way in the middle. Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry also have starting experience and return for 2014. If younger players such as Marcus Newby develop this spring, Nebraska could have the Big Ten's deepest group of linebackers, a dramatic departure from the Huskers' first few years in the conference. Good things are happening here.

Northwestern: The top two playmakers return here in Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis, who combined for seven interceptions and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2014. Northwestern's challenge is replacing the leadership Damien Proby provided in the middle. Ellis has shifted from the strong side to the middle, and Northwestern has moved safety Jimmy Hall from safety to strong-side linebacker. Drew Smith and Hall will compete for the third starting spot throughout the offseason. Sophomores Jaylen Prater and Joseph Jones should provide some depth.

Ohio State: Coach Urban Meyer has made it clear that Ohio State needs more from the linebackers, so it's a huge offseason for this crew, which loses superstar Ryan Shazier. The Buckeyes return starters at the outside spots in Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry, although competition will continue throughout the spring and summer. Redshirt freshman Darron Lee surprisingly opened spring practice Tuesday working with Grant and Perry on the first-team defense. Camren Williams appeared in all 13 games as a reserve and will be part of the rotation, along with Trey Johnson. Meyer said last month that the incoming linebacker recruits won't redshirt, which means an opportunity for mid-year enrollee Raekwon McMillan.

Penn State: Linebacker U is looking for more bodies at the position after struggling with depth issues throughout 2013. The Lions lose leading tackler Glenn Carson but bring back two players, Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman, who started most of the season. The new coaching staff is counting on Hull to become a star as a senior. Brandon Bell, who appeared in nine games and recorded 24 tackles as a freshman, will compete for a starting spot along with Gary Wooten. Penn State hopes Ben Kline can stay healthy as he provides some experience, and incoming freshman Troy Reeder could enter the rotation right away.

Purdue: Expect plenty of competition here as Purdue loses leading tackler Will Lucas and must get more consistent play from the group. Joe Gilliam started for most of the 2013 season and should occupy a top spot this fall. Sean Robinson also brings experience to the field, and Ryan Russell could fill more of a hybrid linebacker/defensive end role this season. Redshirt freshman Danny Ezechukwu is an intriguing prospect to watch this spring as he aims for a bigger role. Ezechukwu is just one of several younger players, including decorated incoming recruit Gelen Robinson, who have opportunities to make a splash.

Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights return a good deal of production here with Steve Longa and Kevin Snyder, who combined for 219 tackles, including 15 tackles for loss and five sacks. Quentin Gause also is back after racking up 53 tackles (8.5 for loss) in a mostly reserve role last season. Gause likely will claim the starting strong-side linebacker spot as Jamal Merrell departs. The starting spots are seemingly set, so Rutgers will look to build depth with Davon Jacobs, who had 30 tackles as a reserve last season, and L.J. Liston, both sophomores.

Wisconsin: Do-it-all linebacker Chris Borland is gone, along with Ethan Armstrong and Conor O'Neill, so Wisconsin must replace three of its top four tacklers from 2013. Derek Landisch and Joe Schobert can be penciled in as starters, along with Michael Caputo, who played mostly safety last season but should slide into one of the outside spots. Marcus Trotter brings experience to the rotation. The spotlight will be on younger linebackers such as Vince Biegel, who had 25 tackles last season, as well as dynamic sophomore Leon Jacobs and Alec James, a decorated recruit who redshirted in 2013.

Season report card: Indiana

December, 17, 2013
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This is the time of year where players are preparing for or finishing up their final exams before moving on to bowl season or going home.

In that spirit, we're passing out our own final grades for the regular season for each Big Ten team's offense, defense, special teams and overall.

First to get the red-pen treatment: the Indiana Hoosiers.

Offense: A-minus

In many ways, the Hoosiers developed into an elite offensive unit in 2013. They finished second in the Big Ten in scoring at 38.4 points per game and in total offense at 508.5 yards per game. They led the league in passing for a second straight year and made great strides in the rushing game, averaging more than 200 yards per contest. Indiana scored at least 35 points eight times.

Tevin Coleman would have rushed for more than 1,000 yards if not for a late-season injury. He still went for 958 yards and 12 touchdowns in a breakout year for the sophomore. Indiana had the deepest group of receiving targets in the league, paced by Cody Latimer's 1,096-yard, nine-touchdown season. Though Kevin Wilson juggled quarterbacks Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson without any discernible pattern to the layman, both ranked in the top five of the Big Ten in pass efficiency. The offensive line shook off some key injuries to remain solid.

The only drawbacks to an otherwise outstanding season offensively were the unit's disappearance against Wisconsin and Ohio State -- when it scored a combined 17 points in lopsided defeats -- along with its slow start against Navy and sloppy finish against Minnesota in must-win home games.

Defense: F

This was supposed to be the year where the Hoosiers showed some defensive improvement under Wilson and coordinator Doug Mallory after an influx of young talent. Instead, Indiana's defense managed to get worse, allowing more points (38.8), total yards (527.9) and rushing yards (237.8) per game than last year's Big Ten-worst unit. The Hoosiers ranked 120th out of 123 FBS teams in total defense.

Indiana generated very little pass rush and couldn't stop any half-decent rushing attack. The low point came against Michigan, when the Wolverines scored 63 points and put up 751 yards, 503 of those coming through the air. The Hoosiers also never forced Navy to punt in that crippling home loss.

Wilson once again played several freshmen on defense, including T.J. Simmons, Antonio Allen, Clyde Newton, Ralphael Green and Darius Latham, but the results only got worse. The program simply can't expect to compete for anything worthwhile until the defense makes drastic improvements.

Special teams: B-minus

Indiana led the league in kickoff coverage, was second in the Big Ten in punt return average and was mediocre on kickoff returns. The Hoosiers ranked second to last in net punting. Mitch Ewald remained a reliable kicker, making nine-of-11 field goal tries and all 56 extra points.

Overall: D-plus

The Hoosiers were rarely boring and did manage to increase their win total by one over 2012 while upsetting Penn State and beating rival Purdue. But hopes were very high for a bowl game in 2013, and with eight home games and one of the most explosive offenses in the country, that should have happened. Indiana was good enough to blow out the Nittany Lions and a good Bowling Green club but put itself in too big of a hole by losing to Navy and Minnesota at home. The defense had no business being that bad in Wilson's third year. Ultimately, that's what is holding this program back and what keeps us from giving the Hoosiers' season a better grade.
Earlier today, we presented our All-Big Ten team. Now it's time to honor the top freshmen from 2013 with our Big Ten all-freshman team.

Here it is:

OFFENSE
QB: Christian Hackenberg, Penn State (captain)
RB: Corey Clement, Wisconsin
WR: DeAngelo Yancey, Purdue
WR: Jordan Westerkamp, Nebraska*
TE: Maxx Williams, Minnesota*
TE: Jake Butt, Michigan
OL: Dan Voltz, Wisconsin*
OL: Ben Lauer, Minnesota*
OL: Jack Conklin, Michigan State*
OL: Jacob Bailey, Indiana*
OL: Kyle Kalis, Michigan*

DEFENSE
DL: Joey Bosa, Ohio State (captain)
DL: Austin Johnson, Penn State*
DL: Avery Moss, Nebraska*
DL: Willie Henry, Michigan*
LB: Michael Rose, Nebraska*
LB: Nyeem Wartman, Penn State*
LB: T.J. Simmons, Indiana
DB: Sojourn Shelton, Wisconsin
DB: Desmond King, Iowa
DB: Tyvis Powell, Ohio State*
DB: Matthew Harris, Northwestern

SPECIALISTS
K: Michael Geiger, Michigan State
P: Cameron Johnston, Ohio State
All purpose: Dontre Wilson, Ohio State

* -- redshirt freshman

It was a pretty strong year for freshmen in the league, highlighted by Hackenberg and Bosa. Shelton was terrific as well. ... Tight end is a promising position for the future. Penn State's Adam Breneman just missed, but he looks like a future star. And Michigan State's Josiah Price had a big impact in the Big Ten title game. ... Nebraska's young defense could really turn into something special. We also considered defensive lineman Vincent Valentine and linebackers Jared Afalava, Nathan Gerry and Josh Banderas. ... It was also a good year for rookie QBs, as beyond Hackenberg there was Purdue's Danny Etling, Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong and Minnesota's Mitch Leidner. ... Ohio State's Wilson didn't have a true position, but he did a lot of things and was a good return man, so that's why he gets our all-purpose slot. ... Some others we considered included Penn State receiver Geno Lewis and linebacker Brandon Bell, Purdue offensive lineman Jason King and Indiana defensive lineman Ralphael Green.

True freshmen impact in the Big Ten

September, 25, 2013
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True freshmen are having a bigger and bigger impact throughout college football these days, as coaches are either becoming less afraid to throw their youngsters into the fire or are facing fewer options.

[+] EnlargeDontre Wilson
Kirk Irwin/Getty ImagesThe versatile Dontre Wilson could be one of many to get touches in the diamond formation.
With that in mind, today we are ranking the top five teams in the Big Ten in order of the impact true freshmen are making for that team. We're going with quality over quantity here, mind you.

1. Penn State: The Nittany Lions are starting just one true frosh, but he's a guy with a little bit of importance to the team's fortunes: quarterback Christian Hackenberg. The 18-year-old has had some ups and downs but is on pace for a 3,000-yard season. Tight end Adam Breneman and receiver Richy Anderson have also played in every game, with one start each. Von Walker, Brandon Bell and Jordan Smith are among others who have seen time for coach Bill O'Brien, who doesn't have the luxury to redshirt many guys with the Lions' depth issues.

2. Nebraska: The Huskers' defense is young, all right. So young that two true freshmen are starting at linebacker for Bo Pelini in Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry. They rank fourth and fifth on the team in tackles, and Banderas is handling a leadership position as the middle linebacker.

3. Ohio State: Urban Meyer says Ohio State doesn't redshirt. If you're ready, you play. Technically, the Buckeyes don't start any true freshmen, but Dontre Wilson has already made a big impact as a runner, receiver and kick returner. Several other first-year players dot the two-deep, such as safety Vonn Bell and defensive lineman Joey Bosa, and running back Ezekiel Elliott ran for more than 100 yards and scored two touchdowns last week versus Florida A&M.

4. Indiana: No surprise to see the Hoosiers on this list, since coach Kevin Wilson has played as many true freshmen as any coach in the country the past few years. That means Indiana finally has some veterans, but Wilson is starting T.J. Simmons at linebacker and getting contributions from Darius Latham on the defensive line, Antonio Allen in the secondary and Marcus Oliver and Clyde Newton at linebacker.

5. Wisconsin: The Badgers are mostly an experienced, veteran team. The one exception is in the secondary. Sojourn Shelton is starting at cornerback for the Badgers, while Jakarrie Washington and Nate Hammon are top reserves in the defensive backfield.

Big Ten awards race tracker: Week 4

September, 19, 2013
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Every Big Ten team has already completed one-quarter of its regular-season schedule, and after this weekend, everybody but idle Illinois will have finished off a third of its regular season. (Don't blame me, I'm just the messenger).

With a little bit of data to crunch, it's time to bring back the weekly awards race tracker, where I attempt to gauge the temperature for some of the Big Ten's top individual honors. Please note that there's a long way to go, and performance in conference play looms large, so these will fluctuate wildly. But for now, here's how I see these races stacking up:

Graham–George Offensive Player of the Year

1. Penn State WR Allen Robinson: Receivers have a tough time winning these kinds of awards because they're so dependent on others. But I'd argue Robinson stands farther above his Big Ten peers at his position than any running back or quarterback right now. He ranks fourth in the FBS in receiving yards with 405 through three games, and that's with missing the first half of the opener because of a suspension. He's on pace for a 1,600-yard season.

2. Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon: He's leading the Big Ten in rushing with 477 yards while averaging a ludicrous 12.9 yards per carry.

3. Michigan QB Devin Gardner: He would have been the frontrunner after Week 2, but his turnover binge against Akron really hurt. Still, he's leading the league in total offense.

4. Indiana QB Nate Sudfeld: He's tops in the conference in passing (917 yards) and passing touchdowns (10) while ranking seventh nationally in pass efficiency.

5. Iowa RB Mark Weisman: He's been Superman for the Hawkeyes so far, carrying the ball 85 times in three games and averaging 141.7 yards per game. The big news is that neither Braxton Miller, the reigning champ, nor Taylor Martinez appear in our initial Graham-George tracker. Miller simply hasn't played enough, while Martinez hasn't put up the rushing numbers we expected. But it's early.

Waiting room: Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase; Michigan WR Jeremy Gallon; Ohio State RB Jordan Hall

Nagurski–Woodson Defensive Player of the Year

1. Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun: The Spartans sophomore gets the early nod in a wide-open race thanks to his scoring heroics (three defensive touchdowns so far) and being one of the faces of the league's best defense by a large margin.

2. Wisconsin LB Chris Borland: The Badgers statistically have the Big Ten's second-best defense, though that's propped up by two early cupcake opponents. Still, Borland has been his usual brilliant self, leading his team with 24 tackles.

3. Penn State DT DaQuan Jones: He was dominant in the Nittany Lions' first two games, not so much in the UCF shredding last week. Yet Jones' numbers -- 23 tackles, two sacks, five tackles for loss -- are very impressive.

4. Minnesota DT Ra'Shede Hageman: Hageman is having the big senior season we expected from him. He has collected 4.5 tackles for loss, and his push inside has helped free teammate Theiren Cockran, who's leading the league in sacks (three).

5. Northwestern S Ibraheim Campbell: All he does is catch the other team's passes. Campbell has three interceptions so far and one in each of his past five games.

Waiting room: Ohio State LB Ryan Shazier, Michigan State LB Max Bullough, Illinois LB Jonathan Brown, Iowa LB Christian Kirksey

Thompson–Randle El Freshman of the Year

1. Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg: Keep reminding yourself that he's only 18 years old, but Hackenberg has been every bit as good as advertised, and quite possibly better. He has completed 71.7 percent of his passes for 851 yards and four touchdowns, though he does have three interceptions.

2. Ohio State WR Dontre Wilson: Speed kills, and Wilson is an assassin. He is averaging 9.3 yards per carry, has caught seven passes for 72 yards and has a 51-yard kickoff return. Expect his role to grow throughout the season. For now, this is a two-man race.

Waiting room: Michigan OL Kyle Kalis; Minnesota QB Mitch Leidner; Nebraska LB Josh Banderas, DE Avery Moss and DT Vincent Valentine; Indiana S Antonio Allen and LB T.J. Simmons; Wisconsin RB Corey Clement
On Wednesday, the head coach and one player from each Big Ten Legends Division team participated in a spring football teleconference with the media. On Thursday, it was the Leaders Division's turn. Here are some notes and updates from the call:

Illinois
  • Head coach Tim Beckman said the junior college players he brought in helped with depth and age issues on his young team. "We have 40 football players that have never been in our spring football until this year," he said. Of the juco imports, Beckman said wide receiver Martize Barr has quick hands and good playmaking skills, both in the passing game and on kick returns; Eric Finney has earned a starting job at the Star linebacker position; Abe Cajuste is adding depth by playing both defensive tackle and defensive end; and Dallas Hinkhouse is making an impact at offensive tackle.
  • Beckman sung the praises of offensive lineman Corey Lewis, a sixth-year senior who has battled back from five knee surgeries and has become a team leader. "Corey Lewis comes to my office probably four or five times a week, just to talk," he said. "To me, he is what college football is all about." Beckman said that Lewis has "had a special spring" and hinted that he has earned a starting job.
  • Quarterbacks Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole will take most of the snaps in Friday's spring game so they can get more experience in the new offense. Beckman said Scheelhaase has "got a step in front" because of his experience, but the competition continues.
  • Scheelhaase on reasons for optimism in 2013: "Establishing an identity. That's something I don't know that we necessarily had last year, on offense or defense or as a team in general.
Indiana
  • Like many of you, head coach Kevin Wilson would like to know the new Big Ten division alignment. The reason? It's harder to recruit without being able to tell a prospect where he'll be playing his freshman season. Wilson added that if the league does indeed go to an East/West split, he'd like to see the Hoosiers placed in the East since they're located in the Eastern Time Zone.
  • Wilson said run defense and takeaways are two huge priorities for the Hoosiers' defense during the offseason. He noted that the Big Ten doesn't boast a large group of elite pass offenses, so IU must prepare better for run-driven attacks. Indiana finished last in the Big Ten in both run defense (231.3 ypg) and takeaways (13). Cornerback Greg Heban said the defense is working on takeaways every day in practice. "Every time the ball touches the ground, the defense is scooping it and scoring it," Heban said, "trying to give us a feel of what it's like."
  • Both Wilson and Heban praised the play of junior cornerback Tim Bennett this spring. Other spring standouts include linebacker T.J. Simmons, a freshman early enrollee, and Steven Funderburk, a junior-college transfer.
  • Heban called this "easily the best spring I've been around." He has seen more physical play and better effort on both sides of the ball, and the team also is having more fun than in past springs.
Ohio State
  • Head coach Urban Meyer said running back Rod Smith won't play in Saturday's spring game because he recently suffered a concussion. Before that, Meyer said Smith was one of the five most improved players on offense this spring. Meyer listed Carlos Hyde and Smith as the team's top two running backs, while Bri'onte Dunn and Warren Ball are even for the No. 3 spot.
  • Although the receivers have been better this spring -- especially Corey Brown and Chris Fields -- the depth is still nowhere near where it needs to be for Meyer's spread offense. "We’re way behind on quality of depth at that position," Meyer said. "That's a major, major concern." Moving Jordan Hall to H-back should help, and Meyer noted that the Buckeyes boast two good tight ends in Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett.
  • Buckeyes offensive tackle Jack Mewhort paid close attention to the way John Simon and others led in 2012. He's ready to take on a greater load this season. "I welcome that," he said. "I see that as an honor, being compared to a guy like John Simon. I also see it as a challenge. I feel the pressure to step up and get guys going in the right direction." Mewhort also has seen quarterback Braxton Miller recognize his leadership responsibilities more this spring and get after teammates when he needs to.
  • Meyer said he puts more emphasis on spring practice and the spring game than most coaches. He has told his players that there will be a depth chart after spring ends, and while changes are possible in the summer, they're not likely. "In spring ball, you're trying to win a spot," he said. "During the fall, we're trying to win games."
Penn State
  • Quarterbacks Steven Bench and Tyler Ferguson are receiving equal reps during practice and, not surprisingly, have endured some ups and downs. Head coach Bill O'Brien praised both players' intelligence, noting that they aren't making mental errors during workouts. "These guys have had productive practices," O'Brien said. "Has every play been great? No. But the word patience is a very important word here. Coming from pro football, I definitely have to learn more patience with all these young players. I think I have, but I can do a lot better." Senior guard John Urschel, who was highly entertaining during the teleconference, said he's the wrong person to ask about quarterbacks but praised Bench and Ferguson for picking up the system and showing leadership.
  • Urschel said the first-team offensive line right now consists of himself and Miles Dieffenbach at guard, Ty Howle at center and Donovan Smith and Adam Gress at the tackle spots. Of Howle, he said, "I could talk about Ty all day. If you ask me, he's one of the most underrated players on our team. ... Honestly, when I got here, I thought Ty was the best offensive linemen in our year, of the seven of us." Urschel also said Dieffenbach "started a lot for us last year but really is starting to take his game to the next level."
  • O'Brien said Zach Zwinak would get the start at running back if the season opened now, but all three backs -- Zwinak, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch -- have had good springs. Lynch, a redshirt freshman, has "improved every single day of spring practice."
  • O'Brien is excited about Penn State's starting linebackers -- Glenn Carson, Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman -- but admits the lack of depth at the position is "something I think about 24-7." He said it's vital to get Carson, Hull and Wartman through the rest of the offseason healthy, and hope for contributions from others like Ben Kline and incoming freshman Brandon Bell. Penn State won't shift players to linebackers because "there’s really nobody to move" and will instead closely monitor reps the rest of the spring and in preseason camp.
Purdue
  • Head coach Darrell Hazell said the Boilermakers have made major improvements in the last three and a half weeks. "Anytime you put in three different schemes, there's a little bit of a learning curve for the first couple weeks," he said. "You could see guys start to really get comfortable the last five or six practices."
  • Hazell said he has "three capable guys" right now at quarterback with Rob Henry, Danny Etling and Austin Appleby. He reiterated that he would keep the competition open until two weeks before the opener at Cincinnati. Of Etling, a freshman early enrollee, Hazell said: "For a young guy, a guy that should be at his prom, I think he's got tremendous poise. He's smart and really studies the game."
  • Hazell said backup tight end Justin Sinz and center Robert Kugler are two guys that have really caught his eye this spring. He called Kugler a "very much a leader on the offensive line."
  • Cornerback Ricardo Allen said Hazell has instilled an "all is one" mentality. "If one person does something, we all have to do it. We all wear black socks. We all wear the same uniform. We all tuck our shirts in. I feel like we're becoming closer as a team, and it's helping us build."
Wisconsin
  • Head coach Gary Andersen confirmed Curt Phillips and Joel Stave have separated themselves in the quarterback competition. It's a "mixed bag" of who takes snaps with the first-team offense, but both will continue to rotate through the rest of the spring and into fall camp. "The way they've separated themselves is simply production," Andersen said. "They know exactly where they sit and so does the rest of the team. … If they put all their friendships aside, their depth chart would look exactly like our depth chart."
  • Andersen praised the offensive line for tackling another transition, as the group works with its fourth position coach (T.J. Woods) since the 2012 Rose Bowl. The line has seen varying looks from the defense in practice and had players move around to different positions, in part because of injuries. Wisconsin had only seven healthy linemen a week ago, but Andersen is hopeful the number will rise to nine or 10 by next week's spring game. "Those kids have grinded through it every single day," Andersen said. "They're a tough-minded group."
  • Badgers senior linebacker Chris Borland said losing defensive end David Gilbert to recurring foot problems is a blow but the team has others to step in like Tyler Dippel, Brendan Kelly and Jesse Hayes, a redshirt sophomore who has stood out this spring.
  • Much like his old boss Urban Meyer, Andersen believes in constant competition and declares winners and losers in each practice. Andersen also mixes in some fun with a dance-off and throwing footballs into trash cans. "Some of them are a little bit quirky, but through the years establish some things we like," he said.
  • Borland said the strength program has brought the biggest changes in the transition to Andersen's staff. Cardiovascular work is stressed more, as is preventative care. Head strength and conditioning coach Evan Simon operates at a faster pace and uses more of an instructional approach than Ben Herbert, who stressed motivation.
Kevin Wilson hopes his rebuilding project at Indiana just took its next step forward on signing day.

The Hoosiers brought in one of their better classes in recent years, according to the rankings services. It included ESPN 150 athlete Rashard Fant and ESPN 300 defensive tackle Darius Latham. I recently spoke with Wilson, whose team went from 1-11 in 2011 to 4-8 last year, about the class:

Looks like you loaded up on defense. Was that the plan going in?

Kevin Wilson: You always want to get good players, but you also look at your needs. If you look at our offense, it isn't so bad. It's pretty average. We only lose one senior there. That being said, we need to make improvements on defense. We really only lost five seniors that played, and we only signed 22 kids but we have a lot of players coming back. You're not starting from scratch. We have 13 kids for sure on defense and then we have four of those tweener, hybrid kids who could be a running back or a linebacker or a safety or a receiver or a cornerback. There are three or four skill position guys where I could see them being on either side. So people look at it as 13 defensive players, but it could end being 14,15 or even 16 kids who are defensive players.

You signed three highly-rated kids from Indianapolis. How important was it to lock down the best kids in the state?

[+] EnlargeKevin Wilson
Michael Hickey/Getty ImagesIndiana coach Kevin Wilson has now had a full cycle to recruit players.
KW: If you want to be the state school, to me, you've got to represent the state. But just because they're from your state doesn't mean you're going to get them, and just because they're from your state doesn't mean you have to like them. They've got to be good players, and sometimes you don't get them all. It was good to get quality players and highly-rated kids, guys we think can make decent impacts. We don't need them to just sign with us. We need them to become good players.

They all come from quality programs. We do want to always have a presence within our state. The other comment about that, in all honesty, is that, we show up two years ago in December and had January to recruit. Last year, we get a full year, but this to me was the first year, with the way recruiting goes, where we got a full cycle. We saw them as 10th graders. We had them at camps. We had them at basketball games, had them on campus and went and watched them as juniors. We were able to build some relationships. I think the combination of that and folks thinking we're getting better helped. That's why I think some of the Indiana kids came our way.

It's hard not to notice that you signed four kids out of Georgia. How did you get that pipeline going?

KW: A couple of things. No. 1, we've got [defensive ends coach] Jon Fabris, who we hired from down there. He worked at the University of Georgia for nine years and knew his way around. He was able to go down there last spring and camp out there and go to spring practices and get us in there. It's a heck of a football state, with a big population. The next deal is, shooting down I-75, we're talking eight or nine hours to the metro Atlanta area. When you go outside of Indianapolis, our biggest alumni areas are Chicago, Atlanta and New York City because of the Kelley School of Business and all the alums we've got. So there's a little presence there. And I think the Big Ten Network helps when you go down south. When you go down to Florida, every home has the Big Ten Network, so that helps.

Rashard Fant is your top-rated prospect. Where do you see him fitting in?

KW: We see him as a cornerback and we need some help over there. But you look at his tape, and he's a great athlete -- great in the return game, really good as a slot receiver and they played him at Wildcat quarterback. Like a lot of guys we got, he can run. He needs to get a little bigger, a little stronger to compete at the Big Ten level, but he's a very athletic kid. We'll use him on returns starting out and defensively. But he has flexibility. When you evaluate his tape, you see him making plays with the ball in his hands. He's pretty skilled there. Same goes for some of our defensive backs like Antonio Allen. Chase Dutra is a running back hybrid; he could be a safety. Noel Padmore, guys like that.

How much do you think you strengthened your defensive front seven with this class?

KW: Again, we don't lose a lot. We only lose two D-tackles defensively. A lot of those guys are back and we need to make a bunch of strides there. We got two junior college D-tackles. Jordan Heiderman, he's already in school. Then you've got Chris Cormier. Our high school guys, Darius Latham and Maurice Swain, those are two 6-5, 6-6, 280-to-300 pound kids who can run. Patrick Dougherty is another inside guy. David Kenney is an edge guy. Steven Funderburk and T.J. Simmons are linebackers already in school and two really good athletes. Clyde Newton, he ran for the most yards of any running back we signed. Marcus Oliver was the conference player of the year in a big-time Ohio league.

So we've got four 'backers, six guys up front, and three of them are already in school. You'll see a lot of those guys in the two-deep mix right away. We signed a couple of fast guys. The big guys are a little bit more blessed athletically then we've recruited in years past. ... The really good teams, everybody has got a fast guy, whether it's a running back or a fast receiver or a defensive back. The best teams are fast with the big people. We didn't hit home runs or go off the charts like some people do. But for Indiana, the overall athleticism is pretty good.

You've thrown a lot of true freshmen into the fire the past couple of years. Are you to the point where you won't have to do that as much with these players, or do you expect plenty to play right away?

KW: It's a great question. Are we mature enough to take the entitlement out of, "Just because I'm a returning starter, this my job" versus just keep getting better? We've got a bunch of guys coming back, but they are a bunch of guys who were 4-8. And that's not the standard that were trying to establish or the culture we want to build. Just because you started, that's cool, but we're still not at the level we need to play at.

These recruits coming in, their skill set may be better than the guys in front of them. Now the guys in front of them are older, we've been coaching them and developing them and they might be farther along. But the starting points of some of these recruits are higher maybe than previous years with guys that play. So I believe in competition. I believe in the more we can get that environment going where you're fighting to get on the field, and we like to play multiple guys on offense and defense with as fast as we play.

When you don't play games, it can be a negative. Man, these kids make such a big commitment, in any program. It's year-round training. So, yeah, a guy might be better five years down the road, but sometimes you lose kids and they don't develop right if you don't get them on the field. You get one more year if you redshirt them, but once they play in that game I think the winter workouts, the summer workouts are a lot more positive. We haven't promised any of these guys that they'll play, but I bet you''ll see a bunch of them out there in the fall.

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