Big Ten: Tanner McEvoy

Quarterback competitions dominated the Big Ten landscape this spring, and several will continue when fall camps open in August.

Only three teams are still practicing and only one, Rutgers, has a true quarterback race (Connor Cook is established at Michigan State and Jake Rudock has improved at Iowa). The spring brought resolutions at Minnesota (Mitch Leidner) and Northwestern (Trevor Siemian), and Tommy Armstrong Jr. remains Nebraska's top signal-caller coming out of the session. Michigan's Devin Gardner had a lousy spring game, but it's still hard to see him losing the job.

SportsNation

Which Big Ten team faces the toughest quarterback decision coming out of the spring?

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    10%
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    12%
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    8%
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    16%
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    54%

Discuss (Total votes: 1,486)

But several teams have tough decisions to make. Here's your chance to vote on which team has the most difficult quarterback choice.

Illinois: Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt had a good spring until the spring game and remains the favorite to win the job. Fans often attach way too much meaning to spring games, but Reilly O'Toole finished the spring session on a much stronger note (12 of 17 passing, 126 yards, 2 TDs) and will compete with Lunt early in fall camp. Coach Tim Beckman likes O'Toole's experience and sees him as a mix between Lunt and athletic sophomore Aaron Bailey, who must make major strides as a passer to have a chance. Beckman wants to name a starter when Illinois begins two-a-day practices in August.

Indiana: Coach Kevin Wilson seemed comfortable platooning Tre Roberson and Nate Sudfeld last season and likely will keep the status quo this season. But at some point, shouldn't Indiana settle on one quarterback? "I don't know if they like it, but I like it," Wilson said of the ongoing race. "I like practicing with those two guys because it's fun. I'm telling you, it's the best thing." Sudfeld has a slightly higher ceiling as a passer, while Roberson is a dynamic runner. It will be interesting to see how a potentially weaker receiving corps impacts the competition.

Purdue: The Boilers cut down on their turnovers this spring, but coach Darrell Hazell wants to see more production from the quarterbacks after some shaky scrimmages. Sophomore Danny Etling remains the No. 1 signal-caller coming out of the session, but Austin Appleby remains in the mix despite his spring game struggles. Freshman David Blough, an early enrollee, ended the spring on a good note and could work his way into contention. Etling is definitely the favorite, but Hazell will let the race last into camp. Purdue named its starting quarterback about two weeks before the opener last August.

Rutgers: Gary Nova and the other Scarlet Knights quarterbacks still have two more scrimmages to showcase their skills this spring, but the race likely will go into fall camp. Nova, Mike Bimonte and Chris Laviano all are receiving reps with the first-team offense. Nova has 28 career starts and remains the likeliest option to start Rutgers' opener Aug. 28 at Washington State. But Bimonte stood out in the first spring scrimmage, and he and Laviano continue to push Nova.

Wisconsin: The Badgers reduced their candidate pool to two -- Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy -- but have plenty of questions coming out of the spring. Stave's lingering throwing shoulder injury limited him in the spring and allowed McEvoy to take the majority of the first-team reps. Injuries at wide receiver limited what Wisconsin could do in the passing game, and the offense could be looking for more mobility from the quarterback position. Stave has 19 career starts, but he's hardly a lock to retain the job and will need a good summer.

Time to vote.

Spring game recap: Wisconsin

April, 14, 2014
Apr 14
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All but four Big Ten teams wrapped up spring practice on Saturday, and we're looking at what happened with each squad. If you missed them, check out what we learned from spring games at Ohio State, Penn State and Nebraska.

[+] EnlargeTanner McEvoy
Mike McGinnis/Getty ImagesAfter a solid spring, Tanner McEvoy is in prime position to push Joel Stave for the starting QB job.
Wisconsin completed its second spring under coach Gary Andersen with the spring game Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium. The Badgers held a controlled scrimmage for a half and then began a game with several notables sitting out (including quarterback Joel Stave and running backs Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement). The Cardinal team ended up recording a 6-0 win against the White team, thanks to two Jack Russell field goals, before an announced crowd of 8,204.

Check out more coverage of the game here and here and here.

Star of the game: Fullback Austin Ramesh. There weren't many standouts in the game portion of the day, but Ramesh capitalized on his opportunity with both Gordon and Clement out. He recorded 71 yards on 12 carries and added a 4-yard reception for the victorious Cardinal team.

How it went down: The controlled scrimmage featured more offensive highlights than the actual game, as quarterback Tanner McEvoy connected with wideout Kenzel Doe on a 27-yard touchdown pass and both McEvoy and Clement added rushing touchdowns. The defenses dominated the actual game portion, as the White squad recorded only 49 net yards (35 pass, 14 rush) while the Cardinal had just 54 pass yards.

McEvoy completed 4 of 10 pass attempts with no touchdowns or interceptions in the game, but both he and Andersen were pleased with his performance throughout the spring. Andersen said afterward that McEvoy and Stave will receive the bulk of the first-team reps in preseason camp. It doesn't appear Bart Houston is in Wisconsin's future plans, but Houston doesn't plan to transfer.

The offense still needs a lot of work, especially in the pass game, but one takeaway from the spring is that McEvoy is in prime position to push Stave for the starting job.

"He walks up to the huddle, he looks more comfortable," Andersen said of McEvoy. "The football team is more comfortable around him, similar to how they were with Joel walking in and saying, 'Hey, this guy can get it done for us.'"

Defensive notables Saturday included safety Austin Hudson, an early enrollee who capped a solid spring with five tackles. Two young ends, Alec James and Chikwe Obasih, both showed promise during the scrimmage/game. Cornerback Sojourn Shelton had two tackles and two pass breakups.

Wisconsin fans shouldn't draw too much from Saturday given the injuries and other limitations. But this Badger team is much more of a work in progress than last season's senior-laden squad. A critical summer awaits.

Big Ten lunch links

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
12:00
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How long is too long to wait for free pizza?
  • Michigan's new offensive coordinator might be "insane" according to Devin Gardner, but Doug Nussmeier's might be just what the program needs.
  • Michigan State backup quarterback Tyler O'Connor has no plans to transfer, even with Connor Cook ahead of him on the depth chart.
  • Penn State moved a pair of defensive tackles to the offensive line, a sign of confidence in the players already on hand in the defensive trenches.
  • The Ohio State offensive line has a bunch of new faces, but the guy leading the unit remains the same. Ed Warinner's presence continues to give the Buckeyes confidence they can reload up front.
  • After a year away from football, Maryland receiver Marcus Leak has returned humbled, more mature and looking to make an impact.
  • Brandon Scherff has always been known for his ability to look ahead, and that trait is a big part of the reason the star left tackle elected to stay at Iowa for another season.
  • The tackles at Purdue are under intense scrutiny this spring, but the program has been pleasantly surprised with the play of sophomore J.J. Prince so far.
  • Vincent Valentine had his body right ahead of spring practice, but the Nebraska defensive tackle realized quickly he needed to make some technical improvements to have a big sophomore season.
  • Tanner McEvoy has played well elsewhere, but the Wisconsin junior made clear he'd prefer to stick around at quarterback.
  • The latest twist in the drama unfolding at Northwestern: Trevor Siemian opposes forming a union, and the quarterback indicated "a lot" of teammates feel the same way.

Spring game preview: Wisconsin

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
11:00
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Ten league squads wrap up spring practice this weekend, and we're taking a look at each spring game or scrimmage. Up next: the Wisconsin Badgers.

When: 4 p.m. ET Saturday

Where: Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis.

Admission: Tickets are $5 and will benefit Wisconsin's School of Education. Children under 2 admitted free.

TV: Big Ten Network (live)

Weather forecast: Cloudy with a chance of showers, high of 62 degrees, winds at 10-15 mph

What to watch for: Coach Gary Andersen said the Badgers will use thud tackling for the first half of the scrimmage with the first-team offense against the first-team defense, the second-team offense against the second-team defense and so on. Top running backs Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement, who have had very limited contact most of the spring, will participate in this section. After a halftime break, the Badgers will have a full-tackle scrimmage with a scoring system, putting the first-team offense against the second-team defense and the first-string defense against the second-team offense.

Gordon and Clement will sit out the second half, and right tackle Rob Havenstein won't play much. "But everybody else is going to go," Andersen said. "They need to play."

Quarterback Joel Stave will not play because of a lingering shoulder injury, so Tanner McEvoy has a chance to end the spring on a positive note before the competition with Stave really heats up this summer. Signal callers Bart Houston and D.J. Gillins also should get some work. Wisconsin is very thin at wide receiver because of injuries and the pass game struggled in last week's scrimmage, so it will be interesting to see if anyone can get anything going. Senior Kenzel Doe has stepped forward this spring at the slot position.

The spring game also gives fans a chance to see a new-look defense that has featured plenty of position changes this spring. Coordinator Dave Aranda wants more speed on the field and has been impressed with young players like ends Chikwe Obasih and Alec James. Freshman Austin Hudson also has seen plenty of work at safety, and junior cornerback Devin Gaulden is making the most of his opportunity after a long road back from knee injuries.

Several projected offensive line starters are sidelined but fans can check out freshman Michael Deiter, a mid-year enrollee who has been working as the first-string center.

Unlike last year's senior-laden team, Wisconsin is very much a work in progress, and the spring game offers some good subplots.
video

MADISON, Wis. -- Spring practice has provided some answers at quarterback in places like Nebraska, Northwestern, Illinois and Minnesota. Other competitions, while potentially narrowing a bit, remain unresolved as summer approaches.

Wisconsin certainly belongs in the latter category. A program that is no stranger to quarterback races has another that should last well into fall camp.

Junior Joel Stave has started for the better part of the past two seasons. But an AC joint injury to his throwing shoulder sustained in the Capital One Bowl against South Carolina has limited him throughout spring and ended his session prematurely following Saturday's scrimmage. Stave won't participate in Saturday's spring game. Although Andersen admits the injury is a concern and further evaluation is needed, Stave should be fine for summer workouts.

[+] EnlargeJoel Stave
Mike McGinnis/Getty ImagesA recurring injury suffered in Wisconsin's bowl game might have put Joel Stave behind in Wisconsin's QB race.
Even if Stave had been healthy, he likely still would have to beat out Tanner McEvoy in fall camp. McEvoy, a junior college transfer who briefly competed for the starting quarterback job last summer before moving to wide receiver and eventually to safety, has spent the entire offseason as a signal-caller. He took most of the reps with the top offense in Tuesday's practice and will do the same Saturday.

"There's definitely a separation between those two and the rest of the pack," Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen told ESPN.com. "I see D.J. [Gillins] and Bart [Houston] fighting in different ways and different situations and scenarios."

Stave's injury and a wave of others to an already inexperienced wide receiving corps have made it tough to get an accurate gauge on the passing game this spring. Senior Kenzel Doe is the only wideout with substantial experience who is fully participating in the spring. Alex Erickson is sitting out the spring following a knee injury in the bowl game, Jordan Fredrick suffered an arm injury midway through the session and Robert Wheelwright, pegged by many to emerge as Wisconsin's top wideout, has been slowed by a knee issue.

The Badgers will be healthier at receiver in fall camp, and most likely better as five wide receiver recruits arrive, led by Dareian Watkins.

"We need a couple of them to produce for us," offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said. "To say all five are going to step in and produce right away, that would be a little bit of a stretch. But we're looking for two guys: one that can provide a vertical stretch for us and the next guy to see what his strengths are and design around him.

"We need a player to take the top off the coverage."

Another subplot is where Andersen, Lugwig and the staff truly want to take the offense. In recruiting McEvoy and Gillins, the coaches made it clear they want more athleticism under center. Andersen wants "the threat of the run" at quarterback to complement backs Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement.

Wisconsin has incorporated more zone-read plays this spring, and McEvoy said the speed option was introduced in Tuesday's practice.

"Me being mobile gives some more elements that hopefully I can use," McEvoy said. "It seems to be working, but it's the same playbook as before. We've just got to execute."

Ludwig considers both Gillins, a freshman early enrollee, and McEvoy, as "brand-new players" this spring. He's pleased with the way both have learned the system but wants to see better execution from all the quarterbacks.

"Recently, I've had happy feet when I'm in the pocket," McEvoy said. "The next couple of days, I'm going to focus on really staying in there, taking my steps and throwing the ball, and running it when I really need to run it."

Gillins is ahead of where the coaches thought he would be and, with a strong summer, could push both Stave and McEvoy when camp begins. Andersen said if it appears Gillins won't contribute much at quarterback this fall, he'll likely redshirt rather than play another position.

Houston has the arm strength but lacks mobility and needs to show greater consistency to factor in the race.

"With Joel not being 100 percent, it's kind of tweaked our thought process a little bit," Ludwig said. "The guys are all competing well and learning. We've got to be a lot more productive at the QB spot. Spring football, it's about being productive and laying a foundation for the summer workouts, and putting yourself in position to come back in fall camp as Practice 16 rather than Practice 1."
Borrowing an idea from our friends at the ACC blog, we're taking a look at some of the Big Ten's top rivalries and whether recent trends will continue or change during the 2014 season. The Big Ten has no shortage of rivalries, but we've identified several that have been rather one-sided in the last few seasons.

First up, two teams who play for a giant axe: Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Series: First meeting in 1890. Minnesota leads 58-57-8; Wisconsin leads 39-24-3 since Paul Bunyan's Axe was introduced in 1948.

Last meeting: Wisconsin beat Minnesota 20-7 on Nov. 23, 2013, at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis

The streak: Wisconsin has won the past 10 meetings, dating back to 2004. It's the longest win streak for either team in the series. Minnesota's last win was a 37-34 triumph in 2003 at the Metrodome. The Badgers have claimed 17 of the past 19 meetings.

Next meeting: Minnesota visits Wisconsin on Nov. 29

The skinny: The gap between the longtime rivals seems to be closing a bit as coach Jerry Kill has guided Minnesota to consecutive bowl appearances and a historic Big Ten win streak last season. Wisconsin isn't on the decline by any means, although the Badgers are replacing a lot of key pieces right now, including linebacker Chris Borland, the 2013 Big Ten defensive player of the year, and wide receiver Jared Abbrederis. Both teams have some competition at quarterback this spring, although it would be a surprise if Mitch Leidner doesn't get the nod at Minnesota. Joel Stave is by far Wisconsin's most experienced signal-caller, but he'll be pushed by Bart Houston and possibly Tanner McEvoy. Both teams also are reloading a bit in the defensive front seven, especially Wisconsin.

SportsNation

Will Minnesota beat Wisconsin this season?

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    76%

Discuss (Total votes: 3,308)

Minnesota is looking more like Wisconsin under Kill, using an offense built around the power run. Both teams should be very strong at running back, as Wisconsin returns Heisman Trophy candidate Melvin Gordon and promising sophomore Corey Clement, while Minnesota should have four good ball-carrying options, including David Cobb, a 1,200-yard rusher in 2013 and decorated freshman Jeff Jones. The Badgers benefit from a favorable Big Ten schedule that doesn't include Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State. They could be playing for a West Division title when Minnesota visits Camp Randall Stadium. The Gophers, meanwhile, are fed up with their continued struggles in the series, as we saw in last season's chop-stop attempt at TCF Bank Stadium.

The (very early) prediction: We'll see another competitive game, but Minnesota's wait to end the streak will last another year. The Badgers will have more to play for, home-field advantage and the memory of last senior's senior day stinker in their minds. Both teams will run the ball well, but Gordon has a big day and scores the game-winning touchdown in the closing minutes in what likely will be his final home game as a Badger.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

March, 5, 2014
Mar 5
5:00
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The Big Ten postman always rings twice (a week, at least during the offseason) ...

Rob NitLion from Morristown, N.J. writes: Brian, you made a very good argument in this morning's Take Two -- much better, I feel, than Adam. But you asked a question at the end of your argument, that while rhetorical, I figure I'd provide an answer. "Why not?" Here is why NOT. While some programs like Rutgers and Maryland are used to playing mid-week games, a majority of their fan bases are within a two-hour commuting distance of the stadium (being from Jersey, I have a decent handle on this). It's easy for most fans to leave work and still make an 8 p.m. weekday kickoff. On the other hand, for schools like Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, etc, the fan bases are much more scattered, a large portion of the season-ticket-holder base is not within an easy driving distance of the campus, so for a Thursday night game, essentially you are asking someone like me to take a four-day weekend to see a Thursday night football game. I don't think this is plausible AND considering you guys just ran articles talking about stadium attendance being down, I cannot see some of the larger programs accepting a Thursday night game on their schedule.

Brian Bennett: The arguments from both of us were similar, and you echo many of our points, Rob. The programs with super-sized stadiums really don't ever have to think about hosting a weeknight game. (I shudder at the prospect of trying to get to Pittsburgh or Philadelphia or wherever after a Thursday night game in State College, for example.) But for programs such as Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Maryland, Rutgers and Purdue, a weeknight game can provide plenty of good exposure. Their fan bases aren't as spread out, and their stadiums aren't nearly as large. And for some of them, filling the stadium isn't easy on a Saturday, anyway, so why not grab the extra eyeballs and attention a Thursday night game could bring?


Trevor K. from Wis., writes: Say Joel Stave or Bart Houston win Wisconsin's QB battle. Could you see the Badgers utilizing D.J. Gillins' athletic ability at wide receiver? There is a HUGE hole there, and it shouldn't be out of the question if he is really that athletic.

Brian Bennett: There is precedent here, as Tanner McEvoy bowed out of the quarterback competition early last year because of an injury and ended up starting at safety. The difference, though, is that McEvoy was a junior college transfer who had already used his redshirt year at South Carolina, so he wanted to get on the field. Gillins is a true freshman, and if he's not ready at quarterback, the coaching staff might want to redshirt him. On the flip side, though, maybe the coaches see him providing value at receiver, especially if the Badgers' young wideouts don't step up this offseason, and maybe Gillins expresses a desire to play early. There are a lot of factors at play here. I'd be really surprised if Gillins makes much of an impact at quarterback this season, simply because he's so young and Wisconsin has other experienced options.

TN Spartan from Jackson, Tenn., writes: I am excited about the new bowl lineup for this next football season. Not sure if you did this anywhere, as I have not seen it, but could you project what the last bowl season would have looked like if it had the new arrangement, and then compare it to how it actually went? Perhaps you could then comment if the W/L record would have improved, or if the matchups would have been better.

Brian Bennett: It's a little tricky to project, not knowing if you want to include the new playoff system as well. Let's just say for now that the playoff wasn't involved but that the 2014 lineup was somehow superimposed on the 2013 season.

In that case, the top of the order wouldn't look much different. Michigan State would still have gone to the Rose Bowl and Ohio State would still have made a BCS game. Then the next tier would involve the Capital One, Outback and Holiday bowls, with the Big Ten having greater input on matchups. I still think Wisconsin goes to the Cap One and Iowa makes the Outback, based on their records and how they finished the season. The debate would then have come down to whether Michigan or Nebraska should go to the Holiday, much as it did with the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. Whoever didn't get picked there would fall to either the Music City or Gator Bowls, and you wonder if the league would step in to avoid placing Nebraska in that rematch with Georgia and giving the Huskers another trip to Florida.

Minnesota could then have found itself in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, which is in the third tier of picks along with the Pinstripe Bowl. The opponents wouldn't have been much different for the league at the top, but the Big Ten would have played Pac-12 teams in the Holiday and Hunger bowls. Going by 2013, that would have been Arizona State and Washington, respectively, in what would have been two tough matchups for the league.


James from Akron, Ohio, writes: With the latest position moves on defense (most notably Jake Ryan to MLB) and Greg Mattison's past experience, is there any chance that Michigan switches to a 3-4 defense this year? All of the pieces are in place to make the switch. Desmond Morgan would be the other ILB, James Ross would still be starting on the outside, while one of the current backups (Ben Gedeon/Joe Bolden/Mike McCray) would fill in the other OLB spot. Mix all of that with the fact and Michigan is thin at DT, am I crazy to think the 3-4 will make some sort of appearance this year?

Brian Bennett: It's not a crazy thought, especially because the linebacker group looks like the deepest and most talent-rich position on the Wolverines defense. Michigan hasn't really been dominant at defensive tackle since Mike Martin left town, and Mattison often ran the 3-4 while with the Baltimore Ravens. However, Michigan has run a 4-3 scheme so far under Brady Hoke, and Big Ten teams have been hesitant to go away from four down linemen very often, though Wisconsin used a 3-4 alignment often last season and had success with it. Defensive coordinators often talk about wanting to be multiple and offer different looks to the offense, so Mattison might want to at least explore the idea this spring and see how it goes. That might be the best way to get Michigan's best players on the field.


Kurt from Winter Wonderland, Ill., writes: Can we all finally acknowledge that the NU vs. "NU" rivalry has been one of the conference's best through the first three seasons of its incarnation? An underdog winning against a Top 10 Nebraska team in Lincoln, a comeback Nebraska win by one at a strong Northwestern in Ryan Field, and then a Nebraska victory on a Hail Mary last season! What will the next season bring?!

Brian Bennett: Maybe it's a budding rivalry. I also think Nebraska and Northwestern are the two most unpredictable teams on a week-to-week basis in the Big Ten, with both capable of wild swings of momentum at any time. So no wonder crazy things happen when the two get together.
Nine Big Ten programs will feature true quarterback competitions this spring, and we're taking a closer look at the candidates, the circumstances and the stakes of each race. Up next: Wisconsin.

Wisconsin offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig doesn't mince words when sizing up the team's quarterback situation.

"I look forward to a very competitive spring," Ludwig told ESPN.com, "and look for major improvement out of the position."

[+] EnlargeJoel Stave
David Manning/USA TODAY SportsWisconsin quarterback Joel Stave will be limited this spring with a shoulder injury.
Such a statement appears to put Joel Stave on notice when Wisconsin opens spring practice Wednesday. Stave started every game in 2013 and six games the previous season before suffering a broken collarbone.

He's 13-6 as Wisconsin's starter, a record that could be better if he didn't leave two games (Michigan State in 2012, the Outback Bowl on Jan. 1 against South Carolina) with injuries. Although Stave struggled at times last season with his accuracy, he still completed 61.9 percent of his passes for 22 touchdowns against 13 interceptions.

Stave has 455 career pass attempts and 3,598 career pass yards. The other quarterbacks on the roster? One career pass attempt for eight yards, supplied by Bart Houston last season.

Ludwig might be candid about the competition and his expectations, but he also makes it clear where Stave stands.

"It's Joel's position, he's the returning starter," Ludwig said. "But like every position on the field, we're going to let the guys compete. Let the best man win."

Houston, junior Tanner McEvoy and early enrollee freshman D.J. Gillins will have an opportunity to push Stave this spring, especially early on, as Stave will be limited by a right (throwing) shoulder injury sustained in the bowl game. Stave, who started light passing several weeks ago but hasn't thrown deep passes yet, won't work as much with the first-team unit during the six practices before spring break.

Ludwig plans to initially divide reps equally between Houston, McEvoy and Gillins, and then distribute them based on performance. He will reduce the candidate pool from four to three by the end of the spring, setting up more competition in fall camp.

The situation is hardly new at Wisconsin, which has had quarterback races in five of the past six offseasons.

"Joel, he has the experience, he's confirmed it for two years," McEvoy said. "He's going in as the No. 1 guy. But just like any other position, there's going to be competition."

Houston boasts the strongest arm of the group, and both McEvoy and Gillins bring intriguing dual-threat skills not typically seen at Wisconsin. But Stave remains the frontrunner to lead the offense Aug. 30 against LSU.

"Joel did so many good things last year, but we've got to complete two or three more passes a game," Ludwig said. "Those are the ones that jump out at you, the ones that are the pitch-and-catch type of plays. Just looking for a higher level of repetitive accuracy."

Those passes, according to Stave, separated a good season from being a great one. He'll have to make up the difference this season without top wide receiver Jared Abbrederis, who had twice as many receptions (78) as any Badger in 2013.

But the fourth-year junior has both a massive edge experience and the benefit of playing in the same system for the second season -- a first in his career.

"It's not starting from ground zero again, "Stave said. "I really like the offense that Coach Ludwig has brought. The terminology and everything, it's something that I've run and I'm comfortable with, and I'll continue to get more comfortable."

If Stave or Houston wins the starting job, Wisconsin's offensive structure will look much like it has in previous years, heavy on tailback runs and play-action passes. But both McEvoy, who competed for the quarterback job last summer before eventually moving to safety, and Gillins add dimensions with their speed.

Some think Wisconsin's second-year coaching staff is more inclined to use an offense featuring mobility at quarterback. Ludwig said the "nuts and bolts" of Wisconsin's offense aren't changing, but he recognizes the benefits of mobility.

"The ability to throw the forward pass is absolute first and foremost in our priorities," he said. "The athleticism dimension is just a huge plus, to extend plays, to make plays with your feet. I always say if you can throw it, the better athlete you have throwing it, the better chances you have for a play to be successful."

It's Joel's position, he's the returning starter. But like every position on the field, we're going to let the guys compete. Let the best man win.

Wisconsin offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig on the Badgers' QB competition.
McEvoy's athleticism could help his case, although he'll have to display better accuracy than he did last summer. To be fair, he entered the competition well behind the others and will benefit from a full year in the program.

The 6-6, 223-pound McEvoy spent most of the season at safety, recording 27 tackles, an interception and four pass breakups, but he regularly communicated with the quarterbacks.

"It's always nice to have another year under your belt," McEvoy said. "I'll know more going into this season. It will definitely be different than last [summer]."

Ludwig has seen significant changes in McEvoy since he first arrived on campus.

"He's a completely different person," Ludwig said. "He knows the inner workings of Badger football, he knows his teammates, he’s grown up significantly, so he's got a little different demeanor about him.

"He wants to be a quarterback, so we're going to give him that chance."

Houston, who has the most experience behind Stave, also has an opportunity to "demonstrate mastery of the offense," Ludwig said. Gillins, meanwhile, is a decorated recruit who has generated buzz among Wisconsin fans.

"He shouldn't have to worry about trying to become the No. 1 quarterback in the spring," Ludwig said. "He's just got to learn what to do, and it will be pedal to the metal into fall camp. He's come in with a tremendous work ethic and attitude.

"He wants to be the guy."

For now, Stave is the guy, and he enters the spring believing the starting job belongs to him. Because of his throwing restrictions, he'll focus more on footwork and getting rid of the ball quicker.

"I know there's improvement to be made, not just with me but the entire offense," Stave said. "We can be better, and a lot of that runs through the quarterback.

"I've taken a lot of pride to continue to get better."
Let's look at what to expect this spring in the Big Ten's wild, wild West:

ILLINOIS

Spring start: March 5
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Toughening up on 'D': The Fighting Illini had one of the nation's worst defenses, especially against the run. Tim Beckman brought back defensive coordinator Tim Banks and hopes an extra year of maturity can help strengthen the front seven. Juco import Joe Fotu could win a starting job this spring, and Jihad Ward should help when he arrives in the summer.
  • 'Haase cleaning: Nathan Scheelhaase wrapped up his career by leading the Big Ten in passing yards last season. Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt likely takes over the reins, but backups Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey plan on fighting for the job, as well. Bill Cubit's offense should equal big numbers for whoever wins out.
  • Target practice: Whoever wins the quarterback job needs someone to catch the ball, and Illinois' top two receivers from '13 -- Steve Hull and Miles Osei -- both are gone. Junior college arrival Geronimo Allison will be counted on for some immediate help.
IOWA

Spring start: March 27 or 28
Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • A new big three: The Hawkeyes begin the process of trying to replace their three standout senior linebackers from last season: James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey. They were the heart of the defense in 2013, and now guys such as Quinton Alston, Reggie Spearman and Travis Perry need to make major leaps forward in the spring.
  • Develop more playmakers: Iowa was able to win the games it should have won last year, but struggled against those with strong defenses because of its lack of explosiveness. Sophomore Tevaun Smith and junior Damond Powell showed flashes of their potential late in the year at wideout. They need to continue to develop to give quarterback Jake Rudock and the offense ways to stretch the field.
  • Solidify the right tackle spot: The offensive line should once again be the team's strength, but the departure of veteran right tackle Brett Van Sloten means someone has to take on that role. Whether that's senior Andrew Donnal or redshirt freshman Ryan Ward could be determined this spring.
MINNESOTA

Spring start: March 4
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Mitch's pitches: Philip Nelson's transfer means redshirt sophomore Mitch Leidner enters spring practice as the No. 1 quarterback. He's a load to bring down when he runs, but Leidner needs to improve his passing accuracy after completing 55 percent of his passes in the regular season and only half of his 22 attempts in the Texas Bowl game loss to Syracuse. Added experience should help. If not, he's got some talented youngsters such as Chris Streveler and Dimonic Roden-McKinzy aiming to dethrone him.
  • Mitch's catchers: Of course, part of the problem behind the Gophers' Big Ten-worst passing offense was a lack of threats at receiver. Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones showed promise as true freshmen and should only improve with an offseason of work. It's critical that they do, or else Minnesota might have to count on three receiver signees early.
  • Replacing Ra'Shede: The Gophers only lost four senior starters, but defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman might be the most difficult to replace. The first-team All-Big Ten selection created havoc inside defensively, and there aren't many athletes like him floating around. Scott Ekpe could take many of Hageman's reps, but the defensive line overall will have to pick up the slack.
NEBRASKA

Spring start: March 8
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Tommy's turn: Sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr. entered the offseason as the clear No. 1 quarterback for the first time after taking over for the injured Taylor Martinez (and splitting some snaps with Ron Kellogg III) last season. Armstrong showed maturity beyond his years in 2013 but needs to continue developing as a passer and deepen his understanding of the offense. Redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton could push him in the spring.
  • Get the OL up to speed: Nebraska loses a lot of experience on the offensive line, including both starting tackles (Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale), plus interior mainstays Spencer Long, Andrew Rodriguez and Cole Pensick. The Huskers do return seniors Mark Pelini, Jake Cotton and Mike Moudy, junior Zach Sterup, plus three freshmen and a junior-college transfer who redshirted last year. A strong group of incoming freshmen may also contribute. Big Red usually figures it out on the O-line, but there will be a lot of players in new roles this season.
  • Reload in the secondary: The Blackshirts have plenty of experience in the front seven, but the defensive backfield has a new coach (Charlton Warren) and will be without top playmakers Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans. The safety spot next to Corey Cooper was a problem area last season, and the Huskers are hoping Charles Jackson takes a major step forward. Warren has talent to work with but must find the right combination.
NORTHWESTERN

Spring start: Feb. 26
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Trevor's time?: Trevor Siemian split reps with Kain Colter at quarterback the past two seasons, serving as sort of the designated passer. Siemian threw for 414 yards in the season finale against Illinois and has a clear path toward starting with Colter gone. That could mean more of a pass-first offense than Northwestern ran with Colter. Redshirt freshman and heralded recruit Matt Alviti also looms as an option.
  • Manning the middle: Northwestern brings back a solid corps on defense but lost middle linebacker Damien Proby, who led the team in tackles the past two seasons. Pat Fitzgerald has some options, including making backups Drew Smith or Jaylen Prater a starter or moving Collin Ellis inside. He can experiment and find the best match this spring.
  • Patch it together: The Wildcats' health woes from 2013 aren't over, as 11 players will be held out of practice for medical reasons, including star running back/returner Venric Mark. Add in that the school doesn't have early enrollees, and the team will be trying to practice severely undermanned this spring. The biggest key is to get through spring without any more major problems and to get the injured guys healthy for the fall.
PURDUE

Spring start: March 6
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Moving forward: Purdue players wore T-shirts emblazoned with the word "Forward" during winter workouts, and no wonder. They don't want to look backward to last year's abysmal 1-11 season. It's time to turn the page and get some positive momentum going in Year 2 under Darrell Hazell. Luckily, optimism abounds in spring.
  • Trench focus: The Boilermakers simply couldn't cut it on the lines in Big Ten play, and Hazell went about trying to sign bigger offensive linemen this offseason for his physical style of play. Both starting tackles and three starting defensive linemen all graduated, and no one should feel safe about his job after last season's performance. Kentucky transfer Langston Newton (defense) and early enrollee Kirk Barron (offense) could push for playing time on the lines.
  • Find an identity: What was Purdue good at last season? Not much, as the team ranked near the bottom of the country in just about every major statistical category. The Boilers found some good things late in the passing game with freshmen Danny Etling and DeAngelo Yancey, but Hazell must do a better job instilling the toughness he wants and locating playmakers.
WISCONSIN

Spring start: March 7
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Catching on: The biggest concern heading into the spring is at receiver after the team's only dependable wideout the past two seasons, Jared Abbrederis, graduated. Tight end Jacob Pedersen, who was second on the team in receiving yards last season, is also gone. The Badgers have struggled to develop new weapons in the passing game but now have no choice. Gary Andersen signed five receivers in the 2014 class but none enrolled early, so guys such as Kenzel Doe and Robert Wheelwright need to take charge this spring.
  • Stave-ing off the competition?: Joel Stave started all 13 games at quarterback last year, while no one else on the roster has any real experience under center. Yet the redshirt junior should face some competition this spring after the Badgers' passing game struggled down the stretch. Andersen likes more mobile quarterbacks and has three guys in Bart Houston, Tanner McEvoy and freshman early enrollee D.J. Gillins, who can offer that skill. Stave must hold them off to keep his job.
  • New leaders on defense: Wisconsin lost a large group of seniors, including nine major contributors on the defensive side. That includes inside linebacker and team leader Chris Borland, plus defensive linemen Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer, outside linebacker Brendan Kelly and safety Dezmen Southward. That's a whole lot of leadership and production to replace, and the process begins in earnest this spring.

Big Ten Monday mailbag

February, 24, 2014
Feb 24
5:00
PM ET
We're not celebrating any presidents on Monday, so I'm back to a twice-weekly mailbag. Keep those cards and letters flowing. Or, you know, email me. Yeah, that's probably better.

David from Minneapolis writes: In your QB race Take Two the other day, you mentioned Wisconsin as your race to watch. While I agree that starting a new QB with no or limited experience out of the gate this year against LSU wouldn't be ideal, would you not want to consider the schedule for the next couple years as well? Over the next three seasons UW opens with LSU (twice) and Alabama. Wouldn't risking this year's game with LSU be worth it to possibly have Gary Andersen's type of QB ready to go by next fall and the year after for those big SEC games? Almost taking this year to develop him and the young receivers so you can have sustained success going forward?

[+] EnlargeJoel Stave
Mike McGinnis/Getty ImagesJoel Stave will face some competition for the starting QB job at Wisconsin.
Brian Bennett: David, I don't think any coach thinks like that, nor should one in a situation like Wisconsin. You're promised nothing but the present in college sports. Andersen is going to do what he thinks gives his team the best chance to win in every game. If he wants to go with a younger, more mobile quarterback, he could always do that later in the season. Connor Cook didn't start the opener for Michigan State, but that turned out pretty well last season. Joel Stave has a huge experience edge that makes him the overwhelming favorite to start the opener vs. LSU. Other candidates Bart Houston, Tanner McEvoy and D.J. Gillins are going to have to outplay him to see the field.

Rob from New York, N.Y., writes: Brian, in an Insider article arguing that Iowa has a shot at winning the B1G West, KC Joyner used as a presumption that Wisconsin was in a state of decline. Your boy Adam reiterated a similar point (though more focused on just 2014) in your article about next year's West outlook. Now, I don't think the Hawkeyes are going to be bad or that Wisconsin will definitely win the West, but it's a little rich to hear the same guys who argued that Wisconsin was on the cusp of "elite" suddenly assuming it is in decline mere weeks later. Losing the last two games hurts, but there's not much shame in losing to the No. 4 team in the country in an effective road game. And losing a stellar senior class hurts this upcoming year, sure (and to be fair, that was more Adam's point), but that's less about the *program* and more cycles of recruiting. So, let's hit the brakes and understand the following: Andersen has a highly regarded class coming in that will vastly improve the speed overall but especially on the outside (a weakness Bret Bielema routinely failed to cure), the offense will have a real competition at QB with four viable options, and all the young'uns will have another year of experience in what is a very new system.

Brian Bennett: Rob, if there's any talk about a "decline" for the Badgers, it's simply about 2014. And it's only because Wisconsin lost a huge and highly productive group of seniors, has no proven receiving targets and must reload in the defensive front seven. This is a program that has shown it can maintain a high level of success year in and year out, but it's hard for any team to avoid taking a minor step back when guys such as Chris Borland, Jared Abbrederis, Jacob Pedersen and Beau Allen depart. There are good young players on the roster, but they have to prove themselves. Then again, with Wisconsin's schedule after the LSU opener, this year's team might put up a better record than last year and not be quite as good.

Glenn G. from Vancouver writes: I was pleased to hear Troy Calhoun's comment asking for some evidence of injury relative to the hurry-up offense. With the increase of hype over substance in sports reporting (your and Adam's work excluded), don't you think that if there was a sniff of an injury trend here the sports media would have blown it WAY out of proportion by now? Oregon has been running that game for what, five or six years? I haven't heard a peep. It's possible I don't hear very well, but what I do hear is some powerful coaches making a political play to give their teams an edge. What do you think the reality of the injury situation is, and what is the likelihood the rules committee will pass the slowdown? Restore my faith in common sense!

Brian Bennett: Glenn, solid statistical information showing that hurry-up offenses affects injuries would be very difficult to compile (though here is one admirable attempt, which appears to suggest the opposite of the slow-down crowd's argument). As you said, there has been very little talk in recent years of that happening and no real anecdotal evidence, either. Bielema has not been making new friends while suggesting the up-tempo offense and a Cal player's death belong in the same argument. I agree that the injury argument seems like a pretty convenient excuse made by coaches who don't favor that style of play. If fast-paced offenses really caused more players to get hurt, wouldn't programs like Oregon and Baylor have a rash of injuries in practice?

[+] EnlargeDarrell Hazell
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesPurdue didn't win a conference game in Darrell Hazell's first season.
Jpeezy from Chicago writes: Unlike Wednesday's Purdue fan, I do not believe in Darrell Hazell. I know it's pretty early to write him off, but hear me out. Initially, I was disturbed at how difficult it was for Purdue to get plays called, get 11 guys on the field and not commit costly pre-snap penalties through the first few games of the year. As that got better, execution flaws took their place. For example, calling screens to combat pressure is a good idea, but the line and running backs couldn't release at the same time or in the same direction with enough consistency for the defense to respect the threat. Further, it troubled me that the coaching staff didn't adjust to the lack of execution by at least sprinkling in some easier-to-execute pass plays like quick passes to the flat or slants to get defenses off their back until late in the season. Does it seem reasonable to attribute these concerns to the installation of a new coaching staff? Does a coach at a program like Purdue get a pass for a couple years where you just look the other way?

Brian Bennett: Like you, I was pretty astonished at Purdue's inability to simply administer the basic parts of the game early in the season. Some of that can be attributed to a new staff, but that really should never happen at this level. I'd have more concerns about Hazell if he hadn't already demonstrated that he could win at Kent State. Sure, the MAC is not the Big Ten, but that league was very competitive two years ago when Hazell's Golden Flashes nearly beat Northern Illinois in the MAC title game. My bigger concern for the Boilermakers is whether Hazell's preferred physical, run-first style of offense is the right fit for this program. Purdue is likely never going to out-recruit and out-athlete upper-tier Big Ten teams, so running a version of Tressel-ball without elite players becomes problematic. The spread offense was a great equalizer. Let's see how Hazell adjusts, and I think he's a bright and very capable coach.

Jim M. from San Francisco writes: Do you anticipate a step up in the effectiveness of Nebraska's special teams this year, given the apparent added depth, as well as the addition of several recruits with return abilities (assuming one or more of them do not redshirt this season), and the lack of much of a punt return game last season?

Brian Bennett: Jim, predicting performance on special teams is a tricky matter and an often overlooked aspect of the game. I find it incredibly hard to believe, though, that Nebraska can't improve its 2013 punt return average of 3 yards per attempt, which ranked 121st out of 123 FBS teams. The Cornhuskers have too many good athletes for that to happen again, and it's clearly a sign that the approach needs to change. While half the battle of returning punts is simply catching the ball cleanly, knowing when to signal for a fair catch, etc., I'd certainly expect Bo Pelini and special teams coordinator Ross Els to review and revise the punt return unit and figure out a way to provide the offense with better field position.
Spring practice in the Big Ten gets started next week, and quarterback competitions will dominate the spotlight throughout the next two months. By our count, nine Big Ten teams will have moderate to major uncertainty at the quarterback position. In the coming weeks, we'll take a closer look at each quarterback race. But some are more intriguing than others.

Today's Take Two topic is: Which is the most interesting quarterback competition in the league this spring?

Take 1: Adam Rittenberg

[+] EnlargeNebraska vs Minnesota
Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY SportsMitch Leidner has experience, but will another Gophers signal-caller beat him out for the quarterback job?
I tend to gravitate more toward the truly open quarterbacks competitions than the ones with incumbents trying re-establish themselves. As much as Michigan fans and Wisconsin fans might want to see a younger player get a shot at quarterback, I'd be somewhat surprised if Devin Gardner and Joel Stave aren't leading their respective offenses when Aug. 30 rolls around. Tommy Armstrong Jr. is a little less established, and Nebraska's race could be interesting, but Armstrong still went 6-1 as the Huskers' starter and should improve during the offseason.

Maybe this will surprise Mr. Bennett and others, but I'm going with Minnesota. Why? Because I have no idea what will happen this spring with the Gophers signal callers. Mitch Leidner is the only Minnesota quarterback with collegiate game experience, but he's far from a lock to start. It looked like the Leidner-Philip Nelson competition would continue into the offseason, but Nelson's decision to transfer shakes things up a bit.

Now Leidner will compete against a group of intriguing mystery men. Redshirt freshman Chris Streveler, who missed part of last season with a hand injury, boasts excellent speed that should translate well to Minnesota's offense. Freshman Dimonic Roden-McKinzy is another intriguing athlete who enrolled early and will participate in spring practice. Walk-on Conor Rhoda also is in the mix. Although Minnesota prioritizes the run with its quarterbacks, it needs a more threatening pass game after finishing last in the Big Ten and 115th nationally last season in pass offense. I'll be interested to see if the Gophers find some clarity before their spring game on April 12.

Take 2: Brian Bennett

[+] EnlargeMichael Bennett
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsWisconsin signal-caller Joel Stave faces stiff competition this spring.
Minnesota definitely will be a team to track, but I might have more confidence in Leidner than you do. While he needs to improve his passing significantly, he's a great athlete and runner who will bring a huge experience edge into spring ball.

The race that most intrigues me lies a few hours southeast of Minneapolis, at Wisconsin. Yes, it seems unlikely that coach Gary Andersen would push a first-time starter under center against LSU in the season opener. But it's also clear that Andersen -- like most Badgers fans -- wasn't real happy with the state of his passing game at the end of last season. And Andersen has made no secret that he favors mobile, dual-threat quarterbacks, which Stave clearly is not.

Is Bart Houston finally ready to make a move this spring? Can Tanner McEvoy stick at quarterback, or will he wind up back at safety? Then there's promising freshman D.J. Gillins, a true dual-threat prospect from Florida who enrolled early and will be given a look this spring. They all have a long way to go to make up ground on the far more experienced Stave and to earn the trust of Andersen and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig. But the contrast in styles makes this a fascinating race, and without Jared Abbrederis around to serve as a security blanket, the quarterbacks are going to have to show that they can dependably make plays. Everyone, including Stave, has something to prove, and that's why this competition is the most interesting.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

February, 14, 2014
Feb 14
4:30
PM ET
Like Brian, I'll be starting bi-weekly mailblogs beginning next week, so send in your questions here. Don't forget to follow us on Twitter.

To the inbox ...

[+] EnlargeTanner McEvoy
Mike McGinnis/Getty ImagesWisconsin's Tanner McEvoy, a safety in 2013, will get another shot at QB during the spring.
Jackie from New York writes: Hey Adam, I can't understand why Tanner McEvoy is moving back to QB. He made a real impact for the Badgers last year at safety, and the need for him there is even greater this year than it was last year. I know the Badgers QB situation isn't perfect without him, but they do return their starter from the past two seasons (Joel Stave), a highly touted recruit from a few years ago (Bart Houston) and this year's big recruit D.J. Gillins, who will get all the benefits of enrolling early. So, with three QBs already in the mix, why add a fourth when you know McEvoy can succeed at safety, a position with much less depth?

Adam Rittenberg: Good question, Jackie. It's not as if Wisconsin lacks experience at quarterback with Stave back in the fold, despite his struggles last season. McEvoy came to Wisconsin to play quarterback and wants another chance to show what he can do there after joining last year's competition only for preseason camp. Coach Gary Andersen believes McEvoy deserves an extended opportunity at quarterback, and he has the skill set (more mobility) that Andersen wants to see at the position. There's definitely urgency for McEvoy to distinguish himself early in spring practice. If he fails to do so, it makes more sense to keep him in the secondary.

Louie writes: Where the hell is Rutgers? Piscataway? New Brunswick? All of the above? None of the above? I lived in High Bridge, N.J., for four years a while back and never figured it out. Looking forward to visiting when MSU comes out.

Adam Rittenberg: I've been confused at times, too, Louie. So Rutgers' main campus has facilities in both the city of New Brunswick and the township of Piscataway, which are separated by the Raritan River. HighPoints Solution Stadium (football) is located in Piscataway, along with the Rutgers Athletic Center (basketball, athletics administration) and other athletic facilities. But the campus' main address is in New Brunswick, along with many other buildings. But for sports purposes, it's Piscataway.

Chris from PDX writes: For those of us who are college football fans but who lack knowledge of the rule-making process, can you update your post to include the process by which such recommendation get adopted? For instance, is the playing rules oversight panel that meets on March 6 the body that approves such a rule, or does the approval process involve more steps? Thanks.

Adam Rittenberg: The panel can approve the proposal, which would make the rule go into effect for the 2014 season. According to the NCAA's story about the proposal, member schools can weigh in on proposals from now until the panel meets. So the panel will be aware of the criticism many coaches have voiced since the proposal went public.

Jake from T-Town, Ohio, writes: Hey Adam, this new "clock proposal" for player safety is ridiculous. If player safety is really the moving factor I have the perfect solution to protect players and prevent teams at the same time from "faking" injuries to slow down the other team. If any player is injured and the game is stopped for them then that player must sit the rest of the possession. You won't be seeing starting defenders taking dives if they can't come right back in the next play. What do you think?

Adam Rittenberg: I like it, Jake. There's no way to be absolutely sure that injuries are real or not, unless players are being carted off the field. But seeing defenders re-enter games one play later definitely raises some eyebrows. If they're really hurt, they should have the full possession to rest up. On another note, I think it's ridiculous that players who have their helmets ripped off by an opponent must sit out the next play. I'd rather stop the game so the helmet can be put on again correctly and not penalize the player.

Noah from Bloomington, Ind., writes: We've been hearing for years that "this is the year IU's defense turns a corner" and obviously those have turned out to not be "the year." But now I'm hearing what almost could be a tangible reason to believe it's this year, in Knorr's hiring. What are the chances of this being the year?

Adam Rittenberg: The chances are slightly better because of Indiana's improvement on the recruiting trail. Although 10 defensive starters return and experience is no longer an issue with the unit, I'm more excited about some of the younger players from the 2013 and 2014 recruiting classes (DT Darius Latham, DE David Kenney, S Will Dawkins). Indiana's defense is fighting a very long track record of being very bad, and while Brian Knorr has had some decent credentials, many in his position have failed to get results. The Hoosiers' offense doesn't do the defense many favors with how fast it operates, but it's certainly realistic for IU to have a defense that isn't always at the bottom of the FBS. Ultimately, it comes down to talent. And on paper, the Hoosiers have more now.

Akshay from Seattle writes: Adam, about the B1G attendance numbers. One big factor I think you guys missed out on: Season-ticket purchases happen before the season starts. So attendance numbers usually lag the team's performance by one year. For example, MSU's attendance numbers should be up next year, and Northwestern's should be down next year based on their 2013 performance.

Adam Rittenberg: Akshay, that's a good point, and the start of Michigan State's home schedule -- Western Michigan, South Florida, Youngstown State, Indiana and Purdue -- didn't help boost interest after a disappointing 2012 season. The same would hold true for Iowa, coming off of a 4-8 season in 2012. It's no surprise that MSU drew its largest crowd for the Michigan game (76,306), and the finale against Minnesota (71,418) took place after Thanksgiving and with the Legends division title already wrapped up.
Wisconsin signed a big class of 25 scholarship players, plus four preferred walk-ons, on Wednesday. I caught up with Badgers head coach Gary Andersen for this Q&A about the class:

With one of the larger classes the Badgers have signed in a while, how did that affect your strategy?

Gary Andersen: The mindset walking into it, when we knew we would have a pretty big number with so many seniors leaving, was simply to look and see what position groups we needed and even our numbers. We wanted to even up our numbers in the classes as much as we could, but still use the opportunity to take care of what we need in our deficiencies. We got that done.

We got five wide receivers, five defensive backs and six offensive linemen -- those were tagged early on as we've got to get quality kids in that area. From there we just kind of fit in where we needed. We had to solidify the youth at the running back position and we needed to get an athletic quarterback who can do some things that we may want to move to as we go forward. We had inside linebacker tagged as taking two or three, but with the walk-ons we got and the ability to move Joe Schobert inside, we just took one inside linebacker. Which in turn gave us a chance to get another defensive tackle, and we got three of those kids.

[+] EnlargeGary Andersen
AP Photo/David StlukaWisconsin coach Gary Anderson was all smiles after the recruiting class he brought in this year.
The offensive line depth concerned you last year. Does this class now allow you to sleep better at night?

GA: It does. The numbers are better. But they're not going to be better in spring ball. We're down both our centers in spring ball, so Michael Deiter will walk in here as a true freshman and line up as the starting center for Wisconsin, and that's a unique opportunity. But we're evening out those numbers. Our goal is to be at 16 scholarship offensive linemen. We should be at 14 next year. So the waters are calming, but we've still got work to do. The challenge now is to find at least a couple of those young men who can challenge and back up next season. That will be big part of the 2014 season for us.

With Jared Abbrederis gone, do you expect some of these incoming receivers to play right away?

GA: I do. This group is very competitive. They're tough-minded kids. You're going to get the same-old from other people recruiting them, "Oh, why would you go to Wisconsin? They don't throw the ball." But they showed us their toughness and want-to and belief in the direction we want to head offensively by sticking with us, and I respect those kids for that. In turn, they're going to have that opportunity to compete.

But we all know that. Anybody who watched Wisconsin football last year can say Jared ended up getting double-teamed, and they ganged up on us in the box and wanted to stop the run and our offense became very difficult at times. Hopefully, a couple of those kids can come in here and help us. We're counting on that.

Will D.J. Gillins get a chance to compete right away at quarterback?

GA: That is the goal. We're walking into spring practice with a bunch of quarterbacks who we're going to try and get reps. That's a tremendous challenge for us as coaches to give them all an opportunity to compete, and we'll tweak some practice schedules. We want D.J. to be able to compete. That was the mindset of getting him in early, to give him an opportunity to compete in spring ball. Joel [Stave] is the starter, he started all our games last year. But you want to create competition at the quarterback spot just like you want to at every position. So it will be a competitive spring.

What do you like about the defensive backs you brought in?

GA: As a whole, I would use the word competitive, and I'm starting to sound like a broken record, but they are. And we need three of those five to come in and compete and play as freshman. I'm not going to say they're going to come in and start, but they've got to come in and compete. Austin [Hudson] is here, and he's really the one I'd look at and say he's definitely a true, true safety. Lubern [Figaro] and Serge [Trezy] are tabbed as safeties, but they have the ability to play corner. With [Tanner] McEvoy moving back to quarterback and obviously Dez Southward moving on in his career to hopefully play in the NFL, the safety spot is wide open, so Austin will have some opportunities this spring.

All the kids can run, all are good athletes and I think they all have good ball skills. Hopefully they can all break into what Sojourn [Shelton] did a year ago. Of course, the kids in our program here are working hard to make sure that doesn't happen, and that's what you want.

Do you feel like you've added speed to the perimeter with this class?

GA: That really was one of our major goals, and I think we've accomplished that at the wide receiver and the corner spot. And I feel really good about the speed and the versatility of the three running backs we've signed. I'd also say on the defensive line, they're all very talented athletes that run very well. So hopefully our athleticism shows up next year on the field and in years to come, that we're a team that can make those special plays that really flip a season upside down. That doesn't have one ounce to do with coaching, it has to do with athletic ability. I think we've made progress there, but time will tell.

It seems like you cast a wide net in this class, with players from Hawaii, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee ...

GA: We did. I think when you're at Wisconsin and you walk into any high school in the country or any junior college, and you walk in with motion "W" on your chest, they understand where you're from, understand who you are. Recruiting nationally is something we will do, but we still have our core areas -- which are No. 1, right here in Wisconsin and in the Midwest. But we will branch out nationally when we do have the right kid in the right spot, for sure.

Lastly, running backs coach Thomas Hammock left for the NFL today. Was that a surprise, and what's the plan there moving forward?

GA: We'll make it very peaceful and move through the process I always go through. It's important for me to find a coach that No. 1 is going to take care of the kids and No. 2 is a tremendous recruiter. Thomas was coaching the running backs here at 6:30 in the morning, and he had a decision to make and obviously he made that decision. He wanted to communicate first with the kids, and I think that's so important. It's a decision he and his family made, and I support it. We wish him all the best, but we'll go through the process and get another quality coach here to take care of these kids.
The 2013 college football season sadly is over, and the seemingly interminable offseason is upon us. To get started on the lonely months ahead, we're taking a look at three items each Big Ten team must address before the 2014 season kicks off in August.

Wisconsin is up next.

1. Settle on a quarterback: What would the offseason be without a quarterback competition at Wisconsin? Although Joel Stave started every game in the 2013 season and has two more years of eligibility, he won't simply be handed the top job. Stave, who left the Capital One Bowl with a right shoulder injury, will be pushed by Bart Houston, Tanner McEvoy and early enrollee D.J. Gillins. Quarterback play has limited Wisconsin in each of the past two seasons, and it seems like coach Gary Andersen and his staff want a different type of quarterback (more mobility).

2. Find help at receiver: No position has less depth for Wisconsin, which loses standout Jared Abbrederis to graduation. Abbrederis led the team with 78 receptions this fall, and no other wide receiver had more than 12 catches. No returning receiver had more than 10 receptions in 2013, and Wisconsin loses reliable pass catchers at both tight end (Jacob Pedersen) and running back (James White). This is a fairly desperate situation, and the Badgers need young players such as Robert Wheelwright to blossom in a hurry.

3. Bolster the defensive front: Talented defensive coordinator Dave Aranda has some work ahead as Wisconsin loses five senior linemen along with linebacker Chris Borland, the Big Ten's defensive player of the year. The Badgers struggled to generate pressure in their final two games, losses to Penn State and South Carolina, and haven't been the same up front since losing All-American J.J. Watt. The development of the defensive ends and outside linebackers such as Vince Biegel and Joe Schobert will be critical for UW.

More to-do lists

Season report card: Wisconsin

December, 30, 2013
12/30/13
1:00
PM ET
New Year's Day and the circus of Big Ten bowls is almost here. But first, we're handing out grades for each Big Ten team's regular-season performance on offense, defense, special teams and overall showing.

Up next: the Wisconsin Badgers.

Offense: A-minus

Despite a new coaching staff, the Badgers looked awfully familiar on offense in 2013. New coordinator Andy Ludwig wisely stuck to the program's bread-and-butter running game, with outstanding results. Led by James White and Melvin Gordon -- both of whom ran for more than 1,300 yards -- Wisconsin had one of the top rushing attacks in the nation while averaging 283 yards per game on the ground. Ludwig's crew ranked third in the Big Ten in scoring at 35.8 points per game and reached at least 30 points seven times.

Bouncing back from an injury-plagued 2012, Jared Abbrederis re-established himself as one of the league's top wide receivers, with 1,051 yards and seven touchdowns. Jacob Pedersen was also a top-notch tight end. The only knock on the offense remained the passing game. While Joel Stave completed 61.6 percent of his passes and threw for 20 touchdowns, he also struggled to connect at times with wide-open receivers. The lack of consistent wide receivers outside of Abbrederis also was a problem.

Defense: A

[+] EnlargeChris Borland
Dan Sanger/Icon SMIChris Borland anchored Wisconsin's defense, earning Big Ten defensive player of the year honors.
The switch to a predominantly 3-4 defensive alignment caused little disruption for a senior-laden front seven, and first-year coordinator Dave Aranda oversaw one of the league's top units. Wisconsin allowed just 14.8 points and 294 yards per game, ranking second in the league to Michigan State in both categories. Opponents ran for just 101 yards per game against the Badgers.

Linebacker Chris Borland took home the Big Ten defensive player of the year trophy, and Wisconsin stayed strong even when he missed a couple of games with a hamstring injury during league play. The secondary entered the year as a major concern but allayed those fears with a solid performance, getting help from true freshman cornerback Sojourn Shelton and converted quarterback Tanner McEvoy at safety. The defense was tremendous just about all season, which made the breakdowns against Penn State in the season finale all the more puzzling.

Special teams: C-minus

Field goals were once again an adventure for the Badgers, and a lack of confidence in Kyle French's leg might have cost the team in its controversial loss to Arizona State. Jack Russell (woof!) replaced French late in the season and provided more stability to the kicking game. But Wisconsin was still below league average in kickoff and punt returns and punting.

Overall: B-plus

A nine-win season is nothing to scoff at, and Wisconsin already has increased its win total from 2012. It looks even better when you factor in the officiating fiasco that cost the Badgers a possible win at Arizona State. But the loss to Penn State at home on Senior Day left a tarnish on an otherwise excellent season. Wisconsin could have finished 10-2 and in position for a BCS at-large bid, although Michigan State's win in the Big Ten championship game a week later rendered that point moot. A weak nonconference schedule and advantageous cross-division slate (no Michigan State, Nebraska or Michigan) also helped. Still, first-year head coach Gary Andersen managed to keep the program operating at a high level. Beating South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl to get to 10 wins certainly would push this grade to an A for the season.

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