Big Ten: Teko Powell

Last week, we presented a poll on the Big Ten players facing the most pressure in 2014. But football, of course, is a team sport. So what about the league units that will be facing the most pressure this fall?

There's little doubt that the No. 1 unit under the gun is Michigan's offensive line. That group was not good last year, to put it kindly, allowing 36 sacks and paving the way for a paltry 3.3 yards per rush. And that was before the two best players on the line, tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield, got drafted into the NFL.

Virtually every offseason discussion about whether the Wolverines can improve in 2014 begins with the offensive line concerns. There is an inordinate amount of pressure for players like Kyle Bosch, Kyle Kalis and Jack Miller to improve. Michigan had a true freshman early enrollee, Mason Cole, taking first-team snaps at left tackle this spring. The experience level will increase with the return of Erik Magnuson, who missed the spring with a shoulder injury, and Graham Glasgow, who was suspended for part of the spring and for the opener against Appalachian State after being arrested. But there are hardly any proven graybeards around.

[+] EnlargeKyle Bosch
Lon Horwedel/Icon SMIKyle Bosch and the Michigan offensive line are one of the units that need to improve this season.
"A lot of it was youth," head coach Brady Hoke told ESPN.com this spring about the problems on the line last year. "We've got to make sure we're doing everything we can do to accelerate their development, to put them in positions where they can be successful."

New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier has simplified many of the blocking schemes, which the players embraced this offseason. Nussmeier -- who recently talked about the offensive line issues in this podcast -- wants to incorporate a downhill running game and a physical style, and that all starts up front. He's not going to turn the Wolverines' line into a carbon copy of the last team he worked for -- Alabama -- but hopefully he can make it into a respectable group.

If not, it will be a long year for Devin Gardner and probably another disappointing one for Michigan.

Here are some other Big Ten units facing pressure in 2014:

Ohio State's defensive backs: The Buckeyes' offensive line has question marks as well, but the secondary will be under the most scrutiny. The Silver Bullets got shredded in the back end down the stretch last season, and that was with future NFL draft pick Bradley Roby around for most of it. Urban Meyer hired Chris Ash from Arkansas to be his co-defensive coordinator and defensive backfield guru, and Ash will try to mold younger players like Vonn Bell, Tyvis Powell and Cam Burrows into a more aggressive, playmaking conglomerate.

Penn State's receivers: Sure, the Nittany Lions' O-line has major concerns, but as @flaveydavie asked on Twitter yesterday: "Penn State lost one of its biggest offensive weapons (Allen Robinson) last year. Who do you see filling that void?" Good question. Robinson was a special player, but he often didn't have much help. With him gone, Christian Hackenberg needs someone to catch his passes, and that could be sophomore Geno Lewis or a true freshman like DeAndre Thompkins, Saeed Blacknall or Chris Godwin. Penn State has a wealth of tight end options but will need to push the ball down the field to be effective.

Rutgers' secondary: The Scarlet Knights' defensive backfield was hit hard by injuries and transfers last year and got picked apart while fielding the worst pass defense, statistically speaking, in school history. Several players who got thrown into the fire last year return, along with some recruits who could play right away. A new defensive coordinator should equal a more aggressive scheme. But cornerback Ian Thomas' departure -- again -- this summer was not a good start.

Wisconsin's quarterbacks: We could have easily picked the Badgers' group of largely unknown and mostly unproven receivers. But the attention will be focused on who's under center, whether that is returning starter Joel Stave or competitor Tanner McEvoy. Wisconsin hasn't had great quarterback play since Russell Wilson left Madison, and whoever gets the job will be staring down LSU's defense in the opener.

Illinois' defensive line: No Big Ten team was worse at stopping the run last year than the Illini, who gave up a whopping 238 yards per game on the ground. The problems all started with a lack of strength and push up front. Junior college transfers Jihad Ward and Joe Fotu were brought in to help shore up the unit, while there is hope for improvement from the likes of Austin Teitsma and Teko Powell. The Illini are gunning for a return to a bowl game this year, but they'll go nowhere fast if the D-line doesn't make major strides.

Iowa's linebackers: The Hawkeyes like the talent they have here with projected starters Quinton Alston, Reggie Spearman and Travis Perry. Still, all three are relatively inexperienced, because James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens were such fixtures at linebacker the past few years. That trio of senior linebackers formed the heart and soul of Iowa's defense last year, and now their former backups have to make sure the level of play doesn't drop too dramatically.
CHICAGO -- Illinois hopes Deion Sanders was right when he famously stated, "If you look good, you feel good. If you feel good, you play good."

The Illini unveiled their new look this week, part of a rebrand with Nike for all the school's athletic teams. I'm a fan of the white uniforms with white helmets and the sleek shield on the collar. Athletic director Mike Thomas said the new threads give Illini teams the consistent look they had lacked. Football coach Tim Beckman wants more consistency on the field this fall after back-to-back losing seasons.

The Illini finished spring practice on Saturday, and I caught up with Beckman on Thursday at Niketown to recap the session.

[+] EnlargeTim Beckman
Keith Gillett/Icon SMITim Beckman likes the experience his Illinois team will have in 2014.
What were your main objectives for the spring, and did you achieve them?

Tim Beckman: We always have three goals. First, we wanted to become more physical up front, and we were much more physically and mentally tougher this spring than we've been. We wanted a competitive edge. You've got to compete against yourself, against your fellow players. And then position-wise, we knew we had to strengthen up on the defensive front. We knew defensively, we had growing up to do. We know why: We had a bunch of freshmen playing for us, sophomores playing for us. Offensively, we had to find wide receivers to step in. We moved in the right direction. We still have some guys who have been in our program, who were there before I came, who still haven't played. The time has come.

Who is growing up for you on defense?

TB: T.J. Neal. He has probably the best linebacker spring that we had. He's gotten bigger, stronger. Even Mason [Monheim], when he was starting for us [as a freshman], he was benching around 315 pounds. He's around 375-380, so his whole body's changed. Austin Teitsma is where he needs to be. He's playing better. We needed to work on our pass rush and D.J. Smoot, he has a great motor. DeJazz Woods has grown up. They should never have had to play, should have been redshirted. Now they're juniors and sophomores and they look like different guys.

Did you get what you needed out of the wide receivers?

TB: The junior-college players have come in and helped. Martize Barr just turned a year older. Geronimo Allison had a great spring. Justin Hardee had a good spring. Mikey Dudek surprised us all. If you had to pencil in a starter right now, Mikey Dudek would be in there.

When you reviewed the quarterback play, what stood out?

TB: Each guy has a very good talent. Wes [Lunt] has got very, very good arm strength. And arm strength to me isn't about throwing a 60-yard bomb, it's about getting that comeback or putting that seam route 18-25 yards right on that seam. He has a very, very good arm. Aaron Bailey has very, very good feet. He can run, he can make people miss, he's an athlete. Reilly [O'Toole] has played more and he's got experience, and he's kind of between them. His arm's a little better than Aaron's, but his feet are better than Wes'. All of them are outstanding competitors, and they get along.

When would you like to decide on the starter?

TB: I've talked to [offensive coordinator Bill Cubit] about it. I don't think there's a time frame that we've got to do it right now, but as we go through the summer and they get a feel for where they're going to be, we talk to them honestly. I would say when two-a-days get humming, we've got to get where this guy's going to be doing most of it.

What are the team's strengths at this point?

TB: We've got a lot of guys who have played. Were they ready to play back then? No, but they did. If you do it by position, we've got an offensive front that is experienced, and they're very, very good leaders. To be in a Big Ten game, you better win up front. Defensively, we're making definite strides with guys like Teko Powell, Jarrod Clements, Joe Fotu. We expect some big things when Jihad Ward gets here. The players are getting some maturity.

What areas still must be improved?

TB: We can't let negativity absorb our program. We've got to be positive, we've got to believe. At times, there's too much questioning. We need to believe it can be done. Last season, we didn't start well a lot of times, but we gave ourselves opportunities to come back and win. We've can't start that way. We've got to go out there and know we can play with people in the Big Ten.

Wide receivers definitely got to step up. The offensive line depth is important. On defense, the young defensive backs have to come through for us and the front. But I feel better about it because they are getting bigger, they are getting stronger. They're not 18-year-olds. They're 20-year-olds now. And they play like it.
We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the defensive lines.

Illinois: This is a significant concern for the Illini, especially after the recent departure of Houston Bates, who started last season at the Leo (defensive end/outside linebacker) spot. Illinois also loses its other starting defensive end, Tim Kynard. The team will rely heavily on junior-college players such as Jihad Ward and Joe Fotu, but it also needs holdovers like Dawuane Smoot and Paul James III to step up on the perimeter. Illinois returns more experience inside with Austin Teitsma and Teko Powell, but there should be plenty of competition, especially with the juco arrivals, after finishing 116th nationally against the run.

Indiana: The anticipated move to a 3-4 alignment under new coordinator Brian Knorr creates a different dynamic for the line this spring. Indiana must identify options at the all-important nose tackle spot, and possibilities include sophomores Ralphael Green and Darius Latham, both of whom are big bodies. Nick Mangieri had a nice sophomore season and should be in the mix for a starting job on the perimeter (end or outside linebacker), while David Kenney could be a good fit as a 3-4 end. Defensive end Ryan Phillis is the team's most experienced lineman, and Zack Shaw also has some starting experience.

Iowa: This group should be the strength of the defense as Iowa returns three full-time starters -- tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat, and end Drew Ott -- as well as Mike Hardy, who started the second half of the season opposite Ott. End Dominic Alvis departs, but Iowa brings back almost everyone else from a line that allowed only eight rushing touchdowns in 2013. Junior Darian Cooper could have a bigger role and push for more playing time inside, and Nate Meier provides some depth on the perimeter after recording two sacks in 2013. Iowa is in good shape here.

Maryland: The Terrapins employ a 3-4 scheme and appear to be in good shape up front, as reserve Zeke Riser is the only rotation player to depart. Andre Monroe leads the way at defensive end after an excellent junior season in which he led Maryland in both sacks (9.5) and tackles for loss (17). Quinton Jefferson started at defensive end last season and recorded three sacks. There should be some good competition this spring at nose tackle between Keith Bowers and Darius Kilgo, both of whom had more than 30 tackles last season. The challenge is building greater depth with players such as end Roman Braglio.

Michigan: If the Wolverines intend to make a big step in 2014, they'll need more from the front four, which didn't impact games nearly enough last fall. Michigan's strength appears to be on the edges as veteran Frank Clark returns after starting every game in 2013 and recording a team-high 12 tackles for loss. Brennen Beyer, who started the second half of last season, is back at the other end spot, and Michigan has depth with Mario Ojemudia and Taco Charlton. There are more questions inside as Willie Henry, Chris Wormley and others compete for the starting job. Young tackles such as Henry Poggi and Maurice Hurst Jr. also are in the mix, and Ondre Pipkins should be a factor when he recovers from ACL surgery.

Michigan State: The Spartans return the best defensive end tandem in the league as Shilique Calhoun, a second-team All-American in 2013, returns alongside Marcus Rush, one of the Big Ten's most experienced defenders. Joel Heath, Brandon Clemons and others provide some depth on the perimeter. It's a different story inside as MSU loses both starters (Micajah Reynolds and Tyler Hoover), as well as reserve Mark Scarpinato. Damon Knox, James Kittredge and Lawrence Thomas, who has played on both sides of the ball, are among those who will compete for the starting tackle spots. If Malik McDowell signs with MSU, he could work his way into the rotation.

Minnesota: Defensive tackles like Ra'Shede Hageman don't come around every year, and he leaves a big void in the middle of Minnesota's line. The Gophers will look to several players to replace Hageman's production, including senior Cameron Botticelli, who started opposite Hageman last season. Other options at tackle include Scott Ekpe and Harold Legania, a big body at 308 pounds. Minnesota is in much better shape at end with Theiren Cockran, arguably the Big Ten's most underrated defensive lineman. Cockran and Michael Amaefula both started every game last season, and Alex Keith provides another solid option after recording five tackles for loss in 2013.

Nebraska: Other than MSU's Calhoun, Nebraska returns the most dynamic defensive lineman in the league in Randy Gregory, who earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in his first FBS season. If the Huskers can build around Gregory, they should be very stout up front this fall. Nebraska won't have Avery Moss, suspended for the 2014 season, and players such as Greg McMullen and junior-college transfer Joe Keels will compete to start opposite Gregory. The competition inside should be fascinating as junior Aaron Curry and sophomore Vincent Valentine both have starting experience, but Maliek Collins came on strong at the end of his first season and will push for a top job.

Northwestern: It will be tough to get a clear picture of this group in the spring because of several postseason surgeries, but Northwestern should be fine at defensive end despite the loss of Tyler Scott. Dean Lowry, Ifeadi Odenigbo and Deonte Gibson all have significant experience and the ability to pressure quarterbacks. Odenigbo, who had 5.5 sacks as a redshirt freshman, could become a star. The bigger questions are inside as Northwestern must build depth. Sean McEvilly is a solid option but must stay healthy. Chance Carter and Max Chapman are among those competing for starting jobs at tackle.

Ohio State: A total mystery last spring, the defensive line should be one of Ohio State's strengths in 2014. Noah Spence and Joey Bosa could become the Big Ten's top pass-rushing tandem, and the Buckeyes have depth there with Jamal Marcus, Adolphus Washington and others. Returning starter Michael Bennett is back at defensive tackle, and while Joel Hale might move to offense, there should be enough depth inside with Tommy Schutt, Chris Carter and Washington, who could slide inside. Nose tackle is the only question mark, but new line coach Larry Johnson inherits a lot of talent.

Penn State: Like the rest of the Lions defense, the line struggled at times last season and now much replace its top player in tackle DaQuan Jones. The new coaching staff has some potentially good pieces, namely defensive end Deion Barnes, who won 2012 Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors but slumped as a sophomore. Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan could form a dangerous pass-rushing tandem, but they'll need support on the inside, where there should be plenty of competition. Austin Johnson will be in the mix for a starting tackle spot, and early enrollees Tarow Barney and Antoine White also should push for time. Anthony Zettel provides some depth on the perimeter.

Purdue: The line endured a tough 2013 campaign and loses two full-time starters (tackle Bruce Gaston Jr. and end Greg Latta), and a part-time starter (end Ryan Isaac). Competition should be ramped up at all four spots this spring. Senior end Ryan Russell is the most experienced member of the group must take a step this offseason. Evan Panfil and Jalani Phillips will push for time at the end spots, along with Kentucky transfer Langston Newton. The group at tackle includes Ryan Watson and Michael Rouse III, both of whom started games in 2013.

Rutgers: Keep a close eye on this group in the spring as Rutgers begins the transition to the Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights lose two starters in end Marcus Thompson and tackle Isaac Holmes, as well as contributor Jamil Merrell at tackle. Darius Hamilton provides a building block on the inside after recording 4.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2013, and end Djwany Mera is back after starting throughout last season. David Milewski played tackle last year, but both he and Hamilton likely need to add weight for their new league. Rutgers has some talent in the younger classes and needs players such as Sebastian Joseph, Kemoko Turay and Julian Pinnix-Odrick to emerge.

Wisconsin: Linebacker Chris Borland is the biggest single departure for the Badgers' defense, but the no position group loses more than the line. Wisconsin must replace several mainstays, most notably nose tackle Beau Allen, who performed well in the first year of the 3-4 set under coordinator Dave Aranda. Senior Warren Herring will step in for Allen after three years as a reserve. Konrad Zagzebski is a good bet to fill one of the end spots, but there will be plenty of competition with players such as Jake Keefer, James Adeyanju, Arthur Goldberg and Chikwe Obasih.
Tags:

Purdue Boilermakers, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Penn State Nittany Lions, Big Ten Conference, Michigan State Spartans, Northwestern Wildcats, Indiana Hoosiers, Illinois Fighting Illini, Ohio State Buckeyes, Michigan Wolverines, Wisconsin Badgers, Iowa Hawkeyes, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Maryland Terrapins, C.J. Olaniyan, Ryan Phillis, Louis Trinca-Pasat, DaQuan Jones, Konrad Zagzebski, Tyler Hoover, Larry Johnson, Micajah Reynolds, Warren Herring, Aaron Curry, Ra\'Shede Hageman, Harold Legania, Beau Allen, Austin Teitsma, Ryan Russell, Marcus Rush, Sean McEvilly, Lawrence Thomas, Dominic Alvis, Deion Barnes, Chance Carter, Max Chapman, Bruce Gaston Jr., Shilique Calhoun, Deonte Gibson, Michael Amaefula, Damon Knox, Darian Cooper, Jalani Phillips, Jake Keefer, Anthony Zettel, Houston Bates, Tyler Scott, Carl Davis, Noah Spence, Nick Mangieri, Greg McMullen, Arthur Goldberg, Randy Gregory, Ryan Isaac, Tommy Schutt, Adolphus Washington, Ifeadi Odenigbo, Vincent Valentine, Jamal Marcus, Teko Powell, Greg Latta, Ryan Watson, James Kittredge, Tim Kynard, Mark Scarpinato, Chris Carter, Ralphael Green, Chikwe Obasih, Malik McDowell, David Kenney, Dawuane Smoot, Darius Latham, Nate Meier, Dean Lowry, Dave Aranda, Evan Panfil, Cameron Botticelli, Theiren Cockran, Avery Moss, Michael Rouse III, Scott Ekpe, Antoine White, Alex Keith, Paul James, Tarow Barney, Jihad Ward, Maliek Collins, Langston Newton, Andre Monroe, B1G spring positions 14, Quinton Jefferson, Keith Bowers, Darius Kilgo, Roman Braglio, Marcus Thompson, Isaac Holmes, Jamil Merrell, Djwany Mera, David Milewski, Sebastian Joseph, Kemoko Turay, Julian Pinnix-Odrick, James Adeyanju

Ohio State still sits atop the Power Rankings, but there has been a significant shake-up after the Buckeyes.

Wisconsin's impressive victory against lifeless Northwestern vaults the Badgers to No. 2, as we consider Gary Andersen's team the closest to Ohio State at this point in the season. Northwestern takes a significant tumble, and Michigan also falls after failing to pull off another escape against Penn State. Nebraska and Michigan State are taking care of business against weak competition, which helps both teams now but won't mean much when the schedule gets tougher in November.

Penn State makes a move in a positive direction following its dramatic win against Michigan in four overtimes. The bottom of the rankings holds steady as most teams were off.

Here's one last look at the Week 6 rankings.

Week 7 rankings in three, two, one …

1. Ohio State (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten; last week: 1): After two hard-fought victories to open Big Ten play, the unbeaten Buckeyes had a well-deserved week off. Their young defensive front seven is starting to blossom, which should help against Iowa's power run game on Saturday at The Shoe. Running back Carlos Hyde takes aim at an Iowa defense that has yet to allow a rushing touchdown. Ohio State is halfway to another perfect regular season.

2. Wisconsin (4-2, 2-1; last week: 3): The Badgers looked refreshed, recharged and exceptionally prepared for Northwestern following their open week. Wisconsin's defense completely flustered Northwestern, particularly on third down, where the Wildcats typically excel. Melvin Gordon did his thing and Wisconsin moved the ball despite playing without top receiver Jared Abbrederis for most of the game. The schedule is favorable the rest of the way and a 10-2 mark is hardly out of the question. Wisconsin visits Illinois this week.

3. Nebraska (5-1, 2-0; last week: 5): Credit Nebraska for handling its business against inferior competition and not even flirting with a loss for the second consecutive Big Ten game. The defense once again took a step forward as one-time Purdue recruit Randy Gregory had two tackles for loss and a fumble recovery. Backup quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. struggled, but he had plenty of help from the run game, led by Ameer Abdullah (126 rush yards, 1 TD). The Huskers once again are off this week, which should allow top signal-caller Taylor Martinez to heal from his toe injury.

4. Michigan State (5-1, 2-0; last week: 6): Defense always will be the Spartans' bread and butter, but Michigan State is capable of winning games with its offense. Sure, Indiana's defense isn't a great barometer, but Spartans fans have to be encouraged by quarterback Connor Cook, running back Jeremy Langford and a unit that seems to be gaining more confidence by the week. Like Nebraska, Michigan State is handling its business during a favorable stretch of the schedule, which continues this week against flailing Purdue.

5. Michigan (5-1, 1-1; last week: 2): The Wolverines twice had flirted with losing in their first five games, only to find a way to pull through. They nearly pulled off another escape at Penn State after a strong second half, but breakdowns in all three phases led to a crushing loss in four overtimes. The defense broke down at the end of regulation, the offense couldn't find the end zone in overtime and the normally reliable Brendan Gibbons missed three attempts (one was blocked). Michigan will need to grow up in a hurry to challenge for the Legends Division title.

6. Northwestern (4-2, 0-2; last week: 2): It's a four-spot drop for the Wildcats, and that might be kind after the egg they laid Saturday in Madison. Northwestern clearly had a hangover from the Ohio State game, although there are some troubling trends on offense, namely the inability to covert manageable third downs, which has been a hallmark of past Wildcats teams. The injuries are piling up for Pat Fitzgerald's crew, as Venric Mark (ankle) barely played and Kain Colter (ankle) didn't do much at quarterback. Northwestern really needs to get well this week against Minnesota.

7. Penn State (4-2, 1-1; last week: 9): What do we make of Bill O'Brien's Lions? A week after Penn State's first loss to Indiana -- by 20 points, no less -- the Lions rebounded to outlast Michigan 43-40 in a four-overtime thriller. O'Brien played to win while Michigan's coaches went conservative, and freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg rebounded from some mistakes to lead the game-tying touchdown drive at the end of regulation. This Penn State team isn't as good as its predecessor, but it exhibits the same type of resilience and toughness. Penn State gets a well-deserved week off before heading to Ohio State.

8. Iowa (4-2, 1-1; last week: 7): The open week arrived at a good time for Iowa, which came out of the Michigan State loss with several injuries, although none of the long-term variety. The Hawkeyes need to reboot Mark Weisman and the run game after being shut down by the Spartans. Iowa's defense faces its first major test of the season in Ohio State, which will try to stretch the field. The Hawkeyes last won in Columbus in 1991.

9. Indiana (3-3, 1-1; last week: 8): The inconsistency that has plagued Indiana through the first half of the season showed up Saturday against Michigan State. The offense had more success against Michigan State's venerated defense than most opponents but still left points on the field. Indiana's defense, meanwhile, took a step back as the Spartans had success both on the ground and through the air. The Hoosiers' quarterback situation took another turn as Tre Roberson outperformed Nate Sudfeld. IU heads back to the Mitten State this week to face Michigan.

10. Illinois (3-2, 0-1; last week: 10): The Illini didn't play for the second time in four weeks after struggling on both sides of the ball at Nebraska. If Tim Beckman's squad intends to go bowling, it might need a home upset victory in the next two weeks as it hosts Wisconsin and then Michigan State. Illinois hopes to get defensive lineman Teko Powell back from injury before facing the dominant Wisconsin rush attack. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase must rebound after completing only 50 percent of his passes against Nebraska.

11. Minnesota (4-2, 0-2; last week: 11): Adversity continues for the Gophers as head coach Jerry Kill has taken a leave of absence as he tries to get his epilepsy under control. Although Minnesota assistants and players know how to adjust without Kill, it doesn't make the situation much easier. The big on-field concern for the Gophers is the schedule, which doesn't get any easier this week against Northwestern. The Gophers are still looking for more explosiveness on offense.

12. Purdue (1-5, 0-2; last week: 12): There will be better days ahead for Danny Etling and the Boilers, but it's very ugly right now. Purdue never challenged Nebraska at Ross-Ade Stadium, and the Boilers' problems on offense clearly go beyond the quarterback position as Etling couldn't get much going. Purdue didn't cross midfield until the fourth quarter. The defense had no answers for Nebraska, which piled up 435 yards. This is a really bad football team, folks, and things don't get easier with Michigan State and Ohio State to follow.
Two games in a four-week stretch isn't any football fan's idea of fun, but it's an unfortunate reality for supporters of Illinois and Nebraska.

The Illini are off this week for the second time already (they also didn't play in Week 4), and Nebraska has a bye next week after not playing in Week 5, along with five other Big Ten teams. The double bye has reared its ugly head this season around the FBS, creating unsatisfying Saturdays in the Big Ten and elsewhere.

[+] EnlargeTim Beckman
Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY SportsTim Beckman's Fighting Illini are on their second bye week already.
This week's Big Ten schedule features only four games, just like the Week 5 slate.

In May, I took a close look at the double bye, which is in place both this season and next because of the extra week in the schedule. As league schedule czar Mark Rudner told me then, the fact that most of 2013 and 2014 schedules were completed before the Big Ten implemented a championship game and moved its regular season to after Thanksgiving forced the league to spread out 48 conference games across 10 weeks rather than nine. Things will be better in 2014 as there are more conference games (56) with Maryland and Rutgers joining the league. There's also additional flexibility with nonleague games, of which all but one were bunched up at the start of this season.

But right now, it stinks. October, on the whole, lacks many marquee Big Ten matchups to begin with, as the crossover schedule leaves much to be desired. The double-bye certainly doesn't help.

You know how I feel, and I think I know how you feel. What about the teams?

"Normally, I don't think I'd like it," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said, "but with the youth on our team, it's kind of what the doctor ordered for us. I think it'll help us get better, not just injury-wise, but giving us a chance to grow, especially on the defensive side of the ball. I like the way it's set up for us."

Injuries are the biggest reason why open weeks can be helpful for teams. Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez injured his toe before the team's first open week, which allowed him to rest and allowed the coaches to prepare redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong for a bigger role.

Although Martinez is making progress and will play as soon as he can, possibly Saturday at Purdue, Pelini acknowledged that the upcoming bye week will play a role in how they proceed.

The second bye also allows Illinois to heal up. Coach Tim Beckman hopes to get defensive lineman Teko Powell back and others back in the mix. Powell could return for Illinois' Oct. 19 home game against Wisconsin.

Beckman hasn't dealt with two bye weeks so close together before in his career, and seems lukewarm about it.

"As a coach, you hate to get away from it because you're with a young football team and you want a young football team to stay in a schedule as much as possible," Beckman said.

Illinois players will use the week mainly for self-evaluation. Sophomore cornerback/returner V'Angelo Bentley, for example, will review the 237 plays he has logged through the first five games.

Pelini thinks the double bye would be tougher to deal with if he had an older team that needed less refining outside of the game setting.

"It adds another week for you, and sometimes you get into a rhythm and you don't like that bye week," Pelini said. "If you're a real veteran group, sometimes it's real hard to get them through not only one bye, but a second bye. But I don't think we're in that situation."

Pelini liked Nebraska's plan in the first open week and will repeat it after the Purdue game.

"I'm not in control of scheduling and having open weeks and that sort of thing," Beckman said. "So you live with it, you adapt with it, you make it positive. That's what we're doing."
The rosters are set for Illinois' Orange and Blue Spring Game, which will kick off at 8 p.m. CT Friday at Memorial Stadium.

Illinois' seniors on Tuesday night drafted the two teams, which you can see here. Because of depth issues, eight players -- Robbie Bain, Abe Cajuste, Tim Clary, Chase Haslett, Samuel Ogunkoya, David Reisner, Cameron Tucker and Sean White -- will play for both squads.

Not surprisingly, top quarterbacks Nathan Scheelhaase (blue) and Reilly O'Toole (orange) will match up in the game. The two have competed for the starting job throughout the spring and will continue to do so in fall camp.

At first blush, the Blue squad looks much, much stronger. Scheelhaase is joined by top running backs Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young and veteran receivers Spencer Harris and Ryan Lankford. The Orange also has the team's top two healthy linebackers in Mason Monheim and Mike Svetina -- Jonathan Brown (shoulder) will miss the game -- as well as Tim Kynard, the only returning starter on the defensive line.

The Orange team needs a big night from players like wide receiver Martize Barr, a junior-college transfer practicing with the first-team offense, and Miles Osei, a former quarterback now playing exclusively at receiver. Tight end Evan Wilson also will play for the Orange. The defense includes linebacker Houston Bates, linemen Teko Powell and Vontrell Williams, and cornerback Darius Mosely, a true freshman who enrolled early and has made an impact this spring. The Orange squad also has top specialists Justin DuVernois and Taylor Zalewski.

Several players will miss the game, including Brown and wide receiver Steve Hull, who was having a good spring before being slowed by a hamstring injury.

The game will feature a normal clock for the first three quarters and a running clock in the fourth quarter aside from the final two minutes. There will be no kickoffs or returns (kickoff or punt), and quarterbacks won't be live.
Very little went right for Illinois under first-year coach Tim Beckman last year. After a 2-10 season, the Illini are ready to turn the page and look forward to 2013 when they hit the practice field Tuesday.

I recently caught up with Beckman to ask about the pressing issues his team faces this spring. Here is that Q&A:

[+] EnlargeTim Beckman
Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY SportsDespite a 2-10 record this past season and a slew of changes on his staff, Illinois' Tim Beckman is full of optimism heading into spring workouts.
You turned over half your staff from last year, with some voluntary departures and some not. What has that been like and how much transition are you going through right now?

Tim Beckman: Well, it's kind of crazy, because I saw a stat the other day where there's only, like, 22 staffs that haven't changed in college football, so it's been the norm. But I think with the professionalism that coaches have and the guys I've been able to hire into this new family, they're outstanding people. They're professionals, they've been coordinators, they've been head coaches, they've been in great programs. The transition has been good. I've been able to hire two Illini, which is huge, with [receivers coach Mike] Bellamy and [defensive line coach Greg] Colby.

So I think it's been a great transition. Our players have been really excited. With Mike Bellamy, he's been involved with this program for a year. So the kids were pumped when he was hired on staff, because they know him. And now he brings that Illinois flavor to the staff. All the other coaches, we've been working with each other. Jim Bridge was telling me the other day there are four or five other guys that he's been with at other places. So that's one of the unique things, because it's like a fraternity. These guys have worked with one another.

How much will the offense change with new coordinator Bill Cubit?

TB: Well, it's Bill's offense. It's what Bill was hired for. And that's how it's always been, really, with the coordinators. But I think the uniqueness that Bill has, in coaching against him, is that he's been able to adapt his offense based on personnel. He's had Jordan White, a great, great football player. He's had great wide receivers, and he's been able to move them around and adapt his offense to the guys that need to be getting the football.

After a year like last year, what do you do to keep the players' confidence up?

TB: We went back to a lot of competition, back to a lot of leadership building. We addressed the situation that occurred. I met, as I always do, with each one of the players for 10 minutes. That takes a good week. We did that in December. I asked them what their goals were, because we split up the season into four quarters -- winter workouts, spring practice, summer workouts and then the most important quarter, the season. And I had them set goals for themselves to attain each quarter. So they just wrote out their goals out for spring ball. And I also do the same thing for the team. "What do you want this team to be able to say they can do after each quarter?"

Our motto is win whatever is needed, and win the day. Whatever is needed today for us to become a better and closer football team.

What are your primary concerns for this spring?

TB: The scenario here is depth. There hasn't been depth. And when you get a young man injured, it hits you drastically because you just don't have that depth. We were able to get 10 young men here in January, five junior college players and five high school players. Junior college wise, there hasn't been a whole bunch here before. There might have been one or two. But we needed to add age to our football team, and that's what the junior college players help us do.

You've only seen the junior college guys in winter workouts so far, but what is your early impression of those guys?

TB: The first thing that I look at always is how have they been accountability wise. Because it's new. They get in here, and, bam, they're thrown into the fire right away. I'm proud, because they've all been very accountable. We haven't been late for things. Being in school and being a football player hasn't got their minds out of whack or anything like that. They've shown football wise that they can compete, but they've also shown that they're doing a very good job of being accountable on and off the football field.

How do you see the quarterback competition, where you've got a veteran starter in Nathan Scheelhaase but also a guy in Reilly O'Toole who's played a lot and a big-time recruit (Aaron Bailey) coming in?

TB: As in any position, there's competition. Nathan will go in as the guy, being the starter. Somebody's got to beat him out. But Nathan's won a lot of football games here. We had a tough year, no question, but that's not going to be on Nathan's shoulders. He was getting sacked too many times. All those things you can't have your quarterback doing, getting hit. We've got to get better at protecting our quarterback, and we've got to be able to get the ball out quicker and do those types of things so our quarterback can be successful.

[+] EnlargeSteve Hull
Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY SportsSteve Hull will be trading in delivering hits for making catches on offense this spring.
You talked often last year about the lack of depth at the offensive skill positions. How has that come along?

TB: It's getting better. Those young men we played with last year have moved up in age. We've taken Steve Hull and moved him to offense, so that adds age and depth to that position. Wide receivers and DBs are the big concern here. And we've been able to add freshmen and junior college players to those positions.

Why did you move Hull to receiver?

TB: He's had some issues with injury. We felt that Steve, for his fifth year, would be better suited to play on the offensive side of the ball to take out maybe some of the direct collisions he was getting as a safety. And he's been great with it. He loves it, and he's emerged as being one of the big vocal leaders on the team.

The offensive line really struggled last year, and you lost two senior starters in Graham Pocic and Hugh Thornton. How does that position group look going into spring?

TB: Losing the two senior starters, they were dinged up a little bit during the season, so we had to move some players around. But we also had three, really four, players that got a lot of playing time last year. So they should be a year better. I like the philosophy that coach Bridge brings in here as our offensive line coach and what coach Cubit does with the running game. Our offensive line has done a great job these last three months -- and [strength coaches] Aaron Hillman and Dave Andrews get a lot of credit for it -- of getting stronger, getting bigger and doing those things you need to do to be a Big Ten offensive lineman.

You played a lot of freshmen on defense last year, like Monheim and Mike Svetina. Do you expect them to be much farther along this spring because of that experience?

TB: No question. They're not going to be freshmen that are 18 years old out there starting in the Big Ten. They're going to have a year's experience. We played Teko Powell on the defensive line last year so he could gather experience. V'Angelo Bentley played a bunch last year as a true freshman, so he got a bunch of experience. Now these players that were just brought in in January, plus the redshirt freshmen, are going to have to step up and be involved in the front and in the back end. You had a guy like a Jake Howe, who was playing very good and then broke his hand and was out for the year. You have Austin Teitsma, who got quite a few reps last year. Darius Caldwell. Houston Bates, who got hurt last year. Jonathan Brown. We've got to get those guys back and healthy.

You mentioned concerns about depth in the secondary. What young players do you expect to step up there?

TB: I think Eaton Spence has done a good job for us. V'Angelo Bentley has done a good job. The two freshmen we brought in have done a good job in winter workouts. I haven't seen them on the football field, but they've been doing their change of direction stuff very well. A young man named Taylor Barton, a true freshman, has done a good job. Eric Finney, who came in from junior college, LaKeith Walls, B.J. Bello, Jevaris Little -- these are names who have worked extremely hard this season. They're not names a bunch of people know because they've not played yet, other than Spence and Bentley. But these guys have definitely improved.

Have you started identifying leaders on this team yet?

TB: Well, we have really been pushing it. We've been meeting on it. We've been talking about it as a team and then as individual classes, and then our honor council. We've had a guest speaker come in every Monday and talk about leadership, from military people to a gold medal winner in the wheelchair marathon. So we've really built that in. I've seen players from young and old step up in winter workouts, step up and be leaders. Steve Hull has emerged as a guy who definitely does an outstanding job of leading this football team. Mason Monheim, who was a freshman, he's jumped up and taken control. Earnest Thomas. Guys that probably weren't as much leaders last year that might not be seniors have jumped up and tried to lead this football team well.

We've got 62 players who are freshmen and sophomores, so there's a big number of guys who have been here three or less years because of redshirts. So we've got to be able to all be leaders in this program, and that's what we're stressing.

Not surprisingly, the fan base was really down on last year. What can you do to create some more optimism?

TB: I opened up the Friday practices again to the community. This is the University of Illinois. It's our state, our team. We talk about it, and that's the truth. I want to get the community involved in this program. I've always wanted to do that and we're going to do it even more. We're going up to Chicago for a practice. Of course, we've got a game in Chicago at Soldier Field, which is an outstanding opportunity for Illini Nation and those things. We're moving forward.

Nobody was happy with last year. I mean no one. I haven't been involved in that type of year. So we have to move forward and we have to take this program forward. And that's what we asked this football team and this coaching staff to do.
Michigan State fans would understandably disagree, but the Big Ten overall wasn't hit that hard by early departures to the NFL draft this year. Only six Big Ten underclassmen declared for the draft (Note: Purdue linebacker Dwayne Beckford already had been dismissed from the team).

Let's take a quick look back at the winners and losers of the early entries and how the decisions impact several teams going forward.

1. Biggest winner: Michigan. Almost everyone expected Wolverines left tackle Taylor Lewan to enter the draft after earning Big Ten Offensive Linemen of the Year honors and other accolades as a junior. Lewan had been projected by many as a top-15 pick, if not a top-10 pick, and his departure seemed like a foregone conclusion after he held up well against Jadeveon Clowney in the Outback Bowl. But Lewan delivered the biggest draft decision surprise -- and a delightful one for Michigan fans -- when he announced Jan. 9 that he'd return to Ann Arbor for the 2013 season. He provides a huge boost for a Wolverines offensive line that endured an up-and-down season and loses three starters. Lewan sought advice from former Michigan star tackle Jake Long, who opted to remain in school for his senior season and ended up becoming the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 draft.

[+] EnlargeLe'Veon Bell
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioMichigan State will certainly miss the production of running back Le'Veon Bell.
2. Biggest loser: Michigan State. The Big Ten had a smaller than normal group of early NFL departures, but Michigan State accounted for 50 percent (3-of-6) as running back Le'Veon Bell, tight end Dion Sims and defensive end William Gholston all made the jump. None of the early exits comes as a major surprise, as Bell led the nation in carries (382) and ranked third in rushing average (137.9), Sims flashed next-level potential and Gholston clearly has the physical skills to succeed in the NFL. But the departures of both Bell and Sims really sting an offense that lacked consistently productive players. Bell accounted for 92.3 percent of Michigan State's rushing yards and 38.4 percent of MSU's total yards, while Sims had 36 receptions for 475 yards and two touchdowns despite missing time with an ankle injury. A Spartans offense that struggled mightily for most of the season enters the offseason with even more question marks.

3. Head-scratchers: Lewan's decision comes as a major surprise, as few saw him slipping below the middle of the first round in the draft. He could end up leading Michigan to a Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl berth as a senior, and improve his draft stock in the process, like Long did in 2007 when he earned unanimous All-America honors. But Lewan certainly is gambling a bit, as an injury or a drop in performance could hurt his future earning potential. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio reportedly was "taken aback" by Bell's decision to leave, and some thought Gholston would have benefited from another season after falling short of preseason expectations. But aside from Lewan, the players who left were mostly expected to leave.

4. The replacements

  • Michigan State likely will look to a combination of backs, including Nick Hill and possibly some incoming recruits, to fill the massive production void left by Bell. Three players backed up Sims this fall -- Paul Lang, Andrew Gleichert and Derek Hoebing -- and recruit Dylan Chmura joins the mix. The Spartans are in better shape at defensive end with returning starter Marcus Rush, veteran reserve Denzel Drone and Shilique Calhoun, who performed well in the bowl win against TCU.
  • The expected departure of defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins means Ohio State must replace all four starting defensive linemen from 2012. The Buckeyes have recruited well up front and must hope young interior linemen like rising sophomore Tommy Schutt and rising junior Michael Bennett can fill the gaps. Adolphus Washington played some tackle as a true freshman but seems to have a future at defensive end, while Joel Hale could help Schutt and Bennett replace both Hankins and Garrett Goebel.
  • Wisconsin loses a standout junior center to the NFL draft for the second straight year as Travis Frederick departs. Redshirt freshman Dan Voltz likely will step in after backing up Frederick, unless Wisconsin decides to move Ryan Groy to center, where he started late in the 2011 season.
  • Illinois must fill both defensive tackle spots after junior Akeem Spence declared for the draft. Austin Teitsma is projected to move into a starting role after recording 15 tackles as a reserve last fall. The Illini also need younger tackles like Teko Powell and Vontrell Williams to emerge as they try to build depth along the line, typically a strong point for the team.

Big Ten recruiting team wraps

February, 2, 2012
2/02/12
10:30
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National signing day is in the books, and it's time to evaluate the Big Ten teams and their classes. Although several potential Big Ten recruits are announcing their plans after signing day, most of the classes are complete.

Here's how ESPN Recruiting graded the Big Ten classes Insider.

Let's take a look at how teams filled their big recruiting needs:

ILLINOIS

The Illini have had a nice run at defensive tackle with 2011 NFL first-round draft pick Corey Liuget and Akeem Spence, who enters 2012 as a legitimate pro prospect. They solidified the interior line for the future with recruits like Teko Powell and Vontrell Williams.

INDIANA

It's no secret Indiana needs to make significant upgrades on defense, and coach Kevin Wilson looked to the junior college ranks for help. Indiana added six juco defenders, including cornerback Tregg Waters and linebacker Jacarri Alexander. These players give the Hoosiers a chance to get better in a hurry.

IOWA

Running back has again become a pressing need for Iowa with the departures of Marcus Coker and Mika'il McCall. While Iowa has lost running backs at an alarming rate, it also has developed young backs very well in recent years. The coaches hope to work their magic with Greg Garmon, who could be the most significant recruit of the 2012 class.

MICHIGAN

Arguably no staff in the country makes defensive line a bigger priority than Michigan, which has three coaches, including head man Brady Hoke, focused on the front four. The Wolverines lose standouts Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen from the 2011 line, but they addressed the situation in recruiting with pickups like defensive tackle Ondre Pipkins and defensive end Chris Wormley.

MICHIGAN STATE

Michigan State is creating a nice recruiting pipeline at the wide receiver position. The Spartans lose their top two wideouts from 2011 (B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin) but added several nice receiver pickups in the 2012, including Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett and four-star prospects Monty Madaris and Aaron Burbridge.

MINNESOTA

Quarterback MarQueis Gray returns, and Minnesota needed to get him some help in the passing game after the departure of Da'Jon McKnight. The Gophers added some excellent pickups at the wide receiver position in Andre McDonald and Jamel Harbison.

NEBRASKA

The Huskers were thin at linebacker in 2011 and lose standout Lavonte David to graduation. Nebraska coaches also have discussed the need to add more traditional linebackers to face Big Ten offenses. Big Red filled the need in the 2012 recruiting classes with players such as Michael Rose and Jared Afalava.

NORTHWESTERN

Defense has been Northwestern's downfall in the past two years, and the Wildcats need more difference-makers on that side of the ball. They likely landed one in end/linebacker Ifeadi Odenigbo, an ESPNU 150 prospect who is Northwestern's most decorated defensive recruit in recent memory. Odenigbo could help immediately as a situational pass-rusher.

OHIO STATE

No Big Ten team made a bigger impact at one position than Ohio State did along the defensive line. The Buckeyes, who were a bit thin up front in 2011, got a lot better with this class, which is headlined by ESPNU 150 prospects Noah Spence, Adolphus Washington, Se'Von Pittman and Tommy Schutt.

PENN STATE

Skyler Mornhinweg's decommitment stings a bit, as Penn State needs more quarterbacks in the mix, but the Nittany Lions also need more difference-makers at wide receiver and tight end. They helped themselves in the 2012 class with wide receiver Eugene Lewis, ranked as the nation's No. 34 wideout by ESPN Recruiting. Tight end Jesse James is another nice pickup.

PURDUE

Offensive line has been a position of stability for Purdue the past few seasons, but the Boilers lose two starters from the 2011 squad (Dennis Kelly, Nick Mondek) and will say goodbye to several more after 2012. Purdue had to reload up front, and the two highest-rated players in the 2012 class, according to ESPN Recruiting -- Jordan Roos and Cameron Cermin -- all play offensive line.

WISCONSIN

Quarterback is undoubtedly Wisconsin's top priority as Russell Wilson departs and Jon Budmayr and Curt Phillips battle back from major injuries. The Badgers needed a signal-caller in a small class and landed a decorated one in Bart Houston, a four-star prospect from California powerhouse De La Salle High School.

Big Ten lunch links

January, 31, 2012
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