Big Ten: Terry Joseph

Earlier today, you read about all the Big Ten coaching changes from the 2013 season. Now it's time for you to select the most damaging assistant coach departure in the league. As mentioned in the post, most of the exiting coaches did so on their own accord. For the purposes of this poll, I've listed only coaches who voluntarily left their posts.

Here are the candidates (in alphabetical order):

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Which Big Ten assistant coach is the biggest loss for his former team?

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Discuss (Total votes: 6,910)

Thomas Hammock, running backs, Wisconsin: Hammock spent only three seasons with the Badgers but made a significant impact on the team's signature position group. In Hammock's first season on staff, Montee Ball led the nation in rushing and was a Heisman Trophy finalist. Ball won the Doak Walker Award the following year, and last fall Melvin Gordon and James White set the NCAA record for rushing yards by a pair of teammates (3,053). Hammock, a master at maintaining a competitive environment, oversaw 40 100-yard rushing performances in three years, the most for any team in that span. He also served as Wisconsin's recruiting coordinator. Like his predecessor, John Settle, Hammock leaves Wisconsin for the NFL with the Baltimore Ravens.

Larry Johnson, defensive line, Penn State: Johnson spent the past 18 seasons at Penn State, taking over the entire defensive line in 2000. But after twice being passed over for the Lions' head-coaching position, he left for the same post at rival Ohio State. He built a reputation as an elite defensive line coach and a top regional recruiter, particularly in the Washington, D.C., area, where he spent 20 years as a high school coach. Johnson mentored seven first-team All-Americans at Penn State, including Tamba Hali, Michael Haynes, Courtney Brown and Devon Still. Six of his players won Big Ten defensive-player of-the-year or Big Ten defensive-lineman-of-the-year honors.

Terry Joseph, Nebraska, secondary: Like the other coaches on this list, Joseph excelled on the recruiting trail, helping to increase Nebraska's presence in the South and Southeast. In 2012, Joseph's first season on staff, Nebraska led the nation in opponent pass completion percentage (47.1 percent), ranked fourth in pass defense (168.2 yards allowed per game) and ninth in pass efficiency defense (105.32). He developed players such as cornerbacks Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans, and safety Daimion Stafford, all of whom earned all-Big Ten honors. Nebraska intercepted 27 passes in Joseph's two seasons on staff. He leaves for a the same post at Texas A&M.

Seth Littrell, offensive coordinator/tight ends/fullbacks, Indiana: Littrell oversaw a Hoosiers offense that finished ninth nationally in total yards, 16th in scoring and 17th in passing. Although head coach Kevin Wilson gets much of the credit for the offense's prowess, Indiana improved significantly in Littrell's two seasons. In 2012, the Hoosiers scored 9.4 more points and racked up 111.8 pass yards per game more than they had the previous year. Indiana in 2012 set team records for passing yardage (3,734), total offense (5,304), completions (331), attempts (540) and total plays (939), and shattered the total offense and touchdowns marks last fall. Tight end Ted Bolser blossomed under his watch. He leaves for a similar post on North Carolina's staff.

Mike Vrabel, defensive line, Ohio State: The former Buckeye star made a seamless transition from playing in the NFL to coaching in college. After working with Ohio State's linebackers during a challenging 2011 campaign, Vrabel transitioned to the defensive line, where he mentored standouts John Simon and Johnathan Hankins in 2012. Simon won Big Ten defensive-player-of-the-year honors that fall. Vrabel in 2013 inherited a group with no returning starters but helped develop players such as Joey Bosa, Michael Bennett and Noah Spence, who combined for 22.5 sacks. Vrabel made his biggest impact in recruiting, earning ESPN.com Big Ten recruiter-of-the-year honors in 2012. He returns to the NFL as Houston Texans linebackers coach.

It's voting time. You're up.
Non-Minnesota fans might have missed Friday's official announcement that Mike Sherels has been promoted to Gophers linebackers coach after serving on the team's recruiting staff. Sherels is the first new assistant Jerry Kill has hired in his Minnesota tenure, but the move likely signified -- likely being the operative word -- something bigger for the Big Ten.

The end of the coaching carousel for 2014.

This post always includes a reminder that additional coaching changes still can happen, even though most of the Big Ten has started spring practice. It's the nature of the business.

Despite two new teams in the Big Ten, the number of overall changes in the league dropped for the second consecutive year, going from 32 in 2013 to 27 this year. There was only one complete staff overhaul, at Penn State, and four programs -- Illinois, Iowa, Michigan State and Northwestern -- kept all of their coaches from last season. After replacing more than half of his staff in the last offseason, Illinois' Tim Beckman hopes continuity pays off in what likely will be a make-or-break 2014 campaign. Iowa is back to its stable self after two years of coaching flux, while Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald hasn't made a staff change since after the 2010 season. Michigan State made a major commitment to Mark Dantonio and his assistants after the Spartans' Rose Bowl win, but it's still impressive that Dantonio retained the entire staff after such a great season.

Both Rutgers and Maryland have some new faces on staff before their inaugural season of Big Ten play. Rutgers has two new coordinators (one outside hire, one promotion), while Maryland has new assistants overseeing both lines.

[+] EnlargeLarry Johnson
Michael R. Sisak/Icon SMILongtime Penn State defensive line coach Larry Johnson moved to Ohio State this offseason after James Franklin was hired as the Nittany Lions' head coach.
Other than Penn State, Indiana and Rutgers are the only teams featuring two new coordinators in 2014. Although IU assistant Kevin Johns previously held the co-offensive coordinator title, he'll be the main man, as he takes over for Seth Littrell.

For the most part, the coaches leaving Big Ten programs did so voluntarily and for potentially better positions. Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien took the same role with the Houston Texans, while two assistants -- Ohio State's Everett Withers and Maryland's Greg Gattuso -- left to become FCS head coaches at James Madison and Albany, respectively. The Big Ten lost several assistants to the NFL, as O'Brien brought four assistants with him from Penn State (John Butler, Stan Hixon, Charles London and Anthony Midget) and swiped another from Ohio State's staff (Mike Vrabel). Wisconsin also lost running backs coach Thomas Hammock to the Baltimore Ravens.

Arguably the most interesting move took place within the league, as longtime Penn State defensive line coach Larry Johnson replaced Vrabel at Ohio State.

OK, let's get to it already.

Here's the rundown of coaching changes (head coach and full-time assistants only; number of new coaches in parentheses):

INDIANA (3)

Who's gone?

Doug Mallory, defensive coordinator/safeties
Seth Littrell, offensive coordinator/QBs
Jon Fabris, defensive line

Who's in?

Brian Knorr, defensive coordinator/defensive ends/outside linebackers
Larry McDaniel, defensive line
Noah Joseph, safeties


Other moves

Promoted Kevin Johns to main offensive coordinator. Johns also now coaches quarterbacks in addition to wide receivers.
Moved James Patton from assistant defensive line/special teams to tight ends and fullbacks

MARYLAND (3)

Who's gone?

Tom Brattan, offensive line
Lee Hull, wide receivers
Greg Gattuso, defensive line

Who's in?

Greg Studwara, offensive line
Keenan McCardell, wide receivers
Chad Wilt, defensive line

MICHIGAN (1)

Who's gone?

Al Borges, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks

Who's in?

Doug Nussmeier, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks

Other moves

Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is overseeing linebackers instead of defensive linemen
Mark Smith moves from linebackers to defensive line
Roy Manning moves from outside linebackers to cornerbacks
Curt Mallory will coach only safeties rather than the entire secondary

MINNESOTA (1)

Who's gone?

Bill Miller, linebackers/assistant head coach

Who's in?

Mike Sherels, linebackers (promoted from recruiting staff)

Other moves

Pat Poore moves from wide receivers to running backs
Brian Anderson moves from running backs to wide receivers


NEBRASKA (1)

Who's gone?

Terry Joseph, secondary

Who's in?

Charlton Warren, secondary

OHIO STATE (2)

Who's gone?

Everett Withers, co-defensive coordinator/safeties
Mike Vrabel, defensive line

Who's in?

Chris Ash, co-defensive coordinator/safeties
Larry Johnson, defensive line/assistant head coach

PENN STATE (10)

Who's gone?

Bill O'Brien, head coach/offensive playcaller
John Butler, defensive coordinator/cornerbacks
Charlie Fisher, quarterbacks
Stan Hixon, wide receivers/assistant head coach
Larry Johnson, defensive line
Charles London, running backs
Mac McWhorter, offensive line
Ron Vanderlinden, linebackers
John Strollo, tight ends
Anthony Midget, safeties

Who's in?

James Franklin, head coach
John Donovan, offensive coordinator/tight ends
Bob Shoop, defensive coordinator/safeties
Charles Huff, running backs/special teams
Brett Pry, co-defensive coordinator/linebackers
Josh Gattis, wide receivers/assistant special teams
Herb Hand, offensive line
Ricky Rahne, quarterbacks
Sean Spencer, defensive line
Terry Smith, cornerbacks

PURDUE (1)

Who's gone?

Jon Heacock, defensive backs

Who's in?

Taver Johnson, defensive backs

RUTGERS (4)

Who's gone?

Dave Cohen, defensive coordinator/linebackers
Ron Prince, offensive coordinator
Rob Spence, quarterbacks
Damian Wroblewski, offensive line

Who's in?

Ralph Friedgen, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks
Bob Fraser, linebackers/special teams
Mitch Browning, offensive line
Ben McDaniels, wide receivers

Other moves

Promoted special teams coordinator Joe Rossi to defensive coordinator
Anthony Campanile is coaching only tight ends after overseeing both tight ends and wide receivers

WISCONSIN (1)

Who's gone?

Thomas Hammock, running backs/assistant head coach

Who's in?

Thomas Brown, running backs
After losing secondary coach Terry Joseph to Texas A&M, Nebraska needed a replacement who not only could bolster the back four but help the program's recruiting efforts, particularly in the South.

Joseph's ties to the fertile South made him a particularly damaging loss for Nebraska, which is still trying to find its recruiting footing in the Big Ten.

The most significant thing about Joseph's replacement, Charlton Warren, isn't that he comes to Nebraska from a coordinator role at Air Force, or that he has coached Falcons defensive backs for the past nine seasons. Warren's recruiting experience -- he coordinated Air Force's recruiting from 2005-11 -- and his ties to the Southeast make him a strong fit to succeed Joseph.

Warren, whose hiring announcement comes on his 37th birthday, is an Atlanta native who played at Air Force but earned his MBA at Georgia College and State University. He also worked at Air Force bases in both Florida and Georgia following his playing career. Air Force's roster, as the Omaha World-Herald notes, has 14 players from Georgia, the most of any state other than Texas.

If Warren can maintain or enhance Nebraska's presence in areas such as Georgia and Colorado, the program shouldn't miss Joseph too much. It was a bit concerning that Nebraska lost Joseph because of money -- at a time when many Big Ten programs are investing more in their football programs -- but head coach Bo Pelini appears to have found a good replacement.

Although Air Force's defense struggled in 2012, the Falcons ranked in the top 10 in pass defense from 2009-11. Warren mentored standout such as Reggie Rembert and Carson Bird.

He inherits a secondary that loses cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste and nickel back Ciante Evans, but returns decent depth at safety as well as Josh Mitchell, who shined in the Gator Bowl win against Georgia.

But Warren's true value, at least in relation to Joseph, will come on the recruiting trail, where he'll begin his Huskers duties immediately.

Big Ten lunch links

January, 6, 2014
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Sure, it'd be fun to actually cover a national title game, but it's not every year you get a day like this in Chicago. Yeah, I know you're jealous.

To the links ...
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Departing receiver Quincy Enunwa, who often plays with the aggression of a defender, likes what he sees from the guys he practices with every day.

“I’m very excited about the defense,” Enunwa said.

[+] EnlargeIowa/Nebraska
Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY SportsCorey Cooper, Nebraska's leading tackler, will be back for the Cornhuskers' resurgent defense next season.
The TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, Jan. 1 against Georgia in Jacksonville, Fla., marks the final chance for this defensive unit to display the improvement that has served as a highlight for the Huskers amid a rocky season. In December practices -- Nebraska returned to work last weekend -- the promise of a dominant defense next year ranks as a driving force.

Nebraska heads into the postseason ranked No. 36 in total defense, allowing 367 yards per game, and 37th in yards allowed per play at 5.22. In the same categories at the start of October, the Huskers sat 107th and 108th, respectively.

What happened?

“They’ve grown up a lot, matured,” senior defensive end Jason Ankrah said. “The maturity brought the confidence out of them.”

The turnaround started, according to Enunwa, after a team meeting that followed the slow defensive start.

“We told them that we knew what they can do,” Enunwa said, “and they responded. The past three, four games, they were leading the team. They were the ones who were picking us up.”

That should continue next season with the Huskers set to return their top five tacklers in 2014, led by safety Corey Cooper and linebacker David Santos. But Cooper, a senior next year, and the rising junior Santos are just two of many reasons for optimism on defense.

An overall infusion of youth and athleticism, which figures to continue next season, tops the list.

Start with defensive end Randy Gregory, who led the Big Ten with 9 sacks as a sophomore in his first season at Nebraska out of junior college. An offseason in Lincoln figures to turn Gregory from a first-team all-conference pick into an All-America caliber defender.

“He brings a kind of athleticism to the defense that we haven’t had here in a while,” Ankrah said.

But it’s more than Gregory that excites Enunwa and the Huskers.

Fellow bookend Avery Moss earned all-freshman honors in the Big Ten, as tabbed by ESPN.com, along with middle linebacker Michael Rose, who emerged as a leader in the second half of the season. Redshirt freshman defensive tackle Vincent Valentine showed promise, as did freshman linebackers Josh Banderas, Nathan Gerry and Jared Afalava.

Speedy outside linebacker Zaire Anderson returns as a senior. Throw in Courtney Love, the defensive scout team MVP, and Marcus Newby, both of who redshirted, and you’ve got a deep and versatile group of linebackers.

Up front, Kevin Maurice and Maliek Collins played as true freshmen this year. Commitments from junior college tackle Terrell Clinkscales and end Joe Keels show that the Huskers aren’t slowing in their bid to stockpile man power.

“We have a lot of guys with a lot of great ability,” returning defensive back Josh Mitchell said. “We’re losing the most in the secondary, so that’s just a piece of the puzzle we’re going to fill in.

“But I think we’re going to be very explosive and very fast.”

Cooper and Mitchell, who has played multiple spots, return in the secondary in addition to part-time starting safety Harvey Jackson and promising underclassmen LeRoy Alexander and Charles Jackson.

The Huskers lose top cornerbacks Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste, easily the biggest shoes to fill. Both intercepted four passes this year.

Secondary coach Terry Joseph will likely shift a few bodies, and the Huskers could rely on redshirt freshman Boaz Joseph or little-used Auburn transfer Jonathan Rose to compete for time.

Regardless, the challenges look minimal in comparison to the hurdles cleared this year.

And this month -- and New Year’s Day -- should only help springboard the Cornhuskers into next season, Mitchell said.

“It’s going to give us a jump on next year,” he said. “Everyone’s going to remember their last couple practices. So whatever you learn now and whatever we can improve on now, it will carry over into the spring.”
LINCOLN, Neb. -- You’d never guess it now, but a time existed in his college career when Stanley Jean-Baptiste couldn’t get on the field.

In 2011, his second year at Nebraska and fourth since his final season at Miami Central High School after one year in prep school and another at junior college, Jean-Baptiste sat buried on the depth chart behind talented receivers, both newcomers and veterans.

He’d yet to contribute to a meaningful situation at the school, and already, as a sophomore, his chance appeared to be fading.

Jean-Baptiste was almost a bust.

Funny, now, looking back, perhaps no Husker has made more of a single opportunity -- by definition, the opposite of a bust.

[+] Enlarge Stanley Jean-Baptiste
Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY SportsCornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste's size is helping make him an attractive NFL draft prospect.
His four interceptions lead the team. But it’s more than that: the 6-foot-3, 220-pound defender brings a knack for making the big play at the right moment, a trait he displayed in the infancy of his defensive development but only this fall harnessed consistently.

“He’s always had the talent to play whatever position he wanted on the field,” said senior receiver Kenny Bell, among the players who blocked Jean-Baptiste’s path early in their careers. “But just the way he’s learned our defense is most impressive to me.”

Jean-Baptiste has learned, all right. After a midseason switch from receiver to cornerback two years ago, he’s grown up in the Nebraska system. Jean-Baptiste progressed from a struggling member of the secondary to one of its most indispensable pieces.

His beginnings at Nebraska only sweeten the feelings of success this year.

A 2010 transfer from Fort Scott (Kan.) Community College, Jean-Baptiste made a big splash in the first game after his move from offense to defense, intercepting a Joe Bauserman pass to help complete Nebraska’s three-touchdown comeback win over Ohio State in 2011.

From there, Jean-Baptiste floundered.

When Terry Joseph arrived in Lincoln to coach the secondary after that 2011 season, he said, he saw Jean-Baptiste and figured he knew how to play corner.

The coach was wrong.

“He didn’t have any foundation of playing the position,” Joseph said. “So he was out there, but he was kind of just surviving. I didn’t know, but he probably should have been treated like he was a freshman in going back to the very basics of it.”

The struggles continued last year as Jean-Baptiste started six games in Big Ten play. He filled a serviceable role, but Joseph and coach Bo Pelini expected more. So they called a sit-down with Jean-Baptiste last spring.

“It wasn’t a very delightful conversation,” Joseph said. “But to his credit, he left that meeting and started working on the things we pointed out to him.”

Primarily, Jean-Baptiste didn’t understand his role in the big picture of the Nebraska defense. He knew how to cover a receiver and how to read a quarterback. He intercepted Russell Bellomy in the Huskers’ win over Michigan last year and accumulated five pass breakups in a 29-28 Nebraska victory at Northwestern.

But little had changed since that notable defensive debut against the Buckeyes. Jean-Baptiste had a flair for the dramatic, but he didn’t perform as well at the routine responsibilities.

Oh, and he played too slowly, according to Joseph.

“He’s probably a 4.5 (40-yard dash) guy,” Joseph said, “but he was playing at 4.7, 4.8. When he got the mental of it, started getting reads and paying attention to the little things, it allowed him to play fast -- to make more plays.”

Jean-Baptiste noticed the change.

“I think it’s a start,” he said. “There’s always more work to put in.”

His work this fall has placed Jean-Baptiste among the Big Ten’s best in the secondary. He intercepted passes in each of the Huskers’ four nonconference games. All four picks led to touchdowns, including his own 43-yard return to open the scoring against Southern Miss.

In Nebraska’s Big Ten opener against Illinois, Jean-Baptiste’s crushing hit on receiver Steve Hull thwarted a fourth-down throw into the red zone to preserve a 14-0 Husker lead. It ranks as his favorite play of the season, Jean Baptiste said, because the breakup shows more discipline than simply jumping a route to intercept a pass.

“What I like about Stanley more than anything is his improved intensity level,” Nebraska running backs coach Ron Brown said. “He’s always had the ability. He’s always had the potential. He’s always been pretty. But to see that added dimension of heart, you put all that together, he’s a special guy.”

When Nebraska plays Saturday at Minnesota (noon ET, ESPN), it will mark Jean-Baptiste’s first action since he was ejected for targeting on a hit of running back Dalyn Dawkins in the first half at Purdue on Oct. 12.

He sat out the third and fourth quarters, listening from the locker room as the crowd told him the story of the Huskers’ 44-7 win.

Pelini and a few Huskers stood up in defense of Jean-Baptiste. Bell referred to the decision to eject his teammate as “embarrassing.” Such calls are “trashing the game,” Bell said.

Jean-Baptiste is moving forward.

“I just had to let it go,” he said. “If it was a bad call or not, I just had to move forward and not let it bother me … I think I did everything right. I came with the right form, and I just tried to make a play on the ball.”

Jean-Baptiste said he won’t change his approach. Nebraska teammates and coaches don’t want him to change.

From two years ago, he’s changed plenty. It’s likely to land him a long future in football.

“He’s a special player because of his size and skills,” Joseph said, “and now he’s put the mental part of it with that. His best ball is still ahead of him.”

Big Ten lunchtime links

September, 5, 2013
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Not only is football back, it's not going anywhere soon. Who can complain?
Iowa's 2012 recruiting class included two Floridians in wide receiver Greg Mabin (Fort Lauderdale) and defensive end Daumantas Venckus-Cucchiara (Weston). The Hawkeyes' most recent recruiting haul included no players from the Sunshine State -- a first in the Kirk Ferentz era.

This is no accident.

I must have missed it from last winter, but Ferentz said he's no longer assigning an assistant coach to recruit Florida. Then Tuesday night, Iowa recruiting coordinator Eric Johnson told an I-Club gathering in Des Moines that Florida is no longer a priority area for the program's recruitment.

I think I just choked on some orange juice and spilled some sun screen.

We're talking about Florida, right? The state that produced four of the top six players and 22 of the top 100 players in the 2013 class, according to ESPN Recruiting? The state often grouped with Texas and California as the nation's top recruiting hotbeds?

Yes, that Florida.

All but two Big Ten teams (Iowa and Michigan) signed at least one Floridian earlier this month. Indiana and Purdue both signed five.

The Iowa coaches think the program needs to concentrate recruiting closer to campus. The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette's Marc Morehouse notes that Iowa went to St. Louis, a city that has produced recent stars like Adrian Clayborn and Marvin McNutt, for three recruits in the 2013 class. Iowa also has had recruiting success in other Midwestern cities like Chicago and Indianapolis, and signed a Detroit prospect (safety Desmond King) on Feb. 6.

There's nothing wrong with prioritizing your backyard and places where you've had success. But ignoring Florida just doesn't make a lot of sense.

Iowa did well in the Sunshine State early in Ferentz's tenure, luring players like defensive tackle Colin Cole, linebacker Abdul Hodge and wide receiver Mo Brown. Former assistant Bret Bielema was Iowa's primary recruiter in Florida and left the Hawkeyes following the 2001 season, but other Iowa assistants continued to recruit the state.

As pointed out here and here, Iowa has had many more misses than hits with Florida prospects since 2002. Several players transferred, including running backs Jeff Brinson and De'Andre Johnson. The jury is out on other Florida recruits, including quarterback Jake Rudock, who could start this coming season.

I'm still waiting for a good reason for Iowa to back away from Florida. Sure, Iowa has had a run of bad luck with Florida recruits. But should it stop trying? I can think of 22 reasons -- and many more from the 2013 class -- to keep investing time and money there.

Big Ten teams can't expect to compete at a national elite level by recruiting solely in the Midwest. Prioritizing states like Florida -- along with Georgia, Texas and California -- is a must for Big Ten programs.

It's great to see coaches develop talent and several Big Ten programs, including Iowa, have done that well over the years. But there's a ceiling for teams trying to win with overlooked recruits from the heartland. Too many Big Ten teams -- not just Iowa -- seem to fall into this trap. Penn State just signed its first Florida recruit (safety Neiko Robinson) in more than a decade. That's insane.

It still comes down to talent, and there's just more of it in the South. Big Ten teams need to compete in states like Florida. Will they get all the top players? Of course not. But with the right coaches and strategy, they can help their teams get better.

Sure, Iowa lost Bielema, who continued his Florida recruiting push as Wisconsin's head coach and will carry it on at Arkansas. Iowa lost another Florida recruiter when Rick Kaczenski left for Nebraska in 2011.

But Ferentz has had plenty of chances to hire assistants with Florida roots the past two seasons. Iowa's staff is in an unprecedented period of flux, and Ferentz has brought in six new assistants since the end of the 2011 season. None of them could help Iowa made inroads in Florida?

Look how Nebraska secondary coach Terry Joseph, hired last March, has helped the Huskers' recruiting efforts in the South. The same goes for new Big Ten assistants like Everett Withers at Ohio State. Wisconsin would have loved to retain assistant Charlie Partridge because of his recruiting clout in Florida.

Perhaps Iowa can build itself back into a Big Ten title contender without investing in Florida. Re-establishing itself in cities like St. Louis certainly is a good sign.

But Ohio State's coaches continue to mine the South, and Michigan is ramping up its Southern recruiting efforts as well.

In recruiting, you follow the talent. You flock to it. You compete for it.

You don't turn your back on it.

Big Ten lunchtime links

August, 15, 2012
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Links to get you over the hump.

 
We're nearing the end of our Big Ten position rankings, and it's time to finish up the defense rundowns with a look at the secondaries. Let's start off with the unit rankings.

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

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

Let's get rolling ...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12. Indiana: The Hoosiers finished eighth in the Big Ten in pass defense last fall, but only because teams had their way with IU on the ground. Indiana surrendered a league-high 26 pass touchdowns and only recorded five interceptions. There's hope, though, as the Hoosiers return three starters, including top cover man Lawrence Barnett. If Mark Murphy and Greg Heban make strides, and some newcomers help right away, Indiana could be decent in the back four.
Assistant coach salaries are on the rise throughout college football, and the Big Ten is no exception. If you're interested in how much coin Big Ten assistants are making, be sure and bookmark this excellent list put together by Joe Rexrode of the Lansing State Journal. Rexrode compiled assistant salary information from 10 of the league's 12 programs (Northwestern and Penn State don't disclose assistant coach salaries).

Most of this information has been publicized in team-by-team form, but it's interesting to examine from a league-wide perspective. Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell and Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison are the league's highest-paid assistants, both earning $750,000. Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges ($550,000) is next, followed by Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi ($500,000), who recently received a raise that more than doubled his previous salary ($233,000).

Several of the Big Ten's highest-paid assistants from 2011 -- Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, Illinois defensive coordinator Vic Koenning -- since have left the league for other jobs.

Here are the totals paid for assistants among the 10 schools reporting salaries:

1. Ohio State -- $3.22 million
2. Michigan -- $2.755 million
3. Illinois -- $2.314 million
4. Michigan State -- $2.18 million
5. Iowa -- $2.16 million
6. Nebraska -- $2.13 million
7. Wisconsin -- $1.973 million
8. Indiana -- $1.96 million
9. Minnesota -- $1.745 million
10. Purdue -- $1.61 million

When factoring in the head coach salaries, the rankings look like this:

1. Ohio State -- $7.22 million
2. Iowa -- $6.035 million
3. Michigan -- $6.009 million
4. Nebraska -- $4.905 million
5. Wisconsin -- $4.571 million
6. Michigan State -- $4.098 million
7. Illinois -- $3.914 million
8. Minnesota -- $3.445 million
9. Indiana -- $3.22 million
10. Purdue -- $2.535 million

The Big Ten had 40 overall coaching changes during the past offseason (head coach and assistant). Here are the highest-paid new assistants among the programs reporting salaries (not including assistants promoted internally).

1. Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers -- $450,000
2. Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman -- $420,000
T-3. Illinois defensive coordinator Tim Banks -- $400,000
T-3. Illinois co-offensive coordinator Billy Gonzales -- $400,000
T-3. Illinois co-offensive coordinator Chris Beatty -- $400,000
6. Ohio State co-offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Ed Warinner -- $350,000
7. Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis -- $300,000
8. Wisconsin offensive coordinator Matt Canada -- $265,000
T-9. Purdue defensive coordinator Tim Tibesar -- $250,000
T-9. Indiana offensive coordinator Seth Littrell -- $250,000

Some thoughts:
  • It's no surprise Ohio State paid top dollar for head coach Urban Meyer, but the school also has increased its commitment for assistant coaches. Former coach Jim Tressel had a fairly anonymous staff for a big-time program, and while there were good coaches on it, you knew the overall financial commitment would need to be increased. The Buckeyes have three assistants making more than $400,000. Interestingly enough, Illinois is the only other Big Ten squad listed here with three aides at the $400,000 mark.
  • As Rexrode points out in his post, Michigan State's staff was a major bargain before the recent raise. The Spartans paid approximately $1.6 million for a staff that helped them to 21 wins in the past two seasons. The pay increases put Michigan State fourth in the Big Ten in assistant coach pay, which sounds about right.
  • Illinois' athletic director transition from Ron Guenther to Mike Thomas didn't change the school's approach toward rewarding assistants. Guenther allowed former coach Ron Zook to open the coffers after a disappointing 2009 season and land high-priced coordinators (Petrino and Koenning). While new Illini head coach Tim Beckman ranks eighth in the league in salary, he was allowed to spend a lot for his staff, which includes just one holdover (D-line coach Keith Gilmore, who earns $200,000). It's why Illinois ranks third in the league in assistant coach pay.
  • Wisconsin's staff turnover after the Rose Bowl resulted in lower overall compensation, which isn't a huge shock because of Chryst's departure. It's a bit surprising that Badgers coordinators Chris Ash (holdover from staff) and Matt Canada (new addition) are near the bottom of the league in coordinator pay. Wisconsin did spent a good amount for new offensive line coach Mike Markuson ($255,000).
  • Some Nebraska fans I've heard from complain that Bo Pelini's staff lacks prestige, given the program's tradition and resources. The Huskers have a mostly young staff that ranks in the middle of the league in compensation. Pelini lured new secondary coach Terry Joseph for $230,000, while new defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski made the move from Iowa and will earn $195,000. Kaczenski is a bargain in my view.
  • Anyone else find it odd that Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker, promoted during the winter from secondary coach, makes $1,000 more than new offensive coordinator Greg Davis? While it's nice for Iowa to reward Parker's loyalty as a position coach, the $1,000 difference seems a little trivial, especially since Davis has been a coordinator for decades.
  • Purdue pays less for assistant coaches than the nine other Big Ten schools reporting information here. Penn State obviously doesn't rank at the bottom in paying assistants, and I've been told Northwestern doesn't, either. Factoring in head coach Danny Hope's salary, and Purdue's overall coach compensation is significantly lower than others, including its arch-rival Indiana. Boilers fans, how do you feel about this?
Brady Hoke/Mark DantonioGetty Images, US PresswireBrady Hoke and the Wolverines square off against Mark Dantonio and the Spartans on Oct. 20.
During the course of spring practice, Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett visited 11 of the 12 league schools, getting an up-close look at the players and coaches who will shape the 2012 season.

Now it's time for them to share their thoughts on what they saw and learned this spring, and you can follow along as they exchange emails. Check out the Leaders Division exchange here. They now turn their focus to the Legends Division.

Adam Rittenberg: Let's take a look at what I believe to be the stronger division in 2012. You spent a lot of time in the Mitten State last month, and while you didn't gorge yourself like you did in America's Dairyland, you got the money quote of spring ball from Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, who said, "We're laying in the weeds. We've beat Michigan the last four years. So where's the threat?" How spicy is the Michigan State-Michigan rivalry getting, and how good do you think these two teams will be this season after visiting both campuses?

Brian Bennett: Oh, there was some serious gorging going on at Zingerman's in Ann Arbor and Sparty's in East Lansing. Good thing there's only one spring practice session per year.

Anyway, I went into the spring thinking Michigan and Michigan State were the two strongest teams in the league, and I didn't see anything to change my opinion. While the Wolverines are more focused on Ohio State and even Alabama, they know they have to end their losing streak against Michigan State. And the Spartans take serious pride in that four-game run while bristling at all the offseason accolades thrown toward Brady Hoke's team. Oct. 20 can't come soon enough, as far as I'm concerned.

If the two teams played right now, I'd definitely take Michigan State. Dantonio has done a terrific job of developing depth on both lines and all over the defense. There's not a deeper team in the Big Ten, and the Spartans' physical play has given Michigan fits. The Wolverines still need to figure some things out in the trenches, especially on the defensive line, but that's one area where Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison excel. I believe these two teams will be neck and neck all year for the Legends title.

Of course, there's another team lurking in the division, and that's Nebraska. You went to Lincoln this spring, and it sounded like the Cornhuskers are feeling mighty ambitious this season. Do they have the necessary tools to back up their lofty goals?

Adam Rittenberg: It was interesting to see a team openly discuss the national title, Brian, especially in a league like the Big Ten. Huskers safety P.J. Smith even went so far as to say a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl championship would be "kind of disappointing." That's bold. Nebraska would have to skip a step or two to reach that point, but I can see where the confidence stems from. There's a greater comfort level between players and coaches in Lincoln, and also between the coaches and what they face in the Big Ten. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck was candid about the difficulty of preparing for so many new opponents, particularly since Nebraska's offensive and defensive systems are a little different from what we see in the rest of the league.

Quarterback Taylor Martinez received good marks from the coaches, and his focus on footwork could translate into a more consistent passing attack. Beck certainly wants to be a bit more balanced, and Nebraska returns pretty much everyone at wide receiver and tight end. We often hear the cliche that it's all about the quarterback, but it holds true with Nebraska. If Martinez actually makes strides as a passer -- he'll be operating in the same offense as the starter for the first time in his high school or college career -- the Huskers will put up points this fall. But after watching Martinez last season, it's fair to have some doubts about No. 3.

The defense expects to exploit a schematic advantage we heard a lot about last season but didn't see much on Saturdays. I like coordinator John Papuchis, and Bo Pelini made two good staff additions in D-line coach Rick Kaczenski and secondary coach Terry Joseph. They're all about details and accountability, and they believe they'll be able to replace star power with greater depth in certain areas. Nebraska also should be strong in special teams. Do the Huskers have a unit better than Michigan State's defense? Not right now. But Nebraska could end up being the division's most complete team by season's end.

Getting back to Michigan State and Michigan. Both teams lose tremendous leaders from 2011 (Kirk Cousins, Mike Martin, Jerel Worthy, Joel Foreman, David Molk, Ryan Van Bergen). Who do you see filling those roles this year?

Brian Bennett: That's a good question, and one that will have to be answered this summer. For Michigan State, Andrew Maxwell impressed me as a guy who can lead in a similar way as Cousins did; he'll just have to play well at quarterback and battle through adversity. The Spartans have some seniors on defense who can lead, like Anthony Rashad White and Johnny Adams, but they also have some highly respected juniors in Max Bullough and William Gholston.

But they are replacing some very valuable leaders, just as Michigan is doing. Denard Robinson has worked on becoming more vocal and sounded like a different guy in interviews this spring. There's no question he has the respect of his teammates. Craig Roh and Jordan Kovacs seem like natural leaders on defense, and offensive tackle Taylor Lewan says he wants to take on that role as well. But leadership can't be forced, and it remains to be seen if either team can find such strong captains as guys like Cousins and Martin were.

[+] EnlargeJames Vandenberg
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallIowa quarterback James Vandenberg threw for 3,022 yards and 25 touchdowns last season.
Speaking of question marks, I feel like Iowa and Northwestern are two of the bigger mystery teams in the league. Both have talent and potentially potent offenses, but they'll also need some players on defense to rise up out of the shadows. What did you take out of your visits to Iowa City and Evanston this spring?

Adam Rittenberg: Let's start off with Iowa, which underwent some major changes this spring with a new offensive coordinator (Greg Davis), a position coach promoted to defensive coordinator (Phil Parker) and several more assistants shuffling, arriving or being promoted. The players seemed to embrace the changes, and coach Kirk Ferentz basically said the team needed a fresh start even though he didn't want to lose his previous coordinators. There's a lot of excitement about Davis' offense, which will be more up-tempo than what we've seen in the past from Iowa. Quarterback James Vandenberg really seems to get it, but will he have enough weapons around him to execute? The running back curse struck again this spring with Jordan Canzeri's ACL injury. Iowa needs young and/or unproven players to step up there, and wide receiver isn't a deep group. It'll be a big summer for Keenan Davis.

The feeling I had coming out of Evanston is that Northwestern will be a younger team but potentially a better one. The Wildcats say goodbye to an accomplished senior class that featured some outstanding players like quarterback Dan Persa. But was it the most talented group? I don't think so. Northwestern has improved its recruiting efforts in recent years, and the team could begin seeing the benefits this year. There are a lot of new faces at spots like defensive back and defensive line. I was impressed with cornerback Nick VanHoose and end Deonte Gibson. The wide receiving corps should be one of the Big Ten's best, even if Kyle Prater isn't eligible until 2013. The Wildcats might not have many familiar names at receiver, but they boast incredible depth there. This team still has question marks -- secondary, pass rush, running back, quarterback -- but the talent level is getting a bit better.

Neither of us made it up to Minneapolis this spring, but we both talked with Gophers players and coaches. What was your sense of the second spring under coach Jerry Kill?

Brian Bennett: We swear it's nothing personal, Gophers fans. Both of us would have enjoyed a trip to the Twin Cities, but the schedule just didn't work out.

Anyway, I did sense more confidence from the Minnesota players and coaches we interviewed. That's not surprising, given that it's the second year for Kill's staff and more familiarity almost always brings a better comfort level. MarQueis Gray really started to come on late last season and appears to have made strides as a passer. He could be one of the league's top playmakers this year. Overall, the Gophers look to have a little more talent this year, thanks to some junior college imports, youngsters who got experience last year and Troy Stoudermire coming back at cornerback. The defense should have more speed, though it remains undersized. The big question for me is who will emerge as weapons alongside Gray, especially at receiver.

But I think that, with a manageable nonconference schedule, Minnesota has a chance to win five or more games this year and it will be much more competitive in Big Ten play than it was early last season. The Legends Division looks more balanced top to bottom than the Leaders and should be fun to follow all year.

Nebraska spring wrap

May, 11, 2012
5/11/12
8:30
AM ET
2011 record: 9-4
2011 conference record: 5-3 (third, Legends Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 8; defense: 7; kicker/punter: 2

Top returners

QB Taylor Martinez, RB Rex Burkhead, WR Kenny Bell, TE Ben Cotton, DT Baker Steinkuhler, DE Cameron Meredith, LB Will Compton, S Daimion Stafford, K/P Brett Maher

Key losses

LB Lavonte David, CB Alfonzo Dennard, DT Jared Crick, S Austin Cassidy, C Mike Caputo, WR Brandon Kinnie, T Marcel Jones

2011 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Rex Burkhead* (1,357 yards)
Passing: Taylor Martinez* (2,089 yards)
Receiving: Kenny Bell* (461 yards)
Tackles: Lavonte David (133)
Sacks: Lavonte David (5.5)
Interceptions: Austin Cassidy and Lavonte David (2)

Spring answers

1. Secondary makes strides: Although Nebraska's defensive backfield loses a key piece in Alfonzo Dennard, the sense coming out of the spring is that the Huskers will have more overall depth in the secondary this season. Details were a theme for the entire defense, but especially for the secondary, and new coach Terry Joseph frequently tested his players on their responsibilities. Players like cornerback Andrew Green had a strong spring, and the Huskers look pretty solid at safety with Daimion Stafford and P.J. Smith. Juco addition Mohammed Seisay increases the competition at cornerback.

2. More weapons emerging: Coordinator Tim Beck wants to be a more balanced offense this fall, and he should have the weapons to upgrade the passing attack. Nebraska returns all but one major contributor at receiver, as well as veteran tight ends Ben Cotton and Kyler Reed. Kenny Bell showed impressive spurts last season and should build on his performance this fall. Quincy Enunwa is another nice piece, and Tim Marlowe provides a veteran presence. If Jamal Turner polishes his blocking, he should see increased opportunities on the field.

3. Ready and Will-ing: The Huskers acknowledged their depth issues at linebacker during their Big Ten transition, but they aren't worried about finding a leader at the position. Senior middle linebacker Will Compton has stepped forward and taken a proactive approach toward leadership. Compton, an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection in 2011, is a heady player who understands the defense and can motivate others. He'll help fill the production void left by standout Lavonte David.

Fall questions

1. Taylor Martinez: The Huskers quarterback was the talk of spring ball after he spent the winter -- and his spring break -- working on his footwork and his throwing mechanics. Martinez received good marks from his coaches, and he seemed more comfortable as he'll operate the same offense in consecutive seasons for the first time in his college or high school career. But the junior still has a lot to prove as a passer after completing just 56.3 percent of his attempts in 2011 and often looking unsettled in the pocket.

2. Defensive line rotation: Head coach Bo Pelini likes the potential of the defensive line, but injuries slowed several key players this spring. The Huskers should go four deep at defensive end, but they'll need to solidify the interior line alongside veteran Baker Steinkuhler. Players like Chase Rome, who saw action last fall following Jared Crick's injury, and Thaddeus Randle should be healthy entering fall camp and need good performances.

3. Linebacker depth: Compton has the middle on lock down, and Buck linebacker Sean Fisher is healthy and playing well, but the Huskers need more bodies in their defensive midsection. Junior-college transfer Zaire Anderson will be a key player to watch in fall camp as he should compete for field time right away. Whether Alonzo Whaley can land the starting weak-side spot remains to be seen, but Nebraska would be better off being able to go five or six deep at linebacker.

Spring game preview: Nebraska

April, 13, 2012
4/13/12
10:30
AM ET
It'll be a big Saturday in the Big Ten as seven teams hold their spring games/scrimmages. We're getting you ready for each one.

Let's take a closer look at Nebraska's Red-White spring game:

When: 2 p.m. ET (1 p.m. local time), Saturday

Where: Memorial Stadium

Admission: $10 for adults. Kids in the eighth grade or younger are admitted for free if they take the Drug Free Pledge at halftime of the game. Parking is $5 at Lot 9 and other campus lots.

TV: The game will be streamed live online on BTN2Go and on the Big Ten Digital Network. The Big Ten Network will broadcast the game on tape-delay at 10:30 p.m. ET Saturday.

Weather forecast: Mostly cloudy with scattered thunderstorms possible, temperatures between 68-78, 40-50 percent chance of rain, winds at 10-20 mph.

What to watch for: Not surprisingly, Nebraska will be "as basic as you can get," coach Bo Pelini said, in the spring game. One change from years' past is that the coaching staff will divide the teams evenly rather than hold a player draft, as the Huskers are a bit thin at positions like defensive tackle.

Top quarterback Taylor Martinez is only expected to play about a quarter and a half, but fans will be closely studying the junior, who spent the spring working on his footwork and mechanics and has by all accounts looked better passing the ball. The backups in the offensive backfield figure to get a lot of work at both quarterback (Brion Carnes, Ron Kellogg II) and at running back (Ameer Abdullah, Aaron Green). It'll also be a good chance for fans to see fullback Mike Marrow, who has generated buzz during spring drills.

The defensive coaching staff has a new look with John Papuchis elevated to coordinator and two position coaches (Rick Kaczenski and Terry Joseph) coming in from the outside. Although Nebraska isn't employing massive scheme changes, Saturday provides a good chance to see the coaches and evaluate their position groups. The Huskers are looking to replace star power on defense, and several players have generated buzz this spring, including safety Daimion Stafford, who had an impressive 2011, and linebacker Will Compton.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- They can't be called pop quizzes because they happen every day.

When safety P.J. Smith and his fellow Nebraska defensive backs enter their meeting room each day, they know exactly what's coming.

"This is the first time we've ever taken tests," Smith told ESPN.com. "Since the season ended, we had a test every week. And now, since [defensive backs coach Terry Joseph] is here, we have a test every single day we get in the meeting room."

Joseph's exams typically contain three questions, which require short written responses. The players have two minutes to complete their choices, which is 119 seconds longer than they have during games in the fall. The players with the lowest grades at week's end typically have to clean the secondary room.

"He tries to put pressure on us," Smith said.

Pressure is one word to describe the theme of Nebraska's offseason, particularly on the defensive side. Details is another. So is accountability.

[+] EnlargeWill Compton
Troy Babbitt/US PresswireWith star LB Lavonte David gone, Nebraska will look to Will Compton to make an impact at the position.
The team ended the 2011 season with a thud, falling 30-13 to South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl. A defense that had entered the fall with a star-studded lineup -- tackle Jared Crick, linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard were the headliners -- finished 42nd nationally in points allowed and 37th in yards allowed, significant drops in both categories from the previous season (ninth in points allowed, 11th in yards allowed). The Huskers' D received some A-level performances from David and Dennard, but the overall unit, aside from a few exceptions, wasn't exceptional.

Nebraska didn't generate enough pressure (84th in sacks, 112th in tackles for loss) and didn't really have a hallmark.

"Generally, we didn't make a ton of busts a year ago," said defensive coordinator John Papuchis, who coached the defensive line in 2011. "But it's the small details within each defense that make the difference between being a good defense and a great defense. At times, we showed signs of being a very good defense. And at other times, we didn't live up to the standard we have set for ourselves.

"And I think what held us back more than anything came into those details."

Papuchis and the other defensive assistants have spent the offseason stressing concepts rather than pure memorization. The how and the why became more important than the what and the who.

They "went back to square one," even with older players, and worked on terminology as an entire unit. Crick and other Nebraska players talked before last season about the uniqueness of their defense, how the scheme would help set the Huskers apart in a new league.

"There's not one defense that’s comparable to ours," Crick said. "Very complex, and that's what makes it unique. As a defensive lineman, I have five responsibilities, where other defensive linemen, all they've got to do is shoot their gap. We want it that way."

And it is different, as Nebraska uses a two-gap system not employed by most college teams. But because of several reasons -- the coaches point mainly to attention to detail -- the Huskers didn't enjoy a major schematic advantage.

"Our defense is kind of like learning how to study math," Papuchis said. "If you don't have a foundation, everything else after that won't make sense."

One issue Papuchis noticed with Nebraska's youngish secondary in 2011 was alignment. Players knew their responsibilities, but they would line up inside when they needed to be outside, or vice versa.

"What doesn't seem like a big deal, six inches one way or the other, makes all the difference in the world if they convert third-and-6," he said.

It's why Joseph tests them every day. Mistakes happen, Smith said, but Joseph wants the DBs to "make a new mistake. Don't make the same mistake."

Nebraska should have a more seasoned secondary in 2012, and Papuchis has been pleased this spring with Daimion Stafford, Ciante Evans, Andrew Green and Antonio Bell, among others. Linebacker Will Compton said the secondary is receiving extra attention this spring from both Papuchis and head coach Bo Pelini.

"We're getting back to some of the multiplicity we've had in the past," Pelini said. "I'm excited. I think we have a chance to be pretty good on defense."

There are different challenges for the other two groups on defense. The linebackers begin life without David, one of the nation's most productive defenders the past two seasons. Compton will lead the group, but depth is still a concern and will be for the next few years.

"We'll have guys very capable," Compton said. "It's about being a successful Will linebacker, not about being the next Lavonte David."

Nebraska has good depth at defensive end with Cameron Meredith, Jason Ankrah, Eric Martin and Joe Carter. And while the scheme stresses the need to prevent offensive linemen from reaching the second level, pass rushers could be turned loose more as Nebraska tries to generate more pressure.

New line coach Rick Kaczenski has brought an attacking style.

"Last year, we were a little bit passive," Meredith said. "Now offensive linemen at practice are telling us, 'You guys attack a lot more.'"

The linemen also are stressing accountability. If anyone is late for a meeting or another activity, the whole group runs or does Turkish get-ups.

"Everybody had a sour taste in how we finished up the season," Pelini said. "I said, 'Either you can talk about it or do something about it.' I think everybody around here has taken the attitude to raise their level of accountability.

"To get over the top, we've got to have a little bit more attention to detail, raise our standards that much more, raise our accountability that much more."

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