Big Ten: Tracy Claeys

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Look for the hidden meaning as Minnesota visits Nebraska on Saturday. It’s not hard to find.

The 25th-ranked Golden Gophers come to Memorial Stadium at 7-3 overall and 4-2 in the Big Ten after a seven-point home loss to Ohio State last week. The No. 23 Huskers stand at 8-2 and 4-2 on the heels of losing by five touchdowns at Wisconsin.

The 11 a.m. kickoff on ESPN provides a chance for Minnesota and Nebraska to move on from the disappointments of last week. There’s more at work, though. This 55th meeting in the series offers a study in how two programs appear on a similar trajectory, yet, upon close inspection, may represent passing ships in the night.

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsAmeer Abdullah and the Cornhuskers are looking ahead to their big game against Minnesota on Saturday.
 Minnesota is trending up. Eight wins over 12 games of Big Ten play marks its best run in 40 years. Nebraska, meanwhile after the debacle in Madison, is struggling to move out of neutral in its seventh season under coach Bo Pelini.

The Huskers have lost seven games by 17 points or more since joining the Big Ten in 2011. And as the careers wind to a close of their most dynamic players over that period -- record-setting Ameer Abdullah at I-back and receiver Kenny Bell -- questions have gone largely unanswered this week about how to fix the big-game problems.

“We need to win this football game,” Bell said. “We have to.”

It’s a sentiment shared by players and coaches on both teams.

The Gophers remain in control of their destiny to win the West Division, though they must win in Lincoln and at Wisconsin next week. Sound farfetched? So did an eight-win season in 2013. Or a chance to repeat it.

With one victory, Minnesota will reach eight wins again -- a feat it has accomplished once in the past 50 years.

Even after last week, the moment of which the Gophers have dreamed is here, said fourth-year coach Jerry Kill.

“I wish close counted,” defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said, “but it doesn’t.”

Kill said the Gophers are confident about their final stretch. He also recognizes the potential danger in wanting too badly to clear the next hurdle as a program.

“Preparation takes all the pressure out of it,” Kill said. “I think the big challenge for us coaches and players is to make we do a great job of preparation, so we’re confident going in.”

Minnesota beat Nebraska 34-23 last year in Minneapolis, the Gophers’ first win in the series in 17 games. Nebraska has won the past seven meetings in Lincoln, dating to 1960.

“Winning on the road, in the Big Ten or anywhere,” Kill said, “is not easy to do.”

Nebraska was reminded as much last week. The stunning defeat to the Badgers created anxiety in Lincoln. Pelini, 66-26 at Nebraska, defended his program to fans and media.

“I’ve been around coaching and football long enough to know that you stay the course,” Pelini said.

The Huskers face the longest odds of the four teams left in contention to win the West Division. A Wisconsin win Saturday at Iowa or next week over the Gophers or one Nebraska loss -- it closes at Iowa -- would eliminate the Huskers.

Nebraska last won a league title in 1999.

“It’s about having a short memory,” senior offensive guard Mike Moudy said.

The Wisconsin game, Moudy said, “is in the past.”

“You can’t change anything about it,” he said. “All you can do is get better. We are just going to worry about Minnesota.”

As the Huskers picked up the pieces from last week, Brian Saunders, a Nebraska fan and ex-Marine formerly of Laurel, Nebraska, helped arrange an online fund drive to fly a banner near Memorial Stadium on Saturday before kickoff with the message: “Fire Bo Pelini.”

The bid raised less than 25 percent by the deadline of the required $1,500.

Saunders, 25, who lives in Orlando, Florida, said he still hoped to fly the banner next week in Iowa City.

The effort, while perhaps extreme, illustrates the restless state around Nebraska’s program.

Some fans and players, it seems, don’t know what to think. In practice on Tuesday, seven top-unit defenders voluntarily relinquished their traditional Blackshirt jerseys. The other Blackshirts remained.

“All you can do is take the coaching,” senior cornerback Josh Mitchell said. “We have proven that we know how to do things correctly.”

So has Minnesota.

Who moves forward on Saturday? Maybe it's the team that most successfully got past last week.
College football has become fast food. More teams are ingesting as much as possible, as quickly as possible, and putting bloated numbers on the scoreboard.

Games like last Saturday's captivating track meet between Baylor and TCU -- it featured 1,267 yards, 119 points, 62 first downs, 198 plays and a staggering 39 possessions -- are becoming common, like fast food joints on a main drag.

Does the game still have room for the five-course meal? As they say in Minnesota, you betcha!

Shortly after TCU-Baylor kicked off, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald lamented a 24-17 loss to Minnesota. The Wildcats had recorded twice as many first downs (28-14) and 119 more yards than Minnesota, and ran 30 more plays, but they couldn't fatten up on points or possessions (11 total, just four in the first half).

[+] EnlargeDavid Cobb
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesWith David Cobb helping the offense control the clock, Minnesota is off to a 5-1 start.
"To Minnesota's credit," Fitzgerald said, "[Jerry Kill's] offense takes half the game away by standing in the huddle and talking about what they're ordering for dinner."

Matt Limegrover loved that line. Minnesota's offensive coordinator also liked hearing Fitzgerald say his team pressed a bit too much against a team trying to shorten the game.

"I don't think it'll ever be sexy," Limegrover said of Minnesota's approach, "but at least somebody's saying they're a little affected by it. I got a kick out of that."

In an age when more teams are ramping up tempo and possessions, Minnesota is going the other direction. The Gophers are slow-playing their opponents, averaging just 62.7 plays per game, the third lowest rate in the FBS. The only teams logging fewer snaps than Minnesota -- Florida Atlantic and South Florida -- are both 2-4.

Minnesota is 5-1 and in tied for first place in the Big Ten West Division. Maybe Limegrover is wrong -- slow is sexy.

"I don't know if you want to call it a dinosaur or an outlier," Limegrover said. "The best way to put it is the world around us has changed and we've remained the same."

Added Kill: "Sometimes it's not bad to be different."

One reason why Minnesota plays this way is that Kill's staff has remained the same. Limegrover has worked for Kill since 1999. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys has done so since 1995. Two other offensive assistants, Brian Anderson and Pat Poore, have been with the group since 2001. H-backs/tight ends coach Rob Reeves began his coaching career with Kill in 1996 and has never left Kill's staff.

Limegrover wonders whether things would be different if the group assembled two years ago rather than 12.

"The current trend is, let's speed up, let's go as fast as we can," he said. "Everybody clamors, 'They're a relic, they're a dinosaur.' But because we've been together for so long and it's developed, we know it's a good blueprint.

"Why mess with it?"

Minnesota's philosophy seems simple but is exceedingly rare: Play great defense and special teams, limit turnovers, score a few touchdowns to gain a lead, bleed the clock, sing the fight song. The Gophers are tied for 16th nationally in points allowed and limit explosion plays, especially through the air, ranking ninth in yards per pass attempt (5.49). They beat Northwestern primarily because of a 100-yard kickoff return touchdown in the fourth quarter. Other than a five-turnover disaster in its lone loss at TCU, Minnesota has committed two or fewer turnovers in its other five games and none in a Sept. 27 win at Michigan.

The offense is tied for 112th nationally in yards (331.8 ypg) and 121st in passing (119.8 ypg). But the scoring is adequate (27 ppg), and with a deliberate style (38th nationally in possession time) and a punishing running back in David Cobb, Minnesota can inflict slow death with a lead.

"Every possession's important," Limegrover said. "Every time you get your hands on that football, you've got to make something positive happen, but you can't be negligent."

While HUNH (hurry-up, ho-huddle) offenses gain an edge by snapping the ball before defenses are set, Minnesota uses presnap motion and shifts to flummox its foes. The Gophers might show three different formations before the snap, forcing defenses to adjust their calls and possibly creating numbers advantages.

"They're very patient offensively," said Purdue coach Darrell Hazell, whose team visits Minnesota on Saturday. "They do a great job of running the ball. ... They throw the play-action passes at you, they throw the naked passes at you, and then they're very content with punting the ball and playing great defense.

"That's been their formula for winning."

There are drawbacks. Three-and-outs are killers and, until the Northwestern game, Minnesota struggled on third down. Though a 10-point lead can feel like 21, especially with Cobb pounding away in the fourth quarter, Minnesota isn't built to rally.

The most telling stat: Under Kill, Minnesota is 19-0 when leading at halftime and 0-22 when trailing.

"If our defense wasn't playing great, there'd be a lot bigger issues," Limegrover said.

But Minnesota will remain methodical, huddling up and discussing what's for dinner.

Lately, it's been a lot of chicken.
If you spent Sunday looking at your spouse, your kids or your dog with raised eyebrows, you're not alone. Blame college football. After weeks like this past one, everyone is reassessing everything.

That's what happens when five of the top eight teams lose on the same week for the first time in the history of the AP poll.

Rather than bolting to the divorce lawyer, the adoption agency or the pound, realize this is probably just a football issue. In that spirit, let's reassess the Big Ten teams six weeks into the season.

Illinois (3-3): Unfortunately for embattled coach Tim Beckman, the Illini are what we thought they were. It's bad but somewhat understandable to allow 458 rush yards to Nebraska on the road. It's inexcusable to allow 349 to Purdue at home. The offense is fun, but top quarterback Wes Lunt is out 4-6 weeks with a fractured leg. Beckman Watch has begun.

Indiana (3-2): We've seen what Indiana can be (road upset of Missouri) and what Indiana still is (disappointing losses to Bowling Green and Maryland). Kevin Wilson's team is halfway to bowl eligibility but must pull off an upset or two to get there. Running back Tevin Coleman (841 rush yards, 8 TDs) might be the nation's best-kept secret. It will remain that way unless Indiana starts winning more.

Iowa (4-1): The record is nice, but Iowa has played well for about six quarters this season. The defense is fine, but an inconsistent run game remains baflfling. The two-quarterback system will be fascinating theater. C.J. Beathard makes Iowa's offense more interesting, but does he make it better? The West Division is wide open, and Iowa has an advantageous home slate (Northwestern, Wisconsin, Nebraska).

Maryland (4-2): The most recent performance notwithstanding, Maryland's first half exceeded expectations. The Terrapins delivered big plays, which covered up some general sloppiness (12 giveaways, 53.7 penalty yards per game). We are finally seeing what a relatively healthy Maryland team can do. The Terrapins are 3-0 on the road, so if they can take care of business at home, they'll secure a nice bowl trip.

Michigan (2-4): Most of us, if not all of us, were wrong to varying degrees about this team. Doug Nussmeier hasn't fixed the offense. The defense remains unremarkable. Brady Hoke's days as coach seem numbered. Whether it's the talent evaluation, the talent development or the schematic vision, something went dreadfully wrong. It looks like a lost season.

Michigan State (4-1): The Spartans remain the class of the Big Ten. If they had held a lead at Oregon, they would be in the thick of the playoff discussion. They still can get to the final four but must run the table in Big Ten play for the second straight year. Quarterback Connor Cook is better and so is an offense that leads the Big Ten in scoring (45.6 ppg). The Spartan Dawgs aren't quite as dominant but showed against Nebraska that they can still stifle good offenses.

Minnesota (4-1): This is a similar, potentially better version of recent Minnesota teams. Tracy Claeys' defense once again looks very solid. The offense is extremely run-heavy (67 percent of yards), although quarterback Mitch Leidner provides a small passing threat. Minnesota has a real chance to make some noise in the West Division, although its closing schedule will tell a lot about the state of the program.

Nebraska (5-1): We knew Ameer Abdullah was great. but he's still exceeding expectations. The offense can light up the scoreboard against soft defenses but struggled for most of the Michigan State game. Nebraska has the most overall talent in the West Division, but the road schedule (Northwestern, Wisconsin, Iowa) could prevent a trip to Indy.

Northwestern (3-2): Woeful the first two weeks, wonderful the past two, these Wildcats are hard to identify. Pat Fitzgerald's tough talk seems to be hitting its mark, and the emergence of young defenders like Anthony Walker and Godwin Igwebuike is encouraging. The offense still struggles to score. A win Saturday at Minnesota validates Northwestern as a threat in the West.

Ohio State (4-1): The forecast looks a lot brighter now than after a stunning Week 2 home loss to Virginia Tech. J.T. Barrett development at quarterback is the biggest reason for optimism, and Ohio State is generating first downs and points at a dizzying pace. The defense's development remains the big question mark. The Nov. 8 showdown at Michigan State looms.

Penn State (4-1): The Lions have found ways to win despite obvious flaws exposed in their lone loss. If the offensive line doesn't make strides, it could be a tough second half for James Franklin's team. A solid defense should win PSU some games, and the pass game has potential with young wideouts Geno Lewis and DaeSean Hamilton. The next two games (Michigan, Ohio State) will be telling.

Purdue (3-3): Improvement was expected as Purdue couldn't get much worse than last season. The Boilers finally found a spark on offense last week thanks to speed backs Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert and new quarterback Austin Appleby. Wins could be scarce the rest of the way, but Purdue is on the uptick.

Rutgers (5-1): The biggest surprise in the B1G, at least outside the Garden State. Rutgers is a play or two away from being undefeated. Kyle Flood's staff changes have paid off, quarterback Gary Nova has made obvious strides, and the defense is holding its own, especially up front. Rutgers is more than holding its own in its new league.

Wisconsin (3-2): I'm not as surprised as some, as Wisconsin never looked like a top-15 team, not with its problems at quarterback and receiver. Melvin Gordon has been as good as advertised, but teams still need some semblance of a passing attack to win consistently, especially away from home. Wisconsin isn't out of the West race but likely can't afford another slip-up.
Gary Patterson, Jerry KillUSA TODAY SportsLongtime friends Gary Patterson, left, and Jerry Kill will face each other as head coaches Saturday.
The 7-11. That is what Dennis Franchione's wife, Kim, calls the football office because of time coaches arrive and depart.

But when Franchione had two young Kansans on his staff at NAIA Pittsburg State in the late 1980s, the office might as well have been called the 5-1. Jerry Kill and Gary Patterson typically put in those types of hours.

"I used to tell them to go home," Franchione, now Texas State's coach, told ESPN.com this week. "They were there early and stayed late, longer than anybody. You knew they were going to be successful because of the way they approached it."

Work ethic fueled both Kill, Pittsburg State's defensive coordinator from 1985-87, and Patterson, who replaced Kill in 1988. Both had grown up in small towns: Patterson in Rozel, northeast of Dodge City; Kill in Cheney, west of Wichita. Both played linebacker in college (Kill played for Franchione at Southwestern College in Winfield, Kansas).

About the only difference: Patterson stuck with defense, while Kill switched to offense before entering the head-coaching ranks.

They became friends and have remained close for more than a quarter-century. Kill was Patterson's best man at his wedding. Until recently, they spent every year swapping football ideas.

"We came up the hard way," Kill said this week. "We worked hard to get where we're at. It's why we've been good friends."

Kill laughed.

"There aren't very many people from two small towns in Kansas to be where we're at. We come from common folk."

Both have accomplished uncommon things and now lead Power 5 programs that meet Saturday in Fort Worth, Texas. Patterson, who guided TCU to an undefeated season and a Rose Bowl championship in 2010, is in his 15th season as the Horned Frogs coach. Kill has helped Minnesota to consecutive bowl appearances.

"Both of us are highly competitive," Patterson said, "so this week is difficult."

The friends wish they weren't meeting this way. They might rather take on Oregon and Florida State than stand on opposite sidelines at Amon G. Carter Stadium.

In May 2013, when Patterson heard rumors about a home-and-home series with Minnesota, he immediately called Kill.

"You know anything about that?" he asked.

"Nope, we're not playing you," Kill replied. "No way that's happening."

The coaches soon learned their friendship wouldn't stop their bosses from a nice schedule addition. TCU will return the game next September when they open the 2015 season on a Thursday night in Minneapolis.

"It's not something you want to do," Kill said, "but you know what? Ain’t changing that. It's happened, so go play."

Part of the reluctance is how much time Kill, Patterson and their staffs have spent together over the years. Tracy Claeys, Kill's longtime defensive coordinator and fellow small-town Kansan (Clay Center), has made almost annual pilgrimages to TCU to study with Patterson.

When Claeys first become a coordinator, while working for Kill at Emporia State, he attended 10 of TCU's 15 spring practices.

"The way we we've played, [Patterson] probably wouldn't want me to say I've learned anything from him because we haven't played as well as he has," Claeys joked this week. "I've learned a tremendous amount from him and his staff."

Although TCU uses a 4-2-5 alignment and Minnesota operates from a 4-3, Claeys estimates that 90 percent of his defensive philosophy is drawn from Patterson's. Because of the games, Claeys' trips to TCU have been put on hold.

"I've missed that," he said.

Kill and Patterson nearly reunited on TCU's staff in 2001. Patterson had replaced Franchione as Frogs coach after serving as his defensive coordinator at both TCU and New Mexico. Kill, a head coach at two Division II programs, had the chance to become Patterson's offensive coordinator.

But after consulting with Franchione, he decided to remain a head coach and went to Southern Illinois.

"He's one of those guys I have the utmost respect for," Patterson said of Kill. "When we get done coaching, he’ll be a guy, along with his wife, we’ll go on trips and always stay in touch."

Franchione remains in close contact with both of his protégés. The first two scores he checks on Sundays are TCU's and Minnesota's.

He hopes to catch the start of Saturday's game before Texas State begins its final preparations to face Navy.

"They're what America's all about," Franchione said of Patterson and Kill. "They've done it the right way, they've done it with class, they're appreciative of everything. I don't think there's any part of them that doesn't remember being a [graduate assistant] and eating peanut butter and jelly."

Kill and Patterson haven't talked ball very often lately, but Kill knows what to expect Saturday from his friend, the "defensive genius." He's certain Patterson devoted part of spring ball to prepping for Minnesota, and an open date before the game likely didn't hurt.

"We're both cut from the same cloth," Kill said. "We go 100 miles an hour."

Big Ten morning links

August, 18, 2014
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Actual college football returns next week. Huzzah.

And players are likely celebrating as well, because training camps are winding to a close. Depth charts are also shaping up as well as teams move nearer toward preparing for Week 1. But some key jostling for jobs remains. Let's take inventory of a few of the more interesting position battles left in the Big Ten:
  • Wisconsin quarterback: By most accounts, incumbent starter Joel Stave has looked like the better option over Tanner McEvoy so far this month. At this point, I'd be surprised if Gary Andersen started McEvoy over the far more experienced Stave in the opener against LSU, though McEvoy could see some time in special packages. The Badgers have practiced some option, and that just doesn't seem like Stave's cup of tea, now does it? Where some battles stand for the Badgers.
  • Illinois quarterback: Tim Beckman has said he could name a starter on Wednesday. Most everyone expects it to be Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt. A big question, in my mind, is how the Illini can best use Aaron Bailey's talents.
  • Michigan State linebacker: Replacing Max Bullough and Denicos Allen isn't cut and dry, but it's not because of a lack of options. Riley Bullough and Jon Reschke are coming on strong and pushing Taiwan Jones and Darien Harris for playing time. Mark Dantonio described the situation on Saturday as "sort of a linebacker group by committee right now."
  • Iowa cornerback: It's a three-man scrum between Maurice Fleming, Sean Draper and Greg Mabin to see who starts opposite Desmond King. Mabin might have been set back by a minor injury. But Kirk Ferentz said the position is "up for grabs right now." Ferentz still has a lot of questions to answer.
  • Ohio State left guard: Darryl Baldwin seized the right tackle job, but there's far less clarity at left guard, a position that Urban Meyer has said concerns him. Doug Lesmerises breaks down the fight for playing time there and elsewhere on the Buckeyes.

Another major position battle should be cleared up on Monday, when Purdue is expected to name its starting quarterback. But that's one where Danny Etling has been a big front-runner all along.

On to the links:

Weekend scrimmages

1. Jabrill Peppers is going to play a lot, the offensive line still needs work and other observations from Nick Baumgardner on Michigan's open scrimmage before an estimated 25,000 fans.

2. Rutgers' Saturday scrimmage, dominated by the offense, provided answers to some key questions.

3. Wide receiver Deon Long was one of the stars of Maryland's open scrimmage.

4. Defense won the day at Michigan State's scrimmage.

5. Indiana coach Kevin Wilson sees improved depth on his team after the Hoosiers' latest scrimmage.

6. The running game was the main attraction in Purdue's scrimmage.

7. Northwestern held an open scrimmage, but hardly anyone of note participated.

West Division
East Division

Big Ten lunch links

August, 7, 2014
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This is real, apparently, and lots of people hate Michigan, including people in Michigan. And come on, Idaho, really?
  • Aaron Bailey, part of the three-man quarterback race at Illinois, finds newfound comfort in Bill Cubit’s offensive system.
  • Northern Iowa checks in at No. 10 on the Cedar Rapids Gazette’s ranking of opponents on the Iowa schedule. Receiver Tevaun Smith loves him some Iowa.
  • The Indiana defense learns to play in attack mode.
  • Quarterback C.J. Brown performs well as Maryland finishes its first practice in pads of the preseason.
  • Touted freshman defensive back Jabrill Peppers will continue to work at nickel, according to Michigan coach Brady Hoke, after an injury to safety Delano Hill.
  • Michigan State features an intriguing group of receivers, writes Graham Couch.
  • Minnesota defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys says the Gophers should continue to improve on defense, despite the loss of some important pieces.
  • Backup quarterback Ryker Fyfe is not about to sit down quietly behind Tommy Armstrong Jr. at Nebraska.
  • Braxton Miller will not wear out his arm during preseason practices at Ohio State. Competition heats up on the Buckeyes’ offensive line.
  • What’s the key to success for the Penn State O-line? Trust and chemistry, says assistant coach Herb Hand.
  • Purdue offensive tackle David Hedelin, suspended by the NCAA for the first three games this year, expects big things after a positive opening of practice.
  • Gary Nova is the man again for Rutgers at quarterback. More on Nova.
  • Wisconsin running back Corey Clement has high hopes for his sophomore season as a running mate to Melvin Gordon.
The countdown to Big Ten media days, July 28-29 in Chicago, is certainly under way. We're excited, you're excited, the players and coaches are excited. To get you ready, we're running through three questions facing each Big Ten team and the potential answers we could hear at the Hilton Chicago.

Minnesota is up next. The Gophers improved their win total from six to eight in 2013 and bring back some good pieces on both sides of the ball. Coach Jerry Kill will be in Chicago along with quarterback Mitch Leidner, running back David Cobb and safety Cedric Thompson.

1. How can the passing game improve?

Minnesota has returned to its power-run roots under Kill, finishing second in the Big Ten in rushing attempts (586) and fourth in rushing yards (2,538) last season. The Gophers bring back a good group of backs, led by 1,200-yard rusher Cobb, as well as four starting offensive linemen from 2013. But there needs to be more balance in the passing game after Minnesota finished last in the Big Ten and 115th nationally last fall. It's Leidner's show at quarterback, but he must improve his accuracy and his production. The Gophers are expecting jumps from young wideouts Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones, as well as continued development from tight end Maxx Williams, who led the team with 417 receiving yards in 2013.

2. What are realistic expectations for the defense?

After producing no NFL draft picks in 2011, 2012 or 2013, Minnesota's defense had two players drafted in the first four rounds in May -- defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman and safety Brock Vereen. Both were unique players -- Hageman with his size, Vereen with his versatility -- who leave big shoes to fill. But coordinator Tracy Claeys thinks the unit can be better with improved overall depth. So, who provides the star power? Defensive end Theiren Cockran, who quietly led the Big Ten in forced fumbles (four) and finished third in sacks (7.5), will anchor the line. Claeys pegs Damien Wilson to lead from the linebacker spot, and the secondary has good depth at cornerback. Thompson had a great spring at safety. If Minnesota plans to match or exceed last year's success, the defense must keep progressing.

3. How is Kill's health, and what will his role be this fall?

It's not the topic Kill and his players want to focus on in Chicago, but it remains relevant until Kill gets through an entire season without any major health scares. He has worked extremely hard with his doctors to get his epilepsy under control, and he said this spring that he plans to coach from the sideline, where he spent the second half of the Texas Bowl before working mostly from the press box in 2013. We know Kill's coaching staff, led by Claeys, is more than capable of filling in if he has to step away. But Minnesota obviously doesn't want any distractions as it aims to challenge for the West Division despite a challenging schedule.
We've already covered the conference's potential villains, so it's only natural that we move on to the good guys.

You won't find them in comic books or out in the Big Ten footprint fighting crime. But even opposing fans won't find it all that difficult to root for this cast of characters. Some overcame injuries or other obstacles, some have been wronged, and others just seem like genuinely good people.

There are certainly plenty of other athletes and coaches whom this could apply to, so it wasn't easy just picking a handful. But true heroes don't expect media attention for their good deeds … plus, we had to cut this list off somewhere.

So, in alphabetical order, here are the unmasked Big Ten heroes:

[+] EnlargeNebraska
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsAmeer Abdullah, left, decided to put the NFL off for another year and return for his senior season at Nebraska.
Ameer Abdullah, running back, Nebraska: About 100 juniors declared early for this year's NFL draft, and no one would've blamed Abdullah if he decided to join the herd. Instead, he decided to stay -- and he's said all the right things. As the youngest of nine children, the other eight of whom have earned college degrees, Abdullah stressed the importance of his education and finishing that degree. When a lot of other players are chasing dollar signs instead of diplomas, that's a refreshing viewpoint. Added Bo Pelini: “He's an All-American on the field. He's an All-American off the field.”

Adam Breneman, tight end, Penn State: Forget the fact he remained loyal and committed to the university throughout the sanctions, when he could've bolted to the likes of Florida State or Notre Dame. He's also used his football celebrity to champion a few charitable causes, something more common for coaches than players. In high school he started “Catch the Cure,” which helped raise more than $200,000 to fight Lou Gehrig's Disease. During his Under Armour jersey presentation two years ago, he even helped man a booth outside the auditorium to seek donations. Currently, he's the secretary of Penn State's nonprofit chapter of “Uplifting Athletes,” which raises money for the Kidney Cancer Association. You don't have to like the Nittany Lions, but you have to like what Breneman's doing.

Ralph Friedgen, offensive coordinator, Rutgers: Underappreciated. Underestimated. Underdog. That's why Friedgen is under two other heroes on this list. It's easy to root for someone who appeared to be unfairly punished – and is now seeking out justice on the gridiron. Friedgen is just about the only head coach to win conference coach of the year and then be fired that same season. It happened with Maryland in 2010; now, he's helping oversee a Rutgers offense that people aren't expecting a lot from. He's in the same division as the Terps -- heck, they're on the schedule this year -- and Friedgen has a chance to show Maryland it made a mistake. He certainly could've handled the dismissal better, but it's hard to blame him and easy to wish him well. As long as you're not a Terps fan, that is.

Jerry Kill, head coach, Minnesota: Stop me if you've heard this before. “I'm rooting against them when they play us, but I'm wishing all the best to ________ the rest of the season.” Chances are Kill's filled in quite a few of those sentences the past few years. He has refused to let epilepsy get the best of him, and his longevity's been a testament to his toughness. He's been a coach since 1985, and he just led the Gophers to back-to-back bowls. Plus, he recently started a new epilepsy foundation for young patients, and he put $100,000 of his own money toward that. How can you not root for this guy?

Jake Ryan, linebacker, Michigan: Torn anterior cruciate ligaments are usually big setbacks, something that means missed seasons or at least gradual returns. Not for Ryan. The Michigan linebacker, a team captain last season, was on crutches last spring and returned in time for the Oct. 12 game against Penn State. Said defensive coordinator Greg Mattison: “If he ever truly logged the hours of extra treatment and extra rehab that he has done since the day that happened, I think it would floor you.” Nothing has really been handed to Ryan, as he wasn't a highly sought-after recruit. But he's worked hard and now finds himself on the preseason watch lists for the Bednarik and Nagurski awards. It's his final season at Michigan, and big things are expected from him.

Heroes on deck: Tracy Claeys, Stefon Diggs, Herb Hand, Jeremy Langford, Venric Mark

Big Ten lunch links

June, 26, 2014
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USMNT, let's do this.

Big Ten lunch links

June, 11, 2014
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If you tried to clap, you'd miss your hands.
Minnesota had a grand total of one defensive player drafted between 2009 and 2013. Earlier this month, the Gophers had two defenders, tackle Ra'Shede Hageman and safety Brock Vereen, selected in the first four rounds.

[+] EnlargeTracy Claeys
AP Photo/Al GoldisMinnesota defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said he'll be disappointed if the Gophers don't improve on defense in 2014.
Those departures would would suggest some type of a drop off for Minnesota's defense, but coordinator Tracy Claeys thinks it will be just the opposite in 2014. In Claeys' mind, the Gophers are just getting started.

"We should be better than we were a year ago," Claeys told ESPN.com on Thursday. "We've improved every year we've been there, and I'll be disappointed if we don't improve more. We have the talent and the kids that want to put in the work.

"I'm excited about this coming fall."

Minnesota won't have a player with Hageman's freakish frame and ability, or Vereen's versatility to play both secondary positions at an All-Big Ten level. But the unit's overall depth should improve. Perhaps more important, Claeys and his staff are no longer newcomers.

The foundation is in place. The defense improved from 93rd in scoring defense in 2011 to 45th in 2012 and 25th last season. It was extremely salty in the red zone, allowing just 26 touchdowns on 52 opponent trips inside the 20-yard line.

These days, Claeys and his staff are enhancing their system rather than teaching it.

"It's not what you know as a coach; it's what those kids know," he said. "It's nice to be going into our fourth year and have a system in place to where a lot of the kids, they know those adjustments already. With knowledge comes confidence, and to be good on defense nowadays with all the spread stuff and the hurry-ups, you have to be confident."

Although Vereen started games at both safety and cornerback last season, Claeys expects the secondary to be Minnesota's strongest group in 2014. Cornerback Eric Murray has All-Big Ten potential, and Derrick Wells and Briean Boddy-Calhoun both are playmakers who will be healthy by the start of fall camp. Boddy-Calhoun started the first two games at cornerback last fall before tearing his ACL, and Wells, who had 10 pass breakups and two interceptions in 2012, battled injuries all season.

Safety Cedric Thompson has emerged as the leader of the defense after learning alongside Vereen. Antonio Johnson, who had 69 tackles in 2013, also returns at safety.

Claeys also has high hopes for the linebackers. Although only one starter is back in Damien Wilson, De'Vondre Campbell logged significant time last season and Jack Lynn should have a greater role following a strong spring. Wilson, a junior-college transfer who led Minnesota with 79 tackles in 2013, is taking charge of the group.

"We need Damien to step up into more of a leadership role," Claeys said. "That's one thing that's hard on junior-college kids, the leadership in their first year. I think he'll be better at that."

Minnesota has reached consecutive bowl games and held its own in Big Ten play last season. To continue the trajectory, the Gophers must navigate a challenging schedule, establish more balance on offense through the passing game and keep the pedal down on defense.

Claeys doesn't expect his unit to let up despite the two big pieces it loses.

"I'll be disappointed," he said, "if we don't play better than we did a year ago."
With spring practice officially behind us, we're taking a look at each Big Ten team and identifying a player who announced himself as a potential key performer this fall.

These are guys who haven't played big roles yet but showed enough during the 15 spring practices -- not just some fluky, spring-game performance against backups -- to factor heavily into their team's plans.

The series now continues on to the Minnesota Golden Gophers and their defensive backfield.

Spring breakout player: S Damarius Travis

Safety Cedric Thompson started 10 games last season and led the Gophers in tackles (79). Safety Antonio Johnson started in six games and finished fourth with 69 tackles. They’re both returning this upcoming season -- so the pair are a lock to return to their starting positions, right?

Think again. That’s the kind of spring that Travis had.

“If we had to play a game next week, Damarius Travis would be starting,” defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys told the Minnesota Daily last month. “He’s the most improved [defensive back] by far.”

Travis played in 13 games last season, but he was an afterthought to both Thompson and Johnson. He started in just two games and finished with 28 tackles. But the Florida native has shown a lot of potential this offseason -- so much that he’s caught the eye of just about everyone who’s seen him practice.

Jerry Kill realized by mid-March that Travis “has really stood out.” BTN’s Tom Dienhart identified Travis as a defensive playmaker in mid-April. And Claeys offered up his quote somewhere in between.

Travis is quick, he’s focused, and he’s looking to be more than just a role player this season. Minnesota is just hoping he continues to progress as quickly this summer as he did this spring.

Minnesota spring wrap

April, 28, 2014
Apr 28
8:00
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The spring workouts are in the books, and the long offseason has arrived. But before diving into summer and the painful wait for football to return, we’re taking a look back at the developments from March and April and sneaking a peek at what to expect in the fall for Minnesota.

Three things we learned in the spring
  • Mitch Leidner is the man in Minneapolis: Once Philip Nelson transferred to Rutgers, it seemed as if Leidner was a lock to become the starter. Sure enough, he held off Chris Streveler this spring and cemented his status as the Gophers' No. 1 QB. And he's quickly become "the undisputed leader of the offense."
  • Plenty to be happy about with the ground game: Redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards impressed during the spring game and flashed breakaway speed, and Rodrick Williams is playing as if he has something to prove after losing his job last season to David Cobb. With an experienced offensive line returning, this rushing attack has even more going for it this season.
  • Defense is strong -- again: Despite the departures of Ra'Shede Hageman and Brock Vereen, defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys still has a lot to work with. There's no shortage of healthy cornerbacks this year, and big things are again expected out of linebacker Damien Wilson and defensive end Theiren Cockran. During the spring game, the defense kept the offense out of the end zone for the first five drives.
Three questions for the fall
  • How much will Minnesota pass?: Leidner has reportedly improved his accuracy and timing, but it's still unknown just how much the Gophers will rely on his right arm. He threw 78 passes last season compared to 102 rushes, and there are questions as to how one-dimensional this offense might be.
  • New corps of linebackers: Wilson is the leader of the defense, but Minnesota still has two other starting spots to fill. De'Vondre Campbell appears to be one, but the other spot (perhaps filled by Jack Lynn) is not yet totally settled. There's also quite a bit of depth here this season, so the second team could have a lot of different looks.
  • Developing offensive playmakers at wideout: This was an emphasis of the Gophers this spring, but there's still no check mark next to this on Jerry Kill's to-do list. Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones both return and could give the Gophers a shot at some big plays, but they'll have to continue to progress. They combined for 416 yards last fall.
One way-too-early prediction

The tight ends will become an even more valuable weapon for Minnesota's offense. Maxx Williams was the leading receiver last season, but he shouldn't be the only tight end to make an impact. Eleven tight ends are listed on the roster, including 6-foot-10 Nate Wozniak, who seems like an intriguing red-zone target. There's also returnees Drew Goodger and Lincoln Plsek, along with Duke Anyanwu, who is finally healthy. Expect at least one of them to step up.

Big Ten lunchtime links

April, 24, 2014
Apr 24
12:00
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Spring games on the horizon at Michigan State, Rutgers and Iowa. Read all about it:
  • Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon and Michigan State’s Mark Hollis weigh in against the unionization of college athletes in advance of the Northwestern vote.
  • Big plans and expectations for Michigan State defensive end Demetrius Cooper. Quarterback Connor Cook goes No. 1 in the MSU draft, conducted by players, for the upcoming spring game. And walk-on receiver Matt Macksood has made an impact this spring.
  • The MihWolverines might need their defense to carry a big load.
  • Penn State has no official position on the return of a Joe Paterno statue to State College. But the school should take a stance on the former coach’s legacy, writes our Josh Moyer.
  • Kyle Flood plans to spend more time than in the past involved in the details during Rutgers’ spring game on Saturday. Meanwhile, running back Paul James continues to fight through injuries.
  • The Washington Post offers a favorable grade for Maryland football coaching salaries in comparison to the rest of its new league.
  • Big raises for Minnesota coordinators Tracy Claeys and Matt Limegrover.
  • Jake Rudock strengthens his hold on the starting quarterback job at Iowa.
  • Urban Meyer is not an advocate for spring football at Ohio high schools, but he’d like to young players receive an opportunity to spend more time with their coaches in the offseason.
  • The band 1984 Draft, its name inspired by a Nebraska fan, help keeps alive the memory of a historic period for the Huskers.

Spring game preview: Minnesota

April, 11, 2014
Apr 11
10:00
AM ET
Ten league squads wrap up spring practice this weekend, and we’re taking a look at each spring game or scrimmage. Next up: Minnesota.

When: 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday

Where: TCF Bank Stadium

Admission: Free. Gates open at 1:30 p.m. ET. There will be a Gopher football alumni football game from 2-3 p.m. ET, and former players will sign autographs in the west plaza after the game.

TV: Streamed live on BTN2Go.com. The game will be also shown Sunday at 6:30 p.m. on Big Ten Network.

Weather forecast: Mostly cloudy, with a high near 67. Chance of precipitation is 70 percent, though most of the rain is predicted for the morning.

What to watch for: One of the Gophers' biggest goals for this offseason was to develop more playmakers, especially in the passing game. So it would be very encouraging to see the offense come up with some explosive plays during the spring game.

Mitch Leidner has established himself as the clear No. 1 quarterback, and the team is hoping young receivers Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones continue to make strides, along with a deep crew at tight end (Maxx Williams is out with a knee injury). The Gophers could also use a few more home runs in their rushing attack, and perhaps redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards, who broke off a 50-yard scoring run in last week's scrimmage, can provide that. Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover knows he can still pound the ball with veteran backs David Cobb and Donnell Kirkwood, plus Leidner. Top recruit Jeff Jones is also on the way.

If Minnesota's offense can move the ball effectively against its own defense, that's a reason for optimism. Despite losing star defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman and defensive back Brock Vereen, coordinator Tracy Claeys can call on a pretty experienced crew. Claeys would like to see a leap forward from his linebacker group, which lost seniors Aaron Hill and James Manuel but returns guys like Damien Wilson, De'Vondre Campbell and Jack Lynn who saw action last season. Replacing Hageman will probably require a group effort, but the coaching staff likes the potential of Scott Ekpe and Cameron Botticelli inside.

All in all, the team probably has fewer question marks going into this spring game than any previous ones under Jerry Kill. That's why hopes are high in Minneapolis.

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