Big Ten: Warren Herring
Our fourth question of the week: What was the biggest surprise in the Big Ten this season?
Josh Moyer: We knew this running back class would be good -- but we didn’t know it would be this good. Four Big Ten backs are currently ranked within the top 11 nationally in rushing, the most since 2005, when five ranked within the top 11. The Big Ten also became the first conference since 2007 to feature a pair of 2,000-yard rushers in the same season. And then there’s that whole matter of being the first conference to ever sweep the list of Doak Walker finalists. It’s no surprise this group played well but, before the season, no one was saying how this could be the best group of B1G backs in at least 20 seasons. That’s where this group stands now; it’s exceeded every lofty expectation.
Brian Bennett: Without question, the biggest surprise in the Big Ten in 2014 was J.T. Barrett. After he had a rough game in Week 2 against Virginia Tech, it looked like Ohio State was really going to struggle replacing Braxton Miller at quarterback. Instead, Barrett pretty much turned into Superman after that. He broke all kinds of records, including the Big Ten record for touchdowns accounted for with 45, and finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting despite not playing in the Big Ten championship game because of a broken ankle. Nobody knew much about Barrett going into the season. Absolutely no one could have predicted this kind of season for him.
Austin Ward: Ohio State’s overall development. There is a perfect poster boy in Barrett, but he was far from the only inexperienced player thrown into the fire for a team that still believed it could win the Big Ten even as faith waned in August. Ohio State had to work in four new offensive linemen, and by the end of the year that group was probably the best in the league. The Buckeyes lost top wideout Philly Brown and workhorse tailback Carlos Hyde, and Michael Thomas and Ezekiel Elliott emerged without missing a step. The pass defense was atrocious even with two first-round draft picks on the field at the end of thr 2013 season, and one year later, the Buckeyes led the conference in interceptions. The rapid rise of essentially the entire roster into a contender in the College Football Playoff was stunning.
Dan Murphy: We can't all pick the Buckeyes. Instead, I'm going with Northwestern putting together two of the more improbable wins of the year despite an overall season that didn't meet expectations. The Wildcats were 17.5-point underdogs against the Notre Dame team they beat in overtime. The spread against Wisconsin was only eight points, but probably would've been much higher had those teams met later in the season. The Badgers and the Irish were both teams mentioned in playoff conversations at different points this year, and somehow they both lost to a team that was outgained offensively by the Leathernecks of Western Illinois. Pat Fitzgerald has as much job security as anyone in the Big Ten, but without those two shockers, the conversation would be around a 3-9 Northwestern team and it would have a much different tone.
Adam Rittenberg: In the spirit of variety, I'm going with Wisconsin's defense. Recent impressions resonate and Wisconsin left a very bad one in the Big Ten championship game against Ohio State, but it shouldn't overshadow a remarkable coaching job by both coordinator Dave Aranda and head coach Gary Andersen. Wisconsin's defense went through an extreme makeover after losing its entire front seven from 2013, including linebacker Chris Borland, the Big Ten's defensive player of the year. The Badgers amazingly didn't backslide and progressed, leading the FBS in fewest yards allowed in one stretch, and they currently rank fourth in yards allowed and 13th in points allowed. They received big performances from the "Chevy Bad Boys" at linebacker, Mike Caputo at safety and Warren Herring up front. Aranda and Andersen mixed coverages and effectively put more speed on the field. What looked like a liability in August soon became a team strength.
Brian Bennett: Penn State was 2-0 when its bowl ban was lifted, and the Nittany Lions went on to win their next two games. But since then, they've lost four straight (with three of them coming down to a final possession). Getting to the postseason is certainly not guaranteed, but I really like Penn State to win this weekend at Indiana, which is struggling mightily. Unless you think James Franklin's club will upset Michigan State at home in the season finale, then that means it will have to beat either Temple or Illinois (on the road) to become bowl-eligible. Both those games are close to toss-ups, but I would favor Penn State slightly in each. So I think this team will get to six wins, though it probably won't be easy.
@BennettESPN what are the chances Psu makes a bowl game. I only see one easy game (Indiana) and two possible wins (Illinois and Temple).— LeftyMarlins (@LeftyMarlins) November 5, 2014
@BennettESPN Will the combination of '13 and '14 undo most of the good NU has achieved under Fitz? Still heard about top recruits (1/1)— TrickOrTreaTJ (@Cyan220) November 5, 2014
@BennettESPN during last years bad season, but nothing now. And they aren't losing close games due to bad breaks anymore. (2/2)— TrickOrTreaTJ (@Cyan220) November 5, 2014
Brian Bennett: Hey, no fair using two tweets to get your full question in! No doubt, the momentum has slowed for Northwestern, which at the time of last year's game with Ohio State had won 14 of its previous 17 games and notched its first bowl victory in half a century. Since then, the Wildcats are just 4-12. Just when it looked like they were starting to turn things around with wins over Penn State and Wisconsin this season, the bottom dropped out again. Pat Fitzgerald's team has lost its past two games by a combined 62 points, including last Saturday's embarrassingly bad 48-7 whitewash at Iowa.
It's hard to tell what exactly has gone wrong in Evanston, as Fitzgerald hasn't changed much since the highly successful 2012 season and supposedly more athletic recruits were on the way. The team certainly lacks consistency and, apart from that two-game stretch earlier in the year, hasn't shown much toughness. According to ESPN Recruiting Nation, Northwestern has 17 commitments so far for 2015, and 16 of them are rated as three-star prospects. This isn't a team that usually reels in more than the occasional four-star and five-star player. More so than recruiting, Fitzgerald has to figure out why things have gone so far off the rails and how to get them back on track.
@BennettESPN What do these Wisconsin blow outs mean as they go forward and play teams who actually know how to play football?— Renée (@rshill37) November 5, 2014
Brian Bennett: Let's not shortchange the Badgers' 52-7 win over Maryland. Sure, the Terrapins are impossible to figure out week to week. But they have also beaten Iowa and Penn State and came within a field goal of beating a very good West Virginia team. So that win was the best Wisconsin has looked all season, by far.
What we've learned about the Badgers is that their defense is playing at an unbelievably high level, currently ranked No. 1 in the FBS in yards allowed and No. 3 in scoring. The return of Warren Herring at defensive tackle has been huge, and in retrospect, his injury -- not Melvin Gordon's disappearance -- might have been the biggest reason Wisconsin couldn't hold on against LSU in the opener.
Now, for the bad news: While Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy did a pretty good job throwing the ball against Maryland, the passing game against Rutgers was virtually nonexistent (albeit in tough weather conditions). When the Badgers take on Nebraska and Iowa, they can't simply be one-dimensional on offense, no matter how good Gordon is. They won't win the Big Ten West unless Stave, McEvoy and their receivers can elevate their performance in the final month.
Brian Bennett: Nebraska sits at No. 13 in the latest playoff poll and has a great shot to move into the Top 10 if it wins its final three regular-season games. Would that be enough for a big six bowl if the Huskers then lost in the Big Ten championship game? Possibly, but I'd say no. The committee doesn't appear to have much respect for the Big Ten based on the current rankings, so another loss could send Nebraska tumbling back down the poll. I'd say it's more likely Big Red heads to the Holiday Bowl, mostly because the Big Ten wants to avoid sending the Cornhuskers back to Florida for a fourth straight year.
One thing that could really help the Huskers' cause, however: A Miami win over Florida State.
1. The West Division chase could be special: Four teams in the West -- Nebraska, Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota -- are in a virtual first-place tie with just one loss. What makes that really fun is they will all play each other in the season's final four weeks, beginning with Iowa-Minnesota in Week 11. We weren't sure the Hawkeyes were a serious contender until Saturday, when Kirk Ferentz's team turned in by far its best performance of the season in a 48-7 blowout of Northwestern. Iowa controlled both lines of scrimmage, Jake Rudock made all the right plays at quarterback and Mark Weisman bowled his way to three touchdowns. With Nebraska and Wisconsin still having to go to Iowa City, the Hawkeyes remain a major threat to win the division if they can repeat their level of play in Week 10. But it's still a wide-open race that should be a lot of fun to watch.
2. Wisconsin's defense gives it a chance: Badgers defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is a hot coaching commodity and showed why again on Saturday. Wisconsin beat Rutgers 37-0 and registered its first conference road shutout since 1998. That came one week after the defense nearly shut out Maryland. Aranda has put together a dominant unit, despite losing nine defensive starters from the past year's team. The return of nose tackle Warren Herring, who was injured in the opener against LSU, has helped take the defense to another level. The Badgers still struggle to throw the ball, but with Melvin Gordon running wild and Aranda's side of the ball shutting things down, Wisconsin has a chance to finish strong.
4. Hackenberg hanging on by a thread: Penn State sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg is a special talent and the reigning Big Ten freshman of the year, but he's having a nightmare sophomore season. He has taken a ton of hits this season and endured five more sacks in Saturday's 20-19 loss to Maryland. His frustration appears to be boiling over, as Hackenberg was seen yelling and waving his arms at his offensive coordinator, John Donovan, on the sideline. The Nittany Lions' offensive line just can't protect him, and that only got worse with left tackle Donovan Smith out with an injury. Hackenberg isn't making great in-game decisions, either, which is likely a byproduct of all the pressure he's been under. James Franklin and his staff don't have a lot of options, but they've got to find a way to make sure they don't lose Hackenberg -- either to injury or mentally.
5. Battle for bowls heating up: Three Big Ten teams -- Iowa, Maryland and Wisconsin -- clinched postseason eligibility Saturday. That makes seven overall for the league. But where it gets interesting is beyond that group. Technically, the other seven teams are all still alive for a bowl bid, though it's hard to envision Indiana getting off the mat to win three more games or Purdue winning out. Rutgers has been stuck on five wins for a few weeks and finally gets a schedule break in hosting Indiana next time out. Illinois and Penn State both have four wins. Can Michigan, which finally showed a little life Saturday (albeit against those same struggling Hoosiers) find two more wins? Can 3-5 Northwestern rebound after a horrific showing at Iowa? There could be a lot of teams fighting for their bowl lives in the final couple weeks.
Michigan might stage a watershed moment at Spartan Stadium. Hey, stranger things have happened. Yeah, Michigan State has been good in winning five straight, but it’s not without holes. The Spartans have overcome struggles on the defensive side in each of the past four games. And Michigan has the athletes to burn the MSU defense. If the Wolverines can gain some confidence, no better time exists to inject life back into a seemingly lost season than in this rematch of the Spartans’ domination a season ago. Perhaps, Michigan can find some inspiration from its predecessors’ huge comeback 10 years ago to beat the Spartans -- a triple-overtime win that appeared more unlikely in the fourth quarter than even a victory this week. Michigan had last week off to get healthy and concoct a plan to attack its rival as if there's no tomorrow in Ann Arbor. Even Brady Hoke sounds ready to rumble, admitting that he’s “not a big fan of the Spartans.” More than likely, though, this game will follow script and end with an MSU win, thanks in no small part to its tendency to create turnovers -- and Michigan’s habit of losing the football.
Wisconsin might get it together. It’s almost November, and, if it’s going to happen, now is the time for the Badgers to make a move. After an off week, with extra practice to bring clarity to the quarterback puzzle in Madison, this game looks like a good one to start playing like a cohesive unit, especially on offense. Maryland gives up points and yards. And the Badgers appear set to welcome diverse fullback Derek Watt back from injury in addition to defensive tackle Warren Herring, who injured a knee right as things went downhill in the season opener against LSU. Maybe offensive guard Rob Havenstein can help bring some focus to the Badgers as he goes against his homestate school. Or perhaps what we’ve seen through six games is Wisconsin -- a team with a solid defense, a great running back and no answer at quarterback.
Rutgers might neutralize the Nebraska pass rush. It seems Kaleb Johnson believes that Ohio State star defensive end Joey Bosa was avoiding the Scarlet Knights' decorated left guard last week in Columbus. Johnson and left tackle Keith Lumpkin want a chance to stack up against the best defensive linemen in the Big Ten. And apparently, Ohio State attacked the right side of the Rutgers offensive line. Sounds like an odd thing about which to complain after a 56-17 loss. The Buckeyes sacked Gary Nova four times. Johnson and Lumpkin are anxious this week to face Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory and defensive tackle Maliek Collins. The Scarlet Knights might want to be careful what they wish for. Gregory is a one-on-one nightmare for any offensive lineman. Collins and Vincent Valentine on the interior are a handful. And the Huskers are developing depth up front on defense. But I like the attitude of Johnson and Lumpkin. Nebraska’s pass rush, while solid and full of promise, has overwhelmed only Fresno State and Illinois this season. And if Nova stays clean, he can do damage.
Around the league:
- Maryland defensive coordinator Brian Stewart goes way back with Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen.
- Is Penn State's Christian Hackenberg the next star quarterback to struggle against the Ohio State defense?
- The biggest recruiting weekend of the year has arrived at Penn State.
- A midseason report card for Iowa.
- Purdue quarterbacks want to go deep.
- A history lesson on Minnesota football from Patrick Reusse, and what it means about the direction of these Gophers.
- The compelling story of Northwestern's Dwight White, who learned this year that he had been playing football with one kidney.
- Check out these names who should be on the Illinois coaching radar, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
Good morning. A few thoughts before we get to the links:
1. Quarterback J.T. Barrett is receiving loads of attention as Ohio State continues its incredible offensive surge. And rightly so, because Barrett's numbers (20 total touchdowns, five interceptions, 65.2 percent completion rate) are astounding. He has the highest ESPN QBR score in the country since Sept. 6, the date of the Buckeyes' loss to Virginia Tech.
But let's not forget the improvement of Ohio State's offensive line. The young group with four new starters looked like a liability in the first couple of games. Since then, it has become a source of strength. The Buckeyes allowed no sacks on Saturday against Rutgers, whose defense came into the game leading the Big Ten in that category. The Scarlet Knights only had two tackles for loss and just one quarterback hurry. Ed Warriner's group showed similar dominance against Maryland, whose defensive front caused Iowa's offensive line all kinds of problems on Saturday.
Urban Meyer had his players give the assistant coaches a standing ovation after the Rutgers win. It's hard to tell just how good the Buckeyes are right now, Bob Hunter writes. But they look pretty darn good.
2. As great as Ameer Abdullah is, I thought Nebraska needed one more weapon to take its offense to a truly elite level. The Huskers might have found that extra option on Saturday at Northwestern.
De'Mornay Pierson-El, who to this point had done most of his damage on punt returns, had three catches and even threw a touchdown pass to Tommy Armstrong Jr., evoking memories of a famous trick play from Nebraska's past. The speedy true freshman gives Armstrong another target along with Kenny Bell and Jordan Westerkamp. The Huskers were dominant offensively in the second half against a pretty good Northwestern defense, and Pierson-El was a big reason why.
"De’Mornay and Ameer and Kenny, when does it end?” offensive coordinator Tim Beck told the Omaha World-Herald. “You want those guys on the field, because now you've got to guard them all.”
3. Indiana just can't seem to sustain any kind of positive momentum. The Hoosiers were a trendy pick to make a bowl this season, especially after winning at Missouri on Sept. 20.
But since then, Kevin Wilson's team has gone just 1-3 (with the lone win over North Texas). And as IU showed in Saturday's 56-17 loss to Michigan State, it's highly doubtful that there is another win left on the schedule.
True freshman quarterback Zander Diamont clearly isn't ready, as his 5-for-15, 11-yard performance vs. the Spartans confirmed. He should be redshirting, but season-ending injuries to Nate Sudfeld and Chris Covington thrust him into action. Even with Tevin Coleman having a season for the ages, the Hoosiers don't have much of a chance without a passing attack and with a defense that can't win Big Ten games on its own. There's much to like about the young talent Wilson has brought to Bloomington, but Indiana continues to be stuck in program quicksand. The last five games will test the resolve of Wilson and his players.
- Everything was ravaged for Iowa at Maryland, as the Hawkeyes threw the ball 56 (!) times. “Things we are known for doing when we play well, I can’t think of one of those things we did today,” Kirk Ferentz said.
- Minnesota simply found a way to beat Purdue.
- The game -- and likely the division hopes -- got away from Northwestern in the second half.
- Purdue was oh-so-close at Minnesota but came up short.
- Illinois finds itself in a familiar pickle.
- Wisconsin's Derek Watt and Warren Herring are spending unwanted time together -- in the training room.
- Michigan State has the look of a playoff team, Shawn Windsor writes.
- Rutgers was humbled in the Horseshoe but can't let the blowout loss define its season.
- Maryland's playmakers emerged at just the right time.
- Does big-money donor Stephen Ross hold the key to Dave Brandon's fate at Michigan?
- Questions facing Penn State for the second half.
Ohio State's band put on another amazing halftime show. Rock out to it. The Pinball Wizard part is my favorite.
Don't ignore new quarterbacks like Wes Lunt and Tanner McEvoy, or newcomer defenders like Jabrill Peppers and Jihad Ward, but the real gauge for some teams will take place in the trenches. There are several revamped lines in the Big Ten that will be under the microscope in Week 1.
Let's take a look:
Wisconsin defensive line versus LSU (in Houston): The Badgers will start three new players up front -- ends Chikwe Obasih and Konrad Zagzebski, and tackle Warren Herring -- against talented Tigers running backs Terrence Magee, Kenny Hilliard and Leonard Fournette, the decorated incoming freshman. Herring and Zabzekbski have five combined career starts, while Obasih, a redshirt freshman, makes his debut on a huge stage.
"I really feel that in the pass rush aspect and in the containing the quarterback aspect, we are a little bit more athletic and we have a little bit more speed," defensive coordinator Dave Aranda told me last week.
Penn State offensive line versus UCF (in Dublin, Ireland): Only one healthy starter (tackle Donovan Smith) returns for PSU's line, which has heard all about its depth issues throughout the offseason. The group will be tested right away by a UCF defense that returns nine starters, including the entire line. You can bet Knights coach George O'Leary will put Penn State's line under duress from the onset.
Ohio State offensive line versus Navy (in Baltimore): Like Penn State, Ohio State brings back just one line starter (tackle Taylor Decker) from last year, and the unit's task became a lot tougher after the season-ending loss of quarterback Braxton Miller. The Buckeyes' new-look front must protect freshman signal caller J.T. Barrett and create some running room against a smaller Navy defensive line.
Northwestern defensive line versus Cal: Both Wildcat lines have question marks entering the season, but the defensive front enters the spotlight after dealing with injuries throughout the offseason. Veteran defensive tackle Sean McEvilly (foot) is out for the season, and tackles Greg Kuhar and C.J. Robbins will get an opportunity to assert themselves against a Cal offense that racked up 549 yards against Northwestern in last year's game.
Purdue offensive line versus Western Michigan: The Boilers simply weren't strong enough up front in 2013 and couldn't move the ball for much of the season. They should be better on the interior with center Robert Kugler leading the way. This is a great chance for Purdue to start strong against a Western Michigan defense that ranked 118th nationally against the run in 2013.
Michigan offensive line versus Appalachian State: This isn't the Appalachian State team that shocked Michigan in 2007, but the Wolverines need to gain cohesion and confidence up front and with their run game. After a lot of line shuffling in camp, Michigan tries to get backs Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith going in the opener before a Week 2 trip to Notre Dame.
To the links ...
- Some bad news for Iowa's defensive line, as tackle Darian Cooper posts that he had season-ending surgery.
- Prove-it time has arrived for Nebraska's supposedly improved defense.
- It's Mitch Leidner's show at Minnesota, and that's a very good thing, Chip Scoggins writes.
- Melvin Gordon spills the beans about Wisconsin's not-so secret starting quarterback. Coach Gary Andersen expects both signal callers to play this fall. A former Badgers recruit is sentenced to a year in jail for sexual assault.
- Illinois could use its two backup quarterbacks as wide receivers.
- After two pick-sixes last year against Cal, Northwestern linebacker Collin Ellis aims for an encore against the Bears.
- The Gold & Black staff weighs in on a simple but important question: Will Purdue be better?
- Michigan isn't electing captains until after the season. The Wolverines and Nebraska are on Jeremy Fowler's list of sneaky playoff contenders.
- Ohio State still has at least four starting spots up for grabs this week.
- Notes and nuggets from Penn State's coordinators before the team departs for Ireland.
- Indiana has implemented an NFL-style tackling system to help its defenders.
- Spartan Stadium gets a facelift.
- A closer look at Maryland's Week 1 depth chart.
- Dan Duggan lists 10 under-the-radar Rutgers players to watch this season.
» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC
Previewing the 2014 season for the Wisconsin Badgers:
2013 overall record: 9-4 (6-2 Big Ten)
Key losses: RB James White, WR Jared Abbrederis, TE Jacob Pedersen, OG Ryan Groy, DE Pat Muldoon, DT Beau Allen, LB Chris Borland, S Dezmen Southward
Key returnees: RB Melvin Gordon, OT Rob Havenstein, OG Kyle Costigan, OT Tyler Marz, CB Sojourn Shelton, S Michael Caputo
Instant impact newcomer: Safety Lubern Figaro. If you're from outside the Badger State, you're probably asking, "Who?" After all, Figaro was just a three-star recruit and enrolled over the summer -- but he's already projected to start in the opener. Part of the reason is reportedly an injury to safety Leo Musso, but Figaro has already done plenty to separate himself. In the first scrimmage this preseason, he returned a pick for a touchdown. DB Sojourn Shelton made an impact last season when he was a true freshman; now it looks as if it's Figaro's turn.
Offense: QB: Joel Stave, RS Jr., 6-5, 220; RB: Melvin Gordon, RS Jr., 6-1, 213; FB: Derek Watt, RS Jr., 6-2, 236; WR: Alex Erickson, RS So., 6-0, 196; WR: Reggie Love, RS So., 6-3, 214; TE: Sam Arneson, Sr., 6-4, 244; OT: Tyler Marz, RS Jr., 6-5, 321; OG: Dallas Lewallen, RS Sr., 6-6, 321: C: Dan Voltz, RS So., 6-3, 311; OG: Kyle Costigan, RS Sr., 6-5, 319; OT: Rob Havenstein, RS Sr., 6-8, 333
Defense: DE: Chikwe Obasih, RS Fr., 6-2, 268; DT: Warren Herring, RS Sr., 6-3, 294; DE: Konrad Zagzebski, RS Sr., 6-3, 277; OLB: Joe Schobert, Jr., 6-2, 240; ILB: Marcus Trotter, RS Sr., 6-0, 226; ILB: Derek Landisch, Sr., 6-0, 231; OLB: Vince Biegel, RS So., 6-4, 244; CB: Darius Hillary, RS Jr., 5-11, 188; CB: Sojourn Shelton, So., 5-9, 178; S: Michael Caputo, RS Jr., 6-1, 212; S: Lubern Figaro, Fr., 6-0, 179
Specialists: P: Drew Meyer, RS Jr., 6-3, 187; PK: Rafael Gaglianone, Fr., 5-11, 231
Biggest question mark: Can this front seven recover from so many key departures? Of the seven players who started in the Badgers' bowl game last season, only one returns. That leaves quite a few holes, especially when considering the departures of Big Ten defensive player of the year Chris Borland and two All-Big Ten honorable mentions (Beau Allen, Pat Muldoon). Wisconsin's front seven dominated in 2013, as they helped the Badgers rank No. 5 nationally in rush defense (102.5 yards per game) and No. 6 in scoring defense (16.3 points per game). Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is solid, but he's not a magician. Those defensive numbers will almost certainly drop from last season -- but just how much?
Most important game: Nov. 15 versus Nebraska. It's basically a three-team race in the West Division, so this is a must-win if Wisconsin wants a spot in the Big Ten championship game. There's no Ohio State or Michigan State on the schedule this season, so the Huskers and Iowa Hawkeyes are the teams to beat. Iowa is just as important, but that contest comes a week later, and that won't mean a thing if Wisconsin first can't get past this contest.
Upset special: Nov. 29 versus Minnesota. A lot could be on the line when the Badgers square off against Minnesota in the final game of the regular season. And, depending how Wisconsin's defense progresses, this could be an interesting one. Wisconsin's run defense is a wild card right now, and the Gophers could boast the second-toughest rushing attack on Wisconsin's schedule (outside of Nebraska). No team held Wisconsin to fewer points (20) last season than Minnesota, so there is some potential here. Plus, one has to think the Gophers will be able to manage better than a seven-point offensive effort this time around.
Key stat: Sure, everyone knows the departure of Jared Abbrederis will hurt Wisconsin. But the Badgers actually lost their top four targets, and only one (Jordan Fredrick) recorded catches in the double-digits. And he had just 10. Overall, Wisconsin lost 81 percent of its receiving production, as this year's returners had just 42 combined receptions last season compared with the 217 total catches.
What they're wearing: Wisconsin has come a long way since 2010, because it basically went from rotating between two uniform combinations to doing photo shoots with more than 20 combinations.
One possible new look includes an all-red, jersey-pant combo (not to be confused with Nebraska's all-red getup):
@UWCoachAndersen) joined Twitter just a few weeks ago, but he pumps out unique tweets and is a great follow. The official Wisconsin football account (@BadgerFootball) tweets like crazy and is always on the ball. As far as players, running back Melvin Gordon (@Melvingordon25) is a no-brainer, while cornerback Sojourn Shelton (@SDS1_) definitely deserves a few more follows. There are quite a few good follows for your coverage needs -- besides us, of course -- including the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Jeff Potrykus (@jaypo1961) and SB Nation blog Bucky's 5th Quarter (@B5Q).
They said it: "No question there's a temptation to run him every time." – Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen on running back Melvin Gordon
Stats & Info projection: 9.29 wins
Wise guys over/under: 9.5 wins
Big Ten blog projection: Ten wins. Wisconsin has a lot of question marks, but it also has a lot of talent. The rushing offense should be one of the nation's best and, while this defense will undoubtedly take a step back from last season, it shouldn't free-fall with Dave Aranda at the helm. Wisconsin's schedule is pretty favorable, as it doesn't play any of the big names from the East, and it's possible it could be favored in every game from Week 2 on. Wisconsin's getting the benefit of the doubt here, but if it can manage a win against LSU in the opener, that bandwagon is going to get big in a hurry.
Simon Cvijanovic, Sr., OT: He's a two-year starter on the Illini offensive line, spending last season at left tackle for one of the more explosive offenses in the league. He and his younger brother, Peter, a freshman, will be playing for a new position coach, as Tom Brattan was officially hired last week.
Jon Davis, Sr., TE: A versatile player who can line up at tight end or out wide, Davis is one of the Illini's few returning receiving threats after catching 25 balls for 208 yards last season.
Austin Teitsma, Sr., DL: A returning starter at defensive tackle, Teitsma will be a leader on the defense this season. The Illini hope he can help improve a rush defense that was worst in the league last year.
Carl Davis, Sr., DT: A second-team All-Big Ten selection last year, Davis is one of the top defensive tackles in the league. He has been projected by some as a possible first-round NFL draft pick next year.
Brandon Scherff, Sr., OL: Scherff is almost guaranteed to be a first-round pick and should challenge for All-America honors as the Hawkeyes' left tackle. Also, he can do this, which is insane.
Mark Weisman, Sr., RB: A former walk-on who was one of the biggest surprises in the Big Ten in 2012, Weisman finished 25 yards shy of 1,000 yards rushing last season. His role might change a little in a crowded backfield this fall.
David Cobb, Sr., RB: Cobb had the 12th-highest rushing total in Gophers history last season with 1,202 yards. But he'll face some competition, as Minnesota is loaded at running back.
Mitch Leidner, So., QB: Philip Nelson's offseason departure paved the way for Leidner to take over the Gophers' quarterback job. He's a dangerous runner who needs to become a more accurate passer for Minnesota's offense to take the next step.
Cedric Thompson, Sr., S: A two-year starter at safety, Thompson led the team with 79 tackles a year ago. He also has an intriguing back story.
Ameer Abdullah, Sr., RB: One of the star attractions of media day, Abdullah led the Big Ten in rushing last year with 1,690 yards. He's the heart and soul of the Nebraska offense.
Kenny Bell, Sr., WR: Us media types were very excited to see Bell -- a tremendous personality -- included on the list of player attendees. Expect some excellent quotes from Mr. Afro Thunder. He also happens to be an outstanding receiver known almost as much for his ferocious blocking as his speed and ball skills.
Corey Cooper, Sr., S: Cooper led the Huskers with 91 tackles last season and has 17 starts under his belt. He should be one of the leaders for the Blackshirts.
Ibraheim Campbell, Sr., S: Campbell has been an anchor for the Wildcats' secondary since he was a freshman All-American. Last year, he had 73 tackles and four interceptions.
Collin Ellis, Sr., LB: In his first year as a starter in 2013, Ellis had 78 tackles and three interceptions, returning two of them for scores in the opener at Cal. He shifted to middle linebacker in the offseason.
Trevor Siemian, Sr., QB: The quarterback job is all his now after he split time with Kain Colter the past two seasons. Siemian has a big arm, as evidenced by his 414-yard, four-touchdown performance in last year's finale against Illinois.
Raheem Mostert, Sr., RB: He can claim the title of fastest man in the Big Ten after his success in track this offseason. A dynamic kick returner, Mostert will try to make a big impact on offense this year with a full-time switch to running back.
Sean Robinson, Sr., LB: Converted last summer from backup quarterback to defense, Robinson quickly became a starter and key contributor. His experience and unselfishness makes him a leader for the Boilers.
Ryan Russell, Sr., DE: A veteran of 35 starts, Russell might be Purdue's most athletically gifted defensive player. He had 5.5 tackles for loss and two sacks in 2013.
Melvin Gordon, Jr., RB: Another media day main attraction, Gordon is one of the most explosive players in the country. He ran for 1,609 yards while averaging 7.8 yards per carry as a sophomore.
Rob Havenstein, Sr., RT: There won't be many bigger players in Chicago than Havenstein, who checks in at 6-foot-8 and 327 pounds. He has started the past 27 games at right tackle and made second-team All-Big Ten a year ago.
Warren Herring, Sr., DL: Herring will be a key player for the Badgers' defensive line, which lost all three starters from last season. He's also got some pretty sweet moves.
To get you more than ready, we've been looking at three questions each team will likely face at the Hilton Chicago. We wrap up our series now with the Wisconsin Badgers, who will have running back Melvin Gordon, offensive tackle Rob Havenstein and defensive lineman Warren Herring to the festivities along with coach Gary Andersen.
1. How will the passing game come together?
The spring featured an intriguing competition at quarterback between last year's starting safety, Tanner McEvoy, and incumbent starter Joel Stave, who was recovering from a shoulder injury. McEvoy, who has never thrown a pass in an FBS game, could win the job with a strong fall camp. An even bigger question might be who will catch the throws from either guy, as Jared Abbrederis' graduation leaves a major void at wide receiver. The Badgers have few proven options there, and the recent departures of a pair of incoming freshmen wideouts didn't help. We know Wisconsin will be able to run the ball well once again. But can the passing game make enough strides for this team to be a serious Big Ten contender?
2. Who steps forward in the defensive front seven?
Dave Aranda's defense must replace all three starting defensive linemen from 2013 and three of its four starting linebackers. The lone returning starter from the front seven is Derek Landisch, who had 33 tackles last season. So, yeah, this is a formidable retooling project, with veteran stalwarts such as Chris Borland, Beau Allen and Brendan Kelly no longer around. There is still a lot for Aranda to build around in guys such as Herring, who has played a lot of snaps, and linebackers Vince Biegel and Marcus Trotter. But how quickly the defense can mesh together and play as well as an often underrated group from last season remains a question.
3. How big is the LSU game?
The first two questions above need to be answered quickly, because Wisconsin opens the season against LSU in Houston. It's one of the biggest regular-season games in years for the Badgers, who will quickly put themselves in the spotlight if they can beat the Tigers. The rest of their schedule is such that a 9-0 start before hosting Nebraska on Nov. 15 suddenly becomes a real possibility with an opening win, and the College Football Playoff would be an attainable goal. The challenge, however, is steep. It will be interesting to hear how much Andersen and his players have been thinking about and preparing for this game all spring and summer long. Having LSU on the schedule should certainly have added a little more urgency to offseason workouts.
Being stout up front and strong enough to stop the run has long been a staple of success in this league. This year, several stars return at defensive end, including Nebraska's Randy Gregory, Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun, Ohio State's Joey Bosa and Noah Spence, Maryland's Andre Monroe and Minnesota's Theiren Cockran. Things are a little more undecided at defensive tackle, though Iowa's Carl Davis and Ohio State's Michael Bennett could be early round NFL draft picks.
Let's continue our position preview series with the guys holding down the fort in the defensive trenches:
Best of the best: Ohio State
I've already pegged this as the best overall position group in the Big Ten, so naturally the Buckeyes take the top spot here. The star power is immense with Bosa and Spence on the end and Bennett and Adolphus Washington inside. There are some question marks about depth, especially early on as Spence is suspended for the first two games of the season. Jamal Marcus transferred, and Tracy Sprinkle -- who at best would have provided some rotation help -- has been kicked off the team pending the resolution of his legal problems. The good news is that some incoming recruits could help right away, and when Ohio State's starting four is all together, it will be tough to stop.
Next up: Michigan State
Few teams can match the pair of defensive ends that the Spartans can line up. Calhoun is the Big Ten's reigning defensive lineman of the year, and he was a first-year starter last year who should continue to improve. On the other side, Marcus Rush has started 40 of the past 41 games and done everything asked of him. He's one of the most underrated players in the league. Michigan State has to replace both starting defensive tackles from last season, but there are several players ready to contribute, including Joel Heath and Damon Knox. Highly rated recruit Malik McDowell could work his way into the mix as well. And there are other stars waiting in the wings, like Demetrius Cooper.
The Wolverines were decent but nothing special on the defensive line last season. But they have some interesting pieces to work with this year. Start with a pair of seniors on the edges in Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer. Elsewhere on the line are a several talented young players who have seen a lot of snaps early in their careers, such as Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley, Willie Henry and Matt Godin. Many of these players were highly rated recruits, and if they can live up to their potential and bring the level of play back up near Brady Hoke's first year as head coach, this is a group that can make some noise.
Problem for a contender: Wisconsin
Like several other positions for the Badgers, this one was hit hard by graduation, as stalwarts like Beau Allen, Ethan Hemer, Pat Muldoon and Tyler Dippel have all moved on. There is still some promise here, as Warren Herring gives the team a big body inside and redshirt freshman Chikwe Obasih provides reason for excitement. Fifth-year senior Konrad Zagzebski will need to make his presence known. The group could have a little more speed than in years past, but no team lost more experience on the defensive front than Wisconsin.
We begin with Wisconsin.
Three things we learned in the spring
- The quarterback race is down to two: Wisconsin entered spring practice with four candidates and reduced the pool by 50 percent. Joel Stave, who has started 19 games the past two seasons, missed much of the session with a throwing shoulder injury. Stave will compete this summer with Tanner McEvoy, a junior-college transfer who played safety and wide receiver for parts of last season. McEvoy looked sharper this spring at quarterback and brings a run threat to the pocket. D.J. Gillins likely will redshirt, while Bart Houston remains in a reserve role.
- The coaches aren't afraid to take chances: Gary Andersen and his staff shuffled pieces on both sides of the ball, especially on defense, where they want more speed on the field. Most players saw time at multiple positions, and several young players put themselves in position for significant playing time, including redshirt freshmen defensive ends Chikwe Obasih and Alec James, safety Austin Hudson and center Michael Deiter.
- Melvin Gordon and Derek Landisch are the leaders: Gordon, the All-Big Ten running back who turned down the NFL for another year at Wisconsin, not only is the team's best player, but much more of a leader. He talked openly this spring about elevating Wisconsin to elite status and the initial College Football Playoff. Landisch, the only returning starter in the defensive front seven, is the undisputed leader of the defense and takes the torch from Chris Borland.
- Who emerges at wide receiver?: The Badgers lose a huge piece in Jared Abbrederis and went through most of the spring with only four healthy wide receivers. Although senior Kenzel Doe is stepping up, many others must emerge in the summer. Alex Erickson returns from injury and Jordan Frederick and Robert Wheelwright will be in the mix, but Wisconsin needs at least two of its five incoming freshmen wideouts to contribute. Keep an eye on Dareian Watkins.
- The starting quarterback: Unlike other Big Ten spring quarterback competitions, Wisconsin ended the session with no obvious leader. Stave's injury made it tough to gauge his progress, and the limited number of receivers made the passing game look worse than it probably will be. McEvoy has a great opportunity to win the job, especially with the coaches looking for more mobility at the position. This race likely will last well into camp.
- Defensive playmakers: Borland's loss not only hurts Wisconsin in production, but playmaking ability. No one defender can replace what Borland brought, so the Badgers need several to improve during the summer months. Leon Jacobs moved from outside linebacker to inside and has the speed to be a difference-maker. Cornerback Sojourn Shelton had four interceptions as a freshman, and the coaches are counting on players such as linebacker Joe Schobert and linemen Obasih, James, Konrad Zagzebski and Warren Herring.
McEvoy will be the starter by Big Ten play, if not earlier. Andersen's recruiting suggests he values dual-threat quarterbacks more than his Wisconsin predecessors, and the potential concerns at wide receiver accentuate the need for another backfield weapon alongside Gordon and Corey Clement. McEvoy must continue to develop as a passer, but his athleticism trumps Stave, who struggled for stretches last season despite having an elite target in Abbrederis.
Illinois: This is a significant concern for the Illini, especially after the recent departure of Houston Bates, who started last season at the Leo (defensive end/outside linebacker) spot. Illinois also loses its other starting defensive end, Tim Kynard. The team will rely heavily on junior-college players such as Jihad Ward and Joe Fotu, but it also needs holdovers like Dawuane Smoot and Paul James III to step up on the perimeter. Illinois returns more experience inside with Austin Teitsma and Teko Powell, but there should be plenty of competition, especially with the juco arrivals, after finishing 116th nationally against the run.
Indiana: The anticipated move to a 3-4 alignment under new coordinator Brian Knorr creates a different dynamic for the line this spring. Indiana must identify options at the all-important nose tackle spot, and possibilities include sophomores Ralphael Green and Darius Latham, both of whom are big bodies. Nick Mangieri had a nice sophomore season and should be in the mix for a starting job on the perimeter (end or outside linebacker), while David Kenney could be a good fit as a 3-4 end. Defensive end Ryan Phillis is the team's most experienced lineman, and Zack Shaw also has some starting experience.
Iowa: This group should be the strength of the defense as Iowa returns three full-time starters -- tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat, and end Drew Ott -- as well as Mike Hardy, who started the second half of the season opposite Ott. End Dominic Alvis departs, but Iowa brings back almost everyone else from a line that allowed only eight rushing touchdowns in 2013. Junior Darian Cooper could have a bigger role and push for more playing time inside, and Nate Meier provides some depth on the perimeter after recording two sacks in 2013. Iowa is in good shape here.
Maryland: The Terrapins employ a 3-4 scheme and appear to be in good shape up front, as reserve Zeke Riser is the only rotation player to depart. Andre Monroe leads the way at defensive end after an excellent junior season in which he led Maryland in both sacks (9.5) and tackles for loss (17). Quinton Jefferson started at defensive end last season and recorded three sacks. There should be some good competition this spring at nose tackle between Keith Bowers and Darius Kilgo, both of whom had more than 30 tackles last season. The challenge is building greater depth with players such as end Roman Braglio.
Michigan: If the Wolverines intend to make a big step in 2014, they'll need more from the front four, which didn't impact games nearly enough last fall. Michigan's strength appears to be on the edges as veteran Frank Clark returns after starting every game in 2013 and recording a team-high 12 tackles for loss. Brennen Beyer, who started the second half of last season, is back at the other end spot, and Michigan has depth with Mario Ojemudia and Taco Charlton. There are more questions inside as Willie Henry, Chris Wormley and others compete for the starting job. Young tackles such as Henry Poggi and Maurice Hurst Jr. also are in the mix, and Ondre Pipkins should be a factor when he recovers from ACL surgery.
Michigan State: The Spartans return the best defensive end tandem in the league as Shilique Calhoun, a second-team All-American in 2013, returns alongside Marcus Rush, one of the Big Ten's most experienced defenders. Joel Heath, Brandon Clemons and others provide some depth on the perimeter. It's a different story inside as MSU loses both starters (Micajah Reynolds and Tyler Hoover), as well as reserve Mark Scarpinato. Damon Knox, James Kittredge and Lawrence Thomas, who has played on both sides of the ball, are among those who will compete for the starting tackle spots. If Malik McDowell signs with MSU, he could work his way into the rotation.
Minnesota: Defensive tackles like Ra'Shede Hageman don't come around every year, and he leaves a big void in the middle of Minnesota's line. The Gophers will look to several players to replace Hageman's production, including senior Cameron Botticelli, who started opposite Hageman last season. Other options at tackle include Scott Ekpe and Harold Legania, a big body at 308 pounds. Minnesota is in much better shape at end with Theiren Cockran, arguably the Big Ten's most underrated defensive lineman. Cockran and Michael Amaefula both started every game last season, and Alex Keith provides another solid option after recording five tackles for loss in 2013.
Nebraska: Other than MSU's Calhoun, Nebraska returns the most dynamic defensive lineman in the league in Randy Gregory, who earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in his first FBS season. If the Huskers can build around Gregory, they should be very stout up front this fall. Nebraska won't have Avery Moss, suspended for the 2014 season, and players such as Greg McMullen and junior-college transfer Joe Keels will compete to start opposite Gregory. The competition inside should be fascinating as junior Aaron Curry and sophomore Vincent Valentine both have starting experience, but Maliek Collins came on strong at the end of his first season and will push for a top job.
Northwestern: It will be tough to get a clear picture of this group in the spring because of several postseason surgeries, but Northwestern should be fine at defensive end despite the loss of Tyler Scott. Dean Lowry, Ifeadi Odenigbo and Deonte Gibson all have significant experience and the ability to pressure quarterbacks. Odenigbo, who had 5.5 sacks as a redshirt freshman, could become a star. The bigger questions are inside as Northwestern must build depth. Sean McEvilly is a solid option but must stay healthy. Chance Carter and Max Chapman are among those competing for starting jobs at tackle.
Ohio State: A total mystery last spring, the defensive line should be one of Ohio State's strengths in 2014. Noah Spence and Joey Bosa could become the Big Ten's top pass-rushing tandem, and the Buckeyes have depth there with Jamal Marcus, Adolphus Washington and others. Returning starter Michael Bennett is back at defensive tackle, and while Joel Hale might move to offense, there should be enough depth inside with Tommy Schutt, Chris Carter and Washington, who could slide inside. Nose tackle is the only question mark, but new line coach Larry Johnson inherits a lot of talent.
Penn State: Like the rest of the Lions defense, the line struggled at times last season and now much replace its top player in tackle DaQuan Jones. The new coaching staff has some potentially good pieces, namely defensive end Deion Barnes, who won 2012 Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors but slumped as a sophomore. Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan could form a dangerous pass-rushing tandem, but they'll need support on the inside, where there should be plenty of competition. Austin Johnson will be in the mix for a starting tackle spot, and early enrollees Tarow Barney and Antoine White also should push for time. Anthony Zettel provides some depth on the perimeter.
Purdue: The line endured a tough 2013 campaign and loses two full-time starters (tackle Bruce Gaston Jr. and end Greg Latta), and a part-time starter (end Ryan Isaac). Competition should be ramped up at all four spots this spring. Senior end Ryan Russell is the most experienced member of the group must take a step this offseason. Evan Panfil and Jalani Phillips will push for time at the end spots, along with Kentucky transfer Langston Newton. The group at tackle includes Ryan Watson and Michael Rouse III, both of whom started games in 2013.
Rutgers: Keep a close eye on this group in the spring as Rutgers begins the transition to the Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights lose two starters in end Marcus Thompson and tackle Isaac Holmes, as well as contributor Jamil Merrell at tackle. Darius Hamilton provides a building block on the inside after recording 4.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2013, and end Djwany Mera is back after starting throughout last season. David Milewski played tackle last year, but both he and Hamilton likely need to add weight for their new league. Rutgers has some talent in the younger classes and needs players such as Sebastian Joseph, Kemoko Turay and Julian Pinnix-Odrick to emerge.
Wisconsin: Linebacker Chris Borland is the biggest single departure for the Badgers' defense, but the no position group loses more than the line. Wisconsin must replace several mainstays, most notably nose tackle Beau Allen, who performed well in the first year of the 3-4 set under coordinator Dave Aranda. Senior Warren Herring will step in for Allen after three years as a reserve. Konrad Zagzebski is a good bet to fill one of the end spots, but there will be plenty of competition with players such as Jake Keefer, James Adeyanju, Arthur Goldberg and Chikwe Obasih.
Best use of time: Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald had the number 5:03 plastered on his players' workout shirts this spring, a reminder of how close the 10-3 Wildcats came to going undefeated in 2012. The goal? "Find a way to make that up in the offseason," Fitzgerald said.
Best use of color: Michigan needed non-contact jerseys for quarterback Devin Gardner during the spring game, especially after backup Russell Bellomy went down with a torn ACL. But the Wolverines weren't about to wear red, which is the color of top rival Ohio State. Instead, they chose orange and got an assist from Oregon State, which sent along a top for Gardner to wear. "This is Michigan," Gardner said. "Orange is the only other color that stands out."
Best breakout combo: Ohio State's defensive line entered the spring as a concern and ended it as a potential strength. That's thanks to sophomore defensive ends Adolphus Washington and Noah Spence, who combined for seven sacks in the spring game and wreaked havoc on one of the Big Ten's top offensive lines all spring. Offensive tackle Jack Mewhort told ESPN.com he'd "be surprised if Spence didn't lead the Big Ten in sacks this year," while Washington might even be the better player of the two.
Best two-way player: Michigan State linebacker Riley Bullough jumped to the other side of the ball to try running back late in spring practice and quickly became the team's main ball carrier. He even threw a pass to older brother Max, the Spartans' star middle linebacker, in the spring game. The younger Bullough could play offense or defense or even both this fall.
Best debut by a player: Penn State brought in junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson this offseason because it desperately needed depth at quarterback. Ferguson played so well that he ended the spring as No. 1 on the depth chart, prompting presumed starter Steven Bench to transfer. Now, Ferguson has to hold off hotshot incoming recruit Christian Hackenberg this summer.
Best debut by a coordinator: Illinois has a long way to go, but at least the Illini should be more fun to watch this year under new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit's spread attack. Illinois quarterbacks threw the ball 87 times for 601 yards in the spring game. The Illini threw for a Big Ten-worst 2,026 yards in all of 2012.
Best moves: This is a tough call, as Bo Pelini's rowboat in the Huskers "Harlem Shake"spring kickoff video was unforgettable. But we have to give the award to Wisconsin defensive lineman Warren Herring during the team's post-practice dance competition. Any 6-foot-3, 286-pounder who can pull off the splits and spin his helmet like a basketball deserves our admiration and awe.
Best quote by a player: Never one to mince words, Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby had this to say about the Buckeyes' attempt to follow up last year's 12-0 season: "Last year was the commercial. This year is the movie."
Best quote by a coach: Longtime assistant and current Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis put the proper perspective on spring optimism: "Everybody always has a great spring. This is my 40th one, and I've never heard anybody say they've had a bad spring."
2012 conference record: 4-4 (third in Leaders Division, Big Ten champions)
Offense: 8; defense: 7; kicker/punter: 2
LB Chris Borland, S Dezmen Southward, LB Ethan Armstrong, RB James White, RB Melvin Gordon, G/T Ryan Groy, WR Jared Abbrederis, QB Joel Stave, QB Curt Phillips
LB Mike Taylor, CB Devin Smith, CB Marcus Cromartie, RB Montee Ball, C Travis Frederick, T Ricky Wagner
2012 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Montee Ball (1,830 yards)
Passing: Joel Stave* (1,104)
Receiving: Jared Abbrederis* (837 yards)
Tackles: Mike Taylor (123)
Sacks: Brendan Kelly* and Tyler Dippel* (5)
Interceptions: Devin Smith (4)
1. Separation at quarterback: Wisconsin entered the spring with a four-man quarterback competition and reduced the pool by 50 percent, as senior Curt Phillips and sophomore Joel Stave separated themselves midway through the session. Phillips, who ended last season as the starter, showed veteran leadership in grasping the offense, while Stave stood out in the spring game and might have more upside as a passer. Although redshirt freshman Bart Houston boasts tremendous natural ability, he's not ready to start in the Big Ten just yet. Danny O'Brien, who started the opener in 2012, has fallen back in the pack.
2. Front seven depth: The defense will go through more dramatic scheme changes under new coach Gary Andersen and his staff, but the front seven should be solid by Aug. 31. Inside linebacker Chris Borland is a tremendous leader at the nucleus of the defense. Several players who will be in the rotation -- Beau Allen, Tyler Dippel, Ethan Armstrong, Brendan Kelly -- missed part or all of the spring, which gave increased opportunities to players like tackle Warren Herring and linebackers Vince Biegel and Joe Schobert. The result should be good depth at both the line and linebacker spots.
3. Center of attention: Wisconsin's last two centers -- Peter Konz and Travis Frederick -- jumped to the NFL a year early, but the team once again appears ready to fill big shoes. Redshirt freshman Dan Voltz, who backed up Frederick last season, impressed the new coaches this spring and solidified the top center spot. Although overall line depth remains a concern entering the summer, Wisconsin feels good about the man snapping the ball.
1. Clarity at quarterback: The race is down to two, and actually three, as junior college transfer Tanner McEvoy arrives this summer and, according to Andersen, will get a fair chance to compete for the starting job. But Wisconsin needs a starter to emerge and take control of the team. Both Phillips and Stave have started games and should be able to win over a locker room. Phillips will be closer to full strength after suffering a knee injury in the Rose Bowl that limited his mobility this spring. If Stave continues to answer Andersen's challenge about improving the passing game, he could once again occupy the top job.
2. Secondary a primary concern: The Badgers return only one secondary starter in safety Dezmen Southward, and they lack overall depth in the back four. Peniel Jean and Darius Hillary took most of the reps as the first-team cornerbacks this spring, but they'll need to make more progress as young players like Sojourn Shelton and Reggie Mitchell have impressed the coaching staff. The bottom line is Wisconsin needs more bodies and more options to surround Southward.
3. Depth at receiver, offensive line: One area has lacked depth for a while, while the other has been a hallmark of the Wisconsin program. The Badgers need more reliable options to emerge around All-Big Ten candidate Jared Abbrederis at receiver. Kenzel Doe delivered a strong performance in the spring game and could complement Abbrederis, but there are opportunities for others to step up. The offensive line needs guards Dallas Lewallen and Kyle Costigan to stay healthy and for reserves to emerge to fill out the two-deep.
Gilbert missed most of the 2011 season because of problems with his right foot and was sitting out spring practice this year as he recovered from surgery to repair ligaments in the same foot.
Gilbert led all Badgers defensive linemen with 42 tackles last year and finished second on the team with 9.5 tackles for loss. He was fourth on the team in sacks with four and also caused three fumbles, including one in the Big Ten championship game.
The plan was to have the 6-foot-4, 247-pound Gilbert line up at outside linebacker when Wisconsin went to its 3-4 scheme this fall. He was viewed as maybe the best pure pass-rusher on the team when healthy.
“David’s decision was part of an on-going discussion we have had for a number of weeks,” head coach Gary Andersen said in a statement. “I would have loved the opportunity to coach David, but we always want to do what’s in the best interests of the young man. He needs a year to recover from his injuries and focus on graduating. It is always tough when a young man’s college career comes to an end due to an injury but David knows we are here to support him in any way necessary.”
Gilbert is probably best remembered by casual fans for making critical comments about Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez before last year's regular-season meeting in Lincoln. Those comments earned him a spot on the bench at the start of the game. But he also had a sack and a forced fumble in that loss to the Huskers and played well in the rematch for the Big Ten title.
Wisconsin's defensive line still has depth and experience, as it returns starting tackles Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer, as well as Pat Muldoon, Tyler Dippel, Warren Herring and Bryce Gilbert. Redshirt freshman Vince Biegel has been playing outside linebacker with the first string this spring.