Big Ten: Warren Herring
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.
John H. from Omaha writes: Adam, You have been hanging around Michigan and OSU too much, their preferences have become yours. The East-West alignment is the Big XII North all over again. Everyone is bending over to kiss Michigan and OSU's behind. This is clearly their league. I never thought I would say this, but I would rather be in the Big XII round robin than face this Hypocrisy. Michigan needs to be in the West. Let OSU-Michigan be the cross over. Michigan State in the West is not good enough. At a minimum let Nebraska play Penn State every year. Penn State can balance OSU, O'brien is awesome. We need a blue blood with Nebraska in the West. I refuse to watch Nebraska play Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana every year. What a joke. I'll find something else to do, watch more pro ball.
Adam Rittenberg: Josh, you're just now realizing a part of Big Ten culture that upsets a lot of fan bases in the league. Ohio State and Michigan, to a large degree, drive the bus in the Big Ten. More specifically, The Game drives the bus. The league bases a lot of decisions around those teams and that game. That said, the Big Ten made it clear that its expansion to the East is all about demographics and markets. It should come as no surprise that the league wants to showcase its two biggest programs in the new East Coast markets as much as possible. Putting Ohio State and Michigan in the same division also eliminates the possibility of a rematch in the title game a week after The Game. From the league perspective, this is a good thing.
I supported the initial division alignment to split the four big brands, but many, many fans -- not just Ohio State and Michigan fans -- complained about the large gaps between matchups and the impact on geographical rivalries. The proposed alignment solves a lot of those issues. While I understand the concerns about competitive balance, you can't have it all, and things change over time. I'd argue Nebraska's program is closer to Wisconsin and Penn State than Ohio State. I also disagree with you that Penn State can "match" Ohio State. The Ohio State program is at a higher level. I also think you'll be seeing Nebraska against Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State as much as possible in the new rotation. There will be more conference games (9), and the idea with eliminating crossovers is to have a better overall rotation.
Marcus from DePauw, Ind., writes: As a completely biased observer, I would vote for just about anyone other than Barry Alvarez as a rep on the playoff selection committee. He's shown a penchant for self-promotion and theatrics (breaking news from Big 10 meetings prior to official announcements) and isn't very well respected south of Milwaukee. Give me Osborne any day. Alternately, I'd look at former coaches/ADs that may have moved on to jobs in other conferences. Give me a Frank Solich, Lllllloyd Carr, or (yes) Jim Tressel. Or maybe Mark Hollis. Anyone but Alvarez...
Adam Rittenberg: I don't know if Alvarez's comments to his athletic board -- where all the Big Ten news leaks have come from -- qualify as self-promotion and theatrics. No one will deny Barry has an ego, which he showed during his news conference announcing the recent football coach search ("I won't use a search committee. Most search committees use me"). But he has extensive experience both as a football coach and as an athletic director. He also has been involved with BCS governance, and he has respect from commissioners, ADs and presidents. I agree that Tom Osborne would be a great choice, and he was my top pick to represent the Big Ten. I also like the idea of other sitting ADs like Michigan State's Mark Hollis, who served on this year's NCAA basketball tournament selection committee. Ohio State's Gene Smith also has an interesting background as a Big Ten AD who also ran departments in the Big 12 (Iowa State), the Pac-12 (Arizona State) and the MAC (Eastern Michigan).
Mike from Chicago writes: While I am happy to see B1G teams play the SEC in the regular season, I hardly think scheduling games in Dallas is a neutral site. It might as well be in Alabama's back yard. In fact, when has an SEC team played a B1G team north of the Mason-Dixon line ever??? These are really home games for the SEC as are most of the bowl games. I went to the LSU-OSU title game in New Orleans in 2007. OSU fans were desparate for tickets they couldn't get while the venue was sold out to 80% LSU fans. Let's see if results change when the "neutral" site is Chicago or Detroit or Cincinnati?
Adam Rittenberg: Mike, this is a very fair point about the locations of these neutral-site games. The two venues that have hosted most of the season-opening, blockbuster-type games -- Cowboys Stadium near Dallas and the Georgia Dome in Atlanta -- are located in SEC/Big 12/ACC country. The Kickoff Classic took place at what is now MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., from 1983-2002, but it's no more. FedEx Field in Landover, Md., could be a good option for these games. I think the venue has to want to host these games, and having a capacity like Cowboys Stadium -- or FedEx Field -- certainly doesn't hurt. I can't see Soldier Field in Chicago bidding for these types of games, but you never know. Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis would be a great spot, but the desire has to be there to make it happen. I agree that it would be nice if these games had a more genuine neutral-site feel.
Levi from Chicago writes: Adam, Any chance you could provide a detailed position by position breakdown of how "Mr. Andersen" plans to take the Badger's D from a 4-3 to a 3-4? I've caught bits and pieces, but it would be nice to have ideal player sizes, potential candidates, etc.
Adam Rittenberg: Absolutely, Levi. The big change is they're taking their smaller defensive ends like David Gilbert (6-foot-4, 247 pounds) and Brendan Kelly (6-6, 250) and moving them to outside linebacker while having them maintain a pass-rushing emphasis. They'll basically be rush ends. As defensive coordinator Dave Aranda told me, "If you want to look at it from a formational perspective, then it's a 3-4. But if you look at it from a personnel perspective, then it's a 5-2."
Wisconsin will use two bigger defensive ends and a nose tackle, which is another change. Beau Allen (6-3, 330), for example, moves from an inside tackle who would shade to one side in the previous system, to a zero-technique. Aside from Allen, who played some zero-technique in high school, there aren't too many other obvious nose tackles on the roster, but there are some obvious down linemen like Ethan Hemer (6-6, 296), Bryce Gilbert (6-1, 307) and Warren Herring (6-3, 286). "This defense allows you to be multiple, it allows you to change up who the fourth rusher is and not be a standard 4-man rush outfit," Aranda said. "It could be the fourth [lineman], it could be a corner, it could be a safety, it could be an inside backer, it could be an outside backer. ... You've got more options."
John from Cincinnati writes: Count this OSU graduate as someone who would have no problem with the BIG or Ohio State de-emphasizing varsity sports. National Championships have always been a nice bump for the ego (no one can ever take away that night in the desert), but I honestly think that all things being equal I could be just as happy competing for conference championships. I believe Ohio Stadium would still be packed on Saturdays and alums around the country would still tune in. In a perfect world, I would love to see the Rose Bowl remain a part of the equation, but as long as we are playing our usual foes, I would have no regrets bowing out of the arms race.
Adam Rittenberg: John, I appreciate the perspective. I can guarantee you're in the minority of Ohio State fans with this view, and I'm sure it's similar among most or all of the other Big Ten fan bases. But it's interesting and a little refreshing to read this from you. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany sometimes makes head-scratching comments, but he reiterated his stance on what he thinks the league would do if pay-for-play came about after being pushed by SI.com's Andy Staples. I don't see it happening, though, and I disagree that Ohio Stadium would be packed for a Division III-style program. Maybe I'm wrong. But thanks for writing in.
Stephanie from Denver writes: Adam, I know you said that everything is cyclical in terms of strength, in relation to the proposed new divisions. But if you look at records since Penn State joined in the 90s, the Big Ten overloaded the East division. That's 20 years of data, Adam, which is not cyclical. Should the Big Ten think about competitive balance and shift at least one school west? Thanks.
Adam Rittenberg: Stephanie, those are fair points, and even though my proposal didn't include Michigan State in the West, I would have no trouble with putting the Spartans there. As I mentioned in the divisions post, the discussions are still ongoing and things could change. But Michigan State wasn't on the table to move West three weeks ago, and when I checked again last week, the discussion boiled down to Purdue or Indiana. Barry Alvarez wrote in Varsity Magazine that the athletic directors are close to making a recommendation to the presidents, so something big would have to shift in the next week or two. It could happen, but I wouldn't bet on it.
Mike from Monmouth, Ill., writes: Hi Adam, I am not sure if you did the counting for a cyclical schedule with three crossover games and a protected rivalry between Indiana and Purdue. Except for Indiana and Purdue, each team would play everyone else in the other division eight times during the eighteen years it would take the schedule to cycle. In that same timespan, Indiana and Purdue would play each other every year and their cross-divisional opponents only six times. Of course, further conference expansion probably will occur well before one cycle could be completed.
Adam Rittenberg: Mike, thanks for sharing this, because it's a point I wanted to raise earlier. The Big Ten athletic directors are concerned about the fact Indiana and Purdue wouldn't have the same cross-division rotation because of their crossover game. But you have to protect the Bucket game every year because it's the most important game for both programs. Ultimately, the Big Ten could live without having Purdue-Michigan State or Indiana-Minnesota as much as the other games. It's not ideal, but you can't do much about it because 10 league games doesn't appear realistic right now. As you point out, the likelihood of further Big Ten expansion and more division alignment (four-team pods?) could make a lot of this discussion moot.
Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema might want to pick up the tab the next time he and Badgers' men's basketball coach Bo Ryan share a meal.
Ryan is a little poorer today, but for a very good cause, and one of Bielema's players is a big reason why.
Ryan on Thursday invited all Wisconsin students to the Kohl Center to help them raise money for Coaches vs. Cancer and the American Cancer Society. The event, billed as "Make Bo Pay," had Ryan donate $1,000 for each halfcourt shot made, and $10 for every free throw made. A total of 36 Wisconsin students make their halfcourt shots, including Badgers sophomore defensive tackle Warren Herring.
As you can see in the video, Herring took the snap near halfcourt and launched a rainbow that swished through the net. He played basketball at Belleville East High School in Belleville, Ill., but came to Wisconsin to heave quarterbacks, not the round ball. Herring, who has 10 tackles for Wisconsin's football team and has appeared in all eight games, actually bricked his free-throw attempt but was the picture of poise on the halfcourt shot.
More than 1,600 students attended the event, and Ryan ended up writing a check for $41,279. Great to see.
Senior Curt Phillips and redshirt freshman Joel Stave are listed as co-backups behind O'Brien.
Oh, in case there was any doubt, Montee Ball is listed as the team's starting running back despite suffering a concussion last month.
Some notes and thoughts on the Badgers' two-deep.
- Jordan Fredrick translated a strong camp into a starting wide receiver spot opposite standout Jared Abbrederis. Fredrick, who redshirted in 2011, is listed ahead of both Chase Hammond and Manasseh Garner. Kenzel Doe also nabbed a starting receiver spot ahead of veteran Jeff Duckworth. At 5-8 and 170 pounds, Doe is one of the smallest players in the Big Ten but makes up for his size with speed. It will be interesting to see how Wisconsin rotates its receivers around Abbrederis, clearly the team's No. 1 target.
- Sophomore Kyle Costigan won the starting right guard spot ahead of Robert Burge. Wisconsin's other four starting linemen were fairly set. The right side of the line is young with Costigan and sophomore tackle Rob Havenstein.
- Junior Pat Muldoon is listed as a starter at both defensive end spots, alongside David Gilbert and Brendan Kelly. Both Gilbert and Kelly have dealt with injury issues, so you can expect more of a rotation at end as Wisconsin tries to identify a difference-making pass rusher.
- Wisconsin often uses two tight ends, and junior Brian Wozniak tops the depth chart alongside Jacob Pedersen. Wozniak got the nod ahead of Brock DeCicco, a transfer from Pittsburgh who has done some good things in preseason camp.
- Despite missing spring practice and undergoing four surgeries in the past year and a half, Ethan Armstrong secured a starting outside linebacker spot alongside All-Big Ten 'backers Chris Borland and Mike Taylor. Armstrong started two game last season and is listed ahead of Conor O'Neill.
- Special teams is a major area of interest for Wisconsin, and the Badgers have new starting specialists at both kicker (freshman Jack Russell) and punter (sophomore Drew Meyer). Sophomore Kyle French, the backup kicker, will handle kickoffs. Abbrederis, the team's top punt returner, also will handle kickoff returns with backup running back James White.
- Jordan Kohout's career-ending injury thins the depth a bit at defensive tackle. Sophomores Warren Herring and Bryce Gilbert are listed as the backups behind Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer. Kohout likely would have been in a No. 2 role.
Thoughts on the Badgers' depth chart?
2011 conference record: 6-2 (Big Ten champions)
Offense: 5; Defense: 6; kicker/punter: 0
RB Montee Ball, LT Ricky Wagner, OL Travis Frederick, WR Jared Abbrederis, RB James White, TE Jacob Pedersen, LB Chris Borland, LB Mike Taylor, CB Marcus Cromartie
QB Russell Wilson, OG Kevin Zeitler, C Peter Konz, WR Nick Toon, DT Patrick Butrym, S Aaron Henry, CB Antonio Fenelus
2011 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Montee Ball* (1,923 yards)
Passing: Russell Wilson (3,175 yards)
Receiving: Jared Abbrederis* (933 yards)
Tackles: Mike Taylor* (150)
Sacks: Beau Allen* (4)
Interceptions: Shelton Johnson*, Aaron Henry and Antonio Fenelus (4)
1. Keep on running: The Badgers are enjoying the luxury of returning last year's Heisman finalist and record-breaking running back Montee Ball, who somehow managed to look a step faster this spring. They also still have the very capable James White, who produced 713 rushing yards a year ago. And while both sat out the spring game -- Ball as a precaution, White with a minor injury -- redshirt freshman Melvin Gordon stepped in and showed he could be the next star tailback in Madison. The Badgers can always run the ball, and this year could be a special season for the ground game.
2. Secondary matters: All-conference performers Aaron Henry and Antonio Fenelus are gone from the secondary, but Wisconsin was feeling good about its defensive backs this spring. Head coach Bret Bielema said Dezmen Southward and Shelton Johnson could be the best safety duo he's had during his tenure. Devin Smith is coming back from a foot injury and should fare well as a fifth-year senior starting cornerback. With fifth-year senior Marcus Cromartie also returning at corner, this is an experienced group that is looking to atone for a couple of late breakdowns last season.
3. Strong in the middle: Despite a few snapping problems in a late spring scrimmage, Travis Frederick looked good in replacing star center Peter Konz this spring. Ryan Groy appears ready to become an all-conference type player at left guard. Across from them lies the strength of the defensive line, with Beau Allen, Ethan Hemer and the developing Warren Herring looming as potentially disruptive defensive tackles. If football is won in the middle of the trenches, then Wisconsin is well set up to defend its Big Ten title.
1. O'Brien to the rescue: The Badgers' passing game had its share of struggles this spring, with only Joe Brennan and walk-on redshirt freshman Joel Stave healthy at quarterback. Stave moved ahead of Brennan by the end of spring, but neither showed great consistency. Of course, Maryland transfer Danny O'Brien is on the way, hoping to replicate the success of Russell Wilson. That's far from guaranteed, though, and O'Brien will have to play more like he did as a freshman for the Terps than as a sophomore to make Wisconsin's passing game a true threat.
2. Who else at receiver? Abbrederis missed the spring with a foot injury, giving the coaching staff a long look at the possible contenders to complement him in the receiving corps. It was a very young and inexperienced group that had its ups and downs. Players like Marquis Mason and Chase Hammond have good size and ability but need to learn how to compete every down. Isaiah Williams showed some potential late in the spring. Having good tight ends and excellent pass-catchers out of the backfield should help, but the receiving group remains very much a work in progress.
3. Living on the edge: Wisconsin's defensive line was stout in the middle this spring but lacked a dynamic pass rusher on the edge. The coaching staff hopes that junior David Gilbert can fill that role, but he was out all spring with a foot injury that cut his 2011 season short. If Gilbert isn't all the way healthy or falls short of expectations, there aren't a lot of other candidates. The Badgers' defense is going to be solid with an experienced secondary and two stars at linebacker in Mike Taylor and Chris Borland, but it only reaches the elite level if someone can consistently get to the quarterback.
The Ducks can make many defenses look bad, but a Big Ten champion isn't supposed to get punctured that severely. Badgers defensive coordinator Chris Ash said a handful of his players consistently lined up incorrectly or went to the wrong spots during that 45-38 loss on Jan. 2.
Oregon pulled out a few new wrinkles for the game, but that doesn't fully explain why a veteran defense with a month to prepare could have made so many fundamental mistakes.
"I've been searching for answers for a few months on that one," Ash told ESPN.com last week.
Last year's breakdowns hover over the team this spring and in some ways are guiding how the players are approaching this offseason preparation.
"Those things are fresh in our minds a little bit still," defensive tackle Ethan Hemer said. "We're definitely focusing more on the little things, making sure you're stepping right, you're in position, minimizing your missed alignments. We all realize that one play can make a big difference, and that requires us to be even sharper than we've been in the past. We don't want to be that team that gives up the big play."
This spring is about building depth as much as anything for the Badgers' defense. Only six starters return, while injuries have either shelved or slowed leading tacklers Mike Taylor and Chris Borland and projected starting defensive end David Gilbert. Starting cornerback Devin Smith is working himself into shape after a foot injury cost him most of 2011.
Borland and Taylor, who combined for 293 tackles last season, provide two anchors as one of the best linebacker combos in the country. Another strength could be at defensive tackle, where Hemer, Beau Allen and the emerging Warren Herring have all played well this spring. The defensive line still needs an explosive player on the edge, but the team is hopeful that Gilbert -- who played only four games last year and is out this spring with a foot injury -- can be that guy when healthy.
"When he got hurt, he was really starting to play at a high level," Ash said. "He's really one of the few guys we have who's naturally a pass-rusher."
The secondary lost two starting seniors in Aaron Henry and Antonio Fenelus, but Ash thinks Smith can be an all-conference cornerback this season. Dezmen Southward has replaced Henry at safety and continues to come along. He de-cleated running back Melvin Gordon on a crushing tackle during Saturday's scrimmage.
"We know we have to be the backbone of the defense," cornerback Marcus Cromartie said of the secondary. "We want to be the reason to win. We don't want to be a liability."
Wisconsin's defense has often been overshadowed by the team's offense, and last year the unit embraced its no-name status. This season, though, the players believe they have enough talent to forge their own identity.
"We feel like we deserve to be a defense that's on the radar," Smith said. "It starts with practice and film, but I think we can be one of those type defenses everybody talks about, like LSU and Alabama. We have to earn that respect."
It's a respect they'll have to earn by not allowing big plays and mental breakdowns to become the lasting images of 2012.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
A lot of coaches were on vacation last week, so things got a bit quiet. Let's take a trip on the Big Ten recruiting trail.
- 2010 verbal commits: 8
- ESPNU 150 Watch List: Safety Corey Cooper, quarterback Chandler Whitmer, tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz
- Quick take: No action during the last week for the Illini, but a very solid class is shaping up for Ron Zook. After a very strong start with in-state recruits, Illinois could soon branch out to other areas. Linebacker Jonathan Brown is on the radar.
- 2010 verbal commits: 13
- ESPNU 150 Watch List: None
- Quick take: Indiana has been one of the Big Ten's most active teams in early recruiting, and the results are paying off. Linebacker Ishmael Thomas is a very solid addition, and guard Bill Ivan provides depth along the offensive line. Though the group doesn't include a watch list prospect, Indiana has done very well in its region. A 3-9 season last year doesn't seem to be hurting the program at all in recruiting.
- 2010 verbal commits: 10
- ESPNU 150 Watch List: Defensive end Matt Hoch, tackle Andrew Donnal
- Quick take: No new additions for the Hawkeyes, who have to be pleased with their class so far. The team loses several key pieces in the defensive front seven after the 2009 season, but players like Hoch and James Morris could make an early impact.
- 2010 verbal commits: 16
- ESPNU 150 Watch List: Quarterback Devin Gardner, wide receiver Jeremy Jackson, wide receiver Ricardo Miller, guard Christian Pace, safety Marvin Robinson
- Quick take: Austin White became the third running back to commit to the Wolverines, who hope they've solidified depth in the backfield for the foreseeable future. Michigan beat out Michigan State for White, who has two brothers who play for the Spartans.
- 2010 verbal commits: 9
- ESPNU 150 Watch List: Defensive end William Gholston, linebacker Max Bullough, quarterback Joe Boisture
- Quick take: Nothing new for Michigan State last week, though Mark Dantonio has to be pleased with what he sees right now. The Spartans continue to target in-state prospects like C.J. Olaniyan and Tony Jones.
- 2010 verbal commits: 10
- ESPNU 150 Watch List: None
- Quick take: Some Gophers fans took offense at my claim that the team hadn't made a big splash in recruiting yet. To be fair, offensive lineman Jimmy Gjere qualifies as a very nice pickup. The big fish is still out there, though, in local product Seantrel Henderson. Cornerback Jabari Price would be a very nice addition.
- 2010 verbal commits: 7
- ESPNU 150 Watch List: None
- Quick take: Northwestern's efforts in central Florida haven't gone unnoticed, as three of the team's six commits hail from the Sunshine State. The Wildcats continued to look out of state for center Brandon Vitabile, a New Jersey native who bolsters the offensive line. Next step: Pick up a prospect or two from within the state of Illinois.
- 2010 verbal commits: 9
- ESPNU 150 Watch List: Tackle Andrew Norwell, linebacker Jamel Turner, defensive end David Durham, running back Roderick Smith, defensive end Darryl Baldwin
- Quick take: Penn State and Michigan have generated most of the recruiting headlines so far, but here come the Buckeyes. Baldwin's commitment gives Ohio State five watch list prospects out of nine and even more depth for the defensive line. He's already a physical presence who should only get better under Jim Heacock.
- 2010 verbal commits: 13
- ESPNU 150 Watch List: Wide receiver Adrian Coxson, running back Silas Redd, center Miles Dieffenbach, defensive end Kyle Baublitz, defensive tackle Evan Hailes, quarterback Robert Bolden, wide receiver Alex Kenney
- Quick take: The Nittany Lions kept Kenney at home, giving them seven watch list prospects out of 13. Kenney always seemed likely to pick Penn State, but there are no guarantees in recruiting. He gives Penn State seven in-state commits, a good sign for a program that saw its recruiting dip several years ago.
- 2010 verbal commits: 7
- ESPNU 150 Watch List: Quarterback Robert Marve (2007 watch list)
- Quick take: Head coach Danny Hope isn't afraid to wait for recruits, but he has a nice nucleus for the 2010 class. Purdue has addressed the passing attack with two quarterbacks -- Marve and Sean Robinson -- two wide receivers and a tight end. Hope is trying to tap his Florida roots for defensive lineman Brandon Wilkinson.
- 2010 verbal commits: 9
- ESPNU 150 Watch List: Safety Frank Tamakloe
- Quick take: Kansas State's loss is Wisconsin's gain as defensive end Warren Herring will play for the Badgers after originally committing to the Wildcats. Interesting subplot: Wisconsin coach Bielema used to work for Kansas State and Bill Snyder. The Badgers have recruited well on the defensive side so far with Herring, Tamakloe and linebacker Konrad Zagzebski.
BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
2:00 PM ET Washington State Colorado State 3:30 PM ET 20 Fresno State 25 USC 5:30 PM ET Buffalo San Diego State 9:00 PM ET Tulane Louisiana-Lafayette
6:00 PM ET Pittsburgh Bowling Green 9:30 PM ET Utah State 23 Northern Illinois
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