Big Ten: Wes Lunt
Head coach Tim Beckman made the announcement after Wednesday's practice.
Oh, sure, the Illini officially held a three-way competition for the job this offseason, with Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey pushing Lunt. O'Toole, a senior, had the experience edge and played very well at times this spring. Bailey is an excellent athlete who's a little raw as a pocket passer, but his playmaking skills can't be ignored.
Still, just about everyone expected Lunt to be the 2014 starter for Illinois the moment he transferred in from Oklahoma State after the 2012 season, and it became increasingly apparent in preseason practice this month that he was The Guy. The former heralded recruit from Rochester, Ill., opened 2012 as the Cowboys' No. 1 quarterback and ended up starting five games as a true freshman; his transfer was seen as one of the best personnel coups Beckman has registered in his tenure.
At 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds with a strong arm, Lunt very much looks the part as a future star at the position. He should fit in very well in offensive coordinator Bill Cubit's system, which helped turn Nathan Scheelhaase into the Big Ten's leading passer a season ago. Lunt has better pure tools than Scheelhaase; it remains to be seen if he has Scheelhaase's poise and moxie, and if he has enough weapons around him at receiver, where Illinois is young and inexperienced.
So, Lunt will open 2014 as the Illinois starter. And there's a good chance he stays there for the next three years.
News of Braxton Miller's season-ending injury at Ohio State is dominating the headlines. But the Buckeyes won't be the last Big Ten team this year to go in search of an alternate plan at QB. Last year, 10 of the current 14 teams in the league used at least two starters at the position.
Here's a ranking of Big Ten teams most equipped to handle an injury to their top quarterback:
- Wisconsin: Junior Joel Stave and senior Tanner McEvoy remain locked in a race for the job, and both are likely to play. Stave, who has started 19 games, remains the favorite, though McEvoy, a safety last year, adds a running threat for the Badgers.
- Maryland: Junior Caleb Rowe, the backup to sixth-year senior C.J. Brown, has a strong arm and four games of starting experience from last October. Rowe improved during that month and regularly gets time in practice with the first-team offense.
- Iowa: Sophomore C.J. Beathard played meaningful snaps alongside Jake Rudock a year ago. Beathard will get opportunities again. And if the Hawkeyes need him full time, it's far from a disaster.
- Illinois: Transfer Wes Lunt appears in control of the race, with the Illini set to name a starter on Wednesday. Senior Reilly O'Toole has shown a capable arm, and sophomore Aaron Bailey has good size and running ability.
- Michigan: Devin Gardner missed the bowl game last year, giving the Wolverines a glimpse of Shane Morris. That experience in a 31-14 loss to Kansas State aided Morris in getting prepared for his sophomore season.
- Purdue: Returning starter Danny Etling won a legitimate competition this week over fellow sophomore Austin Appleby, who expects to keep pushing. If the Boilermakers need to use their depth, another to watch is touted freshman David Blough, on track now to redshirt.
- Ohio State: It's time to find out. Redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett is known for his steady hand, accuracy and decent athleticism. Sophomore Cardale Jones, next in line, is a big body who could be used more than Barrett as a running threat.
- Michigan State: Sophomore Tyler O'Connor and redshirt freshman Damion Terry have conducted a spirited battle this month, with O'Connor remaining ahead in the race to back up Connor Cook. If a replacement is needed, both options would likely receive consideration.
- Nebraska: Behind Tommy Armstrong Jr., who started seven games as a replacement a year ago, the Huskers have no experience. Sophomore walk-on Ryker Fyfe owns the edge over redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton, a former elite recruit.
- Penn State: Newcomers Michael O'Connor and Trace McSorley have adjusted well to life behind Christian Hackenberg. O'Connor is bigger and practiced with the Nittany Lions in the spring, so he's probably the first option if a backup is needed.
- Northwestern: Unlike a year ago, Trevor Siemian is the clear starter. Behind him, junior Zack Oliver and redshirt freshman Matt Alviti have waged a competition. Alviti brings a dual-theat similar in the mold of ex-Wildcat Kain Colter.
- Minnesota: Redshirt freshman Chris Streveler has emerged as the top backup to Mitch Leidner. The Gophers tinkered with Streveler at receiver last year before the transfer of Philip Nelson, so athleticism is a plus. But Streveler's inexperience is a concern.
- Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights need Gary Nova and his vast experience in this transition to the Big Ten. Backups Mike Bimonte, a junior, and freshman Chris Laviano possess good size, but neither QB has played a down in college.
- Indiana: The Hoosiers have no experience behind incumbent Nate Sudfeld. Walk-on sophomore Nate Boudreau has taken most of the snaps at No. 2, though true freshmen Zander Diamont or Danny Cameron might be given a closer look if Sudfeld misses time.
- Barrett, Ohio State's new top quarterback, will answer the call, according to his high school coach. Meanwhile, Miller's potential return in 2015 could help the Buckeyes with a top QB prospect. And the injury serves as a blow to the entire Big Ten.
- Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi was in midseason form for a scrimmage this week.
- Michigan looks set to start true freshman Mason Cole at left tackle, a sure sign of the urgency to upgrade the offensive line.
- What Miller's injury means to Penn State.
- Indiana's 3-4 defense features a versatile group of linebackers.
- Maryland is one of the first schools to announce that it will honor all scholarships until graduation.
- Helmet cameras offer a new perspective at Rutgers.
- Maxx Williams might be the next great Gopher tight end.
- Northwestern looks for contributions from four freshmen.
- Answering questions about Illinois.
- Purdue's Appleby remains confident in role as backup.
- Tackle Rob Havenstein is the unchallenged leader of the Wisconsin offense.
- Dreaming of what might be at stake as Iowa hosts Nebraska on the day after Thanksgiving.
- Nebraska's Fyfe makes a strong move to earn a scholarship.
- A Penn State tradition is gone.
If you missed it, the two-time Tribune Silver Football winner, one of the most decorated individuals in Big Ten history and the key to Ohio State's bid for a conference title and a potential run to the College Football Playoffs, left the second practice of a two-a-day session on Monday with what appears to be a new injury to his already surgically-repaired shoulder. A source confirmed to ESPN.com late on Monday that trainers attended to Miller on the field after a throw that the Buckeyes expected to be a barometer of progress as he regained strength in the muscles around his shoulder.
There's no word yet on the severity, but obviously the workout didn't go as planned. The program hasn't confirmed the injury or released any information about medical tests at this point, but it has a previously-scheduled media availability slated for this morning. Stay tuned for more information as the story continues to develop.
As for the rest of the conference?
Depth chart shuffling
- Michigan hasn't finalized its plans in the backfield, but Derrick Green is currently in the top spot at running back.
- Michigan State is moving around some bodies up front after an injury to right guard Connor Kruse.
- As expected, Danny Etling won the quarterback job and will be the starter when Purdue opens the season against Western Michigan.
- Behind Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett has emerged as the backup most capable of moving the offense -- edging ahead of Cardale Jones.
- A cross between a "mad scientist" and a movie character, Bob Shoop impressed his boss at Penn State from the moment he met James Franklin.
- One secret to Steve Longa's success at linebacker for Rutgers? Ritually watching film of Ray Lewis.
- A string of injuries ended the playing career of lineman Nate Clarke, but he's making a quick transition to coaching as a student assistant for Maryland.
- Indiana is trying to keep the ball rolling with recruits.
- Nebraska held a handful of players out of their most recent scrimmage, but there's no reason to be alarmed as the program tries to stay fresh ahead of what could be a taxing September.
- Wes Lunt appears to still be in the lead at quarterback for Illinois, but official word is expected on Wednesday after practice.
- Where can Iowa improve? It could probably start in the red zone.
- In another look at how Northwestern could handle its nonconference schedule, Kevin Trahan asks if the Wildcats should pursue neutral-site games.
- Wisconsin might wind up putting freshman quarterback D.J. Gillins on the field this season after another solid outing in Monday's scrimmage.
- There are plenty of pass-rushers in the well-stocked Big Ten looking to make an impact. Count Minnesota's Theiren Cockran among the defensive ends looking to be "the guy" this season.
And players are likely celebrating as well, because training camps are winding to a close. Depth charts are also shaping up as well as teams move nearer toward preparing for Week 1. But some key jostling for jobs remains. Let's take inventory of a few of the more interesting position battles left in the Big Ten:
- Wisconsin quarterback: By most accounts, incumbent starter Joel Stave has looked like the better option over Tanner McEvoy so far this month. At this point, I'd be surprised if Gary Andersen started McEvoy over the far more experienced Stave in the opener against LSU, though McEvoy could see some time in special packages. The Badgers have practiced some option, and that just doesn't seem like Stave's cup of tea, now does it? Where some battles stand for the Badgers.
- Illinois quarterback: Tim Beckman has said he could name a starter on Wednesday. Most everyone expects it to be Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt. A big question, in my mind, is how the Illini can best use Aaron Bailey's talents.
- Michigan State linebacker: Replacing Max Bullough and Denicos Allen isn't cut and dry, but it's not because of a lack of options. Riley Bullough and Jon Reschke are coming on strong and pushing Taiwan Jones and Darien Harris for playing time. Mark Dantonio described the situation on Saturday as "sort of a linebacker group by committee right now."
- Iowa cornerback: It's a three-man scrum between Maurice Fleming, Sean Draper and Greg Mabin to see who starts opposite Desmond King. Mabin might have been set back by a minor injury. But Kirk Ferentz said the position is "up for grabs right now." Ferentz still has a lot of questions to answer.
- Ohio State left guard: Darryl Baldwin seized the right tackle job, but there's far less clarity at left guard, a position that Urban Meyer has said concerns him. Doug Lesmerises breaks down the fight for playing time there and elsewhere on the Buckeyes.
Another major position battle should be cleared up on Monday, when Purdue is expected to name its starting quarterback. But that's one where Danny Etling has been a big front-runner all along.
On to the links:
1. Jabrill Peppers is going to play a lot, the offensive line still needs work and other observations from Nick Baumgardner on Michigan's open scrimmage before an estimated 25,000 fans.
2. Rutgers' Saturday scrimmage, dominated by the offense, provided answers to some key questions.
3. Wide receiver Deon Long was one of the stars of Maryland's open scrimmage.
4. Defense won the day at Michigan State's scrimmage.
5. Indiana coach Kevin Wilson sees improved depth on his team after the Hoosiers' latest scrimmage.
6. The running game was the main attraction in Purdue's scrimmage.
7. Northwestern held an open scrimmage, but hardly anyone of note participated.
- Nebraska wide receiver Kenny Bell said he had to work as a bartender this summer to keep the lights and water on at his apartment. Huskers defensive tackle Aaron Curry will reportedly transfer to Oklahoma.
- Freshman Rafael Gaglianone and his booming Brazilian leg could take over Wisconsin's field goal duties (which could, sadly, mean an end to my Jack Russell puns).
- The LSU game is key to Melvin Gordon's Heisman hopes, Tom Oates writes. Totally agree. Even with a poor opener, Gordon could get back in the race by piling up yards. But Wisconsin's schedule means the Badgers won't get much national attention for weeks.
- Tracy Claeys is molding a strong defense at Minnesota.
- Five takeaways from Illinois' time at Camp Rantoul.
- Confidence is swelling for Michigan State's passing game. Spartans true freshman Montae Nicholson is already making an impression at cornerback and could possibly play some on offense.
- Ohio State's defensive line appears destined for greatness.
- Penn State is nearly ready to flip the switch and start preparing for UCF. James Franklin is having an effect on every corner of Penn State.
- Rutgers has plenty of big playmakers on offense.
Illinois isn't trying to be Kansas State. The Illini would love to replicate K-State's on-field results, but their recent influx of junior college players isn't an effort to model what Bill Snyder has done in the Little Apple.
It boils down to basic math and basic needs.
"We needed depth, man," coach Tim Beckman told ESPN.com. "We just needed a bunch of depth."
The program-building model isn't ideal, but if the transfers pan out, Illinois could get the bowl boost it sorely needs.
"Some people who feel like, 'We're building a program, we've got five, six years to do this,' they may not go that junior college route," said Alex Golesh, Illinois tight ends and running backs coach, and the team's recruiting coordinator. "We felt, 'Hey, we've got to get this thing going right now,' and this was our answer."
Beckman first realized the depth desperation after his first season, when the team reconvened for practice in March 2013. He and his staff had inherited a large senior class in 2012, but the subsequent two classes had atrophied. There were only about a dozen players left in each.
The coaches had a choice: start a bunch of freshmen and sophomores or look for immediate help elsewhere.
"You want to know how bad the number situation was here?" Beckman asked. "We didn't have enough defensive backs to be two deep."
So they picked up Zane Petty, a junior college safety from California who made seven starts last season. They added another California juco, Eric Finney, to play the Star position (safety/outside linebacker), and Martize Barr, a former New Mexico receiver/safety who landed at Iowa Western Community College. Barr originally was pegged for the secondary but moved to wide receiver.
The wide receiver and defensive line groups Illinois trots out this fall will reflect the junior college push. Barr and Allison should start, and Tyrin Stone-Davis, a Philadelphia native who played juco ball in California, will be in the rotation. The 6-foot-6, 295-pound Ward is expected to be a major contributor on the defensive line, along with Phillips at the Leo (rush end) and Joe Fotu and Abe Cajuste.
"This defensive line is like a different group," Golesh said. "Talk about dudes that look like they're supposed to look like and play like they're supposed to play."
Junior college recruiting isn't nearly as common in the Big Ten as it is in other leagues, but things are shifting. Teams that never used to bring in jucos, such as Wisconsin and Penn State, suddenly have a few on the roster.
Before initiating the push, Beckman consulted with Illinois' admissions office to gauge who could get into school. The coaches received transcripts from about 120 players, and the university identified who could make it academically. Only 25 to 30 players received the green light.
The approach reduces the risk often attached to junior college players.
"We're recruiting a high-academic, junior college kid," Golesh said. "Those kids who are right on the border, we're not recruiting them because we can't get them in school. So there's one of your red flags that you cross off."
As Golesh dove deeper into junior college recruiting, he realized something else. Like Bill Snyder says about juco players: The perception out there is something went wrong in his high school career. Young people are young people. What's the quality of their character?
"You go recruit the California junior colleges and it's amazing how many high school qualifiers are out there that were just overlooked because there are so many kids and the state is so big," Golesh said. "The misconception is the kid committed a crime or didn't qualify out of high school. That's not the case anymore."
Ward didn't qualify academically coming out of high school in Philadelphia, so he spent two years at Globe Institute of Technology, a junior college in New York. He connected with Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, a fellow Philly native, and signed with Illinois in February.
"For two years, I've been grinding," Ward said. "I always think the time is now. A lot of juco players, they're hungry. If you're not hungry, then I don't know what to say. We come here to eat."
Jucos arrive with ticking clocks, and Illinois coaches see the urgency in practice. Another benefit, according to Golesh, is how they push older players expecting to inherit, not earn, starting jobs.
The integration with the non-transfers seems to be going smoothly, too. Ward calls his new teammates "brothers for life."
"It's not a two-year thing," he added.
One challenge is leadership, especially for transfers in command positions. Like Ward, Lunt has blended well with his teammates since transferring from Oklahoma State.
But leading them "is a little harder," he said.
"To be a leader that everyone looks up to, you have to get on the field and play," Lunt said. "That's a big part of it."
Plenty of Illinois' transfers will play significant roles this fall on both sides of the ball. Asked how much Illinois will rely on the imports, Golesh replied, "A ton."
It won't always be this way. Beckman anticipates only one more year of heavy juco recruiting before Illinois will have the numbers it needs.
But to secure his future after two bowl-less seasons, Beckman needs the transfers to step up right now.
"They've come in ready to play, ready to try to give us some immediate impact," he said. "They've been unbelievable."
What, you don’t even fully understand the ramifications of the decision last week by the NCAA Division I Board of Directors that grants power to the Big Ten, SEC, ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 to create policy on a wide range of legislative topics designed to enhance the student-athlete experience?
Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Coaches at many schools in the Power Five conferences appear to remain in the dark about what’s to come next year and beyond.
Really, most of us are waiting with curiosity. I talked to several Big Ten coaches about the subject last month in Chicago and came away unsure if they knew what was really afoot, beyond the primary talking points.
We know the cost-of-attendance topic -- basically a stipend for student-athletes at the Power Five schools -- is atop the agenda.
From there, it gets a bit murky. All of it, though, stands to positively impact the Big Ten, with its many rich athletic departments funded by football programs with giant stadiums and fruitful TV contracts.
Predictably, the cries have already begun that autonomy will simply serve as a tool for the power players to push their agenda.
Colleague Jeremy Crabtree wrote this week of a Big 12 recruiting coordinator who said he feared that the autonomy vote would open “Pandora’s box” for biggest schools to reshape rules in their favor.
Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen told me at Big Ten media days that he hoped autonomy would lead to official recruiting visits in the summer, currently off limits. But Andersen said more.
“Let’s just throw it out there,” he said. “I’ll be the guy to say it, that’s fine. Certain people don’t want recruiting trips to take place to the Big Ten in the summer -- certain conferences.”
Newsflash: He’s talking about the SEC. They’re all talking about the SEC. If they’re not talking about the SEC, they’re at least thinking about the SEC.
How long before a coach or administrator flat-out blames the SEC for all that could potentially go wrong with this first go-round of autonomy? It’ll happen before Oct. 1, when potential rule changes must be submitted for vote at the NCAA Convention in January.
And what are the chances that coach or administrator resides in the Big Ten?
Look, the SEC can’t change college football alone. The rules of autonomy require a 60 percent majority of the 80-member voting panel -- which includes 15 student-athletes -- and approval from three of the Power Five leagues, or a simple majority of the panel and approval from four of the five league.
So what the SEC wants, the SEC can’t get without help from other leagues.
Remember that if you hear someone from the Big Ten complain over the next six weeks about who’s running football. The vote last week ensures that the Big Ten and others in the Power Five are offered the same opportunity as that league down south to initiate and steer change.
Around the league ...
- Seriously, first-year offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier does not feel added pressure to fix Michigan’s offense?
- The BTN crew weighs in on Michigan State’s talent.
- Is everyone overlooking Penn State wideout DaeSean Hamilton?
- Ohio State’s walkout ‘backer.
- An Iowa perspective on Indiana.
- Rutgers’ new director of recruiting opens up about the 2015 class.
- Maryland will implement fullback Kenneth Goins into its 2014 plan.
- Northwestern’s Venric Mark aims to find a positive in his two-game suspension.
- Purdue safety Taylor Richards is suspended, too, and he’s far from absent.
- Minnesota’s secondary is coming of age.
- QB Wes Lunt continues to progress well in camp at Illinois.
- Iowa defensive end Drew Ott is a champion hay-bale thrower.
- The kindness of strangers toward his family has moved Wisconsin offensive guard Kyle Costigan.
- Assessing the Nebraska offense through one week of practice.
- This might have something to do with what got Michigan receiver Csont'e York suspended indefinitely.
- The gas leak that forced MSU to relocate its Tuesday practice has been fixed.
- Brandon Scherff returns a punt, because he’s Brandon Scherff.
- Here’s a real student-athlete.
- A strong-legged freshman kicker could give Wisconsin a boost. The QB battle between Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy resumed.
- A good battle at noseguard is going on at Rutgers.
- Some chatter from Purdue's first day of camp.
- Ten takeaways from Penn State media day. The Nittany Lions begin their search for an identity.
- There is some doubt in the air around Ohio State. Left guard is the biggest position battle for the Buckeyes.
- Northwestern is looking to rebound from an ugly 2013.
- Five thoughts from Nebraska's first practice, which was open for viewing. Josh Mitchell has turned a corner.
- Minnesota lost a backup tight end to a season-ending injury.
- Pat Narduzzi says he could have his fastest defense yet at Michigan State. Mark Dantonio is not afraid to mention the words "national title."
- Michigan continues to challenge young and talented defensive tackle Willie Henry. Devin Funchess went to YouTube to fix his drops.
- Maryland opens camp boasting lots of experience.
- Austin Blythe could become the next legendary Iowa lineman.
- Antonio Allen is back from an injury and ready to help Indiana's defense.
- Nothing official yet, but Wes Lunt looks like the starting quarterback for Illinois.
» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC
Previewing the 2014 season for the Illinois Fighting Illini:
2013 overall record: 4-8 (1-7 Big Ten)
Key losses: Nathan Scheelhaase, QB; Steve Hull, WR; Corey Lewis, OT; Jonathan Brown, LB; Houston Bates, DE/LB
Instant impact newcomer: Wes Lunt, QB. There are several options here, but Lunt, the Oklahoma State transfer, should win the starting quarterback job and brings a big arm to the pocket in a quarterback-friendly offense. He'll look for two other newcomers, wide receivers Geronimo Allison and Mike Dudek. The Illini also are excited about defensive lineman Jihad Ward, a juco transfer.
OFFENSE: QB: Wes Lunt, So., 6-5, 225; RB: Josh Ferguson, Jr., 5-10, 195; WR: Geronimo Allison, Jr., 6-4, 195; WR: Justin Hardee, Jr., 6-1, 195; WR: Martize Barr, Sr., 6-0, 195; TE: Jon Davis, Sr., 6-3, 240; OT: Simon Cvijanovic, Sr., 6-6, 310; OT: Austin Schmidt, So., 6-6, 295; G: Michael Heitz, 6-6, 310; G: Ted Karras, Jr., 6-4, 310; C: Alex Hill, Jr., 6-3, 310
DEFENSE: DE: Kenny Nelson, Jr., 6-6, 250; LEO: DeJazz Woods, Sr., 6-3, 255; DT: Austin Teitsma, Sr., 6-2, 290; DT: Teko Powell, Jr., 6-3, 305; STAR: Earnest Thomas III, Sr., 6-2, 210; LB: Mason Monheim, Jr., 6-1, 235; LB: T.J. Neal, So., 6-1, 235; CB: V'Angelo Bentley, Jr., 5-10, 190; CB: Eaton Spence, Jr., 6-0, 185; S: Taylor Barton, So., 6-1, 215; S: Zane Petty, Sr., 6-1, 205
SPECIALISTS: K: Taylor Zalewski, Jr., 6-3, 220; P: Justin DuVernois, Sr., 6-1, 190
Biggest question mark: The season could hinge on how newcomers on defense, from transfers like Ward and Joe Fotu to freshmen like Paul James III, transition to this level. Illinois needs instant impacts from several arrivals to repair a unit that finished last in the Big Ten and 116th nationally against the run in 2013.
Most important game: Oct. 25 vs. Minnesota. This game falls between tough trips to Wisconsin (Oct. 11) and Ohio State (Nov. 1) and immediately after an open week. Illinois' road schedule is absolutely brutal, and to contend for a bowl game, it must play well at home. This is a potentially winnable game that could be the difference between Illinois going bowling or staying home for the third consecutive season.
Upset special: Nov. 15 vs. Iowa. It's hard to see Illinois winning at Nebraska, Wisconsin or Ohio State, and Minnesota at home wouldn't qualify as a huge upset. But Iowa is a preseason West Division title contender, and the teams don't have much familiarity with one another as they last met in 2008. Illinois could catch Iowa looking ahead to showdowns against Wisconsin and Nebraska.
Key stat: Running back Josh Ferguson has 22 career big plays (rush, pass or reception of 20 yards or longer), which is 10 more than any other Illini player.
What they're wearing: Illinois in April announced a new branding identity with Nike, which includes new uniform combinations. One getup has white uniforms and helmets with the numbers and the Block I in orange, and all the jerseys feature an Illini shield along the neckline.
Team's top Twitter follows: Head coach Tim Beckman (@coachbeckman), linebacker Mason Monheim (@M_Monheim43), running back Josh Ferguson (@JoshFerguson_6), quarterback Reilly O'Toole (@ReillyOT4), defensive tackle Austin Teitsma (@Teitsma44), wide receivers coach Mike Bellamy (@CoachBellamy) and the official team page (@IlliniFootball).
They said it: "Obviously the defense has to play better, and we've got to score the ball when we get down close. The red zone really was our weakness last year. Also toward the end of the season, you saw more turnovers, we got a little careless with the ball. Those are the two big things." -- senior tight end Jon Davis
Stats & Info projections: 5.47 wins
Wise guys over-under: five wins
Big Ten blog projection: Five wins. Illinois should take another step in Year 3 under Tim Beckman and could reach the six-win plateau, which likely would mean a bowl appearance and secure a fourth year for Beckman in Champaign. But the road schedule -- Washington, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Northwestern -- doesn't help the Illini, who can't afford many slipups at home. There are too many question marks on defense to see Illinois pulling off a lot Big Ten upsets.
Big Ten media days kick off on Monday at the Hilton Chicago. All the other Power 5 conferences will have wrapped up their own media events by then, and each league does things a little bit differently. So today's Take Two topic is: Should the Big Ten change the format of its media days?
Take 1: Brian Bennett
One thing that can be said about Big Ten media days is fans have much more access to it than they do in other leagues. The centerpiece of the two days is Tuesday's Kickoff Luncheon, during which fans can listen to a few minutes from every coach, hear a keynote speech from a current player and get autographs from former players. It's a 40-plus-year tradition, and at $110 a plate, a nice moneymaker for the league (because the Big Ten, you know, is pretty cash poor these days).
The SEC's format is far too long in my view, but that league certainly monopolizes coverage on those days, and individual teams get more of a spotlight. Now at 14 teams, I'd like to see the Big Ten devote more time to its event. More time to spend with Ohio State, Michigan State, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Michigan, Penn State, etc. More time to get to know some of the personalities. More time with players and programs who aren't in the spotlight. Not that the Big Ten needs more fans, necessarily, but more media coverage equals more exposure and more attention, which could help everybody in the long run.
My preference is for the conference to add an extra day and split the teams up, either by division or by interest level. You could have them all together on the middle day for the luncheon. This is probably all just inside baseball and I'm not sure how much fans really care. But as the Big Ten keeps getting bigger, its media days should probably follow suit.
Take 2: Mitch Sherman
I'm actually stunned you're taking the time to read this, because who cares, really, what the media thinks about the format of a preseason event to promote the conference? We're likely going to cover this thing regardless of how the Big Ten structures it, so our opinion on the setup is probably the least of anyone's concern. That said, I'll offer my two cents.
I agree with Brian that it ought to be longer. Monday's schedule includes 14 coaches and 42 players crammed into five hours. By mid-afternoon, my head might be spinning so fast that I can't differentiate between Pat Fitzgerald and Urban Meyer. OK, it's not that bad, but you get the picture. This thing is nearly over before it starts. And I'd like to see commissioner Jim Delany open the event with his comments, rather than speak during the final 30 minutes on Monday. By late afternoon, some of our brains are fried to the point that it's difficult to formulate intelligent questions. (Who am I kidding? There's no specific time for that.)
If you're still reading, I've got another suggestion: Every team should bring a quarterback. This year, seven are planned to attend, which is actually pretty good in comparison to some other leagues. QB is the premier position in college football; there's no denying it. I understand not every job is completely settled, so Illinois gets a pass here, though Wes Lunt could have brought the Illini some attention in Chicago. But if you're going to have an event for the media -- is it really for the media, or is that just the name? -- bring the players to whom the media wants to speak. That means, yes, we'd like to see Christian Hackenberg, Jake Rudock, Tommy Armstrong Jr., and even Gary Nova.
I will now dismount my soapbox. Congratulations, or perhaps condolences, if you made it to the end.
@AWardESPN are people underestimating Rutgers in there first big 10 season?— Michael Isselin (@MichaelIsselin) July 16, 2014
Austin Ward: There is no reason to think Rutgers won't eventually be able to compete in the Big Ten if it is able to use the league's resources to its advantage, but it certainly seems like it's going to be a difficult transition in the short term. For starters, joining the East Division did the Scarlet Knights no favors, and on top of that they drew both Nebraska and Wisconsin from the West to give them about as rude of an introduction to the league as possible. Considering their struggles in a weaker conference a year ago, a sub-.500 finish thanks to their bowl-game loss to Notre Dame and some lingering questions about how explosive the offense can be, I think even climbing into contention for a postseason appearance might be a stretch for the Scarlet Knights this fall.
@AWardESPN How important will QBs be in the race for the B1G West, who is the best of those QBs, and why is it Wes Lunt?— Aaron Rench (@ARench89) July 18, 2014
Ward: Typically, sizing up the quarterbacks is a pretty handy way to forecast the favorites, but the West is something of an exception this offseason. Nebraska has some uncertainty even with Tommy Armstrong Jr. returning, and Wisconsin doesn't exactly have Russell Wilson under center this fall either, yet the running games those two programs boast are strong enough that they have generally been accepted as the top candidates to advance to the Big Ten title game on that side of the league. Wes Lunt's physical tools and the dynamic offense he will lead if he can finally, officially win the starting job make him an intriguing pick as the best of the bunch, and it seems a safe bet that he will put up impressive individual numbers. But don't count out Jake Rudock as somebody capable of giving Iowa steady production and turning that team into a threat in the West, provided he can cut down on the turnovers and the coaching staff actually does open up the attack a bit more this season.
@AWardESPN other than Raekwon/Bosa (obivous) who do you see making the biggest impact on defense of the 1st and 2nd yr players?— Michael Doty Sr (@MdotySr) July 18, 2014
Ward: The recruiting work Urban Meyer has done on the defensive side of the ball is starting to show up on the roster, and the Ohio State Buckeyes are going to need some of their younger, highly touted players to have a big impact if they are going to make a serious run at the playoff this season. Joey Bosa, as mentioned, might be one of the most destructive defensive linemen in the country this fall, and he is obviously going to be critical in generating a pass rush that could take some pressure off the revamped secondary. But it is a new full-time starter in the back end that might actually have the greatest influence in restoring Ohio State's proud defensive tradition, and Vonn Bell already raised the sky-high expectations when he snagged that one-handed interception in the Discover Orange Bowl. His spring was cut short by injury, but Bell is a young guy the Buckeyes desperately need to deliver..
Big Ten media days are still two weeks away in Chicago, but we're here to get you ready. This series lists three of the pressing questions that each league squad will face at media days, and the possible answers.
Illinois is first up in the proverbial hot seat. In addition to coach Tim Beckman, the Illini are bringing offensive tackle Simon Cvijanovic, tight end Jon Davis and defensive tackle Austin Teitsma.
1. What's the plan/timetable for the quarterback competition?
The starting job technically remains open as Wes Lunt, Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey will continue to compete in camp. Beckman said in April that he wants the probable starter to start receiving more reps when the team begins two-a-day practices. Lunt seemed to have the edge for much of the spring and boasts the strongest arm, and offensive coordinator Bill Cubit seems to be high on his development. O'Toole's experience keeps him in the mix. Bailey is a tremendous athlete but must show improvement as a passer to remain in the race. Expect to see some separation by about Aug. 10.
2. Who must step up on defense for the unit to improve?
It starts with the front seven as Illinois finished last in the Big Ten and 116th nationally in rush yards allowed (238.6 yards per game). The Illini lose top linebacker Jonathan Brown and Houston Bates, who played the Leo position, transferred to Louisiana Tech. Beckman praised the play of T.J. Neal coming out of the spring, and he forms a potentially strong tandem with Mason Monheim. The line is a mix of veterans who need to blossom such as Teitsma and Kenny Nelson, and newcomers like Jihad Ward, Paul James and Joe Fotu, who must make an immediate impact.
3. What will it take for Beckman to leave the hot seat and return for a fourth season?
This isn't a new question -- it has been asked throughout the offseason -- but it will undoubtedly come up during media days as Beckman will be a popular choice as the Big Ten coach on the hottest seat. Illinois AD Mike Thomas has said the Illini need to win more going forward, but has wisely avoided specific numbers for this season. The big debate seems to be whether Beckman could survive at 5-7 -- a third consecutive bowl-less season -- or if Illinois needs to reach the six-win plateau and qualify for postseason play. Beckman and the players likely won't speculate on what it will take to prevent a coaching change, although they'll address a schedule featuring several tough road games (Ohio State, Wisconsin, Nebraska).
Quarterback is a position that likely needs to improve throughout the Big Ten in order for the league to start winning championships. But the good news there are some stars returning at the position in 2014. Taking a page from our ACC blog friends, we're previewing all the positions this preseason, and none are more important than this one:
Best of the best: Ohio State
Several teams return productive starters under center, which is a good thing for the league. But no one else has a player quite like the Buckeyes' Braxton Miller. The senior is coming off two straight Big Ten offensive player of the year awards, and is now in his third season of the same system under Tom Herman and Urban Meyer -- he should feel extremely comfortable. There is some slight concern about his offseason shoulder surgery, which left him sitting out of spring drills, and an inexperienced offensive line. But Miller has showed the ability to make magic practically on his own, and few are better in the clutch. His absence this spring meant important reps for youngsters Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett, who would have to step in this season if anything happens to Miller.
Next up: Penn State
Christian Hackenberg passed for 2,955 yards as an 18-year-old true freshman and led impressive comebacks against Illinois and Michigan. The Nittany Lions' young star does have a new coaching staff and system and won't get to enjoy the talents of Allen Robinson any more, but his talent is immense. Penn State and Ohio State aren't the only teams in great shape at quarterback, though. Michigan State's Connor Cook was the MVP of the Big Ten title game and Rose Bowl and should continue to improve. Michigan's Devin Gardner finished second in the league in total offense in 2013 despite little help from the run game. Indiana's Nate Sudfeld has the job to himself after Tre Roberson's transfer and could easily surpass 3,000 yards in the Hoosiers' prolific system. Jake Rudock is a solid leader for Iowa who should have better weapons surrounding him this fall.
Possible sleeper: Maryland
C.J. Brown is a fifth-year senior entering his third year of starting after an injury cut down his 2012 campaign. He needs to stay healthy and improve on his 58.9 completion percentage from 2013. But with arguably the best pair of wideouts in the Big Ten at his disposal in Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, Brown has a chance to put up some strong numbers in his first go-around in this league. Keep an eye also on Illinois and probable starter Wes Lunt; Bill Cubit's offense helped turn Nathan Scheelhaase into the Big Ten's surprise leading passer a year ago.
Problem for a contender: Nebraska
Problem is far too strong of a word here, but the Huskers don't have a sure thing at quarterback. Tommy Armstrong Jr. is a good leader and owns a burning desire to improve, so there's reason to be optimistic that the sophomore will handle the job just fine. Still, he completed only 51.9 percent of his passes last season, had eight interceptions against nine touchdown passes and wasn't the running threat that Taylor Martinez used to be. Wisconsin has its own quarterback issues, but Joel Stave -- the subject of much offseason hand-wringing -- is far more proven than Armstrong. Nebraska will need solid quarterback play in early tests against Fresno State and Miami (Fla.).
Follow us on Twitter and send us questions there.
Michael from New York writes: Regarding the Penn State/Georgia State camp; If the SEC relaxes their rules on this issue, do you foresee a series of tit-for-tat battles ensuing? For example, UG retaliates by scheduling something with East Stroudsburg U. in Pennsylvania. And to play this situation out, would small schools in Pennsylvania resist overtures such as the one above for fear of antagonizing big brother PSU?
Adam Rittenberg: I absolutely think the SEC coaches would start guest-coaching in other regions, and they should. Setting up something with James Franklin's alma mater would be a pretty bold move, but why should those small schools shy away from having these big-time coaches at their camps? Georgia State and Stetson welcomed Franklin and his staff, and I'd expect Northern schools to do the same if SEC coaches expressed interest.
Adam Rittenberg: Love the optimism, John! I print what I get and I don't hear nearly enough from Illinois fans. Illinois' defense should be better than last year, but the team undoubtedly will rely on the offense, which made major strides and retains some good pieces, namely a line featuring four returning starters.
I saw Lunt practice in Chicago and he has a big arm that should allow Illinois to stretch the field. How does Illinois get to 8-4? It starts by winning at home, as the schedule at Memorial Stadium is pretty manageable. Illinois' road slate -- Washington, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Northwestern -- is very tough.
Adam Rittenberg: Brian, it's hard to know for sure, but I think Michigan State would have been the fourth team in the playoff, behind Florida State, Auburn and Alabama. The Pac-12 had a stronger national perception than the Big Ten, and Stanford had a very good team, but the Cardinal lost to a mediocre Utah team and a USC squad that lingered on the fringes of the Top 25. The Big Ten might have been down, but Michigan State won all nine of its league contests by double digits. Its only loss came at Notre Dame in a game with some controversial calls. Bottom line: the Spartans deserved to make the playoff ahead of a two-loss Pac-12 champion.
Adam Rittenberg: Hackenberg is a good choice, although I worry about Penn State's protection issues with so little proven depth on the offensive line. I disagree with you about Iowa. The Hawkeyes' track record shows a ton of close games and quite a few come-from-behind wins late in those contests. The opportunities will be there for Jake Rudock to be the hero.
Adam Rittenberg: As ESPN2 play-by-play man Mark Jones said of Scott Starks' fumble return, "What a turnaround! A cataclysmic turn of events!" Unfortunately for Purdue, those words proved true as the program hasn't found that level of success again. There have been very good players in the program -- Ryan Kerrigan, Kawann Short, Anthony Spencer -- but the team has struggled to turn a corner and compete for league titles. Purdue is a tough job, and the fan apathy has made it tougher. What Joe Tiller did there is still pretty remarkable.
How can Purdue regain its footing? It starts with recruiting and finding certain pipelines, like the one Tiller had to Texas, and Darrell Hazell and his staff are working hard to do that. Purdue has a great quarterback tradition that must be maximized. The recent QB recruiting has been very strong. Another step is line play, especially on the offensive side. Purdue needs to get stronger, more athletic linemen to be able to do more with the offense.
Who'll end up as the most memorable player? And who'll see time right away? Adam Rittenberg, Brian Bennett and Josh Moyer joined Big Ten recruiting writer Tom VanHaaren in discussing the big questions surrounding the freshmen.
So let's get started ...
Based on talent, which freshman is too good to leave off the field?
VanHaaren: Peppers is the first name that comes to mind. Michigan doesn't really have anyone like him on the roster. His combination of size and speed, which he displayed at a recent track meet by running a 10.52-second 100-meter dash, is something that Michigan needs in the defensive backfield. I just don't see a scenario where a healthy Peppers doesn't see the field in some capacity.
Moyer: Everyone should be familiar with Peppers, so let's forget about him for a minute. Someone whom Buckeyes fans already know -- and whom other B1G fans should familiarize themselves with -- is linebacker Raekwon McMillan, who was rated as the top inside linebacker recruit in the nation. He's already enrolled, he's already impressed Urban Meyer, and he's already a physically imposing athlete. At 240 pounds, he's bigger than all but one of OSU's 10 other linebackers. Almost every scouting report you read on the guy describes him as a "thumper," and Meyer said three months ago that there'll be no redshirt for McMillan. He should make an impact early on.
Based on need, which freshman is a lock to start from Day 1?
Bennett: I'll go with Purdue's Gelen Robinson. He's following in the footsteps, sort of, of his dad -- Boilers basketball legend Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson. The younger Robinson was Purdue's most celebrated recruit in this class, but not just because of that name. He's also an outstanding athlete who should force his way onto the field from Day 1. He'll likely play outside linebacker, which is a position of need for Darrell Hazell's team. Heck, they need players everywhere, but particularly difference-makers on defense. Robinson will get every opportunity.
Rittenberg: It's hard for true freshman offensive linemen to step in immediately, but keep an eye on Maryland's Damian Prince, the nation's No. 26 prospect in the 2014 class. The recent suspension of potential starter Moise Larose creates a need at tackle, and both Prince and Derwin Gray both have a chance to win starting jobs this summer. Wisconsin will play several of its freshman wide receivers, and I could easily see a guy like Dareian Watkins entering the starting lineup. And let's not forget about Michigan State defensive tackle Malik McDowell. The Spartans lost a few pieces on the interior defensive line.
Moyer: Penn State wideout De'Andre Thompkins. In a normal year, he might be a redshirt candidate. He's incredibly athletic -- Bill O'Brien recruited him thinking he could be a two-way player and compete at nickelback -- but he's also a bit raw since he played mostly at running back in high school. He still needs to sharpen his routes but, between the scholarship reduction and the lack of experience at receiver this season, Thompkins will have to step up sooner rather than later. The early enrollee has already proven he's the fastest player on the roster, and he's taken reps as a return man. So he should play on Day 1, in some capacity.
When this freshman class graduates, who will be remembered as the best player?
Bennett: Peppers is the easy and safe choice here. Another possibility is Maryland's Prince. He's a mountain, and given the value of offensive tackles in the NFL, we could be hearing his name early in the 2017 or 2018 draft.
VanHaaren: It could very well be either Peppers or McMillan. It's tough to argue against those two just based off of talent and ability, and I would probably go with Peppers here. I saw him at the Under Armour All-America Game and coach Herm Edwards told me Peppers was the best high school prospect he had coached in the few years he had been coaching at the event. That's high praise for a former defensive back.
What redshirt freshman should fans keep an eye on?
Bennett: I trust the player development program at Michigan State. Guys there just seem to get better and better throughout their careers, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Defensive end Demetrius Cooper turned a lot of heads this spring and forced himself into the rotation, even with standout returning starters Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush ahead of him. Cooper was just a three-star recruit, according to ESPN, but the Spartans have made a living turning moderately-rated recruits into true college stars.
VanHaaren: I don't know if this is cheating or not because he's a sophomore, but I'm really interested to see what quarterback Wes Lunt does for Illinois. I put him here because he transferred and had to sit out the last season. I think he could be a big boost to that program if he can get things rolling offensively for the Illini.
Rittenberg: Iowa wide receiver Derrick Willies. Not only did he have a breakout spring for the Hawkeyes, but he's the type of receiver Iowa has lacked for a while: tall, fast and explosive. Iowa wants to ramp up the offensive tempo even more this season, which likely means the ball will be spread around more. Expect some big plays from Willies in his first game action.
Moyer: Minnesota running back Berkley Edwards. If it wasn't for an ankle injury early last season, he probably would've played. As it is, he'll definitely see the field this fall -- and he might see it quite a bit. Jerry Kill was asked earlier this spring if Edwards might get five to seven carries a game. "We'll see," Kill said, chuckling, to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "He might need more touches." Edwards is an exciting player who has a chance to break it anytime he touches the ball, and he could end up being an important change-of-pace back for the offense. Definitely worth watching.
Take the 3,000-yard passing mark as an example. The league had just one player reach that plateau both last season (Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase) and in 2012 (Penn State's Matt McGloin). The good news is, some talented quarterbacks returned to Big Ten campuses for the 2014 season. Will any of them reach 3,000 yards?
We took a look at the most likely candidates to do so on Friday, and now we want your opinion. Which of these quarterbacks will throw for 3,000 yards this season?
- Christian Hackenberg, Penn State: He finished just 45 yards shy of 3,000 as a true freshman, and that was without the benefit of a 13th game. Hackenberg should get to 3,000 during his career, but will it be this season when he learns a new offensive system and loses favorite target Allen Robinson?
- Devin Gardner, Michigan: You might not necessarily think of Gardner as an elite passer, but he finished with five more passing yards than Hackenberg and would have easily surpassed 3,000 had he been healthy for the Wolverines' bowl game. Like Hackenberg, though, he loses his best receiver (Jeremy Gallon) and has a new offensive coordinator (Doug Nussmeier).
- Connor Cook, Michigan State: Cook came on strong at the end of the season with consecutive 300-yard passing days in the Big Ten championship game and Rose Bowl. Unlike last season, he'll hit the ground running as the starter and should lead a much improved Spartans passing game.
- C.J. Brown, Maryland: The pros: Brown is an experienced senior with two standout receivers in Stefon Diggs and Deon Long. The cons: Neither Brown nor his wideouts have been able to stay healthy for an entire season together.
- Wes Lunt, Illinois: Lunt hasn't even been named the starter yet, but we expect that to happen. He started as a true freshman at Oklahoma State before transferring to the Illini, and Bill Cubit's spread offense took Scheelhaase's numbers to a whole new level. It could do the same for Lunt.
Vote now in our poll.