Big Ten: Whitney Mercilus

Greg Colby and Mike Bellamy both have seen better days at Illinois.

During Colby's first stint as an assistant at his alma mater (1988-95), Illinois shared a Big Ten championship in 1990 and reached six bowl games in seven seasons. Bellamy starred at wide receiver for two of those Illini bowl teams (1988 and 1989). Illinois went 10-2 during Bellamy's senior season, when he earned first-team All-Big Ten honors and second-team All-America honors as a kick returner.

Both men played for the Orange and Blue, and both are in their first seasons as full-time assistants on Tim Beckman's revamped coaching staff. Their challenge: recapture the winning ways after a 2-10 disaster in 2012.

"When I was here before, we had some pretty good success," Colby recently told ESPN.com. "A championship, six bowls, and played pretty well. I want to see Illinois be successful. I have all along, and now I've got [a job] where I can have a little bit of an influence, at least. So I've got a very strong vested interest.

"It is personal for me."

[+] EnlargeRyan Lankford
Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY SportsNew Illinois receivers coach Mike Bellamy will aim to get more production from Ryan Lankford in 2013.
Every Friday during the offseason, Beckman has speakers address the team to talk about the program's history. Colby and Bellamy recently made a joint presentation, discussing their playing days in Champaign and, in Colby's case, his first run as an assistant.

Colby returned as defensive line coach after five years as head coach at Division II Millersville University in Pennsylvania. He has made four stops since leaving Illinois following the 2005 season, including two at other Big Ten schools (Michigan State and Northwestern). Bellamy, who played for four NFL teams between 1990-95, takes over as Illinois' receivers coach after serving as the team's assistant director of player personnel and relations in 2012.

"Last year, being around the guys, I told them I was one of them," Bellamy told ESPN.com. "So that made it easy during this offseason, being in their ear and watching them work out, giving them tips here and there on how to study. So when the choice was made, some thought it would be a natural fit and Coach Beckman wanted to make sure he got the right guy.

"I was excited."

Bellamy works with a group that, like the rest of the offense, underperformed in 2012. He inherits veterans like Ryan Lankford and Spencer Harris, and has seen some good signs this spring from converted safety Steve Hull and Miles Osei, a full-time wideout after serving as a reserve quarterback for three seasons. Junior-college transfer Martize Barr also has been a bright spot.

Colby oversees a group that has been Illinois' strength despite the team's recent struggles. Two Illini defensive linemen -- Whitney Mercilus (2012) and Corey Liuget (2011) -- have been selected in the first round of the NFL draft in the past three years. Linemen like Michael Buchanan, Akeem Spence and Glenn Foster could hear their names called later this month.

Although Colby is aware of the recent track record, he's not focusing on it.

"It’s all attitude right now," he said. "That's what the offseason is. If you don't develop it now, you're not going to have it in the fall during the season."

Colby inherits a young group that includes only one player (senior Tim Kynard) with significant game experience. He hopes Jake Howe and Austin Teitsma can blossom, and he's seen flashes from redshirt freshman Vontrell Williams.

"I don't think we're going to have the All-American, All-Big Ten that they’ve had in the past, but who knows," Colby said. "That's not something we really focus on. We've got to be blue-collar players up front. That’s what we're trying to instill, the kind of work ethic. Don't depend on your athleticism to make plays for you.

"Depend on your work ethic, and let your athleticism be the icing on the cake."

Both Colby and Bellamy often talk to players about forging a legacy, one the coaches helped shape as former Illini.

"I told them a couple times, 'At some point, you’ve got to take this personally,'" Bellamy said. "To me, this is personal right now.

"We can't go anywhere but up.”
Illinois is losing one of the Big Ten's top assistants in defensive-line coach Keith Gilmore.

Rivals.com and others reported Saturday that Gilmore is leaving Illinois to join North Carolina's staff in the same capacity. He'll be reunited with North Carolina defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, with whom he worked at Illinois from 2009-2011. Gilmore was the only assistant Illini head coach Tim Beckman had retained from the previous staff -- and for good reason.

He mentored two NFL first-round draft picks in defensive tackle Corey Liuget and defensive end Whitney Mercilus. Two of his linemen, tackle Akeem Spence and end Michael Buchanan, are expected to be drafted in April. Although Illinois certainly has had its issues the past two seasons, defensive line hasn't been one of them. Gilmore is a significant loss for Beckman's staff.

It's hard to blame Gilmore for leaving as Beckman faces potentially a make-or-break season in 2013. Things are much more stable at UNC, and Gilmore's familiarity with Koenning makes him a good fit in Chapel Hill.

Illinois will have at least three new assistants in 2013 after bringing in new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit and new offensive-line coach Jim Bridge.

Defensive line has been the Big Ten's strongest position in recent years. The league has lost two respected D-line coaches this weekend after Michigan State announced Friday that it's cutting ties with Ted Gill.
One week of Big Ten action is in the books, and we finally have some on-field evidence to judge these teams.

Michigan State remains the class of the league after a hard-fought win against Boise State that shouldn't have been as close as the final score (17-13). The Spartans boast an elite defense and an elite running back (Le'Veon Bell), but they have work to do if they want to remain No. 1. Michigan only moves down a spot despite its blowout loss, in large part because Wisconsin let off the gas against FCS Northern Iowa. There's very little separating the teams 2-5 , and we'll get a better read on Ohio State when the competition improves.

Purdue and Illinois look like the best of the next tier, and Penn State moves down a few notches after its season-opening loss to Ohio. But again, teams 6-10 are very, very close.

Here we go ...

1. Michigan State (1-0): The defense can take the Spartans a long way, and so can Bell, although it's unrealistic to expect him to have 44 carries and 50 touches each game. Quarterback Andrew Maxwell must make strides this week against Central Michigan before another home showdown against Notre Dame on Sept. 15. Maxwell needs to better handle the pass rush and show more touch on his passes. If he can do so, Michigan State's ceiling is very high.

2. Nebraska (1-0): All eyes were on Taylor Martinez after all the offseason talk of improved mechanics and football, and the Huskers' junior quarterback delivered. Martinez looked much more comfortable throwing the ball en route to a career-high 354 pass yards in an easy win against Southern Miss. His progress offset the loss of top running back Rex Burkhead. We'll learn more about Nebraska after it hits the road this week to visit UCLA, but so far, so good.

3. Michigan (0-1): Alabama makes a lot of teams look bad, and most of Michigan's Big Ten brethren would have difficulties hanging with the Tide. But Saturday's 41-14 loss exposed Michigan's weaknesses, particularly at the line of scrimmage, as well as a lack of depth at key positions. The injury fallout doesn't help the Wolverines, who lost starting cornerback Blake Countess to a season-ending ACL tear. They'll need young and unproven players to step up during a tortuous schedule.

4. Wisconsin (1-0): Rather than the typical September laugher at Camp Randall Stadium, Wisconsin found itself in a major scrap Saturday against Northern Iowa. The Badgers nearly squandered a 19-point lead in the fourth quarter and looked shaky at times in defending the pass. The good news: new quarterback Danny O'Brien played an efficient game (19-for-23 passing, 219 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs). But this was far too close for comfort against an FCS foe, especially at a place where Wisconsin has been so dominant.

5. Ohio State (1-0): To repeat: there's very little separating Ohio State from Wisconsin and the other top Big Ten squads. We were very impressed with Braxton Miller and the debut of the new Buckeyes offense in Columbus. But Miami (Ohio) didn't provide much of a test for Urban Meyer's crew, which might not get one until Week 5 at Michigan State (although this week's opponent, Central Florida, could be tricky).

6. Purdue (1-0): Despite the suspension of top quarterback Caleb TerBush, Purdue made quick work of Eastern Kentucky and looked like a team that could take the next step this season. Robert Marve is capable of leading the offense and should push TerBush this week in practice, and Purdue did what it had to do against inferior competition, piling up 547 yards of offense and converting 12 of 15 third-down chances. But the Boilers move up several classes this week against Notre Dame, and we'll know much more about Danny Hope's squad in four days.

7. Illinois (1-0): The combination of a banged-up Illini secondary and a prolific opposing quarterback (Alex Carder) suggested a potentially rough debut for coach Tim Beckman. But Illinois took control of the game and never really let Western Michigan in it. The Illini defensive line still looks very strong despite losing first-round draft pick Whitney Mercilus, and it held WMU to minus-6 rush yards. Illinois' main concern is the health of quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and an offense that didn't produce much and will need a stronger effort Saturday night at Arizona State.

8. Iowa (1-0): Although many folks expected Iowa's opener to be close, few saw things going the way they did Saturday afternoon at Soldier Field. Iowa's two shakiest positions, defensive line and running back, both delivered with nice performances, as Joe Gaglione (3 tackles for loss, 1 forced fumble) and Dom Alvis (2 tackles for loss, 1 sack) sparked the line and Damon Bullock piled up 150 rush yards. Senior quarterback James Vandenberg struggled and Iowa trailed most of the way, but it's a win and an opportunity to build.

9. Northwestern (1-0): Credit the Wildcats for another season-opening road win against a major-conference opponent, but their blown lead and defensive breakdowns create unease going forward. Northwestern never looks comfortable playing with a lead, although it never gives up, either, and received a big boost down the stretch from backup quarterback Trevor Siemian. Still, the defense showed major weaknesses that future opponents will expose, beginning this week with Vanderbilt.

10. Penn State (0-1): After a strong start to the Bill O'Brien era, Penn State faded on both sides of the ball in the second half Saturday. The offense needs to finish drives and create a better run-pass balance, which could be tough if Bill Belton is sidelined for an extended period. A big concern is a Lions defense that surrendered 499 yards to Ohio and struggled to get off of the field, allowing 13 of 21 third-down conversions. The defense must respond in a hurry as the nonconference schedule has no sure-fire wins.

11. Minnesota (1-0): The Gophers found a way to leave Las Vegas with a victory, as they received a strong effort from the defense and the running backs. MarQueis Gray came alive in the overtime sessions, but the senior quarterback will have to be much more polished for Minnesota to beat better competition. The Gophers also must play more disciplined after being flagged 11 times in the opener. New Hampshire is a solid FCS program, and Minnesota can't take anyone lightly after falling to FCS North Dakota State by 13 points last season.

12. Indiana (1-0): Any win is valuable for the Hoosiers, who matched their victories total from 2011 on Saturday night, but they'll need to make significant strides going forward. IU has to shore up its rush defense after allowing Indiana State's Shakir Bell to rack up 192 yards Saturday night. The pass rush looked improved, though, as Indiana racked up five sacks. That's a nice building block, as is quarterback Tre Roberson's strong performance. Indiana aims for its first FBS win under Kevin Wilson this week against new FBS member Massachusetts.

Best Case/Worst Case: Illinois

August, 13, 2012
8/13/12
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Now that the season is just around the corner, it's time to take our annual look at the best- and worst-case scenarios for each Big Ten team.

Last year, we did this in video form, but you'll have to read words this time around. We'll go in alphabetical order in this series, and try to have a little fun along the way. First up is Illinois.

Best Case

It's Beck-mania! The Illini have long been seen as underachievers, but first-year coach Tim Beckman is able to wring the best out of the talent Ron Zook collected in Champaign. Beckman inherited a strong defense that turns things up a notch in 2012, and his spread system is the cure to what ailed the offense in the second half of 2011. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase fully embraces the spread, using his legs and arm to become one of the Big Ten's most dynamic playmakers. The skill position question marks become answers as Josh Ferguson, Donovonn Young and Darius Millines all make the leap. Defensive end Michael Buchanan and linebacker Jonathan Brown battle for the national lead in sacks, while defensive tackle Akeem Spence plays up to his first-round potential.

The Illini cruise through the nonconference schedule, waxing another first-year coach at a major program by winning handily at Arizona State. They beat Penn State by two touchdowns in the Big Ten opener, after which several Nittany Lions players are seen talking to Illinois assistants about a possible 2013 transfer. Illinois loses at Wisconsin the following week but pulls a stunner in Ann Arbor by catching Michigan looking ahead to the Michigan State game. It loses at Ohio State on Nov. 3, but ends the season with a four-touchdown win at Northwestern as Rahm Emanuel presents Beckman a key to the city. Since Wisconsin finishes with three losses, the Illini clinch the title in the probation-saddled Leaders Division. Hungry Illinois fans flock to Indianapolis, where their team knocks off Michigan a second time to advance to the Rose Bowl. Just like that, it's a football school again.

Worst Case

They fired Ron Zook for this? Beckman finds that he's not in Toledo anymore, as his transition to the Big Ten is a rough one. While the defense is solid, it misses Whitney Mercilus and Vic Koenning more than anyone realized. The spread system is an odd fit for a team that lacks many playmakers at receiver or running back, and neither Scheelhaase nor Reilly O'Toole is fully able to master it in a seesaw quarterback competition. Much like the second half of last year, Illinois simply can't score, and its special-teams play hasn't improved much.

The Beckman era gets off to a shaky start when Western Michigan -- which played a close game in Champaign a year ago -- springs the upset in the opener. The Illini are 0-2 after a loss at Arizona State. They rebound to win the next two but are crushed at home by a Penn State team that's angry about all those Illini assistants sniffing around State College this summer. That begins a spiral of losing, as the next two games are blowouts on the road at Wisconsin and Michigan. Illinois beats Indiana but falls at Ohio State, drops another home game to Purdue and ends the year getting pushed around by resurgent Northwestern. The Wildcats somehow win the Big Ten and prompt Chicago to dye the river purple. Meanwhile, the Illini sit at home after a 4-8 season, wondering what the future holds.
Illinois' Whitney Mercilus practically came out of nowhere to win the Ted Hendricks Award as the nation's top defensive end in 2011.

Can the Big Ten make it two in a row?

Five Big Ten defensive ends appear on the preseason watch list for the Hendricks Award, which goes to an elite defensive lineman who primarily plays the end position.

Here's the Big Ten contingent:
Both Simon and Gholston look like leading candidates for the Hendricks Award. Simon earned third-team All-America honors in 2011, while Gholston might be the league's most physically gifted defensive lineman. He comes off of a big performance in Michigan State's Outback Bowl victory. Simon earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches last season, while both Gholston and Buchanan were consensus second-team All-Big Ten selections.

There aren't any obvious snubs, although several defensive ends could have made the watch list, including Penn State's Sean Stanley, Northwestern's Tyler Scott, Purdue's Ryan Russell and Michigan State's Marcus Rush. Three possible candidates return from injuries in Penn State's Pete Massaro, Wisconsin's David Gilbert and Ohio State's Nathan Williams.

The Hendricks Award issues a midseason watch list in November, and the winner is announced Dec. 5.
CHICAGO -- Illinois fans held their breath in June when standout defensive end Michael Buchanan suffered a broken jaw during an altercation.

Buchanan, a second-team All-Big Ten selection in 2011 and a budding star, would have to have his jaw wired shut. His weight certainly would drop, and his recovery time was unknown.

Breathe easy, Illini Nation. Buchanan is just fine.

"I'm 100 percent," Buchanan told ESPN.com. "I've been eating for weeks now. I'm back to my normal weight and everything."

Buchanan actually is on pace to be heavier than he was last year (240). He'll check in around 250 pounds when the season kicks off in September.

He only had the jaw wired shut for a week -- his food consisted of anything you can put in a blender -- but the physical toll was minimal.

"Any time you break a jaw, you never know how long you're going to be wired up for," he said. "You're not going to be able to eat. But I was only wired up for a week, and right after that, I was able to pretty much eat normally."

Buchanan looks forward to feasting on opposing quarterbacks and running backs this fall. Although Illinois loses All-America end Whitney Mercilus -- he of the 16 sacks, 22.5 tackles for loss and an NCAA-record nine forced fumbles in 2011 -- pretty much everyone else returns, including tackles Akeem Spence and Glenn Foster, and end Justin Staples.

"We want to be one of the best defensive lines in the country," Buchanan said. "We have the pieces to be that."
This week, I asked you to select the Big Ten's strongest position and weakest position entering the 2012 season. The results are definitive and, quite frankly, not very surprising.

Strongest position: Running back (53 percent)

Weakest position: Wide receiver (59 percent)

Now it's time to explore position groups that could make the jump from good to great in 2012. Again, these aren't groups that are already playing at elite levels, but ones that could get there this coming season. Colleague Travis Haney provided the national view Thursday and included Ohio State's defensive ends among his "high-ceiling" groups Insider.

I'd expand that to include Ohio State's entire defensive line. While All-America candidate John Simon anchors the group at end, and decorated incoming recruits Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington also play on the edge, the Buckeyes aren't too shabby on the inside, either. Junior tackle Johnathan Hankins, a potential first-round draft pick in 2013, is back in the fold alongside veteran Garrett Goebel and promising young players like Michael Bennett and Joel Hale. There's little doubt the Buckeyes' defensive line will take a big step in 2012.

Here are some other Big Ten groups that have high ceilings:

Illinois' defensive line: The Illini lose All-American Whitney Mercilus, but Michael Buchanan is ready to step into the lead pass-rusher role after a big spring. Akeem Spence is an underrated defensive tackle with legitimate pro potential, and Illinois returns experienced players like Justin Staples and Glenn Foster. Tim Beckman made an excellent move in retaining line coach Keith Gilmore from the previous staff.

Michigan's secondary: One of the nation's worst units a few seasons ago took a big step in 2011, and could take another one this fall. Michigan returns four players with starting experience, including safety Jordan Kovacs, the leader of the defense this fall. J.T. Floyd and Blake Countess form a very good cornerback tandem. Thomas Gordon gained valuable experience last year, and Michigan has recruited well to the secondary in recent years.

Northwestern's wide receivers: This has been a position of strength for Northwestern in recent years, but the Wildcats haven't had a group as deep as this one. Demetrius Fields leads the group, although Christian Jones might have the highest ceiling. Speedster Tony Jones returns from injury, while classmate Rashad Lawrence should be much improved as a junior. Cam Dickerson stood out this spring, and if USC transfer Kyle Prater gets his NCAA waiver, look out.

Michigan State's linebackers: The Spartans' front four once again figures to be among the Big Ten's top units, and the linebackers could get there, too. Max Bullough and Denicos Allen enter their junior seasons with a lot of game experience under their belts. Think Greg Jones-Eric Gordon, The Sequel. Chris Norman and Steve Gardiner add a veteran presence, and players like Taiwan Jones and TyQuan Hammock are in the mix as well.

Penn State's defensive line: A good group in 2011 could be even better this season. Jordan Hill anchors the line at defensive tackle, and Penn State gets a major boost by getting Pete Massaro back in the fold. If Massaro can stay healthy, he has a chance to provide the pass-rushing threat Penn State has lacked. The Lions have experience with senior end Sean Stanley and junior tackle DaQuan Jones, and they should be very excited about redshirt freshman end Deion Barnes.

Nebraska's wide receivers/tight ends: Brandon Kinnie is the only significant departure in the group, which should be a bigger part of the offense if quarterback Taylor Martinez continues to progress. Speedster Kenny Bell looks like a No. 1 wideout, and Quincy Enunwa should see his numbers increase. Tim Marlowe provides a veteran presence, and the Huskers have some talented young players in Jamal Turner and incoming freshman Jordan Westerkamp. Nebraska also brings back two senior tight ends (Ben Cotton and Kyler Reed).
The past few weeks, we've been taking a look at which Big Ten players can hit some major, single-season statistical milestones in 2012. We turned to the defense earlier this week with a look at which players could compile 100 tackles this season. Let's end the series now by analyzing who might reach double digits in sacks this fall.

Getting to at least 10 quarterback sacks in one season is a tall order. Only two players in the Big Ten did it last year, led by Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus' national-best 16. The previous two seasons, only Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan got to double digits. Only 13 players in the FBS accomplished it last season. It's usually, but not always, accomplished by a defensive end. Here are the top candidates for 10 sacks in order of most likely:

[+] EnlargeDenicos Allen sacks Denard Robinson
Mike Carter/US PresswireMichigan QB Denard Robinson found out that it's not easy to escape the pursuit of Michigan State's Denicos Allen.
1. Denicos Allen, LB, Michigan State: It's more difficult for a linebacker to rack up huge sack totals, but Allen is a heat-seeking missile who had 11 last year, second only to Mercilus in the league. His speed and nose for the ball, most evident in his "Waterboy" play against Ohio State, combined with defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi's aggressive blitz schemes give Allen a chance for another big year in the sacks department.

2. Michael Buchanan, DE, Illinois: Assuming he's recovered from a broken jaw, Buchanan seems like the best bet to replace Mercilus as his team's quarterback hunter. Buchanan had 7.5 sacks last year, helping keep pressure off Mercilus, and his 6-foot-6, 240-pound frame could be set free toward the backfield more often in '12.

3. John Simon, DE, Ohio State: Simon had seven sacks last year while playing in different spots on the Buckeyes' defensive line, which dealt with some injuries. He should have a lot more help this year on what looks like a fierce unit, and Simon's nonstop motor could lead him to many quarterbacks' grills.

4. William Gholston, DE, Michigan State: We all know how physically gifted and large Gholston is, and there's every reason to believe this could be a big breakout year for him. But he only had five sacks last year and will have to improve the consistency of his effort. On the plus side, it will be hard to double team him with Marcus Rush on the other side and all the defensive talent surrounding them.

5. Jonathan Brown, LB, Illinois: Like Allen, Brown has such quickness to the backfield that he can pile up some monster numbers. He had six sacks last year in addition to a whopping 19.5 tackles for loss.

6. Kawann Short, DT, Purdue: You don't often see defensive tackles racking up major sack totals. But if anyone in the league can do it, it's the extremely talented Short, who had 6.5 sacks as a junior in 2011.

7. Cameron Meredith, DE, Nebraska: Meredith is entering his third season as a starter and should be one of the leaders of the Blackshirts this season. He had five sacks a year ago, and the Huskers expect better production overall from their defense this fall. Quarterbacks may collapse just getting an up-close look at Meredith's mustache.

8. Jordan Hill, DT, Penn State: Hill could take over Devon Still's role as a dominant disruptor, but even the 2011 Big Ten defensive player of the year had only 4.5 sacks last year. Maybe linebacker Gerald Hodges or defensive end Sean Stanley makes a big jump in sack numbers.

Big Ten lunchtime links

June, 15, 2012
6/15/12
12:00
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Siri, show me some links:
Taking a page from our friends at the SEC blog, we're going to look at several Big Ten players who have a lot to prove during the 2012 season.

We'll break this up into divisions, starting with the Leaders.

Here are five players with plenty to prove this fall:

1. Matthew McGloin, QB, Penn State: New Penn State coach Bill O'Brien hasn't officially named his starting quarterback, but the expectation is McGloin will get the nod. McGloin has made 10 starts during the past two seasons but taken the majority of snaps for the Nittany Lions. He'll likely get the first shot to run O'Brien's straight-from-the-NFL offense, which will put a lot of pressure on the signal caller. Most folks have written off Penn State's passing attack after the past two seasons, but McGloin doesn't lack confidence and embraces the opportunity to prove his doubters wrong.

[+] EnlargeMatt McGloin
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarPenn State QB Matthew McGloin will likely get the first shot at running Bill O'Brien's new offense.
2. Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State: From the moment Ohio State introduced Urban Meyer as its next head coach in November, the assumption was that Miller would flourish in Meyer's spread scheme. Miller showed his speed and athleticism as a freshman last fall, but he rarely got to throw the ball in an ultra conservative scheme and completed only 54.1 percent of his passes. Although he impressed Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman with his passing skills this spring, he has to show consistency when the games begin this fall. Ohio State's lack of depth at receiver isn't a secret, and while Miller has a few nice weapons (Jake Stoneburner, Jordan Hall, maybe freshman Michael Thomas), he'll need to make things happen for the offense to click in Year 1.

3. Michael Buchanan, DE, Illinois: The Illini have grown accustomed to producing elite defensive linemen, and the hope is that Buchanan will be the next surging star. Buchanan impressed the new coaching staff this spring with his explosiveness from the end spot. Illinois must replace All-American end Whitney Mercilus, who led the nation in sacks (16) and ranked second in tackles for loss (22.5). The Illini likely will be a defense-driven team because there's more continuity on that side of the ball. And while the overall defensive line looks strong, Buchanan can provide a major boost if he takes his game from good to great.

4. Ricky Wagner, OT, Wisconsin: Speaking of teams that mass-produce elite linemen, Wisconsin's success along the offensive front has been unparalleled in the Big Ten in recent years. The Badgers have had multiple All-Americans on the offensive line in each of the past two seasons. Who's the next star? All eyes are on Wagner, who has started 24 games at the tackle position in the past two seasons. He's entering his second year as the starting left tackle and will be protecting the blind side of the team's new starting quarterback. Wagner also will be instrumental in maintaining Wisconsin's rushing success behind Heisman Trophy candidate Montee Ball. Again, here's a guy who needs to take his game to the elite level.

5. Rob Henry, QB, Purdue: The Boilers have a unique quarterback dynamic entering the season -- they have three players who have made multiple starts -- and it's hard to know where Henry fits into the mix. He would have been the starter in 2011 after a strong offseason, but he tore his ACL in late August and missed the year. Henry was limited this spring and needs to catch Caleb TerBush and Robert Marve on the depth chart. There's no doubt Henry is the best athlete of the bunch, but he'll need to convince the coaches he's the best man to lead the offense. Last month, he had to shoot down rumors (via Twitter) that he would be switching positions. This fall, he can reclaim his place at the helm of the offense.

Illinois spring wrap

May, 11, 2012
5/11/12
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2011 record: 7-6
2011 conference record: 2-6 (fifth, Leaders Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 7; defense: 8; kicker/punter: 1

Top returners

QB Nathan Scheelhaase, C Graham Pocic, WR Darius Millines, LB Jonathan Brown, DE Michael Buchanan, DT Akeem Spence, CB Terry Hawthorne, DT Glenn Foster

Key losses

WR A.J. Jenkins, LT Jeff Allen, G Jack Cornell, DE Whitney Mercilus, LB Ian Thomas, CB Tavon Wilson, K Derek Dimke

2011 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Nathan Scheelhaase* (624 yards)
Passing:
Nathan Scheelhaase (2,110 yards)
Receiving: A.J. Jenkins (1,276 yards)
Tackles: Jonathan Brown* (108)
Sacks: Whitney Mercilus (16)
Interceptions: Terry Hawthorne* (3)

Spring answers

1. Front loaded: How good is Illinois' defensive line? The Illini lose a first-round draft pick for the second consecutive year and should be just fine for the next season. Although All-America end Whitney Mercilus leaves a big production void, Illinois is loaded up front with Michael Buchanan, Akeem Spence, Glenn Foster, Justin Staples and others. Buchanan and Spence both have NFL potential and should be the mix for All-Big Ten honors. While Illinois has a new coordinator in Tim Banks, the scheme changes aren't dramatic and new head coach Tim Beckman wisely retained line coach Keith Gilmore.

2. Ferguson emerges: The Illini are short on proven offensive weapons (more on that later), but they came out of the spring game feeling a bit better after watching freshman Josh Ferguson run for 130 yards and record a game-high six receptions. Ferguson, who redshirted last season after being slowed by a hamstring injury, brings top-end speed to the offensive backfield. He could form a nice tandem with Donovonn Young this fall.

3. Versatility abounds: Beckman is open to using versatile players in multiple roles, and two options emerged this spring. Starting cornerback Terry Hawthorne, who has seen time on returns, played some receiver during the spring game and hauled in a 29-yard touchdown pass. Hawthorne played both corner and receiver in high school and could be a "slash" player for the Illini. Reserve quarterback Miles Osei also showed he can be effective at multiple positions (running back, receiver).

Fall questions

1. Offensive weapons: The offense's struggles in the second half of 2011 stemmed in large part from the fact Illinois developed no consistent weapons other than wideout A.J. Jenkins, a surprise first-round pick of the San Francisco 49ers. Depth is a major concern at both running back and receiver. Darius Millines has shown promising flashes, but he struggles to stay healthy. Although the coaches aren't afraid to audition players from other positions, Illinois would really benefit if wide receiver Ryan Lankford and tight ends Evan Wilson and Jon Davis stepped up. The Illini also need a third option at running back behind Young and Ferguson.

2. Special teams: Beckman didn't mince words when evaluating Illinois' special teams from 2011, calling them "terrible." He's being kind. The Illini couldn't catch punts, and they finished last in the FBS in kick return average (15.7 ypr). Standout kicker Derek Dimke departs, and Illinois must find a replacement. Illinois has too much talent to be so lousy in the kicking game, and Beckman stressed the basics this spring. He must continue to see progress this summer as Illinois tries to become a more complete team.

3. Quarterback efficiency: Illinois wants to regain its swagger on offense after flat-lining down the stretch of last season, and it starts with the quarterback spot. Nathan Scheelhaase has started two seasons under center, but he's transitioning to a new system and looked a bit shaky throwing the ball in the spring game. Arm strength is a question mark for Scheelhaase, who will need to spread the ball around in the new system. Reilly O'Toole also is in the mix after playing a decent amount as a backup in 2011. O'Toole will continue to compete for time.
Our series looking at the most indispensable players on each Big Ten team marches on with the Illinois Fighting Illini. Once again, this is not necessarily a listing of the best players on each team, but ones whose absence would be toughest to absorb because of their particular value or a lack of depth behind them.

We're selecting two players from each Big Ten squad, usually one on offense and one on defense, but not always. Let's look at Illinois under first-year coach Tim Beckman.

Graham Pocic, C, Sr.

There's no shortage of question marks for Illinois' offense, but Pocic provides a veteran anchor in the middle of the line. He has started every game the past two seasons at center, and earned honorable mention All-American honors from Phil Steele. While Illinois' offensive line struggled down the stretch in 2011, the group loses left tackle Jeff Allen, a second-round pick in last month's NFL draft, and has some depth issues to address. Pocic is undoubtedly the leader of the group, and will enter 2012 as one of the Big Ten's most seasoned offensive linemen. While Illinois must build some numbers at both wide receiver and running back, the offense won't go anywhere without a decent line. Pocic's presence on the field will be critical this fall.

Terry Hawthorne, CB, Sr.

Illinois' strength as a team is undoubtedly the defensive front seven. Despite the loss of All-America defensive end Whitney Mercilus, the Illini defensive line is both talented and deep. While there's not as much depth at linebacker, Jonathan Brown is a budding superstar in the middle. The question marks on defense rest with the secondary. While safety is a prime concern for Illinois, the unit boasts one of the league's top cover cornerbacks in Hawthorne, an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection. Hawthorne is a natural playmaker who recorded three interceptions, eight pass breakups and a forced fumble last season. The gifted senior even saw time at wide receiver this spring as Illinois tries to build depth there. Hawthorne has next-level potential, and leads a group that loses Tavon Wilson, a surprise second-round pick in last month's NFL draft.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- As Illinois' starting center for the past few seasons, Graham Pocic has mashed limbs with some of the nation's best defensive tackles.

Penn State's Devon Still, Purdue's Kawann Short, Michigan State's Jerel Worthy and Michigan's Mike Martin are among those who have lined up across from Pocic. But Pocic's toughest opponent is a man he never faces on Saturdays.

[+] EnlargeAkeem Spence
Michael Heinz/US PresswireAkeem Spence is following in the footsteps of several Illini turned NFL defensive linemen before him.
"I get to go against the best D-tackle in the conference every day [in practice]," Pocic said. "It's awesome."

Pocic is biased, but don't be surprised if his teammate, Akeem Spence, earns the same label from the NFL talent evaluators a year from now. Spence has been on the NFL radar for the past two seasons, earning a starting job as a redshirt freshman and starting all 26 games he has played at Illinois.

The 6-foot-1, 305-pound Spence built on his freshman-year numbers (45 tackles, 4 TFLs, 1 sack, 1 fumble recovery) by finishing fourth on the squad in tackles (69) last fall. He had 5.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery for an Illinois defense that finished seventh nationally in yards allowed and 15th in points allowed.

"His explosiveness off the ball, his strength, he's pretty athletic for his size," Pocic said. "He's just a powerful dude. If you're not ready when you go against him, he's going to get under you and make some plays in the backfield."

The Illini have had defensive linemen selected in the first round of the past two NFL drafts: tackle Corey Liuget in 2011 (No. 18 overall pick) and end Whitney Mercilus last week (No. 26 overall pick). Spence is already being mentioned as a top candidate to enter the NFL draft after his junior season this fall.

Asked last month how motivated he is to be Illinois' next elite next-level prospect, Spence's face lit up.

"I'm real motivated," he said. "I'm just working real hard, doing everything that they did, do everything right. When it's time to step up, I want to be that guy making a big sack, making a big tackle for loss, making a big turnover. That's what I'm working toward."

Spence remains in touch with Liuget, who he started alongside in 2010. Although they've had similar career arcs at the same position -- Spence actually has played more than Liuget did in his first two years -- they're different players.

"He's a lot taller than I am," Spence said.

Only two inches to be exact, but it makes a difference in the trenches.

"Corey was a little more agile and faster," Pocic said, "but Corey doesn't have the strength that Akeem has. Corey's probably a little more explosive, but Akeem's just so strong and physical inside. It's tough to deal with."

Like several other veteran defenders, Spence had concerns about the unit's direction after head coach Ron Zook's firing coordinator Vic Koenning's departure for North Carolina. He was relieved to learn the new scheme under coordinator Tim Banks closely resembles its predecessor. Illinois also retained defensive line coach Keith Gilmore, the lone holdover from the previous staff.

Spence will play mostly the 3-technique and 1-technique in Banks' scheme with some spot work out wide at the 5-technique.

"You're creating a culture of great defensive line play," Banks said. "Those kids want to uphold that standard. You talk about those guys [Liuget and Mercilus], they were just here. It's not like 10 years ago. Our guys know who they are. They say, 'If he can do it, I can do it.' There's been greatness in that room."

Spence wants to continue that legacy before he walks out the door.
The Big Ten had five underclassmen enter the NFL draft, and now that the selections are complete, it's time to re-evaluate those decisions.

Hindsight is always 20-20, and each player had his own specific reasons for entering the draft, some of which can be personal (family issues, financial needs, etc.). But most players make the jump because they expect to hear their name called early in the process. Several of the Big Ten's early entries ended up waiting a little longer than they expected.

Let's look back at the group.

Edwin Baker, RB, Michigan State

Class: Junior
Drafted: Seventh round, No. 250 overall, San Diego Chargers
What I wrote in January: "Baker's departure was the biggest surprise in the group, as his production dropped off in 2011. Then again, he plays a position that has a short NFL shelf-life, and with Le'Veon Bell back in the fold for 2012, his opportunities at Michigan State could have been limited."
Decision assessment: A head-scratcher. It's understandable why running backs must make the jump earlier than others, and Bell's emergence as a potential featured back for MSU might have hurt Baker had he returned to East Lansing. Still, you don't see many underclassmen make the jump and get drafted in the seventh round. Michigan State will be a much more run-focused offense in 2012, and Baker could have seen his numbers increase as a senior. Sure, he would be competing with Bell for carries, but Baker, not Bell, is the one with the 1,200-yard season (2010). Another year in the Big Ten puts more tread on the tires, but it also could have boosted Baker's draft stock.

Peter Konz, C, Wisconsin

Class: Junior
Drafted: Second round, No. 55 overall, Atlanta Falcons
What I wrote in January: "He had an excellent season at center and has the ability to play multiple positions at the next level. Konz should hear his name called on the second day of the draft, if not sooner."
Decision assessment: Sensible, yet slightly disappointing. The big question regarding Konz is whether he'd be a late first-round pick or slide into the second round. It seemed like NFL teams weren't blown away by this year's crop of centers, as Michigan's David Molk slipped to the seventh round and Ohio State's Mike Brewster went undrafted. Even Konz heard his name called a little later than expected. While he should be a good pro, you have to wonder whether another year in Madison would have solidified him in the first round.

Whitney Mercilus, DE, Illinois

Class: Junior
Drafted: First round, No. 26 overall, Houston Texans
What I wrote in January: "An All-America season in 2011 made Mercilus' decision rather easy. The fact that Illinois made a coaching change and defensive coordinator Vic Koenning departed for North Carolina further cemented Mercilus' choice."
Decision assessment: A smart choice despite a bit of a wait. There was little doubt Mercilus would go in the first round after a breakout season that featured 16 sacks and nine forced fumbles. The question: whether he'd go in the middle of the round or toward the end. Although No. 26 seems a bit low for Mercilus, he had to make this move after such a huge season and with the uncertainty surrounding Illinois at the time.

Riley Reiff, OT, Iowa

Class: Junior
Drafted: First round, No. 23 overall, Detroit Lions
What I wrote in January: "He's widely projected as a top-10 or top-15 draft choice, making his decision to leave Iowa rather easy."
Decision assessment: Still the right call. Like Mercilus, Reiff had to wait a little longer than expected to be drafted in the first round. But there was little doubt he'd hear his name called on Thursday night. I'm not sure if another season in Iowa City would have done much to boost Reiff's draft stock, as the book on him (strong run blocker, good in pass protection, not a superstar but solid) seemed fairly set.

Jerel Worthy, DT, Michigan State

Class: Junior
Drafted: Second round, No. 51 overall, Green Bay Packers
What I wrote in January: "While there have been some concerns about him taking off a play or two, his explosiveness and ability to dominate for stretches make him a very appealing prospect. A strong pre-draft season should cement Worthy as a first-round pick."
Decision assessment: Questionable. The concern about taking plays off seemed to be the main reason why Worthy slipped from the first round into the middle of the second. He could have eased those concerns in the predraft events but couldn't do so. Another All-America type season at Michigan State certainly could have put the talent evaluators at ease. While Worthy seemed keen on making the jump since the middle part of last season, it's fair to wonder how he would have fared as the centerpiece of the Big Ten's best defense in 2012.

Big Ten NFL draft roundup

April, 30, 2012
4/30/12
9:00
AM ET
After a historically slow start to the 2012 NFL draft, the Big Ten ended up having 41 players selected during the three-day event. It's a strong overall total, one behind the SEC, the league with the most picks (42). Michigan State, Iowa and Wisconsin led the way with six picks each, followed by four teams -- Illinois, Nebraska, Ohio State and Penn State -- with four selections. Michigan had three players selected, and both Purdue and Northwestern had two. Neither Minnesota nor Indiana had a player drafted this year.

Here's the full rundown:

ROUND 1 (four selections)


No. 23 overall: Iowa T Riley Reiff, Detroit
No. 26: Illinois DE Whitney Mercilus, Houston
No. 27: Wisconsin G Kevin Zeitler, Cincinnati Bengals
No. 30: Illinois WR A.J. Jenkins, San Francisco

ROUND 2 (seven selections)


No. 44: Illinois G Jeff Allen, Kansas City
No. 48: Illinois S Tavon Wilson, New England
No. 51: Michigan State DT Jerel Worthy, Green Bay
No. 53: Penn State DT Devon Still, Cincinnati
No. 55: Wisconsin C Peter Konz, Atlanta
No. 56: Ohio State OT Mike Adams, Pittsburgh
No. 58: Nebraska LB Lavonte David, Tampa Bay

ROUND 3 (three selections)


No. 68: Ohio State WR DeVier Posey, Houston
No. 75: Wisconsin QB Russell Wilson, Seattle
No. 82: Michigan DT Mike Martin, Tennessee

ROUND 4 (five selections)


No. 102: Michigan State QB Kirk Cousins, Washington
No. 121: Michigan State WR Keshawn Martin, Houston
No. 122: Wisconsin WR Nick Toon, New Orleans
No. 126: Nebraska DT Jared Crick, Houston
No. 132: Iowa DE Mike Daniels, Green Bay

ROUND 5 (six selections)


No. 141: Iowa G Adam Gettis, Washington
No. 149: Penn State G Johnnie Troutman, San Diego
No. 153: Purdue T Dennis Kelly, Philadelphia
No. 156: Iowa CB Shaun Prater, Cincinnati
No. 157: Wisconsin FB Bradie Ewing, Atlanta
No. 158: Penn State DE Jack Crawford, Oakland

ROUND 6 (seven selections)


No. 180: Michigan State S Trenton Robinson, San Francisco 49ers
No. 183: Michigan State WR B.J. Cunningham, Miami Dolphins
No. 191: Ohio State RB Dan Herron, Cincinnati Bengals
No. 194: Iowa WR Marvin McNutt, Philadelphia Eagles
No. 195: Purdue T Nick Mondek, Houston Texans
No. 197: Ohio State S Nate Ebner, New England Patriots
No. 207: Wisconsin P Brad Nortman, Carolina Panthers

ROUND 7 (nine selections)


No. 217: Iowa CB Jordan Bernstine, Washington
No. 224: Nebraska CB Alfonzo Dennard, New England
No. 227: Michigan C David Molk, San Diego
No. 230: Penn State LB Nate Stupar, Oakland
No. 233: Northwestern TE Drake Dunsmore, Tampa Bay
No. 234: Nebraska T Marcel Jones, New Orleans
No. 235: Northwestern WR Jeremy Ebert, New England
No. 238: Michigan WR Junior Hemingway, Kansas City
No. 250: Michigan State RB Edwin Baker, San Diego

POSITION BREAKDOWN

Wide receiver: 8
Offensive tackle: 5
Defensive tackle: 4
Guard: 4
Cornerback: 3
Defensive end: 3
Safety: 3
Center: 2
Quarterback: 2
Running back: 2
Linebacker: 2
Fullback: 1
Tight end: 1
Punter: 1

We'll post some of the free-agent signings later today, but first some thoughts and themes on the draft.
    [+] EnlargeMichigan State's Kirk Cousins
    AP Photo/Chris O'MearaWith Robert Griffin III on the roster, one has to wonder about Kirk Cousins' future in Washington.

  • Many had projected Cousins to be the first Big Ten quarterback off of the board, but Russell Wilson went ahead of him to Seattle. Cousins was one of the more intriguing third-day picks as he went to Washington, which selected Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III with the No. 2 overall selection. Griffin is the future of the Redskins franchise, and it leaves Cousins in a potentially tough spot on the depth chart. The selection surprised Cousins, who didn't know the Redskins were interested and told the Detroit Free Press, "I think Robert is in their immediate plans and the long-term hope for their fan base, but they wouldn't have selected me unless they believed in me."
  • The verdict on Ron Zook always seemed to be great recruiter, average coach, and this draft validated it. Illinois was the only Big Ten team with two first-round picks and had four of the first 48 overall selections, yet the team went 7-6 last season after a 6-0 start. Talent clearly wasn't the problem during Zook's tenure in Champaign. Defensive line coach Keith Gilmore is on a roll with back-to-back first-round picks (Corey Liuget and Mercilus). He has two more potentially big-time prospects (Akeem Spence and Michael Buchanan) this year.
  • The Houston Texans clearly like what they see from Big Ten country. After drafting Wisconsin defensive end J.J. Watt with the No. 11 overall pick last year, the Texans added Mercilus, Posey, Keshawn Martin, Crick and Mondek. Watt welcomed the group on Twitter, tweeting, "Big Ten takeover. Welcome to the Texans." The Cincinnati Bengals also had a nice Big Ten haul with Zeitler, Still, Prater and Herron.
  • Posey, who last week told me he had no idea where he'd be drafted, had to be pleased with a third-round selection after appearing in only three games last fall because of suspension. Teams didn't shy away from the Ohio State star too much because of his off-field issues. Posey's Buckeyes teammate, Mike Adams, meanwhile, appeared to pay a bit of a price for his off-field issues, falling to the late second round.
  • On the flip side, Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, the Big Ten's defensive back of the year in 2011, slipped all the way to the seventh round. Keep in mind some draft gurus, including ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr., once projected Dennard in the first round. But after being ejected from the Capital One Bowl, failing to impress in predraft events and getting arrested the weekend before the draft for allegedly punching a cop, Dennard plummeted to No. 224. At least he'll have no trouble getting motivated to prove himself.
  • Dennard wasn't the only Big Ten player selected later than expected. Michigan's David Molk, who called himself the best center in the draft, also fell to the seventh round. And Ohio State center Mike Brewster, a first-team All-Big Ten selection in 2010, didn't hear his name called at all. While Brewster's play slipped during his senior season, he seemed like a mid-round candidate.
  • Other players I expected to be picked earlier: Mercilus, David, Adams, Mike Martin, Cousins, Daniels, McNutt, Hemingway and Baker.
  • Some players I expected to be picked later: Jenkins, Allen, Russell Wilson, Tavon Wilson and Posey.
  • Although the Big Ten had more wide receivers drafted than any other position, only one (Jenkins) went in the first two rounds and only two, Jenkins and Posey, went in the first three rounds. With only two quarterbacks and two running backs drafted, none in the first two rounds, it's fair to question whether the Big Ten is producing enough elite-level offensive skill players. It will be interesting to see which Big Ten running backs can rise up the draft boards in 2013. Running back might be the league's strongest position group this coming season.
  • I'll be very interested to watch how Worthy and Still fare at the next level. Both men have first-round talent, but both seemed to slip to the second round because of questions about their motor. If they don't take plays off in the NFL, they both could be extremely disruptive for the Packers and Bengals, respectively.
  • Wisconsin had players selected in each of the first six rounds and had the Big Ten's lone fullback (Ewing) and punter (Nortman) selected in the draft.
  • Ohio State's Ebner was one of the more interesting third-day picks. He didn't play football at all in high school -- he starred in rugby -- and spent most of his Buckeyes career on special teams. His selection shows the premium some teams place on the third phase.

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