Big Ten: Willie VanDeSteeg

D.L. Wilhite has been at Minnesota long enough to remember Willie VanDeSteeg.

Wilhite's first season with the Gophers, in 2008, was VanDeSteeg's last. Although Wilhite redshirted that fall, he worked alongside VanDeSteeg at practice, and VanDeSteeg took him under his wing. That season, VanDeSteeg recorded 10.5 sacks, tied for second in the league, and 19 tackles for loss en route to earning first-team All-Big Ten honors from the media.

But since VanDeSteeg's departure, Minnesota hasn't had a pass rusher close to his caliber. The team hasn't had a player record more than four sacks in each of the past three seasons. Minnesota's sacks leaders had just three sacks in both 2009 and 2010, while the late Gary Tinsley, a linebacker, led the team with four last year.

After finishing 24th nationally in sacks in 2008, largely thanks to VanDeSteeg, Minnesota slipped to 78th in 2009, 120th (last in FBS) in 2010 and 86th last season.

[+] EnlargeD.L. Wilhite
AP Photo/Cal Sport MediaD.L. Wilhite knows Minnesota's pass-rush has to help the young secondary.
"Coming up, Willie was my role model," Wilhite told ESPN.com. "He was the one I looked up to. When he left, I looked Willie in the eye and told him I was going to be better than him, and I feel like I haven't shown that up until this point."

Wilhite has one last chance to ensure his promise to VanDeSteeg. And what a boost he could provide to a defense sorely needing one from the front four in 2012.

He leads a group of young defensive ends who have made the pass rush their peak priority this spring. Gophers defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys is open to turning his linemen loose, but they have to show they can finish in the backfield.

Ben Perry, who started all 12 games as a redshirt freshman in 2011, feels the line is getting closer and points to the season finale against Illinois, where Minnesota recorded a season-high five sacks in a 27-7 victory. But the group needs to upgrade its fundamentals, which are being stressed this spring.

"We can't be taking inefficient moves," said Perry, who recorded 15 tackles and a sack last season. "We've got to keep our hips toward the quarterback, stay low and keep leverage. We do drills, making sure we stay under the chute and keeping not just our pad level low but our legs bent."

Minnesota's defensive linemen recognize the urgency to upgrade their play, not just for the team but in a league like the Big Ten. The Gophers return most of their linebackers and should be solid there, but they once again have question marks in the secondary after finishing 11th in the league and 107th nationally in pass defense in 2011.

"If we're getting pressure, it alleviates stress on a lot of different people," said Wilhite, who had three sacks and a forced fumble last season. "The DBs aren't having to cover as long, the linebackers aren't having to cover as long. We're not having to bring people to blitz, so we can drop more people off in coverage."

The team's declining pass rush is more pronounced in a league like the Big Ten, which regularly boasts four or five top 20 defenses. The league produces many more elite NFL draft prospects from the defensive line than from any other position.

"Year in and year out, the team that's going to win the Big Ten championship probably is going to have the best D-line," Wilhite said. "In the past years, Iowa's had great D-lines, Ohio State's had great D-lines. So if we want to win, it has to start with us."

Although Wilhite is a fifth-year senior with 20 starts the past two seasons, Minnesota remains fairly young at defensive end. Perry is a redshirt sophomore, while Michael Amaefula, a true sophomore, made four starts last fall. Thieren Cockran, who redshirted last fall, should be in the rotation this year.

Wilhite singled out Amaefula's play this spring, noting that they try to mimic each other's pass-rush moves. Perry also is showing more confidence on the practice field.

"You learn so much more in a game than you ever could in a practice, just stepping on that field each play," he said. "The experience, it's incomparable."

Wilhite's college experience won't be complete without a big senior season. As the leader of the defensive ends, he still plans to fulfill his pledge to VanDeSteeg, who attends one or two Minnesota games per season.

"I want to see him one more time," Wilhite said, "and be like, 'OK, Willie, you had 10 sacks your senior year, but I had 11.'"

Big Ten mailblog

January, 10, 2012
1/10/12
5:30
PM ET
The season might be over, but the mail never stops.

Let's do this.

Mike from Phoenix writes: As a Badger fan I was waiting to see your final power rankings of the year because I had a feeling that you might make MSU number 1. I just don't get it. It's the same way the coaches poll has MSU and Michigan ahead of Wisconsin. That's a joke.Look at the teams everyone played in the bowl season. MSU barely beat Georgia who is not the 2nd best team in the SEC even though they went to the title game. They are the 4th best team in that league. Michigan looked bad, and played one of the easiest teams in BCS history. Wisconsin would have destroyed both Georgia and Va. Tech, but you are penalizing them for going blow for blow with the most talented offensive team in the country. They were a fumble away from possibly winning.

Adam Rittenberg: Brian and I had a spirited debate about Wisconsin vs. Michigan State for No. 1. You can make good cases for both teams, but you can't base it solely on the bowl competition. Would Wisconsin have rolled Georgia? Maybe, maybe not. Georgia has a much better defense than Oregon and would have moved the ball against a Wisconsin defense that wasn't nearly as good as its stats indicated. Wisconsin also was extremely fortunate to beat Michigan State in the Big Ten title game, which the Spartans dominated for stretches. The two teams are evenly matched, as their two games this season showed. And I believe Michigan State ended the season playing better football than Wisconsin. I also tend to value teams with good to great defenses above those that rely on their offense. Michigan State is certainly superior to Wisconsin on defense.


Tim from Iowa writes: While it might get you some back lash, I'd like your opinion on this.....me and several friends have the opinion that if 2 B10 teams(esp in our champ game) played like LSU-Bama, the B10 would once again be ripped for 3 yards/cloud of dust 1950's football. I watched parts ofthe game last night, then the final 8min. what I saw was one great def, 2 bad quaterbacks, a very repeative ineffective O from LSU, and Iowa/B10 style ball control from Bama. then Saban being proclaimed the next "Bear".

Adam Rittenberg: Tim, you're right to a degree, although there was less SEC love about the national title game than there was about the 9-6 contest. The SEC in a sense has earned the right to have ugly games because teams from other leagues simply haven't stacked up against the SEC's best. The common belief is that while Oklahoma State would have scored against Alabama, the Tide still would have rolled the Cowboys by 20-30 points. But I agree the SEC is the only league that can "get away" with games like last night's. Most people would much rather see games like the Rose Bowl and the Fiesta Bowl. Alabama is a great football team with one of the best defenses I've ever seen. But LSU's offense would be mediocre to bad in most leagues, not just the SEC.


Ryan from Pittsburgh writes: Adam,What are your thoughts on the new Penn State staff? I have to admit I'm somewhat surprised. For years I thought that PSU would turn the corner if they could only get a younger fresher staff in place to energize recruiting. This new staff that O'Brien has coming in is not young at all, so I doubt they're great recruiters. Plus any Auburn fan will tell you that Roof was fired. Mack Brown fired McWhorter last year. Am I overreacting?

Adam Rittenberg: You bring up a good point, Ryan. A lot of veteran assistants are joining Bill O'Brien in State College. Keeping Larry Johnson is huge and a somewhat obvious move. He's one of the Big Ten's top recruiters, and he'll maintain Penn State's presence in the Maryland/DC area. His age isn't a factor in that regard. Ted Roof is the hire that has some Penn State fans upset. I agree he doesn't have the best track record, but the overall defensive staff with both Johnson and Ron Vanderlinden still looks solid to me. Charles London is a younger guy (mid-30s), but he's definitely the junior member right now. It'll be interesting to see who O'Brien hires to fill out the staff. Some more youth would be nice.


Jeff from Omaha, writes: Adam? Why am I so awesome?

Adam Rittenberg: Ask myself the same thing every morning.


Sam from Kalamazoo, Mich., writes: Adam, can you please explain your rationale for naming MSU as an early favorite to win the B1G in 2012 over, say, Michigan? The Wolverines return two 1,000 yard rushers in Denard and Fitz Toussaint, 3 starting receivers, and a top-5 recruiting class loaded with 4 and 5 star DLs, LBs, and OLs. Molk, Van Bergen, and Martin will be sorely missed, but I'm not sure it makes sense that MSU is so ramped for success after losing 6 All-Big Ten players and playing in the Big House. Can you even name next year's replacement for mighty Kirk Cousins off the top of your head?

Adam Rittenberg: Sure, Sam. Andrew Maxwell. Michigan State has been grooming him the past two seasons. Will he be as good as Cousins? That's a tall order, but he's not coming out of nowhere. Michigan State is my pick because of its defense. While Jerel Worthy is a big loss, the Spartans return a ton of elite athletes in all three levels, players like Will Gholston, Denicos Allen, Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard. The Spartans have more difference-makers on defense than Michigan will in 2011, at least in my view. I also believe MSU will be a more effective running team than it was this season because of an experienced line and a strong lead back in Le'Veon Bell. I certainly could see Michigan winning the division, but the Wolverines have a much tougher schedule in 2012 and could have a better team with a worse record (much like MSU this season versus 2010).


Ben from Fargo, N.D., writes: One of the big stories in 2012 will be a surprising improvement in Minnesota's defensive line play. Ask Jerry Kill about Thieren Cockran. He's coach Kill's secret weapon.

Adam Rittenberg: Will do, Ben. Thanks for the note. Minnesota's defensive line play has struggled since Willie VanDeSteeg departed following the 2008 season. Gophers have ranked and 78th, 120th and 86th nationally in sacks in the past three seasons. It's an area of focus throughout the offseason as Minnesota loses linebacker Gary Tinsley and standout safety Kim Royston. Cockran, a redshirt freshman defensive end from Florida, is among those who needs to step up in 2012.


Matt from Burbank, Calif., writes: Hi Adam,Regarding Northwestern next year, do you think Kain Colter gets the starting QB job? I've been of the opinion that he is more dangerous in a utility role as he was used these season, but on the other hand he's proven he can win and be effective as the top guy. Additionally, do you think there's any hope for this defense?Thanks for a great season, can't wait till next year! Bowl win or bust!

Adam Rittenberg: Matt, I think Colter will be the starter for 2012, but he has to make some important strides as a passer during the offseason. Northwestern's offense is predicated on short passing and accuracy. The Wildcats convert a lot of third downs, and Colter has to be able to make the throws Dan Persa, Mike Kafka and C.J. Bacher have made in recent years. He's the best athlete Northwestern ever has had at quarterback, and he's a perfect fit for the spread -- as long as he gets better as a passer. If there's little to no progress, Northwestern will have to use another quarterback, likely Trevor Siemian, to spark the passing game. Offensive coordinator Mick McCall has developed quarterbacks well at Northwestern, and Colter is his next big project.


Kevin from New Orleans writes: It's been a tough couple weeks to be a Badger. Lost the Rose Bowl, lost 3 straight in hoops, lost 5 coaches. First let me say, if Bielama has Barry's confidence and support, then he has mine. Have you heard anything? Are the Badgers getting some really good coaches? I doubt we'll get anybody that can match the talent we are losing, but maybe we get an upgrade on the recruiting. 4 of the 5 coaches that left were not good recruiters. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Adam Rittenberg: Kevin, while it's tough right now, I think Wisconsin fans should have faith in Bret Bielema to make some good hires. As you note, Joe Rudolph is the only major loss from a recruiting standpoint. Bielema has made good choices in the past, such as defensive coordinator Dave Doeren (now head coach at Northern Illinois), Dave Huxtable (did a great job with UW linebackers in only year) and Chris Ash (has upgraded secondary, now defensive coordinator). It'll be interesting to see where he turns to replace Paul Chryst and Bob Bostad, but a lot of good coaches will want to come to Madison after seeing what Wisconsin has done the past few years. So I would look at Bielema's hiring track record and feel confident.


Lance from Arlington writes: "While Penn State has produced some solid college quarterbacks -- most recently Daryll Clark, the 2009 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year"While your opinion is correct in general, saying Daryll Clark was solid does him an injustice. DC (along with Drew Brees) was the best QB the Big Ten has had since Kerry Collins and Michael Robinson is right there. Simply put, Penn State has produced three of the top five QB's to have competed in the Big Ten since their arrival. You will no doubt disagree since you hate Penn State but you are wrong.

Adam Rittenberg: Lance, I don't hate Penn State. I hate every school according to you folks. Let's get that cleared up. I was a big Daryll Clark fan during his career, but your argument doesn't hold up. Troy Smith won a Heisman Trophy in 2006. He played between Brees and Clark. Iowa's Brad Banks won the Davey O'Brien award in 2002. He played between Brees and Clark. While Clark led the Big Ten in pass efficiency in conference games in 2009 (136.6), it's the lowest rating for a Big Ten leader since at least 1980. His season rating that year (142.6) didn't lead the league (Terrelle Pryor did) and ranks behind all of the league leaders since 1980. Again, not hating on Daryll, who has a really nice career in State College, as did Michael Robinson. But there have been better Big Ten quarterbacks since Kerry Collins, including Wisconsin's Russell Wilson this year.
Tracy Claeys hasn't spent much time watching tape or reviewing stats from Minnesota's 2010 season.

The Gophers' new defensive coordinator is focused on the future, and he wants his players to feel the same way.

"I don’t want to judge them on the past," Claeys said. "I'd like everybody to have a fresh start when we get going here."

But two Gophers' numbers from 2010 caught Claeys' eye. He couldn't ignore them.
  • Minnesota's opponents converted 46.6 percent of their third-down opportunities last fall. The Gophers finished last in the Big Ten and 107th nationally in third-down defense.
  • Minnesota recorded only nine sacks, last in the Big Ten and tied with New Mexico State for last nationally.

Claeys made it clear when he met with his new players: those two trends need to change immediately.

"I told the kids, ‘We’ve got to play better on third down and we’ve got to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands quicker or get him sacked,'" Claeys said. "Those are the two things this spring that we’re really going to emphasize."

Claeys is the right coach to do the emphasizing. Often accused of being too aggressive, Claeys likes to turn his defensive linemen loose.

His defenses ranked 33rd, 34th and 32nd nationally in tackles for loss in his three seasons on Jerry Kill's staff at Northern Illinois. The Huskies also ranked 32nd nationally in third-down defense last season, allowing 36.8 percent conversions.

"I like to let the defensive line kids go and play and be aggressive," he said. "That’ll be a change."

Claeys doesn't inherit much as far as the pass rush.

Jewhan Edwards, who led Minnesota who only three sacks in 2010, is no longer with the program. The Gophers boast some veteran linemen such as Anthony Jacobs and Brandon Kirksey -- D.L. Wilhite also has a year of starting under his belt -- but the team has lacked a true pass-rusher since Willie VanDeSteeg in 2008.

Claeys' aggressive approach with the down linemen will require the linebackers to fit plays a little differently.

"I’m really big on trying to find out what kids do best and then put them in a position to do those things and try not to ask somebody to do things that they can’t do," he said. "That is what, to me, spring is all about. If we can come out of spring ball with our personnel and we know what they do well and what they struggle with, I’ll feel really good going into the fall."
National Signing Day is just about a week away, so let's take a look at the recruiting needs for each Big Ten team.

In compiling these lists, I tried to look at positions that have depth issues for 2011 and/or 2012.

Let's start off with the Legends division.

IOWA

Running back: Marcus Coker's breakout performance in the Insight Bowl got Iowa fans excited for the future, but there's still a significant depth issue here. If Adam Robinson can't get reinstated, the Hawkeyes will be looking for No. 2 and No. 3 options behind Coker. As we've seen the past two seasons, freshmen backs will see the field at Iowa.

Linebacker: Iowa felt the losses of Pat Angerer and A.J. Edds this season, and it must continue to rebuild the depth at the three linebacker spots. Multiyear starter Jeremiha Hunter departs along with players like Jeff Tarpinian and Troy Johnson. Iowa needs to build around rising star James Morris.

Wide receiver/tight end: Iowa loses Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, Allen Reisner and Colin Sandeman this year. Also, receiver Marvin McNutt and tight end Brad Herman depart after the 2011 season. Although the Hawkeyes boast young talent at both positions, they need to build depth with this class.

MICHIGAN

Secondary: The Wolverines couldn't find many answers here in 2010, and though the return of players like cornerbacks Troy Woolfolk and J.T. Floyd will help, there are opportunities for freshmen to make an immediate impact. Michigan simply needs more options at both secondary spots in 2011.

Defensive line: It's crucial for coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison to begin building depth up front. Future NFL player Mike Martin departs after 2011 along with Ryan Van Bergen, so Michigan needs to solidify both line positions.

Kicker: Field goals were an adventure in 2010, and Michigan simply can't have so much uncertainty at kicker going forward. The Wolverines need a reliable leg here ASAP.

MICHIGAN STATE

Linebacker: I like some of the young linebackers the Spartans bring back in 2011, but you can't overlook the losses of multiyear starters Greg Jones and Eric Gordon, not to mention reserve Jon Misch. Michigan State should have a decent group of first-string 'backers, but wants to build depth in the defensive midsection.

Offensive line: Not only do the Spartans lose three starters from the 2010 line, but they're still not where they need to be depth-wise up front to become a consistent top-tier Big Ten program. Michigan State wants to become like Iowa and Wisconsin. The big step is to keep fortifying both lines, especially on the offensive side.

MINNESOTA

Pass rusher: Minnesota finished last in the Big Ten in sacks last season (9) and hasn't had an intimidating pass rusher since Willie VanDeSteeg in 2008. The recent departure of defensive tackle Jewhan Edwards, who led the team in both sacks and tackles for loss in 2009, underscores this need.

Offensive line: The Gophers lose three starters up front, and while they boast some promising young linemen like tackle Ed Olson, the depth just isn't there yet. Minnesota's best teams had powerful offensive lines, and new coach Jerry Kill must continue to create competition up front.

NEBRASKA

Running back: The Huskers lose standout Roy Helu Jr., and while Rex Burkhead quickly will become one of my favorite Big Ten players, he might not be an every-down back for Nebraska going forward. You always want options in the backfield, and Nebraska must continue to address its run game with the 2011 class.

Wide receiver: Nebraska loses Niles Paul and wants to identify playmakers to surround Taylor Martinez or whomever starts at quarterback. Brandon Kinnie departs after the 2011 season, and while Burkhead helps in the receiving department, Nebraska needs others to emerge.

NORTHWESTERN

Running back: Although Mike Trumpy and Adonis Smith emerged as possible answers late in the 2010 season, Northwestern needs to create real competition here. The Wildcats have lacked a dominant back during the Pat Fitzgerald era and need a dangerous rushing option to complement Dan Persa.

Defensive line: The Wildcats lose only one starter (Corbin Bryant) from the 2010 squad, but four more rotation players (Vince Browne, Jack DiNardo, Kevin Watt and Niko Mafuli) depart after 2011. Fortifying the pass rush is a major priority going forward.

Big Ten lunch links

September, 17, 2010
9/17/10
12:00
PM ET
If someone hands you a Bentley, you're just gonna keep driving.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

When I'm asked to size up the Big Ten heading into the fall, part of the process is easy.

Ohio State and Penn State are the consensus picks to challenge for the league title, while Purdue and Indiana are slotted for the basement. Three nine-win teams from a year ago -- Iowa, Michigan State and Northwestern -- all return a lot on defense but must replace key contributors in the offensive backfield. Michigan once again has questions, but the Wolverines will be better. Wisconsin is Wisconsin, boasting a formidable run game but questions at quarterback.

Then we get to Illinois and Minnesota, the Big Ten's wild cards. As far as unpredictability entering the season, these two squads share the crown. You can make a good case for either team being the surprise of the Big Ten and reaching a January bowl game. Both squads could also crash and burn.

The similarities are intriguing:

  • Both teams return veteran quarterbacks in Juice Williams (Illinois) and Adam Weber (Minnesota) who have put up impressive numbers but also struggled with turnovers at times.
  • Minnesota's Eric Decker and Illinois' Arrelious Benn are far and away the league's top wide receivers, and two of the best in the nation.
  • Both teams have head coaches (Ron Zook and Tim Brewster) who shine on the recruiting trail but still must prove themselves on game day. The talent is there, but can Zook and Brewster take advantage? Throw in the fact that Brewster played for Illinois and went to a Rose Bowl in 1983, and you've got another link.
  • Both teams will challenge themselves in nonleague play. Illinois faces Missouri in St. Louis and must travel to Cincinnati before hosting always-dangerous Fresno State. Minnesota starts the season against Greg Paulus and Syracuse before opening the new TCF Bank Stadium against Air Force and Cal.
  • Both teams need to replenish their pass rush. Minnesota tied for the league lead in sacks last fall but loses end Willie VanDeSteeg (10.5 sacks). Illinois will be without its top four sacks leaders from 2008, including defensive ends Derek Walker and Will Davis.
  • Both teams are breaking in new offensive coordinators who want to spark the rushing attack in Illinois' Mike Schultz and Minnesota's Jedd Fisch.

Looking around the league, it's hard to find a more explosive offense than Illinois, but there are plenty of questions on defense. Minnesota returns more starters (18) than any Big Ten team, but has gone through more changes than any league squad other than Purdue.

It makes my head hurt to go through all the possible outcomes for the Illini and Gophers, but they should provide some good theater come September.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The final seven Big Ten teams open preseason camp, including defending co-champs Penn State and Ohio State.

Here are three questions for the remaining seven squads during the next four weeks. If you missed Part I, check it out.

MICHIGAN

Camp opens: Monday

1. Will true freshman Tate Forcier create some early separation in the quarterback competition?

Forcier enters camp as the frontrunner after a solid spring, and he could further cement himself as the Wolverines' top quarterback in the coming weeks. He'll face some real competition now as junior Nick Sheridan returns from a broken leg and athletic freshman Denard Robinson joins the mix.

2. Who will step up alongside Brandon Graham on the defensive line?

Michigan brings back a potential All-American in Graham, who has 18.5 sacks the past two seasons. He'll need help up front, though, and the Wolverines need strong camps from Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen and William Campbell.

3. How many true freshmen see the field this fall?

The Wolverines will be much more experienced at several positions, but head coach Rich Rodriguez brought in a strong recruiting class, and several freshmen should contribute immediately. Along with Forcier, Robinson and Campbell, running back Vincent Smith impressed this spring and hopes are high for safety Vladimir Emilien. Defensive end Craig Roh also could be one to watch.

MICHIGAN STATE

Camp opens: Monday

1. Will we see any separation at quarterback before Sept. 5?

Head coach Mark Dantonio isn't planning on it and fully intends to play both Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol during non-league play. The two signal-callers paced one another throughout spring ball, but there's a chance one man might be ready to take the job.

2. Can true freshmen Edwin Baker and Larry Caper emerge as the top running backs?

None of Michigan State's older players really took charge in the spring, though Caulton Ray's emergence is intriguing. Many expect Michigan State's heralded recruits to emerge as potential starters by the end of training camp.

3. How will the secondary look by the end of camp?

Dantonio has a very good problem in the secondary -- loads of experience. Eight returning players have starting experience, and that doesn't include safety Trenton Robinson, the story of the spring on defense. The competition in the back four should be fun to watch.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

CHICAGO -- Minnesota defensive tackle Garrett Brown isn't the type to back away from change. 

He grew up playing hockey and lacrosse, spending 10 years on the ice and eight on the lax field. When Brown started high school in Fairfield, Conn., he seemed intent on pursuing one of those sports in college.   

 
  Jamie Sabau/Getty Images
  Garrett Brown is playing for his fourth defensive coordinator in as many seasons.

"That definitely changed quickly once I found out what a cheeseburger and weights were," Brown said. 

Brown went through a major growth spurt between his freshman and sophomore years, sprouting four inches and adding 50 pounds. He entered high school as a 230-pound freshman but checked in around 280 as a sophomore.

"I became a D-lineman really quickly," he said. 

Brown didn't start playing football until his sophomore year but took little time to adjust. He immediately earned a starting job on the varsity squad and played both ways as a left tackle and a defensive tackle.  

Though he didn't put down his hockey skates and continued to compete as a center and a defenseman, his focus gradually shifted more toward the gridiron.

"I've always been a contact sport kind of guy," Brown said. "This is as contact as you get, unless it's rugby. So I immediately was drawn to the game. Football's definitely my sport now."

Brown's keen ability to acclimate has been tested at Minnesota, where last fall he turned in a strong season with 34 tackles, seven stops for loss, three sacks, three pass breakups, a forced fumble and three fumble recoveries. The 6-foot-2, 310-pound senior will be playing for his fourth defensive coordinator in as many years as Big Ten veteran Kevin Cosgrove takes over in Minneapolis this season.

The Gophers' defense made strides last year under Ted Roof, improving 39 spots in the national rankings after setting team records for futility in 2007. But Roof left for Auburn in January and head coach Tim Brewster brought in Cosgrove, who had success at Wisconsin in the late 1990s. 

The front four loses rush end Willie VanDeSteeg but returns an experienced tackles tandem in Brown and Eric Small. 

"Coach Cosgrove has put a system in that is very, very simplified and lets us play fast," Brown said. "I'm used to that transition of, 'OK, now I have to learn a new system.' I think I learned the system in a week and a half."

There's no doubt Brown is a quick study, a trait that will come in handy as he goes through another transition after his playing days. He wants to become a sports agent and plans to enroll in law school when he's through on the field. 

"I pick up most things pretty quickly," he said. "That's just the way I am." 

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

They're baaaaack. Many of you who checked out colleague Heather Dinich's ACC position rankings asked when I'd be doing the same for the Big Ten. Well, Big Ten media days are done and we have a bit of a break before the first preseason practice begins Aug. 6 at Illinois. This seems like the perfect time to rank the positions heading into the season.

Defensive line is up first. There's only one elite group on paper, but no truly bad units, either. Really not much difference between Nos. 4-11.  

1. Ohio State -- The group has drawn comparisons to the 2002 line that helped Ohio State win a national title. Ohio State looks loaded at defensive end with Cameron Heyward, Thaddeus Gibson and Lawrence Wilson, a one-time starter who comes off of two major leg injuries. Gibson should have a big year after coming on strong late last fall. The tackles have been a bit iffy in recent years, but Doug Worthington boasts a ton of experience and should shore up the middle with Todd Denlinger, Dexter Larimore and Garrett Goebel.

2. Penn State -- Larry Johnson's body of work is simply too powerful to overlook, even though Penn State loses a lot from a group that led the Big Ten and ranked eighth nationally against the run (93.2 ypg). Jared Odrick is the Big Ten's most dominant interior defensive lineman, and he'll lead a group of promising young players. Hopes are extremely high for sophomore end Jack Crawford, and juniors Kevion Latham and Eric Latimore hold down the other end spot. Depth is a bit of a question, but Penn State should get a boost from a healthy Jerome Hayes. 

3. Iowa -- The Hawkeyes are another team dealing with major personnel losses as four-year starting tackles Mitch King and Matt Kroul depart. But what Iowa loses inside, it makes up for on the edges with ends Adrian Clayborn and Christian Ballard. Clayborn recorded eight tackles for loss last year and should contend for All-Big Ten honors. It'll be interesting to see how Karl Klug and Mike Daniels adjust to playing more on the inside.

4. Northwestern -- A lot depends on Corey Wootton's durability after the senior defensive end tore his ACL in December. Wootton is probably the Big Ten's most versatile lineman, applying pressure to quarterbacks and also clogging pass lanes with his 6-foot-7 frame. Sophomore Vince Browne is primed for a big season at the other end spot. Replacing standout tackle John Gill won't be easy, but the Wildcats have veterans in Corbin Bryant, Marshall Thomas and Adam Hahn.

5. Wisconsin -- I'm taking a bit of a chance here, seeing how the Badgers lose three multiyear starters up front. But the line dominated Wisconsin's offseason program and boasts several exciting pieces, including Central Michigan transfer J.J. Watt, who can play either end or tackle. O'Brien Schofield is a solid leader at defensive end, and young linemen Brendan Kelly and Louis Nzegwu should blossom.     

6. Illinois -- The Illini lose their top four sacks leaders from last year, but they should be much better against the run, an area that really hurt the defense in 2008. With Josh Brent back in the fold, Illinois boasts arguably more depth at defensive tackle than any Big Ten team. Corey Liguet showed a lot of potential as a true freshman, and senior Sirod Williams returns from a torn ACL.  There are some questions at end aside from Doug Pilcher.

7. Michigan -- Senior end Brandon Graham should be the Big Ten's most dominant pass-rusher this fall, and if he gets some help from his teammates, he'll be even better. Michigan is very young elsewhere on the line but boasts a good deal of talent. Sophomores Ryan Van Bergen and Mike Martin showed promising signs in the spring, and it'll be interesting to see how much true freshman William Campbell gets on the field. 

8. Michigan State -- This is the only area of Michigan State's defense that doesn't wow me, but senior end Trevor Anderson leads a decent group. Anderson should build off of a nice junior season (8 sacks, 10.5 TFLs), but the Spartans need a second pass-rusher to emerge. Brandon Long and Justin Kershaw will be missed, and it'll be up to Colin Neely, Oren Wilson and others to fill the void. 

9. Minnesota -- The Gophers tied for the league lead in sacks last fall (34) but lose standout end Willie VanDeSteeg, who accounted for 10.5 of those sacks. Minnesota's strength is inside with senior tackles Garrett Brown and Eric Small. If Cedric McKinley or someone else develops into a reliable pass-rusher, Minnesota should finish the year higher on the list.

10. Purdue -- It wouldn't surprise me one bit if Purdue finished the year much higher on the list, but there are quite a few questions entering the fall. The Boilers know what they have in end Ryan Kerrigan and tackle Mike Neal, but the other two spots are mysteries. There are high hopes for Kawann Short and Gerald Gooden, but I need to see more evidence in games before bumping up the Boilers.     

11. Indiana -- We all know the Hoosiers can rush the passer with standout ends Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton. But can Indiana stop the run? There are some major question marks at defensive tackle entering preseason camp, and Bill Lynch needs a bona fide run-stopper to emerge. Junior tackle Deonte Mack needs to step up after missing spring ball with a hip injury.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Spring practice is often the most competitive time of the year for a football team, and players on both sides of the ball take full advantage.

Here's a snapshot of who emerged for each Big Ten team, from what I've seen, heard and read.

ILLINOIS

Offense
Mikel LeShoure RB, So.
-- After getting his weight right, LeShoure looks like the total package at running back. He'll complement fellow sophomore Jason Ford this fall.

Defense
Tavon Wilson, CB, Sr.
-- Vontae Davis' protégé appears ready to take over as the team's top cover corner. Like Davis, Wilson welcomes contact and has improved his tackling.

INDIANA

Offense
Darius Willis RB, Fr.
-- Heralded recruit looked the part this spring after battling groin, shoulder and back injuries last fall. Willis rushed for 80 yards and a touchdown on only 13 carries in the spring game.

Defense
Larry Black Jr., DE, Fr.
-- Defensive tackle is a major question mark, but Black made a strong push for a starting job and finished with two sacks in the spring game.

IOWA

Offense
Marvin McNutt, WR, So.
-- Converted quarterback with excellent physical tools wowed the coaches this spring and moved to the top of the depth chart.

Defense
Adrian Clayborn, DE, Jr.
-- Clayborn is a known commodity, but he elevated his play as a pass-rusher and a leader on Iowa's defensive line.

MICHIGAN

Offense
Vincent Smith RB, Fr.
-- The bite-size Smith (5-foot-6, 158) stood out in a crowded offensive backfield, showcasing tremendous speed and agility.

Defense
Stevie Brown, S/LB, Sr.
-- The hybrid role in coordinator Greg Robinson's defense suits Brown, who won the Meyer Morton Award as the senior who made the most progress during spring drills.

MICHIGAN STATE

Offense
Brian Linthicum, TE, So. --
Clemson transfer worked himself into a crowded mix at tight end and should log plenty of field time this fall. He had six catches for 69 yards and a touchdown in the spring game.

Defense
Trenton Robinson, S, So. --
Head coach Mark Dantonio could not stop raving about Robinson, who provides even more depth in a stacked Spartans secondary.

MINNESOTA

Offense
MarQueis Gray, QB, Fr. --
With starter Adam Weber held out of contact this spring, Gray took a ton of snaps and capitalized, cementing himself as a 1a option for Minnesota. Expect the Gophers to incorporate a package of plays for Gray into every game plan.

Defense
Cedric McKinley, DE, Sr. --
McKinley built on a strong Insight Bowl performance and looks ready to take over for Willie VanDeSteeg as Minnesota's primary pass-rusher. He recorded three sacks in the spring game.

NORTHWESTERN

Offense
Jeravin Matthews, RB, So. --
The speedy Matthews made a smooth transition from wide receiver to running back and provides another option in a new-look backfield this fall.

Defense
Ben Johnson, LB, So.
-- Johnson cemented himself as Northwestern's third starting linebacker, impressing head coach Pat Fitzgerald with his speed and instincts. He broke up two passes in the spring game.

OHIO STATE

Offense
Brandon Saine, RB, Jr. --
The wait for big things from Saine might be over as the gifted junior stayed healthy this spring. He showcased excellent moves and wasn't afraid to take on tacklers and get right back up.

Defense
Devon Torrence, CB, Jr.
-- A physical corner with good athleticism, Torrence will continue to push Andre Amos for a starting spot this summer. The big question is whether he wants to continue playing baseball in the Houston Astros organization.

PENN STATE

Offense
Derek Moye, WR, So.
-- Moye has all the tools to be a top receiver in the Big Ten, and he seemed to seize the opportunity this spring as Penn State rebuilds at receiver.

Defense
Jack Crawford, DE, So. --
The Larry Johnson factory might have churned out another superstar pass-rusher as Crawford turned in a very impressive spring. He's still a little raw but has the skills to do major damage.

PURDUE

Offense
Ralph Bolden, RB, So.
-- Few players in the country had as good a spring as Bolden, who came out of nowhere to record 420 rushing yards and four touchdowns in scrimmages. He might be the frontrunner for the starting running back job entering the fall.

Defense
Kawann Short, DT, Fr.
-- Short made a strong push for a starting spot alongside Mike Neal on a solid Boilers defensive line. He can draw double teams and boasts impressive strength to generate push off the line.

WISCONSIN

Offense
Nick Toon, WR, So.
-- Wide receiver was a major question mark entering spring ball, and Toon made the most of his opportunity with an excellent performance. He boasts excellent size, speed and hands, and should enter the summer as a starter.

Defense
J.J. Watt, DE, So.
-- The Central Michigan transfer transformed his body during the offseason and saw dividends this spring, as he claimed a starting spot on the defensive line. Watt can play both end and tackle.

Minnesota spring wrap

May, 6, 2009
5/06/09
9:25
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Minnesota Golden Gophers

2008 overall record: 7-6

2008 conference record: 3-5

Returning starters

Offense: 10; Defense: 8; Special teams: 0

Top returners

QB Adam Weber, WR Eric Decker, WR Ben Kuznia, DT Garrett Brown, LB Simoni Lawrence, CB Traye Simmons, CB Marcus Sherels, LB Lee Campbell

Key losses

TE Jack Simmons, DE Willie VanDeSteeg, LB Deon Hightower, P Justin Kucek

2008 statistical leaders (* returners)

Rushing: DeLeon Eskridge* (678 yds)
Passing: Adam Weber* (2,761 yds)
Receiving: Eric Decker* (1,074 yds)
Tackles: Lee Campbell* (80)
Sacks: Willie VanDeSteeg (10.5)
Interceptions: Traye Simmons* (4)

2009 Schedule
Sept. 5 at Syracuse
Sept. 12 Air Force
Sept. 19 California
Sept. 26 at Northwestern
Oct. 3 Wisconsin
Oct. 10 Purdue
Oct. 17 at Penn State
Oct. 24 at Ohio State
Oct. 31 Michigan State
Nov. 7 Illinois
Nov. 14 South Dakota State
Nov. 21 at Iowa

Spring answers

1. Gray day -- Heralded recruit MarQueis Gray finally got on the practice field for the Gophers this spring, and he lived up to the hype. Gray won't take the starting quarterback job away from junior Adam Weber, but he'll definitely be a part of the offense this fall. Minnesota likely will have some special packages for Gray, who completed 8 of 10 passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game.

2. Defensive depth -- Minnesota loses only three starters from an improved defense, and new coordinator Kevin Cosgrove should have plenty of options this fall. Cedric McKinley appears ready to step into a primary pass-rushing role with Willie VanDeSteeg departing, and the defensive tackle spot will be a strength with co-captains Eric Small and Garrett Brown. Wisconsin transfer Kim Royston should see time at safety after a strong spring.

3. Troy's time -- After showing impressive speed on kickoff returns last fall, sophomore Troy Stoudermire will be asked to do much more for the Gophers in 2009. Stoudermire saw time as a wide receiver this spring and accounted for 274 all-purpose yards and a touchdown in the spring game. Head coach Tim Brewster is looking for playmakers, and Stoudermire fits the description.

Fall questions

1. Running back -- The Gophers will emphasize the power run in their new-look offense, but who carries the ball remains to be seen. Projected starter Duane Bennett was held out of contact this spring and both DeLeon Eskridge and Shady Salamon missed time with injuries. Redshirt freshman Kevin Whaley showed some promise in the spring game with 63 rush yards and a touchdown, but the position remains a bit of a mystery.

2. Offensive line -- Not surprisingly, the offensive line endured some growing pains this spring as it adjusted to the new scheme being implemented by line coach Tim Davis and offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch. The Gophers return four starters up front, but several players have been moved around and two new tackles (Matt Stommes and Jeff Wills) likely will start the season.

3. Maresh musings -- Everyone in Minnesota is pulling for freshman linebacker Sam Maresh, who practiced this spring less than nine months after undergoing open-heart surgery. Maresh played a decent amount in the spring game and showed some potential. If he can avoid any further setbacks, he could be in the mix at linebacker this season.

Minnesota spring game recap

April, 27, 2009
4/27/09
2:00
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

No matter what happened this spring, Minnesota knew it would enter the fall with a proven quarterback in Adam Weber and a dynamic wide receiver in Eric Decker. But with Decker playing baseball this spring and Weber limited following shoulder surgery, there were opportunities for those behind them to step up.

That's exactly what backup quarterback MarQueis Gray, wideout Brodrick Smith and do-it-all sophomore Troy Stoudermire did in Saturday's spring game at the University of St. Thomas. Minnesota began its migration to outdoor football with the spring game, in which the offense racked up 34 points.

Any questions that Gray will see the field this fall were put to rest after the freshman completed 8 of 10 passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns. Smith caught both scoring strikes from Gray and had a game-high four receptions for 98 yards.

"I think this will help MarQueis really become a great player," head coach Tim Brewster told reporters. "We will have packages every game where he is involved."

The Gophers also will find more ways to get Stoudermire the ball. Listed as a cornerback, Stoudermire saw time in several spots during the spring game. He caught three passes for 31 yards, had two rushes for 63 yards and a touchdown and gained 180 yards on kickoff and punt returns.

It all added up to 274 all-purpose yards for Stoudermire, who was used mainly on returns last year. Despite a ton of changes on offense during the offseason, Minnesota could be more explosive in 2009. Weber also looked solid in the spring game, completing 9 of 12 passes for 77 yards.

Other items from Minnesota's spring game:

  • The game didn't provide a comprehensive look at the Gophers' rushing attack, as both Duane Bennett (knee) and Shady Salamon (concussion) sat out. Redshirt freshman Kevin Whaley ran very well, racking up 63 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries, and Stoudermire broke off two big runs, but the offensive line allowed six sacks. It will take some time for the line to totally click with the new offensive scheme, and the group will remain in the spotlight this summer.
  • Minnesota might have identified its primary pass rusher in senior defensive end Cedric McKinley, who recorded three sacks and four tackles for loss in the game. The Gophers tied for the Big Ten lead in sacks last fall (34) but lose All-Big Ten end Willie VanDeSteeg.
  • For the second straight year, Minnesota's defense should benefit from some new arrivals. Safety Kim Royston, a transfer from Wisconsin, recorded four tackles in the spring game. Sophomore safety Tim Dandridge had four tackles and two pass breakups.
  • Minnesota loses both starting specialists from last year's squad, but kicker Eric Ellestad connected on field goals of 48 and 21 yards, while punter Blake Haudan averaged 40.6 yards per punt.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Today's position superlatives finish with the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Check out the blog next week for the final four teams: Illinois, Northwestern, Ohio State and Purdue.

Minnesota returns nine starters on offense, including the entire line, and could make major strides if the holdovers adjust to a new scheme and style. There are a few more questions on the defensive side, particularly up front. But overall, Minnesota doesn't have many glaring weaknesses heading into spring ball.

Strongest position -- Defensive back

Key returnees: Senior cornerback Traye Simmons, junior safety Kyle Theret, senior cornerback Marcus Sherels, senior safety Tramaine Brock (expected to rejoin team after leaving school due to academic reasons), junior cornerback Ryan Collado

Key losses: None

The skinny: As long as Brock comes back this summer -- head coach Tim Brewster expects him to return -- Minnesota will bring back every member of a playmaking secondary. The four starters combined for 10 interceptions, 48 pass deflections, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries last fall. Though the Gophers were exposed late in the season, the defensive backs, particularly Simmons, showed the ability to change games. A talented wide receiving corps led by Eric Decker almost got the nod here, and Minnesota should be decent at linebacker.

Weakest position -- Defensive end

Key returnees: Senior Derrick Onwuachi, senior Cedric McKinley

Key departures: Willie VanDeSteeg (53 tackles, 19 TFLs, 10.5 sacks)

The skinny: VanDeSteeg was Minnesota's pass rush at times last fall, winning a game at Illinois almost single-handedly in the fourth quarter. He'll definitely be missed, and Minnesota needs to identify a standout end to complement two solid tackles in seniors Eric Small and Garrett Brown. Minnesota tied for the league lead in sacks last fall (34), but VanDeSteeg was a major reason why. Other potential weaknesses include running back and offensive line.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

 
  Scott A. Miller/US Presswire
  Iowa running back Shonn Greene's production will not be easy to replace.

As we continue to preview Big Ten spring football, which begins March 14 at Michigan, it's time to look at five key replacements around the conference.

The Big Ten took the biggest hit at running back with the departures of Shonn Greene, Javon Ringer, Chris "Beanie" Wells, P.J. Hill, Tyrell Sutton and Kory Sheets, among others. There also were key losses on both lines (Mitch King, A.Q. Shipley, Aaron Maybin, Willie VanDeSteeg) and in the secondary (Malcolm Jenkins, Vontae Davis, Otis Wiley), though the quarterback crop returns mostly intact.

The league's lone head-coaching change was pre-planned, as Danny Hope takes over for Joe Tiller at Purdue. But several key assistants depart the league, creating some holes to fill.

Here's a look at five sets of shoes to fill before Sept. 5.

Big shoes: Iowa running back Shonn Greene

The replacement: Sophomore Jewel Hampton

All Greene did last fall was win the Doak Walker Award as the nation's top back, set Iowa's single-season rushing record (1,850 yards) and eclipse 100 yards in all 13 games. As the team switched quarterbacks, identified playmakers at wide receiver and jelled up front, Greene was the constant. Hampton earned high marks as Greene's backup, rushing for 463 yards and seven touchdowns as a true freshman, but he'll take on a much bigger load this fall. The 5-9, 200-pound Hampton lacks Greene's brute strength and size, but he provides a different look for an Iowa offense that will always be based around the run game.

Big shoes: Penn State center A.Q. Shipley

The replacement: Junior Stefen Wisniewski

The defending Big Ten co-champs lose the undisputed leader of the league's best offensive line in Shipley, who won the Rimington Trophy as the nation's top center last year. Wisniewski started at guard in 2008, but he's expected to shift to center and replace Shipley in the heart of the Lions' line. Expectations will be high for Wisniewski, a talented junior whose father and uncle both were star offensive linemen for Penn State.

Big shoes: Michigan State running back Javon Ringer

The replacement(s): Senior A.J. Jimmerson, sophomores Andre Anderson and Ashton Leggett, freshmen Edwin Baker and Larry Caper

No running back in the country had a heavier load than Ringer last fall. He led the nation with 390 carries and tied for the national lead with 22 rushing touchdowns. Michigan State benefited from his tremendous durability, but the coaches didn't develop a reliable backup. The competition to replace Ringer features several young players, including two heralded incoming freshmen. The Spartans could use more of a committee system in 2009, blending speed (Anderson, Caper, Baker, Jimmerson) with size (Leggett). The freshmen should help the situation, but head coach Mark Dantonio wouldn't mind if Anderson, Jimmerson or Leggett emerged in spring ball.

Big shoes: Illinois offensive coordinator Mike Locksley

The replacement: Mike Schultz

Not only was Locksley one of the best recruiters in the country, but he had a strong bond with quarterback Juice Williams, wide receiver Arrelious Benn and other key members of the Illinois offense. Despite a very disappointing 5-7 season, Illinois still led the Big Ten in passing and ranked second in total offense. Schultz comes from a program (TCU) known for defense, but his system produced several standout quarterbacks and running backs. He needs to gain Williams' trust right away and maintain the explosiveness Illinois featured at times last season. There also will be pressure for Schultz to bring in top high school players from Texas and other areas.

Big shoes: Ohio State cornerback Malcolm Jenkins

The replacement: Sophomore Chimdi Chekwa

Some will point to the oft-injured Wells or hyped linebacker James Laurinaitis as Ohio State's biggest losses, but Jenkins was the team's most consistent performer the last two seasons. Shutdown corners don't come around very often, and Jenkins' play-making skills helped him win the Thorpe Award last year. Chekwa beat out Donald Washington for a starting job in 2008 but will take on a greater load this fall as he'll be assigned to mark top opposing wideouts. He had an interception and four pass breakups last year.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Minnesota needed a quick fix last year and got it in the form of seven junior college transfers. The strategy paid off as the Golden Gophers improved their win total by six and received solid production from players like cornerback Traye Simmons and safety Tramaine Brock.

But head coach Tim Brewster will build his program with top high school talent, and his 2009 class will provide a better barometer of what to expect from the recruiting whiz.

Despite returning the nucleus from a bowl team, Minnesota has gaps to fill going forward, especially as it returns to its roots as a power run team. Offensive line depth was a major problem this season, and Brewster will try to add several big pieces up front. The defensive line loses All-Big Ten performer Willie VanDeSteeg, but Minnesota returns several rising seniors who should fill out the depth chart this fall.

Another spot that needs a few more bodies is the secondary, which will lose Simmons, Brock and cornerback Marcus Sherels after the 2009 season. Expect Brewster to load up on defensive backs or players who have the athleticism to eventually shift to cornerback or safety.

Minnesota's offense returns virtually intact, and quarterback MarQueis Gray, who is now eligible, likely will succeed Adam Weber as the starter in 2011. But wide receiver and running back remain areas that could use an immediate contributor. Wideout Eric Decker won't be there forever, and Minnesota needs to plan ahead to replace his remarkable production.

The Gophers also lose their starting punter and starting kicker, so expect them to add a specialist on National Signing Day.

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