Big Ten: Jeff Thomas

Indiana spring wrap

May, 11, 2012
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2011 record: 1-11
2011 conference record: 0-8 (sixth, Leaders Division)
Returning starters: offense: 7; defense: 8; kicker/punter: 1

Top returners

QB Tre Roberson, RB Stephen Houston, WR Kofi Hughes, CB Lawrence Barnett, DT Larry Black, DT Adam Replogle, S Mark Murphy

Key losses

OL Andrew McDonald, LB Jeff Thomas, LB Leon Beckum, WR Dre Muhammad

2011 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Stephen Houston* (802 yards)
Passing: Ed Wright-Baker (1,029 yards)
Receiving: Kofi Hughes* (536 yards)
Tackles: Jeff Thomas (80)
Sacks: Adam Replogle* (4)
Interceptions: Greg Heban* (2)

Spring answers

1. Improved defense: The Hoosiers had nowhere to go but up after fielding one of the worst defenses in the country last year. Some junior college transfers, especially linebackers David Cooper and Jacarri Alexander, injected some much-needed talent and energy into the unit this spring. The defense showed much better execution and fundamentals overall, thanks in large part to some young players getting baptized by fire last fall. This is still not a dominating group by any stretch, but with some solid players up front such as Larry Black and Adam Replogle and in the back end such as Mark Murphy and Lawrence Barnett, the Hoosiers hope to have far fewer major breakdowns this season.

2. Depth at running back: Stephen Houston led the team in rushing last season despite showing up a little out of shape in the summer from junior college. That spoke both to his skills and the lack of competition around him. That's not the case now, as Indiana has a much healthier stable of backs to work with, including a healthy Matt Perez and transfer Isaiah Roundtree, who had a big spring game. Add in mobile quarterback Tre Roberson, and the Hoosiers could have an effective ground attack in 2012.

3. Better off Ted: Tight end Ted Bolser had a promising freshman year with 27 catches for 407 yards and five touchdowns, but those numbers dipped to just 14 catches for 165 yards last year. Some of that was probably due to a largely ineffective passing game. Bolser had a strong spring, capped by a six-catch performance in the spring game, and was targeted often in the offense. The 6-foot-6, 255-pounder could become a go-to guy for new offensive coordinator Seth Littrell.

Fall questions

1. Quarterback competition: Roberson seized the starting job midway through last season and showed so much promise that two other young quarterbacks -- Ed Wright-Baker and Dusty Kiel -- transferred. He has a strong presence and the potential to be a star. But the coaching staff insisted that junior college transfer Cameron Coffman was right in the thick of the race to be the starter this season after a nice spring. Coffman is a better pure passer than Roberson, who needs to work on that aspect of his game.

2. Bringing the heat: Indiana had just 18 total sacks last season and often had trouble generating much of a pass rush, which was part of the reason it gave up so many big plays. While Black and Replogle make a nice tandem at tackle, the search is still on for playmakers who can get to the quarterback. Ryan Phillis showed some things late in his freshman year, including a big game in the finale against Purdue, and Bobby Richardson made a nice transition from tackle to end as a freshman. Maybe the linebackers can help in the pass rush as well. But the Hoosiers need to make other teams uncomfortable in the passing game without blitzing to improve on defense.

3. Overall talent and depth: Head coach Kevin Wilson has his work cut out for him after failing to win a single game against FBS competition his first season in Bloomington. Wilson played 32 true and redshirt freshmen in 2011 and had many players going through spring practice for the first time this year. The extra seasoning will no doubt help them get better, but this is still a roster that doesn't look like the top Big Ten contenders. Indiana will need to stay healthy, get some breaks and see its young players mature quickly to make any noise in the league this season.

Big Ten lunch links

May, 3, 2012
5/03/12
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Here's your Thursday linkage.

Big Ten lunchtime links

May, 2, 2012
5/02/12
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Hey, didn't you use to be Albert Pujols?

Big shoes to fill: Indiana

March, 2, 2012
3/02/12
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Indiana opens spring practice on Saturday, joining Northwestern as the first Big Ten teams to hit the practice field this spring. So today we take a look, as we're doing with every league team, at the big shoes the Hoosiers need to fill from the 2011 season. This one's a little relative, since IU didn't have any all-conference players last year and needs a talent upgrade in a lot of places, but head coach Kevin Wilson still has some bigger gaps than others.

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Jeff Thomas, LB

[+] EnlargeJeff Thomas
Cal Sport Media via AP Images)Linebacker Jeff Thomas led the Hoosiers in tackles last season with 80.
Why: Thomas was one of the few reliable anchors on a defense that mostly struggled. A two-year starter, he led the team with 80 tackles and 10.5 tackles for loss from his middle linebacker spot.

Replacement candidates: David Cooper (6-1, 230, incoming junior college transfer); Jacarri Alexander (6-1, 235, incoming junior college transfer); Jordan Wallace (5-11, 215, incoming freshman); Nick Mangieri (6-4, 230, incoming freshman).

The skinny: Wilson went looking for immediate help from the junior-college ranks this offseason, so expect Alexander and Cooper to push for starting roles right away. Both have excellent size for the position and just need to adjust to the major-college level. Wallace and Mangieri will be green, but Wilson showed no hesitation in throwing true freshmen into the fire last season.

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Andrew McDonald, LT

Why: McDonald was a two-year starter at left tackle, providing stability to an offense that saw lots of upheaval in 2011.

Replacement candidates: Charlie Chapman (6-6, 292, Jr.); Peyton Eckert (6-6, 295, Soph.); Bill Ivan (6-4, 282, Soph.); Dimitric Camiel (6-6, 290, incoming freshman); Jason Spriggs (6-6, 240, incoming freshman).

The skinny: The Hoosiers unfortunately aren't blessed with a plethora of experienced options at the tackle spot. Eckert started six games at right tackle as a true freshman and could make the switch to the left side this spring. Chapman was McDonald's backup last season but played only sparingly. It's quite likely that at least one of the true freshmen will crack the depth chart at one of the tackle positions. Camiel is a Texan who is Texas-sized, but who knows how quickly he can make the adjustment to Big Ten football.
We continue our postseason position rankings today as we move on to the linebackers.

Not surprisingly, Linebacker U takes the top spot, though it was a very close call. Depth helped the top two teams on this list, while star power marked spots Nos. 3 through 5. After that, it's a bit of a dropoff.

Away we go ...

[+] EnlargeGerald Hodges
Rob Christy/US PresswireGerald Hodges led a deep group of Penn State linebackers this past season.
1. Penn State: We thought this group could be the deepest linebacking corps in the league this past season, and that depth proved both true and invaluable when starter Michael Mauti went out in the fourth game of the season. Even without him, the Nittany Lions' linebackers played great, led by first team All-Big Ten performer Gerald Hodges, who had a breakout campaign. Nate Stupar filled in nicely for Mauti, and Glenn Carson was solid in his first year as a starter in the middle.

2. Michigan State: We wondered in the preseason how the Spartans would replace stars Greg Jones and Eric Gordon. The answer: very nicely, thank you. Sophomores Denicos Allen and Max Bullough emerged as fierce playmakers, especially on the blitz, and Chris Norman provided steady play on the weak side. All three return in 2012 to give Penn State a run for its money as the best group in the league.

3. Wisconsin: Mike Taylor and Chris Borland were finally healthy in the same season, and what a difference that made. They were a terrific pair, combining for 293 tackles and becoming the only Big Ten duo to average more than 10 tackles per game each. Taylor in particular made great strides. Kevin Claxton was overshadowed a bit as the third Badgers linebacker, but that's understandable given the amount of plays Borland and Taylor made.

4. Illinois: The emergence of Jonathan Brown (108 tackles, 19.5 for loss) as fire-breathing pass-rusher made this unit better than we projected in the preseason. Ian Thomas also had a good season at the position with 85 tackles, and Trulon Henry rounded out a strong crew before he missed time late following a shooting incident. The Illini defense stayed consistent throughout the team's struggles.

5. Nebraska: Depth was not a strong suit for the Huskers by any means, but there was no better linebacker in the league and few better in the nation than All-American Lavonte David. He had 133 tackles and countless big plays. Will Compton came on as the season wore along to provide a good complement to David. Finding consistent play elsewhere at the position was a challenge for Nebraska.

6. Ohio State: We pegged the Buckeyes at No. 3 in our preseason linebacker rankings, but it wasn't a vintage year for a group that struggled down the stretch drive. Andrew Sweat led the way with 72 tackles despite missing two games because of injury, and Etienne Sabino had a decent season (62 tackles, 6.5 for loss) if not the breakout season many had predicted. Freshman Ryan Shazier announced himself late in the year as a potential star in the making.

7. Michigan: The Wolverines' defense surprised everyone in 2011, though the defensive line was clearly the vanguard on that side of the ball. Kenny Demens led the team with 94 tackles, while freshmen Desmond Morgan and Jake Ryan made an immediate impact as starters. This wasn't an overwhelming group, but it was one that mostly did its job.

8. Iowa: The Hawkeyes had a hard time keeping everybody healthy and consistent, but this spot might have been the best part of their defense. James Morris and Christian Kirksey tied for the team lead with 110 tackles each, while Tyler Nielsen added 73 stops while battling some nagging injuries. The Iowa defense overall was disappointing, however.

9. Purdue: Danny Hope usually knew what to expect from week to week out of his linebackers: solid, consistent play. Joe Holland, Dwayne Beckford and Will Lucas each had between 82 and 94 stops as the top three tacklers on the team. Lucas and Holland also recorded double-digit tackles for loss. The chief complaint here is that the Boilermakers gave up some big point totals during the season.

10. Minnesota: The Gophers struggled up front and in the secondary, but linebacker was their most experienced and reliable defensive position, as expected. Veterans Gary Tinsley, Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper played in every game, and were among the most consistent players on the team. Tinsley led the way with four sacks. Florida transfer Brendan Beal was expected to make an impact, but missed the season with a knee injury.

11. Northwestern: It wasn't a very good year overall for the Wildcats' defense, and linebacker was no exception. David Nwabuisi ranked third on the team with 84 tackles, while Bryce McNaul was right behind with 76. But Northwestern's starting trio combined for just 2.5 sacks and didn't come up with enough difference-making plays throughout the season.

12. Indiana: The good news for the Hoosiers was that Jeff Thomas was the best player on defense in 2011, finishing with 80 tackles, including 10.5 for loss. The bad news is that he was a senior. Besides Thomas, Indiana was forced to go young at the position, playing freshmen Chase Hoobler, Mike Replogle and Mark Murphy, a safety/linebacker hybrid, at times during the season. Kevin Wilson hopes the experience makes them better in '12, but this is yet another position that needs vast improvement going forward.

Big Ten Thursday mailbag

January, 26, 2012
1/26/12
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We're more than seven months away from more Big Ten football. But it's only 23 days until pitchers and catchers report, if that floats your boat.

Something that always buoys me is your emails. Let's get to them:

A.J. from Granville, Ohio, writes: Hey, Brian, I realized I actually only really ask questions to Adam, but I haven't heard from the mind of Brian Bennett. My question is, what team in your mind is the most national championship-ready in the coming years? Do you think the Big Ten will even be able to keep up with reaching for a national title?

Brian Bennett: Welcome to the Dark Side, A.J. I'm not exactly sure what you mean by "championship-ready." If you're talking talent right now, then I think every Big Ten team needs to get a little better. Michigan State might be the most prepared in 2012 just because of its outstanding defense, though questions at quarterback and wide receiver remain. For the future, Michigan should bounce back to an elite level under Brady Hoke, and Wisconsin has been close. Penn State has all the resources but obviously has to deal with some issues, and Nebraska needs a few more difference-making athletes to make a jump.

But I believe Ohio State is the team that's best positioned to make a run in the next few years under Urban Meyer, and we've seen already what a big difference he makes in recruiting. The Buckeyes were in the discussion every year for national titles before 2011 and will get back there soon enough. I fully believe that the Big Ten will be in contention for BCS titles in the future and could be helped by a plus-one format that would open up more access to the championship. The SEC won't win every championship forever -- I think.


@AimanJarrar writes: What did you think about changing 6-6 to 7-5 [for bowl eligibility]?

Brian Bennett: In case you missed it, CBSSports.com's Brett McMurphy had a story Wednesday saying that there is growing support among many college football executives to change bowl eligibility to seven wins instead of the current six. There's a feeling among some that bowl trips have lost some luster and aren't seen as much of a reward when teams that finish 6-6 (or in UCLA's case this year, 6-7) can go. And there truly is a glut of bowl games and a lot of mediocre teams involved, creating a lot of half-empty stadiums for these postseason games.

If such a change were to come about, it could hurt the Big Ten. Remember that four league teams made bowls in 2011 by finishing with 6-6 records (Ohio State, Illinois, Purdue and Northwestern). That helped the conference gain a record 10 bowl bids. The Big Ten would not have been able to fulfill all of its bowl tie-ins if only teams with winning records were allowed to go. The demanding league schedule, especially when combined with the upcoming annual series against the Pac-12, will likely create some 6-6 teams every year in the league. Given all the contracts between leagues, bowls and TV partners, this seems like a change that would be difficult to pass. Ultimately, the marketplace will decide whether this is a good idea. If people continue to attend and watch bowl games between .500 teams, they'll continue to exist. If not, they should go away.


Mike from Apple Valley, Minn., writes: I'm a die-hard Hawkeyes fan and was dismayed when Marcus Coker left. The latest in a string of RBs leaving. Iowa has picked up Greg Garmon from Erie and now Barkley Hill from Cedar Falls, Iowa, now that he de-committed from Iowa state. Should I have renewed optimism for the Iowa backfield?

Brian Bennett: Running back is often a spot that can be replenished quickly, as freshmen can make an immediate impact there. Young players sometimes struggle with blocking and protection schemes but can still make plays with the ball in their hands. So Iowa could be OK in the backfield next season. I just wouldn't get too attached to those players, given the recent history there.


Steve from Milwaukee writes: I was thinking about how Zach Boren, and fullbacks in general, is a very underrated/underappreciated player. He is an excellent blocker and has even done pretty well on the rare occasion he is given the ball. I've enjoyed watching him play, but what kind of place will he likely have in Meyer's spread offense? I would hate to see his talents go to waste because of a change in offensive philosophy.

Brian Bennett: You're right about the lack of appreciation for fullbacks and how they often fall by the wayside in today's game. We saw Jay Prosch transfer from Illinois after Tim Beckman came in with his spread. But I would expect Meyer to take advantage of Boren's considerable talents. Tim Tebow was basically a fullback playing quarterback, and Meyer loves tight ends. He'll find a way to use Boren in his scheme.


@Lou_Port writes: If Greg Schiano goes to Tampa Bay, what about Tom Bradley to Rutgers?

Brian Bennett: It makes a lot of sense. Bradley knows the area well and how to recruit there, and his style would not create a huge adjustment for the current Rutgers players. But it appears Bradley is paying a price for his association with the Jerry Sandusky scandal, which is a shame. He deserves better, and I hope he gets another chance at a big-time job soon.


Matt from Washington, D.C., writes: Love the work you do on the B1G blog here. On to the question: ESPNU rankings currently have the Buckeyes as the #8 overall class. COME ON MAN! Is there any logical explanation for this considering the explosion of talent that is coming into Columbus for 2012?

Brian Bennett: I have no say in recruiting rankings, and if I were asked to do so, I'd run screaming in the other direction. I don't know how anybody can accurately grade a class of 18-year-olds, nor do I understand the fascination with class rankings. Last time I checked, nobody hands out trophies for recruiting rankings. Whether Ohio State finishes No. 8 or No. 5 or No. 1 in our rankings, it really doesn't matter. The rankings let you know that Meyer is bringing in a lot of raw talent, but that's only the first step of the process toward winning.


Charles from Bloomington, Ind., writes: What kind of potential do you see for Indiana's defense in 2012, given the way the underclassmen played individually (obviously they were awful as a unit)?

Brian Bennett: It was an ugly year on that side of the ball for the Hoosiers, Charles. They will miss senior linebacker Jeff Thomas, who was one of their best tacklers and leaders. But Indiana also had 14 freshmen or sophomore on its defensive two-deep for its season finale against Purdue. There are some promising young players like safety Mark Murphy and defensive end Ryan Phillis. Kevin Wilson has already signed six junior-college defenders to try and add depth and experience to next year's team, and hopefully a few of them can have an immediate impact. The Hoosiers still face a talent gap on that side of the ball, but things have to get a little bit better next season.


Kaitlin C. from State College, Pa., writes: "Though I've belted you and flayed you, By the livin' God that made you, You're a better man than I am, Joe Paterno!"(taken from Gunga Din-War Poem). Any icon placed upon this Earth is not a god. Often, we build them up to be one so that we are at peace knowing that we are sharing the planet with a larger than life individual. Joe Paterno lived a life that most would have been proud to have. The last few months have taught us that even the Joe Paternos of the world are not gods. They are not immortal even though we have previously named them so. These last few months tested Penn State's favorite man (belted and flayed). Maybe for the first time we saw Joe as a man, instead of a model or a legend. However, it is not the god-like status that was previously issued to him that ever made him great. It is the faith and the fight within him to raise this university to standards beyond what anyone could have ever imagined it to be. That is why we love him, that is why we will miss him.

Brian Bennett: Well said, Kaitlin. Thanks for that.
National Signing Day is barely a week away, and Big Ten teams will be stockpiling for the future (and, in some cases, the present). Today we'll take a look at the recruiting needs of each Big Ten team, starting with those in the Leaders division. These needs are based on current rosters and anticipated departures in the near future. And to save you some email time, we do realize teams have already addressed needs in compiling their 2012 classes.

Let's get started ...

ILLINOIS

Wide receiver: The Illini lose A.J. Jenkins, who accounted for 90 of the team's 226 receptions in 2011. No other Illinois player had more than 26 catches, so there certainly are opportunities for young players to emerge and make an immediate impact for the new coaching staff.

Linemen: Illinois loses two starters from an offensive line that struggled down the stretch of the regular season. It's important to build depth there going forward. Despite Whitney Mercilus' early departure to the NFL draft, the defensive line returns some talented players. Still, defensive end Michael Buchanan is entering his senior year, and defensive tackle Akeem Spence is a bona fide NFL prospect who could enter the draft with a strong 2012 campaign.

Safety: The Illini defense didn't have many weaknesses in 2011, but safety was a liability at times. The team returns experience for 2012, but will lose some key players after the season. An impact defensive back or two in the 2012 class would really help.

INDIANA

Defensive back: This has been a primary recruiting need for the past few seasons, and it remains a pressing concern after Indiana surrendered a league-worst 8.5 yards per pass and a league-high 26 passing touchdowns in 2011. Indiana needs impact players and depth among the back four to be able to limit Big Ten offenses.

Defensive front seven: Sense a theme here? Indiana needs defenders in the worst way, and the front seven is a huge piece to the puzzle. The Hoosiers return some experience at defensive tackle, but lose top linebackers Jeff Thomas and Leon Beckum. The coaches showed in 2011 that they're not afraid to play young players, and they need more contributors on the defensive side.

Quarterback: Starter Tre Roberson returns, but Indiana needs bodies here after Dusty Kiel and Ed Wright-Baker both opted to transfer earlier this month.

OHIO STATE

Offensive line: Three multiyear starters depart at center, left tackle and right tackle, so Ohio State's offensive line will have a very different look in 2012. The Buckeyes could use some immediate-impact linemen, like center Mike Brewster in 2008, and they'll look to build depth here.

Defensive end: Ohio State appears loaded at defensive tackle for 2012 and beyond, but the team needs some more pure pass-rushers on the edge. John Simon, who had four more sacks than anyone on the squad in 2011, will be a senior this coming season.

Wide receiver: The Buckeyes lacked reliable receiver options in 2011 and had their best wideout, DeVier Posey, for only three games because of suspension. Posey departs and Ohio State needs to build depth and increase competition in what should be a more wide-open offense under Urban Meyer.

PENN STATE

Quarterback: New coach Bill O'Brien might be the quarterback whisperer Penn State has waited for, but he also needs to upgrade the talent on the roster. Matthew McGloin and Rob Bolden both must make significant strides, and while Paul Jones is an intriguing player, we've yet to see him in a game. Penn State needs more options here.

Wide receiver: Top target Derek Moye departs, and Penn State returns only two players with decent but not great production in Justin Brown and Devon Smith. Brown looks like a potential impact player in 2012, but Penn State needs more options in the passing game.

Defensive back: Penn State loses all four starters, although returning players like Stephon Morris, Malcolm Willis and Adrian Amos have logged playing time. Still, the Lions need some more players here to build depth and increase competition.

PURDUE

Offensive line: This is one of few areas where Purdue loses a decent amount of production from 2011, as tackle Dennis Kelly and Nick Mondek both depart. Two more starters exit after the 2012 season, and Purdue wants to be a run-based offense. It's important to build some depth up front with the 2012 class.

Kicker: Purdue loses the bionic-legged Carson Wiggs, who did more than make field goals from ridiculous distances. He also kicked off and served as a backup punter, attempting 45 punts over the past two seasons. The versatile Wiggs leaves a major void, and Purdue must address the specialist spot.

Defensive back: The Boilers say goodbye to both of their starting safeties from the 2011 team. They also will lose starting cornerback Josh Johnson after the 2012 season, while Ricardo Allen might be an early entry candidate with a big junior year. While this isn't a pressing need right now, it could soon become one.

WISCONSIN

Quarterback: Russell Wilson saved Wisconsin in more than one way in 2011, and his departure is significant. The team's most experienced signal callers, Jon Budmayr and Curt Phillips, both are coming off of major injuries. Wisconsin typically doesn't play younger quarterbacks, but needs more options after a season where Wilson showed what the offense could be.

Wide receiver: The Badgers typically get by with 1-2 good wideouts and an excellent tight end or two, but they could use more depth at the receiver position. Top target Nick Toon departs, and Wisconsin is pretty thin at receiver aside from Jared Abbrederis.

Defensive speed: Oregon makes a lot of teams look slow, but the Rose Bowl spelled out what the Badgers must do to take the next step as a program. Wisconsin needs to upgrade its speed at all three levels of the defense, particularly the back seven, to prevent explosion plays. Michigan State also exposed Wisconsin's defense, so the need for speed certainly is there.

2011 Big Ten Super Seniors

December, 29, 2011
12/29/11
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Borrowing an idea from our friends at the SEC blog, I wanted to recognize some of the best seniors in the Big Ten in 2011.

To spread the love around, the following list features one senior from each Big Ten team. I really looked for guys who saved their best for last, took their game to the next level and performed consistently all season. There are obviously more standout seniors than the ones mentioned below, but these players all deserve some recognition.

[+] EnlargeB.J. Cunningham
Mike Carter/US PresswireSpartans receiver B.J. Cunningham is one of several of ESPN.com's Big Ten Super Seniors.
Here's the list, in alphabetical order:

Michigan State WR B.J. Cunningham: He took the step from good (50 catches, 611 receiving yards, 9 TDs) to great (72 catches, 1,240 yards, 12 TDs) this season. He eclipsed 100 receiving yards in both games against Wisconsin and went for 154 yards on nine catches against Ohio State. His 17.2 yards-per-reception average was tops among the Big Ten's leading receivers. Cunningham became a very hard player to contain on the outside.

Nebraska LB Lavonte David: He played only two seasons in Lincoln but won't soon be forgotten. David didn't match his team record tackles total from 2010 (152) but still had 122 stops, the third-highest total in the Big Ten. He also become more of a difference-maker, making the critical plays for the Huskers in wins like Ohio State. David led Nebraska in tackles for loss (11) and finished second in sacks (3.5). He also had two interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.

Illinois WR A.J. Jenkins: The Illini offense disappeared in the second half, but Jenkins' accomplishments shouldn't go unnoticed. He went from a decent receiver to one of the best in the Big Ten, recording a league-best 82 receptions for 1,197 yards and seven touchdowns. Although Jenkins did much of his damage in the first six games, he still recorded six or more receptions in nine games and at least four catches in all 12 regular-season contests. He accounted for 53.3 percent of the team's receiving yards, the most nationally by eight percent.

Purdue LT Dennis Kelly: The offensive linemen deserve some love on this list, and Kelly stabilized Purdue's front five in his third season as a starter. Kelly started every game for the third consecutive season, giving him 37 career starts, and anchored a Purdue line that helped the team rank fifth in the league in rushing (181.6 ypg) and third in first downs (20.5 per game). Kelly finished his career as a bowl champion as Purdue captured the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl on Tuesday night.

Iowa WR Marvin McNutt: McNutt had been a productive pass-catcher for Iowa, but he took his game to the next level this season. The Big Ten's best receiver recorded 78 receptions for 1,269 yards and 12 touchdowns. He had eight 100-yard receiving performances and four games with multiple touchdown catches. McNutt also made the best catch of the Big Ten season against Michigan State on Nov. 12.

Northwestern S Brian Peters: It was a very rough year for the Wildcats' secondary, but it would have been even worse without Peters' contributions. He made by far the most big plays for the unit, recording four interceptions, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. Peters finished second on the team in tackles (85) and had four tackles for loss, four pass breakups and a sack.

Minnesota S Kim Royston: Talk about a player who made the most of his final opportunity. Granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, Royston turned in a terrific season, leading Minnesota and finishing third in the Big Ten with 123 tackles, 36 more than any other Gophers defender. Royston had an interception, two pass breakups and a sack. He recorded double digits in tackles in eight contests and provided leadership for a unit that needed it.

[+] EnlargeDevin Still
Jeffrey G. Pittenger/US PresswirePenn State defensive tackle Devin Still was more than a handful for opposing blockers in 2011.
Penn State DT Devon Still: Brian and I look like fools (yeah, it happens a lot) for leaving Still off of our preseason top 25 player rankings. But he wasn't nearly the same player in 2010 as he turned out to be this fall. The Lions star put it all together to win Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors. A disruptive force that put strain on every opposing offensive line, Still recorded 17 tackles for loss, tied for fourth in the Big Ten. He had 4.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery, and his stats hardly tell the full story. No Big Ten player better fits the definition of Super Senior.

Ohio State LB Andrew Sweat: It wasn't a typical year for Ohio State's senior class, as several key players missed chunks of the season because of suspensions. Sweat stepped up his play for a mostly young defense, though, and contributed 68 tackles, five tackles for loss, a forced fumble, an interception and three pass breakups. The Buckeyes sorely missed him in their final two games, when he sat out with head and elbow injuries.

Indiana LB Jeff Thomas: Youth was served all season at Indiana, which played more young players than any FBS team this season. But Thomas did his part on a flawed defense, leading the squad in both tackles (80) and tackles for loss (10.5). He added three pass breakups, a sack and a fumble recovery. The junior-college transfer has been one of few bright spots for Indiana's defense the past two seasons.

Michigan DE Ryan Van Bergen: Many Wolverines defenders benefited from a new coaching staff and a new scheme, but perhaps none more than Van Bergen. He led the team in both tackles for loss (12) and sacks (5) and finished second with three fumble recoveries. Van Bergen finished the season playing his best football, recording seven tackles for loss in the final three games.

Wisconsin QB Russell Wilson: He came to Madison as a senior and turned in one of the more memorable offensive performances in team history. Although Wilson had put up big numbers at NC State, he became a much more efficient quarterback with the Badgers, completing 72.5 percent of his passes with 31 touchdowns and only three interceptions in 284 attempts. He ranked second nationally in pass efficiency (191.6), trailing only Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III. Wilson earned consensus first-team All-Big Ten honors.

Season recap: Indiana

December, 7, 2011
12/07/11
11:00
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INDIANA HOOSIERS

Record: 1-11 (0-8 Big Ten)

After two seasons of flirting with the postseason, Indiana slipped back into rebuilding mode in 2011. While the team's Big Ten struggles are nothing new to IU fans, the Hoosiers also stumbled in nonconference play and were the only major-conference team in the country not to defeat an FBS opponent this year.

Rough first season for coach Kevin Wilson? You bet. But better days should be ahead.

Indiana's offense struggled early as inconsistent play an injuries prevented Wilson from identifying the team's top quarterback. True freshman Tre Roberson eventually emerged to provide a play-making spark in the backfield, along with running back Stephen Houston, but by then the defense was in free-fall. The unit that has plagued Indiana for more than a decade took another step back, finishing the season 109th or worse nationally in four major statistical categories (total defense, rush defense, scoring defense and pass efficiency defense). Indiana's defense surrendered an average of 46.5 points during the final seven games.

Wilson and his staff ended up playing 16 true freshmen and 16 redshirt freshmen, more than any team in the country. While it resulted in plenty of growing pains this year, the moves could pay off down the line as so many young players got a taste of game action. Indiana's ongoing recruiting efforts will be critical, and while losing one-time quarterback commit Gunner Kiel stings, the bigger concern for the Hoosiers remains on defense.

Offensive MVP: Roberson. Indiana's offense was going nowhere until Roberson provided a spark in his first career start -- and the first by a Hoosiers freshman quarterback -- against Iowa on Oct. 22. Although he had some ups and downs, he showcased explosive speed and has some potential as a passer. Roberson finished as the team's second-leading rusher (426 yards). Houston also merits a mention after an impressive first season (802 rush yards, 8 TDs).

Defensive MVP: Linebacker Jeff Thomas. Not many choices here but Thomas led the team in both tackles (80) and tackles for loss (10.5) after finishing second in tackles a year ago. He added a sack, three pass breakups and a fumble recovery. Defensive lineman Adam Replogle merits a mention after leading the team with four sacks and finishing second with seven tackles for loss.

Turning point: After notching its first win against South Carolina State, Indiana went to North Texas with an excellent chance to even its record at 2-2. North Texas entered the game with three blowout losses on its record, but the Mean Green dominated Indiana on both sides of the ball, surging out to a 24-0 lead before the Hoosiers decided to wake up. It signaled bad things ahead for Wilson's squad, which didn't win another game.

What's next: Indiana misses a bowl game for the fourth consecutive season, but this is a critical time for Wilson and his assistants to scour the recruiting trail. The Hoosiers need significant upgrades, particularly on defense, and likely will sign a large recruiting class in February. It's also an important time for the many freshmen who played this season to take steps in their physical development before spring ball begins.
With a 1-8 record and prospects bleak for getting a Big Ten victory, Indiana can only hope for better things in the future.

In some ways, that future has already begun.

A youth movement is in full effect in Bloomington, for better or worse. On Saturday versus Northwestern, the Hoosiers did three things no other FBS team in 2011 has done, according to the school. They started 12 freshmen. They started eight true freshmen. And they had seven freshmen start on defense.

[+] EnlargeTre Roberson
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesIndiana's Tre Roberson has shown that he can run. Now he aims to be a more efficient QB.
IU first-year head coach Kevin Wilson said he didn't simply throw in the towel on the season and start grooming players for next year.

"They're truly the best guys," he said. "They're practicing the best."

And that tells you a lot about the challenge facing Wilson. It's one thing to play some young guys. Just look at Indiana's opponent this week, Ohio State. The Buckeyes have inserted true freshmen into key roles like quarterback Braxton Miller and receiver Devin Smith, while mixing in plenty of other fresh faces. But they also are surrounded by battle-tested veterans and leaders.

The Hoosiers are perilously short on leadership. When I asked Wilson on Tuesday about his upperclassmen who were leading the way for the youngsters, he didn't need to speak in generalities. He gave a short list of the upperclassmen who are doing so, which included senior tight end Max Dedmond, senior offensive linemen Justin Pagan and Andrew McDonald, senior linebackers Jeff Thomas and Leon Beckum and junior defensive linemen Adam Replogle and Larry Black. And that's where he stopped.

"From there it kind of falls down to the freshmen," Wilson said. "We don't have much in between there."

The lack of senior leadership became even more evident this week when star receiver Damarlo Belcher, expected to be a key player on this season's team, was dismissed from the program after serving a suspension last week. Wilson said he tried to develop some senior leadership in the first few weeks after he took the job last winter.

"We didn't do a good job, in hindsight," he said. "We had some seniors who maybe didn't have things go their way or maybe didn't buy into our system. They were used to doing things a certain way."

So Wilson has gone young. Real young. He has already started 11 true freshmen, six redshirt freshmen and 10 sophomores this season. There have been some nice success stories in there, like promising true freshman quarterback Tre Roberson, sophomore transfer Stephen Houston at running back and freshman safety Mark Murphy. Wilson says it's not a matter of just playing his guys instead of those he inherited; he points out that he didn't actually recruit many of the current freshmen.

But at least he likes the looks of his young players, many of whom were in the first class recruited after Indiana upgraded its football facilities.

"I think it was a more competitive recruiting class," he said. "And the skill set of that freshman class is a little bit better maybe than some of the other classes."

The Hoosiers have some young talent. More upperclassmen leadership to guide them would be very helpful. But they may have to find their own way toward a better future.
Here's what Indiana linebacker Jeff Thomas remembers about last year's game at Wisconsin.

"It was really loud," Thomas said. "And it was a lot to a little."

Yep. That just about covers it.

The Indiana-Wisconsin game made national news last fall because of the final score. As Thomas said, Wisconsin had a lot (83 points), while Indiana had a little (20 points).

Indiana allowed the most points in team history and tied for the largest losing margin in team history with another 63-point defeat in 1915. Wisconsin scored the most touchdowns (11) in team history, put up the third-highest total in a Big Ten game in league history and racked up the most points in a Big Ten game since Ohio State scored 83 against Iowa in 1950.

For Thomas and his teammates, it added up to one very painful afternoon.

"It was pretty tough," Thomas said. "You never want to lose by that much. I've never really been on that side of the ball before. But there's nothing you can do about it now."

Indiana returns to Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday to face No. 4 Wisconsin. While the Hoosiers have plenty of reasons to gear up for the game, revenge isn't at the top of their list.

"The motivation we've got going right now is we're 1-5, and we want to win," Thomas said. "That's motivation we need to address more than beating a team that beat us pretty bad last year. Just wanting to get a win in the Big Ten, that's more motivation than anything."

Indiana coach Kevin Wilson wasn't in Madison last year. Wilson, then Oklahoma's offensive coordinator, spent the day enjoying a lopsided, 45-7 win against Texas Tech.

As part of his effort to change the culture at Indiana, Wilson hasn't spent time discussing the team's past struggles. But he has been on both sides of blowout games, and he has seen different approaches to rematches.

"Every time I’ve used the revenge word or been around coaches that did it, I don’t know if we got the [desired] outcome," Wilson said. "We're a team still trying to find our identity. … We're preaching more about how we want to keep moving forward instead of what happened a year ago."

Last year's game sparked questions of whether Wisconsin ran up the score, especially after Badgers coach Bret Bielema faced similar accusations following a game against Minnesota earlier in the season. Bielema reiterated this week that the claims about running up the score stemmed in part because of the perception Wisconsin has a team that rarely puts up such point totals.

Thomas harbors no ill will about what happened.

"It's just part of the game," he said. "They kept scoring. They obviously didn't have their starters in, so it's our job to stop them on defense. I'm not really mad about it. You keep scoring until somebody stops you."

Indiana has tried to foster a new attitude on defense this year, and while the wins haven't come, there have been some promising signs.

The defense forced four turnovers against Virginia in Week 2 and had a 54-yard fumble return for a touchdown by Lawrence Barnett. Indiana recorded two red-zone takeaways against Penn State in Week 5 and limited the Nittany Lions to 16 points.

Wisconsin poses a much greater test and many are forecasting another beat-down, but Thomas and his teammates are excited to face the Badgers.

"It's a potent offense, and it's our job to stop 'em," he said. "It's a huge opportunity."

Midseason report: Indiana

October, 11, 2011
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Indiana Hoosiers

Record: 1-5 (0-2 Big Ten)

No one ever said Kevin Wilson's job would be easy. The first-year IU coach earned goodwill among the fan base in the preseason with his bold talk and recruiting prowess. But success on the field has been slow to follow. The Hoosiers' only victory came over FCS opponent South Carolina State, and they suffered an embarrassing loss at North Texas. The problems are what you might expect: Indiana is not strong enough in the trenches to stop or generate a rushing attack. Wilson is an innovative offensive coach, but his team has struggled to move the ball consistently while starting two different quarterbacks (sophomores Ed Wright-Baker and Dusty Kiel) and working in true freshman Tre Roberson in the last game against Illinois. Every step of potential progress (a big second-half comeback against Virginia, a closer-than-expected 16-10 loss to Penn State, a 10-0 lead over Illinois) seems to be answered by another hole that needs plugging. Wilson has already played 16 true freshmen, and first- and second-year players can be found all over the depth chart. A full-scale rebuilding project is under way; nobody said it would be easy.

Offensive MVP: Quarterback Ed Wright-Baker. There's really not a lot to choose from on this offense, and Wright-Baker has had his ups and downs. But he was the quarterback during IU's lone victory, and he threw for 925 yards and four touchdowns before missing the past two games with injuries.

Defensive MVP: Linebacker Jeff Thomas. The fifth-year senior has been one true anchor for the defense. He leads the team with 48 tackles, including eight for loss. The Hoosiers need more like him.
Indiana has released its depth chart for Saturday's season opener against Ball State. Not surprisingly, the chart includes co-starters at quarterback in Dusty Kiel and Edward Wright-Baker. The sophomores have been competing for the job with true freshman Tre Roberson, who isn't listed on the two-deep.

Some other notes:
  • Two likely starters, wide receiver Duwyce Wilson and tight end Ted Bolser, aren't listed on the depth chart. Both have been battling injuries during camp. Senior Dre Muhammad is listed as the starter in Wilson's spot ahead of freshman Shane Wynn, while senior Max Dedmond will start at tight end.
  • Redshirt freshman Matt Perez, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL, is listed as the No. 1 running back ahead of Stephen Houston. Junior Darius Willis is suspended for the opener for conduct detrimental to the team.
  • Redshirt freshman Ryan Phillis is listed as a starter at defensive end ahead of veteran Fred Jones. He'll play opposite Darius Johnson. Indiana seems to have some good depth at the defensive tackle position.
  • Another redshirt freshman, Chase Hoobler, has secured a starting job for the opener at strong-side linebacker. He'll join senior linebackers Jeff Thomas and Leon Beckum in the starting lineup.
  • No major surprises in the starting secondary as sophomores Lawrence Barnett and Greg Heban are listed as the top corners and fifth-year seniors Chris Adkins and Jarrell Drane are listed as the No. 1 safeties.
  • Wynn and Perez are listed as the top kick returners, as Indiana must replace the dynamic Tandon Doss on special teams.

Some interesting stuff here. Youth will be served this season in Bloomington as 14 true freshmen or redshirt freshmen appear on the depth chart.

Video: Indiana LB Jeff Thomas

August, 16, 2011
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Adam Rittenberg interviews Indiana linebacker Jeff Thomas.

The Big Ten on Thursday announced its list of players appearing at preseason media days, which will be held July 28-29 in Chicago.

This announcement is probably bigger for media types than fans, but it gives an idea of who teams view as leaders and positive representatives for their programs.

Here's the list:

ILLINOIS
  • Jeff Allen, Sr., OL*
  • A.J. Jenkins, Sr., WR
  • Tavon Wilson, Sr., DB*
INDIANA
IOWA
  • Mike Daniels, Sr., DT*
  • Marvin McNutt, Sr., WR*
  • Tyler Nielsen, Sr., LB
MICHIGAN
MICHIGAN STATE
MINNESOTA
NEBRASKA
  • Rex Burkhead, Jr., RB*
  • Jared Crick, Sr., DT*
  • Lavonte David, Sr., LB*
NORTHWESTERN
  • Jordan Mabin, Sr., CB*
  • Al Netter, Sr., OT*
  • Dan Persa, Sr., QB*
OHIO STATE
  • Mike Brewster, Sr., C*
  • Orhian Johnson, Jr., DB
  • Andrew Sweat, Sr., LB
PENN STATE
PURDUE
  • Albert Evans, Sr., S
  • Joe Holland, Sr., LB
  • Carson Wiggs, Sr., K/P*
WISCONSIN
  • Patrick Butrym, Sr., DT
  • Aaron Henry, Sr., S*
  • Nick Toon, Sr., WR*

*previous All-Big Ten or All-Big 12 (Nebraska) selection

Thoughts: Not a lot of surprises here. Six teams took the all-senior route with invitations, and no sophomores made the list. Three sophomores I hoped to see were Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase, Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez and Wisconsin RB James White, the 2010 Big Ten Freshman of the Year. It's a little surprising that neither White nor fellow running back Montee Ball made Wisconsin's list. ... There's a pretty good quarterback presence overall with Cousins, Denard Robinson, Gray and Persa. I was interested to see if Iowa would bring James Vandenberg, who has been tabbed as a team leader. ... As for charismatic personalities, there's not a Jay Valai on this list, but another Badger, Henry, should provide some entertainment. Other quotable players include Crick, Mabin, Gray, Cousins, Mauti, Trenton Robinson, Jeff Allen and Marvin McNutt. I'm sure I'll add a few names by the end of media days. ... Cousins will speak on behalf of the players at the Big Ten kickoff luncheon July 29. ... Purdue's Wiggs is the lone specialist making the trip to Chicago, just like Michigan State punter Aaron Bates was last year. ... The list includes 18 former All-Big Ten selections, while all three Nebraska players earned All-Big 12 honors in 2010. Six first-team all-conference honorees will be in attendance. ... The list likely includes the preseason offensive and defensive players of the year. I'd expect Denard Robinson or Persa to earn offensive honors and Crick or David to take home defensive honors.

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