Big Ten: Marvin McNutt

Iowa's 2012 recruiting class included two Floridians in wide receiver Greg Mabin (Fort Lauderdale) and defensive end Daumantas Venckus-Cucchiara (Weston). The Hawkeyes' most recent recruiting haul included no players from the Sunshine State -- a first in the Kirk Ferentz era.

This is no accident.

I must have missed it from last winter, but Ferentz said he's no longer assigning an assistant coach to recruit Florida. Then Tuesday night, Iowa recruiting coordinator Eric Johnson told an I-Club gathering in Des Moines that Florida is no longer a priority area for the program's recruitment.

I think I just choked on some orange juice and spilled some sun screen.

We're talking about Florida, right? The state that produced four of the top six players and 22 of the top 100 players in the 2013 class, according to ESPN Recruiting? The state often grouped with Texas and California as the nation's top recruiting hotbeds?

Yes, that Florida.

All but two Big Ten teams (Iowa and Michigan) signed at least one Floridian earlier this month. Indiana and Purdue both signed five.

The Iowa coaches think the program needs to concentrate recruiting closer to campus. The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette's Marc Morehouse notes that Iowa went to St. Louis, a city that has produced recent stars like Adrian Clayborn and Marvin McNutt, for three recruits in the 2013 class. Iowa also has had recruiting success in other Midwestern cities like Chicago and Indianapolis, and signed a Detroit prospect (safety Desmond King) on Feb. 6.

There's nothing wrong with prioritizing your backyard and places where you've had success. But ignoring Florida just doesn't make a lot of sense.

Iowa did well in the Sunshine State early in Ferentz's tenure, luring players like defensive tackle Colin Cole, linebacker Abdul Hodge and wide receiver Mo Brown. Former assistant Bret Bielema was Iowa's primary recruiter in Florida and left the Hawkeyes following the 2001 season, but other Iowa assistants continued to recruit the state.

As pointed out here and here, Iowa has had many more misses than hits with Florida prospects since 2002. Several players transferred, including running backs Jeff Brinson and De'Andre Johnson. The jury is out on other Florida recruits, including quarterback Jake Rudock, who could start this coming season.

I'm still waiting for a good reason for Iowa to back away from Florida. Sure, Iowa has had a run of bad luck with Florida recruits. But should it stop trying? I can think of 22 reasons -- and many more from the 2013 class -- to keep investing time and money there.

Big Ten teams can't expect to compete at a national elite level by recruiting solely in the Midwest. Prioritizing states like Florida -- along with Georgia, Texas and California -- is a must for Big Ten programs.

It's great to see coaches develop talent and several Big Ten programs, including Iowa, have done that well over the years. But there's a ceiling for teams trying to win with overlooked recruits from the heartland. Too many Big Ten teams -- not just Iowa -- seem to fall into this trap. Penn State just signed its first Florida recruit (safety Neiko Robinson) in more than a decade. That's insane.

It still comes down to talent, and there's just more of it in the South. Big Ten teams need to compete in states like Florida. Will they get all the top players? Of course not. But with the right coaches and strategy, they can help their teams get better.

Sure, Iowa lost Bielema, who continued his Florida recruiting push as Wisconsin's head coach and will carry it on at Arkansas. Iowa lost another Florida recruiter when Rick Kaczenski left for Nebraska in 2011.

But Ferentz has had plenty of chances to hire assistants with Florida roots the past two seasons. Iowa's staff is in an unprecedented period of flux, and Ferentz has brought in six new assistants since the end of the 2011 season. None of them could help Iowa made inroads in Florida?

Look how Nebraska secondary coach Terry Joseph, hired last March, has helped the Huskers' recruiting efforts in the South. The same goes for new Big Ten assistants like Everett Withers at Ohio State. Wisconsin would have loved to retain assistant Charlie Partridge because of his recruiting clout in Florida.

Perhaps Iowa can build itself back into a Big Ten title contender without investing in Florida. Re-establishing itself in cities like St. Louis certainly is a good sign.

But Ohio State's coaches continue to mine the South, and Michigan is ramping up its Southern recruiting efforts as well.

In recruiting, you follow the talent. You flock to it. You compete for it.

You don't turn your back on it.
Iowa wide receivers coach Erik Campbell has left the program to pursue other opportunities, according to several reports out of Iowa City.

Scout.com and Rivals.com are reporting Campbell's departure, and wide receiver recruit Damon Powell told Scout.com that Campbell no longer will be coaching him at Iowa. The school hasn't made an official announcement on Campbell and has "nothing to report" on possible staff changes, but the coach on Twitter responded to fans thanking him for his time at Iowa and wishing him good luck in his next stop.

From Scout.com:
"I didn't know he was going to leave," said Powell, who verbally pledged to Iowa from Snow Junior College in Utah. "The new receivers coach, Coach [Brian] Ferentz called and told me that Coach Campbell is no longer with Iowa."

Powell, who is from Ohio, is having second thoughts about his commitment to the Hawkeyes with Campbell leaving. He is playing host to Brian Ferentz and Iowa Head Coach Kirk Ferentz this Saturday.

Brian Ferentz, who joined the coaching staff for the 2012 season and worked with the offensive line, coached tight ends with the New England Patriots in 2011 and should be able to make the transition to receivers. But Campbell could be a big loss for Iowa.

The former longtime Michigan receivers coach mentored two record-setting Hawkeyes in Marvin McNutt and Derrell Johnson-Koulianos. McNutt set single-season records for receiving yards (1,315) and touchdowns (12), and the career receiving mark (2,8612). Johnson-Koulianos finished as the school's all-time leader in receptions with 173. Campbell spent five years with Iowa.

Campbell looked like a potential candidate for Iowa's offensive coordinator vacancy last year, but Kirk Ferentz ended up hiring Greg Davis. Iowa finished 114th nationally in total offense, 99th in pass offense and threw only seven touchdown passes (just two FBS had fewer).

I've heard Eastern Michigan is the likely landing spot for Campbell, who could become Eagles' offensive coordinator under Ron English, who he worked with at Michigan.

Previews: Iowa-MSU, Wildcats-Gophers

October, 13, 2012
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Brian is in West Lafayette and will break down Wisconsin-Purdue in a bit.

Here's a quick look at the other two Big Ten games on tap at noon ET:

Iowa (3-2, 1-0 Big Ten) at Michigan State (4-2, 1-1), ESPN2: Turn back the clocks a bit for this one as Iowa and Michigan State both play a classic brand of Big Ten football, complete with bruising running backs, stout linebackers and physical play. Running backs Le'Veon Bell (MSU) and Mark Weisman (Iowa) take center stage, as no Big Ten players have rushed for more yards since Sept. 15. The teams played a classic three years ago at Spartan Stadium, as Iowa won on the final play on a touchdown catch by Marvin McNutt. Iowa aims for the upset in its first true road game of the season after playing three straight at home and a neutral-site opener against Northern Illinois in Chicago. Michigan State will be without its top receiver, junior tight end Dion Sims, who is out with an ankle injury. The Spartans will lean more on freshman receiver Aaron Burbridge, who set a team single-game freshman record with 134 receiving yards in his first start last week against Indiana. Iowa adds an offensive weapon as running back Damon Bullock returns to ease some of the carries burden on Weisman. Coach Kirk Ferentz aims for his 100th victory at Iowa. The teams have split their past four meetings.

Northwestern (5-1, 1-1 Big Ten) at Minnesota (4-1, 0-1), ESPN2: Both of these teams aim for better results than the last time out as Minnesota returns from a week off to face a Northwestern squad that has won back-to-back games in Minneapolis, both by single digits. The Gophers hope to regain the services of top quarterback MarQueis Gray, who has missed the past two and a half games with a high-ankle sprain. Sophomore Max Shortell performed well in Gray's absence until a three-interception outing against Iowa on Sept. 29. Both of these teams have made similar improvements from 2011, as both are rushing the ball better and defending the run better than they did last fall. Minnesota's past eight victories have come on its home field, where it tries to improve to 4-0 this season. The Gophers lead the Big Ten and rank 11th nationally in pass efficiency defense (98.04 rating) and will put pressure on Northwestern to establish the run. After running just 61 plays last week at Penn State, Northwestern's offense tries to regain its tempo and feed playmakers Venric Mark and Kain Colter more often.
Ricardo AllenRandy Litzinger/Icon SMIPurdue cornerback Ricardo Allen enjoys the challenge of going one-on-one with bigger receivers.
CHICAGO -- At 5-foot-9 and 176 pounds, Purdue junior cornerback Ricardo Allen is a small man in a big-man's game.

The key to his success: not playing like a small man.

Allen, who has started all 25 games of his Boilers career, describes his playing style with one word -- aggressive -- and backs it up on the field. He typically lines up just inches from opposing receivers, even if those men stand more than a few inches taller than him, as they usually do. Whether a receiver is 5-10 or 6-6, Allen's goal is to challenge them from the moment the ball is snapped.

"I used to play down to my size and think because I was small, I'd have to be an off corner," Allen said. "But most big receivers aren't really good on the line. So I have changed."

Allen enters his junior season among the Big Ten's most accomplished cornerbacks. He has led the Boilers in interceptions with three in each of the past two seasons. He has returned three picks for six points, which ties Rod Woodson and Mike Rose for the all-time team record.

Like all cornerbacks, Allen gets burned on occasion. But his production is undeniable: 164 total tackles (118 solo), 6.5 tackles for loss, six interceptions and 14 passes defended.

Not bad for a guy some considered too small to play in a major conference.

"Miami originally offered me, but Mr. [Randy] Shannon didn't like me for my height," said Allen, referring to the former Hurricanes coach. "I had a lot of people who offered me but didn't like my height. South Carolina pushed away from me because of my height. I was recruited by a lot of schools, but when the time came down to it, everybody kind of shied away from me."

The Daytona Beach, Fla., native eventually landed at Purdue, part of a 2010 recruiting class heavy on players from the Sunshine State. Allen rose atop the depth chart immediately and sparkled as a freshman, earning second-team All-Big Ten honors (media) and leading the team in interception return yards (129).

The 2010 season convinced Allen that he could play at a high level.

"It gave me confidence that my size doesn't really matter anymore," he said. "I play with the biggest and I play with the best receivers around."

(Read full post)

Earlier this week, I asked you to identify the Big Ten's strongest position group. Not surprisingly, running back ran away from the competition with 53 percent of the vote.

SportsNation

What is the Big Ten's weakest position group entering the season?

  •  
    59%
  •  
    14%
  •  
    19%
  •  
    8%

Discuss (Total votes: 4,366)

Can't blame you there. The Big Ten returns its top three running backs from 2011 -- Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball, Nebraska's Rex Burkhead and Penn State's Silas Redd -- along with a group of others (Michigan's Fitzgerald Toussaint, Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell) who should be very good. While it's a little surprising cornerback didn't receive more votes (9 percent), the results went mostly as expected.

Now it's time to select the position where the Big Ten is lacking the most. This vote could be a bit closer, although I have an idea of which position will pull away. Graduation losses and departures to the NFL hit certain positions harder than others. Some position groups, like safety, lacked star power in 2011 and might be a bit weak again this season.

The accompanying poll includes four choices. To refresh your memory, I've made a brief case for why each position could be the weakest in the league.

Wide receiver: League loses top seven pass-catchers from 2011, including first-round draft pick A.J. Jenkins (Illinois) and all first- and second-team All-Big Ten selections (Jenkins, Iowa's Marvin McNutt, Michigan State's B.J. Cunningham, Northwestern's Jeremy Ebert and Wisconsin's Nick Toon).

Offensive tackle: Not the strongest position in 2011, and league loses Iowa's Riley Reiff, a first-round draft pick, as well as Ohio State's Mike Adams and Illinois' Jeff Allen, both second-round picks. Also gone are Wisconsin's Josh Oglesby, Purdue's Dennis Kelly and Northwestern's Al Netter.

Safety: Arguably the Big Ten's weakest position in 2011, and the league loses first-team all-conference selections Trenton Robinson (Michigan State) and Brian Peters (Northwestern). Penn State's Nick Sukay and Wisconsin's Aaron Henry also are among those departing the league.

Center: The Big Ten loses Rimington Trophy winner David Molk of Michigan, as well as Wisconsin's Peter Konz, a second-round draft pick. Also gone are Nebraska's Mike Caputo and Ohio State's Mike Brewster, who shared second-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches.

Now it's time to vote. Make yours count.
Another June weekend is in the books, which means it's time for another recruiting roundup. As camps take place around the league, several players joined the commitment lists for the 2013 classes.

Let's take a quick look at what has happened since Friday:
  • Penn State didn't have a recruiting spree like several Big Ten teams, but the Lions picked up by far the most decorated prospect of the weekend in offensive tackle Dorian Johnson from Belle Vernon, Pa. ESPN Recruiting rates the 6-foot-6, 285-pound Johnson as the nation's No. 26 overall prospect and No. 2 offensive tackle. He has received offers from Alabama, Notre Dame and Ohio State, among others. Penn State now has two of the top three rated commits in the Big Ten -- quarterback Christian Hackenberg is the other. Given all the turmoil outside the program right now, it's incredible how successful new coach Bill O'Brien has been in adding high-quality recruits for his first full class.
  • Accelerated recruiting has become the national norm rather than the exception, but Iowa is on a record-setting pace for early commits. The Hawkeyes stand at 15 commits for 2013, the second highest in the Big Ten behind national leader Michigan (22). Iowa has secured six commitments since late last week, adding linebacker Trevon Young, defensive back Solomon Warfield, offensive lineman Sean Welch and three athletes -- Ike Boettger, Andre Harris and Derrick Mitchell Jr. The Hawkeyes landed three commits alone on Sunday, including Warfield, who had received several Big Ten offers. The commitments of Mitchell and Harris continue Iowa's success in the St. Louis area, where the Hawkeyes plucked players like Adrian Clayborn and Marvin McNutt. You have to wonder how much of the early success is due to the new, younger faces head coach Kirk Ferentz added to his staff during the offseason.
  • After scrambling to sign a class in February, new Illinois coach Tim Beckman is flexing his recruiting muscle so far for 2013. Illinois secured three commitments during the weekend -- athletes Darius Mosely and Caleb Day, and defensive tackle Bryce Douglas -- to bring its total to 13, the third highest in the Big Ten behind only Michigan and Iowa. The 5-foot-11, 185-pound Mosely is Illinois' highest-rated recruit, according to ESPN Recruiting, earning a grade of 82. Beckman also is shoring up the interior defensive line with four defensive tackle prospects so far in the class.
  • Michigan State added a player with a familiar surname to its 2013 class as tight end Dylan Chmura pledged to play for the Spartans. Chmura, son of former NFL star tight end Mark Chmura, stood out during Michigan State's camp on Saturday. The Waukesha, Wis., product hadn't received an offer from Wisconsin but had planned to attend a Badgers camp later this month. Michigan State has eight commits for 2013.
  • After being stuck on one commit for several months, Minnesota picked up three more last week, including quarterback Chris Streveler from Woodstock, Ill., who made his pledge Friday night after attending a Gophers camp the weekend before. Streveler likely will be the only quarterback in Minnesota's class as the Gophers signed Philip Nelson in February and Max Shortell in 2011.
  • Although Hunter Niswander has a wide receiver's frame (6-foot-5, 210 pounds), he'll be doing the kicking and/or punting for Northwestern in future years after committing to the Wildcats on Friday night. Niswander received a scholarship offer from Northwestern, which has extended several to specialists in recent years after struggling in the kicking game for a stretch of seasons. Niswander's punting stood out during a recent camp at Northwestern, but he could handle both punting and place-kicking duties for the Wildcats.
  • Purdue picked up its third commitment for 2013 when athlete David Yancey made his decision Saturday. Yancey played quarterback in high school but is pegged as a running back for the Boilers, who loaded up on quarterback in their most recent class. Yancey has three older brothers who went to Purdue.
Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which blogger is right.

Of all the positions in the Big Ten this year, none has bigger questions marks than receiver. Eight of the league's top 10 pass catchers from 2011 exhausted their eligibility So today's Take Two topic is this: Which player will lead the Big Ten in receiving yards in 2012?

Take 1: Brian Bennett

There are a whole lot of mostly unproven wideouts in this conference this year, and I suspect some names we don't know much about right now will be making some noise in the fall. But I'm going to go with the guy who I think has the best combination of talent, opportunity and system: Iowa's Keenan Davis. He had 50 catches for 713 yards last year, and that was with star Marvin McNutt serving as the first -- and often second and third -- option in the Hawkeyes' passing game. Like McNutt, Davis could be poised to make a leap his senior season. He's got the league's most experienced pocket passer in James Vandenberg and will play in an offense that likely will need to air it out while it tries to find a reliable running back. Davis has been inconsistent throughout his career and has struggled at times with drops. But at least he recognizes this fact and is working to fix those issues. He's got the physical tools to be an all-Big Ten performer, and my bet is he'll take the next step and lead the league in receiving yards in 2012, just as McNutt did in 2011.

Take 2: Adam Rittenberg

Davis is a good pick, BB, although he'll need to become more consistent and limit drops. My pick simply needs to keep making the strides we've seen from him the past two seasons. Jared Abbrederis has been one of the better stories for Wisconsin since making a name for himself in the spring of 2010. The former walk-on had a terrific 2011 season, recording 53 catches for 933 yards and eight touchdowns. With Nick Toon gone to the NFL, Abbrederis clearly steps into the No. 1 role this season. The concern isn't so much whether Abbrederis is capable of leading the Big Ten, but whether he'll get the opportunity to do so. Arguably no Wisconsin player benefited more from Russell Wilson's arrival than Abbrederis, who became a favorite target of Wilson's down the field. Wilson is gone, and Wisconsin enters preseason camp with big questions at quarterback. While Maryland transfer Danny O'Brien has shown he can pass the ball well and identify a capable target -- Torrey Smith had 67 catches for 1,055 yards and 12 scores for the Terrapins in 2010 -- he's learning a new system and needs to rebound from a poor 2011 season. If O'Brien isn't the answer, I don't expect Wisconsin to be throwing the ball as much as it did last season. If Wisconsin can establish a viable passing attack, expect Abbrederis to easily eclipse the 1,000-yard mark as the team's top option. Both Allen and O'Brien make sense right now, but given the league-wide turnover at receiver, it wouldn't surprise me to see a less-established player end up atop the receiving chart.
Earlier this week, we took a look at five players in the Leaders Division with something to prove this fall.

Let's now turn our attention to the Legends Division.

Ready, set, go ...

[+] EnlargeTaylor Martinez
Rick Osentoski/US PresswireThe pressure is on Taylor Martinez, who enters his third year as Nebraska's starting quarterback.
1. Taylor Martinez, QB, Nebraska: To say it's all about the quarterback sounds a bit cliché, but the line truly applies to Nebraska this season. The Huskers return eight starters on offense and look strong at most of the positions, particularly running back. Nebraska's defense could replace star power with greater depth and a more detail-oriented approach. So in many ways, the Huskers' season comes down to Martinez, their third-year starter at quarterback. Martinez struggled with his passing in 2011, completing just 56.2 percent of his attempts and often looking uncomfortable in the pocket. He spent the offseason working on his footwork and drew good marks from the coaches this spring. Martinez will be operating in the same offensive system in consecutive seasons for the first time in his football career (college or high school). He's also fully recovered from the injuries that slowed him in 2010. Bottom line: his time is now.

2. Will Campbell, DT, Michigan: Wolverines fans see Campbell's size and potential as a space eater and continue to wait patiently for the big man to take the next step. There's no better time than this season as Michigan must replace standout defensive linemen Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen. The Wolverines could be very good in the defensive back seven, particularly in the secondary, but there are questions up front and Campbell is one of them. Campbell has been better in getting his weight under control, but the senior needs to show he can consistently display the effort and technique needed to make a difference in the interior of the line. A former five-star recruit, the 6-5, 322-pound Campbell has one final opportunity to shine. Michigan needs a big season from No. 73.

3. Andrew Maxwell, QB, Michigan State: There's little doubt Michigan State will have one of the nation's best defenses for the second consecutive season. But the Spartans lose almost all of their key offensive skill players from 2011, and the biggest void is under center, where three-year starter and three-time captain Kirk Cousins departs. In steps Maxwell, who has spent years preparing for this moment in practice but lacks game experience (51 pass attempts in nine career games). Maxwell learned a lot from Cousins and has a personality that some liken to his predecessor. But after missing the second half of spring practice with a knee injury, he needs a strong summer as he builds chemistry with his mostly unproven receivers and tight ends. While Michigan State will be a more run-heavy team this fall with lead back Le'Veon Bell and a more seasoned offensive line, the Spartans need Maxwell to establish himself if they intend to return to Indianapolis.

4. Keenan Davis, WR, Iowa: Iowa's yet-to-be-named top running back could be listed here, but the Hawkeyes likely will be a pass-oriented team because of their uncertainty at tailback as well as the return of senior quarterback James Vandenberg. While Vandenberg seems to be adapting well to new offensive coordinator Greg Davis and the new system, he lacks many proven targets, especially after the departure of the Big Ten's top wide receiver, Marvin McNutt. Davis started 12 games last season and finished second on the squad in receptions (50) and receiving yards (713). The big question is whether he can take the next step and become a true No. 1 wide receiver. Coach Kirk Ferentz admitted Davis had an "up and down" spring, and missed the latter part of the session with an injury. Davis needs to show he can stay on the field, make consistent catches and give Vandenberg a reliable top target.

5. Roy Roundtree, WR, Michigan: The Wolverines return arguably the Big Ten's most dynamic offensive backfield in quarterback Denard Robinson and running back Fitzgerald Toussaint. The offense could be very dangerous this fall, but Michigan will need a bounce-back season from Roundtree. Michigan lacks depth at receiver following Junior Hemingway's departure and Darryl Stonum's dismissal. Roundtree flourished in the spread offense in 2010, leading the Wolverines with 72 catches for 935 yards and seven touchdowns, and earning second-team All-Big Ten honors. But his production dropped off sharply last fall in the new offense (19 receptions, 355 yards, 2 TDs). Michigan gave Roundtree the No. 21 jersey worn by Hemingway in 2011, and Roundtree will step into Hemingway's role in the offense. He's the obvious No. 1 target for Robinson, but he has to show he can get it done in this offense.

Iowa spring wrap

May, 11, 2012
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2011 record: 7-6
2011 conference record: 4-4 (fourth, Legends Division)
Returning starters: offense: 6; defense: 5; kicker/punter: 1

Top returners

QB James Vandenberg, C James Ferentz, WR Keenan Davis, TE C.J. Fiedorowicz, CB Micah Hyde, LB James Morris, LB Christian Kirksey, S Tanner Miller

Key losses

RB Marcus Coker, WR Marvin McNutt, OT Riley Reff, G Adam Gettis, DT Mike Daniels, DE Broderick Binns, LB Tyler Nielsen, CB Shaun Prater

2011 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Marcus Coker (1,384 yards)
Passing: James Vandenberg* (3,022 yards)
Receiving: Marvin McNutt (1,315 yards)
Tackles: James Morris* and Christian Kirksey* (110)
Sacks: Mike Daniels (9)
Interceptions: Micah Hyde* and Tanner Miller (3)

Spring answers

1. Embracing change: Iowa is going through a historic number of changes, including the first new coordinators (Greg Davis and Phil Parker) in Kirk Ferentz's tenure as head coach. But for the most part, players and coaches seem to be embracing the new elements of the program, including an offense that will diverge a bit from what Iowa ran under Ken O'Keefe. The Hawkeyes will be a more up-tempo offense and mix in some no-huddle elements. "They've been extremely open to everything," Davis told ESPN.com. "Sometimes the same play said differently and explained differently creates excitement. And I sense an excitement."

2. Back seven emerging: There's no doubt Iowa will lean on its defensive back seven this season. Cornerback Micah Hyde has established himself as a premier playmaker and a team leader, and Ferentz likened the career paths of linebackers James Morris and Christian Kirksey to those of former stars Chad Greenway and Abdul Hodge. Linebacker play could be a major strength for Iowa this fall, while players like Hyde and Tanner Miller bring experience to the secondary.

3. C.J.'s time: Tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz arrived at Iowa with a lot of hype and attention. He appears poised for a breakout junior season in Davis' offense. "This is only 39 springs I've been in, and I've never had a tight end like C.J.," Davis told reporters. At 6-foot-7 and 265 pounds, Fiedorowicz can create a lot of problems for opposing defenses and should be an integral part of the Hawkeyes' passing attack this fall.

Fall questions

1. Defensive line: Iowa hasn't been this young up front in recent memory, and despite a strong track record at defensive line, there are major question marks entering the summer. The coaches are relying on Steve Bigach and Joe Gaglione, the only veteran linemen on the field this spring, as well as Dominic Alvis, who will return from a torn ACL this fall. But Iowa undoubtedly needs young players like Darian Cooper, Riley McMinn and Carl Davis to take steps and contribute.

2. Running back: Stop me if you've heard this before, but Iowa enters the summer with big questions at the running back position following Marcus Coker's transfer and Jordan Canzeri's ACL injury during spring ball. The good news is that despite an unfortunate stretch of bad luck and bad circumstances, Iowa has consistently developed good to great Big Ten backs. The Hawkeyes must do so again as unproven returnees Damon Bullock and De'Andre Johnson compete with decorated incoming freshmen Greg Garmon and Barkley Hill.

3. The search for No. 1 receiver: All-Big Ten selection Marvin McNutt leaves a significant void, and given Iowa's question marks at running back, the team really needs a No. 1 receiver to emerge. Keenan Davis seems like the obvious choice, but he had an "up and down" spring, according to Ferentz, with some injuries. Kevonte Martin-Manley played a lot last year and could be ready to make some strides, as could Don Shumpert. "We have some room there for guys to step up," Ferentz said.

Big Ten lunchtime links

April, 26, 2012
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Many Bothans died bringing us this information.
The NFL draft begins Thursday night. You probably weren't aware of that, because the draft, like most things associated with the National Football League, gets very little media coverage. Ahem.

Luckily, Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett are stepping into this void to talk about the draft, and specifically the Big Ten prospects hoping to hear their name called over the long weekend.

Brian Bennett: Adam, we usually leave draft talk to people with better hair than us, like Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay. But let's give it a shot. You know the NFL is a different game when Iowa's Riley Reiff is widely expected to be the top player taken from the Big Ten. Reiff is an excellent player and terrific pro prospect, no doubt. But if you would have asked league fans to pick a most valuable player from the conference this season, Reiff probably wouldn't have cracked the Top 10.

Speaking of the Top 10, the Big Ten hasn't had a player selected in that range for the past three years and is likely to make it four this year. What, if anything, does that say about the talent the league has been producing? And is Reiff the first guy you would take from the conference if you had an NFL team? (I'll resist from making wisecracks about your Big Ten fantasy team management last year).

Adam Rittenberg: Hey now, Year 2 will be different, my friend. The Shorties are coming for you. The Big Ten's Top 10 drought is certainly noteworthy, and I think it stems in part from the league producing fewer elite pro-caliber quarterbacks and cornerbacks in recent years. It does surprise me that the Big Ten hasn't had a defensive lineman in the top 10 recently, as the league has been very strong at both line spots. I think that will change in 2013. As for Reiff, he was about as under-the-radar as an elite player could get during his time at Iowa. He certainly performed well, but you didn't hear much about him, even compared to previous Hawkeyes standout linemen like Bryan Bulaga. Reiff is a masher, though, and while some say he's not the most dominant tackle, he should be able to help an NFL team this coming season.

I'd want to start my team with a potential difference-maker on the defensive line. The Big Ten has plenty of options, but Illinois' Whitney Mercilus is a natural pass-rusher who can put up big numbers. Have Merci? Yes, please. What's your view of the Big Ten's defensive line crop entering the draft?

BB: We both agreed that the defensive line, especially on the interior, is where the league's true strength lay in 2011. I'm a bit surprised that some mock drafts don't have Michigan State's Jerel Worthy, who has the chance to be a major presence on defense, in the first round and that Penn State's Devon Still, who was wildly productive last season, is being projected as a second-rounder at best. I'd rather take one of those guys than roll the dice on Memphis' Dontari Poe, a combine wonder who did next to nothing in college. And though Michigan's Mike Martin is a little short by NFL standards, I have little doubt he'll be a productive pro.

[+] EnlargeIowa's Riley Reiff
Jeffrey G. Pittenger/US PRESSWIREIowa's Riley Reiff could be the first Big Ten player selected in the NFL draft.
I'm also interested in seeing how the centers get drafted. Wisconsin's Peter Konz, Michigan's David Molk and Ohio State's Michael Brewster were arguably the top three centers in the nation last year. Molk, of course, publicly said he's the best of the three, and he did win the Rimington Trophy. Konz likely will go first, but I will be fascinated to see who ends up having the best career.

You mentioned quarterbacks. What do you think about Michigan State's Kirk Cousins and Wisconsin's Russell Wilson as potential NFL players? And will Dan Persa get a shot somewhere?

AR: Cousins should be the first Big Ten quarterback off the board, and many projections have him going in the second round. He clearly improved his stock during the predraft process. While everyone raves about the character of both Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin -- and for good reasons -- Cousins, as we both know, certainly fits into the same category as those two. He's not the fastest or most athletic guy, but he's extremely smart and played in a pro-style system at Michigan State. He could end up being a solid pro quarterback.

The issue for both Wilson and Persa is size, Persa more so than Wilson. While Wilson boasts tremendous arm strength and athleticism, his height scares teams. He does a tremendous job of extending plays and can make all of the throws, but he'll have to prove himself as a consistent pocket passer in a league where everyone is really big and really fast. Looks like a midround selection. Whether or not Persa gets drafted at all will be interesting. The guy obviously has a ton of heart and tremendous leadership skills, but he's small and suffered a major injury at Northwestern. I think Todd McShay summed up the sentiment about Persa when he told the Chicago Tribune, "I want to like Persa, but as an NFL prospect, he is limited." Persa will find his way onto a roster, but he'll have a lot to prove.

We've read a lot of draft evaluations in recent weeks. Which Big Ten player could be a real steal for a team this weekend?

BB: The guy whom I think is really undervalued is Iowa's Marvin McNutt. I've seen him going as late as the fifth or sixth round, which seems (Mc)nuts to me. Sure, it's a deep draft for receivers, and McNutt might not have blazing speed. But we saw him make some absolutely spectacular catches last season, and he closed his career as the Hawkeyes' all-time leader in receiving touchdowns. He has good size and produced 1,300 receiving yards in what was clearly not a gimmicky, pass-happy offense. If I were a GM and he was sitting there in Round 4 or later, I'd happily grab him.

Two other guys I think can be big bargains for teams are Nebraska's Lavonte David and Ohio State's Mike Adams. Both are being projected as second-rounders for different reasons (David because of size, Adams for off-the-field issues in college), but I think both will have long and stellar careers. They'll bring first-round value without the price.

Who do you see as underrated, or possibly overrated, from the Big Ten in this draft?

AR: I would have put Wisconsin guard Kevin Zeitler in the underrated category, but it seems like teams have caught on to how good he can be. He'll likely be a late first-round pick. Same with Konz and maybe Adams. It baffles me why Devon Still isn't projected higher in the draft. Two others I'd put in the underrated category are Michigan's Martin and Iowa's Mike Daniels. You don't have to be Vince Wilfork to be an effective NFL defensive tackle. Both Martin and Daniels are smaller defensive tackles, but they're both extremely strong physical and play with sound fundamentals. Both men have been tutored by excellent defensive coaches, and the teams that select them will be inheriting very hard workers.

Two of the more intriguing Big Ten prospects are Ohio State receiver DeVier Posey and Nebraska defensive tackle Jared Crick. Posey, who I chatted with briefly last week in Columbus, played only three games last fall because of suspensions stemming from NCAA violations. He's clearly a gifted guy, but it'll be interesting to see how much the off-field issues and lack of playing time impact his draft position. Crick entered 2011 as an All-America candidate but missed most of the season with injury. He definitely can help an NFL team, but like with Posey, there are question marks.

OK, time to wrap up this draft discussion. What do you think the major story line regarding the Big Ten will be coming out of this weekend's festivities?

BB: I'll go out on a limb and say Reiff is not the first Big Ten player drafted, as someone reaches for Mercilus, Worthy or Konz first. And I think the other big stories will be with the quarterbacks, as Cousins is drafted in the second round and Wilson is picked higher than people expect. What are your predictions?

AR: I wouldn't mind if that someone landing Reiff or Mercilus is my Chicago Bears, but that's another debate. Worthy's selection will be fascinating, as his stock has been pretty volatile throughout the process. I think both Martin and Daniels go earlier than expect, while Wilson has to wait a while. It'll be fascinating to see where Molk ends up. No matter where he's selected, he'll feel overlooked. As a short guy myself, I'm definitely rooting for the vertically challenged (Molk, Wilson, Persa, Martin, Daniels etc.). Another story line: Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, whose draft stock already had dropped before his arrest over the weekend.

Should be a fun weekend.
The NFL draft is a little more than 24 hours away, and our analysts Todd McShay and Mel Kiper Jr. have come out with their final mock drafts.

(Let's pause here for a moment of silence for the 2012 mock draft process. May it rest in peace. But never fear, the 2013 mocks are just around the corner!).

There's not a ton of change in Kiper's final first-round mock Insider. Iowa's Riley Reiff is still the top Big Ten player off the board, now at No. 18 to San Diego. Kiper has Illinois DE Whitney Mercilus one spot behind Reiff, to the Bears. The only other Big Ten player he has going in the first round is Wisconsin guard Kevin Zeitler, at No. 30 to San Francisco.

McShay, along with Steve Muench and Kevin Weidl from Scouts Inc. have undertaken the massive enterprise of mocking the entire seven rounds of the draft Insider. Whew. Here's where they have Big Ten products heading:

Round 1

No. 13: Reiff
No. 25: Jerel Worthy, DT, Michigan State
No. 28: Mercilus
No. 30: Zeitler

Round 2

No. 34: Jeff Allen, OT, Illinois
No. 35: Devon Still, DT, Penn State
No. 43: Lavonte David, LB, Nebraska
No. 44: Peter Konz, C, Wisconsin
No. 47: Mike Adams, OT, Ohio State
No. 51: Kirk Cousins, QB, Michigan State
No. 63: A.J. Jenkins, WR, Illinois

Round 3

No. 89: Mike Martin, DT, Michigan

Round 4

No. 96: Mike Daniels DT, Iowa
No. 97: Alfonzo Dennard, CB, Nebraska
No. 99: Adam Gettis, G, Iowa
No. 106: Nick Toon, WR, Wisconsin
No. 118: Shaun Prater, CB, Iowa
No. 120: Keshawn Martin, WR, Michigan State
No. 121: Markus Zusevics, OT, Iowa
No. 123: Russell Wilson, QB, Wisconsin
No. 126: Edwin Baker, RB, Michigan State
No. 132: Jared Crick, DT, Nebraska

Round 5

No. 137: David Molk, C, Michigan
No. 150: Marvin McNutt, WR, Iowa
No. 161: Trent Robinson, S, Michigan State
No. 163: Michael Brewster, C, Ohio State
No. 165: DeVier Posey, WR, Ohio State

Round 6

No. 207: Jack Crawford, DE, Penn State

Round 7

No. 211: B.J. Cunningham, WR, Michigan State
No. 216: Aaron Henry, S, Wisconsin
No. 219: Dan Herron, RB, Ohio State
No. 221: Derek Dimke, K, Illinois
No. 223: Tyler Nielsen, LB, Iowa
No. 231: Marcel Jones, OT, Nebraska
No. 244: Junior Hemingway, WR, Michigan
No. 247: Bradie Ewing, FB, Wisconsin
No. 248: Kevin Koger, TE, Michigan

A few notables not listed on this seven-round mock: Northwestern WR Jeremy Ebert, TE Drake Dunsmore, and QB Dan Persa; Penn State WR Derek Moye; Minnesota WR Da'Jon McKnight, Michigan DE Ryan Van Bergen, Wisconsin OT Josh Oglesby.

How accurate are these mock drafts? It is almost time to find out. Let's do this for real.
The 2012 NFL draft is right around the corner, and a group of Big Ten defenders will be in the spotlight next week in New York.

The Big Ten boasts a group of defenders who could be selected anywhere in the first three rounds. ESPN draft analysts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay have produced their latest mock drafts, which show some disagreement about the Big Ten's top defensive players.

In McShay's newest top 32 prospects Insider, he has Michigan State defensive tackle Jerel Worthy at No. 22, a jump of 10 spots from his previous ranking. But Worthy is the lone Big Ten defender in McShay's rundown (offensive linemen Riley Reiff and Mike Adams are Nos. 18 and 32, respectively).

Kiper's latest Big Board Insider has Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus at No. 18 and Nebraska linebacker Lavonte David at No. 24. Worthy doesn't appear in Kiper's top 25, and Kiper pegs him as an early-second-round selection. Kiper lists Reiff and Wisconsin offensive linemen Peter Konz and Kevin Zeitler as first-round picks (outside the top 25).

While projections of the late-first round typically vary a lot, it's interesting to see McShay so high on Worthy but not so high on Mercilus and David, while Kiper favors the latter two. Other potentially high draft picks such as Penn State DT Devon Still, Michigan DT Mike Martin, Nebraska DL Jared Crick and Nebraska CB Alfonzo Dennard don't appear on either list.

Kiper also projects the first three rounds for both the AFC and NFC teams, based on what the teams need the most and which players they value more than others. Some notable Big Ten mentions include Michigan State QB Kirk Cousins (third round, Philadelphia), Devon Still (third round, Chicago), Iowa WR Marvin McNutt (third round, Minnesota), Illinois WR A.J. Jenkins (second round, New York Jets), Wisconsin G Kevin Zeitler (first round, San Francisco) and Michigan State WR Keshawn Martin (third round, Seattle).
Keenan Davis is built like a prototypical No. 1 wide receiver.

The Iowa senior is 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds and has been clocked at under 4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash. He's got the size and speed to be a real deep threat, and a physical wideout. There seems to be just one thing keeping him from stardom.

"I feel like I have a lot going on, but it's the neck up for me," Davis told ESPN.com. "It's paying attention to detail and competing every play.

[+] EnlargeIowa's Keenan Davis
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesIowa needs Keenan Davis to produce consistently this season as a replacement for Marvin McNutt.
"That's a big thing for a receiver. A lot of guys weren't blessed with [physical] traits, but they go out and compete with the best. So it's mostly the neck up for receivers."

Davis has shown flashes of greatness during his career, including a 10-catch, 129-yard performance against Pitt last year, and a 109-yard day against Northwestern a couple of weeks later. But he has also struggled with consistency, and has been plagued by too many dropped passes, a problem that reared its head again in the Insight Bowl loss to Oklahoma.

This spring, Davis is working to put those issues behind him.

"It's just going out and getting your timing right," he said. "Going out and being confident in yourself. Most of those drops came from the easy catches."

The Hawkeyes need Davis to emerge as a consistent force as they look to replace all-time leading receiver Marvin McNutt, whose 1,315 yards last season accounted for more than 43 percent of the team's receiving yards.

"He needs to take that next step," head coach Kirk Ferentz said. "He's capable. He did a lot of good things last year, so now it's a chance to build on what he got started."

Ferentz pointed out that McNutt went from 53 catches as a junior to 82 last season. Maybe Davis, who hauled in 50 passes as a junior in 2011, can make a similar jump. He'll have an experienced quarterback in second-year starter James Vandenberg, and an offense that might have to rely on the passing game a little more with all the uncertainty at tailback. Vandenberg often locked onto McNutt last season, and for understandable reasons; this season, he'll need Davis and other receivers like Kevonte Martin-Manley to step forward.

"He's an incredibly talented guy," Vandenberg said of Davis. "And [he's] actually very similar to Marv when you think of height, weight, speed, the way he catches the ball, how he can go up for it. So obviously, we're expecting him to do a lot of things, but I don't think it's just pressure on him."

Davis said he views McNutt like a brother, and hopes to follow his footsteps.

"It's something I really want," he said. "I want to be the no. 1 guy. I always want the ball in my hands. It's something that every receiver at every school should want."

Not every school has a receiver as physically gifted as Davis. If he can master the mental aspect of his game, Iowa will once again have one of the Big Ten's top wideouts.

Q&A: Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz

March, 23, 2012
3/23/12
10:00
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Change is in the air this spring at Iowa. The Hawkeyes have two new coordinators for the first time in Kirk Ferentz's tenure, one from the outside (OC Greg Davis) and one from within the program (DC Phil Parker). Ferentz also hired two new assistants, offensive line coach Brian Ferentz and linebackers coach LeVar Woods, and moved offensive line coach Reese Morgan to defensive line. For an Iowa staff built on continuity, this represents a a major shakeup. The coaches also will be working with a very young roster, as evidenced by the pre-spring depth chart issued this week. It all should make for an interesting spring in Hawkeye Country.

[+] EnlargeIowa coach Kirk Ferentz
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallCoach Kirk Ferentz and his Iowa Hawkeyes will enter the season with a revamped coaching staff.
The Hawkeyes opened practice Wednesday, and ESPN.com caught up with Ferentz on Thursday.

Here are his thoughts.

What is the atmosphere like this spring being on the field with this group after all the changes?

Kirk Ferentz: Certainly we have a lot of learning to do for two reasons. Number one, our youth and inexperience, and secondly, with some of the staff changes. We have a lot of different elements involved. It's certainly different than when we finished up in December. It's a lot of positions, and some of it's schematically and that type of thing. We're all on edge a little bit, and that's good.

You made some of your hires fairly recently. How do you feel about where the offensive and defense schemes are at this point?

KF: We're pretty well down the road that we need to be on. We've had some really good meetings over the last several weeks. A little bit more intensive on the offensive side with Greg being hired at the end of February, but I think we've had good meetings. He certainly has a good grasp of what he likes to do and what he's comfortable with. We've been able to blend and mesh things. I think we're pretty much on the same page right now. It's been fun actually, just invigorating to re-examine some things. And the players, they always pick it up faster than the older guys.

When you sat down and talked with Greg, how close was your offensive philosophy to his?

KF: One of the things that really impressed me so much is his experience with various styles of offense. He's been with a lot of different types of players, quarterbacks, going back to Eric Zeier at Georgia, the guys he worked with at North Carolina, and at Texas, they ran several styles of attack. There was a lot of evolution when they got Vince Young. The thing is, he has a system that's been proficient and that he's comfortable with. It really is very flexible and adaptable. That part has all been good.

Very impressed with Greg, starting with all the recommendations I got, people who I have a lot of respect for in football who spoke so highly of him as a coach and so highly of him as a human being. And after a month of being with him, I can see why all of those things were said. He's really been tremendous. We've been fortunate to have great coaches here. You're always a little nervous when you lose somebody as good as Ken, but Greg has been outstanding.

I read your comments from the other day and wanted to clarify something. Did you expect to make some changes even if you didn't have the coordinators leaving?

KF: Absolutely. I was entertained a bit reading the reports of the press conference. The headlines were a little bit overstated. But that was something Ken and I had talked about, and Norm [Parker] and I had talked about as the year went on last year. You're 13 years into it, and we're all feeling good about being here such a long period of time. The great thing about stability is we all know each other.

But the other point, too, and every year you look back at things, but I remember specifically in Cleveland one year in '94 where we looked back and went through our playbook step by step. Steve Crosby had become our coordinator after the '93 season. We went through everything. The advantage of doing it is if you've been somewhere for a while, you add this one year and then you add that, and things don't always mesh or make as much sense as they should, so there's a cumulative effect there. So it's a good exercise to do, and I think it was time for us to do that regardless. And in the case of getting new coordinators, you have to do that anyway. It's been really healthy, it's been invigorating, and hopefully we'll be a more efficient operating group here moving forward.

You've talked about wanting to see better execution. What can you stress in the spring to help you execute better as a team?

KF: That's always the challenge in football. There were complaints about us. The perception is we're a conservative offense, and we threw the second-most amount of passes we had in 13 years last year, so I said they must have been conservative passes because we didn't get any credit for that. But overall, that's the name of the game, whatever you're doing, offensively, defensively or special teams, the key is how you execute those things. Certainly what you call can affect that, but at the end of the day, it's about the team that executes the best. That's the never-ending battle.

You have some guys out on the defensive line, but it's definitely one of the younger groups you've had there. With Reese Morgan moving over to that side, how do you see that group shaking out in the spring, and how will Reese's experience help there?

KF: It's maybe not identical, but it's similar to what we went through in 2005. We graduated four guys that were all in NFL camps after that season. Three of those guys are still active players -- Jonathan Babineaux, who's done a good job in Atlanta; Matt Roth's had a nice career; Derreck Robinson continues to be rostered; and Tyler Luebke is the other guy, was with the Redskins as a free agent. That's the price you pay when you graduate some good players. The last two years we've had a high number of seniors go out both years, and some NFL players in that group. It's something we anticipated, we knew it was going to be a challenge, but all that being said, we're optimistic.

One of my motivating factors for moving Reese over to that spot is Reese is just a tremendous teacher. That's the No. 1 thing I saw in him when we hired him here. He took Pat Flaherty's spot. He's a real builder, and he's done that with the offensive line. You look at last year, we had Riley Reiff, who people are talking about, but we also had Markus Zusevics and Adam Gettis, who both I think are going to get drafted here. They were both roughly 225, 230 [pounds] when they came out of high school and built themselves into players. Reese was a key component of their development, and that's what he does a great job of. I think we've got the right guy with the right group. We've got a lot of work to do, but at the end of the day, that group will be fine, just like in '05.

What would you like to see out of James [Vandenberg] during the spring?

KF: Just continued improvement. We expect him to play his best football next year and lead even better than he did. He played well last year and he led well, but he's going to have to do better. With a young team like this, it's going to be imperative that our most experienced guys play their best and lead our football team. It sure helps when you're playing better. And he's totally capable. We have confidence in James.

Is Keenan [Davis] another guy who fits into that category, needing to play his best as an older guy?

KF: Most definitely. If you look at the improvement Marvin McNutt made throughout his career, from making a move [from quarterback] in the middle of the '08 season, to the records he set, it didn't happen just by accident or just by him hanging around. He worked hard, he got better each year, and his hard work and effort, certainly in production and yardage, that's what we need from Keenan. Marvin's not here, quite obviously, so Keenan has to be the guy and take a very prominent role as a receiver. And he's certainly capable, so we expect to see that growth from him.

What would you like to see from the running back group by the end of the spring?

KF: Development and maturation. We have three guys that are working at that position who are talented enough. They're all capable, but they're young. Jordan Canzeri missed a significant amount of time last year with a hamstring issue. Damon Bullock, we moved him around enough that it probably rendered him ineffective. We'll let him settle at the running back position. And we think De'Andre Johnson has potential as well, but he's got to mature. He missed his first year because he was coming off an ACL injury from high school, so he's a little bit behind that way. But he's got every opportunity to develop and be a good player. It sure would help our football team.

When you're this young, are you more tempted to play freshmen if they come in and show that ability, or do you have to work with the guys who have some experience?

KF: We'll have a better grip on where we are at the end of spring practice. We're going to need some help at some spots, that's a given. Bottom line is for the most part, the guys that demonstrate they can play and help us, they're going to get that opportunity. We had the case with Allen Reisner. Back in '07, we had to throw him in. He was a true freshman. He wasn't necessarily ready to go, but we ran out of guys, so he had to go in there. We hopefully won't be in that situation. But anybody [who] can help us win next year, if it's special teams or on offense, defense, we'll give them an opportunity.

Greg came in from the outside, while Phil Parker has been there. What's it been like seeing him in this role? Do you see him putting his personality on the defense?

KF: We're early into the process right now. To the casual fan, it's not going to look a lot different, probably, but there will be some subtleties and some things not only Phil, but the entire staff talked about. It's like anything else, you're always trying to evolve and progress, move forward a little bit without losing your identity. That's probably what you'll see from that group. Phil's a veteran coach. He's had several chances to leave here for BCS coordinator positions and has chosen to stay here, so I don't think there's any question he's ready to go. He'll do a great job. He's very detailed and he's a good leader.

From a leadership standpoint, do you have some guys in mind, especially on defense, who you could see moving into those roles this spring?

KF: Most definitely. The guys that we're really counting on, you start with Micah Hyde. He's probably our most experienced player on defense, most proven, so we're counting on that from him. James Morris and Chris Kirksey, they're only third-year students next year, but they've played a lot of football, too, and good football. They're playing a leadership position at linebacker. And up front, I'd say Steve Bigach's a guy we're really counting on to really help set the tempo of the group. He's already been doing that, and I think he'll do a good job.

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