Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

April, 23, 2014
Apr 23
5:00
PM CT
A big Monday looms with spring football wraps and spring game recaps. So I won't have a mailbag that day. But here's a full one for today:

Dan from Washington, D.C., writes: Brian, I'm sure you'll be getting thousands of comments on this point, so I'll add my two cents. You say, "You'd have to suffer from amnesia not to remember how close Bo Pelini came to losing his job at Nebraska last season." However, I don't believe you're [Nebraska athletic director] Shawn Eichorst (perhaps a FauxEichorst Twitter handle is in the works). No one outside of Eichorst and perhaps Harvey Perlman and Pelini knows "how close" Pelini came to losing his job. For weeks you, the Omaha World-Herald, and the Lincoln Journal Star lamented how tight-lipped Eichost was being about the whole situation. Then, lo and behold, he received a contract extension -- hardly something you give to someone you may not want around in a year or two. Now don't get me wrong -- if Pelini goes 5-7, he's toast -- but until he tanks, his job is safe.

Brian Bennett: Dan, you make a fair point that Eichorst's silence on the issue for so long means we don't know exactly how close Pelini came to being fired last year. But silence can also speak volumes, and not saying anything for weeks after the infamous audio tape leaked and while Nebraska lost some games said a lot as well. The pressure obviously got to Pelini in the regular-season finale against Iowa. Your timeline on the extension is a little off as well. Pelini said he signed received and signed the one-year extension in March. It would have been news had he not gotten it, since it covers him for the next five years. But don't think for a second that a one-year extension of his deal will have any bearing on whether Eichorst decides to make a change this fall -- Nebraska can easily afford to buy out of that extra year.

I think Pelini should be fine if he wins his usual nine or 10 games and avoids some of the embarrassing blowout losses we've seen. The Huskers also have a great chance to win the West Division. But anything less than that could prompt a coaching switch, which is why Pelini remains on the proverbial hot seat.


Aaron from Pittsburgh writes: Good ol' Tim Beckman is the B1G coach on the hottest hot seat, according to you guys. I fully understand this -- one conference win in two years, blah, blah, blah. But I honestly have some form of empathy for the man. He inherited a Ron Zook team so devoid of depth and talent that I think Year 1 should not be credited against Beckman's resume. Illinois isn't a powerhouse in the first place, so as long as Beckman's Illini don't regress in 2014, I think he might get one more year. What do you think?

Brian Bennett: The thing Beckman has going for him is that athletic director Mike Thomas hired him and probably wants to give the first major coaching hire of his tenure every shot to succeed. The Illini did show improvement last season, at least on offense, and Beckman has done a great job with off-the-field stuff such as academics. But Zook did take the program to back-to-back bowl games, so it's a little odd to hear he should be responsible for a 2-10 season. The biggest thing going against Beckman right now, I'd say, is the fan apathy. There were way too many empty seats in Memorial Stadium last season, and that gets an AD's attention more than anything. That's why it might be bowl or bust this year for Beckman.


Jason L. from Kansas City, Mo., writes: What's your take on Indiana replacing 2 games with South Florida with 2 games with Florida International? Doesn't this go against what B1G commissioner Jim Delany has stated that he wants (B1G teams scheduling tougher opponents)?

Brian Bennett: I've been a consistent proponent for toughest scheduling. Heck, I'm the guy who favors 10 Big Ten games and one marquee opponent every season. But for Indiana, I understand this move by athletic director Fred Glass. When you've been to one just bowl game since 1993, the first priority has to be finding any way possible to get back to the postseason. I thought the Hoosiers scheduled too aggressively last year, when they played Navy, Missouri and a good Bowling Green team. If IU, which finished 5-7 despite losses to Navy and Missouri, had played a dumbed-down nonconference schedule a la Minnesota's 2013 slate (or even Ohio State's), then the team likely would have gone bowling for the first time under Kevin Wilson. Think about the difference a bowl game would have made for the program, giving Wilson 15 extra practices and allowing for a little more offseason buzz.

The weird thing here is the idea that South Florida is too tough of an opponent. But especially when the Big Ten goes to nine league games in 2016 and Indiana is competing in the stacked East Division, a more manageable nonconference schedule makes sense. Delany wants teams to challenge themselves and build up strength-of-schedule ratings for the playoff selection committee. Let's be honest here: The playoff is not exactly on the Hoosiers' radar.


Sam C. from Fargo, N.D., writes: Hey, BB, I was just thinking about the Gophers and recruiting and how one of the best in the nation is right here in our home state in Jashon Cornell. Is it a dream for me to think we have any shot of landing him? Getting Jeff Jones was nice, but even in the last couple of weeks no one thought we would get him, saying that he was gonna go to the SEC. Just wondering what your thoughts are. Thanks!

Brian Bennett: It would be an enormous coup for the Gophers and Jerry Kill to keep Cornell in their backyard, Sam. Too many top-level prospects (Michael Floyd and Seantrel Henderson as the most prominent examples) have left over the years. Kill and his staff have been working hard to build a relationship with Cornell, but they're going to be competing with not only the best programs in the Big Ten for his services but also many of the best in the country. The facilities and traditions at some of those places will be hard to top. It's crucial that Minnesota has a good year this season to show Cornell that staying home has its perks.


Rodney from Grantville, Pa., writes: I'm obviously excited about PSU hiring James Franklin, but is it clouding my judgment? He did a fantastic job at Vandy, and his first 100 days at PSU have been great, so why are so many saying we can't do well his first year? I personally see 9-3 being doable and 10-2 not out of the question. 7-5 at the worst. The coaches are touting a more aggressive defense and better special teams, which was probably our biggest issues last year. The offensive line is obviously our Achilles' heel, but there are ways to work around that and the offense only needs to score more than the defense allows. ... So what am I missing?

Brian Bennett: Rodney, feel free to get excited. Franklin has done nothing but create optimism so far with his energy and his early recruiting returns. Really good things are on the horizon for Penn State, I believe. But while I believe the Nittany Lions could be surprise contenders in the East Division because of their advantageous schedule -- Illinois and Northwestern as crossover opponents, Ohio State and Michigan State coming to Beaver Stadium -- I still worry about the depth on the roster because of sanctions, the lack of high-level defensive playmakers and that troublesome offensive line. Those are all real issues, and remember that Bill O'Brien did a fantastic job of getting this team to 7-5 the past two seasons. I think Penn State could match or slightly exceed that this season, but that the true brighter days are still in the future.

Big Ten Tuesday mailblog

April, 22, 2014
Apr 22
5:00
PM CT
Prime-time schedule angst? Oh, there's plenty. The floor is yours.

Follow us.

[+] EnlargeWisconsin Celebration
Mike McGinnis/Getty ImagesWill Melvin Gordon's Heisman chances be affected by the lack of prime-time games in November?
Jackie from NYC writes: I think the biggest loser in the prime-time schedule is Melvin Gordon. We already know he's likely to split carries with Corey Clement, and now he's not going to get the chance to really put on a show in primetime during Big Ten season. Am I right? How does the schedule affect his Heisman chances?

Adam Rittenberg: That's a fair question, Jackie. Gordon undoubtedly would benefit from another prime-time game or two in November, especially if he's among the leaders for the Heisman. The good news is he has a terrific opportunity right away to make a national statement in the opener against LSU. The Tigers are consistently one of the nation's top defenses, and if Gordon has a big night in Houston, he'll be on the Heisman radar. It will be up to him to stay there with big performances against mostly middling competition until the end of the season, but the LSU game provides a platform for Gordon to make a splash. He could have another pre-Heisman prime-time opportunity if he leads Wisconsin to the Big Ten championship game in Indy, where he had a pretty decent night in 2012.




Danny O. from Davenport, Iowa, writes: The fact Iowa goes a second year in a row without any prime-time games is utterly disgusting. I know people outside of Hawkeye Nation will try and defend this decision by bringing up the the weak schedule, and normally they would be right. My question, however, is how can anyone justify giving Illinois ANY prime-time games, let alone two? If the B1G can make a case for this by giving in to Urban Meyer's whining for more prime-time games and giving them Illinois in one of those slots, certainly Iowa deserves one PT game in the past two years. Am I wrong?

Rittenberg: It's not about deserving, Danny. These are business decisions made by TV programming executives and athletic administrators from each school. Ohio State brings in larger regional and national TV audiences than Iowa, even when it's playing a team like Illinois. If Jim Tressel had wanted more night games, he would have gotten no complaints from the TV folks. So it's more of an Ohio State-Iowa issue than an Illinois-Iowa issue.

Iowa has been more conservative about night games, stating a preference about having one or two per year, not four or five. Athletic director Gary Barta said in 2012, "On our campus, one is fine. I don't know that we'll go to two. I'm confident it wouldn't go beyond that." If you combine that preference with an underwhelming schedule where the best games are at the end, when weather does enter the equation, you get no night games.




Brian from Magnolia, Texas, writes: Huge Husker fan here excited about all of the prime-time games this year. One question, when will we get to play Indiana? If memory serves correctly, we haven't played them yet and aren't scheduled to play them until at least 2015-16.

Rittenberg: The Huskers don't face Indiana until 2016 -- Oct. 15, to be exact -- when they visit Bloomington. Nebraska initially was set to face Indiana for the first time in Big Ten play on Nov. 14, 2015, but the league expansion and the schedule shuffle that ensued pushed back the meeting.




Brian from Iowa writes: For a long time now, teams like Iowa and Wisconsin have supported the B1G unconditionally, even when there has been a perceived league bias towards teams with richer histories. While I would have thought the question ridiculous a year ago, is it possible that Jim Delany's greed will eventually drive fans away? They already have trouble engaging students (future donors) and nothing endears current Big Ten boosters like a night game played at a mediocre stadium in New Jersey.

Rittenberg: Brian, I understand your anger about the prime-time selections, but you might have the wrong target. Jim Delany doesn't make the prime-time schedules. The league's television partners, along with the individual school administrators, are the power players here. Each school has its own preferences and constraints. A lot of things need to match up for a night game to work. If my team is left off the prime-time slate, I'm taking it up with my athletic director. Delany's recent expansion moves have turned off some Big Ten fans and he'll be judged appropriately. But his role in the prime-time schedule isn't as significant as many believe.




Jake from Seattle writes: What is your sense of the NU football team's response to the university's efforts to dissuade them from voting to form a union? Based on what I've read, my gut says the probability the team gets the votes needed to unionize is quite slim. I mean, having your coach and your university (both of which appear to do things the right way as far as D1 sports are concerned) openly against this must be pretty tough. Is your sense that the players are able to separate that voting to collectively bargain is not a referendum on Fitz or the university, but really on how the NCAA unfairly treats college athletes? I admit that I am biased. I think the players voting yes is in their best interest -- as well as the interests of other athletes that will invariably follow.

Rittenberg: Jake, some players might make that separation, but many feel that the debate has turned from national to Northwestern. Kain Colter's testimony at the Chicago NLRB hearing fundamentally shifted the focus from the NCAA to Northwestern. It led to a favorable ruling for Colter and CAPA, but it turned off some of his former teammates. Northwestern also thought the initial campaign was national, not local. Keep in mind that the Northwestern union ruling would apply only to private schools, which represent a small fraction of the FBS. My sense is they'll vote no, but I've been wrong on pretty much everything regarding this story.

Big Ten's lunch links

April, 22, 2014
Apr 22
11:00
AM CT
Just make me an offer, Culver's.
Last week, in response to a mailbag question from reader and Rutgers fan Ed, I came up with a hot-seat ranking for all the coaches in the Big Ten.

That list sparked a bit of discussion in some places, notably Nebraska. How accurate were my rankings, and what were some of the factors that went into them? I thought I'd bring Adam Rittenberg into the debate for a little bit of fact vs. fiction.

[+] EnlargeKirk Ferentz
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsKirk Ferentz, who began at Iowa in 1999, appears to be secure heading into 2014.
Brian Bennett: Adam, I listed seven coaches as being completely safe, barring some unforeseen scandal: Ohio State's Urban Meyer, Michigan State's Mark Dantonio, Penn State's James Franklin, Minnesota's Jerry Kill, Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald, Wisconsin's Gary Andersen and Iowa's Kirk Ferentz. While Ferentz hasn't won at an elite level of late, his contract keeps him basically unfireable. Fact or fiction on my Tier 1 of coaches?

Adam Rittenberg: Fact. It would truly take something disastrous, Brian, for one of these coaches to lose his job. Ferentz helped himself last season as another losing campaign would have placed more pressure on Iowa's administration to part ways with their highly paid coach. Unless the Hawkeyes take a significant step backward in 2014, which is tough to do given an extremely favorable schedule, Ferentz is on very secure footing. Minnesota awarded Kill a contract extension and a raise in February, and with facilities upgrades on the way, no change is imminent. The rest are as safe as you can get in this line of work.

BB: My second tier included three coaches who should be fine but could be sweating things out if they have a rough season: Indiana's Kevin Wilson, Purdue's Darrell Hazell and Michigan's Brady Hoke. Some might say Hoke is actually on a hot seat, but I think his first-year success, recruiting and support from athletic director Dave Brandon means he is at least a year away from feeling any substantial pressure. Fact or fiction on these guys?

AR: I would say fact on both Wilson and Hazell and possibly fiction on Hoke. Wilson has to make a bowl game fairly soon after IU squandered a great opportunity last season (eight home games). But Indiana athletic director Fred Glass, upon hiring Wilson in 2010, stressed the need for continuity at a program that hadn't had much since Bill Mallory. A 1-win or 2-win season could change things, but I can't see IU making another change, especially with recruiting on the rise and the offense surging. Hazell is a second-year coach, so unless Purdue lays another 1-11 egg, he's fine.

As for Hoke, his first-year success seems a long time ago. Michigan's recruiting has looked better in February than October, although some players still need time to develop. It comes down to this: if Michigan wins nine or more games, he's fine. If Michigan wins eight or fewer games, it gets interesting. Are the Wolverines losing close games to good teams or getting blown out? How do they perform against their three top rivals -- Ohio State, Michigan State and Notre Dame -- on the road? Are the offensive problems being fixed? You're right that Brandon doesn't want to fire his guy. But if Michigan gets blown out in its three rivalry games and still can't run the ball consistently, Brandon might not have a choice. Remember, Hoke has set the bar -- Big Ten title or bust -- and he's not reaching it.

BB: OK, now we're down to the four guys I put on the hot seat. Let's take them individually, starting with perhaps the most controversial one. You'd have to suffer from amnesia not to remember how close Bo Pelini came to losing his job at Nebraska last season. But is it fact or fiction that he's on a hot seat?

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesBo Pelini is 58-24 as coach of Nebraska.
AR: Fact. I'm not sure where the pro-Pelini push is coming from. Does a bowl win and some Twitter fun with @FauxPelini really change anything? Nebraska has been a bigger national story during its spring game the past two seasons than when the games actually count. While it's nice to this side of Pelini, the only thing that matters is winning more games and getting Nebraska that elusive conference championship.

BB: I debated whether to include Randy Edsall from Maryland, who showed progress last season and has dealt with many tough injuries. But moving to the new league and not overwhelming fans for three seasons convinced me he needs to deliver a bowl game this year, or at least be very competitive. Fact or fiction?

AR: Fact. Athletic director Kevin Anderson has been supportive of Edsall, but Maryland needs to see continued progress this season, despite the transition. The injury situation has to turn around eventually, so we should get a better gauge of a team that, on paper, should be better. But the schedule isn't easy. It also doesn't help to have Franklin, once Maryland's coach-in-waiting, in the same division.

BB: The other Big Ten newbie also has a coach on the hot seat, according to my list. Kyle Flood is only in his third season and did win nine games his first season. But he was on shaky ground last winter and replaced both coordinators, which is a sign of a coach trying to hang on. Fact or fiction on Flood's seat being warm?

AR: Fact. A coaching shuffle like the one Rutgers had almost always precedes a make-or-break type season for the head guy. Although athletic director Julie Hermann must consider the upgrade in competition and a brutal initial Big Ten schedule (East Division plus crossovers against both Nebraska and Wisconsin), a bowl-less season could spell the end for Flood. Rutgers has reached the postseason in eight of the past nine years.

BB: And, finally, Tim Beckman. He has won just one conference game at Illinois. I'd be surprised if anyone disagreed with his placement on this list, but what say you in regard to fact or fiction?

AR: Fact. Although AD Mike Thomas hired Beckman, he'll face even more pressure to make a change if Illinois misses a bowl for a third consecutive season. The Illini showed improvement last fall, but they'll have to take another step for Beckman to secure Year 4.

Jaylon Smith welcomes bigger workload

April, 22, 2014
Apr 22
9:00
AM CT
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame wants to keep offenses guessing where Jaylon Smith will be. Opponents can rest assured, however, that he will be on the field for darn near every snap this fall.

Smith, the dog-turned-will linebacker, found himself playing inside more toward the latter half of the Irish's spring season, part of an effort to broaden his presence and account for a lack of depth among the interior linebackers. So the former five-star prospect spent much of March and April getting acclimated with seeing the game from a different view.

Whereas Smith spent his freshman campaign outside at dog linebacker in what was a 3-4 base, he now heads into his sophomore season with more inside responsibilities at will linebacker, looking to hone his skill set and develop the kind of confidence that comes with having a QB-like role on the defense.

"Watching guys like the great Manti Te'o controlling things and regulating things from inside, and that’s something I’m looking forward to doing," Smith said. "You really just have to take it in stride and just keep getting better. We’ll go back, watch film, make corrections and apply it to our football IQ."

The Fort Wayne, Ind. native is the Irish's leading returning tackler from last season, with 67 stops in 13 starts during his rookie campaign last season. He had described his role earlier in the spring in new coordinator Brian VanGorder's scheme as a Sam/Mike hybrid, before making the switch roughly five practices in.

With former starting safety-turned-cornerback Matthias Farley entering the picture for nickel packages, the Irish simply did not -- and could not -- take the precocious Smith off the field. The early returns were promising.

"He has to find a comfort level in there, he has some work to do, but he shows signs of being an outstanding player there," outside linebackers coach Bob Elliott said. "Jaylon Smith has great instincts and he has a super attitude. He came here as a five-star recruit, the best in the country, and you’d never really know it. He was like a sponge. Here to learn. He was a quick study. Now he’s doing the same thing here. He’s not any different than he was before he had that year. He’s still humble and works it, doesn’t have all the answers, smart and quick study and still has those wonderful instincts."

Fine-tuning said instincts will be the next step come fall camp. For now, Notre Dame sees plenty of possibilities for its prized prodigy, and he has been more than happy to take the next step for a remodeled defense.

"Every play starts with sight," Smith said. "Beginning of my career, all my life, I’ve seen the game from an outside perspective. It's really getting used to reading offensive linemen from inside-out. Just little things like that. I’ve had 14 practices and the spring game to actually get the hang of it. It’s going good."

Wildcats focus on firming up midsection

April, 21, 2014
Apr 21
3:30
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EVANSTON, Ill. -- Defense wasn't the reason Northwestern went 5-7 in 2013.

Sure, the unit was on the field for the play that encapsulated a hard-luck season: a Hail Mary touchdown pass as time expired that gave Nebraska a 27-24 victory and set off pandemonium in Lincoln. Wildcats defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz is right when he states: "We were five plays away from winning five more games, and we needed to make five more plays on defense somewhere."

The defense could have collected a few more takeaways in Big Ten play after a surge early in the season. It could have made another stop against Ohio State, Minnesota, Nebraska or Iowa that might have been the difference.

But if Northwestern's offense is anywhere close to its normal production, the team easily wins seven or eight games. End of story.

The offseason spotlight is on the offense as it ditches a two-quarterback system -- senior Trevor Siemian will be the sole operator -- and likely returns to its pass-first roots. Things are much quieter for the defense, which returns nine starters, including all four in the secondary. It's possibly the team's strongest position group.

Collin Ellis
Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY SportsNorthwestern linebacker Collin Ellis is moving inside, hoping to help boost a defense that was a little too soft in the middle in 2013.
It's not a stretch to suggest this could be the strongest defense in coach Pat Fitzgerald's tenure. Northwestern can go two or three deep at every secondary spot, thanks to the emergence of several redshirt freshmen this spring. Veteran playmakers Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis return at linebacker, and speedy ends Dean Lowry, Ifeadi Odenigbo and Deonte Gibson spark the pass rush.

But perimeter strength might not mean much if Northwestern doesn't firm up its core.

"Defensive football is a lot like baseball," Fitzgerald said. "You better be great at the catcher, pitcher and center fielder, the belly of your defense, and that shortstop and second baseman are plenty important, too. [In football] you've got to be strong at D-tackle, the linebacker position and safety. I'm not minimizing the ends and the corners, but if you don't have those things inside, the belly of your defense gets exposed.

"You can't stop people."

Northwestern didn't stop the inside run consistently enough in 2013. Ohio State's Carlos Hyde pounded away for 168 rush yards and three touchdowns on a night when quarterback Braxton Miller struggled. Other running backs -- Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and James White, Minnesota's David Cobb, Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, Michigan State's Jeremy Langford -- eclipsed 100 yards against the Wildcats, who surrendered 192 rushing yards per game in Big Ten play.

Injuries at defensive tackle, particularly the midseason loss of Sean McEvilly, hurt the Wildcats. Northwestern needs McEvilly and Chance Carter to stay healthy and C.J. Robbins and Greg Kuhar to keep developing. Both Robbins and Kuhar received increased practice time this spring as McEvilly missed the whole session following foot surgery and Carter missed the first nine workouts because of injury.

"Everyone knows the fastest way to get somewhere is straight down the middle," Carter said. "That goes with the D-tackles first. We're the first line of defense. We have to be more fundamentally crisp."

The safety spot should be fine as Ibraheim Campbell, an excellent run defender with 262 career tackles, anchors the secondary. But there are questions at middle linebacker as Ellis moves over from the strong side to replace Damien Proby.

Ellis, lighter than Proby at 233 pounds, admits he has to play the position differently, using his speed and lateral quickness.

"As a linebacking corps, we are quick," Ellis said. "What we're saying is the defensive tackles, if they get in the wrong gap, stay there and we can recognize that and fill."

If the defense can fill those gaps and firm up its midsection, it could be the reason for more Wildcats wins this season.

Little clarity among crowded receivers

April, 21, 2014
Apr 21
8:00
AM CT
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- It was hard for Notre Dame to differentiate among its wide receivers throughout the spring. Just ask Mike Denbrock about any one of them -- in this case, Torii Hunter Jr.

"He is absolutely physically very gifted, and right in the mix with all those young guys as far as what we feel like he can do potentially down the road," the Irish offensive coordinator said. "Like a lot of young guys, the more he sees things, the more he does things, the better he's going to be. He's not where we need him to be yet but you can see so many positive things that are going to happen there moving forward. We're just trying to speed up the process as fast as we can."

Hunter saw action mostly on the outside this spring. Like most of his peers, however, the redshirt freshman also played in the slot. He had once expressed hopes of following in the footsteps of TJ Jones, last year's team MVP, by playing all over the field. But he was less direct when asked on the eve of the spring game.

"It just depends," Hunter said. "I just want to play wherever the coaches need me. I just want to see the field. If it does end up being the way TJ was used then definitely that's the way I'll be."

This isn't all necessarily a bad thing for Notre Dame; it's just the way things are until DaVaris Daniels' presumed summer return. From the towering Corey Robinson to the early enrollee Justin Brent, it was an all-hands-on-deck operation for Irish wideouts this spring.

There are no fewer than seven scholarship players fighting for meaningful roles this fall. But the pecking order -- let alone knowing who will line up where to begin with -- is really anyone's guess.

"I don't think that that's going to happen in June, per se," head coach Brian Kelly said. "These guys need so much development work, Amir Carlisle needs to continue to develop. Chris Brown has got to continue to work on a number of things. Will Fuller. A lot of that is development work that in June will continue to take place. Then we're very hopeful that if things go the right way, Daniels comes back to us.

"We got a very competitive situation with Robinson, Daniels, Fuller, Brown, Carlisle. We've got a nice situation there. I think it's a just competitive situation. We've got to get the best players on the field, because the tight end is going to be on the field as well. I like to keep a tight end on the field.

"So we're talking about three positions and arguably you've got, half a dozen guys there that can compete. So what's going to be the deciding factor for me is, I'm not settled on any one of those guys right now. I think it will be a very competitive situation. I think they are going to push each other and we're going to be the beneficiary. Notre Dame's offense is beginning to be the beneficiary."

Aaron Simpson signs with DePaul

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
10:25
AM CT
CHICAGO -- Former Chicago high school star Aaron Simpson has signed a letter of intent to play at DePaul next season.

A 5-foot-11 guard, Simpson played two years of junior college at Lincoln College after a standout career at North Chicago High School.

As a high school senior, he was the state's leading scorer and finished third in the Illinois Mr. Basketball voting behind Jabari Parker of Simeon and Proviso East's Keith Carter. He averaged 26.2 points and led the Warhawks to a runner-up finish in the Class 3A state tournament.

DePaul announced the signing on Thursday.

New spring, new spots for some on Irish D

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
8:00
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — This week marked the first unofficial "off" week for John Turner. The redshirt sophomore's workload essentially doubled this spring, with the former safety learning a new position as a linebacker, a chore that would have been complicated enough had Notre Dame's defense not been undergoing a massive face-lift under new coordinator Brian VanGorder.

"After practice I usually go watch film with [outside linebackers] coach [Bob] Elliott, so I really haven't had any time off this spring," Turner said. "Just been putting in work, trying to get better."

Turner is hardly alone, as he is one of three notable players switching positions on the defensive side of the ball, an area that has become somewhat of a haven for fresh starts and surprises for the Irish during Brian Kelly's tenure as head coach. James Onwualu went from safety to linebacker this spring after playing wide receiver as a freshman last season. And Matthias Farley moved from safety to cornerback; he arrived at Notre Dame three years ago as a receiver.

Turner, who played cornerback while at Indianapolis Cathedral High, said the move from the secondary to linebacker this time around has been a far more difficult one, though the spring served as a nice transition period.

[+] EnlargeJohn Turner
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesJohn Turner is one of several underclassmen making a position switch for the Notre Dame defense.
"It was like a learning process the first, I'd say, eight, nine practices. Just getting used to like just being at the line of scrimmage, just being asked to do all the different jobs that they asked me to do," Turner said, adding that, toward the end of spring, "it's been starting to click a lot. Just knowing the defense and just being able to pretty much line up and do everything I need to for the most part."

Turner, who mostly played on special teams, is one of several underclassmen competing for potential starting roles on a retooled unit. Turner is getting practice time mostly in the Sam linebacker role in VanGorder's base defense. The circumstances are a bit different for Onwualu, if only because he earned meaningful action as a rookie last year, catching two passes for 34 yards.

Still, the 215-pound Onwualu's blend of size and athleticism made him an enticing prospect on the other side of the ball, with the sophomore starting this spring listed as a safety before being brought down into the box. He's mostly playing at the Sam position as well.

"Obviously the linemen are a little bit bigger, so you've got to learn how to beat them in different ways, and I'm trying to learn that every day with my technique and everything," said Onwualu, who played corner and safety at Cretin-Derham Hall (Minn.) High. "But I think that's really the only thing. My strength is up there with a lot of people, so I believe I can play in the box."

The moves are hardly unique to the Irish, as the position switches have become as much of a staple under Kelly as anything else. Four players who started in the secondary last year, for instance, had arrived to Notre Dame as receivers: Farley, Austin Collinsworth, Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell.

VanGorder initiated this spring's moves shortly after his arrival, with the former New York Jets linebackers coach evaluating film and engaging in a series of conversations with both Kelly and the players.

"That evaluation started with film first, and then some training with them, watching them move around and all," VanGorder said. "But until you put the football down and put your cleats in the grass, there's a lot of ways to complete the evaluation. Now we're seeing them play the game of football, so there's some things we didn't have now that we've got to continue to evaluate. And then, in the end of this picture and the spring, we pretty much can define and profile a player in terms of who he is."

The returns from spring have been positive as the Irish search for unconventional ways to find playmakers among a relatively green group.

"I love him, I really do. I think he's a great guy. I think he's very honest and upfront about everything," Farley said of VanGorder. "You can talk to him about anything. He's personable, and that clicked from the start and I think everyone really feels that, and it's going to be really good for everyone moving forward."

Q&A: Illinois coach Tim Beckman

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
5:00
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CHICAGO -- Illinois hopes Deion Sanders was right when he famously stated, "If you look good, you feel good. If you feel good, you play good."

The Illini unveiled their new look this week, part of a rebrand with Nike for all the school's athletic teams. I'm a fan of the white uniforms with white helmets and the sleek shield on the collar. Athletic director Mike Thomas said the new threads give Illini teams the consistent look they had lacked. Football coach Tim Beckman wants more consistency on the field this fall after back-to-back losing seasons.

The Illini finished spring practice on Saturday, and I caught up with Beckman on Thursday at Niketown to recap the session.

[+] EnlargeTim Beckman
Keith Gillett/Icon SMITim Beckman likes the experience his Illinois team will have in 2014.
What were your main objectives for the spring, and did you achieve them?

Tim Beckman: We always have three goals. First, we wanted to become more physical up front, and we were much more physically and mentally tougher this spring than we've been. We wanted a competitive edge. You've got to compete against yourself, against your fellow players. And then position-wise, we knew we had to strengthen up on the defensive front. We knew defensively, we had growing up to do. We know why: We had a bunch of freshmen playing for us, sophomores playing for us. Offensively, we had to find wide receivers to step in. We moved in the right direction. We still have some guys who have been in our program, who were there before I came, who still haven't played. The time has come.

Who is growing up for you on defense?

TB: T.J. Neal. He has probably the best linebacker spring that we had. He's gotten bigger, stronger. Even Mason [Monheim], when he was starting for us [as a freshman], he was benching around 315 pounds. He's around 375-380, so his whole body's changed. Austin Teitsma is where he needs to be. He's playing better. We needed to work on our pass rush and D.J. Smoot, he has a great motor. DeJazz Woods has grown up. They should never have had to play, should have been redshirted. Now they're juniors and sophomores and they look like different guys.

Did you get what you needed out of the wide receivers?

TB: The junior-college players have come in and helped. Martize Barr just turned a year older. Geronimo Allison had a great spring. Justin Hardee had a good spring. Mikey Dudek surprised us all. If you had to pencil in a starter right now, Mikey Dudek would be in there.

When you reviewed the quarterback play, what stood out?

TB: Each guy has a very good talent. Wes [Lunt] has got very, very good arm strength. And arm strength to me isn't about throwing a 60-yard bomb, it's about getting that comeback or putting that seam route 18-25 yards right on that seam. He has a very, very good arm. Aaron Bailey has very, very good feet. He can run, he can make people miss, he's an athlete. Reilly [O'Toole] has played more and he's got experience, and he's kind of between them. His arm's a little better than Aaron's, but his feet are better than Wes'. All of them are outstanding competitors, and they get along.

When would you like to decide on the starter?

TB: I've talked to [offensive coordinator Bill Cubit] about it. I don't think there's a time frame that we've got to do it right now, but as we go through the summer and they get a feel for where they're going to be, we talk to them honestly. I would say when two-a-days get humming, we've got to get where this guy's going to be doing most of it.

What are the team's strengths at this point?

TB: We've got a lot of guys who have played. Were they ready to play back then? No, but they did. If you do it by position, we've got an offensive front that is experienced, and they're very, very good leaders. To be in a Big Ten game, you better win up front. Defensively, we're making definite strides with guys like Teko Powell, Jarrod Clements, Joe Fotu. We expect some big things when Jihad Ward gets here. The players are getting some maturity.

What areas still must be improved?

TB: We can't let negativity absorb our program. We've got to be positive, we've got to believe. At times, there's too much questioning. We need to believe it can be done. Last season, we didn't start well a lot of times, but we gave ourselves opportunities to come back and win. We've can't start that way. We've got to go out there and know we can play with people in the Big Ten.

Wide receivers definitely got to step up. The offensive line depth is important. On defense, the young defensive backs have to come through for us and the front. But I feel better about it because they are getting bigger, they are getting stronger. They're not 18-year-olds. They're 20-year-olds now. And they play like it.

Big Ten's lunch links

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
11:00
AM CT
Make up your mind, Mother Nature.
  • Connor Cook now has the freedom to audible at the line of scrimmage for Michigan State, another sign of confidence in the quarterback heading into his second season as the starter.
  • If the problem for Michigan last season was a lack of chemistry, Brady Hoke has a feeling that won't be a problem this fall he leaves spring.
  • Penn State showed off a Wildcat package in its spring game, but James Franklin won't reveal how much he'll use it -- or whether it's got a unique nickname.
  • Iowa offensive line coach Brian Ferentz isn't usually one for hyperbole, so he means it when he calls Brandon Scherff the best player at his position in the country.
  • The Ohio State defense is leaving spring practice with a much better feeling than it did when it left the field after the Discover Orange Bowl.
  • After a long, difficult road, Rutgers offensive lineman Bryan Leoni is pushing for a starting role and a happy ending for his journey.
  • The Purdue offense has undergone a transformation this spring, and the roster has also added some talent to run the system.
  • The union seeking to represent Northwestern football players offered its response to the school's appeal, calling the university's case a "castle built on sand."
  • No matter how big the league gets, the Big Ten is keeping its name.
  • The rebrand of Illinois athletics appears to be a hit, writes Loren Tate.

Starting O-line on ND camp agenda

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
8:00
AM CT
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Few would blame Matt Hegarty had he hung his head entering this spring. The redshirt junior has had a roller-coaster ride at Notre Dame, from seeing the perfect regular season of 2012 cut short due to a series of mini-strokes to being thrust into role of starting center for the Fighting Irish's final two games last season.

That the former guard was a more than capable fill-in in the middle is a testament to his versatility. That he stayed there with the first team for most of this spring is a testament to his attitude.

Nick Martin started at center in 2013 and will again in 2014 despite spending this spring recovering from an MCL tear suffered in his left knee during a Nov. 23 win over BYU. This might have indirectly hampered Hegarty, seasoned and talented enough to possibly start elsewhere on the line but relegated to mostly snapping duties.

Still, his performance in March and April are enough to warrant a chance to compete in fall camp for the top left guard spot, which was a revolving door of sorts among Steve Elmer, Conor Hanratty and, when necessary, Hegarty.

"It was good being able to have a little bit of momentum kind of coming in playing there a little bit at the end of the year," Hegarty said of starting last season, "and then it's always great to get a lot of reps in the spring like this. I couldn't ask for anything more there, but it's been great as far as trying to develop my blocking."

Redshirt freshman Mike McGlinchey saw plenty of time with the first team at right tackle this spring, and Hanratty -- owner of three career starts -- filled in at right guard after Christian Lombard went down in March with a dislocated right wrist that kept him out of the rest of spring drills. Elmer, who started four games last season as a freshman, saw plenty of time at left guard, though he might project better as a tackle.

It may essentially come down to whether coach Brian Kelly thinks both his offensive line and the precocious McGlinchey could benefit more with the 6-foot-7.5 behemoth as an immediate starter, as it seems Elmer is flexible enough to be a player where needed, having seen action in 2013 at every spot but left tackle and center.

"(Hegarty's) had a really good spring. We want to give him a chance to compete at left guard," Kelly said. "So if that's the case, are we better with him at left guard and Elmer at right tackle, or better with McGlinchey at right tackle and Elmer at guard? So if you want to boil it down, it's who's the left guard with Elmer at right tackle, or Elmer at left guard and McGlinchey at right tackle? So that's going to kind of sort itself out in preseason camp."

Illinois 're-brands' with new uniforms

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
1:30
PM CT
These days in college sports, how you look seems almost as important as how you play.

Illinois has undergone a "re-branding" effort with Nike that resulted in uniform changes for several of its sports teams, including football. The official unveiling of the new uniforms is scheduled for Wednesday night, but some photos of the new gear can be found here.

Marty Kaufmann, Illinois' assistant athletic director, told the News-Gazette that Nike spent 18 months working on the re-branding, which included talking to Illini coaches, players and staff.

"They spent time in the archives and talked to archivists on campus," Kaufmann told the paper. "They really tried to get an understanding of the history and tradition, as well as kind of what we're hoping to achieve and what the future Illini may want as well."

In the photos that have come out, the basketball uniform redesign is more striking than the football version. But the football gear looks sleek and modern, and those orange helmets are pretty sweet. Expect some more combinations and designs as well.

None of this will help the Illini play better on the field, but new uniforms seem to always get the attention of recruits. And a program that hasn't had much success or national relevance of late can use any buzz it can possibly generate.

ESPN 300: Top Big Ten targets 

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
11:45
AM CT
video
The top-ranked prospects tend to wait out the process, so there are still some huge names at the top of Big Ten recruiting boards. The top targets will be fought over by most teams within the conference, which will make for some interesting recruiting battles.

Here is a look at the top five targets within the Big Ten in the 2015 ESPN 300.

DE Jashon Cornell
6-4, 270 pounds
ESPN 300 rank: No. 16



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Big Ten's lunch links

April, 15, 2014
Apr 15
12:00
PM CT
Heading to Hawkeye Country later today. Any recommendations?

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