Chicago Colleges: Bart Houston

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

March, 5, 2014
Mar 5
5:00
PM CT
The Big Ten postman always rings twice (a week, at least during the offseason) ...

Rob NitLion from Morristown, N.J. writes: Brian, you made a very good argument in this morning's Take Two -- much better, I feel, than Adam. But you asked a question at the end of your argument, that while rhetorical, I figure I'd provide an answer. "Why not?" Here is why NOT. While some programs like Rutgers and Maryland are used to playing mid-week games, a majority of their fan bases are within a two-hour commuting distance of the stadium (being from Jersey, I have a decent handle on this). It's easy for most fans to leave work and still make an 8 p.m. weekday kickoff. On the other hand, for schools like Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, etc, the fan bases are much more scattered, a large portion of the season-ticket-holder base is not within an easy driving distance of the campus, so for a Thursday night game, essentially you are asking someone like me to take a four-day weekend to see a Thursday night football game. I don't think this is plausible AND considering you guys just ran articles talking about stadium attendance being down, I cannot see some of the larger programs accepting a Thursday night game on their schedule.

Brian Bennett: The arguments from both of us were similar, and you echo many of our points, Rob. The programs with super-sized stadiums really don't ever have to think about hosting a weeknight game. (I shudder at the prospect of trying to get to Pittsburgh or Philadelphia or wherever after a Thursday night game in State College, for example.) But for programs such as Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Maryland, Rutgers and Purdue, a weeknight game can provide plenty of good exposure. Their fan bases aren't as spread out, and their stadiums aren't nearly as large. And for some of them, filling the stadium isn't easy on a Saturday, anyway, so why not grab the extra eyeballs and attention a Thursday night game could bring?


Trevor K. from Wis., writes: Say Joel Stave or Bart Houston win Wisconsin's QB battle. Could you see the Badgers utilizing D.J. Gillins' athletic ability at wide receiver? There is a HUGE hole there, and it shouldn't be out of the question if he is really that athletic.

Brian Bennett: There is precedent here, as Tanner McEvoy bowed out of the quarterback competition early last year because of an injury and ended up starting at safety. The difference, though, is that McEvoy was a junior college transfer who had already used his redshirt year at South Carolina, so he wanted to get on the field. Gillins is a true freshman, and if he's not ready at quarterback, the coaching staff might want to redshirt him. On the flip side, though, maybe the coaches see him providing value at receiver, especially if the Badgers' young wideouts don't step up this offseason, and maybe Gillins expresses a desire to play early. There are a lot of factors at play here. I'd be really surprised if Gillins makes much of an impact at quarterback this season, simply because he's so young and Wisconsin has other experienced options.

TN Spartan from Jackson, Tenn., writes: I am excited about the new bowl lineup for this next football season. Not sure if you did this anywhere, as I have not seen it, but could you project what the last bowl season would have looked like if it had the new arrangement, and then compare it to how it actually went? Perhaps you could then comment if the W/L record would have improved, or if the matchups would have been better.

Brian Bennett: It's a little tricky to project, not knowing if you want to include the new playoff system as well. Let's just say for now that the playoff wasn't involved but that the 2014 lineup was somehow superimposed on the 2013 season.

In that case, the top of the order wouldn't look much different. Michigan State would still have gone to the Rose Bowl and Ohio State would still have made a BCS game. Then the next tier would involve the Capital One, Outback and Holiday bowls, with the Big Ten having greater input on matchups. I still think Wisconsin goes to the Cap One and Iowa makes the Outback, based on their records and how they finished the season. The debate would then have come down to whether Michigan or Nebraska should go to the Holiday, much as it did with the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. Whoever didn't get picked there would fall to either the Music City or Gator Bowls, and you wonder if the league would step in to avoid placing Nebraska in that rematch with Georgia and giving the Huskers another trip to Florida.

Minnesota could then have found itself in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, which is in the third tier of picks along with the Pinstripe Bowl. The opponents wouldn't have been much different for the league at the top, but the Big Ten would have played Pac-12 teams in the Holiday and Hunger bowls. Going by 2013, that would have been Arizona State and Washington, respectively, in what would have been two tough matchups for the league.


James from Akron, Ohio, writes: With the latest position moves on defense (most notably Jake Ryan to MLB) and Greg Mattison's past experience, is there any chance that Michigan switches to a 3-4 defense this year? All of the pieces are in place to make the switch. Desmond Morgan would be the other ILB, James Ross would still be starting on the outside, while one of the current backups (Ben Gedeon/Joe Bolden/Mike McCray) would fill in the other OLB spot. Mix all of that with the fact and Michigan is thin at DT, am I crazy to think the 3-4 will make some sort of appearance this year?

Brian Bennett: It's not a crazy thought, especially because the linebacker group looks like the deepest and most talent-rich position on the Wolverines defense. Michigan hasn't really been dominant at defensive tackle since Mike Martin left town, and Mattison often ran the 3-4 while with the Baltimore Ravens. However, Michigan has run a 4-3 scheme so far under Brady Hoke, and Big Ten teams have been hesitant to go away from four down linemen very often, though Wisconsin used a 3-4 alignment often last season and had success with it. Defensive coordinators often talk about wanting to be multiple and offer different looks to the offense, so Mattison might want to at least explore the idea this spring and see how it goes. That might be the best way to get Michigan's best players on the field.


Kurt from Winter Wonderland, Ill., writes: Can we all finally acknowledge that the NU vs. "NU" rivalry has been one of the conference's best through the first three seasons of its incarnation? An underdog winning against a Top 10 Nebraska team in Lincoln, a comeback Nebraska win by one at a strong Northwestern in Ryan Field, and then a Nebraska victory on a Hail Mary last season! What will the next season bring?!

Brian Bennett: Maybe it's a budding rivalry. I also think Nebraska and Northwestern are the two most unpredictable teams on a week-to-week basis in the Big Ten, with both capable of wild swings of momentum at any time. So no wonder crazy things happen when the two get together.

Spring preview capsules: West Division

February, 26, 2014
Feb 26
9:00
AM CT
Let's look at what to expect this spring in the Big Ten's wild, wild West:

ILLINOIS

Spring start: March 5
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Toughening up on 'D': The Fighting Illini had one of the nation's worst defenses, especially against the run. Tim Beckman brought back defensive coordinator Tim Banks and hopes an extra year of maturity can help strengthen the front seven. Juco import Joe Fotu could win a starting job this spring, and Jihad Ward should help when he arrives in the summer.
  • 'Haase cleaning: Nathan Scheelhaase wrapped up his career by leading the Big Ten in passing yards last season. Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt likely takes over the reins, but backups Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey plan on fighting for the job, as well. Bill Cubit's offense should equal big numbers for whoever wins out.
  • Target practice: Whoever wins the quarterback job needs someone to catch the ball, and Illinois' top two receivers from '13 -- Steve Hull and Miles Osei -- both are gone. Junior college arrival Geronimo Allison will be counted on for some immediate help.
IOWA

Spring start: March 27 or 28
Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • A new big three: The Hawkeyes begin the process of trying to replace their three standout senior linebackers from last season: James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey. They were the heart of the defense in 2013, and now guys such as Quinton Alston, Reggie Spearman and Travis Perry need to make major leaps forward in the spring.
  • Develop more playmakers: Iowa was able to win the games it should have won last year, but struggled against those with strong defenses because of its lack of explosiveness. Sophomore Tevaun Smith and junior Damond Powell showed flashes of their potential late in the year at wideout. They need to continue to develop to give quarterback Jake Rudock and the offense ways to stretch the field.
  • Solidify the right tackle spot: The offensive line should once again be the team's strength, but the departure of veteran right tackle Brett Van Sloten means someone has to take on that role. Whether that's senior Andrew Donnal or redshirt freshman Ryan Ward could be determined this spring.
MINNESOTA

Spring start: March 4
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Mitch's pitches: Philip Nelson's transfer means redshirt sophomore Mitch Leidner enters spring practice as the No. 1 quarterback. He's a load to bring down when he runs, but Leidner needs to improve his passing accuracy after completing 55 percent of his passes in the regular season and only half of his 22 attempts in the Texas Bowl game loss to Syracuse. Added experience should help. If not, he's got some talented youngsters such as Chris Streveler and Dimonic Roden-McKinzy aiming to dethrone him.
  • Mitch's catchers: Of course, part of the problem behind the Gophers' Big Ten-worst passing offense was a lack of threats at receiver. Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones showed promise as true freshmen and should only improve with an offseason of work. It's critical that they do, or else Minnesota might have to count on three receiver signees early.
  • Replacing Ra'Shede: The Gophers only lost four senior starters, but defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman might be the most difficult to replace. The first-team All-Big Ten selection created havoc inside defensively, and there aren't many athletes like him floating around. Scott Ekpe could take many of Hageman's reps, but the defensive line overall will have to pick up the slack.
NEBRASKA

Spring start: March 8
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Tommy's turn: Sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr. entered the offseason as the clear No. 1 quarterback for the first time after taking over for the injured Taylor Martinez (and splitting some snaps with Ron Kellogg III) last season. Armstrong showed maturity beyond his years in 2013 but needs to continue developing as a passer and deepen his understanding of the offense. Redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton could push him in the spring.
  • Get the OL up to speed: Nebraska loses a lot of experience on the offensive line, including both starting tackles (Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale), plus interior mainstays Spencer Long, Andrew Rodriguez and Cole Pensick. The Huskers do return seniors Mark Pelini, Jake Cotton and Mike Moudy, junior Zach Sterup, plus three freshmen and a junior-college transfer who redshirted last year. A strong group of incoming freshmen may also contribute. Big Red usually figures it out on the O-line, but there will be a lot of players in new roles this season.
  • Reload in the secondary: The Blackshirts have plenty of experience in the front seven, but the defensive backfield has a new coach (Charlton Warren) and will be without top playmakers Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans. The safety spot next to Corey Cooper was a problem area last season, and the Huskers are hoping Charles Jackson takes a major step forward. Warren has talent to work with but must find the right combination.
NORTHWESTERN

Spring start: Feb. 26
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Trevor's time?: Trevor Siemian split reps with Kain Colter at quarterback the past two seasons, serving as sort of the designated passer. Siemian threw for 414 yards in the season finale against Illinois and has a clear path toward starting with Colter gone. That could mean more of a pass-first offense than Northwestern ran with Colter. Redshirt freshman and heralded recruit Matt Alviti also looms as an option.
  • Manning the middle: Northwestern brings back a solid corps on defense but lost middle linebacker Damien Proby, who led the team in tackles the past two seasons. Pat Fitzgerald has some options, including making backups Drew Smith or Jaylen Prater a starter or moving Collin Ellis inside. He can experiment and find the best match this spring.
  • Patch it together: The Wildcats' health woes from 2013 aren't over, as 11 players will be held out of practice for medical reasons, including star running back/returner Venric Mark. Add in that the school doesn't have early enrollees, and the team will be trying to practice severely undermanned this spring. The biggest key is to get through spring without any more major problems and to get the injured guys healthy for the fall.
PURDUE

Spring start: March 6
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Moving forward: Purdue players wore T-shirts emblazoned with the word "Forward" during winter workouts, and no wonder. They don't want to look backward to last year's abysmal 1-11 season. It's time to turn the page and get some positive momentum going in Year 2 under Darrell Hazell. Luckily, optimism abounds in spring.
  • Trench focus: The Boilermakers simply couldn't cut it on the lines in Big Ten play, and Hazell went about trying to sign bigger offensive linemen this offseason for his physical style of play. Both starting tackles and three starting defensive linemen all graduated, and no one should feel safe about his job after last season's performance. Kentucky transfer Langston Newton (defense) and early enrollee Kirk Barron (offense) could push for playing time on the lines.
  • Find an identity: What was Purdue good at last season? Not much, as the team ranked near the bottom of the country in just about every major statistical category. The Boilers found some good things late in the passing game with freshmen Danny Etling and DeAngelo Yancey, but Hazell must do a better job instilling the toughness he wants and locating playmakers.
WISCONSIN

Spring start: March 7
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Catching on: The biggest concern heading into the spring is at receiver after the team's only dependable wideout the past two seasons, Jared Abbrederis, graduated. Tight end Jacob Pedersen, who was second on the team in receiving yards last season, is also gone. The Badgers have struggled to develop new weapons in the passing game but now have no choice. Gary Andersen signed five receivers in the 2014 class but none enrolled early, so guys such as Jeff Duckworth, Kenzel Doe and Robert Wheelwright need to take charge this spring.
  • Stave-ing off the competition?: Joel Stave started all 13 games at quarterback last year, while no one else on the roster has any real experience under center. Yet the redshirt junior should face some competition this spring after the Badgers' passing game struggled down the stretch. Andersen likes more mobile quarterbacks and has three guys in Bart Houston, Tanner McEvoy and freshman early enrollee D.J. Gillins, who can offer that skill. Stave must hold them off to keep his job.
  • New leaders on defense: Wisconsin lost a large group of seniors, including nine major contributors on the defensive side. That includes inside linebacker and team leader Chris Borland, plus defensive linemen Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer, outside linebacker Brendan Kelly and safety Dezmen Southward. That's a whole lot of leadership and production to replace, and the process begins in earnest this spring.

Could Gunner Kiel land in B1G (again)?

March, 8, 2013
3/08/13
10:09
PM CT
Quarterback Gunner Kiel is on the move again, opting to transfer from Notre Dame after redshirting last season.

Kiel's travails are well documented. The Columbus, Ind., native, rated by RecruitingNation as the No. 3 quarterback in the 2012 recruiting class, originally committed to Indiana in July 2011, a major surprise at the time. He reopened his recruitment that fall, verbally committed to LSU but soon had second thoughts and enrolled at Notre Dame, prompting Les Miles to question his leadership abilities.

[+] EnlargeGunner Kiel
Matt Cashore/US PresswireA number of Big Ten teams could be interested in a strong-armed QB like Gunner Kiel.
IrishIllustrated.com on Thursday reported four potential transfer destinations for Kiel: Ball State, Miami (Ohio), Northern Illinois and Cincinnati. Anyone else surprised not to see a Big Ten team listed?

Kiel certainly is looking for immediate playing time, and he would have a better chance to find it by dropping down to the MAC or the Big East. He found himself behind several quarterbacks on Notre Dame's depth chart, including starter Everett Golson. Kiel talked in January about the need to be patient and wait his turn, but few seem surprised by his decision to transfer.

Although Kiel brings baggage and the potential for drama, he also brings talent. Almost every Big Ten team pursued Kiel during his initial recruitment, and several squads could use him on their roster. He can play in both a pro-style offense and a spread. While he's a good athlete, his arm strength really stands out.

It will be interesting to see if Notre Dame blocks Kiel from transferring to future Irish opponents like Purdue and Michigan State. If not, Purdue in particular might be a good landing spot as the Boilers have an unsettled situation at quarterback. Michigan State also is looking for answers under center and loses Andrew Maxwell following the 2013 season, which Kiel will sit out. The Spartans bring in heralded quarterback recruit Damion Terry this summer, and Connor Cook and Tyler O'Connor also are in the mix.

What about Iowa? The Hawkeyes don't know what they have in Jake Rudock, who couldn't get on the field last fall despite James Vandenberg's struggles. Much like Purdue, Iowa's quarterback situation is a big mystery.

Minnesota hopes Philip Nelson is its quarterback of the future, and Nelson very well could turn out to be. The Gophers also signed two quarterbacks, Chris Streveler and Donovahn Jones, in February, but do any of their signal-callers have as much potential as Kiel?

Illinois loses veteran Nathan Scheelhaase after the 2013 season. Although Reilly O'Toole has shown flashes and the team signed four-star prospect Aaron Bailey in February, there are no guarantees at quarterback for 2014 and beyond.

Wisconsin undoubtedly will be brought up as a possible landing spot, given the team's recent history with transfers. But the Badgers also have a redshirt sophomore (Joel Stave), a highly touted redshirt freshman (Bart Houston) and an incoming junior-college player with three years of eligibility left (Tanner McEvoy) in the mix at quarterback. I'd be surprised if Wisconsin pursues Kiel.

One team we can likely eliminate is Indiana. The Hoosiers are set at quarterback for the foreseeable future. Plus, they've already been down this road before.

There's risk involved given Kiel's track record, and almost every Big Ten team thinks it has the next great quarterback poised to take over. But the league isn't exactly stacked with high-ceiling quarterbacks. Kiel is from Big Ten country and needs a landing spot. Some Big Ten teams might want to roll the dice.

Poll: Big Ten QB with most to prove?

March, 1, 2013
3/01/13
1:30
PM CT
We've examined all the major quarterback competitions around the Big Ten entering spring practice. Now it's time to identify the quarterback who has the most to prove in the spring.

For that, we need your help.

SportsNation

Which Big Ten quarterback has the most to prove this spring?

  •  
    45%
  •  
    10%
  •  
    6%
  •  
    21%
  •  
    18%

Discuss (Total votes: 5,127)

Several Big Ten quarterbacks with starting experience find themselves in the middle of competitions. Some are dealing with new head coaches and/or new coordinators. Two are coming off of major injuries. Who has the most to prove this spring?

Here are the options:

Andrew Maxwell, Michigan State: Maxwell completed just 52.5 percent of his passes in his first season as Michigan State's starting quarterback. He averaged 200 pass yards a game and finished with 13 touchdowns and nine interceptions, but Michigan State's offense struggled to find the end zone or consistently move the ball. Maxwell started all 13 games in 2012, but was replaced by Connor Cook in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl against TCU. He has to re-establish himself as Michigan State's top option at quarterback and impress new coordinator Jim Bollman.

Philip Nelson, Minnesota: The Gophers accelerated their future by taking the redshirt off Nelson midway through the 2012 season. He started the final seven games at quarterback following injuries to MarQueis Gray and Max Shortell. Nelson showed some flashes early, struggled mightily down the stretch in Big Ten play, and then had two touchdown strikes in the bowl game against Texas Tech. Another offseason could really help his progress, but he'll face competition this spring from redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner.

Tre Roberson, Indiana: After becoming the first true freshman quarterback to start in team history, Roberson entered 2012 as the Hoosiers' top option and looked good in the first five quarters of the season before suffering a broken leg against Massachusetts. He's fully cleared for spring practice and has looked good in winter workouts, but he has to beat out Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld for the starting job. Coffman started IU's final 10 games after Roberson's injury and finished second in the league in passing average (248.5 ypg), and Sudfeld performed well at times.

Nathan Scheelhaase, Illinois: It's odd to see one of the nation's most experienced quarterbacks (36 career starts) included in this group. But after a solid performance in the 2010 Texas Bowl and a strong start to 2011, Scheelhaase, like his team, has struggled for the past year and a half. Every starter is on notice after Illinois finished 119th nationally in both scoring and total offense last season. Reilly O'Toole could push Scheelhaase this spring, and Scheelhaase has to prove himself to new coordinator Bill Cubit.

Joel Stave, Wisconsin: The Badgers' piano-playing, Train-loving signal caller rejoins a crowded mix at quarterback this spring. Stave entered the starting lineup as a redshirt freshman last season and was making significant strides before suffering a broken collarbone against Michigan State. He showed good accuracy at times despite limited pass-catching options, and grades high in pass efficiency, a hallmark for Wisconsin quarterbacks. But Stave has to win over a new coaching staff and separate himself from a pool of quarterbacks that includes Curt Phillips, Danny O'Brien, Bart Houston and junior-college arrival Tanner McEvoy.

Spring previews: Leaders Division

February, 28, 2013
2/28/13
10:00
AM CT
Spring practice is under way in the Big Ten, so let's take a look at what's on tap for the six teams in the Leaders Division.

ILLINOIS

Spring start: March 5

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:

1. Coaching staff makeover: Illinois players are used to coaching changes, and Tim Beckman's staff received a significant overhaul during the winter as five assistants departed the program (four voluntarily). The biggest change comes at offensive coordinator, as former Western Michigan head coach Bill Cubit takes over. Cubit has to implement his system and identify more playmakers with a unit that finished last in the Big Ten in both scoring and total offense last season.

2. Lines in limbo: The Illini not only lost significant pieces on both the offensive and defensive lines, but they have new position coaches at both spots as well. Defensive line has been Illinois' strongest spot, but the team must replace two future NFLers in Michael Buchanan and Akeem Spence. Glenn Foster is also gone, so the front four will have a very different look. The offensive line struggled mightily in 2012 and needs young players like Michael Heitz and Ted Karras to take steps this spring.

3. Getting healthy: Illinois lost so many starters to injury in 2012 that it became difficult to get an accurate gauge on what Beckman could do with a healthy roster. Although linebacker Jonathan Brown and receiver Darius Millines will be limited this spring, the rest of the team is ready to go and Illinois added several potential big contributors from the junior-college ranks. If Illinois has any chance of taking a major step in 2013, its best players must stay on the field this spring and allow the coaches a chance to evaluate and scheme for the season.

INDIANA

Spring start: March 2

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:

1. Quarterback cluster: While some Big Ten teams (Penn State, Purdue) have hardly any experience at quarterback, Indiana has three signal-callers who have logged significant field time. Tre Roberson, who started the 2012 season before suffering a broken leg in Week 2, returns this spring, and it will be interesting to see how he looks and whether he outperforms Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld. Coffman started the final 10 games last fall and passed for 2,734 yards and 15 touchdowns, while Sudfield added 632 pass yards and seven scoring strikes. Indiana's quarterback depth is a good problem to have, but it would be good to see some separation this spring.

2. Defensive leadership: Fielding a Big Ten-level defense remains Indiana's top priority, and the Hoosiers need leaders to develop this spring. Top linemen Adam Replogle and Larry Black Jr. depart, and Indiana needs to build depth up front after allowing a league-worst 231.3 rush yards per game in 2012. Linebacker is another spot IU must upgrade, and David Cooper should be ready to take the reins after recording 86 tackles in 12 starts a year ago. Like Illinois, Indiana also welcomes several junior-college defenders, including tackle Jordan Heiderman.

3. Secondary surge: All the question marks in Indiana's defensive front seven make it even more important for the secondary to make strides this spring. The Hoosiers have no shortage of experience in the back four with players like Greg Heban, Mark Murphy, Brian Williams (12 starts last season) and Antonio Marshall (started final seven games). There's potential for the secondary to be a strength for IU in 2013, but the group must make more plays after recording a league-low seven interceptions last fall.

OHIO STATE

Spring start: March 5

Spring game: April 13 (at Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati)

What to watch:

1. Taking a pass: The highest-scoring offense in the Big Ten returns every starter but two, and all that experience, talent and familiarity with the spread attack heading into Urban Meyer's second season with the Buckeyes figures to make them even more dangerous. The key will be how much more efficient Braxton Miller can become as a passer.

2. Getting defensive: For all the pieces the offense retains, the defense is a completely different story heading into spring camp. The Buckeyes have to replace the entire defensive line after losing three seniors and junior Johnathan Hankins to the draft, two starting linebackers are gone and the graduation of cornerback Travis Howard leaves an additional hole in the safety. There will be no shortage of competition for first-team reps.

3. Looking for leaders: Meyer and the senior class that has since departed quickly forged a deep bond, and he’s gone out of his way to praise those players' leadership as integral in the unbeaten season that started his tenure with the Buckeyes. Now he needs a new wave of emotional speakers and relentless workers to take the torch from the likes of John Simon and Zach Boren, and Meyer will be making a point to identify his best candidates over the 15 workouts leading into the summer.

-- Austin Ward, BuckeyeNation

PENN STATE

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 20

What to watch:

1. Quarterback competition: With the departure of fifth-year senior Matt McGloin, quarterback is now the biggest question mark on this team. Sophomore Steven Bench has a head start and will compete against juco early enrollee Tyler Ferguson. Christian Hackenberg won't join the team until summer. Can this no-huddle offense be as effective?

2. Replacing LBs Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges: Mike Hull, who usually played inside, will have to make some adjustments as one of the expected replacements for the All-Big Ten linebacker tandem. The other spot is up for grabs, and fans should expect to see a battle between Ben Kline and Nyeem Wartman.

3. New faces at WR, TE: Redshirt freshman Eugene Lewis, the headliner of PSU's 2012 class, could challenge Brandon Moseby-Felder as the No. 2 WR target. Adam Breneman, the No. 1 tight-end recruit in the country, is also hoping to be recovered from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in time for the Blue-White Game. Both could be stars down the road for PSU.

-- Josh Moyer, NittanyNation

PURDUE

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:

1. Behind these Hazell eyes: Yes, I'll justifiably take the abuse for the Kelly Clarkson reference, but new Purdue coach Darrell Hazell has his first chance to evaluate his team on the field this spring. Hazell brings a completely new coaching staff and a new approach to Purdue, which fell short of expectations in 2012 and has significant questions on both sides of the ball. He seems to be getting good buy-in from the players so far, but it'll be interesting to see how things progress during the 15 workouts this spring.

2. Quarterback race: If you like mysteries, you'll enjoy Purdue's quarterback competition this spring. The combination of a new coaching staff and unproven but talented candidates makes the race virtually impossible to predict. Hazell and new offensive coordinator John Shoop will study redshirt freshman Austin Appleby, who could have a slight edge to win the job, along with redshirt freshman Bilal Marshall and early enrollee Danny Etling, a decorated recruit. Don't forget about Rob Henry, who started in 2010 and would have been the top quarterback in 2011 if not for an ACL injury weeks before the season.

3. Short stopper: Purdue has to find a replacement for standout defensive tackle Kawann Short, the centerpiece of the defensive line the past few seasons. Bruce Gaston Jr. will continue to occupy the other top tackle spot, but there will be plenty of competition to join him in the starting lineup. Purdue's defensive line underachieved in 2012, and while Gaston and ends Ryan Russell and Ryan Isaac all return, the Boilers will really miss Short's production if they don't build more depth up the middle.

WISCONSIN

Spring start: March 9

Spring game: April 20

What to watch:

1. New era dawns: Consistency is the norm at Wisconsin, but players will have to adjust to a dramatically different coaching staff for the second consecutive season. This time, it includes a new leading man in Gary Andersen, who gets his first chance to work with the players on the practice field. Andersen doesn't plan to overhaul the schemes, but he and his coaches will put their spin on things and see what works. He'll also bring a different personality to practice but one that athletic director Barry Alvarez thinks will fit the program's culture.

2. Intrigue at quarterback: Arguably no team in America has a more interesting quarterback race than the Badgers do this spring. They have three players with starting experience -- Joel Stave, Curt Phillips and Danny O'Brien -- plus a talented redshirt freshman (Bart Houston) who arrived as a decorated recruit and a junior-college addition (Tanner McEvoy) brought in by the new coaches. Add in a new system under coordinator Andy Ludwig, and it's anyone's guess who will separate himself this spring. Be sure to tune in.

3. Secondary in the spotlight: The Badgers lose three of four starters in the secondary from the 2012 squad, including top cornerbacks Devin Smith and Marcus Cromartie. The new staff is aware of the numbers issue and signed junior-college All-America Donnell Vercher earlier this month. Other players who will compete for starting spots include cornerbacks Darius Hillary and Peniel Jean and safeties Michael Trotter and Michael Caputo. Wisconsin hopes to have some answers in the back four by the end of the spring.

Big Ten mailblog

January, 15, 2013
1/15/13
6:48
PM CT
And away we go ...

Greg from Eldora, Iowa, writes: Hello Adam, on your BIG footprint article, the other states BIG teams needs to recruit are states that play high school spring ball, which I think is a much bigger reason than people think for SEC, Big 12, and PAC 12 having improving success. Ohio applied to their high school association to add spring ball and it was turned down. BIG states need to add spring ball for high school for better development of players at least in the higher classes. If I was coaching I would push my state to develop football players in my state, kids that want to play for a home state school. It would be easier developing these kids than every program in the country hovering over the South and California.

Adam Rittenberg: Greg, you make a really good point about spring football. It's a huge advantage for recruits in certain states and also for programs located in or closer to those states. Former Purdue coach Joe Tiller talked to me extensively in September about the playing-time advantage for recruits who live in southern states. Here's some of what he said: "Four years ago, Florida with their spring practices and Georgia with their spring practices and Texas with their spring practices, those kids, I know when we recruited them to Purdue, they were just advanced players over the guys we were getting out of the Midwest. They weren't necessarily more gifted naturally, but they were just advanced in the sense that they played so much more football." Tiller also said former Purdue quarterback Drew Brees played more high school ball his final two seasons in Texas (32 games) than many recruits from Indiana did in their final three seasons (30). I know each state high school sports association has to consider the pluses and minuses of spring football, but it definitely provides recruits from other regions an advantage as they prepare to play in college.




Kevin from the Northwest Suburbs writes: Hey Adam a big Northwestern observation here. I believe this season is Pat's Fitzgerald year to actually put Northwestern's name on the national map like Harbaugh did with Stanford. This is arguably Pat's best team and most well rounded team on all three phases of the game since he took over at Northwestern. They play most of the Big 10 best teams. They play their road schedule against Cal (Pac-12), Wisconsin, Iowa, and Nebraska. All those teams are tough at home. They then play Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State at home. For those who have never been to Ryan Field there is usually a 60-40 crowd favoring northwestern against the bigger schools and sometimes even 50-50 when playing schools like Michigan. If Northwestern can put up a 10-11 season, its time to put them on the national stage and start to see them as a top team in the Big Ten and to start smelling roses in 2013 as well as the close future. If they only end up with 7 wins or less, they'll still be trying to get their name on top of the big ten. I think this upcoming season will tell us what type of direction and how far this Northwestern program can go? Agree?

Adam Rittenberg: Kevin, I agree that Northwestern has a great opportunity in 2013. Northwestern finally ended the season with a bowl win, which resonates throughout the spring and summer, makes the media pay attention when it otherwise wouldn't and generates hype and expectations for the next season. The Wildcats also return most of their core pieces from the 2012 team, namely quarterback Kain Colter, running back Venric Mark and defensive backs Ibraheim Campbell and Nick VanHoose. So there's a chance to take another step, but it won't be easy. The schedule is extremely challenging. As I pointed out Monday, Northwestern appears to have by far the toughest schedule of any of the Big Ten title contenders entering 2013. Northwestern also has struggled to handle high expectations (2001, 2011) in the past. Although recruiting has improved, Northwestern hasn't reached the level Stanford did under Jim Harbaugh (continued now by David Shaw). Northwestern's program definitely is headed in the right direction and 2013 will be a telling season, but I could see Northwestern having a better team than 2012 but one with a worse record (8-4 or so).




Brian from Warrensburg, Mo, writes: Adam, seriously...we need to talk about your final top 25 voting. As an avid Husker fan, my mind is blown that they didn't even make the top 25 and only hit number 25 in Brian's vote. You ranked 3 B1G teams that Nebraska beat ahead of them, and they barely lost their bowl game to a team in your top 5. Please help me and other Husker fans understand, because I know I'm not the only one who was baffled. 10 wins with a really tough schedule, and you think San Jose State is a better team??

Rod Harris from Homer, Neb., writes: No wonder you are a lowly blogger. You have proven once again that you don't know much about how to judge college football teams. I'm just glad you don't have an AP vote! And you are proof of why we need a playoff system in college football because I'm sure there are voters out there that are just as clueless as you are when it comes to rating college football teams.

Adam Rittenberg: These are just some of the emails I received about my final power rankings, which didn't include Nebraska. I didn't include the note asking me to kill myself and noting that Brian Bennett and I are the worst sports writers on the planet (glad we have the market cornered). Honestly, I'm a little surprised so many people are coming to the defense of what is, at best, a fringe Top 25 team. Nebraska finished No. 25 in the final AP Poll and No. 23 in the final coaches' poll. Brian had the Huskers at No. 25 in his final power rankings. If our power rankings included 27 spots instead of 25, I would have included the Huskers. So we're all in the ballpark with ranking this football team. Many folks doing end-of-year rankings didn't think Nebraska belonged much higher than the final few spots of the rankings. When you're a total no-show in the biggest game of the season (against a seemingly weaker opponent) and then lose your bowl game by 14 points -- even while competing well for three quarters -- you're not going to be rewarded in the final rankings. San Jose State pushed Rose Bowl champ Stanford in the season opener, beat a solid BYU team and won its final seven games. That team should be rewarded.

I don't believe in ranking a team because of what it did in late October, which would be the argument for ranking Nebraska ahead of both Northwestern and Michigan (which almost no one did, by the way). Rankings are about what you've done lately, and Nebraska ended the season poorly, even if it hung in there with Georgia for a while. I look at Nebraska and see a talented team that plays an extremely chaotic style (turnovers, penalties, frantic rallies in the fourth quarter). There aren't many teams that can rank 118th nationally in turnovers lost (35) and still win 10 games. I guess that's a testament to Nebraska's talent and resilience, and the Huskers definitely were resilient late in the regular season. But is that a formula for sustained success? No way. And if Nebraska doesn't clean up its play, especially in big games, it won't take the next step and gain respect from the media.




Justin from East Lansing, Mich., writes :Adam,First of all, thanks to you and Brian for your Big Ten blogging efforts. I read it everyday.Now, I know that you have probably heard this idea, but how about making the Divisions--Leaders: Rutgers, Maryland, Penn State, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, and Nebraska; Legends: Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State, Northwestern, Illinois, Purdue, and Indiana?I know it would be like a 'Central Division' and 'Everyone Else Division,' but I think that it would work.

Adam Rittenberg: Justin, I like how you keep the Wisconsin-Iowa-Minnesota cluster together in the "Everyone Else Division," because I think it's important for those teams to play every year. It's also good for emerging rivalries like Nebraska-Iowa and Nebraska-Wisconsin to continue. Although the fan bases in the "Everyone Else" would have some tougher travel than those in the "Central," there would be some easier trips mixed in (Wisconsin-Iowa, Penn State-Rutgers, etc.). I think this could work, but I also see a geographic split being fine and going East-West. The teams that could go in either division appear to be Indiana, Purdue, Illinois and Northwestern. I'd be OK with splitting Indiana/Purdue or Illinois/Northwestern and giving them a protected crossover game. I'd also be OK with splitting Michigan and Michigan State into different divisions and giving them a crossover game. If you put Ohio State and Michigan in the same division, you have to make sure the other division has enough strength. Would Wisconsin, Nebraska, Penn State and Iowa provide enough in your model? It's possible.




Chris from Madison, Wis., writes: Hey Adam! I was just wondering what your thoughts are on the Badgers upcoming QB battle. You've mentioned it briefly a few times but the dynamics of it are really intriguing. You have Curt Phillips, the (now) experienced leader who commands respect from his teammates but has yet to really be proven as a passer. There's Joel Stave, the "spark" of the offense early this season who has starting experience and shows great talent as a passer (even just in the 2 plays from the Rose Bowl). Danny O'Brien, while not the favorite to win it, can still fix some things and does have experience and talent. The most intriguing player, and my dark horse candidate, is Bart Houston. In tapes I've watched of him and Stave, Bart seems to have some talent, or edge to him, that Stave didn't quite display to the same level. Houston is more mobile and built to take punishment as well. What are your thoughts? I think this could make a great piece as spring ball nears!

Adam Rittenberg: Chris, I agree it's a fascinating competition, and we'll preview all the QB races before spring ball kicks off. I'm with you about Bart Houston. He's the real wild card here: big-time recruit, has the skills to be a special player, but lacks experience and will be working with a new offensive coordinator in Andy Ludwig. I don't think Danny O'Brien will be a factor, but we'll see. Curt Phillips did a nice job late in the season and will be another offseason removed from surgery, but he'll need to make strides as well. Stave really seemed to be turning a corner before his injury, and if I had to pick a favorite for the job, it'd probably be Stave. Another subplot here is whether Wisconsin can surround its quarterback with enough capable receivers. Jared Abbrederis was the team's only consistent threat at receiver last season. It's really important for the Badgers to find a No. 2 and No. 3 option at receiver. But I'm definitely looking forward to the competition. It's unique because so many players have starting experience.




Brian L. from Baltimore writes: If the PSU sanctions remain as-is (3 more ineligible seasons), how long do you realistically see BO'B staying put? I can't help but think another 8 win season is not in order for next year or two, thus his NFL stock has a high chance of dropping.

Adam Rittenberg: Brian, that's a fair point about Bill O'Brien's NFL stock, but I also wouldn't bet against him after seeing what he did during the final 10 games this season. Penn State's roster situation isn't actually as bad as it seemed to be when the sanctions were outlined, and if the Lions can stay relatively healthy, they should be OK in a mostly weak Leaders division. I think we'll hear O'Brien's name in the NFL mix most seasons, depending on the openings, and I do expect him to eventually make the jump. But it might not be for 3-5 years, which in my view would be a major victory for Penn State. Will some bad seasons at Penn State take O'Brien off of the NFL radar? Maybe, but I don't think so. The guy already was on a path to be an NFL coach, and he showed what he could do as a head coach in 2012. The NFL folks know O'Brien and understand the obstacles he faces at Penn State. I don't see him disappearing from consideration even if Penn State struggles in the near future.




SGTSparty from Detroit writes: Adam,For years we all knew Penn State as Linebacker U. But the past year or so it seems like the entire B1G has been stacked with excellent LBs. It begs the questions: 1) Do you think the B1G is the best linebacking conference in the NCAA? 2) Which team has/will have the best linebacker in the conference? 3) What about LB corps top to bottom?

Adam Rittenberg: SGT, Big Ten linebackers were absent from most of the All-America teams for the 2012 season. The SEC (Jarvis Jones, C.J. Mosley, Kevin Minter) and Pac-12 (Anthony Barr, Trent Murphy) had better representation than the Big Ten. I thought Penn State's Michael Mauti got snubbed on most of these teams, and while Ohio State's Ryan Shazier put up All-America numbers in Big Ten play, he started a bit slowly. From a depth standpoint, the Big Ten is among the nation's top leagues with its group of linebackers. But the best? Hard to make the case. As to your second question, there are several candidates for the Big Ten's top linebacker: Ohio State's Shazier, Wisconsin's Chris Borland, Michigan State's Max Bullough and Michigan's Jake Ryan are the top four. You can't go wrong with any of these four. I'd probably lean toward Borland and Bullough if I had to choose, although I loved what I saw from Shazier and Ryan this season. Regarding your final question, it comes down to Michigan State and Michigan for the league's top linebacking corps. I'd give the nod to Michigan State with Bullough, Denicos Allen and Taiwan Jones (reserve Kyler Elsworth is solid, too).

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