Chicago Colleges: Cody Sokol

100-days checklist: Big Ten

May, 21, 2013
5/21/13
12:00
AM CT
Good news: We are just 100 days away from the start of college football.

To mark the occasion, we're pulling out a checklist today of things that Big Ten teams need to accomplish between now and the start of the season. It's not quite "The Final Countdown" (cue GOB Bluth), but we are inching ever so close to kickoff. Here's what needs to happen in the next 100 days:

1. Identify a starting quarterback at Iowa, Indiana, Michigan State, Penn State, Purdue and Wisconsin: It seems as if there are an unusually high number of Big Ten teams who don't know for sure who their starting quarterbacks will be in the fall. (You could also add Illinois and Minnesota to this list, though it appears likely that Nathan Scheelhaase and Philip Nelson, respectively, would have to lose the job in the summer.) Iowa had a three-man race this spring that will probably come down to Jake Rudock and Cody Sokol in training camp. There's very little separation between Cameron Coffman, Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson at Indiana. Connor Cook continues to breathe down the neck of incumbent Andrew Maxwell at Michigan State. Tyler Ferguson claimed the starting job at Penn State during the spring, prompting Steven Bench to transfer, but highly touted recruit Christian Hackenberg will push for immediate time. Purdue will likely decide between senior Rob Henry and true freshman Danny Etling. Joel Stave and Curt Phillips separated themselves from the Wisconsin QB derby this spring, while incoming junior college transfer Tanner McEvoy could expand the race this summer. All these situations should work themselves out in August, but no team wants to be dealing with an unsettled quarterback competition once the season starts.

2. Solidify the defensive front sevens at Nebraska and Ohio State: The Huskers and Buckeyes stand out as two of the top Big Ten contenders in 2013, but both have serious questions at defensive line and linebacker. The issue is more dire at Nebraska, which struggled there last year and is replacing all but one starter from 2012. Summer arrivals, including junior college star Randy Gregory, could make an immediate impact, and players coming back from injury such as linebacker Zaire Anderson and defensive tackle Thad Randle will need to play up to potential. Ohio State is less concerned about its defense after the spring performance of defensive ends Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington, but linebacker Ryan Shazier is still the only returning starter in the front seven. Curtis Grant must finally live up to his talent to provide help to Shazier, and someone must assume John Simon's leadership role.

3. Locate the next great receivers: A few Big Ten teams, such as Nebraska, Penn State and Indiana, don't have to worry too much about who will catch the ball this year. But just about everybody else needs to find playmakers in the passing game. The top of that list includes Iowa, which couldn't generate a downfield passing attack last year; Illinois, which needs receivers to make new coordinator Bill Cubit's spread system work; Michigan State, whose young wideouts must improve on last year's shaky performance; Minnesota, which doesn't have many proven weapons to surround Nelson; and Wisconsin, which still must find a complement to Jared Abbrederis. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer is hoping some incoming freshmen augment a very thin receiver group, while Michigan needs to replace the production of Junior Hemingway and Roy Roundtree. Purdue and Northwestern have lots of speedy options but could use the emergence of a true No. 1 target. Receiver was a weak spot as a whole in the Big Ten in 2012, and hopefully some players will improve through offseason voluntary passing drills.

4. Strengthen the running game at Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana and elsewhere: It's a cliché to say that you have to run the ball to win, but in the case of the Big Ten, that's always been true. That's why it's so vital for the Wolverines and Spartans -- who both expect to contend in the Legends Division -- to find answers in their rushing attacks. Michigan is replacing its entire starting interior offensive line after struggling to get a running game going outside of Denard Robinson last year. Fitz Toussaint is hoping to bounce back from a disappointing season and a leg injury, while hotshot freshman Derrick Green could get lots of carries right away. Michigan State's efforts to replace workhorse extraordinaire Le'Veon Bell this spring ended up with converted linebacker Riley Bullough emerging as the top back in a mediocre field. Three incoming freshmen will compete for time right away this summer. Indiana coach Kevin Wilson put a heavy emphasis on the running game this spring, hoping for more balance after his team led the league in passing and finished last in rushing last season. Iowa has depth for once at running back but needs to stay healthy there, as the ground game is the key to the Hawkeyes' entire offensive philosophy. Nebraska also can't afford injuries, as Ameer Abdullah and Imani Cross are the lone backs with any experience. Illinois averaged just 3.5 yards per carry as a team last year, a number that must improve. And while Purdue loved what it saw from Akeem Hunt this spring, he still must prove he can be an every-down back after attempting only 42 carries last season.

5. Mesh with new coaches: Wisconsin's Gary Andersen and Purdue's Darrell Hazell are the fresh faces among head coaches in the league, and while they did a great job of connecting with their players this spring, they still need to get their new systems fully in place. The Badgers will be using some new, 3-4 looks on defense, while Hazell wants a more physical and disciplined team than we've seen from the Boilermakers of late. Michigan State has a new offensive playcaller in Dave Warner, while Cubit was one of many staff changes at Illinois. Penn State's John Butler takes over from Ted Roof as the Lions' defensive coordinator. With only 15 spring practices so far to implement their styles, those new coaches have had to rely on a lot of classroom time and players learning on their own. That will have to continue this summer during voluntary workouts and then will intensify when preseason practice begins. For new coaches, it's a race against the calendar -- and the calendar says there are only 100 days until kickoff.

Legends Division spring notebook

April, 10, 2013
4/10/13
4:54
PM CT
Every Legends Division head coach, along with a player from each of the six teams, participated in a Big Ten spring teleconference with the media on Wednesday.

Here are some notes and updates from those teams:

IOWA
  • After six practices, the Hawkeyes' three-man quarterback race between Jake Rudock, Cody Sokol and C.J. Beathard is "about where we expected," head coach Kirk Ferentz said. All three are receiving equal reps, and all are working with the first-, second- and third-team offenses. "At this point, it's a jump ball for all three guys," Ferentz said.
  • Accountability is a big theme this spring at Iowa after the team endured its worst season (4-8) in more than a decade. Ferentz said he can't bury his head in the sand after a season like last year's. "We have to do a better job in all areas and that starts with me," he said. Linebacker James Morris was candid about the legacy he'd like to leave at Iowa. "The mark we've left so far, if we're being completely honest, isn't a particularly good one," Morris said. "I'm not happy about it, but I'm excited we have one more opportunity to change things."
  • Ferentz said Sunday's open practice in West Des Moines gives Iowa a chance to say thanks to its fans in the central and western parts of the state. Hawkeyes players enjoy the chance to perform in front of their fans. "It's something to break the monotony of spring ball," Morris said. "This will be something different."
  • Morris wants to see Iowa's defense translate its red-zone effectiveness -- the Hawkeyes allowed only 15 touchdowns on 48 red-zone chances in 2012 and held opponents scoreless 10 times -- to the rest of the field. Better communication also is a focal point for the defense this spring.
MICHIGAN
  • Head coach Brady Hoke said the team will explore the possibility of adding a junior-college quarterback or a graduate transfer from an FBS program to address the position. Russell Bellomy, the projected backup, is scheduled for ACL surgery May 1 and could miss the entire season. Walk-on Brian Cleary is working as the No. 2 quarterback this spring behind Devin Gardner, and heralded recruit Shane Morris arrives in the summer. Asked generally about redshirting players, Hoke didn't sound as if he'd hesitate to use a player like Morris. "No matter if they're fifth-year seniors or true freshmen, the best players have to play," he said. "If you don't do your justice on playing the best players, you're going to cheat the kids on this team."
  • Both Hoke and left tackle Taylor Lewan praised the young players competing for the three vacant starting spots on the interior offensive line. Hoke has seen "a lot of progress" with players like Ben Braden, Kyle Kalis, Chris Bryant, Blake Bars and Joey Burzynski. Lewan sees more "maulers" along Michigan's line as the unit aims to be more physically dominant this season in a pro-set scheme.
  • Lewan said the experience of playing for Michigan and the opportunity to win a Big Ten championship led him to decide to return for his senior season rather than enter the NFL draft, where he likely would have been a first-round pick. He said his decision was his own, and that those who haven't played for Michigan can't truly understand the lure of remaining there. "There's no better decision I could have made than coming back to the University of Michigan," he said.
  • Lewan said defensive end Frank Clark could be on the All-Big Ten radar by the end of the season, while Hoke singled out Chris Wormley for having a strong spring with the D-line. Hoke said running back Fitzgerald Toussaint is progressing well as he recovers from leg surgery.
MICHIGAN STATE
  • Replacing Le'Veon Bell at running back remains a work in progress. While Nick Hill, Jeremy Langford and Nick Tompkins are working there this spring, head coach Mark Dantonio said players from other positions will "slide in and out" at running back to see how they handle the role. The Spartans are also bringing in three tailbacks this summer. "That's obviously a position of concern for us," Dantonio said. "We've got to find a guy you can give the ball to 250 times. I don't know if we have that yet. But that's part of who we are, and we're going to find him."
  • Dantonio said placekicker Kevin Cronin has had an excellent spring and is the No. 1 on the depth chart now. But recruit Michael Geiger will come in this summer and push Cronin for the right to succeed the departed Dan Conroy.
  • Spartans fans always seem to be curious about wideout and former Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett. Here's what Dantonio had to say about him today: "He's a guy who runs great routes but needs to catch ball a little more consistently and be more physical at the point of attack. ... He's a guy who I think will play next year and will add to our offense once he starts moving in a more consistent basis. But I think he's taken big steps this spring, and you can see that coming."
  • Linebacker Max Bullough said going 7-6 last year after two 11-win seasons "put things in perspective for us. We hadn't lost many games the previous two years. Now we have that knowledge and experience that it could happen to us. ... We use that as motivation to move forward."
MINNESOTA
  • Head coach Jerry Kill said injured offensive tackle Ed Olson (ankle) and defensive lineman Roland Johnson (knee) are both progressing well, and he expects both to be ready to go for fall camp.
  • Kill had high praise for safety Brock Vereen, saying he could follow his brother, Shane, into the NFL. "He's gotten better and better since we've been here, and he's turned into a great football player in our minds. We look for him to have a very productive year."
  • Vereen said the team is practicing with a new sense of confidence. "We're finally comfortable with coach Kill's system. We know what they expect from us. And that just makes it a lot easier to show up every day and do what we need to do."
  • Vereen on how far away the Gophers are from contending in the Legends Division: "We are closer than a lot of people think. If you look back to last season, a lot of those games we lost were in the fourth quarter. A loss is a loss, but at the same time, we were in a lot of those games. It's about pushing through, which is something we learned the hard way, but we still learned. ... I think we're going to shock some people this year."
NEBRASKA

  • Linebacker David Santos (arm) will miss a portion of summer workouts but will be back before the Huskers open preseason camp, head coach Bo Pelini said. Defensive linemen Vincent Valentine and Greg McMullen, who missed Saturday's spring game, aren't seriously injured and will be fine for workouts and camp.
  • Although Nebraska's defense had its ups and downs this spring, redshirt freshman linebacker Jared Afalava stood out. Pelini expects a lot of production this fall from Afalava, who is "probably further ahead of where I thought he'd be." Pelini also praised senior defensive end Jason Ankrah, saying the coaches gave him more freedom to move around this spring. "Hopefully, his best year is yet to come," Pelini said.
  • Senior quarterback Taylor Martinez expects Nebraska to throw the ball "a lot more" this season, mainly because of the team's strength at wide receiver with Kenny Bell, Jamal Turner and others. Martinez said expectations are extremely high for the offense, and that coordinator Tim Beck is more comfortable calling plays. "I'd rather throw the ball 30 times a game … get the football to those guys and let them do their thing," Martinez said. Pelini has no argument, saying "the best is yet to come" with Martinez at quarterback.
  • Martinez said the Memorial Stadium crowd was about as loud as he's ever heard it when 7-year-old cancer patient Jack Hoffman ran for a 69-yard touchdown in Saturday's spring game.

NORTHWESTERN
  • The Wildcats won't hold a traditional spring game this year but just a normal practice session. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald said 13 players had surgeries after the season, and the team was limited to eight healthy offensive linemen this spring. "We've had to tweak things, so that's why we've kept the same routine throughout all 15 of our practices," he said.
  • Some of the lesser-known Northwestern players who have had good springs, Fitzgerald said, included backup quarterback Zack Oliver, receiver Mike Jensen, superbacks Mark Szott and Jack Schwaba and defensive lineman C.J. Robbins. Fitzgerald said he's been "very, very impressed" by Robbins, who has been injured the past two years.
  • A question on offering prospects early prompted this response from Fitzgerald: "I have just a fundamental issue with offering a kid a scholarship that doesn't have a driver's license. Just barely shaving. And because he looks good in shorts doesn't mean he's going to be a great Big Ten football player. The glorification of these kids at a young age is unfair to them. It's putting unfair and unrealistic expectations on them."
  • Defensive end Tyler Scott, who Fitzgerald said is "poised to take the next step," said he's worked hard on becoming a more vocal leader this year and on his pass-rushing techniques. "I'm trying to bring more tools to that aspect of the defense," he said.

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