Chicago Colleges: Ian Thomas

B1G spring position breakdown: DB

March, 6, 2014
We're taking snapshots of each position group with every Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the defensive backs.

Illinois: The secondary returns mostly intact from 2013, as Illinois returns starters at both cornerback spots (V'Angelo Bentley and Eaton Spence), as well as Zane Petty, who started the final seven games at free safety. Taylor Barton, who opened last season as a starting free safety, also is back. Building safety depth is important this spring as Illinois must replace Earnest Thomas III. Barton will compete with Jevaris Little and others for playing time. The depth is much better at corner as Darius Mosely and Jaylen Dunlap both saw significant action as freshmen last fall.

Indiana: Like Illinois, Indiana returns a lot in the defensive backfield but must improve after struggling to stop opponents in 2013. The Hoosiers also lose only one starter in safety Greg Heban, a mainstay during the past four seasons. There's a lot of experience at cornerback with returning starters Tim Bennett (senior) and Michael Hunter (junior), along with reserve Kenny Mullen (senior). Decorated recruit Rashard Fant, who redshirted in 2013, will compete for significant playing time. Senior safety Mark Murphy will lead the secondary, and sophomore Antonio Allen could fill the other safety spot when he returns from an ACL tear. Building depth here always is a priority at IU.

Iowa: The situation isn't as dramatic as the linebacker spot, but Iowa still must replace two productive players in cornerback B.J. Lowery and safety Tanner Miller, who combined for six interceptions in 2013. Lowery is the more significant loss, as he had 19 passes defended and three forced fumbles. The good news is Desmond King looks like a budding star and he will move into the featured role Lowery occupied. Jordan Lomax, Sean Draper and others will compete to start opposite King. Strong safety John Lowdermilk returns after a solid junior season. Lomax also could play free safety and will compete there with Anthony Gair and Nico Law, who both appeared in all 13 games last fall as reserves.

Maryland: The back four aims for better results on the injury front and on the field in 2013. Maryland returns both starters at safety in Sean Davis, the team's leading tackler with 102 last fall, and Anthony Nixon, but there should be competition behind them with A.J. Hendy and Zach Dancel. The cornerback position is worth watching this spring as Dexter McDougle departs and Jeremiah Johnson remains limited by a toe injury. Will Likely has opened the spring as a starter, and Alvin Hill could rise up after recording 24 tackles last season.

Michigan: The secondary took a step back in 2013 and all jobs are open even though Michigan returns two veteran cornerbacks -- Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor -- and some experience at safety. Jabrill Peppers, the nation's No. 2 overall recruit according to ESPN Recruiting Nation, will play a major role for the Wolverines this fall, whether it's at corner, safety or nickel. Junior Jarrod Wilson started the first seven games of last season at free safety, and Dymonte Thomas is a good candidate to start at one of the safety spots. Michigan should expect more from this group in 2014.

Michigan State: Will opposing offenses invade the No Fly Zone in 2014? Not if Michigan State can fill several spots, none bigger than Darqueze Dennard's at cornerback. Dennard, a unanimous All-American and the Jim Thorpe Award winner, departs to the NFL, and junior Trae Waynes slides into the featured corner role after a promising sophomore season. The competition opposite Waynes heats up this spring as Ezra Robinson, Darian Hicks, Jermaine Edmondson and Arjen Colquhoun compete. Free safety Kurtis Drummond boasts 21 career starts and enters 2014 as one of the league's top safeties. RJ Williamson likely will fill Isaiah Lewis' spot at strong safety, and Demetrious Cox provides depth.

Minnesota: Like the Gophers' defensive line, the secondary loses a huge piece in Brock Vereen, who played both safety and cornerback last season. But there might be enough returning pieces to fill the void. Cornerback Eric Murray had a very solid first season as a starter, and Minnesota also brings back Derrick Wells and Briean Boddy-Calhoun, both of whom have starting experience. Leading tackler Cedric Thompson and Antonio Johnson finished last season as the starting safeties, and both are back. Senior Grayson Levine provides some experience in a reserve safety role.

Nebraska: An important spring awaits new defensive backs coach Charlton Warren, who must identify new starters at cornerback, safety and nickel. The Huskers are replacing Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who combined for eight interceptions, 18 passes defended and 15 tackles for loss in 2013. Safety Andrew Green, who made 10 starts in 2013, also leaves. The good news is cornerback Josh Mitchell had an excellent bowl game and will fill a starting spot. Leading tackler Corey Cooper also returns at safety. There's not much experience at corner other than Mitchell, and Daniel Davie, Auburn transfer Jonathan Rose and others will compete. Nebraska brings back more at safety with Harvey Jackson, who made three starts in 2013, and junior Charles Jackson.

Northwestern: That the Wildcats' secondary could be one of the team's biggest strengths seemed laughable three years ago, but it could be true this fall. All four starters return, led by safety Ibraheim Campbell, one of the Big Ten's most productive defenders (262 career tackles). The depth at cornerback looks strong as starters Nick VanHoose and Matt Harris return, along with Dwight White and Daniel Jones, who opened 2013 as a starter and is coming back from an ACL tear. Traveon Henry should start alongside Campbell, and there are some promising young safeties like Godwin Igwebuike.

Ohio State: Pass defense proved to be Ohio State's downfall in 2013, and the Buckeyes' secondary will be under the microscope this spring as new assistant Chris Ash steps in. Ohio State loses All-Big Ten cornerback Bradley Roby and will lean more on Doran Grant, who started opposite Roby in 2013. Ash also expects big things from Tyvis Powell, who will start at one of the safety spots. Safety Vonn Bell finally logged significant playing time in the Orange Bowl and could become a permanent starter as a sophomore. Veteran Ron Tanner and Cam Burrows also are in the mix at safety. There should be good competition to start opposite Grant, as Armani Reeves tries to hold off redshirt freshmen Gareon Conley and Eli Apple.

Penn State: After a season of moving parts and inconsistent plays, Penn State hopes for a more settled secondary. Adrian Amos, who alternated between cornerback and safety last season, will lead the group and brings plenty of experience. Jordan Lucas likely will start opposite Amos at cornerback after making strides toward the end of his sophomore season. PSU loses some leadership at safety with Malcolm Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong departing and will lean on Ryan Keiser and Jesse Della Valle, both of whom have starting experience. Converted wideouts Trevor Williams and Malik Golden provide depth at cornerback and safety, respectively.

Purdue: The rotation from 2013 returns almost completely intact, but Purdue loses a very big piece in cornerback Ricardo Allen, a four-year starter. Cornerback Frankie Williams enters his third year as a starter and will slide into Allen's featured role, while the competition for the other top corner spot will feature Antoine Lewis and Leroy Clark, among others. Purdue has plenty of experience at safety with Taylor Richards, who started every game in 2013, and Anthony Brown, who replaced the injured Landon Feichter and had 69 tackles. Feichter also is back from a broken leg.

Rutgers: This group is anxious to turn the page after a season filled with personnel issues and poor performance (Rutgers finished 120th nationally in pass defense). Senior safety Lorenzo Waters leads the group after recording 62 tackles and two forced fumbles in 2013. Johnathan Aiken will try to start opposite Waters at free safety, although he'll be pushed by Delon Stephenson and Tejay Johnson, who started three games last fall. Gareef Glashen started six games last season and seems likely to retain one of the top cornerback spots. There will be competition at the other between Anthony Cioffi and Nadir Barnwell, both of whom started games as true freshmen in 2013. The most intriguing player to watch is cornerback Ian Thomas, who returns to the team after quitting midway through last season, one that he began as a starter.

Wisconsin: The Badgers are relatively young at both secondary positions but boast far more experience at cornerback than safety. Junior Darius Hillary and sophomore Sojourn Shelton started all 13 games at cornerback last season. Peniel Jean adds even more experience at the position. Safety is much less settled as Dezmen Southward graduates, Michael Caputo shifts to linebacker and Tanner McEvoy returns to quarterback. Nate Hammon and Leo Musso both played in all 13 games last fall as reserves. Newcomers like Serge Trezy and Austin Hudson could compete for time when they arrive this summer.

Northwestern Wildcats, Illinois Fighting Illini, Michigan Wolverines, Wisconsin Badgers, Michigan State Spartans, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Ohio State Buckeyes, Penn State Nittany Lions, Indiana Hoosiers, Iowa Hawkeyes, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Purdue Boilermakers, Big Ten Conference, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Maryland Terrapins, Dwight White, Ian Thomas, Ibraheim Campbell, Tanner Miller, Mark Murphy, Daniel Jones, Nick VanHoose, Traveon Henry, Darius Mosely, Adrian Amos, Zane Petty, Jaylen Dunlap, Godwin Igwebuike, Rashard Fant, Darius Hillary, Michael Caputo, Peniel Jean, Eaton Spence, Jevaris Little, Taylor Barton, V'Angelo Bentley, Corey Cooper, Josh Mitchell, Landon Feichter, B.J. Lowery, Ryan Keiser, Derrick Wells, Dezmen Southward, Jesse Della Valle, Blake Countess, Jabrill Peppers, Trae Waynes, Doran Grant, Sojourn Shelton, Kurtis Drummond, Tyvis Powell, Charlton Warren, Charles Jackson, B1G spring positions 14, A.J. Hendy, Alvin Hill, Andrew Green, Anthony Cioffi, Anthony Gair, Anthony Nixon, Antoine Lewis, Antonio Allen, Antonio Johnson, Arjen Colquhoun, Armani Reeves, Austin Hudson, Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Cam Burrows, Cedric Thompson, Daniel Davie, Darian Hicks, Delon Stephenson, Demetrious Cox, Dexter McDougle, Dymonte Thomas, Eric Murray, Ezra Robinson, Frankie Williams, Gareef Glashen, Gareon Conley, Grayson Levine, Harvey Jackson, Jarrod Wilson, Jeremiah Johnson, Jermaine Edmonson, John Lowdermilk, Johnathan Aiken, Jonathan Rose, Jordan Lomax, Kenny Mullen, Leroy Clark, Lorenzo Waters, Malik Golden, Matt Harris, Michael Hunter, Nadir Barnwell, Nate Hammon, Raymon Taylor, RJ Williamson, Ron Tanner, Sean Davis, Sean Draper, Serge Trezy, Taylor Richards, Tejay Johnson, Tim Bennett, Trevor Williams, Will Likely, Zach Dancel

Illinois, Northwestern both eye Chicago

September, 29, 2011
On the field, Illinois and Northwestern compete directly for tangible prizes: the Land of Lincoln trophy, bragging rights for the next year and, in the big picture, the Big Ten championship.

Off the field, the schools compete indirectly for a potentially more important but harder-to-define prize.


[+] EnlargeWrigley Field
Jerry Lai/US PresswireNorthwestern and Illinois, who played at Wrigley Field last November, are both trying to establish a bigger presence in Chicago.
The Big Ten's two Illinois-based programs want a bigger piece of the league's biggest market. Although they'll employ different strategies, their goal is the same: a larger presence in the Windy City.

"This isn’t about Northwestern vs. Illinois," Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips told "It's about institutions and programs trying to carve out a piece of the Chicagoland area."

Northwestern made the first move in the summer of 2010, launching its first-ever major marketing campaign, spurred by the tag line "Chicago's Big Ten team." The school targeted the Chicago market, putting up billboards, increasing advertising with media outlets and getting its football program in the spotlight.

The early returns have "extremely successful," Phillips said. Northwestern had the nation's second-highest increase in average football attendance from 2009 to 2010 (average increase of 12,259 fans). The school's corporate sponsorships have tripled in the past 18 months, according to Phillips.

"The benchmarks are all headed in positive direction," Phillips said, "but it's about long-term sustainability."

At his introductory news conference as Illinois' athletic director last month, Mike Thomas declared, "We want to be the king of Chicago." Thomas is putting together a plan on how to approach the Chicago market in new ways.

"Even prior to my taking the job, it was clear from my homework that there was more work to do up there," Thomas told "We need to do a better job of marketing our brand and having a presence. You can define presence in a lot of different ways. Is it all the different media pieces? Is it billboards? Is it playing more contests up there?

"It can be a lot of different things, but how do we cater to those people, knowing that they're very important to the growth of all of our programs."

Not surprisingly, Illinois will target the large number of its alumni in Chicago, as well as those who grew up rooting for the Illini as the state's flagship college team.

"You would think we would have a leg up on people like that," Thomas said. "The percentages would tell you the opportunity for success is greater with them than those that didn't go to school here."

Northwestern has taken a different approach to marketing, largely out of necessity. With the second-smallest alumni base of any Big Ten school in Chicago, Northwestern has reached out to general sports fans and even those who root for other Big Ten teams.

"I don't think you have the spike or the ascension of numbers and attendance figures without garnering some of those individuals who don't have specific allegiances to teams," Phillips said.

Northwestern has relied on opposing fans to help fill Ryan Field, a trend that will continue to some degree. Illinois, meanwhile, will focus primarily on those with some ties to the school or its teams.

"It's going to be awfully difficult to get alumni of other Big Ten schools or people that have been die-hard, passionate fans of other Big Ten institutions for years to flip their allegiances and become Fighting Illini fans overnight or at all," Thomas said. "The focus should be those people who are already engaged in us, and then those who may be out there in the gray area, who hopefully we can get to gravitate toward our fan base."

Northwestern has the advantage of being located just north of Chicago's city limits. Illinois, meanwhile, is 130 miles away.

Thomas wants to play more Illini home games in the city. Illinois' basketball team has played at the United Center for years, but the football team could soon play contests at venues like Soldier Field or even Wrigley Field, where Illinois and Northwestern played last November in a Northwestern home game.

"There is a formula that probably works up in Chicago," Thomas said. "Does it mean more games? I think it does. What does that look like at the end of the day? I probably couldn't tell you right now. But hopefully we'll get it figured out sooner rather than later."

Both Thomas and Phillips understand the difficulty of boosting a brand in a pro-sports city saturated with teams. Thomas faced a similar challenge at his previous stop, the University of Cincinnati, as well as in his hometown of Denver, where he served as an assistant AD at the University of Denver. Phillips is a Chicago native and an Illinois alum who made stops at Notre Dame and Northern Illinois before coming to Northwestern.

[+] EnlargeRon Zook
Jerry Lai/US PresswireIllini coach Ron Zook celebrates with the crowd after defeating Northwestern last season at Wrigley Field.
The two ADs are friends and praised one another for ramping up efforts in Chicago. They both agreed that the biggest step toward increased attention is winning on the field.

Phillips downplayed the direct competition off of it.

"What works for us may not work for them and vice-versa," he said. "Truthfully, I don’t think we're competing for the same people."

The competition on the field, which resumes Saturday in Champaign, is more clear cut.

The Illinois-Northwestern rivalry seems to be spicing up. After Illinois thrashed Northwestern last year at Wrigley Field, Illini linebacker Martez Wilson, a Chicago native, said, "Our game plan showed who was Chicago's Big Ten team." At Big Ten preseason media days this summer, Illinois coach Ron Zook took a shot at Northwestern's nonconference schedule.

Illini coaches and players have been salty leading up to this week's game.
"We heard them say some things, like 'We recruit different kind of guys. They don’t recruit our kind of guys,'" Illini linebacker Ian Thomas said. "We want to show them our kind of guys are better football players and a better team."

Zook said Tuesday that the schools don't recruit against each other much, adding, "we take some kids that they wouldn't take and they probably take some kids that we wouldn't take." But both staffs spend much of their time recruiting the Chicago area.

The Chicago element adds to what's at stake between the lines.

"The game's important to both of us for a lot of reasons," Zook said. "It's important because it is a Big Ten game. It's important because it's a rivalry and it's important because it's Chicago."

Illini can change perception with big win

September, 15, 2011
Here's a buy-or-sell proposition for you.

Team X won its bowl game convincingly in December, capping a season that surprised many so-called experts. Team X boasts an exciting young dual-threat quarterback who has complemented his athleticism with better passing. Team X typically ranks among the nation's top-20 teams in rushing, returns a veteran line and a nice backfield mix. Despite losing three defenders to the NFL draft, Team X has several seasoned defensive backs and linebackers. Team X has won its first two games by a combined score of 89-18. Team X plays eight home games, including each of the first five and six of the first seven.

So, are you buying or selling?

Oh, you want to know the team's name? The head coach's name, too?

OK, understood. Let me know if you change your mind.

This is the perception the Illinois Fighting Illini and their coach Ron Zook are up against as they try to regain a place on the national college football radar. For every reason to buy into Illinois, there are other reasons to stay away from the Orange and Blue.

[+] EnlargeA.J. Jenkins
AP Photo/Seth PerlmanA.J. Jenkins knows Saturday night's game gives Illinois the chance to show the country what kind of team it is.
Illinois has been the ultimate tease in the Big Ten, twice reaching BCS bowls in the past decade, only to backslide. Zook has teased us with talent, bringing elite recruits to Champaign but not getting consistent results (30-45 in six-plus seasons).

While Illinois has the look of a team to watch in the Big Ten, there's a hesitancy from the outside to buy in, and players know it.

Check out receiver A.J. Jenkins' response to a seemingly neutral question: How big of an opportunity is Saturday night's game with No. 22 Arizona State?

"It's a really big opportunity for us," Jenkins said. "Both undefeated teams, playing a night game in prime time. It's going to be a good thing because we'll finally have the respect we deserve.

"We believe we can be a ranked, Top-25 team. This is the time for us to show the world that doesn't believe, that we're capable."

The Arizona State game comes at a perfect time for Illinois.

The Sun Devils come in ranked in both major polls (No. 22 AP; No. 18 coaches). They put themselves on the national radar with a dramatic overtime victory last Friday against Missouri. They boast one of the nation's most recognizable defenders in linebacker Vontaze Burfict and one of the nation's most recognizable quarterbacks in the 6-foot-8 Brock Osweiler.

Arizona State will be the main attraction nationally Saturday night, but if Illinois wins, attention will come its way. Maybe even respect.

"Our guys understand if we're going to be involved in the Big Ten [race], have something to do with that, this is a game where we're going to have to show up and play the way we're capable of playing," Zook said. "I don't think there's any question these guys are fired up about it."

The game pits an explosive Illinois offense against an Arizona State defense that ranked 16th nationally against the run in 2010. Illinois set a team scoring record last fall (423 points) and leads the Big Ten in scoring, total yards and rushing yards through the first two weeks.

Sophomore quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is off to a quick start, but Burfict, whose reputation for administering ferocious hits and drawing personal fouls is well known, will be gunning for No. 2.

"The emotional part is the thing that really stands out with Vontaze," Zook said. "He's going to make sure you know he's around."

Osweiler also is tough to miss, and not just because of his unusual size. The junior was brilliant against Missouri, completing 24 of 32 passes for 353 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions.

Illinois needs its veteran linebackers and defensive backs like Ian Thomas, Trulon Henry, Tavon Wilson and Terry Hawthorne to step up.

"You can't get in his line of sight," Illini defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said of Osweiler. "They run the big split stuff where they get him throwing lanes. He's a big ol' quarterback and he's not unathletic. We're just going to do the best we can.

"This will be a fantastic challenge for us."

Illinois hasn't beaten a ranked opponent since stunning then-No. 1 Ohio State in Columbus in 2007. The victory spurred the Illini to the Rose Bowl.

Although beating Arizona State wouldn't make the same impact, it could springboard the Illini to bigger things when Big Ten play begins.

"For people who don't believe we can beat teams that are ranked, it's time to come out and see what we can do," Jenkins said. "This game might spark our season.

"I wouldn't say it's a must-win, but if we want the respect that we deserve, this is a win we need."