Chicago Colleges: Kyle Prater
Indiana's offensive linemen are no exception. They don't seek out the spotlight. But it's time to recognize what they've been doing the past few years, because few seem to notice.
You might disagree, but I doubt you've actually paid attention to Indiana's line. Maybe because it's Indiana. Maybe it's because the Hoosiers run an up-tempo spread offense rather than a traditional, road-grading one that typically shines a brighter light on the five men up front. Whatever the reason, the Hoosiers line rarely gets much love.
But it's a huge reason why Indiana has had the Big Ten's No. 2 offense in each of the past two seasons. Despite two true freshman starters in 2012, Indiana led the Big Ten in fewest sacks allowed: one for every 31.8 pass attempts. Last season, the line overcame several major injuries -- IU started nine linemen and used seven different lineups -- and prevented sacks in six games. The offense averaged more than 300 pass yards and more than 200 rush yards for the first time in team history.
"When I came in with Coach [Kevin] Wilson, both of us having an offensive line background, we wanted to build a unit that has great flexibility, the ability to run the ball," Hoosiers offensive line coach Greg Frey told ESPN.com "Our goal, as it is with any offensive line, is to control the game. We’re going to pick up that third-and-1. If you need more time to throw, we're going to give you more time."
Strong offensive lines are normally stocked with veterans, but Indiana has excelled with youth. Five Hoosiers linemen have earned freshman All-Big Ten honors since 2011, including two in each of the past two seasons. Tackle Jason Spriggs and guard Dan Feeney both earned freshman All-America honors in 2012, when they set team freshman records by starting all 12 games.
Indiana lost Feeney to a foot injury days before the 2013 season and lost two other starters, Peyton Eckert and David Kaminski, to season-ending injuries in October. But others stepped up, players such as Collin Rahrig, a former walk-on who started 10 games at center, earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors. Ralston Evans, who suffered a major knee injury before the 2011 season and appeared in only one game in 2012, started all 12 games at right tackle last season.
"When we were at Michigan, coaches came up and said, 'Who the hell is this right tackle you’ve got?'" Frey said. "I said, 'Don't tell me. Tell him he did a good job.' These guys work hard. There’s a good culture there."
Indiana returns 130 career offensive line starts, most in the Big Ten and third most in the FBS behind Appalachian State and UTSA. Frey, who previously coached lines at Michigan, West Virginia and South Florida, thinks this could be his deepest group.
It's a close group, too, one that spends a lot of time together off of the field. If a Bloomington restaurant offers a food special, the Hoosiers' linemen are quick to find it.
Frey doesn't change his expectations for the line in 2014. They've always been high.
"The ability to be a leader or a presence on the team, that part of it changes," he said. "There’s some credentials there, a little bit of background, some personal expectations.
"We have more voices there who are respected."
But will the group gain respect? It will take more than yards and points.
"They realize the more you’re winning in college football, the more people know about you," Frey said. "Not that it matters in the grand scheme of things, but you'd like to see the fruits of their labor be recognized. Everybody likes to be recognized a little bit.
"Hopefully as we go on, that will naturally happen."
Indiana's offensive line tops my list of the Big Ten's most underrated position groups. Here are four others ...
Minnesota's secondary: Jay Sawvel does an excellent job with Minnesota's back four. Fourth-round draft pick Brock Vereen will be tough to replace, but safety Cedric Thompson had a good spring and Eric Murray could become an elite cornerback this season. Derrick Wells adds a playmaking presence at corner and Briean Boddy-Calhoun, who opened last season as a starting cornerback, returns from injury.
Penn State's running backs: Quarterback Christian Hackenberg grabs the headlines and justifiably so, but he'll need help in the backfield from a talented group of ball-carriers. How many people know Zach Zwinak has nearly 2,000 career rush yards? Bill Belton had an excellent spring and could be the offense's top playmaker, and junior Akeel Lynch has a nice speed-power mix.
Northwestern's receivers/tight ends: I've stumped for this group and while it hasn't quite blossomed, a two-quarterback system and a shift from a pass-heavy attack didn't help. Northwestern should be much more pass-heavy with Trevor Siemian as its sole signal caller. Christian Jones and Tony Jones are proven veterans, Rutgers transfer Myles Shuler fills a void in the slot and Kyle Prater is finally healthy. Tight end Dan Vitale is poised for a breakout season.
Maryland's linebackers: The Terps return three of four starters who combined for 233 tackles last season. Cole Farrand is a strong leader, and Matt Robinson provides a spark on the outside. Maryland will miss the disruptive Marcus Whitfield but returns five of its top six linebackers from 2013. If the group stays healthy -- a big if given Maryland's recent misfortune -- it could be very good.
The college football guru packs a tremendous amount of information and research into his preseason magazines. And Steele has released his choices for the 2014 All-Big Ten team, which you can find here.
Steele sees newcomers Maryland and Rutgers bringing some talent into the league quickly, as he has two Terrapins (wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long) and two Scarlet Knights (guard Kaleb Johnson and linebacker Steve Longa) on the first team. ... A mild surprise on the first team is Michigan State linebacker Taiwan Jones, who will attempt to take over the middle spot from Max Bullough this year. ... The first-team defensive line is absolutely loaded, with Nebraska's Randy Gregory, Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun, and Ohio State's Michael Bennett and Joey Bosa. Iowa's Carl Davis and Minnesota's Theiren Cockran were relegated to second-team status. ... Speaking of the second team, Steele puts Northwestern wide receiver Kyle Prater there, apparently expecting big things at long last from the former USC transfer. ... Steele also has Ohio State's Dontre Wilson and Devin Smith breaking out as second-team All-Big Ten receivers. ... Penn State fans might be a bit miffed to see Christian Hackenberg as only the third-team quarterback. Michigan State's Connor Cook is Steele's choice for second-team QB, with Braxton Miller obviously No. 1. ... Michigan State leads the way with five players on Steele's first-team offense and defense. Ohio State has four, while Wisconsin, Nebraska and Michigan each have three.
Steele also has released his preseason All-America team, which includes some familiar Big Ten names. Here's a quick rundown:
Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon
Ohio State DT Michael Bennett
Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun
Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah
Iowa OT Brandon Scherff
Nebraska DE Randy Gregory
Ohio State DE Joey Bosa
Iowa PR Kevonte Martin-Manley
Ohio State QB Braxton Miller
Maryland WR Stefon Diggs
Michigan WR Devin Funchess
Iowa DT Carl Davis
Michigan LB Jake Ryan
Michigan State CB Trae Waynes
Michigan State S Kurtis Drummond
Illinois PR V'Angelo Bentley
Indiana LS Matt Dooley
Michigan State RB Jeremy Langford
Ohio State TE Jeff Heuerman
Wisconsin OT Rob Havenstein
Northwestern RB/KR Venric Mark
Both players emerged from high school as top-60 recruits. Prater was the No. 9 wideout in the 2010 class according to ESPN Recruiting Nation; Arnett was the No. 9 wideout in the 2011 class. Both grew up in the Midwest but both elected to play for famous, faraway programs -- Prater at USC, Arnett at Tennessee -- that had produced great wide receivers over the years.
Then, in January 2012, both elected to transfer closer to home. Arnett, from Saginaw, Mich., transferred to Michigan State to be near his father, William, awaiting a kidney transplant. Prater, from Maywood, Ill., transferred to Northwestern and also cited family reasons, although he hasn't gone into detail.
Although their situations weren't ideal, both wideouts appeared to be back on track.
But they had more detours ahead. They have combined for only 23 receptions and no touchdowns the past two seasons. Prater dealt with a "plethora" of lower-body injuries that limited his effectiveness. Arnett took longer than expected to adjust to the offense and slipped down the depth chart as other receivers emerged.
Fans didn't forget them, but the buzz that existed when they arrived practically disappeared.
Prater and Arnett are still around and, after strong performances during spring practice, both could finally make the impact many expected two years ago.
"I'm looking forward to great things happening this year," Prater told ESPN.com. "I can honestly say I feel like I'm back, and I’m ready to go."
Added Arnett: "I had a big spring, so I’m continuing to build on that."
Both receivers drew high marks from their coaches during the spring, as they put themselves in the two-deep heading into the summer.
Prater's chief challenge was making it through the 15 practices intact, which he did. Despite a 6-foot-5, 225-pound frame, Prater hasn't been structurally sound during his college career. Injuries limited him at USC, where he had only one catch in two seasons, and have continued at Northwestern, where he recorded 10 receptions in 2012 and nine last season.
"You could not put together a worse script from an injury standpoint for a person," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "It's been such a bad deal for him."
Prater hasn't had one single major injury, but several issues "built up to a degree where I couldn't perform where I wanted to." He thinks many of the issues could have been prevented with the right stretching or training regimen.
When Northwestern's training room opens at the ungodly time of 5:45 a.m., he's often the first one through the door. He has improved his flexibility and tried to lower his hips to create more explosion out of breaks.
"It's just being proactive," he said. "Like if it’s a hamstring, I'm going to do the things to not have [an injury], strengthening my glutes, all the areas around there."
This spring, Dantonio called Arnett the team's "most pleasant surprise" and noted his consistency, aggressiveness and run-after-catch ability. The suspension of Macgarrett Kings created more opportunities for Arnett, who had five receptions for 63 years during a mid-spring scrimmage.
"It's given me a chance to, I don't know, re-state myself," Arnett said. "I feel more comfortable knowing everything, knowing all the positions, about where to go on the field. Now it's making plays."
Arnett is more relaxed, and his time on the sideline last season, while not what he hoped, allowed him to absorb the playbook. After a diet of pasta, steak, rice and iron -- the kind you find in the weight room -- Arnett expects to play this season between 190-195 pounds.
"I don't think just because I haven't been playing, the expectations should be lower," he said. "I want them to be high. I want to be in the situation where there's a lot of pressure on me to produce."
Fitzgerald called Prater "outstanding" this spring, and Prater thinks he surprised the coaches with his play. His next goal: silencing his doubters when the season begins.
"There's always a lot of naysayers, lot of people felt I didn't have it," he said. "They thought I wasn't there anymore, but I never stopped believing."
There were days when Prater wondered about all the injuries, why they kept happening, and whether he had a future in football. He admits the accolades he had coming out of high school overwhelmed him.
The last few years have brought growth and perspective.
"I look at the game as far as being more appreciative, having fun and being blessed that I'm out there," Prater said. "My whole career has been overcoming adversity. It shows a true test of my will that [I can] talk to you today and say I'm still here. I'm very confident in my ability to play. Everything I've been through has made me who I am now.
"This is the best I've ever felt, and I look forward to great things."
There are no guarantees for either Prater or Arnett this season, as both play on teams with multiple returning starters at receiver.
But if called upon, they'll be ready to finish their roundabout routes the right way.
Three things we learned in the spring
- The offense has a quarterback and an identity: The two-quarterback system Northwestern used with mixed results in 2012 and 2013 is dead, at least for now. Senior Trevor Siemian established himself as the top signal-caller and a team leader with a strong spring. Siemian has less mobility than recent Wildcats signal-callers but a stronger arm. Northwestern likely will return to its pass-first roots this season after never establishing a consistent identity last fall.
- The secondary should be a strength: Northwestern historically has struggled in the back end of its defense, but it returns all four starters from a decent group last season and boasts unprecedented depth. The emergence of redshirt freshmen like Godwin Igwebuike, Kyle Queiro and Keith Watkins II this spring allows the Wildcats to go two or three deep at all four positions. Senior safety Ibraheim Campbell leads the group, which will be expected to generate takeaways.
- Shuler, Prater add to receiving corps: This group has teased us before, but the combination of returning players, newcomers and a pass-driven quarterback/offense suggests big things are on the way. Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler is a natural playmaker who could star at the slot position, like Jeremy Ebert did in 2010 and 2011. Another one-time transfer, former USC Trojan Kyle Prater, is finally healthy and turned in a solid spring at the outside spot. The 6-foot-5, 225-pound Prater provides size on the edge.
- Defensive line health: Like the offensive line last spring, Northwestern's defensive front went through the session with limited bodies following offseason surgeries to four players, including tackle Sean McEvilly, a projected starter, and ends Ifeadi Odenigbo and Deonte Gibson. Everyone will be healthy for a vital preseason camp as Northwestern tries to firm up its run defense, a weakness during Big Ten play last season.
- Venric Mark's role: A 1,300-yard rusher and All-America punt returner in 2012, Mark essentially has played one full game since the 2013 Gator Bowl. He should be a major addition on special teams, but his role in the offense remains to be seen. Mark had his most success running the zone read with Kain Colter, but Siemian has different strengths. Northwestern needs a stronger inside run presence, a role Mark relishes despite his size. Above all else, the Wildcats need Mark to stay on the field throughout the season.
- Firming up the offensive line: The line took a significant step backward in 2013, possibly because of all the injury issues in the previous offseason. Northwestern had all of its linemen on the field this spring and ramped up the competition, as senior tackle Jack Konopka, a two-year starter, worked with the reserves. Center Brandon Vitabile and tackle Paul Jorgensen provide leadership for the group, but most spots remain open entering the summer.
Northwestern returns to the postseason and makes some noise in the West Division. Just about everything went wrong for the Wildcats from an injury and fortune standpoint in 2013. They had leadership issues that players acknowledged this spring. They had no identity on offense. Most of the core pieces return and the leadership appears much stronger. If Northwestern remains relatively healthy, it should win at least seven games and possibly challenge Iowa, Wisconsin and Nebraska in the West.
Our prediction clearly missed the mark back then, mainly because Northwestern became more of a zone-read run-driven offense led by quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark. But maybe we jumped the gun on the Wildcats.
Wide receiver Kyle Prater, a one-time elite recruit who has battled myriad injuries during stints at both USC and Northwestern, is finally helping and contributing. Sophomore Mike McHugh provides another presence outside, and Jayme Taylor complements Vitale at the superback (tight end/fullback) spot.
An offense that struggled to find playmakers in 2013 now might have a surplus.
"We're going to attack you with waves of people," coach Pat Fitzgerald told ESPN.com. "And we've proven over time that when we have that in place, I don't know how you stop us."
The Wildcats couldn't produce second and third waves of passing weapons in 2013. It might not have mattered with the way their offensive line was pushed around, but Christian Jones logged too many snaps without a break. So did Vitale.
The depth issues especially hurt with an up-tempo offense, Fitzgerald noted, because you want to rotate personnel more often. When Northwestern had to pass more after injuries to both Mark and Colter, it couldn't deliver.
"When guys got dinged, and that's going to happen, we didn't have the depth we needed," offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. "Now we can run the same personnel, but wave two is coming at you. We're still going to have our starters and they're going to get to play, but it's nice to bring some of those other guys along.
"Right now, the ball's getting spread around a lot more."
Northwestern's deepest position actually might be running back, especially when Mark and Stephen Buckley return to action this fall. Treyvon Green, the team's leading rusher in 2013, and Warren Long took most of the carries this spring. Several heralded freshmen arrive in the summer.
But it's becoming fairly apparent that Northwestern's offense will have more of a passing lean this fall. Quarterback Trevor Siemian, who left no doubt about his starter status this spring, boasts a strong arm and much less mobility than Colter. The offense could look a lot more like the units in 2007 and 2009, which ranked in the top 15 nationally in passing.
"We still have the option, but our next option off of a run play is maybe to throw something," McCall said. "That's the way it's always been in this system. When we had an option quarterback, you could pitch it off of that. Now they load the box and we pull the ball and we're going to throw it."
McCall is quick to note that during his tenure, Northwestern has yet to make it through the season without an injury to a quarterback or a running back.
Translation: the Wildcats will need all of their options.
"We have a lot of talent across the board," Shuler said. "Speed, size, quickness. We have a lot of depth, so I'm really excited."
When: 11 a.m. ET
Where: Ryan Field
Admission: Free. Stadium gates will open at 10 a.m. ET
TV: Big Ten Network (live)
Weather forecast: Partly sunny, with a high near 68. Wind 10 to 15 mph.
What to watch for: Just like last year, the Wildcats won’t hold an actual spring game. Instead, their 15th session of the spring will be just like a regular practice, except that fans will be invited to attend.
And, no, they didn’t scrap the spring game because of union demands. Pat Fitzgerald’s team is simply too banged up to field two squads and go at it in any kind of live scrimmage. Northwestern opened spring drills with 11 players sidelined because of injuries, including potential starting defensive linemen Sean McEvilly, Deonte Gibson and Ifeadi Odenigbo, cornerback Daniel Jones and star running back Venric Mark.
Because of the injuries, Fitzgerald hasn’t really been able to have scrimmages all spring and says he’ll have to hold some during two-a-days in August to get his players up to speed.
There will still be some story lines to watch Saturday, and in fact, you may learn more from a regular practice effort than you would from most vanilla, fan-friendly spring exhibitions. Fitzgerald has said this is quarterback Trevor Siemian’s team, which means the offense should be fairly reliant on the passing game and not so much the option. At receiver, transfer Miles Shuler has earned praise, and the oft-injured Kyle Prater has had a nice spring, Fitzgerald said this week. It's just about now or never for Prater.
Collin Ellis has moved to middle linebacker, and there's a pretty good competition for his old spot on the outside, with Jimmy Hall and Drew Smith battling it out.
Mostly, though, the Wildcats and their fans are happy to see a day that should be all about football after their spring was dominated by union talk. The vote still looms, but at least on Saturday, the team can just practice, even if it's not a traditional spring game.
The Wildcats announced Monday that three projected starters will miss the spring session with injuries: cornerback Nick VanHoose, middle linebacker Damien Proby and offensive tackle Jack Konopka. Several other players who filled reserve roles in 2012 but could claim starting jobs in 2013 also are out, including offensive tackle Paul Jorgensen, wide receiver Kyle Prater, defensive tackle Will Hampton, defensive end Deonte Gibson and guard Matt Frazier.
All 13 players out for the spring are expected back for fall camp and the season. Most are recovering from postseason surgeries.
VanHoose missed three games late last season with a shoulder injury, so his absence for spring isn't a major surprise. Prater also didn't look 100 percent healthy in 2012. Konopka started at right tackle in 2012 and could be moved to the left side to replace the graduating Patrick Ward.
Both Proby and Konopoka started all 13 games last season.
Both Jorgensen and Frazier played behind offensive linemen who graduated following the 2012 season, so their absence this spring should ramp up the competition at those positions.
Both Gibson and Hampton, who started three games last season, figure to be in the mix for starting defensive-line positions, although they'll have to make up for lost time this summer.
Northwestern practices nine times before finals and spring break in mid-March. The Wildcats return for four more sessions before wrapping up with their spring game on April 13.
Prater, a Maywood, Ill. native, transferred to Northwestern earlier this year and received a residence waiver from the NCAA. That meant he would not have to sit out a year, which is customary with transfers.
Read the entire story.
Northwestern has yet to be notified if wide receiver Kyle Prater will be given a waiver to play next season after transferring from USC to be closer to home due to a family situation, Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said on Wednesday.
“Obviously, we’re hoping for the best,” Fitzgerald said by phone on Wednesday. “We’ll adjust accordingly when we get the NCAA to rule on it, and we’ll move forward on that.”
Fitzgerald said he expected to receive a decision from the NCAA by August.
Prater transferred to Northwestern after two injury-plagued seasons at USC. He redshirted his first season and had one reception for six yards last season. He participated with the team in Northwestern’s spring football team.
The 6-foot-5, 215-pound Prater was ranked No. 45 in the Class of 2010 by ESPN coming out of Proviso West High School in Hillside, Ill. He had 64 receptions for 1,151 yards and 13 touchdowns his senior season.
The Wildcats got some help Monday by adding Quinn Evans, a graduate transfer from Stanford, to their roster. Evans, a cornerback for the Cardinal, will be eligible for the 2012 season because he'll complete his sociology degree at Stanford later this month. He has one year of eligibility remaining.
A native of Chandler, Ariz., Evans played just two seasons for the Cardinal. He redshirted in 2009 and missed all of last season because of injury. Evans played mostly on special teams in 2009 and 2010 -- he started one game at cornerback in 2009 -- and recorded a total of 13 tackles and two pass breakups. He'll begin pursuing his master's degree at Northwestern.
"I am extremely excited about the opportunity to finish my college football and academic careers at Northwestern," Evans said in a prepared statement. "My visit to campus and the relationships I've developed with Coach [Pat] Fitzgerald and other members of the Northwestern football program have left no doubt that NU is the right fit for me at this time. I'm looking forward to meeting my new teammates at the start of camp and contributing any way I can to our success this season."
Northwestern obviously needs Evans to stay healthy and contribute more than he did at Stanford, but there's no downside to this move, as the roster lacks experience and many upperclassmen at the cornerback or safety spots. This isn't Danny O'Brien stepping in for Wisconsin, but Northwestern's need in the secondary mirrors that of Wisconsin's at the quarterback spot.
Fitzgerald in April called the graduate transfer rule "one of those rules that doesn't make a lot of sense," but added that if it's there, coaches should use it.
Northwestern is still awaiting word on another Pac-12 transfer, Kyle Prater, the former USC wide receiver who hopes to earn a waiver that would make him eligible for the 2012 season. The NCAA is reviewing Prater's paperwork, and a decision could come anywhere from later this month to sometime in August.
Now it's time for them to share their thoughts on what they saw and learned this spring, and you can follow along as they exchange emails. Check out the Leaders Division exchange here. They now turn their focus to the Legends Division.
Adam Rittenberg: Let's take a look at what I believe to be the stronger division in 2012. You spent a lot of time in the Mitten State last month, and while you didn't gorge yourself like you did in America's Dairyland, you got the money quote of spring ball from Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, who said, "We're laying in the weeds. We've beat Michigan the last four years. So where's the threat?" How spicy is the Michigan State-Michigan rivalry getting, and how good do you think these two teams will be this season after visiting both campuses?
Brian Bennett: Oh, there was some serious gorging going on at Zingerman's in Ann Arbor and Sparty's in East Lansing. Good thing there's only one spring practice session per year.
Anyway, I went into the spring thinking Michigan and Michigan State were the two strongest teams in the league, and I didn't see anything to change my opinion. While the Wolverines are more focused on Ohio State and even Alabama, they know they have to end their losing streak against Michigan State. And the Spartans take serious pride in that four-game run while bristling at all the offseason accolades thrown toward Brady Hoke's team. Oct. 20 can't come soon enough, as far as I'm concerned.
If the two teams played right now, I'd definitely take Michigan State. Dantonio has done a terrific job of developing depth on both lines and all over the defense. There's not a deeper team in the Big Ten, and the Spartans' physical play has given Michigan fits. The Wolverines still need to figure some things out in the trenches, especially on the defensive line, but that's one area where Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison excel. I believe these two teams will be neck and neck all year for the Legends title.
Of course, there's another team lurking in the division, and that's Nebraska. You went to Lincoln this spring, and it sounded like the Cornhuskers are feeling mighty ambitious this season. Do they have the necessary tools to back up their lofty goals?
Adam Rittenberg: It was interesting to see a team openly discuss the national title, Brian, especially in a league like the Big Ten. Huskers safety P.J. Smith even went so far as to say a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl championship would be "kind of disappointing." That's bold. Nebraska would have to skip a step or two to reach that point, but I can see where the confidence stems from. There's a greater comfort level between players and coaches in Lincoln, and also between the coaches and what they face in the Big Ten. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck was candid about the difficulty of preparing for so many new opponents, particularly since Nebraska's offensive and defensive systems are a little different from what we see in the rest of the league.
Quarterback Taylor Martinez received good marks from the coaches, and his focus on footwork could translate into a more consistent passing attack. Beck certainly wants to be a bit more balanced, and Nebraska returns pretty much everyone at wide receiver and tight end. We often hear the cliche that it's all about the quarterback, but it holds true with Nebraska. If Martinez actually makes strides as a passer -- he'll be operating in the same offense as the starter for the first time in his high school or college career -- the Huskers will put up points this fall. But after watching Martinez last season, it's fair to have some doubts about No. 3.
The defense expects to exploit a schematic advantage we heard a lot about last season but didn't see much on Saturdays. I like coordinator John Papuchis, and Bo Pelini made two good staff additions in D-line coach Rick Kaczenski and secondary coach Terry Joseph. They're all about details and accountability, and they believe they'll be able to replace star power with greater depth in certain areas. Nebraska also should be strong in special teams. Do the Huskers have a unit better than Michigan State's defense? Not right now. But Nebraska could end up being the division's most complete team by season's end.
Getting back to Michigan State and Michigan. Both teams lose tremendous leaders from 2011 (Kirk Cousins, Mike Martin, Jerel Worthy, Joel Foreman, David Molk, Ryan Van Bergen). Who do you see filling those roles this year?
Brian Bennett: That's a good question, and one that will have to be answered this summer. For Michigan State, Andrew Maxwell impressed me as a guy who can lead in a similar way as Cousins did; he'll just have to play well at quarterback and battle through adversity. The Spartans have some seniors on defense who can lead, like Anthony Rashad White and Johnny Adams, but they also have some highly respected juniors in Max Bullough and William Gholston.
But they are replacing some very valuable leaders, just as Michigan is doing. Denard Robinson has worked on becoming more vocal and sounded like a different guy in interviews this spring. There's no question he has the respect of his teammates. Craig Roh and Jordan Kovacs seem like natural leaders on defense, and offensive tackle Taylor Lewan says he wants to take on that role as well. But leadership can't be forced, and it remains to be seen if either team can find such strong captains as guys like Cousins and Martin were.
Adam Rittenberg: Let's start off with Iowa, which underwent some major changes this spring with a new offensive coordinator (Greg Davis), a position coach promoted to defensive coordinator (Phil Parker) and several more assistants shuffling, arriving or being promoted. The players seemed to embrace the changes, and coach Kirk Ferentz basically said the team needed a fresh start even though he didn't want to lose his previous coordinators. There's a lot of excitement about Davis' offense, which will be more up-tempo than what we've seen in the past from Iowa. Quarterback James Vandenberg really seems to get it, but will he have enough weapons around him to execute? The running back curse struck again this spring with Jordan Canzeri's ACL injury. Iowa needs young and/or unproven players to step up there, and wide receiver isn't a deep group. It'll be a big summer for Keenan Davis.
The feeling I had coming out of Evanston is that Northwestern will be a younger team but potentially a better one. The Wildcats say goodbye to an accomplished senior class that featured some outstanding players like quarterback Dan Persa. But was it the most talented group? I don't think so. Northwestern has improved its recruiting efforts in recent years, and the team could begin seeing the benefits this year. There are a lot of new faces at spots like defensive back and defensive line. I was impressed with cornerback Nick VanHoose and end Deonte Gibson. The wide receiving corps should be one of the Big Ten's best, even if Kyle Prater isn't eligible until 2013. The Wildcats might not have many familiar names at receiver, but they boast incredible depth there. This team still has question marks -- secondary, pass rush, running back, quarterback -- but the talent level is getting a bit better.
Neither of us made it up to Minneapolis this spring, but we both talked with Gophers players and coaches. What was your sense of the second spring under coach Jerry Kill?
Brian Bennett: We swear it's nothing personal, Gophers fans. Both of us would have enjoyed a trip to the Twin Cities, but the schedule just didn't work out.
Anyway, I did sense more confidence from the Minnesota players and coaches we interviewed. That's not surprising, given that it's the second year for Kill's staff and more familiarity almost always brings a better comfort level. MarQueis Gray really started to come on late last season and appears to have made strides as a passer. He could be one of the league's top playmakers this year. Overall, the Gophers look to have a little more talent this year, thanks to some junior college imports, youngsters who got experience last year and Troy Stoudermire coming back at cornerback. The defense should have more speed, though it remains undersized. The big question for me is who will emerge as weapons alongside Gray, especially at receiver.
But I think that, with a manageable nonconference schedule, Minnesota has a chance to win five or more games this year and it will be much more competitive in Big Ten play than it was early last season. The Legends Division looks more balanced top to bottom than the Leaders and should be fun to follow all year.
Let's take a look at Northwestern's Spring Exhibition:
When: 1 p.m. ET, Saturday
Where: Ryan Field
TV: The game will be streamed live on the Big Ten Digital Network and BTN2Go. The game will air on the Big Ten Network on Sunday at 9 p.m.
Weather forecast: A 60 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms, with a high near 70.
What to watch for: Defense, defense, defense. As in, will there be any?
You can't read too much into a defense's performance in a spring game, since it is going up against the same offense it has faced for weeks and knows the plays and opposing players. Still, Northwestern's defense last year, especially against the pass, was pretty crummy and has been a major focus in the 2012 offseason. So it's fair to hope for some signs of life and defensive playmakers in the spring game.
On offense, the passing game requires close examination. We know quarterback Kain Colter can run the ball, but can he throw it accurately and on time? The receiving corps loses Jeremy Ebert, but could be deeper overall, and USC transfer Kyle Prater can show off his stuff before a crowd before he finds out whether or not he can do it for real on Saturdays this fall.
The Wildcats have only 11 total starters back, so look for a lot of new faces on both sides of the ball. The spring game could give an indication of how optimistic Northwestern fans should be for their future.
Yes, the Wildcats have seen their wins total drop in each of the past three seasons, from nine in 2008 to eight in 2009 to seven in 2010 to six last fall. After back-to-back 5-3 marks in Big Ten play in 2008 and 2009, Northwestern has seen its league record flip in each of the past two seasons.
It doesn't take a mathematics major at Northwestern to see where things are going and ask the question: Has the program lost momentum?
"You can nitpick everything you want, but there has never been more positive momentum in the history of our program," Fitzgerald told ESPN.com. "If you're going to choose one thing to make it be whether or not you have momentum, that's unrealistic. But we've got to win football games and we've got to finish games better than we did a year ago.
It's Fitzgerald's job to look at the entire picture, and he notes some of Northwestern's recent accomplishments: four consecutive bowl appearances for the first time in program history; the winningest departing senior class in the program's history; a team GPA of 3.14; a 2012 recruiting class rated by many as the best in Fitzgerald's tenure. The school is also working on a facilities plan that could be a game-changer for the football program, which lags behind most of its Big Ten brethren.
Still, college football is a bottom-line business, and if Northwestern can't reverse the won-loss trend, its bowl appearances streak will end this season.
"Have we achieved our goals? Absolutely not," Fitzgerald said. "Are we hungry to do that? Absolutely. Are we working diligently to tweak the areas we need to improve? Absolutely."
Northwestern will try to make upgrades with a younger roster -- only 11 total starters return on offense and defense -- but quite possibly a more talented one. The team must fill several gaps, none more significant than Dan Persa's at quarterback, and hopes to do so by having what it believes to be stronger recruiting classes begin to pay dividends.
It's no secret the defense needs help after backsliding sharply in the past year and a half. Since a 6-2 start in 2010, Northwestern has surrendered 30 points or more 11 times. Last fall, the defense couldn't get off of the field (114th nationally in third-down defense at 50 percent conversions), fell victim to explosion plays and generated barely any pressure (106th in sacks, 104th in tackles for loss).
"You've got to make 'em earn everything," defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz said. "If they make great throws and great catches, you can live with those things. But we had some situations last year where we busted a coverage because of communication or we didn't have anybody back there. They didn't have to make the perfect throw or the perfect catch.
"We can execute better, no question."
The challenge is to improve communication and execution with a group heavy on youth. Although Northwestern returns all three starting linebackers, it will use young players in all three sections of the defense, including redshirt freshman cornerback Nick VanHoose, sophomore linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo and redshirt freshman defensive end Deonte Gibson.
Consider that Ibraheim Campbell, a redshirt sophomore safety who led the team with 100 tackles in 2011, is viewed as the clear leader of the secondary.
Communication has been a focal point this spring, as players are taking extra measures to ensure they're on the same page.
"When I yell out a call to the D-line, the only way I know they got it is if they tap their hip," linebacker David Nwabuisi said. "We started forgetting about little stuff like that [in 2011]. Now when I make a call, if the D-lineman doesn't tap his hip, I keep on yelling at him until he does. Same thing with DBs to linebackers."
Communication shouldn't be an issue for Kain Colter, who started three games at quarterback in place of the injured Persa last season and evolved into arguably the Big Ten's most versatile offensive weapon (654 rush yards, 673 pass yards, 466 receiving yards, 18 total touchdowns). Colter is the best athlete to call signals at Northwestern since the team implemented the spread offense in 2000, but to maintain the program's recent run of top-shelf quarterbacks, he needs to become a more polished passer.
The junior emphasized velocity and arm strength during the winter -- he tore the labrum and the biceps in his throwing arm as a high school senior -- and expects to execute the high-percentage passes that drive the Wildcats' offense this fall. He'll have plenty of weapons as Northwestern boasts most likely its deepest receiving corps ever, even if USC transfer Kyle Prater can't play right away.
"My timing's getting a lot better, my arm strength's a lot better," Colter said. "I feel like I can make all the throws on the field. That hasn't been a problem this spring."
Northwestern loses four-year starters on both sides of the ball, an NCAA record holder in Persa, two-time All-Big Ten honoree Jeremy Ebert and Drake Dunsmore, the inaugural winner of the Kwalick-Clark Award as the Big Ten's top tight end. Fitzgerald likened the personnel turnover to a shift change at a factory and acknowledges the team dynamic is different.
Given the declining wins total, though, some new blood might not be a bad thing, and the coaches feel the team's overall talent level is on the uptick.
"There's better talent than people think," offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. "The cupboard's not bare. We've got guys who can play football. They just haven't had the experience yet.
"It's just their time. Let's go play."
Jones was a highly-regarded wide receiver prospect out of Houston who had several scholarship offers after his junior year of high school, including ones from Arkansas, Texas Tech and other BCS programs. But during spring practice before his senior year, he tore his right ACL in a one-on-one drill.
Bad enough that it scared most of the big schools away from recruiting Jones. Many pulled their scholarship offers off the table. But not Northwestern.
"They told me they'd always hold up their end of the deal even if somebody got injured," Jone said. "That really stuck with me."
So Jones committed to the Wildcats that summer and then made a speedy recovery, playing his senior season just five months after his ACL surgery. Though he didn't produce at a high level that year, he arrived in Evanston feeling 100 percent healthy, and he made an immediate impact on the field as a true freshman in 2011.
The 6-foot-3, 225-pounder earned a starting job midway through the season and finished the year with 16 catches for 195 yards. That included a 39-yard grab versus Michigan.
This spring, Jones is looking to become a much bigger contributor. He has moved inside to the slot receiver position, which Jeremy Ebert held down the past two years. Ebert had over 2,000 yards receiving and 19 touchdowns the last two seasons combined, so his graduation leaves a large void in the offense. Someone has to pick up the slack; perhaps that someone will be Jones, who's still learning the finer points of the game.
"I've developed more as a technical receiver," he said. "I realized last year that everything isn't based off speed and athleticism. You have to be better at your technique then they are, so I'm working on becoming a better route runner, a better cutter and more of a student of the game.
"[Moving inside], I actually have to learn how to read defenses now and how to play on the fly."
Jones should have plenty of company at the receiver spot, with Demetrius Fields, Rashad Lawrence and Tony Jones among the veterans returning. USC transfer Kyle Prater is scheduled to enroll later this month and go through some late spring practices as he awaits word from the NCAA whether he can play the 2012 season for Northwestern.
"As a whole, we want to be greatly respected as receivers," Jones said. "I think we'll spread the ball out a lot more this season. We all have a great passion and a great feel for the game. Kyle has a great mind and a great build, and I think he'll fit into our group well."
Jones has been a good fit so far with Northwestern and vice versa. Loyalty has its rewards.