Chicago Colleges: Leon Jacobs

With spring practice now in the rear-view mirror, your faithful Big Ten reporters thought it would be a good time to share some of our thoughts from the spring that was. Between us, we saw 10 of the 14 Big Ten teams in person this spring and we followed all of them as closely as possible.

So this is a chance to share our impressions and observations. We'll start today with the West Division, where Adam got an up-close look at Illinois, Iowa, Northwestern and Wisconsin.

[+] EnlargeKirk Ferentz
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsIowa coach Kirk Ferentz has a legitimate contender for the Big Ten title.
Brian Bennett: Adam, I'm intrigued by Iowa and you went to see the Hawkeyes -- and even got into practice! Sounds like this team has a little more speed and explosiveness. How does it compare to the Iowa teams we've seen in the past, and is this a legit Big Ten contender?

Adam Rittenberg: Well, it was actually a portion of practice, but I'll take what I can get at Fort Ferentz. This is a legitimate Big Ten contender, in large part because of the schedule but also because of the team it returns. I just didn't get the sense Iowa has many major problems. AIRBHG is off torturing baby seals. The linebacker thing is worth monitoring, but Quinton Alston would have started for most teams last year. Kirk Ferentz's best teams are strong up front, and Iowa looks very solid along both lines with Brandon Scherff, Carl Davis and others.

The young wide receivers really intrigue me, especially Derrick Willies, who blew up in the spring scrimmage. Iowa hasn't had difference-makers at receiver for some time. The offense had a spike in plays last year, and coordinator Greg Davis wants to go faster and be more diverse, even incorporating backup quarterback C.J. Beathard into the mix. That intrigues me. So you've got solid line play, more weapons on offense and a cake schedule. Indianapolis-bound? It's possible.

BB: When it comes to winning Big Ten titles, Wisconsin has been far more successful than its new West brethren in the last five years. Yet the Badgers lost a whole lot of valuable seniors, especially on defense. You went to Madison. How's the revamped defense looking, and is there anyone who can catch the ball from whoever starts at QB?

AR: Fascinating team. Quarterback competitions are nothing new in Mad City, but the sheer number of questions at UW stands out. It feels like coach Gary Andersen should be going into his first year, not his second. Kenzel Doe had a nice spring at slot receiver, but Wisconsin will need help from its five incoming freshmen. The uncertainty at receiver could benefit Tanner McEvoy in the quarterback competition as Andersen wants a second rushing threat on the field (or sometimes a third when Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement play together).

I didn't get a great read on the offensive line because of injuries, but the defensive front seven will be a big story all season. So many position changes. Linebacker Derek Landisch is the leader, but who are the top playmakers? Cornerback Sojourn Shelton could be one, and the coaches really like young defensive ends Chikwe Obasih and Alec James. I really liked linebacker Leon Jacobs last summer and could see him emerging. Like Iowa, Wisconsin has a favorable schedule, but we're going to find out how good Andersen and his staff really are this season.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Siemian
Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY SportsQuarterback Trevor Siemian has taken charge at Northwestern.
BB: You also spent some time at Northwestern, whose spring was dominated by the union issue. With all those distractions and the many injuries this spring, did you get any sense whether the Wildcats can bounce back from last year's highly disappointing 5-7 campaign?

AR: If the team stays focused and aligned, not to mention healthy, the answer is yes. Northwestern spun the two-quarterback deal well for a while, but it's always better to have one QB and a clear identity on offense. It has that with Trevor Siemian, who looked good this spring, and a scheme that should rely more on the pass. Wide receiver is a strength as Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler shined at the slot. I'm interested to see how running back Venric Mark's role changes without Kain Colter on the field.

The defense could be the best in Pat Fitzgerald's tenure. Improved recruiting is paying off in the secondary as several redshirt freshmen, including safety Godwin Igwebuike, enter the mix. Defensive tackle is the big concern and overall D-line health, but the defense wasn't the reason Northwestern went 5-7. It should keep the team in most games.

BB: The last West team you saw was Illinois. Did anything you witnessed convince you the Illini can get to a bowl in 2014?

AR: I'm still thawing out from a frigid March night at Chicago's Gately Stadium. Illinois has a chance to sustain its momentum on offense. The line should be solid, quarterback Wes Lunt has a plus arm and Josh Ferguson is a big-time threat. Continued improvement at wide receiver is key as newcomers Geronimo Allison and Mike Dudek impressed. The defense still needs a lot of work, but T.J. Neal has helped fill Jonathan Brown's role, and linemen D.J. Smoot and DeJazz Woods stood out. Illinois needs more numbers in the front seven to firm up a run defense that really struggled last year.

BB: Overall, did anything you saw change your opinion on the West Division race? I'm pretty high on Nebraska and think their defensive front seven could be pretty special. I still think Minnesota will be a factor, but the lack of visible progress in the passing game (granted, the spring game debacle there means little in the big picture) was disappointing. For me, the jury's out on Wisconsin and Iowa is a big-time dark horse. What say you?

AR: Iowa is beyond dark-horse status. A veteran team took a big step last year and is poised to take another with a favorable schedule. Wisconsin likely will be the popular pick to win the division, but I have too many doubts right now. Nebraska is the wild card to me. Can we trust a Huskers team that will be better on defense? Minnesota might be a better team with a worse record because of its schedule. Northwestern could be a factor if it gets past the union distraction.

There's no alpha dog here. Should be a wild ride.

B1G spring position breakdown: LB

March, 5, 2014
Mar 5
1:30
PM CT
We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the linebackers.

Illinois: The Illini lose an All-Big Ten player in Jonathan Brown but still have decent overall depth at linebacker. Mason Monheim started every game at middle linebacker in 2013, and Mike Svetina started all but one game at the star position. Both players return as juniors. Svetina will move into Brown's spot on the weak side, while the other position could be filled by T.J. Neal, who recorded 38 tackles last season. Ralph Cooper has logged significant reps as a reserve, and Eric Finney gives Illinois some flexibility after playing the star position (safety/outside linebacker).

Indiana: This becomes a more significant position under coordinator Brian Knorr, who plans to use a 3-4 alignment. Indiana should have enough depth to make the transition as it returns two full-time starters from 2013 -- David Cooper and T.J. Simmons -- as well as two part-time starters in Forisse Hardin and Clyde Newton, who started the final four games of his freshman season. Like Simmons and Newton, Marcus Oliver played a lot as a freshman and provides some depth. The key here will be converting all the experience into sharper, more consistent play.

Iowa: If you're of the mindset that Iowa always reloads at linebacker, you can rest easy this spring. If not, keep a very close eye on what happens as the Hawkeyes begin replacing one of the more productive linebacker groups in team history: James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens. There are high hopes for sophomore Reggie Spearman, who played in 10 games as a freshman last fall. Spearman, junior Travis Perry and senior Quinton Alston enter the spring as the front-runners to take over the top spots. The biggest challenge could be building depth behind them with Cole Fisher and others.

Maryland: The good news is the Terrapins return three productive starters from 2013 in Cole Farrand, L.A. Goree and Matt Robinson, who combined for 233 tackles, including 19 for loss. The bad news is Maryland loses its top playmaker at the position in Marcus Whitfield, who recorded nine sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss last season. But the overall picture is favorable, and the depth should be strong when Alex Twine and Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil return from their injuries. Young players such as Abner Logan (37 tackles in 2013) will push for more time.

Michigan: There are a lot of familiar faces in new positions as Michigan not only has shuffled the roles of its defensive assistant coaches, but also its top linebackers. Standout Jake Ryan moves from strong-side linebacker to the middle, while junior James Ross III moves from the weak side to the strong side and Desmond Morgan shifts from the middle to the weak side. Joe Bolden, who had 54 tackles last season, can play both outside and inside, and players such as Ben Gedeon, Royce Jenkins-Stone and Allen Gant add depth. The talent is there for a big year if the position switches pan out.

Michigan State: It won't be easy to replace the Big Ten's top linebacker tandem in Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, not to mention Rose Bowl hero Kyler Elsworth, but Michigan State has some promising options. Ed Davis appears ready to step in for Allen after recording four sacks as a sophomore. Junior Darien Harris and two redshirt freshmen, Shane Jones and Jon Reschke, will compete at middle linebacker. Returning starter Taiwan Jones is back at the star position, and Mylan Hicks should be in the rotation. Depth is a bit of a question mark here entering the spring.

Minnesota: The Gophers lose key pieces in all three areas of the defense, and linebacker is no exception as two starters (Aaron Hill and James Manuel) depart. Minnesota will lean on Damien Wilson, who started in 12 games at middle linebacker in his first season with the Gophers and recorded 78 tackles. Junior De'Vondre Campbell seems ready to claim a starting spot after backing up Manuel last season. There will be plenty of competition at the strong-side linebacker spot, as Nick Rallis, De'Niro Laster and others are in the mix. Jack Lynn is backing up Wilson at middle linebacker but could work his way into a starting spot on the outside with a good spring.

Nebraska: Optimism is building for the Blackshirts in 2014, thanks in large part to the returning linebackers. The three players who finished last season as the starters -- David Santos, Michael Rose and Zaire Anderson -- all are back, as Rose will lead the way in the middle. Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry also have starting experience and return for 2014. If younger players such as Marcus Newby develop this spring, Nebraska could have the Big Ten's deepest group of linebackers, a dramatic departure from the Huskers' first few years in the conference. Good things are happening here.

Northwestern: The top two playmakers return here in Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis, who combined for seven interceptions and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2014. Northwestern's challenge is replacing the leadership Damien Proby provided in the middle. Ellis has shifted from the strong side to the middle, and Northwestern has moved safety Jimmy Hall from safety to strong-side linebacker. Drew Smith and Hall will compete for the third starting spot throughout the offseason. Sophomores Jaylen Prater and Joseph Jones should provide some depth.

Ohio State: Coach Urban Meyer has made it clear that Ohio State needs more from the linebackers, so it's a huge offseason for this crew, which loses superstar Ryan Shazier. The Buckeyes return starters at the outside spots in Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry, although competition will continue throughout the spring and summer. Redshirt freshman Darron Lee surprisingly opened spring practice Tuesday working with Grant and Perry on the first-team defense. Camren Williams appeared in all 13 games as a reserve and will be part of the rotation, along with Trey Johnson. Meyer said last month that the incoming linebacker recruits won't redshirt, which means an opportunity for mid-year enrollee Raekwon McMillan.

Penn State: Linebacker U is looking for more bodies at the position after struggling with depth issues throughout 2013. The Lions lose leading tackler Glenn Carson but bring back two players, Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman, who started most of the season. The new coaching staff is counting on Hull to become a star as a senior. Brandon Bell, who appeared in nine games and recorded 24 tackles as a freshman, will compete for a starting spot along with Gary Wooten. Penn State hopes Ben Kline can stay healthy as he provides some experience, and incoming freshman Troy Reeder could enter the rotation right away.

Purdue: Expect plenty of competition here as Purdue loses leading tackler Will Lucas and must get more consistent play from the group. Joe Gilliam started for most of the 2013 season and should occupy a top spot this fall. Sean Robinson also brings experience to the field, and Ryan Russell could fill more of a hybrid linebacker/defensive end role this season. Redshirt freshman Danny Ezechukwu is an intriguing prospect to watch this spring as he aims for a bigger role. Ezechukwu is just one of several younger players, including decorated incoming recruit Gelen Robinson, who have opportunities to make a splash.

Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights return a good deal of production here with Steve Longa and Kevin Snyder, who combined for 219 tackles, including 15 tackles for loss and five sacks. Quentin Gause also is back after racking up 53 tackles (8.5 for loss) in a mostly reserve role last season. Gause likely will claim the starting strong-side linebacker spot as Jamal Merrell departs. The starting spots are seemingly set, so Rutgers will look to build depth with Davon Jacobs, who had 30 tackles as a reserve last season, and L.J. Liston, both sophomores.

Wisconsin: Do-it-all linebacker Chris Borland is gone, along with Ethan Armstrong and Conor O'Neill, so Wisconsin must replace three of its top four tacklers from 2013. Derek Landisch and Joe Schobert can be penciled in as starters, along with Michael Caputo, who played mostly safety last season but should slide into one of the outside spots. Marcus Trotter brings experience to the rotation. The spotlight will be on younger linebackers such as Vince Biegel, who had 25 tackles last season, as well as dynamic sophomore Leon Jacobs and Alec James, a decorated recruit who redshirted in 2013.

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