Spring practice is generally a time to analyze and get excited about the new, and there is plenty of that in Ann Arbor this year. A new battle for the starting quarterback job started this week. There are new potential stars like defensive back Jabrill Peppers and running back Ty Isaac expected to make an impact next fall. And of course, there is the new coaching staff.
But it’s the offensive line, the only group that returns fully intact from a year ago, that might determine how much and how fast the Wolverines can improve. Two years of serving as the program’s on-field whipping boys leaves the linemen eager to practice whatever its coaches preach.
"There’s something special there," said Tim Drevno, who will coach the line along with his play-calling duties as offensive coordinator. "They want to be taught, and they want to be coached, and they want to be demanded on. You couldn’t ask for anything better. There is nobody resisting what we’re doing."
Drevno was aware of the criticism his charges have faced during the past couple years. The relatively young group floundered through the better part of the past two seasons. In 2013, the Wolverines finished near the bottom of national rankings in sacks allowed (109th) and rushing yards (103rd). Those numbers improved to the middle of the pack last fall, but not enough to quiet the disparaging remarks.
Harbaugh and Drevno have transformed more inept offenses together in the past. In 2007, they left the University of San Diego to take over the Pac-10’s worst offense at Stanford. They turned the Cardinal into a BCS bowl winner in four years. The offensive line and its power running game served as an effective sledgehammer for that remodel, and remain one of Stanford’s biggest strengths almost a decade later.
Michigan’s current skill players -- an inevitably inexperienced quarterback, young receivers and well-stocked backfield -- make the same type of power offense the program’s best bet for fast results.
"The biggest thing is just getting a great knowledge of the offense and where we want to go with it," Drevno said. "Finding out our personality on offense and who we’re going to be and what schemes we’re going to run."
The first step in that process is developing a tough mentality on the line, something Drevno says the new coaching staff will demand from his players.
"Yeah, you demand it from them," he said. "You get them to trust you. You invite them over to your house for a barbecue. You tell them that you love them. You get them to play for you. It’s pretty cool when it happens."
All of Michigan’s coaches have made a point to say they want to evaluate players without any preconceived notions of who fits where. None of the five returning starters is guaranteed his spot this season. Drevno said the first thing he wants to see from his players is how well they translate what they learn in meetings to the field. Though they are just two practices into the spring, he said he has been happy with his group’s desire to learn and willingness to be active in meetings.
"They’re going to come off the football. They’re going to know where to go," he said. "They’re going to have a want-to, a brotherhood, they’re going to take control in the room, and they’re going to lead us."
Of course, it was about Harbaugh.
“He’s the smartest man I’ve ever been around,” U-M offensive coordinator Tim Drevo told reporters Thursday night after the Wolverines’ second practice of the spring.
What, not the smartest man in the world?
It should be noted that Drevno, 45, worked with Harbaugh at Stanford from 2007 to 2010. If you take him at his word on Harbaugh, it’s safe to assume Drevno didn’t get out and about much on the Stanford campus, which is full of its share of smart people.
Otherwise, in this opening week, Drevo said he likes what he’s seen from Michigan, which returns its entire offensive line.
Drevno, who will call plays next season and coaches the line, told the Detroit News:
“There’s something special in there. Are we there yet? No. It’s Day 2, but there’s something special in there, and I’m excited about it.”
Ah, the optimism of spring.
Some intriguing data and excellent analysis here by Joseph Juan of numberFire on the NFL combine results of Melvin Gordon.
According to the numbers, the former Wisconsin All-American compares favorably to many of the great running backs of this generation.
Gordon seems to possess a rare combination of size, speed and power that combined with his instincts and vision could make him a very formidable NFL running back. ... As a testament to the rarity of Gordon’s collection of skills, no other NFL running back for which we have combine data from the past 15 years falls within the ranges I set forth for (build, speed, power and explosiveness.)
The writer finds, in conclusion, that Gordon “appears that he’s primed for a breakout rookie season.”
Full disclaimer: While I enjoy the NFL draft, I’m not sold on the predictive ability of the combine, pro days or individual workouts. I think a player’s body of work in college serves as the best indicator of his NFL potential -- and Gordon couldn’t have done much better in that category.
Stats and measurements can be interpreted to make just about any argument. Nevertheless, the numberFire breakdown of Gordon is solid.
I agree that he’s got a chance to join the backs to whom he’s compared in this article. But the organization that drafts him in May likely ranks as the top factor in determining his shot to make a rookie splash.
A Friday trip around the rest of the Big Ten:
- The quarterback competition is just getting started at Northwestern.
- Mark Dantonio is understandably bullish on Michigan State's chances to maintain its top-five status from the past two seasons.
- Indiana's cornerbacks under the spring spotlight.
- Doran Grant will be difficult to replace for an Ohio State secondary that made huge strides in 2014.
- Nebraska's 2015 roster is the best in the Big Ten West, according to this analysis.
- Penn State running back commitment Miles Sanders added a scholarship offer from Alabama.
- A spring preview of Rutgers from the Big Ten Network.
- Lou Groza Award-winning kicker Brad Craddock is the only repeat member of Maryland's leadership council, the Terps' version of captains.
- Social media can be a friend or enemy to college athletes.
And finally, from Wisconsin, this is, well, it's something. Have a good weekend.
We come now to the end, with special teams. Since it's virtually impossible to predict what kick coverage units will look like several months from now or project how new starters will fare on field goals and such, we're basing these rankings mostly on who's coming back at place-kicker, punter and returner.
Here we go:
Best of the best: Maryland
The Terrapins return the 2014 Lou Groza Award winner in Brad Craddock, who missed only one field goal all of last season. They also bring back an elite return man in Will Likely, who led the Big Ten in kickoff return average and was third on punt return average last year. Punter Nate Renfro is also back, giving Randy Edsall both experience and trust at the key specialist spots.
Next up: Ohio State
It's entirely possible that Cam Johnston is a wizard, as his rugby-style punts somehow both cover a ton of distance yet seem to stop at the right places. He was brilliant in the Sugar Bowl. The Buckeyes also have a boatload of speed they can use in the return game, including Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson. Place-kicker Sean Nuernberger is back after a respectable freshman campaign, but it's not like Urban Meyer really wants to kick field goals, anyway.
Sleepers: Nebraska and Minnesota
"Sleeper" isn't really the right word here, but we wanted to give a shout out to both of these special-teams units.
The Huskers have one of the nation's most electrifying punt return men in De'Mornay Pierson-El, who averaged 17.5 yards per attempt and scored three touchdowns last year. Punter Sam Foltz and kicker Drew Brown also return and could improve with experience.
Minnesota has the reigning Big Ten punter of the year in Peter Mortell, plus highly productive returners Jalen Myrick and Craig James. More accuracy from kicker Ryan Santoso (12-of-18 as a freshman) would solidify the Gophers as one of the best special-teams groups around.
Problem for contenders: Penn State and Michigan
Again, it's nearly impossible to predict how new kickers will fare, as you don't really get to see how they will fare in pressure situations until the games begin. Both the Nittany Lions and Wolverines have some big shoes to fill.
Place-kicker Sam Ficken was far and away the best thing about Penn State's otherwise highly shaky special teams in 2014, and now he's graduated. The team doesn't have a scholarship kicker on the roster and may turn to walk-on Joe Julius. Punt and return teams must make major strides as well.
Michigan lost both its place-kicker (Matt Wile) and punter (Will Hagerup) to graduation, and its return game was no better than average last season. New special-teams coach John Baxter will have his work cut out for him this spring in bringing some new names -- like freshman kicker Andrew Davis -- along.
The conference’s plan to circulate a white paper regarding keeping football and basketball players off the field for their first year on campus has become a hot topic for anyone involved with college sports this week. Reactions have ranged from cautious support to complete dismissal to “I don’t want to touch that with a 10-foot pole.”
The Big Ten’s release was flushed out with a handful of ideas that Delaney and his athletic directors would like NCAA members to mull over in the next year leading up to the organization’s national convention. Of the brainstorming icebreakers -- which included time commitments, length of season and academic requirements – the only one to gain much attention was the most outlandish and improbable: freshman ineligibility. Maybe that was the point.
Several theories about the proposal’s actual intent have been floated in the past few days: Maybe this week’s meeting was purely a public relations stunt so Delaney and other could proudly tout the Big Ten’s commitment to academics. Maybe it was to try to nudge the NBA toward raising its minimum age requirement. Or maybe it was an attention-grabbing idea designed to stir up enough interest that smart minds started thinking about more logical solutions.
The possibility of the idea actually becoming an NCAA rule seems both unrealistic and counterintuitive. This is an all-or-nothing deal, and the vast majority of Div. I universities that don’t deal with one-and-done players don’t have the resources (or the motivation) to give all their student-athletes an extra year of scholarship money. The NCAA already created a rule that will keep academically at risk athletes off the field as freshmen. It goes into effect in 2016. Does it make sense to punish the freshmen that are ready to handle school and sport by making them sit out a year too?
If the schools are genuine in their academic-first approach, shouldn’t they focus on the other ideas that create an environment where the workload for athletics is manageable for all student-athletes regardless of their year? Doesn’t the “Year of Readiness” discourage student-athletes from finishing their degrees in four years? Why rush when you know you’ve got five years on campus? And doesn’t that set student-athletes apart from all of their other peers? Isn’t that the perception the NCAA is trying to avoid in the first place?
The Big Ten’s idea, which has been endorsed by commissioners from the Big 12 and the Pac-12 as well, raises plenty of questions. If that was the point, then kudos, mission accomplished. Otherwise, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
And now, onto your links…
- The quarterbacks and offensive linemen are players to watch as Northwestern gets spring practice started this week.
- A film room-style breakdown of how Ohio State’s offense got better during the 2014 season.
- Penn State ticket prices for 2015 are out. Michigan and Rutgers will be the most expensive games of the year for fans.
- A good week at the NFL combine reflects well on Michigan State’s program, says Mark Dantonio.
- It’s the more, the merrier at quarterback for Jim Harbaugh and Michigan this spring.
- The majority of Rutgers’ fans are ready to forgive Ray Rice and welcome him back to campus.
- Maryland’s football team is warming up for spring practice with a little dunk contest.
- The assistant coaches at Wisconsin are getting a small bump in salary under new coach Paul Chryst.
- Brian Stewart brings college and professional experience to his new role with the Cornhuskers.
- Could Iowa’s Brandon Scherff follow in the footsteps of former college tackle and current All-Pro guard Zack Martin?
The exodus of high-profile run-stuffers leaves a large group of programs bunched together in the middle of the pack when evaluating the conference's linebacker units at the start of 2015. Most of those teams losing big-name players have good depth and a supporting cast to help fill the gaps. It may take time next fall to sort through which groups have weathered losses the best and which young players will rise to the occasion.
Best of the Best: Ohio State
No surprise here. The Buckeyes will be at the top of many of these position breakdown lists. Senior Joshua Perry returns to lead this athletic group. He finished a breakout 2014 season with a team-leading 124 tackles. Freshman Darron Lee started to emerge as a future star with the ability to make big plays late in the season, especially during an MVP performance at the Sugar Bowl. Raekwon McMillan and incoming freshman Justin Hilliard provide more young talent for a group that is still improving after a national championship this past fall.
Next up: Michigan State, Penn State
The Spartans, who had the country's stingiest rushing defense last year, will have at least one player named Bullough (junior Riley) in the second level of its defense next fall. That is historically a good sign for Michigan State. He joins senior Ed Davis, who won honorable mention All-Big Ten in 2014, to give the linebacker unit a sleeker, speedier look than on previous Mark Dantonio defenses. The departure of defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi leaves a little bit of uncertainty, but new coach Mark Snyder should help this unit remain a feared entity.
Penn State finished only a couple spots behind Michigan State in stopping the run. Hull is gone, but the majority of a deep unit returns. Starters Brandon Bell and Nyeem Wartman return for their second season in the lineup. Wartman finished second on the team last year with 75 tackles. The return of Ben Kline, who missed all of 2014 as part of an injury-riddled career so far, should also help the unit.
The Wolverines lose a natural ballhawk in Jake Ryan but shouldn't take a major step back after quietly having one of the better linebacker groups in the conference last year. Senior Joe Bolden is ready to take over for Ryan after making 102 tackles last year. Fifth-year senior Desmond Morgan missed almost all of 2014 with a hand injury, but he returns for his fourth season as a starter. Two defensive assistants with great track records coaching linebackers, D.J. Durkin and Greg Mattison, should help solve any issues Michigan has at the position.
Problem for a contender: Nebraska
The Cornhuskers are still struggling to get up to speed at linebacker in the Big Ten. Michael Rose-Ivey missed a full year after setting a Nebraska freshman record with 66 tackles in 2013. He will be back on the field, but the loss of two starters (Zaire Anderson and Trevor Roach) means that there is still work to be done in filling out the two-deep. Nebraska missed out on a good chance to add experience when South Carolina transfer Kaiwan Lewis chose Rutgers over the Cornhuskers in early February.
Best of the best: Michigan State
Shilique Calhoun's return guarantees the Spartan Dawgs will retain their bite up front. Starting defensive tackles Lawrence Thomas and Joel Heath also will be back, and Malik McDowell could be ready to take a leap forward after getting his feet wet as a true freshman. Michigan State does have to replace four-year starter Marcus Rush, but it has Demetrius Cooper groomed to take on a much larger role. This is a deep and talented bunch anchored by a potential NFL first-rounder in Calhoun.
Next up: Ohio State
You could consider the Spartans and Buckeyes Nos. 1 and 1A here. Ohio State still has reigning Big Ten defensive player of the year Joey Bosa at defensive end, along with Adolphus Washington at defensive tackle. But the Buckeyes did lose All-America defensive tackle Michael Bennett and defensive end Steve Miller, and they weren't very deep at the position last season. Incoming true freshmen Dre'Mont Jones and Jashon Cornell could be asked to contribute right away at end, and the hope is someone from a group of redshirt sophomores -- Donovan Munger, Michael Hill and Tracy Sprinkle -- can move in next to Washington.
Sleepers: Michigan and Minnesota
The Wolverines replace both of their starting defensive ends from last season in Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer, though Clark was dismissed from the team before the season ended. Michigan should be in very good shape at defensive tackle with Willie Henry, Bryan Mone, Ryan Glasgow and Chris Wormley, and it could be Taco Charlton's time to shine at defensive end. New defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin had players on the front four gain weight this offseason in anticipation of possibly some more 3-4 looks this fall.
Minnesota lost two starters in tackle Cam Botticelli and Michael Amaefula, but remember the line dealt with some early injuries last season and still excelled. Defensive end Theiren Cockran returns, along with promising rising sophomore Steven Richardson at tackle, while Scott Ekpe and Alex Keith are back from their injuries. The Gophers like their depth here, too.
Problem for contenders: Nebraska and Wisconsin
These may not be problems as much as question marks, but both the Huskers and Badgers need some new players to step up this spring.
Nebraska looks all set in the middle with Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine, but Randy Gregory's departure leaves a huge hole at defensive end. Greg McMullen and Jack Gangwish return starting experience there, but they won't remind anyone of Gregory nor scare many opposing offensive tackles the same way he did.
Wisconsin, meanwhile, must replace two members of its three-man starting front in departing seniors Warren Herring and Konrad Zagzebski. Chikwe Obasih and Arthur Goldberg gained a lot of experience, but the Badgers will probably need a young guy like Alec James to improve this spring to solidify the entire unit.
Jim Harbaugh’s first day on the practice field at Michigan -- four hours of work that flew by for him, but maybe not his players – was void of specific details. Right now, the new coach and his staff are just looking for ballplayers.
Players, to some degree, are free to start working at the position they feel suits them best. Harbaugh doesn’t have any timetable yet for when he wants players to settle into their spots or when he wants the staff to rank them in some form of a depth chart. He said he had not given those types of deadlines any thought leading into Tuesday’s opening practice.
There are new schemes to learn and plenty of position battles yet to be settled for the Wolverines, starting with the quarterback, but those are not top priorities for Harbaugh’s first spring. The coach has made a career out of rehabbing football teams in relatively short order. The first step is usually establishing the expectations and culture for everyone involved.
A lack of talent or specific, technical skillsets are not what held Michigan to a losing record last fall. They won’t be the focus while trying to build a foundation this spring. For Harbaugh, winning starts with overcoming bite-sized obstacles on a daily basis.
“Our expectations are really high,” he said. “They were high for a great practice today and they’ll be high for a great practice on Thursday and great meetings on Wednesday. We’ll try to make them the best of the year if we can.”
Harbaugh filled the void of football information during his first post-practice Q&A session with his unique and quirky enthusiasm – unbridled excitement over returning to Michigan and “rolling the balls out there and letting the fellas compete.” When asked to describe how he felt about his first day back in cleats he ripped off a string of analogies likening the experience to most substantial memories in a person’s life. Birthdays, holidays, first days of school and “the birth of Christ” were all included.
Michigan started its spring practices earlier than any other Big Ten team this season (Northwestern begins Wednesday). Harbaugh said that was in part because the team hadn’t put on pads since November without a bowl game or December practices to stretch their schedule. His description of getting started, though, leads one to believe that the real reason for the early schedule is the coach couldn’t bear to go much longer without getting his hands on a football.
While Harbaugh’s unconventional answers are fun for onlookers, don’t mistake them for unintentional or uncalculated. The message he is sending in front of microphones is the same he is trying to relay to his team: Don’t worry about the hurdles to come or when they’ll be cleared, just hit the ground running as fast as you can.
The specifics will be addressed eventually. Harbaugh said he plans to both evaluate his players and spend time with the more technical aspects of a new coaching staff such as installing schemes during the next month of practice. But for now, and for the foreseeable future, it’s more about coaching enthusiasm than expertise.
1. Ohio State
Is there really any doubt? The national championship is difficult to overlook. There’s no better job in the Big Ten -- both historically, though Michigan might argue, and in the current climate.
The Wolverines deserve real consideration for a spot in the top 10 nationally. With more wins than any program in college football history and the second-highest winning percentage to Notre Dame, this is a truly special job. Just ask Jim Harbaugh.
3. Penn State
Resources galore. PSU may feature the best combination in the league of location, fan support and tradition. And the urgency to win is real, an important factor in comparison to other Big Ten programs striving for the top.
Some natural disadvantages exist, yes, but no school in the Big Ten creates unity and provokes passion among its fan base like the Huskers. This is not Tom Osborne’s Nebraska, but it’s still a top job with elite institutional support.
5. Michigan State
Natural competition with Michigan and Ohio State works for the Spartans in setting a high standard -- and works against MSU in that it may never be viewed, by comparison, as a true blue blood in the sport. Still, who cares about that if you’re in the discussion for a national title?
While the Badgers don’t have the history of the Big Ten’s other top programs, and the resources in recruiting don't ever figure to stack up with a few competitors, Wisconsin wins and produces championship-caliber competitors.
The Terrapins sit a ways back from the top tier of the league in many areas. But few can compare with Maryland’s recruiting ground and built-in support system courtesy of Under Armour.
The Hawkeyes compensate their coach well: Kirk Ferentz had one of the top 10 salaries in the country in 2014. And they have a strong tradition. They are the biggest show in the state, but convincing talented players to come to Iowa City remains a challenge.
Minnesota has made an effort in the past few years to upgrade facilities and invest more in resources like nutrition and player support. The results are starting to show. While the local talent might be lacking, Minneapolis is one of the more attractive cities in the Big Ten.
The Illini fall slightly behind Minnesota on our list because of location. Illinois coaches have had trouble consistently getting talent from Chicago to join them in the middle of the state. The focus remains more on basketball in Champaign.
One of the Big Ten’s newcomers is making strides toward matching some of the bigger schools in the conference, but the Scarlet Knights still have a ways to go before they can get out of catch-up mode.
Stringent academic requirements and a small, private campus are obstacles for any coach at Northwestern. A new facility on the edge of Lake Michigan should help the Wildcats when it is eventually completed.
Football interest wanes quickly for the Hoosiers when basketball gets started in the late fall. The resources aren’t there, which makes it difficult to survive the improving gauntlet of the Big Ten East on a yearly basis.
Purdue is Indiana without the added benefit of Bloomington, a great college town. Ross-Ade Stadium could use a face-lift, and West Lafayette lacks the charm of other campuses in the conference.
Here at the Big Ten blog, we're getting involved by offering a look at coaching in the Big Ten. We'll offer our takes on the league's jobs.
Wednesday's roundtable topic: What's the biggest surprise among the Big Ten coaching job rankings?
Dan Murphy: Wisconsin at No. 24
The Badgers checked in at No. 24, which seems a little bit high given the recent turnover rate in Madison. In the past three years, Wisconsin has lost head coaches to Arkansas (No. 21) and Oregon State (No. 50). At least part of the reason for that attrition has been tougher recruiting requirements than most places and a smaller budget to go find players. The program has had plenty of recent success because of stability that goes beyond the head coach, but there are uphill battles to be fought when it comes to attracting talent to a Northern school with fewer resources than its competitors. If we're going to get nit-picky, I would drop the Badgers just a few spots.
Brian Bennett: Michigan State at No. 20
I don't disagree with this ranking, but it's still a bit jarring to see the Spartans as a top-20 job, one spot ahead of a traditional power like Nebraska and three spots ahead of Miami. I don't think there's any way we would have considered Michigan State one of the 20 best jobs even 10 years ago, so this speaks volumes about the job Mark Dantonio has done. His program has been rolling along, finishing in the top 5 of the final wire-service rankings in each of the past two years while winning a Rose Bowl and a Cotton Bowl and piling up at least 11 victories in four of the past five years. Facility upgrades have helped as well. Lots of people like to forecast a future drop-off for the Spartans, but Dantonio has built this into a program with staying power.
Mitch Sherman: Michigan at No. 14
Recent performance, of course, belies the notion that Michigan is a top-10 job, but history confirms it. Even after two straight losing Big Ten seasons -- the Wolverines have finished under .500 in league play, amazingly, five times in the past seven years -- this remains an elite job. Yes, it's his alma mater, but Jim Harbaugh wouldn't pass on the NFL for the 14th-best college opportunity. Really, there are six jobs in the SEC better than Michigan, the winningest program in college football history? No. With the right coach, it doesn't matter to Michigan that so much of the prep talent has migrated to the South. The Wolverines can recruit anywhere. Their brand is iconic, on par with Ohio State (No. 4 on this list). The Buckeyes deserve a higher spot than Michigan because of the current state of both programs, but U-M belongs in the top 10.
1. It's great to have football back, even if it's only spring practice. Michigan was the first Big Ten team to open spring drills on Tuesday, and Northwestern hits the field for the first time Wednesday.
What's also great is the, uh, unique way Jim Harbaugh answers questions. While Michigan likely will never be much of a fountain of information under its new head coach (or the previous one, or ...), at least Harbaugh gives some unorthodox quotes. Like his response to a Q&A on the school's website about what it's like to start spring drills:
It's like Thanksgiving. It's like New Year's Day. It's like a family reunion. And having it all rolled into one. Most people think of Jan. 1 as the start of a new year. To people who espouse to Catholicism and Christianity, they might correlate that with the birth of Christ. Us in football, the start of spring practice and the first day of summer training camp are what you look at as the New Year with fireworks going off, it's your birthday. It's being born back into football, it's a happening.
Q: So it's the birth of a new team?
Yeah, it's like coming out of the mother's womb. You're in a nice, warm, cozy environment -- safe. And now you are out into the chaos and bright lights. It's a happening. It's all those things rolled into one.
And it's also like the first day of school. You're so excited for that first day of school, and the night before you set out your clothes, you stuff your lunch into a lunch box, and off you go. It's the start. It's laying down a benchmark. Now we have a place to start from. We have a place to improve from. We have a place to go forward from, and you hope to lay that benchmark halfway up the mountain -- and not way down on the flat land.
Michigan's first practice was full of enthusiasm and energy, Harbaugh said.
2. Now that the NFL combine's over and we know who the top performers were, who rose and who fell from the Big Ten?
Much of that is subjective, of course, but just about everybody agrees that Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes helped himself the most. With his ridiculous 4.31 time in the 40-yard dash and other great showings in the drills, Waynes is rocketing up draft boards. According to NFL.com's Charles Davis, "Waynes has put himself in the top 10-15 territory."
Our Todd McShay is not as bullish as Waynes' former high school teammate, Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon. McShay writes that Gordon "had a decent workout but not a great one, putting up results that were average or above-average in every category." Still, our Scouts Inc. says Gordon still has a good shot to go late in the first round and adds that Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah emerged as a sleeper "who should land somewhere in the Day 2 range."
But analyst Mike Huguenin writes that Abdullah was one of five players who hurt his stock, thanks to his 4.6 time in the 40. Huguenin also includes Michigan's Devin Funchess in the stock down.
You know what they say: It only takes one team to fall in love with you.
Around the league ...
- Pat Fitzgerald gave a preview of what to expect at Northwestern's spring practice.
- Michigan State is a program about to decline? Mark Dantonio scoffs at that notion.
- Purdue's Gerad Parker has returned to his passion: coaching receivers.
- The salary pool for Wisconsin assistants will see a modest increase.
- Urban Meyer and the Ohio State cruise ship finally returned to port last night.
- James Franklin will be the headliner on Penn State's coaches caravan. A recruit received 107 letters from the Nittany Lions.
- Previewing the position battle at cornerback for Indiana this spring.
- Former Huskers have praise for new Nebraska defensive backs coach Brian Stewart.
- Athlon's list of running backs on the rise includes several Big Ten names.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- After running his first practice as Michigan's coach, Jim Harbaugh made it clear how much work lies ahead.
"We're still trying to figure out who the best players are right now," he said. "And their best position. We don't know what everyone's best position is, or who the best players are at those positions. That'll be a process."
It all began Tuesday with Harbaugh's first spring practice in charge of the Wolverines, a longtime power coming off a 5-7 season that led to the dismissal of coach Brady Hoke.
Hired by his alma mater less than two months ago to turn around the program, Harbaugh was eager to get a jump on preparations for the upcoming season. Although Ann Arbor is still blanketed by snow, and the weather has forced the Wolverines to conduct spring practices indoors, Harbaugh wanted to get his team on the field as quickly as possible.
Michigan opened spring practice earlier than every other Big Ten team. Northwestern, which will hold its first practice Wednesday, is the only other team in the conference that will kick things off in February.
Ohio State (March 10) and Michigan State (March 24) still have weeks of winter conditioning remaining, after their seasons were extended by late bowl games.
"I think (an early start) was important," Harbaugh said. "We haven't had football since last November. We didn't have a bowl or bowl practices. It felt like the time to do it, as early as we could. I wanted to make sure we got a good seven, eight weeks of conditioning in before we did it."
The former San Francisco 49ers coach was pleased with what he saw on the first day out. Harbaugh lauded the players' offseason conditioning under new strength and conditioning coach Kevin Tolbert but said there is still plenty of work to be done.
As spring practice opens in Ann Arbor and Evanston this week, we’re comparing position groups around the Big Ten. Offensive line is next on the list. For others in the series, click here:
Best of the best: Michigan State
The linchpins are back in rising junior left tackle Jack Conklin and senior center Jack Allen, both of whom will land on preseason All-America teams. The pair of Jacks spearheaded the line last year as the Spartans allowed a Big Ten-low 11 sacks, converted 49.7 percent on third down (second to Ohio State) and operated more efficiently in the red zone and in goal-to-go situations than any other Big Ten team. Donavon Clark also returns at tackle. The Spartans lose left guard Travis Jackson, a second-team all-conference pick, and versatile mainstay Connor Kruse. Brian Allen, Kodi Kieler and Miguel Machado appear ready to compete. And these guys will look even better with Connor Cook in command of the offense.
Next up: Ohio State and Wisconsin
A temptation exists to rank every OSU unit as the Big Ten’s best, and the Buckeyes aren’t far off on the offensive line. They lose only right tackle Darryl Baldwin from a group that turned dominant late last season en route to clearing a path to the national title for Ezekiel Elliott and Cardale Jones. Left tackle Taylor Decker, the lone returning starter last year, ranks among the nation’s best at his position, and right guard Pat Elflein earned all-conference honors. Center Jacoby Boren and left guard Billy Price are also back as starters.
At Wisconsin, the cupboard is considerably more empty with the departure of right guard Kyle Costigan, right tackle Rob Havenstein, both All-Big Ten picks, and left guard Dallas Lewallen. Alongside the brilliance of Melvin Gordon, this was the league’s best unit last year. Center Dan Voltz and left tackle Tyler Marz return to anchor the line in 2015. Michael Deiter is ready to go as a redshirt freshman, and the Badgers will find two more starters among a promising group of youngsters.
The Wolverines weren’t bad on the line last year. Seriously. OK, at least, it was an improvement over 2013, and all five starters are back to go with, presumably, a much more well designed offensive system. With left tackle Mason Cole, who played as a true freshman, guards Graham Glasgow and Kyle Kalis, center Jack Miller and right tackle Ben Braden, Michigan looks the part. New offensive coordinator and O-line coach Tim Drevno has plenty of tools with which to work. Reserves Erik Magnuson, Logan Tuley-Tillman, Blake Bars and Patrick Kugler give Michigan a chance to develop solid depth this spring. The Wolverines should be better at running back with the addition of Ty Isaac. A breakthrough season across the front isn’t out of the question.
Problem for a contender: Penn State
It was flat-out ugly last year as the Nittany Lions allowed 44 sacks, last in the Big Ten and 121st nationally, and averaged 2.94 yards per rush – 122nd nationally. PSU lost left tackle Donovan Smith early to the NFL and left guard Miles Dieffenbach. Center Angelo Mangiro and tackle Andrew Nelson lead the group of returnees, and Penn added a pair of potential difference-makers in January in freshman Sterling Jenkins and juco transfer Paris Palmer. Four freshmen redshirted last year. Really, there’s nowhere to go but up, but Penn State needs fast improvement from its line to allow QB Christian Hackenberg time to operate. If growth here is slow, so will be Penn State’s offensive progress.
Here at the Big Ten blog, we're getting involved by offering a look at coaching in the Big Ten. We'll offer our takes on the league's jobs.
Tuesday's roundtable topic: What Big Ten coaching job has the most upside?
Brian Bennett: Maryland
You can look at this question a number of ways. I chose to view it as a program that's not currently viewed in any way, shape or form as one of the nation's top jobs, yet has the potential for serious growth. That's why I picked the Terrapins. Granted, to do so means to ignore much of history, as Maryland's past couple of decades contain a lot of mediocrity (or worse). Ardent fan support isn't really there, either; this is anecdotal, but here at the Big Ten blog, we almost never hear a peep from Terps fans (and the ACC folks will tell you the same was true in their neighborhood).
Even still, this job has a lot of things going for it. The school is located in a fertile, if highly competitive, location for recruits. Under Armour founder Kevin Plank could be Maryland's version of Phil Knight, pouring money into the program and upping the "coolness" factor. Ralph Friedgen showed from 2001 to 2003 -- when the Terrapins went 31-8 and finished first or second in the ACC each season -- that very good things are possible in College Park under the right circumstances. It will be an uphill climb in the East Division, but the upside certainly exists.
Mitch Sherman: Penn State
The Nittany Lions haven’t gone more than five straight years without a 10-win season since the early 1960s -- a streak in jeopardy in 2015 after a tumultuous stretch in the wake of tragedy, scandal and two coaching changes. Are there 10 wins on Penn State's schedule in 2015? If coach James Franklin can fix the offense during the offseason, maybe. Regardless, Penn State is a 10-win program -- and it can reach greater heights in special seasons, which remain within reach amid the rigorous East Division. Its combination of fan support, resources, natural recruiting ground and history match that of the best programs in the Big Ten.
Three years ago, Penn State wasn’t a top-five coaching job in the league. The work of Franklin, predecessor Bill O’Brien and the school administration has repositioned the Nittany Lions to emerge from this dark period and make strides as significant as any Big Ten team during the next two to three years.
Dan Murphy: Michigan
Michigan's program isn't in the top tier of the Big Ten right now, but it offers the biggest reward for the coach who can boost this team up a level. Much like at Penn State, all of the resources (financial and human) that come with a winning tradition are in place in Ann Arbor. It only takes a little bit of momentum for those advantages to start working in Michigan's favor. If and when they do, the infrastructure is in place for the Wolverines to eventually compete for conference titles and playoff spots. The Michigan coach has opportunities to take incremental steps forward (a bowl game one season, a win over a hated rival the next, etc.) to keep that momentum rolling in the right direction. Jim Harbaugh is already considered one of the top coaches in the game, but a speedy turnaround at Michigan would launch him to exalted status in the Mitten State.
There are more than enough projects and plans to keep Harbaugh busy in his first month of practices at his alma mater. Michigan, coming off a 5-7 season, must replace its starting quarterback, leading tackler and biggest threat in the passing game.
Schedule: The team met Monday and camp will officially open Tuesday, making Michigan the first group in the Big Ten to get started. The Wolverines plan to take a week off during spring break next month and wrap up with the spring game on April 4.
What’s new: If you’re just tuning in for the first time in the past couple months, you may want to sit down. Nine of Michigan’s 10 coaches are new (former defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is the lone holdover). Jim Hackett, the athletic director who took over in November, is also still getting comfortable in his new role. The change in leadership has altered the attitude around campus, which was needed if the program is eventually going to pull itself out of its nearly decade-long funk.
On the field, Michigan has to replace its starting middle linebacker and a pair of effective pass rushers on a defense that served as the team’s bright spot last fall. Young and talented players have a chance to emerge this spring on the defensive line and in the secondary.
The offense struggled in 2014 (115th nationally in total yardage), but at least won’t have to go through a major personnel overhaul to fit the style of offense Harbaugh and his staff have used in the past. An experienced offensive line is new for Michigan. All five starters from a slowly improving group return this spring, which should provide a bit of stability amid wide-open battles for reps at almost every skill position.
Biggest question: Will a starting quarterback emerge from the pack?
Michigan’s top three options heading into Tuesday’s practice are junior Shane Morris, redshirt freshman Wilton Speight and early enrollee Alex Malzone. Morris is the only signal-caller on the roster with game experience. Harbaugh promised the competition would be a “meritocracy” with everyone starting on an equal plane. Spring won’t likely end with a starter in place. The pecking order, though, should be more clear by the beginning of April. Any one of that trio can do himself (and Michigan’s entire offense) a big favor by separating from the others in the coming few weeks.
Three things we want to see:
1. How will the secondary shake out? More than 80 percent of Michigan’s defensive backfield was listed as a “DB” on the team’s spring roster rather than given a more specific role at cornerback or safety. That list includes redshirt freshman Jabrill Peppers, who was expected to be an instant impact player before injuries ended his debut season in September. Peppers intimated he would be moving to safety, and more experiments with position shifting may occur this spring while the staff attempts to put together what could become a very athletic secondary.
2. Progress in the running game. Stanford’s turnaround under Harbaugh was in large part thanks to an offense that closely resembled a battering ram. Michigan has the potential to take strides in that direction this season with big backs like Derrick Green (234 pounds) and Ty Isaac (240 pounds) leading the way. Offensive coordinator Tim Drevno played a big role in upgrading the Cardinal’s offensive line. The speed with which he can push Michigan’s line in the right direction will be a deciding factor in the outlook for the Wolverines’ final record in 2015.
3. The Durkin/Mattison collaboration. Mattison remains on staff but hands the keys to his defense to 35-year-old D.J. Durkin, who most recently served as interim head coach at Florida. Durkin is a rising star in the coaching profession and is known for his aggressive mentality in play-calling. The potentially awkward situation of a former and current coordinator working together isn’t expected to be a big issue. Mattison was the consummate team player under Brady Hoke, and there’s no reason to think he won’t be under Harbaugh. It will be more interesting to see how the veteran and well-respected defensive mind meshes with the up-and-coming Durkin and what results they produce together on the field.
Why do I feel like everyone on Twitter is talking to Jim Harbaugh these days?
The Wolverines will be warm and cozy at practice inside Al Glick Field House. Northwestern also starts this week. Maryland, Minnesota and Nebraska open drills next week, which makes now as good a time as any to review staff openings around the Big Ten.
Presumably, all 14 programs will get back to full strength for spring practice. For now, three teams remain down a man.
Since we last took a divisional look at offseason changes in the East and the West, Nebraska and Wisconsin lost assistant coaches. Brian Stewart left Maryland as defensive coordinator to take the opening at Nebraska.
And Purdue hired Terry Malone over the weekend to coach tight ends.
Malone made it to a 6 a.m. workout Monday with the Boilermakers.
He is an intriguing hire for Purdue. Most recently the tight ends coach of the New Orleans Saints, where he was instrumental in the development of 2013 first-team All-Pro pick Jimmy Graham, Malone coordinated Michigan's offense from 2002-05 and also worked under Lloyd Carr as offensive line coach.
Michigan won five league crowns in Malone's nine seasons. He brings an NFL pedigree and a history of success in the Big Ten. Pretty good place to start for the Boilermakers, who have won one Big Ten game in two seasons under coach Darrell Hazell.
The imminent Stewart hire at Nebraska, to replace Charlton Warren as secondary coach, also makes sense for Mike Riley, who generally picks coaches that he or his assistants know. Stewart served a solid stint in 2007-08 with the Dallas Cowboys as defensive coordinator. Also on that Dallas staff was Bruce Read, Nebraska's special teams coach and a longtime Riley assistant.
Stewart is a San Diego native and coached the secondary for the Chargers before his stint in Dallas; Riley, former head coach of the Chargers, and his staff have numerous San Diego ties.
Of little relevance, Stewart, as the Cowboys coordinator, succeeded Mike Zimmer, who -- after the 2003 season -- interviewed for the Nebraska head-coaching job. It went to Bill Callahan, who spent 2012-14 with the Cowboys.
And of minor relevance, Stewart would be the only full-time member of the Nebraska staff to coach a game at Memorial Stadium. He spent three seasons at Missouri, losing to the Huskers in 1996 and 2000 in Lincoln and in 1999 at Mizzou.
Here's a rundown of the programs with open positions:
- Illinois still has an opening after the January firing of two assistant coaches. The spot yet to be filled was vacated by special teams coach Tim Salem, though coach Tim Beckman might hire for a different position. Beckman said recently that he had interviewed internal candidates and likely would assign Alex Golesh, the Fighting Illini recruiting coordinator who worked last season with running backs and tight ends, to handle a heavy load on special teams next season.
- Maryland needs an assistant to replace Stewart. Inside linebackers coach Keith Dudzinski was promoted to defensive coordinator.
- Wisconsin must hire a running backs coach to replace Thomas Brown, who left for alma mater, Georgia. John Settle, who coached the position for the Badgers from 2006-10 and for Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst at Pittsburgh last season, has been mentioned in reports as a candidate.
- Michigan features a bigger backfield as spring practice opens. How will Harbaugh's big personality impact the Wolverines?
- A few Northwestern players decide to support their basketball team -- in full pads.
- Former Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes had a great day at the NFL combine.
- Ex-Wisconsin star Melvin Gordon mmight land in the first round of the NFL draft.
- Yet another reason for the Hawkeyes to be proud of Hayden Fry's contributions to Iowa.
- The coach of Ohio State running back recruit Mike Weber feels much better now about Urban Meyer.
- A review of Minnesota's three former stars at combine.
- Five players with the most to gain for Nebraska this spring.
- As the Big Ten mulls the eligibility of true freshmen, here are five rookie performances that helped Rutgers.
- Former longtime Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley is headed to UCLA after one season at West Virginia.
Harbaugh: Split With 49ers Not Mutual
BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
TBD Kent State Illinois TBD Southern Illinois Indiana TBD Illinois State Iowa TBD Richmond Maryland TBD BYU Nebraska TBD Norfolk State Rutgers TBD Penn State Temple TBD Stanford Northwestern TBD Wisconsin Alabama