Much has been made of the unorthodox physical demands Michigan’s new coaching staff will push on its team throughout spring practice in the name of building toughness. Defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin is hoping to create an equal amount of mental stress for his players during the coming month.

The Wolverines return to the field in a few days after a week-long hiatus for spring break. A heavy dose of note-taking awaits them. Durkin, who most recently coached top-15 defenses in back-to-back years as Florida’s coordinator, says he wants to keep his new players' heads swimming in new lessons this March.

[+] EnlargeD.J. Durkin
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsD.J. Durkin on experimenting with schemes: "We're going to go through and install quite a bit, a lot of the stuff that I've done before, and then we'll just sort it out and see what we're best at."
"Every day I want our guys coming into meetings with the approach of, 'I’ve got to sit down and be locked in and learn football,'" Durkin said. "Every day, whether it’s something small or big, we’re going to be installing [a] new defense for those guys to get them used to that."

Part of the information overload is to keep pushing their players, and part is a learning experience for the coaches themselves. Durkin and head coach Jim Harbaugh both like to use three-man and four-man fronts depending on the opponent, game plan, and their own personnel. Installing as much as possible in its first offseason in Ann Arbor will give the staff a chance to see what it will have at its disposable during in the fall.

Michigan ran a 4-3 defense last season under veteran Greg Mattison, who remains on staff as a defensive line assistant. That scheme held opponents to 311.3 yards per game last season, seventh among all FBS teams.

The Wolverines return two linebackers -- senior Joe Bolden and fifth-year senior Desmond Morgan -- capable of starting on the inside or outside, which provides some flexibility. The loss of both defensive end starters from last season also makes it a good time to do some shuffling on the line of scrimmage.

To start this spring, Durkin’s plan is to throw whatever he can at the wall and see what sticks.

"That’s the goal: By the end of spring to have a lot of things answered," he said. "We’re going to go through and install quite a bit, a lot of the stuff that I’ve done before, and then we’ll just sort it out and see what we’re best at."

The team’s strengths will determine where several players bouncing between different positions land. Senior Royce Jenkins-Stone, for example, could land at defensive end or stay at linebacker (where he has played 36 games over the past three seasons) depending on the formation. Expected breakout star Jabrill Peppers is also among the many players working at different spots in spring drills.

Mattison has been an important asset for the new staff in its effort to get to know the roster. The former coordinator started his second stint at Michigan in 2011 when Brady Hoke took over as head coach. Mattison had a hand in recruiting many of the current players. Durkin said he wants to give everyone a clean slate on the field, but Mattison has helped them get to know the personalities of their new guys.

"When you’re at a place where you’ve recruited all your guys, you know their families and you know everything about them," Durkin said. "We don’t know that yet. Greg knows that about all those guys, or most of those guys. That’s where it’s really going to be helpful. ... That’s an opinion I trust and I’ve trusted for a long time."

Mattison started a relationship with Harbaugh while coaching with Jack Harbaugh at Western Michigan in the 1980s, and later with John Harbaugh on the Baltimore Ravens staff. He coached at Florida as well, but he and Durkin did not overlap with the Gators.

Players can see the connection between the coaches, but say their differences are quickly apparent.

"Coach Matti is a little bit more laid back than coach Durkin," said Bolden, the team’s top returning tackler, in an interview with the school’s website. "Coach Durkin might have an aneurysm some time, but it's all right. Coach Durkin is intense, intense, intense. Coach Matti is a very intense guy, too, but didn't show it as much. There's more movement from Coach Durkin on the field. Sometimes it's hard to find him."

That intensity spills into meeting rooms for Durkin. He said he’s been pleased with the defense’s attentive study habits so far, but he plans to push them harder throughout the rest of spring practice.
It’s Friday, which means it’s time for one of the Big Ten Blog’s newest regular features: #B1GFridayFive. We begin the end of each week with a new topic in hopes that it will inspire you to join the conversation, pass it along, our tell us how dumb and biased we are. Use the hashtag and give us your thoughts directly by following @BennettESPN, @MitchSherman, @ESPNJoshMoyer, @DanMurphyESPN, @ESPNRittenberg, @AWardESPN, @TomVH and @ESPN_BigTen.

Colleague Brett McMurphy reported earlier this week that at least 14 cities are considering whether to bid on the 2018, 2019 or 2020 College Football Playoff championship game. The first one, of course, was held at Jerry World in North Texas, and the next two will be in Glendale, Arizona, and Tampa, Florida.

Like most bowl games, these initial championship contests have gone to warm-weather cities in the South and the West. That's all well and good, but as I've argued, the Midwest should have a chance to host the game on occasion as well. After all, the inaugural playoff champion resides in Columbus, Ohio.

So today's #B1GFridayFive looks at five cities/stadiums in the Big Ten footprint that should host the biggest game. Here is our five. Tell us your five using the hashtag #B1GFridayFive.

1. Indianapolis/Lucas Oil Stadium

Lucas Oil StadiumRon Chenoy/USA TODAY Sports 

There's no doubt that Indy can handle a major event, as it has already put on several successful Final Fours and was the site of the 2012 Super Bowl. The city is laid out perfectly for fans to walk to many bars and restaurants around the stadium, which is indoors and extremely comfortable. Indianapolis has a lot of other sports events on its plate, but could do this in its sleep. And think what an advantage it would be for a Big Ten team to play the conference championship game there a month earlier and be familiar with the surroundings.

2. Minneapolis/New Vikings stadium

Vikings StadiumCourtesy Minnesota Vikings

The as-yet uncompleted and unnamed stadium in downtown Minneapolis is sure to be spectacular, and the city is planning on bidding for the 2019 and 2020 national title games. The 2018 Super Bowl is already coming there. Sure, it's cold there. But anyone who has been to Minneapolis knows you can often avoid the elements through indoor walkways, and the city is full of great restaurants and bars.

3. Detroit/Ford Field

Ford FieldTim Fuller/USA TODAY Sports 

Detroit hosted the 2006 Super Bowl, and the economic boom of a college football championship game would be a great benefit to the city. There's not as much to do around the stadium as in Indianapolis or Minneapolis but, hey, casinos. Can you imagine how happy Michigan or Michigan State would be with its commute if it made a title game in Detroit?

4. East Rutherford. New Jersey/MetLife Stadium

MetLife StadiumVinny Carchietta/Zumapress/Icon SMI 

Yes, this counts as a being in the Big Ten footprint now. Unlike the first three on this list, this stadium is outdoors and would be subject to the elements. But the Super Bowl was held there last year and the world kept spinning. Football was made to be played outside, if you recall, and a little snow and wind might actually play to the Big Ten's benefit. And when you combine college football's top event with New York City, you could get something pretty special.

5. Pasadena, California/Rose Bowl Stadium

Rose BowlTim Long/Getty Images 

OK, we're cheating a little bit here, as the Rose Bowl is only in the Big Ten footprint if you allow a wide historical berth. Still, Pasadena is the best setting in college football, if not all of sports, and is the perfect place for a championship game. The Rose Bowl could host the game in years in which it is not a playoff semifinal, and if things broke right, that could mean the Big Ten could send two teams to Pasadena in the same year. Who could argue with that?

Just missed: Green Bay, Wisconsin/Lambeau Field; Washington/FedEx Field; Cleveland/FirstEnergy Stadium.

Big Ten morning links

March, 6, 2015
Mar 6
The well-documented Melvin Gordon-Ameer Abdullah rivalry, which pre-dates their years in college, was effectively extinguished on Nov. 15.

Remember that day?

Nebraska players and their fans prefer to forget it. Gordon rushed for 408 yards, then an FBS record, as Wisconsin stomped the Cornhuskers 59-24. That performance propelled him to a runner-up finish in the Heisman Trophy balloting

On one good leg on that snowy afternoon in Madison, Abdullah mustered 69 yards on the ground in a performance representative of the anticlimactic finish to his record-setting career.

They met again at the NFL combine last month in Indianapolis, where both backs performed well enough to claim victory. The bigger Gordon ran a faster 40-yard dash (4.52 to 4.60), though Abdullah walked away with the best marks among an accomplished group at their position in the vertical leap, broad jump, three-cone drill and 20-yard shuttle.

Abdullah appeared to improve his 40 time -- pending official results -- Thursday at Nebraska’s pro day.

When it was over, Abdullah, typically reserved, did not mince words. He said he believes he’s the best running back in this draft class. Gordon included.

“I’m not real worried about Melvin,” Abdullah said. “He has his own agenda. I have my own agenda.”

But Abdullah, training this spring in Dallas, said more.

“I don’t know what he’s doing," Abdullah said. "He doesn’t know what I’m doing. Obviously, we want to compete, but it’s more of a mental edge than anything. When you’re working and you’re tired, I say, ‘Well, Melvin’s still working harder than me, so I’ve gotta go harder.’”

Clearly they remain linked, a salivating thought for fans of Big Ten football, anxious to watch continued competition between the talented duo play out on a new stage.

Analysts rate Gordon as the better prospect, and how can you argue with 2,587 yards -- a career figure for many that Gordon accumulated in merely 13 games last fall?

But here’s what I know about Abdullah: He’s at his most dangerous as an underdog.

The large chip on his shoulder that Abdullah carried to Nebraska out of high school in Alabama, where SEC schools declined to recruit him as a running back, fueled his journey to become the first three-time 1,000-yard rusher in Huskers history.

The chip is back. I’ve rarely, if ever, heard Abdullah speak with more conviction than Thursday after his workout.

“Whatever team that takes me,” Abdullah said, “I’m going to be in shape and ready to go when I get there.”

Whether he knows it or not, Gordon is providing a bit of fuel for Abdullah’s drive toward the draft.

Around the rest of the Big Ten:
Four prospects received immediate invitations to The Opening following last year’s Los Angeles Nike Football Training Camp, though several more from the event eventually found their way to the preeminent summer showcase. This year, The Opening Los Angeles Regional will again feature many of the top prospects in the West region, as several position groups will be loaded and several states will showcase their top recruits, who are looking forward to going toe-to-toe with California’s best. Here are five things to watch heading into Sunday’s event.

While college football teams don't often resolve major competitions or issues during spring practices -- at least they tend to resist public proclamations -- that's not going to stop us from making predictions. There's just too much juicy goings-on for us to keep quiet. So here are 10 bold predictions, though you might quibble with what degree of boldness we have attained.

(Read full post)


National recruiting reporter Jeremy Crabtree offers bold predictions for the 2016 recruiting classes in the coming months.

Jim Harbaugh a happy man after Twitter shoutout from Judge Judy

March, 5, 2015
Mar 5
Jim Harbaugh's much-ballyhooed return to Twitter since becoming Michigan's coach has not disappointed. Of all the quirky and enthusiastic tweets so far, though, his most recent two might be our favorites.

It started Tuesday, when Harbaugh gave public congrats to a woman he has admired for years.

That's right -- Judge Judy, the TV judge who has built a financial empire (she reportedly makes about $47 million a year) since her reality courtroom show began in 1996. Judith Sheindlin has many fans, but perhaps none bigger than Harbaugh, who waxed poetic about the judge during the 2013 NFL combine.

"Trust is big to me. I'm a big fan of the Judge Judy show. When you lie in Judge Judy's courtroom, it's over. Your credibility is completely lost and you stand no chance of winning that case. I learned that from her. It's very powerful. And true. If somebody lies to you, how can you trust anything they say after that?"

He said this with a straight face and was absolutely sincere. How do we know this? He went to see it for himself, attending, along with his father, one of Judge Judy's tapings in summer 2013.

So you can imagine how thrilled Harbaugh was when he heard back from Judge Judy this week. How thrilled? We'll let him tell you.

Junior days are underway, and the spring evaluation period is quickly approaching. While a number of programs are off to a fast start and in need of keeping impressive commitments in the fold, there also are programs in need of creating momentum and battling archrivals on the trail this spring and headed into the summer.

Here is a look at 10 programs that need a big spring, for various reasons (listed alphabetically):

The Gators saved the 2015 class in the days leading up to national signing day creating some momentum heading into the spring and summer. The time to capitalize is now for Jim McElwain and staff, and Florida simply must continue to gain steam with archrival Florida State swinging a big recruiting stick in state, and Miami on a run headed into the spring evaluation period. Florida currently has three verbals, all outside the ESPN Junior 300.

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Big Ten morning links

March, 5, 2015
Mar 5
It’s the middle of another cold, snowy, football-less week in Big Ten country. We’ll do our best to put a smile on your face anyway with today’s edition of the morning links.

1. College football fans have come up with countless ways to process the agony of a tough season. Iowa fans have been more creative than most, going so far as to develop their own mythical deity to explain their misfortune. They’ve raised the bar again.

Two frustrated Hawkeyes, one of whom happens to tour with REO Speedwagon now and then, vented this week about a 7-6 record through the magic of Broadway musicals. They discovered that Kirt Ferentz’s healthy salary worked out to be $571,400 per win in 2014, which lends itself nicely to a familiar classic born in the mid-1990s. Be warned: This version is even more likely to be stuck in your head than the original.

Of all the ways to express anger over young men playing a game below a fanbase’s standards -- from poisoning trees to horrible social media mentions and death threats, this has to be among the most enjoyable. Kudos to @actioncookbook and @TimStop24 for a job well done.

And in other soon-to-be viral and entertaining Internet news this week, it appears Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has struck up a Twitter friendship with daytime television’s Judge Judy. Harbaugh, a self-described devoted fan, congratulated her honor on signing a contract extension earlier this week. On Wednesday, Judge Judy responded.
2. One of the ugliest scenes of the most recent bowl season may end up helping Mike Riley get off to a good start at Nebraska.

The Cornhuskers open the 2015 season by hosting BYU, a team that ended its appearance in the Miami Bowl in a sucker-punch brawl with Memphis. The game, a back-and-forth thriller, quickly deteriorated after BYU failed to score in its second possession of overtime. Cougars coach Bronco Mendenhall promised his players that were involved would be disciplined, and it looks like that could come in the week leading up to this year’ season opener.

The details of what type of punishment Mendenhall has in mind for roughly 10 of his players isn’t clear. They may miss game time or preparation time in the week leading up to the game. It’s a necessary move by BYU, and an unexpected benefit for Nebraska, who will likely still be working out some kinks under its new coaching staff in early September.

3. USA Today published its Big Ten spring preview Wednesday, which started with a nod to the team that everybody in the conference will be chasing for the foreseeable future. Urban Meyer was expected to change Ohio State for the better when he arrived three-plus years ago. But it wasn’t clear then how much of an impact, as the article points out, he would have on the entire conference. The Big Ten’s momentum from a 6-5 bowl record is spilling into the spring. The conference heavyweights have all done their best to keep pace with the Buckeyes. The quality of the league is on the rise, and as much as any fan outside of Ohio will hate to admit it, a lot of credit is due to Meyer and his staff for that change.

Now, onto the links...

Redshirting is not a popular term among the nation's top football prospects, but a quick look at the recent Heisman Trophy winners shows the importance of that extra year of development. The list below may not include the next Jameis Winston or Johnny Manziel, but we feel these players, once prominent recruits in the 2014 class, are in position to make big debuts in the 2015 college football season.

1. Marlon Humphrey (Alabama) -- A youth movement is going to be underway on the perimeter for Alabama this fall and while 2014 classmate Tony Brown saw some time last year, Humphrey will be joining the fray in 2015. Humphrey fits the physical dimensions coach Nick Saban wants at corner. The former five-star is big, can run and is savvy when it comes to playing different schemes.

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The opening of spring practice around the Big Ten brings competition to each of the league’s 14 programs. Departing top players and the maturation of others lead to fights for practice reps that will help shape depth charts and summer conversation topics.

At Ohio State, the nation’s most prominent position battle looks set to be waged at quarterback upon the return from injury of Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett. This spring, the spotlight belongs to Cardale Jones.

So which position battles require close attention over the next few weeks?

Michigan quarterbacks: It’s wide-open, with junior Shane Morris, redshirt freshman Wilton Speight and true freshman Alex Malzone auditioning for Jim Harbaugh and coordinator Tim Drevno. Speight owns a size advantage. Morris has played in parts of the past two seasons, but was ineffective in place of Devin Gardner. The spring serves only as an appetizer in this race, which figures to extend to August, when freshman Zach Gentry joins the fun.

Minnesota running backs: David Cobb meant so much to the Gophers over the past two seasons as they rolled to 16 wins. Minnesota likely can’t replace his production with one back, though redshirt freshman Jeff Jones -- a homegrown, elite recruit from the Class of 2013 -- looks physically equipped to give it a shot. Senior Rodrick Williams Jr. (who showed flashes late in the year), sophomore Berkley Edwards and redshirt freshman Rodney Smith will likely also factor in the battle for the top job.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Beathard
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsJunior C.J. Beathard is in a battle with senior Jake Rudock to quarterback the Hawkeyes.
Iowa quarterbacks: Junior C.J. Beathard dodged rumors of a transfer in December and senior Jake Rudock did the same recently. Both remain in Iowa City, ready to resume the battle that ended in a bowl defeat against Tennessee with Beathard in charge of the offense. Soon after, the Hawkeyes placed him atop the depth chart. But any edge over Rudock, a 25-game starter over the past two seasons, is small and could disappear quickly this spring.

Ohio State cornerbacks: Opposite Eli Apple, the Buckeyes must replace Doran Grant. It’s no easy task, considering Grant’s value to the Ohio State defense during its national title run. But sophomores Gareon Conley and Damon Webb look up to the task. Conley played considerably more last season after a redshirt year that followed his arrival in Columbus as the No. 1 prospect in Ohio in 2013. Webb, the top prospect out of Michigan a year later, figures to make a jump after limited action last year.

Penn State offensive tackles: The urgency here outweighs the options, and the Nittany Lions have plenty of candidates to replace Donovan Smith, gone early to the NFL. Andrew Nelson started as a freshman at right tackle and may take over on the left side. Opposite Nelson, the race is on, with redshirt freshmen Noah Beh, Brendan Brosnan, Chance Sorrell and Chasz Wright set to enter the mix. Newcomer Paris Palmer, a junior, may be the man to beat, though. True freshman Sterling Jenkins joined the program in January.

Purdue quarterbacks: Juniors Austin Appleby and Danny Etling bring considerable starting experience into the spring. Redshirt freshman David Blough, who came to Purdue with credentials equally as impressive as the other two, has yet to take a collegiate snap. But for the Boilermakers, who’ve won just one Big Ten game behind the elder quarterbacks over the past two seasons, it’s all hands on deck.

Nebraska I-backs: This is a legitimate four-man race to replace three-time 1,000-yard rusher Ameer Abdullah. Senior Imani Cross has the size and experience, with 22 career touchdowns. Junior Terrell Newby is a quicker option with skills perhaps well suited to Mike Riley’s offense. Sophomore Adam Taylor offers an impressive mix of power and speed but missed last season with a knee injury. Redshirt freshman Mikale Wilbon showed promise last year in scout-team duty.

Michigan safeties: The Wolverines have a lot back at safety, including surefire starter Jarrod Wilson. But competition for the other spot may grow fierce between the likes of senior Jeremy Clark and juniors Delano Hill and Dymonte Thomas. Most intriguing, Jabrill Peppers, after injuries shortened his much-hyped true freshman season, has taken spring snaps at safety. Michigan coaches continue to audition defensive backs, so it may take much of the spring to sort out who is vying for specific spots.

Rutgers running backs: If healthy, rising senior Paul James has earned the top spot. But James needed knee surgery last fall and has battled other injuries. He’s out this spring, leaving a glut of young backs to fight for time. Sophomore Robert Martin finished last season on a strong note, but not as well as classmate Josh Hicks, who gashed North Carolina for 202 yards in the Quick Lane Bowl. Juniors Justin Goodwin and Desmon Peoples, who led the Scarlet Knights in rushing last season, add flavor to this competition.

Northwestern quarterbacks: Senior Zack Oliver is the man with the most experience as the Wildcats prepare to replace Trevor Siemian. But Oliver’s late-season turnover trouble helped open this race up for sophomore Matt Alviti and redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson. Each of the three brings a different set of skills, so a decision would help simplify matters as the season nears.

National recruiting reporter Jeremy Crabtree joins ESPN's Phil Murphy to break down five college coaches primed for a productive spring on the recruiting trail.

Big Ten morning links

March, 4, 2015
Mar 4
Cost-of-attendance stipends were one of the first major reforms Power 5 conferences pushed through the NCAA as a result of autonomy. Pretty much everybody agreed that closing the gap between what a scholarship pays for and the actual cost of going to a university -- including things like living expenses -- was a smart way to give some assistance to players.

But like so many other issues in college sports, those stipends may also carry unintended consequences. Because the amount each school offers can be very different, some people are afraid it will become a recruiting incentive.'s David Jones covered this situation well on Tuesday. Based on current cost-of-attendance data, as determined by university financial aid departments, Penn State will offer the highest cost-of-attendance stipend in the Big Ten when it goes into effect next school year, at $4,788 per year per athlete. The next highest would be Wisconsin at $4,265.

Compare that to Michigan State, which would offer $1,872 per year, or Michigan at $2,054. OK, you might say, that's only a difference of about $2,000 or $3,000, so why would a recruit choose a school based on that? But add that figure up over the four or five years of a player's career, and you're talking about a difference of maybe $15,000. That's not exactly peanuts.

Some coaches are worried about how this is all going to play out.

"To me, it's going to get into being like free agency in college," Maryland coach Randy Edsall told me on signing day. "What we've heard is that some schools might have a cost of attendance of up to $6,000. Now, will kids opt to go where they can get more money? Have we opened up a can of worms, where now it becomes, 'How much money can I get at this school, compared to the other one?'"

The stipends haven't gone into effect yet and are still so new that it's hard to say for sure what will happen. But Penn State's James Franklin, who looks for every edge he can find in recruiting, has said he would use cost of attendance as a selling point.

"I know people were already selling that this year," Edsall said. "It's going to be bigger as we move forward."

The disparity in the stipend amounts isn't going to change, because those numbers are based on individual schools' tuition costs and other factors. Power 5 conference leaders have always known that the figures would vary from program to program.

But were they actually ready for this measure -- however well-intentioned -- to become a recruiting tool? We'll probably find out the first time a team loses a player who chose to go with a rival because of its higher stipend. Just another reminder that almost every change in college sports leads to another issue.

Around the league ...

Jim Harbaugh's heroics at Michigan apparently stretch beyond the football field.

Harbaugh and one of the football program's support staffers stopped to help a pair of women who had been in a car crash on the interstate Tuesday afternoon.

A university spokesman confirmed that the Wolverines' head coach and football operations director Jim Minick provided first aid and offered their coats to the women as they waited for law enforcement to arrive shortly before 3 p.m.

The police report said the car flipped multiple times while rolling over the median on I-94 before coming to a stop in a snow embankment. No other vehicles were involved in the crash. The 53-year-old driver was partially ejected from the car through the driver's side window. She and her 73-year-old passenger were both wearing seat belts and had "non-life-threatening injuries." They were transported to a local hospital via ambulance.

Harbaugh and Minick were on their way to the airport when they saw the car and stopped to help. Michigan started its spring practice Feb. 23 but will not practice this week during the university's spring break.

(Read full post)


Bold Predictions For Spring Recruiting
National recruiting reporter Jeremy Crabtree offers bold predictions for the 2016 recruiting classes in the coming months.