Big Ten mailbag

March, 4, 2015
Mar 4
4:00
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We took last week off from the mailbag because you guys didn't come up with enough questions. So keep sending them in, either via Twitter or this link. And then you'll get whip-smart answers like these:

Brian from Portland writes:Is it hard having the greatest name in the world? Also, looking at the Nittany Lions' schedule this year, they play only one true away game (at Ohio State) over their first nine games. Am I crazy to think that even a not-still-at-full-strength Lions team could manage 10 or 11 wins?

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarChristian Hackenberg and the Nittany Lions should get off to a fast start in 2015.
Brian Bennett: Having this name is probably as difficult as it is for you to live in Portland with all those brewpubs and great restaurants.

As for Penn State, when you look at the first six games in 2015 -- at Temple, then home against Buffalo, Rutgers, San Diego State, Army and Indiana -- it's not very tough to envision a 6-0 start if the Nittany Lions play close to their potential. That trip to Columbus looms on Oct. 17, and I'm not sure anybody in the country would be able to go and win in the Horseshoe this fall. But that's followed up by games at Maryland, at home vs. Illinois and then at Northwestern, before a closing stretch vs. Michigan and at Michigan State.

There's only two games on that schedule right now -- vs. the Buckeyes and Spartans -- that I'd make Penn State a definite underdog. James Franklin and his staff have a lot of work to do, particularly with a very young offensive line and in making do with leftover effects from the sanctions. But the schedule sets up very well, and with a bounce-back year from Christian Hackenberg, I could see nine wins or even more here. The margin of error, however, remains very small as we saw last year in losses to Illinois, Maryland and Northwestern and a great escape at Rutgers.

Dan from Carefree, Arizona, writes: On this freshman ineligible topic, I am very confused about the number of players who suit up for a game. If you have 70 players on scholarship and 18 graduate you are left with a team of 52 players and no recruits to replace those who left -- not to mention any RS sophomores/juniors that leave early for the NFL. What am I missing here?

Brian Bennett: Dan, your hometown sounds like a wonderful place, especially as I wait in vain here for spring to arrive. But to your point, the "year of readiness" idea really couldn't work without additional scholarships for football. Let's say you have an incoming freshman class of 20 players. Teams are limited right now to 85 scholarships, so that's nearly a quarter of your roster that would be ineligible. You'd probably have to have at least 100 scholarships to make it work. The additional cost of those scholarships, not to mention Title IX implications, is another reason why this probably will never happen.

Mitch C. from Columbus, Ohio, writes: The opener at VaTech is scary. Will the helmets be too small for Ohio State heads? Will the QB competition be more a distraction and divisive even? Obviously, the level of intensity, sharpness of execution, will be lower than the end of last season. Will the new coaching staff fit their assignments smoothly and at the level of the former coaches who moved on? Is Ezekiel Elliot's surgery a portend of other little mishaps and irritants that erode karma? And in Columbus, it is expected that the Buckeyes start right where they left off and get better. Do the fans have any feel for how difficult that will be?

Brian Bennett: There's nothing like fans worrying about their team after they won a national title in convincing fashion. Look, it's not easy to win in Lane Stadium, and I expect that place to be absolutely buzzing on Labor Day night. It will not be an easy atmosphere for Ohio State to play in, and the defending champs will have a huge target on their backs.

But, I'm not too concerned about the Buckeyes losing that game. For one thing, the Hokies simply weren't very good last year (I can't get that 6-3, double overtime win over Wake Forest out of my mind no matter how much hypnosis therapy I undergo) and I'm not sure Frank Beamer can stop the program downturn. Sure, Virginia Tech beat Ohio State 35-21 in Columbus last year, but that's exactly why Urban Meyer's team won't be complacent for this rematch. The Buckeyes will be hungry to avenge their only regular season loss under Meyer (which is still an amazing thing to say).

Some places already list Ohio State as a 17-point favorite in this year's opener. And with good reason.

Brian Bennett: I like what C.J. Beathard brings to the Iowa offense with his big arm, flair for the dramatic and fearlessness. This attack has been far too bland and predictable for the past few seasons, and Beathard can help stretch the field. The Hawkeyes will also need him to rein in some of his more reckless tendencies. Jake Rudock is the safer choice who has much more experience, but a change might be worth it just to shake things up a bit. I still believe, however, that the key to Iowa's success still starts with a powerful running game, and we didn't see that enough last year. Brian Bennett: Lara Croft? Well, I wouldn't put anything past her. Have you seen those biceps? Oh, you probably mean freshman Demry Croft. Well, maybe in 2017. I'm surprised people are still asking about Mitch Leidner's job security. There's no question he's the guy for the Gophers and he's one of the team's best leaders. He's still not a great passer by any means, but he made strides in the bowl game and certainly hasn't had a lot of help at receiver during his career so far. Jerry Kill and his staff are extremely high on Croft, but it seems like a redshirt year would make sense for him in 2015.
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.

Big Ten morning links

March, 4, 2015
Mar 4
9:00
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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.

PennLive.com'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 ...
Naples High has enjoyed tremendous success under head coach Bill Kramer. With two state titles and numerous deep playoff runs, the Southwest Florida 6A power has become a must stop for college coaches having produced a number of national recruited prospects over the past decade.

In the 2016 class, there are a trio of prospects who rank among the best in the area, state and country.

Fils-aime hot on the trail despite injury in 2014

Headed into the 2014 season, ESPNJr300 running back Carlin Fils-aime was a name known to college coaches, and had a handful of offers. After injuring his ankle in Game 4 caused him to miss the rest of the season, the quick and powerful back was unsure what would come of his recruitment.

That question was answered in February with offers from Ohio State, Alabama, Auburn, and Florida.

"After I got injured, I didn’t really expect to get any more offers," Said Fils-aime. "When those schools offered me I was pretty shocked because of my injury."

The Gators are one of several schools the 5-foot-10, 175-pounder plans to visit in the coming weeks.

"For now, we are trying to go up to Florida during spring break, but if not will get up there in the summer. We also want to visit Georgia, North Carolina, N.C. State if we can this summer. I’ll probably fly up to Ohio State, too. I was just at Miami, and had a great time. I was impressed with how they rotated their backs in practice, and the basketball game against North Carolina was fun."

If there is one program yet to offer that could be a game-changer in the physical back's recruitment, it would be Stanford.

"I’m a big Stanford fan. I have always liked them because they have a great law program, and if football doesn’t work out for me, I want to go into law. That is one of the schools that I do love."

Naples High head coach Bill Kramer has had some really good backs through the years, including former Ohio State star Carlos Hyde. In Fils-aime, Kramer has a talented athlete who brings a lunch-pail mentality.

"I love his competitive DNA," Said Kramer. "He works in the classroom, and is already qualified. He’s a guy that you can count on, and it matters to him every day. Our defensive players say hitting him is like hitting a light pole. He’s can make plays in really small spaces, understands leverage, and is really explosive."

Byrd one of the nation's best

The Miami Hurricanes' 2016 class is the best in the nation in the early going. One of the 10 ESPNJr 300 verbals is former Florida pledge Tyler Byrd. The 5-foot-11, 195-pound versatile prospect is blessed with rare talent according to Kramer.

"I think he’s a Top 50 wide receiver and Top 10 corner. He’s really strong physically, he’s almost 6-feet even, you are not going to outleap him, and if he gets his hands on you, you are negated. He’ll do something about every day that is just spectacular."

Though Byrd is solid with his commitment to the Hurricanes due to the love that Al Golden and staff showed throughout the entire process, programs such as Florida, Georgia, Michigan, and others remain under consideration. On Monday, Byrd said he planned to make all five of his official visits.

Riley the best on defense at Naples High

While Fils-aime and Byrd are names known both regionally and nationally on the recruiting radar, Naples High is home to one of the top sleepers in the Sunshine State in safety Chris Riley.

According to Kramer, the 6-foot-3, 180-pound talented all-around athlete is the team's best defensive player, which is saying something considering Byrd is on that same unit.

"Our best defensive player, and that’s saying something because we have some really good players. He was Southwest Florida Defensive Player of the Year for good reason. He has tremendous length, he’s physical, knows all of his run fits, and is a great tackler. We can’t count how many one-on-one tackles he’s made in space against really good players. He can also cover man, is terrific in zone, and understands how it all works and fits together."

Riley is receiving interest from North Carolina, Boston College, and a growing list of others.

"I’ve heard from North Carolina, Boston College, Purdue, Georgia Tech, Harvard and Yale," Said Riley. "North Carolina and Boston College are two I really want [offers]."

Riley had 103 tackles and two interceptions as a junior, taking home area Defensive Player of the Year honors, as well as being an all-area punter. Riley’s father, Chris Riley, played quarterback at Connecticut.

Defensive tackle Colton Strickland and kicker Jerry Nunez are also expected to receive offers in the 2016 class.
While many of the nation's best in the Class of 2016 were known commodities headed into the 2014 season, prospects still develop at different rates and appear on the national radar at different times. This spring, there are a number of ultra-talented prospects who will bring out college coaches by the dozens:

Damion Dickens, DE
ESPN Junior 300 ranking: No. 93


Spring practice is prove-it time for certain players, especially those previously underperforming, redshirted or injured. While established Big Ten stars like Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook and Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa merely need to get their work in, others must impress every time they step on the practice field.

Which Big Ten players have the most at stake during spring ball?

[+] EnlargeC.J. Beathard
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsIowa QB C.J. Beathard has spring ball to bounce back from a somewhat mediocre 2014 season.
Iowa QB C.J. Beathard: Hawkeyes fans love the long hair, the strong arm and perhaps just the idea of Beathard as a departure from the norm in Iowa City. But Beathard has to make the coaches swoon too, and he will get the chance as the team's No. 1 quarterback, at least on the depth chart, entering spring ball. Beathard's improvement starts with greater accuracy, as he completed just 56.5 percent of his passes last season.

Michigan RB Derrick Green: A heralded 2013 recruit, Green struggled with his weight as a freshman and showed some promise early last season before sustaining a broken clavicle. Jim Harbaugh's power-based offense seems ideal for Green's size and skill set, but the rising junior must assert himself this spring. Green isn't the only power back competing for the starting spot as De'Veon Smith and USC transfer Ty Isaac also are in the mix.

Maryland WR Levern Jacobs: After a productive 2013 season (47 receptions, 640 yards), Jacobs was set to start for Maryland before being suspended for the season for his role in a July altercation. Jacobs was found not guilty of assault in December and could emerge as Maryland's top receiving option as the team must replace standouts Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, who combined for 113 receptions and 1,367 yards last fall.

Rutgers QB Chris Laviano: Laviano served as Gary Nova's backup last season, but there's no guarantee he will be the Scarlet Knights' starter in 2015. He must beat out talented LSU transfer Hayden Rettig this spring. Laviano's experience must boost him as Rettig seemingly has all the tools to guide an offense returning standout receiver Leonte Carroo.

Ohio State LB Raekwon McMillan: The jewel of Ohio State's 2014 recruiting class stepped into the fire last season and had respectable results (54 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, one interception). He now must take on a bigger role as Ohio State has a hole to fill at middle linebacker and undoubtedly sees McMillan, a freakish athlete, as the future.

Michigan DB Jabrill Peppers: Peppers is flipping out with excitement about spring ball after a much-anticipated freshman season that didn't go according to plan. The No. 2 player in the 2014 recruiting class missed most of last fall with injuries but has the skills to bolster Michigan's secondary, if he proves himself to a new defensive staff led by coordinator D.J. Durkin. Peppers will take reps at safety and cornerback this spring.

Minnesota's redshirt freshman WRs: A passing offense ranked 119th nationally last season is preventing Minnesota from taking the next step, and the Gophers lose dynamic tight end Maxx Williams to the NFL draft. Receiver depth should be the team's top priority, and four redshirt freshmen -- Desmond Gant, Isaiah Gentry, Melvin Holland Jr. and Jerry Gibson -- take on bigger roles this spring. All four have good size, and hopes are especially high for Gentry.

Penn State OT Andrew Nelson: Some will put quarterback Christian Hackenberg on the prove-it list, but the junior showed in 2013 what he can do with a capable offensive line blocking for him. Big Ten coaches were adamant Hackenberg's struggles last season primarily stemmed from the issues up front. He will need better protection from players like Nelson, who started every game as a redshirt freshman last season and could move from right tackle to the left side.

Wisconsin QB Joel Stave: He is 21-7 as the Badgers' starting quarterback but comes off of a season where he completed a career-low 53.4 percent of his passes and threw more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (9). Perhaps the return of coach Paul Chryst is just what Stave needs to cement himself as the starter and finish his career strong. If not, challengers are waiting.

Nebraska WR Jamal Turner: Nebraska upgraded its passing game late in Bo Pelini's tenure and could take another step under Mike Riley, who produced plenty of standout wideouts at Oregon State. Turner has been unlucky on the injury front but still brings unique skills to a receiver corps looking for someone to complement Jordan Westerkamp and fill the void left by Kenny Bell. It's now or never for Turner, who arrived at Nebraska with so much hype.
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- A day after the 19th annual Nike Football The Opening Miami Regional featured some of the nation's best skill prospects, the Orlando Regional on Sunday offered up depth at a number of positions, with the offensive line and linebackers standing out. As expected, a number of commitments and top targets of Power 5 schools competed decked out in team gear and delivered high-quality performances.

Here are some of the best sights and sounds from Sunday's ultra-talented Orlando Regional.


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Big Ten morning links

March, 3, 2015
Mar 3
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Minnesota opens spring practice Tuesday without a quarterback problem. Mitch Leidner, though far from prolific, brings 16 games of starting experience, a level of efficiency and style of play to the position that fits the Gophers well.

The same cannot be said of at least five teams in the Big Ten this spring.

Ohio State -- clearly not on any quarterback-deprived list -- and Michigan made this rundown by Ben Kercheval of Bleacher Report on the top QB battles of spring. It includes predicted post-spring leaders at the position.

Michigan practice is already underway, though on break this week.

Maryland and Nebraska get started before the end of the week in addition to Minnesota. The Terrapins, while likely set with Caleb Rowe, who's expected back from knee surgery in plenty of time for fall camp, are splitting time between Shane Cockerille and Perry Hills in the spring.

Let's take a look at the best Big Ten spring QB battles, sans Ohio State, where it won't get all that interesting until closer to summer:

Michigan candidates: Shane Morris (junior next season), Wilton Speight (redshirt freshman) and Alex Malzone (true freshman)

Predicted post-spring leader: Morris, simply because of his experience. But this race will extend into the spring, when true freshman Zach Gentry joins the mix. And don't go to sleep on a summer surprise.

Iowa candidates: Jake Rudock (senior), C.J. Beathard (junior)

Predicted post-spring leader: Beathard. He'll get the benefit of the doubt this spring -- treatment to which Rudock has grown accustomed over the past two years -- after the Hawkeyes placed the junior atop the depth chart in January.

Rutgers candidates: Chris Laviano (sophomore), Hayden Rettig (sophomore), Giovanni Rescigno (redshirt freshman)

Predicted post-spring leader: Rettig. He's got an upside that the other two can't match, and with a season to acclimate after his transfer from LSU, look for Rettig to emerge this spring as one of the league's top newcomers.

Northwestern candidates: Zack Oliver (senior), Matt Alviti (sophomore), Clayton Thorson (redshirt freshman)

Predicted post-spring leader: Oliver, who's tall and strong and maybe a bit underappreciated this spring because of his turnover-prone play to finish last season. He'll enjoy a nice spring, but the battle will continue in August, and don't count out Thorson.

Purdue candidates: Austin Appleby (junior), Danny Etling (junior), David Blough (redshirt freshman)

Predicted post-spring leader: Appleby, in perhaps the league's toughest spring call. He faded in November, and both competitors will apply pressure in the spring. But Appleby will draw strength from his best moments of 2014.

Around the rest of the league:
Spring is springing in the Big Ten. Michigan and Northwestern have already hit the practice field, Minnesota, Maryland and Nebraska join them this week and the rest will follow soon.

With spring in the air, we've got some burning questions about the league during this season of practice and hope:

1. Who's going to win the Ohio State quarterback race? This is a question destined to not return an answer this spring. That's because only Cardale Jones will be healthy enough to go through full spring drills. J.T. Barrett will do some light seven-on-seven stuff as he recovers from a broken ankle, while Braxton Miller won't be cleared to throw with his medically repaired shoulder until at least May. So Jones has a chance to gain an early edge in perhaps the most interesting quarterback battle of all time. Can he seize it?

2. How quickly does Jim Harbaugh remake Michigan's culture? Expecting an overnight turnaround in Ann Arbor is unfair and unrealistic, even with Harbaugh's sterling track record. The Wolverines need to find answers at quarterback, running back and receiver, but the more pressing issue is simply developing more toughness than they showed throughout much of the Brady Hoke era. How quickly Michigan adapts to Harbaugh's ways will determine how fast this rebuilding effort will go, and Harbaugh let the message be known last week.

3. What will Nebraska look like under Mike Riley? Huskers athletic director Shawn Eichorst surprised the college football world by hiring Riley away from Oregon State. Riley couldn't possibly be more different, personality-wise, from previous Nebraska coach Bo Pelini. But what does that mean in how Big Red looks on the field? Riley has been known for running a pro-style offense, though he says he'll design the offense around the strength of his players. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. will need to fend off challenges to his job this spring. The Huskers seemed to take on the volatile traits of Pelini during his tenure; can they now mirror Riley's straight-forward, low-key approach?

4. Who'll win the quarterback job at Iowa, Northwestern, Rutgers and Purdue? Who starts under center will be the dominant story line at all four places this spring. At Iowa, head coach Kirk Ferentz will let C.J. Beathard battle incumbent two-year starter Jake Rudock. Northwestern has a three-man scrum, with Zack Oliver, Matt Alviti and Clayton Thorson fighting to replace Trevor Siemien. Chris Laviano and LSU transfer Hayden Rettig are the main candidates to succeed Gary Nova at Rutgers. And Purdue will open things up once again between Austin Appleby, Danny Etling and David Blough. These competitions could all last until fall camp but will be heavily scrutinized in March and April.

5. How does Michigan State replace its stars? Under Mark Dantonio, the Spartans have usually just moved on to the next guy when a star leaves. But Michigan State, which could be ranked in the top 10 in the preseason, still has to replace some of the most productive players in recent program history, including running back Jeremy Langford, receiver Tony Lippett, cornerback Trae Waynes, defensive end Marcus Rush and safety Kurtis Drummond. We'll get to see this spring just how well those holes can be filled.

6. Can Penn State fix its offensive line? Christian Hackenberg's bruises from last year might just now be healing, as the Nittany Lions' offensive line was one of the worst in the country in 2014. The best player on that line, left tackle Donovan Smith, left for the NFL, and starting guard Miles Dieffenbach also is gone. Yet there's hope for improvement, thanks to incoming juice transfer Paris Palmer, true freshman Sterling Jenkins and some young players who redshirted. Penn State must begin to find the right mix and build cohesion there this spring.

[+] EnlargeJoel Stave
Mike McGinnis/Getty ImagesJoel Stave will be fighting for the top spot as Wisconsin looks for a starting quarterback.
7. Can Paul Chryst work magic at the quarterback position for Wisconsin? The Badgers have been a consistent Big Ten title contender for the past several years, but the quarterback position has been lacking since Russell Wilson completed his one year in Madison. New head coach/old offensive coordinator Chryst could help rectify that situation, whether it's by building on the skills of veteran Joel Stave or going young with a fresh face such as D.J. Gillins or Austin Kafentzis. Wisconsin will need much better play at that position before opening 2015 against Alabama.

8. Does Minnesota have any receivers? Jerry Kill and his staff think they can improve one of the biggest problem positions in recent years for the Gophers. Redshirt freshmen Isaiah Gentry, Melvin Holland Jr. and Desmond Gant are full of promise. They need to start fulfilling it this spring, because the security blanket of tight end Maxx Williams is gone.
9. Can changes help the defenses at Illinois and Maryland? If the Illini are going to build some momentum after last season's bowl appearance, their leaky defense must improve. Tim Beckman hired former NFL assistant Mike Phair as co-defensive coordinator this offseason, and job No. 1 is figuring out a way to stop the run, which Illinois hasn't been able to do for a few years. Maryland parted ways with defensive coordinator Brian Stewart a little more than a year after giving him a contract extension and elevated inside linebackers coach Keith Dudzinski to the role. The Terps will also switch to a 4-3 base and hope to right a defense that rarely dominated in 2014.

10. Where's the next wave of running back stars? Last season saw an unprecedented amount of production from elite running backs, including Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, Indiana's Tevin Coleman, Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, Minnesota's David Cobb and Langford. All of those guys are gone, but budding superstars such as Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott, Wisconsin's Corey Clement and Northwestern's Justin Jackson remain. In a league that churns out tailback talent, plenty of new names are sure to emerge as well.

Big Ten morning links

March, 2, 2015
Mar 2
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Good morning and welcome to March. The steady crawl out of winter continues this week with three more Big Ten teams kicking off their spring practice sessions. Maryland (Monday), Minnesota (Tuesday) and Nebraska (Saturday) are all returning to football soon.

1. Ohio State junior Armani Reeves is cutting his football career short due to concussions. The Buckeyes said Reeves would probably stop playing in early February. This weekend he told the Columbus Dispatch that head injuries started to affect his schoolwork and his personality during Ohio State’s run to national title last fall.

Reeves was the team’s top nickel back. Stepping away from football could not have been easy, but it’s a decision that is becoming more common for college athletes. Two Northwestern players, sophomore Dwight White and senior Collin Ellis, elected to end their playing careers early during the 2014 season. Their decisions are a good sign that better education about concussions is making players aware of the danger of trying to “tough it out.” It also speaks well for the universities that these players feel they have other options.

As more student-athletes start to carefully weigh the value of continuing their careers against potential long-term harm after an injury, it’s important that schools find ways to help their players understand options and have a plan in place to help those that decide to transition away from football. Reeves, for example, will keep his connection to the team by helping out as a student assistant coach.

2. Nebraska coach Mike Riley has one more spot to fill on his staff. It’s a position that the new coach says is crucial for him.

Riley is hunting for a member of the support staff who can help the Cornhuskers find walk-on talent from the state of Nebraska and foster relationships with local coaches. The Oregon State transplant doesn’t want to waste time waiting for his West Coast staff to develop those ties themselves. When instant success is expected, instinct credibility in the backyard is a must.

"We want this guy to be the expert. So when we have that meeting about local recruits, he knows the top-20 guys in Nebraska,” Riley told the Lincoln Journal Star. “I don't want guys leaving here and going to Iowa and being a good player. That might happen, but it won't happen without a fight."

That sounds like a less-than-subtle reference to Hawkeye defensive lineman Drew Ott, a Nebraska native who starred in Iowa’s front seven last fall.

The job opening isn’t a new idea. Most Big Ten programs have at least one member of its staff in charge of running camps and clinics, creating a connection to make sure their home field advantage extends to recruiting wars. The difference with Riley’s approach is, again, his transparency. Most schools hire their player personnel director without much public acknowledgement of who he is or what he’ll be doing. Riley and his staff have been refreshingly open when discussing their recruiting operations since landing in the Midwest in December. So far, it has served as good advertising for the new regime.

And now, onto the links...
[+] EnlargeCardale Jones
Chuck Cook/USA TODAY SportsCan Cardale Jones parlay last season's run into the full-time starting QB job at Ohio State?

Defending national champion Ohio State might have too many quarterbacks.

Traditional heavyweights such as Florida, Michigan and Texas might not have enough.

As spring football practice opens around the country, many of the sport's best teams will start to sort out quarterback questions. Six of the teams that finished in the top 10 of the final Associated Press top 25 poll in 2014 -- Oregon, Alabama, Florida State, Baylor, Georgia and UCLA -- will have new quarterbacks this coming season.


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KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Despite being overcast and rainy, the Orlando Nike regional camp had an incredible turnout of some of the top prospects in the ESPN Junior 300.

The impressive list of prospects in attendance was led by the 30th-ranked player in the ESPN Junior 300, No. 30 Isaac Nauta, No. 32 Feliepe Franks, No. 42 Demetris Robertson, No. 66 Rahshaun Smith and No. 92 Shaq Quarterman. The 10th-ranked player in the country, Nate Craig-Myers, was also in attendance but did not participate due to an injury.

While Saturday’s camp in Miami showcased many defensive top defensive back prospects, the offensive line was dominant on Sunday in Orlando.

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PLANTATION, Fla. -- The Nike Opening Regional at Miami always brings out some of the top skill prospects in the country, with Broward and Dade counties being the most talented neighboring counties in the country. On Saturday, the event at American Heritage High School brought out more than the future stars of college football, but also some of the area's most popular former stars such as Edgerrin James and Chad Johnson, as well as Luther Campbell of 2 Live Crew fame.

Here are some of the best sights and sounds from the talent-laden Miami Regional.


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Big Ten morning links

February, 27, 2015
Feb 27
9:00
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The best quote from the first week of spring practice at Michigan, surprisingly, came from someone other than Jim Harbaugh.

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.

Juan’s findings:
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:

And finally, from Wisconsin, this is, well, it's something. Have a good weekend.
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If you asked Mike Leach, odds are he'd probably tell you his job at Washington State is a wee bit more difficult than he might have expected when he was first hired. And it won't be long before Wake Forest fans start to realize just how remarkable Jim Grobe's tenure was in Winston-Salem.

For a variety of reasons -- namely money, scheduling, academics, facilities and recruiting -- the path to the College Football Playoff is simply easier for some Power 5 coaches and nearly impossible for others. Here's a look at the top-10 easiest coaching paths to the playoff, starting with the easiest, and the 10 most difficult coaching jobs:

EASIEST COACHING PATHS TO THE PLAYOFF

1. Texas
One of the wealthiest, most visible brand-name programs in the country wants for nothing -- and unlike Florida State, it doesn't have to navigate through a conference title game. Right now it's in a catch-22 situation. Texas has to win to own the state in recruiting again, but it has to get the recruits to win.

2. Florida State
The Noles can own and have owned the ACC, with Clemson being their most difficult hurdle. The combination of first-class facilities, in-state recruiting and available salary money makes this one of the most desirable jobs for a coach aspiring to reach the playoff.

3. Ohio State
The East Division isn't easy, but it's manageable, and the Big 33 recruiting turf and financial security -- along with the incredible support and facilities -- puts this brand-name program on the fast track to the playoff. It's easy to sell the program that has been the flagship of the conference for more than a decade.

4. Oklahoma
With no conference title game to trip over, the Sooners have one of the easiest paths to the playoff, not to mention the facilities and financial resources to recruit players and pay coaches.

5. Clemson
It's on par with the SEC as far as recruiting and facilities, but has an easier league to navigate. The program has the resources and salaries needed to recruit and coach a top-four team.

6. USC
When this storied program is at full strength -- without scholarship limitations and postseason penalties -- there's nothing in the way of a top-four ranking. Its pipeline of players to the NFL is proof.

7. Notre Dame
The Irish control their strength of schedule and can now sell an ACC bowl lineup to recruits.

8. Georgia
The Bulldogs have owned the state, and while Florida has to contend with FSU (and dreadful facilities), Georgia has had the upper hand in the series against Georgia Tech. Everything is in place for a title run.

9. Alabama
The program oozes money and tradition, luring the best players in the country. It's ranked low because of a grueling SEC West schedule and conference title game to navigate through.

10. LSU
Much like Alabama, the Tigers are the epitome of SEC success, able to cherry-pick recruits and pay for the best coaches in the country. The biggest obstacle is LSU's own conference schedule.

MOST DIFFICULT COACHING PATHS TO THE PLAYOFF

1. Vanderbilt
There's no school in the country with more of an uphill battle to the playoff than Vandy. The stringent academic requirements are a big reason the program can't recruit the elite athletes necessary to compete with the top teams in the league -- which is why it never will.

2. Wake Forest
The smallest school in the BCS had one historic Orange Bowl run, but that was an anomaly, not the trend. It's not the best program in the state, let alone the Atlantic Division.

3. Washington State
The Cougs are the Pac-12's most isolated, rural program, making recruiting difficult -- the heart of Wazzu's troubles over the past 11 straight losing seasons. It also doesn't help to be looking up at Oregon in the North Division.

4. Colorado
After nine straight losing seasons, the Buffs have faded into irrelevance, and they're competing in a South Division that's on the upswing, led by USC and Arizona. The coaching turnover, subpar recruiting and lack of investment in facilities have made the past decade a disaster.

5. Indiana
The Hoosiers have been stuck in a rut of mediocrity and are outpaced when it comes to facilities and coaching hires. Equally as problematic is IU's place in the East Division, alongside heavyweights Ohio State and Michigan State.

6. Kansas
The program has always been overshadowed by its hoops counterpart and hasn't been relevant in football since its 2007 Orange Bowl appearance.

7. Purdue
The fans have lost interest -- and apparently so have the recruits -- but the program also hasn't had the financial backing it needs to stay on pace with the rest of the conference.

8. Iowa State
Not only is there not much in-state talent, but the Cyclones have to share it with rival Iowa.

9. Kentucky
The program has made a renewed financial commitment recently and has demonstrated that bowl eligibility is a reality, but Kentucky has to win the SEC East before it can be taken seriously as a playoff contender.

10. Syracuse
There's a sense of apathy surrounding the program, which is stuck in the ACC's stronger Atlantic Division with FSU, Clemson and Louisville. There's not enough depth on Syracuse's roster to overcome injuries -- or the schedule.

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Easiest Path To The 2015 College Football Playoff
Heather Dinich takes a look at which schools have the easiest path to the 2015 College Football Playoffs.
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