These fascinating maps published by Athlon Sports, which detail the colleges and high schools of every player on the New England and Seattle active and injured-reserve rosters -- be sure to set aside some time to study them -- got me in the mood.
Tom Brady and Russell Wilson give the Big Ten its first-ever pair of starting quarterbacks in a Super Bowl. But that’s old news.
Between bites of chicken wings and nacho dip, impress with your friends with these nuggets:
The state of Illinois produced six Patriots and two Seahawks. Of the eight Illinoisans (more than from any state other than California, Texas and Florida), five played at Big Ten schools.
Who got away? New England reserve quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who played at Eastern Illinois; New England defensive end Zach Moore of Division II Concordia (Minnesota); and linebacker Darius Fleming of the Patriots, who played at Notre Dame.
The Super Bowl features four Seahawks and two Patriots who played at Wisconsin -- headlined, of course, by Wilson. The six ex-Badgers are the most from any college. Two are on injured reserve.
Michigan and Big Ten newbie Rutgers are among seven schools that placed four players in Super Bowl XLIX. That prestigious list also includes Alabama, Oregon, UCLA, Stanford and Texas A&M. Another six programs are represented Sunday by three players, including Illinois and Purdue. The others? LSU, TCU, USC and California.
Kent State, Memphis and Louisiana Tech placed two players apiece in the Super Bowl, more than Ohio State, which sends only New England safety Nate Ebner. But Seattle coach Pete Carroll coached the Buckeyes’ secondary under Earle Bruce in 1979, 15 years before his first head-coaching gig.
Other than Brady and Wilson, probable starters Sunday from the Big Ten are New England defensive end Rob Ninkovich (Purdue), New England safety Devin McCourty (Rutgers) and Seattle defensive end Cliff Avril (Purdue).
Both of Rob Gronkowski's backups played in the Big Ten -- Michael Hoomanawanui at Illinois and Tim Wright at Rutgers. Keep an eye on the tight-end duo. Hoomanawanui factored in the Patriots’ creative alignments against Baltimore in the AFC divisional round, lining up as an eligible receiver at tackle. Wright caught six touchdown passes in the regular season.
Based on their history, the Patriots will probably get creative near the goal line. In their two most recent Super Bowl wins, former Ohio State linebacker Mike Vrabel caught touchdowns from Brady.
On to the links:
- Who's up next for Ohio State at defensive tackle?
- An amusing and imaginative reenactment at what happened when Mike Riley moved into the office occupied by a certain former Nebraska coach.
- Getting to know a few Big Ten recruits: A versatile offensive lineman headed to Indiana; a future receiver at Northwestern; a Purdue defensive end commit and a lineman set to sign next week with Illinois.
- A court date for former Michigan defensive end Frank Clark is set for next month.
- The upcoming BYU-Michigan State series includes a $1 million buyout on both sides unless the Cougars join a Power 5 league, in which case they can get out for no penalty.
- Iowa spent less on facilities in 2014 and, as a result, made money as an athletic department.
- Minnesota adds an impressive safety prospect out of Michigan.
- The most difficult players to replace in the Big Ten, starting, of course, with Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon.
- Is Maryland in danger of losing a second recruit to Indiana?
- Penn State linebacker Jason Cabinda was among several true freshman to make an impact for the Nittany Lions in 2014.
The last visit weekend before signing day means the last effort to sway recruits and land some final prospects. There are quite a few important visitors within the Big Ten this weekend, so here is a look at the most important visitors for each team.
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TRENTON, N.J. -- A former Penn State football player who recovered from a spinal cord injury has been sworn in as a New Jersey legislator.
Adam Taliaferro took the oath of office Thursday to fill a vacancy created when Assemblywoman Celeste Riley stepped down from the southern New Jersey post to serve as Cumberland County clerk.
Taliaferro was paralyzed during a Penn State-Ohio State game in 2000 after tackling an opponent. Doctors predicted a small chance of walking again. He recovered in four months.
Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto called Taliaferro an "exceptional" advocate for the district.
Taliaferro won the nomination after the district's Democratic officials endorsed him this month. Vacated seats in New Jersey are filled by the party that controls them.
He has also served as a Gloucester County freeholder.
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Come and get your marks, Penn State.
Simply put, Penn State's offense was painful to watch most of the year. The Nittany Lions ranked dead last in the Big Ten in scoring and mustered just 14 points per game in conference action. Only Kansas, Syracuse, Vanderbilt and Wake Forest scored fewer points among Power 5 teams. The Lions' rushing "attack" was also the worst in the Big Ten in averaging a paltry 2.9 yards per carry. A patchwork offensive line that allowed 44 sacks was the main culprit, but inexperienced receivers also played a role. Supremely talented Christian Hackenberg looked shell-shocked, throwing 15 interceptions and just 12 touchdowns while often running for his life.
The Penn State defense was as good as the Penn State offense was bad. Bob Shoop's unit led the Big Ten in points allowed (18.6 ppg) and total defense (278.7 ypg), which was all the more remarkable given how many bad situations the defense was put in. Even Ohio State's mighty offense struggled to score against the Nittany Lions, as the Buckeyes managed a season-low 17 points in regulation before escaping State College with a 31-24 double overtime win. Anthony Zettel emerged as the league's most immovable object at defensive tackle, while Mike Hull won Big Ten linebacker of the year honors.
Special teams: C-minus
This grade may look generous, considering that the Nittany Lions struggled mightily in punting for most of the year and didn't pose much of a threat in the return game. But a great season by kicker Sam Ficken lifts the overall mark. Ficken made 24 of his 29 field goal attempts and converted game-winners in both the opener (UCF) and the finale (Boston College).
This is a tough one to grade, as the coaching staff faced incredible challenges with the depth and lack of experience on the roster. Few coaches would have been able to turn the offensive line situation into something more positive. The defensive performance was astounding and a major improvement over the previous season. There were some questionable clock-management issues in close games, and the relationship between Hackenberg and offensive coordinator John Donovan looked testy to outsiders at times. But the staff held things together and deserves credit for steering the team to a winning record in tough times.
We have to grade on something of a curve here. Not only was Penn State hampered by an by the scholarship reductions, the team also was operating under a new coaching staff. Maybe more could have been expected of this year's group after it started 4-0, but conference play exposed some harsh realities. Getting back to a bowl game and winning it, with the offense showing more life than had been seen in months, was a very positive step for the program. The best thing you can say about the Nittany Lions' 2014 season is that they survived it without taking much of a step backward. Dark days have passed, and the future looks bright.
Basically, at this time of year, you've got a choice:
Buy into the hype and live large next Wednesday, convinced that your team just signed the class that will vault it past Ohio State. (If you support the Buckeyes, well, plenty of reason also exists for optimism.)
Or you can play the role of realist, bursting bubbles everywhere with stories of five-star mistakes and walk-on success stories. As Randy Peterson of the Des Moines Register illustrates well, if you buy into enough recruiting hype, you'll get burned.
The latter option makes sense. But at this time of year, who wants to make sense when you can picture every prospect as a star?
Big Ten coaches are a bit divided, as I wrote Wednesday, on the league-wide recruiting impact of good publicity in the wake of Ohio State’s national championship and the Michigan hiring of Jim Harbaugh.
For some Big Ten programs, it helps to sell the success of rival institutions. To some prospects, it matters to play at the Horseshoe or in the Big House – even as a visitor.
And for other programs, this signifies no change. Michigan State is the best example. As the Spartans build another class like those that have produced four 11-win seasons in the past five years, coach Mark Dantonio cares little about recruiting momentum generated by Ohio State or Michigan.
It’s bad enough for Michigan State coaches, players and fans that at every turn, they’re inundated with talk of Michigan’s new coach; the last thing you’ll hear from Dantonio is an acknowledgement that another team in the league might help the Spartans recruit.
“We’re selling results," he said. "When we first came here, we were selling hope.”
At the same time, Dantonio, entering his ninth year in East Lansing, told me this week he recognizes the tenuous nature of the Spartans’ spot near the top of the league.
“I think we’re here to stay,” he said, “but it’s a quick drop back to mediocrity. It’s always, ‘What have you done for me lately?’ I understand that.”
As long as Michigan State pays attention to next week and continues to restock its program -- with or without the help of other Big Ten powers -- it’s not likely to fall far from its current perch.
What about the impact of Ohio State’s national title on its own recruiting class?
Apparently, it will be felt more in 2016 and 2017. The Buckeyes, No. 7 in the ESPN class rankings, completed the bulk of their recruiting for 2015 before the College Football Playoff wins over Alabama and Oregon.
But Urban Meyer has remained busy on the recruiting trail since mid-January, scooping up elite high school sophomores and juniors at a rate that ought to alarm other Big Ten coaches.
Their commitments, of course, are non-binding, but the Buckeyes figure to compete well with programs like Alabama and Florida State in the near future for the best prospects nationally.
Recruiting, by nature, is unpredictable. Meyer, though, in building on the Buckeyes’ success, is working to remove that element of unpredictability from the game.
Around the league we go:
- What’s left to accomplish for Michigan in the next week?
- Michigan State is pursuing twins from Ohio.
- A sneak peek at signing day for Rutgers.
- Looking back at a recruit who lived up to the hype for Nebraska.
- Maryland keeps working to lock down its home territory.
- Speaking of Maryland, here’s an introduction to an Indiana pledge, Tyler Green -- a safety from Maryland who was previously committed to Ohio State.
- Meanwhile, Penn State is thinking about 2016.
- Texas prep teammates decommit from Wisconsin. Yes, decommitment season is in full swing.
- Offensive lineman Gabe Megginson chose Illinois over a reported 27 other scholarship offers.
- Profiling a homegrown offensive tackle set to sign with Purdue.
And finally, East Lansing and Minneapolis made this list of the 10 best American cities for football.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State's president on Wednesday dismissed the university-commissioned review of how top administrators handled child molestation complaints about former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky as "not useful to make decisions."
Eric Barron told The Associated Press that the report by former FBI director Louis Freeh took a prosecutorial approach and created an "absurd" and "unwarranted" picture of students, faculty and others associated with the university.
"I have to say, I'm not a fan of the report," Barron said during a half-hour interview in his office in Old Main, the school's administrative headquarters. "There's no doubt in my mind, Freeh steered everything as if he were a prosecutor trying to convince a court to take the case."
The Freeh report concluded that former administrators Graham Spanier, Tim Curley and Gary Schultz and former football coach Joe Paterno intentionally concealed key facts about Sandusky's child sex abuse to avoid bad publicity after receiving complaints in 1998 and 2001. It also recommended more than 100 changes to school policies and procedures, and said Penn State was permeated by a culture of reverence for the football program.
The Freeh team's report, he said, "very clearly paints a picture about every student, every faculty member, every staff member and every alum. And it's absurd. It's unwarranted. So from my viewpoint, the Freeh report is not useful to make decisions."
Weeks after the Freeh report was issued in 2012, Penn State and the NCAA entered into a consent decree that imposed a four-year ban on postseason play, temporarily cut scholarships, required a $60 million fine and invalidated 112 football team wins from Paterno's later years. Although the legality of that deal has been questioned, Barron said he has no doubt that his predecessor, Rodney Erickson, had the authority to do it.
Penn State takes its turn in the spotlight now.
Problem position: Offensive line
Why the offensive line was a problem in 2014: Everyone who followed the Nittany Lions worried about the O-line going into the season. Miles Dieffenbach suffered an injury in the offseason that would keep him sidelined most of the year, leaving left tackle Donovan Smith as the only experienced player on the unit. Depth was so thin that coach James Franklin and his staff had to flip a couple defensive tackles over to the offensive guard spots. The problems ended up being worse than just about anyone imagined, as Penn State fielded the league's worst rushing attack (101.9 yards per game) and gave up an almost unfathomable 44 sacks, which was more than every Power 5 team except Wake Forest. For comparison's sake, the 44 sacks were more than Michigan State, Wisconsin and Rutgers combined to allow in 2014. The line woes were encapsulated by this unforgettable image.
How it can be fixed (solutions on the roster): Smith played well despite the chaos and chose to enter the NFL draft rather than use his final year of eligibility. Dieffenbach, who missed the first eight games last season, also departs. Andrew Nelson showed promise as a redshirt freshman at right tackle and could move to the left side. Angelo Mangiro and Brian Gaia join him as returning starters. Penn State also redshirted four offensive linemen last season and will hope at least a couple of them are ready to contribute in 2015.
How it can be fixed (potential help from 2015 recruiting class): The Nittany Lions currently have four offensive linemen committed in this year's class, three of whom are in the ESPN 300: tackles Sterling Jenkins and Ryan Bates and guard Steven Gonzalez. The fourth is a junior college transfer: 6-foot-8, 300-pounder Paris Palmer, who could step in and start right away.
Early 2015 outlook: Franklin and position coach Herb Hand know offensive line is a major problem right now, and they have worked to address that in recruiting. Scholarship cuts from NCAA sanctions and injuries hit the unit hard, but help appears to be on the way. The line looks to be incredibly young in 2015, however, so some quick development will be needed to better protect quarterback Christian Hackenberg and establish a more reputable run game.
About a year ago, long before the first game that factored into the College Football Playoff and before his team played a down of Big Ten football, Rutgers coach Kyle Flood began to offer to recruits his vision of the era ahead.
In particular, Flood told them he found it difficult to believe that a one-loss Big Ten champion would miss the four-team playoff.
A month into last season, as the league sat squarely outside playoff speculation, Flood did not waver, bolstered by his confidence in Big Ten coaches and the respect he believed the league had earned.
“Players want to win championships,” Flood said. “They want to know if they’re on the right team and have the right season that they have access to a championship.”
His assertion proved correct, of course, as Ohio State roared to the finish, securing the fourth spot in the semifinals.
In recruiting, dividends pay immediately.
Some Big Ten coaches, back on the recruiting trail for the past two weeks in the push toward signing day a week from Wednesday, have noticed a change in attitude from prospects who had grown accustomed to watching the league struggle on a big stage.
“A part of recruiting is perception,” Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said this week as he drove to recruiting stops in Indianapolis. “The perception of the Big Ten is that it’s on the rise right now. We enjoy that. We embrace that. We’re excited about that.”
So does a rising tide lift all boats in Big Ten recruiting? No consensus exists among league coaches. Wilson, whose program has qualified for one bowl game in the past two decades, and others said they welcome the flood of media exposure around Ohio State and Michigan this month as impactful for the entire conference in attracting prospects.
Minnesota defensive backs and special teams coach Jay Sawvel said he has heard the stereotype that Big Ten programs lag in athleticism.
It was justified at times, Sawvel said.
But the narrative can change. This bowl season helped. The Big Ten and SEC split four postseason meetings.
In four years at Minnesota with Jerry Kill, Sawvel said, he has found the Gophers received well by recruits. That reception has improved as Minnesota notched wins in the past 15 months over Penn State, Nebraska twice and Michigan.
“Our conference is known everywhere,” Sawvel said, “but it needed a step up in legitimacy. I think Ohio State’s run and what happened in other bowl games helped that a little bit. But what has to happen for the conference as a whole is for one through 14 to step up.”
Illinois recruiting coordinator Alex Golesh sees a change, too.
“It’s raised some eyebrows,” said Golesh, an Ohio State graduate who coaches tight ends and running backs for the Illini.
Golesh said he’s happy to use talk of a general upswing among the Big Ten as a selling point for Illinois in recruiting. He won’t go much further, though.
For instance, he has not talked once about Harbaugh with a recruit. How about Ohio State, which plays at Illinois in November?
“You find out what’s going to make the kid tick. You sell your program, your product, your fit and your coaching staff,” Golesh said this week while recruiting in Nashville. “I don’t think we’d bring up the success of another school unless you absolutely have to.”
It’s no different at Michigan State, which claims four 11-win seasons in the past five years -- a record matched in the Big Ten only by the Buckeyes.
A lot of times schools from the South that come recruiting in our part of the country, part of their pitch is, 'If you want to play great football, you have to come to the South.' That's a tough sell nowadays. After this bowl season, you'd be hard-pressed to make that pitch to a recruit.- Rutgers coach Kyle Flood
“We’re selling results,” MSU coach Mark Dantonio said Tuesday. “When we first came here, we were selling hope. We’re not selling hope now. That’s probably as big a difference as anything. The results are there. We’re putting a lot of guys in the NFL. It’s not a myth. These things are happening.”
Hope isn’t always a bad thing to sell, though, especially if it’s justified. Wilson, entering his fifth year at Indiana, said the Hoosiers have upgraded recruiting significantly since 2011.
The former offensive coordinator at Oklahoma, Wilson watched Oklahoma State, Baylor and Texas Tech elevate their programs in recent years. Some of it came through recruiting success aided by competing every year with Texas and Oklahoma.
The Big Ten East necessitates a similar climb as top programs continue to raise the bar. Wilson said his staff doesn’t blink at the rising challenge.
“It enhances recruiting,” Wilson said. “Look at what Michigan State has done. At the end of the day, the power of the Big Ten is a positive. We have sold that in recruiting. Great players want a chance to prove themselves against other great players.”
Harbaugh’s staff, with barely a month to build a recruiting class, fights to finish in this last week as five Big Ten teams rate among the national leaders in ESPN’s class rankings. Ohio State is seventh, followed by Penn State (12th), Michigan State (28th), Wisconsin (29th) and Nebraska (32nd).
For Flood at Rutgers, the selling points of the Big Ten are no different. He believed in the league before its recent turnaround.
When he shared his feelings last year about a one-loss league champion, recruits believed him. Still, Flood said, he knows they heard a different message from coaches outside the conference.
“A lot of times,” Flood said, “schools from the South that come recruiting in our part of the country, part of their pitch is, ‘If you want to play great football, you have to come to the South.’
“That’s a tough sell nowadays. After this bowl season, you’d be hard-pressed to make that pitch to a recruit.”
No one has ever had a bad recruiting class, if you believe what is said at these signing day press conferences. Here are six quotes you are guaranteed not to hear from any Big Ten coach or anywhere in America on Feb. 4:
"This probably ranks as the third- or fourth-best class we've ever signed here."
You'll hear a lot of coaches say their class is "the best" one they've had. Which always makes me wonder what current players recruited by that coach must think.
"With this class, we got a step slower and a little bit smaller."
"Faster, higher, stronger" isn't just the Olympic motto. It's the go-to cliche for coaches on signing day.
"We got some good players, but we didn't really fill our needs."
You'll hear a lot of talk about classes that filled needs. Of course. Why would you recruit players you didn't need?
"We pay very close attention to star rankings and agree with how the experts ranked our class."
Many coaches will say they completely ignore recruiting service rankings ... unless they can use it to brag about how highly-rated their class is or collect a bonus for a high ranking.
"We missed out on a few kids we really wanted."
The signing day spin will be that teams got everybody they wanted. In this era of decommitments and flipping and prospects embracing the drama of their announcements, that's pretty much impossible.
"This class has some great athletes, but their character is questionable."
Every prospect on signing day is "a high-character kid" who fits the team culture. Except coaches don't really get to spend a lot of time with many of the prospects they sign, and they're hoping that 17-year-old doesn't turn out to be a knucklehead once he lives on his own for the first time.
OK, on to the links:
- East Division
- Examining all of Braxton Miller's options for 2015.
- Can you pass the "Harbaugh Breakfast Challenge?"
- Former Nebraska safety Drake Martinez -- Taylor's younger brother -- committed to Michigan State.
- What Nick Bowers' commitment means for Penn State -- and for the rivalry with Pitt.
- A Florida wide receiver committed to Rutgers.
- Indiana athletic director Fred Glass stresses patience for the Hoosiers football program.
- Some potential names for in the search for Maryland's new running backs coach.
- Pat Fitzgerald personally asked Northwestern fans to renew their season tickets.
- Minnesota running back Berkley Edwards is joining the Gophers' track team this spring. The Gophers also got a commitment from an Alabama defensive lineman named Mose, which reminds me of Schrute Farms.
- Wisconsin picked up a punter as a preferred walk-on.
- Illinois released its spring practice schedule.
- Nebraska had a good day on the recruiting trail.
- Former Purdue standout and current New England Patriots key cog Rob Ninkovich sees himself as just a regular guy.
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1. Well, the Craig Kuligowski to Illinois buzz was nice while it lasted. The Missouri defensive line coach, one of the nation's most underrated assistants, opted to stay with the Tigers rather than join Illinois in what likely would have been a co-defensive coordinator role.
According to longtime Missouri beat writer Dave Matter, Illinois thought it had Coach Kool until Missouri's Gary Pinkel stepped in late and "delivered finishing move."
Kugligowski would have been a nice boost for Illinois, especially with a defensive front that has underperformed during Tim Beckman's tenure. Kugligowski, whose Twitter handle says it all, mass-produces elite linemen, including each of the past two SEC defensive players of the year (Shane Ray and Michael Sam). He would have been a nice upgrade to Illinois' defensive staff. And it would have been nice for the Illini to swipe a top assistant from their braggin' rights rival.
But he's not the only solution for Illinois, as the Chicago Sun-Times' Steve Greenberg points out during this Twitter exchange with yours truly. Greenberg notes that Illinois wants more than a position coach for this role, and there's no guarantee Kugligowski would have succeeded in a broader role.
This remains a critical hire for Beckman, who needs a Bill Cubit-like savior for the defense before a pivotal 2015 season.
2. ACC members North Carolina and Wake Forest took an unusual but necessary step Monday and scheduled a home-and-home nonconference series for 2019 and 2021. As colleague Andrea Adelson writes, the ACC's recent expansions have limited the league's oldest rivals to just four meetings since 2004. These lengthy lulls are a major downside of bloated leagues with divisions. Iowa and Illinois went six seasons without a game until the Hawkeyes visited the Illini this past November.
The schedule-niks among you will recall how Big Ten teams explored the possibility of adding nonleague games against one another not too long ago. The introduction of a nine-game league schedule in 2016, plus divisions aligned with geography in mind, shortens the gaps between certain matchups. Still, there will be certain cross-division matchups we would like to see more often, and divisional games that we could do without every year.
Ultimately, I'd like to see leagues ditch divisions and perhaps championship games altogether (especially if it replaces them with playoff quarterfinal games). But the ACC, which opted to follow big brother SEC and stay with eight-game league schedules, could see more "non-league" matchups like Wake-UNC.
Links from around the league, plus an early Big Ten forecast from Athlon.
- Great stuff from Bill Landis and Ari Wasserman during their Ohio State-themed trip through the South. Projecting the Buckeyes' depth chart in 2015.
- Chris Laviano hopes experience will help him in Rutgers' upcoming QB competition.
- James Franklin is ALWAYS on Twitter, as one Penn State player learned the hard way Monday.
- Michigan RB Justice Hayes will transfer and play his final season elsewhere.
- Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis explains why he let Eastern Michigan out of a scheduled game in 2016.
- Nebraska could round out its recruiting class with some junior college defensive ends.
- Another coaching honor for Minnesota's Jerry Kill.
- I don't credit AIRBHG for this one, but two Iowa running backs were cited for hosting a loud house party. The Hawkeyes also added to their running back room during the weekend.
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