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?
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.
@BennettESPN Agree that CJ as iowa's QB provides hope for better things in 2015? - Mark Aronowitz (@AronowitzMark) March 4, 2015Brian 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. 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.
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.
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.
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 ...
- The legend of Jim Harbaugh grows daily.
- Michigan State is getting competitive in its winter workouts. Connor Cook is more comfortable with audibles.
- Minnesota was eager to open its spring practice on Tuesday. And Jeff Jones made a good first impression.
- Five things to watch during Maryland's spring practice.
- A look at some Nebraska defenders who could make a move this spring.
- Get an inside look at Northwestern's spring drills with this well-made video.
- A new honor for Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott: he had a baby penguin named after him. Urban Meyer is the most followed college football coach on Twitter, but Harbaugh is gaining.
- A walk-on kicker joined Penn State.
- Rutgers is pursuing a top Georgia running back.
- SI.com has a Big Ten spring primer.
- Former Wisconsin running backs recall their memories of John Settle, who's back in Madison coaching that position.
- Purdue is paying its assistants a bit more.
- Iowa's Carl Davis talks about his draft prospects in this Q&A.
Which Big Ten players have the most at stake during spring ball?
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.
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:
- Former Minnesota tight end Maxx Williams draws a crowd at pro day. No jail time for Philip Nelson, the ex-Gopher QB convicted of misdemeanor assault.
- Potential surprises for Michigan this spring.
- Nebraska looks to feature a vertical passing game under new coach Mike Riley. Meanwhile, former secondary coach Charlton Warren is finally named to the same position at North Carolina.
- Shilique Calhoun has been impressed with the intensity of Michigan State's winter workouts.
- Tim Beckman wants his players to think about playing for a Big Ten title in 2015.
- Iowa offers discounted tickets to students.
- Penn State coach James Franklin shares some thoughts on his core values.
- Ohio State headlines another list of spring storylines. And the Buckeyes grab a top recruit out of Washington, D.C.
- Maryland prepares to open practice this spring without its top quarterback and running back.
- Former Wisconsin QB Jon Budmayr remains connected to coach Paul Chryst.
- Former Rutgers defensive back Patrick Kivlehan bids for a roster spot this spring with the Seattle Mariners.
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?
Embracing the art of Hard Work is to disappearing from society. Therefore, we at Michigan Football designate 2015 as the year of Hard Work— Coach Harbaugh (@CoachJim4UM) February 27, 2015
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.
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.
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 @MitchSherman, @BennettESPN, @ESPNJoshMoyer, @DanMurphyESPN, @ESPNRittenberg, @AWardESPN and @ESPN_BigTen.
Given the buzz about the conference’s “Year of Readiness” idea earlier this week, we decided to take a look at which players have benefitted the most from staying on the sideline during their first year on campus. Here are our top five returning redshirt seniors in the Big Ten. An important caveat: In the spirit of freshman ineligibility, no one on this list played as a true freshman. Fifth-year players who sat out later in their careers (Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller, for example) don’t qualify.
1. Shilique Calhoun, DE, Michigan State
The former Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year passed up the NFL draft for a season to chase a national championship in East Lansing. Calhoun is used to putting things on hold for a year. After sitting out as a true freshman, he played on the defensive line in all 13 games in 2012. He began the following year with three defensive touchdowns in his first two games and has been a staple of the Spartans defense since then. His return this year gives Michigan State a dominant pass-rusher to anchor a front seven that has some key players to replace.
2. Connor Cook, QB, Michigan State
No one benefits more from delayed gratification than the Spartans. Mark Dantonio’s system builds its players into overachievers with slow and steady progress. His quarterback is no exception. Cook improved incrementally during the 2013 season and was at the center of completing the country’s biggest two-year offensive turnaround last fall. Cook will be essential in his final season for an offense that loses top receiver Tony Lippett and top back Jeremy Langford, both of whom were also beneficiaries of a redshirt year.
3. Michael Caputo, S, Wisconsin
Wisconsin is another program that doesn’t often attract the blue-chip athletes ready to compete for starting jobs when they arrive on campus. Caputo was considered the top prep player in western Pennsylvania at one point, but still waited his turn with the Badgers. In his fourth season, he led the defense with 106 tackles. After losing starting inside linebackers Marcus Trotter and Derek Landisch to graduation, Wisconsin in thrilled to have another year of Caputo keeping the middle of the defense steady.
4. Anthony Zettel, DT, Penn State
Zettel became an impact player for the Nittany Lions last fall when he moved inside from the defensive end spot. His martial arts training helped him shed blockers to finish the year with 17 tackles for loss and eight sacks. Had he played in 2012, Zettel would have been a one-year wonder for Penn State. Now he has the chance to return for another season under coordinator Bob Shoop to lead a stingy front seven.
5. Paul James, RB, Rutgers
James has only 15 collegiate games under his belt after four years at Rutgers. He missed the last nine games of the season in 2014 after tearing his ACL in September. Before the injury, he scored a nation-leading six touchdowns in the first two weeks of the season. James might have competed for headlines with the plethora of Big Ten running backs had he stayed healthy. Instead, he’ll have another season in 2015 to separate himself from the pack.
Of course, it was about Harbaugh.
“He’s the smartest man I’ve ever been around,” U-M offensive coordinator Tim Drevo told reporters Thursday night after the Wolverines’ second practice of the spring.
What, not the smartest man in the world?
It should be noted that Drevno, 45, worked with Harbaugh at Stanford from 2007 to 2010. If you take him at his word on Harbaugh, it’s safe to assume Drevno didn’t get out and about much on the Stanford campus, which is full of its share of smart people.
Otherwise, in this opening week, Drevo said he likes what he’s seen from Michigan, which returns its entire offensive line.
Drevno, who will call plays next season and coaches the line, told the Detroit News:
“There’s something special in there. Are we there yet? No. It’s Day 2, but there’s something special in there, and I’m excited about it.”
Ah, the optimism of spring.
Some intriguing data and excellent analysis here by Joseph Juan of numberFire on the NFL combine results of Melvin Gordon.
According to the numbers, the former Wisconsin All-American compares favorably to many of the great running backs of this generation.
Gordon seems to possess a rare combination of size, speed and power that combined with his instincts and vision could make him a very formidable NFL running back. ... As a testament to the rarity of Gordon’s collection of skills, no other NFL running back for which we have combine data from the past 15 years falls within the ranges I set forth for (build, speed, power and explosiveness.)
The writer finds, in conclusion, that Gordon “appears that he’s primed for a breakout rookie season.”
Full disclaimer: While I enjoy the NFL draft, I’m not sold on the predictive ability of the combine, pro days or individual workouts. I think a player’s body of work in college serves as the best indicator of his NFL potential -- and Gordon couldn’t have done much better in that category.
Stats and measurements can be interpreted to make just about any argument. Nevertheless, the numberFire breakdown of Gordon is solid.
I agree that he’s got a chance to join the backs to whom he’s compared in this article. But the organization that drafts him in May likely ranks as the top factor in determining his shot to make a rookie splash.
A Friday trip around the rest of the Big Ten:
- The quarterback competition is just getting started at Northwestern.
- Mark Dantonio is understandably bullish on Michigan State's chances to maintain its top-five status from the past two seasons.
- Indiana's cornerbacks under the spring spotlight.
- Doran Grant will be difficult to replace for an Ohio State secondary that made huge strides in 2014.
- Nebraska's 2015 roster is the best in the Big Ten West, according to this analysis.
- Penn State running back commitment Miles Sanders added a scholarship offer from Alabama.
- A spring preview of Rutgers from the Big Ten Network.
- Lou Groza Award-winning kicker Brad Craddock is the only repeat member of Maryland's leadership council, the Terps' version of captains.
- Social media can be a friend or enemy to college athletes.
And finally, from Wisconsin, this is, well, it's something. Have a good weekend.
We come now to the end, with special teams. Since it's virtually impossible to predict what kick coverage units will look like several months from now or project how new starters will fare on field goals and such, we're basing these rankings mostly on who's coming back at place-kicker, punter and returner.
Here we go:
Best of the best: Maryland
The Terrapins return the 2014 Lou Groza Award winner in Brad Craddock, who missed only one field goal all of last season. They also bring back an elite return man in Will Likely, who led the Big Ten in kickoff return average and was third on punt return average last year. Punter Nate Renfro is also back, giving Randy Edsall both experience and trust at the key specialist spots.
Next up: Ohio State
It's entirely possible that Cam Johnston is a wizard, as his rugby-style punts somehow both cover a ton of distance yet seem to stop at the right places. He was brilliant in the Sugar Bowl. The Buckeyes also have a boatload of speed they can use in the return game, including Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson. Place-kicker Sean Nuernberger is back after a respectable freshman campaign, but it's not like Urban Meyer really wants to kick field goals, anyway.
Sleepers: Nebraska and Minnesota
"Sleeper" isn't really the right word here, but we wanted to give a shout out to both of these special-teams units.
The Huskers have one of the nation's most electrifying punt return men in De'Mornay Pierson-El, who averaged 17.5 yards per attempt and scored three touchdowns last year. Punter Sam Foltz and kicker Drew Brown also return and could improve with experience.
Minnesota has the reigning Big Ten punter of the year in Peter Mortell, plus highly productive returners Jalen Myrick and Craig James. More accuracy from kicker Ryan Santoso (12-of-18 as a freshman) would solidify the Gophers as one of the best special-teams groups around.
Problem for contenders: Penn State and Michigan
Again, it's nearly impossible to predict how new kickers will fare, as you don't really get to see how they will fare in pressure situations until the games begin. Both the Nittany Lions and Wolverines have some big shoes to fill.
Place-kicker Sam Ficken was far and away the best thing about Penn State's otherwise highly shaky special teams in 2014, and now he's graduated. The team doesn't have a scholarship kicker on the roster and may turn to walk-on Joe Julius. Punt and return teams must make major strides as well.
Michigan lost both its place-kicker (Matt Wile) and punter (Will Hagerup) to graduation, and its return game was no better than average last season. New special-teams coach John Baxter will have his work cut out for him this spring in bringing some new names -- like freshman kicker Andrew Davis -- along.
The conference’s plan to circulate a white paper regarding keeping football and basketball players off the field for their first year on campus has become a hot topic for anyone involved with college sports this week. Reactions have ranged from cautious support to complete dismissal to “I don’t want to touch that with a 10-foot pole.”
The Big Ten’s release was flushed out with a handful of ideas that Delaney and his athletic directors would like NCAA members to mull over in the next year leading up to the organization’s national convention. Of the brainstorming icebreakers -- which included time commitments, length of season and academic requirements – the only one to gain much attention was the most outlandish and improbable: freshman ineligibility. Maybe that was the point.
Several theories about the proposal’s actual intent have been floated in the past few days: Maybe this week’s meeting was purely a public relations stunt so Delaney and other could proudly tout the Big Ten’s commitment to academics. Maybe it was to try to nudge the NBA toward raising its minimum age requirement. Or maybe it was an attention-grabbing idea designed to stir up enough interest that smart minds started thinking about more logical solutions.
The possibility of the idea actually becoming an NCAA rule seems both unrealistic and counterintuitive. This is an all-or-nothing deal, and the vast majority of Div. I universities that don’t deal with one-and-done players don’t have the resources (or the motivation) to give all their student-athletes an extra year of scholarship money. The NCAA already created a rule that will keep academically at risk athletes off the field as freshmen. It goes into effect in 2016. Does it make sense to punish the freshmen that are ready to handle school and sport by making them sit out a year too?
If the schools are genuine in their academic-first approach, shouldn’t they focus on the other ideas that create an environment where the workload for athletics is manageable for all student-athletes regardless of their year? Doesn’t the “Year of Readiness” discourage student-athletes from finishing their degrees in four years? Why rush when you know you’ve got five years on campus? And doesn’t that set student-athletes apart from all of their other peers? Isn’t that the perception the NCAA is trying to avoid in the first place?
The Big Ten’s idea, which has been endorsed by commissioners from the Big 12 and the Pac-12 as well, raises plenty of questions. If that was the point, then kudos, mission accomplished. Otherwise, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
And now, onto your links…
- The quarterbacks and offensive linemen are players to watch as Northwestern gets spring practice started this week.
- A film room-style breakdown of how Ohio State’s offense got better during the 2014 season.
- Penn State ticket prices for 2015 are out. Michigan and Rutgers will be the most expensive games of the year for fans.
- A good week at the NFL combine reflects well on Michigan State’s program, says Mark Dantonio.
- It’s the more, the merrier at quarterback for Jim Harbaugh and Michigan this spring.
- The majority of Rutgers’ fans are ready to forgive Ray Rice and welcome him back to campus.
- Maryland’s football team is warming up for spring practice with a little dunk contest.
- The assistant coaches at Wisconsin are getting a small bump in salary under new coach Paul Chryst.
- Brian Stewart brings college and professional experience to his new role with the Cornhuskers.
- Could Iowa’s Brandon Scherff follow in the footsteps of former college tackle and current All-Pro guard Zack Martin?
The exodus of high-profile run-stuffers leaves a large group of programs bunched together in the middle of the pack when evaluating the conference's linebacker units at the start of 2015. Most of those teams losing big-name players have good depth and a supporting cast to help fill the gaps. It may take time next fall to sort through which groups have weathered losses the best and which young players will rise to the occasion.
Best of the Best: Ohio State
No surprise here. The Buckeyes will be at the top of many of these position breakdown lists. Senior Joshua Perry returns to lead this athletic group. He finished a breakout 2014 season with a team-leading 124 tackles. Freshman Darron Lee started to emerge as a future star with the ability to make big plays late in the season, especially during an MVP performance at the Sugar Bowl. Raekwon McMillan and incoming freshman Justin Hilliard provide more young talent for a group that is still improving after a national championship this past fall.
Next up: Michigan State, Penn State
The Spartans, who had the country's stingiest rushing defense last year, will have at least one player named Bullough (junior Riley) in the second level of its defense next fall. That is historically a good sign for Michigan State. He joins senior Ed Davis, who won honorable mention All-Big Ten in 2014, to give the linebacker unit a sleeker, speedier look than on previous Mark Dantonio defenses. The departure of defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi leaves a little bit of uncertainty, but new coach Mark Snyder should help this unit remain a feared entity.
Penn State finished only a couple spots behind Michigan State in stopping the run. Hull is gone, but the majority of a deep unit returns. Starters Brandon Bell and Nyeem Wartman return for their second season in the lineup. Wartman finished second on the team last year with 75 tackles. The return of Ben Kline, who missed all of 2014 as part of an injury-riddled career so far, should also help the unit.
The Wolverines lose a natural ballhawk in Jake Ryan but shouldn't take a major step back after quietly having one of the better linebacker groups in the conference last year. Senior Joe Bolden is ready to take over for Ryan after making 102 tackles last year. Fifth-year senior Desmond Morgan missed almost all of 2014 with a hand injury, but he returns for his fourth season as a starter. Two defensive assistants with great track records coaching linebackers, D.J. Durkin and Greg Mattison, should help solve any issues Michigan has at the position.
Problem for a contender: Nebraska
The Cornhuskers are still struggling to get up to speed at linebacker in the Big Ten. Michael Rose-Ivey missed a full year after setting a Nebraska freshman record with 66 tackles in 2013. He will be back on the field, but the loss of two starters (Zaire Anderson and Trevor Roach) means that there is still work to be done in filling out the two-deep. Nebraska missed out on a good chance to add experience when South Carolina transfer Kaiwan Lewis chose Rutgers over the Cornhuskers in early February.
1. Ohio State
Is there really any doubt? The national championship is difficult to overlook. There’s no better job in the Big Ten -- both historically, though Michigan might argue, and in the current climate.
The Wolverines deserve real consideration for a spot in the top 10 nationally. With more wins than any program in college football history and the second-highest winning percentage to Notre Dame, this is a truly special job. Just ask Jim Harbaugh.
3. Penn State
Resources galore. PSU may feature the best combination in the league of location, fan support and tradition. And the urgency to win is real, an important factor in comparison to other Big Ten programs striving for the top.
Some natural disadvantages exist, yes, but no school in the Big Ten creates unity and provokes passion among its fan base like the Huskers. This is not Tom Osborne’s Nebraska, but it’s still a top job with elite institutional support.
5. Michigan State
Natural competition with Michigan and Ohio State works for the Spartans in setting a high standard -- and works against MSU in that it may never be viewed, by comparison, as a true blue blood in the sport. Still, who cares about that if you’re in the discussion for a national title?
While the Badgers don’t have the history of the Big Ten’s other top programs, and the resources in recruiting don't ever figure to stack up with a few competitors, Wisconsin wins and produces championship-caliber competitors.
The Terrapins sit a ways back from the top tier of the league in many areas. But few can compare with Maryland’s recruiting ground and built-in support system courtesy of Under Armour.
The Hawkeyes compensate their coach well: Kirk Ferentz had one of the top 10 salaries in the country in 2014. And they have a strong tradition. They are the biggest show in the state, but convincing talented players to come to Iowa City remains a challenge.
Minnesota has made an effort in the past few years to upgrade facilities and invest more in resources like nutrition and player support. The results are starting to show. While the local talent might be lacking, Minneapolis is one of the more attractive cities in the Big Ten.
The Illini fall slightly behind Minnesota on our list because of location. Illinois coaches have had trouble consistently getting talent from Chicago to join them in the middle of the state. The focus remains more on basketball in Champaign.
One of the Big Ten’s newcomers is making strides toward matching some of the bigger schools in the conference, but the Scarlet Knights still have a ways to go before they can get out of catch-up mode.
Stringent academic requirements and a small, private campus are obstacles for any coach at Northwestern. A new facility on the edge of Lake Michigan should help the Wildcats when it is eventually completed.
Football interest wanes quickly for the Hoosiers when basketball gets started in the late fall. The resources aren’t there, which makes it difficult to survive the improving gauntlet of the Big Ten East on a yearly basis.
Purdue is Indiana without the added benefit of Bloomington, a great college town. Ross-Ade Stadium could use a face-lift, and West Lafayette lacks the charm of other campuses in the conference.
1. It's great to have football back, even if it's only spring practice. Michigan was the first Big Ten team to open spring drills on Tuesday, and Northwestern hits the field for the first time Wednesday.
What's also great is the, uh, unique way Jim Harbaugh answers questions. While Michigan likely will never be much of a fountain of information under its new head coach (or the previous one, or ...), at least Harbaugh gives some unorthodox quotes. Like his response to a Q&A on the school's website about what it's like to start spring drills:
It's like Thanksgiving. It's like New Year's Day. It's like a family reunion. And having it all rolled into one. Most people think of Jan. 1 as the start of a new year. To people who espouse to Catholicism and Christianity, they might correlate that with the birth of Christ. Us in football, the start of spring practice and the first day of summer training camp are what you look at as the New Year with fireworks going off, it's your birthday. It's being born back into football, it's a happening.
Q: So it's the birth of a new team?
Yeah, it's like coming out of the mother's womb. You're in a nice, warm, cozy environment -- safe. And now you are out into the chaos and bright lights. It's a happening. It's all those things rolled into one.
And it's also like the first day of school. You're so excited for that first day of school, and the night before you set out your clothes, you stuff your lunch into a lunch box, and off you go. It's the start. It's laying down a benchmark. Now we have a place to start from. We have a place to improve from. We have a place to go forward from, and you hope to lay that benchmark halfway up the mountain -- and not way down on the flat land.
Michigan's first practice was full of enthusiasm and energy, Harbaugh said.
2. Now that the NFL combine's over and we know who the top performers were, who rose and who fell from the Big Ten?
Much of that is subjective, of course, but just about everybody agrees that Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes helped himself the most. With his ridiculous 4.31 time in the 40-yard dash and other great showings in the drills, Waynes is rocketing up draft boards. According to NFL.com's Charles Davis, "Waynes has put himself in the top 10-15 territory."
Our Todd McShay is not as bullish as Waynes' former high school teammate, Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon. McShay writes that Gordon "had a decent workout but not a great one, putting up results that were average or above-average in every category." Still, our Scouts Inc. says Gordon still has a good shot to go late in the first round and adds that Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah emerged as a sleeper "who should land somewhere in the Day 2 range."
But analyst Mike Huguenin writes that Abdullah was one of five players who hurt his stock, thanks to his 4.6 time in the 40. Huguenin also includes Michigan's Devin Funchess in the stock down.
You know what they say: It only takes one team to fall in love with you.
Around the league ...
- Pat Fitzgerald gave a preview of what to expect at Northwestern's spring practice.
- Michigan State is a program about to decline? Mark Dantonio scoffs at that notion.
- Purdue's Gerad Parker has returned to his passion: coaching receivers.
- The salary pool for Wisconsin assistants will see a modest increase.
- Urban Meyer and the Ohio State cruise ship finally returned to port last night.
- James Franklin will be the headliner on Penn State's coaches caravan. A recruit received 107 letters from the Nittany Lions.
- Previewing the position battle at cornerback for Indiana this spring.
- Former Huskers have praise for new Nebraska defensive backs coach Brian Stewart.
- Athlon's list of running backs on the rise includes several Big Ten names.
As spring practice opens in Ann Arbor and Evanston this week, we’re comparing position groups around the Big Ten. Offensive line is next on the list. For others in the series, click here:
Best of the best: Michigan State
The linchpins are back in rising junior left tackle Jack Conklin and senior center Jack Allen, both of whom will land on preseason All-America teams. The pair of Jacks spearheaded the line last year as the Spartans allowed a Big Ten-low 11 sacks, converted 49.7 percent on third down (second to Ohio State) and operated more efficiently in the red zone and in goal-to-go situations than any other Big Ten team. Donavon Clark also returns at tackle. The Spartans lose left guard Travis Jackson, a second-team all-conference pick, and versatile mainstay Connor Kruse. Brian Allen, Kodi Kieler and Miguel Machado appear ready to compete. And these guys will look even better with Connor Cook in command of the offense.
Next up: Ohio State and Wisconsin
A temptation exists to rank every OSU unit as the Big Ten’s best, and the Buckeyes aren’t far off on the offensive line. They lose only right tackle Darryl Baldwin from a group that turned dominant late last season en route to clearing a path to the national title for Ezekiel Elliott and Cardale Jones. Left tackle Taylor Decker, the lone returning starter last year, ranks among the nation’s best at his position, and right guard Pat Elflein earned all-conference honors. Center Jacoby Boren and left guard Billy Price are also back as starters.
At Wisconsin, the cupboard is considerably more empty with the departure of right guard Kyle Costigan, right tackle Rob Havenstein, both All-Big Ten picks, and left guard Dallas Lewallen. Alongside the brilliance of Melvin Gordon, this was the league’s best unit last year. Center Dan Voltz and left tackle Tyler Marz return to anchor the line in 2015. Michael Deiter is ready to go as a redshirt freshman, and the Badgers will find two more starters among a promising group of youngsters.
The Wolverines weren’t bad on the line last year. Seriously. OK, at least, it was an improvement over 2013, and all five starters are back to go with, presumably, a much more well designed offensive system. With left tackle Mason Cole, who played as a true freshman, guards Graham Glasgow and Kyle Kalis, center Jack Miller and right tackle Ben Braden, Michigan looks the part. New offensive coordinator and O-line coach Tim Drevno has plenty of tools with which to work. Reserves Erik Magnuson, Logan Tuley-Tillman, Blake Bars and Patrick Kugler give Michigan a chance to develop solid depth this spring. The Wolverines should be better at running back with the addition of Ty Isaac. A breakthrough season across the front isn’t out of the question.
Problem for a contender: Penn State
It was flat-out ugly last year as the Nittany Lions allowed 44 sacks, last in the Big Ten and 121st nationally, and averaged 2.94 yards per rush – 122nd nationally. PSU lost left tackle Donovan Smith early to the NFL and left guard Miles Dieffenbach. Center Angelo Mangiro and tackle Andrew Nelson lead the group of returnees, and Penn added a pair of potential difference-makers in January in freshman Sterling Jenkins and juco transfer Paris Palmer. Four freshmen redshirted last year. Really, there’s nowhere to go but up, but Penn State needs fast improvement from its line to allow QB Christian Hackenberg time to operate. If growth here is slow, so will be Penn State’s offensive progress.
Pass-catchers were largely overshadowed by big-name running backs in the conference last season. There are a handful of receivers with star power returning in 2015, but the strongest units in the Big Ten next fall will thrive on their ability to spread the wealth to a balanced corps of playmakers in the passing game.
Best of the best: Penn State and Ohio State
The Nittany Lions return DaeSean Hamilton and Geno Lewis, both of whom looked to be headed toward 1,000-yard seasons in 2014 before an inexperienced line and struggling running game grinded Penn State’s offense to a halt. Tight end Adam Breneman missed all of his sophomore year recovering from surgery, but should be one of the conference’s best tight ends if he stays healthy in 2015. Depth will come from sophomore Saeed Blacknall and three freshmen ranked among the top 100 receivers in this year’s recruiting class.
Ohio State loses deep-ball specialist Devin Smithbut has the playmakers to replace him. Michael Thomas and Jalin Marshall will once again be standout weapons in the passing game. The late addition of incoming freshman K.J. Hill, who literally broke a defender’s ankle last fall, provides the potential for another young contributor.
Next up: Mike Riley inherits a capable duo at wide receiver with a pair of former All-Big Ten Freshmen. Junior Jordan Westerkamp caught 44 passes for 747 yards and flashed some highlight-reel ability during his sophomore season. De'Mornay Pierson-El made his biggest impact as a rookie in the return game, but should be a big part of the Cornhuskers’ offense in 2015. Losing standout Kenny Bell to the NFL is the only thing keeping this group from being at the top of the list.
Sleepers: Illinois and Rutgers
Illini freshman Mike Dudek had a standout rookie season of his own. He had six touchdowns and 1,038 receiving yards last fall. Along with seniors Geronimo Allison and Josh Ferguson, who both had more than 40 receptions last fall, quarterback Wes Lunt has the targets to sneak up on a few teams next fall.
Rutgers lacks depth is the passing game, but may have the Big Ten’s top returning receiver in Leonte Carroo (55 catches, 1,086 yards, 10 TDs in 2014). Carroo’s decision to put the NFL on hold for another year will be a major help for the Scarlet Knights, who lost junior tight end Tyler Kroft and still need time to develop the rest of a young, but potentially talented group of receivers.
Problem for a contender: Wisconsin
The Badgers finished near the bottom of the league last fall with less than 150 passing yards per game. To call their pass attack a “problem” last year wouldn’t be totally accurate. It was more of an unnecessary appendage with Melvin Gordon running wild. Gordon is gone and so are three starting offensive linemen in Paul Chryst’s first season back in Madison. The running game will still be strong, but the lack of a passing threat could be a bigger issue in 2015. The Badgers need to find more support for former walk-on Alex Erickson, the only returning receiver with more than 14 catches last year.
PSU's 46-Hour Dance Marathon Raises $13 Million
BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
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