NCF Nation: Big Ten Conference

video

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Urban Meyer is always trying to find new ways to motivate his players.

Last spring, he had a banner put up in the Ohio State field house reading “The Chase …” in reference to the Buckeyes’ championship pursuits. Meyer said he thought about changing the display for the 2014 offseason. In the end, though, he stuck with the same one.

“We didn’t accomplish it,” Meyer told ESPN.com. “We chased it but didn’t catch it. So the chase is still on.”

Ohio State, of course, nearly made it to its desired finish line. After going 12-0 for the second straight season under Meyer, the Buckeyes just needed to beat Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game to clinch a date with Florida State for the BCS national title. Instead, they fell 34-24 to the Spartans and closed the year on a two-game losing streak with a 40-35 setback against Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteUrban Meyer says Ohio State is still trying to finish "The Chase."
So the chase continues, albeit with a much different-looking team in the 2014 starting gate. Gone is four-fifths of the offensive line that formed the backbone of the Big Ten’s top-scoring offense the past two seasons. Also gone are reigning Big Ten running back of the year Carlos Hyde and top receiver Corey “Philly” Brown, as well as the two biggest stars on defense -- linebacker Ryan Shazier and cornerback Bradley Roby -- who opted to enter the NFL draft.

Experience is lacking in many key areas, but Meyer is ready to let some talented youngsters loose, including true freshmen. In retrospect, he wishes he had done so last year, when defensive end Joey Bosa and receiver Dontre Wilson were the only first-year players to make a big impact until safety Vonn Bell started in the Orange Bowl.

“We redshirted too many last year, and that was our fault,” he said. “There was a misunderstanding, and we just didn’t do a good job, especially on defense. When they show up on campus, we need to get them ready to play.”

This spring, early enrollees Raekwon McMillan (linebacker), Curtis Samuel (tailback) and Johnnie Dixon (receiver) were all heavily involved and have secured roles in the fall. Redshirt freshman are also at or near the top of the depth chart at strongside linebacker (Darron Lee and Chris Worley) and cornerback (Gareon Conley and Eli Apple), while true sophomores like safety Cam Burrows and tailback Ezekiel Elliott could force their way into the starting lineup.

“When you talk about inexperience, that’s a good thing right now,” said Chris Ash, who was hired from Arkansas as co-defensive coordinator to help fix Ohio State’s pass defense. “There aren’t a lot of habits that we have to change to fit what we’re trying to do. We don’t have older guys that are comfortable with where they’re at in their careers.”

An already young offense became even greener this spring because of injuries to three senior leaders: tight end Jeff Heuerman, receiver Evan Spencer and quarterback Braxton Miller. The Buckeyes will no doubt look a lot different when Miller returns from shoulder surgery. During the 15 spring practices, the two-time defending Big Ten player of the year often stood behind the offense and wore a camera on his head so coaches could go over what he was seeing on the field.

“We're exhausting every avenue and even inventing different avenues to make sure he's engaged and getting mental reps,” offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. “We're doing the best we can with a bad situation. He has embraced it and is working his tail off, making sure he’s getting the most out of it.”

Herman says the Buckeyes should be more explosive on the perimeter this season, with guys like Wilson, Dixon, junior college transfer Corey Smith, sophomore Michael Thomas and freshman Jalin Marshall at receiver and a stable of athletic tailbacks. The safeties are longer and quicker than they have been in the past, and the defensive line -- which could be one of the nation’s best -- will have four starters who all used to be defensive ends.

The objective is clear: more speed. To that end, Meyer has hammered a new mantra in the players' heads: “4 to 6, A to B.” That means play hard for four to six seconds and get from point A to point B as quickly as possible. It's hard to interview an Ohio State player these days without hearing the phrase.

“That’s all he’s been preaching this spring.” defensive tackle Adolphus Washington said. “He said he’s not really worried about technique and all that stuff. It’s just about playing hard, because if you play hard, effort makes up for mistakes.”

Washington said the defense was greatly simplified this spring, with only about four or five different calls to learn. Aggressiveness trumped scheme.

“The culture of Ohio State is to go hard, not trick you,” Meyer said. “I just felt like there was too much stuff last year, instead of just going hard.”

By moving faster and playing harder, the Buckeyes hope to overcome their youth and track down what they've been hunting. They have been tantalizingly close.

“We’re still on a chase,” Washington said. “We’ve just got to finish it.”
video
MADISON, Wis. -- Gary Andersen's current job description looks a lot like that of a first-year coach. Here's the thing: Andersen is entering his second season at Wisconsin.

Andersen's inheritance with the Badgers last year, in coaching currency, rivaled that of a Walton, a Bloomberg or Prince George. Most new coaches are saddled with teams plagued by youth, discontent or a culture of losing. Andersen stepped into a locker room filled with 25 seniors, including stars such as Chris Borland and Jared Abbrederis. Wisconsin had won three consecutive Big Ten championships. It had an identity and a proven path to success.

The Badgers needed a leader after Bret Bielema spurned them for Arkansas, but Andersen's primary task could be reduced to four words: Don't screw it up. To his credit, he didn't, guiding Wisconsin to a 9-2 start before the year ended with losses to both Penn State and South Carolina. He also provided a calm, stabilizing presence that resonated both with players and Badgers fans. Wisconsin has recorded better seasons, but Andersen's first made a strong enough impression on the Cleveland Browns, who reached out to him about their coaching vacancy, and on Barry Alvarez, who awarded Andersen a raise and a new contract.

But it's fair to wonder about Andersen. Program maintenance, while challenging, isn't the same as program building. Wisconsin doesn't lack a foundation -- Alvarez provided one and Bielema kept it from cracking -- but there's a lot of hard labor ahead for Andersen and his assistants as their roster turns over significantly.

"We are a very youthful crew," Andersen told ESPN.com. "It's like my second year at Utah State. We were youthful, we were excited, but our coaching was so important to be able to put the kids in the proper positions, which is the ultimate goal. It's not how much offense you have or how much defense you have. It's how well you’re performing the basics: how many missed assignments, how are we tackling, how are our administrative penalties.

"You want to do everything you can to make sure you're teaching them how to play football the right way."

Utah State went 4-7 in Andersen's second year before reaching bowls the next two seasons. Wisconsin's expectations are much higher despite its new-look depth chart.

[+] EnlargeGary Andersen
Keith Gillett/Icon SMIGary Andersen sees the opener against LSU as a factor that should push his team through the summer and fall camp.
The Big Ten West Division is a collection of flawed teams and Wisconsin, with more recent success than the others and a favorable cross-division schedule -- no Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State -- will be a popular pick to reach Indianapolis. Running back Melvin Gordon turned down the NFL draft for a chance to lead the Badgers to the initial College Football Playoff.

Wisconsin is not rebuilding, but it faces an unusually high number of questions on a depth chart that shouldn't be written in anything permanent.

"It's a reset, you're starting at ground zero," offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said. "Even with the veteran O-line, a couple guys are out, you're mixing and matching, so you can't assume or take anything for granted. Even with [quarterback Joel Stave], it's a chance to reteach things that he's had hundreds of reps on, because there's always a new way to look at it."

Stave is part of the mystery at Wisconsin. Despite starting 19 games the past two seasons, he must outshine Tanner McEvoy in camp to keep his job, especially after missing much of the spring with a pesky throwing shoulder injury. McEvoy, a gifted athlete who played both safety and wide receiver last season, could represent a shift in what Wisconsin wants from its quarterbacks.

Andersen's first two quarterback recruits, McEvoy and D.J. Gillins, both are true dual threats.

"He's got a tremendous skill set, obviously," Ludwig said of McEvoy. "An athletic guy, starting as a safety last year. The weapons he brings to the quarterback position, it's a huge asset for us."

The quarterback run threat, when paired with dynamic backs in Gordon and Corey Clement, becomes even more critical if Wisconsin can't bolster the wide receiver spot. The team's leading returning receiver, Jordan Fredrick, had only 10 receptions in 2013. Fredrick, Alex Erickson and Robert Wheelwright all missed part or all of the spring with injuries.

Wisconsin had only four receivers for most of the 15 practices.

"It's pretty tiring," senior Kenzel Doe said. "You're basically taking every rep."

The Badgers defense had fewer injuries this spring but went through a more substantial facelift. Inside linebacker Derek Landisch is the only returning starter in the front seven.

Most defenders spent spring ball working at multiple positions as the coaches looked for ways to upgrade speed. Michael Caputo, a starting free safety last season, went to linebacker and then back to safety before the spring ended.

"We definitely wanted to see how guys fit in other places," Caputo said. "The goal is to be a mean, aggressive, fast defense. We're slowly getting to that, but it's definitely a transition with a lot of the younger guys and playing different positions."

There have been positive developments already. Andersen points to players such as Chikwe Obasih, a redshirt freshman who ended the spring as a starting defensive end.

Andersen When you've got young kids, you've got to get them reps if you want them to get better.

-- Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen
"You look how far Chikwe has come," Andersen said. "If you put on Day 1 of spring ball and Day 13 of spring ball, it's an unbelievable difference in his pad level, the use of his hands, his understanding and knowledge of the defense.

"When you've got young kids, you've got to get them reps if you want them to get better."

The summer takes on added importance for these Badgers. As Ludwig said, Wisconsin's first workout in August must be Practice 16, not Practice 1.

If all the uncertainty and opportunity in practice doesn't drive players, the season opener against LSU certainly will. Last year, Wisconsin thumped Massachusetts and Tennessee Tech to open the season before its infamous trip to Arizona State. This time, the test comes sooner.

"I really like that opener for this team," Andersen said. "It's got to be a driving force."

Which Badgers team shows up at Houston's NRG Stadium remains to be seen. But it will have more of Andersen's fingerprints on it.

The big reveal at Wisconsin is still to come.
video

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Ask Mark Dantonio for his favorite moment from Michigan State's magical 2013 season, and he’ll tell you about the stories he’s heard.

Since the Spartans beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, Dantonio has received countless letters and emails from fans. He has been stopped in stores and restaurants. Every fan, it seems, wants to tell him about the way they enjoyed their favorite team’s first trip to Pasadena, Calif., since 1988.

He’s listened to tales of people who squeezed into the middle seat in the back of a sedan for the three-day drive from Michigan to California; people who slept all night on an airport bench; people who went to the Rose Bowl with their fathers or grandfathers, or who remembered going with their fathers 26 years ago and were able to take their own children this time.

"It had a deep meaning to our fans," Dantonio told ESPN.com. "That's what I get out of it: the feeling that we made a lot of people happy. It wasn't just a game. You made a life experience for people."

Remnants of that experience are impossible to ignore around Michigan State this spring. The Spartans’ three big trophies from last season -- from winning the Legends Division, the Big Ten championship game and the Rose Bowl -- stand together in a prominent glass display case in the Skandalaris Football Center. Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi’s cell-phone case displays the Rose Bowl logo, while offensive coordinator Dave Warner keeps the placard of his name from a Rose Bowl news conference in his office.

The coaches and players are rightfully proud of one of the best seasons in school history, but they are also wary of lingering too much on their 2013 accomplishments and failing to build on them for 2014.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesConnor Cook and MSU enjoyed every second of their 2013 Rose Bowl season, but they say it's now time to focus on the 2014 season.
"Even when we were on spring break, a lot of people approached us on the beach and said, 'Oh, you guys won the Rose Bowl,'" quarterback Connor Cook said. "We don't even want to hear about it anymore. We want to put that aside and start a new legacy this year. If it were up to us, we’d want people to stop talking about it and focus on the now."

Dantonio spoke to his team about avoiding complacency almost immediately after returning home from Pasadena. Michigan State was one of the last Big Ten teams to begin spring practice, waiting until March 25. Dantonio said that was by design, as the team spent more time than most on grueling winter conditioning. There’s nothing like weeks of 5:30 a.m. workouts to keep you from resting on your laurels.

"I think we've proven to ourselves that we can play on a large stage," Dantonio said, "but we have to retain the thinking of what got us there. We have to sort of strip ourselves down and remember how many hard lessons we had to learn. We can’t fall backward into thinking that it just happens."

The Spartans know how quickly fortunes can change. After back-to-back 11-win seasons in 2010 and 2011, they dipped to 7-6 in 2012, needing to win their final regular-season game on the road just to make a bowl game.

"That’s a great scale to show us what could happen if we’re complacent," junior defensive end Shilique Calhoun said. "Sometimes, you feel like you’ve earned it, but you didn't earn anything. You have to come out every day and play like you want to earn it."

To be sure, this isn’t the same team that went 13-1 and beat every Big Ten opponent by double digits a season ago. Several star defensive players are gone, including Thorpe Award winner Darqueze Dennard, linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen and safety Isaiah Lewis. They were mainstays on a defense that finished in the top six nationally in yards allowed each of the past three seasons and was No. 2 in the FBS in 2013.

But virtually every skill player is back on an offense that made steady improvement last season. That includes Rose Bowl and Big Ten championship game MVP Cook and 1,400-yard running back Jeremy Langford. The defense still has Calhoun, the Big Ten’s reigning defensive lineman of the year, plus several players who have been waiting for their opportunity to shine.

"The good thing about our defense is we have depth," said Taiwan Jones, who is expected to replace Bullough at middle linebacker. "When Will Gholston left, everybody was like, 'Who's going to step in?' Shilique stepped in, and you saw what he did last year. When [safety] Trenton Robinson left, Kurtis Drummond stepped in, and so on.

"We’ll probably miss those guys, but we won’t miss them that much because the guys coming in can make the same amount of plays they did."

Maybe the most important returnee was Narduzzi, who won the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach. He’s more than ready to be a head coach but didn’t find the right opportunity this winter after turning down UConn.

Narduzzi has been Dantonio’s defensive coordinator now for a decade, dating back to their days at Cincinnati in 2004. That uncommon stability at the top has been the cornerstone of Michigan State’s success and should prevent any major backsliding.

"One of the great things about Mark is he’s just so steady," co-offensive coordinator Jim Bollman said. "There’s not going to be a lot of changes. I think the program kind of reflects that."

Dantonio readily concedes that "expectations have been raised" now for the Spartans after last season’s breakthrough. They should start the season somewhere in the top 10 and have a highly anticipated Week 2 showdown at Oregon.

"That's an experience game," Dantonio said. "When you play on the road in that kind of environment, with that kind of exposure, those are things you can build on, good or bad."

By then, the 2014 Spartans will surely be building their own legacy. And maybe creating some new unforgettable stories.
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- For nearly a season and a half, Michigan State leaned hard on its defense to try to win games while the offense sputtered.

That pattern finally changed midway through last season, as Connor Cook settled the quarterback position, Jeremy Langford developed into a star at running back and the receivers started making tough catches. Heading into 2014, a new paradigm could be in play. The offense returns the vast majority of its production while the defense must replace stalwarts such as Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough, Denicos Allen and Isaiah Lewis.

Nobody is expecting the Spartans defense to fall off a cliff, especially with Pat Narduzzi back at coordinator and plenty of fresh talent ready to step forward. But if that side needs time to find its footing early in the season, things could be OK.

"Our defense has obviously been very, very strong," offensive coordinator Dave Warner said. "But as an offense, we want to be able to carry this football team if need be. And do it right from start, rather than wait until four or five games into the season to get it figured out."

Michigan State isn't suddenly going to turn into Baylor or Oregon -- "I still think you've got to play well on defense to win championships," head coach Mark Dantonio says -- but there's reason to believe that an offense that averaged a respectable 29.8 points per game during Big Ten play could continue moving forward.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Langford
Kevork Djansezian/Getty ImagesWith Jeremy Langford and several key players returning on the Michigan State offense, the defense doesn't have to carry the Spartans anymore.
Cook is back and should ride a wave of confidence following his MVP turns in the Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl games. The Spartans did lose Bennie Fowler, who led all receivers with 622 yards and six touchdowns, but they return every other pass-catcher of note and expect bigger things out of guys such as Aaron Burbridge and R.J. Shelton, as well as DeAnthony Arnett. Langford, who ran for 1,422 yards and scored a Big Ten-best 19 total touchdowns, added about five pounds of muscle this offseason.

"I think it helps with my durability," he said. "I can take a hit and bounce off a couple tackles. I still feel fast, and I feel stronger now."

Michigan State was young at tight end last season and didn't utilize that position a lot, though Josiah Price made a crucial touchdown catch against Ohio State in the league title game. Tight end could become a strength this year with Price back and spring head-turner Jamal Lyles, a 6-foot-3, 250-pound potential difference-maker.

"We're better right now at tight end than we were at any time last year," Warner said.

Warner also wants to find ways to use tailbacks Nick Hill, Gerald Holmes and Delton Williams. And don't forget quarterback Damion Terry, whose athleticism could lead to several possibilities.

"We're experimenting a little bit right now," Cook said. "I feel like some new things will be added to our arsenal on offense."

The biggest question marks for the Spartans on offense are on the line, where they must replace three senior starters (Blake Treadwell, Dan France and Fou Fonoti) from what might have been the best O-line in Dantonio's tenure. The line doesn't have as much depth this spring as the coaching staff would like, but veterans Travis Jackson, Jack Conklin and Jack Allen provide a nice starting point. Donavon Clark and Connor Kruse have played a lot as backups, and Kodi Kieler is expected to make a move up the depth chart.

"We need to get that offensive line back in working order," co-offensive coordinator Jim Bollman said.

Overall, though, Michigan State feels good about the state of its offense. So good that maybe the defense can lean on it for a change, if needed.

"Last year, we got off to a horrible start and didn't really get going until Week 5," Cook said. "We don't want to have that happen ever again. With the offense we have and what we proved last year, we want to get off to a hot start and get the rock rolling early. That's what everyone on our team offensively has in mind."
video
LINCOLN, Neb. -- An hour after the spring game ended on Saturday, Jeff Jamrog still looked tired as he stood in the lobby of the Nebraska practice facility, down one story and across an enclosed bridge from the football nerve center.

Jamrog clutched a bundle of papers, held tight in his right arm three hours prior as the assistant athletic director for football operations walked alongside cat-cradling Nebraska coach Bo Pelini to lead the team out of its locker room for the most unusual Tunnel Walk ever.

[+] EnlargeNebraska Cornhuskers
AP Photo/The Journal-Star/Francis GardlerIt's been an entertaining spring for Bo Pelini, his cat and his team.
I visited briefly with Jamrog about the entertaining antics of the afternoon, which included a goal-post throwing contest between Pelini and flamboyant wideout Kenny Bell and a marriage proposal by recently departed offensive tackle Jeremiah Sirles to former Nebraska soccer player Emma Stevens amidst a punt, pass and kick competition between ex-football players.

“If you’ve got any more ideas...,” said Jamrog, a former Division II head coach, Nebraska assistant and ex-Husker walk-on- turned-academic-All-American.

Just call him the Idea Man. The actual mastermind of this cat-themed offseason remains a secret between Pelini, his players and staff. It began with a Twitter bang by Pelini during the BCS title game and picked up steam on the recruiting trail.

When asked where the ideas were born to pull the mask off the old, frowning coach to reveal this fun and open side, they all say it just happened naturally.

It’s something that’s always been there,” Bell said.

Perhaps. You can bet, though, just about anything outside the box of this normally buttoned-up program passed the desk of Jamrog, who promoted Twitter handles of I-back Ameer Abdullah and linebacker Josh Banderas while explaining practice drills during breaks in the Saturday scrimmage.

The script was likely detailed in that bundle of papers.

Pelini said he nixed an idea to wear a sweater, a la his popular alter-ego. I’d like to know what else didn’t make the cut.

Regardless, keep it up, within reason. Even if the cat humor has run its course, continue to find ways to engage this fan base. Memorial Stadium on Saturday held a crowd of 61,772, most of whom paid $10 plus parking to watch a circus-like scrimmage.

Nebraska fans are hungry to see the human side of their coach and players. They’re more hungry, of course, for the next championship, but the past 3 months -- on the heels of a difficult finish to the 2013 regular season -- have provided a nice diversion.

We’ve seen Pelini reunite a U.S. Army sergeant with his wife and support basketball coach Tim Miles, who was ejected in Nebraska’s return to the NCAA tournament last month.

This spring, Pelini opened practices to the media. He said he’ll likely keep it up in August. He answered all questions in a thoughtful manner. He joked on Saturday about his dogs’ reaction to the cat stunt. He teased Bell, who schooled the coach in the goal-post throwing contest, over the receiver’s poor form.

Clearly, Pelini and the people close to him have made an effort turned the page from last season, stained by the coach’s post-Thanksgiving outbursts on the field and in the press conference after Iowa beat Nebraska on senior day.

“I’m not doing anything really different,” Pelini said in response to a question on Saturday about the lighter mood around his team.

If it feels different, fine, he said, but that’s not his intention.

“We’re trying to make sure we handle our business and enjoy the game,” Bell said. “You’ve gotta remember, football’s fun.

“You can forget that with all the crap you’ve got to deal with sometimes.”

But will all of the fun and goodwill matter to the football-watching public next fall, when the spotlight shines so much more brightly? Will we even remember this new-look Bo if the Huskers play poorly at home against Miami or fail to win the Big Ten West?

The answer to both: Probably not.

Still, Pelini sets the tone for the Huskers, inside the locker room and out. If he’s more comfortable living under the microscope, his players might be, too. That could help on the field in the fall.

It’s an idea.

If you’ve got any others, Jamrog is ready to listen.
video
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Urban Meyer seemed to be guarding a secret, and it couldn’t be deciphered by reading between the lines.

The Ohio State coach joked about being a little bored by his spring game, expressed some frustration about the lack of offensive execution and stressed that there was plenty of work to do at a few key positions heading into the offseason.

But the truth about how good his third team at Ohio State might be was tucked away on the sidelines, leaving little to truly evaluate between them as the Gray beat the Scarlet 17-7 on Saturday at the Horseshoe. And based on the number of players he held out of the spring-closing scrimmage, it might be a safe bet that Meyer is actually feeling pretty good about what he has returning in the fall.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesThe spring game didn't say much about Urban Meyer's Buckeyes. And he seems fine with that.
“There were guys out there who will either never play or they’re not ready to play now,” Meyer said. “Like, [Ohio State sports information director] Jerry [Emig] hands me stats, I’m not sure what to do with these. I don’t care.

“... We all know what we saw out there. It’s not the Ohio State Buckeyes.”

Exhibition games rarely provide much of a reliable gauge for how good a team might truly be, and in the case of the Buckeyes, that might have been by design.

Braxton Miller was already on the shelf as he finishes up his recovery from offseason shoulder surgery. Having the two-time defending Big Ten player of the year and a three-year starter at quarterback out of the equation obviously changes the complexion of the Ohio State offense. Cardale Jones was productive enough throughout camp to win the backup job, but his 14-of-31 passing performance Saturday was yet another reminder of the importance of having a healthy Miller to lead the attack.

Meyer indicated there was some uncertainty about his receiving corps after the spring game, but he had enough faith in Devin Smith and Dontre Wilson that he didn’t feel the need to press either of them into action over the weekend -- aside from a cameo appearance by the latter in a race against students at halftime.

And after watching what could be one of the most talented defensive lines in the country terrorize a rebuilding offensive line throughout camp over the last month, Meyer certainly didn’t need to see any more from Noah Spence, Joey Bosa, Michael Bennett or Adolphus Washington to boost his confidence heading into the summer, adding to the list of starters who effectively were allowed to take the day off.

Cornerback Doran Grant was largely an observer as well, though he did make an appearance to win the halftime derby and became the “fastest student” on campus. Projected first-team guard Pat Elflein was a scratch, and presumptive starting running back Ezekiel Elliott only touched the football three times. Tight end Jeff Heuerman was on crutches after foot surgery, but he’ll be back in time for the conditioning program next month.

So while the game itself left little worth remembering aside from what appeared to be marked improvement and depth in the secondary and another handful of mesmerizing catches from Michael Thomas, there were actually clues littered around Ohio Stadium that Meyer is poised to unleash his most talented team since taking over the program in 2012 and rattling off 24 consecutive wins.

The trick was knowing where to look.

“[The spring game] was a chance to see some young guys [who] really haven’t played, and to be quite honest, I’m not sure how much they will play,” Meyer said. “This is a chance for a lot of guys in our program who work very hard, and to be able to get some guys play or catch a pass in Ohio Stadium or whatever, in the big picture it’s the right thing to do.

“It’s a great thrill for a lot of people.”

The real thrills, of course, don’t come for a few months. And based on the amount of players who didn’t get to actually step between the lines on Saturday, Meyer might not-so-secretly have plenty to be excited about by fall.
video

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Urban Meyer hired Chris Ash away from Arkansas primarily to fix Ohio State's problems in its pass defense.

What Ash found is that the biggest area of need might have been from the shoulder pads up rather than any scheme or philosophy.

"You talk about Ohio State and the history, and there have been some really good defenses and some really good defensive backs," the Buckeyes' first-year co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach told ESPN.com. "You knew what you were going to get when you lined up against Ohio State -- you were going to get hit in the mouth.

[+] EnlargeChris Ash
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsChris Ash says instilling a new attitude in the secondary is as important as any scheme he is bringing to Ohio State.
"From my observations, some of that confidence and swagger has been lost in the last couple of years. And that mental psyche is probably as big as anything for us to regain."

It's understandable why the secondary might have felt shell-shocked by the way last season ended. The last three games of the season saw Ohio State surrender 451 passing yards to Michigan in a one-point win, allow Michigan State's Connor Cook to register his first career 300-yard passing day in a Big Ten championship game loss and serve up five passing touchdowns to Clemson in the Orange Bowl defeat. That led to withering criticism from fans and media about the pass defense.

"It’s been everywhere about how bad our back end was," senior cornerback Doran Grant said.

Ash said he hasn't looked much at the past and doesn't really care about it. But he does want the defensive backfield to play with an attitude and confidence, a task that's not made easier by the loss of three starters from last season.

One way Ash has tried to instill those traits is by showing his players clips from the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks' secondary. Seattle's hard-hitting, long cornerbacks and safeties set a tone for its entire defense.

"We made lot of cutups of them and said, 'Guys, this is how the best in the business play the game of football,’'' Ash said. "Are we going to be that? No, but we can be in our own way, and this is the way we need to play."

Ash wants his players showing energy and excitement on the field. So whenever a defensive back gives a great effort or celebrate a big play in practice this spring, you'll hear Ohio State coaches say, "Locker it." That's jargon for saving the video clip, which Ash will later show to his players in meetings.

Ohio State needed more change than just the mental side of the game, of course. Ash will help give the Buckeyes a more consistent and aggressive approach in its pass coverage, utilizing the Cover 4, or quarters, scheme. That will also feature some man-to-man, press coverage at times. It's kind of a combination of what Ash ran at Wisconsin, mixed in with some principals that Michigan State has had so much success with.

"We're taking the same approach that we take to stopping the run and putting it in the back end," Meyer said. "The feeling around here was as long as we stop the run and give up some passing yards, that’s OK. That’s not the case anymore. There are too many good throwing teams out there."

Grant is by far the most experienced player in the secondary and looks to take over the role of No. 1 cornerback after Bradley Roby's departure to the NFL. Working opposite him are junior Armani Reeves and redshirt freshmen Gareon Conley and Eli Apple. The latter two were both big-time recruits, and Ash said Apple is probably the defense's most improved player over the latter half of spring ball.

Sophomore Vonn Bell, who made his first career start at safety in the Orange Bowl, tore his MCL early in spring practice. In his absence, the 6-foot-3 Tyvis Powell and the 6-foot Cam Burrows are taking first-team reps at safety. Both are former cornerbacks and are what Ash calls "the model of what we want to recruit here" at safety because of their speed and size.

They've got a long way to go to match the Seahawks, but the Buckeyes have very promising, if somewhat raw, athletes to work with. They hope that leads to a much better and more confident secondary this season.

"It’s not about the size or anything like that," Grant said. "It’s about going hard and being coachable. [The Seahawks are] a high standard, but Ohio State, we’re also a high standard."
video

MADISON, Wis. -- Spring practice has provided some answers at quarterback in places like Nebraska, Northwestern, Illinois and Minnesota. Other competitions, while potentially narrowing a bit, remain unresolved as summer approaches.

Wisconsin certainly belongs in the latter category. A program that is no stranger to quarterback races has another that should last well into fall camp.

Junior Joel Stave has started for the better part of the past two seasons. But an AC joint injury to his throwing shoulder sustained in the Capital One Bowl against South Carolina has limited him throughout spring and ended his session prematurely following Saturday's scrimmage. Stave won't participate in Saturday's spring game. Although Andersen admits the injury is a concern and further evaluation is needed, Stave should be fine for summer workouts.

[+] EnlargeJoel Stave
Mike McGinnis/Getty ImagesA recurring injury suffered in Wisconsin's bowl game might have put Joel Stave behind in Wisconsin's QB race.
Even if Stave had been healthy, he likely still would have to beat out Tanner McEvoy in fall camp. McEvoy, a junior college transfer who briefly competed for the starting quarterback job last summer before moving to wide receiver and eventually to safety, has spent the entire offseason as a signal-caller. He took most of the reps with the top offense in Tuesday's practice and will do the same Saturday.

"There's definitely a separation between those two and the rest of the pack," Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen told ESPN.com. "I see D.J. [Gillins] and Bart [Houston] fighting in different ways and different situations and scenarios."

Stave's injury and a wave of others to an already inexperienced wide receiving corps have made it tough to get an accurate gauge on the passing game this spring. Senior Kenzel Doe is the only wideout with substantial experience who is fully participating in the spring. Alex Erickson is sitting out the spring following a knee injury in the bowl game, Jordan Fredrick suffered an arm injury midway through the session and Robert Wheelwright, pegged by many to emerge as Wisconsin's top wideout, has been slowed by a knee issue.

The Badgers will be healthier at receiver in fall camp, and most likely better as five wide receiver recruits arrive, led by Dareian Watkins.

"We need a couple of them to produce for us," offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said. "To say all five are going to step in and produce right away, that would be a little bit of a stretch. But we're looking for two guys: one that can provide a vertical stretch for us and the next guy to see what his strengths are and design around him.

"We need a player to take the top off the coverage."

Another subplot is where Andersen, Lugwig and the staff truly want to take the offense. In recruiting McEvoy and Gillins, the coaches made it clear they want more athleticism under center. Andersen wants "the threat of the run" at quarterback to complement backs Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement.

Wisconsin has incorporated more zone-read plays this spring, and McEvoy said the speed option was introduced in Tuesday's practice.

"Me being mobile gives some more elements that hopefully I can use," McEvoy said. "It seems to be working, but it's the same playbook as before. We've just got to execute."

Ludwig considers both Gillins, a freshman early enrollee, and McEvoy, as "brand-new players" this spring. He's pleased with the way both have learned the system but wants to see better execution from all the quarterbacks.

"Recently, I've had happy feet when I'm in the pocket," McEvoy said. "The next couple of days, I'm going to focus on really staying in there, taking my steps and throwing the ball, and running it when I really need to run it."

Gillins is ahead of where the coaches thought he would be and, with a strong summer, could push both Stave and McEvoy when camp begins. Andersen said if it appears Gillins won't contribute much at quarterback this fall, he'll likely redshirt rather than play another position.

Houston has the arm strength but lacks mobility and needs to show greater consistency to factor in the race.

"With Joel not being 100 percent, it's kind of tweaked our thought process a little bit," Ludwig said. "The guys are all competing well and learning. We've got to be a lot more productive at the QB spot. Spring football, it's about being productive and laying a foundation for the summer workouts, and putting yourself in position to come back in fall camp as Practice 16 rather than Practice 1."
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Connor Cook's two MVP trophies sit just to the left of the TV in the family room of his parents' house. When he's there, Cook admits that sometimes his gaze drifts from whatever show he's watching to those two prized keepsakes.

Who could blame him? No scripted drama or reality program could spin a more surprising story than the Michigan State quarterback's furious finish to the 2013 season. After not beginning the season as the starter and getting pulled at the end of his team's only loss at Notre Dame, Cook came up with his only two career 300-yard passing days to lead the Spartans to both a Big Ten championship game win and a Rose Bowl victory.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Pat Lovell/USA TODAY SportsConnor Cook seeks to build on a spectacular finish to last season.
"A day doesn't go by where I don't think, 'Oh, we're the Rose Bowl champs and we beat Ohio State in the Big Ten championship,'" Cook said. "It's kind of hard to soak it all in."

But while Cook will always have those reminders of his MVP performances on the biggest of stages, he's trying now to look forward only. The junior wants to build on his first season as a starter and become a quarterback who plays at a high level every week.

Cook passed for 2,755 yards and 22 touchdowns with only six interceptions last season, outstanding numbers that Michigan State fans weren't sure they'd get out of the quarterback position. But he also threw a pick-six against Stanford in the Rose Bowl and threw at least a couple of other passes that could have been picked off.

"Throughout the entire year, there were times when things fell into place," he said. "I was really lucky at times, and the team was really lucky at times. This year, I don't even want to put ourselves in a situation where people say, 'That should have been an interception,' and it wasn't. I don't want to even put the ball in jeopardy for defenders to go up and make a play on it. I want to make every single throw an accurate pass where only my guys can get it."

That's a lofty goal, but consider the things Cook doesn't have to worry about right now. At this time a year ago and up until September, he was battling just for the chance to play in Michigan State's crowded quarterback derby. Then he was getting his first prolonged exposure to college football.

He entered this spring armed with the confidence that he's the Spartans' No. 1 quarterback, along with all the experience he gained in pressure situations last fall. Coach Mark Dantonio said Cook "looks like a different guy" than he did last spring.

"He has a little bit more of a calmness to him, I guess, from knowing he's the guy," offensive coordinator Dave Warner said. "He can just play. There were certain instances last year where he was thinking about what to do, and that sort of keeps you from just playing. He's at a point now where he can just call a play, get everybody on the right page and go out and perform, rather than having to slow things down and think a little bit."

One of Cook's great skills is not getting caught up in his own head. When adversity struck last season, he was able to simply move on to the next play. The perfect example of that came in the Rose Bowl, when he followed up that potentially crippling pick-six and drove his team right back down the field for a crucial touchdown just before halftime.

Dantonio I don't know if this is the right thing to say about a quarterback, but he doesn't overthink things. He can let the negative go.

-- Spartans coach Mark Dantonio
"I don't know if this is the right thing to say about a quarterback, but he doesn't overthink things," Dantonio said. "He can let the negative go."

Oddly, Cook said he is the opposite of that during practice. In a recent scrimmage, he threw an interception and was so angry about it that he said it affected his play the rest of the day. But for some reason, he doesn't dwell on mistakes when it counts.

"On game day, I think the worst thing you can do as a quarterback is focus on the negative," he said. "If you throw an interception or make a bad play, if you're constantly thinking about that, then you'll make another bad throw. I try to just totally forget about it, and doing that helps."

Right now, Cook is trying to forget about last year's accolades and just look forward to a new year. That can be difficult when he's constantly reminded of that special finish to 2013, or when he sees people mentioning him as a darkhorse 2014 Heisman Trophy candidate.

"I think it's kind of stupid," he said of being mentioned for the Heisman. "Pretty much every single year, whoever wins the Heisman, you have no idea who they were the year before.

"I mean, it's cool. But it's just like when people ask me if I'm going to leave after this year. I don't think I'm even good enough to be talked about like that. I need to get better at a lot of things if I want to play at the next level. So I think I'm far from that, and I'm far from the Heisman. People can talk all they want, but my main goal is just to lead this team to victory every single week and lead this team to the Big Ten championship game and win that."

And maybe, just maybe, add to his impressive trophy collection.
video
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Last Thursday morning, a barefoot James Franklin exited his office and walked -- Franklin's walk is most people's jog -- through the Penn State football lobby.

Asked about his footwear situation, Franklin explained he had a speaking engagement and needed to change. Moments later, he returned to the lobby and opened a side door filled with shirts and suits.

"That's what happens," Franklin said after selecting his outfit, "when you live in the office."

A lot of football coaches say they live in their offices. It fits the round-the-clock, pedal-down, never-stop-working-'cause-the-other-guy-won't culture of their chosen profession. But at some point, they actually go home, if only for a few hours.

Franklin is actually living in his office at Penn State. He hasn't left for weeks. He recently drove around town simply to get away from the building.

His nights end on couches or on a faulty air mattress. Makes it tougher to do those back handsprings out of bed that Franklin famously begins his days with.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
MCT via Getty ImagesEven while sleeping in the office, James Franklin has not lacked for energy in his first few months on the job at Penn State.
"Every night when you leave, you see him pushing couches together," Penn State defensive line coach Sean Spencer said. "You're like, 'You're not staying here again, are you?' And he just shuts his door.

"If he wasn't in here, he'd be in at 5 in the morning and probably leave at 10 or 11 at night anyway. So I guess for the six hours he's going to take a nap, he'll just stay."

There's a somewhat reasonable explanation for Franklin's living situation: His family remains in Nashville, Tenn., and they've yet to secure a new home here. On the other hand, Franklin could easily spring for a hotel room. After signing a contract with Penn State that will pay him $4.25 million annually, he could buy out the entire hotel.

This is more his style. Franklin's corner office is more luxurious than the spare room he lived in while working at Kutztown University, where he earned a $1,200 salary and made ends meet by filling soda machines and tending bar on Sundays. But his approach to coaching -- total immersion, relentless energy -- is the same.

At Franklin's introduction Jan. 11, he delighted Penn State fans with talk of dominating the state in recruiting and unifying the community. He didn't win the news conference. He crushed it.

But his performance left some people wondering two things:

1. Is this guy for real?

2. Is he always like this?

According to Franklin's new players, the answer to both is a resounding yes. Franklin doesn't downshift and neither does his staff. They're propelling Penn State through another potentially treacherous transition -- Franklin is the Lions' fourth coach since November 2011 -- and they aren't slowing down.

"I've never lacked for energy, I've never lacked for enthusiasm," Franklin said. "I'm a realist and see the challenges and issues, but we're going to find ways to overcome 'em."

Penn State faces many challenges in Franklin's first season. The program is only halfway through the four-year period of severe NCAA sanctions.

The scholarship penalties were reduced last year, but the Lions are thin in several spots: offensive line, wide receiver and linebacker. The Lions return an excellent centerpiece in quarterback Christian Hackenberg and other potential All-Big Ten players, but they have to keep them all healthy. Franklin said of the offense: "We're probably going to spend our first two years here solving problems, hiding deficiencies, rather than attacking the defense."

One thing that will never be deficient: Franklin's drive. Penn State players he recruited at past stops see the same full-throttle approach from the coach.

"He's that person all the time," safety Adrian Amos said. "That's very important. It builds a little bit of trust. You know what you're getting."

Added offensive tackle Donovan Smith: "Being a big recruit, coaches would tell you things just because. Coach Franklin always kept it real. Genuine since day one."

Franklin and his assistants, eight of whom he brought to PSU from Vanderbilt, needed to create trust with a team that has endured more recent adversity than any in the country. Although Hackenberg said he's never been on a team so close, players needed to open themselves up to new coaches and schemes.

"Any time there's transition, the players are anxious," defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said. "Sometimes the relationships get tested because you're challenging and pushing them. But [Franklin] always says we can demand a lot as long as we show them how much we care."

During the recruiting rush after Franklin's hiring, Shoop sent late-night text messages to his players, introducing himself and commenting on their play. If he rides a player during practice, he'll send an encouraging text afterward (We're critiquing the performance, not the performer).

Spencer and special teams coordinator Charles Huff use symbolism such as wild dogs and nektonic sea predators to inspire their players. As the team practiced the two-minute drill Wednesday, Franklin called a timeout, clapped his hands in front of kicker Sam Ficken's face and screamed, "I'm icing your ass!" Not only did Ficken make the ensuing field goal, but he drilled a 55-yarder to prevent a team run. Players mobbed Ficken and Franklin.

"I always talk [to players] about matching my intensity," Spencer said. "And as coaches, we have to match the intensity of the head coach, which is hard to do. Ever walk behind that guy? I've never seen anything like it. It's a full-on sprint."

Shoop calls the staff's spirit "our secret sauce," but enthusiasm and hard work don't guarantee wins in the fall.

The Lions have only two healthy offensive linemen (Smith and Angelo Mangiro) who lettered last year. Their leading returning wide receiver, Geno Lewis, had 18 catches in 2013. They lose their only All-Big Ten defender, tackle DaQuan Jones, from a unit that, by Penn State's standards, really struggled. They enter a division featuring Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan.

PSU needs versatile players, walk-on contributions and good fortune on the injury front.

But after the most turbulent period in team history, the Lions also need consistency. Franklin and his staff intend to provide it.

"The coaches the players see the first week are the same guys they're going to see when they show up here for the 20-year reunion," Franklin said. "It's going to be the same energy and the same personality."
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald is finally speaking up about the Wildcats' potential player union. So are several senior leaders.

Their message: a union is not the answer.

As Northwestern's April 25 union vote approaches, the debate within the team is heating up. While former Wildcats quarterback Kain Colter and the College Athletes Players Association seeks more support in Washington, they also need to convince a majority of current scholarship players to vote yes on the union.

Here's more from Fitzgerald and several current players, as well as a timeline of what will happen in the union push during the next few weeks.
video
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- On Friday, Michigan plans to unveil a new museum area inside Schembechler Hall. The centerpiece display is a glass case reaching from floor to ceiling that contains 910 footballs, or one for every Wolverines victory.

There is room in the case for at least a couple hundred more balls. It’s also safe to presume that the all-time winningest program in college football history expects to add more than seven of those per year.

But that’s how many Team 134 contributed in 2013 in a disappointing 7-6 campaign that ended with a thud in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke
AP Photo/Tony DingThe 2013 season was a frustrating one for all involved in the Michigan program, as Brady Hoke and the Wolverines stumbled to a 7-6 record.
“That wasn’t a Michigan record,” senior linebacker Jake Ryan said.

It seemed almost quaint two years ago when Brady Hoke labeled the 2011 season -- one that included 11 wins and a Sugar Bowl title -- as “a failure” because the team didn’t capture a Big Ten championship. Since then, Hoke has flirted with actual failure, going just 15-11 in his second and third seasons as head coach.

As a result, Hoke made the first major staff shakeup of his tenure this offseason. He fired offensive coordinator Al Borges -- a move he called difficult because of their personal friendship -- and hired Doug Nussmeier from Alabama. He also switched around several defensive roles and took himself out of the defensive line coaching mix. Those moves signaled what had become obvious: Change was necessary to get Michigan back to being Michigan.

“Our first message to the players this offseason was to learn from going 7-6 on every front you can,” Hoke said. “That’s from how you prepared to how you came in the building every day.

“It’s the same thing with us as coaches. We talked a lot about us doing a better job with the fundamentals of playing the game and holding everybody to those expectations. And I think you always have to check yourself before you go anywhere else with it.”

Hoke hopes Nussmeier can help establish the true pro-style, physical offense that Borges could never quite take from vision to reality. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison will coach the linebackers this season while Roy Manning and Curt Mallory will both work with the secondary, an idea Hoke said he got from talking to NFL coaches. Mattison wants to bring more pressure on defense this season, something the Wolverines didn’t do well in 2013. But with experience now in the front seven and incoming star recruit Jabrill Peppers potentially adding a lockdown cornerback, Michigan expects to go on the attack.

“In 2011, I think we had a much more aggressive style of defense,” Hoke said. “We probably got away from that a little bit.”

Perhaps the changes can finally answer last season's unsolved mystery: Who exactly are these Wolverines?

They were a wildly inconsistent crew that could set offensive records one week and fail to find the end zone the next. They nearly upset Ohio State in a thriller and lost four Big Ten games by just 11 points. But they also nearly lost to Akron, UConn and Northwestern and surrendered more than 40 points three times.

“Last year, we lacked an identity,” senior defensive end Frank Clark said. “This year, the main talk around here has been to develop an identity, as a defense especially. You look at every other top team across the country, and everybody either has a tough running game or a crazy pass game or a crazy defense. We want to go into a game and have our opponent say ‘Oh, man, it’s going to be a long day.’”

One of the main differences between his first team and the past two, Hoke said, was that the 2011 Sugar Bowl squad had “some fourth- and fifth-year guys who really understood what Michigan meant.” Leadership is a concern for this year’s team, which has only 12 seniors, though guys such as Ryan, Clark and quarterback Devin Gardner provide a great starting point. Hoke has taken his seniors to California for Navy SEALs training in the past and says he has some new ideas in store for this summer which he’s not yet ready to reveal.

The players and coaches are also trying to develop more of a competitive edge this spring.

“There’s definitely a different focus,” linebacker James Ross III said. “A lot of guys getting on each other, but it’s positive. Last year, I don’t think we had that as much. We’re holding each other accountable now, and I think we let a lot of things slide last year.”

Michigan’s success or failure in 2014 will ultimately depend on how quickly its young players, many of whom were decorated recruits, can develop. It says something about the state of the program that two guys who just enrolled in January -- receiver Freddy Canteen and offensive lineman Mason Cole -- have been among the standouts of the spring. The Maize and Blue are extremely green on offense, particularly up front on a line that has been a sore spot for the past two seasons. With tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield graduated, that group is now mostly comprised of freshmen and sophomores.

Hoke said the youth on the O-line is a remaining byproduct of the transition from Rich Rodriguez. You might recall that Rodriguez was fired in 2010 after going 7-6 in his third year. Athletic director Dave Brandon remains in Hoke’s corner, and Hoke says the only pressure he feels is the internal pressure to do right by all of his players.

Still, the message should be loud and clear when Hoke walks into Schembechler Hall every day. They don’t dedicate museum displays to teams that go 7-6.

“The atmosphere around this building now is that we’ve got to win,” defensive lineman Taco Charlton said. “That’s period, point blank, whatever we’ve got to do.”
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Let’s face it, the Nebraska defense played at an average level in 2013.

Early in the season, the Huskers were below average. Remember the 38 consecutive points scored by UCLA and the 465 yards surrendered to South Dakota State? Later, Nebraska rated better than the norm, winning away from home against Michigan, Penn State and Georgia largely on the back of the Blackshirts.

[+] EnlargeRandy Gregory
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesRandy Gregory expects the Nebraska defense to reach new heights this fall.
But in 12 of 15 key defensive categories, Nebraska ranked no higher than third in the Big Ten and no lower than ninth.

So yes, as a whole, the group was average.

All-league defensive end Randy Gregory and his teammates want a new label for 2014.

Dominant or suffocating -- either is fine. How about being the strength of coach Bo Pelini’s seventh team?

“Definitely,” Gregory said. “Let’s be physical. We can dominate. If we play our game, we can play with anybody.”

The defensive performance and growth this spring appear to substantiate Gregory’s claim. This Nebraska defense looks stronger, deeper and more physical than any of the past few seasons.

Pelini’s defenses at Nebraska in 2009 and as coordinator in 2003 stand out as the best of the post-championship era in Lincoln. Both units ranked among the top two nationally in scoring and passing yardage allowed. They both featured a play-making All-American among the front seven. And both units surrendered fewer than 300 yards per game. They were the only Nebraska defenses of the past 12 seasons to reach the threshold that was commonly crossed in the 1990s, when the Huskers contended for five national titles, winning three.

“I think we can be a top-10 defense,” linebacker Zaire Anderson said. “If we keep working and making progress, we can be a great defense.”

Why such optimism? Well, first of all, it’s spring; positive energy abounds in April. But such talk did not flow from Nebraska camp a year ago as the Huskers attempted to replace several key pieces.

“They learned a lot last year,” linebacker Trevor Roach said.

Through the growing pains emerged a mix of experience and athleticism from front to back. Much like its dynamic mixture at I-back on the offensive side, the Huskers did not necessarily concoct the diversity of this defensive lineup.

It just kind of happened, with Gregory, an All-America candidate in his second season at Nebraska, anchoring a front four that has turned the heads of many observers this spring. At linebacker, seniors Anderson and Roach and junior David Santos have grown into the elders, but youth still rules.

In the secondary, where the Huskers need it most, cornerback Josh Mitchell is the vocal leader of the entire defense. And perhaps more than anywhere else on the field, the maturity of young safeties LeRoy Alexander and Nathan Gerry -- in the absence of injured veteran Corey Cooper -- has rated as a key surprise.

At all three levels, positive storylines have emerged this spring.

The evidence of defensive chemistry was on display Wednesday in Nebraska’s 10th practice of the spring.

Late in the workout in a sequence between the top offense and the Blackshirts, defensive tackle Vincent Valentine, Anderson and Gregory pressured quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. on three consecutive plays, the last of which resulted in a Gerry interception that had the whole defense abuzz.

“As much as I’ve seen, I know we’ve got a lot of upside right now,” said cornerback Jonathan Rose, who is competing with newcomer Byerson Cockrell for a top job opposite Mitchell. “We’ve got a lot to prove. It’s like a whole 'nother defense coming out this year.”

Gregory said he liked what he saw, too, on Wednesday, but the junior warned that a few practices in the spring can mark only the beginning.

Even early in the season last fall, the defense possessed plenty of talent, he said. It just wasn't making plays.

“We have a clear mind coming into this year,” Gregory said. “Tackling for us was a problem last year, but I don’t think we were a bad tackling team. It’s just all mental.

“It all starts, really, in the film room.”

Gregory notices more teammates studying film. They’re “taking it upon themselves to put in the work,” he said.

The Huskers could use a highly rated defense to help ease pressure on the offense, which will work with a reconstructed line and an inexperienced group at quarterback. Behind third-year sophomore Armstrong, who started eight games as a substitute for the injured Taylor Martinez in 2013, no quarterback has handled a collegiate snap.

"We have faith in our offense, certainly,” Roach said, “because we have a ton of weapons. But we have to focus on us. We have to worry about what we’re doing. I get the vibe that we have the potential to do great things.”
C.J. Brown turns 23 on June 27. He's a graduate student preparing for his sixth year at Maryland. He has played for two head coaches and three offensive coordinators and suffered two season-ending injuries. He's the most accomplished rushing quarterback in team history, owning five of the top 10 single-game totals, including the top performance (162 yards against Clemson in 2011).

He has experienced two 10-loss seasons (2009 and 2011) and two postseason games (the 2010 and 2013 Military Bowls).

[+] EnlargeBrown
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyMaryland hopes QB C.J. Brown (1,162 career rushing yards) won't have to carry the ball as much this fall.
Now Brown prepares to play in his second league, the Big Ten, which Maryland joins this fall. The Big Ten move could widen some eyes when the Terrapins enter venues like Michigan Stadium, Beaver Stadium and Camp Randall Stadium.

Brown won't flinch.

"Just thinking about all the things, from defensive schemes to overtimes to weird calls to different situations, the momentum shifts and swings," Brown said. "You've been through it all when you've been around for five, going on six, years now."

Maryland should be optimistic about its offense entering the 2014 season. Explosive receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long return from leg injuries. Wide receiver Marcus Leak and running back Wes Brown both are back after spending a year away from the team. The Terps return five players with at least 450 receiving yards and all of their top ball carriers from 2013.

Perhaps most important is the calming veteran presence Brown provides at the quarterback spot.

"You know he's not going to get rattled," Maryland coach Randy Edsall said. "He's going to be the mature guy and go up to guys and talk to them and get them going [to do] the right thing. It's very comforting for me to know we have that kind of guy with that kind of experience and that kind of makeup being the leader of our team."

Brown's extended stay in college football has reached many junctions. He came to Maryland to play for coach Ralph Friedgen and offensive coordinator James Franklin. When a broken collarbone ended his 2010 season in the opener, he watched as Danny O'Brien went on to ACC Rookie of the Year honors.

Then came Friedgen's surprise firing after an 8-4 regular season -- on the heels of Franklin's departure to Vanderbilt. Edsall arrived and Maryland went through a disastrous 2011 season, although Brown replaced the struggling O'Brien toward the end.

With what he's had to go through with all the injuries, that stuff makes you a lot more mature and makes you see and understand the big picture a little bit more.

-- Maryland coach Randy Edsall on C.J. Brown
Brown entered 2012 as the starting quarterback and a co-captain, but an ACL tear in August ended his season before it started. He made it through the 2013 season mostly in one piece -- he missed two games with a concussion suffered on a brutal hit against Florida State -- and recorded 2,242 passing yards, 576 rushing yards and 25 touchdowns (13 pass, 12 rush).

"With what he’s had to go through with all the injuries, that stuff makes you a lot more mature and makes you see and understand the big picture a little bit more," Edsall said.

Added Brown: "It's been good to grow, to be able to put all that in the past and take a step forward."

Brown benefits from a resource few major-college quarterbacks enjoy: a dad who did the exact same thing. Clark Brown played quarterback at Michigan State in 1983-84.

C.J. was born in Michigan, and though the family moved to Cranberry Township, Pa., just north of Pittsburgh, C.J. remembers attending Michigan State games every few years.

"He's been a huge resource," C.J. said of his father. "He understood that I had coaches for a reason, and if they wanted his advice or I wanted his advice, I could go to him. He's been an open book, a great support system I could go to when I had questions or I was having a tough time.

"He's been through it, and he can definitely relate."

The scouting report on most college quarterbacks is set by Year 4 or Year 5, much less Year 6. But Brown could be a different player, leading a different Maryland offense this fall, if the injuries that have haunted the unit simply stay away.

Although Maryland flexed its muscles early last season, eclipsing 30 points in each of its first four games, the offense, in Brown's view, hasn't shown its full potential. Despite 1,162 career rush yards, Brown might not have to carry the ball as much this fall. Edsall, pleased with Brown's understated but effective leadership style, wants his quarterback to simply fine tune his game this spring.

"I see how much he's progressing with each practice we have," Edsall said. "He's doing things so much better now than even what he was doing last fall.

"That natural progression, I think he's going to be an outstanding quarterback in 2014."
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Stan Drayton isn’t picky about how the job gets done.

The Ohio State running backs coach doesn’t need his next starter to have all the same physical qualities Carlos Hyde brought to the backfield. Drayton doesn’t even care if he needs more than one guy to fill the void Hyde left behind after his final season with the Buckeyes, and he’s not in a hurry to settle on a depth chart or figure out how to distribute carries.

In terms of fitting some sort of ideal mold for a tailback, Drayton has no preference as he sorts through a handful of options with different sizes and strengths. As for the details of how to match Hyde’s wildly productive, staggeringly efficient work on the ground, it doesn’t appear to make any difference to Drayton whether it takes one guy or five, as long as the results are the same.

[+] EnlargeBri'onte Dunn
Greg Bartram/USA TODAY SportsBri'onte Dunn, a four-star recruit in the 2012 class, redshirted last season and is squarely in the mix for playing time.
“He has to be replaced,” Drayton said. “This is The Ohio State University, and it’s the next man up. I’m sure if you asked Carlos Hyde, he’d tell you the same thing. It’s the next man up.

“Somebody has to step up and fill the shoes of Carlos Hyde. If it takes more than one guy to do that, I promise you it’s going to get done.”

The Buckeyes certainly weren’t a one-man show on the ground last year, and no matter what happens at running back this spring, they still won’t be in the fall with Braxton Miller and his talented legs returning at quarterback.

But Hyde was far and away the main focus at tailback last season, accounting for more rushing attempts than the rest of Ohio State’s stable of running backs combined despite missing three games to suspension. And now that he’s gone, those 208 carries he had as a senior will have to go somewhere, and the race is already heated as the new candidates scramble to claim them.

Rising sophomore Ezekiel Elliott appears to be first in line after shining in a limited role a season ago, averaging 8.1 yards per carry while showing off his explosive speed and the ability to absorb or inflict punishment with his 225-pound frame.

Rising senior Rod Smith isn’t far behind and is doing everything he can to finally turn his natural talent into production before it’s too late. Sophomore Bri’onte Dunn is coming off a somewhat unexpected redshirt season during his second year at Ohio State and is impressing with his improved grasp of the offense. Warren Ball and early enrollee Curtis Samuel both are squarely in the battle for playing time as well, with the latter turning heads during offseason workouts and potentially becoming an option to play a hybrid role as a rusher and receiver when he gets completely healthy.

So even if the Buckeyes can’t settle on just one guy to fill Hyde’s shoes, they’re clearly not short of options.

“It’s real competitive, and coach Drayton really has us going,” Dunn said. “Everybody wants to play for Ohio State, so we’ll go as hard as we can.

“Carlos was like a big brother to me. He taught me a lot, and by his example last year, it just taught us all a lot. ... Everybody is just going hard and trying to go for the spot. Our mindset is to be the best back in the country.”

Hyde made his case last season, finishing with 1,521 yards, 15 touchdowns and a resume that might make him the first running back selected in the upcoming NFL draft.

But Drayton doesn’t necessarily need one candidate to emerge as the best individual rusher in the country to get what he’s looking for this spring. The only thing that really matters to him is making sure Ohio State has the best backfield, any way he can get it.

“I’m always going to operate under the notion I need at least three [guys],” Drayton said. “I need at least three, and there’s five of them.

“All those guys are in the mix. They’re so competitive, they all bring something different to the table, they all have a different style, different strengths and weaknesses and they can all help this football team. ... I just prefer a guy who is going to be productive, period.”

Drayton might not be picky about how the production comes. But there’s no flexibility about making sure the Buckeyes get it one way or another.

SPONSORED HEADLINES