NCF Nation: Nebraska Cornhuskers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Northwestern quarterbacks: Senior Zack Oliver is the man with the most experience as the Wildcats prepare to replace Trevor Siemian. But Oliver’s late-season turnover trouble helped open this race up for sophomore Matt Alviti and redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson. Each of the three brings a different set of skills, so a decision would help simplify matters as the season nears.
Spring is springing in the Big Ten. Michigan and Northwestern have already hit the practice field, Minnesota, Maryland and Nebraska join them this week and the rest will follow soon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ranking the Big Ten coaching jobs

February, 25, 2015
Feb 25
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ESPN.com this week ranked the Power 5 college football coaching jobs, from No. 1 to 65. While those national takes on the Big Ten hit the mark, we'll offer a few minor changes in our Big Ten rankings, No. 1 through 14, of the league seats.

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.

2. Michigan
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.

4. Nebraska
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?

6. Wisconsin
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.

7. Maryland
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.

8. Iowa
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.

9. Minnesota
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.

10. Illinois
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.

11. Rutgers
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.

12. Northwestern
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.

13. Indiana
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.

14. Purdue
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.
The Ultimate ESPN 300 list is out and the Big Ten is well-represented from top to bottom. When it comes to re-ranking players, there are always surprises and sleeper players after the fact, which is why we put together our list of the top five surprises from the ultimate list.

New Nebraska coach Mike Riley spent much of his first month on the job working to assemble a coaching staff. Now, the one coach for whom he didn't have to leave Memorial Stadium to find has taken a new job.

Riley confirmed that secondary coach Charlton Warren, the lone holdover from the staff of former coach Bo Pelini, is leaving Lincoln. Warren's departure was first detailed Friday by Sports Illustrated, which reported he would take a similar position at North Carolina.

UNC coach Larry Fedora coached as an offensive assistant at Air Force during Warren's playing career at the service academy.

"Charlton Warren has informed me of his plans to take a similar coaching position at another university," Riley said in a statement released by Nebraska. "This is an opportunity that Charlton feels is right for him and his family, and I respect his decision. We appreciate the valuable role Charlton has played in our transition to the University of Nebraska and wish him and his family nothing but the best. Charlton is an outstanding man and a bright, energetic football coach with a great future ahead of him in this profession.

"We will search for a talented teacher, coach and recruiter to fill the open position on our defensive staff. This is a high priority, but we will take the necessary time to find the individual who is the right fit to help lead the young men in the University of Nebraska football program."

Warren spent one season at Nebraska and earned praise for his work with the defensive backs. Sophomore Nate Gerry, a converted linebacker, led the Big Ten with five interceptions in league play.

Warren was instrumental in the December and January transition of Riley's staff and played a key role in recruiting. His presence helped allow the Huskers to keep early-enrolling newcomers Avery Anderson and Eric Lee, both of whom were recruited out of Colorado by Warren.

In addition to Colorado, Warren has strong ties in recruiting to Georgia. He coached for nine seasons at Air Force before joining the Nebraska staff.
The ceaseless debate over conference strength waged here and in other forums ultimately centers on one question: How many teams in League X are capable of winning a national championship in Season Y?

The Big Ten entered the 2014 season with what many believed were two capable candidates: Michigan State and Ohio State. Although Wisconsin and Nebraska also appeared in the preseason Top 25 polls, the Badgers and Huskers were fringe contenders to reach the inaugural College Football Playoff.

It turned out both Michigan State and Ohio State were worthy of contender status. Ohio State won the national title; Michigan State won the Cotton Bowl and recorded its second consecutive top-5 finish.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer and Ezekiel Elliott
Darren Carroll for ESPNBig seasons by Ohio State and Michigan State brought respect to the Big Ten, but the conference needs more than two teams capable of winning the national championship.
No single accomplishment helps conference perception like a national title. After all the mud slung the Big Ten's way for the better part of a decade, Ohio State showed that the laughed-at league was, in fact, capable of having the last laugh. There is a residual from ending the season with the shiny trophy, and the Big Ten is enjoying one right now.

But how long does it last?

Some will say the good vibes ended today as colleague Mark Schlabach produced his latest way-too-early Top 25 for the 2015 season. Ohio State leads off at No. 1, and Michigan State appears at No. 7. Only one other Big Ten team makes the rundown: Wisconsin at No. 17.

Schlabach's Top 25 includes four SEC teams in the top-14 and eight overall. The Pac-12 has three teams in the top nine and five in the top 20. Even the ACC has more Top 25 teams (four) than the Big Ten.

Longtime Big Ten blog readers know how much I love to needle Schlabach for his regional, uh, preferences. The memory of him shivering outside Spartan Stadium on a balmy 42-degree October day a few years back warms my heart. Thin Southern blood, y'all.

But I have no problem with his rankings. The Big Ten remains a top-heavy league looking to build sustained depth. Schlabach's list isn't dramatically different from where the preseason polls had the Big Ten in August.

Ohio State should be No. 1 after its dominant Playoff performance and with possibly an even better team coming back. Michigan State's march into the national elite, along with the return of quarterback Connor Cook, merits a place in the top-8. Wisconsin's run of very good, not quite great, has withstood one shocking coaching change. It can withstand another, especially with a coach (Paul Chryst) who knows the landscape and can fix the program's primary hindrance (the passing game).

After those three teams, though, I can't make a strong case for more Big Ten Top 25 representation.

Minnesota is on the borderline. The defense once again should be solid, possibly more than solid. But the passing game remains a huge unknown, especially with tight end Maxx Williams gone. The Gophers have taken significant steps under Jerry Kill, but of their 16 wins the past two seasons, only five came against teams that finished with winning records. They also have yet to win a bowl game under Kill. There is more to prove.

This is the point where Nebraska fans have to catch their breath after screaming, "What about us?!" There are things to like about the Huskers' roster, as well as Mike Riley's ability to develop quarterbacks and wide receivers. But Nebraska lost its best offensive player (Ameer Abdullah) and best defender (Randy Gregory). Add in a coaching change and this isn't a Top 25 team -- yet.

Neither is Penn State, although if the Lions can figure out how to keep quarterback Christian Hackenberg upright, they could soon enter the national rankings.

So what does this mean for the Big Ten? The league is no longer the scourge of college football. Ohio State and Michigan State are considered elite programs by anyone who matters. But league-wide respect likely remains in short supply.

It goes back to the central question: How many Big Ten teams are capable of winning it all in a given season?

Ohio State should be capable every year under Urban Meyer. Michigan State should be in most years under Mark Dantonio. Wisconsin could rise to that level, but hasn't quite gotten there in recent years. Penn State and Nebraska? History is on their side and both programs are recruiting well, but both must clear some hurdles. Kirk Ferentz's Iowa teams have shown elite-level capability at times, but the program needs to regain momentum.

Few doubt Michigan's capability as a championship contender. The history and resources are there, and Michigan seemingly has the the coach in Jim Harbaugh to facilitate a rise. But the Wolverines haven't been a national player since the 2006 season. Opposing coaches are conflicted about how much talent is in the program right now. Is Michigan fast-track-able? We'll soon find out.

TCU showed last season that a team nowhere near the Playoff radar in August can be in the mix for a spot in early December. Does the Big Ten have such a team in 2015?

Winning a national title was huge for this league, but the macro challenge hasn't changed. The Big Ten needs more Playoff-worthy depth so the league isn't pinning its hopes on one or two teams every year. The SEC pulled off its historic run with four different championship teams, and several others with win-it-all capability.

An Ohio State title defense in 2015 will resonate much more for the Buckeyes than the Big Ten. Ohio State fans might disagree, but the Big Ten's path to national respect isn't simply the I-270 "Outerbelt" that circles Columbus.

The route must include other cities in other states and ultimately lead back to Glendale, Arizona, where college football's next national champion will be crowned.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- In an homage to their frantic and fruitful first few days on the job at Nebraska, Mike Riley’s coaches in future years may want to leave the comfort of their offices for a week every year at the height of recruiting season and drag their work to a conference room.

There, if linebackers coach Trent Bray and running backs coach Reggie Davis need to discuss a prospect, they can bypass cell phones and electronic messaging, forget even about walking down the hallway.

Sometimes, the most simple method to eliminate chaos is the most effective. And so it went for the Nebraska coaches in the days after Riley’s Dec. 4 hiring.

On the eve of signing day, with Riley set Wednesday to unveil his first recruiting class at Nebraska, the successes of the past 60 days in Lincoln can be traced to those two weeks of December madness.

The coach, four of his assistants and a core group of support staff uprooted their lives at Oregon State and immediately established a home base in that conference room amid the third-floor administrative offices at Memorial Stadium.

“We were all there, engaged with one purpose,” said Dan Van De Riet, Nebraska associate athletic director for football operations who worked with Riley at Oregon State for 14 years. “So it was actually really good.”

Their teamwork and efficiency proved vital in retaining the majority of commitments secured by the former staff and in laying the groundwork for a productive final recruiting stretch.

One floor below the makeshift nerve center in December, Nebraska’s departing assistants prepared the Huskers for the Holiday Bowl. Riley took his partially constructed staff, in their first hours together at Nebraska, straight to meet the outgoing coaches.

“They knew we were there,” Bray said last month. “We knew they were there, so why hide and pretend you’re not there?”

From those opening days, Riley attacked challenges. His first results of substance, on display Wednesday, are a testament to the coach’s skill as an executive and illustrative of the trust he places in hires at various levels of the football program.

Often, the first group of recruits signed by a coach after a postseason change is not indicative of his style or the game plan for future recruiting classes. The new guy gets a pass, more or less; it happened at Nebraska after moves that followed the 2003 and 2007 seasons.

No such luxury exists for Riley as Nebraska looks to improve on seven consecutive nine- or 10-win seasons.

Sure, he’ll get a grace period to learn of the culture and expectations.

How about until the end of spring practice?

The Huskers’ class ranks 32nd nationally and fifth in the Big Ten. Given more time, Riley and his recruiters figure to sign groups with more flash and bang. More important than its ranking, though, this class doesn’t feel rushed -- as so many do when built after a coaching change.

Riley and his coaches found fits. They kept key pieces, headlined by Colorado defensive backs Eric Lee and Avery Anderson, who enrolled in January, twin defensive linemen Carlos and Khalil Davis and defensive end Daishon Neal.

Nebraska added a four-star talent in offensive guard Jalin Barnett and scored a legitimate recruiting win over Michigan in keeping tight end Matt Snyder. They added pledges from the states of California, Florida, Texas, Georgia and Louisiana, which bodes well for next year and beyond.

On social media, the Huskers showed an innovative spirit.

They sought to address a potential weakness within the borders of their own state as not a single coach on Riley’s staff has recruited extensively in Nebraska. A call to Paul Limongi, president of the Omaha Metro Coaches Association, was among the first placed by Van De Riet, the administrator who flew to Nebraska with Riley on his first trip two months ago.

“Reaching out is key,” said Limongi, coach at Omaha’s Burke High School. “It was really refreshing to hear from him. It seems like they’re headed in the right direction.”

Scott Strohmeier, coach at Iowa Western Community College, said he, too, has engaged in preliminary conversation with Nebraska about growing the relationship between his program -- one of the nation’s most successful at the juco level -- and the nearby Huskers.

The new Nebraska staff won’t abandon its diverse recruiting strongholds for local kids. But a key to their success involves finding a balance.

“When you recruit local, the kids are a little more invested,” offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said. “I do think it’s important to start here and work out from there.”

It seems, so far, Riley and his coaches have done their homework -- aided, perhaps, by a two-week, conference-room session of mind-melding at the start.
Signing day is less than 48 hours away. While you breathlessly await your team's official unveiling of its class and chew your fingernails over late decisions, a great debate continues over whether recruiting rankings really tell us anything.

For a little more enlightenment, we decided to look at this year's first-team All-Big Ten honorees to see where each player ranked as a prospect. Any player on offense or defense who made either the coaches' first team or was a first-team pick by the media was categorized through their ESPN Recruiting rankings (we'll save kicker prospect rankings for another conversation).

Here's what we found:

Five-star recruits

None

Four-star recruits (7)
Three-star recruits (14)
Two-star recruits (2)
Not ranked (3)

* -- junior college recruits

Three-star recruits typically don't generate a lot of hype on signing day, but that's where the bulk of the Big Ten's top performers checked in out of high school. That includes 2014 Big Ten offensive player of the year and Doak Walker Award winner Gordon; Big Ten offensive lineman of the year and Outland Trophy winner Scherff; Coleman, who also rushed for 2,000 yards; Big Ten receiver of the year Lippett; Big Ten linebacker of the year Hull; Big Ten defensive back of the year Drummond; a possible first-round pick in Waynes; 2013 Big Ten defensive lineman of the year Calhoun.

Seven four-star prospects more than lived up to their rankings, especially Barrett, Bosa and Zettel in the 2014 season. But there were almost as many two-star and not-ranked prospects as there were four-star recruits on the All-Big Ten first team. Not surprisingly, Wisconsin and Minnesota were able to unearth those diamonds in the rough.

The All-Big Ten second teams are another eclectic mix. They include four-star prospects who fulfilled their promise such as Ohio State defensive tackle Michael Bennett, Maryland receiver Stefon Diggs and Wisconsin center Dan Voltz. There are also a whole bunch of three-star guys who more than reached their potential, like Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook, Minnesota running back David Cobb, Ohio State offensive tackle Taylor Decker. Then there are the true overachievers, with two-star prospects like Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah and Northwestern's Nick VanHoose, and guys who were almost completely overlooked in Michigan State left tackle Jack Conklin and Minnesota defensive back Eric Murray.

The lesson here? Nothing is really guaranteed in recruiting rankings. While you may be focusing on the four- and five-star guys on Wednesday with good reason, sometimes the two- and three-star prospects become the ones you really have to watch on Saturdays.
New Year's Day and national signing day used to be the two most disheartening days on the Big Ten football calendar.

Make no mistake, New Year's Day had been much more of a buzzkill. The Big Ten's poor results on an afternoon where it clustered its top postseason games on big stages damaged the league's reputation and depressed its fans.

National signing day had been a different kind of downer. Unlike New Year's Day, when the Big Ten's collective struggles were front and center, national signing day pushed the league off to the side. The Big Ten went from being embarrassed on Jan. 1 to being largely ignored on the first Wednesday in February.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesOhio State raised a trophy in January and raised expectations for the Big Ten on signing day.
Of course, this was ESPN's fault, as all things were/are. ESPN's in-season obsession with all things SEC spilled into its recruiting coverage, Big Ten fans contended.

Two things to note:

1. Recruiting rankings are inherently subjective

2. The numbers don't lie. Every recruiting list shows more elite prospects in the South -- many of whom choose to play for SEC schools -- than in the Midwest

The bottom line is signing day had become more of an SEC and ACC event than a Big Ten exposition. There's a reason why every year around this time, I snarkily ask our friends in ACC country if they're ready for the biggest day on their football calendar.

But signing day 2015, arriving in just 36 hours, could have a different feel around the Big Ten. For the first time in a while, the Big Ten is the most talked-about league in the sport. Ohio State just won the first College Football Playoff national championship, securing its first title -- and the Big Ten's -- in 12 seasons. The Buckeyes capped a Big Ten bowl season that far surpassed expectations (6-5 overall, 2-0 in New Year's Six games).

Michigan made the top coaching move of the offseason by landing Jim Harbaugh. Two former Big Ten quarterbacks shined Sunday night in Super Bowl XLIX, with former Michigan signal-caller Tom Brady coming away with his fourth ring.

The Big Ten has tangible momentum that it wants to sustain through the offseason, beginning with national signing day.

How realistic is that goal?

Signing day is largely about hype, and the Big Ten undoubtedly will be discussed more this year than in the past.

Ohio State's class, ranked No. 7 nationally by ESPN RecruitingNation, will be examined as the Buckeyes bring in standouts such as Justin Hilliard and Jashon Cornell, and hope to keep Torrance Gibson. Unlike many Big Ten coaches, Ohio State's Urban Meyer eschews redshirting and has quickly turned young players into key contributors. Meyer's first full class in 2013 -- featuring Joey Bosa, J.T. Barrett, Ezekiel Elliott, Vonn Bell, Jalin Marshall and Darron Lee -- played a huge role in this year's title run.

Michigan's first class under Harbaugh also will be in the spotlight. It will be small -- the Wolverines have only nine verbal commitments -- but Harbaugh already has bolstered the quarterback spot with Zach Gentry, who had originally picked Texas. Michigan could finish strong with tight end Chris Clark, linebacker Roquan Smith and cornerback Iman Marshall, all of whom are announcing their decisions on signing day.

James Franklin's first full class at Penn State should get Lions fans excited for the future. Franklin and his staff put much of the group together last spring, landing 13 commitments before the end of May. They've upgraded their top problem unit, offensive line, with recruitsSterling Jenkins and Ryan Bates, to go along with junior college transfer Paris Palmer.

Michigan State is arguably the nation's top player development program. But after consecutive top-5 finishes, the Spartans' recruiting efforts are getting noticed. MSU is poised to sign a top-30 class and might have locked up its future offensive backfield with quarterback Brian Lewerke and running back L.J. Scott. Twin brothers Andrew and David Dowell, one-time Northwestern and Kentucky commits, recently switched their pledge to MSU.

Wisconsin and Nebraska also could end up among ESPN RecruitingNation's top 30 classes. Not surprisingly, the Badgers have seen attrition in their class after the surprising departure of coach Gary Andersen to Oregon State, but they've bolstered their offense with running backs Bradrick Shaw and Jordan Stevenson, tight end Kyle Penniston and quarterback Austin Kafentzis. Nebraska also went through a coaching change but has made a nice push under Mike Riley and his innovative recruiting approach, landing offensive lineman Jalin Barnett and holding onto defensive back Eric Lee and others.

As colleague Mitch Sherman wrote last week, Big Ten coaches had no consensus about whether the league's recent on-field surge would improve recruiting, especially for non-traditional powers. Maryland, despite losing two recruits to Indiana this past weekend, will be a program to watch Wednesday as linemen Austrian Robinson and Isaiah Prince make their decisions. Illinois hopes to upgrade its defensive line with Jamal Milan, who also is considering Minnesota and Indiana. Minnesota, Rutgers, Northwestern, Indiana and others look to lock up solid classes on Wednesday.

There will be Big Ten teams that don't move the needle regionally or nationally, as there are every year. But there's optimism about the league's overall recruiting efforts, fueled by the bowl/playoff momentum.

The Big Ten changed its fortunes on New Year's Day. National signing day looms, and league should gain a greater share of the spotlight, providing a springboard to the offseason.
Kyler Murray isn't the only high-profile Texan who will shape the future of Lone Star State recruiting, as ESPN 300 defensive backs Kris Boyd and Holton Hill will announce their decisions together Friday.


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This week, we're examining a problematic position for each Big Ten team during the 2014 season and how it can potentially be repaired in 2015.

Your turn, Nebraska.

Problem position: Linebacker

Why linebacker was a problem in 2014: Nebraska has been playing catch-up at the linebacker spot since it moved from the Big 12 -- where it needed more defensive backs and swift linebackers against all those pass-happy offenses -- to the more rugged, physical style of the Big Ten. The Huskers thought 2014 would bring improvement to the position, but a preseason knee injury to starter Michael Rose-Ivey proved a big setback. Once again, Big Red mostly failed to get elite production out of its linebackers, and the lack of size and skill there was evident in losses to Wisconsin, Minnesota and USC. With the graduation of Zaire Anderson and Trevor Roach and the transfer of Courtney Love to Kentucky, the position is perilously thin heading into 2015. New coach Mike Riley and his staff have made recruiting linebackers an immediate priority.

How it can be fixed (solutions on the roster): Rose-Ivey's return from injury should be a big boost, as he was drawing rave reviews before he went down. David Santos and Josh Banderas return a lot of experience, though Banderas saw his playing time dwindle in 2014. Backups Marcus Newby, Austin Williams and Chris Weber also are back but need to take major steps forward.

How it can be fixed (potential help from 2015 recruiting class): The Huskers have only one linebacker currently committed in three-star prospect Tyrin Ferguson. They are still hot on the trail of other linebacker prospects and will continue to hunt for more until signing day. Nebraska is also in the mix for former South Carolina linebacker Kaiwan Lewis, who could provide some immediate assistance as a graduate transfer.

Early 2015 outlook: The Huskers were barely holding it together at linebacker by the time the Holiday Bowl rolled around because of injuries and other issues. Riley understands that the position needs to be restocked and rebuilt. Rose-Ivey is a crucial part of that process if he bounces back fully healthy. Reinforcements are still needed in recruiting, and landing Lewis would be big. Nebraska is unlikely to have one of the top linebacker units in the Big Ten in 2015, but it can hope for a little bit better performance.
Nebraska and Michigan are next scheduled to play in 2018. If the past few days in recruiting serve as an indication, the game can't get here soon enough.

After a weekend in Ann Arbor in which Jim Harbaugh's staff flipped the commitment of Florida defensive end Reuben Jones from Nebraska to Michigan, Daishon Neal on Tuesday poured fuel on the warm embers of a budding Big Ten rivalry.

Neal, a defensive end out of Omaha (Neb.) Central, accepted a visit Monday from Michigan defensive line coach Greg Mattison. Committed to Nebraska since April, Neal wavered in his pledged after Bo Pelini was fired in November. As Neal worked to establish a relationship with Mike Riley's new staff in Lincoln, he flirted with Oklahoma and Oregon in recruiting, ultimately eliminating both.

This week, on the heels of his official visit to Nebraska, Neal received an offer from Michigan.

Then on Tuesday, he reaffirmed his commitment to the Huskers in a radio interview with Sharp & Benning in the Morning on Omaha's KOZN 1620-AM.

In the process, Neal and his father, Abraham Hoskins Jr., ripped the Wolverines.

"They made one bad statement," Hoskins said of the Monday visit with Mattison, "and it ruined them. They said without football, Daishon wouldn't be able to go to Michigan -- like we couldn't afford to send him there or we couldn't get him [academically eligible].

"Once he said that, we pretty much escorted him out of the house."

Neal said Mattison "basically tried to call me stupid in front of my face."

Listen to the full audio here.

A few things strike me:
  • Mattison and the Michigan coaches cannot respond until next week, when Neal signs with Nebraska. And by then, the Wolverines will have more important topics to address -- like their own class.
  • Interpret Mattison's purported comments as you wish. He wasn't necessarily insulting Neal. It's a fact Michigan is selective in the admission process and it helps a student's cause to receive a football scholarship. I doubt his statement was related to finances.
  • This feels a bit like Mattison walked into a trap in Omaha. Did Michigan really stand a chance here? Neal had an excellent visit to Nebraska over the weekend, by his own account, and the Huskers benefit from a victory -- perceived or real -- over Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines in recruiting.

Most notably, less than a month into the Harbaugh era, things are going just as well as hoped.

We all know Harbaugh is going to make a run at Urban Meyer and Ohio State in the way he targeted USC's Pete Carroll while at Stanford.

Of course, Harbaugh will get under the skin of Michigan State fans.

A little bad blood with Nebraska is an excellent side story. It makes sense, too.

Nebraska running backs coach Reggie Davis coached for Harbaugh with the 49ers for the past four years. Harbaugh's son, Michigan tight ends coach Jay, worked as an undergraduate assistant for Nebraska's Riley at Oregon State.

Harbaugh, in fact, played late in his NFL career for Riley with the Chargers.

The Huskers and Wolverines figure to coach with similar philosophies and covet many of the same recruits.

In fact, they're battling for another. Tight end Matt Snyder of San Ramon, California, a Nebraska pledge, visited Michigan last weekend.

Home visits from both schools to Snyder are scheduled for this week. Expect a little more sparring.

Now, if only the Big Ten could do something about that four-year wait until they play again.
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It’s not often a recruit commits to the same school twice, but that’s what happened with ESPN 300 receiver John Burt on Monday.


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They didn't sneak up on us.

Anyone who tracked the Big Ten's summer buzz -- or reviewed the list of players attending preseason media days in Chicago -- noticed the league's surplus of standout running backs.

Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon had spurned the NFL, and a potential first-round draft selection, for a run at the Heisman Trophy and a national championship. Gordon's good friend Ameer Abdullah also was back for one final season at Nebraska, where he had been among the nation's most productive players. Indiana football might not have held your attention, but Tevin Coleman's 7.3 yards-per-carry average certainly did.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsIn many years, Doak Walker Award winner Melvin Gordon would have taken home the Heisman Trophy.
Michigan State's Jeremy Langford and Minnesota's David Cobb had been workhorses in 2013 -- combining for 529 carries -- and were back for more. Almost every team had a player capable of logging 1,000 rush yards.

"In this league," Cobb told ESPN.com's Austin Ward in August, "there's a good running back on every team."

Turned out, Cobb was underselling himself and his fellow backs. Most Big Ten teams had great, if not elite, running backs.

The numbers back it up: 2014 was easily the best season for running backs in Big Ten history.

The league produced six 1,500-yard rushers -- no other conference had more than three (no other Power 5 league had more than two). According to research from the Big Ten office, until 2014 the league never had more than three 1,500-yard rushers in the same season. Although a 12-game regular season, a championship game and the College Football Playoff provide more opportunities, Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott was the only back who needed the extra contests to reach -- and ultimately far eclipse -- 1,500 yards.

According to ESPN Stats and Info, no FBS conference has had even five 1,500-yard rushers since at least 1996.

The Big Ten produced the nation's top three rushers in Gordon, Coleman and Elliott. It had all three finalists for the Doak Walker Award in Gordon (who won), Coleman and Abdullah. Gordon was a Heisman finalist and likely would have won the award in any other year, as Marcus Mariota's numbers were overwhelming. Coleman and Gordon were consensus All-Americans, and Elliott earned offensive MVP honors in both the Playoff semifinal at the Sugar Bowl, and in the national championship game.

So much star power eclipsed the consistency of players such as Cobb and Langford, the emergence of Northwestern freshman Justin Jackson, the speed threat of Purdue's Akeem Hunt, or the versatility of Illinois' Josh Ferguson.

Go ahead. Try to find a more productive season at running back -- for any league -- in college football history.

But what stands out about the Year of the Big Ten Running Back was that it occurred in stanzas. Just when one star back broke from the pack, another would seize the spotlight.

Let's take a quick look back:

Act 1: Fear Ameer

Abdullah and Georgia's Todd Gurley were the nation's best backs in the first month of the season. The Nebraska senior opened with a 232-yard performance against Florida Atlantic, and finished September with consecutive 200-yard efforts against Miami and Illinois. Abdullah finished with just 54 rush yards against FCS McNeese State but delivered one of the season's most memorable plays -- a 58-yard run after catch through McNeese State defenders with 20 seconds left that secured a Cornhuskers win.

Although Coleman also had a strong start and other Big Ten backs had their moments, Abdullah put himself in the Heisman talk with 833 rush yards and eight touchdowns by the end of September.

Act 2: Melvin makes his move

It was a bizarre start for Gordon: a huge first half (plus one play) against LSU, followed by a mysterious absence, followed by a 17-carry, 38-yard clunker against Western Illinois. Goodbye, Heisman? Hardly.

Beginning with a 253-yard performance against Bowling Green, Gordon posted 10 consecutive games of 100 or more rush yards, five 200-yard performances and seven games with multiple rushing touchdowns. By the end of October, he had returned to the national awards races.

[+] EnlargeTevin Coleman
AP Photo/Darron CummingsTevin Coleman's monster performances were hard to miss, even if Indiana was otherwise struggling.
Act 3: Coleman gets his due

It's always hard to get noticed on a struggling team, but when a player consistently puts up numbers like Coleman, he commands attention. Coleman averaged at least 6.9 yards per carry in six of his first seven games, including 14.5 yards per rush in a 219-yard effort at Iowa. Although his 307-yard explosion at Rutgers was overshadowed by Gordon's record-setting day against Nebraska, he earned national respect by running for 228 yards and three touchdowns at Ohio State in a game that Indiana led in the third quarter.

Coleman averaged 197.3 rush yards in road games, barely trailing Gordon (198 ypg) for the national lead.

Act 4: What about the other guys?

Cobb and Langford lacked the flash of Gordon, Coleman or Abdullah, but their consistency, durability and production eventually became impossible to ignore. Cobb logged five performances of 145 rush yards or more and recorded 30 or more carries in four consecutive games. Langford started slowly but ended the season with 10 consecutive 100-yard rushing performances, a team record. He ended his career with 15 consecutive 100-yard performances in Big Ten games, the longest such streak for any FBS player in regular-season conference games since at least 1996.

Elliott also surfaced with 154 yards at Michigan State, the first of many big-stage performances he would deliver down the stretch.

Act 5: Gordon's Heisman move

Some felt Mariota had the Heisman locked up by early November. Gordon made them reconsider. After a ho-hum 205-yard effort at Purdue, Gordon gashed Nebraska for an NCAA-record 408 rush yards as snow fell at Camp Randall Stadium. His milestone, compiled in just three quarters, lasted just one week as Oklahoma's Samaje Perine broke the record, but Gordon made the Heisman a two-man race again. He followed up with 200 yards at Iowa and a workmanlike 151 against Minnesota as Wisconsin won the Big Ten West Division.

Gordon fell shy of the Heisman but won the Doak Walker Award and secured a place as one of the great -- and perhaps the greatest -- Wisconsin back.

Act 6: Riding the E Train to a championship

The Year of the Big Ten Back was supposed to end with Gordon, but Elliott provided a surprise addendum. It started with 220 rush yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries in Ohio State's 59-0 stomping of Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. Elliott then followed with 230 yards and two scores on 20 carries in the Playoff semifinal against Alabama at the Sugar Bowl, including a Crimson Tide-taming 85-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter.

He ended with an even better performance -- 246 rush yards and four touchdowns -- as "ZEEEEEKE!" cheers reverberated throughout AT&T Stadium in Ohio State's national title win against Oregon.

The final carry for a Big Ten back this season: Elliott's 1-yard touchdown run with 28 seconds to play, providing a fitting exclamation point.
To quote the band Europe, we're in the final countdown. Our list of the best Big Ten players from the 2014 season has reached the top 10. This next group reflects the league's strongest position (by far): running back.

Let's get to it.

No. 6: Ameer Abdullah, RB Nebraska

Abdullah won't soon be forgotten by Nebraska fans who have seen plenty of elite running backs over the decades. The heart and soul of Huskers football the past few years eclipsed 1,600 rushing yards for the second consecutive season, ranked fourth nationally in all-purpose yards (174.8 ypg) and had 22 total touchdowns, numbers that would have been even greater if not for a late-season knee sprain. Abdullah earned second-team AP All-America honors and was a finalist for the Doak Walker Award and a semifinalist for the Maxwell Award.

No. 7: Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State

For most of the season, it was the Melvin Gordon, Tevin Coleman and Ameer Abdullah show, with some cameos from David Cobb. No one mentioned Elliott, mostly because Buckeyes freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett kept stealing the show with his performances. But Elliott took center stage in Ohio State's championship run, earning offensive MVP honors in both the College Football Playoff semifinal and championship game. Cheers of "Zeeke!" echoed in Indianapolis, New Orleans and Arlington, Texas, as Elliott racked up 696 rush yards and eight touchdowns in the Big Ten championship and playoff games. He finished third nationally in rushing yards with 1,878.

No. 8: Anthony Zettel, DT, Penn State

The only non-running back in this portion of the player rankings earned his spot largely by making life miserable for opposing running backs. Zettel moved from end to tackle in the spring and emerged as an interior force, finishing second in the Big Ten in tackles for loss (17) and tied for fourth in sacks (8). He also tied for the team lead in interceptions (3). An exceptional athlete who supplements his football work with mixed martial arts training, Zettel is continuing Penn State's tradition of elite defensive tackles.

No. 9: David Cobb, RB, Minnesota

The 220-pound Texan put Minnesota's offense on his back for much of the season. Cobb set single-season team records for both carries (314) and rush yards (1,626), and logged seven 100-yard rushing performances. The second-team All-Big Ten selection had big performances against both Ohio State (145 yards) and Michigan (183 yards) and reached the end zone in each of his final six Big Ten games. Minnesota's offense lacked balance at times, but Cobb kept the chains moving.

No. 10: Jeremy Langford, RB, Michigan State

Langford might be the nation's most under-appreciated running back in the past two seasons. Constantly overshadowed by flashier players in the Big Ten and elsewhere, he has been remarkably consistent and productive, recording 10 100-yard rushing performances to give him a team-record 18 for his career. He also tied Michigan State's single-season rushing touchdowns record with 22. Like in 2013, Langford did much of his damage in Big Ten play, averaging 127.5 rush yards per game. In almost any other league, he's a first-team all-conference selection.

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