NCF Nation: Nebraska Cornhuskers

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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.

Bo Pelini blows up Twitter with cat entrance

April, 12, 2014
Apr 12
4:15
PM ET
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Parody accounts on Twitter are hit or miss. Some are funny. Some are not.

The account Fake Bo Pelini (@FauxPelini) is funny -- and a huge hit, based on its 85,000 followers.

You know who agrees? Apparently none other than Bo Pelini. As he and his Nebraska team entered the Memorial Stadium tunnel for Saturday afternoon's spring game, the head coach was carrying a cat.
Why is this funny? Check out the profile pic for @FauxPelini, who minutes later was willing to concede that the real Pelini had won the Internet on Saturday.

Oh, and it gets better. Check out the video of the whole scene, as the real Pelini lifts up the cat in front of thousands of roaring Huskers fans, as if she was Simba being lifted up to the masses in "The Lion King."

Cue up the "Circle of Life," folks. We've officially come full circle in the Twitter parody of Nebraska coach Bo Pelini.
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.”
LINCOLN, Neb. -- How’s this for a surprise on the opening day of spring football practice? Nebraska has a new quarterback.

Well, Jamal Turner is not new; the 6-foot-1, 185-pound senior caught 60 passes over the past three seasons. And he has played quarterback -- in high school.

[+] EnlargeJamal Turner
Hannah Foslien/Getty ImagesJamal Turner will workout at both receiver and quarterback this spring.
Turner shared time at QB on Saturday with several others behind Tommy Armstrong Jr. as the Huskers completed the first of 15 spring practices at their indoor practice facility.

Coach Bo Pelini said Nebraska plans “significant reps” for Turner in March and April.

Turner has tried the position in the past at Nebraska, Pelini said, but never in such an expanded role.

“This spring is a time for us to experiment and maybe take it to a different level," Pelini said. "He likes it. He thinks he’s [NFL quarterback] Russell Wilson. Jamal isn’t lacking for confidence.

“I thought he handled some things pretty well. He was further ahead than I thought he’d be. But when you play wideout, you kind of get how the offense runs.”

Turner also spent time at receiver on Saturday. He accounted for more than 10,000 yards in his high school career at Arlington (Texas) Sam Houston.

Armstrong performed well on Saturday with the top offensive unit. Redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton also worked at the position in addition to walk-ons Ryker Fyfe and Tyson Broekemeier. Freshman Zack Darlington, who joined the team in January, wore a green jersey to restrict contact in his first workout.

Senior I-back Ameer Abdullah said he liked the element that Turner adds.

“We’re just trying every new wrinkle we can to make this offense more dynamic,” Abdullah said.

Pelini said he was pleased with the opening day.

“I liked the tempo, the enthusiasm,” the seventh-year coach said. “Obviously, different guys are at different levels right now, as far as their knowledge, but I thought it was a good start.”

The Huskers have installed changes this spring to terminology and other logistics in an attempt to simplify aspects of the offense.

Pelini said he expected more mistakes than occurred.

“I was surprised how smooth it went,” he said. “There were very few missed assignments and alignment errors.”

Other Notes

Secondary matters: Senior safety Corey Cooper, Nebraska’s top tackler in 2013, sat out on Saturday with turf toe, Pelini said. Cooper suffered the injury last week in a conditioning drill.

“I’m not going to push Coop at this time of year,” Pelini said. “We want to make sure he’s 100 percent.”

Sophomores LeRoy Alexander and Nathan Gerry, a converted linebacker, played safety with the top defense in Cooper’s absence.

Pelini said the Huskers used juniors Charles Jackson and Byerson Cockrell, a newcomer out of junior college, at nickel, the spot manned last season by versatile defender Ciante Evans. Junior Jonathan Rose performed well at cornerback opposite returning starter Josh Mitchell.

Getting bigger: All-Big Ten defensive end Randy Gregory has made important strides in recent weeks, Pelini said, as the junior attempts to add weight.

The 6-6 Gregory, who recorded 10 ˝ sacks last season, looked especially thin in January. But Gregory is back up to about 235 pounds, the coach said.

“His offseason has only begun,” Pelini said. “He’s got a long way to go before we play a game.

“Every day is important for Randy to get bigger.”

Time to reflect: Senior receiver Kenny Bell caught 52 passes for 577 yards last season and remains on track to shatter school records in both categories.

He’s not resting on his accomplishments, though.

“I was disappointed in my year last year, for selfish reasons," Bell said. "I wanted to perform better.”

Bell’s production dropped from his sophomore season, when he caught 50 passes for 863 yards and a career-best eight touchdowns.

“I had a lot of time to self-reflect and think about it over these past three months,” he said.

Spring football is often unenjoyable, Bell said, but he’s determined to improve.

“I’m here to work, definitely. I want to win football games with my team. I want to do something that hasn’t been done here in a long time, and that’s win a conference championship."
The month of March arrived in Lincoln, Neb., with sub-zero temps, snow showers and no word from Nebraska on a contract extension for Bo Pelini.

The forecast calls for a warm-up. Nebraska weather, though, is always hard to figure; same goes for the football program of late.

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsWill Bo Pelini's contract become an issue at Nebraska?
Since New Year’s Day, the Huskers have been on a nice run. Starting with a win over Georgia, Pelini has scored well with recruits and fans alike. The sixth-year coach has shown a sense of humor and an open-minded attitude toward social media and the press. He plans to let reporters watch practices this spring, quite a departure from the Bo status quo.

But March is the time in any new year to set aside talk and look for progress in the actions of those who matter most.

Pelini, as scheduled in the contract he signed in 2011, received a $100,000 bump in salary on Saturday to $3.075 million, among the top-20 coaches nationally.

He did not -- at least not yet -- get an extension similar to the one-year deals awarded by former athletic director Tom Osborne after the 2011 and 2012 seasons.

An extension may still be in the works. Athletic director Shawn Eichorst was set to complete a review of Pelini’s performance in February.

But for now, the coach is operating on a four-year contract. In and of itself, that’s no big deal. The conditions under which he works are far from averse.

Earlier this offseason, Eichorst awarded raises to just two of Nebraska’s eight assistant coaches. Again, in a vacuum, it’s not much of a headline.

Like Pelini, they’re paid well, each earning at least $200,000 annually, and let’s face it, the Huskers aren’t exactly a well-oiled machine.

Eichorst goes out of his way to say next to nothing in public about Pelini. The second-year AD issued a statement of support after the regular season as speculation ran wild about the coach’s job status. Since then, all has remained quiet from Eichorst’s office.

That’s his way. It works for him.

Put everything together, and perhaps it means little. Still, an undercurrent of sentiment exists that Eichorst does not back Pelini with the full support required for this football program to best work in harmony and achieve the goals that its administration and coaches, no doubt, share.

Pelini, for his part, is saying all the right things. He told the Omaha World-Herald last week that Eichorst has been “very supportive.”

“His style is to give people room,” Pelini told World-Herald columnist Tom Shatel. “He doesn’t want to micromanage.

“Everybody’s got to do it their own way. You can’t judge that. You have to respect it. There’s no one way to do it. There’s no one way to manage. Shawn didn’t come in here trying to be Coach Osborne, just like I didn’t come in here trying to be [Frank] Solich or Pete Carroll.”

Eichorst’s actions speak louder than Pelini’s words.

Sure, Bo can coach and recruit just fine with four years on his contract. But if full support exists from the administration, why not keep him at five?

Really, if he’s not extended, it’s more about power than money. No matter the circumstances, the cost of business is high in the Big Ten, where coaching salaries are outpaced only by the Southeastern Conference.

Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio recently signed an extension that keeps him under contract for six years. Minnesota coach Jerry Kill was extended through the 2018 season. Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz is signed through 2020.

Spring football starts on Saturday at Nebraska. Big news, as always, around here.

Old habits die hard, I know, but let’s try, for once, not to read too much into the little dramas.

Otherwise, football is no different than the weather in Nebraska: Cold one day, hot the next, with no idea from where the next storm is coming.
Let's look at what to expect this spring in the Big Ten's wild, wild West:

ILLINOIS

Spring start: March 5
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Toughening up on 'D': The Fighting Illini had one of the nation's worst defenses, especially against the run. Tim Beckman brought back defensive coordinator Tim Banks and hopes an extra year of maturity can help strengthen the front seven. Juco import Joe Fotu could win a starting job this spring, and Jihad Ward should help when he arrives in the summer.
  • 'Haase cleaning: Nathan Scheelhaase wrapped up his career by leading the Big Ten in passing yards last season. Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt likely takes over the reins, but backups Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey plan on fighting for the job, as well. Bill Cubit's offense should equal big numbers for whoever wins out.
  • Target practice: Whoever wins the quarterback job needs someone to catch the ball, and Illinois' top two receivers from '13 -- Steve Hull and Miles Osei -- both are gone. Junior college arrival Geronimo Allison will be counted on for some immediate help.
IOWA

Spring start: March 27 or 28
Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • A new big three: The Hawkeyes begin the process of trying to replace their three standout senior linebackers from last season: James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey. They were the heart of the defense in 2013, and now guys such as Quinton Alston, Reggie Spearman and Travis Perry need to make major leaps forward in the spring.
  • Develop more playmakers: Iowa was able to win the games it should have won last year, but struggled against those with strong defenses because of its lack of explosiveness. Sophomore Tevaun Smith and junior Damond Powell showed flashes of their potential late in the year at wideout. They need to continue to develop to give quarterback Jake Rudock and the offense ways to stretch the field.
  • Solidify the right tackle spot: The offensive line should once again be the team's strength, but the departure of veteran right tackle Brett Van Sloten means someone has to take on that role. Whether that's senior Andrew Donnal or redshirt freshman Ryan Ward could be determined this spring.
MINNESOTA

Spring start: March 4
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Mitch's pitches: Philip Nelson's transfer means redshirt sophomore Mitch Leidner enters spring practice as the No. 1 quarterback. He's a load to bring down when he runs, but Leidner needs to improve his passing accuracy after completing 55 percent of his passes in the regular season and only half of his 22 attempts in the Texas Bowl game loss to Syracuse. Added experience should help. If not, he's got some talented youngsters such as Chris Streveler and Dimonic Roden-McKinzy aiming to dethrone him.
  • Mitch's catchers: Of course, part of the problem behind the Gophers' Big Ten-worst passing offense was a lack of threats at receiver. Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones showed promise as true freshmen and should only improve with an offseason of work. It's critical that they do, or else Minnesota might have to count on three receiver signees early.
  • Replacing Ra'Shede: The Gophers only lost four senior starters, but defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman might be the most difficult to replace. The first-team All-Big Ten selection created havoc inside defensively, and there aren't many athletes like him floating around. Scott Ekpe could take many of Hageman's reps, but the defensive line overall will have to pick up the slack.
NEBRASKA

Spring start: March 8
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Tommy's turn: Sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr. entered the offseason as the clear No. 1 quarterback for the first time after taking over for the injured Taylor Martinez (and splitting some snaps with Ron Kellogg III) last season. Armstrong showed maturity beyond his years in 2013 but needs to continue developing as a passer and deepen his understanding of the offense. Redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton could push him in the spring.
  • Get the OL up to speed: Nebraska loses a lot of experience on the offensive line, including both starting tackles (Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale), plus interior mainstays Spencer Long, Andrew Rodriguez and Cole Pensick. The Huskers do return seniors Mark Pelini, Jake Cotton and Mike Moudy, junior Zach Sterup, plus three freshmen and a junior-college transfer who redshirted last year. A strong group of incoming freshmen may also contribute. Big Red usually figures it out on the O-line, but there will be a lot of players in new roles this season.
  • Reload in the secondary: The Blackshirts have plenty of experience in the front seven, but the defensive backfield has a new coach (Charlton Warren) and will be without top playmakers Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans. The safety spot next to Corey Cooper was a problem area last season, and the Huskers are hoping Charles Jackson takes a major step forward. Warren has talent to work with but must find the right combination.
NORTHWESTERN

Spring start: Feb. 26
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Trevor's time?: Trevor Siemian split reps with Kain Colter at quarterback the past two seasons, serving as sort of the designated passer. Siemian threw for 414 yards in the season finale against Illinois and has a clear path toward starting with Colter gone. That could mean more of a pass-first offense than Northwestern ran with Colter. Redshirt freshman and heralded recruit Matt Alviti also looms as an option.
  • Manning the middle: Northwestern brings back a solid corps on defense but lost middle linebacker Damien Proby, who led the team in tackles the past two seasons. Pat Fitzgerald has some options, including making backups Drew Smith or Jaylen Prater a starter or moving Collin Ellis inside. He can experiment and find the best match this spring.
  • Patch it together: The Wildcats' health woes from 2013 aren't over, as 11 players will be held out of practice for medical reasons, including star running back/returner Venric Mark. Add in that the school doesn't have early enrollees, and the team will be trying to practice severely undermanned this spring. The biggest key is to get through spring without any more major problems and to get the injured guys healthy for the fall.
PURDUE

Spring start: March 6
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Moving forward: Purdue players wore T-shirts emblazoned with the word "Forward" during winter workouts, and no wonder. They don't want to look backward to last year's abysmal 1-11 season. It's time to turn the page and get some positive momentum going in Year 2 under Darrell Hazell. Luckily, optimism abounds in spring.
  • Trench focus: The Boilermakers simply couldn't cut it on the lines in Big Ten play, and Hazell went about trying to sign bigger offensive linemen this offseason for his physical style of play. Both starting tackles and three starting defensive linemen all graduated, and no one should feel safe about his job after last season's performance. Kentucky transfer Langston Newton (defense) and early enrollee Kirk Barron (offense) could push for playing time on the lines.
  • Find an identity: What was Purdue good at last season? Not much, as the team ranked near the bottom of the country in just about every major statistical category. The Boilers found some good things late in the passing game with freshmen Danny Etling and DeAngelo Yancey, but Hazell must do a better job instilling the toughness he wants and locating playmakers.
WISCONSIN

Spring start: March 7
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Catching on: The biggest concern heading into the spring is at receiver after the team's only dependable wideout the past two seasons, Jared Abbrederis, graduated. Tight end Jacob Pedersen, who was second on the team in receiving yards last season, is also gone. The Badgers have struggled to develop new weapons in the passing game but now have no choice. Gary Andersen signed five receivers in the 2014 class but none enrolled early, so guys such as Kenzel Doe and Robert Wheelwright need to take charge this spring.
  • Stave-ing off the competition?: Joel Stave started all 13 games at quarterback last year, while no one else on the roster has any real experience under center. Yet the redshirt junior should face some competition this spring after the Badgers' passing game struggled down the stretch. Andersen likes more mobile quarterbacks and has three guys in Bart Houston, Tanner McEvoy and freshman early enrollee D.J. Gillins, who can offer that skill. Stave must hold them off to keep his job.
  • New leaders on defense: Wisconsin lost a large group of seniors, including nine major contributors on the defensive side. That includes inside linebacker and team leader Chris Borland, plus defensive linemen Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer, outside linebacker Brendan Kelly and safety Dezmen Southward. That's a whole lot of leadership and production to replace, and the process begins in earnest this spring.
Spring football kicks off earlier than normal in the Big Ten, as Michigan takes the field Tuesday, Northwestern follows Wednesday and eight other squads begin their sessions by March 8.

The accelerated schedules seem appropriate in a league filled with players, coaches and teams itching for fresh starts.

New assistants get their first chance to repair struggling units, whether it's Doug Nussmeier with Michigan's offense, Brian Knorr with Indiana's defense or Chris Ash and Larry Johnson with a once-feared Ohio State defense. Quarterback competitions begin or resume at nine places, as new faces such as Illinois' Wes Lunt, Nebraska's Johnny Stanton and Minnesota's Chris Streveler enter the mix, while veterans like Wisconsin's Joel Stave and Michigan's Devin Gardner try to retain their starting jobs.

Happy Valley continues to buzz about new Penn State coach James Franklin, who seems to galvanize everyone whom he encounters. But Franklin barely has been around his new players and finally begins the real work with a team facing very real challenges.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Jeff HaynesNorthwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald hopes his team can start a rebound from a disappointing, injury-riddled 2013 season.
Spring also allows teams such as Northwestern, Michigan, Purdue and Indiana to look forward after disappointing seasons. Michigan State, meanwhile, continues to bask in the Rose Bowl glow but looks toward its next goal -- a national championship -- as spring ball kicks off March 25.

"It's big-picture stuff, building relationships with the players and everyone associated with the program," Franklin told ESPN.com. "The other thing is laying a really good foundation with the philosophies and schemes of how we're going to do things. That's going to happen naturally over time, but I'm not the most patient person. I wish it would have happened yesterday."

Franklin doesn't water down his goals for Penn State, especially in recruiting, but he's also realistic about the challenges of a reduced roster. The Nittany Lions return strong pieces such as quarterback Christian Hackenberg and defensive back Adrian Amos, but the two-deep has some holes that Franklin and his assistants must address, while installing new schemes.

"It's one thing when you get put in this situation in the first place with limited scholarships," Franklin said, "but the longer you're in it, the more effect it has. We've got some depth issues, there's no doubt about it, across the board. We're going to have to get creative."

Northwestern also is focused on depth after being hit hard by key injuries in 2013. Pat Fitzgerald blames himself and his staff for failing to get enough second-stringers ready, which proved costly in close Big Ten losses.

After their first bowl-less winter in six years, the Wildcats responded well in the weight room, as more than 50 players recorded personal bests. Although 11 players will miss spring practice, including standout running back/returner Venric Mark, the depth should be better in areas like the secondary.

"We're really emphasizing taking ownership of the finish," Fitzgerald said. "Finishing your technique, finishing the call, finishing the route. There's a lot of disappointment in the way the program didn't take the next step forward."

Michigan coach Brady Hoke restructured the roles of his defensive assistants for 2014, but the Wolverines' offense will be in the spotlight this spring after a wildly inconsistent season. Gardner, who continues to recover from a foot injury and likely won't be 100 percent until midway through the spring, will compete with Shane Morris, Russell Bellomy and midyear enrollee Wilton Speight.

But other positions, such as offensive line, figure to be just as important as Michigan tries to achieve Hoke and Nussmeier's vision.

"We had good intentions as far as what we wanted our identity to be, but obviously I don't think it came out the way we'd like it to," Hoke said. "The quarterback position is as important as any, and we have a guy [Gardner] who is very talented and had some really good games and games where we had to protect him better, have a better run game and take pressure off of him, and I don't think we did."

While Michigan turns the page on offense, Ohio State focuses on a defense that allowed 115 points in its last three games and finished 110th nationally in pass yards allowed (268 YPG). The Buckeyes lost top defenders Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby, but they also added two accomplished assistants.

Johnson, who churned out NFL linemen during 18 years at Penn State, chose Ohio State instead of remaining in State College. Ash leaves a sole coordinator role at Arkansas for a co-coordinator role at Ohio State, where he'll work with the embattled Luke Fickell and others to mend the defense through a simplified scheme.

"Back in the day when Ohio State played great defense, you knew what you were going to get," Ash said. "They played with swagger, played with confidence, played with toughness. We have to get back to that. The simplicity of the things we're going to do will lead to faster players, more plays made and a more aggressive defense.

"I wasn't here [in 2013], but I can tell you what Coach Meyer has told me, what Luke Fickell has told me and what I watch on film. I can see there's some hesitation, there's some uncertainty. Why that is, I don't know. But it's my job to get it fixed."

Purdue has plenty to fix after a 1-11 season, and players not surprisingly are wearing T-shirts with the word "FORWARD" on the backs. Maryland and Rutgers move forward to a new conference after an offseason that saw several staff changes, including new coordinators at Rutgers (Ralph Friedgen, Joe Rossi).

There's a fresh start of sorts at Wisconsin, as a large and decorated senior class departs. Coach Gary Andersen's markings will be more obvious with his second team, which begins practice March 7.

Wisconsin is just one of many places where the top quarterback job is at stake. Lunt, who sat out last season after transferring from Oklahoma State, competes with Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey at Illinois.

"Competition's competition, no matter where it's at," said Lunt, who has added about 15 pounds since his arrival and checks in at 225. "It's different because it’s different people, different coaches, but I'm excited for it."

He's not alone in the Big Ten. Spring ball can't start soon enough.
Four years ago, the Big Ten clarified its November night games policy, saying that while a contractual provision exists between the league and its TV partners about prime-time games after Nov. 1, the games can take place if all parties are on board and planning begins early.

The message back then: We can do this, but we probably won't any time soon.

Last year, Big Ten coaches and administrators expressed greater support for night games, including those in November. League commissioner Jim Delany told ESPN.com he wouldn't stand in the way of such games.

[+] EnlargeGene Smith
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsIf the matchups are right, Ohio State AD Gene Smith is open to November night games in the Big Ten.
But when the Big Ten prime-time schedule came out for the 2013 season, it included no night games after Nov. 1.

Will 2014 be the year we see Big Ten football kick off under the lights after Nov. 1?

We won't know for sure until ESPN/ABC and BTN announce their prime-time schedules this spring, but there's momentum for more night games and later night games, and talks are underway.

"We're more amendable to that first November Saturday," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith recently told ESPN.com, "and I think some of us will be willing to look at that second Saturday in November if the contest is right."

Weather is still a potential deterrent for Big Ten schools to schedule night games later in the season, as it creates possible logistical problems for all involved (fans, game operations staff, police/security). But the temperature difference between late October and the first portion of November often is negligible.

The 2014 season includes Saturdays on Nov. 1 and Nov. 8.

Here are the schedules:

Nov. 1

Indiana at Michigan
Maryland at Penn State
Illinois at Ohio State
Wisconsin at Rutgers
Northwestern at Iowa
Purdue at Nebraska

Byes: Minnesota, Michigan State

Nov. 8

Penn State at Indiana
Michigan at Northwestern
Ohio State at Michigan State
Iowa at Minnesota
Wisconsin at Purdue

Byes: Maryland, Rutgers, Illinois, Nebraska

The bad news: The Nov. 1 schedule doesn't feature too many big-time games, which could decrease the likelihood of a prime-time contest, especially on ESPN/ABC.

[+] EnlargeMichigan Stadium
AP Photo/The Ann Arbor NewsMichigan likes for its night games to be major events, which could rule the Wolverines out for an early-November game under the lights in 2014.
The good news: Several of the schools hosting games that day are among the most open in the league to hosting night games. Penn State and Nebraska welcome such contests -- in part because of their pre-Big Ten history -- and Ohio State, which is installing permanent lights at Ohio Stadium for the 2014 season, has become increasingly interested. Rutgers comes from a league where you played whenever TV asked you to, and a night game against a good opponent like Wisconsin would bring some nice exposure for one of the new Big Ten additions.

Michigan wants its night games to be major events, and facing Indiana doesn't exactly qualify. Iowa hosting Northwestern is a possibility, especially since the Hawkeyes play only one other home game (Oct. 11 against Indiana) between Sept. 15 and Nov. 1.

The Nov. 8 schedule includes arguably the Big Ten's marquee game of the year in Ohio State visiting Michigan State, a rematch of the 2013 league championship. I'd absolutely love to see this at night, and what a way to kick off November prime time in the league. It's definitely a possibility, but the game also could fill the 3:30 p.m. ET window, which many Big Ten athletic directors prefer (Purdue's Morgan Burke recently called it "the sweet spot").

The Penn State-Indiana game is another potential prime-time kickoff, mainly because Indiana has been so open to night games (six in the past two seasons, nine since the 2010 season).

"We've probably had more night games than most of our colleagues in the conference," Indiana athletic director Fred Glass said. "We think it's a good thing for us, it helps our attendance. We're certainly open to that, and my guess is that will be more of a trend."

Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas echoes the support for night games, noting that several Big Ten ADs and coaches previously spent time in the Mid-American Conference, where playing at night and on weekdays, especially late in the season, is common.

"We experienced all of that in our past lives," said Thomas, who served as Akron's athletic director from 2000-05. "We talk about the opportunities for the prime-time windows and where we are as individual schools and as a conference in having that kind of exposure.

"I would certainly support it."

Many of Thomas' colleagues seem to be on board. Smith said the athletic directors last week spoke about moving up the timetable for prime-time selections so they can begin promoting games. Prime-time schedules typically have been announced between April 20 and May 15.

"We're putting in lights because we've realized that we can handle night games," Smith said. "In 2006, we were a little bit skittish about it. We know our fans love it, so we've shared with the conference that we're amenable to having more. There's a novelty to it. That helps us with our atmosphere.

"It makes things really exciting."

Top five Big Ten student sections

February, 17, 2014
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We're taking a look at attendance issues, and one concern many schools have is how to make sure students show up on a consistent basis.

That got us thinking about which Big Ten schools have the best student sections for football. Here's our top five:

[+] EnlargePenn State Nittany Lions fans
Rich Barnes/USA TODAY SportsFrom waiting in "Paternoville" to white outs to singing to, well, just shaking their pom-poms, it's always wild at Penn State.
Penn State: There's simply no better student section in the country than the one at Beaver Stadium. Penn State students love their Nittany Lions, and they arrive on game days ready to cheer loud, sing songs and wear the right colors. The S-Zone forms a giant blue S on a white background that looks incredible on TV and in person. Students camp out for tickets in the old "Paternoville" (now "Nittanyville"), and the school sold more than 21,000 student season tickets last season.

Ohio State: The Buckeyes have such a wide swath of supporters in Ohio that they can sometimes feel like a pro team, but the large and dedicated student section at the Horseshoe keeps that from being the case. Occupying much of the south end zone, the Block-O often leads the stadium in cheers. Urban Meyer started a new tradition where he and strength coach Mickey Marotti lead the students through a series of "quick cals" before the game. And win or lose, the team sings "Carmen Ohio" in front of the band and student section after games.

Wisconsin: Let's start with the elephant in the room: Badgers students have become notorious for showing up late on game days, especially early afternoon kickoffs. So we have to dock them a few points for that. But once they finally do get there in full, there are few better parties to attend. From nontraditional waves to singing "Build Me Up Buttercup" to "Jump Around," the Wisconsin students know how to have a good time at home games, even if their cheers can sometimes turn a little too profane for those with more delicate sensibilities.

Nebraska: The Huskers love to brag about their NCAA-record sellout streak of 333 games, and rightly so. The dirty little secret, though, is that there are often empty seats at the top of the student section, something that embarrasses proud Cornhuskers fans. Still, the Boneyard -- inspired by the Blackshirts nickname -- is pretty cool, and you might think you've wandered into an Oakland Raiders game based on some of the students' more creative attire. And Nebraska fans in general remain some of the classiest in sports, as evidenced again during last season's UCLA game, when students helped lead a tribute to a Bruins player who had recently passed away.

Iowa: The Hawkeyes took away a section of student seats last year because of decreased demand. So there's that. But the Hawks Nest is usually a well-organized, loyal group that adds to the underrated game-day experience at Kinnick Stadium.
The Big Ten's combination of big stadiums, big fan bases and big tradition has historically made football attendance a rather small issue.

America's two largest football venues -- Michigan Stadium and Beaver Stadium -- sit on Big Ten campuses, and three of the seven football stadiums with six-figure capacities are in the league (Ohio Stadium is the other). Michigan has led the nation in college football attendance for the past 15 years, and the Big Ten occupied three of the top five spots and seven of the top 23 spots in attendance average for the 2013 season.

[+] EnlargeOhio Stadium
Kirk Irwin/Getty ImagesOhio State averaged 104,933 fans at its seven home games in 2013, which ranked No. 2 in that nation behind Michigan.
The Big Ten in 2013 set records for total attendance (6,127,526) and attendance for league games (3,414,448), and ranked second behind the SEC in average attendance per game (70,431), a slight increase from 2012.

So what's the B1G deal? Eight of the 12 league programs saw a decline in average attendance last season. Some have seen numbers drop for several years. Student-section attendance is a growing concern, and the Big Ten is tracking the troubling national attendance trends.

"We've been blessed because we haven't been hit with the significant drop-off that many other conferences and schools have experienced," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told ESPN.com. "However, we've seen it in certain games, or in not necessarily ticket sales but people actually coming to games.

"So we're concerned."

The league is taking a proactive approach, starting last season with the formation of a football game-day experience subcommittee, which Smith chairs. The committee in August announced that Big Ten schools would be allowed to show an unlimited number of replays on video boards at any speed. Schools previously could show one replay at no less than 75 percent of real-time speed.

The move drew positive reviews from fans and no major complaints from game officials.

"If people can see the replay at home on TV, you can't give them a lesser experience in the stands," Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke said.

A "more robust" replay approach is on the way for 2014, and Big Ten leaders are looking at other ways to bolster the stadium experience, which, as Burke noted, seems to have reached a tipping point with the couch experience.

Here are some areas of focus:

Cellular and Wi-Fi Connections

In August, the subcommittee encouraged each Big Ten school to explore full Wi-Fi in stadiums as well as Distributed Antenna System (DAS) coverage to enhance cell-phone functionality. A fan base immersed in smartphones, social media and staying connected demands it.

"Everybody realizes improvements have to be made," said Kerry Kenny, the Big Ten's liaison to the game-day experience subcommittee. "People want to be updated on other games. They want to go in there and take photos or Instagram videos or tweet. They want to be able to stay in touch with family and friends that aren’t there but are watching."

Penn State installed Wi-Fi throughout Beaver Stadium in 2012 but is the only Big Ten school to have complete access. Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas said he hopes to have total Wi-Fi in the school's football stadium by the fall, if not the 2015 season. Nebraska's regents last month approved a $12.3 million Wi-Fi project for its stadium, and Wisconsin hopes to have full stadium Wi-Fi this season.

Most schools are focused on boosting cell service, which is more feasible and widespread. Ohio State installed more than 200 antennas in Ohio Stadium to improve cell service. For complete Wi-Fi, it would need about 1,200 antennas.

"We don't know what the cost is, but we know it's somewhere north of seven figures," Smith said. "We're studying it, as are my colleagues in the Big Ten."

Student attendance

Student sections aren't nearly as full as they used to be on Saturdays, both in the Big Ten and in the nation. ADs are well aware of the downturn and have tried different approaches to boost attendance.

Michigan in 2013 implemented a general admission policy, hoping to get more students to show up early, but reviews weren't favorable. Minnesota provided a new student tailgating area and better ticket packages. Illinois held a clinic for international students, who have told Thomas they'd come to games if they knew more about football.

The technology component resonates for students. Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis told CBSsports.com that many students didn't show up for a 2012 game against Iowa because they couldn't send text messages in the rain.

Even if Ohio State doesn't install complete Wi-Fi at The Shoe, it could do so for the student section.

"Our surveys show that less than 25 percent of the crowd actually uses their cellular device [during games]," Smith said, "but of that 25 percent, a supermajority are students. You want to be able to provide that access."

In-Game Entertainment

Everybody realizes improvements have to be made. People want to be updated on other games. They want to go in there and take photos or Instagram videos or tweet. They want to be able to stay in touch with family and friends that aren't there but are watching.

Kerry Kenny, the Big Ten's liaison to the game-day experience subcommittee, on Wi-Fi in stadiums.
The days of public-address announcers listing scores from other games during timeouts are over. Schools want to give fans a broader view on Saturdays, whether it's putting live feeds of other games on video boards or replaying highlights shortly after they happen.

"I was at a game at Purdue this year," Kenny said, "and they showed a highlight of a touchdown in the Wisconsin-Iowa game within a couple minutes of that touchdown being scored."

Added Thomas: "If you're watching ESPN or watching a game at home, those are the kinds of experiences you should give people in your venue."

Big Ten athletic directors and football coaches last week discussed having more locker-room video or behind-the-scenes content that can be shown only within the stadium.

"You're in an era where people want to know what's it like before the game, after the game," Burke said. "It humanizes us if people see that side, the highs and the lows."

Burke likens Purdue's sideline to a "Hollywood production," as the band director, a disc jockey and a show producer coordinate in-game music on headsets. Several schools post tweets from fans at games on video boards to create a more interactive experience.

Ticketing and timing

Last month, Penn State became the latest Big Ten school to adopt variable ticket pricing for single games, acknowledging, "We have been listening to our fans." Attendance has dropped 11.2 percent from 2007 to 2012, while frustration has grown with the Seat Transfer and Equity Plan (STEP) program.

Big Ten schools are getting more creative with ticket plans in response to attendance concerns. Northwestern last season implemented a modified "Dutch auction" system where a portion of tickets were sold based on adjusted price demand rather than set prices.

Purdue last fall introduced mobile ticket delivery, which allows fans to download tickets directly to their devices.

Kickoff times are another attendance indicator, as Big Ten schools located in the central time zone often struggle to fill the stands for 11 a.m. games. The Big Ten gradually has increased its number of prime-time games, and while Burke considers mid-afternoon games ideal, more night kickoffs likely are on the way, including those in early November.

Ohio State is in the process of installing permanent lights at Ohio Stadium.

"I'm a big fan of evening games," Thomas said.

As attendance becomes a bigger issue, the Big Ten and its members have surveyed fans about what they want at games. Wisconsin last fall established a 25-member fan advisory council, with two students. The school has received feedback about concessions, parking and whether fans would prefer digital programs rather than the traditional magazine-style ones.

"So much of it is when somebody comes to your venue," said Justin Doherty, Wisconsin's associate athletic director for external relations, "they have an experience that makes them want to come back."

Nebraska's B1G payday is still coming

February, 10, 2014
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Nebraska has played in the Big Ten for three seasons now, but membership does not have total financial privileges.

We've known for a while that the Huskers aren't receiving a full share of league revenue until 2017. Now, thanks to some fine reporting by the Omaha World-Herald, we have a better idea of just how much Big Ten money Nebraska is receiving.

The paper reports that the school's payouts from the league totaled $14 million in its first year of membership, $15 million in Year 2 and no more than $16.9 million this year. That's about $10 million less than a full share each year.

That revenue is still much higher than the $9 million Nebraska earned in its final year of the Big 12. However, the Big 12 has since renegotiated its TV contract, and Big 12 schools received about $22 million each last year. The Huskers, in fact, made less than most schools in the power five conferences.

Compare that to Maryland, an incoming Big Ten member which will reportedly have its deal front-loaded and receive as much as $32 million from the league next year, and it seems as if Nebraska got a raw deal. But school chancellor Harvey Perlman doesn't see it that way.

“You negotiate from the position you're in,'' Perlman told the paper. “We had a conference that was falling apart.''

Indeed, the Big 12 looked like it might collapse when the Huskers fled to the Big Ten, and Nebraska was tired of that league's Texas focus, anyway. The Big Ten had all the leverage in that situation, offering Nebraska a lifeboat. Maryland, on the other hand, was firmly entrenched in the ACC, which was paying its schools a reported $20 million. The Terrapins also had major financial issues in their athletic department, and they are litigating a $52 million exit penalty from the ACC.

Nebraska made more money early on in the Big Ten deal than it would have in the Big 12, and its agreement ensured that the school would not make less money than it would have made in its former league. The big payday is still coming.

The World-Herald estimates that when Nebraska earns its full league share in 2017, that payout could be between $40 million and $50 million per school. That figure is based on league projections that include what is expected from the Big Ten's forthcoming new TV deal, which should be one of the largest ever signed by a sports league.

“This is a long-term agreement and partnership,'' Perlman said. “Even if you are just looking at the finances, you don't look at what you get the first or second year. I think we are financially advantaged by being where we are.''

Big Ten spring practice dates

February, 10, 2014
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Now that signing day is in the rear-view mirror, the next major thing to look forward to is spring practice.

Luckily, it won't be much longer before teams are back on the field. In fact, Northwestern and Michigan will open their practice sessions in a little more than two weeks. It will be a bit of a longer wait for teams such as Michigan State and Iowa, which won't get started until late March.

But mark your calendars for these spring practice dates, which are subject to change but represent the latest information we have from the schools:

Illinois

Spring practice starts: March 4
Spring game: April 12

Indiana

Spring practice starts: March 8
Spring game: TBA

Iowa

Spring practice starts: March 27 or 28
Spring game: April 26

Maryland

Spring practice starts: March 1
Spring game: April 11

Michigan

Spring practice starts: Feb. 25
Spring game: April 5

Michigan State

Spring practice starts: March 25
Spring game: April 26

Minnesota

Spring practice starts: March 4
Spring game: April 12

Nebraska

Spring practice starts: March 8
Spring game: April 12

Northwestern

Spring practice starts: Feb. 26
Spring game: April 12

Ohio State

Spring practice starts: March 4
Spring game: April 12

Penn State

Spring practice starts: March 17
Spring game: April 12

Purdue

Spring practice starts: March 6
Spring game: April 12

Rutgers

Spring practice starts: March 25
Spring game: April 26

Wisconsin

Spring practice starts: March 7
Spring game: April 12
The last two seasons have shown that two-quarterback systems can work in the Big Ten.

Northwestern recorded 10 wins in 2012 while rotating Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian. Indiana led the Big Ten and ranked ninth nationally in total offense last fall while alternating between Tre Roberson and Nate Sudfeld.

[+] EnlargeJoey Bosa, Connor Cook
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesAfter taking over the quarterback job in Week 5, Connor Cook led the Spartans to 10 consecutive wins.
Given the recent success, my next statement might surprise you: Every Big Ten team would be best served picking one quarterback and sticking with him in 2014. That includes Indiana and Northwestern.

Quarterback rotations can be successful in the short term, but they are rarely sustainable or desirable. We saw this at Northwestern last fall, as the Wildcats never established a consistent offensive rhythm and operated with a reduced playbook, in part because of injuries but also because the unit lacked a clear identity. Northwestern finished 10th in the league in scoring.

Minnesota alternated between quarterbacks Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner during several games, including the Texas Bowl against Syracuse. Although the Gophers had a nice surge during Big Ten play and recorded eight wins, they also finished 11th in the league in scoring and last in passing.

Nebraska had some success using two quarterbacks (Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Ron Kellogg III) last season but did so out of necessity following Taylor Martinez's injury. The Huskers also struggled to pass the ball, finishing 11th in the league.

The strongest argument for picking a quarterback and sticking with him comes from the Big Ten's best team in 2013. Michigan State's offense was a train wreck in non-league play as the Spartans used three quarterbacks. After a Week 4 loss to Notre Dame, the coaches decided Connor Cook would be their guy. You all know what happened next, but what struck me was Cook's mindset at the time.

"We went through spring ball competition and fall camp competition, it was the most stressed out I've ever been in my entire life just trying to be the quarterback," Cook said last month before the Rose Bowl. "After I got the starting job and started a couple of games, the stress went away and it turned to focus, me being focused and knowing they're not going to use other quarterbacks in the game and not stress too much that go if I make a bad play I'm going to be pulled.

"That's when the stress went out the window."

Players like Northwestern's Siemian and Indiana's Roberson and Sudfeld are more accustomed to sharing time than Cook was, but each of them, like any quarterback, would rather be the clear-cut starter.

Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase is another good example of a player who benefited from an unambiguous role. He struggled from the middle of the 2011 season through all of 2012, raising the possibility of a rotation last season. Instead, Scheelhaase started every game and led the Big Ten in passing (3,272 yards).

[+] EnlargeTommy Armstrong Jr.
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsAfter playing well in place of Taylor Martinez, sophomore signal-caller Tommy Armstrong Jr. is the favorite to start for the Cornhuskers in 2014.
I'm all for competition at quarterback, and the Big Ten will feature plenty of it this spring and summer. Only five quarterbacks -- Ohio State's Braxton Miller, Penn State's Christian Hackenberg, Michigan State's Cook, Iowa's Jake Rudock and Michigan's Devin Gardner -- can feel pretty secure about their starting roles. Gardner has been mentioned as a possible rotation candidate with Shane Morris -- some Michigan fans wouldn't mind seeing Gardner line up at wide receiver, a position of need -- but I'd be surprised if Morris leapfrogs the senior.

I'm also OK with teams employing change-up quarterbacks for a package of plays, be it the Wildcat or something else. Michigan State could be a candidate for this in 2014 with dynamic redshirt freshman Damion Terry possibly spelling Cook from time to time.

The first few games also provide a platform to use multiple quarterbacks in settings that can't be replicated on the practice field. Former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel often did this with his younger quarterbacks, giving them a first-half series or two. It makes sense. But by Week 4, roles must be identified.

The offseason is full of Big Ten quarterback questions:

  • Will Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt take the reins at Illinois?
  • How will Gardner and Hackenberg fare with new offensive coordinators?
  • After Nelson's transfer, who emerges at Minnesota among Leidner, Chris Streveler and possibly a young quarterback such as Dimonic McKinzy?
  • Nebraska's Armstrong went 6-1 as a freshman starter, but can he hold off Johnny Stanton?
  • Can Gary Nova retain his job at Rutgers?
  • Will Danny Etling keep the top job at Purdue, or will Austin Appleby and possibly early enrollee David Blough enter the mix?
  • How does Siemian bounce back at Northwestern, and do the Wildcats look at Matt Alviti and Zack Oliver?
  • Will either Roberson or Sudfeld finally separate himself at IU?

Ultimately, these questions must be answered. The teams that avoid prolonged rotations should be better off for it.
When Ameer Abdullah weighed whether to enter the NFL draft or return to Nebraska for his senior season, he didn't do much external research on comparable players.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Reese Strickland/USA TODAY SportsLike his friend Ameer Abdullah, Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon wants to leave his mark on the Badgers.
He looked at his own family and how all eight of his older siblings had earned their college degrees (in some cases, advanced degrees, too). He considered the free education he could complete at Nebraska. He took the realistic and refreshing position that at some point, his body wouldn't allow him to play football, and he needed to fall back on his education.

The other top FBS running backs declaring for the draft early didn't enter Abdullah's mind. There was only one outside resource Abdullah consulted, a friend who played the same position with similar success at another Big Ten school, and who had faced the same decision. Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon already had announced he would return as a fourth-year junior. As Abdullah neared his decision earlier this month, he reached out often to Gordon.

"That's one person I talk to all the time about things like this," Abdullah told ESPN.com. "Melvin, he's one of my best friends. He's a good guy, and he was in a similar situation as me. He's also coming back, and I'm glad he is.

"We get to play them next year, and it's going to be a great matchup."

Abdullah and Gordon, who first met a high school all-star game in South Carolina in 2010 and have been good friends ever since, both are returning to the Big Ten for the 2014 season. A record-setting 98 underclassmen entered the 2014 NFL draft, 25 more than last year, the previous record. The list includes 20 running backs. Although a portion of the early entries either received bad advice or made bad decisions and won't be drafted, running back has long been regarded as the position to make a jump as soon as possible because of the physical toll it takes to play the position and its typically shorter career span.

There's little doubt both Gordon and Abdullah could have turned pro. Gordon led the nation in rushing for a stretch in September and finished with 1,609 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns despite sharing carries with James White. Abdullah led the Big Ten and ranked ninth nationally in rushing yards with 1,690, which included 11 100-yard rushing performances in 13 games.

So why did the two say no to the draft?

"It just shows how much we care about our teams and how much we want to be the guy," Gordon said. "Ameer was the guy, but like I said before, it's about leaving a legacy. I'm sure that's what he wants to do as well. He wants to be considered one of the top backs, along with me, before he leaves, and that's a big thing, leaving something behind."

Gordon sought input from the NFL draft advisory board before announcing his decision to return, and he encouraged Abdullah to do the same. Although Abdullah didn't directly tell Gordon he planned to return before making a formal announcement, Gordon always had the sense Abdullah would be back at Nebraska.

"He's ambitious, just like I am," Abdullah said. "I feel like I have a lot more left in my ceiling that I have to reach. Melvin is the same way. He wants to come back and improve on his game, just like I do."

Pass blocking is undoubtedly the priority for Gordon during the offseason. It was a struggle for him at times last season, and even though he felt he improved, Wisconsin's coaches went with the more reliable White on passing downs.

"If you want to be an all-purpose back, you've got to get adjusted from the start," he said. "It didn't happen that quickly with me and that's why James was there. That's what I have to work on, just getting more comfortable in pass protection."

Gordon also hopes to bulk up a bit to 215 pounds after playing last season at around 205 (he's currently plateauing at 208-209). He wants to be Wisconsin's primary ball-carrier but expects to be pushed by Corey Clement, who had 547 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on just 67 carries as a freshman last fall -- similar numbers to Gordon's freshman campaign (62 rushes, 621 yards).

Abdullah logged 281 carries in 2013 and will again be in a featured role as a senior. Although many already consider Abdullah a team leader, he wants to enhance his vocal presence to "set the standards" for younger Huskers players.

Despite 549 career carries at Nebraska, the 5-9, 190-pound Abdullah isn't concerned about the injury risk of another year in college or the chatter from agents and others that running backs often slide in the draft if they return to school.

"It's all about your running style, really," he said. "A lot of guys run a certain way where they're vulnerable to getting hit directly. Other guys maneuver themselves so they won't take direct shots. You look at a guy like Barry Sanders. He was great at that. He never took that direct shot.

"I've always tried to change my ways or look at different technique schemes to prolong my career."

His Nebraska career will culminate with another run at an elusive league title. To do so, Abdullah and his teammates likely will have to get past Gordon and the Badgers on Nov. 15 in Madison, Wis.

Nebraska's last appearance at Camp Randall Stadium, its first league game in the Big Ten, did not go well.

"That's definitely one I circled," Gordon said. "I'm excited for it. I do compete with Ameer a lot. After every game, I'm checking to see what he got. I'm pretty sure he's doing the same thing. He definitely pushes me, and I'll push him to be great as well."

The Big Ten's top two runners are back for 2014, setting up an exciting race for the rushing title.

"The work starts now," Abdullah said, "so he better be working."

2014 Heisman contenders: Big Ten

January, 17, 2014
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The most famous statue in college football has been awarded to seven guys since somebody from the Big Ten has lifted it and been recognized as the best player in the country.

But plenty of candidates are already emerging to snap that skid and become the league's first winner since Troy Smith, starting with another Ohio State quarterback who has already figured prominently in the voting over the past two seasons. Starting with that candidate, we'll take a closer look at five Big Ten players capable of breaking through in 2014.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesBraxton Miller, who already has a pair of top-10 Heisman finishes, could earn a trip to NYC with another big year leading the Buckeyes' high-scoring offense.
QB Braxton Miller, Ohio State: If not for his September injury last season, Miller may have already made an appearance in New York for the trophy presentation. Perhaps with the numbers he missed out on, he may have even won it. With a pair of top-10 finishes already to his credit, Miller elected to return for his senior season and will make one more run at the top prize. If he can take another step forward as a passer, he could easily become the favorite if he leads the high-scoring Buckeyes on another unbeaten run through the regular season.

RB Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: For pure explosiveness out of the backfield, few players provide more firepower than Gordon. While he may wind up splitting some of the workload for the Badgers, with James White out of the picture Gordon isn't likely to finish second on the team in carries, which can damage an individual's case for hardware. Gordon rushed for 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns while sharing time, and boosting those numbers could make him an appealing option for voters.

QB Connor Cook, Michigan State: The statistical résumé isn't all that impressive, but Cook clearly developed as the season progressed, proving it in two outstanding performances to cap the season in the Big Ten title game and the Rose Bowl. In both of those big wins for the Spartans, Cook had the numbers of a Heisman-caliber passer, throwing for more than 300 yards in each with five total touchdowns. Plus, he is the leader of a likely top-five team in the preseason polls, which will get him on the radar early.

RB Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: The model of consistency, only two teams kept Abdullah from hitting the 100-yard mark as a junior -- and he came up short by just 17 combined yards. The centerpiece of the Nebraska offense decided to come back for one more season, and if he can match the prolific pace from last season when he finished with 1,690 yards, he could emerge as a legitimate threat for the trophy. The Huskers may need to spend longer in championship contention, but featuring Abdullah is probably the best way to do it.

QB Christian Hackenberg, Penn State: The Nittany Lions are still locked out of the postseason, and while that probably shouldn't matter for individual awards, it has seemingly been a voting deterrent in the past. Hackenberg will have that uphill battle to fight as he tries to follow up his fantastic freshman season, but he has already proved he has the talent to insert himself in the national conversation and now has a new coach in James Franklin who surely won't hesitate to campaign for his quarterback. He threw for nearly 3,000 yards in his first season at the college level, and he figures to get better with experience.

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