NCF Nation: A.J. Jenkins

Brock VereenAP Photo/Paul BattagliaThanks to a solid 2012 season, Brock Vereen has excelled as a starting safety for the Gophers.
Anyone could see that Minnesota's secondary took a major step in 2012, helping the defense finish 12th nationally in pass yards allowed and 23rd in pass efficiency.

But could anyone identify the most invaluable piece of the Gophers' back four? Probably not.

The natural inclination is to pick one of the cornerbacks, Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire, both of whom earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors (Carter should have been a second-team selection). Safety Derrick Wells put up impressive numbers (74 tackles, two interceptions, 10 pass breakups, one fumble recovered) in his first season as the starter.

But any of those players would be the wrong answer.

"Yeah, we had Troy Stoudermire, yeah, we had Michael Carter, and Michael Carter had a really good year," Gophers defensive backs coach Jay Sawvel told ESPN.com. "But Brock was the most valuable of all our DBs last year. ... Just from a calming influence, from maturity, from a steadiness of play.

"When he wasn't out there, we weren't the same."

Sawvel can't stop raving about Brock Vereen, the Gophers' senior safety who started seven games last season (including each of the final six) and recorded 64 tackles, two interceptions and nine pass breakups. Although Minnesota must replace both Carter and Stoudermire this season, Vereen is back to anchor the secondary and the defense, which loses two starting linebackers and top pass rusher DL Wilhite.

"I need to step up and accept that leadership role," Vereen said. "That comes with confidence. It's definitely been a focus this spring. I've never been a vocal leader, so that aspect is something new, but I've always felt comfortable having guys look up to me.

"I know that I need to talk more, but at the same time, I also know some of the younger guys can learn just by watching me."

Vereen can educate Minnesota's young safeties and cornerbacks because he has played both positions for the Gophers. He spent his first two seasons at cornerback, starting four games in 2010 and all 12 as a sophomore the following year.

The 6-foot, 202-pound Vereen immediately bought in to Sawvel and the coaching staff that arrived with Jerry Kill after the 2010 season. He told Sawvel he wished he had been redshirted in 2010, as he had received little guidance as a true freshman.

"His first thing was, 'I can't wait to be coached. I can't wait to learn what a new staff is going to do,'" Sawvel said.

Vereen had a strong finish to the 2011 campaign, limiting talented receivers like Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis (two catches, 27 yards) and Illinois' A.J. Jenkins (four catches, 30 yards). In hindsight, Sawvel wished he had flipped Vereen from side to side rather than leaving him in one spot because he evolved into Minnesota's top cover corner.

But after the season, the coaches moved Vereen to safety. They had brought in several cornerbacks through recruiting, and Sawvel saw a higher ceiling for vereen at safety.

"He doesn’t have the hips of an elite corner," Sawvel said. "That doesn't mean he couldn’t play it. He could or play it on a short-term basis, but by the same token, he's extremely smart and he's a physical guy. We thought with his skill set, he has a better chance to become an elite safety."

[+] EnlargeBrock Vereen
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsBrock Vereen is in a football family, parents who travel to his games and a brother who plays for the New England Patriots.
The coaches appear to be on the right track. Vereen sat out last spring with an injury and began the season as a reserve safety, in part because Sawvel knew Vereen was mature enough to handle coming off of the bench.

The turning point came in Week 4 against Syracuse, when Vereen and the defense shut down Ryan Nassib and the Syracuse offense in a 17-10 victory.

"After that game, it was clear," Sawvel said. "It was like, 'Brock's the starter. He needs to be on the field all the time.'"

More like all over the field. Vereen can cover slot receivers, square up running backs in the hole and even play a nickel safety/linebacker hybrid role, like he did against Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, when he led Minnesota with 10 tackles.

"Somebody asked me, 'What is he? Is he a strong safety? Is he a free safety?'" Sawvel said. "He's a field safety. That allows him to cover people a lot. But when we played Michigan State, they're lining up in two-back and he plays a really good game, and there’s several times where we get the ball bounced to him, and it's him and [running back] Le'Veon Bell and he won all of them.

"That's a big luxury to have, that you have a guy who can do that much."

A native of Valencia, Calif., Vereen wanted "something new" for his college experience. His older brother, Shane, had starred for Cal at running back, and Brock drew interest from several Pac-12 schools in recruiting. He ended up picking his farthest suitor, Minnesota.

Although Vereen has family ties in the Midwest -- grandparents in Illinois, cousins in Indiana, an uncle living minutes away from Minnesota's campus -- life in Minneapolis provided a bit of a shock.

"I've never been more homesick than that first winter," Vereen said. "That definitely was something I needed to adjust to. But it's been great."

Vereen's parents, Venita and Henry, spend every fall and winter weekend on the road, attending their sons' games. Typically, one watches Brock with Minnesota and the other watches Shane play for the New England Patriots. If there's enough time between the two games, they'll attend both.

"I don’t know how they do it, home and away," Brock said. "They have their little system worked out, and I just love 'em for it, all of their sacrifices for me."

Brock attends any of Shane's games that he can -- it helps that the Patriots are a perennial playoff team -- and Shane spends his bye weekend at a Gophers game. The two brothers talk daily, often about football, and Brock keeps close tabs on his brother.

"When I was in high school and he was in college, he was at the level I wanted to get to, so I wanted to know everything he did," Brock said. "And it's the same situation now. I've learned not necessarily from him telling, but just from watching him. That goes back to when we were kids. I've always been very observant of him. He's been very successful in everything that he’s done, so I've been trying to do what he did to get to the level he's at."

Sawvel thinks Brock Vereen has NFL potential, although he'll need to "put out more good video" as a senior.

If NFL talent evaluators see what Minnesota's coaches do in Vereen, he could follow his brother's path a year from now.

"He's just very valuable to us," Sawvel said. "He really is."
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer doesn't have to worry about cornerback Bradley Roby this week.

No player on the Buckeyes roster is more geared up for Saturday's game than Roby, a 5-foot-11, 190-pound sophomore from Suwanee, Ga. While most Buckeyes are highlighting games against Michigan State, Wisconsin and, of course, Michigan, Roby has targeted the Cal game for months.

The reason: he'll be tested in a big way by Cal's All-America wide receiver Keenan Allen. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound Bears star is a leading candidate for the Biletnikoff Award, and he comes in at No. 16 on Mel Kiper's Big Board for the 2013 NFL draft (No. 2 receiver overall).

"This is definitely a game that has been marked on my calendar," Roby told ESPN.com. "I've been watching film on him for a while. He's a bigger receiver. He's about 6-3. He has good athleticism. It's something I'm looking forward to. I mean, it’s the best versus the best, so we're going to see who comes out on top."

[+] EnlargeBradley Roby
Kirk Irwin/Getty ImagesBradley Roby will face one of the nation's top receivers in Keenan Allen on Saturday.
Roby isn't short on speed or swagger, two qualities that benefit him as a cornerback. After redshirting in 2010, he claimed a starting job last season and led Ohio State in both interceptions (3) and passes defended (9). As the boundary corner, Roby is almost always matched up against the opponent's top receiver and last year went toe to toe with four NFL draft picks, including first-rounder A.J. Jenkins from Illinois.

Cal's Allen definitely gets his attention. His biggest challenge comes when there isn't one across the line of scrimmage.

"He gets bored," Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer said. "That's one of the things I got after him about in the spring and even in the summer. I've coached Joe Haden and some other great corners, and those guys never got bored. The ultimate competitors are guys that it doesn't matter who you're playing or what the coverage scheme is, you compete at all times. He's still fighting through that."

Roby admits it's not easy. He wants to push himself, and it helps to go against great players. Last fall, he made sure he went against Buckeyes wide receiver DeVier Posey in practice as much as possible. Posey, suspended for most of the season, was "one of the best receivers in the country," according to Roby. The NFL evaluators agreed as Posey, despite playing in just three games, went in the third round of April's draft -- the second Big Ten wideout selected (behind Jenkins) and the 10th overall.

Ohio State is lacking at the receiver position right now, and when asked this spring who he seeks out in practices, Roby acknowledged, "Nobody, really." He enjoys going against Corey Brown, but Brown mostly plays the slot position in Meyer's offense, so they aren't matched up.

"It's something I had trouble with for a while," he said. "It just comes down to, if I want to be the player I want to be, I have to be on my A-game at all times. I can't really get bored out there. I can't worry about what skill the receiver is. Even if he's not that good, I still have to dominate him and beat him like I'm supposed to. That's all it is.

"I've had to stay ready and stay on my A-game at all times, so when games like this come around, I'm still ready, and I'm already at the level I’ve been wanting to play at."

Roby's quest for straight As is paying off so far this season. He earned defensive player of the game honors for his effort in Ohio State's opener against Miami (Ohio), making plays on 25 of 30 opportunities, according to Meyer.

Roby leads the team with four pass breakups and has a fumble recovery. He has yet to record his first interception, while fellow corner Travis Howard already has three, a fact he hasn't hesitated to point out.

"He's talking trash, but it doesn't bother me at all," said Roby, who himself dabbles in trash talk, especially on Saturdays. "I'm happy for him. I hope he continues in that. This is just Game 3 coming up, so I feel like I've got something in store."

Roby certainly has the talent to affect games. He twice ran the 40-yard dash in 4.31 seconds this summer.

"Really blessed, really talented and fast," Meyer said. "I think he's our fastest player."

Roby doesn't dispute the label, while acknowledging Brown isn't far behind and could pace him in a slightly longer race, like 60 yards (It'd be close," Roby said).

Having top-end speed is nice, but Roby is more focused on consistency and mastering the cornerback spot. He spent much of the offseason working on his off-man coverage, which often separates the great athletes who play corner from those who can do it at the NFL level.

"I've gotten more comfortable doing it," he said.

Roby undoubtedly will be in his comfort zone Saturday against Allen.

"This ought to be no challenge as far as getting him motivated," Meyer said, "because [he's] facing potentially the best receiver he'll face all year."
Miles Osei is anxious to learn his job description for Illinois' offense this fall.

Just a hunch: It will contain a few slashes.

Osei is listed as a quarterback, the No. 3 signal-caller on the Illinois depth chart entering the fall. Chris Beatty, the team's co-offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach, has told Osei he's "a quarterback first." But what can't be ignored are Illinois' shortages at both the wide receiver and running back positions. Illinois loses All-Big Ten wideout A.J. Jenkins, a first-round pick in April's NFL draft who accounted for 53.3 percent of the team's receiving yards and 39.8 percent of the team's receptions from 2011. The Illini have no running backs who are juniors or seniors, and enter the season with a true sophomore (Donovonn Young) and a redshirt freshman (Josh Ferguson) as their top options.

[+] EnlargeIllinois' Miles Osei
Michael Heinz/US PresswireMiles Osei may play many roles for the Illini this upcoming season.
Osei, a speedy 6-foot, 200-pound junior, saw time at quarterback, running back and wide receiver this spring and has continued to work at all three spots this summer.

"That's my goal, to help out this offense at any position they need me to play," Osei told ESPN.com. "Wherever they need me -- if it's quarterback, if it's receiver, if it's running back -- I'm willing to do that. This offense is definitely very flexible. Multiple guys can play multiple positions."

Osei had a limited role in the previous offense, filling in here and there for top quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. He also had three kickoff returns in 2011. He practiced at running back a bit before the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl but had no carries in the game.

The new coaching staff saw Osei's potential -- and their low numbers at receiver and running back -- and used him at all three positions in spring ball. Osei completed 8 of 12 pass attempts in the spring game and also led his team in receptions with four.

"Being a quarterback helped me with the other positions," Osei said. "I know where the running back's supposed to be, and the receivers. It's just a matter of how they got there, which is what I'm picking up now."

Osei played wide receiver and running back during his first two year at Prospect High School in suburban Chicago, but by the summer before his junior season, he was a full-time quarterback. Although Scheelhaase enters his third year as the starter and Reilly O'Toole received a good deal of playing time in 2011, Osei still expects to take a chunk of reps at quarterback when preseason camp kicks off next month.

"How the reps go at halfback and receiver, I don't know about that," he said.

Osei has spent the summer working on the details of his potential new positions, namely footwork. When camp begins, he'll likely be a very busy man.

"I hope whatever position the coaches choose, I'm able to play that position," he said. "I definitely want to know what my role is and things like that.

"Whatever the role, I'll be thrilled to have it."

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Bradley Roby came to Ohio State with a specific plan mapped out.

Redshirt the first year, in part because the Buckeyes had two senior starters returning at cornerback (Chimdi Chekwa and Devon Torrence). Check.

Earn a starting job as a redshirt freshman and keep it throughout Year 2 in the program. Check.

Cover the Big Ten's best wide receivers -- including four selected in last month's NFL draft -- both in games and in Buckeyes practices. Check.

"That's what I put all my efforts into," Roby told ESPN.com, "and I'm glad it came to fruition."

One item not included on Roby's plan was upset a future first-round pick with both skills and trash talk. But he succeeded in doing so during Ohio State's victory at Illinois in October. Roby held Illini star receiver A.J. Jenkins to 80 yards and no touchdowns -- Jenkins came in averaging 135.8 yards and 1.2 touchdowns per game. Roby also set up Ohio State's first touchdown with a 36-yard interception return.

Roby had sparked some fireworks earlier in the week when he described Jenkins as "decent, but he's nothing special, really." Jenkins had proclaimed himself the Big Ten's top receiver earlier in the season, and he had been backing it up. Roby now says the media spun his comments "out of control" but admits his words added excitement to the game.

The Buckeyes cornerback doesn't hide the fact he likes to talk trash during games, but most of his targets don't return fire. Jenkins did.

"I guess that's because I got in his head," Roby said. "Because if they're not responding to you, most likely they’re trying to ignore you. But if they're yelling back at you, it means you're getting to them. So keep doing it."

Roby will keep yapping, and he'll continue seeking out the best competition. Last fall, he lined up across from standouts like Michigan State's B.J. Cunningham and Wisconsin's Nick Toon. He already has watched some tape of California standout Keenan Allen, a first-team All-Pac-12 selection in 2011 who will visit Ohio State in Week 3.

The 5-foot-11, 190-pound Roby also challenged himself in practice by seeking out DeVier Posey, Ohio State's top receiver. Posey played in just three games last season because of suspension, but was drafted in the third round in April.

"I always would want to go against DeVier last year to make sure I'm getting better," Roby said. "You only get better when you go against better people. If you can hang with DeVier, you can hang with any receiver in the Big Ten."

Ohio State's lack of depth at receiver entering 2012 is well documented, and asked who he sought out this spring, Roby replied, "Nobody, really." Still, he has a good eye for talent. When we talked two days before Ohio State's spring game, Roby spotted freshman Michael Thomas walking by and told me to look out for him. Thomas ended up recording 12 catches for 131 yards in the spring game.

Roby spent much of the spring working on off-man coverage, a focal point for new secondary coaches Everett Withers and Kerry Coombs. Ohio State played mostly press coverage in 2011 and will continue to do so, but off-man will be a bigger part of the scheme going forward. Roby welcomes the change.

"If you're a good athlete, anybody can play press," he said. "Coach Withers told me that's one thing in the [NFL] a lot of corners don't know how to do when they come from college. They just press, and they can't play off-man. Some teams need their corners to play off-man, so if you can't do that, you can't play. So me being able to learn this at this age, having three years left eligibility-wise, it will definitely help me by the time I get to that next level."

The next level is certainly part of Roby's plan, and broadening his coverage skills is crucial in taking that step.

"Technique, eyes in the right place, making sure you stay low," he said. "You've got to be disciplined to play off-man, because one false move, it's a touchdown."

Roby made some false moves during his first season in the fire, but he also showed he's a playmaker, tying for the team lead in interceptions (3), leading the team in pass breakups (6) and adding a forced fumble and 3.5 tackles for loss. The rapid rise didn't surprise Roby, who, in case it's not obvious, oozes confidence.

"To be a DB, you've got to have that," Buckeyes safety C.J. Barnett said. "You've got to think you're the best out there, because you don't have confidence, you're going to get beat. Roby, he exerts that. I really wasn’t surprised by what he did last year. We all knew that he was good. He just needed his time and he stepped up."
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- After the 2011 season, Illinois center Graham Pocic sat down with his linemate, Jeff Allen, to compile a highlight tape for Allen to show NFL talent evaluators.

It sounded like a fun exercise. And for a little while, it was.

Pocic and Allen took great joy in reviewing the first six games from the past year. Illinois was winning and scoring points. Life was good.

Then Week 7 arrived. Cracks began to form as Illinois lost 17-7 to an Ohio State team that completed only one pass.

Pocic's and Allen's review session soon made them want to avert their eyes.

"It was really depressing," Pocic said. "All the great opportunities we had, especially after starting 6-0. Mostly I was trying to figure out what went wrong with the offensive line, with the running game, why we couldn't run the ball like we did with Mikel [Leshoure] the year before.

"It was hard to find a reason why certain things happened."

Illinois dropped six consecutive games after its record 6-0 start, and the offense bore the brunt of the struggles. After scoring 33 points or more in four of the first six games, including a combined 79 points in the first two weeks of Big Ten play, Illinois failed to tally more than 17 points during its six-game slide and finished three games with just seven points.

Even when Illinois ended its slide in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl against UCLA, it was hardly an offensive explosion (20 points).

The Illini finished the season ranked in the top 15 nationally in several major defensive categories, including points allowed and yards allowed. While the team had other problems, namely special teams, its evaporating offense was most disheartening.
[+] EnlargeReilly O'Toole
Bradley Leeb/US PresswireQuarterback Reilly O'Toole (4) and running back Donovann Young are entering their sophomore seasons with a brand-new offense.
Chris Beatty knew all about Illinois' season of extremes on offense, even though he didn't witness it firsthand. And while Beatty and Billy Gonzales, the team's new co-offensive coordinators, are spending spring practice installing their system, they're also trying to foster something less tangible.

"You get beat down a little bit when you struggle at the end of the year," Beatty said. "So you want to get some kind of swagger back. The only way to do that is to lay a good foundation as far as making some plays, getting a good knowledge base. Confidence comes with some success and knowing what you're doing.

"Those things, we're trying to build up because obviously, the last six games, there were some struggles."

When Beatty reviewed the final six regular-season games, he saw some issues along the offensive line and with the running game, and few consistent skill players aside from receiver A.J. Jenkins. But he also saw a group that lacked confidence.

"It's hard to have a swagger," quarterback Reilly O'Toole said, "with no points on the board."

The offense won't be able to light up the scoreboard until September, but spring practice has provided the platform to rebuild morale. Players like O'Toole and Pocic are excited about the multiple spread offense being installed.

Pocic said he's never been in such a complex offense. O'Toole said that while other Big Ten teams run spread offenses, Illinois' system will be unique in its flexibility and the number of angles from which the offense can attack.

"Unpredictable," wide receiver Darius Millines said of the new offense.

"We may run a play, and someone may think we're coming back with the same play, like a running play to the left. And we may play-action with it and throw deep over your head," he continued. "The defense has to be on their P's and Q's at all times."

And while the installation process is gradual and Illinois must build depth at running back, receiver and along the offensive line, there are mini-breakthroughs, like the one at Monday night's practice.

"We made some good plays and the offense was getting hyped, and we actually got rolling for a little bit," Millines said. "We actually felt how we felt in the beginning of last year. We got into a little rhythm, and our whole offense, we took that into consideration, that, 'OK, if we keep making plays, we can't be stopped.'"
Nathan Scheelhaase used to watch teams run the spread offense and wonder why they were so effective. In high school, one of the players he admired was West Virginia quarterback Pat White.

"You see them running it and doing a good job with it and you hope you can do the same one day," he said.

The Illinois quarterback is getting his chance now. The Illini are switching to a spread offense under new head coach Tim Beckman, and that transformation is in full bloom this spring. As with any spread attack, much depends on the triggerman, so Scheelhaase's adaptation and grasp of the new system is paramount.

[+] EnlargeNathan Scheelhaase
Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP PhotoQB Nathan Scheelhaase and the Illini are spending their spring practicing the spread offense.
The team held its first six practices of the spring before taking this week off for spring break. Scheelhaase said the players are catching on quickly.

"We've made a whole lot of progress and there have been a whole lot of positives," he said. "The coaches have even told us on various occasions how pleased and surprised they are at how we've been picking up and moving through with things."

How different is this offense from the one the Illini ran under Paul Petrino the last two years? There's all new terminology, of course. Scheelhaase said the passing concepts aren't that dissimilar from the past. The biggest change, he said, is in the running game.

"This offense likes to get people in space," he said. "Get fast guys the ball with space and a chance to make guys miss one on one. We're stretching the field a whole lot more."

There's also the no-huddle aspect. Scheelhaase said Illinois ran its high-tempo offense full bore for the first time in practice No. 5.

"It was really eye-opening, for both sides," he said. "You could feel the defense getting tired even in practice. We got seven plays deep in that drive, and then the pass rush wasn't as strong. They revealed their coverages a lot quicker than usual. Picking up the pace helped a lot, based on one series and one practice. I think it will be a big help to us to keep that going."

This isn't the first time Scheelhaase has been exposed to this kind of offense. He was a redshirt freshman under former offensive coordinator Mike Schultz, who engineered a spread just like Mike Locksley had done before him.

But Scheelhaase started the past two years under Petrino, who favored a more multiple attack based around a power run game. Beckman's teams at Toledo used the spread offense, though Scheelhaase said the Illini won't merely be mirror images of those Rockets. Co-offensive coordinators Billy Gonzales and Chris Beatty have added their own wrinkles.

"We're doing stuff that coach Beatty did at West Virginia and stuff that coach Gonzales did when he was at Florida with Tim Tebow," Scheelhaase said. "That's what makes this offense so cool, because it's not just one person's offense. It seems like it's almost three or four minds working together to kind of make this offense go, which makes it pretty tough for a defense to get a hold on what we like to do."

Scheelhaase will have to hold off a charge from Reilly O'Toole this spring to keep his starting job. He no longer has his favorite target from last season, wideout A.J. Jenkins, and the Illini are perilously thin at receiver and running back for this kind of offense.

So there are some reasons for concern as Illinois makes the switch. But so far, Scheelhaase is enjoying the process.

"I like learning new things all the time," he said. "It's cool because when I was growing up I watched Pat White and things like that. You see things working and you don't really know how it works until you get into the thick of it. It's neat getting that perspective."
The Tim Beckman era reaches a new phase Wednesday as Illinois players go through their first spring practice under their new coach. Beckman is a high-energy leader who wants to foster competition in every element of his program. Although two-year starter Nathan Scheelhaase returns at quarterback, he'll have to fend off three contenders and make an impression on the team's new coordinators, Billy Gonzales and Chris Beatty. The Illini are short on running backs and wide receivers, while the defense looks to continue the momentum it generated in 2011. Beckman takes over a team that has recorded back-to-back bowl victories but struggled to show it can take a step toward the top half of the Big Ten.

ESPN recently caught up with Beckman. Here are his thoughts.

[+] EnlargeTim Beckman
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezNew Illinois coach Tim Beckman has high expectations for his team as it begins spring practices.
What are your expectations for spring practice?

Tim Beckman: I want our players competing. I want them playing with outstanding effort in everything they do in spring ball. That competitive nature will be in every drill we do. These players will be evaluated in everything that they do. They're going to get feedback from the coaches on what we feel is championship-caliber and what we feel is not championship-caliber.

How much have you looked at tape from last season?

TB: Definitely. I've watched and evaluated tape, and been involved with what they did last year. But that's in the past. As I told the players when I met individually with each one of them, this is the future, this is a new era and we're building this thing forward, not building from the back.

How would you describe your quarterback situation entering the spring? Will it be a full competition?

TB: Oh, it's great. That's what life's all about. We've got the capabilities of being good at that position with four guys. Competition just makes you better. We've got one that has played [Scheelhaase] and played quite a bit and proven that he can win football games, won seven this year and won a bowl game. But we also have some backups with Reilly [O'Toole] and Miles [Osei] and [Chase] Haslett, there's three backups and a starter that are capable of winning football games.

How does Nathan fit into your vision for the offense?

TB: Your vision for the offense is scoring points and securing the football. I'm not going to bang my fist on the table, saying, 'We've got to do it this way.' We've got personnel that's already involved here. Nobody here is anybody we've been able to go out and recruit, so we're going to fit our schemes to what we have here talent-wise. Yeah, I want to be able to say we're a spread football team, but if we don't have the personnel to be a spread football team right now, we've got to fit an offensive scheme to the player personnel we have. I know this, though. We're going to be fundamentally sound in what we do. We can secure the football on offense, and on defense, we can take the football away.

You brought in two coordinators on the offensive side, both younger guys [Gonzales and Beatty]. Are you going to be evaluating them this spring in their new roles?

TB: Everybody gets evaluated. Heck, they're going to be evaluating me. This is a new coaching staff, so that's the life of a coach, that's the life of a Division I college football player. You are being evaluated in everything that you do. If it's at a speaking engagement or if it's lifting weights or running or whatever it might be, you're going to get evaluated. So we're going to evaluate ourselves and try to make ourselves the best we can be.

Really impressive year on the defensive side in 2011. Is it a matter of keeping it going, or do you want to do something dramatically different with coach [Tim] Banks and your vision for that group?

TB: They did an outstanding job last year, no question about it. But there's other categories they've got to get better at. They didn't have enough takeaways [22], and the game of football is simple: you've got to have the football to score. So you've got to take it away on defense, and you need to secure it on offense. That is an avenue that this defense must get better at because it just wasn't quite as productive [at takeaways] as it was in all the other categories. That is the one thing we have to strive to do better at.

And how do you plan to emphasize that?

TB: If you look at where we've been the past three years, we've always been very, very strong at takeaways and ball security. We practice it in everything that we do, from Period 1 to Period 24 or Period 1 to Period 18, whatever the practice entails, we'll have a ball-security and a takeaway drill. We'll have constant talk about ball awareness, so that our players understand that's the key to any football game, securing it or taking it away on defense.

You lose an outstanding player to the NFL in Whitney [Mercilus]. Who do you see emerging at the defensive end spot and filling that production?

TB: The great thing you've seen is we were able to keep Michael Buchanan. Michael Buchanan's a heck of a football player. He was one of our top recruits, keeping Michael here, keeping Terry Hawthorne here, keeping Akeem Spence here on defense. That was very, very crucial for us. Graham Pocic also. They were all capable of being able to go out in the NFL draft and they didn't. And at this time last year, Whitney's name wasn't named very much throughout college football, so you can make tremendous strides, as Whitney did. There's a possibility of a Justin Staples or a Timmy Kynard or a Brandon Denmark. All of our defensive ends have had outstanding winter workouts, and now they've got to prove it on the field during spring.

At running back and wide receiver, what are you looking for from those groups? You lose a top receiver in A.J. Jenkins.

TB: Oh my goodness. That is a major concern, the depth at both of those positions. They're going to have to grow up fast. We've only got really three running backs on scholarships. I've never been at a place where there hasn't been more than four or five on scholarship at one time. So depth is a major concern. And wide receiver, it's the same. You've got a couple names of guys that have done decent, but they need to elevate their game and then the depth of our young players to make ourselves better at those positions.

Is depth also an issue up front on the offensive line?

TB: There are some freshmen that have done some good things and have been able to step up and play, so I think there's a little more depth on the offensive line than there is at wide receiver and running back.

How much are you looking for leadership to emerge during spring ball?

TB: It's huge. You talk about it every day to the players. It's our leadership that can push this football team past a 7-win season. That's the challenge for the senior group and the challenge all the way down to the freshman group. Everybody's got a role on a football team and everybody's role is different. You can be a leader based on any one of your roles. I've pushed this football team to be better leaders and to be better guides for our football team to be successful. So if we do have a young man that's late for maybe a 6 o'clock weight workout, I don't blame just that man. I blame his roommate, I blame the position group and I blame the whole unit itself. That's how leaders are built.

Even with the competition that we've been doing throughout the winter workouts, by drafting teams and having an offensive lineman with a kicker or a DB with a wide receiver, all on the same team, to try and enhance the leadership roles of each one of the football players as we compete.
The postseason position rankings are hitting the home stretch, and today we take a look at the Big Ten secondaries. It's a little tricky to evaluate secondary play from 2011. While seven Big Ten teams ranked in the top 18 nationally in pass defense, only two squads ranked in the top 29 in pass efficiency defense.

Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard was the lone Big Ten defensive back to appear on both the coaches' and media's first-team all-conference squad, so there was some disagreement.

[+] EnlargeIsaiah Lewis
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioIsaiah Lewis' interception against Michigan helped the Spartans beat their in-state rival and propel Michigan State's secondary to elite status in the Big Ten.
The top seven units are solid, while the bottom three are among the worst in the FBS.

Michigan State once again tops a defensive chart, but the top four or five squads here were all strong in the secondary. Be sure and check out our preseason secondary rankings.

Let's get to the rundown:

1. Michigan State: The Spartans had three of four starting defensive backs — safety Trenton Robinson, cornerback Johnny Adams and safety Isaiah Lewis — selected first-team or second-team All-Big Ten, illustrating the depth coach Mark Dantonio has built in recent years. Michigan State's secondary also continued to be a playmaking unit, recording a league-best 18 interceptions, returning four for touchdowns. The Spartans had five defensive backs record two or more interceptions. Adams will enter the 2012 season pegged as the league's top cornerback.

2. Penn State: Like the other defensive units, Penn State's secondary shouldered a heavy burden because the team's offense struggled for so much of the season. The Lions had veteran leadership with D'Anton Lynn, Nick Sukay and Drew Astorino, and they led the Big Ten and ranked sixth nationally in pass efficiency defense (107.2 rating). Penn State finished third in the league in interceptions (14) and tied with Michigan for the fewest passing touchdowns allowed (12). Sukay earned second-team All-Big Ten honors.

3. Illinois: Although Illinois' strength on defense could be found in the front seven, the secondary held its own as well. The Illini ranked third nationally in pass defense (162.3 ypg), and opposing teams completed just 54.9 percent of their passes against the Orange and Blue. Illinois finished 30th nationally in pass efficiency defense. Although the safety play looked spotty at times, Illinois boasted a strong cornerback tandem in Terry Hawthorne and Tavon Wilson.

4. Michigan: Arguably no single position group in the Big Ten made more dramatic strides than Michigan's secondary, a lightning rod for criticism the previous three seasons. The Wolverines finished 16th nationally in pass defense and 36th in pass efficiency defense. Although they didn't record many interceptions, they tied for the league low in passing touchdowns allowed (12). Safety Jordan Kovacs emerged as an effective blitzer and playmaker and cornerback J.T. Floyd blossomed with two interceptions, eight pass breakups and a forced fumble. Corner Blake Countess is an exciting young talent.

5. Nebraska: The Huskers had the Big Ten's best defensive back in Dennard, who shut down arguably the league's top two receivers (Marvin McNutt, B.J. Cunningham) in Nebraska victories. But the group's overall performance was a bit underwhelming, as opposing teams attacked the deep middle and caused some personnel shuffling. Opposing teams completed just 53.2 percent of their passes against Nebraska, the lowest number in the Big Ten. Hard-hitting safety Daimion Stafford emerged for a group that loses Dennard and veteran safety Austin Cassidy.

6. Wisconsin: For the second straight season Wisconsin displayed good playmaking ability in the secondary, finishing second in the Big Ten with 16 interceptions. Safety Aaron Henry (coaches) and cornerback Antonio Fenelus (media) both received first-team All-Big Ten recognition. The Badgers also played most of the season without one of their starting cornerbacks, Devin Smith. But the unit also had some high-profile lapses at the end of games. Speed also became an issue in the Big Ten title game against Michigan State and in the Rose Bowl against Oregon.

7. Ohio State: The numbers aren't bad -- Ohio State ranked 14th in pass defense and 53rd in pass efficiency defense -- but the Buckeyes seemed to be missing something in the secondary, and throughout their entire defense, for that matter. There were some bright spots, like freshman cornerback Bradley Roby, and some hard hits delivered by safety C.J. Barnett and others. But Ohio State finished just eighth in the league (53rd nationally) in pass efficiency defense, as opposing teams completed more than 60 percent of their pass attempts against the Scarlet and Gray.

8. Purdue: We had high hopes for a group that returned all four starters, headlined by All-Big Ten candidate Ricardo Allen at cornerback. At times, Purdue's secondary looked solid, but the unit's overall performance fell in line with the team's average theme for 2011. Allen struggled to contain some elite wideouts but still finished the season with 81 tackles (62 solo), three interceptions, four pass breakups, a blocked kick and a forced fumble. He and Josh Johnson form an exciting cornerback tandem entering the 2012 campaign.

9. Iowa: Much like Ohio State, Iowa didn't have a typical season on defense, and the secondary had its share of struggles. Iowa had average numbers (58th in pass yards allowed, 72nd in efficiency), and allowed opposing teams to complete 62 percent of their passes. The Hawkeyes saw a big drop-off in playmaking, as they recorded only 10 interceptions and allowed 21 touchdown passes. Safety Micah Hyde earned second-team All-Big Ten honors from the media, while cornerback Shaun Prater didn't have the huge senior season some expected.

10. Northwestern: The Wildcats would finish last in some leagues, but they're the best of a bad bunch at the bottom of the rankings. Despite an All-Big Ten safety (Brian Peters) and a four-year starter at cornerback (Jordan Mabin), Northwestern suffered breakdowns in both scheme and execution. The Wildcats endured a particularly bad stretch to begin Big Ten play, as they couldn't stop Illinois receiver A.J. Jenkins, admittedly got confused against Iowa and let Penn State quarterback Matthew McGloin go off. The secondary has to be a huge priority for Pat Fitzgerald and his staff during the offseason.

11. Minnesota: It's a close call for the last spot, but Minnesota avoids the basement, thanks in large part to safety Kim Royston, who made the most of his sixth season with a team-high 123 tackles. But Royston was the lone bright spot for Minnesota's secondary, which stung from the loss of cornerback Troy Stoudermire to a broken arm. The Gophers recorded the fewest interceptions in the Big Ten (4), and allowed opponents to complete 67.7 percent of their passes, the highest total in the league. Minnesota finished 107th nationally in pass efficiency defense.

12. Indiana: The Hoosiers' historic struggles in the secondary continued in 2011, as they surrendered a league-high 26 passing touchdowns and finished 116th out of 120 FBS teams in pass efficiency defense. Opponents averaged 8.5 yards per completion against an Indiana team that played more freshmen than any squad in the FBS. There's some hope with players like safety-linebacker Mark Murphy and cornerback Greg Heban, and Indiana brings in two junior college defensive backs for 2012.
The Big Ten had four 1,000-yard receivers in 2011, all of whom are graduating.

In fact, the league loses its top five receivers -- Iowa's Marvin McNutt, Illinois' A.J. Jenkins, Michigan State's B.J. Cunningham, Northwestern's Jeremy Ebert and Wisconsin's Nick Toon -- and returns just two of its top-10 pass catchers (Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis and Iowa's Keenan Davis). But the departures don't necessarily mean the Big Ten will be scrambling for elite wideouts in 2011.

Consider: of the league's top-10 receivers last fall, only four of them -- Ebert, McNutt, Penn State's Derek Moye and Minnesota's Da'Jon McKnight -- ranked in the top 10 the previous season. So there are receivers who take their game to the next level every season. Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis might have been the best example this past fall, as he caught 35 more passes and recorded 644 more receiving yards than he had in 2010.

[+] EnlargeIowa's Keenan Davis
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesIowa's Keenan Davis is one of two returning players from the Big Ten's top-10 receivers in 2011.
Who will break out in 2012? Again, we're talking wide receivers here, not tight ends, of which there are several talented ones in the Big Ten.

Colleague KC Joyner thinks the Hawkeyes' Davis will take the next step. Davis, pegged to be Iowa's No. 1 wideout following McNutt's departure, is among the players Joyner lists in a recent piece on breakout receivers.

He writes:
An optimist would note that McNutt really wasn't a dominant wideout (his 9.0 YPA was only slightly higher than Davis'), that [Ken] O'Keefe often called, as ESPN.com Big Ten blogger Brian Bennett noted, a "buttoned-down style of play" and that Iowa has a potential Big Ten first-team quarterback in James Vandenberg.

I recently mentioned Davis as one of the Hawkeyes who needs a big offseason to take the next step this fall.

Who are some other potential breakout receivers in the Big Ten?

  • Penn State's Justin Brown: Quarterback is Penn State's top offseason priority, but the Lions also need more from the receiver position. Moye's departure puts Brown in position to be the team's No. 1 target in the passing game. Brown averaged 14.8 yards per catch in 2011 and has the size to beat defensive backs for the ball.
  • Michigan's Roy Roundtree: Roundtree might not qualify as a breakout player as he already has turned in a productive season (72 receptions, 935 receiving yards, 7 TDs in 2010). But after a significant production drop-off last year, Roundtree needs to elevate his play for a Michigan offense looking for a No. 1 wide receiver.
  • Purdue's Antavian Edison: We've seen flashes from Edison in his first two seasons, both as a rusher and as a receiver. He clearly has the ability to take another step after recording 44 receptions for 584 yards and three touchdowns last fall. While Purdue likes to get a lot of players touches on offense, it needs a No. 1 receiver after Justin Siller's departure and Edison has a great opportunity to be that guy.
  • Michigan State's DeAnthony Arnett: Arnett's placement comes with a caveat, as he must attain approval from the NCAA to avoid sitting out a season. But if the Tennessee transfer can play this fall, look out. Michigan State loses its top three receivers and its top tight end from 2011 and needs targets for new quarterback Andrew Maxwell. Arnett had 24 receptions for 242 yards as a freshman at Tennessee and could take a big step forward with the Spartans.
  • Nebraska's Kenny Bell: Bell showed a lot of promise as a true freshman, averaging 14.4 yards per reception with three touchdowns. He had three or more receptions in five of the eight Big Ten games and added three catches and a touchdown against South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl. The Huskers need a lot more from their receivers in 2012, and Bell could move into a featured role.
  • Indiana's Kofi Hughes: I really liked Hughes after watching him last spring, but like many, I assumed Damarlo Belcher would be the team's No. 1 wide receiver and not wash out midseason. Hughes ended up leading Indiana with 36 receptions for 536 receiving yards. He's still relatively new to the position and could take a big step forward in Year 2 of the Kevin Wilson era, as pass-friendly offensive coordinator Seth Littrell arrives.
National Signing Day is barely a week away, and Big Ten teams will be stockpiling for the future (and, in some cases, the present). Today we'll take a look at the recruiting needs of each Big Ten team, starting with those in the Leaders division. These needs are based on current rosters and anticipated departures in the near future. And to save you some email time, we do realize teams have already addressed needs in compiling their 2012 classes.

Let's get started ...

ILLINOIS

Wide receiver: The Illini lose A.J. Jenkins, who accounted for 90 of the team's 226 receptions in 2011. No other Illinois player had more than 26 catches, so there certainly are opportunities for young players to emerge and make an immediate impact for the new coaching staff.

Linemen: Illinois loses two starters from an offensive line that struggled down the stretch of the regular season. It's important to build depth there going forward. Despite Whitney Mercilus' early departure to the NFL draft, the defensive line returns some talented players. Still, defensive end Michael Buchanan is entering his senior year, and defensive tackle Akeem Spence is a bona fide NFL prospect who could enter the draft with a strong 2012 campaign.

Safety: The Illini defense didn't have many weaknesses in 2011, but safety was a liability at times. The team returns experience for 2012, but will lose some key players after the season. An impact defensive back or two in the 2012 class would really help.

INDIANA

Defensive back: This has been a primary recruiting need for the past few seasons, and it remains a pressing concern after Indiana surrendered a league-worst 8.5 yards per pass and a league-high 26 passing touchdowns in 2011. Indiana needs impact players and depth among the back four to be able to limit Big Ten offenses.

Defensive front seven: Sense a theme here? Indiana needs defenders in the worst way, and the front seven is a huge piece to the puzzle. The Hoosiers return some experience at defensive tackle, but lose top linebackers Jeff Thomas and Leon Beckum. The coaches showed in 2011 that they're not afraid to play young players, and they need more contributors on the defensive side.

Quarterback: Starter Tre Roberson returns, but Indiana needs bodies here after Dusty Kiel and Ed Wright-Baker both opted to transfer earlier this month.

OHIO STATE

Offensive line: Three multiyear starters depart at center, left tackle and right tackle, so Ohio State's offensive line will have a very different look in 2012. The Buckeyes could use some immediate-impact linemen, like center Mike Brewster in 2008, and they'll look to build depth here.

Defensive end: Ohio State appears loaded at defensive tackle for 2012 and beyond, but the team needs some more pure pass-rushers on the edge. John Simon, who had four more sacks than anyone on the squad in 2011, will be a senior this coming season.

Wide receiver: The Buckeyes lacked reliable receiver options in 2011 and had their best wideout, DeVier Posey, for only three games because of suspension. Posey departs and Ohio State needs to build depth and increase competition in what should be a more wide-open offense under Urban Meyer.

PENN STATE

Quarterback: New coach Bill O'Brien might be the quarterback whisperer Penn State has waited for, but he also needs to upgrade the talent on the roster. Matthew McGloin and Rob Bolden both must make significant strides, and while Paul Jones is an intriguing player, we've yet to see him in a game. Penn State needs more options here.

Wide receiver: Top target Derek Moye departs, and Penn State returns only two players with decent but not great production in Justin Brown and Devon Smith. Brown looks like a potential impact player in 2012, but Penn State needs more options in the passing game.

Defensive back: Penn State loses all four starters, although returning players like Stephon Morris, Malcolm Willis and Adrian Amos have logged playing time. Still, the Lions need some more players here to build depth and increase competition.

PURDUE

Offensive line: This is one of few areas where Purdue loses a decent amount of production from 2011, as tackle Dennis Kelly and Nick Mondek both depart. Two more starters exit after the 2012 season, and Purdue wants to be a run-based offense. It's important to build some depth up front with the 2012 class.

Kicker: Purdue loses the bionic-legged Carson Wiggs, who did more than make field goals from ridiculous distances. He also kicked off and served as a backup punter, attempting 45 punts over the past two seasons. The versatile Wiggs leaves a major void, and Purdue must address the specialist spot.

Defensive back: The Boilers say goodbye to both of their starting safeties from the 2011 team. They also will lose starting cornerback Josh Johnson after the 2012 season, while Ricardo Allen might be an early entry candidate with a big junior year. While this isn't a pressing need right now, it could soon become one.

WISCONSIN

Quarterback: Russell Wilson saved Wisconsin in more than one way in 2011, and his departure is significant. The team's most experienced signal callers, Jon Budmayr and Curt Phillips, both are coming off of major injuries. Wisconsin typically doesn't play younger quarterbacks, but needs more options after a season where Wilson showed what the offense could be.

Wide receiver: The Badgers typically get by with 1-2 good wideouts and an excellent tight end or two, but they could use more depth at the receiver position. Top target Nick Toon departs, and Wisconsin is pretty thin at receiver aside from Jared Abbrederis.

Defensive speed: Oregon makes a lot of teams look slow, but the Rose Bowl spelled out what the Badgers must do to take the next step as a program. Wisconsin needs to upgrade its speed at all three levels of the defense, particularly the back seven, to prevent explosion plays. Michigan State also exposed Wisconsin's defense, so the need for speed certainly is there.

Big Ten bowl picks rewind

January, 4, 2012
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The Allstate Sugar Bowl officially wrapped up the Big Ten season and also settled the season-long picks battle between the two bloggers.

New guy for the win.

I took a slim one-game lead into bowl season but widened the gap with a stellar 9-1 showing in the bowls. Adam went a respectable 7-3, which is still a record the Big Ten wishes it had during the postseason. I'll put my picks trophy next to the one I won in our fantasy challenge earlier this season. My mantel is getting crowded.

Let's review our picks ...

Little Caesars Bowl
  • Bennett's pick: Purdue 34, Western Michigan 33
  • Rittenberg's pick: Western Michigan 31, Purdue 27
  • Actual score: Purdue 37, Western Michigan 32
  • 20-20 hindsight: We both predicted a close game with a lot of points, even though we didn't see it being as wild as it turned out. Rittenberg has less confidence in the Purdue defense, which gave up plenty of points and yards but also created seven turnovers. I correctly predicted a big night for the Boilers' running game -- they ran for 265 yards -- though my somewhat tongue-in-cheek pick of a blocked kick at the end didn't happen.
Insight Bowl
  • Bennett's pick: Oklahoma 27, Iowa 20
  • Rittenberg's pick: Oklahoma 31, Iowa 24
  • Actual score: Oklahoma 31, Iowa 14
  • 20-20 hindsight: Neither of us thought Iowa had enough firepower without Marcus Coker to hang with the Sooners, and the Hawkeyes didn't even score until the fourth quarter. Adam nailed the Sooners' point total, while my prediction of two James Vandenberg interceptions was one too many.
Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas
  • Bennett's pick: Texas A&M 35, Northwestern 31
  • Rittenberg's pick: Texas A&M 42, Northwestern 31
  • Actual score: Texas A&M 33, Northwestern 22
  • 20-20 hindsight: Adam can take a bow for correctly pegging the margin of victory. He must have talked the Aggies into kicking that field goal with 30 seconds left. Neither of us liked the chances of Northwestern's defense slowing down A&M, and the Wildcats surrendered 409 yards while falling behind 30-7 before a late rally.
Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl
  • Bennett's pick: Illinois 17, UCLA 9
  • Rittenberg's pick: Illinois 14, UCLA 10
  • Actual score: Illinois 20, UCLA 14
  • 20-20 hindsight: We both foresaw a low-scoring game, and if not for UCLA's late cosmetic touchdown, I would have almost nailed the total combined points. I predicted that the Illinois defense would dominate and that Whitney Mercilus would record two sacks; he was credited with 1.5. Adam said Nathan Scheelhaase would score a late touchdown. Well, he did throw a 60-yard score to A.J. Jenkins with less than six minutes left.
TicketCity Bowl
  • Bennett's pick: Houston 31, Penn State 24
  • Rittenberg's pick: Penn State 28, Houston 24
  • Actual score: Houston 30, Penn State 14
  • 20-20 hindsight: I predicted that Case Keenum would throw a couple of early touchdown passes and that Penn State would have trouble responding. That looked pretty smart as Keenum threw for two first-quarter scores and the Nittany Lions laid a defensive egg. I almost had Houston's score on the nose and probably wouldn't have given Penn State's offense that much credit had I known for sure that Matt McGloin wouldn't play. Adam's pick of a 200-yard plus day for Silas Redd was a little bit off, as Redd mustered only 53 yards on 14 carries.
TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl
  • Bennett's pick: Ohio State 24, Florida 23
  • Rittenberg's pick: Ohio State 21, Florida 17
  • Actual score: Florida 24, Ohio State 17
  • 20-20 hindsight: Ah, my only setback. We both gave the Buckeyes a little too much credit and didn't see the big Florida special-teams plays that would swing this outcome. I predicted impressive days for Dan Herron and DeVier Posey; Herron ran for 82 yards and Posey had only 38 yards receiving. We both thought Braxton Miller would star for Ohio State. He threw for two touchdowns, but it wasn't enough.
Outback Bowl
  • Bennett's pick: Michigan State 17, Georgia 14
  • Rittenberg's pick: Michigan State 21, Georgia 20
  • Actual score: Michigan State 33, Georgia 30 (3 OT)
  • 20-20 hindsight: We both saw a low-scoring game and a close Spartans victory, and I nailed the margin of victory. Neither of us predicted a triple-overtime thriller, or that Michigan State would fall behind 16-0 before a huge rally.
Capital One Bowl
  • Bennett's pick: South Carolina 20, Nebraska 17
  • Rittenberg's pick: South Carolina 24, Nebraska 21
  • Actual score: South Carolina 30, Nebraska 13
  • 20-20 hindsight: We both thought the Huskers would keep it close, and they should have. But Nebraska made way too many mental errors, and the Gamecocks turned a game that was 16-13 going into the fourth quarter into a blowout win. I didn't think Nebraska could pass the ball effectively, and Taylor Martinez only threw for 116 yards. Neither of us gave South Carolina's offense enough credit.
Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO
  • Bennett's pick: Oregon 35, Wisconsin 30
  • Rittenberg's pick: Wisconsin 38, Oregon 35
  • Actual score: Oregon 45, Wisconsin 38
  • 20-20 hindsight: Kudos to Adam for correctly predicting Wisconsin's final score, and it was 38-35 going into the fourth quarter. But they play 60 minutes for a reason. We both saw a high-scoring game but not a record-breaking Rose Bowl. Adam was right to say Jared Abbrederis would have a big game, but Wisconsin's defense let him down. I said Montee Ball would have a big day (check) but that the Badgers couldn't contain the Ducks in space. Uh, yeah.
Allstate Sugar Bowl
  • Bennett's pick: Michigan 24, Virginia Tech 13
  • Rittenberg's pick: Michigan 27, Virginia Tech 21
  • Actual score: Michigan 23, Virginia Tech 20 (OT)
  • 20-20 hindsight: We both came within a point of one team's score, though neither of us predicted overtime. I liked Michigan to win big while Adam forecast a closer game. He was right on that -- but not right enough during bowl season to beat me.
SEASON RECORDS

Brian Bennett: 82-26 (.759)

Adam Rittenberg: 79-29 (.732)

Instant analysis: Illinois 20, UCLA 14

December, 31, 2011
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UCLA needed a special NCAA waiver just to get into a bowl game. Illinois lost its final six games and had assistants threatening to boycott this game. Is it any wonder that the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl was, shall we say, a little ragged?

How the game was won: The Illinois offense disappeared over the second half of the season and didn't do a whole lot in this one, either. But the team's defense remained stout throughout the season and was inspired to play hard for interim coach Vic Koenning, their former defensive coordinator. The Illini defense came up with a score, sacked UCLA quarterback Kevin Prince five times and allowed just 220 total yards. The Bruins' only points came when they got a short field in the first half and when they connected on a bomb with 29 seconds left and Illinois already starting to celebrate. Defense wins minor bowl championships.

Turning point: UCLA led 7-3 and the Illinois offense was completely stagnant late in the third quarter. That's when the Bruins provided a gift. Prince's sideline pass was picked off by cornerback Terry Hawthorne, who had nothing but open field in front of him as he ran it in for the 39-yard touchdown. Hawthorne never took his eyes off the quarterback, and Prince misread the coverage. That pick-six sapped the spirits of the Bruins and loosened things up for the Illini.

Player of the game: Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. His passing numbers weren't terribly impressive (18-for-30, 189 yards, one touchdown) and he struggled early on. But Scheelhaase took on the brunt of the running game with leading rusher Jason Ford suspended for this game, finishing with 110 yards on 22 carries. He also had a nine-yard catch, giving him more total yards than UCLA's entire offense.

Stat of the game: Thanks in large part to the sacks, Illinois outrushed UCLA 179-18.

Record performance: Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus was credited with 1.5 sacks, giving him a nation-best 16 this season. That tied the school record set by Simeon Rice. He got in on his second sack despite being held on the play. Mercilus was one of the most improved players in the nation this season and will almost certainly skip his senior year to enter the NFL draft.

Strangest stat: UCLA finishes the season with eight losses, yet the Bruins played in a bowl game. It might be a while before we see that happen again.

Unsung hero: Illinois' Ryan Lankford. He averaged 45.6 yards on five punts, with two downed inside the 20. He also had three catches for 24 yards. Now that's versatility.

Best call: Midway through the fourth quarter, UCLA came after Scheelhaase on a blitz. But Illinois had the exact right call on: a slant pass to A.J. Jenkins. The one guy the Bruins couldn't leave open caught a short strike from Scheelhaase and glided in untouched for a 60-yard touchdown. The score became crucial when UCLA tacked on that touchdown in the final minute.

What it means: Not much of anything. Both programs will wake up on New Year's Day with new head coaches -- Jim Mora Jr. for UCLA, Tim Beckman for Illinois. So both teams will mostly have a blank slate, and they'd rather forget most of the 2011 season, anyway. Beckman will drastically change the offense to a spread, and he has to be happy to see Scheelhaase turn in a confidence-building bowl performance. Beckman will need to keep the defense playing at this level without Koenning. Mora needs to improve the overall toughness of the underachieving Bruins and change the attitude around the program.
Let's take a look at three keys for Illinois heading into Saturday's Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl matchup against UCLA.

1. Establish the run early: Top running back Jason Ford is out (academics), but Illinois still can establish the ground game against a UCLA defense ranked 95th nationally against the rush. The Bruins have surrendered more than 200 rush yards in seven games, including 352 in the Pac-12 championship against Oregon. Illinois freshman Donovonn Young has impressed in stretches and gets an opportunity to establish himself as the team's back of the future after missing the regular-season finale with an ankle injury. With fullback Jay Prosch also out (staph infection), Illinois really needs its offensive line to show up from the get-go. The line was supposed to be a strength for Illinois but has fallen short of expectations. If the Illini can get the ground game going early behind Young, Troy Pollard and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, they'll open up the pass attack with A.J. Jenkins.

2. Maintain motivation and composure: Both Illinois and UCLA are dealing with coaching transitions, suspensions and other turmoil. UCLA players recently skipped a practice. Many question how motivated the teams will be to play a minor bowl game before moving forward with new leading men (Tim Beckman and Jim Mora Jr., respectively). Illinois players say practice has gone well, and they will be playing for interim coach Vic Koenning, fired coach Ron Zook and themselves on Saturday. The Illini didn't handle adversity well down the stretch of the regular season and must keep their composure if things don't go well Saturday. Illinois must continue to limit penalties after tying for 22nd nationally in penalties per game (4.83). UCLA hasn't been nearly as disciplined, ranking 91st in penalties per game (6.85).

3. Contain UCLA's ground game: Illinois' defense will be the best unit on the field Saturday in San Francisco, but the Illini need a strong effort against the run. UCLA's rushing attack is the strength of its team, ranking 29th nationally (190.7 ypg). The Bruins have three players with more than 450 rushing yards, including quarterback Kevin Prince, who had 163 yards in a win against Cal earlier this season. Illinois struggled against the run down the stretch and needs a strong performance from a talented line featuring Whitney Mercilus, Michael Buchanan and Akeem Spence. Defensive tackle Corey Liuget had a huge performance against Baylor in last year's bowl victory. It will be interesting to see if Spence can do the same against UCLA.
One team lost its final six games and fired its coach. The other team finished with a losing record and fired its coach. Still, they're both going to play a bowl game in San Francisco, and one team has to win it. Let's take a look at the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl essentials:

WHO TO WATCH: Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus. The junior leads the nation with 14.5 sacks and nine forced fumbles. He showed up on everybody's All-America team and will almost certainly head to the NFL after this game. So he may be primed to go out with a bang against a UCLA offensive line that is decent but not overpowering. Bruins tackle Jeff Baca may need some help containing the explosive Mercilus off the edge.

WHAT TO WATCH: The Illini defense has been strong all season, but can the offense generate anything? After starting the season well, Illinois averaged just 11 points per game in its six straight losses to end the year. The offensive line was a mess, and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase appeared to lose his confidence -- not surprising, considering how little time he was given to throw. Leading rusher Jason Ford is academically ineligible for the bowl, and offensive coordinator Paul Petrino bolted for Arkansas, leaving quarterbacks coach Jeff Brohm in charge of the playcalling. If Scheelhaase can get some protection, he has one of the top receiving threats in the country in A.J. Jenkins. But that's a big if.

WHY TO WATCH: Well, you need something to do while getting ready to go out for New Year's Eve, right? We can't pretend this isn't one of the least appealing bowl matchups, given the complete lack of momentum or enthusiasm on either side. But, hey, it's still a Pac-12 vs. Big Ten meeting in California, even if this is about as far away from the Rose Bowl as you can get. Both teams have talent and tradition, and both will be looking to impress their new incoming head coaches.

PREDICTION: Illinois 17, UCLA 9. I have little confidence in the Illini's ability to do much offensively. But the Illinois defense will be the best unit on the field and should be motivated to play for Vic Koenning, the defensive coordinator/interim head coach who is leaving after the game. It probably won't be pretty -- except for the background shots of San Francisco.

2011 Big Ten Super Seniors

December, 29, 2011
12/29/11
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Borrowing an idea from our friends at the SEC blog, I wanted to recognize some of the best seniors in the Big Ten in 2011.

To spread the love around, the following list features one senior from each Big Ten team. I really looked for guys who saved their best for last, took their game to the next level and performed consistently all season. There are obviously more standout seniors than the ones mentioned below, but these players all deserve some recognition.

[+] EnlargeB.J. Cunningham
Mike Carter/US PresswireSpartans receiver B.J. Cunningham is one of several of ESPN.com's Big Ten Super Seniors.
Here's the list, in alphabetical order:

Michigan State WR B.J. Cunningham: He took the step from good (50 catches, 611 receiving yards, 9 TDs) to great (72 catches, 1,240 yards, 12 TDs) this season. He eclipsed 100 receiving yards in both games against Wisconsin and went for 154 yards on nine catches against Ohio State. His 17.2 yards-per-reception average was tops among the Big Ten's leading receivers. Cunningham became a very hard player to contain on the outside.

Nebraska LB Lavonte David: He played only two seasons in Lincoln but won't soon be forgotten. David didn't match his team record tackles total from 2010 (152) but still had 122 stops, the third-highest total in the Big Ten. He also become more of a difference-maker, making the critical plays for the Huskers in wins like Ohio State. David led Nebraska in tackles for loss (11) and finished second in sacks (3.5). He also had two interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.

Illinois WR A.J. Jenkins: The Illini offense disappeared in the second half, but Jenkins' accomplishments shouldn't go unnoticed. He went from a decent receiver to one of the best in the Big Ten, recording a league-best 82 receptions for 1,197 yards and seven touchdowns. Although Jenkins did much of his damage in the first six games, he still recorded six or more receptions in nine games and at least four catches in all 12 regular-season contests. He accounted for 53.3 percent of the team's receiving yards, the most nationally by eight percent.

Purdue LT Dennis Kelly: The offensive linemen deserve some love on this list, and Kelly stabilized Purdue's front five in his third season as a starter. Kelly started every game for the third consecutive season, giving him 37 career starts, and anchored a Purdue line that helped the team rank fifth in the league in rushing (181.6 ypg) and third in first downs (20.5 per game). Kelly finished his career as a bowl champion as Purdue captured the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl on Tuesday night.

Iowa WR Marvin McNutt: McNutt had been a productive pass-catcher for Iowa, but he took his game to the next level this season. The Big Ten's best receiver recorded 78 receptions for 1,269 yards and 12 touchdowns. He had eight 100-yard receiving performances and four games with multiple touchdown catches. McNutt also made the best catch of the Big Ten season against Michigan State on Nov. 12.

Northwestern S Brian Peters: It was a very rough year for the Wildcats' secondary, but it would have been even worse without Peters' contributions. He made by far the most big plays for the unit, recording four interceptions, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. Peters finished second on the team in tackles (85) and had four tackles for loss, four pass breakups and a sack.

Minnesota S Kim Royston: Talk about a player who made the most of his final opportunity. Granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, Royston turned in a terrific season, leading Minnesota and finishing third in the Big Ten with 123 tackles, 36 more than any other Gophers defender. Royston had an interception, two pass breakups and a sack. He recorded double digits in tackles in eight contests and provided leadership for a unit that needed it.

[+] EnlargeDevin Still
Jeffrey G. Pittenger/US PresswirePenn State defensive tackle Devin Still was more than a handful for opposing blockers in 2011.
Penn State DT Devon Still: Brian and I look like fools (yeah, it happens a lot) for leaving Still off of our preseason top 25 player rankings. But he wasn't nearly the same player in 2010 as he turned out to be this fall. The Lions star put it all together to win Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors. A disruptive force that put strain on every opposing offensive line, Still recorded 17 tackles for loss, tied for fourth in the Big Ten. He had 4.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery, and his stats hardly tell the full story. No Big Ten player better fits the definition of Super Senior.

Ohio State LB Andrew Sweat: It wasn't a typical year for Ohio State's senior class, as several key players missed chunks of the season because of suspensions. Sweat stepped up his play for a mostly young defense, though, and contributed 68 tackles, five tackles for loss, a forced fumble, an interception and three pass breakups. The Buckeyes sorely missed him in their final two games, when he sat out with head and elbow injuries.

Indiana LB Jeff Thomas: Youth was served all season at Indiana, which played more young players than any FBS team this season. But Thomas did his part on a flawed defense, leading the squad in both tackles (80) and tackles for loss (10.5). He added three pass breakups, a sack and a fumble recovery. The junior-college transfer has been one of few bright spots for Indiana's defense the past two seasons.

Michigan DE Ryan Van Bergen: Many Wolverines defenders benefited from a new coaching staff and a new scheme, but perhaps none more than Van Bergen. He led the team in both tackles for loss (12) and sacks (5) and finished second with three fumble recoveries. Van Bergen finished the season playing his best football, recording seven tackles for loss in the final three games.

Wisconsin QB Russell Wilson: He came to Madison as a senior and turned in one of the more memorable offensive performances in team history. Although Wilson had put up big numbers at NC State, he became a much more efficient quarterback with the Badgers, completing 72.5 percent of his passes with 31 touchdowns and only three interceptions in 284 attempts. He ranked second nationally in pass efficiency (191.6), trailing only Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III. Wilson earned consensus first-team All-Big Ten honors.

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