NCF Nation: Akeel Lynch

Big Ten predictions: Week 7

October, 10, 2013
10/10/13
9:00
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The halfway point of the season is within sight, and we're neck-and-neck in the predictions race. Will someone pull ahead in Week 7? There are only four games on tap, but several potential close ones.

Let's get it started …


INDIANA at MICHIGAN STATE

Brian Bennett: Ah, what can top the majesty of a trophy modeled after a spit receptacle? This is a fascinating game in terms of an offense versus defense showdown. I think Indiana can make some plays in its passing game, but Michigan State's improving offense, behind Connor Cook and a strong running game behind Jeremy Langford, makes the difference. … Michigan State 28, Indiana 21

Adam Rittenberg: I love the matchup of strength (Michigan State's defense) versus strength (Indiana's offense) at Spartan Stadium. It'll be a mixed bag for Hoosiers quarterback Nate Sudfeld with two touchdown passes and two interceptions, but Michigan State once again contains the run game and gets a pick-six from Trae Waynes. The Spartans offense is gaining confidence at the right time, and wideout Macgarrett Kings adds two more touchdowns as Michigan State uses a big third quarter to win again. … Michigan State 30, Indiana 20


NEBRASKA at PURDUE

Rittenberg: Taylor Martinez watches as Tommy Armstrong Jr. leads the offense to another big performance against a leaky Purdue defense. Armstrong fires a first-half touchdown pass and Ameer Abdullah goes for 130 yards and two scores. Boilers quarterback Danny Etling sparks his team to an early lead before Nebraska takes control in the second quarter. … Nebraska 38, Purdue 21

Bennett: Nebraska hits the road for the first time, but there's nowhere you'd rather play right now in this league than West Lafayette, Ind., if you have to leave home. I agree that Abdullah will have a monster game, and the Huskers pick Etling off twice in a dominant effort. … Nebraska 38, Purdue 14



NORTHWESTERN at WISCONSIN

Bennett: Is there any way this can end except in a close game and a tough loss for one of these teams? I say no, especially since these could be the second- and third-best teams in the league, in some order. Northwestern grabs an early 10-point lead, but Wisconsin comes back on a pair of Joel Stave touchdown passes to Jared Abbrederis. … Wisconsin 33, Northwestern 30


Rittenberg: The Wildcats commit more defenders to the run in this one, but Melvin Gordon still breaks loose for two long touchdown runs. Wisconsin has some trouble with Northwestern's pass game, and the Wildcats record a special-teams touchdown from Venric Mark. But the Badgers surge in the fourth quarter behind Gordon, James White and a powerful offensive line as Northwestern's close-game heartbreak continues. … Wisconsin 31, Northwestern 27


MICHIGAN at PENN STATE

Rittenberg: I'm going with the upset here as feisty Bill O'Brien lights a fire under his team, which plays a much better game under the lights before the home faithful. It's be a shootout, and both Christian Hackenberg and Devin Gardner eclipse 250 pass yards. But Gardner commits a turnover midway through the fourth quarter, and Penn State scores in the final minute on an Akeel Lynch run. … Penn State 38, Michigan 35

Bennett: This should be a close one, as both teams have strengths but also some glaring issues. O'Brien commits to the run game early and Zach Zwinak scores two touchdowns, but Penn State's issues in the secondary are exposed by Gardner and Jeremy Gallon, and Gardner scoots in for the winning score with less than two minutes left. … Michigan 28, Penn State 24.


That's how we see things playing out Saturday afternoon, but we're not done yet. It's time to hear from our guest picker. As a reminder, throughout the season we'll choose one fan/loyal blog reader each week to try his or her hand at outsmarting us. There's nothing but pride and some extremely limited fame at stake. If you're interested in participating, contact us here and here. Include your full name (real names, please), hometown and a brief description why you should be that week's guest picker. Please also include "GUEST PICKS" in all caps somewhere in your email so we can find it easily.

This week's guest picker is Barry Uphoff from Palo Alto, Calif. Barry, the floor is yours …
I should be your Big Ten guest picker of the week! Was born in Nebraska, have lived in Chicago and been in every stadium in the Big Ten to see a game -- Lincoln is of course my favorite. So why should I be the guest picker for the week? Living in Pac-12 land, especially Palo Alto, is tough! Anything I can do to spend more time on the Big Ten and less time hearing about the Pac-12, the better. If I have to see or hear about the dancing tree one more time, I am going to chop the tree down! Sincerely, George Washington.

(Editor's note: As a Berkeley, Calif., native, I can't stand the Tree, either. … Adam)

Here are Barry's Week 7 picks …

Michigan State 31, Indiana 21
Nebraska 35, Purdue 24
Wisconsin 35, Northwestern 28
Michigan 27, Penn State 24


SEASON RECORDS

Adam Rittenberg: 47-8
Brian Bennett:
47-8
Guest pickers:
42-13

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 4

September, 23, 2013
9/23/13
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Remember two weeks ago when we were debating Ohio State versus Michigan as the Big Ten's top team? Well, the Buckeyes have created some separation from Michigan and the rest of the league with two dominant offensive performances. Michigan, meanwhile, either has a massive hangover from beating Notre Dame or a lot of issues to sort out.

We gave the Wolverines the benefit of the doubt after the Akron game and kept them at No. 2. After Saturday night's slopfest at Connecticut, we can no longer keep Michigan in the second slot. Northwestern looked lackluster for the second straight week but avoided the major scare Michigan has endured. Wisconsin, meanwhile, might be the league's second-best squad. We'll find out a lot about the Badgers this week in Columbus.

Minnesota and Iowa make nice moves this week, while Indiana takes a tumble.

As a reminder, we keep these rankings consistent with how we vote in the ESPN.com Top 25. Here's one final look at last week's power poll.

Let's get to the rundown ...

1. Ohio State (4-0, last week: 1): We'll finally get a gauge on these Buckeyes as they open Big Ten play Saturday night against Wisconsin, but the recent results have been encouraging. Braxton Miller's absence once again didn't faze Ohio State, which scored 34 points in the first quarter and received a nice boost from running back Carlos Hyde in his season debut. Backup signal-caller Kenny Guiton continued his surge with a school-record six touchdown passes. Miller likely returns this week, but the Buckeyes' offense clearly is more than just one man this season.

2. Northwestern (4-0, last week: 3): For whatever reason, Northwestern looks worse against weaker nonleague foes than seemingly stronger ones. The Wildcats had more positives against Cal and Syracuse than Western Michigan and Maine, although they were never in serious danger of losing in the past two weeks. Linebacker Damien Proby sparked a takeaway-driven defense Saturday. Quarterbacks Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian struggled but have two weeks to prepare for Ohio State, when running back Venric Mark is expected back.

3. Wisconsin (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten; last week: 4): Credit Gary Andersen's players for not letting last week's unfortunate ending linger as they opened Big Ten play against Purdue. Wisconsin went back to what it does best, overpowering opponents with the run game, as Melvin Gordon and James White combined for 292 rush yards and four touchdowns. The Badgers' defense bottled up Purdue, surrendering only 12 first downs, 45 rush yards and 180 total yards. You have to like how Wisconsin is performing before this week's showdown in Columbus.

4. Michigan (4-0, last week: 2): The Akron game could be forgivingly dismissed as a letdown. But when many of the same issues surface for the second straight week against a poor opponent, it's reason to be concerned. Michigan won't stay perfect much longer if quarterback Devin Gardner keeps turning over the ball (he leads the nation with 10 turnovers) and the offensive line endures periods of inconsistent play. Coach Brady Hoke and his staff have plenty of items to address this week before the Jug game against potentially undefeated Minnesota.

5. Nebraska (3-1, last week: 6): After a turbulent eight days, Bo Pelini wanted his players to have some fun in their final nonleague tuneup. The offense had plenty despite playing without top quarterback Taylor Martinez, eclipsing 300 pass yards and 300 rush yards. Reserve quarterbacks Tommy Armstrong and Ron Kellogg III both performed well. The defense had a lot less fun, however, surrendering 465 yards in a performance that Pelini labeled its worst of the season. Nebraska has to get a handle on its defense this week before opening Big Ten play against Illinois.

6. Minnesota (4-0, last week: 7): Knock San Jose State if you must, but the Spartans provided the biggest test for Minnesota to date, and the Gophers passed it with flying colors. Minnesota showed the physical dominance coach Jerry Kill has been waiting for, piling up 353 rush yards and six touchdowns behind quarterback Mitch Leidner and running back David Cobb. Although San Jose State's David Fales showed why he's an NFL prospect, the Gophers continued to force turnovers. Minnesota hosts Iowa this week in a game that has more than bacon on the line.

7. Michigan State (3-1, last week: 5): The Spartans looked like the better team for much of Saturday's game at Notre Dame. But many of the same issues that surfaced in close losses last season -- stalled drives, dropped passes, not enough takeaways and missed field goals -- surfaced in a 17-13 setback. Coach Mark Dantonio and his players say this feels different, and that they can overcome their errors to make some noise in a wide-open Legends Division. The defense remains championship-level, but there are other issues to sort out, namely quarterback.

8. Penn State (3-1, last week: 8): Kent State's woeful offense turned out to be the perfect cure for a Nittany Lions defense that struggled mightily in a Week 3 loss to Central Florida. Safety Ryan Keiser and cornerback Jordan Lucas helped trigger Penn State's first shutout since 2010, as the Lions allowed only nine first downs and 190 total yards. The run game once again surged behind Akeel Lynch (123 rush yards) and others. Penn State's defense will face much greater tests when Big Ten play begins in two weeks.

9. Iowa (3-1, last week: 11): Kirk Ferentz's crew is clearly on the rise after its most complete performance in recent memory. Iowa received numerous contributions on offense, two punt return touchdowns from Kevonte Martin-Manley and a pick-six from B.J. Lowery -- all during a 38-point first half against Western Michigan. Lowery added another pick-six in the second half and stomped the Broncos. After a rough start to the season, Iowa has the momentum it needs heading into a pivotal Big Ten opener against Minnesota.

10. Illinois (2-1, last week: 10): The Illini sat back and watched the rest of the Big Ten in Week 4, enjoying the first of two open weeks. They'll have an excellent chance to improve to 3-1 this week against an 0-3 Miami (Ohio) squad that was shut out Saturday against Cincinnati and has scored just 21 points in its first three games. This is the perfect opportunity for Illinois' defense to rebound after getting gashed by Washington in Week 3. Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase tries to bounce back after completing just 9 of 25 pass attempts.

11. Indiana (2-2, last week: 9): Just when Indiana appears ready to turn a corner, it becomes Indiana again. For the second time in three games, Indiana limped out of the gate and fell behind, never finding a good offensive rhythm and struggling to stop Missouri's balanced attack. Missouri piled up 623 yards, a Memorial Stadium record for an Indiana opponent. The Hoosiers' defense remains far too vulnerable, and quarterback Nate Sudfeld struggled, throwing three interceptions. There's a lot to fix in the open week before Penn State comes to town.

12. Purdue (1-3, 0-1 Big Ten; last week: 12): Trips to Madison haven't been kind to the Boilers, and Saturday's proved to be no exception as Darrell Hazell's team took a step back after an encouraging performance against Notre Dame. When you can't run the ball or stop the run, you have no chance, and Purdue struggled mightily in both areas. Hazell admits Purdue must do some "soul searching" following a rough start, and things don't get any easier this week against Jordan Lynch and Northern Illinois.

Big Ten predictions: Week 3

September, 12, 2013
9/12/13
9:00
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After two relatively easy weeks of picking games, the challenge gets much tougher with a delicious slate of Week 3 games. Last week, our picks mirrored one another. There will be some disagreements this time around.

Let's dive in ...

BOWLING GREEN at INDIANA

Brian Bennett: Bowling Green has looked terrific in its first two games, while Indiana's defense was all but absent last week versus Navy. Different styles, but I think the Falcons seize on the Hoosiers' weaknesses. They kick a field goal late for my not-very-special upset special. ... Bowling Green 37, Indiana 34

Adam Rittenberg: I had Indiana beating Navy and losing this game entering the season, so naturally, I'm picking the Hoosiers to win after falling to Navy. The defense bounces back a little against a more conventional offense, and Nate Sudfeld consistently attacks downfield to Kofi Hughes and Shane Wynn. Sudfeld rallies IU in the fourth quarter and finds Ted Bolser for the game-winning touchdown. ... Indiana 38, Bowling Green 35

WESTERN ILLINOIS at MINNESOTA

Rittenberg: Can you wake me when Minnesota finally starts playing someone? Quarterback Philip Nelson adds two more rushing scores as the Gophers pull away early in the third quarter following a Ra'Shede Hageman forced fumble. Then we can look ahead to San Jose State. ... Minnesota 37, Western Illinois 17

Bennett: There's not much interesting about this game, except that we get to throw around the word "Leathernecks." It's a good week to get Mitch Leidner some experience. ... Minnesota 35, Western Illinois 13


UCLA at NEBRASKA

Bennett: I've gone back and forth on this all week, but in the end I worry that Nebraska's home-field advantage won't be enough to overcome its youth on defense. Brett Hundley amasses five total touchdowns, and the Huskers come up just short on their final drive. ... UCLA 38, Nebraska 34

Rittenberg: Nebraska's defense remains a big concern, especially against Hundley, but with no Johnathan Franklin, the early kickoff and a long trip, I expect UCLA to be a big sluggish. Martinez delivers a turnover-free performance in a big game and finds Quincy Enunwa for the game-winning touchdown pass in the final minute. ... Nebraska 35, UCLA 34

AKRON at MICHIGAN

Rittenberg: UCF's Blake Bortles abused Akron for big plays in Week 1. Devin Gardner, eat your heart out. The Gardner-Gallon connection cranks up again as Jeremy Gallon hauls in two more touchdowns. Fitzgerald Toussaint goes for 120 rush yards and a score as Michigan rolls. ... Michigan 45, Akron 17

Brian Bennett: Akron has won four games since the end of the 2009 season. Notre Dame hangover? Maybe, but it won't matter one bit. ... Michigan 48, Akron 10


YOUNGSTOWN STATE at MICHIGAN STATE

Bennett: Is Jim Tressel back coaching Youngstown State? Maybe then the Penguins would have a chance. The Spartans play Connor Cook and Damion Terry and get only two touchdown drives out of both of them. But the defense scores again. ... Michigan State 27, Youngstown State 3

Rittenberg: I'm tempted to go with the Penguins since Michigan State's offense is ice cold (be sure to tip your waitress). This will be close for three quarters, but Michigan State's Terry steps up late with a touchdown pass and a touchdown run (yes, two offensive touchdowns). Sadly, no touchdown for Bane this week. ... Michigan State 24, Youngstown State 10

IOWA at IOWA STATE

Rittenberg: Do I have to pick a winner here? Iowa took a step back last week in many ways, although the power run stepped up when the team needed a lift. This will be a sloppy game on both sides, but Mark Weisman and Damon Bullock, along with the offensive line, prove to be the difference in the fourth quarter. ... Iowa 19, Iowa State 17

Bennett: Kirk Ferentz really needs this game. Then again, so does Paul Rhoads after losing to Northern Iowa in the opener. I don't expect many fireworks, either, but the Cyclones are just a little more desperate and have the momentum in this series. They win it on an overtime field goal. ... Iowa State 16, Iowa 13

UCF at PENN STATE

Bennett: UCF is a trendy sleeper pick and has an experienced quarterback. But Penn State's defense is a major step up from Conference USA/American Athletic competition. It's close for a half, but Christian Hackenberg gets going in the third quarter with a pair of touchdown tosses to Allen Robinson, and Bill O'Brien tops George O'Leary. ... Penn State 27, UCF 17


Rittenberg: Tricky game for Bill O'Brien's crew, but I expect Penn State's defense to do enough against Blake Bortles and a talented UCF offense. UCF jumps out to an early lead, but Zach Zwinak and Akeel Lynch spark Penn State's rushing attack in the second half, each scoring a touchdown as the Lions prevail. ... Penn State 34, UCF 27

WASHINGTON vs. ILLINOIS (at Chicago)

Rittenberg: Washington is the more talented and experienced team, and a lot needs to go right for the Illini to pull off the upset. I see another fast start for Illinois against a Huskies team that struggles on the road and might be a little sleepy following a bye week. Nathan Scheelhaase throws two more touchdown passes, but Washington tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins proves to be the difference with 120 receiving yards and a score. ... Washington 31, Illinois 21

Bennett: I'd like to pick the Illini here because it would be a great story. They certainly proved me wrong last week in a big way. I still think Washington is just a little too talented, though. Keith Price throws four touchdown passes, making him the best quarterback Soldier Field has seen in a while. (That one's for you, Adam.) ... Washington 37, Illinois 23


OHIO STATE at CALIFORNIA

Bennett: Cal played Northwestern pretty tough and then ... almost lost to Portland State? Inconsistency should be expected, I guess, with a freshman QB and a new coach. There are going to be a whole lot of big plays in this one, and I suspect Kenny Guiton will see the majority of the action. Big coming-out party for Dontre Wilson here. ... Ohio State 49, Cal 28


Rittenberg: Cal provides a nice test for Ohio State's young defense, but the presence of cornerback Bradley Roby should help hold one of the Bears' standout wide receivers (Chris Harper and Bryce Treggs) in check. Ohio State has too much at the line of scrimmage and will use its ground game of Jordan Hall, Rod Smith and Wilson to outlast the Bears. ... Ohio State 38, Cal 27

NOTRE DAME at PURDUE

Rittenberg: The Boilers have shown me nothing to suggest they can knock off a team like Notre Dame, which is pretty darn good despite last week's loss in Ann Arbor, Mich. Purdue starts strong but can't finish two early drives. The Irish then take over with their rushing attack, led by Amir Carlisle, and force two second-half takeaways. ... Notre Dame 38, Purdue 17

Bennett: Circle the wagons, Purdue. It's going to be a long couple months. ... Notre Dame 35, Purdue 7


WESTERN MICHIGAN at NORTHWESTERN

Bennett: Western Michigan just lost to Nicholls State. OK, then. Northwestern might not be quite as sharp after two big games, but it won't need to be. Kain Colter rushes for 100 yards and a pair of scores, and he and Trevor Siemian both get an early rest. ... Northwestern 38, Western Michigan 10


Rittenberg: Previous Northwestern teams might be ripe for a letdown, but not the 2013 squad. Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian deliver another strong performance, combining for five touchdowns (three pass, two rush), including two scoring passes to Christian Jones. The defense forces two more turnovers as the Wildcats cruse. ... Northwestern 41, Western Michigan 17

WISCONSIN at ARIZONA STATE

Rittenberg: I just don't like the matchup for the Badgers, even though they've been so impressive early on. Arizona State's strength (pass game) goes up against Wisconsin's weakness (secondary), and although the Badgers control the clock with their run game, the Sun Devils hit in too many big plays. Too much Taylor Kelly in this one. ... Arizona State 35, Wisconsin 28

Bennett: I think big Will Sutton will be a shock to the system to Wisconsin offensive linemen used to dealing with the UMass and Tennessee Tech lines of the world. The secondary also gets burned a few too many times. Joel Stave throws two interceptions to thwart a comeback attempt, and Big Ten teams stay thirsty in the desert. ... Arizona State 28, Wisconsin 20.


Wait, we're not done yet. It's time for our guest picker of the week. Oh, you haven't heard? Throughout the season, we'll choose one fan/loyal blog reader each week to try his or her hand at outsmarting us. There's nothing but pride and some extremely limited fame at stake. If you're interested in participating, contact us here and here. Include your full name (real names, please) and hometown and a brief description why you should be that week's guest picker. Please also include "GUEST PICKS" in all caps somewhere in your email so we can find it easily.

We found this week's picker in the desert: Adam Fraser from Gilbert, Ariz.

The floor is yours:
I'm a lifelong Husker fan living in Arizona. I'm a season-ticket holder and couldn't make it back for the UCLA game. I just started a new career at Prudential and my boss played football for UCLA. I've followed your blog for years and constantly smash your predictions. Let me put it on record at least one week, the Huskers biggest week of the year!! Thanks Adam (do it for your fellow Adam).

Other Adam's picks ...

Bowling Green 42, Indiana 40
Minnesota 30, Western Illinois 20
Nebraska 41, UCLA 37
Michigan 45, Akron 6
Michigan State 20, Youngstown State 13
Iowa 20, Iowa State 16
Penn State 24, UCF 13
Washington 31, Illinois 30
Ohio State 30, California 28
Notre Dame 38, Purdue 14
Northwestern 48, Western Michigan 10
Arizona State 34, Wisconsin 20

SEASON RECORDS


Brian Bennett: 22-2
Adam Rittenberg: 21-3
Guest pickers: 18-6

Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which blogger is right.

In the coming days, we'll make our predictions on the Big Ten's statistical leaders in 2013. Today's Take Two topic is: Who will lead the Big Ten in rushing this season?

Take 1: Adam Rittenberg

The Big Ten loses its top three rushers from 2012 -- Montee Ball, Le'Veon Bell and Denard Robinson -- but returns the next seven best ground gainers. That group of seven includes two pairs of teammates in Ohio State's Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde and Nebraska's Taylor Martinez and Ameer Abdullah. Although any of the four could lead the league in rushing, it's possible that they'll cancel each other out and take away the carries needed to top the chart. Northwestern's Venric Mark also is in the mix, but like the others, he shares carries with a quarterback (Kain Colter) and should have a deeper group of running backs around him this fall. Penn State's Zach Zwinak hit the 1,000-yard mark in 2012, but he'll be pushed for carries by Bill Belton and dynamic redshirt freshman Akeel Lynch.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Hyde
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesThe power of RB Carlos Hyde is expected to be put to the test often for Ohio State in 2013.
Wisconsin has a similar situation with its run game as James White and Melvin Gordon will enter the season as 1a and 1b. Of the two, Gordon projects a little bit better as a true featured back, but White is a talented senior who should be a big part of the mix as well. Iowa's Mark Weisman is part of the discussion, too, as he showed the ability to put up monster numbers when healthy in 2012, even for a bad offense. Michigan is on the lookout for a featured back, and while the Wolverines have some question marks along the offensive line, Fitzgerald Toussaint or Derrick Green could be a good wild-card pick.

Bottom line: this isn't an easy decision. Ultimately, I'm going with the guy running behind the league's best offensive line at Ohio State. Hyde will emerge as the Big Ten's leading rusher, edging out Mark, Gordon and Weisman for the title. Ohio State will rely less on Miller to carry the rushing load and use a more traditional power attack behind Hyde, who averaged 5.2 yards per carry and scored 16 touchdowns in only 10 games last fall. Hyde has the power-size combination to thrive as a featured back, and he should get a bigger carries load as a senior, not just in the red zone but everywhere on the field.

Take 2: Brian Bennett

The race for the rushing title should shape up as the most exciting individual battle in the Big Ten this season. The league always produces great runners, and as Adam noted, many of the top ball carriers are back in 2013. In fact, some of the best competitions for rushing yards will happen in the same backfields, as several teams are capable of fielding two 1,000-yard rushers this season.

Hyde is a good choice, especially if he can replicate what he did down the stretch last year for a full season. But Braxton Miller will still run the ball a lot, too, and Ohio State also has the improving Rod Smith, youngsters Warren Ball and Bri'onte Dunn, plus Jordan Hall and possibly Dontre Wilson. That's a lot of studs who need to be fed.

I'm tempted to take one of the Wisconsin backs, because you can never really go wrong there. But I can envision a scenario where both White and Gordon both put up over 1,000 yards but neither leads the league. Instead, I'm going to go out on an ever-so-slight limb and predict that Nebraska's Abdullah finishes as the Big Ten rushing champ.

Abdullah ran for 1,137 yards last year, and he began the season as Rex Burkhead's backup. He also split carries when Burkhead returned from a knee injury late in the season. Abdullah improved greatly from his freshman to his sophomore year and should be even better as a junior. Though Martinez will take his share of carries, Abdullah really only has one other player -- Imani Cross -- to split time with. The Huskers' offense plays at a fast pace and should get lots of snaps, especially against a pretty soft early schedule. Defenses also can't key on Abdullah because of the presence of Martinez and a talented receiving corps.

Abdullah received 226 carries in 14 games last year, an average of just 16 per game. Assuming he's fully healed from a minor spring knee injury, I could easily see him averaging more like 20-to-22 carries per contest in 2013. If he can improve his five yards per carry average from 2012, Abdullah should make a run at over 1,500 yards and possibly bring the rushing title home to Lincoln.
On Wednesday, the head coach and one player from each Big Ten Legends Division team participated in a spring football teleconference with the media. On Thursday, it was the Leaders Division's turn. Here are some notes and updates from the call:

Illinois
  • Head coach Tim Beckman said the junior college players he brought in helped with depth and age issues on his young team. "We have 40 football players that have never been in our spring football until this year," he said. Of the juco imports, Beckman said wide receiver Martize Barr has quick hands and good playmaking skills, both in the passing game and on kick returns; Eric Finney has earned a starting job at the Star linebacker position; Abe Cajuste is adding depth by playing both defensive tackle and defensive end; and Dallas Hinkhouse is making an impact at offensive tackle.
  • Beckman sung the praises of offensive lineman Corey Lewis, a sixth-year senior who has battled back from five knee surgeries and has become a team leader. "Corey Lewis comes to my office probably four or five times a week, just to talk," he said. "To me, he is what college football is all about." Beckman said that Lewis has "had a special spring" and hinted that he has earned a starting job.
  • Quarterbacks Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole will take most of the snaps in Friday's spring game so they can get more experience in the new offense. Beckman said Scheelhaase has "got a step in front" because of his experience, but the competition continues.
  • Scheelhaase on reasons for optimism in 2013: "Establishing an identity. That's something I don't know that we necessarily had last year, on offense or defense or as a team in general.
Indiana
  • Like many of you, head coach Kevin Wilson would like to know the new Big Ten division alignment. The reason? It's harder to recruit without being able to tell a prospect where he'll be playing his freshman season. Wilson added that if the league does indeed go to an East/West split, he'd like to see the Hoosiers placed in the East since they're located in the Eastern Time Zone.
  • Wilson said run defense and takeaways are two huge priorities for the Hoosiers' defense during the offseason. He noted that the Big Ten doesn't boast a large group of elite pass offenses, so IU must prepare better for run-driven attacks. Indiana finished last in the Big Ten in both run defense (231.3 ypg) and takeaways (13). Cornerback Greg Heban said the defense is working on takeaways every day in practice. "Every time the ball touches the ground, the defense is scooping it and scoring it," Heban said, "trying to give us a feel of what it's like."
  • Both Wilson and Heban praised the play of junior cornerback Tim Bennett this spring. Other spring standouts include linebacker T.J. Simmons, a freshman early enrollee, and Steven Funderburk, a junior-college transfer.
  • Heban called this "easily the best spring I've been around." He has seen more physical play and better effort on both sides of the ball, and the team also is having more fun than in past springs.
Ohio State
  • Head coach Urban Meyer said running back Rod Smith won't play in Saturday's spring game because he recently suffered a concussion. Before that, Meyer said Smith was one of the five most improved players on offense this spring. Meyer listed Carlos Hyde and Smith as the team's top two running backs, while Bri'onte Dunn and Warren Ball are even for the No. 3 spot.
  • Although the receivers have been better this spring -- especially Corey Brown and Chris Fields -- the depth is still nowhere near where it needs to be for Meyer's spread offense. "We’re way behind on quality of depth at that position," Meyer said. "That's a major, major concern." Moving Jordan Hall to H-back should help, and Meyer noted that the Buckeyes boast two good tight ends in Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett.
  • Buckeyes offensive tackle Jack Mewhort paid close attention to the way John Simon and others led in 2012. He's ready to take on a greater load this season. "I welcome that," he said. "I see that as an honor, being compared to a guy like John Simon. I also see it as a challenge. I feel the pressure to step up and get guys going in the right direction." Mewhort also has seen quarterback Braxton Miller recognize his leadership responsibilities more this spring and get after teammates when he needs to.
  • Meyer said he puts more emphasis on spring practice and the spring game than most coaches. He has told his players that there will be a depth chart after spring ends, and while changes are possible in the summer, they're not likely. "In spring ball, you're trying to win a spot," he said. "During the fall, we're trying to win games."
Penn State
  • Quarterbacks Steven Bench and Tyler Ferguson are receiving equal reps during practice and, not surprisingly, have endured some ups and downs. Head coach Bill O'Brien praised both players' intelligence, noting that they aren't making mental errors during workouts. "These guys have had productive practices," O'Brien said. "Has every play been great? No. But the word patience is a very important word here. Coming from pro football, I definitely have to learn more patience with all these young players. I think I have, but I can do a lot better." Senior guard John Urschel, who was highly entertaining during the teleconference, said he's the wrong person to ask about quarterbacks but praised Bench and Ferguson for picking up the system and showing leadership.
  • Urschel said the first-team offensive line right now consists of himself and Miles Dieffenbach at guard, Ty Howle at center and Donovan Smith and Adam Gress at the tackle spots. Of Howle, he said, "I could talk about Ty all day. If you ask me, he's one of the most underrated players on our team. ... Honestly, when I got here, I thought Ty was the best offensive linemen in our year, of the seven of us." Urschel also said Dieffenbach "started a lot for us last year but really is starting to take his game to the next level."
  • O'Brien said Zach Zwinak would get the start at running back if the season opened now, but all three backs -- Zwinak, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch -- have had good springs. Lynch, a redshirt freshman, has "improved every single day of spring practice."
  • O'Brien is excited about Penn State's starting linebackers -- Glenn Carson, Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman -- but admits the lack of depth at the position is "something I think about 24-7." He said it's vital to get Carson, Hull and Wartman through the rest of the offseason healthy, and hope for contributions from others like Ben Kline and incoming freshman Brandon Bell. Penn State won't shift players to linebackers because "there’s really nobody to move" and will instead closely monitor reps the rest of the spring and in preseason camp.
Purdue
  • Head coach Darrell Hazell said the Boilermakers have made major improvements in the last three and a half weeks. "Anytime you put in three different schemes, there's a little bit of a learning curve for the first couple weeks," he said. "You could see guys start to really get comfortable the last five or six practices."
  • Hazell said he has "three capable guys" right now at quarterback with Rob Henry, Danny Etling and Austin Appleby. He reiterated that he would keep the competition open until two weeks before the opener at Cincinnati. Of Etling, a freshman early enrollee, Hazell said: "For a young guy, a guy that should be at his prom, I think he's got tremendous poise. He's smart and really studies the game."
  • Hazell said backup tight end Justin Sinz and center Robert Kugler are two guys that have really caught his eye this spring. He called Kugler a "very much a leader on the offensive line."
  • Cornerback Ricardo Allen said Hazell has instilled an "all is one" mentality. "If one person does something, we all have to do it. We all wear black socks. We all wear the same uniform. We all tuck our shirts in. I feel like we're becoming closer as a team, and it's helping us build."
Wisconsin
  • Head coach Gary Andersen confirmed Curt Phillips and Joel Stave have separated themselves in the quarterback competition. It's a "mixed bag" of who takes snaps with the first-team offense, but both will continue to rotate through the rest of the spring and into fall camp. "The way they've separated themselves is simply production," Andersen said. "They know exactly where they sit and so does the rest of the team. … If they put all their friendships aside, their depth chart would look exactly like our depth chart."
  • Andersen praised the offensive line for tackling another transition, as the group works with its fourth position coach (T.J. Woods) since the 2012 Rose Bowl. The line has seen varying looks from the defense in practice and had players move around to different positions, in part because of injuries. Wisconsin had only seven healthy linemen a week ago, but Andersen is hopeful the number will rise to nine or 10 by next week's spring game. "Those kids have grinded through it every single day," Andersen said. "They're a tough-minded group."
  • Badgers senior linebacker Chris Borland said losing defensive end David Gilbert to recurring foot problems is a blow but the team has others to step in like Tyler Dippel, Brendan Kelly and Jesse Hayes, a redshirt sophomore who has stood out this spring.
  • Much like his old boss Urban Meyer, Andersen believes in constant competition and declares winners and losers in each practice. Andersen also mixes in some fun with a dance-off and throwing footballs into trash cans. "Some of them are a little bit quirky, but through the years establish some things we like," he said.
  • Borland said the strength program has brought the biggest changes in the transition to Andersen's staff. Cardiovascular work is stressed more, as is preventative care. Head strength and conditioning coach Evan Simon operates at a faster pace and uses more of an instructional approach than Ben Herbert, who stressed motivation.
Bill O'BrienRandy Litzinger/Icon SMIBill O'Brien is excited about his team as he heads into his second season at Penn State.
The last time we saw Penn State, the Lions were celebrating a surprisingly strong finish to the 2012 season and saying farewell to a special senior class. Penn State since has turned the page and will begin spring practice Monday with a mix of familiarity and uncertainty. Bill O'Brien is not the "new coach" in Happy Valley anymore, and players have acclimated to O'Brien and his staff. But the Lions are looking for a starting quarterback for the second consecutive spring. They also must replace several outstanding defenders and fill holes on both lines. But the depth crisis many of us envisioned for the Lions when the NCAA sanctions came down last summer simply isn't there in State College.

ESPN.com caught up with O'Brien late last week to discuss spring ball.

What are some of the main objectives you're looking for when you get on the field again?

Bill O'Brien: The No. 1 objective offensively is to make sure we come out of this spring practice with improvement from the quarterback position. We won't name a starter coming out of the spring, but at least at the end of 15 practices we'll have a good idea of how well these guys are grasping the system, Tyler Ferguson and Steven Bench. So that's a big deal for us offensively.

And defensively, some new guys will be in there, and seeing how those guys do, whether it's Nyeem Wartman at linebacker or Jordan Lucas at corner or some other guys who are going to be playing a little bit more next year, how much they improve. And then we'll work our special teams every single day, so hopefully we'll find some core special-teams players this spring.

What's your message to Steven and Tyler going into the spring? You're not naming the starter, but what do you want to see out of them?

BO'B: [Thursday] I was talking to them, and I said, 'Look, I just want you guys to put your head down and go to work. Don't worry about what everybody else on the outside of the program thinks about your performance, whether it's in scrimmages or the Blue-White Game or whatever it is. Just try to get better every single day.' These are two really, really good kids. They're smart, they work hard at it, they're grasping it pretty well to this point. We're pretty excited about getting started with them. I don't want them to think about anything other than trying to improve and be as good a leader as they can be.

Will you have to change the offense for one or the other? Do they fit in with what you did last year?

BO'B: We'll definitely be different. We'll be different in many ways. Matt [McGloin] had certain strengths we tried to play to, no question about it. Our system is expansive enough that you can have different parts in there to take advantage of the talents of the quarterbacks who are playing. So we'll be a different offense than we were last year.

Anything specific on what might change with these two quarterbacks or areas you can draw out more?

BO'B: I'd rather not get into all of that, but I can tell you these are two guys who are big, they're strong, they're fast, they look to be accurate passers. We're just looking forward to working with them.

(Read full post)

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 2

September, 6, 2012
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Ten items to track Saturday as Week 2 of Big Ten action gets under way.

1. West Coast swing: The Big Ten-Pac-12 scheduling alliance fell apart this summer, but three matchups between the leagues are on tap Saturday. All three take place at Pac-12 stadiums, where Big Ten teams have struggled mightily, failing to win a game since 2007 and recording only three wins since 2001 (Nebraska was a member of the Big 12 when it spanked Washington in Seattle in 2010). Wisconsin, Nebraska and Illinois must handle long trips, time changes and tricky opponents to end the trend. Fortunately for Nebraska, quarterback Taylor Martinez and a group of his teammates will feel right at home at the Rose Bowl.

2. TerBush's turn: Despite being suspended for Purdue's season opener, quarterback Caleb TerBush earned the nod as the Boilers' starter for Saturday's game at No. 22 Notre Dame. Coach Danny Hope thinks TerBush gives the Boilers the best chance for a strong and steady start and pointed to the senior's ability to outplay both Robert Marve and Rob Henry in camp. Most Purdue fans didn't seem too thrilled with the decision, but TerBush, who started all 13 games last season, has a chance to prove them wrong and record a huge win for the program.

[+] EnlargeJames Vandenberg
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesIowa needs a more consistent performance Saturday from quarterback James Vandenberg.
3. Toussaint's return: Michigan needs to get off of the mat after being embarrassed in its opener against Alabama. The Wolverines will get a boost from running back Fitzgerald Toussaint, who returns from suspension to make his season debut against Air Force. Toussaint said he let the team and his family down following his drunken driving arrest and should have no shortage of motivation when he gets back on the field. Coach Brady Hoke likely will start Toussaint, who rushed for 1,041 yards and nine touchdowns last season, against the Falcons.

4. Hawks eye Cy: A huge empty trophy case greeted Iowa players in the middle of their locker room this week, as coach Kirk Ferentz reminded his team of what's at stake Saturday. Iowa has struggled in its trophy games of late, but it can regain one Saturday against in-state rival Iowa State. The Hawkeyes look for a stronger performance from senior quarterback James Vandenberg and a stingier defensive effort against Iowa State signal-caller Steele Jantz, who went nuts in last year's game.

5. Lions seek balance: After an emotion-charged opener in State College, Penn State hits the road Saturday against Virginia in search of its first win under coach Bill O'Brien. A key objective for Penn State is greater offensive balance after it had more than twice as many passes (48) as rushes (22) in last week's loss to Ohio. Only four FBS teams attempted fewer runs than the Lions, who likely will feature several backs at Virginia, possibly including true freshman Akeel Lynch, as top back Bill Belton deals with an ankle injury.

6. Wildcats' QB rotation: Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald says Kain Colter is his starting quarterback, but backup Trevor Siemian remains very much in the mix after leading the game-winning scoring drive last week at Syracuse. Colter, who gave way to Siemian on the decisive drive, has recovered from a left shoulder injury that slowed him late in the Syracuse game. But it will be interesting to see how Northwestern uses him and Siemian on Saturday night against Vanderbilt. Given Northwestern's defensive woes, it likely needs all the help it can get on offense to beat a talented Commodores team.

7. Maxwell, Gray look to rebound: Michigan State and Minnesota both recorded hard-fought wins in Week 1, but both need to see improvement from their quarterbacks on Saturday. Andrew Maxwell had three interceptions and no touchdowns in his first career start for the Spartans, who boast a championship-level defense and a championship-level running back in Le'Veon Bell but might not get there without solid quarterback play. Gray had a misleading stat line against UNLV and needs to show better accuracy on his passes, beginning this week against FCS New Hampshire.

8. Buckeyes battle test: Ohio State coach Urban Meyer expects Saturday's game against Central Florida to "be a war." While the Buckeyes are heavily favored, UCF should provide a much better test than Miami (Ohio) did last week, especially for the Buckeyes' defense. UCF is the preseason favorite in Conference USA's East Division and boasts a talented quarterback, sophomore Blake Bortles. Both squads are ineligible for postseason play because of NCAA violations, but they should provide an entertaining game in C-Bus.

9. Backups in spotlight: The injury bug took a toll on the Big Ten in Week 1, and several key players will or should be sidelined Saturday. We know Michigan cornerback Courtney Avery will step in for Blake Countess, who suffered a season-ending ACL tear against Alabama. Illinois quarterbacks Reilly O'Toole and Miles Osei took most of the snaps this week in practice as the team could play without starter Nathan Scheelhaase at Arizona State. Derek Day will get the first shot at running back for Penn State if Belton can't go, and a host of Nebraska backs, led by Ameer Abdullah, will carry the load if Rex Burkhead (knee) isn't ready for UCLA.

10. Hoosiers seek milestone: It's all about baby steps for Indiana's program, which can take another one Saturday at UMass. The Hoosiers are still seeking their first win against an FBS opponent under coach Kevin Wilson and can record one against the Minutemen, who are in their first season as an FBS member. An Indiana victory also would eclipse its victory total from all of last season. Expect Wilson to open up the offensive playbook a little more with quarterback Tre Roberson, who played well in the opener.

Iowa dismisses De'Andre Johnson

August, 1, 2012
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Iowa running back De'Andre Johnson had two minor encounters with police last week that seemed to illustrate poor judgment, but not necessarily major offenses. Yet it was apparently enough for Johnson to get a one-way ticket out of Iowa City.

Head coach Kirk Ferentz announced Wednesday afternoon that the sophomore has been dismissed from the team. This comes after Johnson was A) ticketed for maintaining a disorderly house on Thursday -- a charge Ferentz initially laughed off during Big Ten media days -- and then, in his best Cincinnati Bengal impression, B) got in trouble again Saturday when he allegedly sped his motorcyle through a 25 mph zone and failed to pull over right away for cops. (The lessons here, as always: don't speed, and maintain an orderly house!)

Taken alone, neither amounts to much. Put together, they still don't seem to rise to the level of dismissal. Yet we don't know what other things were going on behind the scenes with Johnson, and Ferentz obviously felt he had seen enough.

Johnson probably wasn't going to be a star at Iowa, but he at least had some experience running the ball for a varsity college team, which is more than just about any other current Hawkeye can say. Meet your new leading returning, healthy ball carrier, Iowa fans: Jason White, who had a whopping seven carries for 32 yards in 2011 (just edging out Damon Bullock, who had 10 attempts for 20 yards last year).

Now, Ferentz has those two guys and incoming freshmen Barkley Hill and Greg Garmon -- and maybe sophomore Jordan Canzeri if he makes a miracle recovery from his torn ACL. There are also rumors that Penn State signee Akeel Lynch is thinking about transferring to the Hawkeyes. Of course, such a development would constitute good news at the running back position for Iowa, so we should be immediately skeptical.

It's overkill at this point to rehash all the problems that Iowa's tailbacks have endured. But let's also point out that it has not been a very good offseason for Big Ten running backs in general.

There was the awful news about Montee Ball today. Michigan's Fitz Toussaint got busted for DUI and was then suspended. Silas Redd left Penn State for USC. Johnson got kicked off Iowa, and Garmon's fate was shaky when he was arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia. Ohio State's Jordan Hall hurt his foot and could miss the start of the season, while Bri'onte Dunn made headlines with a traffic stop. Purdue's Ralph Bolden got arrested for allegedly forcing a kiss on a woman at a bar.

Geez. Can we start practicing already?
video
Go ahead and mount that dartboard with Lane Kiffin's (usually) smug mug on it.

Place it next to the one of NCAA president Mark Emmert or any others considered villains in the fallout from the severe sanctions placed on Penn State's football program. Ask how and why the NCAA cleared the way for a star player to transfer from one program on probation to another.

But don't blame Silas Redd. He's no Benedict Arnold or Brutus. He's an extremely talented football player who had to make the best decision for his future.

As expected, Redd confirmed Tuesday that he's transferring from Penn State to USC. The second-team All-Big Ten running back in 2011, who ran for 1,241 yards and seven touchdowns, will be eligible to play immediately for the Trojans, who, like Penn State, have quite a tradition at running back. While Penn State is just beginning its penalty phase, which includes no postseason play for the next four years, USC is emerging from some of its own sanctions and will be eligible to compete for a national title for the first time since 2009.

[+] EnlargeSilas Redd
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarSilas Redd, who rushed for 1,241 yards and seven touchdowns at Penn State last season, is transferring to USC.
The NCAA made it as easy as possible for Penn State players to transfer without penalty. Kiffin came calling, and Redd, after visiting USC's campus during the weekend, accepted the invitation.

Redd ultimately had two good options.

1. Stay at Penn State, play in an NFL-style offense under new head coach Bill O'Brien, be the clear-cut featured back and have an excellent chance to turn pro after the season.

2. Go to USC, compete for the starting job, play behind the nation's top quarterback in Matt Barkley and compete for a Pac-12 title and quite possibly a national championship.

You can't fault a guy for wanting to play for a championship. Redd has that opportunity at USC, which likely will be the preseason No. 1 team in the polls.

This isn't a case of a cocky kid looking for the next best thing. Any Penn State fan who knows Redd or has read about him knows he's humble, hardworking and extremely classy. He comes from a terrific family and has earned everything that has come his way. His decision was extremely difficult, and he's leaving behind many close friends in State College.

Here's the full statement Redd issued about his decision, and here's an excerpt:
"Playing football at Penn State has been a dream of mine since I was seven years old, and I will be forever grateful that this dream became a reality," Redd's statement reads. "This is the reason that the decision I have made is so difficult for me: I will transfer to USC to complete my education and my college football career, beginning in the 2012-2013 year. Penn State gave me a phenomenal opportunity to become part of a legendary football program. My teammates, my coaches -- past and present -- and the staff have provided me with a tremendous amount of guidance and support since I arrived on campus, and I can't thank them enough for their time, their advice, and their friendship. They have given me such a strong foundation from which I can continue to grow."

Sure, he could have echoed the pledge made by several of Penn State's older players last week. He could have stuck it out in State College. But the NCAA sanctions changed things at Penn State, and the liberal transfer policies opened doors everywhere, even to other programs on probation, like USC. Is that debatable? Highly.

"I think it is important to say that this situation is not something that I wished for myself, but it has happened, nonetheless," Redd's statement reads.

Redd also finds himself in a different situation from most Lions players. He has two years of eligibility left, and likely will face an NFL decision after the season. He also plays a position where a transition to a new team, even just a month before the opener, shouldn't be overly dramatic.

His departure certainly stings. If Redd isn't Penn State's best player, he's a close second behind first-team All-Big Ten linebacker Gerald Hodges.

Who takes over at running back for the Lions? Bill Belton will be a key player to watch in preseason camp. He ran the "Wild Lion" offense at times last season and possesses good speed. Curtis Dukes, a big back who missed spring ball because of academics, is weighing whether or not to stay in State College. Redd's decision could impact that of incoming running back recruit Akeel Lynch, who is considering Iowa as a possible transfer destination.

Running back suddenly has become a compelling position battle for Penn State, which kicks off fall practice Monday.

It'll be interesting to see the reaction to Redd's transfer. His exit is another setback for a program and a fan base dealing with plenty of them. More departures likely will come, including the possibility of linebacker Khairi Fortt heading to Cal.

But if you're looking for someone to blame, Redd isn't the answer.
Earlier today, I had a Q&A with new Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien where he talked about spring practice. O'Brien met with the media this afternoon and gave out some new information on the Nittany Lions spring, including the news that wide receiver Curtis Drake is moving to cornerback.

Drake played a big role in the win over Ohio State late in the season as a Wildcat quarterback, but he did not make the trip to the team's bowl after getting into a locker-room altercation with quarterback Matt McGloin. O'Brien said Drake had a "clean slate" as far as discipline and that he was needed to bolster the numbers in a secondary where all four starters graduated.

"What I saw with Curtis on the football field was good size, good feet, good hips, instinctiveness, and I think that he's a guy that can contribute over there," O'Brien said. "He's got to keep up his end of the bargain by doing well in school and keeping his nose clean, and then we'll give him a shot to play over there this spring."

Some other notes from O'Brien:
  • He reiterated again that there is no starter at the quarterback spot right now and that he might not name a starter until the night before the season opener against Ohio.
  • Linebacker Michael Mauti (ACL) won't participate in contact drills this spring, but O'Brien said Mauti "has had a heck of a winter just in the things that he has been able to do. He's definitely obviously one of the core players on this football team, just both from his leadership and from his work ethic, his family."
  • Running back Curtis Dukes will sit out the spring to concentrate on academics. That will leave Derek Day as the backup to Silas Redd. Incoming freshman Akeel Lynch will be given a long look this summer at tailback as well.
  • O'Brien said he didn't watch much film of Penn State last season and when he did, he mostly watched the defense. He said he wanted all the players to have a clean slate and preferred to focus his time on academics, recruiting and conditioning aspects of the program. He'll get his hands-on work done this spring. "The spring is about, in many ways, just like mini-camps in the National Football League," he said. "The spring is about experimentation, maybe practicing a guy at one spot for about five practices and then moving him to another spot and seeing how he does in different areas and trying to get your best players on the field."
Larry Johnson has been Penn State's lead recruiter for years, helping the Nittany Lions reel in several blue-chippers, particularly from the Washington D.C./Maryland area. But Johnson's recruiting responsibilities increased this year as Penn State scrambled to hold onto its class. New head coach Bill O'Brien, named to his post Jan. 6, is still juggling two jobs and turned over the recruiting reins to Johnson. Penn State lost several of its top verbal commits to other schools, but held things together enough to sign a class of 19 on Wednesday.

Johnson, the team's defensive line coach and one of two assistants retained from the previous staff, discussed the recruiting process with ESPN.com on Thursday.

[+] EnlargeLarry Johnson
Rob Christy/US PresswireAssistant Larry Johnson helped manage Penn State's recruiting during its coaching transition.
Here are his thoughts:

How was this recruiting cycle different from what you've been used to at Penn State?

Larry Johnson: I don't think it was a different cycle, but just the transition from the old staff to the new staff. The only thing different was Coach O'Brien made a decision on every new guy we wanted to offer, just to make sure it was the kind of player he wanted in his system offensively or what we thought defensively. He gave us some parameters and things he was looking for with specific positions. So we had to take those parameters and select players who we wanted to add to the class as we move forward. But the biggest transition was just getting the new staff on board, getting the new staff ready to move forward and really continuing what the old staff had done to that point, moving forward with recruits that we had created relationships with.

When Coach O'Brien came on board, how much of the process was offering new players and how much was trying to keep the committed recruits on board?

LJ: Really, the biggest thing he wanted to do was try to keep the guys who were committed. That was the most important thing, so we had every coach out to see every single recruit who was committed to us. And it was whatever it took, two coaches, three coaches, we did it, and did it by position and did it by areas just to get everybody involved. And then the second weekend in January, it was our biggest recruiting weekend. We had pretty much all those guys on campus, and then Coach O'Brien had a chance to be here and really sat down with each family, each kid for 45 [minutes] to an hour before he left, just to reassure them his commitment to Penn State University and answer questions. That was huge, in the sense of starting out. He was committed to doing it and it worked out well. That was our first priority, hold onto the 14, 15 guys we had and go after more and let them know we're committed. And as we moved along, there were some needs we still had, and we targeted a few kids we could go after and offer and move from there.

Do you think if Coach O'Brien was in place earlier, it would have prevented some recruits from looking elsewhere?

LJ: It's hard to tell. It's hard to really tell if that would have been the factor. The issue is what it was, and parents have a right to make those decisions and what's best for them. Their decision would have been made whether the coach was in place or not in place. The neat thing about it was the guys that stayed with us stayed with us through the whole process. Some kids didn't waver. The focus should really go back to the families and the kids that decided to wait and then stay and then come. It speaks volumes about those people. Some kids say, 'OK, coach, we'll see.' They listened and waited it out and waited for the new coach to be in place. Even though guys took [recruiting] trips during that process, they still came back to one thing. The families realized Penn State is Penn State. You get a great education, and it's a great place to be. Those are the families, and the people we got are very excited about it. Everybody has a choice, and we're just thrilled to death that these guys decided and the families decided to stay with us.

The guys who stayed, did any of that surprise you? Could it have been worse with guys leaving for other programs?

LJ: You never know what's going to happen once the fire starts rolling, one guy changes his mind. Each one of those kids got pressure from the media or their neighbors, 'Why are you still going to Penn State?' We all endured it. It could have been worse, but it wasn't, and I think the biggest key was when Coach O'Brien got named head coach, the first thing he did was call the players, call the parents, talk to them on the phone, and then he was here that first weekend that we had a big official visit. That was huge. They needed to see him, they needed to see his face and they needed to hear his vision of where this program is going. That was a big selling piece. And having all the coaches in place as fast as he did. Normally, it takes a long time to do that, but he had a vision in mind with the staff, and that was in place pretty fast also.

What were your top needs in this class, and how did you do in addressing them?

LJ: We got some really great wideouts. The wideout need we met very well. We needed a running back, and we thought we got a great one in Akeel Lynch. We got some secondary players we wanted, more guys, and we got a couple corners there. We would like to have gotten another corner, but we didn't. Defensive line, I thought we met our needs there. Offensive line is probably one of the only places we came up short in getting the numbers we need to have, but you don't want to take a guy late. You might want to roll it over into next year, and that was our mind-set. When we didn't get the few guys we really wanted to get, we didn't want to move anywhere else. We said, 'Let's wait and see next year, we'll get a couple great guys.' We wanted to get four [offensive linemen] and we got two.

What stands out to you about the wide receivers, guys like Eugene Lewis?

LJ: Coach [Stan] Hixon saw them on videotape and it doesn't take much to figure out what kind of kid [Lewis] is. He's great with the ball in his hands, great, athletic kid, great basketball player, great hands, great competitor. All the things you want in a big wideout, he has. So I think he's a great player. Then you have Trevor Williams, another guy who caught 99 balls last year. Jonathan Warner, he's got great hands, Malik Golden, another very athletic guy also. So I think it's a really outstanding class of wide receivers.

And the defensive linemen, what stands out about them? You'll obviously be working closely with those guys.

LJ: All four of those guys are very athletic, can do a multitude of things. Three of them played basketball, one wrestled, so they're multi-sport guys, great competitors, and they're big and can run. And they're great kids, great students, high-character families. So we're very fortunate to hold onto all those guys. And then we got Evan Schwan, the young D-end, we got him late but he was in our camp for two years, so we knew a little bit about him, but we weren't really sure we were going to take another defensive end. We just felt he was too good of a guy. To not play his junior year and have a great senior year, he's 6-6, you just can't pass up his athletic skills. We were very fortunate to get him late in the process.

How much have you talked the next class and your philosophy going forward with recruiting under Coach O'Brien?

LJ: I think the groundwork has already been laid. He gave us some parameters moving forward with the 2013 class and what we're looking for. That won't take place totally until he gets here next Tuesday, and then we'll really put the groundwork. But he did give us some parameters of where he wanted to go in the next class and the numbers we're looking at. There's some areas we're going to really hone in on. I know one thing is he wants to control the state of Pennsylvania, so we're going to make a lot of effort in-state to really hold these kids in it. And then we're going to attack the surrounding areas as hard as we can on the East Coast and in through Ohio. And then we may jump and recruit some areas we haven't been before, only because it ties to the coaching staff, Georgia, Alabama, Florida a little bit. But our base is going to be Pennsylvania, the D.C. area, the Maryland area, Western Pennsylvania, all the places that we've got a chance to really get some great players from.

So a little more Southeast focused with this staff?

LJ: I think so. We're going to dip down in there. You get one or two guys. The key there is travel, getting here. But we've got some guys on this staff, Coach [Ted] Roof and Coach Mac [McWhorter] have got some expertise in that area, some friendships down in the Alabama, Georgia area. So it makes sense to use their connections and try to get some kids out of there.

How much of your job has been reassuring recruits and their parents about the situation at Penn State and that the program is moving forward?

LJ: Signing this class now, I think we can all move forward. That starts the moving forward for Penn State football, having Coach O'Brien and his staff here, that's been a great starting point. I think now we can really move forward, we really can, and focus on putting together a great class, our kind of people, and ones who want to come to Penn State for all the right things and play at a high level. That's what we're selling right now. And I'd be remiss if I didn't say this: the previous staff, two months prior to this all happening, that's all we sold, Penn State. That's a compliment to those guys. Knowing the situation we were in as coaches, we never stopped selling Penn State. I really think that's why we're here today, because we didn't waver from that and really believe in the system here at Penn State. Now moving forward with this class, people are going to see a difference in what we'll do and how we approach this as we move forward. There are exciting times ahead, I really believe that.
The Super Bowl is Sunday, but the super bowl of recruiting arrives on Wednesday. So on the eve of national signing day, we thought we'd check in with some of ESPN.com's top recruiting experts to get a feel for what's going on in the Big Ten.

Our esteemed panel included senior national recruiting analyst Tom Luginbill, Midwest recruiting writer Jared Shanker and Scouts Inc. recruiting coordinator Craig Haubert. This is Part I of our discussion; look for Part II later on today.

Topic 1: What impact has the arrival of Urban Meyer had on the league and in general when it comes to recruiting?

Tom Luginbill: "It's been fairly significant. If there's one thing Urban Meyer understands and has been able to do, it's that you build a championship team from the inside out. Whether it was at Florida or now at Ohio State, if you notice who essentially all his first commitments were, they were all on the defensive line and offensive line. So he understands that, if they're going to compete for a national championship, the gap has to be closed in the defensive front seven. That's the difference between what's happened in the SEC and everywhere else. So I think that's where he's made his biggest impact."

Craig Haubert: “What Urban Meyer has been able to come and do down the stretch has been huge. I knew when he took over, they would get better as a class, but I didn’t really think when this happened, they’d have a chance to crack the Top 25. They’re still in a position to possibly land some guys. Davonte Neal, the No. 1 athlete, could be headed there. Stefon Diggs and Jordan Diamond are also in the mix there.” [Diggs and Neal are both post-signing day announcements].

“If you look at this class, it’s all in the trenches, really. And our philosophy is there’s always an increased value to upper-tier linemen because they’re harder to find. Noah Spence obviously is huge, he’s a five-star, but so is Adolphus Washington. The other thing that stands out to me about Ohio State is he’s been plucking guys from other Big Ten schools. [Se’Von] Pittman was a Michigan State kid. Joey O’Connor had decommitted before he got him, but he was a Penn State kid. Same thing with Tommy Schutt. Armani Reeves. So his upper part of his class, a lot of them have come from other Big Ten schools.”

Jared Shanker: “He’s exceeded my expectations. He’s obviously a great recruiter. At the same time, I wouldn’t call it walking into a perfect situation, but with what was going on at Penn State, I think he’s taken five recruits from Penn State, so there were opportunities for him to come in and flip some guys. Noah Spence was a Penn State lean. He had O’Connor and Tommy Schutt, two other ESPNU 150 guys who were committed to Penn State. Camren Williams and Armani Reeves, two other guys at Penn State. Obviously, he’s one of the best recruiters in the game. He also had some good fortune in being able to come in at a time when things were shaky at a rival school and pick up some of their commitments. Se’Von Pittman, the other ESPNU 150 guy, he was really looking for a reason to get to Ohio State.”

Topic 2: How good is Michigan's class, and has the Wolverines' momentum slowed down in the last several weeks?


CH: “They came out fast. We’ve always had them in that 5-to-7 type range. People might get frustrated that it’s getting near signing day, when there’s a lot of buzz and things going on, and they’re not doing much, but to be fair to them, what they did has allowed them to maintain in the same area where they’ve been for most of the recruiting process. The thing that sticks out to me about this class is a lot of people kind of scoffed when Brady Hoke got hired and he said, ‘I’m a Michigan man.’ But he’s been true to that. They’ve done very well in state. A lot of their key players are Michigan guys, led by Terry Richardson. So he’s brought a little bit of that Michigan man feel, and there seems to be an excitement among recruits.”

TL: "
Michigan was rolling before Meyer got the job, and they were teetering on maybe swinging Bri'onte Dunn, the running back, and Ohio State was able to keep him in the fold. Is Michigan in competition with Ohio State for some players? Yes. But Michigan right now is more focused on revamping the roster to the mold that Brady Hoke wants. They need more size up front, some size at the linebacking positions and some size at the skill spots. And I think they've done that in all three areas. [The lack of recent commitments] is a reflection of numbers and how much room they have. With the Big Ten's hard cap, they don't have a ton of wiggle room. If anything, the winning on the field and the sustained excellence helped solidify that the class would stay intact."

JS: “I don’t know if I’d say they’ve lost momentum. They really were hoping to get Josh Garnett, who ended up going to Stanford. Their class filled up so quickly, and they only had about four or five spots left midway through the season. They’re hoping to get some of the guys who are closer to signing day. They’re in good position to get Jordan Diamond. I think he’s No. 94 overall. So it seems like they’ve maybe fallen off, but they were at 21 or 22 commitments by the time the season started. They really had their run of success in the spring and summer. I’m sure they would have liked to maintain that a little bit and gotten some of those final targets like Garnett, but they’re also able to get the two receivers, [Amara] Darboh and [Jehu] Chesson, right after the season ended. So they’ve still been able to pick up some guys along the way.”

Topic 3: How has Penn State fared given all the turmoil surrounding the program and the flurry of decommitments?

JS: “My thinking for them was, if they could have just held on to their 14 commitments, that would be the main thing. They were obviously going to get some more commitments, but they weren’t going to be the top-caliber guys. If they could hold onto the 14 and add those sleeper guys who have a chance to be something at the next level, that was my expectation for them. I like that they got Akeel Lynch, the running back. I think he could be a good player. They’re probably a little disappointed that it looks like they’re going to miss out on [Skyler] Mornhinweg and the two Massachusetts guys in Reeves and Williams.”

TL: "I think to this point, Bill O'Brien has done a good job. But a lot of credit needs to go to that previous staff. Outside of the guys they lost to Ohio State, through all of this, they're still siting here with 18 verbal commitments. If you think about it, that's astounding. And I would say that the top third of them, athletically, can compete for a conference championship. Of course, you don't know all the intangibles and all that, but based on pure player level, this is a pretty strong class. It certainly isn't anywhere near where people would have expected it to be. ... But just to have bodies in this class, in my opinion, is a positive. [O'Brien] won't be judged on this class. He will be given a long leash, and in my opinion, it was made very clear with the timetable the administration set with this hire that the 2012 class is not the priority. If it had been, they would have hired a guy in December."

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