NCF Nation: Albert Evans

Big Ten weekend rewind

October, 3, 2011
10/03/11
1:00
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Don't look back in anger. Well, unless you're a fan of Nebraska, Ohio State, Purdue, Northwestern or Minnesota. Then we'll allow it.

Team of the week: Wisconsin. The only real question about the Badgers after their first four games was how they would fare against better competition. Then they steamrolled Nebraska 48-17. Any more questions?

[+] EnlargeNathan Scheelhaase
AP Photo/Seth PerlmanConsistency will be a major focus for Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase next season.
Best game: Illinois' 38-35 win against Northwestern. This game was full of twists and turns, as Northwestern built a 28-10 third quarter lead, only to watch the Illini rally for 21 straight points. The Wildcats reclaimed the lead with 1:15 left, but Nathan Scheelhaase scored on a 1-yard run with 13 seconds left to end it. After it was over, the Illinois scoreboard proudly proclaimed its homeboys as "The State of Illinois' Undefeated Big Ten Team" while the speakers blared "Sweet Home Chicago," Sinatra's "My Kind of Town" and Kanye's "Homecoming." What, was the band Chicago unavailable for a live performance?

Biggest play: There were plenty to choose from in the Illinois-Northwestern game, but I'm going with one that might have been overlooked from early in Michigan State's 10-7 win against Ohio State. The Spartans botched the punt snap on their first possession, and Buckeyes defenders were bearing down on punter Mike Sadler deep in his own territory. Sadler somehow recovered, eluded the rush and got off a 37-yard punt. If disaster strikes there for Michigan State, Ohio State might have scored, gained confidence and changed the entire complexion of that game.

Best call: Maybe we should call this the most interesting calls, not necessarily the best. Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges unveiled a new wrinkle against Minnesota, putting Devin Gardner in at quarterback with Denard Robinson and two other running backs also in the game. The Wolverines used it a handful of times, employing a double pitch and a double pass. They also used a halfback pass from Vincent Smith for a touchdown. Let's be honest: Michigan didn't need any trickery against Minnesota in a 58-0 blowout. But Borges has just given every other Big Ten defensive coordinator something else to worry about.

Big Men on Campus (Offense): Illinois receiver A.J. Jenkins and Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson. Jenkins broke a school record with 268 receiving yards plus three touchdowns on 12 catches in the Northwestern win. It was the fourth-best receiving day ever by a Big Ten wideout. Wilson led the Badgers to the win in the biggest game of the year so far in the Big Ten by completing 14-of-20 passes for 255 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for 32 yards and a score.

Big Man on Campus (Defense): Wisconsin linebacker Mike Taylor. He made a career-high 14 tackles, one of them for a loss, and intercepted a pass in the second quarter of the Badgers' win. Nebraska entered the game averaging more than 42 points, but was held to just 17.

Big Man on Campus (Special teams): Penn State's Anthony Fera. He drilled three field goal attempts (from 22, 27 and 33 yards) in a 16-10 win against Indiana. He also punted seven times for an average of 39 yards, placing three inside the 20-yard line.

Worst hangover: Purdue. While acknowledging the terrible Saturdays that Minnesota and Ohio State also suffered through, the Boilermakers legitimately thought they could beat Notre Dame. They had two weeks to get ready for a night game at home, making this a real circle-the-wagons type of game. After the Irish won 38-10, the Purdue bandwagon has three broken wheels and a flat tire.

Strangest moment: Let's go back to Purdue for this one. Early on in that game, the Boilers forced an Irish incompletion on third down from their own 10. But safety Albert Evans was called for a celebration penalty for high-fiving some fans in the end-zone stands. Notre Dame would cash in with its second touchdown. "They said I high-fived someone," Evans told reporters. "I was in the moment, so I couldn't tell you who I high-fived. The band was right there. I guess you can't high-five anyone." Can't blame Evans too much for his premature celebration, as it was one of the few times all night the Purdue defense got a stop.
This game is starting to slip away for Minnesota, which could be playing for coach Tim Brewster's job at Purdue.

The Golden Gophers are down 14-0 despite dominating the time of possession battle. Minnesota is struggling to get its run game going, rushing for just 21 yards so far today. After gashing Purdue in last year's victory, the Gophers have to find more production from DeLeon Eskridge and crew.

Purdue's defense really turned things around during the bye week. The Boilers had one great player through the first four games -- end Ryan Kerrigan -- but a shaky unit still trying to find itself. Coordinators Donn Landholm and Gary Emanuel are seeing production from more sources the past two weeks.

The Boilers are keeping everything in front of them, and Adam Weber missed an opportunity to attack downfield moments ago.

The only downside for Purdue are some injuries: safety Albert Evans and cornerback Mike Eargle both left the game.

Nuggets from Purdue practice

August, 27, 2010
8/27/10
5:49
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I've had the chance to review the Big Ten Network's preview of Purdue, as Dave Revsine, Gerry DiNardo and Howard Griffith visited Boilermakers' practice last week.

Here are some quick notes and observations:
  • DiNardo raved about the changes head coach Danny Hope has brought to Purdue, particularly from a recruiting standpoint. Although he called the Boilers a "developmental team" through the first half of the year, he's really excited about the future. And the schedule works in Purdue's favor, as the team opens with a big game at Notre Dame before facing several manageable foes. "This schedule is their best friend," DiNardo said.
  • It was hard not to come away extremely impressed with quarterback Robert Marve. The Miami transfer has a big-time arm, and he showcased it on several throws. He fired a bullet to Antavian Edison in team drills and also threaded a pass to former quarterback Justin Siller. The BTN crew all talked about his good body language, and it's clear that Marve is having a great time so far at Purdue. "I love the spread offense," said Marve, who has cut his hair since Big Ten media days. "I love throwing the ball 40 times a game."
  • Marve ran the offense extremely well during team drills. It was interesting to see Purdue operate exclusively with a silent cadence, but there weren't many penalties. "Danny Hope talks about discipline a lot, and it’s evident that it’s worked," DiNardo said.
  • Now-ineligible quarterback Caleb TerBush was still practicing at the time of the BTN's visit, but DiNardo noted that he might not be the team's No. 2 quarterback. "Rob Henry got a lot of reps today," Griffith said. That's a good sign because Henry is now Marve's backup.
  • Offensive line, running back and defensive back are Purdue's three main areas of concern, and the line clearly stood out in this practice. Mammoth guard Ken Plue seems to be moving better at a svelte 333 pounds, and DiNardo listed tackle Nick Mondek, a converted defensive lineman, as his under-the-radar player this fall. "They’ve closed the gap more than any other position," DiNardo said. "This is the unit that's furthest along out of the three that needed to be rebuilt."
  • The defensive backs had their ups and downs, but the picture is beginning to take shape. Revsine noted that Albert Evans and Logan Link likely will enter the fall as the starting safeties, and freshman cornerback Ricardo Allen has made an immediate impression. Allen defended wideout Gary Bush well in one drill, and drew praise from both Griffith and head coach Danny Hope. Junior college transfer Mike Eargle also should see time at corner, and DiNardo likes Charlton Williams.
  • DiNardo was down on the running backs, and for good reason. Ralph Bolden will miss at least part of the season and possibly all of it, and Al-Terek McBurse practiced with his lower left leg wrapped. True freshman Reggie Pegram impressed the BTN crew, aside from a near fumble in team drills, and has taken advantage of increased opportunities. Pegram has nice size at 5-11, 222. "He would be the starter or [the backup] if McBurse was [healthy]," DiNardo said. It's also worth nothing that Purdue will incorporate the fullback more this year in the offense.
  • As expected, Keith Smith and the other wide receivers looked good. Smith is a superb route runner, Siller seems to be catching on well and Edison looked very impressive, hauling in a tipped pass during one drill and sitting down nicely in the zone in another. Edison should contribute at slot receiver. "No one's going to be able to double-cover anyone," Smith said.
  • DiNardo didn't feel the defensive line or linebackers were overly physical. Star end Ryan Kerrigan beat Mondek on several plays, and freshman tackle Bruce Gaston Jr. made a good impression on the BTN crew. "He’s a big, physical guy," DiNardo said. "He's just once example of how Danny Hope is changing the talent level on defense." Middle linebacker Dwayne Beckford stood out the most among that group.
  • Hope talked about the upgrade in team speed, saying that 18 players have 4.5 speed or better, as opposed to only about six when his staff first arrived. He expects to play quite a few freshmen as well as the juco arrivals. "We could have as many as 10 new faces on the field this year," he said.
You asked (nicely) for it, and this time, you get what you want.

Remember colleague Bruce Feldman's annual "Freaks" list, which examined the top workout warriors in college football Insider for 2010? Ohio State sophomore defender John "Sandman" Simon made the rundown, along with other weight-room stars from around the country.

Several of you loved Feldman's list so much that you wanted me to create a similar one just for the Big Ten. Thanks to help from sports information staffers and strength coaches from around the conference, I've compiled the following list.

I based my selections primarily on weight-room numbers and comments from Big Ten strength coaches.

Not every player submitted made the rundown, and both Wisconsin and Iowa chose not to make any individual player nominations. While I know guys like Iowa's Adrian Clayborn and Wisconsin's J.J. Watt do some serious damage in the weight room, I'd rather only list players who have their schools' support and whose schools provided weight-room data and/or comments from strength coaches.

Penn State didn't provide weight-room statistics but singled out linebacker Michael Mauti, wide receiver Derek Moye and defensive tackle Devon Still for their weight-room performance.

Here are my selections, listed alphabetically by school:

[+] EnlargeJarred Fayson
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonIllinois receiver Jarred Fayson has only four percent body fat.
Illinois WR Jarred Fayson 6-0, 215, Sr., Tampa, Fla.

  • Bench-presses 405 pounds, squats 500 pounds, power cleans 352 pounds
  • Runs the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds
  • Has just four percent body fat
Indiana LB Tyler Replogle 6-2, 238, Sr., Centerville, Ohio

  • Bench-presses 455 pounds, leg-presses 760 pounds
  • Has 33-inch vertical jump
  • Clocked at 4.2 seconds in the shuttle run
Michigan DT Mike Martin 6-2, 294, Jr., Redford, Mich.

  • Bench-presses 505 pounds, squats 700 pounds
  • Power cleans 430 pounds, hang cleans 475 pounds
  • Runs the 40-yard dash in 4.9 seconds
  • Strength coach Mike Barwis says: "Mike is an absolute warrior. He has a never quit attitude and is a natural born leader. He is one of the most impressive physical specimens I have ever seen."
Michigan C David Molk 6-2, 270, Jr., Lemont, Ill.

  • Bench-presses 490 pounds, squats 660 pounds
  • Power cleans 420 pounds, hang cleans 440 pounds
  • Runs the 40-yard dash in 4.9 seconds
  • Strength coach Mike Barwis says: "Dave is an outstanding worker and a natural athlete. He is one of the most naturally explosive linemen I have ever trained."
Michigan State LB Eric Gordon 6-0, 228, Jr., Traverse City, Mich.

  • Bench-presses 415 pounds
  • Squats 600 pounds
  • Best 40-yard dash time among Spartans linebackers at 4.52 seconds (Greg Jones clocks in at 4.55)
[+] EnlargeCharlie Gantt
Dave Stephenson/Icon SMIMinnesota's Charlie Gantt has the fastest 40-yard dash time among Spartan tight ends.
Michigan State TE Charlie Gantt 6-5, 248, Jr., Farmington Hills, Mich.

  • Bench-presses 470 pounds
  • Squats 535 pounds
  • Has the top 40-yard dash time among Spartans tight ends at 4.72 seconds
Minnesota LB Mike Rallis 6-2, 210, So., Edina, Minn.

  • Has increased his bench press from 325 to 365 pounds during the last year
  • Power cleans 345 pounds and squats significantly more than 550 pounds
  • Strength coach Mark Hill says: "Mike's work ethic exemplifies a guy who wants to succeed. He comes into the weight room every day and shows that he wants to contribute to this team winning. He does everything he needs to do. Mike absolutely attacks his workouts every day."
Minnesota RB DeLeon Eskridge 5-11, 198, Jr., San Francisco

  • Has improved his squat from 250 pounds when he arrived at Minnesota to 375 pounds now
  • Increased his bench press from 300 pounds to 340 pounds during the last year
  • Has increased his power clean from 250 to more than 300 pounds as a Gopher
  • Strength coach Mark Hill says: "I’ve been very impressed by DeLeon's improvements. He was a 185-pound freshman who had to play, due to depth issues. He could have used a red-shirt year to get bigger and stronger. But to see where he’s gone to achieve the strength, weight, speed, explosiveness and power needed to be a successful Big Ten back says a lot about his hard work."
Northwestern QB Dan Persa 6-1, 210, Jr., Bethlehem, Pa.

  • Bench-presses 385 pounds, squats 550 pounds and power cleans 330 pounds, all top marks for Wildcats quarterbacks
  • Soon will earn second consecutive "Top Cat" award as Northwestern's top weight-room performer
  • Strength coach Larry Lilja says: "Dan is off the charts. No one works harder in the weight room. For his size, I doubt there is any quarterback who can match his numbers."
[+] EnlargeCorbin Bryant
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhCorbin Bryant, a 285-pound defensive tackle, has a 34-inch vertical jump.
Northwestern DT Corbin Bryant 6-4, 285, Sr., Chicago

  • Bench-presses 475 pounds, squats 600 pounds and power cleans 385 pounds
  • Has a 34-inch vertical jump
  • Strength coach Larry Lilja says: "He's one of our best workers and a true champion in the weight room."
Ohio State DL John Simon 6-2, 270, So., Youngstown, Ohio

  • Bench-pressed 450 and squatted 700 pounds as a high school senior
  • Can do 40 bench-press reps at 225 pounds
  • Runs the 40-yard dash in 4.8 seconds
  • Strength coach Jeff Uhlenhake says: "John Simon is the best total package workout guy I’ve ever been around, in college, in the pros, as a coach, anybody. He is amazing."
Purdue T Nick Mondek 6-5, 299, Jr., Naperville, Ill.

  • Former defensive lineman bench-presses 435 pounds, squats 605 pounds, power cleans 352 pounds
  • Has a 31-inch vertical jump
  • Runs the 40-yard dash in 4.82 seconds
  • Strength coach Jim Lathrop says: "Great worker who really has challenged himself. He has taken the position change and run with it. He is a leader in the weight room."
Purdue S Albert Evans 6-0, 206, Jr., Gary, Ind.

  • Bench-presses 355 pounds, squats 500 pounds
  • Power cleans 319 pounds
  • Strength coach Jim Lathrop says: "Albert has really improved and is establishing himself as a leader."
It's no secret that Purdue's secondary needs help in 2010.

All four starters from last season are gone, including safety Torri Williams, the team's tackles leader, as well as second-team All-Big Ten cornerbacks David Pender and Brandon King. Junior safety Albert Evans is one of the few returning players who saw significant field time in 2009.

I know the Boilers coaches are excited about the young players they have in the secondary, and they should be. But does anyone else think Purdue's answer at defensive back could be found a few yards away from Ross-Ade Stadium in Mackey Arena?

[+] EnlargeChris Kramer
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesChris Kramer's physical style of playing basketball could benefit the Purdue football team.
Chris Kramer plays basketball like a football player. It's much of the reason he's so popular among Purdue fans and almost every opposing coach he faces. The Boilers senior guard will dive for loose balls, play through a broken nose, smother an opponent's best player on the defensive end and sacrifice his body whenever possible. He twice has been named the Big Ten's Defensive Player of the Year, and finished his career as Purdue's all-time steals leader.

As Kramer sliced through the lane Sunday for the game-winning layup in Purdue's second-round NCAA tournament game against Texas A&M, I couldn't help but think how he'd look in shoulder pads next year. Kramer was a standout safety and quarterback in high school. And since he didn't redshirt for the Boilers basketball team, he would have a season of eligibility left in football, much like Greg Paulus did at Syracuse in 2009.

I asked Kramer about playing football at the Big Ten men's basketball tournament a few weeks back, and his response was predictable.

"I haven't thought about it," he said, smiling. "We'll just take this ride for as long as it happens, and then go from there and make a decision on my future and what I want to do for the rest of my life."

If Kramer decides to pursue basketball, this is all a moot point. It has always been his favorite sport, even though some say he has a higher ceiling on the gridiron.

But if he hits a wall in hoops and wants to continue his athletic career in some form, Purdue head football coach Danny Hope and his staff should check in.

Kramer's high school football coach recently told The (Lafayette) Journal and Courier: "Had [Kramer] concentrated on football, he could have played on Sundays [in the NFL] as a safety."

He could still end being a big help on Saturdays this fall.
Let's take a look at three issues facing each Big Ten team heading into spring practice:

ILLINOIS

Spring practice starts: March 30

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

  • The quarterback competition. Four-year starter Juice Williams departs, and a host of young players (and one older one) are in the mix to replace him. New offensive coordinator Paul Petrino wants to shape his system around the starting signal-caller, so he'll be looking for some separation this spring. Jacob Charest got valuable playing time behind Williams in 2009, and Eddie McGee, a part-time wide receiver, has extensive playing experience at quarterback. They'll compete with redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase and true freshman Chandler Whitmer, an early enrollee.
  • Fixing the defense. New defensive coordinator Vic Koenning brings an impressive résumé to Champaign, but he'll be challenged to fix a unit that hasn't been right since J Leman and Co. left following the Rose Bowl run in 2007. Koenning wants to identify leaders on defense this spring and will look to players like end Clay Nurse and linebackers Ian Thomas and Martez Wilson. Illinois' most pressing needs likely come in the secondary after the team finished 100th nationally against the pass in 2009.
  • Line dance. Illinois needs to get tougher and better on both lines to turn things around in 2010. The Illini tied for eighth in the Big Ten in sacks allowed last fall, and while the run game got going late, top lineman Jon Asamoah departs. Perhaps a bigger priority is finding a pass rush on defense after finishing last in the league in both sacks and tackles for loss in 2009.
INDIANA

Spring practice starts: March 23

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:

  • Rebuilding the back seven on D. Indiana loses three starters in the secondary and two linebackers, including blog favorite Matt Mayberry. The Hoosiers brought in three junior college defenders, two of whom, linebacker Jeff Thomas and cornerback Lenyatta Kiles, will participate in spring practice. Needless to say, jobs are open everywhere, and coordinators Brian George and Joe Palcic will be looking for playmakers to step up. Several players are moving from offense to defense, including wideout Mitchell Evans to safety.
  • End game. Indiana loses a lot of pass-rushing production as multiyear starters Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton depart. Both starting jobs at defensive end are open this spring, and IU will look to Darius Johnson, Terrance Thomas and others to step up and make plays.
  • Willis watch. Indiana hopes 2010 is the year when running back Darius Willis becomes a superstar. Getting him through spring practice healthy will be a key first step. Willis has been impressive on the field, but he has struggled with injuries for much of his career. IU's passing attack should be very strong in 2010, and if Willis can elevate the run game, the Hoosiers should put up a ton of points.
IOWA

Spring practice starts: March 24

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:

  • The offensive line. Rebuilding the offensive line is far and away Iowa's top priority heading into the 2010 season. The Hawkeyes are stacked at running back and boast a strong passing attack, but they'll struggle if things aren't solidified up front. Tackle/guard Riley Reiff blossomed last season and guard Julian Vandervelde also returns, but Iowa will look to fill three starting spots this spring.
  • Refilling at linebacker and cornerback. Iowa's defense has been one of the nation's most opportunistic units the last two seasons, and players like Pat Angerer, A.J. Edds and Amari Spievey were three big reasons why. All three depart, so Iowa needs to reload at linebacker and find a shut-down corner (Shaun Prater?). The spotlight will be on guys like Prater, Tyler Nielsen and Jeff Tarpinian this spring.
  • Sorting out the running back spot. Iowa is absolutely loaded at running back, but there's only one ball to be carried on a given play. The Hawkeyes likely will use a rotation in 2010, but who will be the featured back? Jewel Hampton will try to reclaim the top spot, which he lost because of a knee injury last summer. Adam Robinson filled in extremely well for Hampton in the lead role, and Brandon Wegher was one of the heroes of the Orange Bowl win.
MICHIGAN

Spring practice starts: March 14

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:

  • Defense, defense, defense. Head coach Rich Rodriguez always will be known for his spread offense, but he won't be around much longer at Michigan if the defense doesn't significantly improve. A unit that ranked 82nd nationally last season loses its two best players (Brandon Graham and Donovan Warren) and must find contributors at linebacker, safety and cornerback. Help is on the way from the 2010 recruiting class, but Michigan can't afford a bad spring on defense.
  • Devin Gardner. The heralded quarterback recruit enrolled early and will enter the mix this spring. Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson are the front-runners at quarterback, but Gardner might be the ultimate answer for the Wolverines. His ability to pick up the system and push Forcier and Robinson this spring will determine whether he sees the field in the fall or takes a redshirt.
  • Running back. Carlos Brown and Brandon Minor depart, but Michigan once again should be good at the running back spot. Vincent Smith will miss spring ball as he recovers from knee surgery, but several others, including Michael Shaw and Fitzgerald Toussaint, will be competing throughout the 15 workouts. Shaw, who scored two touchdowns on 42 carries in 2009, could create a bit of separation with a good spring.
MICHIGAN STATE

Spring practice starts: March 23

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

  • Team morale. The residence hall incident and the subsequent fallout really rocked the Michigan State program. Head coach Mark Dantonio has yet to address the status of several suspended players, and the final outcome could impact the depth chart, particularly at wide receiver. It's important for Michigan State's team leaders -- Greg Jones, Kirk Cousins and others -- to unite the locker room in the spring and do all they can to prevent further problems.
  • Line dance. Michigan State needs to improve on both the offensive and defensive lines in 2010, and it all starts this spring. The Spartans must replace left tackle Rocco Cironi and center Joel Nitchman, and they also lose top pass-rusher Trevor Anderson at defensive end. As strong as the Spartans should be at the skill positions, they need to start building around linemen like Joel Foreman and Jerel Worthy.
  • Keith Nichol. The versatile junior could be moved to wide receiver, but he'll get a chance to push Cousins at quarterback this spring. Nichol's skills are too valuable to waste on the sideline, particularly if Michigan State has a pressing need at receiver, but he still could be a factor at quarterback if his improves his accuracy. The speedy Nichol could run the Wildcat in addition to serving as a wide receiver, if MSU chooses to go that route.
MINNESOTA

Spring practice starts: March 23

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

  • The coordinator and the quarterbacks. Minnesota will welcome its third offensive coordinator in as many seasons, though Jeff Horton doesn't plan to overhaul the system like Jedd Fisch did a year ago. Horton's primary task will be developing quarterbacks Adam Weber and MarQueis Gray, who both struggled last fall in the pro-style system. Weber has the edge in experience, but he needs to regain the form his showed in his first two seasons as the starter. Gray brings tremendous athleticism to the table but must prove he can succeed in a pro-style offense.
  • The offensive line. Head coach Tim Brewster has insisted that when Minnesota gets the offensive line on track, things really will get rolling. The Gophers need better players and arguably tougher players up front, and the line should benefit in Year 2 under assistant Tim Davis. The group should be motivated by finishing last in the Big Ten in rushing in each of the past two seasons.
  • Young defenders. Minnesota loses most of its starting defense from 2009, but fans are more excited about the young talent returning on that side of the ball. Spring ball could be huge for players like Michael Carter, D.L. Wilhite and Keanon Cooper as they transition into leading roles. The Gophers' biggest losses come at linebacker, as all three starters depart.
NORTHWESTERN

Spring practice starts: March 29

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

  • Identify a running back. The Wildcats produced an impressive string of standout running backs under former coach Randy Walker and at the beginning of Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure, but they struggled in the backfield in 2009. Northwestern returns the Big Ten’s most experienced offensive line, so identifying a primary ball carrier or two this spring is vital. Arby Fields and Scott Concannon showed a few flashes last year but must get more consistent, while Mike Trumpy will be an interesting addition to the mix.
  • Polishing Persa. Dan Persa steps in at quarterback for second-team All-Big Ten selection Mike Kafka, and he’ll try to walk a similar career path. Kafka transformed himself in the offseason a year ago to become an extremely consistent passer, and Persa will need to do the same. Persa could be the best running quarterback Northwestern has had since Zak Kustok, but his size and the nature of the offense suggests he’ll need to make strides with his arm. NU also needs to see progress from backup Evan Watkins, as it lacks overall depth at quarterback.
  • Reload in the secondary. Northwestern loses three starters in the secondary, including all-conference selections Sherrick McManis and Brad Phillips. Fitzgerald will lean heavily on cornerback Jordan Mabin and safety Brian Peters to lead the group, but he needs a few more players to emerge this spring. Defensive backs like Justan Vaughn have experience and must transition into featured roles.
OHIO STATE

Spring practice starts: April 1

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

  • Running back competition resumes. Brandon Saine and Dan Herron finished strong in 2009, but they can’t get too comfortable. Several young running backs, including Jordan Hall, Jaamal Berry, Jermil Martin and Carlos Hyde, will be competing for carries this spring. Saine likely has the best chance to lock down a featured role at running back, but if the hype about Berry pans out, it’ll be a dogfight.
  • Pryor’s evolution. After Ohio State’s victory in the Rose Bowl, both Terrelle Pryor and Jim Tressel talked about the game being a key juncture in Pryor’s development. The junior quarterback must build on his performance this spring, especially from a passing standpoint. Ohio State can be a more balanced and more effective offense in 2010, but Pryor needs to keep making strides.
  • Safety squeeze. The Buckeyes didn’t lose much from the 2009 team, but the safety spot took a hit as first-team All-Big Ten selection Kurt Coleman as well as key contributor Anderson Russell depart. Jermale Hines looks like the answer at one spot, and he’ll enter the spring with high expectations. Ohio State needs to build around Hines and identify playmakers for an increasingly opportunistic unit.
PENN STATE

Spring practice starts: March 26

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

  • Quarterback, quarterback, quarterback. No surprise here, as Penn State’s quarterback competition will be one of the Big Ten’s top storylines until September. Two-year starter Daryll Clark departs, leaving a major void under center. Sophomore Kevin Newsome played a bit last fall and has been in the system for a full season. He’ll enter the spring with a slight edge, but Matt McGloin and early enrollee Paul Jones also will be in the mix before Robert Bolden arrives this summer.
  • Getting better up front. All-America candidate Stefen Wisniewski leads an offensive line that will have more experience and needs to make strides this spring. The line struggled against elite defensive fronts last year (Iowa, Ohio State) but should have more cohesion after another offseason together. The tackle spots will be interesting to watch, as Dennis Landolt departs. Penn State’s defensive line needs to shore up the middle after losing Big Ten co-Defensive Player of the Year Jared Odrick.
  • Linebacker U. put to the test. Penn State has a proven track record of reloading in the defensive front seven, but it loses a lot of production, especially at linebacker. All three starting spots are open this spring, and the spotlight will turn to players like Nate Stupar, Bani Gbadyu, Chris Colasanti and others to fill the production and leadership gaps left by Sean Lee, Navorro Bowman and Josh Hull.
PURDUE

Spring practice starts: March 24

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:

  • Marve watch begins. The starting quarterback job is open, and all eyes will be on Miami transfer Robert Marve. One of the nation's most decorated recruits in 2007, Marve started for the Hurricanes in 2008 but ran into problems and transferred. Slowed by an ACL injury last summer and fall, Marve will have every chance to establish himself this spring as he competes with Caleb TerBush.
  • Wide-open secondary. All four starters depart in the secondary, creating plenty of competition back there this spring. Players like safety Albert Evans and cornerback Charlton Williams will be in the spotlight as they try to nail down jobs. Purdue should be better in the front seven in 2010, but you can bet opposing quarterbacks will attack an unproven secondary.
  • The run defense. It's a huge priority for Purdue to improve against the run after finishing last in the Big Ten in rush defense in each of the past two seasons. Linebacker Jason Werner's return for a sixth year is huge, and Purdue boasts one of the Big Ten's top D-linemen in Ryan Kerrigan. Those two must provide leadership and foster more cohesion from the younger players around them. New D-line coach Gary Emanuel will be instrumental in the process this spring.
WISCONSIN

Spring practice starts: March 13 (break from March 29-April 2)

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:

  • The secondary. Wisconsin looks pretty solid on the defensive line and at linebacker, so getting the secondary up to par will be key this spring. Safety Jay Valai is a vicious hitter, but can he become an All-Big Ten-caliber safety? Aaron Henry joins Valai at safety after struggling at cornerback in 2009. Wisconsin also will look for continued progress from corners Devin Smith and Niles Brinkley.
  • Replacing Schofield. Bret Bielema told me earlier this week that the competition at defensive line is once again heating up this offseason. Wisconsin must replace first-team All-Big Ten end O'Brien Schofield, who ranked second nationally in tackles for loss (24.5) in 2009. J.J. Watt has superstar written all over him, but Wisconsin will look for more pass-rush ability from David Gilbert and Louis Nzegwu.
  • The wide receivers/tight ends. Wisconsin showed at times last fall that its passing attack could be dynamic, and it will look for big things from several players this spring. Wideout Nick Toon certainly has what it takes to be a star in the Big Ten, and Lance Kendricks showed in the Champs Sports Bowl that he's a capable successor for Garrett Graham at tight end. The Badgers will look to David Gilreath, Isaac Anderson and Kyle Jefferson to fill the No. 2 wideout spot.
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