NCF Nation: Ben Herbert

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.
Football strength training is the flavor this week on ESPN.com, as we attempt to pump ... you up! Sorry, couldn't resist.

Head coaches get most of the credit -- and, to be fair, most of the blame -- but strength coaches spend more time with players than anyone else on campus. They play major roles in developing personnel for the season.

So who are these guys? Here's a quick look at the Big Ten strength coaches.

ILLINOIS
Name:
Lou Hernandez
At Illinois since: 2005
The skinny: Hernandez made the transition from Florida to Illinois with Fighting Illini head coach Ron Zook, for whom he has worked since 2003. A native Texan, Hernandez received both his bachelor's and master's from the University of Houston, where he worked from 1992-2001 as both an assistant strength coach and the head man. Hernandez spent 2002 as the assistant strength and conditioning coach for the New York Jets. Despite being just 5-foot-8, Hernandez was a competitive power lifter who could bench 507 pounds and squat 720 in his heyday. He also consults Illinois players on nutrition and helped defensive end Will Davis add to his frame in 2008.

INDIANA
Name:
Mark Wateska
At Indiana since: 2002
The skinny: Wateska has spent nearly a quarter century as a strength and conditioning coach, including the last eight seasons with the Hoosiers football program. He played football at Penn State and was part of the 1986 national championship team. Wateska received both his bachelor's degree and his master's degree in exercise and sports science from Penn State and started his career there. He eventually left for Boston College, where he served as an assistant strength coach for four years before he took his first head job at Maine. Before Indiana, Wateska spent seven years as Stanford's head strength and conditioning coach. After his first year at The Farm, Wateksa was named Pac-10 Strength and Conditioning Professional of the Year by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NCSA).

IOWA
Name:
Chris Doyle
At Iowa since: 1999
The skinny: Doyle has been in Iowa City for every step of the program's resurgence under Kirk Ferentz. He made his mark right away, earning Big Ten Strength Coach of the Year honors from the NCSA in 1999. Doyle has helped 149 players who have reached the professional ranks in the NFL, NHL and NBA, including 24 Iowa players selected in the last six NFL drafts. A native of Quincy, Mass., who earned two degrees at Boston University, Doyle came to Iowa after a year at Utah but was no stranger to the Big Ten. He served as Wisconsin's assistant strength and conditioning coach from 1996-98. Doyle worked both the football and hockey teams in Madison.

MICHIGAN
Name:
Mike Barwis
At Michigan since: 2008
The skinny:
Barwis followed Rich Rodriguez to Michigan after spending 14 years at West Virginia, where he worked with the school's Olympic sports programs before taking over strength and conditioning for football in 2003. Rodriguez is extremely loyal to Barwis and gives Barwis a lot of credit for the Mountaineers' rise to national prominence from 2005-07. Barwis has coached 24 NCSA All-Americans since 1999 and received the Bronze Award from the NCSA certification commission in 2004. A former mixed-martial arts fighter, Barwis' workout regimes at West Virginia became legendary, and the Philadelphia native has developed quite a reputation among Michigan players and fans.

MICHIGAN STATE
Name: Ken Mannie
At Michigan State since: 1994
The skinny: Mannie made the transition with Nick Saban from Toledo to Michigan State in 1994, but while Saban moved on, Mannie remained a fixture in East Lansing. He has received numerous awards and honors during his Michigan State tenure, including being named Master Strength and Conditioning Coach by the NSCA in 2002 and being inducted into the Varsity S Club as an honorary member in 2007. Mannie, who oversees the strength and conditioning programs for all of Michigan State's sports, is a regular contributor to the Scholastic Coach and Athletic Director publication. He first met Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio at Ohio State, where they both served as graduate assistants in 1984.

MINNESOTA
Name:
Mark Hill
At Minnesota since: 2007
The skinny: A 1999 graduate of Tennessee-Chattanooga, Hill already has worked as a high-level strength coach in the Big 12, Pac-10 and Big Ten. He joined Minnesota's staff in head coach Tim Brewster's first season after spending three years as associate director of performance enhancement at Arizona. Hill worked closely with Antoine Cason at Arizona, helping the defensive back win the Thorpe Award. He has mentored six All-Big Ten players at Minnesota and helped coach 13 All-Americans and 28 NFL draft picks as the assistant strength and conditioning coach at Oklahoma from 2000-03. Hill was an All-Southern Conference wide receiver at Tennessee-Chattanooga.

NORTHWESTERN
Name: Larry Lilja
At Northwestern since: 1981
The skinny: Lilja is the dean of Big Ten strength coaches and counts current Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald among the many Wildcats players he tutored during his lengthy run in Evanston. He was a three-year starter at Northwestern from 1973-75, serving as a captain in 1974, before returning in 1981 to run the school's strength and conditioning center. Lilja played a major role in helping Northwestern transform its football program by winning Big Ten championships in 1995 and 1996. He earned Big Ten Conference Strength and Conditioning Professional of the Year honors in 1996. The Lilja family has deep roots in the Big Ten, as Larry and his brothers George (Michigan) and Dave (Indiana) are the only siblings in league history to serve as captains for three different teams.

OHIO STATE
Name: Eric Lichter
At Ohio State since: 2006
The skinny: Lichter built his reputation in the private sector by opening the Speed Strength Athlete Training Center in Euclid, Ohio, where he trained athletes in many sports, including Ohio State NFL draft prospects like Donte Whitner and Bobby Carpenter. He served as a consultant to Ohio State's 2002 national championship team and brought Power Plate technology to the program. Head coach Jim Tressel hired him in 2006 to oversee the strength and conditioning program. Lichter has trained six Top 10 NFL draft picks and has worked with LeBron James, Ron Dayne and others. His mother, Linda Lichter Witter, is Ohio State’s synchronized swimming coach, and Eric served as a consultant for the synchronized swimming team before joining Tressel's staff.

PENN STATE
Name: John Thomas
At Penn State since: 1992
The skinny: Like pretty much every member of Joe Paterno's staff, Thomas has been in State College for quite some time, making his mark on the Penn State program. In 2002, Thomas was named a Master of Strength and Conditioning Coach by the NSCA, one of only 27 people to carry the title at the time. He also was named National Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year in 1997. Thomas is a staunch supporter of the High Intensity Strength Training System (HIT), which early last decade created some discontent that has since subsided. Thomas came to Penn State from Army, where he served as head strength and conditioning coach in 1990-91. He played both offensive and defensive line at Muskingum College.

PURDUE
Name: Jim Lathrop
At Purdue since: 1998 (sixth year as director of strength and conditioning)
The skinny: Lathrop made the trek with Joe Tiller and Danny Hope from Wyoming to Purdue after being named the WAC's strength and conditioning coordinator professional of the year in 1996. He spent seven years as strength and conditioning coordinator before being promoted to oversee strength and conditioning for Purdue's entire athletic program. Lathrop designs specific training programs for football, wrestling, and men's and women's track. A former offensive guard for Northwest Missouri State, Lathrop served as both an assistant and a director of strength and conditioning at Georgia Tech from 1988-92. Georgia Tech won the 1990 national championship during his first year as director.

WISCONSIN
Name: Ben Herbert
At Wisconsin since: 2002 (named head strength and conditioning coach in January 2009)
The skinny: Herbert cut his teeth under longtime Wisconsin strength coach John Dettman before working his way into the top football job last winter. A two-year starter on the defensive line for the Badgers, Herbert helped Wisconsin reach back-to-back Rose Bowls in 1998 and 1999. He joined Wisconsin's strength and conditioning staff as an intern in 2002 before being promoted to an assistant the next year. Herbert shook things up after becoming the head strength coach, introducing position group workouts, innovative competitions and some unique motivational props, including a WWE replica belt and two potted plants.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

"Last week, Maybin said he weighed in the 242-245 range. This week, he said he's gained eight pounds. Eat. Train. Sleep. There ain't nothing else to do here."

"Athletic director Joel Maturi said the Gophers still are negotiating to add Southern California to the schedule in a future home-and-home series. A decision should be made within a week."

SPONSORED HEADLINES