College Football Nation: Brady Hoke
It needs to be cooler, especially on game days. And whether it's perception or reality, many don't view Big Ten football as very cool at the moment. Legends and Leaders certainly didn't help. Neither does the continued absence of November night games. The league still boasts amazing venues and plenty of pageantry, and programs have seemed more open to new marketing tactics, whether it's alternate jerseys (hated by some traditionalist fans, incredibly popular with recruits) or more prime-time games.
But something is lacking. Coaches, such as Ohio State's Urban Meyer, have noticed it. So have Big Ten athletic directors.
Whether it's more night games, night games in November, larger scoreboards, better Wi-Fi service, stronger acoustics or broader concessions, the Big Ten has to do more.
"Part of that is to make the league be perceived in reality what it is, and that's a little bit more hip, a little bit more cool," Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis told ESPN.com. "I have three kids that are age 14, 18 and 20, and they're a great resource for me to bounce ideas off from a Michigan State perspective. But I think we need to take that as a league a little bit as well.
"It's not your grandfather's conference any more. There's so much greatness and so much tradition that needs to be continued and talked about, but also try to add a little unique freshness that's unique to young kids."
Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY SportsEven Minnesota's TCF Bank Stadium, the Big Ten's newest football arena, isn't the gem planners intended when students don't show up.
And yet even Hollis has seen recent examples of young people tuning out on game day, such as last fall when Michigan State hosted Iowa on a dreary day in East Lansing.
"One of our biggest no-show rates in football was the Iowa game," Hollis said. "And I'd go out and walk the streets and start talking to kids, 'Why didn't you go?' And they said, 'We couldn't text because it was raining.' They couldn't have their phones out.
"That kind of hit me pretty hard."
Michigan State put in new massive video scoreboards at Spartan Stadium last year, but Hollis knows he needs to do more. Part of a $20 million renovation to the stadium will include some new restrooms and concession stands at the north end of the stadium. The addition also will include a recruiting room.
"We need to make sure we continue to deliver in our venues what's being delivered, and then some, on television," Hollis said. "What's that going to look like? A more comfortable place. It shouldn't be a hassle. We're putting in more bathrooms, we're looking at a $2 million Wi-Fi system that allows more interaction. We're going to have to deliver wider seats, more comfortable seats. It's making our concession stands more presentable."
Student attendance for early kickoffs has been a problem at places such as Michigan and Wisconsin. Michigan AD Dave Brandon this week called student turnout "unacceptable," and coach Brady Hoke is offering free doughnuts to all students who show up before noon kickoffs this fall.
Minnesota has the Big Ten's newest stadium but still struggles to get students to show up in droves.
"They're the centerpiece of the fan experience," Minnesota athletic director Norwood Teague told ESPN.com, "so getting them there changes everything that goes on. We're a new stadium, so we have an unbelievable video board. A lot of the problems that plague other stadiums, we don't have. Our [public-address system] is perfect.
"We've got to do more and more, but our top priority right now is student attendance."
Teague had a group from Minnesota's Carlson School of Management study student attendance at the school. They found that students want a gathering place before games, so the school is providing an entire parking lot near the stadium, Teague said, which will be monitored.
The recruiting component also can't be ignored.
While many interpreted Meyer's post-signing day comments to a Columbus radio station as a direct shot at the recruiting efforts of other Big Ten programs, his fellow league coaches viewed it more as a call to upgrade the game-day experience during the fall.
"It was more, how can we continue to further our brand? How can we make our in-game experiences improve? How can we make our pregame experiences improve?" Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said after the coaches met in February. "All those things in the vein for our fans, the game-day experience of Big Ten arenas and for recruiting."
Indiana athletic director Fred Glass has made football game days a priority since his arrival, adding more night games, a kids' area in the south end of the stadium and other features. Attendance is on the rise, but Glass is still seeking ways to make upgrades.
He turned down Adidas' offer of new uniforms for IU's men's basketball team in the NCAA tournament, but would be more open to a wardrobe shakeup for the football squad.
"More highlights, more scores, more fun, coloring outside the lines a little bit," Glass said. "We'll play to our strengths -- the band, the cheerleaders, the pageantry of college football, flags and color, engagement of students -- and spent a lot of time really trying to enhance that. That's not only a great thing for our fan experience, it translates into the cool factor for recruits who come in."
"I'm not sure I would have used the word chicken," Brandon told ESPN.com, referring to Michigan coach Brady Hoke's comments Monday about Notre Dame "chickening out" of the series. "That's kind of how football coaches would think about it, and that's OK. Brady's a pretty straightforward guy. I would just say Notre Dame had choices to make, and they chose to back away from a rivalry game we've had on our schedule for a long time."
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsDave Brandon said the next two Michigan-Notre Dame games "are going to be really exciting because it's going to be the end of the rivalry, at least for a considerable period of time."
Notre Dame's agreement with the ACC, which will include five games per season, prompted the move. Michigan has games with Arkansas, Virginia Tech, Oregon State, BYU and others scheduled for future seasons.
Although many would like to see Michigan and Notre Dame resume their series, Brandon says don't hold your breath.
"It's going to be a long time," Brandon said. "We've both been busily scheduling out into years into the future. And as I understood it from my counterpart at Notre Dame, they're making plans to go in a different direction. So the earliest we could schedule would be sometime post-2021, 2022, and when you start talking that far out, who knows. So it's going to be a while.
"The night game we have at Michigan Stadium this September, and then our last trip down to South Bend next year are going to be really exciting because it's going to be the end of the rivalry, at least for a considerable period of time."
Brandon used the word "disappointed" several times in discussing the end of the series, but Michigan is moving forward with a schedule model he hopes will position the Wolverines for the College Football Playoff. Although Brandon doesn't sound like he'll add another neutral-site game in the immediate future -- Michigan and Alabama opened the 2012 season in Arlington, Texas -- he recognizes the need to upgrade the schedule.
"We have a lot of work to do to regain our footing in terms of playing competition that's going to be attractive to our fans, help us build our programs and help us compete at the national level," Brandon said. "I'm a big believer that we should be strengthening our schedule and working hard to go out and fill those nonconference positions with the kinds of programs that are going to excite our fans, bring a lot of attention to us as we are broadcast on television and ultimately put in a position where we're going to have better football programs."
Brandon is trying to "take a negative and turn it into a positive" regarding Notre Dame and spread Michigan's wings more with new non-league opponents.
"At Michigan," Brandon said, "we want to compete for one of those four spots at the end of the season."
2. Once head coaches decided to take themselves off the road for May recruiting, they have nothing left to do but talk to the media and to their schools’ fans. All I can say is thank goodness. That’s how we get Michigan coach Brady Hoke saying that Notre Dame is “chickening out of” its rivalry with the Wolverines, or Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops saying the SEC isn’t all that. Coaches who speak their minds and get ripped can get gun-shy. But I hope Hoke, Stoops and the rest of them talk like it’s May all year long.
3. Mount Union head coach Larry Kehres has a record of 332-24-3 and has led the Purple Raiders to 11 Division III titles, and yet he could walk naked through the set of "College GameDay" without anyone noticing. Retiring in May is just another way not to attract attention, and a pox on all journalistic houses for not making this guy a household name. In retiring as in coaching, Kehres is the Chinese Olympic diver of coaches. He executes his skills and barely makes a splash.
In the days following Notre Dame's announcement that it would opt out of its annual series against Michigan after the 2014 season, Wolverines coach Brady Hoke took the diplomatic route when asked about the move.
"My reaction is Notre Dame made a decision, it's not our decision," Hoke said on the Big Ten coaches' teleconference last September. "It's unfortunate, it's a great rivalry, but they've got to do what they think is best."
Coaches' sentiments often change when they're speaking to their devoted fans, not media members, and Hoke had a slightly different take on Notre Dame when discussing the end of the series Monday at the Michigan Sports Commission's annual luncheon in Grand Rapids, Mich.
The Michigan coach said Notre Dame is "chickening out of" a great rivalry. Zing!
"The Notre Dame game, that rivalry, which they're chickening out of," Hoke said Monday during the West Michigan Sports Commission Annual Luncheon at the J.W. Marriott in Grand Rapids.
The remark drew thunderous applause from the crowd.
"They're still gonna play Michigan State, they're gonna play Purdue, but they don't want to play Michigan," Hoke continued. "I don't know how they made that decision ... I really do ... But anyway, that's a great national rivalry game. It's a great game."
Notre Dame nixed the Michigan series after reaching an agreement with the ACC that will include five games per season against ACC opponents. The Irish are trying to diversify their schedule as much as possible, while maintaining traditional rivalries with teams like USC and Navy. Although Notre Dame and Michigan are two big names in college football with storied traditions, the Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry doesn't stretch back nearly as far as Notre Dame's series against USC, Navy, Michigan State or Purdue.
Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon made it clear in September that the decision to stop the series was Notre Dame's, not Michigan's, but neither he nor Hoke had anything inflammatory to say about the Irish.
My take: I understand why Notre Dame did what it did and the need to have a more national schedule in addition to the ACC games each season. Still, it's unfortunate to see the Michigan series go away after 2014.
Hoke on Monday also talked about Michigan's desire to bring in a graduate transfer quarterback for the 2013 season. The Wolverines have no proven depth behind Devin Gardner, and projected backup Russell Bellomy likely will miss the season following ACL surgery. Hoke said it's more likely Michigan adds a graduate transfer from another FBS program than a junior-college transfer.
Colleague Joe Schad reported last week that Arkansas quarterback Brandon Mitchell added Michigan to his list of potential transfer destinations.
Els, the Huskers' linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator, knows what's happening elsewhere: Michigan (eight verbal commits for 2014, seven in the ESPN 150), Ohio State (seven commits for 2014), Michigan State (six commits), Penn State (six commits), Northwestern (five commits) ... and so on.
Nebraska, meanwhile, has just one pledge for its 2014 class in safety/tight end Luke Gifford, who lives just down the road from campus in Lincoln.
AP Photo/Nati HarnikNebraska's location doesn't make recruiting easy. But recruiting coordinator Ross Els said that the program's staff and facilities help the cause.
Nebraska's location makes it challenging for prospects to pay their own way on unofficial visits before their senior years. Els had to interrupt our interview to take a call from a recruit in Texas. The recruit asked about the cost of an air ticket to Nebraska.
The Huskers will gladly pay for recruits to take official visits after the start of their senior year in high school, but the value of the official visit has changed as recruits are committing earlier and earlier.
For example, Michigan has made early commits a hallmark of its recruiting under coach Brady Hoke. The Wolverines had six verbal commits for the 2012 class before May 1, 2011. They had 20 of 25 recruits verbally committed before the start of the 2011 season. Michigan accelerated the process even more for the 2013 class, as two players (quarterback Shane Morris and cornerback Dymonte Thomas) committed in 2011 and 12 committed before March 2012. Michigan once again added a small portion of its recruits (six of 27) after the 2012 season kicked off.
Nebraska has had to be more patient, if if not by choice. The Huskers had three verbal commits at this time last year, and only 10 of the eventual 25 signees pledged before the season. Big Red made its big recruiting push in the weeks before signing day as it hosted prospects on official visits. The 2012 class followed a similar pattern, as only five of 17 signees committed before the season.
"Some kids will make the circuit," Els said. "They'll go along that East Coast and hit four or five schools. Well, when you come to Nebraska, where else are you going to go? No place is really very close. They have to make a special trip. ... It's not an excuse. It's just a fact that it's hard to get kids up here early.
"Once we do, we've got a great shot at them because of the facilities, the people. So I'd love to be done, but we'll take 'em when we get 'em."
Els said Nebraska doesn't shy away from recruits who are anxious to make verbal commitments. In those cases, the coaches strongly encourage them to get to campus.
Nebraska often doesn't land recruits in a hurry to decide if they aren't in "that magical 500-mile radius we talk about," Els said, but because the Huskers recruit nationally, many of their targets will make several trips (unofficial and official) before finalizing their choice closer to signing day.
Els has a simple message to Husker fans anxious about the 2014 class: be patient.
"You can't compare us to Ohio State and Michigan and Notre Dame," he said. "We will not fill up that quickly. If we're filling up that quickly, it's either because we just won the national championship and everybody wants to play for us, or we might be not very selective in who we're taking. We don't throw offers out there just to throw 'em out there."
For now, Hagerup will practice and be involved in all team activities outside of gameday. He led the Big Ten and finished 11th nationally in punting average at 45 yards per attempt in 2012, although he only punted 33 times in 11 games. He was named the first-team All-Big Ten punter in the media vote.
Junior Matt Wile started at punter in the Outback Bowl against South Carolina and had a 48-yard average on three attempts, two of which he placed inside the Gamecocks' 20-yard line. Wile averaged 35.9 yards per punt last season, but the more important number is that he put nine of his 12 attempts inside the opponents' 20. Michigan often used him as the "pooch" specialist.
Wile, who also handles kickoffs for the Wolverines, might not have as big of a leg as Hagerup but should be just fine as the starting punter this season. Meanwhile, Hagerup -- who said "the past five months have been an incredible, humbling time for me" in an official school release -- must stay in head coach Brady Hoke's good graces the rest of this year in order to have a shot to win his job back in 2014.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Two words attach themselves to Michigan defensive end Frank Clark.
The first is potential. Clark has plenty. Wolverines All-American left tackle Taylor Lewan saw it throughout spring practice, when he faced Clark on a daily basis. Michigan coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison also see what the 6-foot-2, 277-pound Cleveland native could be this season for the Wolverines defense.
"He's so athletic, it's unmatched in my opinion," Lewan told ESPN.com. "He has so much potential to do so many things here, which would be awesome. But a person told me once that potential means you haven’t done anything yet. Frank has the opportunity this year to really come out and blossom."
The value of that opportunity isn't lost on Clark because he nearly threw it away last summer. He pleaded guilty in September to second-degree home invasion after admitting to stealing a laptop computer from a student's room in his dormitory. The offense took place June 14 -- Clark's 19th birthday.
Clark was suspended for Michigan's season-opening loss to Alabama before returning to the field.
"I had to mature after last year," Clark said. "My coaches, as much as they've done for me, giving me another opportunity to play here at this great school, another opportunity to further my education despite everything I went through last year, there's nothing more I could have asked for."
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioMichigan's Big Ten foes will be going up against an even stronger Frank Clark in 2013.
"I’ve got to stay out the way, I can't get into any more trouble, I can't do what I did," he said.
Although Clark missed only one game, he paid "heavy consequences" for his mistake, according to Hoke, inside the walls of Schembechler Hall. Hoke saw changes in Clark, especially after the season and when Michigan got into spring ball.
"Growing up as a young man, you really see an accountability to his teammates from Frank," Hoke said.
There's that second word, accountability. Clark always has had potential to be a star, but only recently has he embraced the need to be accountable and the responsibility he now carries for the Wolverines' defense.
Just a true junior, Clark is one of Michigan's most experienced defensive linemen along with Quinton Washington and Jibreel Black. He has appeared in 23 games, starting four last season, and quietly recorded nine tackles for loss, two sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and three pass breakups in 2012.
When Michigan lost All-Big Ten linebacker Jake Ryan to a torn ACL in March, the big question around the program was who would step into a featured role for a defense that, aside from Ryan, lacked star power last season. Clark's name came up a lot.
"Playing last year and having a bigger role than my freshman year, it forced me to change my mindset," Clark said. "I've got a new set of goals. I've got things I know I've got to help my team out with a little bit more. I've got to be more of an impact player on the defense. I've got to help bring the defense together in the absence of one of our leaders, Jake Ryan.
"Whether it's working harder in the weight room or working harder on the field, I'm doing whatever I can do to help motivate the guys under me: Mario [Ojemudia], Taco [Charlton], the whole defensive line."
Thanks to Lewan, Clark had no trouble keeping track of his progress this spring. They went at it during team drills in workouts, and challenged each other in the weight room, even if they were in different lifting groups.
They competed to see who could do the heaviest set of squats, the top bench-press total and the most pull-ups. Clark didn't win each time, but his victories boosted his confidence.
"I say it to myself, I say it to my family and my friends back home," Clark said. "When you're going against the best offensive lineman in the nation -- and that's how I feel about Taylor -- there's nothing else in the world that can challenge you more. He's an All-American. He's somewhere I want to be, somewhere all my life that I dream to be.
"If I can put myself in that position, live up to expectations of what many people see me as, I know how much I can help my team out."
Mattison has made the pass rush a major priority after Michigan finished eighth in the Big Ten and 78th nationally in sacks last season with 22. The Wolverines lose end Craig Roh (four sacks) to graduation and Ryan (4.5 sacks) for at least the start of the season.
There's a bigger burden on players like Clark, Black, Ojemudia and Taco Charlton, a 6-6, 265-pound man-child who enrolled early and went through spring drills.
"He's grown up," Mattison said of Clark. "He's understanding that he has a responsibility to this defense because he is a veteran and he's played quite a bit of football, so his best performance is the only thing that's acceptable."
Mattison tells Clark that "potential is nothing." Those who live up to it separate themselves.
After last summer, Clark is ready to take that step.
"You can't make the same mistake twice," he said. "That's in life and on the field."
The Wolverines' strategy when it comes to recruiting receivers these days could be summed up in three words: super size me. On Thursday, Detroit wideout Maurice Ways became the latest player to commit to Brady Hoke. Ways is 6-foot-3.
He joins current Class of 2014 commits Drake Harris, a 6-foot-4 receiver, and Ian Bunting, a tight end who's been listed as tall as 6-foot-7. Meanwhile, Michigan's celebrated 2013 class included three skyscraper receivers: 6-foot-4 Jaron Dukes, 6-foot-3 Csont'e York and 6-foot-2 Da'Mario Jones. They'll join current redshirt freshman Jehu Chesson (6-foot-3) and sophomore Amara Darboh (6-2) in Ann Arbor.
There's no secret to what's going on here. Michigan is moving on from its spread offense days and diving full bore back into the pro style system. Offensive coordinator Al Borges wants rangy, lanky athletes on the outside, both for the mismatches they create and their ability to block for the running game.
The Wolverines got great production out of the 6-2 Junior Hemingway the last two years, but their top returning receiver this year is Jeremy Gallon, who's only 5-foot-8. Gallon is an excellent player, but future Michigan receivers will likely look less like him and more like former great Braylon Edwards (6-3). Unlike the days of Rich Rodriguez's spread, the Wolverines appear to be valuing size over speed.
"Speed is overrated," receivers coach Jeff Hecklinski told reporters in February. “All of our guys, if you watch them on high-school film, they have great hands, they adjust to the ball, they track the ball very well in the air and they go up and they catch it. We can judge that on film, so let’s get the best hand-eye coordination guys, guys that can catch the football, let’s bring them in here and let’s develop them in other areas.”
Michigan's chief rival, and the other Big Ten team that's been cleaning up on the recruiting trail of late, is taking a different approach. Sure, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer wants guys with great hand-eye coordinator and catching ability, too. But he really wants blazing speed for his system. Just look at the receivers the Buckeyes landed in the 2013 class: Jalin Marshall (5-11), Dontre Wilson (5-10), James Clark (5-11) and Corey Smith (6-1). Receiver seems to be one position where Michigan and Ohio State are not in direct competition for the same players.
It will be interesting to see what kind of matchup problems the Wolverines' height at receiver poses for Big Ten defenses. Just take a look at the listed sizes of some of the top cornerbacks in the league the past two seasons:
Michigan State's Johnny Adams: 5-11
Purdue's Ricardo Allen: 5-9
Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard: 5-11
Ohio State's Bradley Roby: 5-11
Iowa's Micah Hyde: 6-1
Nebraska's Alfonzo Dennard: 5-10
Iowa's Shaun Prater: 5-11
Size, of course, doesn't always matter. There's also leverage, separation, route running, catching ability and several other factors that go into being great receivers. Former Michigan stars Desmond Howard (5-10) and Anthony Carter (5-11) did just fine without towering over people.
But Michigan is clearly taking its receiver position to new, um, heights. It will be fun to see how the strategy pays off in the near future.
What will the weekend hold for Big Ten products? Who will be the top pick from the league? Which players should be garnering more buzz? Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett try to answer those questions and more in this blog debate:
Brian Bennett: Adam, another NFL draft is nearly upon us. What better way to spend 96 hours of a spring weekend than listening to analysts describe a player's upside? At least we won't have to read any more 2013 mock drafts after Thursday afternoon.
But let's get down to Big Ten business. According to our colleagues with the good hair -- Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay -- the league very well might not produce a first-round pick for the first time since the AFL-NFL merger. Last year, the first Big Ten player taken was all the way down at No. 23. What's going on here? Is there that big of a talent shortage in the conference, or is this just a blip? And do you think any Big Ten players hear their names called on Thursday night?
AP Photo/Michael ConroyKawann Short's versatility could make him too attractive for NFL teams to pass up in the draft's first round.
I thought the Big Ten still would have a first-round pick even after Michigan LT Taylor Lewan announced he would return in 2012. But now I'm not so sure. Ohio State DT Johnathan Hankins and Purdue DT Kawann Short both could hear their names called, but it's far from a guarantee.
What do you think this year's draft says about the state of the Big Ten?
Brian Bennett: I think you hit on several of the reasons, and I'd add in the population and demographic shifts as another. Of course, if Lewan came out as expected, he'd probably be a top-15 pick. And if the NFL were to do last year's draft over, I'm pretty sure Russell Wilson would go in the first round, right?
Still, the downturn in top-level NFL talent, at least from a draft perspective, has to trouble the conference and offers a possible explanation as to why the Big Ten has struggled on the big stage of late. I believe that the way Urban Meyer and Brady Hoke are recruiting will mean more elite players will be entering the pros in the near future, but we shall see.
Let's talk about this year's prospects. Who do you think will be the first Big Ten player selected this weekend? And which Big Ten product do you think should be the first one taken?
Adam Rittenberg: As much as I'd love to see Wisconsin RB Montee Ball work his way into the first round, I think the first pick will be either Short or Hankins. Both are potentially great NFL defensive linemen, but I think Short has a little more versatility to his game and can be an effective pass-rusher in addition to his run-stuffing duties. Short wasn't healthy for a chunk of last season, which led to some erratic play, but he has the ability to dominate inside. So does Hankins, but he's more of a space-eater than a difference-maker on the pass rush. I think Short should be the first Big Ten player taken, and I think he will be.
You mention Wilson, who was arguably the biggest steal of the 2012 draft. Which Big Ten player will fill that role this year? Who are the value picks out there from the league?
Brian Bennett: Wilson slipped in last year's draft because of concerns over his height. And I think there may be a similar thing going on with Ohio State's John Simon. He's viewed as a tweener because he's only 6-foot-1, but there's no questioning Simon's motor, heart or leadership. As long as he can stay healthy, he'll be a productive player for a long time in the NFL.
Penn State's Jordan Hill is another guy who's shorter than the prototype for a defensive lineman but who also makes up for it with his performance and drive. I also believe Nebraska's Rex Burkhead is being undervalued, though running backs aren't the commodities they once were at the next level. A knee injury hurt Burkhead's stock, but he showed at the combine what kind of athlete he is. And I think Michigan State cornerback Johnny Adams, who was looked at as a first-round draft pick not that long ago, could be had at a good price this weekend.
Which players do you think are being undervalued? And what do you see as the draft fate for Michigan's Denard Robinson?
Andrew Weber/US PresswireRex Burkhead showed during pre-draft workouts that he's recovered from a 2012 knee injury.
Ohio State tackle Reid Fragel is another guy who could be a great value, although his stock seems to be rising quickly. He started his career as a tight end but really thrived last year at the tackle spot.
Robinson will be one of the weekend's top story lines. He's clearly a work in progress as a receiver, but you can't teach that speed and explosiveness. Robinson is a risk-reward guy, but I'd be surprised if he's still on the board midway through the third round.
The Big Ten sends a fairly small contingent of underclassmen to this year's draft. How do you think those players pan out?
Brian Bennett: Michigan State has three of 'em in Le'Veon Bell, Dion Sims and William Gholston. I think there's a chance that some team reaches for Bell in the first round, and he's got the body to be a very good NFL running back for a long time. Sims also presents an intriguing option for teams, especially with the increased use of tight ends in the pro passing game. Despite Gholston's impressive physical traits, he didn't test that well in Indianapolis and had a questionable motor in college. Teams could shy away from him.
You mentioned Spence from Illinois, a guy whose stock seemed to climb as he showed some great strength in workouts. Hankins will be a second-rounder at worst. Then there's Wisconsin center Travis Frederick, who posted a slow sprint time at the combine. But how many times do centers need to sprint? I still think he'll be a good player, and one who shouldn't fall past the second round.
This is getting to be as long as the draft itself, so we should probably start wrapping things up. Any final thoughts on the Big Ten's outlook this weekend?
Adam Rittenberg: The big story lines for me, other than whether the Big Ten has a player drafted in the first round, are where running backs like Ball, Bell and Burkhead land, the Denard Watch, how the underclassmen fare and where the potential sleepers we outlined above end up. This won't be a transformative draft for the Big Ten because it lacks elite prospects at the positions we mentioned earlier, especially cornerback and quarterback. But there are always a few surprises along the way. As a Chicago Bears fan, I'm always interested to see if a Big Ten player ends up at Halas Hall.
What Big Ten story lines intrigue you heading into the draft?
Brian Bennett: You mentioned most of the big ones. I'll also be interested to see if any team takes a chance on Penn State's Michael Mauti and whether Iowa's James Vandenberg gets drafted after a disappointing senior year. I predict the Big Ten keeps its first-round streak alive -- barely -- and that Robinson stays in Michigan when the Detroit Lions draft him in the fourth round.
And then we can all put the 2013 NFL draft to bed -- and start studying those 2014 mock drafts.
Many college coaches, even those at traditional power programs, concern themselves only with the present and the future. Michigan's Brady Hoke puts the past on a pedestal.
Hoke's players know what the numbers 134 and 42 mean -- Michigan enters its 134th year of football and boasts 42 Big Ten championships. They know about the program's national titles and award winners. They see the Bo Schembechler quotes, the Big Ten banners and the legends lockers dedicated to program greats.
Many of the current Wolverines hadn't put on a helmet and pads in their lives the last time Michigan won a national title in 1997, but they know what the program was like because coaches like Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, both Michigan assistants during the mid-1990s, tell them about it all the time. Offensive line coach Darrell Funk, who had no ties to Michigan before arriving with Hoke in 2011, often shows his players tape of former Wolverines stars Steve Hutchinson, Jake Long and Jon Jansen.
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesBrady Hoke and the Wolverines are working to get the program back to where it once was.
Senior linebacker Cam Gordon was 6 years old when Michigan won the national championship and 13 when the Wolverines claimed their last Big Ten title (2004, co-championship). But he hears about the glory days from coaches like Mattison and new outside linebackers coach Roy Manning, who played for Big Ten championship teams in 2003 and 2004.
"I do remember the stories about Michigan," Gordon said. "Before they even stepped on the field, the game was won."
The constant history lessons taught inside Schembechler Hall don't stem from an unhealthy state of nostalgia. Hoke wants his players to understand the standard at Michigan. He's also extremely blunt about the fact that the Wolverines have yet to meet it.
Hoke guided Michigan to 11 wins in his first season and ended the seven-year losing streak against archrival Ohio State. He has yet to lose a game at Michigan Stadium. He has pulled Michigan out of the fog of the Rich Rodriguez era. Recruiting is undoubtedly on the upswing, and Michigan looks more like its old self on both sides of the ball.
But Hoke's tenure to this point, by his own barometer, has been a failure.
"We didn't get it done," he said of the 2012 season, when Michigan went 8-5. "We were still in a second year of changing a culture and changing a philosophy to some degree, offensively and defensively and the whole scope of what we try and do as a team. But still, at the end of the day, this is about winning Big Ten championships. We have 42 of them, and we need to start on our 43rd."
Hoke's message is heard loud and clear from the team's best player on down.
"The standard at Michigan is a Big Ten championship every single year," All-American left tackle Taylor Lewan said. "That's the minimum. Everything else is a failure. The Sugar Bowl, the BCS game, that was awesome. It was such a great experience, Bourbon Street was cool, New Orleans was cool -- failure. Outback Bowl, close game, lost in the last 20 seconds -- failure.
"Those are all games that are failures. The only way this team would be happy, would be satisfied with one season, is if we win a Big Ten championship."
Things weren't that way when Lewan arrived in 2009.
"The main goal was to make it to a bowl game," he said. "I don't know if that's how it's supposed to be at Michigan. I don't know how much my opinion counts, but I think it should be a Big Ten championship every single year. These coaches have done a great job of preaching that.
"We're not going to settle."
It has been nearly a decade since the Wolverines could call themselves league champions, their longest drought since a lull between 1950 and 1964. Every year that passes without a title means Michigan moves a little further away from the great times, a little further away from regaining the mystique Mattison and others preach about.
Talking about a winning culture in the past only goes so far without establishing a winning culture in the present. It's why much of Michigan's offseason work has been from the neck up.
"There were times where we were down in games and we came back and won the game based off our mental toughness," wide receiver Jeremy Gallon said. "And there were times in games where we didn’t come back, and it was our lack of mental toughness."
Defensive tackle Quinton Washington said Michigan worked on breaking "mental barriers" this spring, one of which is playing better away from the Big House. The Wolverines dropped three road games (Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State) and two neutral-site contests (Alabama, South Carolina) last fall.
AP Photo/Dave WeaverTaylor Lewan (77) knows expectations are high for every player who wears a Michigan uniform.
"We didn't play well on the road," Hoke said. "We didn't play with the toughness that it takes. We learned a lot in the bowl game about us as people, especially the guys coming back, good and bad."
Hoke has a Sun Tzu quote displayed in the weight room that reads: Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win. The goal is for the Wolverines to enter games with the same mindset as their predecessors.
Many think the Michigan mystique is dead, but Hoke's players are driven to revive it.
"If they don't fear Michigan," Gordon said, "then obviously that's something that we're going to have to change."
Beginning this fall.
"Anywhere you go in the world, everyone knows Michigan," defensive end Frank Clark said. "Anywhere in the nation, as far as college football, everyone knows Michigan. For the last couple years, we haven't lived up to those expectations. This next season, we have to.
"It's time. There aren't anymore excuses."
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The Michigan Man label carries a price tag. Those who earn it invest their bodies and their minds.
Some pay with deferred income.
For Taylor Lewan, becoming a Michigan Man carries a very hefty price tag, one with two commas. Lewan, the Wolverines' All-America left tackle, passed up millions in January when he announced he would return to Michigan for his senior season. After an excellent junior season and a solid performance against South Carolina in the Outback Bowl, Lewan had, in the view of most analysts, locked up a spot in the first round of the NFL draft. Some projected him as a top-10 pick.
"Everybody knew what Taylor could have been worth," Michigan defensive end Frank Clark said. "The type of season Taylor had -- All-American, All-Big Ten, he won the [Big Ten] offensive lineman of the year award -- I knew he was gone.
"I mean, who wouldn’t be?"
So why did it take Lewan all of 3½ hours to decide he'd be back at Michigan in 2013? Two words meant more to him than three letters and two commas.
He wants a title that, in his own blunt assessment, he doesn't deserve yet.
"I can't call myself a Michigan Man," Lewan told ESPN.com, "but that's what I want to become."
Lewan's decision to return served as an acknowledgement that his journey at Michigan isn't complete. He hasn't helped the Wolverines to their 43rd Big Ten championship (and first since 2004). He hasn't put himself among the greats -- Jake Long, Dan Dierdorf, Jumbo Elliott, Jon Jansen -- to play tackle for the Maize and Blue. He hasn't restored Michigan to the standard that coach Brady Hoke talks about on a daily basis.
But the decision also acknowledged how far Lewan had come at Michigan and how his view on the school had changed. Because when he arrived, the thought of leaving millions on the table for another year in school was laughable.
"When I came here, I didn't know anything," Lewan said. "All my friends are Ohio State fans, so I was always like, 'Ohio State's badass.' That's all I thought. I didn't know. I was getting away from Arizona for a couple years. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. The first couple years I was here, I still didn't know any of the tradition. I was playing for myself, I was playing for the opportunity to go to the NFL as soon as possible. That was my focus."
“Things began to shift when Hoke arrived and started his push to restore Michigan to glory.
I enjoy the pain of it. Maybe I'm a little messed up in the head, I don't know, but I enjoy hitting my face on another man's face and trying to put him in the dirt and make him feel every single inch of it. Something about that, it puts me on cloud nine.” -- Taylor Lewan
"Coming into a room and expecting excellence, talking about a Big Ten championship every single day, knowing we have 42 championships and there needs to be a 43rd, that repetition, talking about it, talking about it, it makes you think," Lewan said. "Now I know more about the tradition here. I know more about the winged helmet, 115,000 people at the game, the largest stadium in the country. There’s a tractor or something under the stadium because it fell in while they were building.
"The little things, it becomes a part of you."
Hoke calls it "an education," and Lewan will continue his on the field and in the classroom and outside of it at Michigan. Winning a Big Ten title and completing his degree factored into his decision, but Lewan also wants more out of his college experience.
He hopes another year at Michigan allows him to do what few college football players can -- engage in campus life.
"As a football player, the biggest thing you do is hang out with the football people," he said. "Maybe some hockey guys, maybe some baseball guys here and there. I don't really know what Michigan has out there. If you play college football, your college experience is officially different from everybody else's and that’s how it’s going to be. I think it would be cool to see the different societies going on at Michigan, meet different people, all the things they do to contribute to the University of Michigan.
"I contribute in such a little way compared to some other people. I'm a source of entertainment. The things other people do are much bigger than what I do."
Lewan's perspective is refreshing, but don't tell anyone around Schembechler Hall that the things he does are small.
Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner knows his blind side will be sealed this fall. Wolverines offensive line coach Darrell Funk knows he'll have arguably the nation's best offensive lineman anchoring the front five and helping lead a group that must replace starters at all three interior positions. Clark knows he'll have the best possible preparation for opposing offenses by battling the 6-foot-8, 308-pound Lewan every day in practice.
"When Taylor announced [his return], that was pretty much at the peak of recruiting," Funk said. "All the arguments around the country were who has the No. 1 player? Who has the No. 1 recruit?
"I know when I went home that night, thinking of who got the No. 1 player in the country; I know I did."
Lewan often says the decision to return to Michigan is his and his alone. Like many high-level NFL prospects staying in school, he'll take out an insurance policy to guard against a career-threatening injury.
But there was no doubt in his mind when he made the announcement. If there had been, he'd be meeting with NFL teams right now and likely planning a trip to New York on April 25. Instead, he's preparing for Michigan's spring game Saturday at the Big House.
"People are going to absolutely think, 'He's crazy, he left all this money,'" said Lewan, whose decision drew skepticism from ESPN's Mel Kiper and others. "It doesn't matter. If I don't do what I'm supposed to do now, I shouldn't be in the NFL anyway.
"It wouldn't be fair to Michigan for me to hold anything back. There's no foot-out-the-door attitude."
Lewan thinks he can improve every part of his game in his final season, from pass protection to double-teams to base blocks to the screen game. He's "nowhere near perfect" despite having a unique blend of size and athleticism that allows him to defeat pass-rushers in one-on-one matchups.
Funk notes that while Lewan certainly could have made the jump -- "Everyone that I talked to knew he was in that elite status" -- he also has areas to upgrade, such as certain run-blocking techniques.
"The scary thing about him," Funk said, "and I know it and he knows it, when we really break him down on tape, he’s got two to three things that when he improves on those, his stock's going to rise even further."
Funk has coached talented offensive linemen who need to be prodded to finish blocks. Lewan is the opposite, playing to the whistle and sometimes beyond it.
He earned a reputation for being "nasty" even before he made his debut as a redshirt freshman in 2010. In 2011, Lewan and Michigan State defensive end William Gholston exchanged unpleasantries during a game in East Lansing. Gholston received two personal-foul penalties and a one-game suspension for punching Lewan, but Lewan wasn't exactly a saint in the game.
AP Photo/Dave WeaverTaylor Lewan and his coaches agree that the offensive lineman has things to work on his senior year.
"If I do my job and do it 100 percent between the whistles and just try to physically dominate someone every single play and make them hurt at the end of the game, that's enough for me to go home happy every Saturday," he said. "I enjoy the pain of it. Maybe I'm a little messed up in the head, I don't know, but I enjoy hitting my face on another man's face and trying to put him in the dirt and make him feel every single inch of it.
"Something about that, it puts me on cloud nine."
Lewan wasn't always this way. A future in contact sports seemed unlikely after his career as a young hockey player ended very early.
"I played for a team called the Tarantulas," Lewan recalled. "It was a mite league, so there was no checking allowed. I was good. I would wield the stick. I was money at hockey. And then they had tryouts for a team and it was pee-wee, so you could check all of a sudden. Some guy laid me out. This guy hit me so damn hard.
"I got up and just skated off. I was done."
Despite a love for baseball, Lewan eventually warmed to football and the contact it brought. He started nine games at left tackle as a redshirt freshman and has remained a fixture there ever since. Lewan earned second-team All-Big Ten honors in 2011 before making numerous All-America teams last fall.
Lewan will hold his own draft party of sorts later this month. He'll watch the first-round selections, rooting on top linemen such as Texas A&M's Luke Joeckel, Central Michigan's Eric Fisher and Oklahoma's Lane Johnson, as well as USC quarterback Matt Barkley, with whom he played in a high school all-star game.
"Watching them fulfill their dreams and knowing that someday I’ll hopefully be there, it’s just so cool to see," he said. "There's no jealousy or anything. If I'd wanted to leave, I would have left."
He's too busy enjoying himself at Michigan, whether he's growing an incredibly weak mustache as part of the line's "Muzzy Maulers" campaign, competing daily against Clark on the field and in the weight room, or tormenting Gardner in every way possible ("He's a bully, a big bully," Gardner said. "He picks on me, and he's so large I really can't do much about it. And he protects my blind side, so it's a lose-lose").
Michigan could have managed without Lewan, but his return "lifted a weight off our shoulders," Clark said.
"It brought joy back to the team," Clark continued. "He's one of the characters on the team, one of the motivators, one of the leaders. When I found out he’s coming back, that’s when it really clicked for me that it’s bigger than the NFL for him. It’s bigger than the money."
Lewan used to be a football player who happened to play for Michigan. He has become something more.
"The statement he made when he was asked why he came back and he said, 'You've never played football at Michigan,' that speaks volumes," Hoke said. "His goal is to help mold a young offensive line. His goal is to win a Big Ten championship. His goal is to become a better football player in all aspects. All those things are why he came back, but he wouldn’t have come back if he didn't play football at Michigan."
Lewan isn't sure how a Big Ten championship in 2012 would have affected his decision. He'd like to think he would have stayed. Maybe he would have bolted. The bottom line, he said, is it didn't happen.
His career is incomplete. He wants to be a champion. He wants to be a Michigan Man.
"I don't think there's any doubt about it," Hoke said. "The way he's carried himself, the way he's led, how he approaches every day, he's put himself in that position."
Bellomy joins star linebacker Jake Ryan on the sidelines. Ryan also tore his ACL late last month.
Losing Bellomy isn't quite as catastrophic for the Wolverines as Ryan, since the offense is still in very good hands with Devin Gardner at quarterback. But the injury does hurt Michigan's depth at the position and will likely have a large impact on the immediate future of stud recruit Shane Morris.
Bellomy was the team's only other scholarship quarterback this spring behind Gardner. He infamously replaced an injured Denard Robinson last year at Nebraska and struggled badly, completing just 4-of-21 passes for 46 yards with four interceptions in a 23-9 loss that helped seal the Legends Division title for the Cornhuskers. Gardner became Michigan's full-time quarterback the following week.
But Brady Hoke said in a statement released by the school that Bellomy was having a good spring. If nothing else, he offered some experience as a backup behind Gardner. Michigan will now finish the spring with only walk-ons on the depth chart behind their starter, and this may well rule out a redshirt season for Morris.
In a best-case scenario for the Wolverines, Gardner stays healthy and plays every meaningful snap, while Morris gets valuable reps in practice as the No. 2 guy yet keeps his redshirt option open. But it's hard to go through a whole season with just one quarterback, especially one who can run like Gardner can.
Any significant missed time for Gardner this season likely means Michigan will turn to a true freshman under center, which is never a great recipe for a team with championship aspirations. The Wolverines must hope their recent bad luck with injuries is about to change.
The recovery for the redshirt senior, who had surgery to repair the broken bones that day, is going ahead of schedule.
"I thought it was a cramp," Toussaint said. "I didn't know it was that serious of an injury. I wanted to get back up but I remember somebody telling me sit down, stay down. It may have been a referee.
"I kind of looked down and went into shock. I looked at it and it was an ugly look. All out of whack."
Toussaint, who rushed for 514 yards and five touchdowns last season after a 1,000-yard sophomore year, said he immediately knew he was done for the season but never questioned whether the injury was career-threatening.
His confidence grew more when he removed the boot from his left leg soon after Michigan's season concluded in the Outback Bowl. While he has been held out of contact drills this spring, both he and Michigan coach Brady Hoke said they are optimistic he will return in time for the Wolverines' season opener against Central Michigan on Aug. 31.
For the full story from WolverineNation, click here.
Ryan is the team's top returning defensive player, having led the Wolverines last year with 88 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and four forced fumbles. We named him to our 2012 All-Big Ten team and rated him No. 17 in our Big Ten postseason player rankings.
Lon Horwedel/Icon SMIJake Ryan's knee injury leaves a hole in the Michigan defense that will be difficult to fill.
There have been success stories of athletes recovering quickly from torn ACLs. The most notable one is Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson, who led the NFL in rushing last season after suffering his ACL tear on Christmas Eve 2011.
"I know he will attack his rehabilitation just like he does everything else and will be back when he's ready," head coach Brady Hoke said in a statement.
Linebacker also looks to be Michigan's deepest position. Hoke told ESPN.com last week before Ryan's injury that "we feel a little stronger at that position" and that he expected great competition. Desmond Morgan, who started at weak side linebacker last year, had been working out at the middle linebacker spot to allow him and rising star James Ross to play at the same time. The Wolverines also have sophomores Joe Bolden and Royce Jenkins-Stone, senior Mike Jones and incoming freshmen Mike McCray II and Ben Gedeon to compete for snaps.
However, most of those guys -- with the exception of McCray -- profile more as middle or weak side linebackers, and lack the size to play the strong side spot that Ryan occupied. That puts more pressure on senior Cam Gordon -- Ryan's backup -- to play a bigger role. Gordon has appeared in 33 career games, and Hoke praised his winter workout efforts in his interview with ESPN.com last year. But Gordon has yet to show that he can be a star or a major disruptive force the way Ryan has been. Make no mistake about it: this is a big, big loss for Greg Mattison's defense.
The Wolverines have plenty of time to figure out some answers, but it remains to be seen if they can find anyone to fill the playmaking shoes of Ryan. It's the first real negative of the offseason for Michigan, which got great news when Taylor Lewan returned, when Devin Gardner got his extra year of eligibility, and of course on signing day.
Time will tell how well the team will fill in for Ryan, or whether he can return at all for 2013. But until then, the guy with the flowing golden locks and penchant for making impact plays will be sorely missed.
Mattison and the school have agreed to a three-year contract extension through the 2016 season. The 63-year-old Mattison is entering the final year of his original deal with Michigan after returning to the school from the Baltimore Ravens.
"Michigan is such a special place, and it's exciting to know I'll have the opportunity to coach at the greatest program in college football for the next four years, and hopefully long after," Mattison said in a prepared statement. "Part of the reason I came back here is because I wanted to work with Brady [Hoke] again, and every day I'm thankful I made that decision. There's not a better coach or man to work for. But right now we're focused on this year, and we're working every day for these kids."
Mattison has put Michigan's defense back on solid footing after the worst stretch in team history on that side of the ball. The Wolverines went from 110th nationally in defense the year before his arrival to 17th in 2011 and then to 12th last season. Michigan has finished in the top 20 nationally in scoring defense, total defense and pass defense in each of the past two seasons with Mattison at the controls. Mattison was a finalist for the Broyles Award (nation's top assistant) in 2010.
Terms of Mattison's new contract weren't disclosed. Mattison is the Big Ten's highest-paid assistant with a salary of $750,000 (tied with Ohio State's Luke Fickell). He's expected to coach the defensive line as well this season after Jerry Montgomery's departure to Oklahoma.
"We're excited Greg will remain at Michigan for the next four-plus years," Hoke said in a statement. "What he's done for this program, our defense and for our kids on and off the field over the last two years, he's the best there is."
Michigan fans won't argue.
It's likely Michigan will be Mattison's final coaching stop, as he'll be 67 when the new contract runs out. He has been defensive coordinator at Florida, Notre Dame, Western Michigan and with the NFL's Ravens.