NCF Nation: Brandon Kinnie

Halftime: Michigan 17, Nebraska 10

November, 19, 2011
There was a lot of talk again this week about Denard Robinson's declining production and more calls for Devin Gardner to start at quarterback for Michigan.

Well, Robinson has looked more like the old "Shoelace" so far after a first half that has the Wolverines leading Nebraska 17-10. After not rushing for more than 63 yards his past four games, Robinson already has 75 yards rushing and a score today while looking much fresher. He has also thrown for 98 yards and a touchdown, though he does have an interception. Gardner has yet to get involved.

Michigan had a 10-0 lead as Nebraska looked flat to start. But a great call on a play-action pass from Taylor Martinez to Brandon Kinnie resulted in a 54-yard touchdown as three Michigan defensive backs fell down on the play. Terrence Moore made a terrific play to deflect and then catch a Robinson screen pass to set up a 51-yard field goal by Brett Maher to tie it up.

The Cornhuskers looked a little befuddled by Robinson's running earlier in the game but did manage to corral him late in the half when Michigan had a chance to go in for a late score. The Wolverines have outgained Nebraska 230-125 and have doubled them in offensive snaps (42-21). Michigan has been a second-half team most of the year, so Brady Hoke has to feel pretty good taking a lead into the break.

Rex Burkhead has been surprisingly non-existent for Nebraska, gaining just four yards on four carries as the Wolverines defense has shut down running lanes. It's going to be awfully hard for the Huskers to win this game on the road without getting something from Burkhead.

The power has been out at Michigan Stadium all afternoon, with the scoreboards and play clocks not working. It's like old-timey football, and Michigan has gone back to a more recent past by putting the ball in Robinson's hands.
It's not all about the seniors in the Big Ten anymore.

The past four winners of the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year have been non-seniors, including sophomores in each of the past two seasons (Michigan QB Denard Robinson and Wisconsin RB John Clay). Two of the first three Big Ten players selected in April's NFL draft were defensive linemen with junior eligibility (Wisconsin's J.J. Watt and Illinois' Corey Liuget).

[+] EnlargeDenard Robinson
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesDenard Robinson passed for 2,570 yards and ran for 1,702 yards last season.
Wisconsin still touts as a developmental program but has produced the Big Ten Freshman of the Year the past two seasons (RB James White and LB Chris Borland). Other teams consistently produce non-senior stars.

With that in mind, let's take a look at three non-seniors to watch and three impact freshmen.


1. Denard Robinson, QB, Michigan, junior, 6 feet. 193: You couldn't take your eyes off of Robinson in 2010, particularly in September, when he was college football's most exciting player. The dynamic Wolverines quarterback now must transition to a new system that likely doesn't fit his skill set quite as well as the spread offense did. Will "Shoelace" reinvent himself or stumble? Find out this fall.

2. Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin, junior, 5-11, 210: Although he'll share carries with another underclassman to watch, 2010 Big Ten Freshman of the Year James White, Ball might have more Badgers fans buzzing. He was arguably the nation's hottest running back in the second half of last season, recording 777 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns in his final five games. Ball, who slimmed down during the offseason to increase his speed, could be Wisconsin's featured ball carrier.

3. Ricardo Allen, CB, Purdue, sophomore, 5-9, 176: Some of you might not have noticed Allen last season as Purdue struggled and wasn't relevant in November. Don't make the same mistake this fall, as Allen could be one of the nation's most dynamic defenders. He recorded three interceptions as a freshman, including two pick-sixes, and led the Big Ten with 129 interception return yards. Allen is fast, aggressive and not afraid of being physical with bigger receivers. Keep an eye on him in 2011.


1. Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State, 6-3, 210: Miller's potential impact became a lot more interesting after Terrelle Pryor left the program June 7. After enrolling early and going through spring ball, Miller now has a chance to compete for the full-time starting position. The talent and athleticism are there, and if Miller shows he can grasp the system and separate himself in camp, he could lead Ohio State's offense Sept. 3 against Akron.

2. Tony Lippett, CB/WR, Michigan State, 6-2, 189: After redshirting in 2010, Lippett had a breakout spring and had coordinators Dan Roushar (offense) and Pat Narduzzi (defense) fighting over his services. Lippett plays cornerback and wide receiver but will start his career on the defensive side. He should get on the field in nickel and/or dime packages and could be a factor on special teams.

3. Jamal Turner, WR, Nebraska, 6-1, 180: Nebraska needs more options at receiver and Turner should work his way into the mix. The early enrollee who soon moved from quarterback to receiver sparkled in the spring game, racking up 228 all-purpose yards. Turner could join Brandon Kinnie as one of Nebraska's top wideouts, and he'll definitely be a factor in the return game.
We've been ranking each position group in the Big Ten, and so far we've looked at running backs and quarterbacks. Today, let's finish off the offensive skill positions with receivers and tight ends.

The Big Ten is blessed with plenty of standout wide receivers, but remember these rankings heavily account for overall depth at the position, not just isolated star power. We're also including the tight ends in this group while acknowledging that the best ones aren't necessarily big-time pass-catchers.

Here's how we rank them:

[+] EnlargeB.J. Cunningham
Andrew Weber/US PresswireB.J. Cunningham had the best numbers last season among a deep group of receivers and tight ends.
1. Michigan State: The Spartans may lack a true superstar, though senior B.J. Cunningham (50 catches for 611 yards and nine touchdowns in 2010) is pretty darn good. What Mark Dantonio can really count on is depth. Cunningham has good size at 6-foot-2, while Keshawn Martin is a speed-burner. Keith Nichol and Bennie Fowler fill out a solid cast of receivers, and when you throw in Brian Linthicum and Dion Sims at tight end, this group deserves the top spot.

2. Michigan: If Darryl Stonum weren't suspended indefinitely, this group might be No. 1. It's still pretty good as things stand now. Roy Roundtree leads the way after catching 72 passes for 935 yards and seven touchdowns last year, and Junior Hemingway is a strong secondary option for Denard Robinson. Tight end Kevin Koger is a third-year starter who can occasionally make big plays in the passing game.

3. Northwestern: Senior Jeremy Ebert (62 catches for 935 yards and eight touchdowns last season) was a first-team All-Big Ten performer as voted by the media. Demetrius Fields had 25 receptions last year, and the Wildcats are counting on big improvements from sophomores Rashad Lawrence, Tony Jones and Venric Mark. Northwestern uses its superback position as a tight end, and Drake Dunsmore had 40 catches from that spot last year.

4. Indiana: The Hoosiers languish at the bottom of many of these rankings, but receiver/tight end is a point of pride. Senior Damarlo Belcher led the Big Ten with 78 catches last year on his way to 832 yards. Even with the loss of Tandon Doss and Terrance Turner, who each had more than 60 catches in '10, new coach Kevin Wilson has a solid corps behind Belcher with Duwyce Wilson and Kofi Hughes, among others. And Ted Bolser is a highly productive tight end who had 27 catches for 407 yards and five scores a year ago.

5. Penn State: Three of the top four receivers from last year return, including No. 1 target Derek Moye (his 16.7 yards per catch average was second in the Big Ten a year ago). Justin Brown and Devon Smith need to continue moving forward. Will the Nittany Lions get anything out of Curtis Drake, who's trying to return from his second broken leg? Penn State hopes to get something out of the tight end position, where Andrew Szczerba and Garry Gilliam dealt with season-ending injuries last year.

6. Wisconsin: Once we reach the middle of these rankings, the units start to become interchangeable and a little indistinguishable. Wisconsin doesn't have to throw it too much because of its stellar running game, but the Badgers have some solid choices when they do go to the air. Senior Nick Toon has the talent to record more than the 36 catches and 459 yards he produced a year ago. Jared Abbrederis should continue to come along after a nice freshman campaign. There's potential but not much experience among the rest of the receivers. Star tight end Lance Kendricks will be tough to replace, but Jake Byrne is an outstanding blocker and Jacob Pedersen caught two touchdowns last year.

7. Nebraska: Brandon Kinnie is the leader here, and the 6-foot-3 senior isn't afraid to make the big catch. Freshmen Jamal Turner and Kenny Bell had nice springs and could add some playmaking skills to a largely unproven crew around Kinnie. Kyler Reed might be the most dangerous pass-catching tight end in the Big Ten, if not the country, after hauling in eight touchdowns and 18 yards per reception a year ago.

[+] EnlargeMarvin McNutt
Scott Boehm/Getty Images Marvin McNutt will be expected to be the No.1 wideout for the Hawkeyes this season.
8. Iowa: Senior Marvin McNutt is the go-to option after recording 861 yards and eight touchdowns last season. The Hawkeyes will look to junior Keenan Davis to improve and become the No. 2 target. Just about everyone else is green. Tight end is usually a strength for Kirk Ferentz and should be again with senior Brad Herman and a group of talented backups behind him.

9. Ohio State: Seems like we write this a lot, but the Buckeyes would be ranked higher if their star player in this group were available an entire season. But DeVier Posey's five-game suspension means this is an awfully young corps, and that inexperience showed with some inconsistent play this spring. Ohio State will need talented sophomore Corey "Philly" Brown to take a big leap forward and youngsters like Chris Fields, T.Y. Williams and James Louis to contribute in Posey's absence. Tight end Jake Stoneburner might have to become a bigger presence in the passing game.

10. Purdue: The Boilermakers have some decent depth but no proven stars. Antavian Edison is the leading returning receiver with just 314 yards last year, though the junior does have good speed. Justin Siller is talented but has had trouble staying healthy. Purdue lost two solid veterans at tight end in Kyle Adams and Jeff Lindsay and added a couple of potential replacements, including former basketball player Patrick Bade, this summer.

11. Minnesota: Da'Jon McKnight tied for second in the Big Ten last year with 10 receiving touchdowns. But the Gophers' second-leading receiver last season was MarQueis Gray, who's now their starting quarterback. Brandon Green could help after an injury-plagued season. Tight end Eric Lair can grab a few passes, as he did 39 times in 2010.

12. Illinois: The good news: A.J. Jenkins is a reliable weapon who had 746 yards and seven touchdowns last season. The bad news: There's not much experience behind him. Perhaps Ryan Lankford, who starred in the spring while Jenkins was out with an injury, will emerge as a star his sophomore year. Evan Wilson is back at tight end after starting 11 games as a freshman.
Since many of you have asked, I won't be attending any spring games this weekend (or next, for that matter). It's a little tough to explain to non-media folks, but I get a lot more out of visiting campuses midweek than for spring games, when things are chaotic. The good news: I'll recap every spring game Monday.

Now it's time to preview the six Big Ten spring games on tap Saturday (in reverse alphabetical order) ...


The vitals: Blue-White Game presented by AAA kicks off at 2 p.m. ET Saturday at Beaver Stadium; admission and parking are free

More details: Penn State has a pregame autograph session and a ton of events planned for the weekend. All the information can be found here.

Three things to watch

1. The quarterbacks: The race for the starting job has been the top story at Penn State this spring, and all four candidates will be on the field Saturday. Most eyes will be on sophomore Rob Bolden and junior Matt McGloin, who split the starts in 2010 and have paced one another throughout the spring. Both players have impressed the coaches, who likely won't name a starter until the summer. Saturday marks the final chance for Bolden and McGloin to showcase their abilities for the coaches and fans before spring ball concludes.

2. Line play: Penn State has to upgrade both lines if it wants to contend in the Leaders division this season. The Lions have very little depth at defensive end because of injuries, but fans should keep an eye on defensive tackles Devon Still, Jordan Hill and Brandon Ware, all of whom have drawn praise from the coaches this spring. Penn State needs a big year from its interior linemen. The offensive line boasts four seniors and should be solid at the tackle spots, but it'll be interesting to see how the guards and centers perform as Penn State must replace standout Stefen Wisniewski.

3. Running backs: Injuries will keep several Penn State playmakers on the sideline Saturday, but fans should get a clear read on the running backs. There's a lot of hype for Silas Redd after a solid freshman season, but he's being pushed by Stephfon Green and Brandon Beachum, who has stood out this spring after missing all of last season with a torn ACL. Green and Redd both have breakaway ability, while Beachum could be the power back Penn State has missed in recent years.


The vitals: The spring football "exhibition," which will be more of a situational scrimmage, kicks off at noon CT (1 p.m. ET) at Ryan Field; admission and parking are free but fans are encouraged to bring nonperishable canned-food items for a food drive.

More details: Northwestern is holding a youth football clinic and several other events. All the info can be found here.

Three things to watch

1. The race for backup QB: All-Big Ten selection Dan Persa is on track to return by late May or early June, but he won't be taking any snaps Saturday. Northwestern will divide the reps evenly between three signal-callers -- sophomore Kain Colter, junior Evan Watkins and redshirt freshman Trevor Siemian -- vying to play behind Persa this season. Colter is the most intriguing candidate after a breakout performance against Texas Tech in the TicketCity Bowl, but all three players have endured some ups and downs this spring.

2. New faces on defense: The coaches feel they've upgraded the athleticism on defense with recent recruiting, especially at spots like linebacker and defensive back. Northwestern's defense looked slow and overmatched at times last season, and quite a few jobs are open this spring. Keep an eye on players such as linebackers David Nwabuisi and Damian Proby and redshirt freshman safety Ibraheim Campbell, a player coach Pat Fitzgerald has praised multiple times this spring.

3. The running backs: Persa carried the run game in 2010 but admits he took too many shots and will try to limit the damage this fall. He could use more help from a run game that has suffered since Tyrell Sutton graduated. Mike Trumpy provided a spark late last year and has had a good spring, and Adonis Smith has a year under his belt. Keep an eye on Tyris Jones, a physical runner who has stepped up this spring as a running back/H-back.

(Read full post)

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska's transition to the Big Ten is taking place at different speeds.

By the time spring practice kicked off, Huskers defensive coordinator Carl Pelini already had broken down game film of the eight Big Ten opponents Nebraska faces this fall. Players like running back Rex Burkhead and center Mike Caputo also have been checking out clips of their new conference brethren.

Tim Marlowe, a wide receiver from Youngstown, Ohio, has become the resident Big Ten historian on the squad.

"Everyone's always asking me about the Big Ten," Marlowe said.

For others, the Big Ten isn't quite on the radar. New offensive coordinator Tim Beck is too busy installing a new system this spring to pore over Big Ten film (though he will eventually). Players like tight end Kyler Reed have caught glimpses of Big Ten games but haven't dived in just yet. Head coach Bo Pelini is keeping the focus on Nebraska rather than its new league.

[+] EnlargeNebraska's Jared Crick
Brett Davis/US PRESSWIREJared Crick isn't overly concerned about the Huskers transition to the Big Ten. "If we play our defense, it doesn't matter who's running at us with what. We're still going to beat them."
Big Ten logos aren't plastered around the Osborne Athletic Complex, Memorial Stadium or downtown Lincoln. But change is coming to Husker Country.

On July 1, Nebraska becomes a member of the Big Ten. Three months later, the Huskers' football team plays its first Big Ten game against defending league champ Wisconsin in Madison.

"It's pretty cool to play new teams, see new stadiums, some really historical stadiums: big, huge, loud," Reed said. "When I'm older, I'll be able to say, 'Yeah, I was there when we first started playing in the Big Ten.'"

Nebraska is ready for the change. Despite its ties to the Big 8, Nebraska won't miss the Big 12, a league where it seemed to lose influence as the power shifted to the South division.

The Big Ten provided the stability Nebraska sought, and though the Huskers haven't played a regular-season football game against a Big Ten team since 2003, there's confidence the school and the league will blend well.

"When you get up north in the Big 12," Carl Pelini said, "the tradition, the weather, everything about this place, the type of kid we have here, marries up with the Big Ten much better than we did with the Big 12."

The Pelini brothers should know.

They grew up in Youngstown, Ohio. Bo played safety for Ohio State from 1987-90 and started his coaching career at Iowa. Carl grew up as an Ohio State fan and also had some affection for Penn State, then a Division I-A independent. He rooted for the Buckeyes against Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl and for Ohio State's basketball team in the NCAA tournament.

"It's hard to cheer against the Ohio boys," Carl Pelini said. "Those are deep-seated loyalties. Obviously, I won't feel any of that when they come here [Oct. 8]."

Beck also grew up in Youngstown and attended the same high school (Cardinal Mooney) as the Pelinis. While the Big Ten move makes things come full circle -- "All our families are excited," Beck said -- there's a lot to learn.

"Usually, you know, even personnel wise, what you're going to be up against," Beck said. "Who's fast, who's physical, who's big, who's slow. You always had an idea in the Big 12, and going into a new conference, you're not really sure. You're not really sure the venues you're going to play in. I know they're incredible. But it's different. Is it a Texas loud? Is it an Oklahoma loud?

"How are those stadiums going to be?"

Nebraska will find out right away. The Big Ten did the Huskers no favors with their initial league schedule. Big Red travels to Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan in addition to hosting defending Big Ten co-champs Ohio State and Michigan State.

The new surroundings pose a challenge, but Nebraska still must win games between the lines. What do the Huskers expect from their new league foes?

"You think SEC, fast; you think Big 12, kind of mixture, and then you think Big Ten -- it’s just powerhouse running, run-it-down-your-throat type football teams," wide receiver Brandon Kinnie said. "It's just the assumption you get, the stereotype."

Kinnie is on the right track.

"You're going to get bigger, stronger, more physical guys in this conference," Beck said. "Not that the Big 12 didn't have them, but you're probably going to see more of them, and every team's going to have them."

Nebraska has them, too, especially on defense. The Blackshirts ranked 11th nationally in total defense last fall (306.8 ypg) after finishing seventh in 2009 (272 ppg). They led the nation in points allowed in 2009 (10.4 ppg) and ranked ninth this past season (17.4 ppg).

Superb defense has been Bo Pelini's hallmark, and his defenders enter the Big Ten with supreme confidence.

"You hear all the hoopla about how it's a power conference and they're going to run it down our throat and come right at us," Huskers star defensive tackle Jared Crick said. "I've seen Big Ten games and they do run the ball a lot, a lot of power, a lot of lead. But if we play our defense, it doesn't matter who's running at us with what. We're still going to beat them. Everybody on this defense believes that.

"If we can execute our defense, there's not one team in the nation who should be able to put points up on us."

The term championship-level defense is used a lot around here, and for good reason. The Blackshirts boast multiple All-America candidates. If the new offense clicks, Nebraska could be very dangerous this fall.

Despite the schedule, Nebraska enters its new league as an immediate title contender. After falling short in the Big 12 championship game the past two seasons, the Huskers are motivated to make their mark right away in a potentially wide-open Big Ten.

"We're going to the Big Ten, and we're not changing just to be changing," Kinnie said. "We're going to win."
LINCOLN, Neb. -- A leadership role can be a burden at times, but it's one Nebraska wide receiver Brandon Kinnie is willing to bear.

"It's heavy," Kinnie said, "but it's a good heavy, not a stressful heavy."

[+] EnlargeNebraska wide reciever Brandon Kinnie
AP Photo/Dave WeaverNebraska's Brandon Kinnie feels a responsibility to lead the Huskies young group of receivers next season.
Kinnie and his fellow Huskers receivers were experiencing a different type of "good heavy" in early January as they chowed down on wings and other greasy delights at a local Buffalo Wild Wings. As a senior and the Huskers' only returning receiver who logged significant playing time last season, Kinnie knew he'd have to lead an unproven group of wideouts in 2011.

Affable and chatty off the field, he'd have to be a bigger vocal presence at all times. The process began when he invited all the receivers to dinner at BW3.

"The whole time we were eating, I was thinking, 'I want to say this, I want to say this,'" Kinnie recalled. "I want to reach out and let them know, 'Hey, there’s no difference here. We're all the same.'"

Last season, Kinnie and Niles Paul weren't the same. Both players had game experience and entered the fall as Nebraska's top two wideouts. They competed for catches and pushed each other in practice.

Although Paul led the receivers, he and Kinnie had natural separation from the others, both in age and in production. They accounted for more than half of Nebraska's receptions (83 of 163) and 47.9 percent of the team's receiving yards.

"It wasn't a knock on Niles being a leader," Kinnie said. "That’s just how it was. You live and you learn. Going through the experience I did last year made me learn some things I had to learn to be a good leader, just take things that didn’t happen and change. ... It wasn't a lack of leadership or anything. It was just things we didn’t do, and I could have helped as well."

Kinnie is doing his part to unite the receiver group these days. Although Nebraska brings back talented tight end Kyler Reed, who led the team with eight touchdown receptions in 2010, the Huskers return no receivers besides Kinnie who tallied more than one catch last fall.

Nebraska needs young, untested wideouts to step up. Kinnie needs them, too.

"I have all their [phone] numbers," Kinnie said. "We talk. We text. Whenever they’ve got questions, they ask me. So it's fun. I told them, 'There's no difference between me and you guys. I may be older, but that’s it. We play for the same coaches. We deal with Bo [Pelini] yelling. We deal with coach [Rich] Fisher yelling. We deal with advisers, we deal with teachers, all that stuff. There’s no difference between us but age.’

"I think that really grabbed hold of them. I’m not walking around like, 'Oh yeah, I’m the guy that played last year, I'm this and I'm that. I'm in the corps just like y'all.'"

Kinnie's teammates appreciate his effort to take charge and bring the group together.

"Brandon's been great," junior receiver Tim Marlowe said. "He said, 'I hope you hold me accountable as I hold you guys accountable. If you see me slacking, let me know.' So he's been a great leader. We had a good night at BW3, just talking as a group outside of football."

Marlowe is among the receivers competing for larger roles this spring. Wideouts like Kenny Bell, Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Curenski Gilleylen and Quincy Enunwa are also under the microscope.

But there's no question about Nebraska's top option in the pass game this fall. The 6-3, 225-pound Kinnie looks to build on his numbers from 2010 (44 receptions, 494 yards, 5 TDs).

"BK had a great year last year, and he's going to have an even better one this year," running back Rex Burkhead said. "He just naturally came into that [leadership] role. I think he's one of the best receivers in the nation. He'll definitely come out and prove that this year."

Checking in on Big Red

March, 28, 2011
LINCOLN, Neb. -- They've finally let me out to cover spring practice in the Big Ten, and I'm starting my tour at the league's newest member.

I'll be spending the next two days in Husker country with Nebraska players and coaches. The Huskers resume spring practice later today following spring break.

First impressions on my maiden voyage to Lincoln:
  • Memorial Stadium is impressive and should fit in with the Big Ten's mammoth football facilities. I didn't realize how close the stadium is to downtown Lincoln, making it one of the more urban settings in the league (along with Camp Randall Stadium, and, to a lesser extent, Ohio Stadium).
  • From what I've seen of Nebraska's football facilities so far (weight room, indoor practice field, lobby areas), they are right up there with the Big Ten's best. The facilities are all connected much like Wisconsin. The weight room is simply massive.
  • Sign on the marquee of a bar/nightclub: "In Bo We Trust." As several of you have astutely pointed out on Twitter, this inscription could be easily displayed in Ann Arbor (Schembechler) or even Madison (Ryan). But they love them some Pelini here.
  • I visited with Huskers receiver Brandon Kinnie, and while I'll have more from the senior later, he had some interesting thoughts on leading a young group of wideouts, the new offense and the Nebraska haters (of which there are many). Although Kinnie is a LeBron fan, he admits D-Rose is tearing it up right now, so we're cool.

There's no shortage of spring storylines here. Nebraska is adjusting to a new offensive scheme under coordinator Tim Beck. There's a quarterback competition going on as Taylor Martinez tries to retain his job. The Huskers are trying to keep the bar raised on defense behind Jared Crick, Lavonte David and Alfonzo Dennard. And while they're focused on themselves, the Big Ten move is creeping closer.

Much more to come, so stay tuned.
Only two Big Ten wide receivers -- Ohio State's Dane Sanzenbacher and Indiana's Tandon Doss -- made my postseason Top 25 player rankings from the 2010 season.

I'd be stunned if the number doesn't increase in next year's rankings.

A look at the Big Ten landscape reveals that wide receiver could be one of the league's deepest position groups in 2011. Six of the league's top seven receivers return from 2010, and almost every squad has a No. 1 receiver who could legitimately contend for all-conference honors. We saw a fairly significant upgrade in Big Ten quarterback play between 2009 and 2010. Receiver could be the position that truly blossoms this fall.

I really like the No. 1 receivers throughout the conference. Some of the supporting casts are solid; others not so much.

Let's take a team-by-team look at the top receivers and grade the supporting casts:

  • Top target: A.J. Jenkins, 6-foot, 185, Sr. (56 catches, 746 yards, 7 TDs in 2010)
  • Supporting cast: Not great at the moment. Jarred Fayson departs, and running back Mikel Leshoure, who's leaving early for the NFL draft, finished third on the team in receptions (17) last season. Illinois really needs to develop No. 2 and No. 3 options this spring. Fred Sykes and Ryan Lankford could step into those roles.
  • Top target: Damarlo Belcher, 6-5, 214, Sr. (honorable mention All-Big Ten in 2010, league-high 78 receptions, 832 receiving yards, 4 TDs)
  • Supporting cast: Promising. Despite the departures of Doss and Terrance Turner, Indiana has more than one option at receiver. Duwyce Wilson had 32 receptions for 488 yards and three touchdowns in 2010, and Ted Bolser was one of the Big Ten's most productive tight ends with 27 receptions and five scores. The Hoosiers could use a No. 3 option at receiver and Kofi Hughes, who saw the field as a true freshman last fall, is a possibility.
  • Top target: Marvin McNutt, 6-4, 215, Sr. (second-team All-Big Ten by coaches in 2010, 53 catches, 861 yards, 8 TDs)
  • Supporting cast: Looks iffy right now as Derrell Johnson-Koulianos and Colin Sandeman both depart. Iowa really needs Keenan Davis to blossom this spring as a potential No. 2 option behind McNutt. Sophomore Don Shumpert is the only other receiver on the roster to have lettered for the Hawkeyes.
  • Top target: Roy Roundtree, 6-foot, 176, Jr. (second-team All-Big Ten by media in 2010, 72 catches, 935 yards, 7 TDs)
  • Supporting cast: Strong. Receiver is Michigan's deepest position, and Darryl Stonum and Junior Hemingway both provide good options behind Roundtree, who really blossomed in 2010. Kelvin Grady also adds some depth. The group must limit dropped passes, a problem at times last season.
  • Top target: B.J. Cunningham, 6-2, 220, Sr. (honorable mention All-Big Ten in 2010, 50 receptions, 611 yards, 9 TDs)
  • Supporting cast: Very good. Despite the departure of Mark Dell, the Spartans should be excellent at receiver in 2011. Speedster Keshawn Martin returns after recording 32 receptions last fall, and Michigan State will look for more from senior Keith Nichol after a so-so season. Redshirt sophomore Bennie Fowler is an exciting prospect who could become a star this fall.
  • Top target: Da'Jon McKnight, 6-3, 214, Sr. (honorable mention All-Big Ten in 2010, 48 receptions, 750 yards, 10 TDs)
  • Supporting cast: Not great at this point. Minnesota's No. 2 receiver, MarQueis Gray, moves back to quarterback after recording 42 receptions in 2010. Although tight end Eric Lair should help the passing game once again, the Gophers need other options to emerge. Junior Brandon Green returns from injury and could step into more of a featured role.
  • Top target: Brandon Kinnie, 6-3, 225, Sr. (44 receptions, 494 yards, 5 TDs in 2010)
  • Supporting cast: Unproven. There's potential here with players like speedster Kenny Bell, junior college transfer Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Tyler Evans. Niles Paul's departure could hurt but this group pretty much gets a fresh start with a new coach (Rich Fisher) and a new offense. Could be a good thing.
  • Top target: Jeremy Ebert, 6-foot, 195, Sr. (first-team All-Big Ten by media in 2010, 62 receptions, 953 yards, 8 TDs)
  • Supporting cast: An encouraging group. Demetrius Fields and Charles Brown are good secondary options if healthy, but the real potential comes from sophomores Rashad Lawrence, Tony Jones and Venric Mark. All three players saw the field last fall and raised hope for the future. Superback Drake Dunsmore also could build on a 40-catch season.
  • Top target: DeVier Posey, 6-2, 213, Sr. (honorable mention All-Big Ten in 2010, 53 receptions, 848 yards, 7 TDs)
  • Supporting cast: Cause for concern. Not only does Ohio State need several receivers to emerge before September, but it shoulders the additional burden of not having Posey for the first five games because of suspension. Hopes are high for Corey "Philly" Brown, who had eight catches for 105 yards last season. Ohio State also will look to players like Chris Fields, James Jackson and James Louis. This is a spot where a true freshman like Evan Spencer could play right away.
  • Top target: Derek Moye, 6-5, 202, Sr. (honorable mention All-Big Ten in 2010, 53 catches, 885 yards, 8 TDs)
  • Supporting cast: A lot to like. Penn State will miss big target Brett Brackett, but expectations should be raised for Justin Brown and Devon Smith, who combined for 60 receptions last fall. Curtis Drake, who was in line for a starting job before breaking his leg in August, also adds depth to the group.
  • Top target: Antavian Edison, 5-11, 175, Jr. (32 receptions, 314 yards, 4 TDs in 2010)
  • Supporting cast: I was tempted to put Justin Siller in the "top target" category, but he has to stay healthy and prove himself as a receiver this fall. Purdue obviously would have benefited from getting Keith Smith a sixth year of eligibility, but the overall depth here should be OK. O.J. Ross and Gary Bush both could take on enhanced roles.
  • Top target: Nick Toon, 6-3, 218, Sr. (36 receptions, 459 yards, 3 TDs)
  • Supporting cast: A little iffy. Toon first must rebound from a bit of a down year, and Wisconsin needs other options to develop alongside Jared Abbrederis, who was a pleasant surprise in 2010. The Badgers lose veterans David Gilreath and Isaac Anderson and will be looking for players like Jeff Duckworth and Marquis Mason to step up.

Recruiting needs: Big 12 North

January, 26, 2011
Signing day is exactly a week from today, and it's time to take a look at who needs what in its 2011 class.

Some schools have addressed these with their current class. Some haven't. Others are still trying.

We'll kick things off with the artists formerly known as the Big 12 North and examine the South later today.


Cornerback: Jalil Brown and Jimmy Smith were pretty reliable for the Buffaloes, but both are headed to the NFL, and the Buffaloes could definitely use some depth behind their first-year starters. It's not quite as pressing of an issue considering their move to the less pass-happy Pac-12, but they still like to sling it out west.

Receiver: Colorado isn't exactly starving anywhere on offense, but receiver sticks out a bit. Toney Clemons was good, but maybe not quite what the Buffaloes hoped he'd be in 2010, but they caught a break in getting Paul Richardson back after a great freshman season. The Buffaloes need some complementary pieces around Clemons and Richardson to replace departed pass-catchers Scotty McKnight and Travon Patterson. Next year, that should be tight end Ryan Deehan and receiver Will Jefferson.


Receiver: It's been a struggle for Iowa State in recent years, but they have to get better outside to help out their quarterback. Sedrick Johnson's transfer only worsens the Cyclones depth at the position, but Jake Williams and tight end Collin Franklin, the team's leading receiver, are gone. Shontrelle Johnson looks ready to become a big factor in the offense, but the Cyclones filling the space at receiver will make it easier for Johnson to replace running back Alexander Robinson.

Safety: Both starters, David Sims and Zac Sandvig, are gone. So is the Cyclones top reserve at the position, Michael O'Connell. Sims was a top-notch talent that will be tough to replace, but Iowa State needs more depth here. They should be solid at corner with Leonard Johnson, Ter'ran Benton, Jeremy Reeves and Anthony Young, which could make the new safeties' jobs easier.


Defensive line: KU is losing three of four starters on the line, including the team's only All-Big 12 talent, defensive end Jake Laptad. Turner Gill wants more speed, and this is a place to install it. Tackles that tip the scales at 320 pounds aren't too necessary in this league, but speed on the edge can go a long way in stopping the pass.

Quarterback: Neither Jordan Webb or Quinn Mecham look like long-term answers at quarterback for the Jayhawks. Mecham will be a senior, and Webb might develop into a better player as a sophomore next year, but Kansas needs other options. The Jayhawks hope Brock Berglund, the top-rated recruit in Colorado, is the solution to the problem.


Running back: I hear your cries for Bryce Brown, Wildcats fans, but K-State can't expect to hitch their wagon to the former blue-chip recruit turned Tennessee transfer in the same way it did for Daniel Thomas. Thomas and his backup, William Powell, are gone, and the Wildcats need some depth at running back to show up.

Interior offensive linemen: K-State loses both guards and its center from an offense that produced the Big 12's leading rusher in 2010. Don't expect them to do it again in 2011 without Wade Weibert, Kenneth Mayfield and Zach Kendall, as well as Thomas and Powell, but finding some new talent behind them will help them come close.

Cornerback: David Garrett emerged as a budding star in 2010 ready for a breakout senior year in 2011, but the Wildcats lose Terrance Sweeney and Stephen Harrison, as well as safety Troy Butler. Like we've mentioned earlier, good secondaries are a must for success in the Big 12, and K-State had one of the league's worst in 2010.


Receiver: Missouri has some good ones ready to suit up in 2011, namely Wes Kemp, Jerrell Jackson and T.J. Moe, but the Tigers don't have a true gamebreaker. They have some younger players in Marcus Lucas and Jimmie Hunt who they hope will develop into big-time, All-American caliber receivers, a la Jeremy Maclin and Danario Alexander. In Missouri's system, though, adding a few receivers is always a good idea. They certainly don't need any more running backs.

Defensive backs: Mizzou doesn't have any huge holes that need to be filled with recruiting, but the Tigers lose both corners, Carl Gettis and Kevin Rutland from their 2010 team. Kip Edwards and E.J. Gaines look likely to fill those roles, but the Tigers could use some depth and keep recruiting in the secondary to help add some talent around Tavon Bolden and Matt White, safeties who will replace departed Jarrell Harrison, who actually had to play some linebacker in 2010 because of injuries.


Every kind of kicker: Alex Henery, the team's punter and kicker is gone. So is kickoff specialist and lover/producer of touchbacks, Adi Kunalic. Fan favorite Henery was hardly underappreciated by the Nebraska faithful, but they'll miss him even more if the Huskers can't find a suitable placekicker and punter. Bo Pelini was reportedly after Wake Forest commit Mauro Bondi this week.

Receiver: Niles Paul and Mike McNeill are gone. The Huskers need Brandon Kinnie to come through with another good year and it'd be nice if Quincy Enunwa broke through in 2011, but Taylor Martinez needs some more help at wide out, and a couple new recruits could provide it as Martinez's passing prowess matures.
National Signing Day is just about a week away, so let's take a look at the recruiting needs for each Big Ten team.

In compiling these lists, I tried to look at positions that have depth issues for 2011 and/or 2012.

Let's start off with the Legends division.


Running back: Marcus Coker's breakout performance in the Insight Bowl got Iowa fans excited for the future, but there's still a significant depth issue here. If Adam Robinson can't get reinstated, the Hawkeyes will be looking for No. 2 and No. 3 options behind Coker. As we've seen the past two seasons, freshmen backs will see the field at Iowa.

Linebacker: Iowa felt the losses of Pat Angerer and A.J. Edds this season, and it must continue to rebuild the depth at the three linebacker spots. Multiyear starter Jeremiha Hunter departs along with players like Jeff Tarpinian and Troy Johnson. Iowa needs to build around rising star James Morris.

Wide receiver/tight end: Iowa loses Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, Allen Reisner and Colin Sandeman this year. Also, receiver Marvin McNutt and tight end Brad Herman depart after the 2011 season. Although the Hawkeyes boast young talent at both positions, they need to build depth with this class.


Secondary: The Wolverines couldn't find many answers here in 2010, and though the return of players like cornerbacks Troy Woolfolk and J.T. Floyd will help, there are opportunities for freshmen to make an immediate impact. Michigan simply needs more options at both secondary spots in 2011.

Defensive line: It's crucial for coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison to begin building depth up front. Future NFL player Mike Martin departs after 2011 along with Ryan Van Bergen, so Michigan needs to solidify both line positions.

Kicker: Field goals were an adventure in 2010, and Michigan simply can't have so much uncertainty at kicker going forward. The Wolverines need a reliable leg here ASAP.


Linebacker: I like some of the young linebackers the Spartans bring back in 2011, but you can't overlook the losses of multiyear starters Greg Jones and Eric Gordon, not to mention reserve Jon Misch. Michigan State should have a decent group of first-string 'backers, but wants to build depth in the defensive midsection.

Offensive line: Not only do the Spartans lose three starters from the 2010 line, but they're still not where they need to be depth-wise up front to become a consistent top-tier Big Ten program. Michigan State wants to become like Iowa and Wisconsin. The big step is to keep fortifying both lines, especially on the offensive side.


Pass rusher: Minnesota finished last in the Big Ten in sacks last season (9) and hasn't had an intimidating pass rusher since Willie VanDeSteeg in 2008. The recent departure of defensive tackle Jewhan Edwards, who led the team in both sacks and tackles for loss in 2009, underscores this need.

Offensive line: The Gophers lose three starters up front, and while they boast some promising young linemen like tackle Ed Olson, the depth just isn't there yet. Minnesota's best teams had powerful offensive lines, and new coach Jerry Kill must continue to create competition up front.


Running back: The Huskers lose standout Roy Helu Jr., and while Rex Burkhead quickly will become one of my favorite Big Ten players, he might not be an every-down back for Nebraska going forward. You always want options in the backfield, and Nebraska must continue to address its run game with the 2011 class.

Wide receiver: Nebraska loses Niles Paul and wants to identify playmakers to surround Taylor Martinez or whomever starts at quarterback. Brandon Kinnie departs after the 2011 season, and while Burkhead helps in the receiving department, Nebraska needs others to emerge.


Running back: Although Mike Trumpy and Adonis Smith emerged as possible answers late in the 2010 season, Northwestern needs to create real competition here. The Wildcats have lacked a dominant back during the Pat Fitzgerald era and need a dangerous rushing option to complement Dan Persa.

Defensive line: The Wildcats lose only one starter (Corbin Bryant) from the 2010 squad, but four more rotation players (Vince Browne, Jack DiNardo, Kevin Watt and Niko Mafuli) depart after 2011. Fortifying the pass rush is a major priority going forward.

Holiday Bowl: Three keys for Nebraska

December, 29, 2010
1. Make life easy for Taylor Martinez. Martinez has completed just 58 percent of his passes in 2010 and struggled to complete passes and get comfortable in the pocket, especially against Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game. If the Huskers can get him some easy completions early on three-step-drop slants to a sure-handed guy such as the underutilized Mike McNeill or on screens to running backs Rex Burkhead and Roy Helu Jr., they can help get Martinez comfortable. The loss to Oklahoma made it clear that Nebraska will struggle if the passing game consists of Martinez dropping back deep and relying on receivers such as Brandon Kinnie to get open and make big plays down the field. If the Huskers can manage an early lead and be afforded the luxury of passing only when they want to -- see the early season Huskers -- this gets a lot simpler.

2. Inflict déjà vu on Jake Locker. Hit him early with a variety of blitzes. Force him into mistakes. I'd be shocked if Locker has another unthinkable 4-for-20 day like he did in September, but the only quarterback who had what could be considered legitimate success against Nebraska's secondary was Oklahoma's Landry Jones. Missouri's Blaine Gabbert, Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden and Texas A&M's Ryan Tannehill all had below-average outings at best, and all three should be among the Big 12's best passers in 2011.

3. Stuff the run, especially early. Washington actually ran the ball pretty effectively against Nebraska, especially early in that game, and if Nebraska's front seven can slow that down and make the Huskies a one-dimensional offense, forcing Locker into a bad day will be quite a bit easier. The game got lopsided quickly in the second half and prevented Washington from sticking to the running game. Washington still managed 175 yards on 39 carries for an average of 4.5 yards per carry, and the Huskies will try to recreate what worked against a tough defense that has, at times, been susceptible to the run. If Washington does that, the Huskies could make a game of it. If not, expect another Nebraska blowout.

Redemption is everywhere for Huskers

October, 23, 2010
Brandon Kinnie opened the game's scoring with a receiving touchdown.

Niles Paul just added another score on a kick return to put Nebraska up 14-6.

This week, Paul shut down his Facebook account and faced harassment from Nebraska fans after several drops last week, including one that would have been a touchdown.

"It hurts that people were yelling stuff at me. It's disrespectful," Paul said Tuesday. "As an athlete I have to keep my cool and stay focused, because I don't want to do something to put my situation in jeopardy."

Kinnie dropped a late pass last week that would have gone for a touchdown to bring Nebraska within seven points late in the game if he'd been able to haul it in.

After Paul's touchdown, Nebraska fans are likely changing their tune.

Taylor Martinez threw a pretty pass to Kinnie to set up the first score, but protected the ball poorly on a run that resulted in a fumble to set up Oklahoma State's second field goal.

Fireworks start early in Stillwater

October, 23, 2010
Nebraska's big-play offense is back, but from unfamiliar sources this time around.

Taylor Martinez hit Brandon Kinnie over the middle, Kinnie broke a tackle and scored a 45-yard touchdown that's helped put Nebraska up 7-3 early. It also helped Nebraska fans forget Kinnie's drop late against Texas on a similar play that would have resulted in a touchdown. After Saturday's catch, he's finally got his first career score.

It wouldn't have been possible without punter Alex Henery's 27-yard scamper to keep the drive alive on a 4th-and-8 fake punt that might have been a run/kick option. Henery rolled to his right to set up a rugby punt, but no Oklahoma State defenders filled the space in front of him. It cost them possession and, later, seven points.

Martinez has yet to run, but nearly threw an interception after tossing an underhanded pass while stumbling near the line of scrimmage.

These are two of the best offenses in the Big 12, with the Cowboys' balance giving them a slight advantage. The Huskers' have the advantage between the two defenses, and it's going to have to play a great game to give Nebraska a rebound victory after last week's loss to Texas.

Oklahoma State reached the red zone on the drive after Nebraska's quick score, but had to settle for a field goal from Dan Bailey, who remained a perfect 14-of-14 this season.

Not perfect? Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden, who is 0-of-4 through the air so far against the best pass defense in the nation. Kendall Hunter nearly broke a run for a score, and he's already got 51 yards on four carries. If Oklahoma State wins this game, it's going to be on the back of his performance.

Big 12 weekend rewind: Week 7

October, 18, 2010
Here's a look back at the best and worst of the week that was in the Big 12.

Best offensive player: Tie, Justin Blackmon (OSU), Landry Jones (OU), Ryan Broyles (OU), Robert Griffin (BU). Call it a cop out if you must, but there's really no way to differentiate between these guys. Blackmon had a career-high 207 yards receiving and a huge 62-yard score. Jones completed 30 of 34 passes in a 52-point conference win. Broyles had 10 catches for 131 yards and a score two minutes into the second quarter. Griffin engineered a conference road win, throwing for 234 yards and running for 137 more. I honestly just can't pick between these guys. You could make a solid case for any one of them.

Best defensive player: Brad Madison, DE, Missouri. Splitting time with Michael Sam in place of injured end Aldon Smith, Madison sacked Jerrod Johnson three times to help Missouri beat the Aggies 30-9. Honorable mention: Orie Lemon, LB, Oklahoma State.

[+] EnlargeTexas Longhorns players celebrate
Bruce Thorson/US PresswireTexas surprised Nebraska in the Longhorns' upset victory over the Cornhuskers.
Best team performance: Texas. Shock the world is probably too strong, but the Longhorns mildly disturbed the majority of the population by knocking off the then-No. 4 Huskers in Lincoln, ruining one of the most anticipated games in Nebraska history.

Best offensive freshman: Joseph Randle, RB, Oklahoma State. Randle carried the ball 17 times for 95 yards and a touchdown in the Cowboys 34-17 win over Texas Tech, providing a great second option to Kendall Hunter. Honorable mention: Baylor WR Tevin Reese and Oklahoma RB Roy Finch.

Best defensive freshman: Tre' Porter, CB, Texas Tech. Porter takes home the award for a second consecutive week, with eight tackles, a tackle for loss and a pass breakup.

Best play: Eric Hagg, S, Nebraska. Yeah, it was in a losing effort, but Hagg's school-record, 95-yard touchdown return of Justin Tucker's pooch punt injected some unexpected late drama into a Nebraska-Texas game that needed it. He made plenty of guys miss, shook off a few tackles, and put Nebraska within a recovered onside kick of having a chance to send its game against Texas into overtime.

Worst play: Tie, Nebraska RB Rex Burkhead, WRs Niles Paul and Brandon Kinnie. All three dropped touchdown passes that weren't necessarily easy grabs, but trailing to Texas in a game of that magnitude, those are plays that have to be made. None of them did, and the team added a handful of other drops that added up to a frustrating day for the Huskers.

Worst call: Dan Hawkins, Colorado. If someone can explain to me the rationale behind going for two after first touchdown of the game late in the first quarter, I'm all ears. Going for it again (and failing again) only makes it worse.

"That is just the same thing that we did against Georgia. You get it and you`re feeling good," Dan Hawkins told reporters after the game. "And as it ended up it was kind of negligible anyway, so then we had to go for two in a sense the second time."

Maybe that's over my head, but the only teams in America that do that are dominant high school teams. Colorado would be a dominant high school team, no doubt. But this is the Big 12. Take the points and the Buffs Hail Mary to tie the game becomes a field goal to win it. That's not hindsight. That's common sense.

Worst quarter: Kansas' second quarter. Kansas let Carson Coffman run in a pair of touchdowns, throw for another and gave up a rushing touchdown to get outscored 28-0 in the quarter. The Jayhawks were in it after 15 minutes, down just 3-0. After the second quarter, it was officially ugly.

Worst team performance: Kansas. I said enough on Thursday night, but still. Almost two weeks to prepare. Rivalry game at home. 52-point loss. Can't do that.

Best game: Texas 20, Nebraska 13. Baylor's win over Colorado had the drama and late heroics, but Texas' masterful job covering Taylor Martinez provided a shock of its own: Martinez getting benched in favor of Zac Lee. Lee played well and led a lengthy drive that nearly ended in seven points. The shock of the Nebraska crowd, as well as that of everyone watching, provided somewhat of a surreal scene.

Texas chalks one up for the Big 12

October, 16, 2010
You know what's not good for a conference? Having two national title contenders, with one planning to leave the league at the end of the year.

Thanks to Texas, the number of undefeated Big 12 teams in the top 10 -- for now, anyway -- is trimmed to one: Oklahoma, who kicks off against Iowa State in a few minutes.

Undefeated Missouri and Oklahoma State are looming near the top 20, but Nebraska's national championship run is officially derailed.

Just like this summer, Texas has miraculously saved the Big 12. I kid.

But seriously, the worst-case scenario for the Big 12 was having Nebraska win the league or national title and split for the Big Ten.

Instead, whatever mystique Texas has in games like this has been extended, in one of its most unlikely scenarios.

Now, Texas moves to 13-0 in games after the Red River Rivalry under Mack Brown and Nebraska falls to 1-9 against the Longhorns in Big 12 play, perhaps no loss as painful as this one. Today's 20-13 win is also the third consecutive time and unranked Texas team has beaten a Nebraska team ranked in the top 5.

The Longhorns dodged a pooch punt gone horribly wrong, shut down Taylor Martinez, weathered an impressive drive by his replacement, Zac Lee, to give up just a field goal and beat Nebraska.

The Huskers looked like a team tailor-made to beat Texas, focused on the ground game without a need to throw into the most talented part of the Texas team, the secondary. Today, the Huskers had to throw to come back, but Niles Paul and Brandon Kinnie dropped potential touchdown passes, squandering the opportunities Nebraska did get down the field.

The Longhorns debuted a game plan with a running quarterback in Garrett Gilbert (10 carries, 68 yards, 2 TDs in the first half) and beat Nebraska while Gilbert completed just 4-of-16 passes for 62 yards, including a 41-yard catch-and-run to Fozzy Whittaker and just one completion to a receiver, a five-yarder to Malcolm Williams. The defense that looked so vulnerable against UCLA's zone-read scheme stymied Nebraska's. Credit Will Muschamp's scheme and the pursuit and tackling of Texas' defenders on that one.

This wasn't the Texas we saw in the first five games, both in strategy and execution. When people talk about Brown as one of the best coaches in the Big 12 and college football, games like this provide more big reasons