NCF Nation: Bryan Payton

Will Indiana break through today?

November, 14, 2009
11/14/09
12:38
PM ET
Those who have watched Indiana play this year know the Hoosiers are better than their 4-6 record. It has been a season of agonizing losses for Bill Lynch's crew, particularly on the road in Big Ten play.

Once again, Indiana is off to a blazing start away from home, jumping on a rattled Penn State team 10-0. Junior quarterback Ben Chappell has been fabulous, completing 8 of his first 10 pass attempts with a touchdown. The Hoosiers are also getting production in the run game from senior Bryan Payton.

Indiana has NEVER beaten Penn State. Could today be the day Indiana gets over the hump?

Big Ten internal affairs: Week 13

November, 19, 2008
11/19/08
11:12
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Iowa -- Kicker continues to be a question mark for the Hawkeyes with the re-emergence of junior Daniel Murray in recent weeks. Murray, who made the game-winning field goal against Penn State, connected on a 45-yard attempt last week against Purdue. Starter Trent Mossbrucker missed two extra-point attempts against the Boilers, and head coach Kirk Ferentz said the freshman needs a strong week of practice to reclaim a spot on the field Saturday at Minnesota. Mossbrucker had performed well entering the Penn State game, but Ferentz went with the more experienced Murray in the clutch. "He's been kicking a long time," Ferentz said of Mossbrucker. "He knows a lot more about it than I do or anybody here does. Yeah, just get back to what's made you a successful player. He'll be fine."

Michigan -- It will be interesting to see how head coach Rich Rodriguez uses his running backs Saturday at No. 10 Ohio State (ABC, noon ET). Junior Brandon Minor, the Wolverines' most productive back during the second half of the season, expects to return from a multitude of injuries against the Buckeyes. But junior Carlos Brown comes off his best performance, a 115-yard effort against Northwestern, and freshman Michael Shaw also is in the mix. Brown and Shaw likely will get the first opportunities against the Buckeyes, but Minor will be a factor. Michigan has racked up 170 rushing yards or more in five of its last six games.

Penn State -- Derrick Williams is playing his best football at the end of his career, and the Nittany Lions are doing all they can to get the ball to the talented senior. Two weeks ago, Williams took snaps at quarterback as Penn State used a Wildcat-like formation at Iowa. Last week against Indiana, he racked up 164 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns, getting eight touches on offense to go with three returns. If quarterback Daryll Clark continues to struggle early against Michigan State (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET), don't be surprised to see Williams with the ball in his hands. Also, defensive end Josh Gaines (ankle) practiced Monday and is expected to play against the Spartans.

Illinois -- The days of removing Juice Williams from games to let him regroup appeared over after the Illini junior quarterback had a scorching start to the 2008 season. But after committing two turnovers last Saturday against Ohio State, the coaches replaced Williams with backup Eddie McGee. Williams has committed nine turnovers (8 interceptions, 1 fumble) in Illinois' last four games. He leads the Big Ten in both touchdown passes (22) and interceptions (15) this season. Still, head coach Ron Zook maintains confidence in Williams heading into the regular-season finale at Northwestern. "A lot of times he gets a lot of the blame that isn't necessarily his fault," Zook said. "That's part of it as well and it gets exaggerated when things aren't going right, particularly with a football team that was expected to play a little bit better and be a little bit more productive than we have been."

Indiana -- After dealing with a multitude of injuries all season, the Hoosiers appear to be getting healthy right at the end. Tackle Rodger Saffold returned to action against Penn State, and the other starting offensive linemen are all fine for Saturday's season finale at Purdue (ESPN2, noon ET). Head coach Bill Lynch isn't sure if backup running back Bryan Payton (ankle) will play, though Payton did more in practice Monday than he has in previous weeks. Running back Marcus Thigpen and wideout Mitchell Evans should be fine, and Indiana actually will have the option of playing either Kellen Lewis or Ben Chappell at quarterback. The Hoosiers previously had been forced to rotate the two because both have been banged up.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The final week of the Big Ten regular season is upon us. Here are a few weekend leftovers and some items looking at the upcoming games.

  • Daryll Clark's mind-set is a cause for concern as Penn State enters its most critical game of the season, Bernard Fernandez writes in the Philadelphia Daily News. Nittany Lions center A.Q. Shipley is serving as Clark's defacto psychologist, but the Penn State quarterback needs to relax and forget his mistakes, David Jones writes in The (Harrisburg) Patriot-News.

"He's rushing every movement, all jerks and abrupt stops. Nothing is smooth or relaxed. Worse, he's begun throwing either off his back foot or with no stride at all, feet flat as if entombed in set cement.

Groping through a tunnel of doubt like this is a learning process. Unfortunately for Clark, this is his rookie year as a starter and a lot of the mental/emotional part of fighting through a slump is still new."

"You know what? We have three potential deals," [head coach Tim] Brewster said of the Gophers' bowl picture. "The Insight [in Tempe, Ariz.], the Motor City [Detroit] and possibly the Alamo [San Antonio]. If you win, you improve your bowl status."

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Indiana head coach Bill Lynch breaks down the team's personnel in the second half of my interview with him (for Part I, click here).

Does Kellen [Lewis] still have the respect of his teammates? I'm sure some were disappointed after his suspension. 

Bill Lynch: Yeah, I'm sure. But ever since he's been back, he's certainly earned it. And the players wanted him back. That was a part of the whole thing while he was gone, and I had told him that, 'I'm going to check with a lot of people and one of them is your teammates.' And they wanted him back. And he's done everything we've asked and he's practiced well, he's practiced hard, he hasn't missed a rep. So I'm not worried about that.

Did you feel like you were losing him at any point?

BL: The best word to use is I was hopeful through the whole thing. 

As far as the defense, you had some great individual performers last year, but does the unit need to take another step?

BL: I think so. We're in the same defensive scheme for the fourth year, and that's really important. The position coaches are the same. And this is a game of repetitions, it really is. The more you do it, the better you get and the consistency is so important. We've been able to develop that. But we've also developed depth and overall team speed on defense. Our linebacker play is the starting point. We really feel like we're two-deep with guys who fit the mold physically in terms of size and strength and speed, but experience now, as well. We have much more depth at d-line. We've got a name guy in [Greg] Middleton, but [Jammie] Kirlew and [Ryan] Marando and Greg Brown and Deonte Mack and the Burrus brothers [Keith and Kevin], we've got some depth. We've got solid safeties in Austin Thomas and Nick Polk. Chris Phillips is a very solid player. He played some good football for us. And then the other kids are coming along at the other corner. We haven't made a decision on that yet. 

As far as the quarterback decision, do you have a timetable?

BL: I'm going to sit down with [offensive coordinator] Matt Canada, our quarterback coach and coordinator, because we haven't done that. At some point, you make that decision based on not only what's best for the two kids involved, but also what's best for the football team. We're getting to the point where we need to sit down and have that conversation. We've really been through the grind of camp. Starting out, we talked about we would get through the camp and there was going to be 1 and 1A, but we really have rotated them a lot. The reps have been almost even. 

Is playing both of them in the discussion?

BL: We haven't talked about that. I'm not, at this point, thinking that's what we're going to do. They're both capable. We can win with both of them. 

Offensive line, any concerns there with depth?

BL: We've kind of missed our left guard and left tackle [Pete Saxon and Rodger Saffold] since before last weekend, but both of them, we feel like by game week, will be out there going. We're being smart this week. Those are our two most experienced guys, but what it's done is some young kids have gotten a ton of reps. So as a result of some injuries, we've been able to develop some depth. But [the offensive line] doesn't have the same depth as the d-line has.

Who have stood out among the freshmen?

BL: We've got a couple wideouts. [Damarlo Belcher] had a really good day today and he's been coming on. I still think Darius Willis, our running back, has got a chance. We haven't decided what we're going to do there, either, because we've got some older guys ahead of him. But he's everything we thought he was going to be, and he's going to be a complete back. It would probably take some injuries at the other places for somebody else to play.

Willis is a bigger guy. Is that a novelty a bit in this offense?

BL: Not necessarily. It's nice to have, but [Marcus] Thigpen has something to offer because of his speed and experience and ability to play to play wide receiver when we go into different formations. [Bryan] Payton's a tough, hard-nosed guy that has played.  [Trea] Burgess is a solid guy who has gained yards as a special teams guy. And [Demetrius McCray's] a little bit of a guy that we're anxious to see keep going because he's missed a lot of time with injuries, and he's been able to stay healthy through the whole camp. And then you've got Darius. It's really a matter of giving everybody work before we kind of decide which way we're going to go. 

You mentioned gaining national respect is a goal. Do you think you've gained some respect in the Big Ten?

BL: A little bit. If you look at the preseason picks, we haven't gained a whole lot. But it takes time. We're gonna earn it. That's our job to do that, not worry about it at this point. You've got to do it more than one year. I firmly believe that. We took a step last year and it was a start. We've got a lot more to do.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

EVANSTON, Ill. -- When Martin Bayless met Hunter Bates on a recruiting visit to Northwestern, they soon realized they shared more than an interest in the same college.

Both players had fathers who logged lengthy NFL careers around the same time and at the same position.

Martin Bayless Sr. played safety for five NFL teams, most notably the San Diego Chargers, in a career that lasted from 1984-96. Bill Bates joined the Dallas Cowboys in 1983 and became an All-Pro special teams performer and safety in a 15-year career.

Their sons are now freshmen at Northwestern, adjusting to the demands of college football.

"You get a couple jokes here and there about, 'Oh, you look like your dad, you play like your dad,'" the younger Bayless said Thursday. "But it helps knowing the person next to you in the locker room has a dad just like you. They get the same jokes and they help you through it, just laugh it off."

Hunter Bates followed Bill's path and became a safety, while Martin Bayless Jr. diverted to wide receiver.

"We're getting to know each other, going against each other," Bayless said. "We talk about our dads a little bit, but our heads are more in the game right now, assignments and stuff."

College players with NFL lineages are common, but Northwestern's incoming freshman class features an extraordinary number of connections.

Offensive lineman Jeff Radek is a cousin of nine-time Pro Bowl safety John Lynch, while offensive lineman Nick Adamle comes from a family of football stars. Adamle's grandfather Alex played at Ohio State before earning All-Pro honors with the Cleveland Browns and his uncle, Mike, starred as a running back at Northwestern before playing seven pro seasons.

Bayless matches Adamle with two uncles who played in an NFL and a cousin, former Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson, still in the league. His father helps run the oldest and largest free football camp in the country, with locations in California, Ohio and Texas.

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald sees Bayless and Bates as ordinary freshmen, but their connections to the sport certainly help.

"You can tell the guys who have been around the game a long time have a confidence level about them," Fitzgerald said. "Hunter Bates [is] out there catching punts. There was no special teams player arguably in the history of the NFL than Bill Bates. All those freshmen have some bloodlines, but they're freshmen. It's such a huge adjustment."

As Bayless makes the transition, he remembers his father's words.

"Just work hard," Bayless said. "If talent doesn't work hard, hard work will outwork talent."

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Thursday's Big Ten campus visit is a home game for me, as I'll make the 25-minute drive north to Evanston for Northwestern's practice and media day. The Wildcats hit the field at 7:15 a.m. CT, so I'll probably catch the second half of the workout, which is usually more interesting anyway. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald, his assistant coaches and the players meet with the media this afternoon.

Love those links:

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

After an extended examination of the Big Ten quarterbacks, from conundrums at four schools to stability at others, it's time to start rolling out position rankings. Let's begin with a look at the league's running backs.

For several positions, such as running back, wide receiver and linebacker, I'll break up the rankings into individual (top 10) and team. For offensive line, it will only be team. The reason? Beanie Wells is the Big Ten's best running back, but Wisconsin's four-pack might be the strongest group.

The Big Ten had four teams rank among the top 30 nationally in rushing offense, and despite losing standouts Rashard Mendenhall and Mike Hart, the league looks solid in the backfield.

INDIVIDUALS

 
 AP Photo/Terry Gilliam
 Beanie Wells rushed for 1,609 yards and 15 TDs last season.

1. Chris "Beanie" Wells, Jr., Ohio State -- Heisman contender enters his junior season as the league's premier back. Wells was consistently productive last season despite playing most of it with a bad ankle and a broken bone in his left wrist. His offensive line returns virtually intact, putting Beanie in line for another 1,500-yard season.

2. Javon Ringer, Sr., Michigan State -- Excellent slasher could push Wells for the league's rushing title. Last fall, Ringer rushed for 1,447 yards and six touchdowns -- big man Jehuu Caulcrick usually got the call near the goal line -- and expects to get more carries this season. Caulcrick's absence could hurt, but Ringer has thrived in the team's run-first offense.

3. P.J. Hill, Jr., Wisconsin -- The Badgers will throw different looks at defenses, but Hill is undoubtedly the first option. Hill finally enjoyed a healthy offseason and was able to increase his strength in the weight room. Despite being banged up last fall, Hill still rushed for 1,212 yards and 14 touchdowns. If he stays on the field, his combination of size and speed is hard to contain.

4. Tyrell Sutton, Sr., Northwestern -- After winning Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors in 2005, Sutton has left center stage, struggling in an anemic offense as a sophomore and missing most of last season with a high ankle sprain. He's fully healthy and headlines an offense stocked with veteran skill players. If a new-look line jells, Sutton will show why he's still one of the league's best backs.

5. Evan Royster, So., Penn State -- Teammate Stephfon Green has Happy Valley buzzing, but defenses better not forget about Royster. He averaged 6.3 yards a carry last season as Rodney Kinlaw's backup, and enters the summer as Penn State's No. 1 back. Royster is a strong between-the-tackles runner but, like Green, has breakaway ability, as he showed with a 38-yard touchdown in the Alamo Bowl.

6. Kory Sheets, Sr., Purdue -- Fumbling problems have prevented Sheets from becoming Purdue's featured back, but he could claim the lion's share of the carries as a senior. Sheets averaged 5.1 yards per carry and scored 11 touchdowns last fall, finishing ninth in the league with 859 rushing yards. If he can hang onto the ball this fall, Sheets should have a strong finish to his career.

7. Jaycen Taylor, Jr., Purdue -- Taylor is definitely tough enough to be Purdue's featured back. He returned to the field last fall just four games after breaking his left arm. The next step is consistent production, which Taylor showed at times in 2007. Sheets' ongoing fumbling problems caused coach Joe Tiller to give Taylor the slight edge on the depth chart coming out of spring ball.

8. Marcus Thigpen, Sr. Indiana -- Everyone knows Thigpen has elite speed, but he hasn't proven to be a viable threat out of the backfield. The senior figures to get more carries this fall as Indiana tries to complement quarterback Kellen Lewis with another rushing threat. Thigpen proved he can step up in big games, rushing for 140 yards in a bowl-clinching win against Purdue last November.

9. Stephfon Green, Fr., Penn State -- He hasn't played a college game yet, but his speed and big-play potential have Penn State fans counting the days until Aug. 30. Green will play behind Evan Royster, but if he duplicates his spring-practice highlights in a meaningful setting, he'll dash past a lot of backs on this list.

10. Lance Smith-Williams, Jr., Wisconsin -- Teammate Zach Brown merits a mention here, but consider what Smith-Williams did last season. Suspended from playing in away games, he rushed for 429 yards and three touchdowns on only 71 carries (6.0 ypc average). Allowed to travel with the team this season, Smith-Williams provides an excellent complement to Hill in the run game.

TEAM

1. Wisconsin -- The variety of size, skill and depth provided by Hill, Smith-Williams, Brown and hyped redshirt freshman John Clay can't be matched in the league. A new starting quarterback will have plenty of help.

2. Ohio State -- Beanie Wells is a workhorse, but the Buckeyes have plenty of talent behind him in Maurice Wells, dynamic sophomore Brandon Saine and promising redshirt freshman Dan "Boom" Herron.

3. Penn State -- If Green backs up his hype on the field, the Lions could jump up the list. Royster and Green give Penn State two formidable threats alongside a new starting quarterba
ck.

4. Purdue -- Sheets and Taylor have competed forever, with neither man cementing the No. 1 spot. But as a tandem, they give pass-happy Purdue another strong dimension.

5. Michigan State -- Ringer is a proven star who can punish defenses with his slashing speed. Though the Spartans lost Caulcrick, the league's eighth-leading rusher last season, hopes are high for A.J. Jimmerson, Andre Anderson and Ashton Leggett.

6. Northwestern -- The Wildcats should get back to their running roots under new offensive coordinator Mick McCall. Sutton is dangerous when healthy, and versatile senior Omar Conteh filled in nicely last fall.

7. Michigan -- No proven commodities here, but offensive coordinator Calvin Magee has a track record for producing all-league backs. Brandon Minor looked good this spring, and Carlos Brown returns from a broken finger. If Kevin Grady resolves his legal troubles, he gives the Wolverines a big, versatile body in the backfield.

8. Illinois -- Quarterback Juice Williams is a running threat, but Illinois didn't identify a replacement for Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Rashard Mendenhall in spring practice. Junior Daniel Dufrene likely will get the first shot at the top job, with both Troy Pollard and freshman Mikel LeShoure also in the mix.

9. Indiana -- When opponents prepare for Indiana's run game, they talk about quarterback Lewis. It's up to the running backs -- Thigpen, Bryan Payton, Demetrius McCray or freshman Darius Willis -- to put another name in the scouting report.

10. Minnesota -- Here's another team with the quarterback (Adam Weber) as its leading rusher. Jay Thomas comes off his second ACL surgery and will compete with promising sophomore Duane Bennett for the job. Both men have potential, but there's little depth behind them.

11. Iowa -- Albert Young and Damian Sims are gone, and the Hawkeyes ended spring with a walk-on (Paki O'Meara) as their top running back. Yikes. Shonn Greene returns to potentially stabilize things, and incoming freshmen Jeff Brinson and Jewel Hampton will get looks in camp.

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