NCF Nation: Chris Duvalt

Illinois' offense showed up Friday at Nippert Stadium. Unfortunately for the Illini, so did some of the problems that have plagued them all season.

If Juice Williams and his wide receivers performed like this all year, Illinois wouldn't be sitting at 3-8. Though Williams had several costly incomplete passes, including a sure touchdown to Chris Duvalt early in the third quarter, he performed well overall against a vulnerable Cincinnati defense.

The missed pass to Duvalt was one of several plays that seemed to sum up Illinois' disappointing season in Friday's 49-36 loss to the fifth-ranked Bearcats. Linebacker Nate Bussey was flagged for an inexcusable unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that gave Cincinnati a fresh set of downs inside the Illinois 10-yard line. (The Bearcats converted for a touchdown.) Illinois drew eight penalties for 69 yards, as it remained the Big Ten's most penalized team.

Special teams also continued to hurt Illinois. While Derek Dimke went 3-for-3 on field goals, Cincinnati racked up 210 return yards, including a 90-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Mardy Gilyard.

Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther said last month that changes would be coming in Champaign, although head coach Ron Zook was safe. First-year offensive coordinator Mike Schultz might be saving himself with the offense's progress down the stretch, but Zook might need to shuffle his defensive staff. Illinois had no answer for a one-dimensional Cincinnati offense, as Tony Pike shredded the Illini for 399 pass yards and six touchdowns. The back seven couldn't keep pace with tight end Ben Guidugli (149 receiving yards, 2 touchdowns) and Gilyard (102 receiving yards, 2 touchdowns).

It's nice to see a class act like Williams play well down the stretch, but the future of the Illinois program seems very shaky right now. The Illini finish up next week against Fresno State as they try to avoid going 3-9.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

There are some positions on the depth chart that make Big Ten coaches cringe. There are other spots that make them smile and nod their heads.

Let's take a look at several fully loaded positions in the Big Ten.

Ohio State's defensive line: There is talk the Buckeyes' front four could be the best since the 2002 national championship squad. Ohio State is stacked at defensive end with All-Big Ten candidate Thaddeus Gibson, Cameron Heyward and Lawrence Wilson, who can be effective if healthy. Tackle Doug Worthington brings a ton of experience to the interior line, and Dexter Larimore and Todd Denlinger add depth there.

Iowa's offensive line: This group is well on its way to restoring the tradition established during the early part of coach Kirk Ferentz's tenure. Iowa boasts the league's top tackles tandem in Bryan Bulaga and Kyle Calloway, and there are a host of experienced interior linemen. Julian Vandervelde developed nicely in 2008, and Andy Kuempel, Rafael Eubanks and Dan Doering all are solid options at guard. The emergence of oft-injured Dace Richardson this spring adds another body to the mix. Aside from the center spot, Iowa looks extremely solid up front.

Michigan State's secondary: Despite losing All-Big Ten safety Otis Wiley, Michigan State should be even stronger in the back half. Three starters return in the secondary, including corners Chris L. Rucker and Ross Weaver. Michigan State boasts depth with corners Jeremy Ware and Johnny Adams and safeties Kendell Davis-Clark and Marcus Hyde. And the breakout performance of the spring came from another safety, Trenton Robinson, who certainly will see playing time this season.

Penn State's linebackers: Linebacker U. is back in 2009. Penn State boasts one of the nation's top linebacker tandems in Sean Lee and Navorro Bowman, both of whom will contend for All-America honors. And it doesn't stop there, as sophomore Michael Mauti is poised for a big year on the outside. Penn State also boasts veteran depth with Josh Hull, Chris Colasanti and Bani Gbadyu.

Illinois' wide receivers: Juice Williams will have no shortage of options in the passing game this fall. All-America candidate Arrelious Benn leads the Big Ten's deepest receiving corps, which features Jeff Cumberland, Chris Duvalt, A.J. Jenkins, Cordale Scott and Jack Ramsey. Florida transfer Jarred Fayson worked his way into a starting spot this spring and will draw opposing defenders away from Benn.

Michigan's running backs: Whoever wins the starting quarterback job in Ann Arbor will have plenty of help in the backfield. Hopes are extremely high for senior Brandon Minor, who finished strong last season despite battling several injuries, including one to his right (ball-carrying) wrist. Backing up Minor will be Carlos Brown and Michael Shaw, both of whom will be more accustomed to Rich Rodriguez's offense. Bite-size back Vincent Smith emerged this spring to provide another option with breakaway speed.

Northwestern's secondary: One of the league's weakest units a few years ago has transformed into a major strength for the Wildcats. All four starters return from 2008, and safety Brad Phillips and cornerback Sherrick McManis are strong candidates for All-Big Ten honors. Safety Brendan Smith and cornerback Jordan Mabin both are natural playmakers, and Northwestern boasts depth in players like Brian Peters, Justan Vaughn and David Arnold.

Wisconsin's H-backs/tight ends: Travis Beckum's star-crossed senior season opened opportunities for other players in 2008, and the result is a multitude of options at tight end for 2009. Mackey Award candidate Garrett Graham leads the way at the H-back spot, and senior Mickey Turner and junior Lance Kendricks provide reliable options in the passing game.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Juice Williams enters 2009 as one of the Big Ten's most recognizable players, a proven quarterback in a league starved for them.

 
  Chuck Rydlewski/Icon SMI
  Juice Williams was a second-team All-Big Ten selection last fall.

Williams has experienced just about everything at Illinois: A 10-loss season as a raw, yet talented freshman, a thrilling Rose Bowl run as a sophomore and a very disappointing campaign as a junior last fall. Illinois led the Big Ten in passing and ranked second in total offense but struggled to a 5-7 finish. Williams, a second-team All-Big Ten selection last fall, wants to end his college career on a good note, and perhaps for the first time he has truly taken ownership of the team.

Earlier this week, Williams discussed his up-and-down 2008 season, his outlook for the future and his legacy at Illinois.

What's been the mood for you and the guys during offseason workouts after things didn't go the way you wanted them to last fall?

Juice Williams: The attitude of this year's team is completely different from what we had last year at this time. Obviously, we didn't end up the way we should have or what we thought we should have. But that's affected this team in such a positive way. [The struggles] may be one of the best things to happen to this team.

Guys now are realizing that if we don't come to play every week, we're not going to be successful. And in order to come out there and play like that, we have to train and prepare our bodies to play 12 games to the maximum potential. Guys have really taken on that role, and I think we'll be ready by the time the season comes around.

Do you think guys were taking things for granted a little bit last year, especially coming off a Rose Bowl run?

JW: I think it had some type of affect on it. Guys kind of slacked off a little bit. We didn't really have the same intensity in the offseason as we should have. But like I said, I think it was probably the best thing that happened to us, not going to a bowl game. Us bringing back so many seniors and so much experience for this year, it's going to really prepare this team in the right direction.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Illinois linebacker Brit Miller noticed something different as soon as he walked into the weight room before dawn today.

Wideout Chris Duvalt was bouncing around, and other players had more zip to their step. After struggling at times on both sides of the ball in their first three games, the Illini had returned from a bye week refreshed and recharged.

"Whenever there's excitement on Monday morning at 6 a.m. during the lift," Miller said, "you know guys are ready to play."

Miller didn't sense the same excitement earlier this season, even before a much-anticipated opener against Missouri.

"People had that first-game wonderment, kind of wondering what's going to happen," Miller said. "This team has grown since that first game, knowing you have to go out and take it from your opponent. Having the guys excited and having people talking about Penn State this morning, that's a big deal. We had that a lot last year."

Another thing Illinois had a lot last year -- and for most of this decade -- was the underdog tag. Coming off consecutive 2-win seasons in 2005 and 2006, few outside the Champaign-Urbana corridor pegged the Illini for a Rose Bowl run. But the team pulled several upsets, none bigger than a road win against top-ranked Ohio State.

The Illini are underdogs once again heading into their Big Ten opener Saturday night at No. 12 Penn State (ABC, 8 p.m. ET). The Nittany Lions looked dominant in non-league play, albeit against weak competition, and will test an Illinois team that can prove it hasn't regressed from 2007.

"I've heard that, that we're the underdog going in," defensive end Will Davis said. "We've played our best games like that. When people say we can't win, we come out and play our hardest. That's what's happened in the past and you've got prove it on Saturday."

After an underwhelming 20-17 win against Louisiana-Lafayette on Sept. 13, Illinois coach Ron Zook challenged his best players to start performing like it. Zook certainly was referring to junior quarterback Juice Williams, who had only 147 passing yards against the Rajin' Cajuns, but also players like wideout Rejus Benn, the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year.

Benn has yet to catch a touchdown pass this season but can change games at any time, as he showed last season against Penn State with a 90-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.

"Coach expects a lot out of us," Benn said. "We came here to be on the forefront of that stage and be depended on in certain situations."

Illinois knows it can depend on Williams in hostile environments like Penn State. He turned in his signature performance last November at Ohio State (four touchdown passes, 70 rush yards) and relishes situations like the one he'll enter Saturday night at Beaver Stadium.

"It's a lot easier being the underdog," Williams said. "There's less pressure for you. We can pretty much go out there and play the game, not worry about everything. I've been the underdog my whole life. It gives you the opportunity to prove yourself."

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

 
 Tom Dahlin/Getty Images
 Juice Williams is prepared for the added leadership role he must assume this season.

Shared misfortune brought Illinois teammates and roommates Juice Williams and Chris James together on the Edward Jones Dome sideline Sept. 1. Their conversation wasn't pleasant, but memorable.

James, a potential starter at wide receiver, already knew he wouldn't be playing that day against Missouri after tearing his ACL in training camp. Williams started the game at quarterback, determined to muzzle his doubters after an erratic freshman season, but left in the second quarter after taking a blow to the head from Missouri's Hardy Ricks on a 4-yard run.

Together, they watched as backup quarterback Eddie McGee rallied Illinois to within six points before throwing an interception at the goal line in the final minute.

"He talked to me about not finishing the game," James said of Williams. "He was real sad and upset."

"He took that loss to heart," added Illini linebacker Brit Miller.

Fast-forward to Monday as Williams and James sat in the film room at Memorial Stadium studying Missouri. This time they spoke with a tone of optimism, sensing the opportunity that soon awaited them.

It arrives Saturday as Illinois heads back to St. Louis to face Missouri (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). The game has added meaning for Williams, who matches up against Heisman Trophy candidate Chase Daniel.

"Even without the injury, it would still be special," Williams said. "The first game of the season, you prepared all offseason to get better as a player, as a leader, as a role model of this team. You're just so thrilled to go out there and show the world what you can do."

A greater burden will be placed on Williams this fall after Illinois lost running back Rashard Mendenhall, the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. Offensive coordinator Mike Locksley wants to pass more to exploit a deeper-than-expected receiving corps and a junior quarterback no longer prone to poor decisions and an unsightly completion percentage.

Williams likely will look to air it out immediately against a Missouri defense that ranked 96th nationally against the pass last season (256.9 ypg).

"I'm pretty sure he can't wait to show the world what he can do as far as the passing," star wide receiver Rejus Benn said. "He's labeled as an option quarterback, a runner, but he's a passer and he's going to show that."

Williams spent a week this summer working with Eagles quarterback and fellow Chicagoan Donovan McNabb, who encouraged him to rely on more than just his arm strength to lead the offense. After completing just 39.5 percent of his passes as a freshman and struggling early last season, Williams began to get comfortable and played his best down the stretch, most notably in an upset of then-No. 1 Ohio State in Columbus.

He completed 6 of 9 passes against Missouri and added 11 rushing yards before the injury, which occurred when he started to slide on a scramble.

"I kind of learned my lesson," Williams said. "After that game, the coaches have pretty much been on me to run physical. As the season went on, I started running harder, breaking a bunch of tackles here and there, so it really paid off."

Illini coach Ron Zook doesn't expect Williams to think about the injury Saturday, which speaks to the quarterback's growing maturity.

"He has improved in every area, whether it be the way he talks with the media, the way he practices, all the things," Zook said. "Now it's going to be important that he goes out there and shows what we all think is going to happen, that he is a much-improved player."

Williams should get help from his receivers. In addition to Benn, the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year, the Illini will start James and junior Chris Duvalt, who had a very strong preseason. Not having the 6-foot-5 Jeff Cumberland (foot) will hurt, but freshmen Fred Sykes, A.J. Jenkins and Cordale Scott all are expected to contribute.

"I can't even imagine the feeling I'll have running onto the field knowing that I'm going to be able to play this year," said James, who started the final four games in 2006. "It's exciting knowing you can get out there and know where you are from the start, going against a top team like Missouri."

Despite the Ohio State win and a run to the Rose Bowl, Illinois enters this fall needing to shed the one-year-wonder tag. What better way to start than against a team that many around the country would have rather seen in a BCS bowl than the Illini.

"Being able to go out there and win a game against a top-notch program would mean a lot for this program," Williams said. "It would hopefully make other guys start to believe in the Illini program, that the Illini guys are back and last year was not a fluke."

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- It's Big Ten preview day, so check back for updates about the league's top stories this season. If my flight to O'Hare arrives relatively on time -- famous last words -- I'll be chatting today at 4 p.m. My opening act is Illinois quarterback Juice Williams, who chats at 1:15 p.m. ET. He'll do. After finishing up a few things in Bloomington, I'm on to Ohio State tomorrow, where Beanie Wells, Brian Robiskie and others will be available. 

Let's link:

  • Illinois coach Ron Zook thinks Williams can complete 70 percent of his passes this fall, CBSSports.com's Dennis Dodd writes. The (Champaign, Ill.) News-Gazette's Bob Asmussen hands out his Camp Rantoul awards for Illinois. Wideout Chris Duvalt takes home MVP honors.
  • Investigators in the sexual assault case involving two former Iowa football players questioned the alleged victim and her family, the Iowa City Press-Citizen reports. The Hawkeyes' receiving corps is healthy and deep, Eric Page writes in the Quad City Times.
  • Indiana's depth at the skill positions has kept expectations high, LaMond Pope writes in The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette.
  • Michigan offensive lineman Elliott Mealer is struggling to regain a sense of normalcy after the car crash that killed his father and girlfriend and seriously injured his brother last Christmas Eve, Mark Snyder writes in the Detroit Free Press. Guard Cory Zirbel's injury has prompted John Ferrara to move from defense to offense, John Heuser writes in the Ann Arbor News. Wideout Terrance Robinson is also out for several weeks with an injury.
  • Greg Jones is Michigan State's best linebacker, but which spot will he occupy this season? The Spartans are still figuring it out, Andrew Mouranie writes in the Lansing State Journal. Michigan State got a wonderful surprise Wednesday as Arthur Ray Jr., the offensive lineman who battled cancer last season and is still working his way back, visited practice, Eric Lacy writes in The Detroit News.
  • Playing college football is all in the family for the Tow-Arnett brothers at Minnesota, Dennis Brackin writes in the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune. Quad injuries have dogged Ben Kuznia, but the Gophers wideout now finds himself running with the 1's, Scott Thoma writes in the West Central Tribune.
  • Northwestern hopes for a defensive resurgence with Malcolm (Arrington) in the middle, Jim O'Donnell writes in the Chicago Sun-Times. Arrington will replace standout Adam Kadela, who still stings from missing a bowl game last season.
  • Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith sent a letter to fans lamenting Time Warner's decision not to pick up the Big Ten Network and asking subscribers to switch their cable providers, Jeffrey Sheban writes in the Columbus Dispatch. Here's Smith's letter. Turning back to the field, the Buckeyes hope to regain their trademark excellence on special teams, Matt Markey writes in The (Toledo) Blade. Former Texas and Arizona coach John Mackovic picks Ohio State to knock off USC.
  • Special teams is also on the brain at Penn State, which struggled on kickoff coverage last year, Ben Brigandi writes in The Altoona Mirror. Lions coach Joe Paterno is looking for a leader at linebacker. Todd Sponsler of the 50-yard Lion blog reveals his preseason Top 25, which includes Penn State at No. 14. Bleacher Report ranks its top 12 surprise blowouts in college football history, and Penn State's 48-14 trouncing of No. 1 Pitt in 1981 tops the list.
  • Boilermakers coach Joe Tiller weighs in on the NCAA's decision to ban horse-collar tackles.
  • Allan Evridge is Wisconsin's starting quarterback, but the No. 2 job remains open, Jeff Potrykus writes in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Wisconsin fullback Chris Pressley welcomes the responsibility of being a captain this fall, Jim Polzin writes in The Capital Times. Central Michigan transfer J.J. Watt can't wait to suit up for the Badgers, Tom Mulhern writes in the Wisconsin State Journal. 

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Start your clocks. We're two weeks away. Before the scrimmages get going around the league, check out these links:

  • Bad news for Illinois as wide receiver Jeff Cumberland, a projected starter, will miss two to four weeks with a foot injury. The Illini could have used Cumberland's size against Missouri in the season opener. The (Champaign, Ill.) News-Gazette's Bob Asmussen has a revised preseason depth chart with Chris Duvalt moving into Cumberland's spot with the first-team offense.
  • Indiana tight end Max Dedmond models himself after Dallas Clark and even gets called "Dallas" in practice, Terry Hutchens writes in The Indianapolis Star. Also, no word yet on whether Florida transfer Jerimy Finch will be allowed to play this season. 
  • Iowa's offensive linemen hate the number 46 -- last season's sacks allowed total -- and vow to change things this fall, Susan Harman writes in the Iowa City Press-Citizen. There's also a nice personnel breakdown of the line. The sexual assault trial involving two former Iowa players appears headed for a delay.
  • Missed this from a few days ago, but The Ann Arbor News' Jim Carty answers some Michigan questions. He thinks four players, including running back Carlos Brown, will take snaps this fall.
  • Free safety has become a position of concern at Michigan State. Roderick Jenrette, a projected starter alongside Otis Wiley, has been asked to take an indefinite absence from the team to address a personal matter. Also, Spartans sophomore Enrique Shaw has left the program voluntarily. Junior Dan Fortener could step in for Jenrette. Spartans coach Mark Dantonio is borrowing some baseball sayings to address his team's current position, John Lemon writes in the Arlington Heights (Ill.) Daily Herald.
  • Minnesota has gone live (full tackling) more than most teams this preseason -- after last season, it needed to. Today's scrimmage will mark the end for a while, Kent Youngblood writes in the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune.
  • Don't know how Ohio State linebacker James Laurinaitis would do in the 200-meter butterfly, but he bears a resemblance to that Phelps guy, The Cleveland Plain Dealer's Doug Lesmerises writes in his blog. If you're going to Ohio State's open practice Monday, leave your cameras at home.
  • Penn State wideout Derrick Williams wants to end his career like he started it, with a trip to a BCS bowl.
  • Jaycen Taylor holds a slight edge over Kory Sheets right now, but if history is a guide, both Purdue running backs will play plenty, Tom Kubat writes in The (Lafayette, Ind.) Journal and Courier. Sheets first has to fix his fumbling problems.
  • Wisconsin might go with two kickers this season, but the Badgers definitely will use three running backs this season, Jeff Potrykus writes in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Defensive end Matt Shaughnessy returned to practice Friday after heading home following the death of his older brother.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The Big Ten preseason has seemed downright boring compared to the rest of the country.

There's no Mark Sanchez or Ben Olson crisis in this league, and though Ohio State has endured a few recent off-the-field incidents, the Buckeyes have nothing on Georgia. None of the four major quarterback competitions -- Michigan, Wisconsin, Penn State and Indiana -- are settled, and the one in Ann Arbor could drag on for some time. Wisconsin dismissed running back Lance Smith, but the Badgers remain well-stocked at the position.

If the first two weeks of preseason practice have revealed anything, it's that a position that seemed weak in the league could be much better than forecasted.

The Big Ten lost seven of its top 10 receivers from last season, a group that included three-time league receptions leader Dorien Bryant, big-play dynamo Devin Thomas, Indiana career receiving leader James Hardy and Michigan stars Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington. Aside from Ohio State, Penn State and Northwestern, every Big Ten team entered camp with some degree of uneasiness about the wide receivers.

Michigan State and Indiana lost superstars. Michigan lost almost everybody. So did Purdue. Illinois and Minnesota needed second options. Iowa welcomed back several prominent pass-catchers from injuries. Wisconsin was very young at the position.

The anxiety level has dropped quite a bit.

Illinois, which will stress the pass more this fall, has produced several good candidates to complement Arrelious Benn, including juniors Jeff Cumberland and Chris Duvalt, sophomores Chris James and Alex Reavy and freshmen Jack Ramsey, A.J. Jenkins and Cordale Scott. Highly touted Fred Smith will make an impact this fall at Michigan State, but he's been overshadowed a bit by classmate Keshawn Martin. Michigan's young wideouts impressed first-year coach Rich Rodriguez from the get-go, and the Wolverines will lean on players like Darryl Stonum, Martavious Odoms, Terrance Robinson, Toney Clemons and Junior Hemingway come Aug. 30.

I was extremely impressed after watching Wisconsin sophomore David Gilreath, a big-play threat with tremendous speed. Though I didn't see Purdue practice after media day, junior-college transfer Arsenio Curry certainly looks like he can contribute alongside Greg Orton. Playmaker Andy Brodell is back in the fold at Iowa, and sophomore Colin Sandeman looks to be pushing incumbent Derrell Johnson-Koulianos for the starting job. Ray Fisher and Andrew Means headline a group of Indiana wideouts that also include some promising freshmen.

There has been so much buzz about the spread offense sweeping through the Big Ten. It looks like the league will have the moving parts to make those schemes work this fall.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- My Big Ten tour continues Tuesday at Michigan State, which begins its media day around 8 a.m. ET. Offensive players and coaches are up first, followed by defensive players and coaches. Head coach Mark Dantonio meets the media at 11:30 a.m. ET, and I'll head to watch the first portion of practice this afternoon. 

For the e-mailers ragging me for flooding the blog with Michigan material Monday, this is how it's going to work. When I'm at a particular school, that school's team will be featured throughout the day. I'll try not to neglect what's going on around the league, but one team will take precedence. The good thing is I'm going to visit almost every Big Ten school before the season, so if you're wondering when Ohio State or Penn State get top billing, just be patient.

It was a busy Monday around the Big Ten as 10 teams opened practice. Here's a look at each one:

ILLINOIS

INDIANA

IOWA

MICHIGAN

  • Michigan's media rights belong to IMG, which paid $86 million in a 12-year deal, John Ourand writes in Sports Business Journal. IMG already owns Michigan's radio rights but will pick up corporate sponsorships and coaches' endorsements.

MICHIGAN STATE

  • Michigan State linebacker Greg Jones has bulked up during the summer, the Lansing State Journal's Joe Rexrode writes in his blog. 
  • The team on the field isn't the only thing looking glossy at Michigan State. The football team's new headquarters is getting rave reviews, Steve Grinczel writes. 

NORTHWESTERN

  • Former Kansas City Chiefs star center Jack Rudnay, a Northwestern alum, addressed the team on the first day of practice. 

OHIO STATE

PENN STATE

  • Who will win Penn State's quarterback job? Who steps up at defensive tackle after the dismissals of Phil Taylor and Chris Baker? The Philadelphia Enquirer's Jeff McLane takes a look
  • Mark Wogenrich of The (Allentown) Morning Call weighs in on what to watch in Penn State's camp.

WISCONSIN

  • Reserve running back Lance Smith has run out of chances at Wisconsin after his latest slip-up. He remains eligible and will look to play elsewhere, but his Badgers' career is over. Coach Bret Bielema really had little choice here after sticking his neck out for Smith last summer. The Badgers still have enough depth at running back, though an injury to P.J. Hill or Zach Brown could raise the anxiety level. 
  • The Capital Times' Jim Polzin breaks down the first day of practice. Junior cornerback Josh Nettles and two incoming freshmen aren't on the roster,

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