NCF Nation: Corey Liuget

Greg Colby and Mike Bellamy both have seen better days at Illinois.

During Colby's first stint as an assistant at his alma mater (1988-95), Illinois shared a Big Ten championship in 1990 and reached six bowl games in seven seasons. Bellamy starred at wide receiver for two of those Illini bowl teams (1988 and 1989). Illinois went 10-2 during Bellamy's senior season, when he earned first-team All-Big Ten honors and second-team All-America honors as a kick returner.

Both men played for the Orange and Blue, and both are in their first seasons as full-time assistants on Tim Beckman's revamped coaching staff. Their challenge: recapture the winning ways after a 2-10 disaster in 2012.

"When I was here before, we had some pretty good success," Colby recently told ESPN.com. "A championship, six bowls, and played pretty well. I want to see Illinois be successful. I have all along, and now I've got [a job] where I can have a little bit of an influence, at least. So I've got a very strong vested interest.

"It is personal for me."

[+] EnlargeRyan Lankford
Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY SportsNew Illinois receivers coach Mike Bellamy will aim to get more production from Ryan Lankford in 2013.
Every Friday during the offseason, Beckman has speakers address the team to talk about the program's history. Colby and Bellamy recently made a joint presentation, discussing their playing days in Champaign and, in Colby's case, his first run as an assistant.

Colby returned as defensive line coach after five years as head coach at Division II Millersville University in Pennsylvania. He has made four stops since leaving Illinois following the 2005 season, including two at other Big Ten schools (Michigan State and Northwestern). Bellamy, who played for four NFL teams between 1990-95, takes over as Illinois' receivers coach after serving as the team's assistant director of player personnel and relations in 2012.

"Last year, being around the guys, I told them I was one of them," Bellamy told ESPN.com. "So that made it easy during this offseason, being in their ear and watching them work out, giving them tips here and there on how to study. So when the choice was made, some thought it would be a natural fit and Coach Beckman wanted to make sure he got the right guy.

"I was excited."

Bellamy works with a group that, like the rest of the offense, underperformed in 2012. He inherits veterans like Ryan Lankford and Spencer Harris, and has seen some good signs this spring from converted safety Steve Hull and Miles Osei, a full-time wideout after serving as a reserve quarterback for three seasons. Junior-college transfer Martize Barr also has been a bright spot.

Colby oversees a group that has been Illinois' strength despite the team's recent struggles. Two Illini defensive linemen -- Whitney Mercilus (2012) and Corey Liuget (2011) -- have been selected in the first round of the NFL draft in the past three years. Linemen like Michael Buchanan, Akeem Spence and Glenn Foster could hear their names called later this month.

Although Colby is aware of the recent track record, he's not focusing on it.

"It’s all attitude right now," he said. "That's what the offseason is. If you don't develop it now, you're not going to have it in the fall during the season."

Colby inherits a young group that includes only one player (senior Tim Kynard) with significant game experience. He hopes Jake Howe and Austin Teitsma can blossom, and he's seen flashes from redshirt freshman Vontrell Williams.

"I don't think we're going to have the All-American, All-Big Ten that they’ve had in the past, but who knows," Colby said. "That's not something we really focus on. We've got to be blue-collar players up front. That’s what we're trying to instill, the kind of work ethic. Don't depend on your athleticism to make plays for you.

"Depend on your work ethic, and let your athleticism be the icing on the cake."

Both Colby and Bellamy often talk to players about forging a legacy, one the coaches helped shape as former Illini.

"I told them a couple times, 'At some point, you’ve got to take this personally,'" Bellamy said. "To me, this is personal right now.

"We can't go anywhere but up.”
Illinois is losing one of the Big Ten's top assistants in defensive-line coach Keith Gilmore.

Rivals.com and others reported Saturday that Gilmore is leaving Illinois to join North Carolina's staff in the same capacity. He'll be reunited with North Carolina defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, with whom he worked at Illinois from 2009-2011. Gilmore was the only assistant Illini head coach Tim Beckman had retained from the previous staff -- and for good reason.

He mentored two NFL first-round draft picks in defensive tackle Corey Liuget and defensive end Whitney Mercilus. Two of his linemen, tackle Akeem Spence and end Michael Buchanan, are expected to be drafted in April. Although Illinois certainly has had its issues the past two seasons, defensive line hasn't been one of them. Gilmore is a significant loss for Beckman's staff.

It's hard to blame Gilmore for leaving as Beckman faces potentially a make-or-break season in 2013. Things are much more stable at UNC, and Gilmore's familiarity with Koenning makes him a good fit in Chapel Hill.

Illinois will have at least three new assistants in 2013 after bringing in new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit and new offensive-line coach Jim Bridge.

Defensive line has been the Big Ten's strongest position in recent years. The league has lost two respected D-line coaches this weekend after Michigan State announced Friday that it's cutting ties with Ted Gill.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- As Illinois' starting center for the past few seasons, Graham Pocic has mashed limbs with some of the nation's best defensive tackles.

Penn State's Devon Still, Purdue's Kawann Short, Michigan State's Jerel Worthy and Michigan's Mike Martin are among those who have lined up across from Pocic. But Pocic's toughest opponent is a man he never faces on Saturdays.

[+] EnlargeAkeem Spence
Michael Heinz/US PresswireAkeem Spence is following in the footsteps of several Illini turned NFL defensive linemen before him.
"I get to go against the best D-tackle in the conference every day [in practice]," Pocic said. "It's awesome."

Pocic is biased, but don't be surprised if his teammate, Akeem Spence, earns the same label from the NFL talent evaluators a year from now. Spence has been on the NFL radar for the past two seasons, earning a starting job as a redshirt freshman and starting all 26 games he has played at Illinois.

The 6-foot-1, 305-pound Spence built on his freshman-year numbers (45 tackles, 4 TFLs, 1 sack, 1 fumble recovery) by finishing fourth on the squad in tackles (69) last fall. He had 5.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery for an Illinois defense that finished seventh nationally in yards allowed and 15th in points allowed.

"His explosiveness off the ball, his strength, he's pretty athletic for his size," Pocic said. "He's just a powerful dude. If you're not ready when you go against him, he's going to get under you and make some plays in the backfield."

The Illini have had defensive linemen selected in the first round of the past two NFL drafts: tackle Corey Liuget in 2011 (No. 18 overall pick) and end Whitney Mercilus last week (No. 26 overall pick). Spence is already being mentioned as a top candidate to enter the NFL draft after his junior season this fall.

Asked last month how motivated he is to be Illinois' next elite next-level prospect, Spence's face lit up.

"I'm real motivated," he said. "I'm just working real hard, doing everything that they did, do everything right. When it's time to step up, I want to be that guy making a big sack, making a big tackle for loss, making a big turnover. That's what I'm working toward."

Spence remains in touch with Liuget, who he started alongside in 2010. Although they've had similar career arcs at the same position -- Spence actually has played more than Liuget did in his first two years -- they're different players.

"He's a lot taller than I am," Spence said.

Only two inches to be exact, but it makes a difference in the trenches.

"Corey was a little more agile and faster," Pocic said, "but Corey doesn't have the strength that Akeem has. Corey's probably a little more explosive, but Akeem's just so strong and physical inside. It's tough to deal with."

Like several other veteran defenders, Spence had concerns about the unit's direction after head coach Ron Zook's firing coordinator Vic Koenning's departure for North Carolina. He was relieved to learn the new scheme under coordinator Tim Banks closely resembles its predecessor. Illinois also retained defensive line coach Keith Gilmore, the lone holdover from the previous staff.

Spence will play mostly the 3-technique and 1-technique in Banks' scheme with some spot work out wide at the 5-technique.

"You're creating a culture of great defensive line play," Banks said. "Those kids want to uphold that standard. You talk about those guys [Liuget and Mercilus], they were just here. It's not like 10 years ago. Our guys know who they are. They say, 'If he can do it, I can do it.' There's been greatness in that room."

Spence wants to continue that legacy before he walks out the door.
Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which blogger is right.

Today's Take Two topic is this: Last season, defensive tackle was clearly the strongest overall position group in the Big Ten. What position will be the best throughout the league in 2012?

Take 1: Brian Bennett

[+] EnlargeWisconsin's Montee Ball
Kelvin Kuo/US PRESSWIREMontee Ball headlines a strong group of returning running backs in the Big Ten.
I'm tempted to go with linebacker, where some high-profile players and future stars are scattered throughout the conference. But my pick is running back.

There's some major star power at the position this year in the Big Ten, starting off with last year's Heisman Trophy finalist and record breaker, Wisconsin's Montee Ball. While Ball is the obvious choice for preseason offensive player of the year, he could get pushed by some other backs, including Nebraska's tough-as-nails Rex Burkhead, who ran for 1,357 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. Even with last year's No. 2 league rusher (Iowa's Marcus Coker) gone, the position is still stacked with guys like Penn State's Silas Redd, who we both think is primed for a huge season; Michigan's Fitz Toussaint, who ran for more than 1,000 yards despite not taking over lead rushing duties until the eighth game of the season; and Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell, who came on strong late last season and looks great this spring.

Purdue has some very capable runners in Akeem Shavers, Akeem Hunt and Doug Gentry, and Ralph Bolden is coming back from an ACL injury. Ohio State has a potentially strong group with Carlos Hyde, Jordan Hall, Rod Smith and freshman Bri'onte Dunn. Stephen Houston showed some good things for Indiana last year, and transfer Isaiah Roundtree had a big spring game. Minnesota is high on junior college import James Gillum. And don't forget James White at Wisconsin, who could start for most teams in the country.

Iowa, Illinois and Northwestern have some question marks at tailback. But overall, running back is where the Big Ten's bread will be buttered this season.

Take 2: Adam Rittenberg

A good choice, Bennett, as the Big Ten returns six of its top seven running backs and would have brought back all seven if not for Marcus Coker's transfer. But my experience covering this league has taught me to never overlook the defensive line. The D-line once again will be the Big Ten's strongest group in 2012.

Sure, the league loses standouts like Devon Still, Whitney Mercilus and Jerel Worthy. But you could substitute the names Aaron Maybin and Mitch King after the 2008 season, or Brandon Graham and Jared Odrick after 2009, or J.J. Watt and Corey Liuget after 2010. The Big Ten always finds ways to reload up front, and this year will be no different. There might not be as many familiar names as there are at running back, but that soon will change.

[+] EnlargeKawann Short
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesPurdue defensive lineman Kawann Short is a potential first-round NFL draft pick.
Let's start off with the top returning linemen, Ohio State's John Simon and Purdue's Kawann Short, both of whom earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in 2011. Both men will contend for All-America honors, and could be potential first-round picks in the 2013 class. Then you have a guy we're both excited about: Michigan State defensive end William Gholston. He's a physical freak, as you recently detailed, and has the potential to dominate games and become one of the nation's truly elite defenders in 2012. I'd also include Penn State defensive tackle Jordan Hill in this group of known commodities with the potential for very big things this season. Penn State's overall depth along the defensive line should be better this year.

Now for some lesser-known names who could have breakout seasons. Let's start at Illinois with defensive end Michael Buchanan and defensive tackle Akeem Spence. Buchanan is poised for a big year, as he showed in Illinois' spring game, while Spence is a next-level player who could follow Liuget's path this season. Speaking of defensive tackles, watch out for Ohio State's Johnathan Hankins, a very big man who can do very big things this season. The Buckeyes' heralded incoming freshmen should only bolster their line.

Michigan loses two standout linemen (Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen), but it's hard to imagine the Wolverines falling back much at all up front. Nebraska boasts good depth at the defensive end spot and could see a big year from a guy like Cameron Meredith.

While there are some question marks around the league, including an unproven line at Iowa, teams like Northwestern and Minnesota should be improved up front.
Michael Buchanan knows the recent history on the Illinois defensive line.

Two years ago, tackle Corey Liuget had a breakthrough junior season and parlayed that into a first-round NFL draft status. Last season, Whitney Mercilus went from an unheralded player to a consensus All-American and the FBS sack leader, prompting him to leave early for the NFL.

Will the Illini have a defensive lineman blossom into a national force for a third straight year? Buchanan hopes so.

"I think we're starting to develop a tradition there," he said. "First it was Corey, then Whitney, and I feel like it's my time now. I'm putting a lot of pressure on myself to step up."

If 2012 is Buchanan's year, then he won't be coming out of nowhere.

While Mercilus got all the headlines for his 16 sacks, Buchanan had a standout season at the other defensive end spot. A second-year starter as a junior, he finished fourth in the league with 7.5 sacks and was ninth in tackles for loss at 13.5. His production helped keep offenses from double-teaming Mercilus all the time.

"I like to think I was a threat on the other side," he said.

Buchanan played the "bandit" spot -- a kind of linebacker/defensive end hybrid role -- in former defensive coordinator Vic Koenning's scheme. He said new defensive coordinator Tim Banks has the Illini doing similar things as last year so far in spring practice, though the players have had to learn all new terminology. Buchanan is hoping to line up as a traditional pass rusher a little more this season.

To do so, he's trying to bulk up. He's put on about 10 pounds this offseason to get up to 250, which is still lean on his 6-foot-6 frame. He'd like to get a little heavier before the fall.

"I'm a taller guy, so obviously I've been working on staying low," he said. "I'm learning about the game more, about how to read offensive tackles and what types of things they're going to do to me this year."

If Buchanan needed a lesson on how to develop into a superstar, all he had to do was look Mercilus' way last year.

"I learned how to play every play watching him," Buchanan said. "Whit had an unbelievable motor that lot of our guys need to mirror. He did a great job of playing every play even in practice. He was a leader on and off the field, and that's one of the things I'm trying to turn myself into."

Despite the loss of Mercilus and the departure of Koenning, Buchanan said he thinks the Illinois defense can maintain the high level of play it turned in all of last season. If he is not the breakout star along the line, perhaps it will be junior tackle Akeem Spence.

"I think he's going to have a great year," Buchanan said. "He's the strongest guy on our team, and he looks even faster and more explosive this spring. He's trying to learn the game more and step up and be a leader. His whole maturity level has changed, and his approach to the game so far has been great."

Both those guys were overshadowed by Mercilus last year. But using recent history as a guide, one of them has a chance to step into the spotlight in 2012.
The Big Ten had three head-coaching changes in recent weeks, and new leading men have stepped in at Ohio State, Illinois and Penn State. We will be sharing our thoughts on the three new coaching staffs as they become complete. First up is Illinois, as head coach Tim Beckman finalized his staff earlier this week with the hiring of Tim Banks as defensive coordinator.

Here's the new Illinois staff:

[+] EnlargeTim Beckman
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezNew Illinois coach Tim Beckman has high expectations for his team as it begins spring practices.
Tim Beckman -- head coach
Tim Banks -- defensive coordinator/safeties
Billy Gonzales -- co-offensive coordinator/receivers
Chris Beatty -- co-offensive coordinator/quarterbacks
Luke Butkus -- offensive line
Steve Clinkscale -- cornerbacks
Keith Gilmore -- defensive line
Alex Golesh -- tight ends/specialists/recruiting coordinator
Tim Salem -- running backs/special teams coordinator
Mike Ward -- linebackers

So Today's Take Two topic is: How did Beckman fare in putting together his staff at Illinois?

Take 1: Adam Rittenberg

There were a few bumps along the way, namely Jon Tenuta's hiring as defensive coordinator and subsequent change of heart, but Beckman eventually got his staff in place. The youth of the staff certainly stands out, as six of the nine assistants are 40 years old or younger. This certainly could help Illinois on the recruiting trail, and by all accounts Beckman has added some strong recruiters to the mix. He made a good move in retaining Gilmore, who helped defensive linemen Corey Liuget and Whitney Mercilus become stars the past two seasons. Banks also comes in with a strong background, especially after helping the Cincinnati defense lead the nation in tackles for loss and rank second in sacks during the 2011 season. Although Mercilus departs, Banks inherits talented defenders like linebacker Jonathan Brown who can pressure the quarterback. This isn't the most experienced offensive staff, and it will be interesting to see how Gonzales and Beatty fare as co-coordinators. Illinois' offense fell apart late in the 2011 season, and the coaches need to get quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and others back on track. Butkus is a former Illinois player with a famous name, but he'll be taking on a key position group by himself for the first time in his career. Salem is certainly the veteran on the offensive side, and he looks like a strong addition to help the running backs and also Illinois' special teams, which really struggled in 2011. I felt defensive coordinator would be Beckman's most important hire after Illinois lost Vic Koenning to North Carolina. Banks looks like be a strong addition. I'm really interested to see if the offensive staff can prove itself in Year 1.

Take 2: Brian Bennett

Youth is definitely the buzzword on this staff. Banks and Beatty are in their late 30s, Gonzales is 40, Butkus is 32 and Golesh graduated from Ohio State less than six years ago. They should be able to relate to the Illinois players and fare well on the recruiting trail. They should also bring a lot of energy, something that will be needed to keep up with the naturally caffeinated Beckman. While many of the assistants are young, they have some intriguing résumés. Gonzales worked for Urban Meyer at Florida and was part of two national title teams and nearly won another one this year at LSU. I know Beatty from my old beat on the Big East, and West Virginia people thought he was a promising up-and-coming young coach. Neither has called plays at the FBS level and will be asked to run Beckman's spread offense; even though Beckman has a defensive background, I'd expect him to be highly involved in the offense. Banks was a nice hire after turning around Cincinnati's defense in 2011. A lot of these assistants will have to prove themselves in some ways, whether it's in a new role or against tougher competition. Few seem to have strong connections or history in recruiting the state of Illinois, which will be a key for the program's long-term success. Beckman might not have brought in a lot of high-profile names, but a young, hungry staff might be just the thing to help him move the Illini forward.
Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino entered the season brimming with confidence, and for good reason.

His unit had set team records for scoring (423 points) and points per game (32.5) in 2010 and returned most of its key pieces, namely quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. Most of the questions about Illinois rested with a defense that had lost three players to the NFL draft, including first-round pick Corey Liuget.

[+] EnlargeNathan Scheelhaase
Jerry Lai/US PresswireQB Nathan Scheelhaase, 2, and the Illinois offense have struggled the past three games.
"We're always going to set our expectations high," Petrino told ESPN.com in August. "We set the school record last year, and we're going to break it this year."

Petrino looked prophetic through the first six games, as Illinois averaged 34.7 points and 447.7 yards. The Illini recorded 32 plays of 20 yards or longer. Scheelhaase and wide receiver A.J. Jenkins formed the Big Ten's most dangerous passing connection, as Jenkins soared to the top of the national receiving chart with 815 yards and seven touchdowns.

A surprisingly effective defense complemented the offense, and Illinois swept its first six games to get off to its best start since 1951.

But the Illini since have backslid, dropping three straight games. While the defense continues to perform well, the offense has disappeared.

Illinois has scored only 28 points during the losing streak, including none in the first half and only seven before the fourth quarter. Amazingly, the Illini had more yards and more first downs than any of its past three opponents -- Ohio State, Purdue and Penn State -- and dropped all three contests.

What's wrong with the Illini offense? It's not complicated, according to Petrino.

"Blocking, protecting, throwing and catching -- the basics," Petrino told ESPN.com. "You've got to block people. You've got to hit people when they're open. You've got to catch the ball. And then you've got to run through some tackles. Just the basic stuff we've got to do better. We've kind of hurt ourselves from that standpoint in the last three games.

"We've got to do it better."

They need to start Saturday against No. 24 Michigan at Memorial Stadium. Illinois' once-promising season could go down the drain if the offense doesn't resurface.

A potential turnaround for the Illini starts with the offensive line, considered one of the Big Ten's best before the season. Illinois boasts experience up front and continuity, as there has been only one change in the starting lineup all season.

But Illinois' front five has struggled against some of the Big Ten's best defensive linemen, allowing too many negative-yardage plays. Opposing teams have recorded 24 tackles for loss and eight sacks during Illinois' losing streak.

"A lot of times we've been getting beat up front," Petrino said. "That doesn't necessarily mean it's always the O-line. Sometimes it's the tight end or the back, [and the] quarterback a couple times needed to get the ball out of his hands quicker."

Petrino also is looking for more big plays. Jenkins and Scheelhaase provided a bunch of them early in the season, but defenses have done better at limiting Jenkins' effectiveness the past three games.

Illinois has recorded just three plays of 20 yards or longer in the past three games -- all passes from Scheelhaase to Jenkins.

"Some of the other guys have got to do it, too," Petrino said. "Darius Millines did it early in the year and he was hurt for a while, but I think he's getting back, being closer to being 100 percent, so that will help. Jon Davis, our freshman tight end, has made some plays for us. Ryan Lankford has got to start making some plays.

"And then in the running game, we've got to bust through the holes and get some long runs, also."

Senior running back Jason Ford has been a bright spot, recording 183 rush yards on 34 carries in the past two games. But Ford's longest run this season is just 18 yards.

"Bottom line, defenses are too good this day and age if you go three, four yards the whole time," Petrino said. "You've got to get some big plays."

Illinois also needs to start games better, especially against a Michigan team that has improved as games go along. The Illini averaged 17.5 points in the first half through the first six games, but they've since limped out of the gate.

"We haven't played worth a darn in the first quarter of the last three games," Petrino said. "It's something we take pride in. We script our opening plays and we work on them all week.

"So we've got to go out and play fast and definitely get going early."

Saturday would be a good time for a better start.
Last Sunday, Illinois defensive coordinator Vic Koenning and his staff brainstormed a unique game plan for a dangerous opponent.

They mixed up fronts, disguised blitzes, constantly moved players around and let creativity trump conservatism in mapping out ways to pressure Arizona State quarterback Brock Osweiler. With the blueprint finalized, the coaches prepared to head home.

"We kind of looked at each other and said, 'This is crazy,'" Koenning said.

The plan placed a burden on Illinois' defensive front seven, a group many outsiders questioned heading into the season, and for good reason.

Illinois had to replace three players selected in April's NFL draft: defensive tackle Corey Liuget, a first-round pick; linebacker Martez Wilson, a third-round pick; and linebacker Nate Bussey, a seventh-round pick. Both Liuget and Wilson opted to forgo their final year of eligibility, seemingly leaving the Illini in a bit of a pinch.

[+] EnlargeJonathan Brown
Damen Jackson/Icon SMIJonathan Brown's performance against Arizona State earned him player of the week honors.
But what the Illini defense lost in star power, it gained in a group with greater knowledge of the system. And, in the process, new stars are being born.

"They were great players, they brought a lot to the team," senior linebacker Ian Thomas said of Liuget, Wilson and Bussey, "but this year, we feel like we're a little more comfortable with the defense. We've got the defense down a little more, so it makes up for those guys that we lost."

The Illini made Koenning's crazy plan look genius Saturday night in a 17-14 win against Arizona State, which came to Champaign averaging 42.5 points and 504.5 offensive yards.

Illinois recorded six sacks, all by the front seven, and 12 tackles for loss.

Sophomore linebacker Jonathan Brown had a breakout performance with an interception, 3.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks, earning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors. Others stood out like end Whitney Mercilus (5 tackles, 2 sacks, forced fumble), bandit Michael Buchanan (1.5 sacks) and tackle Glenn Foster (interception, 1 tackle for loss).

Although Illinois starts only two seniors in the front seven -- Thomas and Trulon Henry, who moved from safety to linebacker to address depth there -- the group is displaying greater maturity in Year 2 under Koenning.

"We're a lot further along than we were last year," defensive line coach Keith Gilmore said, "just knowing the little nuances of the defense. Heck, I was still learning as well. I think I'm a better coach and a better teacher at this point in knowing the scheme, and know the kids are better players because of it."

Gilmore admits the coaches were "a little uptight" when first implementing the Arizona State game plan. But by the middle of the practice week, it began to click with the players.

Could Illinois have executed the same type of plan last year?

"We were still learning a lot of the base stuff," Gilmore said. "We came up with some different plans as well last year, but being a year into it, it's easier to make sideline adjustments and game adjustments as you go along because the kids have a better feel for the defense."

Brown was all over the field Saturday night, factoring into two of Illinois' three takeaways. He hit Osweiler on a blitz, forcing a throw that caromed off of an Arizona State lineman to Foster for an interception.

In the third quarter, he recorded a pick of his own following a deflected pass.

"We showed what we've been thinking all summer," Brown said, "that we can play with anybody in the country, and that we have the best defense in the country. Coming into the season, they had us ranked dead last as a linebacker corps. One of our goals was to go out and prove people wrong."

Although Illinois lost two linebackers to the NFL, its biggest concern was replacing Liuget, the Big Ten's most dominant interior lineman in 2011. The defensive line's performance against Arizona State bodes well for Big Ten play.

"We talk about 'next man in' all the time, whether it be to an injury or graduation or an NFL departure," Gilmore said. "They all have talent. It's a matter of who gets an opportunity to showcase that talent."

Thomas, the graybeard of the defense, is seeing his teammates grasp the opportunities presented to them.

"I'm real confident in those guys," he said. "I know I can depend on them to be where they need to be."

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 1

September, 1, 2011
9/01/11
10:15
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The 2011 Big Ten football season kicks off Thursday night in Madison, and all 12 teams will be in action during the weekend.

Here are 10 items to track as you watch the games.

1. Coaching debuts: After three years of relative stability in the Big Ten coaching ranks, four leading men will debut with new teams Saturday, while Nebraska's Bo Pelini coaches his first game as a member of the conference. Luke Fickell's every move will be closely monitored at Ohio State, while Brady Hoke begins a new chapter at Michigan. Kevin Wilson's Indiana debut takes place at the site of the inaugural Big Ten championship game (Indianapolis' Lucas Oil Stadium), while Minnesota's Jerry Kill draws the toughest first assignment as the Gophers visit No. 25 USC.

Russell Wilson
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesRussell Wilson gives the Badgers an added dimension from the quarterback position.
2. Wisconsin's missing piece: That's what Badgers fans hope Russell Wilson will be this season. The NC State transfer quarterback starts his first game in a Wisconsin uniform Thursday night against UNLV. Wilson looked terrific during preseason practice and transitioned well to his new team. He has a chance to display his skills on national television against the underdog Rebels and build some confidence for the grind ahead. It's also vital Wilson stays healthy as Wisconsin has significant depth problems at quarterback.

3. Penn State's QB audition: Spring practice and fall camp evidently weren't enough time for Penn State to settle on a starting quarterback. Rob Bolden and Matthew McGloin both are expected to play in Saturday's opener against Indiana State. Joe Paterno, who may coach from the press box, didn't seem too concerned about the lack of a starter or the prolonged quarterback competition, but it will be interesting to see how the snaps break down. Bolden likely will get the first opportunity, and Penn State probably wants to settle on its offensive leader before a Week 2 showdown with No. 2 Alabama.

4. Flipping quarters in Columbus: Penn State isn't the only team planning to use multiple quarterbacks in its opener. Ohio State likely will start senior Joe Bauserman on Saturday against Akron, although true freshman Braxton Miller also will see the field. Bauserman boasts more experience and could be the safer choice, although few doubt that Miller is the team's future under center. Akron ranked 99th nationally in total defense last season, so both men should have opportunities to make plays. It presents an interesting situation for a coaching staff that needs to win this season to remain with the Buckeyes.

5. Nebraska's new offense: The Huskers boast what they believe to be a championship-caliber defense, so their season could hinge on the effectiveness of a new offensive scheme. Coordinator Tim Beck wants to give his players more freedom in the system while maintaining plenty of explosiveness. Pelini has stressed the need for efficiency after the Huskers struggled with ball security and penalties last season. Saturday's tune-up against Chattanooga provides the chance for quarterback Taylor Martinez and others to build their confidence in a game before the competition gets tougher.

6. Dan Persa's status: Northwestern has one of the league's tougher season-opening draws at Boston College, and the Wildcats still don't know whether they'll have Persa on the field. The senior is still working his way back from Achilles' tendon surgery and won't be nearly as dangerous on his feet as he was in 2010. The good news is Persa can still attack defenses with his arm, and backup Kain Colter has made strides as a passer during the preseason. Colter will be part of the game plan Saturday, but how much Persa plays, if at all, remains to be seen.

7. Gray driving Gophers' offense: Ever since highly-touted recruit MarQueis Gray committed to Minnesota, Gophers fans have been waiting for this moment. It has taken some time and a detour to the wide receiver position in 2010, but Gray finally will make his first start at quarterback Saturday against USC. He has bulked up to 245 pounds and should be a load for a Trojans defense that has struggled with dual-threat quarterbacks in the past. Gray will run a new offense and needs young players around him to step up, but it will be interesting to see how he fares in a tough environment.

8. TerBush's time: Quarterback Caleb TerBush likely would have been a big factor for Purdue last season had he been academically eligible. The Boilers once again are calling on TerBush, and this time, he's ready to help. TerBush will make his first career start against a tough Middle Tennessee team. Purdue needs a boost after losing its leader Rob Henry to a torn ACL, and TerBush will try to provide one as he plays his first game since 2009.

9. Hawkeyes, Illini fill gaps on defense: The NFL draft took its toll on Iowa's and Illinois' defensive units. The Hawkeyes lost three linemen to the draft -- Adrian Clayborn, Christian Ballard and Karl Klug -- along with standout safety Tyler Sash. Illinois lost dominant tackle Corey Liuget as well as linebackers Martez Wilson and Nate Bussey. Iowa will feature a larger rotation up front this season, while Illinois is looking to younger players like Akeem Spence and Jonathan Brown to step up.

10. Emotional opener for Dantonio: It has been a tough week for Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, whose father, Justin, died Sunday at the age of 86. Dantonio is at home in Zanesville, Ohio, for his father's funeral Thursday but will be back for Michigan State's season opener Friday against Youngstown State. It should be an emotional night for Dantonio, and expect Michigan State's players to rally around their coach, much like they did last year when he went through some health issues.
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.

NON-SENIORS TO WATCH

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.

IMPACT FRESHMEN

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.
It's time to take a closer look at the Big Ten's top defensive linemen. We'll start off with the tackles before examining the ends.

[+] EnlargeJared Crick
Brett Davis/US PresswireNebraska's Jared Crick is the best of a strong group of defensive tackles in the Big Ten.
Defensive tackle is arguably the Big Ten's strongest position, along with center and possibly wide receiver. Three teams boast potential first-round draft picks at tackles, and there's no shortage of space eaters throughout the league.

Note: Some players see time at both line spots, but they'll be ranked at the position where I think they'll play more this fall (i.e. Ohio State's John Simon at end).

Here are the top top entering 2011:

1. Jared Crick, Nebraska, senior: The Huskers got a big boost when Crick decided to return for his senior season. He put up monster numbers for a defensive tackle in 2010, leading the team in both sacks (9.5) and tackles for loss (17) and finishing with 70 total tackles. A unanimous first-team All-Big 12 selection, Crick earned second-team All-America honors and is one of the leading candidates for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.

2. Mike Martin, Michigan, senior: Like Crick, Martin enters his senior season on the NFL radar and could be one of the league's most disruptive defenders. He lacks the stats of some other players on this list, but he creates just as many problems, if not more, for opposing teams. One of the strongest players in the Big Ten, Martin has started the past two seasons at nose tackle and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors in 2010.

3. Jerel Worthy, Michigan State, junior: The hype machine has cranked up for Worthy, as colleagues Todd McShay and Mel Kiper project the Michigan State junior as a top 10 pick in the 2012 draft. Worthy led Michigan State defensive linemen with 40 tackles, eight tackles for loss and four sacks in 2010. He boasts both size and tremendous explosiveness inside.

4. Kawann Short, Purdue, junior: Overshadowed by line mate Ryan Kerrigan in 2010, Short should dominate the spotlight this fall after a terrific sophomore season. He led Big Ten defensive tackles in both sacks (6) and tackles for loss (12.5), finishing fourth in the league in both categories. Short dropped some weight during the offseason to improve his stamina. He should be in the mix for All-Big Ten honors.

5. Mike Daniels, Iowa, senior: Like Short, Daniels will take on a more featured role this season following some key personnel losses. He turned in a solid junior season, recording 11 tackles for loss and four sacks en route to earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors. Daniels fits the mold of previous Iowa standout tackles -- a bit undersized but strong and disruptive -- and the Hawkeyes need a big season from him.

6. Devon Still, Penn State, senior: Don't be surprised to see Still climb up this list, especially if he picks up where he left off in the Outback Bowl. Still recorded 3.5 tackles for loss against Florida and led Penn State in both sacks (4) and tackles for loss (10). His injury troubles are in the past and he's ready to lead a line that needs to regain its edge this fall.

7. Baker Steinkuhler, Nebraska, junior: Expect big things from Steinkuhler in his second season as a starter. He earned honorable mention All-Big 12 honors from the coaches in 2010 after recording 46 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 4 tackles for loss and 4 quarterback hurries. Steinkuhler should benefit from playing alongside Crick, who will command double teams.

8. Akeem Spence, Illinois, sophomore: Illinois hopes Spence can play a big role in replacing first-round draft pick Corey Liuget. A talented young player with tremendous strength, Spence started all 13 games alongside Liuget in 2010 and recorded 45 tackles, a sack, two quarterback hurries and a fumble recovery. He made multiple freshman All-America squads for his efforts.

9. Johnathan Hankins, Ohio State, sophomore: This is a projection pick, but Hankins is a name to know entering the 2011 season. He looked very impressive at times this spring and has the size and strength to dominate inside for Ohio State. With John Simon likely spending more time at defensive end, the Buckeyes will lean on Hankins to shore up the interior. Hankins had 16 tackles and a sack as a reserve in 2010.

10. Patrick Butrym, Wisconsin, senior: Butrym already is taking on a greater leadership role after the departure of All-American J.J. Watt, and his on-field production should increase this fall. He tied for second on the team in quarterback hurries (3), and finished third in sacks (2.5) and tied for fourth in tackles for loss (3) last season.

Just missed the cut: Northwestern's Jack DiNardo, Indiana's Adam Replogle, Purdue's Bruce Gaston Jr., Michigan State's Anthony Rashad White.
The position rankings move from offense to defense. We'll start with the group that has produced more Big Ten stars than any other position group in recent years.

The Big Ten had five defensive linemen, all from different teams, selected in the first round of April's NFL draft: Wisconsin's J.J. Watt, Illinois' Corey Liuget, Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan, Iowa's Adrian Clayborn and Ohio State's Cameron Heyward. Iowa lost three starting D-linemen to the draft, and almost every Big Ten squad has to replace major contributors.

The personnel losses make the preseason D-line rankings both tricky and fun. The first three groups look very good, while there's not much difference in the middle of the league.

Let's take a look:

[+] EnlargeJared Crick
Brett Davis/US PresswireJared Crick and Nebraska join the Big Ten as the league's top defensive line.
1. Nebraska: The Big Ten's newest member should fit in well with its strong play up front. Star defensive tackle Jared Crick stiff-armed the NFL draft and returned for his final season, giving Nebraska a terrific centerpiece up front. He'll be complemented by veterans Baker Steinkuhler and the mustachioed Cameron Meredith. If converted linebacker Eric Martin builds off of a strong spring, Nebraska should be fine at the end spot.

2. Ohio State: Heyward's leadership and versatility will be missed, but Ohio State always finds ways to fill the gaps up front. Junior John Simon should be primed for a breakout season. Like Heyward, Simon can play both line spots but might see more time on the edge this fall. Nathan Williams adds experience at end, and promising sophomore Johnathan Hankins could wreak havoc on the interior this fall.

3. Michigan State: Like several Big Ten teams, the Spartans build their line around a potential superstar tackle in Jerel Worthy. The junior already is projected as a potential first-round pick in the 2012 draft after recording four sacks last fall. Anthony Rashad White emerged this spring as a nice complement to Worthy. Michigan State needs a better pass rush from the end spots, and hopes are high for William Gholston and Tyler Hoover.

4. Wisconsin: Watt is a huge loss because he contributed in so many ways, but Wisconsin could account for his production with greater depth. Ends Louis Nzegwu and David Gilbert both have played a lot of football, and junior Brendan Kelly came on strong toward the end of spring practice. Senior tackle Patrick Butrym has emerged as one of the leaders on defense. Wisconsin needs young tackles like Jordan Kohout and Beau Allen to help Butrym.

5. Michigan: This is a projection pick, but I think Michigan's defensive front takes a significant step forward this season. Senior tackle Mike Martin is a bona fide NFL prospect and will lead the way, and players like Ryan Van Bergen and Craig Roh should be among the primary beneficiaries of the new defense under coordinator Greg Mattison. Michigan needs to build depth with Jibreel Black, Will Campbell and others, but there's great potential here.

6. Iowa: The Hawkeyes face a tough task in replacing multiyear starters in Clayborn, Christian Ballard and Karl Klug. Senior tackle Mike Daniels is ready to lead the group after recording 11 tackles for loss and four sacks in 2010. The biggest key is getting Broderick Binns back to his 2009 form. Iowa also needs to build depth with Lebron Daniel and others, and avoid major injuries.

7. Purdue: Defensive tackle is a major strength for Purdue as Kawann Short and Bruce Gaston Jr. form one of the league's top tandems. Short quietly turned in an extremely productive season last fall (12.5 TFLs, 6 sacks). The big unknown is how Purdue replaces Kerrigan. The Boilers need veteran Gerald Gooden to stay healthy and others to emerge alongside him.

8. Penn State: Much like Purdue, Penn State looks strong at tackle and has question marks at end. Devon Still could contend for All-Big Ten honors after a terrific performance in the Outback Bowl against Florida. Still and Jordan Hill should lock up the middle, but Penn State needs Jack Crawford and Eric Latimore to get healthy at the end spots. If not, the Lions will turn to unproven players to spark their pass rush.

9. Illinois: Liuget is a significant loss in the middle and Illinois also must replace veteran end Clay Nurse. The Illini will rely on Akeem Spence to step in for Liuget, and Spence showed some good things this spring. There's talent on the edges with Michael Buchanan, Whitney Mercilus and others, but Illinois needs more consistent production.

10. Northwestern: This group took a step back last fall and got manhandled down the stretch as Northwestern hemorrhaged yards and points. Senior end Vince Browne is a playmaker who put up impressive numbers (15.5 TFLs, 7 sacks) in 2010. He'll need help from tackles Jack DiNardo and Niko Mafuli, and Tyler Scott could provide a lift at the other end spot. The Wildcats need their line to regain the edge it displayed in 2008.

11. Indiana: It wouldn't surprise me to see Indiana's front four rise up these rankings during the season. There are some nice pieces back, namely senior end Darius Johnson, who can be a force when healthy. Junior Adam Replogle has been productive at defensive tackle. There's plenty of competition at the other two spots as Indiana tries to turn a page on defense.

12. Minnesota: The Gophers' pass rush was practically invisible in 2010, as they finished last nationally in sacks (9). The good news is new defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys will turn his linemen loose more often, giving players like Brandon Kirksey chances to make plays. We've heard a lot about Minnesota's talent up front but haven't seen nearly enough production on Saturdays.
I hope you enjoyed all the polls on Thursday and Friday. They're an exciting new feature on the blog and will appear more in the future. It's a great way to gauge how Big Ten fans are thinking.

Although I'm limited to five options -- and many of you were ticked at the ones I chose -- I'll keep trying to give the best sampling for each given topic.

There were some interesting things that stood out about both days of polling. Let’s start with the Thursday polls, which were …
The "Most Improved" vote was interesting. Clearly, Nebraska fans are reading the blog as quarterback Taylor Martinez received the most votes, ahead of Penn State running back Silas Redd and Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. While Martinez could be dangerous if he stays healthy, my pick is Scheelhaase, who should build off of a solid freshman season and become more of a complete quarterback.

The Big Ten had six players selected in the first round of the NFL draft, but you went with Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor as the toughest player to replace. It can be attributed in part to the lack of proven depth behind Pryor. I'm a little surprised Illinois' Corey Liuget didn't get more votes. The Illini will really miss Liuget on the interior. I took some heat for including Wisconsin quarterback Scott Tolzien among the choices, but his value to last year's team cannot be overstated. He was the difference between an 8- or 9-win team and a Rose Bowl participant.

Although Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson is adjusting to a new offensive system, most of you think he'll repeat as Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa finished a distant second, followed by Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins. Robinson certainly has the ability and the name recognition to win the award again, although no Big Ten offensive player has done so since Indiana running back Anthony Thompson (1988-89).

You affirmed your belief in Robinson by selecting him as the Big Ten's top impact performer, ahead of Nebraska defensive tackle Jared Crick, Iowa cornerback Micah Hyde and Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa. Hyde certainly made an impact when he was on the field last fall. Persa is another guy who really shapes games.

Nebraska hasn't played a game as a member of the Big Ten, but I wouldn't be surprised if a Huskers player is named preseason Defensive Player of the Year. Not only does the Big Ten lose a bunch of decorated defenders to the NFL, but the Blackshirts also return several established stars. You seem to agree as Nebraska linebacker Lavonte David and Crick received the most votes, followed by Michigan State defensive tackle Jerel Worthy.

I'll have reaction on Friday's poll posts a little later today, so stay tuned.
The sleeper team. If it's not your favorite offseason topic, it's pretty high on the list. I can't keep track of how often I get asked to name the Big Ten surprise team or sleeper team for the coming season. Now I'm putting the question to you.

Although few folks projected Michigan State to win 11 games in 2010, the Spartans probably weren't the league’s biggest surprise last season. Illinois entered the fall with a coach on the hot seat (Ron Zook), a freshman quarterback (Nathan Scheelhaase), two new coordinators (Paul Petrino and Vic Koenning) and countless questions. The Illini ended up winning their first bowl game since 1999.

While Illinois might not be as big of a surprise team this year, it is certainly in the mix after losing standout players like defensive tackle Corey Liuget, linebacker Martez Wilson and running back Mikel Leshoure. Northwestern has made three consecutive bowl games for the first time in team history, but the Wildcats could qualify as a surprise if they were to, say, win the Legends division.

Minnesota, Indiana and Purdue were the only Big Ten teams not to qualify for bowls in 2010. The Gophers and Hoosiers have new coaches, while Purdue hopes to end a three-year bowl drought. All three teams have a chance to surprise some folks in 2010.

It's your turn to weigh in on the Big Ten's surprise team in 2011.
Now we get to the good stuff: Player of the Year polls. In mid-May. Gotta love it.

The race for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year isn't easy to forecast. The league loses most of its elite defenders, including five linemen selected in the first round of last month's NFL draft. A former Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year -- Michigan State linebacker Greg Jones -- also departs along and four underclassmen who would factor into this year's race -- Wisconsin DE J.J. Watt, Illinois DT Corey Liuget, Illinois LB Martez Wilson and Iowa S Tyler Sash -- also are NFL bound. Eight Big Ten squads lose their leading tacklers from 2010.

So who's left? Nebraska hasn't played a game as a Big Ten member, but the Huskers might have the top two choices for Defensive Player of the Year. Defensive tackle Jared Crick and linebacker Lavonte David both earned second-team All-America honors in 2010 and are poised for big senior seasons. Michigan State defensive tackle Jerel Worthy also is very much on the NFL draft radar for 2012, and several Big Ten defensive backs could contend for the award, including dynamic Purdue sophomore cornerback Ricardo Allen. The Big Ten hasn't had a defensive back win the award since Ohio State safety Mike Doss in 2002, but that could change this fall.

It's your turn to weigh in on the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year field.

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