NCF Nation: Daniel Dufrene


Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


Arrelious Benn has a selfish reason for wanting Illinois to win another game at Ohio Stadium.

When the Illini shocked the top-ranked Buckeyes in 2007, draining the final 8:09 off the clock, Benn was on the sideline, concussed after absorbing a hit.

"Man, I couldn't tell you what was going on," the Illini star wide receiver recalled this week. "I had no clue. I was knocked out, I was a bit woozy. But I looked at old clips and saw Juice [Williams] told [Ron] Zook to go for it on fourth down."
 
 Mark Cowan/Icon SMI
 Juice Williams had arguably his finest performance at Ohio State during the 2007 season.


Williams' plea to Zook led to one of the greatest wins in team history, as the Illini beat Ohio State 28-21 and went on to the Rose Bowl. The Ohio State win was the pinnacle for both Williams, who threw four touchdown passes in the game, and Zook, who overcame struggles in his first two years at Illinois to lead the program back to a BCS bowl.

Those are nice memories, but they won't help Illinois when it returns to Ohio State on Saturday afternoon (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET).

"We all realize we can’t live off that past experience," Williams said. "It’s two different teams."

Ohio State hasn't forgotten what happened in 2007, and Buckeyes players watched tape of the game this week to get a sense how Illinois will approach Saturday's contest. Though Williams and Illinois have had mixed results since their triumph in Columbus, the Buckeyes defense doesn't take the Illini lightly.

"Juice is a dual threat," Ohio State linebacker Austin Spitler said, "which makes it that much more difficult on defense because you have to defend the quarterback zone and trap and run as well as his arm. He's the same guy, but he's obviously more polished. He's a better passer now and he understands the scheme a lot better, which makes him that much more of a threat."

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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Every Big Ten team circled and underlined a few questionable positions entering spring practice. Some of those concerns went away as young players blossomed and depth was built. Where did each Big Ten team get better this spring?

Here's a snapshot:

Illinois' running backs -- The development of sophomores Jason Ford and Mikel LeShoure this spring gives Illinois plenty of options at running back heading into 2009. Ford and LeShoure both improved physically and mentally and will compete with senior Daniel Dufrene to be the featured runner. Bottom line: Juice Williams' job should be easier.

Indiana's offensive line -- After being decimated by injuries last season, Indiana can feel a bit better about the front five. Tackle James Brewer might finally be reaching his potential, and center Will Matte impressed the coaches in the middle of the line.

Iowa's offensive line -- This group figured to be pretty solid no matter what, but Iowa got some help from a familiar name in the interior line. Dace Richardson might finally be healthy, and he worked with the first-team at left guard as Iowa tries to replace all-conference linemen Seth Olsen and Rob Bruggeman.

Michigan's offensive line -- Not a major surprise here, considering the Wolverines bring back all their starters from last season. But an extra year of experience plus several talented redshirt freshmen (Ricky Barnum, Patrick Omameh) joining the mix should pay off big time this fall.

Michigan State's quarterbacks -- The Spartans felt great about the progress of quarterbacks Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol, who both threw for 357 yards and four touchdowns in the spring game. Head coach Mark Dantonio is in no rush to name a starter, but unlike many men in his position, he really has two viable options here.

Minnesota's wide receivers -- With superstar Eric Decker playing baseball, Minnesota needed to identify other solid options at receiver. Return specialist Troy Stoudermire emerged as a big-play threat, and quarterback Adam Weber liked what he saw from Brandon Green and Da'Jon McKnight.

Northwestern's running backs -- Of the three offensive skill positions where Northwestern loses starters, running back appears to be the most stable. Sophomore Jeravin Matthews emerged this spring and will push Stephen Simmons for the starting job. Northwestern has several options in the backfield after losing four-year starter Tyrell Sutton.

Ohio State's linebackers -- You can't deny all the production Ohio State loses in its defensive midsection, but the spring revealed several solid players who can step in. Austin Spitler and Tyler Moeller have waited their turn for the spotlight, and Brian Rolle had an excellent spring. With returning starter Ross Homan back on the outside, the Buckeyes should once again be solid.

Penn State's defensive line -- Despite losing three defensive ends with starting experience, Penn State should once again boast one of the league's top pass rushes. Sophomore Jack Crawford looks like the Nittany Lions' next superstar pass rusher and should fill the void on the edge with Eric Latimore and Kevion Latham.

Purdue's running backs -- Even with Jaycen Taylor still rehabbing from a torn ACL, Purdue got a lot better at running back this spring. Ralph Bolden came out of nowhere to steal the show in spring scrimmages (420 rush yards, 4 touchdowns), and Dan Dierking also looked impressive. The Boilers will need a viable rushing attack this fall, and they can feel a lot better about this group.

Wisconsin's wide receivers -- Dropped passes dogged the receivers throughout 2008, but the group definitely got better this spring. Nick Toon emerged as a potential No. 1 target with an excellent performance in practice, and Isaac Anderson, Kyle Jefferson and David Gilreath all showed progress at times.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Jim Tressel has to be pleased with what he has seen, for the most part.

Most of Tressel's teams at Ohio State have been defined by rushing the football, limiting turnovers and winning the special-teams battle. Ohio State is succeeding in all three areas today.

Quarterback Terrelle Pryor and running back Chris "Beanie" Wells are consistently finding running room against an Illini defense that has leveled some nice hits today and performed decently under the circumstances. Pryor is scary good, folks, and he showed his scrambling ability (35-yard run) and passing touch (20-yard scoring strike to Dane Sanzenbacher) on a masterfully executed 76-yard touchdown drive.

Last year, Illinois' Juice Williams stole the show in Columbus, but the junior quarterback has committed two turnovers, both of which led to Ohio State touchdowns. The Buckeyes are blitzing a ton, and though Illinois is moving the ball well, Williams has been forced into some tough spots.

Special teams has been arguably the biggest factor so far. Malcolm Jenkins' punt block for a safety changed the game, and Illinois had a pooch kick and a poor free kick that gave Ohio State great field position. Aside from freshman kicker Matt Eller (two field goals), Illinois has been terrible on special teams.

If Tressel has a reason to be worried, its his defense.

Illinois' no-huddle has proved very effective, and the Illini racked up 292 yards in the first half. Williams, Daniel Dufrene and Jason Ford all have found room to run, and Illinois has experimented a bit, putting Eddie McGee at quarterback for a play before bringing back Williams. Wideout Jeff Cumberland, a Columbus native, has made several nice plays.

But moving the ball between the 20s and settling for field goals won't get it done against Ohio State. Illinois needs to start finishing drives.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- If Illinois could get the ball out of its own end, it might able to hang around in this game.

Two critical mistakes have led to both Ohio State scores, and Illinois' struggles on special teams have given the Buckeyes a chance to add on.

Ohio State cornerback Malcolm Jenkins continued his stellar season, blocking an Anthony Santella punt through the end zone for a safety. It marked Jenkins' second blocked punt of the season -- the other resulted in a Buckeyes touchdown against Purdue -- and changed the complexion of what had been a pretty even game.

Illinois has actually run the ball well against the Big Ten's No. 2 rush defense, racking up 97 yards in the first quarter. Freshman Jason Ford and junior Daniel Dufrene gashed Ohio State during an impressive 82-yard touchdown drive. But Juice Williams' fumble on Illinois' second possession set up an Ohio State touchdown, and the Buckeyes are driving again following a poor free kick by the Illini. Terrelle Pryor and Chris "Beanie" Wells will be able to run on this defense.

The Buckeyes are doing what they do best, converting opponents' mistakes into points. Illinois has come out energized, as it usually does against Ohio State, but it can't afford many more mistakes.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Both Penn State and Ohio State are off this week, but plenty of interesting subplots remain throughout the Big Ten. Here's your weekly checklist to follow as you watch the games on Saturday.

1. Illinois' response to head coach Ron Zook -- The Zooker wasn't pleased after last week's loss to Wisconsin and said personnel changes would be forthcoming against Iowa (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET). Illinois has been the league's least consistent team, and it needs to beat the Hawkeyes to boost its bowl hopes. Running back Daniel Dufrene might not be available, so quarterback Juice Williams and others need to step up. Zook is looking for his first win against Iowa.

2. Purdue's quarterback situation -- Head coach Joe Tiller said Curtis Painter will make the call on whether he can play against Michigan after sustaining a first-degree separation of his throwing shoulder last week. Painter has struggled this season but still seems like Purdue's best option. Backup Justin Siller has spent most of the season practicing at running back, and the Boilers are coming off their worst passing performance (109 yards) in Tiller's 12-year tenure.

3. Northwestern's new-look offense -- Running back Tyrell Sutton (wrist) will miss at least the rest of the regular season, and quarterback C.J. Bacher (hamstring) is questionable for Saturday's game at No. 17 Minnesota (ESPN2, noon ET). If Bacher can't go -- a strong likelihood given his limited participation in practice -- junior Mike Kafka would start for the first time in two years. Kafka gives Northwestern another rushing threat, but his inexperience could prove costly against an opportunistic Gophers defense.

4. Michigan bowl streak in jeopardy -- The nation's longest current streak of consecutive bowl appearances (33) could end Saturday at Purdue. A Michigan loss ends the run and ensures the team's first losing season since 1967. First-year coach Rich Rodriguez maintains that no one has quit, but Michigan's repeated struggles to put together a complete game have to be taking a toll on the players.

5. Shonn Greene vs. Brit Miller -- Arguably the Big Ten's top running back takes on one of the league's most productive defenders at Memorial Stadium in Champaign. Greene is slowly gaining national attention but needs another big performance against Illinois to fuel his Heisman campaign. The 235-pound Iowa junior has eclipsed 100 rushing yards in all eight games this season. Miller leads the Big Ten in tackles and ranks third in tackles for loss, but he'll need help from other defenders to slow down Greene.

6. Mystery man leads Indiana offense against Central Michigan -- Hoosiers head coach Bill Lynch has a tough decision to make at quarterback. Junior Kellen Lewis is expected back from a high ankle sprain that ended his streak of 27 consecutive starts. Sophomore Ben Chappell filled in nicely last week, leading Indiana to its first Big Ten win and committing no turnovers against Northwestern. Lewis has struggled this season, but if healthy, he remains the team's top offensive threat.

7. Michigan State's mood following the Michigan win -- The Spartans got over the hump against their archrival, but their emotional state always seems to be a hot topic, given late-season collapses in recent years. Michigan State is in position for a New Year's Day bowl but needs to continue its momentum against Wisconsin (ESPN, noon ET), which has won five of the last seven games in the series. Coach Mark Dantonio emphasizes mental toughness, and the Spartans should avoid a letdown against the Badgers.

8. Minnesota tries to continue nation's top turnaround -- Head coach Tim Brewster regularly recites Minnesota's history -- six national championships and 18 Big Ten titles -- even though the last four decades have produced few milestones for the program. But Minnesota has the chance to connect to its storied past on Saturday. A win against Northwestern makes the Gophers 8-1 for the first time since 1960, the year of their last national title and Brewster's birth. After going 1-11 last season, the Gophers can continue to march toward a New Year's Day bowl berth.

9. Wisconsin's running back rotation -- Redshirt freshman John Clay is listed as the top running back on this week's depth chart after making his first career start in last week's win against Illinois. But three-year starter P.J. Hill is getting healthier and could play a greater role against Michigan State. It will be interesting to see how head coach Bret Bielema divides the carries between Clay, considered the team's back of the future, and the more experienced Hill.

10. The Big Ten bowl picture shapes up -- Several teams can either take a step toward bowl eligibility or make things tougher for themselves down the stretch. Illinois needs two more wins to get bowl eligible and enters a closing stretch featuring four teams with winning records. Iowa has looked good as of late, but a loss to Illinois could make things tough with a home date against No. 3 Penn State up next. Wisconsin tries to get above .500 again, while Michigan State, Minnesota and Northwestern can move closer toward better bowls. Indiana can keep its slim postseason hopes alive by beating Central Michigan, while Michigan and Purdue likely are playing for pride.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

After exploring the Big Ten's crop of elite running backs early today, it seems appropriate to take a look back at the preseason running back rankings and how the league looks through the first nine games.

There are obviously some major differences between the lists, most notably the omission of one Shonn Greene in the preseason rundown. I obviously didn't think much of -- or know much about -- Greene and the other Iowa running backs, and ranked the Hawkeyes dead last in team rushing.

 
 AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
 Iowa junior Shonn Greene has rushed for at least 100 yards in every game this season.

Before getting to the current top 10, here's an attempt to curb the inevitable Buckeye backlash. These rankings are based on production this season. If I did rankings based on which back will have the best NFL career, Chris "Beanie" Wells would top the list.

OK, let's begin.

1. Shonn Greene, Iowa -- He has come out of nowhere to rank third nationally in rushing average (144.3 ypg) this season. Greene has eclipsed 100 rushing yards in all eight games and boasts the nation's second-highest yards-per-carry average (6.52) among backs with at least 150 carries. The 235-pound junior has great size and a bruising running style that makes Big Ten defenders hate to tackle him.

2. Javon Ringer, Michigan State -- College football's iron man has received 65 more carries than any FBS back and continues to produce at peak levels. Ringer tallied 816 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns in the month of September, putting him on the Heisman Trophy radar. The Spartans senior has eclipsed 100 rushing yards in six games and 190 rushing yards in four games. No Big Ten player is more valuable to his team than Ringer this season.

3. Evan Royster, Penn State -- Despite averaging only 15 carries per game, Royster ranks 19th nationally in rushing average (107.8 ypg) with a blistering 7.2 yards-per-carry average. He's not a power back but enjoys running between the tackles and can gash defenses with his speed. Royster has five 100-yard rushing performances despite sharing carries with Stephfon Green and quarterback Daryll Clark.

4. Chris "Beanie" Wells, Ohio State -- The preseason Heisman candidate was sidetracked by a right foot/toe injury in the season opener and missed three games. He averaged 7.6 yards per carry in his first two games back from injury and overpowered defenders in road wins against Wisconsin and Michigan State. But like Ohio State's other skill players, Wells has been hamstrung by an underachieving offensive line and struggled last Saturday against Penn State.

5. Kory Sheets, Purdue -- Being the best player on a bad team hasn't been easy for Sheets, who aired his frustrations two weeks ago before coach Joe Tiller silenced him. Sheets has done his part for Purdue, ranking 26th nationally in rushing (100.8 ypg) and 20th in all-purpose yards (155.5 ypg). Despite playing behind a banged-up offensive line, the versatile Sheets has accounted for 45 rushing or receiving first downs.

6. Tyrell Sutton, Northwestern -- Like Sheets, Sutton has used his versatility to produce at a high rate behind the Big Ten's youngest and least experienced offensive line. Sutton ranks fourth on the team in receptions (30) and has eclipsed 100 all-purpose yards in six of eight games this season. The senior likely will miss the rest of the regular season after sustaining a wrist injury last Saturday at Indiana.

7. P.J. Hill, Wisconsin -- The three-year starter got off to a hot start, exploding for 210 rushing yards in the opener against Akron and racking up 112 in a win at Fresno State. He has slowed down considerably since then and likely will platoon with redshirt freshman John Clay for most of the remaining games.

8. Marcus Thigpen, Indiana -- Quarterback Kellen Lewis remains the Hoosiers' top rushing threat (67.3 ypg), but Thigpen has been a solid contributor as a runner, a receiver and a return man. He averages 5.7 yards per carry, 22.8 yards per reception and 22.9 yards per kickoff return. The 193-pound senior ranks 14th nationally in all-purpose yards (1601.1 ypg).

9. Daniel Dufrene, Illinois -- The Illini are more pass oriented this season behind quarterback Juice Williams, but Dufrene has done a nice job following the departure of Rashard Mendenhall. The junior averages 5.6 yards a carry and ties for third on the team with 17 receptions. He has lost some carries to freshman Jason Ford, who can be more effective in the red zone.

10. DeLeon Eskridge, Minnesota -- Thrust into a starting role as a true freshman, Eskridge has stepped up nicely, averaging 65 rush yards per game and scoring seven touchdowns for the upstart Gophers. He needs three rushing touchdowns to tie Laurence Maroney's school record for a freshman.

Solid reserve running backs include Wisconsin's John Clay, Iowa's Jewel Hampton, Penn State's Stephfon Green, Illinois' Jason Ford and Michigan's Brandon Minor.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

 
 Mark Cunningham/Getty Images
 Javon Ringer has 16 touchdowns for Michigan State.

During Big Ten media days in July, the spotlight turned to the league's apparent culture change on offense.

From the arrival of spread-offense innovator Rich Rodriguez to the retirement of spread-offense pioneer Joe Tiller to the introduction of the spread at tradition-rich Penn State, the Big Ten appeared to have closed the book on its cloud-of-dust past and transitioned into the 21st century. Sissy ball, as Tiller often calls it, had swept through the league. Aside from Ohio State's Chris "Beanie" Wells, a Heisman Trophy contender, few running backs were discussed.

And yet nine weeks into the season, the Big Ten offensive landscape looks much like it did decades earlier, with dominant running backs carrying the flags for their teams.

The Big 12 has dominated the national spotlight with its collection of golden-armed quarterbacks, four of whom remain in the Heisman Trophy mix. The nation's best wide receivers also reside in the Big 12, while many of the nation's top defenders call the SEC or ACC home.

But when it comes to running backs, the Big Ten stands alone.

The league boasts two of the nation's top three runners -- Michigan State's Javon Ringer and Iowa's Shonn Greene -- and five players ranked in the top 35 for rushing average. Toss in Wells, who hasn't played in enough games to qualify for the national statistics, and the Big Ten would have three players in the top 15 for rushing average and four in the top 20.

"We're pretty much the best conference as far as running backs go," Greene said. "The Big Ten Conference is a big, hard-nosed football conference, pound-it-out football."

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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Mike Locksley is a major reason why Illinois can no longer be branded a basketball school, but the Illini offensive coordinator delves into his hoops glossary when coaching his gridiron skill players.

During film study, Locksley often uses the term "lay-up" to identify big-play opportunities for the offense to convert.

 
 AP Photo/Jeff Roberson
 Illinois quarterback Juice Williams stepped up his play on Saturday against Michigan.

"It's no different than a big-time basketball player who gets the ball in his hands for the game-winner," Locksley said. "He's going to have to take the shot and make a few of them. In football, it obviously takes more than one guy and everything has to work in sync.

"But when you have the opportunity to hit a big play, whether it's through a throw or a running back making the right read or a receiver reading the coverage correctly and running a correct route, we've got to be able to do it and take advantage of it."

Illinois is starting to capitalize in a big way. Last week the Illini had eight plays of 15 yards or longer and five plays of 37 yards or longer in a 45-20 rout of Michigan.

Running back Daniel Dufrene scored on a 57-yard screen pass and Juice Williams found big target Jeff Cumberland for a 77-yard touchdown. Williams also added a 50-yard run en route to a Michigan Stadium-record 431 yards of total offense. Reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year Arrelious "Rejus" Benn had receptions of 46 and 37 yards.

The Illini rank second in the Big Ten in yards per play (6.2) and 18th nationally in total offense (455.8 ypg). Four of Illinois' top six receivers average more than 14 yards per reception.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Three more Big Ten teams have quarterbacks as we wind toward the openers, which are only four days away. Here's what's happening around the league.

"Minnesota's freshman class had the lowest [entrance exam] scores among the eight Big Ten programs that complied with the request, and the scores were significantly lower than for the recruiting classes in the final years of Glen Mason, who coached the Gophers from 1997 to 2006."
 
 AP Photo/Jay LaPrete
 Running back Daniel Dufrene has big shoes to fill this season.

 Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

RANTOUL, Ill. -- There aren't many people Daniel Dufrene meets who don't bring up Rashard Mendenhall.

Dufrene hears it from reporters, from fans, from anyone who watched Mendenhall's record-setting 2007 season at Illinois. The difference now is when Mendenhall's name comes up, Dufrene can smile and laugh.

There was none of that going on this spring.

"The coaches, they don't want me to be Rashard, they want me to be myself," said Dufrene, projected to succeed Mendenhall at running back for Illinois. "During the spring, really, I didn't listen to them as much. I just felt the pressure of trying to fill his shoes. Now I'm just more relaxed, just coming out and being myself."

The approach is helping Dufrene in preseason camp, as he moves closer to locking down the starting job. Though redshirt freshman Troy Pollard and true freshmen Jason Ford and Mikel LeShoure also are in the mix for carries, Dufrene should get the first shot when Illinois opens the season Aug. 30 against Missouri.

The 5-foot-11, 201-pound junior averaged 6.3 yards a carry in limited work last season as Mendenhall's backup. But given a chance to lock down the top spot this spring, Dufrene struggled, and so did the other backs. Offensive coordinator Mike Locksley let them know about it, publicly expressing his disappointment in the group.

"He said we weren't running tough, running hard," Dufrene said. "I just took that as a challenge."

Locksley's message seems to have hit its mark.

"Awesome," he said of the backs' performance in camp. "That's been the biggest surprise group of training camp for us on offense. Coming into summer, we felt our receiving corps was probably the strength of our offense and that the backfield was a question mark, but Daniel has packed on a couple extra pounds. He looks really good. He's been pounding the ball up inside, he's got tremendous speed outside. I've been pleased with him."

Despite the subpar spring as a runner, Dufrene geared the offseason toward improving other areas, namely pass-blocking and catching passes out of the backfield. Mendenhall punished defenses as a ball-carrier, but he also finished second on the team in receptions with 34.

Illinois' offense requires its backs to do it all, and the adjustment took time for Dufrene, a junior-college transfer who started his college career at Vanderbilt. He was in a similar system at College of the Sequoias in California, but Illinois emphasizes the run more.

"If you look at junior-college guys, a lot of times it's their second year when they really perform the way you think that they can," head coach Ron Zook said. "I don't have any reason to think that Daniel's not going to be the type of back he was when we recruited him."

Dufrene's comfort level already has improved in the first week of camp. He had 10 carries for 60 yards and a touchdown in Monday's scrimmage. Perhaps more important, he set up the score with a 43-yard reception on a swing pass from quarterback Juice Williams.

Zook is keeping the competition open for the starting spot, but Dufrene, who has taken the majority of reps with the first-team offense, feels it's his job to lose.

"I've grasped what's going on," he said. "I've always felt confident in my running ability."

Big Ten power rankings

August, 5, 2008
8/05/08
7:54
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Big Ten Power Rankings
RankTeamAnalysis
1.Easily the Big Ten's most complete team, the Buckeyes have few position competitions and many more answers than questions in preseason practice. They must figure out how to use freshman quarterback Terrelle Pryor and identify a third starting linebacker [Ross Homan?] alongside standout tandem James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman.
2.The Badgers' hold on the No. 2 spot is a bit shaky. Lance Smith's dismissal provides one less option out of the backfield, though Wisconsin remains very strong in the run game. The key here is health, particularly along the defensive line and in the secondary. Can Allan Evridge finally separate himself in the quarterback competition? We'll find out soon enough.
3.Depth is a bit of a concern at defensive tackle after coach Joe Paterno dismissed Phil Taylor and Chris Baker, but junior Jared Odrick and sophomore Ollie Ogbu have ample experience there. Penn State has options at the offensive skill positions and, unlike some teams, could benefit from a two-quarterback system as Daryll Clark and Pat Devlin bring different strengths.
4.The defense could be one of the league's sleeper units, as ends Will Davis and Derek Walker fortify the front and NFL prospect Vontae Davis anchors the secondary. Running back remains the biggest question, though junior Daniel Dufrene will have every chance to win the job. A reliable running back and another strong receiver could move Illinois up the list.
5.The freshman offensive skill players impressed coach Rich Rodriguez on Monday and give Michigan more options. There will undoubtedly be growing pains at quarterback, but if the offensive line jells after getting into better shape this spring and summer, the offense could be serviceable by Aug. 30. If a few solid linebackers emerge during the coming weeks, Michigan's defense should be among the league's best.
6.Is this the year Michigan's "little brother" overtakes the Wolverines? Michigan State enters the fall oozing optimism after an encouraging 2007 season. If several receivers emerge and coach Mark Dantonio puts a greater imprint on the defense, Michigan State could back up the preseason hype and cause a stir throughout the Big Ten.
7.The Boilermakers could have a tough time holding their place, as the schedule doesn't do them many favors. Then again, having a senior quarterback with video-game statistics [Curtis Painter] always helps. Purdue needs its veteran offensive linemen healthy when camp opens Sunday and must find a third linebacker to complement Anthony Heygood and Jason Werner.
8.Stocked with offensive skill players, the Wildcats turn their focus to the line in camp. If several capable players emerge by Aug. 30, Northwestern should be potent in the no-huddle spread shaped by new coordinator Mick McCall. Linebacker is the area of concern on defense, though new coordinator Mike Hankwitz must find a way to get more out of a defensive line that has underachieved in recent years.
9.Quarterback Jake Christensen's job appears safe for now, but the spotlight will be on a group of running backs that welcomes back former Hawkeye Shonn Greene. If Greene regains his 2006 form and the offensive line jells, Iowa could easily move up the list. But there are far too many questions in the backfield and at cornerback after the losses of Charles Godfrey and Adam Shada.
10.Once again, here's a team that could move up, especially with quarterback Kellen Lewis back in the fold. The questions here are typical for a team coming off a breakthrough after a lengthy layoff. How will pass rusher Greg Middleton respond to increased attention? Can Ray Fisher and baseball standout Andrew Means fill the void left by James Hardy at wide receiver? Is Matt Mayberry the answer at linebacker? We'll find out soon.
11.New defensive coordinator Ted Roof says there are no quick fixes, but an influx of junior-college transfers gives the Gophers a chance to stop people, something they rarely did last season. Minnesota needs a reliable running back to complement talented quarterback Adam Weber, and a group of incumbents on defense should have added motivation to keep their jobs -- and move up the list.
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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