NCF Nation: David Arnold
There's a lot to like about the Big Ten cornerbacks as nearly every team boasts experience and/or exciting young players. The Big Ten loses All-Conference safeties Tyler Sash and Jermale Hines but brings back quite a few solid contributors.
There's definite separation after the top four groups, while Nos. 6-9 are extremely close.
Here's the rundown (coming soon: cornerbacks and safeties rankings) ...
2. Ohio State: This is a group the Buckeyes rarely have to worry about, even after losing three starters. The good news is several key players return from injuries, including safeties Tyler Moeller, C.J. Barnett and Christian Bryant. Moeller should provide a major boost at the "star" position. The cornerback spots should be fun to watch as Travis Howard and Dominic Clarke fend off some challengers for the starting jobs.
3. Nebraska: Like Ohio State, Nebraska can rely on having an elite pass defense under the Pelini brothers, even after losing several standout players. All-American corner Prince Amukamara will be missed, but Alfonzo Dennard is ready for a starring role. Nebraska needs Ciante Evans to follow what Dennard did in 2010. The Huskers likely will use more linebackers this season, but they'll need to fill holes at safety as Austin Cassidy, Courtney Osborne and others are in the mix.
4. Wisconsin: The Badgers' secondary took a major step forward in Chris Ash's first season on the staff. The key is continued progress, continued playmaking and becoming a truly elite group like Ohio State and Nebraska. Wisconsin seems to have the pieces in place with veteran Aaron Henry at safety, as well as All-Big Ten selection Antonio Fenelus and Devin Smith at cornerback. The Badgers must fill the other safety spot, and speedster Shelton Johnson could fill in there.
5. Michigan State: The secondary triggered Michigan State's 2010 turnaround, improving from 112th nationally in pass defense in 2009 to 60th last season. After recording 17 interceptions last season, the Spartans must stick to their MAP motto -- Make A Play -- as they aim for a repeat championship this fall. Safety Trenton Robinson is among the league's most experienced defensive backs, and hopes are high for cornerback Johnny Adams, who had an excellent spring. The unit could hinge on young players like Darqueze Dennard, Isaiah Lewis and Tony Lippett.
6. Iowa: The bad news is Iowa loses veteran safeties Sash and Brett Greenwood from a defense that slipped to 84th nationally against the pass in 2010. The good news is All-Big Ten cornerback Shaun Prater returns along with playmaking junior Micah Hyde. Prater could be a shutdown corner this fall, and Hyde, whose pick-six won the Insight Bowl, could play either corner or safety. Iowa must build depth around them with Jordan Bernstine, Greg Castillo, Tanner Miller and others.
7. Purdue: One of the Boilers' big question marks entering 2010 turned out to be a pleasant surprise, and the secondary could be a big strength this fall. Here's a group that could make a move up these rankings by November. Cornerback Ricardo Allen is a budding superstar who recorded two pick-sixes last season. Safety Logan Link is always around the football, and Josh Johnson could take a significant step as he complements Allen.
8. Illinois: I'm tempted to rank Illinois a few notches higher, and if the Illini address several questions in the secondary, I'll gladly do so after the season. If safety Supo Sanni returns to form and both he and cornerback Terry Hawthorne stay healthy, this could be an excellent group. Tavon Wilson returns to his preferred position of cornerback and could have a big season, while Trulon Henry brings experience to the safety spot.
9. Northwestern: Given the question marks in the front seven, Northwestern needs its veteran secondary to step up. Players like cornerback Jordan Mabin and safety Brian Peters should answer the bell this fall. Both multiyear starters can make plays on the football and change games. There's good competition between David Arnold and Ibraheim Campbell at the other safety spot, while Jeravin Matthews emerged this spring to win the starting corner job opposite Mabin.
10. Michigan: I'll probably take some heat from Wolverines fans, who will point to the return of cornerbacks Troy Woolfolk and J.T. Floyd, the emergence of young players like Carvin Johnson and a defensive makeover under Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison. All of that could lead to better results, but Michigan still has fewer certainties in the secondary than do most teams on this list. This unit has been a disaster the past few years, and it'll take a lot of things to go right to get things back on track.
11. Minnesota: Linebacker looks like a strength for the Gophers' defense, but there are questions both up front and in the secondary. The secondary will need more help from a line that generated no pass rush in 2010, but the defensive backs must help themselves, too. Cornerback Troy Stoudermire had a good spring and adds a big hitter to the group. Minnesota really needs big things from safety Kim Royston, who wants to lead the way after receiving a sixth year of eligibility. Building depth around Stoudermire and Royston will be vital in preseason camp.
12. Indiana: Fixing this group is arguably the biggest challenge for new coach Kevin Wilson and co-defensive coordinators Mike Ekeler and Doug Mallory. Indiana simply hasn't had enough Big Ten-caliber defensive backs in recent years, and the results have been ugly. The Hoosiers surrendered a league-worst 27 touchdown passes in 2010 and finished 114th nationally in pass defense efficiency. Sophomore safety Greg Heban is a nice piece, but Indiana will need a boost from Lawrence Barnett, Lenyatta Kiles and others.
Here are some notes and observations:
- The defense definitely carried the day, although to be fair, the unit faced only reserve quarterbacks as Dan Persa is still rehabbing his torn Achilles. Safety Brian Peters recorded two interceptions, linebacker Tim Riley and safety Ibraheim Campbell both broke up passes and the line did a nice job stopping the run.
- Rising sophomore Kain Colter, who provided a spark in the TicketCity Bowl, had the best day among the quarterbacks. He showed good accuracy on short passes but needs a bit more zip on his intermediate and deep throws. Colter's mobility fits in well with the offense, and if he can strengthen his passing game just a bit, he could win the backup job.
- Quarterback Evan Watkins had a rough day. The rising junior overthrew several receivers, was picked off by Riley and nearly threw an interception to sophomore defensive end Anthony Battle. Watkins has a strong arm, but in this offense, you need to have a lot more accuracy than he showed today.
- Jeravin Matthews has emerged as Northwestern's second starting cornerback opposite multiyear starter Jordan Mabin. Matthews, a strong special-teams player who has struggled to find a position, displays a lot of aggressiveness -- sometimes too much -- in coverage but boasts good speed and athleticism.
- David Arnold is working opposite Peters at safety. Although Fitzgerald told me he's pleased with the play of several safeties, including Campbell, I'd pencil in Arnold as a starter right now.
- Wide receiver is Northwestern's deepest position and it could be getting better for the 2011 season. Mike Jensen, a converted defensive back, looked impressive in practice and has caught Fitzgerald's eye along with Charles Brown, a senior who has battled through some injury issues.
- Offensive coordinator Mick McCall got after the unit after a bad sequence, at one point yelling, "Do stuff right!"
- Redshirt freshman quarterback Trevor Siemian moves well in the pocket and has some touch on his passes, although consistency remains an issue. Peters picked off one of his passes.
- Several key players were held out, including wide receiver Jeremy Ebert, who expects to return soon after tweaking his hamstring.
More to come from Evanston, so stay tuned.
Arguably no team in the country has been part of two more exciting bowl games the last two years than the Wildcats, who played overtime thrillers against both Missouri (2008 Alamo Bowl) and Auburn (2010 Outback Bowl). Both games put Northwestern on the national radar, particularly the Outback Bowl, which featured a truly wild ending and a once-in-a-generation stat line from Wildcats quarterback Mike Kafka.
The only problem: The Wildcats walked off the field as losers both times.
For decades, Northwestern was haunted by streaks of futility -- an NCAA record 34-game slide between 1979-82, a 47-year drought between bowl games -- only to overcome them, beginning with its breakthrough season in 1995. The Wildcats have reached seven bowl games in the last 15 years and established themselves in the middle of the Big Ten pack, but they're dogged by another losing streak: no postseason wins since the 1949 Rose Bowl.
"You look at the bowl appearances we've had in the last 15 years; it's an unprecedented time in our program's history," head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "There's been unfinished business in the bowl season. You look at the games, outside of a couple, they've been unbelievable.
"We just haven't gotten over the mountaintop. We'll worry about that down the road."
Fitzgerald has more immediate concerns in spring practice, like sparking the rushing attack, replacing three starters in the secondary and adjusting to a new starting quarterback in junior Dan Persa. And with only eight bowl games in team history, Northwestern knows better than to take postseason appearances for granted.
But after winning 17 games the last two seasons, the Wildcats expect to play past November. And they won't be satisfied with just another bowl invite.
"That's the only thing on my mind right now," senior defensive tackle Corbin Bryant said, "to continue to improve so we can get over the hump and win this bowl game. That's one thing I want to achieve before I leave here, and I'm sure it's something everybody, as a collective team, wants to achieve."
It's no accident that a sign displayed next to the stage in Northwestern's team meeting room ends with the words: "Consistently Prepare for Victory. Win a Bowl game." After the Outback Bowl loss, All-Big Ten cornerback Sherrick McManis, an outgoing senior, spoke to the team about what comes next.
"Sherrick said, 'It's one thing just to get there. Yeah, we went to the Outback Bowl and it's awesome, but we've got to get over that hump,'" sophomore running back Arby Fields recalled. "One of the cornerstones of our program is finishing, and we feel like we haven't finished. We get there, but we don't finish."
To get across that line, Northwestern must get more from a run game that ranked eighth in the Big Ten last fall. The Wildcats return all five starters on the offensive line as well as a running back group led by Fields, Scott Concannon and Jacob Schmidt.
Offensive coordinator Mick McCall wants to identify a clear No. 1 back, something the Wildcats failed to do last fall, but Fitzgerald is willing to let the competition play out.
"I'm pleased with the progress so far of our backs," Fitzgerald said. "I said to the team [Monday] that the one group that's embracing what we're working to accomplish is our running backs. Everybody writes negative stuff about them, so I guess they use that negative fuel to get things going in spring ball."
The defense loses McManis, All-Big Ten safety Brad Phillips and Brendan Smith, a multiyear starter at safety, as well as two starting defensive linemen. Brian Peters will step in at one safety spot, but the other position is up for grabs between converted linebacker David Arnold, sophomore Jared Carpenter and Hunter Bates and redshirt freshman Cooper Gerami.
Fitzgerald will lean on a linebacker group that he calls "as deep as we've had in a number of years." Senior outside linebacker Quentin Davie could contend for All-Big Ten honors this fall.
Northwestern showed last year that it could overcome key personnel losses and get back to a bowl game. The Wildcats face a similar challenge in 2010 as they aim for an unprecedented third consecutive postseason appearance.
"We make it to bowl games around here now," Davie said. "That's the standard that we've set already, so the only acceptable thing is to go to a bowl game and win one, too."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
It's time to recognize the best and the brightest from Week 5 in the Big Ten:
Wisconsin RB John Clay -- Stop the running back rotation. Clay proved against Minnesota why he should be Wisconsin's featured back. The sophomore had 32 carries for 184 yards and three touchdowns as Wisconsin overpowered the Gophers to retain Paul Bunyan's Axe.
Wisconsin DE O'Brien Schofield -- The senior co-captain has played at an All-Big Ten level throughout the season, and he turned in another huge performance against Minnesota. Schofield recorded 3.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and a forced fumble on Gophers quarterback Adam Weber that sealed the Badgers' 31-28 victory.
Penn State's offensive line -- It deserved the blame last week, and it deserves the credit this week. I could give stickers to quarterback Daryll Clark or running backs Stephfon Green and Evan Royster, but the line did the dirty work and Penn State racked up a whopping 338 rushing yards against Illinois. It seems like the new-look line is finally starting to jell.
Northwestern's special-teams units -- I've given this group a lot of heat over the years, but it really stepped up in the win at Purdue. Kicker Stefan Demos went 4-for-4 on field goal attempts, and safeties Brian Peters and David Arnold both forced fumbles on kickoff returns that led to Wildcats points.
Michigan State LBs Eric Gordon and Greg Jones -- The Spartans' front seven shut down the Big Ten's top scoring offense, and Gordon and Jones led the way. They combined for 16 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble and an interception. Michigan State held Michigan to only 28 rushing yards in its huge home victory.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
There are some positions on the depth chart that make Big Ten coaches cringe. There are other spots that make them smile and nod their heads.
Let's take a look at several fully loaded positions in the Big Ten.
Ohio State's defensive line: There is talk the Buckeyes' front four could be the best since the 2002 national championship squad. Ohio State is stacked at defensive end with All-Big Ten candidate Thaddeus Gibson, Cameron Heyward and Lawrence Wilson, who can be effective if healthy. Tackle Doug Worthington brings a ton of experience to the interior line, and Dexter Larimore and Todd Denlinger add depth there.
Iowa's offensive line: This group is well on its way to restoring the tradition established during the early part of coach Kirk Ferentz's tenure. Iowa boasts the league's top tackles tandem in Bryan Bulaga and Kyle Calloway, and there are a host of experienced interior linemen. Julian Vandervelde developed nicely in 2008, and Andy Kuempel, Rafael Eubanks and Dan Doering all are solid options at guard. The emergence of oft-injured Dace Richardson this spring adds another body to the mix. Aside from the center spot, Iowa looks extremely solid up front.
Michigan State's secondary: Despite losing All-Big Ten safety Otis Wiley, Michigan State should be even stronger in the back half. Three starters return in the secondary, including corners Chris L. Rucker and Ross Weaver. Michigan State boasts depth with corners Jeremy Ware and Johnny Adams and safeties Kendell Davis-Clark and Marcus Hyde. And the breakout performance of the spring came from another safety, Trenton Robinson, who certainly will see playing time this season.
Penn State's linebackers: Linebacker U. is back in 2009. Penn State boasts one of the nation's top linebacker tandems in Sean Lee and Navorro Bowman, both of whom will contend for All-America honors. And it doesn't stop there, as sophomore Michael Mauti is poised for a big year on the outside. Penn State also boasts veteran depth with Josh Hull, Chris Colasanti and Bani Gbadyu.
Illinois' wide receivers: Juice Williams will have no shortage of options in the passing game this fall. All-America candidate Arrelious Benn leads the Big Ten's deepest receiving corps, which features Jeff Cumberland, Chris Duvalt, A.J. Jenkins, Cordale Scott and Jack Ramsey. Florida transfer Jarred Fayson worked his way into a starting spot this spring and will draw opposing defenders away from Benn.
Michigan's running backs: Whoever wins the starting quarterback job in Ann Arbor will have plenty of help in the backfield. Hopes are extremely high for senior Brandon Minor, who finished strong last season despite battling several injuries, including one to his right (ball-carrying) wrist. Backing up Minor will be Carlos Brown and Michael Shaw, both of whom will be more accustomed to Rich Rodriguez's offense. Bite-size back Vincent Smith emerged this spring to provide another option with breakaway speed.
Northwestern's secondary: One of the league's weakest units a few years ago has transformed into a major strength for the Wildcats. All four starters return from 2008, and safety Brad Phillips and cornerback Sherrick McManis are strong candidates for All-Big Ten honors. Safety Brendan Smith and cornerback Jordan Mabin both are natural playmakers, and Northwestern boasts depth in players like Brian Peters, Justan Vaughn and David Arnold.
Wisconsin's H-backs/tight ends: Travis Beckum's star-crossed senior season opened opportunities for other players in 2008, and the result is a multitude of options at tight end for 2009. Mackey Award candidate Garrett Graham leads the way at the H-back spot, and senior Mickey Turner and junior Lance Kendricks provide reliable options in the passing game.