NCF Nation: David Gilbert

ACC helmet stickers: Week 13

November, 24, 2013
11/24/13
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On a week in which Florida State and North Carolina scored 80, Duke tied its all-time record with nine wins, and Pitt and the Tar Heels gave the conference 10 bowl-eligible teams, there's plenty of love to go around. Here are our helmet stickers for Week 13.

Duke QB Anthony Boone: After falling behind 14-0 to Wake Forest, the Blue Devils stormed back with Boone running the show. He completed 24-of-29 passes for 256 yards and three touchdowns with another seven carries for 57 yards on the ground. Two of Boone's TD passes landed in the hands of Jamison Crowder, who caught 10 passes for 121 yards in the game. It was win No. 9 for Duke, assuring the Blue Devils at least a share of the Coastal Division title. Another win next Saturday against UNC gives them a berth in the conference championship game.

North Carolina's offense: My how things have changed for the Tar Heels. Granted, Old Dominion didn't present much of an obstacle, but North Carolina sure looks to be clicking on all cylinders with its fifth straight win. Marquise Williams threw for 409 yards and five touchdowns and ran for another 60, continuing to shine following Bryn Renner's season-ending injury. T.J. Logan ran for 137 yards and three TDs, and Quinshad Davis and Ryan Switzer combined for 242 yards receiving and three touchdowns.

Boston College RB Andre Williams: Ho-hum, another 200-yard game for the nation's leading rusher. Williams' spot in the helmet stickers has become a weekly occurrence, and he was dominant once again in helping the Eagles to their seventh win. Williams rushed 32 times for 263 yards and two touchdowns, including a 72-yard scoring run in the fourth quarter that helped spark a late comeback. Williams also eclipsed 2,000 yards for the season -- the first FBS player to do so since UConn's Donald Brown in 2008.

Pitt DT Aaron Donald: A front-runner for the ACC's defensive player of the year award, Donald was the catalyst in getting Pitt bowl eligible with a 17-16 win over Syracuse. Donald had nine tackles -- eight solo -- including 3.5 for a loss. He had two quarterback hurries, and his blocked PAT proved the difference in the game. For the season, he has a national-best 26 tackles for loss.

Miami's defense: For the fourth straight game, the Hurricanes didn't look sharp offensively, but they managed a fairly easy win over Virginia thanks to a stellar defensive performance. Tracy Howard returned a pick for a score, David Gilbert rumbled 72 yards for a touchdown following a fumble recovery, and Miami's D finished with four takeaways in a 45-26 win.
Foot problems cost Wisconsin's David Gilbert most of the 2011 season.

The hope is Friday's surgery will prevent Gilbert from missing any meaningful time when the games begin this fall. Gilbert, who started at defensive end last season, but will play more outside linebacker in the team's new set, will undergo surgery to repair ligament damage in his right foot and miss the rest of spring practice.

The Wisconsin State Journal reports Gilbert has had the injury since the fourth game of last season. Although he appeared in all 14 contests (13 starts) and recorded 9.5 tackles for loss, four sacks and three forced fumbles, the issue hasn't gone away and Gilbert hasn't participated in Wisconsin's first few spring workouts.

From the State Journal:
"We thought it was just turf toe, but it's something a lot worse," Gilbert said Wednesday. "We're just going to try and get it fixed and get back for the season. ... But I feel very good about it. It's something people have had, so I'm not too worried about it."

Gilbert saw an orthopedic specialist in Minneapolis on Tuesday and learned the injury was more serious than originally thought. He will return to the same specialist for the surgery.

The 6-foot-4, 247-pound senior twice broke his right foot during the 2011 season, missing all but four games. He hopes to return by June, but placed no timetable on his recovery, noting that rehab this time will be "very discretionary" because he's entering his final season.

Gilbert has looked forward to playing in Wisconsin's new defense, which will operate from the 3-4 much more than the previous scheme. But like several other projected defensive starters dealing with injuries -- linebacker Ethan Armstrong (shoulder), defensive tackle Beau Allen (ankle) and defensive end Brendan Kelly (undisclosed) -- Gilbert will have to master the mental elements of the new scheme before returning to the field for fall camp.

Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 14

December, 2, 2012
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Recognizing the best and brightest from the Big Ten championship game:

Wisconsin's running backs: What a breathtaking performance the Badgers' trio of backs put on in Indianapolis. Montee Ball showed why he's still arguably the best back in the country, running 21 times for 202 yards and three touchdowns, setting the NCAA career record for rushing scores (he had previously broke the mark for total TDs). Redshirt freshman Melvin Gordon put his immense potential on display with 216 yards on just nine touches, averaging a ridiculous 24 yards per carry. Not to be outdone, James White ran for 109 yards and accounted for five touchdowns (four rushing, one passing). Wisconsin had a school-record eight rushing touchdowns and ran for more yards (539) than any Nebraska opponent ever.

Wisconsin DB Marcus Cromartie: The senior had maybe his finest game, recording his first career interception and returning it 29 yards for a touchdown early in the game. He also broke up two passes, including one that looked like it might have gone for a score in the third quarter. Linebacker Chris Borland (13 tackles, forced fumble) and defensive end David Gilbert also had big games for the defense.

Wisconsin offensive coordinator Matt Canada: Criticized earlier in the year for some vanilla play calling, Canada unleashed the full fury of his playbook against Nebraska. If he's got anything left in there, we'd like to see it. Saturday's game plan included an array of formations and pre-snap motions, passes thrown by a receiver and a running back, a swinging gate, jet sweeps and all sorts of other fun stuff. The result was nine touchdowns by the offense and an average of 10.7 yards per play. "I was kind of surprised that everything worked," center Travis Frederick said.

Huskers, Badgers have mutual respect

November, 28, 2012
11/28/12
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After Nebraska beat Wisconsin 30-27 in Lincoln on Sept. 29, Huskers coach Bo Pelini delivered a message for Bret Bielema in their postgame handshake.

"He smiled and said, 'Let's meet back in Indy,'' Bielema recalled this week. "I didn't really want to hear it at the time."

Pelini knew the landscape. If his team could just find a way to win the Legends Division, Wisconsin would be the likely opponent in the Big Ten championship game because of the probation at both Ohio State and Penn State.

"I thought they would be there," he said. "I'm not surprised that Wisconsin's there."

And it seems fitting that Nebraska will be playing the Badgers in Saturday's championship game. Though the Cornhuskers have only been in the Big Ten for two years, they already have some interesting history and connections with Wisconsin.

Nebraska's first-ever Big Ten game came in Madison last year, which ended in an embarrassing 48-17 loss. This year's rematch was the Big Ten opener for both, and the Huskers' rally from a 27-10 second-half deficit set the tone for this team's comeback ways.

Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, a Nebraska graduate, was a key figure in ushering Big Red into the Big Ten by brokering talks for the league. As I wrote last year, Alvarez built the Badgers program from the lessons he learned from his mentor, Nebraska legend Bob Devaney.

Nebraska's incoming athletic director, Shawn Eichorst, worked for years under Alvarez at Wisconsin. Bielema called Eichorst one of his closest friends. Bielema and Pelini also get along very well.

"I really respect Bo for what he is," Bielema said. "He's the same guy every day, and I love his approach to things. At Big Ten meetings, I find myself sitting next to Bo. We always share the same kinds of thoughts."

Badgers' defensive end David Gilbert may have popped off before this year's first meeting, but you're unlikely to hear too much trash talk between two programs that respect each other so much.

"Bret's a hell of a coach, and they've got a heck of a program," Pelini said this week.

Pelini correctly forecast this rematch way back in September. For Nebraska to win a Big Ten championship, going through Wisconsin seems the only natural route.

"There's a lot to it and I'm excited for our fans and our players," Bielema said. "Last year, when they came here, there was a lot of respect between the two fan bases, and this year when we went there, it was the same thing. We'll share a neutral site this week and see what happens."

Martinez engineers Nebraska rally

September, 30, 2012
9/30/12
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LINCOLN, Neb. – Statistically, Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez fared only slightly better in the second half Saturday night than the first.

He rushed for 42 yards before halftime, 65 after. He completed 10 of 13 throws before halftime, 7 of 16 after.

Reality, though, tells it differently. Martinez, the junior quarterback, continued to come of age at Memorial Stadium. He led the Huskers from a pair of 17-point deficits to a 30-27 victory over Wisconsin by producing perhaps his most courageous effort in three seasons as the Nebraska starter.

“There are games like this for Taylor where he has been in a tailspin and gone the other way,” Nebraska running backs coach Ron Brown said. “Not this time. Not tonight. You have to be proud of that kid.”

Martinez, after fumbling on the Huskers’ opening possession of the third quarter, directed a pair of touchdown drives on the next two drives that flipped momentum.

It was a performance unlike even what he did a season ago as Nebraska rallied from a 21-point deficit to beat Ohio State. The Huskers relied more on big defensive plays and the legs of I-back Rex Burkhead in that one.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Martinez
AP Photo/Nati Harnik"He made plays when he had to," one Nebraska coach said of Taylor Martinez. "He did what a good quarterback does to win."
This was clearly Martinez’s comeback.

With the Huskers down 27-10 after Montee Ball scored following the third-quarter Martinez fumble, the QB took Nebraska on a four-play, 77-yard march. He connected with Kenny Bell for a 20-yard completion and handled the final 38 yards with a rush through the heart of the Badgers’ defense.

“I thought that was a big answer,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “It got momentum going for us.”

Pelini said the Huskers were “kind of asleep” early on Saturday night as Wisconsin jumped to leads of 14-0 and 20-3.

If so, Martinez awoke them.

He directed a 10-play, 75-yard drive after the touchdown run, hitting Jamal Turner for 27 yards, then tight end Kyler Reed for a 10-yard score on third-and-4 with 3:47 to play in the third quarter.

“He put in a spot only I could catch it,” Reed said. “It was a tight window.”

A pair of field goals by Brett Maher put the Huskers ahead for good.

Martinez, on those scoring drives, helped his team by avoiding the mistake. Too often in that situation, he’s forced throws or lost composure. It happened Sept. 8 in the second half against UCLA, a 36-30 Nebraska loss.

“Taylor has gotten so much more confident,” tight end Ben Cotton said. “He’s matured so much.”

Offensive coordinator Tim Beck said Martinez ran as hard against Wisconsin as in any game he’s played at Nebraska.

“He made plays when he had to,” Beck said. “He did what a good quarterback does to win.”

Martinez deflected credit. He praised Beck. He recognized the Nebraska defense for holding Wisconsin to seven points in the second half and for stopping the Badgers on their final drive that ended on Ball's fourth-down fumble near midfield with just more than one minute to play.

“We’ve been in that situation before,” Martinez said.

Maybe so, but he had never responded with such resolve.

Despite his spot in second place on the all-time Nebraska total-offense chart and status among 25 quarterbacks in NCAA history to rush for more than 2,000 yards and throw for more than 4,000, Martinez faces plenty of critics.

They question his throwing mechanics and ability to win with his arm.

In the days before this game, Wisconsin defensive end David Gilbert was harsh in his analysis of Martinez.

Martinez heard.

Gilbert got the third-quarter sack of Martinez, forcing the fumble that Chris Borland recovered. But Martinez got the final word.

So did he say anything to Gilbert?

No, Martinez said with a big smile after the game.

“Wish I did,” he said. “Should have.”

But that’s football, Martinez said. He’s glad Gilbert talked. Maybe it played a role in the comeback -- and the quarterback’s big night.

Intense atmosphere on tap in Lincoln

September, 29, 2012
9/29/12
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- The atmosphere at Memorial Stadium on Saturday night promises to be intense for Wisconsin’s first visit here as a Big Ten foe of Nebraska.

The Huskers are looking to avenge a 48-17 loss in Madison a year ago as Wisconsin welcomed Nebraska to the league. The players and fans in Lincoln remember. Expect the noise level to crank up early for the 8 p.m. ET start on ABC.

Nebraska has won nine straight night games at home, 35 of 40 all time at Memorial Stadium and 11 of 13 under fifth-year coach Bo Pelini.

It’s homecoming. The weather is reminiscent of summer. And the late start has allowed all of downtown Lincoln to work up a nice lather before kickoff.

Watch the running backs for an early idea of how this one may unfold.

Wisconsin senior Montee Ball is set to play after sustaining a concussion last week against UTEP. It was his second head injury in less than two months. The Badgers need Ball to pound Nebraska’s suspect rush defense and remove the heat from redshirt freshman quarterback Joel Stave.

Nebraska junior Rex Burkhead returned last week after missing two games with a sprained knee ligament. Burkhead, while wearing a brace on his left leg, rushed for 119 yards on eight carries in the 73-7 Nebraska win. But consider the competition: Idaho State couldn’t stop the Huskers’ fourth-teamers, let alone Burkhead, a returning All-Big Ten back. Wisconsin presents a real test.

Finally, keep an eye on Wisconsin defensive end David Gilbert, who called out Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez this week, mocking the third-year starter’s passing ability.

UW coach Bret Bielema said Gilbert would not start. One has to wonder how quickly he’ll play -- and if Bielema is secretly pleased that his defender may have given Martinez more to consider as he prepares for the big-game atmosphere.
Wisconsin running back Montee Ball has been cleared to play Saturday night at No. 22 Nebraska after sustaining a concussion last week against UTEP.

Badgers coach Bret Bielema told local reporters Thursday that Ball is "cleared 100 percent full-go." As long as nothing changes in the next 48 hours, he'll play against the Huskers. The concussion is Ball's second in as many months after he was attacked by a group of men Aug. 1 in downtown Madison. Bielema said the second concussion wasn't as severe as the first, and Ball vowed to play earlier this week.

Wisconsin certainly will benefit from having a full complement of offensive weapons against Nebraska, which boasts the Big Ten's top offense. Although James White and Melvin Gordon also are good options, Ball lit up the Huskers in last year's win. Ball has 360 rush yards and three touchdowns on 93 carries this season.

Bielema also said defensive end David Gilbert won't start after Gilbert made critical comments Wednesday about Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez.

"He'll be skipping rocks on the sideline with me for the first play," Bielema said Thursday, referring to Gilbert's comment about how Martinez throws passes.

Tyler Dippel and Konrad Zagzebski will start at the defensive end spots for the Badgers, who will be without ends Brendan Kelly and Pat Muldoon because of injuries.
Wisconsin's wish list for the 2012 season certainly starts with a capable and effective quarterback. But an elite pass-rusher might come next.

Although the Badgers' defense put up good numbers in 2011 -- ranking 15th nationally in total defense, 13th in scoring defense and fourth in pass defense -- it didn't put much heat on opposing quarterbacks (71st nationally in sacks). J.J. Watt certainly was missed. Watt had taken the baton from another top pass-rusher, O'Brien Schofield, following the 2009 season.

[+] EnlargeDavid Gilbert
AP Photo/David StlukaWisconsin's David Gilbert said he has a "passion" for putting heat on opposing quarterbacks.
Who can turn up the heat in Badger Country this fall? David Gilbert nominates ... himself.

"I always wanted to be a premier pass-rusher here," Gilbert told ESPN.com. "It's what I like to do. It's my passion. So I don't think I'll have any problems being that. That's what I bring to the team."

Wisconsin gladly would welcome it from a defensive end who may have been on his way to big things in 2011 before suffering a broken right foot in practice before the Big Ten opener against Nebraska. Gilbert had started each of Wisconsin's first four games and had recorded three sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble.

He tried to rush back in time for Wisconsin's Rose Bowl appearance, only to suffer a second break as well as nerve damage shortly before the team headed to Los Angeles. He initially scheduled surgery for March but decided against it, and has been rehabbing ever since.

"I'm 93 percent," Gilbert said, admitting the specific percentage is a self-diagnosis. "The X-rays are pretty positive, but you don't want to get a third break there. It's an easy injury to resurrect. I wouldn't run a shuttle to my right side. Lateral movement is my final test, so I'd say 93 percent.

"It's a learning process, but I'm definitely close at this point in my recovery."

The lengthy rehab and setbacks have taught Gilbert patience and the importance of communicating with his doctors and trainers. But his approach to the game hasn't changed.

He wants to make a splash on every snap, and compete with his teammates for big plays.

"If I make a play, I go up to whoever it is closest to me and they've got to make a play next," he said. "It's a competition between defensive players, how perfect we can be. I want them to make plays. Pass the juice. That's what it is: Pass the juice all game."

The "pass the juice" phrase comes from Gilbert's high school days in Coral Springs, Fla.

"We were all so greedy in high school," he said. "I had to find a way to phrase it. We were competing all the time for tackles. If anyone got four yards, we were pissed. We were coming for your head. We didn't want to give anyone anything. That was our mentality."

Gilbert hopes he can instill the mentality with Wisconsin's defense, which can trace its shortcomings to a handful of plays. The two long passes for touchdowns against Michigan State and Ohio State certainly stand out, but Oregon also gashed Wisconsin for touchdowns of 91, 64 and 54 yards in its Rose Bowl victory.

"When you play against a team that can get three good plays on you and win, that's going to fuel the mentality even more than you don't want to give anyone anything," Gilbert said. "A yard is too much. Zero yards is too much. We want negative yardage. That's the mentality I'm going to try to put with everyone on the defense.

"If you let up for one second …"

Wisconsin loses some key pieces on defense -- safety Aaron Henry, cornerback Antonio Fenelus, defensive tackle Patrick Butrym -- but it also regains the services of two defensive starters, Gilbert and cornerback Devin Smith, who missed almost the entire 2011 season. Head coach Bret Bielema last month caused a stir when discussing Smith's value, telling ESPN Radio Madison, "If Devin Smith had played the entire year at the way he was playing at the time he got hurt, we probably never would have lost."

Bielema feels similarly about Gilbert.

"There were two significant injuries for us last year, to David Gilbert and Devin Smith," Bielema told ESPN.com. "David has a chance physically to be a premier player in our league. He's really starting to come into his own.

"Hopefully, he'll be the backbone of a third straight [Big Ten] championship run this year."
MADISON, Wis. -- The last time we saw Wisconsin's defense in a game, the Badgers were getting steamrolled by Oregon in the Rose Bowl, allowing 621 yards and 45 points.

The Ducks can make many defenses look bad, but a Big Ten champion isn't supposed to get punctured that severely. Badgers defensive coordinator Chris Ash said a handful of his players consistently lined up incorrectly or went to the wrong spots during that 45-38 loss on Jan. 2.

Oregon pulled out a few new wrinkles for the game, but that doesn't fully explain why a veteran defense with a month to prepare could have made so many fundamental mistakes.

"I've been searching for answers for a few months on that one," Ash told ESPN.com last week.

[+] EnlargeMike Taylor, Chris Borland
Richard Mackson/US PresswireWisconsin linebackers Mike Taylor, left, and Chris Borland combined for 293 tackles in 2011.
Mysteriousness surrounds much of what happened to Ash's side of the ball last season. The numbers say Wisconsin had a fantastic season on defense, as it finished 15th in the FBS in total defense and 13th in points allowed. Yet the lasting images of the Badgers' season revolve around the long passes given up at the end of losses to Michigan State and Ohio State and that Rose Bowl fiasco.

Last year's breakdowns hover over the team this spring and in some ways are guiding how the players are approaching this offseason preparation.

"Those things are fresh in our minds a little bit still," defensive tackle Ethan Hemer said. "We're definitely focusing more on the little things, making sure you're stepping right, you're in position, minimizing your missed alignments. We all realize that one play can make a big difference, and that requires us to be even sharper than we've been in the past. We don't want to be that team that gives up the big play."

This spring is about building depth as much as anything for the Badgers' defense. Only six starters return, while injuries have either shelved or slowed leading tacklers Mike Taylor and Chris Borland and projected starting defensive end David Gilbert. Starting cornerback Devin Smith is working himself into shape after a foot injury cost him most of 2011.

Borland and Taylor, who combined for 293 tackles last season, provide two anchors as one of the best linebacker combos in the country. Another strength could be at defensive tackle, where Hemer, Beau Allen and the emerging Warren Herring have all played well this spring. The defensive line still needs an explosive player on the edge, but the team is hopeful that Gilbert -- who played only four games last year and is out this spring with a foot injury -- can be that guy when healthy.

"When he got hurt, he was really starting to play at a high level," Ash said. "He's really one of the few guys we have who's naturally a pass-rusher."

The secondary lost two starting seniors in Aaron Henry and Antonio Fenelus, but Ash thinks Smith can be an all-conference cornerback this season. Dezmen Southward has replaced Henry at safety and continues to come along. He de-cleated running back Melvin Gordon on a crushing tackle during Saturday's scrimmage.

"We know we have to be the backbone of the defense," cornerback Marcus Cromartie said of the secondary. "We want to be the reason to win. We don't want to be a liability."

Wisconsin's defense has often been overshadowed by the team's offense, and last year the unit embraced its no-name status. This season, though, the players believe they have enough talent to forge their own identity.

"We feel like we deserve to be a defense that's on the radar," Smith said. "It starts with practice and film, but I think we can be one of those type defenses everybody talks about, like LSU and Alabama. We have to earn that respect."

It's a respect they'll have to earn by not allowing big plays and mental breakdowns to become the lasting images of 2012.

Spring preview: Leaders Division

February, 17, 2012
2/17/12
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After taking a look at the Legends Division outlook for spring practice, it's time to turn the focus to the Leaders Division.

Away we go ...

ILLINOIS

Start of spring practice: March 7
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • New faces in new roles: Tim Beckman and his assistants get their first chance to work with the players on the field. Beckman retained only one assistant (defensive line coach Keith Gilmore) from the previous staff, so it'll be important for the players and coaches to get acclimated. It's also a big spring for co-offensive coordinators Billy Gonzales and Chris Beatty, both of whom will be primary playcallers for the first time at this level.
  • The quarterbacks: Nathan Scheelhaase is a two-year starter, but he'll have to re-establish himself as the team's top option at quarterback. Reilly O'Toole received a decent amount of field time last season, and Illinois should have a competition under center in spring practice. Both men will have to learn a new offense and show good decision-making skills after combining to throw 12 interceptions last fall.
  • No Merci: All-American defensive end Whitney Mercilus is gone, and Illinois will be looking for his replacement this spring. The defensive line could once again be a strength for the Illini, especially with Gilmore back and an aggressive defensive coordinator in Tim Banks. It'll be interesting to see how the coaches use Michael Buchanan and Justin Staples, who played the "bandit" position in the previous scheme and boast speed but don't have typical defensive end size.
INDIANA

Start of spring practice: March 3
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • Juco fever: Indiana needs a quick fix on defense, and it hopes an influx of junior college players can provide one. Six juco players already are enrolled and will participate in spring practice, including five on the defensive side. It will be interesting to see how players such as defensive back Tregg Waters and linebackers Justin Rayside and Jacarri Alexander perform this spring as they compete to play right away.
  • New direction on offense: Coach Kevin Wilson wants to be more productive in the passing game, and he hired an offensive coordinator in Seth Littrell who can help in that area. Littrell guided an Arizona offense that last season ranked third nationally in passing (370.8 ypg) and 27th in pass efficiency (145.2). He'll try to help Tre Roberson, who Wilson said he thinks can elevate his game significantly as a passer despite throwing twice as many interceptions (six) as touchdowns (three) as a freshman.
  • Who has grown up: Indiana played 32 freshmen (16 true, 16 redshirt) in 2011, the most in the FBS. The early experience should pay off for several players, and Indiana needs them to grow up quickly during the spring. Roberson showed a lot of promise at quarterback, and safety Mark Murphy finished second on the team with 76 tackles. Keep an eye on players such as defensive end Bobby Richardson and receiver/returner Shane Wynn.
OHIO STATE

Start of spring practice: March 28
Spring game: April 21

What to watch:
  • Urban renewal: The mood has improved around Ohio State's program from the moment Urban Meyer stepped to the podium Nov. 28. After putting together his staff, signing an elite recruiting class and ticking off some of his Big Ten coaching colleagues, Meyer finally gets a chance to work with the players on the practice field. After a lackluster final season at Florida in 2010, Meyer says he's refreshed and recharged, and it'll be interesting to see how he attacks practices.
  • The new offense: Ohio State fans can't wait for a new offense after suffering through a 2011 season that featured some extremely questionable play-calling. Meyer's offensive system is well-known throughout college football, but the interesting thing this spring will be how Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman blend their ideas. Herman is a dynamic young coach who impressed a lot of folks at Iowa State. But Ohio State is a different animal, and expectations will be high for quarterback Braxton Miller and the unit.
  • Fickell back on defense: After spending last season as Ohio State's head coach, Luke Fickell returns to an assistant role on the defensive side. And for the first time, Fickell will be the Buckeyes' primary defensive playcaller. Ohio State's defense took a step back last season and will be looking to regain its traditional form. Fickell will work alongside co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers and look to identify some leaders to complement defensive lineman John Simon.
PENN STATE

Start of spring practice: March 26
Spring game: April 21

What to watch:
  • O'Brien's time: Much will be made of Penn State opening spring ball without Joe Paterno, but the real story is how critical these practices will be for new coach Bill O'Brien and his team. Penn State will be acclimating to new systems on both sides of the ball and a new coaching style from O'Brien and his assistant coaches, all but two of whom are from the outside. The learning curve will be accelerated for all involved, as Penn State needs to get a lot done in 15 workouts.
  • The quarterbacks: It's good that O'Brien has extensive experience coaching quarterbacks because no position needs a bigger upgrade at Penn State. The Lions struggled mightily under center last season and need a major boost beginning this spring. Can O'Brien get more out of Matthew McGloin and Rob Bolden, both of whom have seen extensive time in the Big Ten? How does Paul Jones factor into the mix? It'll be interesting to see how the signal-callers perform this spring.
  • Filling gaps on defense: Penn State should have one of the nation's best linebacker groups this season, but the Lions need to fill some holes on the line and in the secondary. Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Devon Still departs, and Penn State will be leaning on Jordan Hill and others to step up. A bigger concern is the secondary, which loses two multiyear starters at safety (Drew Astorino and Nick Sukay). Penn State also has a new defensive coordinator in Ted Roof, who will be looking for better results than he had at Auburn.
PURDUE

Start of spring practice: March 7
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • Another quarterback competition: Boilers coach Danny Hope loves having options at quarterback, and he'll once again get his wish during spring practice. Caleb TerBush, Robert Marve,Rob Henry and Sean Robinson all boast starting experience and will vie for the No. 1 job when workouts resume. Henry, who sizzled last spring and would have started the season if not for a torn ACL, has been cleared to participate in noncontact drills. Marve received an extra year of eligibility and will be in the mix. TerBush started every game last season.
  • Tisebar takes over: Purdue has a new defensive coordinator for the third consecutive season, as Tim Tisebar takes over this spring. Tisebar returns to college football after spending the past three seasons with the Canadian Football League's Montreal Alouettes. Hope hired Tisebar to help Purdue improve against the spread offense and the zone-read game. It will be interesting to see what spin Tisebar puts on the defense as the Boilers enter a pivotal season.
  • Offensive line depth: One of Purdue's strengths last season is a bit light on bodies following several departures. The Boilers need a left tackle to replace Dennis Kelly, and they also must increase depth on the interior line. Purdue already has moved tight end Robert Kugler to center, and Hope said earlier this month that several other tight ends could practice at offensive tackle during the spring.
WISCONSIN

Start of spring practice: March 17
Spring game: April 28

What to watch:
  • A revamped staff: Bret Bielema hired six new assistant coaches during the winter months, including offensive coordinator Matt Canada. The new coaches will have their first opportunity to work with players on the field this spring. It's important for both sides to acclimate, mainly because Wisconsin has had tremendous success the past two seasons and doesn't want the staff shakeup to throw things off course. Quarterback Russell Wilson made a seamless transition to the program last summer. Let's see if the new assistants can do the same in spring ball.
  • The quarterbacks: Speaking of Wilson, he departs Madison, leaving a major void under center. Jon Budmayr and Curt Phillips are coming off of major injuries, and while they're both making progress it could be tough to get a gauge on them this spring. Canada will spend much of his time working with Joel Stave and Joe Brennan, who need to get comfortable with Canada's adjustments to the offense and start establishing themselves as potential team leaders.
  • Reloading up front: Wisconsin will have to replace two All-American offensive linemen for the second consecutive year, and the Badgers lose three All-Big Ten selections up front (Peter Konz, Kevin Zeitler and Josh Oglesby). While the Badgers are built to reload, offensive line coach Mike Markuson has a lot of evaluating to do this spring. On the defensive line, Wisconsin loses two starters (Patrick Butrym and Louis Nzegwu) and will be looking for some difference-makers. End David Gilbert returns to the mix after missing most of last season with a broken foot.

Nebraska-Wisconsin pregame notes

October, 1, 2011
10/01/11
7:42
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MADISON, Wis. -- A few pregame notes from Camp Randall Stadium.
  • As expected, Wisconsin will be without two defensive starters: end David Gilbert (foot) and safety Shelton Johnson (calf). Brendan Kelly will start in Gilbert's spot, and Dezmen Southward will get the start for Johnson.
  • Nebraska freshman RB Braylon Heard didn't make the trip because of an injury.
  • The Wisconsin student section is about two-thirds full 30 minutes before kickoff. It'll be interesting to see the final turnout.
  • Nebraska is wearing its traditional white uniforms with red pants. The rumor that the Huskers would sport black unis or helmets appears to be bogus.
  • Russell Wilson has a cannon, and he looked impressive during warm-ups, particularly on the intermediate to deep routes.

As a reminder, we'll be chatting throughout the game. Join us!
It's time to wrap up the defensive line rankings with a closer look at the ends.

Defensive end has been the league's strongest position the past few seasons, but there are few proven players entering 2010. The Big Ten had four defensive ends -- J.J. Watt, Ryan Kerrigan, Adrian Clayborn and Cameron Heyward -- selected in the first round of April's NFL draft.

This list could look very different by mid October, but here are the top 10 entering '11.

[+] EnlargeJohn Simon
Greg Bartram/US PresswireJohn Simon has played all over the defensive line for Ohio State.
1. John Simon, Ohio State, junior: This selection might surprise some because Simon has spent much of his time at defensive tackle. He'll likely play both line spots for Ohio State this fall, but expect the junior to have a breakout season in 2011. Simon is among the strongest players in the league and provides explosiveness up front for the Buckeyes.

2. Vince Browne, Northwestern, senior: No Big Ten defensive end boasts more impressive numbers than Browne, who has 16 sacks and 31 tackles for loss in his career. He has seen increases in both categories in each of the past two seasons, recording seven sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss in 2010. Northwestern needs another big year from the second-team All-Big Ten selection.

3. Cameron Meredith, Nebraska, junior: Meredith earned second-team All-Big 12 honors from the coaches in 2010 after a solid performance in his first season as a starter. He recorded 64 tackles, including eight tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks, and also had 10 quarterback hurries. Expect the junior to build on those numbers this fall.

4. Nathan Williams, Ohio State, senior: The Buckeyes return only four starters on defense, so they'll need a big senior season from Williams. He led Ohio State with 4.5 sacks in 2010 and complements the bigger Simon as a pure speed rusher on the edge. Williams is the most experienced member of Ohio State's line and must help lead the way.

5. Louis Nzegwu, Wisconsin, senior: After playing alongside All-Big Ten ends Watt and O'Brien Schofield the past two seasons, Nzegwu's time has arrived. Wisconsin will look for big things from the senior, who started every game in 2010 and played a lot as a reserve in 2009. Nzegwu recorded 46 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 3 sacks and a forced fumble last season. He's solid against the run but must be a bigger factor in the pass rush.

6. Broderick Binns, Iowa, senior: Binns had a disappointing 2010 season, but unlike several players on this list, he has shown he can be a difference maker in Big Ten games. As a sophomore in 2009 he recorded 10 tackles for loss, six sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a team-high nine pass breakups. If Binns returns to form in 2011, he'll contend for All-Big Ten honors.

7. Darius Johnson, Indiana, senior: If the Hoosiers plan to turn things around on defense this fall, they'll need a big season from Johnson. He showed last season that when healthy, he can cause a lot of problems in opposing backfields. Johnson recorded 65 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, three quarterback hurries and a forced fumble. He could be a very productive player for IU this fall.

8. Craig Roh, Michigan, junior: Roh and fellow end Ryan Van Bergen are among the Wolverines defenders who should benefit from the new/old 4-3 scheme. He's already bulking up for a defense that values size, hoping to reach 270 pounds by the season. Roh has shown flashes of promise and recorded 43 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles last season.

9. William Gholston, Michigan State, sophomore: Here's a projection pick, but I see Gholston having a huge sophomore season. After trying his hand at linebacker in 2010, he settles into a more natural position at end. At 6-foot-7 and 265 pounds, Gholston could be a force for a Spartans line that must generate more pressure from the edges this season.

10. Gerald Gooden, Purdue, senior: The Boilers are thin at defensive end and need big things from Gooden, who can be effective when he avoids the injury bug. Gooden has started games in each of the past three seasons, recording eight tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks in 2009 and forcing two fumbles in 2010. Health and consistency are the big questions for Gooden, but experience is not.

Just missed the cut: Michigan's Van Bergen, Michigan State's Tyler Hoover, Illinois' Michael Buchanan, Wisconsin's David Gilbert, Penn State's Jack Crawford.
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.

Spring game recap: Wisconsin

April, 25, 2011
4/25/11
5:00
PM ET
Wisconsin wrapped up spring practice Saturday with it spring game at Camp Randall Stadium. Coach Bret Bielema shook things up this year and had the first-team offense compete against the starting defense. The defense ended up dominating, holding the offense out of the end zone, and posted a 29-27 victory in a scrimmage that used a modified scoring system.

Let's take a closer look:

Game coverage: Here and here and here and here.

Quotable: "We were without four, possibly five, offensive starters, so the continuity of that group was thrown off a little bit. I really like the offensive line depth we've been able to develop. On the back end, the defensive side, I was really concerned about the safety position, but Shelton Johnson, Aaron Henry and Dezmen Southward are three guys who can really give us some ability that I didn't know was going to be there." -- coach Bret Bielema

Highlights
  • It was a rough day for Wisconsin's quarterback position both on and off the field. The Badgers' top three signal-callers -- junior Jon Budmayr, redshirt freshman Joe Brennan and true freshman Joel Stave -- combined to complete just 22 of 61 pass attempts (36.1 percent) for 241 yards with no touchdowns, three interceptions and a fumble. The offense failed to reach the end zone and managed only one scoring drive, resulting in a field goal. Budmayr, the front-runner to be the starter this season, completed 10 of 23 passes for 113 yards with an interception and a lost fumble. "The three guys that got the majority of the reps today aren't anywhere where we need them to be for us to be a competitive team in the fall," Bielema said. "They need to continue to move forward." Bielema revealed after the game that quarterback Curt Phillips, a potential challenger to Budmayr, will miss the 2011 season following his third knee surgery.
  • Although the offense played without several starters, the top defense turned in an encouraging performance. The pass rush was solid as ends David Gilbert and Louis Nzegwu both recorded two tackles for loss and a sack. "Our D-line, we're winning," Gilbert said. "As long as we're winning, that’s what matters." Linebacker Marcus Trotter finished an impressive spring with five tackles and a forced fumble, and starting cornerback Devin Smith had an interception and four tackles.
  • The run game averaged only 2.6 yards per attempt, although Wisconsin's top two backs had their moments. James White led the way with 47 rush yards on eight carries, including gains of 22 yards and 17 yards. Montee Ball finished with 33 rush yards on eight carries, while third-stringer Zach Brown also had 33 rush yards. "Today probably wasn’t the best performance but we'll be even better come fall," White said. "We have a lot of confidence as an offense. We have a few people banged up and that can mess with things but we're still getting better."
  • Kicker Philip Welch had a mixed performance in the game. He went 8-for-8 during two separate kicking segments on attempts between 27-61 yards, hitting from 58 and 61 yards out. But during the team portion of the game, Welch missed attempts from 38, 49 and 52 yards. "He's got to be able to handle the pressure, he's got to be consistent with where we're at," Bielema said.
MADISON, Wis. -- A layer of snow or freezing rain or something yucky covered the Camp Randall Stadium field on Tuesday afternoon. Thankfully, Wisconsin held its practice inside the McClain Center, and I was there for most of it.

Some quick thoughts and notes from the Badgers' 13th workout of the spring.
  • Quarterback Jon Budmayr had a live arm and he showcased it several times during the practice, especially in team drills. Budmayr made a nice throw to a leaping Kenzel Doe, and he also found Jared Abbrederis for a good gain. The downside is he often looked hesitant in the pocket, which will cost him in games. Although he moves decently and can extend plays, he needs to get rid of the ball faster. It's important to note that top receiver Nick Toon isn't practicing following offseason foot surgery, and Budmayr doesn't have a ton of options at his disposal. Some will point to Budmayr's lack of size as a concern, but he can get it done if his decision making gets a bit better.
  • I don't think Budmayr will be pushed much for the starting job. Although redshirt freshman Joe Brennan and true freshman Joel Stave both have nice size and can spin it, their youth shows up at times and both players threw interceptions. Unless Curt Phillips makes amazing progress by fall camp, this will be Budmayr's team.
  • Senior cornerback Devin Smith had a very impressive practice. Smith, who served as Wisconsin's nickelback last season after starting in 2009, stepped in front of a receiver to intercept a Stave pass. Moments later, he won a 50-50 ball against Abbrederis for another interception. The Badgers should have the Big Ten's top cornerback tandem this fall with Smith and All-Big Ten selection Antonio Fenelus. Aaron Henry enters his second full season at safety, while sophomore Dezmen Southward seemed to get the most time as the second first-team safety, while second-team cornerback Peniel Jean recorded an interception. The secondary could be Wisconsin's strongest unit on defense this fall.
  • Wisconsin likely will account for its lack of wide receivers with more tight ends on the field this fall. Toon and Abbrederis are the team's only proven receivers, and I didn't see a clear No. 3 option Tuesday. The good news: there are quite a few options at tight end. Sophomore Manasseh Garner stood out to me Tuesday. Listed as a tight end, the 6-foot-2, 213-pound Garner can play on the edges and made several nice catches. The Badgers will use him as a pass-catcher.
  • Speaking of tight ends, no player impressed me more Tuesday than senior tight end Jake Byrne. He made several nice plays on vertical passes in the middle of the field. Byrne can really stretch the defense. Wisconsin should feature multiple tight ends a lot this fall as Byrne, Jacob Pedersen and Garner all are good options.
  • The pass game only needs to be serviceable because Wisconsin's rushing attack once again should be scary good. Top backs Montee Ball and James White looked good Tuesday, along with the mammoth offensive line. Both Ball and White transformed their bodies during the winter -- Ball slimmed down to 214 pounds and White strengthened his lower body -- and the gains are noticeable when you see them.
  • For depth chart aficionados, the first-team defensive line typically consisted of Louis Nzegwu and Brendan Kelly at the end spots and Patrick Butrym and Ethan Hemer at the tackle spots. Defensive end David Gilbert seemed to be dealing with some sort of ailment. The top linebackers were Mike Taylor, Kevin Claxton and redshirt freshman Marcus Trotter, a star of the spring who made some nice plays.

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