NCF Nation: Isaac Fruechte

One of Minnesota's pressing needs is to find a receiver who can stretch the field and make big plays. Arguably its fastest wideout from 2012 won't be around to help this year.

The team announced Monday that junior Devin Crawford-Tufts will focus solely on the school's track team this year and will not play football. Crawford-Tufts was fourth on the team last year with 16 catches for 189 yards, and he grabbed a touchdown reception against Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.

But he is arguably more promising as a track competitor. A Minnesota state champion in the 100 and 200 meters in high school, he joined the Gophers' track team in February and finished fourth at the Big Ten championships in the 60 meters.

Crawford-Tufts probably wouldn't have been one of the team's top options at receiver this year, but he definitely would have been in the rotation for playing time. And Minnesota is still thin there in experienced options, with Isaac Fruechte, Derrick Engel and Andre McDonald needing to take steps forward to help improve the passing game.
Spring practice has begun in the Big Ten, so let's take a look at what to expect from each Legends Division team this spring.

IOWA

Spring start: March 27

Spring game: April 27

What to watch:

1. Questions at quarterback: The Hawkeyes played James Vandenberg for every snap last season, and now that he's gone, they have no quarterbacks on the roster with any game experience. Sophomore Jake Rudock has been viewed as Vandenberg's successor, but he's still a mostly unknown quantity who should get pushed in the spring by former junior college transfer Cody Sokol and redshirt freshman C.J. Beathard. Whoever wins the job will be tasked with improving an Iowa passing game that finished with a Big Ten-worst seven touchdown passes in 2012.

2. Skills competition: While the quarterback race is vital, Iowa also needs standouts to emerge at the other skill positions to fix an offense that sputtered under first-year coordinator Greg Davis. The wideout corps, which struggled to get separation or make big plays, now is without departed senior Keenan Davis, who tied for the team lead with 571 receiving yards. There's a reason why Iowa signed five receivers in the 2013 class. The running back position has strength in numbers, with Damon Bullock, Mark Weisman, Jordan Canzeri and Barkley Hill all competing for carries this spring. The Hawkeyes just need to finally get some luck in the health and off-field departments at that position while hoping one player emerges as the go-to back.

3. Transition game: Iowa long had one of the most stable staffs in the country. But coach Kirk Ferentz added three new assistants this offseason for the second straight year, giving the program some fresh voices but also causing some potential bumps in transition. The offense in particular didn't mesh well last season under Davis, who'll look for solutions this spring. Ferentz has new coaches overseeing the running backs (Chris White) and receivers (Bobby Kennedy) and a new defensive assistant who'll work with the linebackers (Jim Reid). The Hawkeyes hope they can inject some life into a program that has seen its fortunes dip the past couple of seasons, including last year's 4-8 disaster.

MICHIGAN

Spring start: March 16

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:

1. Devin Gardner as starter: Denard Robinson is gone and Gardner is the presumed Michigan starter for the first time. How he adjusts to that -- and how Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges develops more of a pro-style offense around him -- are a major launching point for the Wolverines next season.

2. Offensive line play: Michigan is replacing the entire interior of its offensive line and while there is a lot of young talent there, none of the potential candidates have any experience. Michigan offensive line coach Darrell Funk said he would like to have at least one of the three slots, if not two, settled by the end of spring.

3. Linebacker competition: The deepest position on Michigan’s roster also has the most competition. Jake Ryan at strongside linebacker is almost a given, but the middle and weak side slots are wide open. A bevy of freshmen and sophomores, along with returning starter Desmond Morgan, will vie for playing time in what will be a likely increased rotation in the fall.

-- Michael Rothstein, WolverineNation

MICHIGAN STATE

Spring start: March 19

Spring game: April 20

What to watch:

1. Still Maxwell's house?: Senior Andrew Maxwell started all 13 games last season at quarterback but was pulled in favor of freshman Connor Cook for the deciding drive of the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. The Spartans will open up the competition under center, with Tyler O'Connor and eventually incoming freshman Damion Terry joining the fray. Though he has a big edge in experience, Maxwell will have to prove that he can greatly increase last season's 52.5 completion percentage to hold onto the job through the spring.

2. Replacing Bell: Saying running back Le'Veon Bell was a big part of the 2012 offense is like saying Tom Hanks had substantial role in "Cast Away." Bell carried the ball 382 times last year, more than any back in the country, and gained 1,793 yards. There is no ready-made in-house replacement, as leading returning rusher Nick Hill had just 21 rushing attempts last year and may be too slight (5-foot-8, 190 pounds) to be an every-down back. Junior Jeremy Langford will move back to the backfield after seeing time at receiver. Signees Delton Williams, Gerald Holmes and R.J. Shelton might wind up with the job.

3. New playcaller in town: Mark Dantonio has yet to officially announce a replacement for former offensive coordinator Dan Roushar, who recently left for an assistant's post with the NFL's New Orleans Saints. But reports are that former Ohio State offensive coordinator Jim Bollman has been tapped to lead the Spartans' offense. Can Bollman, whom Buckeyes fans criticized as being too conservative, find the solutions for what was a dreadful attack in 2012? The Spartans' defense once again enters spring ball with very few question marks. Michigan State's hopes rely heavily on how much progress it can make on the offensive side.

MINNESOTA

Spring start: March 26

Spring game: April 27

What to watch:

1. Defensive back end: The Gophers lost two outstanding cornerbacks in Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire, as well as starting linebackers Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper. Jerry Kill has tried to address this during recruiting, adding a pair of well-regarded junior college linebackers (De'Vondre Campbell and Damien Wilson) as well as touted high school corner Jalen Myrick. But some holdovers from last season's roster will have to step into bigger roles this spring.

2. The full Nelson: True freshman Philip Nelson took over the quarterback job midseason and now will enter practice as the starter. He showed flashes of immense potential but still has a lot of things to learn. Kill has said Nelson is no lock to start in 2013 and that he'll face legitimate competition from redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner and incoming freshman Chris Streveler. Nelson has the inside track for now but must hold onto it.

3. Receiving line: The Gophers don't have a returning wideout who had more than 375 receiving yards last year, though Derrick Engel showed promise with a 100-yard day in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. You can blame some of that on the turnover and youth at quarterback. But Minnesota needs much better play at receiver to become a more balanced offense. Improvement by guys like Devin Crawford-Tufts and Isaac Fruechte this spring will help, as would some immediate contributions from recruits Eric Carter and Drew Wolitarsky.

NEBRASKA

Spring start: March 2

Spring game: April 6

What to watch:

1. Youth movement on defense: The Cornhuskers lost eight starters from last season's defense and will hope that some athletic young players are ready to step in. Guys like Charles Jackson, Jonathan Rose and Thomas Brown will be given long looks this spring. Nebraska coaches are hopeful that what they lack in experience, they'll make up for in speed. There's no bigger key for Big Red than having its young defenders make great strides in the spring.

2. Safety issues: The safety spot is an important one in Bo Pelini's scheme, and the Huskers lose both starters and a couple of top reserves from that position. Jackson will be given a look there, and the staff is high on Corey Cooper. But no starting jobs are locked down.

3. Martinez's progression: Senior quarterback Taylor Martinez won't be involved in a lot of live drills, and the spring will be a time to get freshman Tommy Armstrong some reps. But Martinez still needs to fine-tune a few parts of his game, most notably his tendency to force throws in key spots. He made great progress last offseason through extra hours of hard work; a similar leap this spring would make Martinez one of the very best players in the country.

NORTHWESTERN

Spring start: Feb. 27

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:

1. The quarterback duo: The Wildcats spent large parts of last season rotating Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, using Siemian for more obvious passing situations. Will that continue this season? Colter needs to improve as a passer to become a better option as an every-down quarterback, and Northwestern's downfield passing game must get better. You can bet there will be a lot of eyes on Colter and Siemian this spring to see what offensive coordinator Mick McCall has planned.

2. Secondary concerns: The news that cornerback Nick VanHoose won't practice this spring because of injury could be a blessing in disguise. The Wildcats' secondary struggled when he was hurt last season, so this may provide an opportunity for others to get better without him. Jimmy Hall and Traveon Henry are youngsters who should see plenty of reps this spring in the defensive backfield.

3. Offensive line makeover: Three starters are gone from last season's offensive line, including both guards and left tackle Patrick Ward. Jack Konopka is the favorite to succeed Ward but will miss the spring with injuries, while 2012 signee Adam DePietro is among those who could step in at guard. Northwestern should have one of the best running games in the Big Ten in 2013 but will need its line to begin to take shape this spring.

Big Ten predictions: Week 11

November, 8, 2012
11/08/12
9:00
AM ET
What time is it? Prediction time, whoop.

Three weeks remain in the regular season, and Brian Bennett needs them to be very good ones. He trails Adam Rittenberg by four games in the season standings. If Bennett can't mount a late surge, Rittenberg promises to make him a poor man at St. Elmo in Indianapolis the eve of the Big Ten title game.

Five games are on the slate this week, so let's begin.

WISCONSIN at INDIANA

Brian Bennett: It's the biggest Indiana game in almost 20 years. Unfortunately, the Badgers are about to turn the Cinderella Hoosiers back into a pumpkin. Wisconsin will struggle to get much going in the passing game under new quarterback Curt Phillips, but it won't matter as Montee Ball and James White lead a 300-yard rushing effort and Bret Bielema's team clinches a berth in Indy. ... Wisconsin 31, Indiana 24

Adam Rittenberg: Hoosier Nation should be fired up for this one, and Indiana will ride the momentum to an early lead on a Cody Latimer touchdown catch. But Wisconsin eventually will settle down and start controlling the line of scrimmage, displaying the necessary sense of urgency. The line will wear down the Hoosiers in the second half, and Ball and White will combine for 210 rush yards and three scores. Phillips will make some key throws down the stretch as Wisconsin prevails to secure a spot in Indy. ... Wisconsin 34, Indiana 27

No. 24 NORTHWESTERN at MICHIGAN

Adam Rittenberg: This one will be closer than the oddsmakers think, as Northwestern matches up decently and should be a bit healthier following the open week. But Michigan's defense will do enough to slow down Kain Colter and Venric Mark, who will combine for two first-half touchdowns but not much after that. The Wolverines' big-play pass game will come alive behind Devin Gardner, who will fire two more touchdown passes as Michigan remains perfect at home under Brady Hoke. ... Michigan 23, Northwestern 17

Brian Bennett: Denard Robinson will play some but split time with Gardner at quarterback. Both are effective enough to lead Michigan to a victory because the Wolverines' defense knows how to slow down a running team. Jake Ryan will force a key second-half fumble, and Michigan will keep its Legends hopes alive. ... Michigan 30, Northwestern 21

PURDUE at IOWA

Brian Bennett: Somebody has to win between these two scuffling teams, and I've got more confidence in Iowa than a dysfunctional Purdue outfit right now. James Vandenberg and Kevonte Martin-Manley will hook up for a pair of scores, and the Hawkeyes' defense will shut down the Boilers after their usual early score. ... Iowa 24, Purdue 13

Adam Rittenberg: I guess we're contractually obligated to pick a winner here, huh? OK, well here it goes. Purdue will have its typical great first drive and jump ahead on an Antavian Edison touchdown catch from Robert Marve. But Iowa eventually will take control on its home field behind Damon Bullock, who will record 120 rush yards and two scores. Vandenberg will start slowly but come alive in the second half as Iowa hands Purdue a sixth Big Ten loss and ensures the Boilers won't be bowling for the second straight year. ... Iowa 27, Purdue 19

PENN STATE at No. 18 NEBRASKA

Adam Rittenberg: This will be a good one, as a Penn State team that has been very good on the road faces its toughest test against a Nebraska squad eying Indianapolis (and maybe Pasadena). The Lions will jump ahead early, as they typically do, when Zach Zwinak completes a long scoring drive with a touchdown run. Nebraska will respond and the teams will trade leads during the second half, but the Huskers' spread will prove to be too much for Penn State. Kenny Bell will bounce back from last week with two scoring receptions, and Matthew McGloin will throw a costly interception in the fourth quarter. ... Nebraska 30, Penn State 28

Brian Bennett: It's a matchup of the top two passers in the Big Ten in Nebraska's Taylor Martinez and McGloin. I have to keep repeating that sentence to believe it. Nebraska is the smart pick here, especially at home, but I am down in the picks contest and need to come up with a Hail Mary. So I'll go with the Penn State upset, thinking the Cornhuskers could be due for a letdown after three straight emotional games. The Lions will get up early on a couple of McGloin touchdown passes, and Nebraska will be unable to complete one of its patented comebacks as Penn State grinds out the clock with the power running game and some safe throws to its tight ends. ... Penn State 27, Nebraska 24

MINNESOTA at ILLINOIS

Brian Bennett: My picks have been pretty bad this year, but going against Illinois has served us both well all season. Even at home against a banged-up Minnesota offense, I just don't see how the Illini can get over the hump. Philip Nelson will hit John Rabe for a pair of scores, and the Gophers will get the road win to clinch bowl eligibility. ... Minnesota 24, Illinois 14

Adam Rittenberg: I'm tempted to pick Illinois, as Minnesota hasn't scored well in Big Ten play at all. But the Illini have too many problems right now, and I don't think they can put it together against a Gophers team that needs to secure bowl eligibility before a tough closing stretch. After stubbing their toe in the red zone on their first drive, the Gophers finally will get it together behind running back Rodrick Williams. Illinois will respond and take a fourth-quarter lead, but a roughing-the-passer penalty will set up Minnesota's game-winning drive as Nelson finds Isaac Fruechte in the end zone. ... Minnesota 23, Illinois 20

Michigan State and Ohio State are both off.

Season Records

Adam Rittenberg: 61-18 (.772)

Brian Bennett: 57-22 (.722)

For the second consecutive week, Northwestern's defense looked to be on the ropes in the fourth quarter, trying to protect a lead on the road.

This time, the Wildcats stood their ground.

In a sloppy game where Northwestern's offense started fast on Saturday and then disappeared, the defense stepped up in the clutch and prevented Minnesota from scoring the potential game-tying touchdown. Northwestern survived 21-13 to improve to 6-1, becoming bowl-eligible for the sixth consecutive season. Minnesota (4-2, 0-2 Big Ten) dropped its second straight Legends Division game and remains two wins away from bowl eligibility.

Northwestern had no pass rush to speak of last week at Penn State, but the front four stepped up in the fourth quarter. Defensive end Tyler Scott had a pair of sacks, including a forced fumble on the game's final play, and fellow end Quentin Williams also stepped up with a pass deflection that led to an interception. Northwestern gave up more yards (327-275) and first downs (21-13) but not points.

It could have been a different ending had Minnesota quarterback MarQueis Gray remained healthy. Gray returned from a high-ankle sprain that had kept him out two games and performed well in the first half, but he re-injured his left knee on a third-quarter run and didn't return. Max Shortell never really got in a rhythm, starting the game but exiting quickly for Gray before re-entering in the second half. He missed several open receivers, including Isaac Fruechte in the end zone, and held the ball way too long in crunch time.

The game looked like a shootout early, as Northwestern scored on the first play from scrimmage on a Venric Mark touchdown run after Minnesota fumbled the opening kickoff. Mark was masterful once again, racking up 151 rush yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries in the first half. Northwestern scored 21 points in the first 18 minutes but then began stumbling, committing a host of penalties and curious play calls. The quarterback rotation that worked well earlier in the season seemed to fizzle Saturday, as Northwestern couldn't convert third downs (1-for-9), its former trademark, and offensive coordinator Mick McCall didn't trust Kain Colter on any downfield throws. Colter certainly looked like the better option Saturday, going 10-for-10 on pass attempts and adding 26 rush yards and a touchdown.

Mark finished with 182 rush yards on 20 carries.

Northwestern definitely went conservative at the end, taking a delay of game penalty on third down, clearly concerned about the weather. While the approach paid off against a Minnesota team that made too many mistakes, it likely will cost the Wildcats down the line.

It rained for most of the game, and the outcome came down to key mistakes. Minnesota had two first-half turnovers that Northwestern converted for touchdowns. The Wildcats, while committing an uncharacteristic 11 penalties, didn't have a turnover.

Northwestern remains very much alive in the Legends Division race and returns home for two division contests (Nebraska and Iowa). The Wildcats need to be a lot better than they were Saturday but can take some positives with Mark and the defense.

Minnesota is a different team with Gray on the field and hopes the senior can return for next week's rivalry game at Wisconsin.

Gray, Gophers cruise to 2-0 start

September, 8, 2012
9/08/12
3:10
PM ET
Big Ten teams should beat FCS teams. It's not a big deal when it happens.

But for a Minnesota program that had dropped consecutive games to FCS foes (North Dakota State and South Dakota) and has rarely enjoyed easy wins of any kind in recent years, Saturday was pretty nice. The Gophers took control immediately against New Hampshire and cruised to a 44-7 win behind senior quarterback MarQueis Gray and a defense that continues to impress early this season. Minnesota is 2-0 for the first time since 2009.

Both Brian Bennett and I picked Minnesota to win, but we both thought the Gophers would need to grind it out again after needing three overtimes to outlast a bad UNLV team in last week's opener. As it turned out, Minnesota had the game well in hand at halftime, surging to a 30-7 lead. Think about this: the Gophers failed to eclipse 30 points in a game all of last season, and needed three overtimes to do so against UNLV. The 44 points mark Minnesota's most in a regular-season game since it beat Indiana 63-26 on Nov. 14, 2006.

After a shaky performance and a misleading stat line in Vegas, Gray looked much more comfortable Saturday. He hit his open receivers, including Isaac Fruechte and touchdown machine John Rabe for touchdown strikes. He also used his athleticism against an inferior opponent, rushing for 109 yards and two scores on 17 carries. Gray supplied the biggest play of the game, breaking free for a 75-yard touchdown up the gut moments after New Hampshire had cut Minnesota's lead to 9-7 late in the first quarter. It marked Gray's longest play -- rush, pass or reception -- in a Gophers uniform. Although he didn't pass the ball much (eight attempts) he was effective (six completions, 100 yards, two touchdowns).

New Hampshire played without top quarterback Sean Goldrich for most of the game, as he injured his shoulder on the first series. But Minnesota clamped down on defense and continued to show improvement up front with four first-half sacks. Gophers defensive end D.L. Wilhite continued his nice start to the season with a sack and a forced fumble, which led to a Gophers score.

It's too soon to see how much Minnesota has improved in Jerry Kill's second year, and the Gophers should be tested more the next two weeks by Western Michigan and Syracuse. But so far, so good.
Brandon Green has been MarQueis Gray's roommate for the past two years, and the two Minnesota teammates share many of the same classes. So Green has a close friendship with his quarterback. But even strangers could tell that Gray needs a little more support on the field in 2012.

Gray got much better as the season went along in 2011 and has the potential to develop into a star this year for the Gophers. He carried a heavy workload last year, though, as he led the team in both rushing (966 yards) and carries (199) as well as throwing the ball. In the last two games of the season, he rushed 27 times each.

[+] EnlargeMarqueis Gray
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireThe Gophers are planning to have quarterback MarQueis Gray run less and throw more in the upcoming season.
"We want to cut that down some so he can throw some more," Green said. "I feel like with the running backs and receivers we've got back, we can make plays for him and reduce the load down on him."

That confidence is based more on potential than past evidence this spring. Minnesota's top receiver the past couple of seasons, Da'Jon McKnight, was a senior last year. The leading returning pass catcher is Green, who had just 15 receptions in 2011. The Gophers also lost last year's leading rusher at tailback, departed senior Duane Bennett, and Donnell Kirkwood is injured this spring.

Still, Minnesota -- which lacked a lot of big plays on offense in head coach Jerry Kill's first season -- is hopeful that more options and more comfort at the skill positions will translate into a more diversified attack.

"If we have nothing else, all the way around we have competition," offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said.

The Gophers need someone to emerge at running back, both to take the pressure off Gray to carry the ball and to turn their rushing game into a two-pronged danger. It's an unproven group this spring, which is a big reason why Minnesota brought in junior college transfer James Gillum, who ran for 1,042 yards at Mississippi Gulf Coast last year.

"The thing about I like about him was that he was down in Mississippi playing against SEC linebackers and defensive ends," Limegrover said. "And no offense to his offensive linemen, but sometimes those are in-state guys. So a lot of times he was making something out of just nothing, and he was still grinding out 130, 140 yards per game.

"I feel like he brings kind of a grit as a guy who can say, 'OK, hand me the ball and I'll do my thing.'"

Kill also pointed to David Cobb, who played sparingly as a true freshman, as a 220-pound standout athlete who could contribute at tailback.

The receiver position has more bodies than this time a year ago but no true leader. But Green, who's now a senior, wants to change that.

"Now that Da'Jon is gone, I've got the most experience," he said. "I feel like it's my time to step up and lead the receivers and do what I need to do to help us win."

Other possibilities in the passing game are Devin Crawford-Tufts, who played as a true freshman in 2011; Marcus Jones, who's coming off an ACL injury; Malcolm Moulton, who played some as a junior-college import last year; and new juco transfer Isaac Fruechte.

"There's a lot of depth, and different receivers can do different things," Green said. "I feel like we've got a lot of weapons where MarQueis can go out and pass the ball around."

If so, his roommate might have less of a burden to carry in 2012.

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