NCF Nation: Isaiah Roundtree

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Indiana led the Big Ten in passing yards last year, and by a pretty wide margin. But receiver Kofi Hughes says the Hoosiers could have done so much more.

"After last year, I thought as receivers we were balling," Hughes told ESPN.com. "But then I looked at the film and was like, 'Oh my gosh, we really weren't that good at all.

"We finished No. 1 in the Big Ten, but what a lot of people don't know is that we left so many plays and so many yards on the field. This year, we want to blow it out of the water."

That could very well happen. While much of the focus this spring centered on the three experienced quarterbacks battling for the starting job, perhaps not enough attention was paid to the guys who will be catching the ball. Indiana -- yes, Indiana -- boasts the most productive group of returning receivers in the league.

[+] EnlargeCody Latimer
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsCody Latimer led a productive group of Hoosiers receivers last season with 806 yards and six touchdowns.
Non-believers, you can check the stats. Cody Latimer, Hughes and Shane Wynn finished No. 2, No. 6 and No. 8 in the league, respectively, in receiving yards per game in 2012. Throw in tight end Ted Bolser, who had 41 grabs for 445 yards last season, along with some emerging young players, and no Big Ten team has more weapons right now in the passing game.

"On the outside, we've got some big bodies, which are good targets," quarterback Cameron Coffman said. "And on the inside, we've got small, quick guys who can get open in space."

Leading the way on the perimeter are Latimer and Hughes, who have developed into two of the best wideouts in the Big Ten despite being lightly recruited for their current roles.

Coming out of Dayton, Ohio, the 6-foot-3 Latimer received more interest from colleges as a defensive back or linebacker. But he always wanted to play receiver, and he said he bonded with Hughes and Duwyce Wilson on his IU visit. He knew the Hoosiers had a history of throwing the ball and he loved watching Oklahoma receiver Ryan Broyles. When Indiana hired former Sooners offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson as head coach, he knew he'd made the right choice to go to Bloomington.

The 6-foot-2 Hughes was the 2009 Gatorade Indiana player of the year who led Indianapolis Cathedral to a state title as a quarterback. He was labeled an athlete, and colleges didn't quite know what to make of him. Hughes said he was asked to play defensive back at an Ohio State camp, a position he'd never even lined up at before. He eventually took his only scholarship offer, to IU. He decided to play receiver in college simply because he saw an opening for early playing time.

"I was hard-headed and wanted to play as a true freshman," the senior said. "I was horrible my freshman year, a very sloppy route-runner. I could have probably redshirted and waited, and who knows what would have happened?"

What has happened is the two have become close friends -- and big-time players. Latimer led the team with 805 receiving yards and six touchdowns on 51 catches last year, while Hughes had 639 yards and three touchdowns on 43 receptions. They each made a pact this offseason to be bluntly honest and critical about the other's performance. Here's what they had to say about each other:

Latimer on Hughes: "He's very smart. When you go into the film room, he can tell you everything that's going on. He even gives the coaches ideas."

Hughes on Latimer: "He makes competitive catches. He's so strong. I don't know how the ball always stays in his hands, like whether it hits his shoulder and rolls into his hands or what. But every time you throw it to Cody, he's going to catch it."

Wynn, at just 5-foot-7, completes the lead triumvirate of Hoosier targets. The spark plug in the slot caught a team-best 68 balls last season for 660 yards and six scores. Hughes said Wynn is deceptively strong and wasn't afraid to lower his shoulder into a defender to gain extra yards this spring.

As good as Latimer and Hughes are on the outside, Indiana might have even more options in the middle of the field with the emergence this spring of Isaiah Roundtree and Tevin Coleman to go along with Wynn.

"All three of those guys can play anywhere from the backfield to the slots," offensive coordinator Seth Littrell said. "I think we can create a lot of different matchups that way. If people want to play us man to man, fine. We can always get those guys in the backfield versus a linebacker."

And if all the Hoosiers receivers live up to their potential, they might just blow things out of the water in 2013.
Lessons learned from Week 9 in the Big Ten:

1. The Big Ten is the league of second chances: Nebraska's season seemed headed down the tubes after it allowed 63 points to Ohio State on Oct. 6 in Columbus. The Huskers also were on life support down 12 points to Northwestern midway through the fourth quarter on Oct. 20. Look at them now: tied for the lead in the Legends division but holding tiebreakers against both of their top two challengers, Michigan and Northwestern. The Big Ten is a bad league in 2012, but it's also a league of second chances. Nebraska has capitalized on its new life but must keep it going this coming Saturday at Michigan State, which finally showed an offensive pulse in rallying past Wisconsin. Michigan and Wisconsin got knocked down after losing their starting quarterbacks, and it'll be challenging for both teams in the coming weeks. But to write anyone off -- aside from Illinois and Purdue -- seems silly in this silly league. Nebraska is control for now. Wisconsin's grasp on the Leaders division could be loosening a bit. Northwestern is still hanging around. So are others. Aside from Ohio State, every Big Ten team has been knocked to the mat a few times this season. But entering the season's most important month, most are still standing.

2. Ohio State is the best team in the Big Ten: There was a shred of doubt about this, at least outside Columbus, as Ohio State came to State College, Pa., after two shaky wins against the Indiana schools and took on a red-hot Penn State team that had captured five wins in a row. But on a big stage in a hostile environment, Braxton Miller and the 9-0 Buckeyes made it clear that they're the best team in a flawed Big Ten. Ohio State overcame a slow start and a special-teams miscue and took control thanks to Miller and a stout defense that received big plays from linebacker Ryan Shazier and others. Urban Meyer's team made its loudest statement of the season against a surging team playing before a raucous crowd. It's too bad the Buckeyes won't be playing in Indianapolis or Pasadena this season -- the OSU administration has itself to blame for that -- but the chase for a perfect regular season shifts into high gear. Ohio State should handle Illinois easily next week before closing the season with Wisconsin (road) and Michigan (home). The push for perfection and Miller's Heisman campaign should be fun to watch the rest of the way.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
Mary Langenfeld/US PresswireMontee Ball and heretofore-resurgent Wisconsin lost some luster Saturday but still look good for Indy.
3. Forget a marquee matchup in Indy: Hope had started to flicker lately that the Big Ten championship game could actually feature a pretty appealing matchup, thanks to Wisconsin's recent resurgence. Well, Michigan State put the brakes on that talk by going into Madison and winning in overtime while holding the Badgers to just one touchdown. Now 6-3 overall and 3-2 in the conference, Wisconsin doesn't deserve to be ranked, yet it still almost certainly will reach Indianapolis by default in the probation-riddled Leaders division. With reports that quarterback Joel Stave (collarbone) could be lost for the season, this team could struggle in its final three games at improving Indiana, versus Ohio State and at Penn State. In fact, it's not outrageous to suggest that Wisconsin could wind up 6-6 and make it to Indy. The Badgers may still finish strong, and they basically have a one-game season to go to the Rose Bowl. There just isn't much hope of the Big Ten title game staging a marquee matchup.

4. Northwestern needs to stay grounded: We have grown accustomed to Northwestern slinging the ball around the gridiron with quarterbacks like Dan Persa and Mike Kafka. But that's not the best formula for success with this year's team. The Wildcats are most dangerous when they have Kain Colter and Venric Mark in the backfield together running wild. Coach Pat Fitzgerald mostly ditched the quarterback rotation with Trevor Siemian and gave Colter the ball on Saturday against Iowa. Colter and Mark combined to run for 328 yards on 42 carries (7.8 yards per carry), while Mark became the school's first 1,000-yard back since 2006 in the process. Northwestern threw only 10 passes all day yet won 28-17 in a game that shouldn't have been that close. You wonder whether the Wildcats would have been able to close out Penn State and Nebraska in the fourth quarter if they had stayed committed to the ground attack with their best two athletes. No sense looking backward now, but Northwestern should continue what worked Saturday as it moves forward.

5. The arrow is pointed up for Indiana, Minnesota: No one can get too excited about a win over Illinois or Purdue these days. Still, Indiana's road win against the Illini and Minnesota's home domination of the Boilers could be turning points for the respective programs. Both teams identified freshman quarterbacks -- Indiana's Nate Sudfeld, Minnesota's Philip Nelson -- who spark the offense and spread the ball to talented receivers like Minnesota's A.J. Barker (135 receiving yards, 2 TDs against Purdue) and Indiana's triple threat of Kofi Hughes, Cody Latimer and Shane Wynn. Indiana has competed well all season, losing four of its games by four points or fewer, and might have just needed the experience of finishing out a win. The offense is legit: IU has scored at least 27 points in all six games versus FBS competition and has eclipsed 30 points five times. Minnesota's improvement on defense has been noticeable this season, and cornerback Michael Carter came up big against Purdue (pick-six, 6 PBUs). But Nelson provided the biggest boost, firing three first-half touchdown passes and completing 15 of 22 passes for 246 yards. Minnesota's offense finally started to score after putting up 13 points in each of its first three Big Ten games. Jerry Kill's squad is a win from bowl eligibility, while Kevin Wilson's team has a lot of work left. But the future of both programs looks promising.
The book is closed on spring football in the Big Ten, but what did the chapters reveal? Although no games are played during the spring, which fuels optimism for all 12 teams, the 15 practices provide clues for the upcoming season. The Big Ten saw few major injuries to key players, some good news (the NCAA declaring Michigan State WR DeAnthony Arnett eligible for 2012) and some potentially troubling signs.

It's time to revive the power rankings coming out of the spring. We see separation with the top two teams, while Nos. 3-5 are closely matched. The same holds true for Nos. 7-10.

Here they are ...

1. Michigan State: The Spartans' defense looks like the single best unit in the Big Ten entering the season. Spring practice only enhanced our opinion of Pat Narduzzi's group, which has no shortage of stars. While the passing game needs work, Arnett's presence should help, and the Spartans will rely more on their run game with Le'Veon Bell and an improved offensive line.

2. Michigan: Quarterback Denard Robinson and Fitzgerald Toussaint, who affirmed himself as Michigan's top tailback this spring, form arguably the Big Ten's most dangerous backfield tandem. If Michigan can fill some key pieces on both lines, where there was some shuffling this spring, it will be back in the BCS bowl mix and among the favorites to win the Big Ten crown.

3. Wisconsin: It seems hard to fathom, but Montee Ball appeared to take his game to an even higher gear this spring. The Badgers' star running back will fuel the offense again, although quarterback remains a question mark as Maryland transfer Danny O'Brien arrives this summer. Wisconsin still needs more playmakers to emerge on the defensive line and in the secondary.

4. Nebraska: Tough call on this spot, but the Huskers return their core pieces on offense from a 9-4 team. Footwork-conscious quarterback Taylor Martinez received good reviews this spring, and he should be more comfortable in Year 2 at the helm of Tim Beck's offense. Coach Bo Pelini thinks the defense will be improved and potentially deeper, although the Huskers lose a lot of star power on that side of the ball.

5. Ohio State: There were few dull moments in Ohio State's first spring under Urban Meyer, who began installing an offense unlike any seen in Columbus. After resembling a "clown show" early on, the offense made strides and quarterback Braxton Miller looks like a strong fit for the system. An improved defense, led by linemen John Simon and Johnathan Hankins, should buy the offense some time to get acclimated.

6. Penn State: New coach Bill O'Brien ushered in a historic spring in Happy Valley, and Penn State players for the most part embraced the many changes taking place. The Lions still don't have a quarterback, but they have an excellent running back in Silas Redd and an improved offense line that pleasantly surprised O'Brien this spring. Penn State's defensive front seven, led by linebacker Gerald Hodges and tackle Jordan Hill, might need to carry the team at times.

7. Purdue: Fourth-year coach Danny Hope thinks this is clearly his best team in West Lafayette, and with 18 starters back, it's easy to see why. The Boilermakers are one of the Big Ten's deepest teams at positions like quarterback, defensive tackle, running back and cornerback. Purdue must continue to absorb the new defense installed by Tim Tibesar and fill some key gaps along the offensive line.

8. Iowa: Although Iowa's changes this spring didn't make national headlines like the ones at Penn State and Ohio State, they were very significant. New offensive coordinator Greg Davis began installing a more up-tempo and multifaceted offense that seems to be clicking with senior quarterback James Vandenberg. Jordan Canzeri's ACL injury once again clouds the picture at running back entering the summer, and Iowa needs its young defensive line to grow up in a hurry.

9. Northwestern: The Wildcats showcased one of the league's top wide-receiving corps this spring, and if Kain Colter can improve his passing, the offense should surge. Defense has been Northwestern's bugaboo in recent years, and young players like end Deonte Gibson and cornerback Nick VanHoose stepped forward this spring. It's crucial for the defense to keep making progress if Northwestern wants to maintain its bowl streak.

10. Illinois: There's little doubt Illinois will be a defense-driven team, and the Illini look loaded in the front seven with players like end Michael Buchanan, who turned in a very strong spring, as well as tackle Akeem Spence and linebacker Jonathan Brown. An offense that flatlined late last season began learning a new system this spring and still lacks playmakers at running back and wide receiver. Running back Josh Ferguson's spring-game performance is encouraging.

11. Minnesota: The second spring of the Jerry Kill era brought greater comfort for both players and coaches alike. Quarterback MarQueis Gray made strides in his second spring session as the starter, although the Gophers are still looking for more weapons to surround No. 5. The defensive line should be an improved group after several lifeless seasons. Minnesota still needs to develop depth in the secondary and at wide receiver.

12. Indiana: After playing an insane number of freshmen in 2011, Indiana began to reap the benefits this spring. An influx of junior-college defenders, including linebackers David Cooper and Jacarri Alexander, also should boost a unit that needs all the help it can get. The Hoosiers have some nice building blocks on offense at both quarterback (Tre Roberson) and running back (Stephen Houston, Isaiah Roundtree), but they still have a lot of work to do before the season.
Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which blogger is right.

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

Take 1: Brian Bennett

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

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

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

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

Take 2: Adam Rittenberg

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

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

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

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

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

While there are some question marks around the league, including an unproven line at Iowa, teams like Northwestern and Minnesota should be improved up front.

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