NCF Nation: J.T. Floyd

Michigan fans are still lamenting the loss of star linebacker Jake Ryan to a torn ACL, but they'll like what they hear from another key defender recovering from the same injury.

"I'm doing everything they allow me to do, and I feel really good doing it," Wolverines cornerback Blake Countess told ESPN.com on Thursday. "That's always a plus, to get back in the swing of things. Everything is feeling good."

[+] EnlargeBlake Countess
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioBlake Countess, a promising cornerback who redshirted last season, will begin spring practice with a rejuvenated purpose.
Countess' recovery is on track after he tore the ACL in his left knee in the first quarter of Michigan's season-opening loss to Alabama last September. Although he's not taking contact in spring practice, he's participating in individual drills and has no limitations on his running and cutting.

Barring a setback, Countess should be completely cleared for the start of preseason camp.

"In spring ball, there's really no need for me to go out there and push it," he said. "As far as contact, I can't wait to get back into it, but I'm not going to rush anything."

The 5-foot-10, 181-pound Countess played in 12 games as a true freshman in 2011, starting the final six and recording 44 tackles with six pass breakups and a forced fumble. Pegged as one of the nation's top young cornerbacks entering 2012, Countess instead underwent surgery in early October and redshirted the season.

Countess felt optimistic about his progress since the start of his post-surgery rehab, but a return to the practice field this spring has provided another boost.

"That's the biggest thing, getting the trust and confidence back [in the knee], and that's coming every day," he said. "I'm doing more drills, getting a little faster here. It's building every day. That's really what spring ball's really for, and I'm glad I'm getting to make those steps."

Unfortunately, Ryan is at the start of the process. Countess has talked to his teammate about what to expect.

"He's going to attack his rehab, just like he attacks everything else," Countess said. "Jake's already come to me with a couple questions. I'm here for Jake, just like Jake was here for me when I was going through it. He'll be back.

"As far as the team, the next guy has to step up, and we know that."

Raymon Taylor stepped in for Countess last year, and the secondary responded. Michigan tied for fifth nationally in pass yards allowed (169.5 ypg) and finished in the top 20 in both total defense and scoring defense.

Many expect Countess to regain his starting role alongside Taylor this season, but Countess knows there are no guarantees.

"I've been around the program and I've been with the coaches for a while, so I feel somewhat like a veteran," Countess said. "But I'm still fighting every day to prove myself to the other guys and to my coaches. There's no sense of entitlement."

Countess spent most of last season watching games and taking mental reps, but when asked what areas he needs to improve on the field, he mentioned his eyes.

"My freshman year, I had some eye problems, as far as glancing in the backfield and things like that, taking my eyes off of the receiver," he said. "So just my eyes, staying low in my backpedal, being more explosive out of breaks and making big-time plays."

Michigan needs more big plays from its defense, especially if Ryan, who accounted for four of the team's 12 forced fumbles last season, misses the season. Although the Wolverines didn't allow many pass yards, they also tied for last in the Big Ten in interceptions (7).

The secondary loses multiyear starters in cornerback J.T. Floyd and safety Jordan Kovacs, a co-captain whose leadership will be tough to replace.

"We have to step up and take it to the next level," Countess said. "8-5 is not acceptable, and the goal is always going to be a Big Ten championship."

Pregame: Outback Bowl

January, 1, 2013
1/01/13
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Michigan (8-4, 6-2 Big Ten) vs. South Carolina (10-2, 6-2 SEC)

Who to watch: South Carolina sophomore defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. Against a somewhat suspect Michigan offensive line -- other than future NFL first-round tackle Taylor Lewan -- Clowney could have a huge day. He tied for second in the FBS with 13 sacks, and was second in tackles for loss (21.5, 1.95 per game). Between the Wolverines’ line and a running game which rarely produced this season, this sets up well for Clowney.

What to watch: Michigan’s offense. One of the bigger questions for the Wolverines is where senior Denard Robinson will line up and how often. Michigan likely plans on using Robinson at quarterback, running back and wide receiver. In addition to it being Robinson’s last college game -- and a potential preview of what he’ll try to do in the NFL -- he needs 85 rushing yards to tie former West Virginia quarterback Pat White for the FBS quarterback rushing record.

Why to watch: Besides the NFL-level matchup between Clowney and Lewan and the potential explosiveness in Robinson’s last game, this could be a chance to see South Carolina, one of the more promising teams next year, jump-start a run for the 2013 season. The Gamecocks should return most of their offense next season, along with Clowney and a few others on defense, which could set them up for another successful year in the SEC. On the Michigan side, if quarterback Devin Gardner has a good day -- he’s averaged 251.25 yards passing in his four starts -- it could set him up for a special 2013 season.

Prediction: While Michigan’s offense could be very fun to watch and explosive with Robinson moving all over the field, the Wolverines still have the same issues with their running backs and offensive line that they’ve had all season long. Add into that a secondary missing starting cornerback J.T. Floyd because of suspension, and it could be a tough day for Michigan. Gardner and Robinson keep it close on offense, but South Carolina has too much. South Carolina 24, Michigan 17.
Some bad news for Michigan, which will be without its top cornerback, its award-winning punter and a reserve linebacker for the Outback Bowl on Jan. 1 against South Carolina.

The team announced Sunday that senior cornerback J.T. Floyd, senior linebacker Brandin Hawthorne and junior punter Will Hagerup have been suspended for the game for an unspecified violation of team rules. All three players won't travel with the team to Tampa.
"It is an honor to play football for the University of Michigan, and we have high standards and expectations for everyone that represents our program," Wolverines head coach Brady Hoke said in a prepared statement. "These young men used poor judgment in each circumstance, and these suspensions are teaching moments for our team."

Floyd recorded 48 tackles and five pass breakups for the Wolverines this fall, starting all 12 games. Hawthorne had 19 tackles. Hagerup earned the Big Ten's Eddleman-Fields Punter of the Year award after averaging a league-best 45 yards per attempt this fall.

This is the first known disciplinary incident for both Floyd and Hawthorne, whose college careers come to a disappointing end. Hagerup was suspended for the first four games of the 2011 season for violating team rules. It'll be interesting to see how Hoke approaches Hagerup's future as this isn't his first infraction.

Michigan lost starting cornerback Blake Countess to an ACL injury in the season opener and turned to Raymon Taylor to step in. Junior Courtney Avery is expected to step in for Floyd, while sophomore Delonte Hollowell and freshman Terry Richardson are also available.

Floyd's absence will be felt even though Michigan's secondary performed well most of the season. The fifth-year senior from Greenville, S.C., would have faced some familiar faces in the Outback Bowl. Very disappointing all around.

Sophomore Matt Wile will take over the punting duties for Hagerup.

Three months remain until the games begin, but Michigan already has completed the nation's best offseason team activity.

Michigan recently took its seniors to California for a three-day leadership retreat, which culminated with a training session alongside the U.S. Navy SEALs at a base in Coronado, Calif. Wolverines players also participated in leadership classes, conducted a youth football camp and toured the Rose Bowl, where they'd like to return on Jan. 1.

Colleague Mark Schlabach tagged along for the trip and wrote an extensive piece about what he saw.

One interesting scene came when Michigan associate athletic director Greg Harden asked the seniors whether they're better leaders than they were a year ago.
About halfway through the players' answers, Wolverines quarterback Denard Robinson offered a surprising response.
"I feel like I haven't grown," Robinson said. "For me to be the quarterback at the University of Michigan, I feel like I have to grow up a lot and be a lot more accountable."
Robinson's honest self-evaluation was just the kind of answer Michigan coach Brady Hoke wanted to hear.

Leadership has been on Robinson's mind for some time. He talked with Brian Bennett last month about the need to be more vocal and forceful with his words to teammates. Although Robinson is unlike any Michigan quarterback we've seen with his unique skill set, he wants to be more like his Wolverines predecessors in how he conducts himself as a leader.

Hoke and Michigan's strength coach Aaron Wellman had a connection with the Navy SEALs from their time with San Diego State's program. Hoke's final group of San Diego State seniors went through a similar program in 2010. Michigan's trip was approved by the Big Ten's compliance staff because it involved leadership and life skills (the NCAA permits such activities).

Schlabach details several events during the trip, including a meeting where players shared deeply personal aspects of their background as well as their achievements in college.

The training session was particularly interesting, and not surprisingly, the SEALs didn't take it easy on the Michigan players.
Robinson's team, which also included [J.T.] Floyd and [Roy] Roundtree, won one of the early tire relay races. But they made the mistake of celebrating in front of Stella.

"What did they do wrong?" Stella asked. "They celebrated. How many times have you seen a team celebrate before the game is over? They're out there jumping up and down and hollering and then it's about them. Football players are the worst about that. Be humble, people. If you act like that, you're going to put a target on your back and people are going to crush you! What is humility? It's the absence of arrogance. If you start winning games and acting like fools, I'm going to get on a plane and come out there and kick your butts. Be humble and act like a team."

Then Stella turned to Robinson's team.

"They celebrated and now they're going to pay," Stella said.

Instead of getting a reward -- a short rest period -- like other winning teams, Robinson's team was ordered to complete lunges and sprints. None of the Wolverines did any more celebrating.
The postseason position rankings are hitting the home stretch, and today we take a look at the Big Ten secondaries. It's a little tricky to evaluate secondary play from 2011. While seven Big Ten teams ranked in the top 18 nationally in pass defense, only two squads ranked in the top 29 in pass efficiency defense.

Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard was the lone Big Ten defensive back to appear on both the coaches' and media's first-team all-conference squad, so there was some disagreement.

[+] EnlargeIsaiah Lewis
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioIsaiah Lewis' interception against Michigan helped the Spartans beat their in-state rival and propel Michigan State's secondary to elite status in the Big Ten.
The top seven units are solid, while the bottom three are among the worst in the FBS.

Michigan State once again tops a defensive chart, but the top four or five squads here were all strong in the secondary. Be sure and check out our preseason secondary rankings.

Let's get to the rundown:

1. Michigan State: The Spartans had three of four starting defensive backs — safety Trenton Robinson, cornerback Johnny Adams and safety Isaiah Lewis — selected first-team or second-team All-Big Ten, illustrating the depth coach Mark Dantonio has built in recent years. Michigan State's secondary also continued to be a playmaking unit, recording a league-best 18 interceptions, returning four for touchdowns. The Spartans had five defensive backs record two or more interceptions. Adams will enter the 2012 season pegged as the league's top cornerback.

2. Penn State: Like the other defensive units, Penn State's secondary shouldered a heavy burden because the team's offense struggled for so much of the season. The Lions had veteran leadership with D'Anton Lynn, Nick Sukay and Drew Astorino, and they led the Big Ten and ranked sixth nationally in pass efficiency defense (107.2 rating). Penn State finished third in the league in interceptions (14) and tied with Michigan for the fewest passing touchdowns allowed (12). Sukay earned second-team All-Big Ten honors.

3. Illinois: Although Illinois' strength on defense could be found in the front seven, the secondary held its own as well. The Illini ranked third nationally in pass defense (162.3 ypg), and opposing teams completed just 54.9 percent of their passes against the Orange and Blue. Illinois finished 30th nationally in pass efficiency defense. Although the safety play looked spotty at times, Illinois boasted a strong cornerback tandem in Terry Hawthorne and Tavon Wilson.

4. Michigan: Arguably no single position group in the Big Ten made more dramatic strides than Michigan's secondary, a lightning rod for criticism the previous three seasons. The Wolverines finished 16th nationally in pass defense and 36th in pass efficiency defense. Although they didn't record many interceptions, they tied for the league low in passing touchdowns allowed (12). Safety Jordan Kovacs emerged as an effective blitzer and playmaker and cornerback J.T. Floyd blossomed with two interceptions, eight pass breakups and a forced fumble. Corner Blake Countess is an exciting young talent.

5. Nebraska: The Huskers had the Big Ten's best defensive back in Dennard, who shut down arguably the league's top two receivers (Marvin McNutt, B.J. Cunningham) in Nebraska victories. But the group's overall performance was a bit underwhelming, as opposing teams attacked the deep middle and caused some personnel shuffling. Opposing teams completed just 53.2 percent of their passes against Nebraska, the lowest number in the Big Ten. Hard-hitting safety Daimion Stafford emerged for a group that loses Dennard and veteran safety Austin Cassidy.

6. Wisconsin: For the second straight season Wisconsin displayed good playmaking ability in the secondary, finishing second in the Big Ten with 16 interceptions. Safety Aaron Henry (coaches) and cornerback Antonio Fenelus (media) both received first-team All-Big Ten recognition. The Badgers also played most of the season without one of their starting cornerbacks, Devin Smith. But the unit also had some high-profile lapses at the end of games. Speed also became an issue in the Big Ten title game against Michigan State and in the Rose Bowl against Oregon.

7. Ohio State: The numbers aren't bad -- Ohio State ranked 14th in pass defense and 53rd in pass efficiency defense -- but the Buckeyes seemed to be missing something in the secondary, and throughout their entire defense, for that matter. There were some bright spots, like freshman cornerback Bradley Roby, and some hard hits delivered by safety C.J. Barnett and others. But Ohio State finished just eighth in the league (53rd nationally) in pass efficiency defense, as opposing teams completed more than 60 percent of their pass attempts against the Scarlet and Gray.

8. Purdue: We had high hopes for a group that returned all four starters, headlined by All-Big Ten candidate Ricardo Allen at cornerback. At times, Purdue's secondary looked solid, but the unit's overall performance fell in line with the team's average theme for 2011. Allen struggled to contain some elite wideouts but still finished the season with 81 tackles (62 solo), three interceptions, four pass breakups, a blocked kick and a forced fumble. He and Josh Johnson form an exciting cornerback tandem entering the 2012 campaign.

9. Iowa: Much like Ohio State, Iowa didn't have a typical season on defense, and the secondary had its share of struggles. Iowa had average numbers (58th in pass yards allowed, 72nd in efficiency), and allowed opposing teams to complete 62 percent of their passes. The Hawkeyes saw a big drop-off in playmaking, as they recorded only 10 interceptions and allowed 21 touchdown passes. Safety Micah Hyde earned second-team All-Big Ten honors from the media, while cornerback Shaun Prater didn't have the huge senior season some expected.

10. Northwestern: The Wildcats would finish last in some leagues, but they're the best of a bad bunch at the bottom of the rankings. Despite an All-Big Ten safety (Brian Peters) and a four-year starter at cornerback (Jordan Mabin), Northwestern suffered breakdowns in both scheme and execution. The Wildcats endured a particularly bad stretch to begin Big Ten play, as they couldn't stop Illinois receiver A.J. Jenkins, admittedly got confused against Iowa and let Penn State quarterback Matthew McGloin go off. The secondary has to be a huge priority for Pat Fitzgerald and his staff during the offseason.

11. Minnesota: It's a close call for the last spot, but Minnesota avoids the basement, thanks in large part to safety Kim Royston, who made the most of his sixth season with a team-high 123 tackles. But Royston was the lone bright spot for Minnesota's secondary, which stung from the loss of cornerback Troy Stoudermire to a broken arm. The Gophers recorded the fewest interceptions in the Big Ten (4), and allowed opponents to complete 67.7 percent of their passes, the highest total in the league. Minnesota finished 107th nationally in pass efficiency defense.

12. Indiana: The Hoosiers' historic struggles in the secondary continued in 2011, as they surrendered a league-high 26 passing touchdowns and finished 116th out of 120 FBS teams in pass efficiency defense. Opponents averaged 8.5 yards per completion against an Indiana team that played more freshmen than any squad in the FBS. There's some hope with players like safety-linebacker Mark Murphy and cornerback Greg Heban, and Indiana brings in two junior college defensive backs for 2012.
The Jan. 15 deadline to for underclassmen to declare for the NFL draft has come and gone, and five Big Ten players opted to make the jump.

Here's a quick recap:

WHO'S GONE?


Michigan State RB Edwin Baker: Baker's departure was the biggest surprise in the group, as his production dropped off in 2011. Then again, he plays a position that has a short NFL shelf-life, and with Le'Veon Bell back in the fold for 2012, his opportunities at Michigan State could have been limited. It would have been interesting to see Baker and Bell compete for carries in what likely will be a more run-based offense. Baker will have to impress a lot of folks in pre-draft events to move up the boards.

Wisconsin C Peter Konz: After receiving a strong draft evaluation, Konz opted to leave Madison. He had an excellent season at center and has the ability to play multiple positions at the next level. Konz should hear his name called on the second day of the draft, if not sooner. Although it wouldn't have shocked me if Konz decided to return to a place he loves, it's hard to fault him for leaving.

Illinois DE Whitney Mercilus: An All-America season in 2011 made Mercilus' decision rather easy. The fact that Illinois made a coaching change and defensive coordinator Vic Koenning departed for North Carolina further cemented Mercilus' choice. His draft stock skyrocketed after he led the nation in sacks (16) and ranked second in tackles for loss (22.5). It'll be interesting to see if Mercilus is selected in the first round, as some are projecting.

Iowa LT Riley Reiff: Although we didn't hear much about Reiff during the season, his stock seemed to remain very high. He's widely projected as a top-10 or top-15 draft choice, making his decision to leave Iowa rather easy. He's big, strong and smart and should be one of the top two or three tackles on the board come April.

Michigan State DT Jerel Worthy: Another unsurprising choice, as Worthy entered the season projected as a first-round pick and didn't do much to hurt his stock. While there have been some concerns about him taking off a play or two, his explosiveness and ability to dominate for stretches make him a very appealing prospect. A strong pre-draft season should cement Worthy as a first-round pick.

WHO'S BACK

Wisconsin RB Montee Ball: This came as a shock to many, as Ball had a breakthrough season, earning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors and a trip to New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist. He also plays a position that sees plenty of draft declarations. But a third-round grade from the NFL draft advisory committee kept Ball in Madison. He plans to add a bit of weight and try to improve his stock as a senior. Ball understands he's taking a risk by returning, but his drive to better himself as a college player is admirable.

Purdue DT Kawann Short: A team spokesman confirmed to ESPN.com that Short will be back at Purdue in 2012. He'll enter the season as one of the league's top defensive linemen.

Penn State DT Jordan Hill: Hill sought a draft evaluation after a nice season alongside Big Ten defensive player of the year Devon Still. He opted to return to Penn State, where he'll once again work with line coach Larry Johnson and attempt to follow Still's footsteps in 2012.

Michigan State CB Johnny Adams: Adams also received an assessment from the advisory board before announcing on Twitter last week that he'll be back in East Lansing. This seems like the right move, as Adams can improve his stock on a defense filled with playmakers.

Michigan QB Denard Robinson: Few thought Robinson would make the jump, and after getting his draft evaluation, "Shoelace" wisely opted to remain at Michigan.

Michigan CB J.T. Floyd: Coach Brady Hoke said before the Sugar Bowl that he fully expected Floyd to return. Despite a nice junior season, Floyd also made the right call and will be back with Michigan for 2012.

Ohio State DL John Simon: Despite NFL potential, Simon will be back for his senior season at Ohio State. Simon projects as one of the Big Ten's top defensive linemen in 2012. He can play both line positions and exhibits tremendous strength.

Penn State LB Gerald Hodges: Hodges said before the TicketCity Bowl that he'll be back at Penn State for the 2012 campaign, although he sought input from the advisory board. He'll be part of what could be the Big Ten's top linebacking corps as Michael Mauti returns from injury.
Ensuring that this Friday the 13th won't be too scary for Michigan fans, quarterback Denard Robinson and cornerback J.T. Floyd announced today that they will definitely return to school for their senior seasons.

Both players had asked for evaluations from the NFL draft advisory board, but both were widely expected to play for the Wolverines in 2012. But you never know what a player might decide once he starts thinking about the pros. (After all, who thought Michigan State running back Edwin Baker would skip out early?)

Robinson had said during the Allstate Sugar Bowl buildup that he fully planned on being back for his senior season, when he should be a leading Heisman Trophy candidate to start the year. He had this to say in Michigan's official release on Friday:

"It's been a dream to play in the NFL, and hopefully after next year that becomes a reality," he said. "But I wouldn't pass up being here with my teammates and coaches for anything. It's my second family. I love my teammates, I love Michigan.

"Seeing how the seniors led our team this year, I want to be that type of leader for Team 133. We made steps and had a good season, but we didn't accomplish our No. 1 goal. We're still hungry."

Floyd was an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection whose senior leadership should prove valuable on next year's defense.

"Being around all of the great people here, I just couldn't see myself not being here for my senior year," he said. "Our team still has work to do and places to go, and I want to be a part of it."

Final: Michigan 31, Illinois 14

November, 12, 2011
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Most expected Michigan's defense to improve this season, but few believed the unit would carry the team.

That's exactly what has happened as Michigan trudges through the second half of its season. Greg Mattison's defense continues to make significant strides, cover up the offense's mistakes and give the offense enough time to get things on track.

Michigan thumped hapless Illinois 31-14 on Saturday, and the margin should have been much bigger. The Wolverines outgained Illinois 249-30 in the opening half but led by only 14 points because of repeated mistakes by the offense. Denard Robinson fumbled twice in the half and Michigan couldn't fully take advantage of 134 first-half rush yards from Fitz Toussaint.

But all the Wolverines' errors didn't matter because their defense stifled Illinois, which has something seriously wrong on offense. The Illini failed to score in the first half for the FOURTH consecutive game, a recipe for disaster against a Michigan team that improves as games go on. Michigan held Illinois to 37 rush yards on 33 carries.

Wolverines senior defensive tackle Mike Martin continued to wreak havoc, helping to stuff Illinois' rushing attack. Michigan also received a huge interception from J.T. Floyd early in the fourth quarter.

The concern for Michigan going forward is the offense and specifically the quarterback position. Robinson looks a bit lost right now and completed just 6 of 10 passes before leaving the game in the fourth quarter. He appeared to get banged up late in the game. Devin Gardner led Michigan's final two scoring drives and fired a 27-yard touchdown pass to Martavious Odoms.

Offensive coordinator Al Borges has some decisions to make before next week's game against Nebraska, both with personnel and with his scheme. Although Toussaint was fabulous with 192 rush yards and a touchdown, the Wolverines can't expect to keep making so many mistakes and win.

Illinois has much bigger problems to worry about. Ron Zook's squad dropped its fourth consecutive game and seemed to backslide on both sides of the ball. The run game simply isn't there and Jason Ford, one of few offensive bright spots the past three contests, had just 26 rush yards and a lost fumble. I really expected more from Illinois' offensive line, and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has backslid after a blistering start.

The Illini defense is doing what it can, but the unit clearly needs more help. Illinois also suffered yet another mishap on a punt return.

After recording its best start since 1951 (6-0), Illinois finds itself in serious trouble entering the final two weeks. The calls for Zook's job likely will intensify, particularly if the Illini lose out to finish a once-unfathomable 6-6.

Interceptions hindering Irish early

September, 10, 2011
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- There's the red-zone offense we grew accustomed to seeing last week.

On first-and-10 from the Michigan 18, Tommy Rees forced a throw near the goal-line to Michael Floyd, who was in a sea of maize and blue. J.T. Floyd ended up getting his hands on the ball for the Michigan interception.

The pick was the second interception Rees threw in the second quarter. Rees completed his first eight passes in the first quarter, which ended with a 14-0 Irish lead. Denard Robinson changed that score with a 43-yard touchdown pass to Junior Hemingway in the second, though the Irish defense has been impressive in containing Shoelace on the ground.

The bigger concern, right now, is turnovers. We saw how costly those can be last week in a game the Irish out-gained their opponent 2-to-1. They'll need to avoid them the rest of the night to keep the game from slipping away.

Michigan coming up with turnovers

September, 10, 2011
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan's defense came up with timely turnovers last week against Western Michigan, turning two into defensive scores.

While the Wolverines haven't been great on defense tonight against Notre Dame, they are once again creating takeaways -- and getting a little help from the Irish.

Jordan Kovacs picked off a Tommy Rees pass early in the second quarter, setting up a 43-yard touchdown pass by Denard Robinson two plays later to make it 14-7. The Wolverines showed an aggressive defensive look before that interception, with their deepest player no more than 5 yards from the line of scrimmage. It seemed to confuse Rees.

Rees also made a mistake later in the red zone, forcing a ball into traffic that J.T. Floyd picked off. Notre Dame now has four turnovers in the red zone in its first six quarters of the season.

The Irish are still dominating statistically, but because Michigan has come up with a pair of turnovers, the game is still just 14-7. The Wolverines may need more, because right now they don't have a lot of answers for Michael Floyd, who's over 100 yards receiving already.
The Big Ten preseason position rankings have reached the home stretch as we take a look at the secondaries. Although individual positions like center and defensive tackle could boast more star power, the Big Ten's overall strength in the secondary jumps out.

There's a lot to like about the Big Ten cornerbacks as nearly every team boasts experience and/or exciting young players. The Big Ten loses All-Conference safeties Tyler Sash and Jermale Hines but brings back quite a few solid contributors.

There's definite separation after the top four groups, while Nos. 6-9 are extremely close.

Here's the rundown (coming soon: cornerbacks and safeties rankings) ...

[+] EnlargeDrew Astorino and D'Anton Lynn
Maxwell Kruger/US PresswirePenn State has an experienced secondary that includes safety Drew Astorino, right, and cornerback D'Anton Lynn, shown celebrating an Astorino interception last season.
1. Penn State: The Lions' linebackers seem to be generating more preseason buzz, but I really like what Penn State brings back in the defensive backfield. There's plenty of experience with safeties Drew Astorino and Nick Sukay, and cornerbacks D'Anton Lynn and Stephon Morris. Penn State needs Sukay to regain the form he showed in the first half of 2010 before a torn pectoral muscle ended his season. Lynn is a bona fide All-Big Ten candidate. If Malcolm Willis, Chaz Powell and others solidify depth here, Penn State should have an elite secondary.

2. Ohio State: This is a group the Buckeyes rarely have to worry about, even after losing three starters. The good news is several key players return from injuries, including safeties Tyler Moeller, C.J. Barnett and Christian Bryant. Moeller should provide a major boost at the "star" position. The cornerback spots should be fun to watch as Travis Howard and Dominic Clarke fend off some challengers for the starting jobs.

3. Nebraska: Like Ohio State, Nebraska can rely on having an elite pass defense under the Pelini brothers, even after losing several standout players. All-American corner Prince Amukamara will be missed, but Alfonzo Dennard is ready for a starring role. Nebraska needs Ciante Evans to follow what Dennard did in 2010. The Huskers likely will use more linebackers this season, but they'll need to fill holes at safety as Austin Cassidy, Courtney Osborne and others are in the mix.

4. Wisconsin: The Badgers' secondary took a major step forward in Chris Ash's first season on the staff. The key is continued progress, continued playmaking and becoming a truly elite group like Ohio State and Nebraska. Wisconsin seems to have the pieces in place with veteran Aaron Henry at safety, as well as All-Big Ten selection Antonio Fenelus and Devin Smith at cornerback. The Badgers must fill the other safety spot, and speedster Shelton Johnson could fill in there.

5. Michigan State: The secondary triggered Michigan State's 2010 turnaround, improving from 112th nationally in pass defense in 2009 to 60th last season. After recording 17 interceptions last season, the Spartans must stick to their MAP motto -- Make A Play -- as they aim for a repeat championship this fall. Safety Trenton Robinson is among the league's most experienced defensive backs, and hopes are high for cornerback Johnny Adams, who had an excellent spring. The unit could hinge on young players like Darqueze Dennard, Isaiah Lewis and Tony Lippett.

6. Iowa: The bad news is Iowa loses veteran safeties Sash and Brett Greenwood from a defense that slipped to 84th nationally against the pass in 2010. The good news is All-Big Ten cornerback Shaun Prater returns along with playmaking junior Micah Hyde. Prater could be a shutdown corner this fall, and Hyde, whose pick-six won the Insight Bowl, could play either corner or safety. Iowa must build depth around them with Jordan Bernstine, Greg Castillo, Tanner Miller and others.

7. Purdue: One of the Boilers' big question marks entering 2010 turned out to be a pleasant surprise, and the secondary could be a big strength this fall. Here's a group that could make a move up these rankings by November. Cornerback Ricardo Allen is a budding superstar who recorded two pick-sixes last season. Safety Logan Link is always around the football, and Josh Johnson could take a significant step as he complements Allen.

8. Illinois: I'm tempted to rank Illinois a few notches higher, and if the Illini address several questions in the secondary, I'll gladly do so after the season. If safety Supo Sanni returns to form and both he and cornerback Terry Hawthorne stay healthy, this could be an excellent group. Tavon Wilson returns to his preferred position of cornerback and could have a big season, while Trulon Henry brings experience to the safety spot.

9. Northwestern: Given the question marks in the front seven, Northwestern needs its veteran secondary to step up. Players like cornerback Jordan Mabin and safety Brian Peters should answer the bell this fall. Both multiyear starters can make plays on the football and change games. There's good competition between David Arnold and Ibraheim Campbell at the other safety spot, while Jeravin Matthews emerged this spring to win the starting corner job opposite Mabin.

10. Michigan: I'll probably take some heat from Wolverines fans, who will point to the return of cornerbacks Troy Woolfolk and J.T. Floyd, the emergence of young players like Carvin Johnson and a defensive makeover under Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison. All of that could lead to better results, but Michigan still has fewer certainties in the secondary than do most teams on this list. This unit has been a disaster the past few years, and it'll take a lot of things to go right to get things back on track.

11. Minnesota: Linebacker looks like a strength for the Gophers' defense, but there are questions both up front and in the secondary. The secondary will need more help from a line that generated no pass rush in 2010, but the defensive backs must help themselves, too. Cornerback Troy Stoudermire had a good spring and adds a big hitter to the group. Minnesota really needs big things from safety Kim Royston, who wants to lead the way after receiving a sixth year of eligibility. Building depth around Stoudermire and Royston will be vital in preseason camp.

12. Indiana: Fixing this group is arguably the biggest challenge for new coach Kevin Wilson and co-defensive coordinators Mike Ekeler and Doug Mallory. Indiana simply hasn't had enough Big Ten-caliber defensive backs in recent years, and the results have been ugly. The Hoosiers surrendered a league-worst 27 touchdown passes in 2010 and finished 114th nationally in pass defense efficiency. Sophomore safety Greg Heban is a nice piece, but Indiana will need a boost from Lawrence Barnett, Lenyatta Kiles and others.
T-Woolf is still in hibernation, but not for much longer.

Troy Woolfolk's alter ego only comes out on fall Saturdays. After an extended absence because of injury, T-Woolf is scheduled to reappear Sept. 3 when Michigan opens its season against Western Michigan.

"He doesn't come out till the season comes," Woolfolk, the Wolverines' fifth-year senior cornerback, said Thursday. "He stays dormant. He's not back yet."

Woolfolk continues to take steps toward his return after a dislocated ankle suffered in late August wiped out his 2010 season and dealt Michigan's secondary a major blow. Limited during spring practice, Woolfolk has been cleared for full participation.

[+] EnlargeTroy Woolfolk
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesTroy Woolfolk is looking forward to his return and making an impact on the field.
He first felt 100 percent healthy two to three weeks after Michigan's spring game and has been participating in team runs and 7-on-7 workouts this summer.

"Right now, I don't even remember getting injured," Woolfolk said. "Being out there, I don't feel it. It's not hampering me in any way. I can stop and break at 100 percent, so it's not even a factor.

"I feel like I'm going to hit the ground running right away. I don't think it'll take a few games for me to get my swag back. I'm going to have it from the jump."

The waiting game is nearly over for Woolfolk. The waiter game, meanwhile, is about to begin.

Woolfolk is hosting a fundraiser Sunday in Ann Arbor to benefit the local Humane Society chapter. The event, called Paws for a Cause, will feature a silent auction, a VIP reception and a three-course meal served by Woolfolk and several other Michigan players. Tight end Kevin Koger and offensive lineman Patrick Omameh are among the players joining Woolfolk as waiters for the night.

"I'm pretty sure they have no experience with that," Woolfolk said, "so it should be interesting."

Proceeds from the event will help find homes for abandoned animals and provide medical services for them. Woolfolk always grew up with pets and has both a dog (Julius) and a cat (Jasper) with him in Ann Arbor.

"I've always loved animals, and I wanted to give back somehow," he said. "The Humane Society does a great job helping all the injured and needy animals."

Woolfolk soon will resume summer workouts as he gets ready for preseason camp in August. He has been working mainly with Roy Roundtree, Michigan's top wideout, to prepare for the season.

The recovery was slow, as Woolfolk couldn't do much in the months after surgery. Michigan's defense allowed the most points (458) and pass yards (3,404) in the Big Ten last season, and the secondary Woolfolk could have anchored repeatedly had major breakdowns. Woolfolk started six games at cornerback and six games at safety in 2009, and he has 61 career tackles.

"It wasn't the injury as much because I can deal with pain," Woolfolk said. "It was just the fact I wasn't able to help the team. I saw suffering in some areas where I could help. I feel like I let the team down."

Woolfolk rehabbed throughout the winter and participated in some individual drills this spring. He began with a bang, intercepting a pass on his first drill, but things went downhill from there.

"I started getting beat on fade routes where I never did [before], I started getting beat on slants," he said. "My ankle wasn't right, but it slowly got better. Now I'm back locking down receivers."

If it isn't obvious, Woolfolk doesn't lack confidence, a must for a cornerback. It's an element Michigan's secondary needs after several brutal seasons. The unit has been hampered by injuries, inexperience and flat-out poor play, and the cornerback spot has been hit especially hard.

Woolfolk and J.T. Floyd both return from injuries, and Woolfolk is excited about the potential of young players like safety Carvin Johnson. He also likes the new defensive scheme under coordinator Greg Mattison.

The chance to end his Michigan career on a high note drives Woolfolk, who has been through turbulent times in Ann Arbor.

"This injury was a blessing in disguise because I've got one more year, everybody's gotten that much better and I think we're going to have a more productive year," he said. "I can't wait. I remember telling myself if I get a chance to come back, I've got to give it my all.

"Now I've got that chance."
My apologies for posting this late -- flying to California to visit family and actually posting this from somewhere over Iowa -- but Michigan reportedly has lost another cornerback.

Cullen Christian told Superprep.com that he's requested a transfer and will play football elsewhere. Christian appeared in 10 games last season as a true freshman, recording six tackles.
"Coach [Brady] Hoke is a great guy and I have no issues with him at all," Christian told Superprep.com. "I had meetings with my other coaches and I just didn't like the direction that they had me going in. I think it is best that I move on and finish my career elsewhere."

He said he felt he performed well in spring practice until a back injury sidelined him for a scrimmage and the spring game.

Christian is the second player to depart since Hoke became coach. Safety Ray Vinopal transferred to Pittsburgh.

Although Michigan could be fine at cornerback if Troy Woolfolk and J.T. Floyd get healthy and perform to their capabilities, it's amazing what has happened to this position in recent years. Here's a look at all the issues the Wolverines have had at cornerback.
Since many of you have asked, I won't be attending any spring games this weekend (or next, for that matter). It's a little tough to explain to non-media folks, but I get a lot more out of visiting campuses midweek than for spring games, when things are chaotic. The good news: I'll recap every spring game Monday.

Now it's time to preview the six Big Ten spring games on tap Saturday (in reverse alphabetical order) ...

PENN STATE

The vitals: Blue-White Game presented by AAA kicks off at 2 p.m. ET Saturday at Beaver Stadium; admission and parking are free

More details: Penn State has a pregame autograph session and a ton of events planned for the weekend. All the information can be found here.

Three things to watch

1. The quarterbacks: The race for the starting job has been the top story at Penn State this spring, and all four candidates will be on the field Saturday. Most eyes will be on sophomore Rob Bolden and junior Matt McGloin, who split the starts in 2010 and have paced one another throughout the spring. Both players have impressed the coaches, who likely won't name a starter until the summer. Saturday marks the final chance for Bolden and McGloin to showcase their abilities for the coaches and fans before spring ball concludes.

2. Line play: Penn State has to upgrade both lines if it wants to contend in the Leaders division this season. The Lions have very little depth at defensive end because of injuries, but fans should keep an eye on defensive tackles Devon Still, Jordan Hill and Brandon Ware, all of whom have drawn praise from the coaches this spring. Penn State needs a big year from its interior linemen. The offensive line boasts four seniors and should be solid at the tackle spots, but it'll be interesting to see how the guards and centers perform as Penn State must replace standout Stefen Wisniewski.

3. Running backs: Injuries will keep several Penn State playmakers on the sideline Saturday, but fans should get a clear read on the running backs. There's a lot of hype for Silas Redd after a solid freshman season, but he's being pushed by Stephfon Green and Brandon Beachum, who has stood out this spring after missing all of last season with a torn ACL. Green and Redd both have breakaway ability, while Beachum could be the power back Penn State has missed in recent years.

NORTHWESTERN

The vitals: The spring football "exhibition," which will be more of a situational scrimmage, kicks off at noon CT (1 p.m. ET) at Ryan Field; admission and parking are free but fans are encouraged to bring nonperishable canned-food items for a food drive.

More details: Northwestern is holding a youth football clinic and several other events. All the info can be found here.

Three things to watch

1. The race for backup QB: All-Big Ten selection Dan Persa is on track to return by late May or early June, but he won't be taking any snaps Saturday. Northwestern will divide the reps evenly between three signal-callers -- sophomore Kain Colter, junior Evan Watkins and redshirt freshman Trevor Siemian -- vying to play behind Persa this season. Colter is the most intriguing candidate after a breakout performance against Texas Tech in the TicketCity Bowl, but all three players have endured some ups and downs this spring.

2. New faces on defense: The coaches feel they've upgraded the athleticism on defense with recent recruiting, especially at spots like linebacker and defensive back. Northwestern's defense looked slow and overmatched at times last season, and quite a few jobs are open this spring. Keep an eye on players such as linebackers David Nwabuisi and Damian Proby and redshirt freshman safety Ibraheim Campbell, a player coach Pat Fitzgerald has praised multiple times this spring.

3. The running backs: Persa carried the run game in 2010 but admits he took too many shots and will try to limit the damage this fall. He could use more help from a run game that has suffered since Tyrell Sutton graduated. Mike Trumpy provided a spark late last year and has had a good spring, and Adonis Smith has a year under his belt. Keep an eye on Tyris Jones, a physical runner who has stepped up this spring as a running back/H-back.

(Read full post)

National Signing Day is just about a week away, so let's take a look at the recruiting needs for each Big Ten team.

In compiling these lists, I tried to look at positions that have depth issues for 2011 and/or 2012.

Let's start off with the Legends division.

IOWA

Running back: Marcus Coker's breakout performance in the Insight Bowl got Iowa fans excited for the future, but there's still a significant depth issue here. If Adam Robinson can't get reinstated, the Hawkeyes will be looking for No. 2 and No. 3 options behind Coker. As we've seen the past two seasons, freshmen backs will see the field at Iowa.

Linebacker: Iowa felt the losses of Pat Angerer and A.J. Edds this season, and it must continue to rebuild the depth at the three linebacker spots. Multiyear starter Jeremiha Hunter departs along with players like Jeff Tarpinian and Troy Johnson. Iowa needs to build around rising star James Morris.

Wide receiver/tight end: Iowa loses Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, Allen Reisner and Colin Sandeman this year. Also, receiver Marvin McNutt and tight end Brad Herman depart after the 2011 season. Although the Hawkeyes boast young talent at both positions, they need to build depth with this class.

MICHIGAN

Secondary: The Wolverines couldn't find many answers here in 2010, and though the return of players like cornerbacks Troy Woolfolk and J.T. Floyd will help, there are opportunities for freshmen to make an immediate impact. Michigan simply needs more options at both secondary spots in 2011.

Defensive line: It's crucial for coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison to begin building depth up front. Future NFL player Mike Martin departs after 2011 along with Ryan Van Bergen, so Michigan needs to solidify both line positions.

Kicker: Field goals were an adventure in 2010, and Michigan simply can't have so much uncertainty at kicker going forward. The Wolverines need a reliable leg here ASAP.

MICHIGAN STATE

Linebacker: I like some of the young linebackers the Spartans bring back in 2011, but you can't overlook the losses of multiyear starters Greg Jones and Eric Gordon, not to mention reserve Jon Misch. Michigan State should have a decent group of first-string 'backers, but wants to build depth in the defensive midsection.

Offensive line: Not only do the Spartans lose three starters from the 2010 line, but they're still not where they need to be depth-wise up front to become a consistent top-tier Big Ten program. Michigan State wants to become like Iowa and Wisconsin. The big step is to keep fortifying both lines, especially on the offensive side.

MINNESOTA

Pass rusher: Minnesota finished last in the Big Ten in sacks last season (9) and hasn't had an intimidating pass rusher since Willie VanDeSteeg in 2008. The recent departure of defensive tackle Jewhan Edwards, who led the team in both sacks and tackles for loss in 2009, underscores this need.

Offensive line: The Gophers lose three starters up front, and while they boast some promising young linemen like tackle Ed Olson, the depth just isn't there yet. Minnesota's best teams had powerful offensive lines, and new coach Jerry Kill must continue to create competition up front.

NEBRASKA

Running back: The Huskers lose standout Roy Helu Jr., and while Rex Burkhead quickly will become one of my favorite Big Ten players, he might not be an every-down back for Nebraska going forward. You always want options in the backfield, and Nebraska must continue to address its run game with the 2011 class.

Wide receiver: Nebraska loses Niles Paul and wants to identify playmakers to surround Taylor Martinez or whomever starts at quarterback. Brandon Kinnie departs after the 2011 season, and while Burkhead helps in the receiving department, Nebraska needs others to emerge.

NORTHWESTERN

Running back: Although Mike Trumpy and Adonis Smith emerged as possible answers late in the 2010 season, Northwestern needs to create real competition here. The Wildcats have lacked a dominant back during the Pat Fitzgerald era and need a dangerous rushing option to complement Dan Persa.

Defensive line: The Wildcats lose only one starter (Corbin Bryant) from the 2010 squad, but four more rotation players (Vince Browne, Jack DiNardo, Kevin Watt and Niko Mafuli) depart after 2011. Fortifying the pass rush is a major priority going forward.

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