NCF Nation: Jack Ramsey

It has been hard enough for Illinois to slow down Missouri's offense with a healthy secondary the past few years.

Now the Fighting Illini will try to stop Blaine Gabbert and co. without two projected starters.

Starting cornerback Terry Hawthorne will miss 3-6 weeks with a stress fracture in his foot, Illinois head coach Ron Zook said today. Hawthorne had a screw inserted after dealing with the injury in his fifth metatarsal.
"He had [the injury] as a junior in high school, and he didn't practice for a week," Zook told ESPN.com. "He's such a tough kid, he doesn't complain about anything. It bothered him a little bit during camp, but he never said anything, so he kept going. You love him because he doesn't ever complain, but if he would have said anything, maybe we would have been able to get away with just giving him a few days off. But he'll be fine and we'll be fine."

Hawthorne's injury comes just days after Illinois lost junior Supo Sanni, the projected starter at strong safety, for the season with a ruptured right Achilles' tendon.

Hawthorne was one of few bright spots for Illinois in 2009, starting five games as a true freshman and recording an interception and five pass breakups.

The recent losses will put defensive backs like Tavon Wilson, Travon Bellamy, Trulon Henry and Miami Thomas in the spotlight. Justin Green recently moved from running back to defensive back, and receivers Steve Hull and Jack Ramsey also could see some work in the secondary.

"You get concerned in the depth department," Zook said, "but Travon Bellamy's had a great camp and really has done well. We have Tavon Wilson playing at both places, corner and safety. And we're taking a look at Justin Green, who really has a chance to be a special player for us."

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

There are some positions on the depth chart that make Big Ten coaches cringe. There are other spots that make them smile and nod their heads.

Let's take a look at several fully loaded positions in the Big Ten.

Ohio State's defensive line: There is talk the Buckeyes' front four could be the best since the 2002 national championship squad. Ohio State is stacked at defensive end with All-Big Ten candidate Thaddeus Gibson, Cameron Heyward and Lawrence Wilson, who can be effective if healthy. Tackle Doug Worthington brings a ton of experience to the interior line, and Dexter Larimore and Todd Denlinger add depth there.

Iowa's offensive line: This group is well on its way to restoring the tradition established during the early part of coach Kirk Ferentz's tenure. Iowa boasts the league's top tackles tandem in Bryan Bulaga and Kyle Calloway, and there are a host of experienced interior linemen. Julian Vandervelde developed nicely in 2008, and Andy Kuempel, Rafael Eubanks and Dan Doering all are solid options at guard. The emergence of oft-injured Dace Richardson this spring adds another body to the mix. Aside from the center spot, Iowa looks extremely solid up front.

Michigan State's secondary: Despite losing All-Big Ten safety Otis Wiley, Michigan State should be even stronger in the back half. Three starters return in the secondary, including corners Chris L. Rucker and Ross Weaver. Michigan State boasts depth with corners Jeremy Ware and Johnny Adams and safeties Kendell Davis-Clark and Marcus Hyde. And the breakout performance of the spring came from another safety, Trenton Robinson, who certainly will see playing time this season.

Penn State's linebackers: Linebacker U. is back in 2009. Penn State boasts one of the nation's top linebacker tandems in Sean Lee and Navorro Bowman, both of whom will contend for All-America honors. And it doesn't stop there, as sophomore Michael Mauti is poised for a big year on the outside. Penn State also boasts veteran depth with Josh Hull, Chris Colasanti and Bani Gbadyu.

Illinois' wide receivers: Juice Williams will have no shortage of options in the passing game this fall. All-America candidate Arrelious Benn leads the Big Ten's deepest receiving corps, which features Jeff Cumberland, Chris Duvalt, A.J. Jenkins, Cordale Scott and Jack Ramsey. Florida transfer Jarred Fayson worked his way into a starting spot this spring and will draw opposing defenders away from Benn.

Michigan's running backs: Whoever wins the starting quarterback job in Ann Arbor will have plenty of help in the backfield. Hopes are extremely high for senior Brandon Minor, who finished strong last season despite battling several injuries, including one to his right (ball-carrying) wrist. Backing up Minor will be Carlos Brown and Michael Shaw, both of whom will be more accustomed to Rich Rodriguez's offense. Bite-size back Vincent Smith emerged this spring to provide another option with breakaway speed.

Northwestern's secondary: One of the league's weakest units a few years ago has transformed into a major strength for the Wildcats. All four starters return from 2008, and safety Brad Phillips and cornerback Sherrick McManis are strong candidates for All-Big Ten honors. Safety Brendan Smith and cornerback Jordan Mabin both are natural playmakers, and Northwestern boasts depth in players like Brian Peters, Justan Vaughn and David Arnold.

Wisconsin's H-backs/tight ends: Travis Beckum's star-crossed senior season opened opportunities for other players in 2008, and the result is a multitude of options at tight end for 2009. Mackey Award candidate Garrett Graham leads the way at the H-back spot, and senior Mickey Turner and junior Lance Kendricks provide reliable options in the passing game.

Big Ten lunch links

April, 21, 2009
4/21/09
12:30
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

In case you missed it, Ohio State's Chris "Beanie" Wells took another step toward playing Saturday. We're rolling right along as game day approaches. 

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The Big Ten preseason has seemed downright boring compared to the rest of the country.

There's no Mark Sanchez or Ben Olson crisis in this league, and though Ohio State has endured a few recent off-the-field incidents, the Buckeyes have nothing on Georgia. None of the four major quarterback competitions -- Michigan, Wisconsin, Penn State and Indiana -- are settled, and the one in Ann Arbor could drag on for some time. Wisconsin dismissed running back Lance Smith, but the Badgers remain well-stocked at the position.

If the first two weeks of preseason practice have revealed anything, it's that a position that seemed weak in the league could be much better than forecasted.

The Big Ten lost seven of its top 10 receivers from last season, a group that included three-time league receptions leader Dorien Bryant, big-play dynamo Devin Thomas, Indiana career receiving leader James Hardy and Michigan stars Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington. Aside from Ohio State, Penn State and Northwestern, every Big Ten team entered camp with some degree of uneasiness about the wide receivers.

Michigan State and Indiana lost superstars. Michigan lost almost everybody. So did Purdue. Illinois and Minnesota needed second options. Iowa welcomed back several prominent pass-catchers from injuries. Wisconsin was very young at the position.

The anxiety level has dropped quite a bit.

Illinois, which will stress the pass more this fall, has produced several good candidates to complement Arrelious Benn, including juniors Jeff Cumberland and Chris Duvalt, sophomores Chris James and Alex Reavy and freshmen Jack Ramsey, A.J. Jenkins and Cordale Scott. Highly touted Fred Smith will make an impact this fall at Michigan State, but he's been overshadowed a bit by classmate Keshawn Martin. Michigan's young wideouts impressed first-year coach Rich Rodriguez from the get-go, and the Wolverines will lean on players like Darryl Stonum, Martavious Odoms, Terrance Robinson, Toney Clemons and Junior Hemingway come Aug. 30.

I was extremely impressed after watching Wisconsin sophomore David Gilreath, a big-play threat with tremendous speed. Though I didn't see Purdue practice after media day, junior-college transfer Arsenio Curry certainly looks like he can contribute alongside Greg Orton. Playmaker Andy Brodell is back in the fold at Iowa, and sophomore Colin Sandeman looks to be pushing incumbent Derrell Johnson-Koulianos for the starting job. Ray Fisher and Andrew Means headline a group of Indiana wideouts that also include some promising freshmen.

There has been so much buzz about the spread offense sweeping through the Big Ten. It looks like the league will have the moving parts to make those schemes work this fall.

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