NCF Nation: Jay Thomas
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
It's time to go inside five Big Ten teams preparing for the second round of league games.
Illinois: Head coach Ron Zook will increase his rotation on defense after the Illini dropped to last place in the Big Ten in points allowed (32 ppg). LinebackersRussell Ellington and Sam Carson and safety Donsay Hardeman all are expected to see more plays Saturday at Michigan (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET). Zook has some versatility with Travon Bellamy , who can play both safety and cornerback. The coach attributed Illinois' run-stopping struggles (182.5 ypg allowed) to the back half as the team tries to overcome the losses of All-American middle linebacker J Leman and talented safetiesKevin Mitchell and Justin Harrison. "I don't foresee starting lineup changes," Zook said, "but I do see guys that are going to be held accountable. ... We're going to play more guys and our job is to make sure we fix it."
Michigan State: Defensive back Kendell Davis-Clark could be back soon after missing the last four games with a shoulder injury. Davis-Clark's return presents some interesting decisions for head coach Mark Dantonio, who originally shifted Davis-Clark from cornerback to safety afterRoderick Jenrette was asked to take a leave of absence from the team. Danny Fortener replaced Davis-Clark in the season opener at Cal and has performed well, ranking second on the team in tackles (29) with three pass break-ups and an interception. Davis-Clark, who started 11 games at cornerback last season, is listed behind Fortener on the depth chart for Saturday's game against Iowa (ESPN2, noon ET).
Minnesota: The Gophers continue to list three players as possible starters at running back on this week's depth chart, but head coach Tim Brewster acknowledged that freshman DeLeon Eskridge has taken the lead. Eskridge racked up a team-high 131 all-purpose yards in Minnesota's league-opening loss to Ohio State last week. With five touchdowns, he's already halfway to reaching Minnesota's freshman record of 10 set by Laurence Maroney in 2003. Another freshman, Shady Salamon, and junior Jay Thomas also remain in the mix for playing time. "If you had to say one of three guys stepped out, you'd say DeLeon Eskridge," Brewster said. "The other two guys will definitely continue to play some."
Ohio State: Aside from left tackle Alex Boone, none of the spots on Ohio State's offensive line are set in stone. True freshman Michael Brewster remains the starter at center, but Jim Cordle could move back over from guard if necessary. Cordle and a healthy Steve Rehring are listed as co-starters at left guard. Right tackle Bryant Browning also can play a guard spot, and Rehring is a possibility at tackle. Freshmen tackles J.B. Shugarts and Mike Adams also could be the mix at some point as much-needed competition increases up front.
Purdue: The Boilers' spread offense is at its best with a large rotation of receivers, and they're starting to see more playmakers emerge. Senior Desmond Tardy is listed as a starter on this week's depth chart ahead of junior Keith Smith after catching 10 passes for 175 yards and a touchdown last week against Notre Dame. Purdue also has seen encouraging moments from junior college transfer Aaron Valentin. Head coach Joe Tiller wants to see more from his other juco wideout, Arsenio Curry, who brings excellent size (6-foot-4, 217 pounds) but has yet to catch a pass. Tight end remains a question mark, as starter Kyle Adams is doubtful for Saturday's game against Penn State. Adams hasn't played since he hurt his knee on the opening kickoff of the season opener.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
It's time to go inside five Big Ten teams as they prepare for the start of league play on Saturday.
Illinois -- The defensive line might finally be taking shape for the Illini after some illness/injury issues. Sophomore Josh Brent is back in the fold at defensive tackle, which has allowed standout Will Davis to move back to his natural position of defensive end. Freshman Cory Liuget also has emerged at defensive tackle, a spot vacated when projected starterSirod Williams tore his ACL during training camp. "It's important that we can [rotate] guys in there and keep us fresh," head coach Ron Zook said. Zook called the defensive line the team's strength before the season, but the group will need to elevate its play Saturday night against Penn State's powerful rushing attack, which ranks eighth nationally (274.3 ypg).
Indiana -- When the NCAA cleared Florida transfer Jerimy Finch to play this season, Indiana's secondary looked like one of the deepest groups on the team. That depth will be tested Saturday against Michigan State (ESPN, noon ET). The Hoosiers will be without at least one starting safety (Nick Polk, knee) and could miss their other starter, as strong safety Austin Thomas is questionable for the game with a lower leg injury. Coach Bill Lynch announced that starting cornerback Chris Phillips will miss the remainder of the season with a torn ACL. So the Hoosiers could be replacing three starters against the Spartans. Finch figures to see plenty of time.
Michigan -- A bye week allowed Michigan's offensive line time to heal, though a knee injury to tackle Perry Dorrestein last week in practice clouded things a bit. Mark Ortmann is expected back from a dislocated elbow and should rotate at left tackle with Dorrestein if Dorrestein can play. Left tackle is one of three offensive line spots that have an "OR" listed between potential starters on the depth chart. Converted defensive linemanJohn Ferrara could start at right guard in place of David Moosman, who is listed at both guard and center on the depth chart. Redshirt freshman Mark Huyge also should be back from an ankle injury, so the coaches have some decisions to make up front.
Minnesota -- True freshman running back DeLeon Eskridge has stepped up in the two games after Duane Bennett's knee injury, but coach Tim Brewster isn't quite ready to call Eskridge his featured back. Brewster said Eskridge, freshman Shady Salamon and junior Jay Thomas all will play Saturday at No. 14 Ohio State, and Minnesota will stick with whoever has the hot hand. The coach admitted that identifying a clear-cut starter has become less of a concern than it was after Bennett went down. Eskridge has 192 rushing yards and five touchdowns the last two games.
Ohio State -- Quarterback isn't the only offensive position where youth will be served Saturday against Minnesota. Freshman Michael Brewster remains the starter at center on this week's depth chart after playing a prominent role last week against Troy. The Buckeyes movedJim Cordle from center to left guard after Steve Rehring injured his foot against USC. Rehring will miss "another week or so," coach Jim Tressel said, so that means more time for Brewster, one of several heralded freshmen in Ohio State's recruiting class.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
This week needs no introduction. It boasts an excellent selection of games around the Big Ten, certain to destroy my nearly spotless season record. Two matchups with the Pac-10 and another with a non-BCS power from the West Coast headline the slate, which will largely determine public opinion about the Big Ten until the bowl season.
Expect a bunch of offense on Saturday, except in South Bend.
Michigan State 44, Florida Atlantic 23 -- Rusty Smith and the Owls offense will test the Spartans, who need their line to generate pressure and their patchwork secondary to hold together. But Florida Atlantic's defense has looked awful so far and it's only a matter of time before Javon Ringer gets going again. Quarterback Brian Hoyer and wideouts Mark Dell and B.J. Cunningham should have big games as well.
Minnesota 45, Montana State 14 -- The audition to replace running back Duane Bennett begins as Minnesota gets a long look at junior Jay Thomas and freshmen DeLeon Eskridge and Shady Salamon. The Gophers lost to a FCS team (North Dakota State) last year, but quarterback Adam Weber won't let it happen again. Montana State running back Demetrius Crawford tests Minnesota's front seven.
Illinois 55, Louisiana-Lafayette 24 -- Until Illinois' defensive line starts playing to its potential and stopping the run, teams will continue to put up points. Louisiana-Lafayette quarterback Michael Desormeaux is very dangerous on the move, so linebackers Brit Miller and Martez Wilson need to track him. Juice Williams continues to put up huge numbers against an overmatched defense.
Northwestern 37, Southern Illinois 21 -- C.J. Bacher and his receivers regain their timing against a Salukis defense that gave up 31 points to Hampton in the opener. More importantly, running back Tyrell Sutton gets on track after cramps limited him against Duke. Running back Larry Warner and the SIU offense should keep things close for a while, but Northwestern pulls away in the third quarter.
Iowa 31, Iowa State 21 -- The home team has won the last four Cy-Hawk Trophies, and though the Hawkeyes haven't been tested this fall, they'll prevail at Kinnick Stadium. Iowa State's struggles to defend the run hurts against blossoming back Shonn Greene. Expect an early hiccup for quarterback Ricky Stanzi, but Iowa's acknowledged starter settles down in the second quarter.
Penn State 51, Syracuse 10 -- Syracuse has a big weekend on tap with the premiere of "The Express," a film about Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis. The actual game will be the lowlight. Syracuse allowed 42 points to Akron at home last week, and Penn State provides a much tougher test. Daryll Clark, Evan Royster and Stephfon Green run all around the Carrier Dome.
Oregon 44, Purdue 31 -- This will be a shootout for a while before Oregon pulls away on the field and on the scoreboard. Purdue's coaches gushed all week about the Ducks' team speed, and it will take a phenomenal game plan from defensive coordinator Brock Spack to keep Oregon in check, especially with his fastest linebacker, Jason Werner, sidelined. Joe Tiller's record-setting win will have to wait a week.
Michigan 21, Notre Dame 10 -- The Wolverines' veteran defensive line is the difference against a still shaky Fighting Irish offensive front. Jimmy Clausen won't spend as much time on the ground as he did last year in Ann Arbor, but Michigan defensive end Tim Jamison should cause some havoc. Quarterback Steven Threet makes a few mistakes before moving the ball with short passes, and a Michigan running back breaks a long touchdown run.
USC 31, Ohio State 24 -- The Buckeyes perform better than many expect, but there are just too many factors going against them. USC never loses in L.A. -- at least not to formidable opponents -- and the bye week should benefit the Trojans. Ohio State's defense generates an early turnover, but the offense won't be able to keep up for four quarters without a fully healthy Chris "Beanie" Wells. Terrelle Pryor makes a big play and a bone-headed one, and the Buckeyes' national title hopes fade -- at least for now.
Wisconsin 28, Fresno State 27 -- I had Fresno State winning this game until a conversation Tuesday night with a Wisconsin player (check back Friday to see who he was). The Bulldogs certainly provide an incredible challenge, but the Badgers avoid another slow start and start pounding away with their running backs. All-American tight end Travis Beckum makes his debut and comes up with a big catch or two in the fourth quarter as Wisconsin survives.
Season record: 19-2
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Injuries are cropping up around the league, and coaches are shuffling pieces to try to find the right fit. Here's a look at five key issues in the Big Ten.
Minnesota -- Just when the Golden Gophers found a viable running threat, they received news that Duane Bennett tore his ACL against Bowling Green and will miss the rest of the season. Coach Tim Brewster will audition three players -- junior Jay Thomas and freshmen Shady Salamon and DeLeon Eskridge -- at the running back spot in hopes of identifying a featured back. The Gophers need more than one capable runner, but Brewster doesn't want a rotation there. Though Thomas has by far the most experience, Eskridge and Salamon are listed behind Bennett on this week's depth chart.
Michigan State -- The Spartans apparently no longer have cornerbacks or safeties, just general defensive backs. Before the season, coach Mark Dantonio moved starting corner Kendell Davis-Clark to safety after projected starter Roderick Jenrette took a leave of absence. Dantonio now is considering switching another starting cornerback, Ross Weaver, to safety after Davis-Clark sustained a shoulder injury against Cal and missed last week's matchup against Eastern Michigan. Davis-Clark is listed as day-to-day but didn't appear on this week's depth chart for Florida Atlantic.
Ohio State -- Cornerback Donald Washington returns from a two-game suspension Saturday against USC (ABC, 8 p.m. ET), but the two-year starter might not retain his job. Ohio State likely will platoon Washington and sophomore Chimdi Chekwa, who has started the first two games. Coach Jim Tressel also seems intent on keeping Jermale Hines in the mix, possibly at nickel back. Hines should get decent playing time Saturday because the Buckeyes don't know whether linebacker/safety Tyler Moeller will be able to play after suffering an injury.
Michigan -- Redshirt sophomore Perry Dorrestein likely will make his season debut as the Wolverines' starting left tackle Saturday at Notre Dame after Mark Ortmann dislocated his elbow last week. Dorrestein previously had backed up Stephen Schilling at left tackle. Michigan already is without two guards who went down with injuries before the season. Coach Rich Rodriguez expects Bryant Nowicki and true freshman Patrick Omameh to fill in behind Dorrestein on the left flank.
Penn State -- The still-unresolved suspensions of starting defensive linemen Maurice Evans and Abe Koroma and the season-ending injury to Jerome Hayes leave the Nittany Lions in a bit of a bind. Both the end and tackle positions have depth issues, and end might be a greater concern as Penn State doesn't have much behind Josh Gaines and Aaron Maybin. One possibility would be moving true freshman Jack Crawford from tackle to end, though Paterno is leery about Crawford's inexperience. If Crawford switches, it puts more pressure on keeping Jared Odrick, Ollie Ogbu and Tom McEowen healthy.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Purdue's media day begins later Thursday morning, and I'll be there to check in with Heisman candidate Curtis Painter, coach-in-waiting Danny Hope and the rest of the Boilers.
First, I give you the links on the other 10 teams.
- My appearance at Camp Rantoul made Bob Asmussen's daily practice recap in The [Champaign, Ill.] News-Gazette. Thanks, Bob. Much more newsworthy items include a note on Illinois center Ryan McDonald and the fact several projected starters will appear on special teams this fall. Zook's best recruits at Illinois have come from the Washington, D.C., area, but he's also going back to his Ohio roots for talent. No big secret here, but the 2008 season hinges heavily on quarterback Juice Williams.
- Forget about Iowa's history of bouncing back from bad seasons on and off the field. Want a reason to be optimistic about the Hawkeyes? Wide receiver Andy Brodell is back in the fold, Susan Harman writes in the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Brodell is a difference-maker. Forbes magazine calls Iowa's Kirk Ferentz the worst value in college football, given his salary. I still think Iowa had to finalize Ferentz's contract at the time.
"The most overpaid coach is Iowa's Kirk Ferentz, who made $3.4 million last year despite lackluster results on the field, for a score of 71. Just how lopsided is Ferentz's deal? During the last three years he's pocketed $10 million, including a record $4.7 million in 2006, but has led the Hawkeyes to just a 19-18 record."
- Mitchell Evans came to Indiana with an open-minded attitude about where he'd play. The Hoosiers are putting that approach to the test by moving Evans to wide receiver, Terry Hutchens writes in The Indianapolis Star. A couple of more previews on Indiana, which wants to get back to a bowl game and win it this time.
- Rich Rodriguez might not be beloved on the practice field, but he also keeps his door open for his new players, the AP's Larry Lage writes. Nebraska's Bo Pelini isn't the only big-time coach looking to rebuild the walk-on program at his school. RichRod wants all the help he can get, John Heuser writes in The Ann Arbor News.
- Michigan State running back A.J. Jimmerson is no stranger to competition at his position, Chris Solari writes in the Lansing State Journal. A nationally televised opener at Cal gives the Spartans a chance to make an early statement, Shannon Shelton writes in the Detroit Free Press.
- Running back is a big concern at Minnesota, but a healthy Jay Thomas should help matters, Myron Medcalf writes in the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune. Two years ago, Jeff Tow-Arnett and Adam Weber worked on the quarterback-center exchange as young scout teamers at Minnesota. Now they're in the spotlight as starters, Marcus Fuller writes in the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
- The Chicago Sun-Times' Jim O'Donnell checks in from Camp Kenosha, where Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald sees his defense improving and his new-look offensive line coming together. The Wildcats' bowl hopes hinge heavily on senior quarterback C.J. Bacher, Jay Taft writes in the Rockford Register Star.
- Despite two national title misses, Ohio State's coaches aren't concerning themselves with the past, Rob Oller writes in the Columbus Dispatch. Probably a good thing. Defensive tackle could be a weak spot for the Buckeyes, but defensive coordinator Jim Heacock likes what he has, The Cleveland Plain Dealer's Doug Lesmerises writes in his blog. Buckeyes center Jim Cordle could fool defenders at the line by snapping the ball with both hands, Ken Gordon writes in the Columbus Dispatch.
- Tyrell Sales is filling some big shoes as Penn State's linebacker leader, Ron Musselman writes in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The starters look set in Penn State's secondary, but watch out for reserve safety Drew Astorino, The (Harrisburg) Patriot-News' Bob Flounders writes in his blog. The Philadelphia Inquirer's Jeff McLane has a rundown of the improvements at Beaver Stadium this fall.
- Wisconsin cornerbacks Allen Langford and Aaron Henry have walked parallel paths following ACL surgery. Both men are back in the mix for starting jobs, Jeff Potrykus writes in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Defensive end O'Brien Schofield, a projected starter opposite Matt Shaughnessy, will miss 1-2 weeks of practice after suffering an ankle injury. End Kirk DeCremer remained out of both Wednesday practices, while quarterback Allan Evridge could return today, Potrykus writes in the Badgers Blog.
After an extended examination of the Big Ten quarterbacks, from conundrums at four schools to stability at others, it's time to start rolling out position rankings. Let's begin with a look at the league's running backs.
For several positions, such as running back, wide receiver and linebacker, I'll break up the rankings into individual (top 10) and team. For offensive line, it will only be team. The reason? Beanie Wells is the Big Ten's best running back, but Wisconsin's four-pack might be the strongest group.
|AP Photo/Terry Gilliam|
|Beanie Wells rushed for 1,609 yards and 15 TDs last season.|
1. Chris "Beanie" Wells, Jr., Ohio State -- Heisman contender enters his junior season as the league's premier back. Wells was consistently productive last season despite playing most of it with a bad ankle and a broken bone in his left wrist. His offensive line returns virtually intact, putting Beanie in line for another 1,500-yard season.
2. Javon Ringer, Sr., Michigan State -- Excellent slasher could push Wells for the league's rushing title. Last fall, Ringer rushed for 1,447 yards and six touchdowns -- big man Jehuu Caulcrick usually got the call near the goal line -- and expects to get more carries this season. Caulcrick's absence could hurt, but Ringer has thrived in the team's run-first offense.
3. P.J. Hill, Jr., Wisconsin -- The Badgers will throw different looks at defenses, but Hill is undoubtedly the first option. Hill finally enjoyed a healthy offseason and was able to increase his strength in the weight room. Despite being banged up last fall, Hill still rushed for 1,212 yards and 14 touchdowns. If he stays on the field, his combination of size and speed is hard to contain.
4. Tyrell Sutton, Sr., Northwestern -- After winning Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors in 2005, Sutton has left center stage, struggling in an anemic offense as a sophomore and missing most of last season with a high ankle sprain. He's fully healthy and headlines an offense stocked with veteran skill players. If a new-look line jells, Sutton will show why he's still one of the league's best backs.
5. Evan Royster, So., Penn State -- Teammate Stephfon Green has Happy Valley buzzing, but defenses better not forget about Royster. He averaged 6.3 yards a carry last season as Rodney Kinlaw's backup, and enters the summer as Penn State's No. 1 back. Royster is a strong between-the-tackles runner but, like Green, has breakaway ability, as he showed with a 38-yard touchdown in the Alamo Bowl.
6. Kory Sheets, Sr., Purdue -- Fumbling problems have prevented Sheets from becoming Purdue's featured back, but he could claim the lion's share of the carries as a senior. Sheets averaged 5.1 yards per carry and scored 11 touchdowns last fall, finishing ninth in the league with 859 rushing yards. If he can hang onto the ball this fall, Sheets should have a strong finish to his career.
7. Jaycen Taylor, Jr., Purdue -- Taylor is definitely tough enough to be Purdue's featured back. He returned to the field last fall just four games after breaking his left arm. The next step is consistent production, which Taylor showed at times in 2007. Sheets' ongoing fumbling problems caused coach Joe Tiller to give Taylor the slight edge on the depth chart coming out of spring ball.
8. Marcus Thigpen, Sr. Indiana -- Everyone knows Thigpen has elite speed, but he hasn't proven to be a viable threat out of the backfield. The senior figures to get more carries this fall as Indiana tries to complement quarterback Kellen Lewis with another rushing threat. Thigpen proved he can step up in big games, rushing for 140 yards in a bowl-clinching win against Purdue last November.
9. Stephfon Green, Fr., Penn State -- He hasn't played a college game yet, but his speed and big-play potential have Penn State fans counting the days until Aug. 30. Green will play behind Evan Royster, but if he duplicates his spring-practice highlights in a meaningful setting, he'll dash past a lot of backs on this list.
10. Lance Smith-Williams, Jr., Wisconsin -- Teammate Zach Brown merits a mention here, but consider what Smith-Williams did last season. Suspended from playing in away games, he rushed for 429 yards and three touchdowns on only 71 carries (6.0 ypc average). Allowed to travel with the team this season, Smith-Williams provides an excellent complement to Hill in the run game.
1. Wisconsin -- The variety of size, skill and depth provided by Hill, Smith-Williams, Brown and hyped redshirt freshman John Clay can't be matched in the league. A new starting quarterback will have plenty of help.
3. Penn State -- If Green backs up his hype on the field, the Lions could jump up the list. Royster and Green give Penn State two formidable threats alongside a new starting quarterba
4. Purdue -- Sheets and Taylor have competed forever, with neither man cementing the No. 1 spot. But as a tandem, they give pass-happy Purdue another strong dimension.
5. Michigan State -- Ringer is a proven star who can punish defenses with his slashing speed. Though the Spartans lost Caulcrick, the league's eighth-leading rusher last season, hopes are high for A.J. Jimmerson, Andre Anderson and Ashton Leggett.
6. Northwestern -- The Wildcats should get back to their running roots under new offensive coordinator Mick McCall. Sutton is dangerous when healthy, and versatile senior Omar Conteh filled in nicely last fall.
7. Michigan -- No proven commodities here, but offensive coordinator Calvin Magee has a track record for producing all-league backs. Brandon Minor looked good this spring, and Carlos Brown returns from a broken finger. If Kevin Grady resolves his legal troubles, he gives the Wolverines a big, versatile body in the backfield.
8. Illinois -- Quarterback Juice Williams is a running threat, but Illinois didn't identify a replacement for Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Rashard Mendenhall in spring practice. Junior Daniel Dufrene likely will get the first shot at the top job, with both Troy Pollard and freshman Mikel LeShoure also in the mix.
9. Indiana -- When opponents prepare for Indiana's run game, they talk about quarterback Lewis. It's up to the running backs -- Thigpen, Bryan Payton, Demetrius McCray or freshman Darius Willis -- to put another name in the scouting report.
10. Minnesota -- Here's another team with the quarterback (Adam Weber) as its leading rusher. Jay Thomas comes off his second ACL surgery and will compete with promising sophomore Duane Bennett for the job. Both men have potential, but there's little depth behind them.
11. Iowa -- Albert Young and Damian Sims are gone, and the Hawkeyes ended spring with a walk-on (Paki O'Meara) as their top running back. Yikes. Shonn Greene returns to potentially stabilize things, and incoming freshmen Jeff Brinson and Jewel Hampton will get looks in camp.