NCF Nation: Jaycen Taylor

Big Ten power rankings: Week 9

October, 26, 2009
10/26/09
9:03
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

There’s clear separation at the top after Saturday’s games. Wisconsin and Michigan State are solid in the four and five spots. After that, it gets pretty messy until the bottom, as evidenced by a three-way tie at No. 7.

1. Iowa (8-0, 4-0): Kirk Ferentz would love a 20-point win right about now, but he’ll certainly take what he’s getting from his incredibly resilient team. It looked like Michigan State’s hook-and-lateral play would end Iowa’s perfect season, but junior quarterback Ricky Stanzi responded with a 70-yard drive, capped by a scoring pass to Marvin McNutt with no time left on the clock. What magic does Iowa have in store down the stretch as it chases perfection?

2. Penn State (7-1, 3-1): The Lions are a very dangerous team right now, and they gained a huge confidence boost by winning at Michigan Stadium for the first time since 1996. Senior quarterback Daryll Clark has been masterful since the Iowa loss, and weapons are emerging around him in Graham Zug, Andrew Quarless and others. A win this week against Northwestern sets up a huge game against Ohio State on Nov. 7.

3. Ohio State (6-2, 4-1): There was plenty of angst at halftime Saturday against Minnesota, but Terrelle Pryor and the Buckeyes totally dominated the final 30 minutes. Pryor turned in arguably his best half of the season, and wide receiver DeVier Posey is looking more and more like a star. Thaddeus Gibson (three sacks) led another ferocious defensive effort. Ohio State must continue to build confidence on offense this week before heading to Happy Valley.

4. Wisconsin (5-2, 2-2): The Badgers were idle on Saturday but move up a spot in the rankings. After back-to-back losses before the bye, Bret Bielema’s crew needs to get back on track at home against surging Purdue. Quarterback Scott Tolzien has thrown five interceptions and no touchdowns in his last two games and must be careful against a Boilers defense that has started to force turnovers.

5. Michigan State (4-4, 3-2): One play can make a huge difference in a season, and Michigan State once again found itself on the wrong end Saturday night. The Spartans defense was suffocating until the final 1:37 and left the inside route open for McNutt on the game’s decisive play. I still think this program will do big things in the future, but losses like Saturday’s reinforce that Michigan State hasn’t arrived.

6. Minnesota (4-4, 2-3): It’s very hard to know where to slot the Golden Gophers at this point. They’ve made some strides on defense this year but remain mistake-prone and offensively challenged. Life without wide receiver Eric Decker (ankle) could be downright miserable if Minnesota doesn’t shake things up on offense. It might be time for MarQueis Gray at quarterback. Minnesota needs to get things turned around at home, where it plays its next three games.

T-7 Northwestern (5-3, 2-2): If every game started with Northwestern down 18 to 25 points, the Wildcats might be undefeated right now. Throughout the season they’ve played their best in seemingly desperate situations. This team clearly has a lot of flaws, but heart isn’t one of them. A banged-up defense has made strides since the Minnesota loss on Sept. 26, and if a running game emerges, Northwestern could win a few more games.

T-7 Michigan (5-3, 1-3): The Penn State game confirmed Michigan isn’t ready for prime time yet, as the Wolverines looked sloppy on both sides of the ball. Youth and depth were Rich Rodriguez’s big concerns entering the year, and both factors are hurting the team right now. Rodriguez needs to get quarterbacks Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson back on track. Perhaps more importantly, the defense needs to avoid major breakdowns.

T-7 Purdue (3-5, 2-2): Call them the Boiler Spoilers from here on out, as Purdue tries to take down higher-rated teams in the next three weeks. Purdue followed up its upset win against Ohio State with its cleanest performance of the season, a turnover-free win against Illinois. If the run game of Ralph Bolden and Jaycen Taylor can complement Joey Elliott, Purdue's offense will be dangerous, as long as it limits turnovers. The defense seems to be getting better each week.

10. Indiana (4-4, 1-3): The Hoosiers' resolve will be tested after blowing a 28-3 lead against Northwestern. Head coach Bill Lynch made several questionable decisions down the stretch, and Indiana's offense couldn't convert three second-half interceptions into any points. Indiana will need to pull off an upset against Iowa, Wisconsin or Penn State to have any chance at a bowl.

11. Illinois (1-6, 0-5): Ron Zook is coming back for another season, but this one continues to slip down the drain. Illinois shuffled quarterbacks in its loss to Purdue, struggled to stop the run and dropped its sixth game by double digits. Zook keeps trying new things to spark his team, but nothing has worked this season.

Big Ten picks for Week 1

September, 3, 2009
9/03/09
10:03
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


The games are back, and so are the picks. Hold your applause. Every Thursday this fall, I'll forecast what will happen in the Big Ten.

Last year, I went 71-17 (80.7 percent) during the regular season. That's all you need to know.


THURSDAY



Indiana 27, Eastern Kentucky 17:
The pistol offense gets off to a slow start, but Indiana's defense contains Eastern Kentucky and buys time for Ben Chappell and Co. to get going. Running backs Demetrius McCray and Darius Willis have a big night and the Hoosiers rack up five sacks as they open new-and-improved Memorial Stadium with a win.


SATURDAY



Ohio State 38, Navy 10:
The Mids receive the greeting they deserve from Buckeye Nation, but the reception on the field will be different. Ohio State's defensive line is disciplined enough to stop the triple option, and Navy doesn't appear to be as strong as it has been in past years. Buckeyes quarterback Terrelle Pryor has a nice debut in the win, and Dan Herron has a big day on the ground.


Penn State 45, Akron 17:
Joe Paterno returns to the sideline and enjoys the view as running back Evan Royster opens with a 150-yard effort in the opener. Akron quarterback Chris Jacquemain and his veteran wide receivers make some plays against an iffy Nittany Lions secondary, but Penn State pulls away in the second quarter and never looks back.


Northwestern 34, Towson 6:
Those expecting a drop-off from Northwestern forget that defense carried this team in 2008 and will do the same this fall. Towson's offense has major question marks and manages just two field goals against the Wildcats, who start slow on offense but pick things up in the second half behind quarterback Mike Kafka and freshman running back Arby Fields. Towson allowed more than 230 rush yards a game last fall.


Michigan State 31, Montana State 13:
The Bobcats from Bozeman aren't pushovers, having upset Colorado in 2006 and keeping things close for a while against Minnesota last year. Standout defensive end Dane Fletcher makes some plays early, but Kirk Cousins eventually gets on track and uses his many weapons at wide receiver and tight end. Spartans backup quarterback Keith Nichol also logs time and performs well, keeping the competition tight heading into Week 2.


Minnesota 31, Syracuse 21
: One of the more intriguing Week 1 matchups goes to the Gophers, who struggle a bit early amid the hoopla over Doug Marrone's Syracuse debut and Greg Paulus' return to football. Paulus makes a play or two against the Minnesota defense, but Adam Weber and a dynamic group of Gophers wideouts steal the show. Eric Decker and Hayo Carpenter each catch two touchdowns as Minnesota pulls away in the third quarter.


Purdue 31, Toledo 24:
Some tense moments in head coach Danny Hope's debut at Purdue, but the Boilermakers prevail thanks to a solid rushing attack led by Ralph Bolden and Jaycen Taylor. Toledo's offense returns plenty of veterans and moves the ball against an iffy Purdue front seven. Bolden turns the tide early in the fourth quarter with a long touchdown run.


Iowa 28, Northern Iowa 9:
Iowa needs its defense to step up from the get-go, and the unit comes through against Northern Iowa, a formidable FCS opponent. Hawkeyes junior quarterback Ricky Stanzi displays obvious improvement and finds the rejuvenated Tony Moeaki for two touchdowns. The run game is so-so for Iowa, but it doesn't need much from Paki O'Meara and Adam Robinson in the win.


Michigan 28, Western Michigan 24:
Popular opinion is going against the Wolverines after everything that happened this week in Ann Arbor, but Rich Rodriguez's crew finds a way to start 1-0. Tim Hiller and the Broncos have their way with Michigan's secondary in the first half, but Wolverines defensive end Brandon Graham turns the game with a sack and a forced fumble early in the third quarter. Quarterbacks Tate Forcier, Nick Sheridan and Denard Robinson make enough plays against a vulnerable WMU defense.


Illinois 44, Missouri 38:
The Illinois-Missouri matchup usually oozes offense, and this year will be no exception. But Juice Williams gets the final say against Sean Weatherspoon and the Tigers, as he finds four different receivers for touchdowns. Sophomore running backs Jason Ford and Mikel LeShoure both show improvement as a dynamic Illini offense secures a big win in the Edward Jones Dome.


Wisconsin 30, Northern Illinois 23:
The Huskies are on the rise under second-year coach Jerry Kill and boast a dangerous quarterback in sophomore Chandler Harnish. Wisconsin worries me a bit on both sides of the ball, but running backs Zach Brown and John Clay should have a big day against an NIU defense that lost star Larry English. It'll be tight for a while, but I can't see the Badgers losing a night game at home.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Prognostication guru Phil Steele released his preseason All-Big Ten teams Tuesday, and fans of Penn State and Ohio State undoubtedly will be pleased.

Although both teams lost sizable and decorated senior classes, Penn State put six players on Steele's first team, while Ohio State has four. The big surprise is that Penn State quarterback Daryll Clark, widely considered the league's best signal-caller, slipped to the third team behind Illinois' Juice Williams and Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor.

Steele also released his preseason All-America teams, and here's the breakdown for the Big Ten:

First team -- Illinois WR Arrelious Benn, Michigan P Zoltan Mesko

Second team -- Penn State RB Evan Royster, Iowa LT Bryan Bulaga, Minnesota WR Eric Decker, Penn State LB Sean Lee

Third team -- Michigan DE Brandon Graham, Penn State DT Jared Odrick, Penn State LB Navorro Bowman, Ohio State PR Ray Small

Fourth team -- Ohio State LG Justin Boren, Northwestern DE Corey Wootton, Illinois LB Martez Wilson, Michigan State LB Greg Jones

Getting back to the Big Ten list, which was generally pretty solid but had some interesting notes and surprises:

  • There are clearly two elite wide receivers in the Big Ten in Benn and Decker. After that, it's a crapshoot. Purdue's Keith Smith was the third wideout named to Steele's first team. Unproven players like Minnesota's Hayo Carpenter (second team), Ohio State's DeVier Posey (third team) and Northwestern's Andrew Brewer (fourth team) also earned recognition.
  • I was a little surprised to see Purdue's Jaycen Taylor listed as a second-team running back ahead of Iowa's Jewel Hampton. Taylor comes off an ACL injury and never beat out Kory Sheets for the starting job when he was healthy. Hampton filled in very well behind Shonn Greene last year.
  • Michigan State running back Edwin Baker was the only incoming freshman to make Steele's list as a fourth-teamer.
  • Illinois defensive tackle Josh Brent, who was suspended for spring ball after receiving a DUI in February, is listed on the first team next to Odrick. Brent is a talented player, but Purdue's Mike Neal might have been the safer pick here.
  • The offensive line selections were interesting. Experience beat out potential as Wisconsin's John Moffitt earned the second-team nod over Ohio State's Mike Brewster. I was very surprised not to see Northwestern linemen Al Netter or Ben Burkett on the list. Indiana had two linemen selected (Cody Faulkner and Rodger Saffold) despite really struggling in that area a year ago, and Iowa surprisingly only had tackles Bryan Bulaga (first team) and Kyle Calloway (second team) on the rundown.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Every Big Ten team circled and underlined a few questionable positions entering spring practice. Some of those concerns went away as young players blossomed and depth was built. Where did each Big Ten team get better this spring?

Here's a snapshot:

Illinois' running backs -- The development of sophomores Jason Ford and Mikel LeShoure this spring gives Illinois plenty of options at running back heading into 2009. Ford and LeShoure both improved physically and mentally and will compete with senior Daniel Dufrene to be the featured runner. Bottom line: Juice Williams' job should be easier.

Indiana's offensive line -- After being decimated by injuries last season, Indiana can feel a bit better about the front five. Tackle James Brewer might finally be reaching his potential, and center Will Matte impressed the coaches in the middle of the line.

Iowa's offensive line -- This group figured to be pretty solid no matter what, but Iowa got some help from a familiar name in the interior line. Dace Richardson might finally be healthy, and he worked with the first-team at left guard as Iowa tries to replace all-conference linemen Seth Olsen and Rob Bruggeman.

Michigan's offensive line -- Not a major surprise here, considering the Wolverines bring back all their starters from last season. But an extra year of experience plus several talented redshirt freshmen (Ricky Barnum, Patrick Omameh) joining the mix should pay off big time this fall.

Michigan State's quarterbacks -- The Spartans felt great about the progress of quarterbacks Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol, who both threw for 357 yards and four touchdowns in the spring game. Head coach Mark Dantonio is in no rush to name a starter, but unlike many men in his position, he really has two viable options here.

Minnesota's wide receivers -- With superstar Eric Decker playing baseball, Minnesota needed to identify other solid options at receiver. Return specialist Troy Stoudermire emerged as a big-play threat, and quarterback Adam Weber liked what he saw from Brandon Green and Da'Jon McKnight.

Northwestern's running backs -- Of the three offensive skill positions where Northwestern loses starters, running back appears to be the most stable. Sophomore Jeravin Matthews emerged this spring and will push Stephen Simmons for the starting job. Northwestern has several options in the backfield after losing four-year starter Tyrell Sutton.

Ohio State's linebackers -- You can't deny all the production Ohio State loses in its defensive midsection, but the spring revealed several solid players who can step in. Austin Spitler and Tyler Moeller have waited their turn for the spotlight, and Brian Rolle had an excellent spring. With returning starter Ross Homan back on the outside, the Buckeyes should once again be solid.

Penn State's defensive line -- Despite losing three defensive ends with starting experience, Penn State should once again boast one of the league's top pass rushes. Sophomore Jack Crawford looks like the Nittany Lions' next superstar pass rusher and should fill the void on the edge with Eric Latimore and Kevion Latham.

Purdue's running backs -- Even with Jaycen Taylor still rehabbing from a torn ACL, Purdue got a lot better at running back this spring. Ralph Bolden came out of nowhere to steal the show in spring scrimmages (420 rush yards, 4 touchdowns), and Dan Dierking also looked impressive. The Boilers will need a viable rushing attack this fall, and they can feel a lot better about this group.

Wisconsin's wide receivers -- Dropped passes dogged the receivers throughout 2008, but the group definitely got better this spring. Nick Toon emerged as a potential No. 1 target with an excellent performance in practice, and Isaac Anderson, Kyle Jefferson and David Gilreath all showed progress at times.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

We've already looked at players to watch and spring surprises. Now it's time to look at the guys who didn't do much during spring practice but will play vital roles for Big Ten teams this season.

Who needs to step up for each team?

Donsay Hardeman, S, Illinois -- Neck surgery sounds pretty scary, but Hardeman likely will return to the field this fall after undergoing the procedure during the offseason. He can provide experience at the all-important safety spot after recording 44 tackles, an interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery last fall.

Deonte Mack, DT, Indiana -- Any number of players could fit in this spot for the injury-plagued Hoosiers, but Mack, who missed spring ball following hip surgery, must provide leadership at an extremely thin position. Pass-rushers Greg Middleton and Jammie Kirlew will only be effective if opponents have to worry about the interior line.

Tony Moeaki, TE, Iowa -- It's hard not to pull for Moeaki, a heralded prospect who has endured injury after injury with the Hawkeyes and was on crutches during spring ball. He's expected to return this summer and possibly fill a key role after Iowa lost first-team All-Big Ten tight end Brandon Myers.

Jonas Mouton, LB, Michigan -- Michigan's improvement on defense must start with the linebackers, and Mouton returns to the mix after shoulder surgery kept him off the field this spring. Mouton finished second on the team in tackles last fall (76) and could form a solid linebacker tandem with Obi Ezeh.

Jeremy Ware, CB, Michigan State -- One of several contributors in the Spartans' secondary to miss spring ball with injuries, Ware will be a key name to monitor during the summer. He emerged nicely last season, recording an interception and six pass breakups.

Eric Decker, WR, Minnesota -- Decker wasn't hurt this spring, but he spent the time playing center field for the Gophers' baseball team. There's little doubt he's one of the nation's best receivers, but he must absorb a new offensive system installed this spring and re-establish rhythm with quarterbacks Adam Weber and MarQueis Gray.

Corey Wootton, DE, Northwestern -- How Wootton recovers from ACL surgery could shape Northwestern's defense this fall. The All-Big Ten selection missed spring ball but is ahead of schedule on his recovery and expects to practice this summer. With questions on offense, the Wildcats need Wootton to return to top form.

Dane Sanzenbacher ,WR, Ohio State -- A projected starter in the slot, Sanzenbacher missed the latter part of spring practice with a high ankle sprain. He might be Terrelle Pryor's most dependable target heading into the fall, so a strong summer will be vital for the junior.

A.J. Wallace, CB, Penn State -- The secondary remains the biggest question mark for Penn State, and Wallace can ease some of head coach Joe Paterno's concerns with a strong preseason camp performance. Hamstring problems once again slowed Wallace this spring, but the Lions sorely need his speed in pass coverage.

Jaycen Taylor, RB, Purdue -- Taylor has by far the most experience of any Boilermakers running back, so his return this summer from a torn ACL looms large. Ralph Bolden put himself in the mix for the starting job with a stellar spring, but Taylor gives new head coach Danny Hope with a proven ball-carrying option.

Louis Nzegwu, DE, Wisconsin -- Unlike a year ago, the Badgers avoided many major injuries this spring, but they'll certainly be watching Nzegwu during the coming months. The immensely gifted sophomore improved his body and impressed the coaches early on during spring ball until sustaining a torn MCL on March 31.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Several teams are getting healthy, while the status of Ohio State running back Beanie Wells remains in doubt as the Week 2 games approach.

Link time:

"History is building. In the eight previous seasons of the 21st century, the Big Ten bowl audit shows 10-12 vs. the SEC, 5-7 against the Big 12, 3-8 in meetings with the Pac-10 and 2-3 vs. the ACC. That's a 20-30 record that computes to 40 percent."
"You know him," she said. "He doesn't want to sit for a week and be rusty (for USC)."
When he spotted reporters Tuesday, Beanie waved his walking boot over his head. Looks like he'll be fine, Doug Lesmerises writes in The Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Big Ten power rankings

September, 2, 2008
9/02/08
9:50
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

There's minimal shuffling in the ratings after some good performances, some bad ones and some impact injuries. Beanie or no Beanie, Ohio State remains at the top and should stay there for a while, but Illinois and Michigan State missed opportunities to move up.

1. Ohio State: Sure, it was Youngstown State, but the Buckeyes were sharp on both sides of the ball. A star-studded defense didn't let the Penguins cross midfield until the game's final play, Terrelle Pryor turned in a solid debut and starting quarterback Todd Boeckman was steady.

2. Wisconsin: The Badgers are barely hanging onto this spot, mostly because of health concerns on defense. P.J. Hill and the run game looked superb against Akron, but several key defenders are banged up, which could hurt in Week 3 at Fresno State.

3. Penn State: Playmakers abound for the Nittany Lions, as overmatched Coastal Carolina found out Saturday. New starting quarterback Daryll Clark should get plenty of help from wideout Derrick Williams and a run game that produced 334 rushing yards Saturday.

4. Illinois: The Illini deserved to drop after a poor defensive performance against Missouri, but both Michigan and Michigan State lost and no one else beat a decent team. Quarterback Juice Williams did all he could against the Tigers, but a defensive line that was billed as the team's strength fell short.

5. Michigan State: How do the Spartans move up after a loss? They inspired more hope than Michigan and received excellent performances from wide receiver Mark Dell (202 receiving yards) and running back Javon Ringer (200 all-purpose yards) on the road against Cal.

6. Michigan: There's a ton of work to do on offense, and the transition at quarterback will take time to click. But the Wolverines' defense dominated Utah in the second half Saturday and should keep games close until the offense gets on track. Linebacker Obi Ezeh's play was particularly encouraging.

7. Northwestern: The Wildcats were the only Big Ten team to beat a BCS foe, though Syracuse barely qualifies anymore. Still, Northwestern received the boost it sought from a much-maligned defense, which produced a touchdown and a safety in a 30-10 victory. Running back Tyrell Sutton also looked in top form.

8. Iowa: A 4-0 start seems very possible for the Hawkeyes after Pitt's loss, and a mostly unproven group of running backs looked superb against Maine. Iowa still needs more consistency from quarterback Jake Christensen, but linebacker A.J. Edds is developing into a star and will boost a decent defense.

9. Indiana: Quarterback Kellen Lewis can take this team a long way and got off to a strong start after reclaiming his starting job in camp. Defensive end Jammie Kirlew had a nice game, but I'm still not sold on that unit until it faces a sterner test (Ball State on Sept. 20).

10. Purdue: The Boilermakers are hurt a bit by not playing, but more by the season-ending loss of running back Jaycen Taylor. With uncertainty at wide receiver, it would have helped if Curtis Painter could count on two backs instead of only Kory Sheets, who has had fumbling problems. Linebacker depth is a major concern, but an improved secondary could vault the Boilers up the list.

11. Minnesota: Kudos to the Gophers for matching last year's win total in Week 1, but they were seconds away from a home loss to Northern Illinois. The secondary remains susceptible to big plays, which won't cut it this week against Bowling Green and Tyler Sheehan.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Here are a few items I found while waiting for player interviews to start at Indiana.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Game week is almost here, and coaches around the league have some big decisions to make. Your only decision is to keep reading.

  • Rejus Benn could use a shave, particularly if he ends up on stage accepting an award or two in December. But the Illinois sophomore wideout isn't concerned about his preseason hype, Bob Asmussen writes in The (Champaign, Ill.) News-Gazette. Sirod Williams' season-ending knee injury put Illini defensive tackle Josh Brent in the mix to start, Mark Tupper writes.
  • No one at Indiana has said much about the reasons behind quarterback Kellen Lewis' spring suspension. But Lewis finally opened up Monday, saying he had thrown himself into "a party lifestyle," skipping classes and team meetings, Terry Hutchens writes in The Indianapolis Star. Very candid stuff from the junior:
"There were times when they called me and couldn't get a hold of me for three days. I had gone out and partied and then missed two classes and didn't wake up until 12:30. ... When you start believing in your own hype a little bit, you start thinking you can slide in a little bit later than everybody else. And now that you don't have to follow the same rules, you can bend this rule or that one. 'The essay is due on Thursday, but I can just e-mail it to [the instructor] later that night,' that kind of thing. And then it all just kind of caught up with me and my grades slipped to a point they had never slipped to before."
Also, some notes from Hoosiers practice, as wideouts Andrew Means and Brandon Walker-Roby returned to the field.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The season is less than two weeks away and several Big Ten teams look readier than others. I'll be heading to Bloomington on Wednesday to spend some time with Bill Lynch and the Hoosiers before flying to Columbus on Friday to hang with Beanie Wells and the Ohio State Buckeyes. The blog also will feature interviews with head coaches Tim Brewster, Mark Dantonio and hopefully Kirk Ferentz, so check back.

A bit of a light day around the league, but here are the links:

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Start your clocks. We're two weeks away. Before the scrimmages get going around the league, check out these links:

  • Bad news for Illinois as wide receiver Jeff Cumberland, a projected starter, will miss two to four weeks with a foot injury. The Illini could have used Cumberland's size against Missouri in the season opener. The (Champaign, Ill.) News-Gazette's Bob Asmussen has a revised preseason depth chart with Chris Duvalt moving into Cumberland's spot with the first-team offense.
  • Indiana tight end Max Dedmond models himself after Dallas Clark and even gets called "Dallas" in practice, Terry Hutchens writes in The Indianapolis Star. Also, no word yet on whether Florida transfer Jerimy Finch will be allowed to play this season. 
  • Iowa's offensive linemen hate the number 46 -- last season's sacks allowed total -- and vow to change things this fall, Susan Harman writes in the Iowa City Press-Citizen. There's also a nice personnel breakdown of the line. The sexual assault trial involving two former Iowa players appears headed for a delay.
  • Missed this from a few days ago, but The Ann Arbor News' Jim Carty answers some Michigan questions. He thinks four players, including running back Carlos Brown, will take snaps this fall.
  • Free safety has become a position of concern at Michigan State. Roderick Jenrette, a projected starter alongside Otis Wiley, has been asked to take an indefinite absence from the team to address a personal matter. Also, Spartans sophomore Enrique Shaw has left the program voluntarily. Junior Dan Fortener could step in for Jenrette. Spartans coach Mark Dantonio is borrowing some baseball sayings to address his team's current position, John Lemon writes in the Arlington Heights (Ill.) Daily Herald.
  • Minnesota has gone live (full tackling) more than most teams this preseason -- after last season, it needed to. Today's scrimmage will mark the end for a while, Kent Youngblood writes in the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune.
  • Don't know how Ohio State linebacker James Laurinaitis would do in the 200-meter butterfly, but he bears a resemblance to that Phelps guy, The Cleveland Plain Dealer's Doug Lesmerises writes in his blog. If you're going to Ohio State's open practice Monday, leave your cameras at home.
  • Penn State wideout Derrick Williams wants to end his career like he started it, with a trip to a BCS bowl.
  • Jaycen Taylor holds a slight edge over Kory Sheets right now, but if history is a guide, both Purdue running backs will play plenty, Tom Kubat writes in The (Lafayette, Ind.) Journal and Courier. Sheets first has to fix his fumbling problems.
  • Wisconsin might go with two kickers this season, but the Badgers definitely will use three running backs this season, Jeff Potrykus writes in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Defensive end Matt Shaughnessy returned to practice Friday after heading home following the death of his older brother.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

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.

The Big Ten had four teams rank among the top 30 nationally in rushing offense, and despite losing standouts Rashard Mendenhall and Mike Hart, the league looks solid in the backfield.

INDIVIDUALS

 
 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.

TEAM

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.

2. Ohio State -- Beanie Wells is a workhorse, but the Buckeyes have plenty of talent behind him in Maurice Wells, dynamic sophomore Brandon Saine and promising redshirt freshman Dan "Boom" Herron.

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
ck.

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.

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