NCF Nation: Jeff Lewis

Wisconsin's secondary, which was already a position facing some depth concerns this season, has suffered its second departure by a safety in about a week.

Last week, redshirt freshman Reggie Mitchell -- who had practiced as the team's starting free safety this spring -- was granted his release for an expected transfer to Pittsburgh. Now there is word that Donnell Vercher, a junior college transfer whom the Badgers signed in February to help shore up the safety spot, isn't coming to Madison after all.

According to a Fresno, Calif., TV report, Vercher was denied admission to Wisconsin and instead will play for Fresno State this season. Vercher, who had eight interceptions for Fresno City College last season, had committed to the Badgers right before signing day and was viewed as a potential challenger for a starting safety job.

So now there are even more questions for a Badgers secondary that returns only one starter: strong safety Dezmen Southward. The competition for the other safety spot figures to include junior Michael Trotter, who started three games last year but needs to raise his level of play; juco transfer T.J. Reynard, who signed with the Badgers just last month; and Jeff Lewis, who has reportedly moved from running back to safety to provide help.

I spoke with Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen on Monday and asked about the depth concerns in the secondary (before the Vercher news broke). Here's what he told me:

"Everybody has places where I guess they feel comfortable with the depth, and other places where they're a little bit concerned," he said. "Because Reggie departed, I don't think that makes me more overly concerned about the depth. It puts us in a situation kind of like the offensive line, where the depth is a little bit worrisome and we've got to be careful and smart. And I'd say the same thing about the safety position.

"The key thing at the safety position is to truly identify the two starters. As we came out of spring we had a starter, and we had some kids competing for the other spot. Reggie was one of those guys competing. Dez has the one locked down, which is as it should be. The other one is up in the air and we'll see how it goes. It is a concern, but it is what it is. We've all got some depth issues or concerns, and as we move forward, we'll do our best to clean it up."

Notes from Wisconsin practice

August, 17, 2011
8/17/11
8:00
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MADISON, Wis. -- Some notes and thoughts after watching Wisconsin's extensive full-pads practice Tuesday afternoon at Camp Randall Stadium.

  • Russell Wilson looks like the real deal. The quarterback transfer from NC State displayed impressive arm strength and touch and repeatedly extended plays with his feet. While he likely won't be as accurate as his predecessor Scott Tolzien, he might not be too far off and makes the difficult throws with ease. Wilson hit wideout Jared Abbrederis for a 25-yard touchdown during team drills and, aside from a poorly thrown shuffle pass, looked extremely polished. The offensive structure didn't look dramatically different with Wilson, who played in a pro-style system at NC State and seemed comfortable.
  • [+] EnlargeMontee Ball
    Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesMontee Ball, who rushed for 996 yards and 18 touchdowns last season, stood out in practice on Tuesday.
  • The other player who really stood out was junior running back Montee Ball. He has dropped significant weight, checking in at 207 pounds, and makes much crisper cuts. Ball reaches the second level faster and should record more explosion plays this season. Fellow running back James White also looked sharp on several cuts. While the coaches say they'll go with the hot hand at running back, Ball looks like he has the inside track.
  • Both Ball and White likely will be significant factors in the passing game. Wisconsin lacks depth at wide receiver -- top target Nick Toon sat out Tuesday's practice -- and while tight ends Jacob Pedersen and Jake Byrne will be involved, Wilson likes checking down to his backs, both of whom have good hands. The Badgers could use a No. 3 receiver to develop and rotated several players Tuesday, including freshman Connor Cummins. I liked several of the freshmen receivers and tight ends, including Sam Arneson.
  • The Badgers likely won't have a J.J. Watt or an O'Brien Schofield along the defensive line, but they hope to make up for it with improved depth. Wisconsin will use a larger rotation up front this fall, and I like the options at defensive tackle with Patrick Butrym, Ethan Hemer and Beau Allen.
  • No surprise here, but Chris Borland makes a huge difference for the Badgers defense. The middle linebacker had a pass breakup during 7-on-7s and constantly was around the ball. Borland's health after multiple shoulder injuries could be the key to the season. Mike Taylor sat out Tuesday's workout, so I didn't get a read on what the starting linebacker corps will look like.
  • Strong safety is an open competition between Dezmen Southward and Shelton Johnson, although Johnson appears to have an edge right now. Wisconsin is hoping Marcus Cromartie can shore up the No. 3 cornerback spot.
  • The offensive line is a bit banged up but still had a mostly strong performance Tuesday, opening up some huge holes for Ball and White. Coach Bret Bielema said the injuries both last year and during the offseason have helped get more players ready for possible game action.
  • Freshmen Melvin Gordon and Jeff Lewis are in the mix for the No. 3 running back spot, and both had ups and downs Tuesday. Wisconsin always seems to have a freshman back blossom, so it'll be interesting to see who keeps the trend going.
  • Backup quarterback Jon Budmayr remained out with an elbow issue, so Joe Brennan and Joel Stave took reps behind Wilson. Brennan displayed nice touch on passes to White and Jordan Fredrick, but also got intercepted by Derek Watt, J.J.'s brother. There's still a pretty significant gap between Wilson and the other quarterbacks, so getting Budmayr healthy is vital.
Beginning today, we're going to start ranking each position group in the Big Ten. These rankings will reflect the overall strength at each position, so depth matters as well as individual star power. Following each group ranking, we'll also give out our list of the top individual players at that position.

Let's start out with a look at the running back groups across the Big Ten.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball and James White
AP Photo/Morry GashMontee Ball and James White did a lot of celebrating last season, as the duo combined for 32 TDs.
1. Wisconsin: No surprise at the top. Even with John Clay gone and Zach Brown transferring, the Badgers are loaded at tailback. They've still got junior Montee Ball, who finished four yards shy of 1,000 last season with 18 touchdowns, along with reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year James White, who ran for 1,052 yards and 14 touchdowns. Throw in senior fullback Bradie Ewing and redshirt freshman Jeff Lewis, and the Badgers should be powerful on the ground yet again in 2011.

2. Michigan State: Other than Wisconsin, the Spartans have the best collection of experience and talent in the backfield. First-team All-Big Ten performer Edwin Baker ran for 1,201 yards and 13 scores last year. Le'Veon Bell, a 237-pound bruiser, complemented him as a true freshman with 605 yards and eight scores. Larry Caper is a capable veteran, and fifth-year senior Todd Anderson starts at fullback. The Spartans are deep and versatile in their rushing attack.

3. Ohio State: The Buckeyes might have earned a higher ranking if Dan Herron were eligible to play a full season. But with Herron (1,155 yards and 16 scores in '10) suspended for the first five games, Ohio State will need some youngsters to fill his shoes. The good news is that there are plenty of talented candidates. Jaamal Berry is the leading returning rusher outside of Herron, and he averaged 8.3 yards per carry in a limited role last season. Jordan Hall and Carlos Hyde will also battle for more playing time, while redshirt freshman Rod Smith could emerge as the No. 1 tailback after an impressive offseason. Zach Boren is back at fullback. Things may be in flux in Columbus, but you can almost always count on a good running game from the Buckeyes.

[+] EnlargeNebraska's Rex Burkhead
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesJunior Rex Burkhead averaged 5.5 yards per carry last season and scored seven TDs.
4. Nebraska: The Cornhuskers led the Big 12 in rushing last season with 247.6 yards per game on the ground, good for ninth in the FBS. Leading rusher Roy Helu Jr. is gone, but junior Rex Burkhead returns after a 951-yard campaign. He will occasionally line up at receiver or take snaps in the Wildcat. The Cornhuskers lack experience behind him but are expecting big contributions from incoming freshmen Aaron Green and Amer Abdullah. ESPN Recruiting ranked Green as the No. 11 player overall in the Class of 2011.

5. Penn State: Yes, the school's all-time leading rusher has moved on, as Evan Royster graduated. But the Nittany Lions still feel confident about their running game, which should be led by sophomore Silas Redd. He ran for 461 yards and 5.7 yards per carry as a true freshman, showing a physical style. Senior Stephfon Green will be asked to take on a larger role, and Brandon Beachum is back after missing last season with a knee injury. Joe Suhey and Michael Zordich are productive players at the fullback spot.

6. Purdue: The Boilermakers' stock in this chart could go up if Ralph Bolden successfully returns from injury. So far, so good for Bolden, who was a second-team All-Big Ten performer in 2009. Rob Henry led the team in rushing last year with 547 yards, but fullback Dan Dierking graduated. Junior college transfer Akeem Shavers got a lot of carries this spring and should contribute, and Reggie Pegram also is in the mix.

7. Iowa: Running back depth is a serious issue for Kirk Ferentz and the Hawkeyes. Adam Robinson, who would have been the leading returning running back in the Big Ten in terms of yards per game, was dismissed from the team following a December arrest. Marcus Coker could emerge as a superstar, however, after starting four of Iowa's final five games as a true freshman. He was the offensive MVP of the Insight Bowl with 219 rushing yards on 33 carries and has drawn comparisons to former Doak Walker Award winner Shonn Greene. There's virtually no proven experience behind him, though, and three-year starting fullback Brett Morse is no longer around.

8. Michigan: If only we could count Denard Robinson as a running back. Brady Hoke plans to cut down on Shoelace's carries, which means the Wolverines' tailbacks will get more of a chance to shine. The question is who will step up. Senior Michael Shaw and junior Vincent Smith split time as starters last season, while Stephen Hopkins and Michael Cox are in the mix for more carries. Can celebrated recruit Justice Hayes contribute right away?

9. Illinois: Mikel Leshoure's dash to the NFL left the Illini with uncertainty at running back. Senior Jason Ford, the most likely successor, sat out much of spring ball with a hurt knee, while Troy Pollard's promising spring was cut short by a concussion. Incoming freshman Donovonn Young will get a look this fall.

10. Northwestern: Like Nebraska and Michigan, Northwestern relied on its quarterback -- in this case Dan Persa-- for a heavy chunk of the rushing yards. Mike Trumpy came on late in the year as a freshman and solidified his starting spot with a strong spring. Sophomore Adonis Smith, senior Jacob Schmidt and junior Tyris Jones will fight for carries behind him.

11. Minnesota: There was healthy competition at tailback this spring with a mixture of veterans and fresh faces. DeLeon Eskridge led the team last year with 698 rushing yards, while Duane Bennett added 529. They're being pushed by redshirt freshmen Donnell Kirkwood and Lamonte Edwards. New coach Jerry Kill will look to improve on the Gophers' paltry 3.6 yards per carry average last season. This is a group that could make a major move up the rankings.

12. Indiana: New Hoosiers coach Kevin Wilson has a challenge in figuring out this group. Three of the top candidates for the starting tailback job, Darius Willis, Antonio Banks and Xavier Whitaker, all suffered season-ending knee injuries in 2010 and missed spring practice. IU's leading rusher last season finished with just 352 yards. Nick Turner and Matt Perez got the bulk of the reps in the spring. Perhaps Wilson's high-tempo offense will improve the stats for Indiana ball carriers.

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