NCF Nation: Joel Stave

Big Ten viewer’s guide: Week 7

October, 10, 2014
Oct 10
10:00
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Week 7 is here, and let’s not sugarcoat it: Big Ten football has looked more interesting on other weekends. This first Saturday of the season without nonconference action lacks marquee matchups. Still, the division races will continue to take shape.

Here’s a look at the five games (all times Eastern):

Noon

Illinois (3-3) and Wisconsin (3-2), ESPN2: Will Melvin Gordon run for 300 yards? If the Badgers wanted it to happen, Illinois’ 119th-ranked rushing defense would likely comply. More of the intrigue in Madison involves the quarterbacks. For Wisconsin, Joel Stave, who returned last week against Northwestern, will see time, in addition to Tanner McEvoy, who might also take a shot at receiver. And with Illinois’ Wes Lunt out with a fractured leg, senior Reilly O’Toole and sophomore Aaron Bailey, who was set to redshirt, have competed in practice this week.

Indiana (3-2) and Iowa (4-1), ESPNU: Indiana has shown it can win on the road in tough spots, handing Missouri its lone loss on Sept. 20. The Hoosiers are more explosive on offense than any foe Iowa has faced. But Indiana still can’t defend well, in particular against proficient quarterbacks. The Hawkeyes are going back to Jake Rudock at the start, but C.J. Beathard will play. How well can Greg Davis manage this? If it’s a disaster, Indiana might just find itself in the right place at the right time for an upset bid.

[+] EnlargeDavid Cobb
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesDavid Cobb and Minnesota can take a big step in their quest for a Western Division crown by beating Northwestern on Saturday.
Northwestern (3-2) at Minnesota (4-1), BTN: Who would have guessed a month ago, as the Golden Gophers fell flat at TCU and the Wildcats sat winless, that this game would have legitimate implications for the West Division title race? It does, with NU in quest of a third straight unexpected win to open league play. Its defense led the charge against Penn State and Wisconsin. Minnesota is simply solid, led by David Cobb, statistically the league’s most valuable offensive player. Minnesota has defended the pass especially well in recent games and will test Northwestern’s Trevor Siemian, 13th in the Big Ten in QBR.

3:30 p.m.

No. 8 Michigan State (4-1) at Purdue (3-3), ESPN2: At least it’s not the best team in the Big Ten against the worst. Purdue escaped the low spot last week with a win over Illinois. And sophomore quarterback Austin Appleby looked good in the victory. Very good, in fact. Back at home, he figures to find a much more difficult situation against the Spartans, who might come in a bit angry after nearly blowing a 24-point, fourth-quarter lead against Nebraska.

7 p.m.

Penn State (4-1) at Michigan (2-4), ESPN2: The visitors from Happy Valley, after an off week, get an opportunity to show that their anemic performance against Northwestern was just a fluke. With an upcoming stretch of three challenging games, no better time exists for PSU to get healthy than at Michigan, trying to avoid its first 0-3 start in the Big Ten since 1965. Against a good Penn State front, the Wolverines must protect Devin Gardner and throw the football, neither of which they’ve done well in recent weeks.

Required reading

Two QBs can work for Wisconsin

October, 6, 2014
Oct 6
3:25
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When we found out last week that Iowa planned to use two quarterbacks, it seemed a little bit odd. That's because the skill sets of Jake Rudock and C.J. Beathard aren't all that different.

On Monday, Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said he expects to go with his own two-quarterback system, beginning this weekend against Illinois. This not only makes more sense, it seems like the best way to cure what ails the Badgers' offense.

[+] EnlargeJoel Stave
David Manning/USA TODAY SportsJoel Stave will share time with Tanner McEvoy as Wisconsin searches for a spark to its passing game.
There's a clear distinction in styles between Tanner McEvoy, who has started all five games this season, and Joel Stave, who started all 13 times in 2013. McEvoy is the superior athlete who can make a difference with his legs, but he's pretty shaky throwing the ball. Stave is far more statuesque in the pocket, but gets the ball downfield better (relatively speaking, of course; he's not exactly Russell Wilson with his accuracy, either).

Andersen said it's possible one guy could do so well that he seizes all the playing time. But he likes the idea of juggling things and even -- and this makes me swoon -- having both guys on the field at the same time.

"I think that opens a can of worms for people to wonder what’s going to happen," Andersen said. "We’ll also play them in different situations. I’m a firm believer right now our offense as a whole, we’re best served to play both of those quarterbacks to help us move down the field."

How do you get two quarterbacks on the field at once? Well, Andersen acknowledged that McEvoy could see time at receiver. Remember there was much talk of playing McEvoy at receiver last season, when he eventually filled in and became a solid starter at safety. Given Wisconsin's problems at receiver as well as quarterback, his size and athleticism could come in handy.

And can you imagine a formation with both guys in the backfield, leaving opposing defenses to guess whether it's going to be an option run with McEvoy or a pass from Stave? Deception could mask some of the Badgers' obvious deficiencies in the passing game. (Answers, by the way aren't coming from backups Bart Houston or D.J. Gillins. Andersen said Houston is clearly No. 3 behind McEvoy and Stave, and the freshman Gillins will definitely redshirt this season).

None of this will likely matter this week against Illinois, who once again is fielding the Big Ten's worst rushing defense. The Badgers ran for 289 yards in Champaign last season, and Melvin Gordon could have that much by halftime this week if Tim Beckman's defense tackles as poorly as it did last week versus Purdue.

But for Wisconsin to get back in the West Division race, it simply has to improve a passing attack that has thus far generated just 749 yards -- or only 15 more than Washington State's Connor Halliday threw for in one game on Saturday night. With Stave back from the yips, Andersen now has options. And everything ought to be on the table, including a double-barreled quarterback system.

Weekend Rewind: Big Ten

October, 6, 2014
Oct 6
10:00
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As an unprecedented five of the top eight teams in the Associated Press poll lost in Week 6, the Big Ten experienced a calm Saturday by comparison.

But what would you have thought in August if told that on the first Saturday of October, Michigan would lose to Rutgers and Wisconsin would fall to a Northwestern team that started the season with losses to Cal and Northern Illinois?

Chaos.

With each of the 14 teams now underway in league play, it’s something more like a controlled mess.

Northwestern leads the West Division, set for a showdown on Saturday at Minnesota. Imagine that.

Michigan’s bowl prospects look bleak.

Oh, and Purdue won a league game. Let’s get to the Weekend Rewind.

[+] EnlargeRutgers defense
Noah K. Murray/USA TODAY SportsRutgers' defense gave Michigan QB Devin Gardner fits this past Saturday as the Scarlet Knights won their first game in the Big Ten.
Team of the week: Rutgers, baby. The Scarlet Knights and their fans partied hard on Saturday night after a 26-24 win over the woeful Wolverines, the first Big Ten victory ever for the New Jersey school. Incredible to think that Rutgers, picked by many to finish last in the Big Ten East, is a late defensive lapse against Penn State away from a 6-0 start. To beat Michigan, the Scarlet Knights got 404 yards through the air and three touchdown passes from quarterback Gary Nova and a Kemoko Turay block of Matt Wile’s long field goal with 3:01 to play.

Biggest play: Let’s go to the game billed as the biggest of the week. It unfolded as a dud for three quarters, then turned into a thriller as Nebraska rallied for 19 points in the final 13 minutes, falling 27-22 as Trae Waynes intercepted Tommy Armstrong Jr. with 30 seconds left at the Michigan State 17-yard line. No play was bigger, though, than MSU linebacker Ed Davis’ strip of star I-back Ameer Abdullah at the MSU 7-yard line after Macgarrett Kings fumbled a punt midway through the second quarter. Nebraska recovered at the 24, got a first down and appeared ready to score a touchdown to cut into the Spartans’ 14-0 lead. But Shilique Calhoun recovered Abdullah’s fumble and raced 38 yards to set up a field goal that extended Michigan State’s edge to 17-0. It kept momentum with the Spartans, who needed every point at the end.

Big Man on Campus (offense): Ohio State freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett threw for 267 yards and rushed for 71, leading the Buckeyes and their suddenly potent offense to a 52-24 win at Maryland. Barrett, over the past three games, has thrown for 909 yards with 14 touchdowns and one interception, compiling a raw QBR of 87.0, sixth-best nationally.

Big Man on Campus (defense): Northwestern freshman safety Godwin Igwebuike intercepted Wisconsin quarterbacks three times, and they were all big in the Wildcats’ 20-14 win. He picked Tanner McEvoy in the end zone to end the Badgers’ opening drive, got Joel Stave – again in the end zone – with less than six minutes to play and intercepted Stave near midfield with 18 seconds to play.

Big Man on Campus (special teams): Michigan State senior punter Mike Sadler performed like the All-America selection that he is, pinning Nebraska three times inside its 20-yard line on nine punts. Sadler punted to the 1-yard line in the first quarter and to the 2 late in the first half. Even the punt returned 62 yards for a touchdown by DeMornay Pierson-El required an exceptional effort just to field the ball. Really, though, Sadler earns this recognition for petting his imaginary cat during the game in a nod to this ongoing conversation with Faux Pelini.

Biggest faceplant: The Nebraska offensive line. Michigan State presented the toughest challenge of the season, no doubt, for the Huskers’ front five, but what happened? Nebraska rushed for 47 yards – more than 300 below its season average – and averaged 1.3 per attempt, both low figures in 88 games under Bo Pelini. Armstrong, before Saturday, had been sacked three times in five games; the Spartans got to him for five sacks and applied relentless pressure for much of the night. And while it wasn’t quite a faceplant, there was this lowlight from left guard Jake Cotton.
Five observations from Saturday in the Big Ten:

1. Michigan State and Ohio State are sharpening their teeth. So much for Nebraska as the Big Ten’s lone unbeaten. The Spartans, despite turning the ball over three times in their own territory in the first half, built a 27-3 lead through three quarters and held off a furious late Nebraska rally for a 27-22 victory. The MSU defense looked salty as ever through 45 minutes and neutralized Nebraska I-back Ameer Abdullah. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes continued their offensive resurgence. Since their Sept. 6 loss to Virginia Tech, freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett has led OSU to three straight showings of 50-plus points and more than 500 yards. On Saturday, it was 52-24 at Maryland as Barrett accumulated 338 yards of total offense. Considering the chaos that unfolded elsewhere in college football on Saturday, the Spartans and Buckeyes are moving back toward contention for the College Football Playoff. Their meeting on Nov. 8 in East Lansing is a de facto elimination game.

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke
Alex Goodlett/Getty ImagesWith their loss to Rutgers, Brady Hoke's Wolverines fell to 0-2 in the Big Ten.
 2. Things are getting worse for Michigan coach Brady Hoke. Rutgers and quarterback Gary Nova became the latest to celebrate at the expense of the Wolverines after the Scarlet Knights beat Michigan 26-24 in Piscataway for the school’s first Big Ten win. Kemoko Turay blocked a long field goal with three minutes to play, and Nova threw for 404 yards and three scores. The big story here, though, is Michigan, which dropped to 0-2 in the Big Ten for the first time since 1967. Hoke, after this third straight loss, appears incapable of turning this around.

3. It’s time to take Northwestern seriously. Be honest: Who had given up on the Wildcats after opening losses to Cal and Northern Illinois? Coach Pat Fitzgerald got tough with his team, and it worked. Maybe all NU needed was a taste of Big Ten football. It drilled Penn State last week and capitalized on four interceptions Saturday to beat Wisconsin 20-14. Freshman safety Godwin Igwebuike collected three picks, including two in the end zone. These guys play defense, despite surrendering a career-high 259 yards to Melvin Gordon. At 2-0, Northwestern is alone atop the West Division with opportunities to take control of the division in the next two weeks at Minnesota and against Nebraska in Evanston. After Saturday, it’s as realistic as any other scenario.

4. Wisconsin has a situation at quarterback. It’s not a great one, either. Junior Joel Stave made his return at Northwestern. In difficult circumstances as the Badgers trailed 10-0, Stave competed admirably after overcoming a mental hurdle just to get back on the field. He finished 8-of-19 for 114 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions. He was picked off twice late in the fourth quarter. Senior Tanner McEvoy, who did not play in the second half, finished 4-of-10 for 24 yards. So what now? Presumably, if Stave lost the job only because he was incapable of operating -- and now he’s fine -- then perhaps it’s his position. Likely, the decision is more difficult. McEvoy and Stave possess different strengths, so maybe they’ll both fit into the offense. Regardless, the Badgers need better play at QB than they received against Northwestern.

5. Austin Appleby’s time has come. The Purdue sophomore completed 15 of 20 throws for 202 yards and a score in his first career start as the Boilermakers won a Big Ten game for the first time under coach Darrell Hazell, 38-27 at Illinois. Appleby rushed seven times for 76 yards and two scores to lead a big-play attack. Where has this been for the past year and a half? It came against Illinois, yes, but any league win is cause for celebration for Purdue.
video
Northwestern's 20-14 victory continued its midseason revival and denied Wisconsin and the comeback bid of quarterback Joel Stave. Wisconsin's 2013 starting quarterback Stave made his season debut by taking over for struggling Tanner McEvoy late in the second quarter.

Stave could not lead the Badgers back from a 10-0 deficit despite 259 yards on the ground by running back Melvin Gordon.

The Wildcats got 162 rushing yards from Justin Jackson and beat a ranked team at home for the first time since 2010. They moved to 2-0 in the Big Ten after an upset win last week at Penn State.

How the game was won: Northwestern refused to give in. Even as Gordon got loose for long runs, the Wildcats did not break. Northwestern stemmed the Badgers’ best momentum with a Jimmy Hall interception in the third quarter of Stave, tipped at the line by Ifeadi Odenigbo. Miles Shuler ran a reverse for a 16-yard touchdown on the next play.

Game ball goes to: Northwestern freshman safety Godwin Igwebuike for his three interceptions. Igwebuike picked McEvoy in the end zone to end Wisconsin’s opening drive of the game, sending the Badgers into an offensive tailspin that extended for the first 30 minutes of the game. Igwebuike then intercepted Stave in the end zone with less than six minutes to play in the game and got Stave again near midfield to clinch the victory.

What it means: The West Division is even more wide open than it looked. Minnesota emerged as a contender with its win over Michigan last week. Add Northwestern -- who could have predicted its past two victories -- to the mix with Nebraska, Iowa and the Badgers.

Best play Stave pass intercepted by Hall.

video What’s next: The Wildcats (3-2) get a chance to continue their resurgence with a trip to Minnesota before coming home to meet Nebraska. The Badgers (3-2), meanwhile, return home for Illinois, an off week and Maryland, and now they have a quarterback situation. Stick with Stave, who struggled on Saturday, or go back to McEvoy, who was equally ineffective against Northwestern.
What in the heck has been going on in Madison the past few days?

First, we had the confusing saga of Melvin Gordon's injury/non-injury that was to blame for his limited second-half appearance in a 28-24 loss to LSU on Saturday night in Houston.

[+] EnlargeGary Andersen
AP Photo/Ross D. FranklinGary Andersen's conflicting statements in recent days has created chaos and turmoil at Wisconsin.
Well, the Gordon story makes total and complete sense compared to the absurdity of Joel Stave's situation.

Stave, of course, is the quarterback who started all 13 games for Wisconsin last year yet got beat out for the starting job this preseason by Tanner McEvoy. As McEvoy struggled mightily vs. LSU, Stave remained on the sidelines. I asked head coach Gary Andersen after the game if he considered bringing Stave in, and Andersen said no, because the pass protection was so bad that it wouldn't have mattered.

That seemed weird to me, but then on Tuesday morning, the school sent out an official statement saying Stave and tight end T.J. Watt would "miss time due to injuries."
“Joel has been dealing with some issues with his throwing shoulder for the last couple of weeks and we have come to a decision, after talking with Joel, that the best thing for him right now is to shut it down and give him some rest," Andersen said in the statement. "It was a tough decision because Joel is a great competitor and has a tremendous desire to help this team. We will continue to monitor his progress but we’re not putting a timetable on his return at this time.”

Case closed, right? Not so fast.

Reporters attending the end of practice on Tuesday night found out Stave wasn't hurt. Andersen backtracked from the statement put out just a few hours earlier (Listen to audio from Andersen and Stave here).

"He has not re-injured anything," Andersen said. "When he gets himself to the point where he's ready to play, he'll be ready to play. 'Injured' is probably a bad word, I guess, of choice by me that I decided to use in the press release."

Stave, who injured the AC joint in his throwing shoulder in the Capital One Bowl and was limited this offseason, said everything was structurally fine with his arm. But he added that it "just wasn't working the way I'd like it to, I guess. I don't know what it is." The reports out of early fall camp were that he was throwing the ball much more accurately than McEvoy. But then something apparently changed.

Shoulder injuries are notoriously unpredictable; just ask Braxton Miller. But Andersen and Stave are now saying he's not hurt. It could be a mental thing. Stave told reporters that he's a "perfectionist" and can overthink things when he misses a throw; he said "maybe on same level" that he has the dreaded "yips." To put it in baseball terms, Steve Blass Disease comes to mind.


Adding to the chaos, initial reports suggested Stave might miss the season because of his "injury." Later Tuesday night, the Badgers said Stave -- who'll keep throwing but is not currently involved in game prep -- could return as soon as Week 3.

So ... to sum up: Stave was hurt, but then he's not. Gordon was not hurt, but then he was. Coaches sometimes go to great lengths to protect their players when injuries or other issues are involved, and I can respect that. But by not being on the same page with either Gordon or Stave or his own earlier statements, Andersen -- remember his "I don't know" quote when asked why Gordon didn't get more carries? -- has opened himself up to criticism, and the team's overall credibility has suffered. This isn't Utah State; Wisconsin prides itself as a national program and needs to carry itself like one.

I don't believe there's any grand conspiracy going on behind the scenes. Andersen has always struck me as a pretty straight shooter who only wants what's best for his players and the team. But by crisscrossing messages and giving out conflicting information, he only gives the appearance that there's disarray in a program that's usually pretty drama-free.

Wisconsin looks pretty silly right now, though the good news is that the next few opponents appear to have little chance of beating the Badgers. The team has done a pretty good job of inflicting its own wounds the past 72 hours or so.

Five questions about LSU-Wisconsin

August, 28, 2014
Aug 28
9:00
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One of college football’s most anticipated openers will kick off Saturday night in Houston, with No. 13 LSU taking on No. 14 Wisconsin -- two programs that might reside in different conferences, but share similar philosophies about playing mean-spirited, physical football.

Both teams have aspirations of competing in the inaugural College Football Playoff, and Saturday’s outcome might eventually rank among the top determining factors in whether they make it into the four-team field.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at five questions facing the two teams as their matchup approaches.

[+] EnlargeTerrence Magee
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsSenior Terrence Magee should be a key piece to LSU's running game this season.
1. Who gets the most carries?

Those around the LSU program say it looks like it’s only a matter of time before freshman running back Leonard Fournette shows why he was the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit. But will Fournette’s time come in this game? LSU coach Les Miles has praised veterans Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard throughout August. The seniors have earned their touches, too, so it will be intriguing to observe how LSU distributes the carries between the vets and the young phenom.

2. How will LSU fare in the passing game?

Wisconsin has plenty of holes to fill on defense, but the one area with a veteran presence is its secondary (and the Badgers were 17th nationally against the pass last season, allowing 202.5 yards per game). That would seem like an advantage against an LSU offense that must replace not only its quarterback, but the only receivers who did much of anything last fall, Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry.

The Tigers have some super-talented youngsters like freshmen Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn, but many of the team’s wideouts will be playing their first college games. Keep an eye on whether LSU uses its talented group of tight ends and running backs in the passing game. The tight ends will almost certainly get more looks as pass-catchers in 2014 while the young quarterbacks and receivers settle into their roles.

3. Can either team stop the opponent’s run?

Wisconsin obliterated South Carolina’s run defense for 293 yards in its last outing, a 34-24 loss in the Capital One Bowl. Heisman Trophy contender Melvin Gordon ran 25 times for 143 yards in that game. So it would probably be misguided to assume that LSU’s reconstructed front seven is going to completely shut down a Badgers running game that includes Gordon, Corey Clement and four returning starters on the offensive line.

Likewise, Wisconsin lost its entire starting front seven on defense, so the Badgers will probably have some difficulty against an LSU line that also returns four starters -- particularly since backs like Fournette, Magee and Hilliard will be running behind them.

4. How will Wisconsin look up front on D?

Let’s say this one more time: Wisconsin lost every single starter along the defensive line and at linebacker from one of the nation’s best defenses in 2013. We’re talking about standouts like Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Chris Borland and defensive linemen Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer who helped Wisconsin finish as the nation’s No. 7 defense overall (305.1 ypg) and No. 5 against the run (102.5).

It’s not like the cupboard is bare, though. ESPN Big Ten blogger Brian Bennett listed sophomore linebacker Vince Biegel as a potential playmaker, and the Badgers have others back like linebackers Marcus Trotter and Derek Landisch and defensive linemen Warren Herring and redshirt freshman Chikwe Obasih who should keep defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s 3-4 defense clicking.

Asking that many new players to function adequately against a veteran LSU front will be asking a lot, though. Wisconsin’s production along the defensive front might be the determining factor in this game.

5. Who FINISHES at quarterback?

Never mind who starts, who’s going to finish this game at quarterback for either team? That might have a much greater impact on this season than who takes the first snaps for either Wisconsin or LSU.

Miles and Wisconsin’s Gary Andersen have tiptoed around questions asking whether the starting quarterback will be Anthony Jennings or Brandon Harris at LSU or Joel Stave or Tanner McEvoy at Wisconsin. But if this is a close game, their choices on who leads their offenses in the fourth quarter -- and how those players perform in such a situation -- might tell us much more about where these competitions are headed.
For years, the job description for Wisconsin quarterbacks has read: game manager, adept at handoffs and play-action, accurate passer in limited opportunities, careful with the ball at all times, mobility not required, playmaking skills optional.

The gig is about to change.

[+] EnlargeTanner McEvoy
Mike McGinnis/Getty ImagesTanner McEvoy, who will open the season as the starting QB, has played wide receiver and made three starts at safety last season.
According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Badgers will start Tanner McEvoy in next week's season opener against LSU in Houston, and the choice signals an important shift in offensive philosophy under coach Gary Andersen. The Badgers are asking more from the quarterback position.

McEvoy's athleticism is undeniable. The guy played wide receiver and made three starts at safety last season after briefly competing for the top quarterback job in camp. Questions remain about his passing skills, and he has no experience as an FBS quarterback after transferring to Wisconsin from Arizona Western College last winter.

If Wisconsin wanted experience, it would have picked Joel Stave, who has made 19 starts the past two seasons and boasts 3,598 pass yards and 28 touchdown passes. If Wisconsin wanted the status quo at quarterback, Stave would be the obvious choice. And based on most practice reports, picking Stave over McEvoy based on performance would have made sense, too.

But McEvoy was coach Andersen's guy all along. Andersen wants more mobility and playmaking skills from the quarterback spot, and the 6-foot-6, 222-pound McEvoy provides it. Andersen wants more than one ball-carrying option in the backfield along Melvin Gordon or Corey Clement.

Tom Minnick, who coached McEvoy at Arizona Western in 2012, said Andersen had seen what a mobile quarterback could do at Utah State (Chuckie Keeton) and wanted McEvoy for the same reason.

McEvoy must prove himself as a passer, especially with a mostly anonymous receiving corps. He struggled throwing the ball last summer, but showed improvement this spring and in camp.

"He's got a weird throwing motion, but he was very accurate," Minnick said. "He got the ball there, and his arm’s very strong."

Before camp, I was fairly certain McEvoy would be the starter for the LSU game. But Stave's performance seemed to change the narrative, and you wouldn't have blamed the coaches for going with experience against LSU.

But this is about Wisconsin's future on offense, not its past. In McEvoy and dynamic freshman D.J. Gillins, Andersen has made it clear that the days of the statuesque quarterback at Wisconsin are over.

The key for McEvoy is to replicate some of the things his predecessors delivered -- namely limiting turnovers -- while adding a dual-threat element to the offense. His first assignment undoubtedly will be a tough one, and few would be surprised if Stave also sees the field against LSU.

Wisconsin always will be a haven for running backs and offensive linemen, but the quarterbacks should be a bigger factor going forward. McEvoy is the first of the new Badgers quarterbacks, but he won't be the last.

Wisconsin Badgers season preview

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
10:30
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» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the 2014 season for the Wisconsin Badgers:

2013 overall record: 9-4 (6-2 Big Ten)

Key losses: RB James White, WR Jared Abbrederis, TE Jacob Pedersen, OG Ryan Groy, DE Pat Muldoon, DT Beau Allen, LB Chris Borland, S Dezmen Southward

Key returnees: RB Melvin Gordon, OT Rob Havenstein, OG Kyle Costigan, OT Tyler Marz, CB Sojourn Shelton, S Michael Caputo

Instant impact newcomer: Safety Lubern Figaro. If you're from outside the Badger State, you're probably asking, "Who?" After all, Figaro was just a three-star recruit and enrolled over the summer -- but he's already projected to start in the opener. Part of the reason is reportedly an injury to safety Leo Musso, but Figaro has already done plenty to separate himself. In the first scrimmage this preseason, he returned a pick for a touchdown. DB Sojourn Shelton made an impact last season when he was a true freshman; now it looks as if it's Figaro's turn.

[+] EnlargeSojourn Shelton
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsSojourn Shelton and the Badgers' defense will have their hands full against teams in the West Division.
Projected starters

Offense: QB: Joel Stave, RS Jr., 6-5, 220; RB: Melvin Gordon, RS Jr., 6-1, 213; FB: Derek Watt, RS Jr., 6-2, 236; WR: Alex Erickson, RS So., 6-0, 196; WR: Reggie Love, RS So., 6-3, 214; TE: Sam Arneson, Sr., 6-4, 244; OT: Tyler Marz, RS Jr., 6-5, 321; OG: Dallas Lewallen, RS Sr., 6-6, 321: C: Dan Voltz, RS So., 6-3, 311; OG: Kyle Costigan, RS Sr., 6-5, 319; OT: Rob Havenstein, RS Sr., 6-8, 333

Defense: DE: Chikwe Obasih, RS Fr., 6-2, 268; DT: Warren Herring, RS Sr., 6-3, 294; DE: Konrad Zagzebski, RS Sr., 6-3, 277; OLB: Joe Schobert, Jr., 6-2, 240; ILB: Marcus Trotter, RS Sr., 6-0, 226; ILB: Derek Landisch, Sr., 6-0, 231; OLB: Vince Biegel, RS So., 6-4, 244; CB: Darius Hillary, RS Jr., 5-11, 188; CB: Sojourn Shelton, So., 5-9, 178; S: Michael Caputo, RS Jr., 6-1, 212; S: Lubern Figaro, Fr., 6-0, 179

Specialists: P: Drew Meyer, RS Jr., 6-3, 187; PK: Rafael Gaglianone, Fr., 5-11, 231

Biggest question mark: Can this front seven recover from so many key departures? Of the seven players who started in the Badgers' bowl game last season, only one returns. That leaves quite a few holes, especially when considering the departures of Big Ten defensive player of the year Chris Borland and two All-Big Ten honorable mentions (Beau Allen, Pat Muldoon). Wisconsin's front seven dominated in 2013, as they helped the Badgers rank No. 5 nationally in rush defense (102.5 yards per game) and No. 6 in scoring defense (16.3 points per game). Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is solid, but he's not a magician. Those defensive numbers will almost certainly drop from last season -- but just how much?

Most important game: Nov. 15 versus Nebraska. It's basically a three-team race in the West Division, so this is a must-win if Wisconsin wants a spot in the Big Ten championship game. There's no Ohio State or Michigan State on the schedule this season, so the Huskers and Iowa Hawkeyes are the teams to beat. Iowa is just as important, but that contest comes a week later, and that won't mean a thing if Wisconsin first can't get past this contest.

Upset special: Nov. 29 versus Minnesota. A lot could be on the line when the Badgers square off against Minnesota in the final game of the regular season. And, depending how Wisconsin's defense progresses, this could be an interesting one. Wisconsin's run defense is a wild card right now, and the Gophers could boast the second-toughest rushing attack on Wisconsin's schedule (outside of Nebraska). No team held Wisconsin to fewer points (20) last season than Minnesota, so there is some potential here. Plus, one has to think the Gophers will be able to manage better than a seven-point offensive effort this time around.

Key stat: Sure, everyone knows the departure of Jared Abbrederis will hurt Wisconsin. But the Badgers actually lost their top four targets, and only one (Jordan Fredrick) recorded catches in the double-digits. And he had just 10. Overall, Wisconsin lost 81 percent of its receiving production, as this year's returners had just 42 combined receptions last season compared with the 217 total catches.

What they're wearing: Wisconsin has come a long way since 2010, because it basically went from rotating between two uniform combinations to doing photo shoots with more than 20 combinations.

One possible new look includes an all-red, jersey-pant combo (not to be confused with Nebraska's all-red getup):

Team's top Twitter follows: Head coach Gary Andersen (@UWCoachAndersen) joined Twitter just a few weeks ago, but he pumps out unique tweets and is a great follow. The official Wisconsin football account (@BadgerFootball) tweets like crazy and is always on the ball. As far as players, running back Melvin Gordon (@Melvingordon25) is a no-brainer, while cornerback Sojourn Shelton (@SDS1_) definitely deserves a few more follows. There are quite a few good follows for your coverage needs -- besides us, of course -- including the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Jeff Potrykus (@jaypo1961) and SB Nation blog Bucky's 5th Quarter (@B5Q).

They said it: "No question there's a temptation to run him every time." – Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen on running back Melvin Gordon

Stats & Info projection: 9.29 wins

Wise guys over/under: 9.5 wins

Big Ten blog projection: Ten wins. Wisconsin has a lot of question marks, but it also has a lot of talent. The rushing offense should be one of the nation's best and, while this defense will undoubtedly take a step back from last season, it shouldn't free-fall with Dave Aranda at the helm. Wisconsin's schedule is pretty favorable, as it doesn't play any of the big names from the East, and it's possible it could be favored in every game from Week 2 on. Wisconsin's getting the benefit of the doubt here, but if it can manage a win against LSU in the opener, that bandwagon is going to get big in a hurry.
Football practice is underway, and we're just weeks away from kickoff. To get you ready, we're bringing back our series looking at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for each Big Ten team in 2014.

Do not view these as predictions in any way shape or form. They are meant to illustrate the realistic potential highs and lows for a team's season, and any game-by-game breakdowns are more of a means to an end than anything else. And we're trying to have some fun here.

Let's get things started with the Wisconsin Badgers:

Best case

"This," Melvin Gordon tells a throng of media, "is why I came back to school."

Gordon utters these words in Arlington, Texas, at the press conference leading up to the 2015 national title game. It's been a dream season for the Badgers and Gordon, who won the Heisman Trophy a few weeks earlier after rushing for 2,000 yards.

Wisconsin's season fittingly begins and ends in Texas. The year starts with an upset win over LSU in Houston, as the running game and revamped defense were enough to nip the young Tigers by a score of 28-27. That Week 1 victory propelled the Badgers into the Top 10. And from there, as expected, Gary Andersen's team waltzes through the next couple months of its schedule.

Gordon follows up his 150-yard, three-score performance against LSU with four 200-yard days, while backfield mate Corey Clement piles up over 1,000 yards on the season as well. Quarterbacks Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy form a productive tandem, with McEvoy providing a new running threat from under center.

Wisconsin is barely tested until Nebraska comes to Madison on Nov. 15, and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig unleashes a new game plan on the Huskers that leads to a second straight 70-point showing vs. Big Red. The Big Ten title is on the line the following week at Kinnick Stadium, and the hard-fought contest brings back memories of 2010 when a perfectly-executed fake punt leads to a clinching Gordon touchdown. The Badgers roll past Minnesota yet again and then oust Michigan State in the Big Ten title game on a Hail Mary touchdown pass from McEvoy to Kenzel Doe.

Barry Alvarez doesn't need to convince the selection committee that a 13-0 Wisconsin deserves a spot in the four-team field, especially since LSU has gone on to win the SEC title. Seeded No. 2 in Pasadena, the Badgers are matched up against surprise Pac-12 champions Arizona State. The game is tied when Stave is tackled at the Sun Devils' 10-yard line with what appears to be no time left. But the officials huddle and decide that one second should be put back on the clock. Jack Russell kicks the game-winning field goal. The dog from "Frazier" barks in celebration from his spot on the Rose Bowl sideline.

Few are giving the Badgers much of a shot to beat defending champion Florida State in the title game. But it hardly matters. The program has already taken a major step forward and announced itself as elite, and five-star recruits are eager to sign on for Andersen. Also, Arkansas goes 0-12 and fires Bret Bielema.

Worst case

The preseason hype around the Badgers -- which includes a No. 14 ranking in the coaches' poll -- seems unjustified considering the heavy personnel losses in the defensive front seven, the questions at quarterback and receiver and the lack of depth on the offensive line. And those issues are quickly exposed.

A young but athletically gifted LSU blows out Wisconsin by three touchdowns in the opener. The Tigers load up against the running game and hold Gordon to just 70 yards; the Badgers passing game can't make the defense pay, as Stave throws a pair of interceptions and McEvoy is ineffective.

Wisconsin regroups to win its next three at home against overmatched opponents, but a resurgent Northwestern squad pulls off an upset win on Oct. 4 in Evanston. Andersen's team continues to juggle quarterbacks and seek receiving threats until Maryland uses its high-powered offense to register its first marquee Big Ten victory in Madison on Oct. 25.

The Badgers rebound to beat Rutgers and Purdue on the road, but Nebraska proves too fast and too motivated in a two-touchdown Huskers win on Nov. 15. Now staggering, Wisconsin loses the next week on the road at Iowa and finally falters against Minnesota. The Gophers are so happy that they don't just chop down one Camp Randall goal post. They keep going until they've turned State Street Brats into mere kindling. Minnesota goes on to win the Big Ten title.

A 6-6 record and that rough finish puts Wisconsin in Detroit for bowl season. Arkansas makes a startling turnaround to win the SEC title, as Bielema claims national coach of the year honors. LSU buys out of its return game to Lambeau Field. New Glarus closes its doors, relocating to Minneapolis.


If Ron Burgundy coached college football -- the San Diego Border Terriers, perhaps? -- he would only need to learn two lines to survive spring practice.

1. "I like my team."

2. "I'm glad we don't have a game tomorrow."

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Jeff HaynesPat Fitzgerald's Wildcats had to deal with a lot off the field this spring.
College coaches have recited those phrases in spring ball for decades. The 14 men leading Big Ten programs are no exceptions. But the standard spring sentiments apply to the league more this year than most.

There are reasons to believe the Big Ten will be better this fall, but the work is far from over on most campuses. This isn't a league of finished products, and the coming months take on added importance before the 2014 season kicks off in late August.

"I don't think we're that far behind; it's just painfully obvious that we're not there," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "This next phase will be the most important phase of this team's life. It's always important, but with a lot of things we've gone though, we've got to come together."

Northwestern went through a lot in the spring, mostly away from the field, as the campaign for a player union gained national media attention, especially after players were declared employees of the school in March. The team held a historic vote Friday, after Fitzgerald had expressed his opposition to unionizing. Some players expressed concern that the vote could split the team.

It will be months before we know if the union plan goes through, but the Wildcats continue preparing for a pivotal season. They found their quarterback this spring in senior Trevor Siemian and an offensive identity based around the passing game. But questions along both lines remain.

The spring also produced quarterback answers at Iowa (Jake Rudock) and Minnesota (Mitch Leidner). Michigan's Devin Gardner had a rough spring game but still seems likely to retain his job. Another senior signal-caller, Rutgers' Gary Nova, is a good bet to remain atop the depth chart. Although Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong lacks Nova's or Gardner's experience, he exited spring just as he entered it: as the Huskers' top quarterback.

Indiana's platoon system of Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson frustrates some, but not coach Kevin Wilson, who has given every indication that he'll continue to use both for another season.

Other quarterback races have been reduced but not resolved. Illinois will pick between Wes Lunt, the Oklahoma State transfer who impressed for much of the spring, and veteran backup Reilly O'Toole. Coach Tim Beckman wants a resolution before two-a-day practices in August.

Purdue's Danny Etling, who started the final seven games of his freshman season, appeared to have a slight lead coming out of the spring, but coach Darrell Hazell isn't ready to declare a starter. So Austin Appleby and David Blough remain alive.

Wisconsin reduced its candidate pool from four to two as Joel Stave, who boasts 19 career starts but also a nagging throwing shoulder injury, will compete with dual-threat Tanner McEvoy in camp.

"It will be a fight," coach Gary Andersen said.

Quarterback is just one spot where Wisconsin has questions. The Badgers went through much of the spring with only four healthy wide receivers. They've also revamped their defensive front seven, which returns only one starter from 2013.

[+] EnlargeRaekwon McMillan
Miller Safrit/ESPNEarly enrollee Raekwon McMillan could make an immediate impact for Ohio State's defense this fall.
Ohio State didn't have star quarterback Braxton Miller for spring ball because of shoulder surgery, but the Buckeyes focused on bolstering a defense that struggled last fall. Freshman Raekwon McMillan, an early enrollee, is pushing for the starting middle linebacker spot, and competition will continue at the cornerback spot opposite Doran Grant. Chris Ash, the Buckeyes' new co-defensive coordinator, worked to simplify the scheme this spring.

"We only have about six defensive calls," safety Tyvis Powell said after the spring game. "We had too many last year."

Offensive line remains Michigan's focal point coming out of the spring. A sloppy spring game didn't ease fears about the Wolverines' front five, although coach Brady Hoke saw positive signs in earlier practices. A critical summer awaits new coordinator Doug Nussmeier, tasked with resurrecting Michigan's run game.

At Penn State, new coach James Franklin continues to energize both players and fans. But he's also realistic about the depth challenge his team faces, particularly along the offensive line.

"When you don't have a two-deep of scholarship players, you've got issues that you're going to have to overcome," Franklin said. "We don't."

Like Rutgers, Maryland began its Big Ten transition this spring and welcomed running back Wes Brown and wideout Marcus Leak after absences from the team. If the Terrapins finally stay healthy, they could be worth watching in a loaded East Division.

Sitting atop the division is defending Big Ten champ Michigan State. The Spartans had a relatively stress-free spring, but they must fill key spots on defense, especially at linebacker and cornerback, where players like Taiwan Jones and Darian Hicks step in.

The returning pieces for teams like Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin fuel optimism around the league. But in spring, optimism is always tempered by what lies ahead.

"We're improving," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Saturday, "but we're hardly ready to play."

They won't have to for 132 days.

Until then, stay classy, Big Ten fans.

MADISON, Wis. -- Gary Andersen's current job description looks a lot like that of a first-year coach. Here's the thing: Andersen is entering his second season at Wisconsin.

Andersen's inheritance with the Badgers last year, in coaching currency, rivaled that of a Walton, a Bloomberg or Prince George. Most new coaches are saddled with teams plagued by youth, discontent or a culture of losing. Andersen stepped into a locker room filled with 25 seniors, including stars such as Chris Borland and Jared Abbrederis. Wisconsin had won three consecutive Big Ten championships. It had an identity and a proven path to success.

The Badgers needed a leader after Bret Bielema spurned them for Arkansas, but Andersen's primary task could be reduced to four words: Don't screw it up. To his credit, he didn't, guiding Wisconsin to a 9-2 start before the year ended with losses to both Penn State and South Carolina. He also provided a calm, stabilizing presence that resonated both with players and Badgers fans. Wisconsin has recorded better seasons, but Andersen's first made a strong enough impression on the Cleveland Browns, who reached out to him about their coaching vacancy, and on Barry Alvarez, who awarded Andersen a raise and a new contract.

But it's fair to wonder about Andersen. Program maintenance, while challenging, isn't the same as program building. Wisconsin doesn't lack a foundation -- Alvarez provided one and Bielema kept it from cracking -- but there's a lot of hard labor ahead for Andersen and his assistants as their roster turns over significantly.

"We are a very youthful crew," Andersen told ESPN.com. "It's like my second year at Utah State. We were youthful, we were excited, but our coaching was so important to be able to put the kids in the proper positions, which is the ultimate goal. It's not how much offense you have or how much defense you have. It's how well you’re performing the basics: how many missed assignments, how are we tackling, how are our administrative penalties.

"You want to do everything you can to make sure you're teaching them how to play football the right way."

Utah State went 4-7 in Andersen's second year before reaching bowls the next two seasons. Wisconsin's expectations are much higher despite its new-look depth chart.

[+] EnlargeGary Andersen
Keith Gillett/Icon SMIGary Andersen sees the opener against LSU as a factor that should push his team through the summer and fall camp.
The Big Ten West Division is a collection of flawed teams and Wisconsin, with more recent success than the others and a favorable cross-division schedule -- no Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State -- will be a popular pick to reach Indianapolis. Running back Melvin Gordon turned down the NFL draft for a chance to lead the Badgers to the initial College Football Playoff.

Wisconsin is not rebuilding, but it faces an unusually high number of questions on a depth chart that shouldn't be written in anything permanent.

"It's a reset, you're starting at ground zero," offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said. "Even with the veteran O-line, a couple guys are out, you're mixing and matching, so you can't assume or take anything for granted. Even with [quarterback Joel Stave], it's a chance to reteach things that he's had hundreds of reps on, because there's always a new way to look at it."

Stave is part of the mystery at Wisconsin. Despite starting 19 games the past two seasons, he must outshine Tanner McEvoy in camp to keep his job, especially after missing much of the spring with a pesky throwing shoulder injury. McEvoy, a gifted athlete who played both safety and wide receiver last season, could represent a shift in what Wisconsin wants from its quarterbacks.

Andersen's first two quarterback recruits, McEvoy and D.J. Gillins, both are true dual threats.

"He's got a tremendous skill set, obviously," Ludwig said of McEvoy. "An athletic guy, starting as a safety last year. The weapons he brings to the quarterback position, it's a huge asset for us."

The quarterback run threat, when paired with dynamic backs in Gordon and Corey Clement, becomes even more critical if Wisconsin can't bolster the wide receiver spot. The team's leading returning receiver, Jordan Fredrick, had only 10 receptions in 2013. Fredrick, Alex Erickson and Robert Wheelwright all missed part or all of the spring with injuries.

Wisconsin had only four receivers for most of the 15 practices.

"It's pretty tiring," senior Kenzel Doe said. "You're basically taking every rep."

The Badgers defense had fewer injuries this spring but went through a more substantial facelift. Inside linebacker Derek Landisch is the only returning starter in the front seven.

Most defenders spent spring ball working at multiple positions as the coaches looked for ways to upgrade speed. Michael Caputo, a starting free safety last season, went to linebacker and then back to safety before the spring ended.

"We definitely wanted to see how guys fit in other places," Caputo said. "The goal is to be a mean, aggressive, fast defense. We're slowly getting to that, but it's definitely a transition with a lot of the younger guys and playing different positions."

There have been positive developments already. Andersen points to players such as Chikwe Obasih, a redshirt freshman who ended the spring as a starting defensive end.

Andersen When you've got young kids, you've got to get them reps if you want them to get better.

-- Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen
"You look how far Chikwe has come," Andersen said. "If you put on Day 1 of spring ball and Day 13 of spring ball, it's an unbelievable difference in his pad level, the use of his hands, his understanding and knowledge of the defense.

"When you've got young kids, you've got to get them reps if you want them to get better."

The summer takes on added importance for these Badgers. As Ludwig said, Wisconsin's first workout in August must be Practice 16, not Practice 1.

If all the uncertainty and opportunity in practice doesn't drive players, the season opener against LSU certainly will. Last year, Wisconsin thumped Massachusetts and Tennessee Tech to open the season before its infamous trip to Arizona State. This time, the test comes sooner.

"I really like that opener for this team," Andersen said. "It's got to be a driving force."

Which Badgers team shows up at Houston's NRG Stadium remains to be seen. But it will have more of Andersen's fingerprints on it.

The big reveal at Wisconsin is still to come.


MADISON, Wis. -- Spring practice has provided some answers at quarterback in places like Nebraska, Northwestern, Illinois and Minnesota. Other competitions, while potentially narrowing a bit, remain unresolved as summer approaches.

Wisconsin certainly belongs in the latter category. A program that is no stranger to quarterback races has another that should last well into fall camp.

Junior Joel Stave has started for the better part of the past two seasons. But an AC joint injury to his throwing shoulder sustained in the Capital One Bowl against South Carolina has limited him throughout spring and ended his session prematurely following Saturday's scrimmage. Stave won't participate in Saturday's spring game. Although Andersen admits the injury is a concern and further evaluation is needed, Stave should be fine for summer workouts.

[+] EnlargeJoel Stave
Mike McGinnis/Getty ImagesA recurring injury suffered in Wisconsin's bowl game might have put Joel Stave behind in Wisconsin's QB race.
Even if Stave had been healthy, he likely still would have to beat out Tanner McEvoy in fall camp. McEvoy, a junior college transfer who briefly competed for the starting quarterback job last summer before moving to wide receiver and eventually to safety, has spent the entire offseason as a signal-caller. He took most of the reps with the top offense in Tuesday's practice and will do the same Saturday.

"There's definitely a separation between those two and the rest of the pack," Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen told ESPN.com. "I see D.J. [Gillins] and Bart [Houston] fighting in different ways and different situations and scenarios."

Stave's injury and a wave of others to an already inexperienced wide receiving corps have made it tough to get an accurate gauge on the passing game this spring. Senior Kenzel Doe is the only wideout with substantial experience who is fully participating in the spring. Alex Erickson is sitting out the spring following a knee injury in the bowl game, Jordan Fredrick suffered an arm injury midway through the session and Robert Wheelwright, pegged by many to emerge as Wisconsin's top wideout, has been slowed by a knee issue.

The Badgers will be healthier at receiver in fall camp, and most likely better as five wide receiver recruits arrive, led by Dareian Watkins.

"We need a couple of them to produce for us," offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said. "To say all five are going to step in and produce right away, that would be a little bit of a stretch. But we're looking for two guys: one that can provide a vertical stretch for us and the next guy to see what his strengths are and design around him.

"We need a player to take the top off the coverage."

Another subplot is where Andersen, Lugwig and the staff truly want to take the offense. In recruiting McEvoy and Gillins, the coaches made it clear they want more athleticism under center. Andersen wants "the threat of the run" at quarterback to complement backs Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement.

Wisconsin has incorporated more zone-read plays this spring, and McEvoy said the speed option was introduced in Tuesday's practice.

"Me being mobile gives some more elements that hopefully I can use," McEvoy said. "It seems to be working, but it's the same playbook as before. We've just got to execute."

Ludwig considers both Gillins, a freshman early enrollee, and McEvoy, as "brand-new players" this spring. He's pleased with the way both have learned the system but wants to see better execution from all the quarterbacks.

"Recently, I've had happy feet when I'm in the pocket," McEvoy said. "The next couple of days, I'm going to focus on really staying in there, taking my steps and throwing the ball, and running it when I really need to run it."

Gillins is ahead of where the coaches thought he would be and, with a strong summer, could push both Stave and McEvoy when camp begins. Andersen said if it appears Gillins won't contribute much at quarterback this fall, he'll likely redshirt rather than play another position.

Houston has the arm strength but lacks mobility and needs to show greater consistency to factor in the race.

"With Joel not being 100 percent, it's kind of tweaked our thought process a little bit," Ludwig said. "The guys are all competing well and learning. We've got to be a lot more productive at the QB spot. Spring football, it's about being productive and laying a foundation for the summer workouts, and putting yourself in position to come back in fall camp as Practice 16 rather than Practice 1."

Video: B1G West top returning players

February, 26, 2014
Feb 26
10:00
AM ET

As the college football world gets ready for spring football, Toni Collins and ESPN Big Ten reporter Mitch Sherman look at some of the top returning players in the new Big Ten West Division.
Let's look at what to expect this spring in the Big Ten's wild, wild West:

ILLINOIS

Spring start: March 5
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Toughening up on 'D': The Fighting Illini had one of the nation's worst defenses, especially against the run. Tim Beckman brought back defensive coordinator Tim Banks and hopes an extra year of maturity can help strengthen the front seven. Juco import Joe Fotu could win a starting job this spring, and Jihad Ward should help when he arrives in the summer.
  • 'Haase cleaning: Nathan Scheelhaase wrapped up his career by leading the Big Ten in passing yards last season. Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt likely takes over the reins, but backups Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey plan on fighting for the job, as well. Bill Cubit's offense should equal big numbers for whoever wins out.
  • Target practice: Whoever wins the quarterback job needs someone to catch the ball, and Illinois' top two receivers from '13 -- Steve Hull and Miles Osei -- both are gone. Junior college arrival Geronimo Allison will be counted on for some immediate help.
IOWA

Spring start: March 27 or 28
Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • A new big three: The Hawkeyes begin the process of trying to replace their three standout senior linebackers from last season: James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey. They were the heart of the defense in 2013, and now guys such as Quinton Alston, Reggie Spearman and Travis Perry need to make major leaps forward in the spring.
  • Develop more playmakers: Iowa was able to win the games it should have won last year, but struggled against those with strong defenses because of its lack of explosiveness. Sophomore Tevaun Smith and junior Damond Powell showed flashes of their potential late in the year at wideout. They need to continue to develop to give quarterback Jake Rudock and the offense ways to stretch the field.
  • Solidify the right tackle spot: The offensive line should once again be the team's strength, but the departure of veteran right tackle Brett Van Sloten means someone has to take on that role. Whether that's senior Andrew Donnal or redshirt freshman Ryan Ward could be determined this spring.
MINNESOTA

Spring start: March 4
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Mitch's pitches: Philip Nelson's transfer means redshirt sophomore Mitch Leidner enters spring practice as the No. 1 quarterback. He's a load to bring down when he runs, but Leidner needs to improve his passing accuracy after completing 55 percent of his passes in the regular season and only half of his 22 attempts in the Texas Bowl game loss to Syracuse. Added experience should help. If not, he's got some talented youngsters such as Chris Streveler and Dimonic Roden-McKinzy aiming to dethrone him.
  • Mitch's catchers: Of course, part of the problem behind the Gophers' Big Ten-worst passing offense was a lack of threats at receiver. Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones showed promise as true freshmen and should only improve with an offseason of work. It's critical that they do, or else Minnesota might have to count on three receiver signees early.
  • Replacing Ra'Shede: The Gophers only lost four senior starters, but defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman might be the most difficult to replace. The first-team All-Big Ten selection created havoc inside defensively, and there aren't many athletes like him floating around. Scott Ekpe could take many of Hageman's reps, but the defensive line overall will have to pick up the slack.
NEBRASKA

Spring start: March 8
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Tommy's turn: Sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr. entered the offseason as the clear No. 1 quarterback for the first time after taking over for the injured Taylor Martinez (and splitting some snaps with Ron Kellogg III) last season. Armstrong showed maturity beyond his years in 2013 but needs to continue developing as a passer and deepen his understanding of the offense. Redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton could push him in the spring.
  • Get the OL up to speed: Nebraska loses a lot of experience on the offensive line, including both starting tackles (Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale), plus interior mainstays Spencer Long, Andrew Rodriguez and Cole Pensick. The Huskers do return seniors Mark Pelini, Jake Cotton and Mike Moudy, junior Zach Sterup, plus three freshmen and a junior-college transfer who redshirted last year. A strong group of incoming freshmen may also contribute. Big Red usually figures it out on the O-line, but there will be a lot of players in new roles this season.
  • Reload in the secondary: The Blackshirts have plenty of experience in the front seven, but the defensive backfield has a new coach (Charlton Warren) and will be without top playmakers Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans. The safety spot next to Corey Cooper was a problem area last season, and the Huskers are hoping Charles Jackson takes a major step forward. Warren has talent to work with but must find the right combination.
NORTHWESTERN

Spring start: Feb. 26
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Trevor's time?: Trevor Siemian split reps with Kain Colter at quarterback the past two seasons, serving as sort of the designated passer. Siemian threw for 414 yards in the season finale against Illinois and has a clear path toward starting with Colter gone. That could mean more of a pass-first offense than Northwestern ran with Colter. Redshirt freshman and heralded recruit Matt Alviti also looms as an option.
  • Manning the middle: Northwestern brings back a solid corps on defense but lost middle linebacker Damien Proby, who led the team in tackles the past two seasons. Pat Fitzgerald has some options, including making backups Drew Smith or Jaylen Prater a starter or moving Collin Ellis inside. He can experiment and find the best match this spring.
  • Patch it together: The Wildcats' health woes from 2013 aren't over, as 11 players will be held out of practice for medical reasons, including star running back/returner Venric Mark. Add in that the school doesn't have early enrollees, and the team will be trying to practice severely undermanned this spring. The biggest key is to get through spring without any more major problems and to get the injured guys healthy for the fall.
PURDUE

Spring start: March 6
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Moving forward: Purdue players wore T-shirts emblazoned with the word "Forward" during winter workouts, and no wonder. They don't want to look backward to last year's abysmal 1-11 season. It's time to turn the page and get some positive momentum going in Year 2 under Darrell Hazell. Luckily, optimism abounds in spring.
  • Trench focus: The Boilermakers simply couldn't cut it on the lines in Big Ten play, and Hazell went about trying to sign bigger offensive linemen this offseason for his physical style of play. Both starting tackles and three starting defensive linemen all graduated, and no one should feel safe about his job after last season's performance. Kentucky transfer Langston Newton (defense) and early enrollee Kirk Barron (offense) could push for playing time on the lines.
  • Find an identity: What was Purdue good at last season? Not much, as the team ranked near the bottom of the country in just about every major statistical category. The Boilers found some good things late in the passing game with freshmen Danny Etling and DeAngelo Yancey, but Hazell must do a better job instilling the toughness he wants and locating playmakers.
WISCONSIN

Spring start: March 7
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Catching on: The biggest concern heading into the spring is at receiver after the team's only dependable wideout the past two seasons, Jared Abbrederis, graduated. Tight end Jacob Pedersen, who was second on the team in receiving yards last season, is also gone. The Badgers have struggled to develop new weapons in the passing game but now have no choice. Gary Andersen signed five receivers in the 2014 class but none enrolled early, so guys such as Kenzel Doe and Robert Wheelwright need to take charge this spring.
  • Stave-ing off the competition?: Joel Stave started all 13 games at quarterback last year, while no one else on the roster has any real experience under center. Yet the redshirt junior should face some competition this spring after the Badgers' passing game struggled down the stretch. Andersen likes more mobile quarterbacks and has three guys in Bart Houston, Tanner McEvoy and freshman early enrollee D.J. Gillins, who can offer that skill. Stave must hold them off to keep his job.
  • New leaders on defense: Wisconsin lost a large group of seniors, including nine major contributors on the defensive side. That includes inside linebacker and team leader Chris Borland, plus defensive linemen Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer, outside linebacker Brendan Kelly and safety Dezmen Southward. That's a whole lot of leadership and production to replace, and the process begins in earnest this spring.

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