NCF Nation: Jonathan Brown

The debate is over, at least for now. Ohio State affirmed itself as the Big Ten's top team by putting on an offensive show against Cal, despite missing its top quarterback and top running back.

There's more doubt about whether Michigan or Northwestern is No. 2 after the Wolverines' surprising struggles Saturday against Akron. For now, we have Michigan ahead by a nose hair, thanks to its win against Notre Dame.

Wisconsin might have moved up to the No. 2 line if the officials had given the Badgers a chance to win the game against Arizona State. We like most of what we saw from Gary Andersen's crew on Saturday night. The same can't be said for Nebraska, which takes a tumble after folding the tent against UCLA, and Penn State, which caved defensively against UCF.

Week 3 was mostly rough for the Big Ten, but it had some bright spots. Michigan State found a quarterback, Indiana regained its footing on defense, and Iowa impressed on the ground against Iowa State.

There's not much separation in the league's bottom half, but as we noted Sunday, the Big Ten might not have a truly bad team.

Here's one last look at last week's rankings.

Now, let's get to the rundown ...

1. Ohio State (3-0, last week: 1): It'll take more than injuries and suspensions to slow down the Buckeyes' potent offense. Quarterback Braxton Miller didn't suit up against Cal, but backup Kenny Guiton once again stepped up with 276 pass yards and four touchdowns, to go along with 92 rush yards. Running back Jordan Hall (168 rush yards, 3 TDs) continued his brilliance filling in for the injured Carlos Hyde, who returns this week against Florida A&M.

2. Michigan (3-0, last week: 2): A week after looking like arguably the Big Ten's best team, Michigan backslid with a mistake-ridden performance against Akron. Brady Hoke's crew emerged with a win but also plenty of questions on both sides of the ball. As good as Devin Gardner has looked at times, the first-year starting quarterback must take better care of the football. Michigan also must patch up a vulnerable defense before Big Ten play.

3. Northwestern (3-0, last week: 3): Take away a lackluster first quarter against Western Michigan, and the Wildcats looked impressive on their home field. The offense clearly has improved despite the continued absence of star running back Venric Mark, as stand-in Treyvon Green (158 rush yards, 2 TDs) looks more than capable. Northwestern's defense remains too leaky but covers up yards with takeaways. The Wildcats have positioned themselves well for an Oct. 5 showdown with Ohio State.

4. Wisconsin (2-1, last week: 4): What is there left to say about the Arizona State ending? Wisconsin was far from perfect Saturday night, struggling to protect Joel Stave or stop back-shoulder throws from Arizona State's Taylor Kelly. But the Badgers fought hard in all three phases and received another huge boost from sophomore running back Melvin Gordon. They deserved better. It'll be interesting to see how they bounce back in the Big Ten opener against Purdue.

5. Michigan State (3-0, last week: 8): Look, an offense! And a quarterback! The Spartans finally start moving in the right direction in the rankings after a scoring explosion against Youngstown State. Connor Cook solidified himself as the team's starting quarterback with four touchdown passes and no interceptions, as Michigan State scored 35 first-half points. Sure, it's Youngstown State, but Michigan State needed a starting point on offense. It has one before a tough test at Notre Dame.

6. Nebraska (2-1, last week: 4): The collapses are no longer surprising because they seem to happen so often for Bo Pelini's teams. Sure, Nebraska normally keeps it together at home, and Saturday's third quarter was one of the worst in team history. But this is who these Huskers are under Pelini, a fragile team prone to blowout losses in big games. Nebraska falls off the national radar for a while but still could contend in the mediocre Big Ten.

7. Minnesota (3-0, last week: 7): It was a rough Saturday for the Gophers, who lost starting quarterback Philip Nelson to a hamstring injury and head coach Jerry Kill to another seizure. Minnesota also had a slow start against FCS Western Illinois until the offense caught fire in the fourth quarter behind running back David Cobb and backup quarterback Mitch Leidner, who was efficient in relief of Nelson. The Gophers face a test this week as San Jose State comes to town.

8. Penn State (2-1, last week: 6): It'll be a long week for defensive coordinator John Butler and a unit that surrendered 507 yards in the loss to UCF and had no answers for Knights quarterback Blake Bortles. After a final non-league tuneup against Kent State, Penn State opens Big Ten play against four potent offenses: Indiana, Michigan, Ohio State and Illinois. Wide receiver Allen Robinson is a beast, but Penn State needs more balance.

9. Indiana (2-1, last week: 10): The Hoosiers forced a punt against Bowling Green, and they did much, much more in one of their better defensive performances in recent memory. Bowling Green didn't score an offensive touchdown as defensive end Nick Mangieri and the Hoosiers bent but didn't break. Indiana had more than enough offense from quarterback Nate Sudfeld (335 pass yards, 2 TDs) and running backs Tevin Coleman (129 rush yards, 2 TDs) and Stephen Houston (155 rush yards), pulling away for an impressive win.

10. Illinois (2-1, last week: 9): Missed scoring opportunities in the first half doomed Illinois in the final 30 minutes against Washington, which repeatedly gashed a young Illini defense. But Illinois showed plenty of fight, even in the fourth quarter when the outcome seemed decided. Illinois has playmakers on both sides of the ball -- QB Nathan Scheelhaase, RB/WR Josh Ferguson, WR Ryan Lankford, LB Jonathan Brown -- and could surprise some Big Ten teams.

11. Iowa (2-1, last week: 11): There's an argument that Iowa should handle Iowa State rather easily, which is what happened Saturday in Ames. But Iowa hasn't handled the Cyclones nearly as often as they should, which is what made Saturday's performance so important. The Hawkeyes needed to win this one to generate some positive vibes, and thanks to a Mark Weisman-led run game and a solid defense, they got it done.

12. Purdue (1-2, last week: 12): The Boilers remain at the bottom, but we feel a lot better about them after the Notre Dame game. Quarterback Rob Henry and the offense looked more comfortable, and the defense contained the Irish run attack. There were still too many mistakes down the stretch, but coach Darrell Hazell can build on this. The problem is the schedule simply doesn't let up, as Purdue visits Wisconsin this week.

PSU DT Jones exceeding expectations

September, 10, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- DaQuan Jones doesn't blush at all from the praise. He's relaxed after peeling off his helmet, and any compliments seem to slide off his shoulders like sweat from a two-hour workout.

[+] EnlargeDaQuan Jones
Rob Christy/USA TODAY SportsDT DaQuan Jones lived up to the preseason hype and led the Nittany Lions in stops in the backfield and was fifth on the team in tackles.
The praise rolls on and Jones nods, but he's heard most of it before. Yes, he knows Gil Brandt rated him the top senior DT this season -- he found out on social media -- but that's a title he's not yet earned. Yes, he knows he leads the team in sacks (two), but he counters by saying the season's young.

But, every now and then, Jones is thrown off. You know, one reporter tells him, former cornerback Stephon Morris tweeted about how he should be a Heisman contender. Forget about Johnny Football and those billboard-grabbing quarterbacks.

"That's a bit too much," Jones said, shaking his head as if it were an insult. "That's for the skill guys."

Still, while the Heisman race might be a bit out of the humble senior's grasp, other awards like the Lombardi might just be within reach. After two games, he has five stops in the backfield. And, perhaps most impressively, he leads the Nittany Lions in tackles with 18. Only two players in the Big Ten -- Illinois LB Jonathan Brown and Iowa LB Anthony Hitchens -- have more. And Jones still has more solo stops than those two leaders.

"Seriously?" the defensive tackle asked Saturday, turning his head. "Man, that's crazy."

Crazy is right. On the field, Penn State's 318-pound defensive tackle -- who was 330-plus before laying off the local chicken-wing shop -- is focused like a prizefighter. He's friendly and gregarious after the game, like any other college student waiting to meet up with his family for a Saturday dinner, but he's another person on the field.

He talks with a slight lisp, not unlike Mike Tyson. It's a comparison others have drawn, and it's not a reach considering he constantly delivers knockout blows to the opposing line. He's mean, he's strong, and he's not a player the opposition looks forward to crossing.

"I like double teams better," he said matter-of-factly, as if he was asked his favorite ice cream flavor. "I'm a physical guy, and I like the contact. I don't shy away from them."

Added 240-pound tailback Zach Zwinak: "Even in our thud practices [where no one goes to the ground], he's definitely laid a few hits. He's a big boy."

In two games, Penn State has limited rushers to just 1.8 yards a carry and Jones has become the main ingredient in those three-and-outs. Against Syracuse, on three straight rushing plays to end the half, Jones came up with three straight tackles -- even when the Orange tried to avoid Jones by running off to the right on third down. (Jones happened to bring the ball-carrier down in the backfield for a one-yard loss, anyway.)

Trying to stop Jones is about as easy as about as trying to stop a run-away tractor trailer. You can try … but you'll probably get hurt in the process. Still, maybe that shouldn't be so surprising given the school's history at defensive tackle. Jones isn't an exception; he's really part of a trend.

He landed in Happy Valley months after the Miami Dolphins drafted Jared Odrick in the first round. He watched teammate Devon Still become a second-rounder in 2012 and then saw Jordan Hill head to the Seattle Seahawks in the third round this past offseason. Compare him to the past DT greats, say he's better, say he's worse -- but Jones is remaining level-headed.

"I want to be known for who I am," Jones said. "I didn't come here to live in anyone's shadows."

Jones is sincere and soft-spoken. When he says he's playing for fun and not awards, it's easy to believe him. He'll laugh when he talks about his pregame ritual with teammate Deion Barnes and how they'll just slap the back of each other's heads if one doesn't seem loose enough. And he'll narrow his eyebrows and softly glare, as if to say "Seriously?," when someone dishes out some praise. Part of the reason might just be because he doesn't yet believe himself that he's posted up some mind-boggling numbers.

Here's another: Last season, Jones started 11 games and finished the season with eight solo tackles and two tackles-for-loss. In Week 1 of this year, he already had eight solo tackles and three-tackles-for-loss.

"You know, it came up last week that somebody mentioned people were concerned about our interior defensive line play," defensive coordinator John Butler said. "But that's one of our strengths. DaQuan Jones is a great player. … DaQuan is very unselfish. If he keeps playing the way he's playing, he's going to have a long future playing football after Penn State."

Jones is as comfortable on the gridiron as he is off it. This is his final Penn State season and his last year as a college student, so he said he's going to enjoy it. And so far -- much to the chagrin of opposing offenses -- he sure has.
You can't say Illinois linebacker Jonathan Brown had a bad season in 2012. He led his team with 9.5 tackles for loss and was named a Butkus Award semifinalist.

Still, last season is one Brown would mostly like to put in the trash folder.

"Last year was just a rough year all around," he told ESPN.com. "It was just one of those years, man."

[+] EnlargeIllinois' Jonathan Brown
Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY SportsJonathan Brown (45) was one of the top linebackers in the conference and just barely missed making the Top 25.
He suffered along with the Illini during a 2-10 season, and he suffered physically, too. Nicked up after the opener, he said he didn't start to get healthy again until the middle of the season. Then he incurred a shoulder injury that forced him to miss the final three games and sit out all of spring practice.

The good news is that Brown feels healthy now after rehabbing the shoulder all offseason.

"The whole rehab process was excellent," he said. "We didn't rush back into anything, and took our time. I feel like I've come back even a little bit stronger."

Brown has been participating in voluntary team workouts and testing his shoulder by hitting sleds in individual work. He says he will be fully cleared for all drills when preseason practice starts next month. When asked if he was anxious to hit somebody again, Brown replied, "Beyond anxious. Beyond."

A healthy Brown could do wonders for the Illini defense, which finished 11th in the Big Ten in points allowed (32.1 ppg) last season. This is a guy who had 108 tackles, six sacks, 19.5 tackles for loss and an interception as a sophomore in 2011. He was still learning the game then, and after a spring in which he spent extra time in the film room -- perhaps the lone benefit from his injury -- he feels older and wiser now.

"I'm expecting to do big things this year," he said. "I feel like I'm at a different level than I was last year and the year before because of my experience. That has put me in a position where I'm ready to excel from where I am now to another level."

But Brown said whatever numbers he puts up won't matter much if the team stinks again during his senior season. The linebacker spot is at least one reason for Illini optimism.

Injuries there allowed Mason Monheim and Mike Svetina to pile up a lot of playing as true freshmen. Those two are now a year older and will be joined by junior college transfer Eric Finney, who is expected to start at the Star linebacker position. Other young players like Houston Bates give defensive coordinator Tim Banks some good depth to work with.

Brown likes what he has seen out of that group and the defense as a whole so far.

"We've really come together," he said. "We're probably not as talented as we were last year, because last year we had a lot of good players. But it just didn't mesh quite right. This year, we've got a lot of guys who are hungry, a lot of guys willing to work. It's going to be exciting."

Brown says he needs to continue working on his lateral quickness, retraining his muscles after so long away from competitive football. But he's not going to hold anything back during fall camp or during his final season in Champaign. He hopes to make 2013 a much more memorable one.
A year ago, Mason Monheim was in high school.

He's now among the leaders of an Illinois team desperately trying to get back on track for the 2013 season after a 2-10 clunker last fall. Ideally, Monheim could play behind several veterans for a few years, develop physically and mentally and then claim a leadership position. But a wave of injuries, combined with Monheim's emergence as a starting linebacker, have fast-tracked him to the forefront.

[+] EnlargeMason Monheim
AP Photo/Seth PerlmanIllinois LB Mason Monheim said he's trying to learn the nuances of the other defensive positions so that he can become a better leader.
The good news: Monheim is OK with taking the reins. The better news: he likes it.

"I feel more of a leadership role," Monheim recently told ESPN.com. "I'm really taking ahold of the defense. I'm trying to figure other people's positions so I can help them out, and know what they're doing to help me. I'm trying to be more vocal, just trying to bring that fire a little bit, to the group.

"It's a lot better and easier when there's a little fire underneath you."

Monheim said he's not fiery by nature but likes bringing energy to Illinois' spring workouts, whether it's critiquing a teammate or celebrating with them after big plays. Despite his young age, his teammates are responding to him well.

"They're ready for that criticism," he said. "Everybody's trying to learn, whether you've been here for a few years or not."

Much of Monheim's education came between the lines on Saturdays last fall. The 6-foot-1, 230-pound Monheim started the final 10 games for Illinois and led all Big Ten freshmen in tackles with 86.

His tackles-per-game average of 7.2 tied for 15th in the league, while no other freshman ranked in the top 50. Monheim had six tackles for loss, including 1.5 sacks, to go along with two forced fumbles, an interception a fumble recovery and a pass breakup.

He earned freshman All-America honors from Phil Steele and made our All-Big Ten freshman team along with fellow Illini linebacker Mike Svetina.

"I guess I didn't expect to play so much, but I went in with an open mind," Monheim said. "I knew if I would get an opportunity, I'd make the best of it for the team. That's what happened."

Monheim, a two-time Division IV all-state selection from Orville High School in Ohio, likely would have played for Toledo if Illini coach Tim Beckman had remained the Rockets' head man. But days after taking his official visit to Toledo, Monheim learned Beckman had accepted the Illinois job.

Monheim, who had received several Mid-American Conference offers, jumped on the chance to follow Beckman to Champaign.

"When I came in [last] summer, I didn't know what to expect," Monheim said. "But it wasn't anything that I was scared or didn't believe in my abilities. I have a lot of great teammates. They made it easy on me."

Monheim's challenge this spring is to better understand his teammates' responsibilities so he can lead them this fall.

Illinois could have three defensive linemen selected in the NFL draft -- Michael Buchanan, Akeem Spence and Glenn Foster, who sparkled last week at pro day after not receiving a combine invite. The secondary loses cornerbacks Terry Hawthorne and Justin Green.

The biggest reasons for optimism can be found at linebacker, as both Monheim and Svetina return along with Jonathan Brown, a second-team All-Big Ten selection in 2011.

"We're more together as a group," Monheim said of Illinois' defense. "We're not focused on the individual abilities and talents. When you're together, nothing can break you."
Very little went right for Illinois under first-year coach Tim Beckman last year. After a 2-10 season, the Illini are ready to turn the page and look forward to 2013 when they hit the practice field Tuesday.

I recently caught up with Beckman to ask about the pressing issues his team faces this spring. Here is that Q&A:

[+] EnlargeTim Beckman
Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY SportsDespite a 2-10 record this past season and a slew of changes on his staff, Illinois' Tim Beckman is full of optimism heading into spring workouts.
You turned over half your staff from last year, with some voluntary departures and some not. What has that been like and how much transition are you going through right now?

Tim Beckman: Well, it's kind of crazy, because I saw a stat the other day where there's only, like, 22 staffs that haven't changed in college football, so it's been the norm. But I think with the professionalism that coaches have and the guys I've been able to hire into this new family, they're outstanding people. They're professionals, they've been coordinators, they've been head coaches, they've been in great programs. The transition has been good. I've been able to hire two Illini, which is huge, with [receivers coach Mike] Bellamy and [defensive line coach Greg] Colby.

So I think it's been a great transition. Our players have been really excited. With Mike Bellamy, he's been involved with this program for a year. So the kids were pumped when he was hired on staff, because they know him. And now he brings that Illinois flavor to the staff. All the other coaches, we've been working with each other. Jim Bridge was telling me the other day there are four or five other guys that he's been with at other places. So that's one of the unique things, because it's like a fraternity. These guys have worked with one another.

How much will the offense change with new coordinator Bill Cubit?

TB: Well, it's Bill's offense. It's what Bill was hired for. And that's how it's always been, really, with the coordinators. But I think the uniqueness that Bill has, in coaching against him, is that he's been able to adapt his offense based on personnel. He's had Jordan White, a great, great football player. He's had great wide receivers, and he's been able to move them around and adapt his offense to the guys that need to be getting the football.

After a year like last year, what do you do to keep the players' confidence up?

TB: We went back to a lot of competition, back to a lot of leadership building. We addressed the situation that occurred. I met, as I always do, with each one of the players for 10 minutes. That takes a good week. We did that in December. I asked them what their goals were, because we split up the season into four quarters -- winter workouts, spring practice, summer workouts and then the most important quarter, the season. And I had them set goals for themselves to attain each quarter. So they just wrote out their goals out for spring ball. And I also do the same thing for the team. "What do you want this team to be able to say they can do after each quarter?"

Our motto is win whatever is needed, and win the day. Whatever is needed today for us to become a better and closer football team.

What are your primary concerns for this spring?

TB: The scenario here is depth. There hasn't been depth. And when you get a young man injured, it hits you drastically because you just don't have that depth. We were able to get 10 young men here in January, five junior college players and five high school players. Junior college wise, there hasn't been a whole bunch here before. There might have been one or two. But we needed to add age to our football team, and that's what the junior college players help us do.

You've only seen the junior college guys in winter workouts so far, but what is your early impression of those guys?

TB: The first thing that I look at always is how have they been accountability wise. Because it's new. They get in here, and, bam, they're thrown into the fire right away. I'm proud, because they've all been very accountable. We haven't been late for things. Being in school and being a football player hasn't got their minds out of whack or anything like that. They've shown football wise that they can compete, but they've also shown that they're doing a very good job of being accountable on and off the football field.

How do you see the quarterback competition, where you've got a veteran starter in Nathan Scheelhaase but also a guy in Reilly O'Toole who's played a lot and a big-time recruit (Aaron Bailey) coming in?

TB: As in any position, there's competition. Nathan will go in as the guy, being the starter. Somebody's got to beat him out. But Nathan's won a lot of football games here. We had a tough year, no question, but that's not going to be on Nathan's shoulders. He was getting sacked too many times. All those things you can't have your quarterback doing, getting hit. We've got to get better at protecting our quarterback, and we've got to be able to get the ball out quicker and do those types of things so our quarterback can be successful.

[+] EnlargeSteve Hull
Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY SportsSteve Hull will be trading in delivering hits for making catches on offense this spring.
You talked often last year about the lack of depth at the offensive skill positions. How has that come along?

TB: It's getting better. Those young men we played with last year have moved up in age. We've taken Steve Hull and moved him to offense, so that adds age and depth to that position. Wide receivers and DBs are the big concern here. And we've been able to add freshmen and junior college players to those positions.

Why did you move Hull to receiver?

TB: He's had some issues with injury. We felt that Steve, for his fifth year, would be better suited to play on the offensive side of the ball to take out maybe some of the direct collisions he was getting as a safety. And he's been great with it. He loves it, and he's emerged as being one of the big vocal leaders on the team.

The offensive line really struggled last year, and you lost two senior starters in Graham Pocic and Hugh Thornton. How does that position group look going into spring?

TB: Losing the two senior starters, they were dinged up a little bit during the season, so we had to move some players around. But we also had three, really four, players that got a lot of playing time last year. So they should be a year better. I like the philosophy that coach Bridge brings in here as our offensive line coach and what coach Cubit does with the running game. Our offensive line has done a great job these last three months -- and [strength coaches] Aaron Hillman and Dave Andrews get a lot of credit for it -- of getting stronger, getting bigger and doing those things you need to do to be a Big Ten offensive lineman.

You played a lot of freshmen on defense last year, like Monheim and Mike Svetina. Do you expect them to be much farther along this spring because of that experience?

TB: No question. They're not going to be freshmen that are 18 years old out there starting in the Big Ten. They're going to have a year's experience. We played Teko Powell on the defensive line last year so he could gather experience. V'Angelo Bentley played a bunch last year as a true freshman, so he got a bunch of experience. Now these players that were just brought in in January, plus the redshirt freshmen, are going to have to step up and be involved in the front and in the back end. You had a guy like a Jake Howe, who was playing very good and then broke his hand and was out for the year. You have Austin Teitsma, who got quite a few reps last year. Darius Caldwell. Houston Bates, who got hurt last year. Jonathan Brown. We've got to get those guys back and healthy.

You mentioned concerns about depth in the secondary. What young players do you expect to step up there?

TB: I think Eaton Spence has done a good job for us. V'Angelo Bentley has done a good job. The two freshmen we brought in have done a good job in winter workouts. I haven't seen them on the football field, but they've been doing their change of direction stuff very well. A young man named Taylor Barton, a true freshman, has done a good job. Eric Finney, who came in from junior college, LaKeith Walls, B.J. Bello, Jevaris Little -- these are names who have worked extremely hard this season. They're not names a bunch of people know because they've not played yet, other than Spence and Bentley. But these guys have definitely improved.

Have you started identifying leaders on this team yet?

TB: Well, we have really been pushing it. We've been meeting on it. We've been talking about it as a team and then as individual classes, and then our honor council. We've had a guest speaker come in every Monday and talk about leadership, from military people to a gold medal winner in the wheelchair marathon. So we've really built that in. I've seen players from young and old step up in winter workouts, step up and be leaders. Steve Hull has emerged as a guy who definitely does an outstanding job of leading this football team. Mason Monheim, who was a freshman, he's jumped up and taken control. Earnest Thomas. Guys that probably weren't as much leaders last year that might not be seniors have jumped up and tried to lead this football team well.

We've got 62 players who are freshmen and sophomores, so there's a big number of guys who have been here three or less years because of redshirts. So we've got to be able to all be leaders in this program, and that's what we're stressing.

Not surprisingly, the fan base was really down on last year. What can you do to create some more optimism?

TB: I opened up the Friday practices again to the community. This is the University of Illinois. It's our state, our team. We talk about it, and that's the truth. I want to get the community involved in this program. I've always wanted to do that and we're going to do it even more. We're going up to Chicago for a practice. Of course, we've got a game in Chicago at Soldier Field, which is an outstanding opportunity for Illini Nation and those things. We're moving forward.

Nobody was happy with last year. I mean no one. I haven't been involved in that type of year. So we have to move forward and we have to take this program forward. And that's what we asked this football team and this coaching staff to do.
Illinois defensive tackle Akeem Spence plans on skipping his senior season and entering the NFL draft, ESPN's Joe Schad reports. Spence will announce the decision on Friday, Schad says.

Spence had 72 tackles and seven tackles for loss in 2012 following a sophomore year in which he had 69 tackles and 5.5 sacks. The 6-foot-1, 305-pounder has been viewed as an NFL prospect for some time because of his size and strength.

He was one of the few bright spots for the Illini during a miserable 2-10 season in 2012. But even with him and other playmakers like defensive end Michael Buchanan and linebacker Jonathan Brown, Illinois finished 11th in the Big Ten in scoring defense, allowing 32.1 points per game. Head coach Tim Beckman will have to replace Spence, Buchanan and Glenn Foster as starters on the defensive line next season.

ESPN's Scouts Inc. has Spence rated as the 10th-best defensive tackle and the 45th best overall prospect in the 2013 NFL draft. That could translate into second-round status, and you can't blame Spence for not wanting to be a part of a rebuilding process in Champaign next year. He's the second high-profile junior from the Big Ten to declare early for the draft. Ohio State's Johnathan Hankins, also a defensive tackle, announced earlier this month that he would enter the draft.
Let's take a quick look at the two Big Ten contests on tap this afternoon:

Illinois (2-3, 0-1 Big Ten) at Wisconsin (3-2, 0-1), 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC regional/ESPN2 mirror: Both of these teams already have reached a critical juncture in their seasons after shaky starts. Things certainly are more dire for Illinois, which has been blown out in three of its past four games by a combined score of 132-45. The Illini rank last in the Big Ten in points allowed (27.8 ppg) after ranking 15th nationally in scoring defense (15.8 ppg) in 2011. Next to Illinois' defense, Wisconsin's offense has been the league's biggest surprise from a production standpoint, as the Badgers still rank last in the league in yards per game (309.2 ypg). Wisconsin showed some improvement last week at Nebraska and once again will turn to redshirt freshman Joel Stave at quarterback. The Badgers are getting healthy and will get defensive ends Brendan Kelly (hamstring) and Pat Muldoon (thumb) back for the game. Illinois defensive end Michael Buchanan will play, while linebacker Jonathan Brown (leg) is a game-time decision. The Illini haven't won in Madison since 2002.

Michigan (2-2) at Purdue (3-1), 4 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network: Although Nebraska-Ohio State and maybe even Northwestern-Penn State are getting more attention, the Michigan-Purdue game could be the most intriguing of the Big Ten's Week 6 slate. Michigan returns to the field for the first time since its turnover train derailment at Notre Dame. Purdue begins its defining stretch of the season -- Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio State -- with a game some Boiler fans think is the team's biggest since the 2004 clash with Wisconsin at Ross-Ade Stadium. Speaking of Ross-Ade, the Boilers have been a juggernaut on their home field, averaging 51 points through the first three games. Michigan's defense appeared to turn a corner at Notre Dame but must contend with Purdue weapons like Antavian Edison, Gary Bush, O.J. Ross, Akeem Shavers and Akeem Hunt. On the other side, Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson goes up against a talented Purdue defense led by Kawann Short, although the unit struggled to contain Marshall last week. Purdue has won 12 of its past 15 Big Ten openers.

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 4

September, 20, 2012
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Ten items to track around the Big Ten as Week 4 kicks off Saturday.

1. Notre Dame's nightmare: Few college players have tormented a rival like Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson has tormented Notre Dame the past two years. After a record-setting performance in South Bend in 2010 -- 502 yards of total offense -- Robinson led an incredible comeback last season as Michigan stunned the Irish in the first night game ever played at the Big House. Robinson returns to South Bend on Saturday, and Michigan likely needs another special effort from its senior to knock off No. 11 Notre Dame. The Irish come off of a stifling defensive effort against Michigan State, and their offense should test a young Michigan defense. Notre Dame looks like the more complete team in this contest, but if the game is close and Robinson has a chance for fourth-quarter magic, the Irish should start to worry.

2. Penn State protects its house: NCAA sanctions have limited Penn State's goals this season, but a few remain on the table. The Lions can still win a Leaders Division title. They also want to keep their winning streak against Temple alive, particularly at Beaver Stadium, where the Owls have never won. Penn State hasn't lost to Temple since 1941 (seven PSU victories between 2003-2011 were vacated). Although Temple clearly has improved in recent years, Nittany Lions seniors like linebacker Michael Mauti don't want to be the ones who let the win streak end. Penn State finally got a chance to celebrate last week against Navy and looked strong on both sides of the ball. It's important to keep the momentum going before Big Ten play kicks off with a spicy matchup at Illinois.

[+] EnlargeMax Shortell
Marilyn Indahl/US PresswireReserve QB Max Shortell has made a solid impact to help Minnesota to a 3-0 start.
3. Minnesota takes it to the Max: Life is good in Gopher Country, as Minnesota sits at 3-0 with a chance to sweep its nonconference slate Saturday night against Syracuse at TCF Bank Stadium. Backup quarterback Max Shortell stepped up in a big way last week after starter MarQueis Gray suffered a high ankle sprain. Now Shortell makes his first start of the season -- third of his career -- against a Syracuse team that has performed better than its record (1-2) would indicate. Shortell and his pass-catchers take aim at a Syracuse defense that hasn't been efficient against the pass (97th nationally, 145.1 rating). He'd be helped by a boost from Donnell Kirkwood and the run game, but Minnesota likely will need to put up points as Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib will challenge the Gophers' defense.

4. Badgers' offense looks for leadership: Wisconsin's offensive downturn has been the most surprising story in the Big Ten through the first few weeks. Line play was in the spotlight after Week 2 as Bret Bielema dumped assistant Mike Markuson, and now the attention shifts to quarterback. Wisconsin benched Danny O'Brien in favor of Joel Stave in the second half of last Saturday's win against Utah State, and both men are listed as co-starters on this week's depth chart. Bielema has made his decision on the starter, but he isn't revealing it publicly. Stave, the former walk-on, reportedly took most of the first-team reps this week in practice. Ranked 116th nationally in total offense, the Badgers need to iron out a lot of things, including their quarterback situation, before Big Ten play begins next week at Nebraska.

5. Comm studies in Champaign: Illinois attributed some of its defensive struggles at Arizona State to poor communication against the Sun Devils' fast-paced offense. Despite allowing 45 points and 510 yards to ASU, Illinois isn't losing its swagger, and linebacker Jonathan Brown declared last week, "We've got the best front seven in the country. I firmly believe that." Brown and his teammates can back up that claim Saturday night in a tricky game against Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs rank third nationally in scoring (56 ppg), fifth in total offense (603.5 ypg), ninth in rushing (289 ypg) and 17th in passing (314.5 ypg). They provide a very tough challenge for an Illinois team that says it has sorted out its communication issues. The Illini offense is banged up and still finding its identity, so Brown and the defense need a big effort Saturday night.

6. Buckeyes get back to basics: Ohio State has had quite a few highlights on defense through the first three games, but the Buckeyes' fundamentals aren't up to their typical standards. Missed tackles nearly cost Ohio State last week against Cal, and while the Buckeyes shouldn't have too much trouble with UAB on Saturday, Urban Meyer and his staff are looking for a more polished performance from the silver bullets. Meyer calls Ohio State's tackling woes "not acceptable," and he planned to double the amount of time his players spent on tackling this week in practice. As good as quarterback Braxton Miller has been, the Buckeyes need to tighten up on defense before Big Ten play begins.

7. Weisman for Heisman: Despite an inexplicable run of personnel problems at running back, Iowa always seems to find someone to step up and carry the rock. The latest back to emerge might be the most surprising: Mark Weisman, a walk-on fullback who transferred from Air Force and recorded 113 rush yards and three touchdowns in Iowa's much-needed win against Northern Iowa last week. Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz quipped that Weisman "must have not liked having guys bounce quarters off his bed" at Air Force and left for Iowa, where he got the staff's attention in the spring and really stood out during fall camp. Iowa likely won't have top backs Damon Bullock (head) and Greg Garmon (elbow) for Saturday's game against Central Michigan, and Weisman is expected to get his first career start. Weisman is quickly earning cult hero status at Iowa, and it'll be interesting to see if he can follow up last week's performance with another big one.

8. Northwestern's quarterback rotation: If there's such thing as a functional quarterback rotation, Northwestern seems to have found it with Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, neither of whom has thrown an interception this season. After Siemian led fourth-quarter drives in the Wildcats' first two wins, Colter was at the helm last week as the Wildcats put away Boston College. Coach Pat Fitzgerald seems content to stick with the rotation, go with the hotter hand when necessary and use matchups to his advantage. But in most of these cases, some separation occurs. Colter is a top-shelf athlete who extends drives with his feet but misses key throws at times. Siemian has better field vision and pure passing skills but isn't the natural playmaker Colter can be. Both men will play Saturday against South Dakota, and we could get some more clues about who will be leading the offense more as Big Ten play beckons. Despite a 3-0 start, Northwestern needs to start finishing more drives with touchdowns. The quarterback who does it best likely will be in a bigger role going forward.

9. MSU receivers look for green light: Mark Dantonio said Michigan State's staff would face some "tough decisions" after the team failed to score a touchdown or stretch the field in last week's loss to Notre Dame. Although the Spartans' depth chart for Eastern Michigan shows no adjustments at the wide receiver spots, Dantonio planned to evaluate the wideouts throughout the practice week and make no public announcements about changes. He noted that wide receiver is one of several positions where Michigan State has youth and equal ability level. If that's the case, we might see some new players in bigger roles Saturday, including Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett, who has barely played, and possibly freshmen Andre Sims Jr., Macgarrett Kings Jr. and Aaron Burbridge. Dantonio hinted that a lower-pressure game could help the young receiving corps. "We'll have to go through some of those growing pains," he said. "I think we have a lot of talent at that position, and it will show itself before the season is over. That talent will show itself."

10. Wolverines get nasty: If Michigan intends on beating Notre Dame for the fourth straight season, it must have season-best performances from both its offensive and defensive lines. Alabama overwhelmed the Wolverines at the line of scrimmage in the opener, and Michigan looks like a team missing its stars from 2011 (David Molk, Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen). Standout left tackle Taylor Lewan challenged the offensive line this week, saying, "You have to be physical, you've got to play angry, play nasty." The line faces a Notre Dame defensive front seven that overwhelmed Michigan State last week and has 11 sacks in the first three games. Coach Brady Hoke admits Michigan's defensive line remains a work in progress and doesn't generate enough push into the opposing backfield. It'll need to Saturday night against a Notre Dame team that Hoke says has superior speed to past Irish squads.
Illinois' defense entered the season pegged as one of the Big Ten's best, a distinction linebacker Jonathan Brown thinks the Illini still merit.

"We've got the best front seven in the country," Brown told reporters last week. "I firmly believe that."

His comments came four days after Illinois surrendered 45 points and 510 yards in a blowout loss to Arizona State. The Illini had communication problems early and missed tackles throughout the game. Perhaps the only positive is that the contest kicked off so late (10:30 p.m. ET) that most of the country missed it.

The debacle in the desert would seem to counter Brown's claim. Then again, it could be just an aberration -- a bad night after a long trip. Illinois has allowed just seven points in its two victories.

[+] EnlargeIllinois' Akeem Spence
Bradley Leeb/US PRESSWIREAkeem Spence and the Illinois defense have allowed seven total points in two victories, but allowed 45 in a loss to Arizona State.
What is the real Illini defense?

The beauty is we'll soon find out, thanks to the schedule.

After a game that revealed virtually nothing -- last week's 44-0 smashing of woeful Charleston Southern -- Saturday night's test against Louisiana Tech figures to show much more about the Illinois defense. Louisiana Tech's offensive numbers, despite a small sample size (two games), are quite staggering:

  • Fifth nationally in total offense (603.5 ypg)
  • Third in scoring (56 ppg)
  • Ninth in rushing (289 ypg)
  • 17th in passing (314.5 ypg)
  • Tied for 15th in offensive plays per game (83)

"They’re not complicated with what they do," Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. "They just do what they do very well."

The final number might get Illinois' attention more than any other. Louisiana Tech coach Sonny Dykes wants his offense, led by senior quarterback Colby Cameron and freshman running backs Tevin King and Kenneth Dixon, operating at an accelerated tempo, and the Bulldogs ran 94 players in their opening win against Houston.

Arizona State coach Todd Graham also preaches a quick pace on offense, and although his Sun Devils ran only 67 plays against the Illini, they capitalized on a defense that looked out of sorts, especially early in the game.

"It was just a lack of communication," defensive tackle Akeem Spence told ESPN.com. "Guys were looking at the wrong person, getting the wrong call."

Illinois simplified the signaling issue and worked to prepare for Tech's pace this week. Coaches put players through "fastball" periods in practice, where Spence estimates six plays were run in a span of a minute or so.

They also went over rotations and substitution patterns for an opponent that makes it difficult to shuffle players on and off of the field.

"It's just guys talking," Spence said, "making sure one another is on the same page, and just getting on the small things not to get us beat. Make sure the guys have the right call. If we're all wrong, and we all have the wrong call, then we're all right. ... When they're going so fast, you can't really take guys out, and you don't want to get any stupid penalties, 12 men on the field, substitution penalties.

"I think we took the proper measures to get ready for these guys."

According to Spence, Illinois will look to take away King, Dixon and the run game and make Louisiana Tech one-dimensional. Like Brown, Spence hasn't lost any confidence in the front seven, which he thinks still can be elite.

Saturday night, they have the chance to prove it.

"We've got to execute a lot better than we did when we played Arizona State," Spence said. "If we do that, we'll have a better outcome. A lot better outcome."

Illini impressive in Beckman's debut

September, 1, 2012
9/01/12
3:45
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There were concerns about the Illinois offense. There were concerns about Western Michigan, which played the Illini tough in Champaign last year. And there were concerns about the weather.

Turns out there was little need to worry about Tim Beckman's debut as Illinois head coach. His team turned in a strong overall effort in a 24-7 opening win against the Broncos.

It all revolved, not surprisingly, around the the Illini's stout defense. Normally high-scoring Western Michigan, which put up 63 points on Beckman's Toledo squad last season, didn't hit the board until the fourth quarter and had only 246 total yards. Illinois held the Broncos to negative-6 rushing yards and forced four turnovers.

The key turnover came with 9:06 left, when Ashante Williams intercepted Alex Carder and returned it 60 yards for a touchdown. Michael Buchanan and Jonathan Brown also had big days on defense.

The Illinois offense, moving to the spread under Beckman, didn't do a whole lot after producing 17 points in the first 23 minutes. The offense totaled only 248 total yards and averaged just 2.8 yards per carry. But it was more than enough on a wet day.

The concern now turns to quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who was carted off and missed the entire fourth quarter with a left ankle injury. Reilly O'Toole played the rest of the way. At this point, Scheelhaase's availability for next week's game at Arizona State is unclear, though Beckman said immediately after the game that he expects his starter back.

The main takeaway from today is that Illinois is off to a good start under Beckman, with some things to build on.
The Big Ten doesn't announce an official preseason all-conference team. But that doesn't mean we can't.

Here are our picks for the 2012 preseason All-Big Ten team:

Offense

QB: Denard Robinson, Michigan
RB: Montee Ball, Wisconsin
RB: Rex Burkhead, Nebraska
RB: Le'Veon Bell, Michigan State
WR: Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin
TE: C.J. Fiedorowicz, Iowa
OT: Taylor Lewan, Michigan
OT: Ricky Wagner, Wisconsin
OG: Spencer Long, Nebraska
OG: Chris McDonald, Michigan State
C: Travis Frederick, Wisconsin

Defense

DE: John Simon, Ohio State
DE: William Gholston, Michigan State
DT: Kawann Short, Purdue
DT: Johnathan Hankins, Ohio State
LB: Gerald Hodges, Penn State
LB: Chris Borland, Wisconsin
LB: Jonathan Brown, Illinois
CB: Johnny Adams, Michigan State
CB: Ricardo Allen, Purdue
S: Isaiah Lewis, Michigan State
S: Jordan Kovacs, Michigan

Specialists

K/P: Brett Maher, Nebraska
KR: Raheem Mostert, Purdue
PR: Abbrederis

Thoughts: The first thing that likely jumps out at you is that we have three running backs and just one receiver on our first-team offense. No, we haven't forgotten the rules of football. It's just that we continue to feel the wide receiver crop is weak this season, and no great candidates for the second spot leap out at us. Perhaps Keenan Davis of Iowa or one of Northwestern's many receivers will have a great season, but no one has proved anything on a consistent basis. We'd rather have Bell -- who we believe is primed for a huge year -- on the team than any of the receiver candidates. Plus, isn't running the ball what Big Ten football is all about? ... Some of the toughest omissions came at linebacker, where Michigan State's duo of Denicos Allen and Max Bullough and Wisconsin's Mike Taylor were among those left out. At least we know we'd have an outstanding second-team unit at that position. ... Fiedorowicz is a bit of a projection pick, but we love the way he finished last season and how he fits into Greg Davis' new scheme. You certainly could make a strong case for Wisconsin's Jacob Pedersen or Ohio State's Jake Stoneburner there as well. ... Some of these players won't live up to expectations, and others will explode on the scene this fall. But for now, we'd feel pretty good about throwing this team on the field.
Power Rankings: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-10 | SEC | Non-AQ

Game week is here, and not a moment too soon.

Preseason camps have wrapped up around the Big Ten, and teams are now locking in for their openers this coming weekend. The power rankings will appear each Monday throughout the season, and we're getting things kicked off today.

There aren't many changes from our last version, although some offseason news has affected the rundown. The top five teams certainly have separated themselves in our eyes, while there's not much separating the next five on the list.

Here we go ...

1. Michigan State: We understand why Michigan is the highest-rated Big Ten team in the polls, but Michigan State gets the top spot in our power rankings because of its defense. A top-10 unit in 2011 could easily become a top-five unit this season, as the Spartans are strong at just about every position. While the concerns at quarterback and receiver are warranted, the offense will be effective enough with the run as Le'Veon Bell and a more seasoned line return.

2. Michigan: The Wolverines endured some injuries and off-field issues this summer and in camp, but they still enter the season with justifiably high hopes. Senior quarterback Denard Robinson has matured during his career and could make a serious push for national awards this fall. Michigan must shore up its lines and hope some young players grow up in a hurry. A relentless schedule is the biggest challenge for Brady Hoke's squad.

3. Wisconsin: The offense might not be as electric as it was the past two seasons and the defense has some question marks (secondary, pass rush), but Wisconsin knows how to win and boasts enough to claim another Big Ten title. Montee Ball is extremely motivated after a rough summer, and while Danny O'Brien isn't Russell Wilson, he gives the offense some stability. A favorable schedule with both Michigan State and Ohio State at home helps the Badgers.

4. Ohio State: It's a close call for the No. 4 spot, but the Buckeyes get the edge based on a defense with the potential to be one of the nation's best. John Simon anchors arguably the league's top defensive line, and almost everyone returns in the secondary. While there will be growing pains on offense, the unit can't possibly be worse than last year's, and Braxton Miller has a chance to make significant strides this season.

5. Nebraska: Fifteen starters return to a Huskers team that should be much more comfortable with the Big Ten in Year 2. But questions remain surrounding quarterback Taylor Martinez, replacing star power on defense and getting over the hump on the road. A signature road victory would go a long way for Bo Pelini's program, which returns 15 starters and has a great chance to climb this list and challenge for the Legends division.

6. Purdue: Danny Hope repeatedly called this his best Boilers team during the offseason, and we can see why. Purdue boasts a formidable defensive front and two bona-fide stars on defense in tackle Kawann Short and cornerback Ricardo Allen. The Boilers also return most of their key weapons on offense. What we still need to see is a team that can avoid the major mistakes and mental lapses that have plagued Purdue throughout Hope's tenure. A challenging start to Big Ten play will tell a lot about the Boilers.

7. Penn State: The Lions will ride emotion and a stout defensive front seven this fall, and they could go further than most think after a brutal offseason. Still, it's hard to figure out how Penn State will score points, and the turmoil is bound to catch up with Bill O'Brien's crew at some point. If O'Brien bolsters an offense featuring mostly unproven personnel, Penn State could make a strong push. The schedule is favorable as the Lions get both Ohio State and Wisconsin at Beaver Stadium.

8. Iowa: Youth will be served this fall in Iowa City as the Hawkeyes turn to unproven players at several spots, namely defensive line and running back. The good news is that Iowa boasts a veteran in senior quarterback James Vandenberg, who could thrive under new coordinator Greg Davis. Iowa must ride Vandenberg's right arm and a talented back seven on defense headlined by cornerback Micah Hyde and linebacker James Morris. Iowa also should benefit from its schedule.

9. Illinois: The Illini and Penn State are nearly mirror images, as both teams have first-year coaches, talented defensive front sevens and question marks on offense. Defense could carry Illinois a long way this fall, as end Michael Buchanan and linebacker Jonathan Brown anchor the unit. A new offensive scheme could spark third-year starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, although he'll need unproven weapons to emerge. Illinois could be a sleeper team this fall, although its Big Ten road schedule is flat-out brutal (Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio State, Northwestern).

10. Northwestern: After a drop in wins the past three seasons, can Northwestern get things turned around? The Wildcats once again should be strong on offense as Kain Colter takes over at quarterback, although there are some questions up front. The defense can't be much worse than it was in 2011, and while there will be more youth throughout the unit, there also should be more talent. Northwestern must capitalize on the first chunk of the schedule, which features several toss-up games but isn't overly taxing.

11. Minnesota: The Gophers will be an improved team in Year 2 under Jerry Kill. The problem is they play in a loaded division and face a tricky schedule with no gimme games. Quarterback MarQueis Gray has a chance to do big things as a senior, although his supporting cast remains a mystery. Troy Stoudermire's return should spark the defense, which played better down the stretch in 2011. Like Northwestern, Minnesota needs to get off to a good start and build confidence.

12. Indiana: The Hoosiers won't go 1-11 again, and they could be dangerous on the offensive side as sophomore quarterback Tre Roberson matures and the passing game becomes a bigger part of the plan. Question marks remain throughout the defense, and Indiana hopes an influx of junior-college players helps the situation immediately. Indiana will be older and better than it was in 2011, and the Hoosiers should be more competitive in Big Ten games. But until they prove otherwise, they're at the bottom.
Earlier this summer, I took a look at the Big Ten's top candidates to throw for 3,000 yards, to run for 1,000 yards and to compile 1,000 receiving yards this season. Well, offensive guys don't get to have all the fun.

Let's move to the defensive side of the ball now and see which guys might produce the top tackling numbers in the league in 2012. We'll start off by examining the leading returning 100-tackle men from last season and their outlook for the coming fall:

1. Mike Taylor, LB, Wisconsin: Taylor had a true breakthrough year in 2012, leading the league with 150 tackles in 14 games. His 10.7 tackles per game ranked 13th nationally. Taylor sat out this spring while dealing with a hip injury, but is expected to be fully healthy in time for training camp. And there's no reason to think he won't be among the league leaders in stops again this year, along with ...

[+] EnlargeMike Taylor
Andrew Weber/US PresswireWisconsin's Mike Taylor's 10.7 tackles per game ranked 13th nationally.
2. Chris Borland, LB, Wisconsin: You'd be hard pressed to find two more productive returning linebackers than the Badgers' duo. Borland finished just behind Taylor with 143 tackles in '11, successfully making the transition to middle linebacker after missing a year due to injury. There's little question that Taylor and Borland are two defenders Wisconsin will heavily rely on to get stops. And speaking of dynamic duos, let's go ahead and lump the next two together ...

3-4. James Morris and Christian Kirksey, LB, Iowa: The Hawkeyes' pair didn't get as much attention as Borland and Taylor but were awfully good in their own right, as each one recorded 110 tackles (Morris did it in 12 games, Kirksey in 13) in 2011. Both will be counted on this fall as Iowa breaks in a very young defensive line in front of them. Considering both are juniors who have had two years of playing experience, the future appears bright for these two.

5. Jonathan Brown, LB, Illinois: Brown was another guy who had a breakout sophomore year, making 108 tackles and a lot of plays in opposing backfields. He's got great speed and should only improve as he matures and continues to develop. He's a darkhorse candidate for Big Ten defensive player of the year honors.

6. Gerald Hodges, LB, Penn State: Hodges was a first-team All-Big Ten performer last year and enters this season as one of the top linebackers in the country after posting 106 tackles in 2011. He's a big-time playmaker who had a 19-tackle game last year against Illinois. The sky's the limit for Hodges, even in a new defensive scheme under first-year coordinator Ted Roof.

7. Ibraheim Campbell, S, Northwestern: Campbell was a pleasant surprise for the Wildcats, finishing with a team-best 100 tackles as a redshirt freshman. He's a hard-hitter who could help Northwestern's defense improve off a disappointing showing last year. Of course, any time your safety is getting 100 tackles, it usually indicates that the guys up front are giving up too much room. So it's probably a good thing if Campbell's tackle numbers go down in '12.

Those are the guys who hit triple digits last year and are coming back. Now here's a quick look at some other players who could reach the century mark this year.

Kenny Demens, LB, Michigan: Demens led the Wolverines with 94 stops last season, and Michigan's defensive line might not be quite as strong as last year's group, meaning he could meet more ball carriers himself.

Dwayne Beckford, LB, Purdue: Fully reinstated to the team last month, Beckford is the most experienced linebacker of the group. He had 91 tackles in '11 and won't have Joe Holland (94 stops as a senior in 2011) to pick up the slack next to him.

Max Bullough, LB, Michigan State: Bullough is the captain of a strong Spartans defense as the middle linebacker and had 84 tackles a year ago. But the players around him are all so good that the tackle numbers could be spread out.

Will Compton, LB, Nebraska: Now that tackling machine Lavonte David is off to the NFL, someone will have to carry the load. That could well be Compton, who had a nice year in 2011 with 82 tackles.

Mike Rallis, LB, Minnesota: Safety Kim Royston paced the Gophers with 123 tackles in 2011. But like Northwestern, Minnesota would rather not see a defensive back lead the way in stops again. Rallis (83 tackles last year) or fellow linebacker Keanon Cooper (77) might see an uptick in stats with a better Gophers' defensive effort.

Ryan Shazier, LB, Ohio State: The Buckeyes did not have a player record more than 75 tackles last year. That might change this season, and veteran linebacker Etienne Sabino could put up some big numbers. But I like Shazier -- who had 58 tackles in only 10 games as a freshman, including 15 against Penn State -- to emerge as the next Buckeyes linebacker star.

David Cooper, Indiana: The Hoosiers are high on this junior-college transfer and hope he can have an immediate, Lavonte David like impact. They need someone to make a big mark on a defense that really struggled a year ago.

Michael Mauti, Penn State: The Nittany Lions have Hodges and also Mauti, who can be a major factor if he's recovered from yet another devastating injury. He had 67 tackles two years ago in an injury-shortened season and was playing extremely well before he hurt his knee last September. If he's sound, Penn State could have a top tackling duo a la Wisconsin and Iowa.

100 Days Countdown: Big Ten

May, 22, 2012
5/22/12
9:00
AM ET
As part of the “College Football Live” 100 Days 'Til Kickoff countdown, we're taking a look at the top 10 players in the Big Ten for 2012. Please note that this list could look different when we do out Big Ten Top 25 players list later this summer.

But here's how they're ranked for the "College Football Live" event:

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesWisconsin's Montee Ball earned a trip to New York last season, and has earned a lot of hype coming into the fall.
1. Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin: After scoring 39 touchdowns and earning an invitation to New York for the 2011 Heisman Trophy ceremony, Ball returned to school for his senior year and very much earned the No. 1 spot on this list. His numbers could go down a bit this year as they would be nearly impossible to top. Yet Ball, who has focused on pass-blocking and improving his strength this offseason, could be a better all-around back in 2012.

2. Rex Burkhead, RB, Nebraska: Still a bit underrated nationally, Burkhead gets plenty of respect in the Big Ten. He ran for 1,357 yards and 15 touchdowns last season without much of a passing attack to keep defenses honest. The senior approaches every carry like his scholarship check depends on it, which is why Nebraska fans embrace him.

3. John Simon, DE, Ohio State: New Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer gushed over Simon this spring for his all-out commitment on and off the field. Simon had seven sacks and 16 tackles for loss on a banged-up defensive front last year and should contend for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2012.

4. William Gholston, DE, Michigan State: We mean this in the best possible way: Gholston is a freak. How else to describe a 6-foot-7, 275-pounder with the speed of an outside linebacker? Gholston can be downright unblockable when he's focused and using proper technique, something he showed in an impressive Outback Bowl performance against Georgia in January. If that's a sign of things to come, he could be an All-American.

5. Gerald Hodges, LB, Penn State: Hodges has become the latest member of Linebacker U to seize stardom. He broke out last season with 106 tackles, including 4.5 sacks, as he anchored the middle of one of the best defenses in the country. Fast, strong and instinctive, he has everything you want from the linebacker position.

6. Denard Robinson, QB, Michigan: There might not be a more exciting player in the country than "Shoelace," who has put together more heroics than a comic book character the past two seasons. But his passing remains suspect, as evidenced by his Big Ten-worst 15 interceptions last season. The word out of spring practice was that Robinson had improved his fundamentals and looked sharp as a passer. If he can add accuracy to his other many talents, the sky is the limit for him and the Wolverines this season.

7. Kawann Short, DT, Purdue: Short thought about skipping his senior year and entering the NFL but decided to make a push for first-round status this season. He certainly has the ability to do so as a potentially dominant run-stuffer in the middle of Purdue's defensive line. Short had 17 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks in 2011 and will be the focus of every opposing offensive game plan this season.

8. Chris Borland, LB, Wisconsin: Bret Bielema says Borland might be the best middle linebacker he's ever coached. That is saying something since Borland didn't move to the middle linebacker spot until last season. Though a bit undersized, he makes up for it with natural instincts and underrated athleticism. Borland made 143 tackles last year and formed one of the best defensive duos in the country with fellow Badgers linebacker Mike Taylor.

9. Silas Redd, RB, Penn State: Redd carried Penn State's offense during the middle of last season and was as productive as any back during October. He eventually wore down a bit under a heavy workload and because of some injuries, but he could be primed for an even bigger year in new coach Bill O'Brien's offense. Redd ran for 1,241 yards last season and figures to find the end zone more than the seven trips he made there a year ago.

10. Jonathan Brown, LB, Illinois: Brown burst onto the scene as a sophomore, posting 108 tackles and 19.5 for loss as a quarterback-seeking missile. He was a bit inconsistent, however, and he lost his cool when he kneed a Northwestern player in the groin, earning a one-game suspension. Now a year older and wiser, Brown should be one of the top defensive playmakers in the conference, if not the country.
The book is closed on spring football in the Big Ten, but what did the chapters reveal? Although no games are played during the spring, which fuels optimism for all 12 teams, the 15 practices provide clues for the upcoming season. The Big Ten saw few major injuries to key players, some good news (the NCAA declaring Michigan State WR DeAnthony Arnett eligible for 2012) and some potentially troubling signs.

It's time to revive the power rankings coming out of the spring. We see separation with the top two teams, while Nos. 3-5 are closely matched. The same holds true for Nos. 7-10.

Here they are ...

1. Michigan State: The Spartans' defense looks like the single best unit in the Big Ten entering the season. Spring practice only enhanced our opinion of Pat Narduzzi's group, which has no shortage of stars. While the passing game needs work, Arnett's presence should help, and the Spartans will rely more on their run game with Le'Veon Bell and an improved offensive line.

2. Michigan: Quarterback Denard Robinson and Fitzgerald Toussaint, who affirmed himself as Michigan's top tailback this spring, form arguably the Big Ten's most dangerous backfield tandem. If Michigan can fill some key pieces on both lines, where there was some shuffling this spring, it will be back in the BCS bowl mix and among the favorites to win the Big Ten crown.

3. Wisconsin: It seems hard to fathom, but Montee Ball appeared to take his game to an even higher gear this spring. The Badgers' star running back will fuel the offense again, although quarterback remains a question mark as Maryland transfer Danny O'Brien arrives this summer. Wisconsin still needs more playmakers to emerge on the defensive line and in the secondary.

4. Nebraska: Tough call on this spot, but the Huskers return their core pieces on offense from a 9-4 team. Footwork-conscious quarterback Taylor Martinez received good reviews this spring, and he should be more comfortable in Year 2 at the helm of Tim Beck's offense. Coach Bo Pelini thinks the defense will be improved and potentially deeper, although the Huskers lose a lot of star power on that side of the ball.

5. Ohio State: There were few dull moments in Ohio State's first spring under Urban Meyer, who began installing an offense unlike any seen in Columbus. After resembling a "clown show" early on, the offense made strides and quarterback Braxton Miller looks like a strong fit for the system. An improved defense, led by linemen John Simon and Johnathan Hankins, should buy the offense some time to get acclimated.

6. Penn State: New coach Bill O'Brien ushered in a historic spring in Happy Valley, and Penn State players for the most part embraced the many changes taking place. The Lions still don't have a quarterback, but they have an excellent running back in Silas Redd and an improved offense line that pleasantly surprised O'Brien this spring. Penn State's defensive front seven, led by linebacker Gerald Hodges and tackle Jordan Hill, might need to carry the team at times.

7. Purdue: Fourth-year coach Danny Hope thinks this is clearly his best team in West Lafayette, and with 18 starters back, it's easy to see why. The Boilermakers are one of the Big Ten's deepest teams at positions like quarterback, defensive tackle, running back and cornerback. Purdue must continue to absorb the new defense installed by Tim Tibesar and fill some key gaps along the offensive line.

8. Iowa: Although Iowa's changes this spring didn't make national headlines like the ones at Penn State and Ohio State, they were very significant. New offensive coordinator Greg Davis began installing a more up-tempo and multifaceted offense that seems to be clicking with senior quarterback James Vandenberg. Jordan Canzeri's ACL injury once again clouds the picture at running back entering the summer, and Iowa needs its young defensive line to grow up in a hurry.

9. Northwestern: The Wildcats showcased one of the league's top wide-receiving corps this spring, and if Kain Colter can improve his passing, the offense should surge. Defense has been Northwestern's bugaboo in recent years, and young players like end Deonte Gibson and cornerback Nick VanHoose stepped forward this spring. It's crucial for the defense to keep making progress if Northwestern wants to maintain its bowl streak.

10. Illinois: There's little doubt Illinois will be a defense-driven team, and the Illini look loaded in the front seven with players like end Michael Buchanan, who turned in a very strong spring, as well as tackle Akeem Spence and linebacker Jonathan Brown. An offense that flatlined late last season began learning a new system this spring and still lacks playmakers at running back and wide receiver. Running back Josh Ferguson's spring-game performance is encouraging.

11. Minnesota: The second spring of the Jerry Kill era brought greater comfort for both players and coaches alike. Quarterback MarQueis Gray made strides in his second spring session as the starter, although the Gophers are still looking for more weapons to surround No. 5. The defensive line should be an improved group after several lifeless seasons. Minnesota still needs to develop depth in the secondary and at wide receiver.

12. Indiana: After playing an insane number of freshmen in 2011, Indiana began to reap the benefits this spring. An influx of junior-college defenders, including linebackers David Cooper and Jacarri Alexander, also should boost a unit that needs all the help it can get. The Hoosiers have some nice building blocks on offense at both quarterback (Tre Roberson) and running back (Stephen Houston, Isaiah Roundtree), but they still have a lot of work to do before the season.

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