NCF Nation: Khairi Fortt
Previewing the 2014 season for the California Golden Bears:
2013 record: 1-11, 0-9 Pac-12.
Final grade for 2013: F. You don’t beat an FBS team, you don’t pass. It’s as simple as that.
Key losses: OLB Khairi Fortt, TE Richard Rodgers, DT Viliami Moala
Instant impact newcomers: WR Trevor Davis, RB Tre Watson, WR Erik Brown
Projected winning percentage (ESPN.com Stats & Information): .313
Chances to win the conference (ESPN.com Stats & Information): 0.0 percent.
Most important game: vs. Colorado, Sept. 27
Biggest question mark: Can they stop anyone? Defensively, Cal was historically bad in 2013 and unless that’s rectified, it won’t matter how potent the offense might be.
Best-case scenario: 4-8
Worst-case scenario: 0-12
Over/under win total (Bovada): 2.5
Upset special: Northwestern. Cal came within a few tipped passes of beating Northwestern last season and we have to allow for the possibility the Bears made the most of the offseason and start the season on the right foot.
They said it: "You know, in our profession, you are kind of what your record says you are. So you go from being pretty smart to being pretty dumb overnight, and it's a tough thing to live with.” — coach Sonny Dykes
Earlier this morning, we took a look at who might replace the guys who jumped to the NFL in the South Division. Here’s a look at the North.
Leaving: Brendan Bigelow, RB, Cal
The replacement: Khalfani Muhammad and Daniel Lasco are both coming back, so there is at least some experience at the position. Jeffrey Coprich and Darren Ervin could also see some time. Incoming freshman Devante Downs is built more like a fullback but could also see some carries in the running game.
Leaving: Richard Rodgers, WR, Cal
The replacement: Stephen Anderson is a possibility to emerge at inside receiver. Darius Powe is going to see action regardless of whether it’s inside or outside and Raymond Hudson, Jacob Wark, and Drake Whitehurst are all possibilities.
Leaving: Khairi Fortt, LB, Cal
The replacement: Nathan Broussard is coming off an injury and Raymond Davison and Jason Gibson are moving back to linebacker from safety. Juco transfers Sam Atoe and Jonathon Johnson could help. Also, Downs (see the Bigelow section) comes in as an athlete, and putting him on the defensive side of the ball is a possibility.
Leaving: Kameron Jackson, CB, Cal
The replacement: Darius Allensworth and Trey Cheek will get the most looks. Cedric Dozier saw some starting time last season. He’s not a lock but has some experience. Isaac Lapite, Adrian Lee and Joel Willis are also possibilities. Stefan McClure should also be back from his 2013 injury, and Cameron Walker, who was playing out of position at safety, might move back to corner.
Leaving: Viliami Moala, DT, Cal
The replacement: Jacobi Hunter should be the main guy, but transfers Trevor Kelly and Marcus Manley should help out across the line. Austin Clark is still waiting to hear about his sixth year of eligibility, but if he gets it, he and Mustafa Jalil could shuffle up and down the line as they look to replace the graduated Deandre Coleman as well.
Leaving: Chris McCain, DE, Cal (Previously dismissed from team)
The replacement: Kyle Kragen and Puka Lopa were the top two guys to replace McCain after he left. Brennan Scarlett is also expected back and Johnson could be in the mix. The coaching staff seems to be really high on him.
The replacement: Unless Oregon is hiding another multitalented back who can run like DAT, there is no "real" replacement. Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner should continue to get the work as the primary 1-2 punch, but it will be interesting to see if the Ducks use either in a more dynamic way like they did Thomas.
Leaving: Colt Lyerla, TE, Oregon (Left the team earlier in the season).
The replacement: Pharaoh Brown, Evan Baylis and John Mundt will all continue to get work, probably in that order. They all pitched in in some capacity after Lyerla left the team, so the Ducks should be in good shape at the position.
Leaving: Terrance Mitchell, CB, Oregon
The replacement: That Ifo Ekpre-Olomu opted to return bodes well for the Ducks. Troy Hill would have been the obvious selection, but he remains suspended indefinitely, and his future with the program is in question. Dior Mathis has experience and the coaching staff is high on redshirt freshman Chris Seisay. Juco transfer Dominique Harrison enrolled early and will participate in spring ball, so there are options.
Leaving: Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
The replacement: Much like USC’s dilemma with Marqise Lee, The Beavers' task of replacing a Biletnikoff winner is no easy one. Victor Bolden is the logical choice. He returned kicks, ran a few fly sweeps and was Cooks’ immediate backup. But a big wide receiver class last year that included Bolden, Hunter Jarmon and Walter Jones could make things more interesting in the spring.
Leaving: Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State
The replacement: Lavonte Barnett was the backup all season but didn’t have much production. Jaswha James has bounced around a bit -- mostly at linebacker -- but has finally settled at DE and had a nice bowl performance. Titus Failauga is also a possibility as Mike Riley went out of his way to specifically mention him during a recent teleconference. There are also rumblings that Obum Gwacham -- a talented athlete who hasn’t worked out at wide receiver -- could move to defensive end.
Leaving: David Yankey, OL, Stanford
Leaving: Cameron Fleming, OL, Stanford
The replacement: Like Garnett, Kyle Murphy was part of the ’12 class and has also seen his share of action on the offensive line. The Cardinal are replacing four offensive linemen, but most of those replacements -- such as Garnett and Murphy -- already have some playing experience.
Leaving: Ed Reynolds, FS, Stanford
The replacement: Good question. All of Stanford’s free safeties are gone, while returning strong safeties include Jordan Richards and Zach Hoffpauir. Someone could make a switch, or it’s possible that former quarterback Dallas Lloyd, who is now making the transition to safety, could play here.
Leaving: Bishop Sankey, RB, Washington
The replacement: Jesse Callier started the 2012 season, but a season-ending injury gave rise to Sankey. Dwayne Washington seems like he could be an every down-type back, while Callier excels in third-down situations or as a changeup back. Deontae Cooper will also see carries.
Leaving: Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Washington
The replacement: Joshua Perkins was the No. 2 all season, so there’s little reason to think he won’t graduate to No. 1. He’s more receiver than blocker, but he’s got talent and shouldn’t have a problem assuming the role of the outgoing Mackey winner.
While the return of UCLA QB Brett Hundley for his redshirt junior season was the weekend's big news, an early-entry to the NFL draft talent drain is hitting the Pac-12 hard.
While a number of big-name players have not yet formally announced their intensions -- such as Arizona RB Ka'Deem Carey, Stanford OG David Yankey, Oregon CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Arizona State LB Carl Bradford and Oregon State QB Sean Mannion -- already 17 players have announced they will give up their remaining eligibility to turn professional.
The deadline to declare is Jan. 15.
There has been good news at quarterback. Hundley joins Oregon's Marcus Mariota as pretty significant surprises that they opted to return to school, and that means the 2014 class of Pac-12 quarterbacks will be without peer in the nation by a wide margin.
Here's the early-entry list so far:
Dion Bailey, LB, USC
Marqise Lee, WR, USC
George Uko, DT, USC
Marcus Martin, C, USC
Xavier Su'a-Filo, OG, UCLA
Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State
Paul Richardson, WR, Colorado
Bishop Sankey, RB, Washington
Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Washington
De'Anthony Thomas, RB/WR, Oregon
Colt Lyerla, TE, Oregon*
Terrance Mitchell, CB, Oregon
Khairi Fortt, LB, California
Kameron Jackson, CB, California
Richard Rodgers, TE California
Jake Murphy, TE, Utah
*Lyerla was kicked off the team at Oregon in October.
California's defense has taken a couple of hits, though not to projected starters.
Talented sophomore cornerback Stefan McClure, who suffered a major knee injury on Nov. 25 against Arizona State, may redshirt because his knee is still far from 100 percent. According to the Contra Costa Times, "McClure had his anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments surgically repaired and also underwent microfracture surgery to repair his meniscus."
McClure, who saw extensive action in 2011 before getting hurt, including starting two games, was listed No. 2 behind Marc Anthony at one corner on the post-spring depth chart.
Further, LB Khairi Fortt, a transfer from Penn State, is at least a couple of weeks away from practicing because he's still recovering from knee surgery. Also at linebacker, redshirt freshman Jason Gibson, who was in the mix to see action, though he wasn't on the post-spring depth chart, broke his right foot Monday and will be out for about three months, according to the Times.
Penn State started 8-1 in 2011 because of a ferocious defense. The Lions rotated quarterbacks, failed to generate much of a passing attack and got a bunch of yards but not many touchdowns from Silas Redd.
They won four games without scoring more than 16 points, three in Big Ten play.
It's a blueprint the Blue and White likely must follow again in 2012 to have success in Bill O'Brien's first season. Although O'Brien is an offensive guru, the line should be better and new contributors should emerge, the Penn State offense, at present, simply doesn't look like it can score many points.
Wide receiver Justin Brown's departure to Oklahoma, as colleague Joe Schad first reported, is the latest blow for Penn State's offense. Make no mistake: The biggest came when All-Big Ten running back Redd transferred to USC. But Brown, the team's leading returning receiver with 35 receptions and 517 receiving yards, is a significant loss as well.
Brown is the ninth player to transfer from Penn State since the NCAA leveled heavy sanctions against the program July 23.
His departure leaves Penn State with no players who recorded more than five receptions in 2011. There's some talent at receiver and running back -- don't be surprised if Alex Kenney and Bill Belton take big steps this season. The tight end position will be featured more in O'Brien's offense. But Penn State undoubtedly is relying more on potential than proven track records.
Several Penn State fans who responded to me on Twitter tonight pointed out Brown's dropped passes and inconsistent play last season. That's true to an extent, but the team still would have benefited from having a senior with 19 career starts. He was the only Lions player to record at least one reception in every game last season.
Losing only Brown wouldn't sting Penn State too much. But the cumulative effect of losing Brown, Redd and standout kicker/punter Anthony Fera could cripple a unit that already had question marks before the sanctions hit, including a giant one at quarterback.
Redd, Fera and Brown accounted for 116 of Penn State's 251 points in 2011. No returnee accounted for more than 12 points last year.
The good news: Penn State's defense still should be very, very good, and the unit hasn't suffered a crucial departure (Khairi Fortt might have started at linebacker, but the Lions still should be fine there). This team has won without a dynamic offense recently, and it could again in 2012.
But there will be times when the offense must deliver. Penn State needs some mystery men to answer the bell.
The Nittany Lions' special-teams units won't be spared, either.
Junior Anthony Fera, who handled both punting and place-kicking duties in 2011, will transfer to Texas, colleague Joe Schad and others are reporting. Fera earned second-team All-Big Ten honors (media) as a punter last season, averaging 42 yards per punt with 18 punts inside opponents' 20-yard line. He also connected on 14 of 17 field goal attempts and was a semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award.
Fera, a native of Cypress, Texas, earned three Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week honors in 2011 and became the first Nittany Lions specialist since Chris Bahr in 1975 to be the starter for field goals, kickoffs and punts.
Next to starting running back Silas Redd, Fera is the most significant departure for Penn State so far. The Lions likely will turn to sophomore Sam Ficken for place-kicking duties and junior Alex Butterworth to handle the punting, but Fera certainly will be missed, especially for an offense that could have some significant struggles.
Fera is the seventh Penn State player to confirm a transfer elsewhere, joining Redd (USC), linebacker Khairi Fortt (Cal), tight end Kevin Haplea (Florida State), quarterback Rob Bolden (LSU), safety Tim Buckley (NC State) and defensive lineman Jamil Pollard (Rutgers). There likely will be more to come, including possibly top wide receiver Justin Brown, who would be another significant loss for the offense.
There was a lot of excitement in Nittany Nation about the pledges of loyalty made last week by a group of Penn State's upperclassmen as well as several top 2013 recruits. In reality, most of the seniors wouldn't have benefited from leaving State College. Who expected guys like Matthew McGloin or Michael Mauti to leave? All along, the key players to watch were those with multiple years of eligibility remaining.
So far, those are the individuals heading elsewhere.
"I haven't made a decision yet," he said in a brief telephone interview. "I just don't know."
Brown said he doesn't have a timetable for his decision, although preseason practice starts Monday. His high school coach, George Kosanovich of Concord (Del.), said Brown fielded calls from about three or four schools, including Cincinnati, Illinois and Oklahoma.
As the Nittany Lions' top returning wideout, Brown's decision could prove critical to Penn State's offensive success -- especially without starting tailback Silas Redd, who announced his transfer to USC on Tuesday.
If Brown leaves, unproven receivers Shawney Kersey, a redshirt junior, and sophomore Allen Robinson -- who combined for just eight catches last season -- would battle for the top spot.
Brown finished last season with 35 receptions, 517 yards and two touchdowns.
Five Penn State players have already announced their intent to transfer since the sanctions: Redd, linebacker Khairi Fortt, safety Tim Buckley, defensive lineman Jamil Pollard and tight end Kevin Haplea. Quaterback Rob Bolden was released from his scholarship prior to the sanctions, according to a source.
Fortt, a junior from Stamford, Conn., is transferring to Cal. He was a highly-decorated recruit who played as a true freshman in 2010 and was a member of the linebacker rotation last season. He finished 2011 with 33 tackles, including six for loss, and 2.5 sacks.
He missed some time this spring with a sprained knee but was listed as the co-starter at middle linebacker going into fall practice, along with Glenn Carson.
"Basically I wanted to take a leap of faith and trust in God," Fortt told the Stamford Advocate this morning. "This is what's right for me and my family. ... The way you go through life is the way you handle adversity. The friends I've made here are friends."
Penn State should still be fine with its starting linebackers -- this is Linebacker U., after all -- considering that it boasts first-team All-Big Ten performer Gerald Hodges, fifth-year senior Michael Mauti and Carson, who started every game last season. But Mauti has had recurring knee problems and is no lock to stay healthy. Losing Fortt definitely hurts the depth at the position.
There was a lot of talk at Big Ten media days about who in the league was recruiting Penn State players. But it turns out that the Nittany Lions should have been worried about the Pac-12 more, as Fortt's teammate and fellow Connecticut native Silas Redd moved on to USC on Tuesday.
Pollard, an incoming defensive tackle, has decided to go to Rutgers instead of Penn State. He was rated a three-star prospect by ESPN.com and the No. 37 defensive tackle in his class.
His high school coach, Clyde Folsom, told The News of Cumberland County (N.J. ) that the NCAA sanctions against Penn State were the reason for Pollard's departure.
"We spoke last week when the penalties became public at Penn State," Folsom told the newspaper. "He wasn't sure what he wanted to do; he wasn't in the right state of mind at the time to really make a decision. But over a 48-hour period there were six or seven Division I schools that were interested in bringing him in on scholarship."
If you're scoring at home, five players on the active roster -- Fortt, Redd, quarterback Rob Bolden (LSU), tight end Kevin Haplea (Florida State) and walk-on safety Tim Buckley (NC State) -- have officially transferred thus far. There will likely be more to come. Penn State, which begins practice on Monday, will have to hope the hits stop coming soon.
Go ahead and mount that dartboard with Lane Kiffin's (usually) smug mug on it.
Place it next to the one of NCAA president Mark Emmert or any others considered villains in the fallout from the severe sanctions placed on Penn State's football program. Ask how and why the NCAA cleared the way for a star player to transfer from one program on probation to another.
But don't blame Silas Redd. He's no Benedict Arnold or Brutus. He's an extremely talented football player who had to make the best decision for his future.
As expected, Redd confirmed Tuesday that he's transferring from Penn State to USC. The second-team All-Big Ten running back in 2011, who ran for 1,241 yards and seven touchdowns, will be eligible to play immediately for the Trojans, who, like Penn State, have quite a tradition at running back. While Penn State is just beginning its penalty phase, which includes no postseason play for the next four years, USC is emerging from some of its own sanctions and will be eligible to compete for a national title for the first time since 2009.
Redd ultimately had two good options.
1. Stay at Penn State, play in an NFL-style offense under new head coach Bill O'Brien, be the clear-cut featured back and have an excellent chance to turn pro after the season.
2. Go to USC, compete for the starting job, play behind the nation's top quarterback in Matt Barkley and compete for a Pac-12 title and quite possibly a national championship.
You can't fault a guy for wanting to play for a championship. Redd has that opportunity at USC, which likely will be the preseason No. 1 team in the polls.
This isn't a case of a cocky kid looking for the next best thing. Any Penn State fan who knows Redd or has read about him knows he's humble, hardworking and extremely classy. He comes from a terrific family and has earned everything that has come his way. His decision was extremely difficult, and he's leaving behind many close friends in State College.
Here's the full statement Redd issued about his decision, and here's an excerpt:
"Playing football at Penn State has been a dream of mine since I was seven years old, and I will be forever grateful that this dream became a reality," Redd's statement reads. "This is the reason that the decision I have made is so difficult for me: I will transfer to USC to complete my education and my college football career, beginning in the 2012-2013 year. Penn State gave me a phenomenal opportunity to become part of a legendary football program. My teammates, my coaches -- past and present -- and the staff have provided me with a tremendous amount of guidance and support since I arrived on campus, and I can't thank them enough for their time, their advice, and their friendship. They have given me such a strong foundation from which I can continue to grow."
Sure, he could have echoed the pledge made by several of Penn State's older players last week. He could have stuck it out in State College. But the NCAA sanctions changed things at Penn State, and the liberal transfer policies opened doors everywhere, even to other programs on probation, like USC. Is that debatable? Highly.
"I think it is important to say that this situation is not something that I wished for myself, but it has happened, nonetheless," Redd's statement reads.
Redd also finds himself in a different situation from most Lions players. He has two years of eligibility left, and likely will face an NFL decision after the season. He also plays a position where a transition to a new team, even just a month before the opener, shouldn't be overly dramatic.
His departure certainly stings. If Redd isn't Penn State's best player, he's a close second behind first-team All-Big Ten linebacker Gerald Hodges.
Who takes over at running back for the Lions? Bill Belton will be a key player to watch in preseason camp. He ran the "Wild Lion" offense at times last season and possesses good speed. Curtis Dukes, a big back who missed spring ball because of academics, is weighing whether or not to stay in State College. Redd's decision could impact that of incoming running back recruit Akeel Lynch, who is considering Iowa as a possible transfer destination.
Running back suddenly has become a compelling position battle for Penn State, which kicks off fall practice Monday.
It'll be interesting to see the reaction to Redd's transfer. His exit is another setback for a program and a fan base dealing with plenty of them. More departures likely will come, including the possibility of linebacker Khairi Fortt heading to Cal.
But if you're looking for someone to blame, Redd isn't the answer.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Paul Jones shook his head Tuesday morning as he recalled the immediate aftermath of the unprecedented sanctions levied against his Nittany Lions. He was confused, hurt, upset -- and undecided about a transfer.
The redshirt sophomore quarterback said he tried to keep busy that first week. When his mind wandered, he'd envision himself in another uniform -- such as Pitt, less than 10 miles from his McKees Rocks home. The same boy who proudly donned a Penn State jersey every Thursday during high school wasn't sure, not at first, whether he would switch schools.
"You kind of let your mind attack you," Jones said. "As a competitor, you'd think it would be nice for a bowl game or a conference championship. But I take the bond I have with my teammates over pretty much everything."
Jones stopped fielding calls from other coaches Friday, after 11 days of wrestling with the idea of suiting up for another team. He decided to remain with the blue and white shortly after listening to three of his teammates' impassioned speeches during the Big Ten's media days.
"If those guys can go through it, I can go through with it," he added. "I wouldn't turn my back on these guys because I know they wouldn't turn their back on me."
Jones' sentiment was echoed by most players Tuesday morning, following a 7 a.m. pep rally that attracted several thousand fans. Players constantly referred to team bonds and fan support as the main reasons for staying put.
Director of strength and conditioning Craig Fitzgerald went so far as to say this team would be "closer than any other team that ever played anywhere."
"They're going to look at each other 20 years from now and say, 'Goddamn, you remember me?' Yeah, we went through that. We helped keep Penn State strong," Fitzgerald said. "That's more important than just going to a damn bowl game."
Despite Tuesday's upbeat environment, several players acknowledged the team initially harbored some doubts after first hearing of the NCAA sanctions: 80 fewer scholarships over four years, a cap of 15 new scholarships each season for the next four years, a four-year bowl ban and a $60 million fine. Sophomore tailback Bill Belton admitted thoughts of transferring ran through most players' heads, and senior quarterback Matt McGloin said nearly everyone received at least one offer from another team.
"That's not the type of person I am, that's not how I was brought up," McGloin said. "I'm going to stay here no matter what happens. I'm going to be true to the program and be loyal to the guys upstairs who are trying to get us prepared for the season. And, most importantly, I'm doing this for my family and the fans. They're going to stay loyal to us, so I'm going to stay loyal to them."
Only one player, walk-on backup safety Tim Buckley, has officially transferred from Penn State so far. Buckley is now on scholarship at N.C. State.
But key players, such as junior running back Silas Redd and linebacker Khairi Fortt, are still pursuing a possible transfer. Redd could announce his decision as early as today, and most players are expected to decide before Aug. 6, the first day of preseason practice.
Fitzgerald, who joined Penn State this year, said he only wants to see committed players when they open camp and hold a players' meeting.
"We want the warriors, that's what we want," he said. "After Aug. 6, we don't want the guys that are on the fence. If you're in, you're in. If you're out, you're out. So, on that meeting Aug. 6, I'm advising that just the warriors be at the meeting. That's all we want."
As is the case with NCAA penalties, players who had nothing to do with the problems that occurred are the ones most directly impacted. Although most initial media reports, including one from colleague Joe Schad, indicate Penn State won't receive the so-called "death penalty," other penalties such as a postseason ban and scholarship losses are very real. Penn State might be playing football every season, but what the program looks like remains a giant question mark.
There likely will be significant fallout both with the current roster and with recruits, as some players likely will look to play elsewhere.
Several Penn State players have reacted to Sunday's news on Twitter. Not surprisingly, they remain firmly behind their program.
Here are a few tweets:
Quarterback Matthew McGloin:
The hotter the fire, the stronger the steel.— Matt McGloin (@McGloinQB11) July 22, 2012
Offensive tackle Donovan Smith:
Stop asking if im transferring im staying at PSU no matter what I love my school #WeAre— Donovan Smith (@PSU_Smith_76) July 22, 2012
Tight end Garry Gilliam:
No matter what happens I'm staying at Penn State ...— Garry Gilliam " (@GarryGilliam89) July 22, 2012
The people saying this is more than football, are the same people wanting a death penalty, thus making it about football again, really?— Garry Gilliam " (@GarryGilliam89) July 22, 2012
Linebacker Khairi Fortt tweeted about not talking to the media, while cornerback Adrian Amos added, "I am confused to what lessons we are learning from this."
Lot of confusion in Happy Valley right now. We should get plenty of answers in the coming day.
Here are 10 items to track during a 12-pack of games Saturday.
1. The Big House in prime time: Michigan has played 520 games at Michigan Stadium, but none has kicked off at night. History will be made Saturday at the Big House as Michigan takes on Notre Dame under the lights. It should be an electric atmosphere at Stadium and Main as more than 110,000 fans will watch two of the game's iconic programs, who will honor the occasion with retro uniforms. Trust me, they're better than Maryland's.
3. Coker tries to rebound: Iowa running back Marcus Coker entered the season with a lot of hype but fumbled twice in the season opener, earning him a trip to the bench. Coach Kirk Ferentz remains confident in the sophomore and was pleased Coker didn't use the lousy weather conditions as an excuse. Coker gets a great chance to redeem himself on the road against in-state rival Iowa State, which last week surrendered 204 rush yards to FCS Northern Iowa.
4. Bauserman's building blocks: Joe Bauserman took a step toward securing Ohio State's starting quarterback spot in the opener, completing 12 of 16 pass attempts with three touchdown strikes to tight end Jake Stoneburner. Although freshman Braxton Miller remains very much in the mix and should see time Saturday against Toledo, another strong performance from Bauserman should establish the senior as the team's top option before a Week 3 trip to Miami.
5. Linebacker U. vs. Trent Richardson: Penn State will lean heavily on its defense, and particularly its linebackers, as it aims for the upset against Alabama. Linebacker U appears to be back as the Lions boast excellent depth in the defensive midsection with Michael Mauti, Nate Stupar, Glenn Carson, Khairi Fortt, Mike Hull and Gerald Hodges, who got hurt last year in Tuscaloosa but could be a difference-maker Saturday. The linebackers must contain one of the nation's top running backs in Heisman Trophy candidate Trent Richardson.
6. Huskers' offense under the gun: Nebraska scored 40 points in its opener but left plenty of questions on the offensive side. Coordinator Tim Beck is looking for fewer mental mistakes and better execution Saturday night against a Fresno State team that surrendered 36 points and 417 yards to Cal last week. Quarterback Taylor Martinez must show greater accuracy as a passer, while an offensive line dealing with youth and injuries needs to show it can control the line of scrimmage before the competition level gets tougher.
7. Gophers, Hoosiers look for first wins: Minnesota and Indiana were the only Big Ten teams to lose last week, although the teams came away feeling differently about their performances. The Gophers never quit at USC and nearly stunned the Trojans. They return home to TCF Bank Stadium and look for a strong effort against a New Mexico State squad that lost its opener 44-24 to Ohio. Indiana faces a much tougher challenge in Virginia and looks for better play up front on both sides of the ball, not to mention more enthusiasm, as it makes its home debut at Memorial Stadium.
8. The Denard Show, Act II: Quarterback Denard Robinson carried Michigan to a dramatic victory last year with a record-setting performance at Notre Dame Stadium. Can "Shoelace" replicate his heroics Saturday night against the Irish? He'll face what looks like a stronger Notre Dame defense, and he's still transitioning to a new offensive system. But Robinson also works behind a strong offensive line and finally appears to have some help at running back with Fitzgerald Toussaint and Michael Shaw. It will be interesting to see if Notre Dame can contain a Michigan quarterback after being flummoxed by Robinson and Tate Forcier the past two seasons.
9. Backup QBs try to maintain winning ways: Northwestern's Kain Colter and Purdue's Caleb TerBush both recorded victories in their first career starts at quarterback last week. Colter, filling in for the still-rehabbing Dan Persa, showed improved passing skills to complement his running ability against Boston College. He needs to limit hits and build more confidence against FCS Eastern Illinois. TerBush made big throws in clutch situations against Middle Tennessee but must limit mistakes on the road at Rice. Purdue's Robert Marve also could return to the field.
10. Receiving orders: Week 1 was huge for Big Ten wideouts, as five players eclipsed 100 receiving yards in the opening games. Illinois continues to look for big things from A.J. Jenkins and Darius Millines this week against South Dakota State. Michigan State's B.J. Cunningham needs one catch to become the team's all-time receptions leader. Other receivers like Iowa's Marvin McNutt and Indiana's Damarlo Belcher try to build on impressive opening performances.
Michael Mauti has inherited that mantel for the Nittany Lions. And he's embracing it rather than running from it.
"It's more like an incentive to me," he said. "I take that as a compliment, at a prestigious linebacker school such as this. It's an incentive to work toward that. They can compare you to whoever they want, but if you don't produce and be as good as those guys, then you're not going to be as good as a no-name. You've got to go out there and make a name for yourself."
Now injury free, Mauti is projected for big things as a redshirt junior and leader of a deep and talented Nittany Lions linebacker corps.
"This spring, he was much more vocal," assistant coach Jay Paterno said. "You could see a little different demeanor out of him.
"He's a guy who can really, really knock you. He has secondary-type speed, but he's also a 230-pound linebacker. We think he could have a really, really big year."
Mauti calls this an important year for him personally and believes he's finally due for a little luck in the injury department. But he won't tone down his aggressiveness.
"It's not like I could do anything about those injuries except for working hard in the weight room, rehabbing and getting my muscles stronger and more flexible," he said. "I will go out and play as long as I can like I know how to play, and I can't worry about anything else."
The Linebacker U. tradition could be in full force this year with Mauti, Glenn Carson, Nate Stupar, Gerald Hodges and Khairi Fortt among the expected contributors. One positive from Mauti's injuries was that it allowed younger players to gain experience.
"I think we have big-play ability and momentum-changing ability," he said. "It's just a matter of execution."
There's a good chance Mauti, a preseason Butkus Award watch list nominee, will be in the middle of everything the Nittany Lions do on defense. He's ready to take on the title of Penn State's next great linebacker.
"I'm really excited about the opportunity to make plays on a big stage," he said. "That's why I came to Penn State."
The first and second team All-Big Ten linebackers from both the coaches and media selections last season are all gone. The league isn't flush with established stars at the position, and it's time for a crop of new standouts to emerge. In fact, the top player on our board didn't even play in the Big Ten last season.
Here are how we see them right now:
2. Michael Mauti, Penn State, Sr: If Mauti can just stay healthy, he should challenge for All-Big Ten and perhaps All-America honors. But he missed all of 2009 with a torn ACL and was only able to finish nine games last season because of ankle and shoulder problems. He has been highly productive when not hampered by injuries and should be the leader of a deep and talented bunch for the Nittany Lions.
3. Chris Borland, Wisconsin, Soph.: Much like Mauti, Borland just needs to stay on the field. He was the 2009 Big Ten freshman of the year after recording 10.5 tackles for loss and five sacks as a rookie. But he missed most of last season and this spring with shoulder problems. The Badgers need him at full strength to live up to their considerable promise this season.
4. James Morris, Iowa, Soph.: As a true freshman in 2010, Morris had 70 tackles and started six games at middle linebacker. He starred in the Insight Bowl victory against Missouri with seven tackles. Morris looks like a rising star in this league.
5. Gary Tinsley, Minnesota, Sr.: Tinsley led the Gophers and finished ninth in the Big Ten with 90 stops a year ago in his first season as a starter. He's experienced and productive and should be a leader for a Minnesota defense that's looking to become tougher.
6. Andrew Sweat, Ohio State, Sr.: Overshadowed by Brian Rolle and Ross Homan, Sweat is now the veteran in the Buckeyes' linebacker corps. He had 41 tackles a year ago, and that number should only rise this season as he takes on more of a leadership role.
7. Ian Thomas, Illinois, Sr: With Martez Wilson and Nate Bussey moving on to the pro ranks, Thomas needs to hold down the fort. He's got the tools to do so. A starter for the past 25 games, he led the Illini with 95 tackles in 2009 before dipping down to 67 a year ago. He'll have plenty of opportunities to make stops this season.
8. Gerald Hodges, Penn State, Jr.: We're at the point in this list where it's time to make some projections. Hodges, a converted safety, has shown glimpses of serious potential in limited time. He had a good spring and could be primed to really take off this season. Also watch out for Khairi Fortt among the Nittany Lions linebackers.
9. Jeff Thomas, Indiana, Sr: Thomas was second on the Hoosiers with 82 tackles a year ago and will be counted on to lead the defense this season. A 100-tackle season is well within reach.
10. Mike Taylor, Wisconsin, Jr.: Like Borland, Taylor emerged as a star his freshman year in 2009. He has started all 19 games he has played in his career and finished second on the team last season with eight tackles for loss and two interceptions. Getting him and Borland healthy and on the field together would be big for the Badgers.
Just missed: Iowa's Tyler Nielsen, Michigan State's Chris Norman and Max Bullough, Nebraska's Sean Fisher, Michigan's Kenny Demens, Minnesota's Mike Rallis and Ohio State's Etienne Sabino.
As always, this is a ranking of the entire position group, so depth matters in addition to individual star players.
Away we go:
2. Penn State: Is this the return of Linebacker U? The Nittany Lions technically only return one starter at the position but have plenty of talent. The unit got hit by injuries last year, including one that knocked Michael Mauti out of the lineup for several games. He's one of the best in the Big Ten when healthy, which he should be in 2011. Senior Nate Stupar led the team in tackles last year. Sophomores Gerald Hodges and Khairi Fortt are among the skilled youngsters battling for playing time. This could wind up as the deepest linebacking corps in the league.
3. Ohio State: The Buckeyes lost two starters, including leading tackler Brian Rolle. But the Silver Bullets usually reload at linebacker. Senior Andrew Sweat should emerge as the unit's leader, and hopes are high for Etienne Sabino after he took a redshirt year in 2010. Sabino showed promise this spring and locked down a starting job. The battle is on for the third starting position. Incoming freshman Curtis Grant could make a sudden impact.
4. Wisconsin: Much depends on the health of Chris Borland, who missed nearly all of 2010 and sat out the spring with a shoulder injury. The 2009 Big Ten Freshman of the Year will move to middle linebacker and should anchor the unit if he's sound. Mike Taylor finished second on the team in tackles for loss and interceptions last year, and Kevin Claxton is expected to take over at the strongside spot. The Badgers like what they have seen from redshirt freshman Marcus Trotter.
5. Iowa: The Hawkeyes lost a lot of experience from the 2010 team, including leading tackler Jeremiha Hunter. While there's some concern about the leadership void, Iowa has good young building blocks here. James Morris was pressed into service as a true freshman and was terrific; another year of development should only make him better. Tyler Nielsen was missed down the stretch when he suffered a neck injury, and the senior provides a veteran presence. Players like Bruce Davis, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens need to take on bigger roles.
7. Minnesota: An experienced linebacker group could be the strength of the Gophers defense this season. All three starters -- leading tackler Gary Tinsley, Keanon Cooper and Mike Rallis -- are back. Rallis needs to stay healthy after only appearing in 12 games the past two years because of injuries. Florida transfer Brendan Beal should provide a boost.
8. Purdue: The Boilermakers are led by senior Joe Holland, who has 35 career starts under his belt. Junior Dwayne Beckford finished second on the team with 85 tackles a year ago. Will Lucas could break out after an excellent true freshman campaign. Senior Chris Carlino adds veteran depth.
9. Michigan: The Wolverines struggled defensively last year, and the linebackers shouldered some of the blame. They lost Jonas Mouton to the NFL. Cam Gordon moves down from safety and adds some playmaking ability. Kenny Demens had 82 tackles last year at middle linebacker. Freshman Jake Ryan should contribute right away. This group still has a lot to prove.
10. Illinois: The Illini have to rebuild after losing a pair of NFL draft picks at the position in Martez Wilson and Nate Bussey. Senior Ian Thomas now becomes the veteran leader. Sophomores Johnathan Brown and Houston Bates -- who had a strong spring -- will be counted on to step forward.
11. Indiana: Fifth-year senior Jeff Thomas could be the centerpiece of the Hoosiers defense. Another fifth-year senior is Leon Beckum, though he lacks top-end speed. Overall, there isn't a lot of depth here.
12. Northwestern: Linebacker play was a sore spot last season, and starters Nate Williams and Quentin Davie are gone. Bryce McNaul needs to recover all the way from shoulder surgery and has to stay healthy. Pat Fitzgerald thinks he has some talented young players at the position; they'll need to grow up fast.