NCF Nation: Kyle Prater

Northwestern Wildcats season preview

August, 14, 2014
8/14/14
10:30
AM ET
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Previewing the 2014 season for the Northwestern Wildcats:

2013 overall record: 5-7 (1-7 Big Ten)

Key losses: QB Kain Colter, RB Venric Mark, DE Tyler Scott, LB Damien Proby, K Jeff Budzien

Key returnees: QB Trevor Siemian, WR Tony Jones, SB Dan Vitale, C Brandon Vitabile, LB Chi Chi Ariguzo, S Ibraheim Campbell

Instant impact newcomer: WR Miles Shuler. He arrived on campus last year but was forced to sit out a season following a transfer from Rutgers. With Christian Jones' season-ending knee injury, he’ll definitely get some reps at the position -- and, with his speed, he should compete for the one of the spots at returner. After all, he did win the New Jersey high school state titles in the 55- and 100-meter dash events.

Projected starters

[+] EnlargeTrevor Siemian
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesThe Wildcats are hoping senior QB Trevor Siemian can get them more wins in the Big Ten this season.
Offense: QB: Trevor Siemian, Sr., 6-3, 210; RB: Treyvon Green, Sr., 5-10, 215; SB: Dan Vitale, Jr., 6-2, 225; OT: Paul Jorgensen, Sr., 6-6, 295; OG: Geoff Mogus, Jr., 6-5, 295; C: Brandon Vitabile, Sr., 6-3, 300; OG: Matt Frazier, Jr., 6-4, 290; OT: Jack Konopka, Sr., 6-5, 300; WR: Tony Jones, Sr., 6-0, 195; WR: Cameron Dickerson, Jr., 6-3, 200; WR: Kyle Prater, Sr., 6-5, 225

Defense: DE: Dean Lowry, Jr., 6-6, 265; DT: Sean McEvilly, 6-5, 290; DT: Chance Carter, Sr., 6-3, 295; DE: Deonte Gibson, Jr., 6-3, 260; OLB: Jimmy Hall, Sr., 6-2, 205; MLB: Collin Ellis, Sr., 6-2, 230; OLB: Chi Chi Ariguzo, Sr., 6-3, 235; CB: Nick VanHoose, Jr., 6-0, 190; CB: Matthew Harris, So., 5-11, 180; S: Ibraheim Campbell, Sr., 5-11, 205; S: Traveon Henry, Jr., 6-1, 200

Special teams: K: Hunter Niswander, RS Fr., 6-5, 210; P: Chris Gradone, Jr., 6-2, 190

Biggest question mark: Can Northwestern overcome the sudden losses of leading wideout Christian Jones and top tailback Venric Mark? It was one surprising Wednesday, as the Wildcats discovered Jones would miss the season with a knee injury and that Mark would transfer elsewhere. Before the news, the big question was whether Northwestern could win those tight games. Now it’s just whether Northwestern can win -- period -- without some of its biggest offensive names. This preseason has already gone above and beyond Pat Fitzgerald’s worst-case scenario ... so can the Wildcats overcome it?

Most important game: Sept. 27 at Penn State. It may not be the most anticipated game of the season but, as the conference opener, it’ll set the tone for a Wildcats team that won just a single Big Ten game last season. A win here could propel Northwestern to a 4-0 start and should give the Cats a boost of confidence heading into the heart (Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan) of their conference schedule. They'll need it without Jones and Mark.

Upset special: Oct. 18 vs. Nebraska. Motivation shouldn’t be in short supply for Northwestern here, as it would’ve come away with the win last season if it weren't for a last-second Hail Mary. Now the Cornhuskers have a few more question marks on their team -- and Northwestern could be poised to take advantage.

Key stat: In conference play last season, Northwestern was outscored by its opponents 66-30 in the fourth quarter. Actually, building off a number first calculated by WNUR’s Michael Stern, opponents have outscored Northwestern in the fourth quarter by 703-580 during the Pat Fitzgerald era.

What they’re wearing: The Wildcats have purple, white and black Under Armour jerseys, pants and helmets in nine different combinations. But there's no telling yet what Northwestern will wear, since Fitzgerald and the student-athlete leadership council determine, week-to-week, what the Wildcats will be sporting on game day. According to a spokesman, there could also be a surprise in store this season, although nothing official has yet been announced.

All that being said, there are still two new definite additions to this year's uniforms: a new glove and cleat design.



Team’s top Twitter follows: The official accounts to follow include both Northwestern sports (@NU_Sports) and Wildcats' football (@NUFBFamily). Head coach Pat Fizgerald (@coachfitz51) is an active tweeter, but you'll find he mostly just retweets others. Ditto for offensive coordinator Mike McCall (@McCallMick). One Northwestern employee worth following, though, is director of player personnel Chris Bowers (@NU_Bowers) who mixes it up between work and other things. Running back Warren Long (@larrenwong) keeps it light, and freshman cornerback Parrker Westphal (@Optimus_22HB) is also very active. As far as news coverage, you'll find plenty from blogs Lake The Posts (@LakeThePosts) and SB Nation's Inside NU (@insidenu). The award-winning student newspaper, The Daily Northwestern (@thedailynu), is also a good bet.

They said it: "Today is a difficult day for our football family and, most importantly, for Venric. We love him, and there is no doubt we're going to miss him as both a person and player. But this is unquestionably what is best for Venric and those closest to him." -- Head coach Pat Fitzgerald, on Mark's Wednesday announcement he's transferring due to personal reasons

Stats & Info projections: 6.59 wins

Wise guys over/under: 7.5 wins

Big Ten blog projection: Six wins. If you would've asked this question 24 hours ago, the answer likely would've been seven wins. Now, with the absence Jones and Mark, it's no stretch to think the Cats will drop at least one extra game. Depending on Siemian's performance, Northwestern still has a shot to be the surprise of the West. But that chance has obviously become more of a long-shot with the recent news. With 16 returning starters, Northwestern should still improve upon last season's finish. But Wednesday's news and last season's performance still has us a bit jittery in picking the Cats to beat out teams such as Penn State and Michigan. That could change, but right now, we're going to play it safe and say Northwestern rebounds -- slightly -- by finishing at .500.
Wide receivers Kyle Prater and DeAnthony Arnett never expected to run routes like these.

Both players emerged from high school as top-60 recruits. Prater was the No. 9 wideout in the 2010 class according to ESPN Recruiting Nation; Arnett was the No. 9 wideout in the 2011 class. Both grew up in the Midwest but both elected to play for famous, faraway programs -- Prater at USC, Arnett at Tennessee -- that had produced great wide receivers over the years.

Then, in January 2012, both elected to transfer closer to home. Arnett, from Saginaw, Mich., transferred to Michigan State to be near his father, William, awaiting a kidney transplant. Prater, from Maywood, Ill., transferred to Northwestern and also cited family reasons, although he hasn't gone into detail.

[+] EnlargePrater
Rich Barnes/USA TODAY SportsNorthwestern WR Kyle Prater feels that he's finally past the annoying injuries that have hamstrung his career to date.
Both fanbases celebrated the arrivals. The good vibes continued when the NCAA ruled that both Arnett and Prater could play immediately because of the circumstances that sparked their transfers. Each had three years of eligibility left.

Although their situations weren't ideal, both wideouts appeared to be back on track.

But they had more detours ahead. They have combined for only 23 receptions and no touchdowns the past two seasons. Prater dealt with a "plethora" of lower-body injuries that limited his effectiveness. Arnett took longer than expected to adjust to the offense and slipped down the depth chart as other receivers emerged.

Fans didn't forget them, but the buzz that existed when they arrived practically disappeared.

Prater and Arnett are still around and, after strong performances during spring practice, both could finally make the impact many expected two years ago.

"I'm looking forward to great things happening this year," Prater told ESPN.com. "I can honestly say I feel like I'm back, and I’m ready to go."

Added Arnett: "I had a big spring, so I’m continuing to build on that."

Both receivers drew high marks from their coaches during the spring, as they put themselves in the two-deep heading into the summer.

Prater's chief challenge was making it through the 15 practices intact, which he did. Despite a 6-foot-5, 225-pound frame, Prater hasn't been structurally sound during his college career. Injuries limited him at USC, where he had only one catch in two seasons, and have continued at Northwestern, where he recorded 10 receptions in 2012 and nine last season.

"You could not put together a worse script from an injury standpoint for a person," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "It's been such a bad deal for him."

Prater hasn't had one single major injury, but several issues "built up to a degree where I couldn't perform where I wanted to." He thinks many of the issues could have been prevented with the right stretching or training regimen.

When Northwestern's training room opens at the ungodly time of 5:45 a.m., he's often the first one through the door. He has improved his flexibility and tried to lower his hips to create more explosion out of breaks.

"It's just being proactive," he said. "Like if it’s a hamstring, I'm going to do the things to not have [an injury], strengthening my glutes, all the areas around there."

[+] EnlargeDeAnthony Arnett
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsMichigan State WR DeAnthony Arnett hopes to build on a strong spring to have a big 2014 season.
Arnett also has worked on his body, adding 18 pounds last season, when he appeared in just one game -- the opener against Western Michigan -- and had only one reception. But his challenge has been grasping the system and competing for time in a Michigan State receiving corps that improved significantly after the 2012 season. Dantonio said late in the 2012 season that he wished he had redshirted Arnett, who played as a true freshman at Tennessee and had 24 receptions.

This spring, Dantonio called Arnett the team's "most pleasant surprise" and noted his consistency, aggressiveness and run-after-catch ability. The suspension of Macgarrett Kings created more opportunities for Arnett, who had five receptions for 63 years during a mid-spring scrimmage.

"It's given me a chance to, I don't know, re-state myself," Arnett said. "I feel more comfortable knowing everything, knowing all the positions, about where to go on the field. Now it's making plays."

Arnett is more relaxed, and his time on the sideline last season, while not what he hoped, allowed him to absorb the playbook. After a diet of pasta, steak, rice and iron -- the kind you find in the weight room -- Arnett expects to play this season between 190-195 pounds.

"I don't think just because I haven't been playing, the expectations should be lower," he said. "I want them to be high. I want to be in the situation where there's a lot of pressure on me to produce."

Fitzgerald called Prater "outstanding" this spring, and Prater thinks he surprised the coaches with his play. His next goal: silencing his doubters when the season begins.

"There's always a lot of naysayers, lot of people felt I didn't have it," he said. "They thought I wasn't there anymore, but I never stopped believing."

There were days when Prater wondered about all the injuries, why they kept happening, and whether he had a future in football. He admits the accolades he had coming out of high school overwhelmed him.

The last few years have brought growth and perspective.

"I look at the game as far as being more appreciative, having fun and being blessed that I'm out there," Prater said. "My whole career has been overcoming adversity. It shows a true test of my will that [I can] talk to you today and say I'm still here. I'm very confident in my ability to play. Everything I've been through has made me who I am now.

"This is the best I've ever felt, and I look forward to great things."

There are no guarantees for either Prater or Arnett this season, as both play on teams with multiple returning starters at receiver.

But if called upon, they'll be ready to finish their roundabout routes the right way.
"Megatron" is coming to a Big Ten city near you this fall.

No, it's not another "Transformers" sequel (thank goodness), but the immediate and much-anticipated arrival of receiver Kyle Prater to Northwestern. The NCAA ruled on Tuesday that Prater could play right away this season after transferring from USC in the winter. Prater, who's from the Chicago area, requested the waiver by saying he had transferred closer to home for a family issue.

[+] EnlargeKyle Prater
Jeff Lewis/Icon SMIUSC transfer Kyle Prater will be able to play for Northwestern this season.
If you simply look at Prater's career numbers -- one catch for 6 yards last year with the Trojans -- you might say, "Big deal." But it is kind of a big deal, minus the sarcasm. Prater was a high-school All-American and one of the top recruits in the country in 2009. He battled thumb and hamstring problems as a redshirt freshman at USC, which had Robert Woods and Marqise Lee to throw to, anyway.

Oh, and there's this: he's 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds. It's that size, combined with his athleticism, that had Northwestern teammates calling Prater "Megatron" this spring. At one point, quarterback Kain Colter compared him to Calvin Johnson.

Now, to be sure, Prater has a long way to go to play like Johnson. But at the very least, he's going to be a huge target on third downs and in the red zone for Colter, which will be a nice advantage as Colter adjusts to becoming a full-time quarterback. And Prater has the talent and potential to do a whole lot more than that.

I ranked Northwestern No. 1 in the Big Ten receiver rankings earlier this month, and that was without knowing Prater's status. This only solidifies the Wildcats' claim to having the deepest receiving corps in the league, as Prater joins Demetrius Fields, Christian Jones, Tony Jones, Rashad Lawrence and and others. Northwestern should once again have a prolific passing attack, even with the loss of the league's all-time leader in passing percentage (Dan Persa) and one of the best pass-catchers in school history (Jeremy Ebert).

Prater wasn't available for interviews after the announcement but had this to say via Twitter: "I want to thank the NCAA for allowing me to play this upcoming year, I'm so blessed for this opportunity, it has been a journey #GoCats"

The NCAA got this one right and sure seems to be leaning more toward players in these cases. Receiver DeAnthony Arnett received a similar waiver as he moved from Tennessee to Michigan State, as did Prater's former USC teammate Amir Carlisle with Notre Dame. I'm all for fewer restrictions on player movement, especially if that player has a legitimate family reason for transferring closer to home.

This is great news for Northwestern and should make for one happy Megatron.

Impact transfers in the Big Ten

July, 14, 2012
7/14/12
10:05
PM ET
Who are the impact transfers in (and out) of the Big Ten in 2012? Keep an eye on these players who switched four-year schools and who should be eligible this season:

Incoming transfers

Danny O'Brien, QB, Wisconsin (from Maryland): O'Brien hopes to follow Russell Wilson's playbook and go directly from the ACC to the Rose Bowl with the Badgers. O'Brien, who graduated from Maryland to become immediately eligible, is expected to start at quarterback and solve the depth problems Wisconsin has. And he'll be able to play in 2013, too.

DeAnthony Arnett, WR, Michigan State (from Tennessee): Receiver is a major position of need for the Spartans, so it was great news when Arnett was ruled immediately eligible after transferring to be close to his ailing father. Arnett had 24 catches for 242 yards and two touchdowns as a true freshman for the Volunteers in 2011.

Kyle Prater, WR, Northwestern (from USC): Prater is still awaiting word on whether he'll be immediately eligible this season. But if he is cleared, the former blue-chip recruit should make a major contribution for the Wildcats with his size and speed.

Quinn Evans, CB, Northwestern (from Stanford): The Wildcats know that Evans, who graduated from Stanford, can play right away. And though he missed all of last year with an injury, Evans could provide help to a secondary that really struggled in 2011.

Brock DeCicco, TE, Wisconsin (from Pitt): DeCicco started three games for Pittsburgh in 2010 before switching to the tight end haven that is Wisconsin. The Badgers already have All-America candidate Jacob Pedersen at the position, but DeCicco should provide additional depth and playmaking skills.

Tommy Davis, S/KR, Illinois (from Northern Illinois): Davis graduated from Northern Illinois and became immediately eligible for the Illini when he transferred earlier this summer. He's a two-time All-MAC kick returner who could help Illinois' woeful special teams while providing depth in the secondary.

Outgoing transfers

Marcus Coker, RB, Stony Brook (from Iowa): Coker led Iowa in rushing and was second in the Big Ten with 1,384 yards and 15 touchdowns. He transferred to the FCS after some off-the-field problems. His departure was a big loss for the Hawkeyes and he figures to dominate at a lower level if focused.
A couple of weeks ago, I took a look at the Big Ten quarterbacks who were most likely to throw for 3,000 yards. Last week, I examined the running backs most likely to crack 1,000 yards. If you sense a pattern, you're right. Today, we're going to check out which players can reach the milestone of 1,000 receiving yards in 2012.

It's not an easy achievement. Last season, only four Big Ten receivers exceeded 1,000 yards after none got there in 2010. Only 39 players in the FBS posted 1,000-plus yards receiving.

Complicating things for this exercise is the fact that the Big Ten's top pass-catchers have all departed. Iowa's Marvin McNutt, Illinois' A.J. Jenkins, Northwestern's Jeremy Ebert and Michigan State's B.J. Cunningham were all seniors in 2011, leaving the league without a returning receiver who had a 1,000-yard season.

The receiver position is a big question mark throughout the league, but here are some players who could jump up and get to quadruple digits, in order of most likely:

[+] EnlargeJared Abbrederis
David Hood/CSMWisconsin's Jared Abbrederis had 933 receiving yards last season despite a foot injury.
1. Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin: Abbrederis wasn't far off from the mark last season, posting 933 receiving yards as the Big Ten's top returning wideout. He also played most of the season on an injured foot which he had surgically repaired in the winter. With Nick Toon gone, Abbrederis becomes the clear No. 1 target. The only question is how much the Badgers will pass the ball now that Russell Wilson has moved on.

2. Keenan Davis, Iowa: Davis had 713 receiving yards last season as the secondary target next to McNutt. Now the No. 1 receiver for the league's best pocket passer in James Vandenberg, Davis has a chance to make a similar leap his senior season as McNutt did. He's always had the talent. He just needs more consistency, and to avoid costly drops.

3. Roy Roundtree, Michigan: Roundtree's numbers went way down last season, but just two seasons ago he caught 72 balls for 935 yards. He played a complementary role to Junior Hemingway in 2011, but is poised to regain his No. 1 status this year. If Denard Robinson truly has improved his throwing mechanics, Roundtree could be the main beneficiary.

4. Justin Brown, Penn State: Derek Moye is gone, leaving Brown as the likely main target in the Penn State passing game. That passing game should be more efficient under the coaching of Bill O'Brien, and quite possibly a more stable starting quarterback situation. But can Matt McGloin pitch it well enough for Brown to improve on his 517 yards last season? That's a big if.

5. Christian Jones, Northwestern: The Wildcats' offense creates a lot of opportunities for receivers, and someone will have to fill the considerable void left by the highly productive Ebert. Jones, coming back after an injury, could be that guy. Or maybe it's Demetrius Fields. Maybe the best bet is USC transfer Kyle Prater, but as of this writing he hasn't heard back on his eligibility appeal from the NCAA. Northwestern should be deep and talented at receiver; it's just a matter of whether Kain Colter can sling it nearly as well as Dan Persa.

6. Kofi Hughes, Indiana: Kevin Wilson was dissatisfied with his team's passing performance last season, and wants to be more dangerous through the air this season. If the Hoosiers can start approximating Wilson's old Oklahoma offenses, then Hughes -- who had 536 receiving yards last season while playing with a rotating cast of quarterbacks -- might set some career highs.

7. Antavian Edison, Purdue: Edison led the Boilers with 584 receiving yards last season, and the team's passing game should get better with a healthy Robert Marve and a more experienced Caleb TerBush at the controls. Edison could become more of a primary target with Justin Siller graduated. But Purdue also tends to spread the wealth, hurting the chances of any one player reaching 1,000 yards.

8. Unnamed Ohio State receiver: Maybe freshman Michael Thomas builds upon his huge spring-game performance, or a guy like Corey "Philly" Brown breaks out and has a huge season. The Buckeyes need someone to step up at receiver, and they figure to throw it a whole lot more than they did last season. But also consider this: Urban Meyer never had a 1,000-yard receiver while at Florida.

9. Unnamed Michigan State receiver: Receiver is a huge question mark for the Spartans, who lack experience at the position. But Michigan State showed it wasn't afraid to throw the ball all over the field last season with Cunningham and Keshawn Martin. Maybe Tony Lippett or Andre Sims Jr. or DeAnthony Arnett has a huge season. More likely, though, the Spartans will ease into the passing game with new quarterback Andrew Maxwell and spread the ball around more than they did in '11.

10. Kenny Bell, Nebraska: Bell had a really strong freshman campaign, leading the Huskers with 432 receiving yards. Word out of Lincoln is that Taylor Martinez and the passing game look a lot better. Still, since Nebraska has never had a 1,000-yard receiver in its history, we're going to call this one a long shot.
Brady Hoke/Mark DantonioGetty Images, US PresswireBrady Hoke and the Wolverines square off against Mark Dantonio and the Spartans on Oct. 20.
During the course of spring practice, Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett visited 11 of the 12 league schools, getting an up-close look at the players and coaches who will shape the 2012 season.

Now it's time for them to share their thoughts on what they saw and learned this spring, and you can follow along as they exchange emails. Check out the Leaders Division exchange here. They now turn their focus to the Legends Division.

Adam Rittenberg: Let's take a look at what I believe to be the stronger division in 2012. You spent a lot of time in the Mitten State last month, and while you didn't gorge yourself like you did in America's Dairyland, you got the money quote of spring ball from Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, who said, "We're laying in the weeds. We've beat Michigan the last four years. So where's the threat?" How spicy is the Michigan State-Michigan rivalry getting, and how good do you think these two teams will be this season after visiting both campuses?

Brian Bennett: Oh, there was some serious gorging going on at Zingerman's in Ann Arbor and Sparty's in East Lansing. Good thing there's only one spring practice session per year.

Anyway, I went into the spring thinking Michigan and Michigan State were the two strongest teams in the league, and I didn't see anything to change my opinion. While the Wolverines are more focused on Ohio State and even Alabama, they know they have to end their losing streak against Michigan State. And the Spartans take serious pride in that four-game run while bristling at all the offseason accolades thrown toward Brady Hoke's team. Oct. 20 can't come soon enough, as far as I'm concerned.

If the two teams played right now, I'd definitely take Michigan State. Dantonio has done a terrific job of developing depth on both lines and all over the defense. There's not a deeper team in the Big Ten, and the Spartans' physical play has given Michigan fits. The Wolverines still need to figure some things out in the trenches, especially on the defensive line, but that's one area where Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison excel. I believe these two teams will be neck and neck all year for the Legends title.

Of course, there's another team lurking in the division, and that's Nebraska. You went to Lincoln this spring, and it sounded like the Cornhuskers are feeling mighty ambitious this season. Do they have the necessary tools to back up their lofty goals?

Adam Rittenberg: It was interesting to see a team openly discuss the national title, Brian, especially in a league like the Big Ten. Huskers safety P.J. Smith even went so far as to say a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl championship would be "kind of disappointing." That's bold. Nebraska would have to skip a step or two to reach that point, but I can see where the confidence stems from. There's a greater comfort level between players and coaches in Lincoln, and also between the coaches and what they face in the Big Ten. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck was candid about the difficulty of preparing for so many new opponents, particularly since Nebraska's offensive and defensive systems are a little different from what we see in the rest of the league.

Quarterback Taylor Martinez received good marks from the coaches, and his focus on footwork could translate into a more consistent passing attack. Beck certainly wants to be a bit more balanced, and Nebraska returns pretty much everyone at wide receiver and tight end. We often hear the cliche that it's all about the quarterback, but it holds true with Nebraska. If Martinez actually makes strides as a passer -- he'll be operating in the same offense as the starter for the first time in his high school or college career -- the Huskers will put up points this fall. But after watching Martinez last season, it's fair to have some doubts about No. 3.

The defense expects to exploit a schematic advantage we heard a lot about last season but didn't see much on Saturdays. I like coordinator John Papuchis, and Bo Pelini made two good staff additions in D-line coach Rick Kaczenski and secondary coach Terry Joseph. They're all about details and accountability, and they believe they'll be able to replace star power with greater depth in certain areas. Nebraska also should be strong in special teams. Do the Huskers have a unit better than Michigan State's defense? Not right now. But Nebraska could end up being the division's most complete team by season's end.

Getting back to Michigan State and Michigan. Both teams lose tremendous leaders from 2011 (Kirk Cousins, Mike Martin, Jerel Worthy, Joel Foreman, David Molk, Ryan Van Bergen). Who do you see filling those roles this year?

Brian Bennett: That's a good question, and one that will have to be answered this summer. For Michigan State, Andrew Maxwell impressed me as a guy who can lead in a similar way as Cousins did; he'll just have to play well at quarterback and battle through adversity. The Spartans have some seniors on defense who can lead, like Anthony Rashad White and Johnny Adams, but they also have some highly respected juniors in Max Bullough and William Gholston.

But they are replacing some very valuable leaders, just as Michigan is doing. Denard Robinson has worked on becoming more vocal and sounded like a different guy in interviews this spring. There's no question he has the respect of his teammates. Craig Roh and Jordan Kovacs seem like natural leaders on defense, and offensive tackle Taylor Lewan says he wants to take on that role as well. But leadership can't be forced, and it remains to be seen if either team can find such strong captains as guys like Cousins and Martin were.

[+] EnlargeJames Vandenberg
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallIowa quarterback James Vandenberg threw for 3,022 yards and 25 touchdowns last season.
Speaking of question marks, I feel like Iowa and Northwestern are two of the bigger mystery teams in the league. Both have talent and potentially potent offenses, but they'll also need some players on defense to rise up out of the shadows. What did you take out of your visits to Iowa City and Evanston this spring?

Adam Rittenberg: Let's start off with Iowa, which underwent some major changes this spring with a new offensive coordinator (Greg Davis), a position coach promoted to defensive coordinator (Phil Parker) and several more assistants shuffling, arriving or being promoted. The players seemed to embrace the changes, and coach Kirk Ferentz basically said the team needed a fresh start even though he didn't want to lose his previous coordinators. There's a lot of excitement about Davis' offense, which will be more up-tempo than what we've seen in the past from Iowa. Quarterback James Vandenberg really seems to get it, but will he have enough weapons around him to execute? The running back curse struck again this spring with Jordan Canzeri's ACL injury. Iowa needs young and/or unproven players to step up there, and wide receiver isn't a deep group. It'll be a big summer for Keenan Davis.

The feeling I had coming out of Evanston is that Northwestern will be a younger team but potentially a better one. The Wildcats say goodbye to an accomplished senior class that featured some outstanding players like quarterback Dan Persa. But was it the most talented group? I don't think so. Northwestern has improved its recruiting efforts in recent years, and the team could begin seeing the benefits this year. There are a lot of new faces at spots like defensive back and defensive line. I was impressed with cornerback Nick VanHoose and end Deonte Gibson. The wide receiving corps should be one of the Big Ten's best, even if Kyle Prater isn't eligible until 2013. The Wildcats might not have many familiar names at receiver, but they boast incredible depth there. This team still has question marks -- secondary, pass rush, running back, quarterback -- but the talent level is getting a bit better.

Neither of us made it up to Minneapolis this spring, but we both talked with Gophers players and coaches. What was your sense of the second spring under coach Jerry Kill?

Brian Bennett: We swear it's nothing personal, Gophers fans. Both of us would have enjoyed a trip to the Twin Cities, but the schedule just didn't work out.

Anyway, I did sense more confidence from the Minnesota players and coaches we interviewed. That's not surprising, given that it's the second year for Kill's staff and more familiarity almost always brings a better comfort level. MarQueis Gray really started to come on late last season and appears to have made strides as a passer. He could be one of the league's top playmakers this year. Overall, the Gophers look to have a little more talent this year, thanks to some junior college imports, youngsters who got experience last year and Troy Stoudermire coming back at cornerback. The defense should have more speed, though it remains undersized. The big question for me is who will emerge as weapons alongside Gray, especially at receiver.

But I think that, with a manageable nonconference schedule, Minnesota has a chance to win five or more games this year and it will be much more competitive in Big Ten play than it was early last season. The Legends Division looks more balanced top to bottom than the Leaders and should be fun to follow all year.
Our question this week: Who has the best position group in the conference?

Lots of teams have a strength at a certain area -- running back, receiver, linebacker, etc. -- but whose team strength is the strongest?

Our thoughts.

Kevin Gemmell: Anytime you have a four-man position group and half of them could be All-Americans, that's phenomenal. And that's what Stanford is looking at this year and that's why I'm picking its linebackers as the best individual position group in the conference.

[+] EnlargeChase Thomas
Bob Stanton/Icon SMIChase Thomas, who had 8.5 sacks last season, helps make Stanford's linebackers one of the Pac-12s top position groups.
It starts on the outside with Chase Thomas (52 tackles, 8.5 sacks, 17.5 tackles for a loss) -- a first-team All-Pac-12 performer and All-American. On the other side, Trent Murphy (40 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 10 tackles for a loss) is underappreciated because of all the attention Thomas gets. But Murphy is a beast at 6-foot-6, 255 pounds.

Then you move to the inside linebackers where Shayne Skov is one of the best in the nation. There is a to-be-determined punishment pending for his DUI arrest and he's still recovering from a season-ending knee injury from last year. But once he's paid his penance and is 100 percent healthy, he'll be on par with the best middle linebackers in the country.

Who lines up next to Skov is a question. And also a good problem for the Cardinal to have. Jarek Lancaster (team-leading 70 tackles) and A.J. Tarpley (57 tackles) were both outstanding in Skov's absence last year. Lancaster in particular came on very strong at the end of the season.

Highly touted sophomore James Vaughters is also slotted for inside linebacker. The coaching staff treated Vaughters with kid gloves last season -- using him mostly as an extra pass-rusher on third downs, where he tallied 11 tackles, four for a loss, and a sack. But he's expected to be unleashed in 2012.

Another aspect that makes this group so scary is the overall depth. Because of guys like Lancaster, Tarpley, Vaughters, Alex Debniak, Kevin Anderson and incoming freshman Noor Davis, the Cardinal are in a position to absorb a significant injury like they did with Skov last season. Of course, no one wants to see that happen for any team. But injuries are part of the game. And if something happens to one of Stanford's starters, there is significant talent that can rotate in.

One thing to keep in mind is the loss of co-defensive coordinator and inside linebackers coach Jason Tarver. He was a brilliant operator of the 3-4 defense -- which is why he's now a defensive coordinator in the NFL. He did an amazing job coaching up Lancaster and Tarpley, which helped Stanford boast the No. 1 rush defense in the conference last year. Allowing just 84.4 yards per game on the ground, Stanford was the only Pac-12 team to hold opponents below 100 yards per game on average.

Factor in the talent returning on the defensive line and that makes the linebacking corps that much better. Stanford not only has the deepest and most talented group in the conference, but you can make an argument that as a unit it is one of the best groups in the country.

Ted Miller: I know you guys are going to get on Kevin for picking Stanford, but I agree with him: Stanford's linebacking corps is the best complete unit in the Pac-12 in terms of both skill and depth. But, of course, a "ditto" doesn't make for much of a "Take 2" now, does it?

I like California's running backs, Oregon's LBs, Arizona State's RBs and Utah's defensive line, but I'm going to go with USC's receivers.

The Trojans aren't terribly deep at receiver. In fact, they are decidedly top-heavy. But what a top.

[+] EnlargeRobert Woods
Ric Tapia/Icon SMIUSC's Robert Woods, arguably the nation's top wide receiver, averaged over 107 receiving yards per game last season.
First, you have junior Robert Woods, a 2011 first-team All-American. He ranked eighth in the nation with 107.7 yards receiving per game in 2011. He's the leading candidate heading into 2012 to win the Biletnikoff Award given annually to the nation's best receiver.

Second, you have Marqise Lee, second-team All-Pac-12, who actually outplayed a banged-up Woods over the home stretch of the 2011 season. He ranked 15th in the nation with 95.3 yards receiving per game. He also is a Biletnikoff candidate, and it wouldn't be too shocking if both of these guys earned All-America honors this upcoming season.

They combined for 26 touchdown receptions. The next highest total in the Pac-12 for a receiving combo was 19 (Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas and Lavasier Tuinei).

Put it this way: If you made a list of the top-five receivers in the nation this fall, most folks would include Woods and Lee.

Now, it's not unreasonable to question the Trojans' depth at the position. Both Brice Butler and Kyle Prater opted to transfer. Both are capable and would have made this unit scary good. While there's plenty of talent behind Woods and Lee, it's unproven.

That said: It's entirely possible speedy sophomore George Farmer has his own star turn this fall. Folks thought that might happen last year for everybody's prep All-American, but injuries and an odd position change to running back slowed that down. No question Farmer has All-American talent. If he stays healthy, the Trojans could end up with a troika that is almost impossible to defend, one that is superior to many NFL teams. For real.

Other guys who have the ability to help: Junior De'Von Flournoy and redshirt freshman Victor Blackwell. In the fall, true freshmen Nelson Agholor and Darreus Rogers could potentially get into the mix.

So there will be solid options for the Nos. 3, 4 and 5 receivers.

Still, this is about the top. It's not hyperbole to project that Woods and Lee, with QB Matt Barkley returning, are in position to write themselves onto a very short list of the best receiver combinations in college football history this fall.
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Pat Fitzgerald doesn't deny the hard evidence, but he also feels there's more to Northwestern's case.

Yes, the Wildcats have seen their wins total drop in each of the past three seasons, from nine in 2008 to eight in 2009 to seven in 2010 to six last fall. After back-to-back 5-3 marks in Big Ten play in 2008 and 2009, Northwestern has seen its league record flip in each of the past two seasons.

It doesn't take a mathematics major at Northwestern to see where things are going and ask the question: Has the program lost momentum?

"You can nitpick everything you want, but there has never been more positive momentum in the history of our program," Fitzgerald told ESPN.com. "If you're going to choose one thing to make it be whether or not you have momentum, that's unrealistic. But we've got to win football games and we've got to finish games better than we did a year ago.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
Reid Compton/US PresswireNorthwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald remains confident that his program is on the right track.
"The program's definitely getting better. You can analyze that one area of wins and losses, which obviously I understand is critically important, but the difference between one or two games is not very much. We could have easily had six wins when we won nine. There's such a fine line."

It's Fitzgerald's job to look at the entire picture, and he notes some of Northwestern's recent accomplishments: four consecutive bowl appearances for the first time in program history; the winningest departing senior class in the program's history; a team GPA of 3.14; a 2012 recruiting class rated by many as the best in Fitzgerald's tenure. The school is also working on a facilities plan that could be a game-changer for the football program, which lags behind most of its Big Ten brethren.

Still, college football is a bottom-line business, and if Northwestern can't reverse the won-loss trend, its bowl appearances streak will end this season.

"Have we achieved our goals? Absolutely not," Fitzgerald said. "Are we hungry to do that? Absolutely. Are we working diligently to tweak the areas we need to improve? Absolutely."

Northwestern will try to make upgrades with a younger roster -- only 11 total starters return on offense and defense -- but quite possibly a more talented one. The team must fill several gaps, none more significant than Dan Persa's at quarterback, and hopes to do so by having what it believes to be stronger recruiting classes begin to pay dividends.

It's no secret the defense needs help after backsliding sharply in the past year and a half. Since a 6-2 start in 2010, Northwestern has surrendered 30 points or more 11 times. Last fall, the defense couldn't get off of the field (114th nationally in third-down defense at 50 percent conversions), fell victim to explosion plays and generated barely any pressure (106th in sacks, 104th in tackles for loss).

"You've got to make 'em earn everything," defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz said. "If they make great throws and great catches, you can live with those things. But we had some situations last year where we busted a coverage because of communication or we didn't have anybody back there. They didn't have to make the perfect throw or the perfect catch.

"We can execute better, no question."

The challenge is to improve communication and execution with a group heavy on youth. Although Northwestern returns all three starting linebackers, it will use young players in all three sections of the defense, including redshirt freshman cornerback Nick VanHoose, sophomore linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo and redshirt freshman defensive end Deonte Gibson.

Consider that Ibraheim Campbell, a redshirt sophomore safety who led the team with 100 tackles in 2011, is viewed as the clear leader of the secondary.

Communication has been a focal point this spring, as players are taking extra measures to ensure they're on the same page.

"When I yell out a call to the D-line, the only way I know they got it is if they tap their hip," linebacker David Nwabuisi said. "We started forgetting about little stuff like that [in 2011]. Now when I make a call, if the D-lineman doesn't tap his hip, I keep on yelling at him until he does. Same thing with DBs to linebackers."

Communication shouldn't be an issue for Kain Colter, who started three games at quarterback in place of the injured Persa last season and evolved into arguably the Big Ten's most versatile offensive weapon (654 rush yards, 673 pass yards, 466 receiving yards, 18 total touchdowns). Colter is the best athlete to call signals at Northwestern since the team implemented the spread offense in 2000, but to maintain the program's recent run of top-shelf quarterbacks, he needs to become a more polished passer.

The junior emphasized velocity and arm strength during the winter -- he tore the labrum and the biceps in his throwing arm as a high school senior -- and expects to execute the high-percentage passes that drive the Wildcats' offense this fall. He'll have plenty of weapons as Northwestern boasts most likely its deepest receiving corps ever, even if USC transfer Kyle Prater can't play right away.

"My timing's getting a lot better, my arm strength's a lot better," Colter said. "I feel like I can make all the throws on the field. That hasn't been a problem this spring."

Northwestern loses four-year starters on both sides of the ball, an NCAA record holder in Persa, two-time All-Big Ten honoree Jeremy Ebert and Drake Dunsmore, the inaugural winner of the Kwalick-Clark Award as the Big Ten's top tight end. Fitzgerald likened the personnel turnover to a shift change at a factory and acknowledges the team dynamic is different.

Given the declining wins total, though, some new blood might not be a bad thing, and the coaches feel the team's overall talent level is on the uptick.

"There's better talent than people think," offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. "The cupboard's not bare. We've got guys who can play football. They just haven't had the experience yet.

"It's just their time. Let's go play."

Top Big Ten newcomers in 2012

April, 3, 2012
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Spring practice is in full gear around the Big Ten, and that means optimism is also running high for the 2012 season on just about every campus.

A new season means new names and faces throughout the league, and this is the time to daydream about unlimited potential. So today we're taking a look at a few of the top newcomers (i.e., those who haven't played a down of Big Ten football before this season) to watch this fall:

DeAnthony Arnett, WR, Michigan State and Kyle Prater, WR, Northwestern: We put these two together because technically neither is yet eligible to play for his respective team in 2012. But the two transfers -- Arnett played at Tennessee last year, while Prater was at USC -- are both appealing to the NCAA for waivers to become immediately eligible, and both schools feel good about their chances of winning those cases. Each player fills a need; Michigan State lost its top three receivers from last year and desperately needs some experienced playmakers at the position, while Prater could step into the No. 1 receiver role that Jeremy Ebert left behind. Both could make a big impact on the season if they are able to see the field.

Noah Spence, DE, Ohio State: The top-rated recruit to sign with a Big Ten team in February, Spence was rated as the No. 4 overall prospect in the 2012 class. It's easy to see why, as he's a 6-foot-4, 245-pound athletic specimen who looks ready to chase after opposing quarterbacks from Day One. Urban Meyer said he doesn't plan to redshirt many freshmen and expects his defensive line recruits to contribute right away. If not Spence, then Se'Von Pittman, Adolphus Washington or Tommy Schutt could all make their presence known up front on defense as true freshmen.

Danny O'Brien, QB, Wisconsin: Let's see. Former ACC starting quarterback graduates and transfers to Wisconsin, where he's immediately eligible. Haven't we heard this story before? True, maybe O'Brien won't play at a superstar level like Russell Wilson did a year ago. But the former Maryland signal caller plugs a huge hole on the Badgers roster, as injuries and inexperience at quarterback threatened to derail an otherwise promising season. O'Brien won't arrive in Madison until later this spring, but he's likely to grab hold of the starting quarterback job right away and perhaps lead Wisconsin back to the Big Ten title game.

Joe Bolden, LB, Michigan: Our recruiting gurus loved Bolden when he signed with the Wolverines, and the early enrollee has already drawn praise from head coach Brady Hoke on the way he's practiced this spring. Don't be surprised to see him get major minutes at linebacker and possibly contribute on special teams.

James Gillum, RB, Minnesota: The junior college transfer ran for over 1,000 yards in each of his two seasons at Mississippi Gulf Coast, and he has the opportunity to start at tailback right away for a Gophers offense in search of more playmakers. The 5-foot-11, 204-pound Gillum already has many of the skills needed for a top-flight Big Ten running back but still must adjust to a higher level of play. If he pans out, he could pair with quarterback MarQueis Gray to form a dangerous Minnesota rushing attack.
EVANSTON, Ill. -- My Big Ten spring practice tour continues today at Northwestern, where I'm spending the day after making the short drive up Ridge Road. I watched most of Northwestern's morning practice -- the team's first full-pads workout since spring break -- and visited with head coach Pat Fitzgerald, defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz and several players afterward.

The big moment in practice came when wide receiver Kyle Prater, Northwestern's coveted transfer from USC, caught a pass from Kain Colter before absorbing a massive hit from safety Jimmy Hall. Prater held onto the ball but spent several moments on the ground. Fortunately for the Wildcats, he only had the wind knocked out of him -- and some vomit -- but returned moments later and caught several more passes. Fitzgerald noted that Thursday marked just Prater's third practice with Northwestern and his first in full pads for quite some time, as injuries slowed him down during his two years at USC.

As Prater walked back to the huddle, Fitzgerald high-fived him and yelled, "Welcome back!"

"Kyle got welcomed to the Big Ten today," Wildcats linebacker David Nwabuisi said.

Should Prater become eligible for the 2012 season -- Northwestern has applied for an NCAA waiver -- he'll add to what might be the Big Ten's best receiving corps. The Wildcats are loaded at receiver with holdovers like Christian Jones, Demetrius Fields and Rashad Lawrence, along with the return of speedster Tony Jones and redshirt freshman Cameron Dickerson, who made several impressive catches Thursday.

The depth at receiver should help Colter, who split time between quarterback and receiver in 2011 but is practicing exclusively at quarterback this spring. Fitzgerald told me Colter would be his starter if the season began now, and he has been pleased with the junior's development. Colter, who has put on a bit of weight and checks in at 195 pounds, told me he worked on shoulder strengthening throughout the winter to improve his arm strength. Running back Treyvon Green has stood out for the offense and made some nice moves Thursday in practice.

There are more question marks on a young defense that struggled mightily in 2011. The unit had a few breakdowns Thursday, but there were some nice plays in the secondary, including an interception by redshirt freshman cornerback Nick VanHoose, who is right in the mix for a starting job. VanHoose also had a pass breakup during team drills, and safety Davion Fleming had a nice hit on Lawrence. Hankwitz said the mix of youth and older players on defense reminds him a bit of the 2008 team, which had the best defense during Fitzgerald's tenure.

I'll have more on the Wildcats later today and Friday, so stay tuned.
Northwestern stuck by Christian Jones during a tough time, and that perseverance is shaping up as a mutually beneficial decision.

Jones was a highly-regarded wide receiver prospect out of Houston who had several scholarship offers after his junior year of high school, including ones from Arkansas, Texas Tech and other BCS programs. But during spring practice before his senior year, he tore his right ACL in a one-on-one drill.

[+] EnlargeChristian Jones
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireWildcats receiver Christian Jones had his best game last season against Michigan. Can he excel in 2012?
"The coaches told me I should hold back and not do too much, but my competitive nature wouldn't let me," he said. "I ran a circle route a little too hard, and came out of my break really fast. My knee just popped out of place. It was bad."

Bad enough that it scared most of the big schools away from recruiting Jones. Many pulled their scholarship offers off the table. But not Northwestern.

"They told me they'd always hold up their end of the deal even if somebody got injured," Jone said. "That really stuck with me."

So Jones committed to the Wildcats that summer and then made a speedy recovery, playing his senior season just five months after his ACL surgery. Though he didn't produce at a high level that year, he arrived in Evanston feeling 100 percent healthy, and he made an immediate impact on the field as a true freshman in 2011.

The 6-foot-3, 225-pounder earned a starting job midway through the season and finished the year with 16 catches for 195 yards. That included a 39-yard grab versus Michigan.

This spring, Jones is looking to become a much bigger contributor. He has moved inside to the slot receiver position, which Jeremy Ebert held down the past two years. Ebert had over 2,000 yards receiving and 19 touchdowns the last two seasons combined, so his graduation leaves a large void in the offense. Someone has to pick up the slack; perhaps that someone will be Jones, who's still learning the finer points of the game.

"I've developed more as a technical receiver," he said. "I realized last year that everything isn't based off speed and athleticism. You have to be better at your technique then they are, so I'm working on becoming a better route runner, a better cutter and more of a student of the game.

"[Moving inside], I actually have to learn how to read defenses now and how to play on the fly."

Jones should have plenty of company at the receiver spot, with Demetrius Fields, Rashad Lawrence and Tony Jones among the veterans returning. USC transfer Kyle Prater is scheduled to enroll later this month and go through some late spring practices as he awaits word from the NCAA whether he can play the 2012 season for Northwestern.

"As a whole, we want to be greatly respected as receivers," Jones said. "I think we'll spread the ball out a lot more this season. We all have a great passion and a great feel for the game. Kyle has a great mind and a great build, and I think he'll fit into our group well."

Jones has been a good fit so far with Northwestern and vice versa. Loyalty has its rewards.
The Big Ten recruiting classes are signed and sealed, and although a few more recruits could come aboard, we have a good idea of what the rosters will look like heading into the 2012 season.

That means it's Power Rankings time. Again.

We're taking a post-signing day look at where the league stacks up. There aren't too many changes from our previous rundown, but some teams received a bump from strong recruiting classes.

As they say on Twitter, #legooo.

1. Michigan State: The Spartans' recruiting class didn't crack ESPN's top 25, but it features several strong prospects and is loaded up at wide receiver and defensive back. Mark Dantonio tells us he can't remember recruiting 10 athletes like the ones Michigan State added in the class. Michigan State already is one of the Big Ten's most athletic teams, so this bodes well for the Spartans as they look for another big season.

2. Michigan: Brady Hoke and his staff rode a fast start to 2012 recruiting and finalized a class ranked No. 7 nationally. The Wolverines started three freshmen on defense in 2011 and added several more who can contribute early in their careers, including linebacker Joe Bolden, cornerback Terry Richardson and defensive tackle Ondre "Pee Wee" Pipkins. If Michigan can maintain its momentum on defense after losing several stud linemen, it will be very tough to beat in 2012.

3. Ohio State: Urban Meyer announced himself with a superb recruiting class featuring arguably the nation's best crop of defensive line prospects. Ohio State would have been an improved team in 2012 after its first seven-loss season since 1897, but the recruiting class boosts the Buckeyes even more. The defensive front seven should be a deeper and stronger unit, and players like Noah Spence, the Big Ten's top-rated recruit, have a chance to contribute immediately.

4. Nebraska: The Huskers missed on their top signing day target (offensive lineman Andrus Peat) but still inked a solid class that should help at positions like linebacker, where Big Red lacked size and depth. Linebacker Michael Rose could contribute early in his career. Nebraska also addressed the departure of standout cornerback Alfonzo Dennard with talented juco addition Mohammed Seisay.

5. Wisconsin: Quality not quantity was the theme for Wisconsin, which signed only 12 players, the Big Ten's smallest class by five recruits. The Badgers lost two offensive line commits to other schools but added a decorated quarterback in Bart Houston and some solid players to the defensive back seven, including linebacker Vince Biegel. This is the type of season that will test Wisconsin's ability to reload and provide a true gauge of the program's progress under Bret Bielema.

6. Penn State: New coach Bill O'Brien and his staff had to scramble to keep the class together, and the 2012 recruiting haul didn't quite match what Penn State adds in most seasons. The coaches were able to keep some good prospects and fulfilled a need at wide receiver with Eugene Lewis and others. It'll be interesting to see how quarterback Steven Bench turns out after Penn State lost verbal commit Skyler Mornhinweg to Florida.

7. Purdue: The Boilers added speed in their 2012 class, and they loaded up on quarterback prospects for the future with four signal-callers. But Purdue also beefed up along the offensive line with Jordan Roos and others. With coaching changes and personnel changes throughout the Leaders Division -- not to mention Ohio State's bowl ban -- Purdue has an excellent chance to make some noise in 2012.

8. Iowa: The big story in Iowa City isn't so much the recent recruiting class but the seismic changes going on in one of the nation's more stable programs. After having the same coordinators for the past 13 seasons, Kirk Ferentz must replace both Norm Parker and Ken O'Keefe, who left late last week for a post on the Miami Dolphins' staff. Iowa will have new leadership on both sides of the ball, creating some uncertainty but also some excitement. The Hawkeyes added some nice pieces in the 2012 class, such as running back Greg Garmon and defensive end Faith Ekakitie.

9. Northwestern: Although the Wildcats' class didn't crack the national rankings, it looks like the best haul in Pat Fitzgerald's tenure as head coach. Northwestern picked up a potential difference-maker on defense in defensive end/linebacker Ifeadi Odenigbo. Malin Jones could be the team's answer at running back, a spot that has suffered during Fitzgerald's tenure. The Wildcats also added the league's top transfer in former USC receiver Kyle Prater.

10. Illinois: It might take a year for Tim Beckman and his staff to make a big splash on the recruiting scene. Illinois' 2012 haul didn't receive great reviews, but the Illini are pursuing several nationally elite 2013 prospects from within the state. Linebacker recruits Tajarvis Fuller and Tyrone Neal should help Illinois in the defensive back seven. There's enough talent on the squad to get back to a decent bowl, but Beckman and his staff have plenty of work ahead.

11. Minnesota: The Gophers inked a class that drew good reviews from ESPN's analysts. Jerry Kill and his staff retained several top in-state prospects, including offensive lineman Isaac Hayes, wide receiver Andre McDonald and quarterback Philip Nelson. McDonald and fellow wideout Jamel Harbison could be immediate contributors for an offense that needs more options. But defense must be the top offseason focal point for Minnesota, which added several juco defenders.

12. Indiana: Although the Hoosiers remain at the bottom, we liked their recruiting class, which should first and foremost provide immediate help on defense. Junior college defenders like Tregg Waters and Jacarri Alexander likely will step in right away for a struggling unit. Indiana also will increase the competition at quarterback with heralded prep prospect Nate Sudfeld and juco addition Cameron Coffman.

Northwestern announces class of 21

February, 1, 2012
2/01/12
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Northwestern's signing day class is complete with 21 recruits. And that doesn't include maybe the biggest get for coach Pat Fitzgerald, USC transfer Kyle Prater.

Here's the rundown of the newest Wildcats:

Terrance Brown S
Stephen Buckley RB
Adam DePietro OT
Chris Fitzpatrick LS
Traveon Henry S
Joseph Jones S
Malin Jones RB
Greg Kuhar DT
Dean Lowry DE
Connor Mahoney DT
Mike McHugh WR
Ifeadi Odenigbo OLB
Eric Olson OT
Ian Park OG
Kenton Playko OT
Jaylen Prater OLB
Andrew Scanlan WR
Jack Schwaba SB
Dan Vitale SB
Dwight White CB

The class is balanced, with 10 offensive and 10 defensive players, with one long snapper. Odenigbo, an ESPNU 150 prospect, is the headliner and the kind of defensive playmaker Northwestern has needed for some time.

“Obviously, we’re excited about this recruiting class,” Fitzgerald said. “There are some tremendous young men from great families and great high school programs who, we believe, fit all our needs and will help us take the next step in becoming a championship program."

The 21 signees comprises the largest recruiting class in Fitzgerald’s six years as head coach.
National signing day arrives Wednesday, but Northwestern already has added a huge prize.

[+] EnlargeKyle Prater
Jeff Lewis/Icon SMIKyle Prater struggled with injuries during two years at USC.
Wide receiver Kyle Prater has decided to transfer to Northwestern from USC, Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald announced. Prater, who grew up in the Chicago area, visited Northwestern on Friday and Saturday and finalized the decision. As colleague Scott Powers and others have reported, Prater had been leaning toward Northwestern after mentioning Wisconsin and Illinois as other potential destinations when he announced his exit from USC.

NCAA transfer rules require Prater to sit out a season, but the Chicago Tribune's Teddy Greenstein reports Northwestern will consider applying for a waiver to get Prater eligible for the 2012 season. If granted, Prater would have three years of eligibility left.

From a recruiting rankings standpoint, Prater is the most decorated player Northwestern has added in recent memory. ESPN Recruiting ranked him as the nation's No. 45 overall prospect and the nation's No. 9 wide receiver in the 2010 class. He earned prep All-America honors from Parade, Super Prep and other outlets.
"This is one of the best days in my life for me and my family and I'm just happy to be back close to home, my family and my support group," Prater said in a prepared statement. "I'd like to thank USC and their administration for my release. I have the utmost respect for USC and the coaching staff, players, fans and everybody I was in touch with there. This Northwestern degree will take me far and help me become a better person. The dynamics of the school and the team have shown me a lot and I'm just happy to be a Wildcat."

Prater struggled with injuries at USC and had only one reception last season. He decided to leave the school to play closer to home. Northwestern's pass-happy offense and recent track record in developing wide receivers makes this a good fit.

Wide receiver should be a strength going forward with players like Prater, Christian Jones, Rashad Lawrence and Tony Jones. Prater's arrival also could increase the chance Northwestern moves some offensive skill players to the defensive side, where the team is lacking in the secondary.
It has become a difficult day to rank Pac-12 teams at receiver due to reports of the uncertain health of Arizona's Juron Criner.

Criner is only the best returning receiver in the conference, a potential All-American and the leader of one of the nation's best units. Still, the Wildcats would rate in "great shape" on this list even without Criner, though they wouldn't top it.

As for the conference as a whole at receiver, things look pretty solid, top-to-bottom. Even the two teams in "We'll see," aren't desperate at the position.

So how do things stack up? Read on.

Great shape

Arizona: The Wildcats may have the best collection of receivers in the nation. First-team All-Pac-10 selection Criner is the headliner, but there's also David Douglas, David Roberts, Terrence Miller and Richard Morrison -- each caught between 19 and 52 passes a season ago. Oh, and there's also Texas transfer Dan Buckner, Austin Hill, Garic Wharton and Tyler Slavin. There's size, speed, depth and experience.

[+] EnlargeJermaine Kearse
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesJermaine Kearse had his best season yet for the Huskies, catching 63 passes for 1,005 yards.
Washington: Jermaine Kearse, second-team All-Pac-10, is a 1,000-yard receiver who caught 12 touchdown passes. Devin Aguilar has 90 career receptions. James Johnson struggled to get in sync last season but caught 39 passes as a true freshman in 2009. Kevin Smith turned in a good spring, and hopes are stratospheric for incoming freshman All-American Kasen Williams.

Washington State: Marquess Wilson was a 1,000-yard receiver as a true freshman. Jared Karstetter caught 62 passes. Gino Simone has seen plenty of action, while hopes are high for redshirt freshman Kristoff Williams and Bobby Ratliff. Quarterback Jeff Tuel has plenty of targets for what should be a potent passing attack.

USC: Perhaps no team has more upside than the Trojans. Sophomore Robert Woods is a potential All-American, while Brandon Carswell and Brice Butler are experienced players. But the upside is all about incoming freshman George Farmer and redshirt freshman Kyle Prater. If those two live up to their talents, the Trojans will be tough to stop in the passing game.

Good shape

California: Keenan Allen and Marvin Jones are a potentially strong tandem if the Bears get good quarterback play. Oft-injured Michael Calvin posted a solid spring. Kaelin Clay has a lot of speed, and he and Coleman Edmond need to step up.

Arizona State: T.J. Simpson's knee injury didn't help, but the Sun Devils are fairly deep and experienced at the position. Gerell Robinson was a standout this spring, while Mike Willie, Aaron Pflugrad and Jamal Miles each caught at least 25 passes in 2010. George Bell, A.J. Pickens, J.J. Holliday and Kevin Anderson provide good depth.

UCLA: Just because UCLA couldn't pass in 2010 doesn't mean it's bad at receiver. It certainly will be experienced in 2011 because everybody is back. Nelson Rosario has the talent to be a star, as do Randall Carroll and Josh Smith. Still, the Bruins lack consistency at the position -- too many dropped balls, too few big plays.

Oregon State: With a healthy James Rodgers and Jordan Bishop, the Beavers are in "great shape." But they have enough talent and experience at the position to at least end up in pretty good shape even if they don't. Markus Wheaton caught 55 passes as a sophomore, while Darrell Catchings and Geno Munoz are two guys who can help, if they can stay healthy. Kevin Cummings also should see action in the slot.

Utah: DeVonte Christopher, the second-leading receiver from 2010, and he's the only returning receiver who caught more than 20 passes, but the Utes feel pretty good about the guys they have coming back. With Reggie Dunn, Dres Anderson, Luke Matthews, Dexter Ransom and Kenneth Scott.

We'll see

Oregon: Jeff Maehl and D.J. Davis are gone and they took 119 receptions with them. Lavasier Tuinei caught 36 passes and Josh Huff caught 19, but there's little experience beyond that. The Ducks are stacked at tight end and the incoming class is thick with speedy, touted receivers. But, as we've said before, "we'll see."

Colorado: Colorado has two guys it can count on in Paul Richardson and Tony Clemons, who combined for 77 receptions in 2010. After that, things are fairly questionable.

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