NCF Nation: Kyler Reed

Taylor Martinez/Montee BallUS PresswireNebraska's Taylor Martinez and Wisconsin's Montee Ball both have experience playing in title games.
After the different -- but equally painful -- ways in which Nebraska lost Big 12 title games in 2009 and 2010, you wouldn't have blamed the Huskers for clamming up this week.

Their league championship memories aren't exactly rosy ones.

"We've kind of seen everything but a victory," senior tight end Ben Cotton told ESPN.com.

But Cotton and other Huskers veterans have been more than willing to rehash the past in recent days. They use their failings as fuel as they prepare for the third league title game in their careers Saturday night, when they face Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship.

Nebraska players don't need to be reminded of the last time their storied program captured a conference title. And they hope to party like it's 1999 on Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium.

"Me and [fellow tight end] Kyler Reed, we were talking, and in our opinion, we should have one or two rings on our hand already, and we let 'em slip away," Cotton said. "As a senior group, as the leaders of this team and as a team as a whole, we're going to do everything that we can to scratch and claw our way to that victory on Saturday."

They'll have to claw past a Wisconsin team that also is no stranger to the title game stage. Although the Big Ten championship is in just its second year, Wisconsin played in the inaugural event last December, outlasting Michigan State 42-39.

Michigan State outplayed Wisconsin for much of the game, but the Badgers did enough to win and earn their second straight trip to the Rose Bowl.

"I remember it being a lot of fun, being down there in Indy, but the game itself was a dogfight," Badgers center Travis Frederick recalled.

While Frederick downplays Wisconsin's previous title game experience, his teammates see benefits.

"It's important," Badgers junior linebacker Chris Borland said. "It'll calm guys' nerves a little bit, understanding we’ve been there before. It's almost like a bowl game atmosphere in a lot of ways. So guys will be able to deal with it well, and the older guys will help the younger guys who weren't there last year, who didn't contribute last year.

"Last year's experience is going to a long way to help us be comfortable come game time."

Although this year's title game isn't generating as much attention as its predecessor -- in large part because Wisconsin didn't win its division and has five losses -- the stakes haven't changed. The winning team punches its ticket to Pasadena.

"The environment was incredible -- the whole lights and cameras and just the fans screaming," said Wisconsin running back Montee Ball, who had 137 rushing yards and three touchdowns, plus a receiving touchdown, in the 2011 championship game. "It was something that was very special. Just the energy we had on our sideline was great, and I'm really hoping that the same thing happens this weekend."

While Ball and the Badgers happily recall their title game appearance, the burn remains for Big Red. In 2009, the Huskers seemingly had No. 3 Texas beaten in the 2009 title game, thanks to one of the most dominant performances by a defender (Huskers defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh) in recent college football history.

Nebraska appeared to secure a 12-10 win when the clock ran out following a Colt McCoy incompletion. But officials put one second back on the clock and Hunter Lawrence nailed a 46-yard field goal to give Texas the 13-12 victory.

"We tasted what it was like to win a championship for a few seconds there," Nebraska senior linebacker Will Compton said.

Cotton added that Nebraska "could've, should've, would've had that game."

The heartbreaking loss spurred the Huskers in a dominant performance in the Holiday Bowl and throughout the offseason, according to Cotton. It's what made the second title game loss even tougher to deal with.

Nebraska built a 17-0 lead against Oklahoma but watched it vanish in a flurry of mistakes as the Sooners rallied for a 23-20 victory.

"That one was a little more emotional for me because we got up on them and we just weren’t able to finish," Cotton said.

Nebraska has finished games much better this season, four times rallying from double-digit deficits in the second half to win. Since 1996, only one team (NC State in 2000) has recorded more double-digit second-half rallies in a season.

Junior quarterback Taylor Martinez was instrumental in this season's comebacks. He's looking to atone for a rough performance in the 2010 Big 12 title game, where he threw an interception in the end zone, lost a fumble and was sacked seven times.

"It's very motivating for our team and for the whole state of Nebraska," Martinez said this week. "They haven't had a conference championship since 1999, and we're really excited to go out there and play for a third one in the past four years. ...

"Hopefully, we can bring this one home."

Huskers WRs are 'perimeter warriors'

November, 14, 2012
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Whenever wide receiver recruits visit Nebraska, Kenny Bell doesn't try to sugarcoat the truth.

"I tell them, 'If you want to jog around and only work when routes are being run, then don't come here,'" Bell told ESPN.com. "'We only care about winning football games, and the best way to do that is by having a strong running game.'"

Nebraska might be the school of Johnny Rodgers and Irving Fryar, but for decades the first job of any Cornhuskers wide receiver has been to block. It's no coincidence that the team's current wide receiver coach, Rich Fisher, was a former star linebacker at Colorado. In the receivers' meeting room, Bell said, the stats that are featured on the walls relay which player has the most successful blocks and the most knockdowns.

[+] EnlargeQuincy Enunwa
Jerry Lai/US PresswireQuincy Enunwa and the Nebraska receivers take as much pride in their physicality as they do in their playmaking.
"We don't care about yards after catch or receiving yards or receiving touchdowns," Bell said. "That's definitely at the bottom of our priority list. Coach Fisher always talks about being perimeter warriors, about wreaking havoc out there."

The receiving corps' ability to clear traffic on the outside is an underrated reason why Nebraska leads the Big Ten and ranks among the nation's best in rushing yards, at 269.3 per game. When Taylor Martinez or Ameer Abdullah turns the corner, they often have an open lane.

That's nothing new for the Huskers. What's different this year is that those receivers aren't just good blockers. They're also highly productive in the passing game.

Bell leads the way with 35 catches for 653 yards, which already ranks as the ninth-most receiving yards in team history. Quincy Enunwa, known as the most physical of the wideouts, has had some big moments himself, including a 110-yard game at Northwestern. Jamal Turner has come on of late, catching the game-winning touchdown at Michigan State and adding another score last week against Penn State. Ben Cotton and Kyler Reed have added playmaking ability at tight end; Reed hauled in a crucial 56-yard third-down catch late in last week's win.

"Every one of the skill players at Nebraska can take it the distance when they touch the football," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "That's pretty scary."

Last season, the Huskers' passing game was inconsistent as the receivers struggled with drops and Martinez reverted to some bad habits. Both Martinez and his wideouts have made great strides this season, turning Nebraska's offense into a truly balanced attack.

"They've given us a lot of big plays," head coach Bo Pelini said. "I think they've steadily improved as the season has gone on. … We play a lot of guys at the receiver position, and they've responded well and I think they complement each other."

Playing receiver in Lincoln is not easy. You have to be in good enough shape to line up repeatedly in the Huskers' hurry-up style, and strong enough to battle cornerbacks and safeties at the line of scrimmage. Enunwa, at 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, relishes the challenge.

"When you're a big guy and you see those DBs who are much smaller, you have to take advantage of that," he said. "Then we get into the passing game, they're already worn out and we're running past them and getting touchdowns, so it just helps so much."

Offensive coordinator Tim Beck says he asks a lot of his wideouts, and several plays demand that a single receiver blocks two defenders. Bell took that to an extreme in the Michigan State game, disrupting four different Michigan State defenders to help spring a 71-yard touchdown run by Martinez.

"I knew I was going to get at least two, and I just got lucky with the other two guys who were flowing to the play," Bell says. "There wasn't too much praise that went around. I did my job. That's how we're coached."

It takes some coaching to get receivers prepared for Nebraska's style, as many wideouts don't do a lot of run blocking in high school. Divas need not apply. The program has not produced too many true star receivers over the years, and has never had a player post 1,000 yards receiving in a season. Heisman winner Rodgers holds the team record at 942 yards in 1972.

Running backs, mobile quarterbacks, the Blackshirts defense and even the offensive line are far more illustrious positions in Huskers history than receiver. Enunwa said he didn't know much about the history of the position group when Nebraska recruited him out of California.

"When I looked them up more, it was all about blocking more than it was passing," the junior said. "This year, we worked on making both those things big."

So far so good for the Cornhuskers' perimeter warriors.

Martinez engineers Nebraska rally

September, 30, 2012
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LINCOLN, Neb. – Statistically, Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez fared only slightly better in the second half Saturday night than the first.

He rushed for 42 yards before halftime, 65 after. He completed 10 of 13 throws before halftime, 7 of 16 after.

Reality, though, tells it differently. Martinez, the junior quarterback, continued to come of age at Memorial Stadium. He led the Huskers from a pair of 17-point deficits to a 30-27 victory over Wisconsin by producing perhaps his most courageous effort in three seasons as the Nebraska starter.

“There are games like this for Taylor where he has been in a tailspin and gone the other way,” Nebraska running backs coach Ron Brown said. “Not this time. Not tonight. You have to be proud of that kid.”

Martinez, after fumbling on the Huskers’ opening possession of the third quarter, directed a pair of touchdown drives on the next two drives that flipped momentum.

It was a performance unlike even what he did a season ago as Nebraska rallied from a 21-point deficit to beat Ohio State. The Huskers relied more on big defensive plays and the legs of I-back Rex Burkhead in that one.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Martinez
AP Photo/Nati Harnik"He made plays when he had to," one Nebraska coach said of Taylor Martinez. "He did what a good quarterback does to win."
This was clearly Martinez’s comeback.

With the Huskers down 27-10 after Montee Ball scored following the third-quarter Martinez fumble, the QB took Nebraska on a four-play, 77-yard march. He connected with Kenny Bell for a 20-yard completion and handled the final 38 yards with a rush through the heart of the Badgers’ defense.

“I thought that was a big answer,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “It got momentum going for us.”

Pelini said the Huskers were “kind of asleep” early on Saturday night as Wisconsin jumped to leads of 14-0 and 20-3.

If so, Martinez awoke them.

He directed a 10-play, 75-yard drive after the touchdown run, hitting Jamal Turner for 27 yards, then tight end Kyler Reed for a 10-yard score on third-and-4 with 3:47 to play in the third quarter.

“He put in a spot only I could catch it,” Reed said. “It was a tight window.”

A pair of field goals by Brett Maher put the Huskers ahead for good.

Martinez, on those scoring drives, helped his team by avoiding the mistake. Too often in that situation, he’s forced throws or lost composure. It happened Sept. 8 in the second half against UCLA, a 36-30 Nebraska loss.

“Taylor has gotten so much more confident,” tight end Ben Cotton said. “He’s matured so much.”

Offensive coordinator Tim Beck said Martinez ran as hard against Wisconsin as in any game he’s played at Nebraska.

“He made plays when he had to,” Beck said. “He did what a good quarterback does to win.”

Martinez deflected credit. He praised Beck. He recognized the Nebraska defense for holding Wisconsin to seven points in the second half and for stopping the Badgers on their final drive that ended on Ball's fourth-down fumble near midfield with just more than one minute to play.

“We’ve been in that situation before,” Martinez said.

Maybe so, but he had never responded with such resolve.

Despite his spot in second place on the all-time Nebraska total-offense chart and status among 25 quarterbacks in NCAA history to rush for more than 2,000 yards and throw for more than 4,000, Martinez faces plenty of critics.

They question his throwing mechanics and ability to win with his arm.

In the days before this game, Wisconsin defensive end David Gilbert was harsh in his analysis of Martinez.

Martinez heard.

Gilbert got the third-quarter sack of Martinez, forcing the fumble that Chris Borland recovered. But Martinez got the final word.

So did he say anything to Gilbert?

No, Martinez said with a big smile after the game.

“Wish I did,” he said. “Should have.”

But that’s football, Martinez said. He’s glad Gilbert talked. Maybe it played a role in the comeback -- and the quarterback’s big night.
CHICAGO -- Bo Pelini has relayed a simple message to Nebraska’s players this offseason.

It's time.

After no conference championships since 1999, Nebraska is focused on ending the drought in its second year as a Big Ten member. Although several Huskers players spoke openly this spring about winning a national title, Pelini made it clear that the first step is getting to Indianapolis on Dec. 1 -- and winning.

"We've been too close to not have a championship right now," senior tight end Kyler Reed told ESPN.com. "It started with Bo, and it spread throughout the team. That was the first message he had for us this winter, after training started. It's been since '99 that Nebraska had a conference championship. That's the goal. We're not even talking national. Just Big Ten championship."

Nebraska reached the Big 12 title game in 2009 and 2010, falling seconds shy of a victory in the first game and taking an early lead in the second before collapsing. The Huskers moved to their new league pegged by many as the preseason favorite, but they ended up finishing third in the Legends division.

Although division competitors Michigan and Michigan State likely will enter the season rated higher than the Huskers, Nebraska returns its core on offense and could be a deeper defensive team. The Huskers are undoubtedly more comfortable in their second Big Ten go-round.

"You don't want to put that added pressure on," senior running back Rex Burkhead said, "but [a league title] is our expectation. If we don't achieve it, we feel like we've fallen short. Especially being in those two Big 12 title games and being so close, we feel like it is time.

"Coach Bo's done a tremendous job here, and we don't want to let him down."
When you think Big Ten football, what usually comes to mind is big, corn-fed Midwestern players and bruising offenses. The kind of place that would be perfect for a tight end.

But the 2011 season was a little lackluster for that position in the league, at least as far as the passing game goes. Sure, Northwestern's Drake Dunsmore and Wisconsin's Jacob Pedersen were Mackey Award semifinalists, but those two and Michigan State's Brian Linthicum were the only two tight ends in the conference to record more than 25 catches. Some guys we expected to have big years, like Nebraska's Kyler Reed, Minnesota's Eric Lair and Indiana's Ted Bolser, were nearly invisible on the stat sheet. And there was certainly no one who rose the level of recent Big Ten stars like Dallas Clark, Matt Spaeth, Travis Beckum, Lance Kendricks or Dustin Keller.

[+] EnlargeJacob Pedersen
AP Photo/Matt SaylesJacob Pedersen led the Big Ten's tight ends with eight touchdown catches last season.
Dunsmore, who won the league's inaugural Kwalick-Clark tight end of the year award, and Linthicum have both graduated. Yet 2012 is shaping up as a potentially big season for tight ends across the league.

Some of it has to do with changing offenses and playcallers who love utilizing the tight end. Urban Meyer made a star out of Aaron Hernandez at Florida and could do the same with Jake Stoneburner, who started off blazing hot last year before the Ohio State offense forgot about him. With the Buckeyes searching for playmakers, expect Stoneburner to be utilized heavily in 2012.

"Seeing Hernandez make all those plays makes someone like me pretty happy," Stoneburner told Adam Rittenberg last month. "It's something I've been waiting for since I graduated high school, being able to go out there knowing you're going to get the opportunity to get the ball more than once or twice a game. "

Bill O'Brien coached Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski as offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots, which featured the tight end as much as anybody in football. Now O'Brien is at Penn State, where tight ends have mostly been an afterthought. That will change quickly.

"That’s a very important part of what we’re going to do offensively,” O’Brien told reporters in March. “Obviously, the last two years in New England taught me a lot about the use of a tight end, multiple tight ends.”

At Iowa, new offensive coordinator Greg Davis is raving about sophomore C.J. Fiedorowicz, a 6-foot-7, 265-pounder who began to emerge late last season as a weapon. With an uncertain running game and an excellent passer in quarterback James Vandenberg, Fiedorowicz could follow in the footsteps of Clark and Tony Moeacki as breakout Hawkeyes tight ends. Coincidentally, Iowa's new offensive line coach is Brian Ferentz, who coached the tight ends with the Patriots last year.

“You’ll see the tight ends playing outside sometimes,” Davis told the Des Moines Register during spring practice. “Used to seeing them in motion, but there will be motion in wide receiver sets in some situations because they’re tough match-ups.”

Wisconsin returns one of the best tight ends in the country in Pedersen, who had led Big Ten tight ends with eight touchdown catches a year ago. Bret Bielema is also excited about the depth at the position, with veterans Brian Wozniak and Sam Arneson, redshirt freshmen Austin Traylor and Austin Maly and Pittsburgh transfer Brock DeCicco. Given the inexperience at receiver outside of Jared Abbrederis, the Badgers could look to throw to their tight ends even more this season.

Indiana's Bolser had only 14 catches last year, but he was one of the stars of the spring for the Hoosiers. An improved passing game should help him become more of a factor. Purdue likes the depth it has at tight end, led by Gabe Holmes and Crosby Wright.

“A year ago it was one of the leanest positions on our football team," Boilers coach Danny Hope told reporters in the spring, "and now I think going into the season that the tight end position is going to be one of our strengths.”

Reed's numbers dropped last year, but he still led Nebraska with an average of 17.1 yards per catch. He and fellow senior Ben Cotton form a nice tandem of targets for Taylor Martinez. Michigan State must replace Linthicum but is optimistic about 6-foot-5, 280-pound Dion Sims, who practiced this spring with a cast on his hand. Sims could provide a safety valve for new quarterback Andrew Maxwell early on as the Spartans break in some green receivers.

Minnesota's Moses Alipate will at least be a curiosity as a former quarterback who grew to 290 pounds. Michigan needs Brandon Moore or someone else to step in for Kevin Koger, while Illinois' Jon Davis could have a different role in the team's new spread offense after a promising freshman campaign. Whoever replaces Dunsmore for Northwestern should get a lot of touches.

Tight ends could play an important part of many Big Ten teams' attacks this fall. Just as it should be.

Halftime: Nebraska 10, Iowa 0

November, 25, 2011
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The first Heroes Game is in need of some more offensive heroes, especially from the Iowa side.

It took nearly the entire first half before either team scored a touchdown, as Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez hit Kyler Reed on a beautifully designed play-action pass inside the red zone. The story so far, though, has been the defenses -- the Blackshirts in particular.

Iowa has one of the most explosive offenses in the Big Ten when its Big Three are going, but the Cornhuskers have stopped two-thirds of that attack. Star receiver Marvin McNutt has two catches for one one yard as Alfonzo Dennard has done a great job of shutting him down. Robbed of his favorite target, James Vandenberg is just 4-of-10 for 36 yards. Only Marcus Coker, who has accounted for 81 of the team's 98 total yards at half, has done much of anything offensively for the Hawkeyes.

Iowa moved the ball inside the Nebraska 40-yard line twice but opted to punt both times. The first time, the Hawkeyes had the wind in their face, and the second time they had a fourth-and-13. Still, those punts did little to quell fans who complain that Kirk Ferentz is too conservative.

The Huskers scored their touchdown a few plays after going for it inside the Iowa 30 on fourth and short. The Nebraska offense has struggled at times, too, especially in the passing game. But Rex Burkhead has run strong with 79 yards already on 18 carries, and Martinez made plays when he needed to on that important final drive of the half.

Ferentz and his staff have to figure out a way to get McNutt or somebody else in the passing game going, or else the Huskers will claim the first Heroes trophy.
<img src="http://a.espncdn.com/i/teamlogos/ncaa/med/158.gif" alt="" class="floatright" />
Are two heads really better than one?

We've put that to the test in brainstorming the 2011 preseason All-Big Ten team. Not surprisingly, there were some tough choices, and we're sure you'll point them out to us here and here. Past performance definitely factored into our selections, but we also looked for players likely to make a significant impact this season.

Let's get to it.

OFFENSE

QB: Denard Robinson, Michigan
RB: James White, Wisconsin
RB: Edwin Baker, Michigan State
WR: Jeremy Ebert, Northwestern
WR: Derek Moye, Penn State
TE: Kyler Reed, Nebraska
C: Mike Brewster, Ohio State
T: Riley Reiff, Iowa
T: Jeff Allen, Illinois
G: Joel Foreman, Michigan State
G: Kevin Zeitler, Wisconsin

DEFENSE

DL: Jared Crick, Nebraska
DL: Mike Martin, Michigan
DL: Jerel Worthy, Michigan State
DL: John Simon, Ohio State
LB: Lavonte David, Nebraska
LB: Michael Mauti, Penn State
LB: Chris Borland, Wisconsin
CB: Alfonzo Dennard, Nebraska
CB: Ricardo Allen, Purdue
S: Trenton Robinson, Michigan State
S: Aaron Henry, Wisconsin

SPECIALISTS

K: Derek Dimke, Illinois
P: Brad Nortman, Wisconsin
KR: Troy Stoudermire, Minnesota
PR: Keshawn Martin, Michigan State

Selections by team: Michigan State (5), Wisconsin (5), Nebraska (4), Ohio State (2), Illinois (2), Michigan (2), Penn State (2), Northwestern (1), Purdue (1), Iowa (1), Minnesota (1)
As promised, it's time to rank the Big Ten's top tight ends entering the 2011 season.

Unlike wide receiver, a position loaded with clear-cut No. 1 options, the tight end group has a few more question marks. Standout players like Wisconsin's Lance Kendricks, Michigan State's Charlie Gantt and Iowa's Allen Reisner have departed. While the wide receivers list was based heavily on past performance, this one leans more on potential for the upcoming season.

Here's your top 10 for '11 (Update: Ohio State's Jake Stoneburner has been included in the rankings. Apologies for the oversight):

[+] EnlargeKyler Reed
John S. Peterson/Icon SMIKyler Reed had 22 catches for 395 yards and eight TDs last season.
1. Kyler Reed, Nebraska, junior: Here's a name Big Ten fans need to know. Why? He might terrorize your team's defense when it goes up against Nebraska this fall. Reed is a gifted pass-catching tight end who averaged 18 yards per reception and scored eight touchdowns in 2010. The Huskers lack proven depth at receiver, so Reed should be a focal point of the passing game in Tim Beck's offense.

2. Drake Dunsmore, Northwestern, senior: If Dunsmore can stay healthy, he'll contend for All-Big Ten honors this fall. He didn't have the monster season some expected in 2010, although he still recorded 40 receptions for 381 yards and five touchdowns. Offensive coordinator Mick McCall wants to feature Dunsmore as much as possible, so if the senior avoids the injury bug, he'll have a chance to put up big numbers.

3. Jake Stoneburner, Ohio State, junior: Stoneburner has been discussed as a potential breakout player for some time, and this could finally be his season to shine. Ohio State enters the season with no proven depth at receiver, while Stoneburner has been in the system for a while and recorded 21 receptions for 222 yards and two touchdowns in 2010. The Buckeyes have seemed hesitant to feature the tight end in the passing game, but Stoneburner could be the man to change things this fall.

4. Ted Bolser, Indiana, sophomore: Bolser quietly turned in one of the best seasons among Big Ten freshmen in 2010. He started seven games and averaged 15.1 yards per reception, recording 27 catches and five touchdowns. Indiana has enough depth at receiver to occupy opposing defensive backs, so Bolser should find some openings to make plays. He boasts excellent size at 6-foot-6, 240.

5. Eric Lair, Minnesota, senior: After recording just one reception in his first two years, Lair had somewhat of a breakout season in 2010. He ranked among the Big Ten's most productive tight ends with 39 receptions for 526 yards, an average of 13.5 yards per catch. The Gophers need more pass-catching options alongside Da'Jon McKnight, and Lair could see an even bigger role this fall.

6. Brian Linthicum, Michigan State, senior: As Gantt departs, Linthicum is the obvious candidate to move into the No. 1 role for an offense that doesn't ignore the tight end position. Linthicum started five games in 2010, recording 18 receptions for 230 yards. He has 19 career starts for two AQ teams (Clemson and Michigan State), so he's no stranger to the spotlight. But Linthicum can't afford a drop-off as talented sophomore Dion Sims rejoins the team.

7. Kevin Koger, Michigan, senior: Experience isn't an issue for Koger, who has started 19 games in his first three seasons. He didn't quite meet expectations in 2010, as his numbers fell a bit even though Michigan's offense made significant strides. The good news is Koger should see an increased role in Al Borges' offense. Borges said this spring Koger can catch at least 30 passes this fall. If so, he'll be in the mix for All-Big Ten honors.

8. Brad Herman, Iowa, senior: Herman has only 10 career catches, but several factors suggest bigger things are ahead. Iowa always seems to produce one of the Big Ten's best tight ends, and the program's recent track record of sending tight ends to the NFL speaks for itself. Herman knows he's the next in line, and he showed big-play ability in 2010, averaging 15.7 yards per catch. Like Linthicum, he faces pressure to perform as a dynamic young player (C.J. Fiedorowicz) is right behind him.

9. Jake Byrne, Wisconsin, senior: Byrne's selection is similar to Herman's. Like Herman, Byrne lacks impressive numbers (only five receptions in 2010), but he also plays for a program that loves to feature its tight ends. Plus, Byrne was one of the most impressive players I saw this spring in my tour around the league. Known for his blocking, Byrne showed this spring he can get open in the middle of the field. Wisconsin lacks depth at receiver, so Byrne should be a big part of the passing attack.

T-10. Evan Wilson, Illinois, sophomore: Like several tight ends on this list, Wilson could benefit from his team's lack of depth at wide receiver. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has made strides as a passer and needs other options to emerge alongside A.J. Jenkins. Wilson started 11 games as a true freshman and made 10 catches, two for touchdowns. He's a good blocker who should get better and better in the passing game.

T-10. C.J. Fiedorowicz, Iowa, sophomore: Maybe I'm buying into the hype, but Fiedorowicz has a chance to claim a significant role in Iowa's passing attack this fall. Herman doesn't have an extensive track record, and Marvin McNutt is the Hawkeyes' only proven receiver. The 6-foot-7, 250-pound Fiedorowicz is big and athletic, and he boasts the skills to become a true pass-catching threat. This is a total projection pick, but I think Fiedorowicz does big things this fall.
We've been ranking each position group in the Big Ten, and so far we've looked at running backs and quarterbacks. Today, let's finish off the offensive skill positions with receivers and tight ends.

The Big Ten is blessed with plenty of standout wide receivers, but remember these rankings heavily account for overall depth at the position, not just isolated star power. We're also including the tight ends in this group while acknowledging that the best ones aren't necessarily big-time pass-catchers.

Here's how we rank them:

[+] EnlargeB.J. Cunningham
Andrew Weber/US PresswireB.J. Cunningham had the best numbers last season among a deep group of receivers and tight ends.
1. Michigan State: The Spartans may lack a true superstar, though senior B.J. Cunningham (50 catches for 611 yards and nine touchdowns in 2010) is pretty darn good. What Mark Dantonio can really count on is depth. Cunningham has good size at 6-foot-2, while Keshawn Martin is a speed-burner. Keith Nichol and Bennie Fowler fill out a solid cast of receivers, and when you throw in Brian Linthicum and Dion Sims at tight end, this group deserves the top spot.

2. Michigan: If Darryl Stonum weren't suspended indefinitely, this group might be No. 1. It's still pretty good as things stand now. Roy Roundtree leads the way after catching 72 passes for 935 yards and seven touchdowns last year, and Junior Hemingway is a strong secondary option for Denard Robinson. Tight end Kevin Koger is a third-year starter who can occasionally make big plays in the passing game.

3. Northwestern: Senior Jeremy Ebert (62 catches for 935 yards and eight touchdowns last season) was a first-team All-Big Ten performer as voted by the media. Demetrius Fields had 25 receptions last year, and the Wildcats are counting on big improvements from sophomores Rashad Lawrence, Tony Jones and Venric Mark. Northwestern uses its superback position as a tight end, and Drake Dunsmore had 40 catches from that spot last year.

4. Indiana: The Hoosiers languish at the bottom of many of these rankings, but receiver/tight end is a point of pride. Senior Damarlo Belcher led the Big Ten with 78 catches last year on his way to 832 yards. Even with the loss of Tandon Doss and Terrance Turner, who each had more than 60 catches in '10, new coach Kevin Wilson has a solid corps behind Belcher with Duwyce Wilson and Kofi Hughes, among others. And Ted Bolser is a highly productive tight end who had 27 catches for 407 yards and five scores a year ago.

5. Penn State: Three of the top four receivers from last year return, including No. 1 target Derek Moye (his 16.7 yards per catch average was second in the Big Ten a year ago). Justin Brown and Devon Smith need to continue moving forward. Will the Nittany Lions get anything out of Curtis Drake, who's trying to return from his second broken leg? Penn State hopes to get something out of the tight end position, where Andrew Szczerba and Garry Gilliam dealt with season-ending injuries last year.

6. Wisconsin: Once we reach the middle of these rankings, the units start to become interchangeable and a little indistinguishable. Wisconsin doesn't have to throw it too much because of its stellar running game, but the Badgers have some solid choices when they do go to the air. Senior Nick Toon has the talent to record more than the 36 catches and 459 yards he produced a year ago. Jared Abbrederis should continue to come along after a nice freshman campaign. There's potential but not much experience among the rest of the receivers. Star tight end Lance Kendricks will be tough to replace, but Jake Byrne is an outstanding blocker and Jacob Pedersen caught two touchdowns last year.

7. Nebraska: Brandon Kinnie is the leader here, and the 6-foot-3 senior isn't afraid to make the big catch. Freshmen Jamal Turner and Kenny Bell had nice springs and could add some playmaking skills to a largely unproven crew around Kinnie. Kyler Reed might be the most dangerous pass-catching tight end in the Big Ten, if not the country, after hauling in eight touchdowns and 18 yards per reception a year ago.

[+] EnlargeMarvin McNutt
Scott Boehm/Getty Images Marvin McNutt will be expected to be the No.1 wideout for the Hawkeyes this season.
8. Iowa: Senior Marvin McNutt is the go-to option after recording 861 yards and eight touchdowns last season. The Hawkeyes will look to junior Keenan Davis to improve and become the No. 2 target. Just about everyone else is green. Tight end is usually a strength for Kirk Ferentz and should be again with senior Brad Herman and a group of talented backups behind him.

9. Ohio State: Seems like we write this a lot, but the Buckeyes would be ranked higher if their star player in this group were available an entire season. But DeVier Posey's five-game suspension means this is an awfully young corps, and that inexperience showed with some inconsistent play this spring. Ohio State will need talented sophomore Corey "Philly" Brown to take a big leap forward and youngsters like Chris Fields, T.Y. Williams and James Louis to contribute in Posey's absence. Tight end Jake Stoneburner might have to become a bigger presence in the passing game.

10. Purdue: The Boilermakers have some decent depth but no proven stars. Antavian Edison is the leading returning receiver with just 314 yards last year, though the junior does have good speed. Justin Siller is talented but has had trouble staying healthy. Purdue lost two solid veterans at tight end in Kyle Adams and Jeff Lindsay and added a couple of potential replacements, including former basketball player Patrick Bade, this summer.

11. Minnesota: Da'Jon McKnight tied for second in the Big Ten last year with 10 receiving touchdowns. But the Gophers' second-leading receiver last season was MarQueis Gray, who's now their starting quarterback. Brandon Green could help after an injury-plagued season. Tight end Eric Lair can grab a few passes, as he did 39 times in 2010.

12. Illinois: The good news: A.J. Jenkins is a reliable weapon who had 746 yards and seven touchdowns last season. The bad news: There's not much experience behind him. Perhaps Ryan Lankford, who starred in the spring while Jenkins was out with an injury, will emerge as a star his sophomore year. Evan Wilson is back at tight end after starting 11 games as a freshman.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- There are two buzzwords heard around the Osborne Athletic Complex regarding Nebraska's offensive makeover this spring.

Attack and freedom.

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
Bruce Thorson/US PresswireNebraska coach Bo Pelini, left, and his staff have made changes designed to simplify things for quarterback Taylor Martinez and the offense.
The Huskers' offense wants to reclaim its aggressiveness after stumbling to the finish line in 2010. The best way to regain an edge, according to new coordinator Tim Beck, is by loosening the reins a bit.

"You can over-coach guys so much that they're paralyzed and they lose their athletic ability," Beck said. "They become robots. I'm not in the technology business. I'm a coach and I want them to have fun and go out there and play."

Huskers players are having fun as they learn the new system this spring. It beats the joyless end to last season.

Nebraska scored 143 points in its first three games and eclipsed 30 points in eight of its first nine contests. The Huskers introduced "T-Magic" to the nation as freshman quarterback Taylor Martinez dazzled nearly every week, piling up 886 rush yards and 12 touchdowns through the first eight games.

But in that eighth game, a 31-17 win against Missouri, Martinez severely sprained his right ankle. The quarterback on Monday said he re-injured the ankle "five or six times" the rest of the season.

"It was tough on me," Martinez said. "I couldn't really run and do what I wanted to do."

Martinez was never the same -- 79 rush yards, no touchdowns in the final five games -- and neither was the offense. Nebraska scored 20 points or fewer in four of its final five games, losing three times.

Although Martinez's injury played a role in the unit's decline, there were other factors.

"We almost tried too hard to change what we did by what defenses were doing," tight end Kyler Reed said. "Coach Beck talked to us and said we kind of were a defensive offense. We were reacting to defenses, what they did, instead of dictating what we wanted to do.

"We're supposed to be the offense. We're supposed to be attacking."

Coach Bo Pelini's decision to go a different direction on offense, part ways with Shawn Watson and promote Beck to coordinator from his post as running backs coach has sparked a guessing game this spring in Husker Country. What will Beck's offense look like? How will players' roles change? What should his system be called?

We might not get a clear picture until Sept. 3, when Nebraska opens the season against Chattanooga. But a few clues have emerged.

The Huskers will huddle less than they did in 2010. They want to get to the line quickly, survey the defense and then go with their best option.

Nebraska will use hand signals to relay plays to all offensive players, not just the quarterbacks. Martinez said he'll be able to pick plays he wants to run, a luxury he didn't have last season.

"There's enough freedom by position," Beck said. "For example, receivers. If you get open, you're going to get the ball. There's a variety of techniques they can use, so use what you want to use. It's not an undisciplined offense. It's very disciplined. But to sit here and tell a guy, 'You're always going to do this,' it doesn't work like that. And when it changes in a game, they freeze.

"I want them to play fast."

As Beck notes, the offense isn't without its rules. Although Reed and the receivers get more leeway on how far they run their routes, if it's third-and-10 and they run eight yards, they're going to hear about it. When it comes to run blocking, Reed's assignments are non-negotiable.

But for the most part, the Huskers do what it takes to remain in "attack mode," as running back Rex Burkhead puts it.

"We're getting faster to the line, getting more plays in," Burkhead said. "It keeps a defense off balance. They can't make adjustments or run certain blitzes they want. They're just trying to get lined up correctly."

As Nebraska transitions to the Big Ten, Beck hopes the offense can stay a step ahead of its new competitors.

"I don't know what Wisconsin's going to do against us or Ohio State," Beck said. "You could watch three years of film, and they're going to have a completely different plan of what they're going to do.

"You have to be flexible enough to counter that."
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska's transition to the Big Ten is taking place at different speeds.

By the time spring practice kicked off, Huskers defensive coordinator Carl Pelini already had broken down game film of the eight Big Ten opponents Nebraska faces this fall. Players like running back Rex Burkhead and center Mike Caputo also have been checking out clips of their new conference brethren.

Tim Marlowe, a wide receiver from Youngstown, Ohio, has become the resident Big Ten historian on the squad.

"Everyone's always asking me about the Big Ten," Marlowe said.

For others, the Big Ten isn't quite on the radar. New offensive coordinator Tim Beck is too busy installing a new system this spring to pore over Big Ten film (though he will eventually). Players like tight end Kyler Reed have caught glimpses of Big Ten games but haven't dived in just yet. Head coach Bo Pelini is keeping the focus on Nebraska rather than its new league.

[+] EnlargeNebraska's Jared Crick
Brett Davis/US PRESSWIREJared Crick isn't overly concerned about the Huskers transition to the Big Ten. "If we play our defense, it doesn't matter who's running at us with what. We're still going to beat them."
Big Ten logos aren't plastered around the Osborne Athletic Complex, Memorial Stadium or downtown Lincoln. But change is coming to Husker Country.

On July 1, Nebraska becomes a member of the Big Ten. Three months later, the Huskers' football team plays its first Big Ten game against defending league champ Wisconsin in Madison.

"It's pretty cool to play new teams, see new stadiums, some really historical stadiums: big, huge, loud," Reed said. "When I'm older, I'll be able to say, 'Yeah, I was there when we first started playing in the Big Ten.'"

Nebraska is ready for the change. Despite its ties to the Big 8, Nebraska won't miss the Big 12, a league where it seemed to lose influence as the power shifted to the South division.

The Big Ten provided the stability Nebraska sought, and though the Huskers haven't played a regular-season football game against a Big Ten team since 2003, there's confidence the school and the league will blend well.

"When you get up north in the Big 12," Carl Pelini said, "the tradition, the weather, everything about this place, the type of kid we have here, marries up with the Big Ten much better than we did with the Big 12."

The Pelini brothers should know.

They grew up in Youngstown, Ohio. Bo played safety for Ohio State from 1987-90 and started his coaching career at Iowa. Carl grew up as an Ohio State fan and also had some affection for Penn State, then a Division I-A independent. He rooted for the Buckeyes against Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl and for Ohio State's basketball team in the NCAA tournament.

"It's hard to cheer against the Ohio boys," Carl Pelini said. "Those are deep-seated loyalties. Obviously, I won't feel any of that when they come here [Oct. 8]."

Beck also grew up in Youngstown and attended the same high school (Cardinal Mooney) as the Pelinis. While the Big Ten move makes things come full circle -- "All our families are excited," Beck said -- there's a lot to learn.

"Usually, you know, even personnel wise, what you're going to be up against," Beck said. "Who's fast, who's physical, who's big, who's slow. You always had an idea in the Big 12, and going into a new conference, you're not really sure. You're not really sure the venues you're going to play in. I know they're incredible. But it's different. Is it a Texas loud? Is it an Oklahoma loud?

"How are those stadiums going to be?"

Nebraska will find out right away. The Big Ten did the Huskers no favors with their initial league schedule. Big Red travels to Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan in addition to hosting defending Big Ten co-champs Ohio State and Michigan State.

The new surroundings pose a challenge, but Nebraska still must win games between the lines. What do the Huskers expect from their new league foes?

"You think SEC, fast; you think Big 12, kind of mixture, and then you think Big Ten -- it’s just powerhouse running, run-it-down-your-throat type football teams," wide receiver Brandon Kinnie said. "It's just the assumption you get, the stereotype."

Kinnie is on the right track.

"You're going to get bigger, stronger, more physical guys in this conference," Beck said. "Not that the Big 12 didn't have them, but you're probably going to see more of them, and every team's going to have them."

Nebraska has them, too, especially on defense. The Blackshirts ranked 11th nationally in total defense last fall (306.8 ypg) after finishing seventh in 2009 (272 ppg). They led the nation in points allowed in 2009 (10.4 ppg) and ranked ninth this past season (17.4 ppg).

Superb defense has been Bo Pelini's hallmark, and his defenders enter the Big Ten with supreme confidence.

"You hear all the hoopla about how it's a power conference and they're going to run it down our throat and come right at us," Huskers star defensive tackle Jared Crick said. "I've seen Big Ten games and they do run the ball a lot, a lot of power, a lot of lead. But if we play our defense, it doesn't matter who's running at us with what. We're still going to beat them. Everybody on this defense believes that.

"If we can execute our defense, there's not one team in the nation who should be able to put points up on us."

The term championship-level defense is used a lot around here, and for good reason. The Blackshirts boast multiple All-America candidates. If the new offense clicks, Nebraska could be very dangerous this fall.

Despite the schedule, Nebraska enters its new league as an immediate title contender. After falling short in the Big 12 championship game the past two seasons, the Huskers are motivated to make their mark right away in a potentially wide-open Big Ten.

"We're going to the Big Ten, and we're not changing just to be changing," Kinnie said. "We're going to win."

Taking off from Husker Country

March, 29, 2011
3/29/11
5:00
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- It's time to hit the road and return to Chicago, but I had a very fun and productive visit to the Big Ten's newest member.

There was a bit of bad news today, as Huskers star defensive tackle Jared Crick told me he'll miss the rest of spring practice after suffering a sprained MCL (partial tear) in his right knee during Monday's practice. Crick will rehab for up to the next four weeks but fully expects to be ready for the summer and preseason practice. So it's a minor setback for a guy who really didn't need the spring to get better.

I also had some interesting discussions today with coordinators Tim Beck (offense) and Carl Pelini (defense), and several Huskers players.

Beck is really stressing an attacking nature with the new system, wanting to be more of an "offensive offense." Tight end Kyler Reed and others mentioned that Nebraska played a bit too defensively at times toward the end of last season on offense. Beck really wants to turn things loose and give the players more freedom, a decision that is sitting well with Reed, quarterback Taylor Martinez and others.

For Carl Pelini, it's about maintaining a championship-level defense during the transition to Big Ten play. He talked about a need to enhance the multiplicity on defense after the unit got a bit too comfortable running its base package in 2011. The Huskers are pressuring and moving around outside their base more this spring. It doesn't mean Pelini will totally turn things loose this fall, but he wants his players to become more acclimated to blitzing and the like.

I'll have MUCH more from this visit in the coming days and weeks, so be sure and check back often.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Ryan Broyles thought he made Oklahoma's biggest play of the game, but Nebraska safety Courtney Osborne's knee disagreed.

Osborne hauled in an easy interception and returned it to the 11-yard line, but Broyles stripped it and recovered possession as both players went to the ground. Officials ruled he had possession, but the call was reversed after a review.

That gave way to Rex Burkhead, who threw his third touchdown pass in two weeks -- this one to Kyler Reed -- that had the Huskers on top big early in the second quarter.

Oklahoma answered with a touchdown on its next drive, though, and trails 17-7.

The pass from Burkhead was much-needed for Nebraska, whose quarterback, Taylor Martinez, had yet to complete a pass in four tries through the first quarter.

The Huskers' early lead should shift the entire game. Oklahoma won't abandon its run game, but it will look to pass a bit more than it did in the first quarter. Against the best secondary in the Big 12 -- and possibly the country -- that could be a dangerous proposition.

Not so much for the Sooners, who answered with a 49-yard bomb down the middle of the field to Kenny Stills. That's definitely a good sign for the Sooners, but a rare big play given up by the Blackshirts.

I'd be surprised if the Sooners hit another big play like that without breaking a tackle or benefiting from a miscommunication from the Huskers' secondary.
MANHATTAN, Kan. -- That was a dominant performance from Nebraska, but most importantly, a dominant performance from Taylor Martinez. No questions here, that 48-13 score isn't a fluke. Nebraska is that much better than Kansas State. The Huskers still have to travel to Stillwater and College Station, but after that performance, they established themselves as even heavier favorites in the North.

How the game was won: Martinez ran all over Kansas State. He racked up 241 yards rushing on just 15 carries and had for four touchdowns. The game got out of hand in the second half.

Turning point: Martinez's 35-yard touchdown run in the second quarter to take a 14-3 lead was a sign of things to come and gave the Huskers a lead that eventually swelled to 45-6.

Stat of the game: Nebraska rushed for 450 yards. Kansas State rushed for 179.

Player of the game: Without question, Martinez had the best game of his young career, completing 5 of 7 passes for 128 yards, including a 79-yard touchdown pass to Kyler Reed, and rushed for 241 yards and four touchdowns.

Unsung hero of the game: Nebraska linebacker Lavonte David. David helped stuff Daniel Thomas and limit one of college football's best running backs to just 90 yards on 21 carries, without a touchdown.

What Nebraska learned: Even playing against one of college football's worst rush defenses, Nebraska showcased a three-headed monster that may challenge Oregon as the best running game in college football this year. They'll ride that all the way to the Big 12 title game.

What Kansas State learned: It's not a contender in the Big 12 North. They survived three close games to begin the season, but this game was never close in the second half and Nebraska looked dominant for the game's final three quarters.

Record performance: Martinez set a Nebraska quarterback record for rushing yards, breaking Jammal Lord's record of 234.

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