NCF Nation: Lance Smith

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

Memphis running back Curtis Steele acknowledges he took awhile to get adjusted to Memphis and Division I football.

Despite rushing for 83 yards in the opening game against Mississippi, Steele, a junior college transfer, averaged just 55 yards through his first three games.

"My transition was kind of hard at first because I came in, tried to rush things, tried to rush my plays and I really just had to slow things down," Steele said.

It wasn't until the Tigers played FCS opponent Nicholls State that the game started to slow down. Steele notched his first 100-yard performance as a Tiger and by the fifth game of the season against Arkansas State, Steele put his name on the map.

"After that, I just never looked back," Steele said.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The Big Ten preseason has seemed downright boring compared to the rest of the country.

There's no Mark Sanchez or Ben Olson crisis in this league, and though Ohio State has endured a few recent off-the-field incidents, the Buckeyes have nothing on Georgia. None of the four major quarterback competitions -- Michigan, Wisconsin, Penn State and Indiana -- are settled, and the one in Ann Arbor could drag on for some time. Wisconsin dismissed running back Lance Smith, but the Badgers remain well-stocked at the position.

If the first two weeks of preseason practice have revealed anything, it's that a position that seemed weak in the league could be much better than forecasted.

The Big Ten lost seven of its top 10 receivers from last season, a group that included three-time league receptions leader Dorien Bryant, big-play dynamo Devin Thomas, Indiana career receiving leader James Hardy and Michigan stars Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington. Aside from Ohio State, Penn State and Northwestern, every Big Ten team entered camp with some degree of uneasiness about the wide receivers.

Michigan State and Indiana lost superstars. Michigan lost almost everybody. So did Purdue. Illinois and Minnesota needed second options. Iowa welcomed back several prominent pass-catchers from injuries. Wisconsin was very young at the position.

The anxiety level has dropped quite a bit.

Illinois, which will stress the pass more this fall, has produced several good candidates to complement Arrelious Benn, including juniors Jeff Cumberland and Chris Duvalt, sophomores Chris James and Alex Reavy and freshmen Jack Ramsey, A.J. Jenkins and Cordale Scott. Highly touted Fred Smith will make an impact this fall at Michigan State, but he's been overshadowed a bit by classmate Keshawn Martin. Michigan's young wideouts impressed first-year coach Rich Rodriguez from the get-go, and the Wolverines will lean on players like Darryl Stonum, Martavious Odoms, Terrance Robinson, Toney Clemons and Junior Hemingway come Aug. 30.

I was extremely impressed after watching Wisconsin sophomore David Gilreath, a big-play threat with tremendous speed. Though I didn't see Purdue practice after media day, junior-college transfer Arsenio Curry certainly looks like he can contribute alongside Greg Orton. Playmaker Andy Brodell is back in the fold at Iowa, and sophomore Colin Sandeman looks to be pushing incumbent Derrell Johnson-Koulianos for the starting job. Ray Fisher and Andrew Means headline a group of Indiana wideouts that also include some promising freshmen.

There has been so much buzz about the spread offense sweeping through the Big Ten. It looks like the league will have the moving parts to make those schemes work this fall.

Big Ten power rankings

August, 5, 2008
8/05/08
7:54
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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Big Ten Power Rankings
RankTeamAnalysis
1.Easily the Big Ten's most complete team, the Buckeyes have few position competitions and many more answers than questions in preseason practice. They must figure out how to use freshman quarterback Terrelle Pryor and identify a third starting linebacker [Ross Homan?] alongside standout tandem James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman.
2.The Badgers' hold on the No. 2 spot is a bit shaky. Lance Smith's dismissal provides one less option out of the backfield, though Wisconsin remains very strong in the run game. The key here is health, particularly along the defensive line and in the secondary. Can Allan Evridge finally separate himself in the quarterback competition? We'll find out soon enough.
3.Depth is a bit of a concern at defensive tackle after coach Joe Paterno dismissed Phil Taylor and Chris Baker, but junior Jared Odrick and sophomore Ollie Ogbu have ample experience there. Penn State has options at the offensive skill positions and, unlike some teams, could benefit from a two-quarterback system as Daryll Clark and Pat Devlin bring different strengths.
4.The defense could be one of the league's sleeper units, as ends Will Davis and Derek Walker fortify the front and NFL prospect Vontae Davis anchors the secondary. Running back remains the biggest question, though junior Daniel Dufrene will have every chance to win the job. A reliable running back and another strong receiver could move Illinois up the list.
5.The freshman offensive skill players impressed coach Rich Rodriguez on Monday and give Michigan more options. There will undoubtedly be growing pains at quarterback, but if the offensive line jells after getting into better shape this spring and summer, the offense could be serviceable by Aug. 30. If a few solid linebackers emerge during the coming weeks, Michigan's defense should be among the league's best.
6.Is this the year Michigan's "little brother" overtakes the Wolverines? Michigan State enters the fall oozing optimism after an encouraging 2007 season. If several receivers emerge and coach Mark Dantonio puts a greater imprint on the defense, Michigan State could back up the preseason hype and cause a stir throughout the Big Ten.
7.The Boilermakers could have a tough time holding their place, as the schedule doesn't do them many favors. Then again, having a senior quarterback with video-game statistics [Curtis Painter] always helps. Purdue needs its veteran offensive linemen healthy when camp opens Sunday and must find a third linebacker to complement Anthony Heygood and Jason Werner.
8.Stocked with offensive skill players, the Wildcats turn their focus to the line in camp. If several capable players emerge by Aug. 30, Northwestern should be potent in the no-huddle spread shaped by new coordinator Mick McCall. Linebacker is the area of concern on defense, though new coordinator Mike Hankwitz must find a way to get more out of a defensive line that has underachieved in recent years.
9.Quarterback Jake Christensen's job appears safe for now, but the spotlight will be on a group of running backs that welcomes back former Hawkeye Shonn Greene. If Greene regains his 2006 form and the offensive line jells, Iowa could easily move up the list. But there are far too many questions in the backfield and at cornerback after the losses of Charles Godfrey and Adam Shada.
10.Once again, here's a team that could move up, especially with quarterback Kellen Lewis back in the fold. The questions here are typical for a team coming off a breakthrough after a lengthy layoff. How will pass rusher Greg Middleton respond to increased attention? Can Ray Fisher and baseball standout Andrew Means fill the void left by James Hardy at wide receiver? Is Matt Mayberry the answer at linebacker? We'll find out soon.
11.New defensive coordinator Ted Roof says there are no quick fixes, but an influx of junior-college transfers gives the Gophers a chance to stop people, something they rarely did last season. Minnesota needs a reliable running back to complement talented quarterback Adam Weber, and a group of incumbents on defense should have added motivation to keep their jobs -- and move up the list.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- My Big Ten tour continues Tuesday at Michigan State, which begins its media day around 8 a.m. ET. Offensive players and coaches are up first, followed by defensive players and coaches. Head coach Mark Dantonio meets the media at 11:30 a.m. ET, and I'll head to watch the first portion of practice this afternoon. 

For the e-mailers ragging me for flooding the blog with Michigan material Monday, this is how it's going to work. When I'm at a particular school, that school's team will be featured throughout the day. I'll try not to neglect what's going on around the league, but one team will take precedence. The good thing is I'm going to visit almost every Big Ten school before the season, so if you're wondering when Ohio State or Penn State get top billing, just be patient.

It was a busy Monday around the Big Ten as 10 teams opened practice. Here's a look at each one:

ILLINOIS

INDIANA

IOWA

MICHIGAN

  • Michigan's media rights belong to IMG, which paid $86 million in a 12-year deal, John Ourand writes in Sports Business Journal. IMG already owns Michigan's radio rights but will pick up corporate sponsorships and coaches' endorsements.

MICHIGAN STATE

  • Michigan State linebacker Greg Jones has bulked up during the summer, the Lansing State Journal's Joe Rexrode writes in his blog. 
  • The team on the field isn't the only thing looking glossy at Michigan State. The football team's new headquarters is getting rave reviews, Steve Grinczel writes. 

NORTHWESTERN

  • Former Kansas City Chiefs star center Jack Rudnay, a Northwestern alum, addressed the team on the first day of practice. 

OHIO STATE

PENN STATE

  • Who will win Penn State's quarterback job? Who steps up at defensive tackle after the dismissals of Phil Taylor and Chris Baker? The Philadelphia Enquirer's Jeff McLane takes a look
  • Mark Wogenrich of The (Allentown) Morning Call weighs in on what to watch in Penn State's camp.

WISCONSIN

  • Reserve running back Lance Smith has run out of chances at Wisconsin after his latest slip-up. He remains eligible and will look to play elsewhere, but his Badgers' career is over. Coach Bret Bielema really had little choice here after sticking his neck out for Smith last summer. The Badgers still have enough depth at running back, though an injury to P.J. Hill or Zach Brown could raise the anxiety level. 
  • The Capital Times' Jim Polzin breaks down the first day of practice. Junior cornerback Josh Nettles and two incoming freshmen aren't on the roster,

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Hope you enjoyed Hater Tuesday. There will be a little carry-over today, as I boldly make predictions on the league's top rivalries. But first, here's a look at what's happening around the league.

  • High praise for Ohio State's Beanie Wells from two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin, who thinks the junior running back is "the closest thing to Jim Brown that I've ever seen," The Cleveland Plain Dealer's Doug Lesmerises writes in his blog.
  • Former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr sounded off on several topics, including Rich Rodriguez's nasty departure from West Virginia and the outlook for the season.
  • Mike Barwis isn't the only strength coach in the state of Michigan, Dave Dye writes in The Detroit News. The Michigan State notebook also has an item about running back Javon Ringer possibly returning kicks this fall. Interesting.
  • A big check is supposed to travel from Ann Arbor to Morgantown by Thursday night, Mickey Furfari writes in The (Martinsburg, W.Va.) Journal.
  • In case you missed it, Illinois basketball player Jamar Smith may be in trouble again. If the allegations are true, this brings even more embarrassment to a program that should have cut ties with Smith a long, long time ago.
  • The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Jeff Potrykus continues his position-by-position look at Wisconsin. Next up are the running backs, considered the team's deepest position group despite the legal problems of junior Lance Smith.
  • Joe Paterno's reaction to the Outside the Lines piece about Penn State's off-field issues could play a role in getting the longtime coach out the door, Bob Smizik writes in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
  • Interesting but sad story about former Minnesota star Dominic Jones, who has gone from wearing No. 2 as a cornerback to wearing No. 00425759 as an inmate serving time for sexual assault, Rochelle Olson writes in The (Minneapolis) Star Tribune.
  • Missed this one from CBSSports.com's Dennis Dodd, who lists five things to watch in the Big Ten this fall. He likes Ohio State and Wisconsin, while Michigan should expect seven or eight wins in RichRod's first season.
  • After losing stud offensive tackle David Barrent to Michigan State, Iowa's 2009 recruiting needs a boost in a hurry, Andy Hamilton writes in the Iowa City Press-Citizen.
  • Michigan State's Brian Hoyer hasn't forgotten the Champs Sports Bowl, as if anyone would let him, Alex Altman writes in The State News.

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