NCF Nation: Mark Murphy

Indiana defensive coordinator Doug Mallory is looking for a few good men this spring. Actually, more than a few.

Mallory isn't necessarily seeking the next standout player (although he wouldn't complain if he found one). The Hoosiers' defense has had productive individuals over the years, from cornerback Tracy Porter to defensive linemen Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton, to defensive tackle Adam Replogle. Last fall, Replogle put up huge numbers for an interior lineman (13.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, two forced fumbles, 71 total tackles). Safety Greg Heban (91 tackles, three interceptions, seven tackles for loss) and linebacker David Cooper (86 tackles, nine tackles for loss, three sacks) also had strong statistical seasons.

[+] EnlargeAdam Replogle
AP Photo/Darron CummingsIndiana defensive tackle Adam Replogle had 13.5 tackles for loss and five sacks last season.
But the unit still struggled, finishing 103rd nationally in yards allowed, 101st in points allowed and 116th against the run. The cumulative results were all too typical for a defense that has struggled for more than a decade because of its lack of depth.

"It can't be the same guy out there every single play of the game, every play of the season," Mallory told ESPN.com. "We've got to be able to have some guys come in and contribute, whether it's 10, 20, 30 plays a game, guys who give us a little bit better depth."

The Hoosiers are looking for numbers this spring, at least 22 defenders who Mallory can feel confident about sending onto the field this coming season. IU's offense took a significant step in coach Kevin Wilson's second year and should be one of the Big Ten's most explosive units in 2013.

But for Indiana to take a step as a program -- toward winning records and bowl appearances -- its defensive depth must improve substantially. Although it's not ideal that three projected starters -- Cooper and fellow linebacker Chase Hoobler, and safety Mark Murphy -- are now sidelined this spring, it's more important to get others up to speed.

"We're trying to see more competition, more guys putting themselves in position to compete," Mallory said. "With all these guys coming back, that's great, but we were not very good a year ago, so that could be a positive and it could also be a negative. We've got to make major strides and do a better job as coaches and as players defending the run, stopping the run and being a lot more physical on defense."

Mallory has made it clear to the players that there are "no starters" this spring. Players move between the first-, second- and third-teams from practice to practice, depending on performance, and sometimes even within a single workout.

"The worse you are, the further you fall on that depth chart," Mallory said. "Kids understand that."

Mallory has been impressed by cornerback Kenny Mullen, who started the final five games in 2012. Defensive end Bobby Richardson, a reserve last fall, also has stood out as IU must replace two starters up front.

Help is on the way as Indiana significantly elevated its defensive recruiting efforts for the 2013 class. Six of IU's seven highest-rated recruits, according to RecruitingNation, will play defense, including ESPN 150 defensive back Rashard Fant, and linemen Darius Latham and David Kenney III.

"On paper, it definitely looks like a good class," Mallory said. "We're looking forward to getting those guys here, and they'll get in here and compete. You certainly want to be quality two-deep and hope that your incoming class are guys that can help you get three-deep."

Instant analysis: Indiana 45, UMass 6

September, 8, 2012
9/08/12
7:30
PM ET


FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- In its first home game as a Division I-A team, UMass was completely outclassed by visiting Indiana 45-6 on Saturday at Gillette Stadium.

How it happened: Things did not start well for the UMass offense. After a dismal debut on the FBS level against UConn, scoring no points and totaling just 59 yards of offense, the Minutemen desperately needed a better beginning to their first home game as a Division I-A team.

They didn't get it.

After the defense forced Indiana to punt on the first series of the game, the offense got the ball on its own 18-yard line. The first play was a handoff to Michael Cox, who tried to take it around the left end and was stopped for no gain. The second play was a pass to Cox in the backfield, with quarterback Mike Wegzyn getting the short throw off under heavy pressure, and the back barely got back to the line of scrimmage before being stacked up.

The third play was a pass, and Wegzyn almost completed it ... to Indiana's Mark Murphy.

On fourth down, Colter Johnson's punt sailed out of bounds at the 50, giving the Hoosiers the ball at midfield.

It wouldn't take them long to capitalize. Tre Roberson kept the ball, broke an arm tackle at the line of scrimmage, juked two UMass defenders at the second level of the defense and was off to the races.

The 50-yard TD run put Indiana up 7-0.

For the Minutemen's offense, that would prove to be too much to overcome.

What it means: There is a long way to go for coach Charley Molnar's program.

That was to be expected, with the move up to Football Bowl Subdivision play. But this far? It's unlikely even the most pessimistic Minutemen fan saw this coming in the first two games.

What's next? UMass will head to Michigan for its second consecutive game versus a Big Ten team. The 3:30 p.m. kickoff will be broadcast on the Big Ten Network.

Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.
The postseason position rankings are hitting the home stretch, and today we take a look at the Big Ten secondaries. It's a little tricky to evaluate secondary play from 2011. While seven Big Ten teams ranked in the top 18 nationally in pass defense, only two squads ranked in the top 29 in pass efficiency defense.

Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard was the lone Big Ten defensive back to appear on both the coaches' and media's first-team all-conference squad, so there was some disagreement.

[+] EnlargeIsaiah Lewis
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioIsaiah Lewis' interception against Michigan helped the Spartans beat their in-state rival and propel Michigan State's secondary to elite status in the Big Ten.
The top seven units are solid, while the bottom three are among the worst in the FBS.

Michigan State once again tops a defensive chart, but the top four or five squads here were all strong in the secondary. Be sure and check out our preseason secondary rankings.

Let's get to the rundown:

1. Michigan State: The Spartans had three of four starting defensive backs — safety Trenton Robinson, cornerback Johnny Adams and safety Isaiah Lewis — selected first-team or second-team All-Big Ten, illustrating the depth coach Mark Dantonio has built in recent years. Michigan State's secondary also continued to be a playmaking unit, recording a league-best 18 interceptions, returning four for touchdowns. The Spartans had five defensive backs record two or more interceptions. Adams will enter the 2012 season pegged as the league's top cornerback.

2. Penn State: Like the other defensive units, Penn State's secondary shouldered a heavy burden because the team's offense struggled for so much of the season. The Lions had veteran leadership with D'Anton Lynn, Nick Sukay and Drew Astorino, and they led the Big Ten and ranked sixth nationally in pass efficiency defense (107.2 rating). Penn State finished third in the league in interceptions (14) and tied with Michigan for the fewest passing touchdowns allowed (12). Sukay earned second-team All-Big Ten honors.

3. Illinois: Although Illinois' strength on defense could be found in the front seven, the secondary held its own as well. The Illini ranked third nationally in pass defense (162.3 ypg), and opposing teams completed just 54.9 percent of their passes against the Orange and Blue. Illinois finished 30th nationally in pass efficiency defense. Although the safety play looked spotty at times, Illinois boasted a strong cornerback tandem in Terry Hawthorne and Tavon Wilson.

4. Michigan: Arguably no single position group in the Big Ten made more dramatic strides than Michigan's secondary, a lightning rod for criticism the previous three seasons. The Wolverines finished 16th nationally in pass defense and 36th in pass efficiency defense. Although they didn't record many interceptions, they tied for the league low in passing touchdowns allowed (12). Safety Jordan Kovacs emerged as an effective blitzer and playmaker and cornerback J.T. Floyd blossomed with two interceptions, eight pass breakups and a forced fumble. Corner Blake Countess is an exciting young talent.

5. Nebraska: The Huskers had the Big Ten's best defensive back in Dennard, who shut down arguably the league's top two receivers (Marvin McNutt, B.J. Cunningham) in Nebraska victories. But the group's overall performance was a bit underwhelming, as opposing teams attacked the deep middle and caused some personnel shuffling. Opposing teams completed just 53.2 percent of their passes against Nebraska, the lowest number in the Big Ten. Hard-hitting safety Daimion Stafford emerged for a group that loses Dennard and veteran safety Austin Cassidy.

6. Wisconsin: For the second straight season Wisconsin displayed good playmaking ability in the secondary, finishing second in the Big Ten with 16 interceptions. Safety Aaron Henry (coaches) and cornerback Antonio Fenelus (media) both received first-team All-Big Ten recognition. The Badgers also played most of the season without one of their starting cornerbacks, Devin Smith. But the unit also had some high-profile lapses at the end of games. Speed also became an issue in the Big Ten title game against Michigan State and in the Rose Bowl against Oregon.

7. Ohio State: The numbers aren't bad -- Ohio State ranked 14th in pass defense and 53rd in pass efficiency defense -- but the Buckeyes seemed to be missing something in the secondary, and throughout their entire defense, for that matter. There were some bright spots, like freshman cornerback Bradley Roby, and some hard hits delivered by safety C.J. Barnett and others. But Ohio State finished just eighth in the league (53rd nationally) in pass efficiency defense, as opposing teams completed more than 60 percent of their pass attempts against the Scarlet and Gray.

8. Purdue: We had high hopes for a group that returned all four starters, headlined by All-Big Ten candidate Ricardo Allen at cornerback. At times, Purdue's secondary looked solid, but the unit's overall performance fell in line with the team's average theme for 2011. Allen struggled to contain some elite wideouts but still finished the season with 81 tackles (62 solo), three interceptions, four pass breakups, a blocked kick and a forced fumble. He and Josh Johnson form an exciting cornerback tandem entering the 2012 campaign.

9. Iowa: Much like Ohio State, Iowa didn't have a typical season on defense, and the secondary had its share of struggles. Iowa had average numbers (58th in pass yards allowed, 72nd in efficiency), and allowed opposing teams to complete 62 percent of their passes. The Hawkeyes saw a big drop-off in playmaking, as they recorded only 10 interceptions and allowed 21 touchdown passes. Safety Micah Hyde earned second-team All-Big Ten honors from the media, while cornerback Shaun Prater didn't have the huge senior season some expected.

10. Northwestern: The Wildcats would finish last in some leagues, but they're the best of a bad bunch at the bottom of the rankings. Despite an All-Big Ten safety (Brian Peters) and a four-year starter at cornerback (Jordan Mabin), Northwestern suffered breakdowns in both scheme and execution. The Wildcats endured a particularly bad stretch to begin Big Ten play, as they couldn't stop Illinois receiver A.J. Jenkins, admittedly got confused against Iowa and let Penn State quarterback Matthew McGloin go off. The secondary has to be a huge priority for Pat Fitzgerald and his staff during the offseason.

11. Minnesota: It's a close call for the last spot, but Minnesota avoids the basement, thanks in large part to safety Kim Royston, who made the most of his sixth season with a team-high 123 tackles. But Royston was the lone bright spot for Minnesota's secondary, which stung from the loss of cornerback Troy Stoudermire to a broken arm. The Gophers recorded the fewest interceptions in the Big Ten (4), and allowed opponents to complete 67.7 percent of their passes, the highest total in the league. Minnesota finished 107th nationally in pass efficiency defense.

12. Indiana: The Hoosiers' historic struggles in the secondary continued in 2011, as they surrendered a league-high 26 passing touchdowns and finished 116th out of 120 FBS teams in pass efficiency defense. Opponents averaged 8.5 yards per completion against an Indiana team that played more freshmen than any squad in the FBS. There's some hope with players like safety-linebacker Mark Murphy and cornerback Greg Heban, and Indiana brings in two junior college defensive backs for 2012.
We continue our postseason position rankings today as we move on to the linebackers.

Not surprisingly, Linebacker U takes the top spot, though it was a very close call. Depth helped the top two teams on this list, while star power marked spots Nos. 3 through 5. After that, it's a bit of a dropoff.

Away we go ...

[+] EnlargeGerald Hodges
Rob Christy/US PresswireGerald Hodges led a deep group of Penn State linebackers this past season.
1. Penn State: We thought this group could be the deepest linebacking corps in the league this past season, and that depth proved both true and invaluable when starter Michael Mauti went out in the fourth game of the season. Even without him, the Nittany Lions' linebackers played great, led by first team All-Big Ten performer Gerald Hodges, who had a breakout campaign. Nate Stupar filled in nicely for Mauti, and Glenn Carson was solid in his first year as a starter in the middle.

2. Michigan State: We wondered in the preseason how the Spartans would replace stars Greg Jones and Eric Gordon. The answer: very nicely, thank you. Sophomores Denicos Allen and Max Bullough emerged as fierce playmakers, especially on the blitz, and Chris Norman provided steady play on the weak side. All three return in 2012 to give Penn State a run for its money as the best group in the league.

3. Wisconsin: Mike Taylor and Chris Borland were finally healthy in the same season, and what a difference that made. They were a terrific pair, combining for 293 tackles and becoming the only Big Ten duo to average more than 10 tackles per game each. Taylor in particular made great strides. Kevin Claxton was overshadowed a bit as the third Badgers linebacker, but that's understandable given the amount of plays Borland and Taylor made.

4. Illinois: The emergence of Jonathan Brown (108 tackles, 19.5 for loss) as fire-breathing pass-rusher made this unit better than we projected in the preseason. Ian Thomas also had a good season at the position with 85 tackles, and Trulon Henry rounded out a strong crew before he missed time late following a shooting incident. The Illini defense stayed consistent throughout the team's struggles.

5. Nebraska: Depth was not a strong suit for the Huskers by any means, but there was no better linebacker in the league and few better in the nation than All-American Lavonte David. He had 133 tackles and countless big plays. Will Compton came on as the season wore along to provide a good complement to David. Finding consistent play elsewhere at the position was a challenge for Nebraska.

6. Ohio State: We pegged the Buckeyes at No. 3 in our preseason linebacker rankings, but it wasn't a vintage year for a group that struggled down the stretch drive. Andrew Sweat led the way with 72 tackles despite missing two games because of injury, and Etienne Sabino had a decent season (62 tackles, 6.5 for loss) if not the breakout season many had predicted. Freshman Ryan Shazier announced himself late in the year as a potential star in the making.

7. Michigan: The Wolverines' defense surprised everyone in 2011, though the defensive line was clearly the vanguard on that side of the ball. Kenny Demens led the team with 94 tackles, while freshmen Desmond Morgan and Jake Ryan made an immediate impact as starters. This wasn't an overwhelming group, but it was one that mostly did its job.

8. Iowa: The Hawkeyes had a hard time keeping everybody healthy and consistent, but this spot might have been the best part of their defense. James Morris and Christian Kirksey tied for the team lead with 110 tackles each, while Tyler Nielsen added 73 stops while battling some nagging injuries. The Iowa defense overall was disappointing, however.

9. Purdue: Danny Hope usually knew what to expect from week to week out of his linebackers: solid, consistent play. Joe Holland, Dwayne Beckford and Will Lucas each had between 82 and 94 stops as the top three tacklers on the team. Lucas and Holland also recorded double-digit tackles for loss. The chief complaint here is that the Boilermakers gave up some big point totals during the season.

10. Minnesota: The Gophers struggled up front and in the secondary, but linebacker was their most experienced and reliable defensive position, as expected. Veterans Gary Tinsley, Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper played in every game, and were among the most consistent players on the team. Tinsley led the way with four sacks. Florida transfer Brendan Beal was expected to make an impact, but missed the season with a knee injury.

11. Northwestern: It wasn't a very good year overall for the Wildcats' defense, and linebacker was no exception. David Nwabuisi ranked third on the team with 84 tackles, while Bryce McNaul was right behind with 76. But Northwestern's starting trio combined for just 2.5 sacks and didn't come up with enough difference-making plays throughout the season.

12. Indiana: The good news for the Hoosiers was that Jeff Thomas was the best player on defense in 2011, finishing with 80 tackles, including 10.5 for loss. The bad news is that he was a senior. Besides Thomas, Indiana was forced to go young at the position, playing freshmen Chase Hoobler, Mike Replogle and Mark Murphy, a safety/linebacker hybrid, at times during the season. Kevin Wilson hopes the experience makes them better in '12, but this is yet another position that needs vast improvement going forward.

Spring preview: Leaders Division

February, 17, 2012
2/17/12
10:00
AM ET
After taking a look at the Legends Division outlook for spring practice, it's time to turn the focus to the Leaders Division.

Away we go ...

ILLINOIS

Start of spring practice: March 7
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • New faces in new roles: Tim Beckman and his assistants get their first chance to work with the players on the field. Beckman retained only one assistant (defensive line coach Keith Gilmore) from the previous staff, so it'll be important for the players and coaches to get acclimated. It's also a big spring for co-offensive coordinators Billy Gonzales and Chris Beatty, both of whom will be primary playcallers for the first time at this level.
  • The quarterbacks: Nathan Scheelhaase is a two-year starter, but he'll have to re-establish himself as the team's top option at quarterback. Reilly O'Toole received a decent amount of field time last season, and Illinois should have a competition under center in spring practice. Both men will have to learn a new offense and show good decision-making skills after combining to throw 12 interceptions last fall.
  • No Merci: All-American defensive end Whitney Mercilus is gone, and Illinois will be looking for his replacement this spring. The defensive line could once again be a strength for the Illini, especially with Gilmore back and an aggressive defensive coordinator in Tim Banks. It'll be interesting to see how the coaches use Michael Buchanan and Justin Staples, who played the "bandit" position in the previous scheme and boast speed but don't have typical defensive end size.
INDIANA

Start of spring practice: March 3
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • Juco fever: Indiana needs a quick fix on defense, and it hopes an influx of junior college players can provide one. Six juco players already are enrolled and will participate in spring practice, including five on the defensive side. It will be interesting to see how players such as defensive back Tregg Waters and linebackers Justin Rayside and Jacarri Alexander perform this spring as they compete to play right away.
  • New direction on offense: Coach Kevin Wilson wants to be more productive in the passing game, and he hired an offensive coordinator in Seth Littrell who can help in that area. Littrell guided an Arizona offense that last season ranked third nationally in passing (370.8 ypg) and 27th in pass efficiency (145.2). He'll try to help Tre Roberson, who Wilson said he thinks can elevate his game significantly as a passer despite throwing twice as many interceptions (six) as touchdowns (three) as a freshman.
  • Who has grown up: Indiana played 32 freshmen (16 true, 16 redshirt) in 2011, the most in the FBS. The early experience should pay off for several players, and Indiana needs them to grow up quickly during the spring. Roberson showed a lot of promise at quarterback, and safety Mark Murphy finished second on the team with 76 tackles. Keep an eye on players such as defensive end Bobby Richardson and receiver/returner Shane Wynn.
OHIO STATE

Start of spring practice: March 28
Spring game: April 21

What to watch:
  • Urban renewal: The mood has improved around Ohio State's program from the moment Urban Meyer stepped to the podium Nov. 28. After putting together his staff, signing an elite recruiting class and ticking off some of his Big Ten coaching colleagues, Meyer finally gets a chance to work with the players on the practice field. After a lackluster final season at Florida in 2010, Meyer says he's refreshed and recharged, and it'll be interesting to see how he attacks practices.
  • The new offense: Ohio State fans can't wait for a new offense after suffering through a 2011 season that featured some extremely questionable play-calling. Meyer's offensive system is well-known throughout college football, but the interesting thing this spring will be how Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman blend their ideas. Herman is a dynamic young coach who impressed a lot of folks at Iowa State. But Ohio State is a different animal, and expectations will be high for quarterback Braxton Miller and the unit.
  • Fickell back on defense: After spending last season as Ohio State's head coach, Luke Fickell returns to an assistant role on the defensive side. And for the first time, Fickell will be the Buckeyes' primary defensive playcaller. Ohio State's defense took a step back last season and will be looking to regain its traditional form. Fickell will work alongside co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers and look to identify some leaders to complement defensive lineman John Simon.
PENN STATE

Start of spring practice: March 26
Spring game: April 21

What to watch:
  • O'Brien's time: Much will be made of Penn State opening spring ball without Joe Paterno, but the real story is how critical these practices will be for new coach Bill O'Brien and his team. Penn State will be acclimating to new systems on both sides of the ball and a new coaching style from O'Brien and his assistant coaches, all but two of whom are from the outside. The learning curve will be accelerated for all involved, as Penn State needs to get a lot done in 15 workouts.
  • The quarterbacks: It's good that O'Brien has extensive experience coaching quarterbacks because no position needs a bigger upgrade at Penn State. The Lions struggled mightily under center last season and need a major boost beginning this spring. Can O'Brien get more out of Matthew McGloin and Rob Bolden, both of whom have seen extensive time in the Big Ten? How does Paul Jones factor into the mix? It'll be interesting to see how the signal-callers perform this spring.
  • Filling gaps on defense: Penn State should have one of the nation's best linebacker groups this season, but the Lions need to fill some holes on the line and in the secondary. Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Devon Still departs, and Penn State will be leaning on Jordan Hill and others to step up. A bigger concern is the secondary, which loses two multiyear starters at safety (Drew Astorino and Nick Sukay). Penn State also has a new defensive coordinator in Ted Roof, who will be looking for better results than he had at Auburn.
PURDUE

Start of spring practice: March 7
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • Another quarterback competition: Boilers coach Danny Hope loves having options at quarterback, and he'll once again get his wish during spring practice. Caleb TerBush, Robert Marve,Rob Henry and Sean Robinson all boast starting experience and will vie for the No. 1 job when workouts resume. Henry, who sizzled last spring and would have started the season if not for a torn ACL, has been cleared to participate in noncontact drills. Marve received an extra year of eligibility and will be in the mix. TerBush started every game last season.
  • Tisebar takes over: Purdue has a new defensive coordinator for the third consecutive season, as Tim Tisebar takes over this spring. Tisebar returns to college football after spending the past three seasons with the Canadian Football League's Montreal Alouettes. Hope hired Tisebar to help Purdue improve against the spread offense and the zone-read game. It will be interesting to see what spin Tisebar puts on the defense as the Boilers enter a pivotal season.
  • Offensive line depth: One of Purdue's strengths last season is a bit light on bodies following several departures. The Boilers need a left tackle to replace Dennis Kelly, and they also must increase depth on the interior line. Purdue already has moved tight end Robert Kugler to center, and Hope said earlier this month that several other tight ends could practice at offensive tackle during the spring.
WISCONSIN

Start of spring practice: March 17
Spring game: April 28

What to watch:
  • A revamped staff: Bret Bielema hired six new assistant coaches during the winter months, including offensive coordinator Matt Canada. The new coaches will have their first opportunity to work with players on the field this spring. It's important for both sides to acclimate, mainly because Wisconsin has had tremendous success the past two seasons and doesn't want the staff shakeup to throw things off course. Quarterback Russell Wilson made a seamless transition to the program last summer. Let's see if the new assistants can do the same in spring ball.
  • The quarterbacks: Speaking of Wilson, he departs Madison, leaving a major void under center. Jon Budmayr and Curt Phillips are coming off of major injuries, and while they're both making progress it could be tough to get a gauge on them this spring. Canada will spend much of his time working with Joel Stave and Joe Brennan, who need to get comfortable with Canada's adjustments to the offense and start establishing themselves as potential team leaders.
  • Reloading up front: Wisconsin will have to replace two All-American offensive linemen for the second consecutive year, and the Badgers lose three All-Big Ten selections up front (Peter Konz, Kevin Zeitler and Josh Oglesby). While the Badgers are built to reload, offensive line coach Mike Markuson has a lot of evaluating to do this spring. On the defensive line, Wisconsin loses two starters (Patrick Butrym and Louis Nzegwu) and will be looking for some difference-makers. End David Gilbert returns to the mix after missing most of last season with a broken foot.
The offseason is here, and while teams are focused on recruiting right now, they will soon turn their attention to fixing problem areas and gearing up for 2012.

With that in mind, we present the offseason to-do lists for every Big Ten club, beginning with the Leaders Division. We're not going to talk about recruiting needs here, as we'll focus on that in the very near future. Instead, we're taking a look at a couple of areas each team needs to repair or restock in the coming months.

Illinois

  • Spread it on: An Illini offense that needed a GPS to find the end zone the last half of the season is in for a jarring change. New head coach Tim Beckman will implement the spread offense and demand a higher tempo. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase must regain his freshman-year form if he is to hold off Reilly O'Toole for the starting job, and Illinois must replace its best receiver in A.J. Jenkins. Finding a reliable running back is high on the priority list as well. This offense will get a total makeover and needs to make the most of the spring and summer to get ready.
  • Locate defensive leaders: We wondered this time last year how Illinois would replace Corey Liuget. Then Whitney Mercilus jumped up with an All-American season. Who will be the next big playmaker now that Mercilus is off to the NFL? Can Michael Buchanan replicate Mercilus's production off the edge? Will Jonathan Brown capitalize on his potential? New defensive coordinator Tim Banks needs to keep up the level of performance this defense had in '11.
Indiana

  • Build toughness on defense: This one is obvious, as the Hoosiers ranked 114th in points allowed (37.3) and 109th in total defense in Kevin Wilson's first season and gave up at least 40 points in five of their eight Big Ten games. Wilson played a ton of youngsters in 2011 and has a promising future leader in rising sophomore Mark Murphy. But Indiana simply must get more physical up front and tackle better to have any hope of making significant strides.
  • Develop Tre Roberson: One of the bright spots in IU's 1-11 season was the emergence of freshman Roberson at quarterback. His athleticism allowed him to make plays in and out of the pocket. With Dusty Kiel and Ed Wright-Baker leaving the program, the offense now solely belongs to Roberson, with juco transfer Cameron Coffman his likely backup. Roberson must continue to make progress as a sophomore, or else it could be another long year in Bloomington.
Ohio State

  • Urban renewal: Jim Tressel may have been gone last season, but his influence was still heavily felt as former Tressel assistant Luke Fickell and most of Tressel's staff remained in place. So the Buckeyes players are about to experience a whole new way of doing things under Urban Meyer. Most of the change will come on offense, where there will be a new system and new terminology, and spring practice will prove critical for getting everything installed. Meyer's biggest challenge may be reshaping an offensive line that lost three longtime starters in center Mike Brewster and tackles Mike Adams and J.B. Shugarts.
  • Upgrade the passing game: Braxton Miller improved as a passer as the season went on, but the Buckeyes' passing game still left a lot to be desired most of the time. Miller will need to spend as much time as possible with new offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Tom Herman to improve his throwing, and a group of young Buckeyes receivers like Devin Smith, Corey "Philly" Brown and Chris Fields needs to come of age and turn into reliable playmakers.
Penn State

  • Come together: New coach Bill O'Brien's most daunting task likely will come off the field, where he'll be responsible for repairing a fractured community. He can begin to do so by embracing former players, building bridges to the alumni on the speaking circuit and being more open than his famous predecessor. O'Brien must show recruits that it's OK to come to State College again. Fans will be hungry for football by the spring, and O'Brien should use that optimism to his advantage.
  • Fix the offense: There's little question that a Stone Age offense was holding Penn State back, and O'Brien seems intent on being his own offensive coordinator. He'll need to settle on a quarterback, whether that's Matt McGloin or Rob Bolden or someone else, and ingrain his NFL concepts to a bunch used to a vanilla scheme. O'Brien has a solid building block in star tailback Silas Redd but must replace top receiver Derek Moye and an offensive line gutted by graduation.
Purdue

  • Establish an identity: The Boilermakers were the epitome of a mediocre team in 2011, going 6-6 and never winning back-to-back games in the regular season before edging out a MAC team in a lower-level bowl. What exactly is the defining trait of Danny Hope's team? It's time to create an identity, especially on defense where Purdue was inconsistent last season. Old defensive coordinator Gary Emanuel is out and Tim Tibesar is in from the CFL to take over. Tibesar needs to maximize the talent of budding stars like Kawann Short and Ricardo Allen and put his stamp on that side of the ball.
  • Create a quarterback pecking order: After dealing with crippling quarterback injuries the past two seasons, Hope must be thrilled by the new-found depth at the position. Robert Marve received a sixth year of eligibility and will be back alongside 2011 starter Caleb TerBush. Meanwhile, projected '11 starter Rob Henry makes his way back from a knee injury. Competition should make the position better, but Purdue must figure out who and how it wants to play at quarterback.
Wisconsin

  • Find a quarterback: Russell Wilson leaves large cleats to fill after just one season in Madison, and there is no obvious heir apparent. Will Jon Budmayr's elbow allow him to compete for the job? Will Joe Brennan take the next step in his development? Will hyped incoming freshman Bart Houston be ready? The Badgers went to the Rose Bowl the past two seasons with seasoned, senior quarterbacks. New offensive coordinator Matt Canada won't have that luxury this year and has some work to do in the offseason. At least he can lean on a stout running game led by Montee Ball while the quarterback situation crystallizes.
  • Build staff chemistry: Canada will be one of six new coaches on Bret Bielema's staff in 2012 and will be part of an almost entirely new offensive brain trust. The Badgers have their style of play on that side of the ball down to a science at this point, but it's not easy to blend that many new coaches and personalities into a program all at once. Bielema has to get them all up to speed and on the same page in a hurry, and the new coaches have to establish rapport with the players right away. That might be one of the Badgers' biggest obstacles on the way to a second straight division title.
The college football season is officially over. So it's time to break out the crystal ball and offer our projections for the preposterously-too-early 2012 Big Ten power rankings.

1. Michigan State: The Spartans must replace a lot of leadership, including quarterback Kirk Cousins, receivers B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin and All-American defensive tackle Jerel Worthy. But nine starters return off the Big Ten's top overall defense, featuring Will Gholston, Denicos Allen and Isaiah Lewis as potential breakout stars. Le'Veon Bell could have a big year as the No. 1 tailback, and if Andrew Maxwell can adequately fill in for Cousins, the offense should be fine, especially if Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett gets his waiver to become immediately eligible at receiver. Plus, the road schedule (at Central Michigan, at Indiana, at Michigan, at Wisconsin, at Minnesota) is far more manageable than what the team navigated in 2011.

2. Michigan: A lot of things went right for the Wolverines in 2011, including a favorable schedule. That slate gets harder in 2012, beginning with Alabama at Cowboys Stadium and including road trips to Nebraska and Ohio State. Still, Denard Robinson and Fitz Toussaint form one of the most dangerous offensive duos in the league, and the second year under Brady Hoke and his staff should mean more familiarity and comfort. Coming off a BCS win, Michigan could start the season in the Top 10.

3. Wisconsin: The Badgers will have to overcome many challenges to reach their third straight Rose Bowl. The biggest concern is at quarterback, where there's no experience to replace Russell Wilson and his record-breaking efficiency level. Bret Bielema will have to remake almost his entire offensive coaching staff after Paul Chryst took several assistants with him to Pittsburgh. Still, Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball returns to keep the Wisconsin running game among the best in the country. And the two Big Ten teams who beat the Badgers in 2011 -- Michigan State and Ohio State -- must come to Madison in '12.

4. Ohio State: The Buckeyes aren't eligible to make the Big Ten title game, but don't be surprised if they put up the best record in the Leaders Division. A transition period can be expected as Urban Meyer takes over as head coach and installs an entirely new offensive system. But Ohio State had a small senior class in 2011 and brings back many talented players, such as defensive lineman John Simon, quarterback Braxton Miller and running back Carlos Hyde. A schedule that features eight home games should equal much improvement over this year's 6-7 record.

5. Nebraska: Few teams will be as experienced on offense as Nebraska, which returns seven starters and just about every key skill player on that side of the ball. Taylor Martinez and Rex Burkhead should be even better with another year in offensive coordinator Tim Beck's system. The questions are on defense, where the Huskers struggled at times in 2011 before losing their top two players in linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard. Nebraska must get tougher up front defensively to handle the Big Ten grind and has difficult road assignments looming at Ohio State and Michigan State.

6. Penn State: For the first time since 1965, we'll see what a Penn State team looks like that is not coached by Joe Paterno to start the season. New coach Bill O'Brien made a wise decision to retain defensive assistants Larry Johnson and Ron Vanderlinden, and even without All-American lineman Devon Still, that side of the ball should stay stout with standouts like Gerald Hodges, Jordan Hill and hopefully a healthy Michael Mauti. O'Brien's biggest impact should come on offense. The former New England Patriots offensive coordinator will try to bring the Nittany Lions attack into the 21st century with a competent passing game. Tailback Silas Redd provides a nice crutch while that transition occurs.

7. Iowa: After two straight 7-5 regular-season finishes, the Hawkeyes will look to get back into Big Ten contention. But they'll have to overcome the losses of star receiver Marvin McNutt, offensive tackle Riley Reiff, defensive linemen Mike Daniels and Broderick Binns and cornerback Shaun Prater. When he's on, James Vandenberg is as good a dropback passer as there is in the Big Ten, but making up for McNutt's production won't be easy. Assuming Marcus Coker returns from suspension, the running game should be very good. The defense simply has to improve after giving up too many big plays in 2011, and Kirk Ferentz hasn't yet named a successor to veteran defensive coordinator Norm Parker, who retired.

8. Purdue: The Boilermakers have a chance to make a move in a Leaders Division that is marked by coaching changes. They return most of the major pieces of their Little Caesars Bowl-winning team, and the return of Rob Henry from his season-ending knee surgery opens up some interesting possibilities at quarterback. Kawann Short should be one of the top defensive linemen in the league if he decides to return for his senior year. We'd still like to see more consistency from Danny Hope's program before we rank Purdue too high, however.

9. Northwestern: Dan Persa and his record-breaking accuracy are gone, along with top receiver Jeremy Ebert. Yet we're not too concerned about the offense and like the multi-dimensional options that Kain Colter provides with his all-around athleticism. Northwestern's issue is whether it can fix a defense that had trouble stopping anybody. The fact that the Wildcats lose their top three defensive backs from a secondary that was routinely torched does not inspire confidence.

10. Illinois: New coach Tim Beckman has his work cut out for him in Year One. He has to completely revamp an offense that couldn't shoot straight in the back half of 2011 while implementing a new spread style. He has to try to maintain the defense without coordinator Vic Koenning or All-American defensive end Whitney Mercilus. And he faces a schedule that sees the Illini going to Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan, all three of which won in Champaign this past season. There's still talent on defense, led by promising linebacker Jonathan Brown. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase needs to build on his second-half showing in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.

11. Minnesota: After a horrible start, the Gophers showed a lot more fight down the stretch in 2011, beating Iowa and Illinois at home. Jerry Kill knows how to build a program, and the team can't help but be better in 2012, especially if MarQueis Gray continues to develop at quarterback. But Minnesota still has some holes on its roster that can only be fixed through recruiting, and while the Gophers could make a run at bowl eligibility this year, they'll be hard-pressed to make too much noise in a stacked Legends Division.

12. Indiana: The good news for the Hoosiers is that they played a ton of freshmen in 2011, and the growing pains should start to pay off for guys such as Tre Roberson and Mark Murphy in 2012. The second year under Kevin Wilson should also bring progress. Still, this is a team that went 1-11 in 2011 with no wins over FBS teams, so it remains an uphill climb.
With a 1-8 record and prospects bleak for getting a Big Ten victory, Indiana can only hope for better things in the future.

In some ways, that future has already begun.

A youth movement is in full effect in Bloomington, for better or worse. On Saturday versus Northwestern, the Hoosiers did three things no other FBS team in 2011 has done, according to the school. They started 12 freshmen. They started eight true freshmen. And they had seven freshmen start on defense.

[+] EnlargeTre Roberson
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesIndiana's Tre Roberson has shown that he can run. Now he aims to be a more efficient QB.
IU first-year head coach Kevin Wilson said he didn't simply throw in the towel on the season and start grooming players for next year.

"They're truly the best guys," he said. "They're practicing the best."

And that tells you a lot about the challenge facing Wilson. It's one thing to play some young guys. Just look at Indiana's opponent this week, Ohio State. The Buckeyes have inserted true freshmen into key roles like quarterback Braxton Miller and receiver Devin Smith, while mixing in plenty of other fresh faces. But they also are surrounded by battle-tested veterans and leaders.

The Hoosiers are perilously short on leadership. When I asked Wilson on Tuesday about his upperclassmen who were leading the way for the youngsters, he didn't need to speak in generalities. He gave a short list of the upperclassmen who are doing so, which included senior tight end Max Dedmond, senior offensive linemen Justin Pagan and Andrew McDonald, senior linebackers Jeff Thomas and Leon Beckum and junior defensive linemen Adam Replogle and Larry Black. And that's where he stopped.

"From there it kind of falls down to the freshmen," Wilson said. "We don't have much in between there."

The lack of senior leadership became even more evident this week when star receiver Damarlo Belcher, expected to be a key player on this season's team, was dismissed from the program after serving a suspension last week. Wilson said he tried to develop some senior leadership in the first few weeks after he took the job last winter.

"We didn't do a good job, in hindsight," he said. "We had some seniors who maybe didn't have things go their way or maybe didn't buy into our system. They were used to doing things a certain way."

So Wilson has gone young. Real young. He has already started 11 true freshmen, six redshirt freshmen and 10 sophomores this season. There have been some nice success stories in there, like promising true freshman quarterback Tre Roberson, sophomore transfer Stephen Houston at running back and freshman safety Mark Murphy. Wilson says it's not a matter of just playing his guys instead of those he inherited; he points out that he didn't actually recruit many of the current freshmen.

But at least he likes the looks of his young players, many of whom were in the first class recruited after Indiana upgraded its football facilities.

"I think it was a more competitive recruiting class," he said. "And the skill set of that freshman class is a little bit better maybe than some of the other classes."

The Hoosiers have some young talent. More upperclassmen leadership to guide them would be very helpful. But they may have to find their own way toward a better future.

Indiana recruiting analysis

February, 3, 2011
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INDIANA HOOSIERS

The class

Recruits: 21 (all high school seniors, one player enrolled early)

Top prospects: Indiana is bringing in several exciting offensive skill players, including Shane Wynn, a wide receiver rated as the nation's No. 41 athlete by ESPN Recruiting. The Hoosiers also bolstered their backfield with quarterback Tre Roberson and running back D'Angelo Roberts, rated as the nation's No. 46 running back. Zack Shaw is a promising player at the linebacker spot.

Needs met: The Hoosiers need more competition in the secondary and helped their cause with five defensive backs (three cornerbacks, two safeties) in this class. Although none of the players are highly rated, a guy like safety Mark Murphy could help early in his career. It also was important for new coach Kevin Wilson to keep Roberson on board. Whether or not Roberson ultimately plays quarterback in Wilson's system, he'll be an asset to the IU offense.

Analysis: Wilson came aboard only in December and since then has endured some fluctuation on his coaching staff, but Indiana still kept most of the key committed players on board. Players like Wynn, Roberson and Roberts should help immediately on offense, but Indiana has to build depth on defense and that process likely will take some time. Expect to see more of Wilson's touch on next year's class, but there are some guys coming in now who can help IU.

ESPN Recruiting grade: C-

Signed and sealed: Indiana Hoosiers

February, 2, 2011
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Indiana is the first Big Ten team to announce its complete 2011 recruiting class.

New Hoosiers coach Kevin Wilson signed 21 players, including seven from within the state and seven from Ohio. Indiana added 12 defensive players and nine offensive players.

Here's the position breakdown:

DL: 4
LB: 3
CB: 3
S: 2
OL: 4
WR: 3
QB: 1
RB: 1
“There is good balance on both sides of the ball in this class,” Wilson said in a prepared statement. “We got a good mix of guys up front and skill guys. Our staff did a great job getting in on some guys late in the game. There is great athleticism and potential in this group. We brought in help in the secondary and up front across the board, and we are excited to get to work with these guys.”

A few notes from the release:
  • Quarterback Tre Roberson earned the 2010 Indiana Mr. Football award. He is the fourth Mr. Football to attend IU since the award’s inception in 1992, and the first since Earl Haniford in 1995.
  • Linebacker Mike Replogle’s brother, Adam, is a junior defensive tackle with the Hoosiers. His brother, Tyler, played linebacker at IU from 2007-10.
  • Safety Mark Murphy’s father, Mark, played safety for the Green Bay Packers (1980-91) and was inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame in 1998.
  • Linebacker Kyle Kennedy (2008, 2010), cornerback Kenny Mullen (2007, 2008, 2010) and cornerback Nick Stoner (2008) each played on state championship teams.
It's boiling here in Chicago and around most of the Midwest today, so go crank up the AC, grab a cold one and put on your parka.

Now picture this: the Big Ten championship game at historic Lambeau Field.

It could become a reality.

Green Bay Packers CEO Mark Murphy told me today that the team is "very interested" in hosting a potential Big Ten football championship game. Murphy, the former Northwestern athletic director, already has contacted the Big Ten office to express the desire in bringing the title game to Lambeau Field.
“The Big Ten has got such history and tradition, and to have a championship in Lambeau Field would be tremendous. It’d be good for our community and good for college football to have it in such a historic venue.”

Now the Big Ten hasn't actually decided to host a championship in football. There are some potential problems, as Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke recently outlined with me, but Burke and pretty much everyone around the league thinks the title game will become a reality. When it does, facilities from around the Midwest will begin bidding to host the event.

[+] EnlargeLambeau Field
AP Photo/Mike RoemerLambeau Field would be anything but balmy for a Big Ten championship game in December, but players and fans would likely love it.
Among those interested are Chicago's Soldier Field, Detroit's Ford Field and Cleveland Browns Stadium, while Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis is considered a top candidate.

But none of those venues has the mystique and history of Lambeau Field.

The more I think about this, the more I absolutely love this idea.

For a league that cherishes its history and its stadiums, what better place than Lambeau to hold a championship game?

Yes, the logistics could be challenging. Green Bay isn't a huge place and it's not as centralized as Indianapolis, Detroit or even Cleveland. Finding enough hotel rooms for two teams and two fan bases would be tough.

And there's the weather factor. Green Bay can get downright miserable, even in early December.

But isn't that part of the charm? Murphy seems to think so.
“Early December, that’s balmy in Green Bay,” Murphy joked. “To me, that’s part of the attraction of college football, to play in the elements. We’re going to have a Super Bowl in New York in February, so it’s not that much different.”

Lambeau Field also has a seating capacity of 72,928, quite a bit larger than Soldier Field (61,500), Lucas Oil Stadium (63,000) and Ford Field (65,000). Cleveland Browns Stadium is comparable at 73,200.

According to Weather Underground, the average temperature in Green Bay on Dec. 3, the likely date for the first Big Ten championship, hovers between 18-34 degrees. Factor in the wind chill, and the stadium is anything but balmy.

But Big Ten fans can handle it, and the players would love it.

A few other nuggets and thoughts:

  • The Packers would use the same game operations staff for a Big Ten championship game. Murphy thinks the community would be pretty fired up about it.
  • Murphy said the Big Ten is still in the planning stages for how it wants to structure the league with a 12th member. "They put out requests for proposal and a number of different people bid on it," he said. "It's not that dissimilar with what the Big Ten went through with the basketball tournament."
  • Murphy's connection to the Big Ten could be a key factor here. As a former Big Ten athletic director, he has strong relationships with commissioner Jim Delany, other Big Ten officials and his former colleagues from around the league. Those relationships certainly can't hurt his cause.
  • Lambeau Field hasn't hosted college football since 1982-83, when nearby St. Norbert College played Fordham, the alma mater of legendary Packers coach Vince Lombardi, in games that raised money to fight cancer.

It will be interesting to see how this all plays out, but the Big Ten will have some great options for a title game.

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