NCF Nation: Marvin McNutt

Iowa's 2012 recruiting class included two Floridians in wide receiver Greg Mabin (Fort Lauderdale) and defensive end Daumantas Venckus-Cucchiara (Weston). The Hawkeyes' most recent recruiting haul included no players from the Sunshine State -- a first in the Kirk Ferentz era.

This is no accident.

I must have missed it from last winter, but Ferentz said he's no longer assigning an assistant coach to recruit Florida. Then Tuesday night, Iowa recruiting coordinator Eric Johnson told an I-Club gathering in Des Moines that Florida is no longer a priority area for the program's recruitment.

I think I just choked on some orange juice and spilled some sun screen.

We're talking about Florida, right? The state that produced four of the top six players and 22 of the top 100 players in the 2013 class, according to ESPN Recruiting? The state often grouped with Texas and California as the nation's top recruiting hotbeds?

Yes, that Florida.

All but two Big Ten teams (Iowa and Michigan) signed at least one Floridian earlier this month. Indiana and Purdue both signed five.

The Iowa coaches think the program needs to concentrate recruiting closer to campus. The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette's Marc Morehouse notes that Iowa went to St. Louis, a city that has produced recent stars like Adrian Clayborn and Marvin McNutt, for three recruits in the 2013 class. Iowa also has had recruiting success in other Midwestern cities like Chicago and Indianapolis, and signed a Detroit prospect (safety Desmond King) on Feb. 6.

There's nothing wrong with prioritizing your backyard and places where you've had success. But ignoring Florida just doesn't make a lot of sense.

Iowa did well in the Sunshine State early in Ferentz's tenure, luring players like defensive tackle Colin Cole, linebacker Abdul Hodge and wide receiver Mo Brown. Former assistant Bret Bielema was Iowa's primary recruiter in Florida and left the Hawkeyes following the 2001 season, but other Iowa assistants continued to recruit the state.

As pointed out here and here, Iowa has had many more misses than hits with Florida prospects since 2002. Several players transferred, including running backs Jeff Brinson and De'Andre Johnson. The jury is out on other Florida recruits, including quarterback Jake Rudock, who could start this coming season.

I'm still waiting for a good reason for Iowa to back away from Florida. Sure, Iowa has had a run of bad luck with Florida recruits. But should it stop trying? I can think of 22 reasons -- and many more from the 2013 class -- to keep investing time and money there.

Big Ten teams can't expect to compete at a national elite level by recruiting solely in the Midwest. Prioritizing states like Florida -- along with Georgia, Texas and California -- is a must for Big Ten programs.

It's great to see coaches develop talent and several Big Ten programs, including Iowa, have done that well over the years. But there's a ceiling for teams trying to win with overlooked recruits from the heartland. Too many Big Ten teams -- not just Iowa -- seem to fall into this trap. Penn State just signed its first Florida recruit (safety Neiko Robinson) in more than a decade. That's insane.

It still comes down to talent, and there's just more of it in the South. Big Ten teams need to compete in states like Florida. Will they get all the top players? Of course not. But with the right coaches and strategy, they can help their teams get better.

Sure, Iowa lost Bielema, who continued his Florida recruiting push as Wisconsin's head coach and will carry it on at Arkansas. Iowa lost another Florida recruiter when Rick Kaczenski left for Nebraska in 2011.

But Ferentz has had plenty of chances to hire assistants with Florida roots the past two seasons. Iowa's staff is in an unprecedented period of flux, and Ferentz has brought in six new assistants since the end of the 2011 season. None of them could help Iowa made inroads in Florida?

Look how Nebraska secondary coach Terry Joseph, hired last March, has helped the Huskers' recruiting efforts in the South. The same goes for new Big Ten assistants like Everett Withers at Ohio State. Wisconsin would have loved to retain assistant Charlie Partridge because of his recruiting clout in Florida.

Perhaps Iowa can build itself back into a Big Ten title contender without investing in Florida. Re-establishing itself in cities like St. Louis certainly is a good sign.

But Ohio State's coaches continue to mine the South, and Michigan is ramping up its Southern recruiting efforts as well.

In recruiting, you follow the talent. You flock to it. You compete for it.

You don't turn your back on it.
Ricardo AllenRandy Litzinger/Icon SMIPurdue cornerback Ricardo Allen enjoys the challenge of going one-on-one with bigger receivers.
CHICAGO -- At 5-foot-9 and 176 pounds, Purdue junior cornerback Ricardo Allen is a small man in a big-man's game.

The key to his success: not playing like a small man.

Allen, who has started all 25 games of his Boilers career, describes his playing style with one word -- aggressive -- and backs it up on the field. He typically lines up just inches from opposing receivers, even if those men stand more than a few inches taller than him, as they usually do. Whether a receiver is 5-10 or 6-6, Allen's goal is to challenge them from the moment the ball is snapped.

"I used to play down to my size and think because I was small, I'd have to be an off corner," Allen said. "But most big receivers aren't really good on the line. So I have changed."

Allen enters his junior season among the Big Ten's most accomplished cornerbacks. He has led the Boilers in interceptions with three in each of the past two seasons. He has returned three picks for six points, which ties Rod Woodson and Mike Rose for the all-time team record.

Like all cornerbacks, Allen gets burned on occasion. But his production is undeniable: 164 total tackles (118 solo), 6.5 tackles for loss, six interceptions and 14 passes defended.

Not bad for a guy some considered too small to play in a major conference.

"Miami originally offered me, but Mr. [Randy] Shannon didn't like me for my height," said Allen, referring to the former Hurricanes coach. "I had a lot of people who offered me but didn't like my height. South Carolina pushed away from me because of my height. I was recruited by a lot of schools, but when the time came down to it, everybody kind of shied away from me."

The Daytona Beach, Fla., native eventually landed at Purdue, part of a 2010 recruiting class heavy on players from the Sunshine State. Allen rose atop the depth chart immediately and sparkled as a freshman, earning second-team All-Big Ten honors (media) and leading the team in interception return yards (129).

The 2010 season convinced Allen that he could play at a high level.

"It gave me confidence that my size doesn't really matter anymore," he said. "I play with the biggest and I play with the best receivers around."

(Read full post)

Earlier this week, we took a look at five players in the Leaders Division with something to prove this fall.

Let's now turn our attention to the Legends Division.

Ready, set, go ...

[+] EnlargeTaylor Martinez
Rick Osentoski/US PresswireThe pressure is on Taylor Martinez, who enters his third year as Nebraska's starting quarterback.
1. Taylor Martinez, QB, Nebraska: To say it's all about the quarterback sounds a bit cliché, but the line truly applies to Nebraska this season. The Huskers return eight starters on offense and look strong at most of the positions, particularly running back. Nebraska's defense could replace star power with greater depth and a more detail-oriented approach. So in many ways, the Huskers' season comes down to Martinez, their third-year starter at quarterback. Martinez struggled with his passing in 2011, completing just 56.2 percent of his attempts and often looking uncomfortable in the pocket. He spent the offseason working on his footwork and drew good marks from the coaches this spring. Martinez will be operating in the same offensive system in consecutive seasons for the first time in his football career (college or high school). He's also fully recovered from the injuries that slowed him in 2010. Bottom line: his time is now.

2. Will Campbell, DT, Michigan: Wolverines fans see Campbell's size and potential as a space eater and continue to wait patiently for the big man to take the next step. There's no better time than this season as Michigan must replace standout defensive linemen Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen. The Wolverines could be very good in the defensive back seven, particularly in the secondary, but there are questions up front and Campbell is one of them. Campbell has been better in getting his weight under control, but the senior needs to show he can consistently display the effort and technique needed to make a difference in the interior of the line. A former five-star recruit, the 6-5, 322-pound Campbell has one final opportunity to shine. Michigan needs a big season from No. 73.

3. Andrew Maxwell, QB, Michigan State: There's little doubt Michigan State will have one of the nation's best defenses for the second consecutive season. But the Spartans lose almost all of their key offensive skill players from 2011, and the biggest void is under center, where three-year starter and three-time captain Kirk Cousins departs. In steps Maxwell, who has spent years preparing for this moment in practice but lacks game experience (51 pass attempts in nine career games). Maxwell learned a lot from Cousins and has a personality that some liken to his predecessor. But after missing the second half of spring practice with a knee injury, he needs a strong summer as he builds chemistry with his mostly unproven receivers and tight ends. While Michigan State will be a more run-heavy team this fall with lead back Le'Veon Bell and a more seasoned offensive line, the Spartans need Maxwell to establish himself if they intend to return to Indianapolis.

4. Keenan Davis, WR, Iowa: Iowa's yet-to-be-named top running back could be listed here, but the Hawkeyes likely will be a pass-oriented team because of their uncertainty at tailback as well as the return of senior quarterback James Vandenberg. While Vandenberg seems to be adapting well to new offensive coordinator Greg Davis and the new system, he lacks many proven targets, especially after the departure of the Big Ten's top wide receiver, Marvin McNutt. Davis started 12 games last season and finished second on the squad in receptions (50) and receiving yards (713). The big question is whether he can take the next step and become a true No. 1 wide receiver. Coach Kirk Ferentz admitted Davis had an "up and down" spring, and missed the latter part of the session with an injury. Davis needs to show he can stay on the field, make consistent catches and give Vandenberg a reliable top target.

5. Roy Roundtree, WR, Michigan: The Wolverines return arguably the Big Ten's most dynamic offensive backfield in quarterback Denard Robinson and running back Fitzgerald Toussaint. The offense could be very dangerous this fall, but Michigan will need a bounce-back season from Roundtree. Michigan lacks depth at receiver following Junior Hemingway's departure and Darryl Stonum's dismissal. Roundtree flourished in the spread offense in 2010, leading the Wolverines with 72 catches for 935 yards and seven touchdowns, and earning second-team All-Big Ten honors. But his production dropped off sharply last fall in the new offense (19 receptions, 355 yards, 2 TDs). Michigan gave Roundtree the No. 21 jersey worn by Hemingway in 2011, and Roundtree will step into Hemingway's role in the offense. He's the obvious No. 1 target for Robinson, but he has to show he can get it done in this offense.
The NFL draft begins Thursday night. You probably weren't aware of that, because the draft, like most things associated with the National Football League, gets very little media coverage. Ahem.

Luckily, Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett are stepping into this void to talk about the draft, and specifically the Big Ten prospects hoping to hear their name called over the long weekend.

Brian Bennett: Adam, we usually leave draft talk to people with better hair than us, like Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay. But let's give it a shot. You know the NFL is a different game when Iowa's Riley Reiff is widely expected to be the top player taken from the Big Ten. Reiff is an excellent player and terrific pro prospect, no doubt. But if you would have asked league fans to pick a most valuable player from the conference this season, Reiff probably wouldn't have cracked the Top 10.

Speaking of the Top 10, the Big Ten hasn't had a player selected in that range for the past three years and is likely to make it four this year. What, if anything, does that say about the talent the league has been producing? And is Reiff the first guy you would take from the conference if you had an NFL team? (I'll resist from making wisecracks about your Big Ten fantasy team management last year).

Adam Rittenberg: Hey now, Year 2 will be different, my friend. The Shorties are coming for you. The Big Ten's Top 10 drought is certainly noteworthy, and I think it stems in part from the league producing fewer elite pro-caliber quarterbacks and cornerbacks in recent years. It does surprise me that the Big Ten hasn't had a defensive lineman in the top 10 recently, as the league has been very strong at both line spots. I think that will change in 2013. As for Reiff, he was about as under-the-radar as an elite player could get during his time at Iowa. He certainly performed well, but you didn't hear much about him, even compared to previous Hawkeyes standout linemen like Bryan Bulaga. Reiff is a masher, though, and while some say he's not the most dominant tackle, he should be able to help an NFL team this coming season.

I'd want to start my team with a potential difference-maker on the defensive line. The Big Ten has plenty of options, but Illinois' Whitney Mercilus is a natural pass-rusher who can put up big numbers. Have Merci? Yes, please. What's your view of the Big Ten's defensive line crop entering the draft?

BB: We both agreed that the defensive line, especially on the interior, is where the league's true strength lay in 2011. I'm a bit surprised that some mock drafts don't have Michigan State's Jerel Worthy, who has the chance to be a major presence on defense, in the first round and that Penn State's Devon Still, who was wildly productive last season, is being projected as a second-rounder at best. I'd rather take one of those guys than roll the dice on Memphis' Dontari Poe, a combine wonder who did next to nothing in college. And though Michigan's Mike Martin is a little short by NFL standards, I have little doubt he'll be a productive pro.

[+] EnlargeIowa's Riley Reiff
Jeffrey G. Pittenger/US PRESSWIREIowa's Riley Reiff could be the first Big Ten player selected in the NFL draft.
I'm also interested in seeing how the centers get drafted. Wisconsin's Peter Konz, Michigan's David Molk and Ohio State's Michael Brewster were arguably the top three centers in the nation last year. Molk, of course, publicly said he's the best of the three, and he did win the Rimington Trophy. Konz likely will go first, but I will be fascinated to see who ends up having the best career.

You mentioned quarterbacks. What do you think about Michigan State's Kirk Cousins and Wisconsin's Russell Wilson as potential NFL players? And will Dan Persa get a shot somewhere?

AR: Cousins should be the first Big Ten quarterback off the board, and many projections have him going in the second round. He clearly improved his stock during the predraft process. While everyone raves about the character of both Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin -- and for good reasons -- Cousins, as we both know, certainly fits into the same category as those two. He's not the fastest or most athletic guy, but he's extremely smart and played in a pro-style system at Michigan State. He could end up being a solid pro quarterback.

The issue for both Wilson and Persa is size, Persa more so than Wilson. While Wilson boasts tremendous arm strength and athleticism, his height scares teams. He does a tremendous job of extending plays and can make all of the throws, but he'll have to prove himself as a consistent pocket passer in a league where everyone is really big and really fast. Looks like a midround selection. Whether or not Persa gets drafted at all will be interesting. The guy obviously has a ton of heart and tremendous leadership skills, but he's small and suffered a major injury at Northwestern. I think Todd McShay summed up the sentiment about Persa when he told the Chicago Tribune, "I want to like Persa, but as an NFL prospect, he is limited." Persa will find his way onto a roster, but he'll have a lot to prove.

We've read a lot of draft evaluations in recent weeks. Which Big Ten player could be a real steal for a team this weekend?

BB: The guy whom I think is really undervalued is Iowa's Marvin McNutt. I've seen him going as late as the fifth or sixth round, which seems (Mc)nuts to me. Sure, it's a deep draft for receivers, and McNutt might not have blazing speed. But we saw him make some absolutely spectacular catches last season, and he closed his career as the Hawkeyes' all-time leader in receiving touchdowns. He has good size and produced 1,300 receiving yards in what was clearly not a gimmicky, pass-happy offense. If I were a GM and he was sitting there in Round 4 or later, I'd happily grab him.

Two other guys I think can be big bargains for teams are Nebraska's Lavonte David and Ohio State's Mike Adams. Both are being projected as second-rounders for different reasons (David because of size, Adams for off-the-field issues in college), but I think both will have long and stellar careers. They'll bring first-round value without the price.

Who do you see as underrated, or possibly overrated, from the Big Ten in this draft?

AR: I would have put Wisconsin guard Kevin Zeitler in the underrated category, but it seems like teams have caught on to how good he can be. He'll likely be a late first-round pick. Same with Konz and maybe Adams. It baffles me why Devon Still isn't projected higher in the draft. Two others I'd put in the underrated category are Michigan's Martin and Iowa's Mike Daniels. You don't have to be Vince Wilfork to be an effective NFL defensive tackle. Both Martin and Daniels are smaller defensive tackles, but they're both extremely strong physical and play with sound fundamentals. Both men have been tutored by excellent defensive coaches, and the teams that select them will be inheriting very hard workers.

Two of the more intriguing Big Ten prospects are Ohio State receiver DeVier Posey and Nebraska defensive tackle Jared Crick. Posey, who I chatted with briefly last week in Columbus, played only three games last fall because of suspensions stemming from NCAA violations. He's clearly a gifted guy, but it'll be interesting to see how much the off-field issues and lack of playing time impact his draft position. Crick entered 2011 as an All-America candidate but missed most of the season with injury. He definitely can help an NFL team, but like with Posey, there are question marks.

OK, time to wrap up this draft discussion. What do you think the major story line regarding the Big Ten will be coming out of this weekend's festivities?

BB: I'll go out on a limb and say Reiff is not the first Big Ten player drafted, as someone reaches for Mercilus, Worthy or Konz first. And I think the other big stories will be with the quarterbacks, as Cousins is drafted in the second round and Wilson is picked higher than people expect. What are your predictions?

AR: I wouldn't mind if that someone landing Reiff or Mercilus is my Chicago Bears, but that's another debate. Worthy's selection will be fascinating, as his stock has been pretty volatile throughout the process. I think both Martin and Daniels go earlier than expect, while Wilson has to wait a while. It'll be fascinating to see where Molk ends up. No matter where he's selected, he'll feel overlooked. As a short guy myself, I'm definitely rooting for the vertically challenged (Molk, Wilson, Persa, Martin, Daniels etc.). Another story line: Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, whose draft stock already had dropped before his arrest over the weekend.

Should be a fun weekend.

Q&A: Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz

March, 23, 2012
3/23/12
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Change is in the air this spring at Iowa. The Hawkeyes have two new coordinators for the first time in Kirk Ferentz's tenure, one from the outside (OC Greg Davis) and one from within the program (DC Phil Parker). Ferentz also hired two new assistants, offensive line coach Brian Ferentz and linebackers coach LeVar Woods, and moved offensive line coach Reese Morgan to defensive line. For an Iowa staff built on continuity, this represents a a major shakeup. The coaches also will be working with a very young roster, as evidenced by the pre-spring depth chart issued this week. It all should make for an interesting spring in Hawkeye Country.

[+] EnlargeIowa coach Kirk Ferentz
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallCoach Kirk Ferentz and his Iowa Hawkeyes will enter the season with a revamped coaching staff.
The Hawkeyes opened practice Wednesday, and ESPN.com caught up with Ferentz on Thursday.

Here are his thoughts.

What is the atmosphere like this spring being on the field with this group after all the changes?

Kirk Ferentz: Certainly we have a lot of learning to do for two reasons. Number one, our youth and inexperience, and secondly, with some of the staff changes. We have a lot of different elements involved. It's certainly different than when we finished up in December. It's a lot of positions, and some of it's schematically and that type of thing. We're all on edge a little bit, and that's good.

You made some of your hires fairly recently. How do you feel about where the offensive and defense schemes are at this point?

KF: We're pretty well down the road that we need to be on. We've had some really good meetings over the last several weeks. A little bit more intensive on the offensive side with Greg being hired at the end of February, but I think we've had good meetings. He certainly has a good grasp of what he likes to do and what he's comfortable with. We've been able to blend and mesh things. I think we're pretty much on the same page right now. It's been fun actually, just invigorating to re-examine some things. And the players, they always pick it up faster than the older guys.

When you sat down and talked with Greg, how close was your offensive philosophy to his?

KF: One of the things that really impressed me so much is his experience with various styles of offense. He's been with a lot of different types of players, quarterbacks, going back to Eric Zeier at Georgia, the guys he worked with at North Carolina, and at Texas, they ran several styles of attack. There was a lot of evolution when they got Vince Young. The thing is, he has a system that's been proficient and that he's comfortable with. It really is very flexible and adaptable. That part has all been good.

Very impressed with Greg, starting with all the recommendations I got, people who I have a lot of respect for in football who spoke so highly of him as a coach and so highly of him as a human being. And after a month of being with him, I can see why all of those things were said. He's really been tremendous. We've been fortunate to have great coaches here. You're always a little nervous when you lose somebody as good as Ken, but Greg has been outstanding.

I read your comments from the other day and wanted to clarify something. Did you expect to make some changes even if you didn't have the coordinators leaving?

KF: Absolutely. I was entertained a bit reading the reports of the press conference. The headlines were a little bit overstated. But that was something Ken and I had talked about, and Norm [Parker] and I had talked about as the year went on last year. You're 13 years into it, and we're all feeling good about being here such a long period of time. The great thing about stability is we all know each other.

But the other point, too, and every year you look back at things, but I remember specifically in Cleveland one year in '94 where we looked back and went through our playbook step by step. Steve Crosby had become our coordinator after the '93 season. We went through everything. The advantage of doing it is if you've been somewhere for a while, you add this one year and then you add that, and things don't always mesh or make as much sense as they should, so there's a cumulative effect there. So it's a good exercise to do, and I think it was time for us to do that regardless. And in the case of getting new coordinators, you have to do that anyway. It's been really healthy, it's been invigorating, and hopefully we'll be a more efficient operating group here moving forward.

You've talked about wanting to see better execution. What can you stress in the spring to help you execute better as a team?

KF: That's always the challenge in football. There were complaints about us. The perception is we're a conservative offense, and we threw the second-most amount of passes we had in 13 years last year, so I said they must have been conservative passes because we didn't get any credit for that. But overall, that's the name of the game, whatever you're doing, offensively, defensively or special teams, the key is how you execute those things. Certainly what you call can affect that, but at the end of the day, it's about the team that executes the best. That's the never-ending battle.

You have some guys out on the defensive line, but it's definitely one of the younger groups you've had there. With Reese Morgan moving over to that side, how do you see that group shaking out in the spring, and how will Reese's experience help there?

KF: It's maybe not identical, but it's similar to what we went through in 2005. We graduated four guys that were all in NFL camps after that season. Three of those guys are still active players -- Jonathan Babineaux, who's done a good job in Atlanta; Matt Roth's had a nice career; Derreck Robinson continues to be rostered; and Tyler Luebke is the other guy, was with the Redskins as a free agent. That's the price you pay when you graduate some good players. The last two years we've had a high number of seniors go out both years, and some NFL players in that group. It's something we anticipated, we knew it was going to be a challenge, but all that being said, we're optimistic.

One of my motivating factors for moving Reese over to that spot is Reese is just a tremendous teacher. That's the No. 1 thing I saw in him when we hired him here. He took Pat Flaherty's spot. He's a real builder, and he's done that with the offensive line. You look at last year, we had Riley Reiff, who people are talking about, but we also had Markus Zusevics and Adam Gettis, who both I think are going to get drafted here. They were both roughly 225, 230 [pounds] when they came out of high school and built themselves into players. Reese was a key component of their development, and that's what he does a great job of. I think we've got the right guy with the right group. We've got a lot of work to do, but at the end of the day, that group will be fine, just like in '05.

What would you like to see out of James [Vandenberg] during the spring?

KF: Just continued improvement. We expect him to play his best football next year and lead even better than he did. He played well last year and he led well, but he's going to have to do better. With a young team like this, it's going to be imperative that our most experienced guys play their best and lead our football team. It sure helps when you're playing better. And he's totally capable. We have confidence in James.

Is Keenan [Davis] another guy who fits into that category, needing to play his best as an older guy?

KF: Most definitely. If you look at the improvement Marvin McNutt made throughout his career, from making a move [from quarterback] in the middle of the '08 season, to the records he set, it didn't happen just by accident or just by him hanging around. He worked hard, he got better each year, and his hard work and effort, certainly in production and yardage, that's what we need from Keenan. Marvin's not here, quite obviously, so Keenan has to be the guy and take a very prominent role as a receiver. And he's certainly capable, so we expect to see that growth from him.

What would you like to see from the running back group by the end of the spring?

KF: Development and maturation. We have three guys that are working at that position who are talented enough. They're all capable, but they're young. Jordan Canzeri missed a significant amount of time last year with a hamstring issue. Damon Bullock, we moved him around enough that it probably rendered him ineffective. We'll let him settle at the running back position. And we think De'Andre Johnson has potential as well, but he's got to mature. He missed his first year because he was coming off an ACL injury from high school, so he's a little bit behind that way. But he's got every opportunity to develop and be a good player. It sure would help our football team.

When you're this young, are you more tempted to play freshmen if they come in and show that ability, or do you have to work with the guys who have some experience?

KF: We'll have a better grip on where we are at the end of spring practice. We're going to need some help at some spots, that's a given. Bottom line is for the most part, the guys that demonstrate they can play and help us, they're going to get that opportunity. We had the case with Allen Reisner. Back in '07, we had to throw him in. He was a true freshman. He wasn't necessarily ready to go, but we ran out of guys, so he had to go in there. We hopefully won't be in that situation. But anybody [who] can help us win next year, if it's special teams or on offense, defense, we'll give them an opportunity.

Greg came in from the outside, while Phil Parker has been there. What's it been like seeing him in this role? Do you see him putting his personality on the defense?

KF: We're early into the process right now. To the casual fan, it's not going to look a lot different, probably, but there will be some subtleties and some things not only Phil, but the entire staff talked about. It's like anything else, you're always trying to evolve and progress, move forward a little bit without losing your identity. That's probably what you'll see from that group. Phil's a veteran coach. He's had several chances to leave here for BCS coordinator positions and has chosen to stay here, so I don't think there's any question he's ready to go. He'll do a great job. He's very detailed and he's a good leader.

From a leadership standpoint, do you have some guys in mind, especially on defense, who you could see moving into those roles this spring?

KF: Most definitely. The guys that we're really counting on, you start with Micah Hyde. He's probably our most experienced player on defense, most proven, so we're counting on that from him. James Morris and Chris Kirksey, they're only third-year students next year, but they've played a lot of football, too, and good football. They're playing a leadership position at linebacker. And up front, I'd say Steve Bigach's a guy we're really counting on to really help set the tempo of the group. He's already been doing that, and I think he'll do a good job.
The Big Ten had four 1,000-yard receivers in 2011, all of whom are graduating.

In fact, the league loses its top five receivers -- Iowa's Marvin McNutt, Illinois' A.J. Jenkins, Michigan State's B.J. Cunningham, Northwestern's Jeremy Ebert and Wisconsin's Nick Toon -- and returns just two of its top-10 pass catchers (Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis and Iowa's Keenan Davis). But the departures don't necessarily mean the Big Ten will be scrambling for elite wideouts in 2011.

Consider: of the league's top-10 receivers last fall, only four of them -- Ebert, McNutt, Penn State's Derek Moye and Minnesota's Da'Jon McKnight -- ranked in the top 10 the previous season. So there are receivers who take their game to the next level every season. Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis might have been the best example this past fall, as he caught 35 more passes and recorded 644 more receiving yards than he had in 2010.

[+] EnlargeIowa's Keenan Davis
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesIowa's Keenan Davis is one of two returning players from the Big Ten's top-10 receivers in 2011.
Who will break out in 2012? Again, we're talking wide receivers here, not tight ends, of which there are several talented ones in the Big Ten.

Colleague KC Joyner thinks the Hawkeyes' Davis will take the next step. Davis, pegged to be Iowa's No. 1 wideout following McNutt's departure, is among the players Joyner lists in a recent piece on breakout receivers.

He writes:
An optimist would note that McNutt really wasn't a dominant wideout (his 9.0 YPA was only slightly higher than Davis'), that [Ken] O'Keefe often called, as ESPN.com Big Ten blogger Brian Bennett noted, a "buttoned-down style of play" and that Iowa has a potential Big Ten first-team quarterback in James Vandenberg.

I recently mentioned Davis as one of the Hawkeyes who needs a big offseason to take the next step this fall.

Who are some other potential breakout receivers in the Big Ten?

  • Penn State's Justin Brown: Quarterback is Penn State's top offseason priority, but the Lions also need more from the receiver position. Moye's departure puts Brown in position to be the team's No. 1 target in the passing game. Brown averaged 14.8 yards per catch in 2011 and has the size to beat defensive backs for the ball.
  • Michigan's Roy Roundtree: Roundtree might not qualify as a breakout player as he already has turned in a productive season (72 receptions, 935 receiving yards, 7 TDs in 2010). But after a significant production drop-off last year, Roundtree needs to elevate his play for a Michigan offense looking for a No. 1 wide receiver.
  • Purdue's Antavian Edison: We've seen flashes from Edison in his first two seasons, both as a rusher and as a receiver. He clearly has the ability to take another step after recording 44 receptions for 584 yards and three touchdowns last fall. While Purdue likes to get a lot of players touches on offense, it needs a No. 1 receiver after Justin Siller's departure and Edison has a great opportunity to be that guy.
  • Michigan State's DeAnthony Arnett: Arnett's placement comes with a caveat, as he must attain approval from the NCAA to avoid sitting out a season. But if the Tennessee transfer can play this fall, look out. Michigan State loses its top three receivers and its top tight end from 2011 and needs targets for new quarterback Andrew Maxwell. Arnett had 24 receptions for 242 yards as a freshman at Tennessee and could take a big step forward with the Spartans.
  • Nebraska's Kenny Bell: Bell showed a lot of promise as a true freshman, averaging 14.4 yards per reception with three touchdowns. He had three or more receptions in five of the eight Big Ten games and added three catches and a touchdown against South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl. The Huskers need a lot more from their receivers in 2012, and Bell could move into a featured role.
  • Indiana's Kofi Hughes: I really liked Hughes after watching him last spring, but like many, I assumed Damarlo Belcher would be the team's No. 1 wide receiver and not wash out midseason. Hughes ended up leading Indiana with 36 receptions for 536 receiving yards. He's still relatively new to the position and could take a big step forward in Year 2 of the Kevin Wilson era, as pass-friendly offensive coordinator Seth Littrell arrives.

Recruiting needs: Legends Division

January, 31, 2012
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Earlier today, we took a look at the recruiting needs of every team in the Big Ten Leaders Division. Now it's time to turn our attention to the Legends Division and see what positions each team needs to restock before next week's signing day:

Iowa

Running backs: Iowa's problems with keeping running backs in school has been well documented, and the Hawkeyes lost leading rusher Marcus Coker and backup Mika'il McCall after off-the-field problems last season. The team really needs some more depth in the backfield, and don't be surprised if incoming freshman Greg Garmon pushes for playing time immediately.

Defensive linemen: Iowa had three defensive linemen drafted off the 2010 team and now loses its top two guys up front in departing seniors Broderick Binns and Mike Daniels. That's an awful lot of talent to replace in a couple of years, and the Hawkeyes can't expect to improve their defense without doing so. Finding some more pass rushers off the edge will be key.

Wide receivers: Marvin McNutt had a wonderful senior season, but the passing game often stalled whenever he couldn't wiggle free. Now he's gone, leaving a void at the position. Kevonte Martin-Manley and Keenan Davis have shown promise, but James Vandenberg could use some more weapons. Iowa has secured commitments from three receivers in this class.

Michigan

Wide receiver: The loss of Darryl Stonum, who was dismissed following another run in with the law, created a void at receiver, especially with top pass-catcher Junior Hemingway out of eligibility. The Wolverines will have to hope Roy Roundtree can bounce back with a big season, because all other wideout options are unproven at this point. Three receivers are committed to Brady Hoke in this class.

Defensive line: Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen were key cogs in Michigan's run to the Sugar Bowl title in 2011, and they have both moved on, along with starter Will Heininger. Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison are defensive line coaches at heart and will want to grab as many difference makers as they can at that key position. Ondre Pipkins, a 325-pound tackle, is the highest rated defensive lineman in the Wolverines' class right now.

Offensive line: While the Wolverines should be fine on the O-line in 2012, even without Rimington Trophy winner David Molk and starting right tackle Mark Huyge, they signed only four offensive linemen total in the past two classes. Since linemen are often slow to develop, they need to refill the cupboard now. Michigan has four offensive linemen committed in this class, including standout Kyle Kalis.

Michigan State

Offensive tackles: Thanks in large part to injuries, Michigan State had to move a defensive lineman (Dan France) to tackle last summer and plug in a junior-college transfer (Fou Fonoti) into the other tackle spot. That the Spartans won the Legends Division title despite that is kind of amazing in retrospect. France will be a junior in 2012 and Fonoti will be in his final year of eligibility. They need more depth at the position, and they've got commitments from two offensive tackles so far in this class.

Wide receivers: Two of the most successful receivers in school history are gone as Keshawn Martin and B.J. Cunningham finished off wildly productive careers. Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett is seeking a waiver to play immediately and will help the future even if he has to sit out a year. Michigan State is looking to sign three other receivers in this class to fill out the future two-deep.

Running back: Edwin Baker's early entry to the NFL draft came as a surprise. Michigan State is still in good shape at tailback for 2012 with Le'Veon Bell and Larry Caper. But after not signing a running back in last year's class, Mark Dantonio could use at least one more option in the backfield.

Minnesota

Defensive backs: It was no secret that Minnesota's pass defense was brutal at times in 2011, and top tackler Kim Royston leaves a hole at safety with his graduation. Getting Troy Stoudermire back for an extra year helps, but Jerry Kill needs to upgrade the talent in the secondary. That's why he has signed three junior-college defensive backs and secured commitments from four high school safeties so far.

Defensive tackle: One of the reasons the pass defense was so bad was a lack of pass rush applied by the front four. The Gophers had only 19 sacks this season, a year after registering just nine. Making matters worse, both starting tackles were seniors this season. Kill signed a junior-college defensive tackle and has two prep tackles committed. He needs to find guys who can find their way to the quarterback.

Overall talent and depth: Kill has said there are gaps in the Gophers' classes, and depth issues could plague the team during his rebuilding efforts. Including six junior-college players signed to help right away, Minnesota has a class of 28 right now. Minnesota simply needs more bodies everywhere.

Nebraska

Linebacker: Lavonte David leaves some rather large cleats to fill. Not only was he Nebraska's leading tackler the past two seasons, he was the only linebacker who played at a consistently high level. The Huskers' starters at the other two linebacker spots will be seniors this year, and depth is thin behind them. So it's little wonder why Bo Pelini has used four spots so far in what is expected to be a small class to fill that position, led by four-star prospect Michael Rose.

Tight end: Three of the top four options at tight ends will be seniors in 2012, leaving very little behind them. Sam Cotton, son of offensive line coach Barney Cotton and younger brother of current Huskers tight end Ben, is on his way to help.

Quarterback: Taylor Martinez is entrenched as the starter going into his junior year, and Nebraska never had to worry about playing Brion Carnes in a big spot this year after Bubba Starling opted for baseball. Still, it's dangerous to not have depth at quarterback, and so the Huskers need to add at least one signal caller in this class.

Northwestern

Defensive backs: The Wildcats were burned repeatedly in the passing game in 2011, and their best defensive back (safety Brian Peters) won't be around next season. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald has commitments from three safeties in this class already.

Defensive playmakers: Northwestern was shockingly short on guys who could blow up another team's offensive play in 2011, so Fitzgerald's main mission had to be finding more guys who played like he did in college. That aim got a big boost when stud defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo committed to play in Evanston. That's a good start.

Wide receivers: Highly productive star receiver Jeremy Ebert is gone, along with starter Charles Brown. Venric Mark and Christian Jones have a lot of potential as the next big passing targets, but Northwestern's spread offense feeds off of speed and depth at the receiver position. Four receivers have given the Wildcats their pledge in this class.
The bowl season is over, and it's time to pass out a few awards.

Best offensive player: Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State. Blackmon went nuts against Stanford after the Cowboys were shut out in the first quarter against Stanford. His first two catches went for touchdowns, and he finished with 186 yards on eight grabs and his third three-touchdown game of his career. That was the first time he'd done that since the Tulsa game in 2010, the third game of the season.

[+] EnlargeJustin Blackmon
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesThree of Justin Blackmon's eight catches against Stanford in the Fiesta Bowl were for touchdowns.
Second-best offensive player: Terrance Ganaway, RB, Baylor. Ganaway ended his career in style, taking plenty of heat off his Heisman-winning quarterback, Robert Griffin III. He scored five touchdowns and ran for 200 yards, leading the way for three Bears 100-yard rushers in the 67-56 win over Washington in the Alamo Bowl.

Best defensive player: Jamell Fleming, CB, Oklahoma. Passing? I think not, Iowa. Matched up with NFL-bound, Skycam-attacked Marvin McNutt, Fleming made seven tackles, returned an interception 21 yards and broke up three passes. Well done.

Best team performance: Oklahoma State. The Cowboys got the Big 12's best win of the entire season, knocking off a solid Stanford team and handing Andrew Luck a loss in his final game as a Cardinal. Maybe they got lucky with a missed 35-yard field goal attempt to force overtime, but the Cowboys played well after a shaky first quarter and beat the nation's No. 4 team on a neutral field. Well done.

Best play: Robert Griffin III's post-Heisman "Heisman moment." He somehow backpedalled out of a handful of Washington tacklers, escaped outside and galloped to the pylon, diving into the end zone as he took a big hit before scoring. A big-time play from the Heisman winner for a 24-yard score.

Craziest play: North Carolina's Bryn Renner whipped a strike to Dwight Jones, but a hit jarred it loose. Somehow, it ended up on Jones' shoulder and rolled across his back, staying there long enough for Missouri LB Zaviar Gooden to sprint over and slide in to intercept the pass before it hit the ground.

Scariest play: Marvin McNutt, WR, Iowa. McNutt was minding his own business in the Iowa huddle. Then the Skycam at Sun Devil Stadium came crashing down and sent McNutt into a panic. Fortunately, nobody was hurt, but it was memorable incident. The camera was grounded for the Fiesta Bowl later in the week.

Best out-of-nowhere performance: Colton Chelf, WR, Oklahoma State. Starter Tracy Moore was reportedly suspended, and Chelf filled the void well. He caught just 16 balls in 12 games, but hauled in five for 97 yards in the win over Stanford, including a 24-yarder in overtime that was ruled a touchdown before being reversed and giving way to a game-winning field goal.

Worst performance: Kansas State. It was shocking to see. The Wildcats made too many early mistakes that they hadn't made all year. There was a fumble to give Arkansas an easy three points, a handful of dropped passes, a wave of penalties and an ill-advised punt to Joe Adams that swung the game in favor of the Hogs. Not good, and K-State didn't give itself a chance in the 29-16 loss.

Best handling of distractions: Texas A&M had to deal with the loss of senior offensive lineman Joey Villavisencio, who died in a car crash on his way home for Christmas. It fired coach Mike Sherman earlier. Interim coach Tim DeRuyter left for Fresno State, but stayed to coach the bowl game. The team was prepping for a move to the SEC and playing its bowl game in the home of its new coach, Kevin Sumlin. The Aggies, though, played pretty well against Northwestern and controlled most of the game in the 33-22 win.

Best atmosphere: Cotton Bowl. For a second consecutive year, this bowl takes the cake. K-State and Arkansas fans absolutely packed Cowboys Stadium and cheered loudly from an hour before the game through the entire matchup. A big-time atmosphere for what should be a big-time game.
It's time to look back and recognize some of the highlights and lowlights from the Big Ten bowl season:

Best performance: Michigan State. After falling behind 16-0 to Georgia, the Spartans rallied back to take the lead in the second half. When they needed to drive the field for a tying touchdown with only 1:55 left, they did just that. When Kirk Cousins threw an interception on the first overtime possession, they responded by holding tough on defense. Michigan State had 17 tackles for loss against the Bulldogs, including five by defensive end William Gholston. Darqueze Dennard grabbed two interceptions, and the special teams came up with a blocked kick to win the game. The 33-30 triple-overtime victory was yet another milestone for the program under Mark Dantonio.

[+] EnlargeWilliam Gholston and Aaron Murray
J. Meric/Getty ImagesMichigan State's William Gholston is looking to build off his two-sack performance in the Outback Bowl.
Worst performance: Penn State clearly didn't want to go to the TicketCity Bowl, and it showed right away. Houston quarterback Case Keenum made a mockery of the Nittany Lions' defense, throwing for 227 yards in the first quarter alone. Penn State had allowed that many yards passing in an entire game only once all season. He'd finish with 532 yards passing as the Cougars breezed to a 30-14 victory.

Best new mascot: Northwestern brought a stuffed monkey with a No. 63 jersey to its Meineke Car Care Bowl game against Texas A&M, symbolizing its quest to end a 63-year bowl victory drought. Alas, the Wildcats will have to order a No. 64 uniform after losing 33-22. Better make it a big jersey, because this postseason curse is more like an 800-pound gorilla at this point.

Worst near-death experience: Near the end of Iowa's Insight Bowl loss to Oklahoma, star Hawkeyes receiver Marvin McNutt was nearly taken out by ESPN's skycam, which fell to the field from its cables. The heavy camera almost hit McNutt off the bounce, and he got caught up in its wiring as he left the Iowa huddle. The skycam was unceremoniously escorted off the field, kind of like how Iowa's season ended in a 31-14 loss.

Worst ball security: Purdue and Western Michigan combined for 11 turnovers in a wild Little Caesars Bowl. On two separate occasions, the Boilermakers forced a turnover only to give the ball right back to the Broncos as defenders coughed it up trying to go the other way. Ultimately, Purdue got the upper hand by creating seven takeaways and holding on for a 37-32 victory.

Best clock management: Michigan State trailed Georgia 27-20 late in the fourth quarter of the Outback Bowl when the Spartans were called for pass interference on third-and-3 from the Bulldogs' 37. The officials ruled that Georgia had completed the pass on the play even though receiver Malcolm Mitchell clearly dropped the ball. Dantonio challenged the ruling, despite the fact that Georgia was going to get a first down either way. Dantonio's successful challenge meant that instead of the clock running down toward three minutes, the clock was stopped and reset to 3:43. That extra time proved enormous, as the Spartans tied the game with 14 seconds left in regulation.

Worst clock management: Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema was unsure if he could challenge the ruling when Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas hesitated and nearly left the end zone before kneeling down for kick-return touchback. As Bielema asked the sideline official for a clarification, he was charged with a timeout. That was the second timeout burned by the Badgers early in the second half. They dearly could have used the stoppages when the offense ended the game at the Oregon 25-yard line. Russell Wilson hurried to the line and was instructed to spike the ball with two seconds left, but officials ruled there was no time left.

Best impersonation of a wide receiver: Michigan's fake field goal attempt late in the first half of the Allstate Sugar Bowl went awry when holder Drew Dileo's intended receiving target, tight end Kevin Koger, didn't know the fake was on. So Dileo threw the ball into a crowd, and Virginia Tech deflected it. But long snapper Jareth Glanda saved the day by hauling it in for an 11-yard gain. The Wolverines ended up with a field goal on the play, and they needed every point in an overtime victory.

Best use of the kicking game: Purdue coach Danny Hope turned into a riverboat gambler in the Little Caesars Bowl, calling for two consecutive onside kicks in the first half. Both worked and led to points. Raheem Mostert also returned a kickoff 99 yards for a score.

Worst use of the kicking game: Ohio State had a punt blocked for a touchdown and allowed a 99-yard kickoff return by Florida. The Buckeyes lost by seven points in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl.

Worst loss of composure: Nebraska star cornerback Alfonzo Dennard and South Carolina receiver Alshon Jeffery let their emotions get the best of them in the third quarter of the Capital One Bowl. Dennard took a coupLe of swings at Jeffery, who pushed Dennard's helmet back. Both players were rightly ejected. Amazingly, Jeffery was still named MVP of South Carolina's 30-13 win.

Best crisis management: We saw what happened to Penn State and Ohio State as they played for lame-duck head coaches. Illinois not only had to deal with that but also a six-game losing streak and a group of assistants threatening to boycott the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl hours before the game. Somehow, interim head coach Vic Koenning managed to hold things together to help the Illini win 20-14 over UCLA.

Best inspiration: As Michigan's Brendan Gibbons lined up for the 37-yard kick to win the game in overtime, he had one thing on his mind. "Brunette girls,” Gibbons said. “Every time we were like struggling in kicking, coach tells me to think about girls on a beach or brunette girls," Gibbons told reporters. "So that's what we did. Made the kick." And they say blondes have more fun.
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.
A Big Ten coach recently told me that the league will be more wide open in 2012 than it has been in recent memory.

He's absolutely right.

While Ohio State's personnel issues changed the complexion of the league race in 2011, things went more or less as expected. Wisconsin, projected by many as the preseason favorite, won the Big Ten championship and advanced to its second consecutive Rose Bowl. Michigan State was a mini surprise, but more because of the Spartans' brutal schedule than their talent level. Michigan exceeded expectations, while Ohio State, Nebraska, Illinois, Northwestern and Iowa fell short of them.

The forecast for 2012 is cloudy at best. Every potential frontrunner has some significant hurdles to overcome.

Let's look at seven of them:

Michigan's challenges: Brady Hoke's crew plays arguably the league's toughest schedule, opening against Alabama, playing road games against Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State, and hosting Michigan State, which has won the teams' past four meetings. The Wolverines also lose standout defensive linemen Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen, as well as center David Molk, the Rimington Trophy winner, and top receiver Junior Hemingway.

Michigan State's challenges: The schedule isn't as treacherous, but Michigan State loses several key pieces, most notably quarterback Kirk Cousins, a three-year starter and a three-time captain. The Spartans also must replace their top two receivers (B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin), their top offensive lineman (guard Joel Foreman), All-Big Ten safety Trenton Robinson and two players making an early jump to the NFL draft (defensive tackle Jerel Worthy and backup running back Edwin Baker). The Spartans say goodbye to six All-Big Ten performers.

Wisconsin's challenges: Although the Badgers regain the services of running back Montee Ball, a Heisman Trophy finalist, they will be adjusting to plenty of new faces both on the field and on the sidelines. All-Big Ten quarterback Russell Wilson departs along with three starting offensive linemen, headlined by All-America center Peter Konz. While the defense returns mostly intact, Wisconsin will be replacing at least five assistant coaches, including offensive coordinator Paul Chryst and offensive line coach Bob Bostad, two of the best in the business. On the bright side, Wisconsin doesn't have to visit Spartan Stadium.

Nebraska's challenges: Along with Michigan, the Huskers return the most offensive firepower in the league and could take a significant step if the line comes together and the wide receivers and Taylor Martinez continue to mature. But if Big Red doesn't play the type of defense it did in 2009 and 2010, it could be another long season in Lincoln. Nebraska loses its top two defenders, linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, and must upgrade the defensive front seven to handle the more physical Big Ten offenses. The schedule might be a little easier, but not much as Nebraska visits both Michigan State and Ohio State.

Ohio State's challenges: Urban Meyer inherits a young football team with the chance to make big strides in 2012, but the Buckeyes are ineligible for postseason play because of NCAA rules violations. It wouldn't shock me to see Ohio State have the best record in the Leaders Division, but its season will end Nov. 24 against Michigan as the Scarlet and Gray can't play in the Big Ten title game. There also could be some growing pains as players adjust to new systems.

Penn State's challenges: The Bill O'Brien era begins in 2012, and it's hard to know what to expect from a Penn State team going through a transition period. The Lions once again should be strong on defense, although they lose Big Ten defensive player of the year Devon Still and most of their starting secondary. O'Brien and his staff will upgrade the offense eventually, but there could be some struggles initially with a unit that has underachieved since 2008. Although the Leaders Division is up for grabs, Penn State has no shortage of hurdles.

Iowa's challenges: Kirk Ferentz's program reaches another crossroads in 2012 after losing momentum from the 2009 Orange Bowl run. Will Iowa move into the Big Ten's lead pack or take another step backward? There are significant concerns along the defensive line, and Iowa must replace the league's top receiver in Marvin McNutt. If Marcus Coker returns, the offense should be decent, but quarterback James Vandenberg must show he can be more consistent away from Iowa City.

The Big Ten doesn't have an obvious team to beat in 2012, like Wisconsin in 2011 or Ohio State in 2010.

If I had to pick a favorite at this point, I'd go with Michigan State because of the Spartans talent-stocked defense. But the Legends Division race will be extremely competitive -- undoubtedly the tougher division to win. Ohio State's bowl ban, Wisconsin's player/coach losses and Penn State's transition make the Leaders race nearly impossible to predict. While Wisconsin will be a popular pick, I could see several teams, including a sleeper like Purdue, make a run in 2012.

The season kicks off in 235 days.

When it does, buckle up and get ready for a wild ride.
Let's look at three keys for Nebraska as it takes on South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl.

1. Establish tempo on offense: When Nebraska's offense operates in high tempo, it's extremely tough to stop. The key is finding that rhythm, and the Huskers will need to be effective with first- and second-down runs. Junior I-back Rex Burkhead needs to pick up positive yards to prevent obvious passing situations, when Gamecocks standout pass-rushers Melvin Ingram and Jadeveon Clowney can pin their ears back and go. South Carolina's defense is outstanding against the pass, but the Huskers can attack the Gamecocks on the ground with Burkhead, quarterback Taylor Martinez and others. Nebraska's offensive line has dealt with inexperience and injuries all season. This is the time for the unit to step up.

2. Alfonzo Dennard vs. Alshon Jeffery: The game's best one-on-one matchup pits Nebraska's top cornerback (Dennard) against South Carolina's star wideout (Jeffery). Dennard has shut down standout receivers like Iowa's Marvin McNutt, and he'll need a strong effort against another NFL prospect in Jeffery, who holds South Carolina's career receiving record. Opposing teams often shy away from throwing in Dennard's direction, but South Carolina's Connor Shaw will be looking for Jeffery on Monday. Which Nebraska defense shows up will go a long way toward determining the game's outcome, and the Huskers will lean heavily on Dennard.

3. Win the turnover battle: South Carolina has struggled with giveaways in its bowl losses, while Nebraska committed eight turnovers in its three defeats and just nine others in its other nine contests. If the Huskers can hang onto the football and force a mistake or two from Shaw and the Gamecocks' ball-carriers, they'll be in good shape to pull off the victory. Nebraska senior linebacker Lavonte David has been the defense's top playmaker, recording two interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. Look for David to set the tone and have a strong performance in his final game as a Husker.


Oklahoma ended a disappointing year on a high note, winning its third consecutive bowl game to record back-to-back seasons of 10 or more victories. Iowa's bowl magic vanished despite a plucky effort as the mistake-prone Hawkeyes lost in the postseason for the first time since 2006.

Let's take a closer look at the Insight Bowl:

How the game was won: Oklahoma's pressuring defense flustered Iowa and forced enough mistakes to buy time for Landry Jones and the offense to get going. The Sooners led 14-0 at halftime despite mounting only one productive drive, but their defense never backed down or broke down. OU made Iowa work for everything, and the Hawkeyes repeatedly shot themselves in the foot with penalties, dropped passes, poor throws, questionable play calls and other mistakes. Junior quarterback James Vandenberg and the Iowa offense established a rhythm midway through the third quarter and closed to within 21-14 with 6:56 left, but Oklahoma's power game, led by quarterback Blake Bell, responded to seal the victory.

Player of the game: Sooners cornerback Jamell Fleming. The senior set the tone early with an interception return to the Iowa 10-yard line, setting up the first of three Bell-dozer touchdown runs. Fleming also contained Iowa's All-Big Ten wide receiver Marvin McNutt, who had just four catches for 46 yards and appeared frustrated for much of the game.

Stat of the game: Oklahoma ran eight offensive plays in the first quarter, and had 12 yards and no first downs. But the Sooners led Iowa 7-0.

Candid camera: There was a scary moment late as ESPN's Skycam fell onto the field and nearly struck McNutt on a bounce. It delayed the game several minutes with 2:22 left to clear the wiring.

Second guessing: It's seems odd to question a Kirk Ferentz decision to go for a fourth-and-short situation, but Iowa really could have benefited from points following a 13-play, 68-yard drive midway through the first quarter. Down 7-0, the Hawkeyes marched to the Oklahoma 6-yard line before failing on third-and-4. Rather than kick the short field goal, Ferentz went for the touchdown and Iowa lost 3 yards on fourth down. Iowa didn't score until early in the fourth quarter.

What it means for Oklahoma: The Sooners ended on a positive note and showed they could be motivated to win a bowl despite a disappointing regular season. After being shredded by rival Oklahoma State, the Oklahoma defense responded very well against Iowa, controlling play for the first two and a half quarters. For a unit that endured inconsistent play in October and November, this was a good ending. The victory sends the Sooners into a crucial offseason, which begins with Jones' decision on whether to stay for his senior season or enter the NFL draft. Oklahoma loses some key seniors but still should enter the 2012 season as one of the top contenders for the Big 12 title.

What it means for Iowa: Hawkeyes fans can't be disappointed with the effort, but a team that repeatedly made mistakes away from its home field couldn't survive them again Friday night in Tempe, Ariz. The defense played very hard for retiring coordinator Norm Parker, but Iowa needed a cleaner performance to upset Oklahoma. Iowa sees its wins total drop for the second consecutive season, and the team now enters a critical offseason. Ferentz soon will name a new defensive coordinator, and he needs to put a stop to the revolving door at running back. Iowa loses key parts but should be more experienced at several spots. However, Hawkeyes fans expect more from their program and its well-paid coach, and they should. The Big Ten is only getting harder, and Iowa should be mirroring what Wisconsin and Michigan State have done rather than falling back into the pack. Not much has gone right for this program since the 2010 Orange Bowl victory.

2011 Big Ten Super Seniors

December, 29, 2011
12/29/11
5:00
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Borrowing an idea from our friends at the SEC blog, I wanted to recognize some of the best seniors in the Big Ten in 2011.

To spread the love around, the following list features one senior from each Big Ten team. I really looked for guys who saved their best for last, took their game to the next level and performed consistently all season. There are obviously more standout seniors than the ones mentioned below, but these players all deserve some recognition.

[+] EnlargeB.J. Cunningham
Mike Carter/US PresswireSpartans receiver B.J. Cunningham is one of several of ESPN.com's Big Ten Super Seniors.
Here's the list, in alphabetical order:

Michigan State WR B.J. Cunningham: He took the step from good (50 catches, 611 receiving yards, 9 TDs) to great (72 catches, 1,240 yards, 12 TDs) this season. He eclipsed 100 receiving yards in both games against Wisconsin and went for 154 yards on nine catches against Ohio State. His 17.2 yards-per-reception average was tops among the Big Ten's leading receivers. Cunningham became a very hard player to contain on the outside.

Nebraska LB Lavonte David: He played only two seasons in Lincoln but won't soon be forgotten. David didn't match his team record tackles total from 2010 (152) but still had 122 stops, the third-highest total in the Big Ten. He also become more of a difference-maker, making the critical plays for the Huskers in wins like Ohio State. David led Nebraska in tackles for loss (11) and finished second in sacks (3.5). He also had two interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.

Illinois WR A.J. Jenkins: The Illini offense disappeared in the second half, but Jenkins' accomplishments shouldn't go unnoticed. He went from a decent receiver to one of the best in the Big Ten, recording a league-best 82 receptions for 1,197 yards and seven touchdowns. Although Jenkins did much of his damage in the first six games, he still recorded six or more receptions in nine games and at least four catches in all 12 regular-season contests. He accounted for 53.3 percent of the team's receiving yards, the most nationally by eight percent.

Purdue LT Dennis Kelly: The offensive linemen deserve some love on this list, and Kelly stabilized Purdue's front five in his third season as a starter. Kelly started every game for the third consecutive season, giving him 37 career starts, and anchored a Purdue line that helped the team rank fifth in the league in rushing (181.6 ypg) and third in first downs (20.5 per game). Kelly finished his career as a bowl champion as Purdue captured the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl on Tuesday night.

Iowa WR Marvin McNutt: McNutt had been a productive pass-catcher for Iowa, but he took his game to the next level this season. The Big Ten's best receiver recorded 78 receptions for 1,269 yards and 12 touchdowns. He had eight 100-yard receiving performances and four games with multiple touchdown catches. McNutt also made the best catch of the Big Ten season against Michigan State on Nov. 12.

Northwestern S Brian Peters: It was a very rough year for the Wildcats' secondary, but it would have been even worse without Peters' contributions. He made by far the most big plays for the unit, recording four interceptions, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. Peters finished second on the team in tackles (85) and had four tackles for loss, four pass breakups and a sack.

Minnesota S Kim Royston: Talk about a player who made the most of his final opportunity. Granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, Royston turned in a terrific season, leading Minnesota and finishing third in the Big Ten with 123 tackles, 36 more than any other Gophers defender. Royston had an interception, two pass breakups and a sack. He recorded double digits in tackles in eight contests and provided leadership for a unit that needed it.

[+] EnlargeDevin Still
Jeffrey G. Pittenger/US PresswirePenn State defensive tackle Devin Still was more than a handful for opposing blockers in 2011.
Penn State DT Devon Still: Brian and I look like fools (yeah, it happens a lot) for leaving Still off of our preseason top 25 player rankings. But he wasn't nearly the same player in 2010 as he turned out to be this fall. The Lions star put it all together to win Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors. A disruptive force that put strain on every opposing offensive line, Still recorded 17 tackles for loss, tied for fourth in the Big Ten. He had 4.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery, and his stats hardly tell the full story. No Big Ten player better fits the definition of Super Senior.

Ohio State LB Andrew Sweat: It wasn't a typical year for Ohio State's senior class, as several key players missed chunks of the season because of suspensions. Sweat stepped up his play for a mostly young defense, though, and contributed 68 tackles, five tackles for loss, a forced fumble, an interception and three pass breakups. The Buckeyes sorely missed him in their final two games, when he sat out with head and elbow injuries.

Indiana LB Jeff Thomas: Youth was served all season at Indiana, which played more young players than any FBS team this season. But Thomas did his part on a flawed defense, leading the squad in both tackles (80) and tackles for loss (10.5). He added three pass breakups, a sack and a fumble recovery. The junior-college transfer has been one of few bright spots for Indiana's defense the past two seasons.

Michigan DE Ryan Van Bergen: Many Wolverines defenders benefited from a new coaching staff and a new scheme, but perhaps none more than Van Bergen. He led the team in both tackles for loss (12) and sacks (5) and finished second with three fumble recoveries. Van Bergen finished the season playing his best football, recording seven tackles for loss in the final three games.

Wisconsin QB Russell Wilson: He came to Madison as a senior and turned in one of the more memorable offensive performances in team history. Although Wilson had put up big numbers at NC State, he became a much more efficient quarterback with the Badgers, completing 72.5 percent of his passes with 31 touchdowns and only three interceptions in 284 attempts. He ranked second nationally in pass efficiency (191.6), trailing only Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III. Wilson earned consensus first-team All-Big Ten honors.

Insight Bowl: Iowa vs. Oklahoma

December, 29, 2011
12/29/11
1:00
PM ET
If you'd told Iowa fans before the season they'd be playing their bowl game in Arizona against Oklahoma, they would have been thrilled at the thought of making the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. Instead, both teams underachieved and find themselves in Friday's Insight Bowl:

WHO TO WATCH: Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg and receiver Marvin McNutt. With starting running back Marcus Coker suspended, the Hawkeyes likely will have to rely on the passing game more than ever. That means Vandenberg and McNutt, who hooked up 78 times this season but were stymied in the season-ending loss at Nebraska. Oklahoma, even without the suspended Ronnell Lewis, can pressure the quarterback and finished the season ranked seventh nationally in sacks. The Sooners' pass defense, though, has been vulnerable at times this season, so Vandenberg will have a chance to make some plays if his offensive line protects. McNutt will wrap up a fantastic career in the desert; he needs four more catches to set the school's single-season record and seven to break the Hawkeyes' career mark.

WHAT TO WATCH: Who will run the ball for Iowa? Coker was a workhorse all season, averaging over 23 carries per game. Backup Mika'il McCall's status is still unclear, perhaps leaving rushing duties to sparingly used freshmen De'Andre Johnson, Jordan Canzeri or Damon Bullock. Coker himself emerged as a star in last season's Insight Bowl after the suspension of Adam Robinson, but a similar situation developing this year would come as more of a surprise. Also keep an eye on the Hawkeyes' defense, which often struggled this season to stop big plays and rush the passer. They will need Mike Daniels and Broderick Binns up front to create some havoc and for Micah Hyde and Shaun Prater to guard the back end to slow down Landry Jones and the Sooners' passing attack.

WHY TO WATCH: Oklahoma was ranked No. 1 in the preseason and for most of the first month of the season. Even with some key injuries and suspensions, the Sooners still have loads of talent and will give Iowa one of its toughest tests of the season. The Hawkeyes, though, have won three straight bowl games under Kirk Ferentz, including last year's Insight Bowl in an exciting game against Missouri. Their defense should be motivated to perform in the final game for retiring defensive coordinator Norm Parker. Many have pegged Iowa as the biggest underdog of bowl season, but Oklahoma's motivation has to be questioned as the team had much higher aspirations than this. The fact that Sooners coach Bob Stoops is an Iowa graduate and close friend of Ferentz adds some drama to the proceedings.

PREDICTION: Oklahoma 27, Iowa 20. The Hawkeyes hang around as Oklahoma comes out a little flat. But the loss of Coker is just too much to overcome and will force Iowa to be too one-dimensional on offense. The Sooners' defense picks off Vandenberg a couple of times and holds on for the win.

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