NCF Nation: Michael Thomas

You can take much of what we predicted in the preseason and throw it in the trash. Please. (Rutgers at 4-8 and Michigan at 8-4? Bad, Brian, bad).

But one idea we had about the Big Ten in the offseason seems to be playing out just as it was forecast: Michigan State and Ohio State are the best two teams in the league, and there's a noticeable dropoff after that.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Rush
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesMichigan State's defense can smother opposing offenses like it did for three quarters against Nebraska.
That didn't necessarily look like the case in early September, certainly not after Ohio State lost 35-21 at home to Virginia Tech. That result in hindsight wasn't all that surprising, as quarterback J.T. Barrett played just his second game in the wake of Braxton Miller's August shoulder shutdown and had trouble reading the Hokies defense.

Just look what has happened since. In the past three games, Ohio State has scored at least 50 points in each while outscoring its opponents 168-52. Barrett's improvement is happening at warp speed. In those same three games, he has completed 75 percent of his passes for 909 yards and 14 touchdowns, with just one interception. He also added 156 rushing yards and a score.

Sure, the defenses at Kent State and Cincinnati are deplorable, and Maryland showed itself susceptible to the big play earlier this season against West Virginia. Yet many thought the Terps were feisty enough to keep things close at home Saturday, and the Buckeyes simply crushed them.

Even if Miller had played this season, I always thought Ohio State would have a large learning curve based on the youth of his surrounding cast. Now, skill players like Michael Thomas and Ezekiel Elliott and the rebuilt offensive line are all coming on strong alongside Barrett, making the Buckeyes one of the scariest teams in the Big Ten's second half.

Can Urban Meyer's team, which is ranked No. 15 in both major polls this week, even work itself back into College Football Playoff contention? It depends on whether the selection committee can forgive that early loss and issue a pass because of the Miller injury. If this were the basketball tournament, the committee would take the injury into account and focus more on how the team finished. But no one is really sure how the new football selection committee will weigh things.

Ohio State only has one marquee game left on its schedule, and that's the Nov. 8 showdown at Michigan State. Just as we thought in the preseason, that should be epic.

The Spartans haven't played to their full potential for a whole game yet, but if they ever get to that level, they could prove unstoppable. They nearly did so against Nebraska, building a 27-3 lead after three quarters. When Michigan State's defense is smothering every passing route and squashing the run as it did much of Saturday night -- the Cornhuskers had their lowest rushing output since 2007, and Ameer Abdullah was neutralized for the first time in a couple years -- it must seem to opposing offenses like Pat Narduzzi is putting 12 or 13 players on the field.

But the MSU offense hasn't yet been able to take over the end game by pounding the ball on the ground the way it did so many times last season. That's a big reason why the Spartans had to hold on for dear life as Nebraska mounted a stunning fourth-quarter comeback and nearly stole the win on the road.

"It's pretty unacceptable how we played," quarterback Connor Cook said afterward, and it's telling that a win over a previously 5-0, No. 19-ranked team felt substandard to Michigan State. "We'll use this as motivation, because we never want to perform like this ever again."

In peak form, the Spartans and Buckeyes are just a notch above everyone else in the Big Ten. Nebraska can occasionally rise to that level but remains far too inconsistent and sloppy with the ball. Wisconsin and Minnesota can't generate a passing game, Penn State can't block well enough for its stellar quarterback and Iowa just isn't explosive enough. When Northwestern leads the West Division after losing at home to both Cal and Northern Illinois, you know there's a lack of great teams in the league.

The Big Ten's long shot playoff hopes still rest in East Lansing and Columbus. Both teams should enter that Nov. 8 game with just one loss. Michigan State spends the next two weeks in the Hoosier State against Purdue and Indiana before hosting struggling Michigan in a game that could wind up a bloodbath -- unless, for maybe the first time ever, the Spartans find themselves actually looking past the Wolverines. Ohio State has tougher tests, with a visit from 5-1 Rutgers after this week's bye, followed by a potentially tricky trip to Penn State. But the Buckeyes' athleticism should push them through both games, and the Nov. 1 home game against the walking dead Illinois defense offers the chance to break that school record for offense for real this time.

So we're back to where we started this season and, really, where we were last December. Michigan State and Ohio State are clearly the league's top two teams. Even dummies like us can see that.
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The nonconference season wasn't ideal for Ohio State, but it's making the most of a clean slate and once again looking like a contender.

The No. 20 Buckeyes dove into Big Ten play and made a huge splash Saturday afternoon at Maryland, welcoming the newcomer to the league with a thorough beatdown that made clear which program was on the right track to compete for the East Division title. A quick look at Ohio State's 52-24 demolition of the Terrapins.

How the game was won: The Buckeyes are once again operating at an elite level offensively, but it was the revamped, aggressive defense that made the biggest difference on the road to open Big Ten play. Defensive end Joey Bosa was relentless up front and a force in the backfield, the secondary grabbed four interceptions, and the concerns about pass coverage were forgotten for at least one week.

Game ball goes to: J.T. Barrett. The development of the redshirt freshman over the past month has been a sight to behold. Barrett’s command of the offense, decisions in the zone-read game, accuracy as a passer and five total touchdowns all make him look like a veteran, not somebody who has made only five starts. He is just getting better, and the Buckeyes are showing no signs of slowing down the tempo with Barrett taking the snaps.

What it means: The race is still in its early stages, but the blowout revealed plenty about the candidacy of both teams. As was expected all along, the Buckeyes have more than enough talent to win the East Division and play for the league title even after a somewhat shaky start that included a nonconference loss to Virginia Tech. On the other side, Maryland turned some heads early with a decent start and a road win against Indiana, but it doesn’t look quite ready to knock off the best in the Big Ten.

Playoff implication: The early loss certainly cut down on the margin for error, but the Buckeyes appear to be back on track to contend for a spot in the four-team field thanks to the high-powered offense and a defense showing signs of turning the corner. The Buckeyes certainly can’t be ruled out of the conversation given the way they are rapidly improving with so many youngsters in the lineup. The calendar is still circled for the trip to Michigan State on Nov. 8, which could determine the fate of both programs.

Best play: Ohio State wide receivers coach Zach Smith calls them ""wow moments," and Michael Thomas added another to his highlight reel. The athletic target had to go up and snag a pass from Barrett in the corner of the end zone, winning a one-on-one battle in the fight for the ball and then somehow getting his toes down before falling out of bounds for a score that sent the Buckeyes on their way.

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What’s next: The Buckeyes are off with their second bye of the season next week, giving them another opportunity to tweak the defense and allow Barrett a few more practice reps as he zips through his learning curve. Their push for a division championship resumes Oct. 18 with a matchup against the other conference newcomer in a home date against Rutgers.

Big Ten viewer's guide: Week 5

September, 27, 2014
Sep 27
8:00
AM ET
After a banner Saturday a week ago, what does the Big Ten have planned for an encore? It can't win as many games as it did last week since conference play is set to kick off with five matchups inside the league. But there are still a handful of opportunities on the table that can bolster the Big Ten reputation -- and, in one case, a chance to right the ship after a disastrous performance last week.

The fun is set to really begin now. Here's the full rundown of the day (all times Eastern):

Noon games

South Florida (2-2) at No. 19 Wisconsin (2-1), ESPNU: The Badgers and star running back Melvin Gordon roared to life last week, and they've got a chance to continue building momentum heading into Big Ten play. If Gordon keeps up the eye-popping yards per carry he posted in the win over Bowling Green, he could be right back in the Heisman Trophy conversation after a slow start.

Tulane (1-3) at Rutgers (3-1), ESPNEWS: The Scarlet Knights have a chance to run the table outside of the Big Ten, which would be pretty useful in helping them qualify for a bowl game in their first year in the league. The loss of running back Paul James to a season-ending injury is a big blow, but he probably won't be missed against the Green Wave.

Iowa (3-1) at Purdue (2-2), BTN: The Hawkeyes might not technically have a quarterback controversy, but they were clearly energized last week when C.J. Beathard came in to relieve an injured Jake Rudock. If Rudock is healthy, Iowa might play both of them against the Boilermakers, who haven't won a conference game since the last week of the 2012 regular season.

Wyoming (3-1) at No. 9 Michigan State (2-1), ESPN2: The Cowboys have been impressive under new coach Craig Bohl, even trading a few early punches with Oregon before getting blown out. Michigan State stood toe-to-toe into the second half with the Ducks and look like the most talented team in the Big Ten, which is clearly a significant advantage over the Pokes.

Northwestern (1-2) at Penn State (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten), BTN: After struggling in a pair of losses before a bye week, the Wildcats didn't look much better in an ugly win over Western Illinois. That doesn't bode well for a trip to Penn State, which is brimming with confidence and in position to build on its fast start in the East Division.

Maryland (3-1) at Indiana (2-1), 1:30 p.m., BTN: Despite a loss for each team, both the Terrapins and Hoosiers have been pleasant surprises during the season's first month. Indiana bounced back with an impressive defensive outing to upset Missouri on the road, and that unit will be put to the test by a Maryland attack loaded with playmakers.

Mid-afternoon game

Minnesota (3-1) at Michigan (2-2), 3:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN2 mirror: Brady Hoke's seat is warm enough as it is, but it would be scorching if the Gophers come into the Big House and leave with the Little Brown Jug. Minnesota's defense is capable of making Michigan's turnover woes worse, and no matter who plays quarterback for the Gophers, the running game is a handful.

Night games

Cincinnati (2-0) at No. 22 Ohio State (2-1), 6 p.m., BTN: The Buckeyes used their bye week to gear up for Cincinnati quarterback Gunner Kiel and his lethal receiving corps, which will provide the first real test for a revamped secondary. After already dropping one game outside of the Big Ten, Ohio State can't afford to lose a second if it's going to climb back into the playoff picture.

Illinois (3-1) at No. 21 Nebraska (4-0), 9 p.m., BTN: For whatever it's worth, the pollsters still aren't showing much love to the Huskers. But as long as they keep winning, they're going to be tough for the selection committee to ignore. Wes Lunt and a high-flying Illinois offense are entertaining to watch, and with Ameer Abdullah lining up against a suspect defense, this prime-time matchup should feature plenty of fireworks.

Required reading

Week 5 predictions

Tracking our B1G fantasy teams

Take Two: Is Michigan or Florida in better shape for a turnaround?

"Wow moments" arriving for Ohio State's Michael Thomas

Indiana defense more confident than ever

C.J. Beathard ready when the call comes

Uncertainty not an issue for Minnesota QBs

The Miracle at Michigan: 20 years later

Cincinnati knows Ohio State game is huge

Big Ten awards race tracker

B1G 1/4 season review: Bold Predictions | Surprise player | Surprise team

For Tanner McEvoy, actions louder than words

True test coming for revamped Ohio State defense

B1G running backs deserve place in Heisman race

Planning for success: Indiana

No easy fix coming for Michigan offense

Take Two: B1G's best receiving tandem

Penn State, Northwestern very far apart


COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Urban Meyer is always trying to find new ways to motivate his players.

Last spring, he had a banner put up in the Ohio State field house reading “The Chase …” in reference to the Buckeyes’ championship pursuits. Meyer said he thought about changing the display for the 2014 offseason. In the end, though, he stuck with the same one.

“We didn’t accomplish it,” Meyer told ESPN.com. “We chased it but didn’t catch it. So the chase is still on.”

Ohio State, of course, nearly made it to its desired finish line. After going 12-0 for the second straight season under Meyer, the Buckeyes just needed to beat Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game to clinch a date with Florida State for the BCS national title. Instead, they fell 34-24 to the Spartans and closed the year on a two-game losing streak with a 40-35 setback against Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteUrban Meyer says Ohio State is still trying to finish "The Chase."
So the chase continues, albeit with a much different-looking team in the 2014 starting gate. Gone is four-fifths of the offensive line that formed the backbone of the Big Ten’s top-scoring offense the past two seasons. Also gone are reigning Big Ten running back of the year Carlos Hyde and top receiver Corey “Philly” Brown, as well as the two biggest stars on defense -- linebacker Ryan Shazier and cornerback Bradley Roby -- who opted to enter the NFL draft.

Experience is lacking in many key areas, but Meyer is ready to let some talented youngsters loose, including true freshmen. In retrospect, he wishes he had done so last year, when defensive end Joey Bosa and receiver Dontre Wilson were the only first-year players to make a big impact until safety Vonn Bell started in the Orange Bowl.

“We redshirted too many last year, and that was our fault,” he said. “There was a misunderstanding, and we just didn’t do a good job, especially on defense. When they show up on campus, we need to get them ready to play.”

This spring, early enrollees Raekwon McMillan (linebacker), Curtis Samuel (tailback) and Johnnie Dixon (receiver) were all heavily involved and have secured roles in the fall. Redshirt freshman are also at or near the top of the depth chart at strongside linebacker (Darron Lee and Chris Worley) and cornerback (Gareon Conley and Eli Apple), while true sophomores like safety Cam Burrows and tailback Ezekiel Elliott could force their way into the starting lineup.

“When you talk about inexperience, that’s a good thing right now,” said Chris Ash, who was hired from Arkansas as co-defensive coordinator to help fix Ohio State’s pass defense. “There aren’t a lot of habits that we have to change to fit what we’re trying to do. We don’t have older guys that are comfortable with where they’re at in their careers.”

An already young offense became even greener this spring because of injuries to three senior leaders: tight end Jeff Heuerman, receiver Evan Spencer and quarterback Braxton Miller. The Buckeyes will no doubt look a lot different when Miller returns from shoulder surgery. During the 15 spring practices, the two-time defending Big Ten player of the year often stood behind the offense and wore a camera on his head so coaches could go over what he was seeing on the field.

“We're exhausting every avenue and even inventing different avenues to make sure he's engaged and getting mental reps,” offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. “We're doing the best we can with a bad situation. He has embraced it and is working his tail off, making sure he’s getting the most out of it.”

Herman says the Buckeyes should be more explosive on the perimeter this season, with guys like Wilson, Dixon, junior college transfer Corey Smith, sophomore Michael Thomas and freshman Jalin Marshall at receiver and a stable of athletic tailbacks. The safeties are longer and quicker than they have been in the past, and the defensive line -- which could be one of the nation’s best -- will have four starters who all used to be defensive ends.

The objective is clear: more speed. To that end, Meyer has hammered a new mantra in the players' heads: “4 to 6, A to B.” That means play hard for four to six seconds and get from point A to point B as quickly as possible. It's hard to interview an Ohio State player these days without hearing the phrase.

“That’s all he’s been preaching this spring.” defensive tackle Adolphus Washington said. “He said he’s not really worried about technique and all that stuff. It’s just about playing hard, because if you play hard, effort makes up for mistakes.”

Washington said the defense was greatly simplified this spring, with only about four or five different calls to learn. Aggressiveness trumped scheme.

“The culture of Ohio State is to go hard, not trick you,” Meyer said. “I just felt like there was too much stuff last year, instead of just going hard.”

By moving faster and playing harder, the Buckeyes hope to overcome their youth and track down what they've been hunting. They have been tantalizingly close.

“We’re still on a chase,” Washington said. “We’ve just got to finish it.”

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Urban Meyer seemed to be guarding a secret, and it couldn’t be deciphered by reading between the lines.

The Ohio State coach joked about being a little bored by his spring game, expressed some frustration about the lack of offensive execution and stressed that there was plenty of work to do at a few key positions heading into the offseason.

But the truth about how good his third team at Ohio State might be was tucked away on the sidelines, leaving little to truly evaluate between them as the Gray beat the Scarlet 17-7 on Saturday at the Horseshoe. And based on the number of players he held out of the spring-closing scrimmage, it might be a safe bet that Meyer is actually feeling pretty good about what he has returning in the fall.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesThe spring game didn't say much about Urban Meyer's Buckeyes. And he seems fine with that.
“There were guys out there who will either never play or they’re not ready to play now,” Meyer said. “Like, [Ohio State sports information director] Jerry [Emig] hands me stats, I’m not sure what to do with these. I don’t care.

“... We all know what we saw out there. It’s not the Ohio State Buckeyes.”

Exhibition games rarely provide much of a reliable gauge for how good a team might truly be, and in the case of the Buckeyes, that might have been by design.

Braxton Miller was already on the shelf as he finishes up his recovery from offseason shoulder surgery. Having the two-time defending Big Ten player of the year and a three-year starter at quarterback out of the equation obviously changes the complexion of the Ohio State offense. Cardale Jones was productive enough throughout camp to win the backup job, but his 14-of-31 passing performance Saturday was yet another reminder of the importance of having a healthy Miller to lead the attack.

Meyer indicated there was some uncertainty about his receiving corps after the spring game, but he had enough faith in Devin Smith and Dontre Wilson that he didn’t feel the need to press either of them into action over the weekend -- aside from a cameo appearance by the latter in a race against students at halftime.

And after watching what could be one of the most talented defensive lines in the country terrorize a rebuilding offensive line throughout camp over the last month, Meyer certainly didn’t need to see any more from Noah Spence, Joey Bosa, Michael Bennett or Adolphus Washington to boost his confidence heading into the summer, adding to the list of starters who effectively were allowed to take the day off.

Cornerback Doran Grant was largely an observer as well, though he did make an appearance to win the halftime derby and became the “fastest student” on campus. Projected first-team guard Pat Elflein was a scratch, and presumptive starting running back Ezekiel Elliott only touched the football three times. Tight end Jeff Heuerman was on crutches after foot surgery, but he’ll be back in time for the conditioning program next month.

So while the game itself left little worth remembering aside from what appeared to be marked improvement and depth in the secondary and another handful of mesmerizing catches from Michael Thomas, there were actually clues littered around Ohio Stadium that Meyer is poised to unleash his most talented team since taking over the program in 2012 and rattling off 24 consecutive wins.

The trick was knowing where to look.

“[The spring game] was a chance to see some young guys [who] really haven’t played, and to be quite honest, I’m not sure how much they will play,” Meyer said. “This is a chance for a lot of guys in our program who work very hard, and to be able to get some guys play or catch a pass in Ohio Stadium or whatever, in the big picture it’s the right thing to do.

“It’s a great thrill for a lot of people.”

The real thrills, of course, don’t come for a few months. And based on the amount of players who didn’t get to actually step between the lines on Saturday, Meyer might not-so-secretly have plenty to be excited about by fall.
Here's a team-by-team look at what to watch in the new Big Ten East this spring.

Indiana

Spring start: March 8

Spring game: TBA

What to watch
  • Getting defensive: The Hoosiers have had no trouble scoring since Kevin Wilson took over the program, but opponents have made it look even easier. New defensive coordinator Brian Knorr might have his hands full turning around the Big Ten’s worst unit, but Indiana could be dangerous if he can.
  • Quarterback derby: The offense operated just fine with Tre Roberson and Nate Sudfeld taking turns leading the attack, so Wilson might not even need to settle on just one quarterback. Typically it does help to have a pecking order behind center, though, and the Hoosiers will be watching these guys closely to see if one can gain some separation.
  • Next in line: There is a ready-made candidate to take over as the team’s most productive receiver, but Shane Wynn is going to need some help. For all his speed and elusiveness, Wynn is still undersized and doesn’t fit the mold of a traditional receiver, which will make it necessary for somebody like Nick Stoner to step up to help replace Cody Latimer.
Maryland

Spring start: March 1

Spring game: April 11

What to watch
  • Get healthy: The Terrapins have one of the most talented groups of wide receivers in the country when they’re completely healthy, but that was an issue last season with both Stefon Diggs and Deon Long suffering broken legs -- just for starters. Neither of those game-breakers is expected to be on the field this spring, but their respective rehabs are critical moving forward.
  • Give and take: An emphasis on protecting the football on offense and creating more turnovers defensively is nothing new in spring practice, but Randy Edsall might just double down on that message this year. The Terrapins finished last in the ACC in turnover margin last season and were ranked No. 102 in the nation with seven more giveaways than takeaways, which isn’t a recipe for success in any league.
  • Coaching chemistry: The deck wasn’t completely reshuffled, but the Terrapins will have three new assistants in charge and could use a seamless transition as they prepare to move to a new league. Keenan McCardell (wide receivers), Chad Wilt (defensive line) and Greg Studrawa (offensive line) will help deliver Edsall’s message moving forward, and it’s as crucial for a coaching staff to jell and find common ground as it is for players on the field.
Michigan

Spring start: Feb. 25

Spring game: April 5

What to watch
  • Go pro: If it was the coordinator keeping Brady Hoke from putting the offense he wanted on the field, that won’t be an issue anymore with Al Borges out of the picture. Snapping up Doug Nussmeier from Alabama should put the Wolverines on the path for a more traditional pro-style attack, and establishing that playbook starts on the practice field in spring.
  • Quarterback quandary: The competition to lead the new-look offense is open between Devin Gardner and Shane Morris, and how that battle shakes out will obviously have a lasting impact and shape the season for the Wolverines. Gardner has the edge in experience and turned in a gritty, wildly productive outing against Ohio State while injured to end the season, but he certainly has lacked consistency. Morris filled in during the postseason with mixed results, but one of those guys will need to emerge.
  • On the line: The Wolverines were in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten in sacks, and only Purdue was worse in the league at protecting the quarterback. Both sides of the line have plenty of room to develop, and those daily battles against each other this spring will need to sharpen both the pass-rushers and the blockers if Michigan is going to be able to win games up front.
Michigan State

Spring start: March 25

Spring game: April 26

What to watch
  • Something cooking: The finishing flourish in the Big Ten title game and the Rose Bowl showed how far Connor Cook had come from the start of the season to the end, but there’s still more room to grow. His numbers are slightly skewed thanks to the way Michigan State handled the job early in the season, but overall he averaged fewer than 200 yards per game passing. With such a great defense, that was enough -- but boosting that total would be better for the Spartans.
  • Reload defensively: The seemingly impenetrable defense might have been more than sum of its parts, but the individual pieces Michigan State had on hand weren’t too shabby, either. With Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough and Denicos Allen all gone, the Spartans will need to identify some replacements for the stars of that elite unit from a year ago.
  • Plug some holes: Both starting offensive guards have to be replaced, and given the perhaps overlooked significance of the work the line did for the Spartans last season, that shouldn’t be dismissed as a meaningful item on the checklist. Cook has to be protected in the pocket, for starters, but with the way the Spartans traditionally pound the football on the ground, they’ll need some road-pavers to step up during spring practice to keep the offense on the upswing.
Ohio State

Spring start: March 4

Spring game: April 12

What to watch
  • Backs to the wall: There weren’t many deficiencies to be found on a team that again went through the regular season unbeaten, but Ohio State’s glaring weakness caught up with it late in the year. The Buckeyes looked helpless at times against the pass, and new co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach Chris Ash was brought in to make sure that unit is dramatically improved.
  • Hold the line: The Buckeyes held on to Braxton Miller for another year, but they lost four seniors who had protected the quarterback for the past couple of seasons. That might be a worthwhile trade, but finding replacements up front will be imperative for a team that has leaned heavily on that veteran presence in the trenches since Urban Meyer took over the program. Taylor Decker is the lone holdover in the starting lineup, and he’ll need to assert himself as the leader of the unit.
  • Air it out: Miller had some shaky performances throwing the ball down the stretch, but taking the passing game to a higher level is not solely his responsibility. The Buckeyes also need improved play and more reliable options at wide receiver, and they’ve recruited to address that issue over the past couple of years. Michael Thomas, who redshirted during his second year on campus, might be leading the charge for a new batch of playmakers on the perimeter.
Penn State

Spring start: March 17

Spring game: April 12

What to watch
  • Starting fresh: There are new playbooks to learn again for the Nittany Lions, and spring practice will be the first chance for James Franklin to start shaping his team in his image. That process doesn’t just include memorizing schemes and assignments for the players, since every coach has a different way of structuring practices and meetings. The sooner the Nittany Lions adjust the better off they’ll be in the fall.
  • Next step: As debut seasons go, it’s hard to find much fault in the work Christian Hackenberg did after being tossed into the fire as a true freshman. He threw for nearly 3,000 yards with 20 touchdowns, completing 59 percent and setting the bar pretty high for himself down the road. As part of his encore, Franklin would probably like to see the young quarterback cut down on his 10 interceptions as a sophomore.
  • Tighten up the defense: There were pass defenses with more holes than Penn State’s a year ago, but that will be little consolation for a program that has traditionally been so stout on that side of the ball. Adrian Amos and Jordan Lucas can get the job done at cornerback, but the Nittany Lions need to get stronger at safety -- and also need to fill notable spots in front of them with linebacker Glenn Carson and defensive tackle DaQuan Jones now gone.
Rutgers

Spring start: March 25

Spring game: April 26

What to watch
  • Toughen up: The Scarlet Knights have seen hard-hitting competition and proven they aren’t afraid of a challenge, but the Big East and American conferences don’t provide nearly the weekly physical test that playing in the Big Ten does. There’s no reason to think Kyle Flood won’t have his team ready for the transition and a new league, but developing both strong bodies and minds starts in spring practice.
  • Settle on a quarterback: There’s a veteran signal-caller on hand with 28 career starts to his credit, but Flood made it no secret as far back as January that he would hold an open competition during camp to lead the offense. Gary Nova has the edge in experience, but he also has more interceptions in his career than games started. That could open the door for one of three younger guys to step in, though Mike Bimonte, Blake Rankin and Chris Laviano have combined to take a grand total of zero snaps.
  • Star turn: There’s nothing wrong with spreading the wealth, and the Scarlet Knights certainly did that in the passing game last season. Having five targets with at least 28 receptions can keep a defense off-balance, which is a good thing. But ending the season with none of those guys topping 573 yards might not be quite as encouraging, and establishing a consistent, go-to, big-play threat in the spring could prove useful for a team that finished No. 62 in the nation in passing yardage.
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The Big Ten finally has a championship game that rivals the SEC's in national significance.

Unfortunately, the Big Ten is following the SEC's lead in another area: handing out discipline.

A league that considers itself a cut above in every area, including player conduct, had an opportunity to make a statement in the wake of Saturday's fight in the Ohio State-Michigan game. Instead, the league went soft, ensuring that its championship game, and Ohio State's national title hopes, would be unaffected by the ugly and embarrassing incident.

Here's what we learned from the Big Ten's ridiculous response Monday night: Fighting doesn't have long-term consequences. Twisting a helmet? Go right ahead. Just conduct yourself like a gentleman afterward.

After spending two days reviewing the officials' report from the game and the video of the fracas, the Big Ten decided to hand down no additional discipline to the Ohio State and Michigan players involved. The league merely issued a public reprimand -- the wussiest punishment possible -- for Ohio State offensive lineman Marcus Hall and the Buckeyes' coaching staff after Hall gave the crowd a double-bird salute following his ejection from the game. No other players were named by the league, which praised both coaching staffs for defusing the fight.

Ohio State's Dontre Wilson and Michigan's Royce Jenkins-Stone also were ejected Saturday, but they and others -- like Buckeyes wide receiver Michael Thomas and Michigan defensive back Delano Hill -- were spared any blowback from the conference.

The Big Ten is falling back on the NCAA's fighting policy, which calls for players ejected in the first half of a game to miss only the remainder of that game. Although the league has issued suspensions before for throwing punches, they have come for players who weren't ejected during the game.

The league had an opportunity to do more and show that behavior like Saturday's, even in a bitter rivalry game, is unacceptable and has long-term consequences. Monday's wimpy response will be seen as an effort to protect the league's title game and one of its biggest brands in Ohio State.

Criticize Ohio State coach Urban Meyer if you want for not tacking on additional playing-time penalties for Hall and Wilson. Honestly, I don't know many coaches who would have. They're trying to win championships and can impose some internal discipline. Michigan State didn't suspend William Gholston for his actions in the 2011 Michigan game, so the Big Ten stepped in with a suspension. The league should have done the same in this case.

Even a half-game suspension, which the SEC probably has trademarked, would have shown some teeth here. Instead, the Big Ten protects its championship game from being affected, and its biggest brand from being impacted in its quest to reach the national title game.

Monday's response will add to the widely held belief by many Big Ten fan bases that the league goes all out to protect Ohio State and Michigan. The response will bring more heat for league commissioner Jim Delany, who still gets ripped for going to bat for Ohio State's "Tat-5" to play in the 2011 Sugar Bowl.

The championship game is a national showcase opportunity for the Big Ten, a chance to display its best product and the values it holds so dear. You'll hear a lot about honoring legends and building leaders, and big lives and big stages.

Then Wilson might return the opening kickoff, and Hall will take the field with Ohio State's starting offensive line. Are those the images the Big Ten wants to present?

"As bad as it was, we're fortunate the incident did not escalate any further," the Big Ten's SECtatement reads. "More can, and should, be done by both coaching staffs in the future to prevent similar incidents."

The Big Ten could have and should have done more, but chose to do the bare minimum.

Spring game recap: Ohio State

April, 15, 2013
4/15/13
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Our recaps of the Big Ten spring games continues with a look at Ohio State, which ventured down to Cincinnati and played before more than 37,000 fans at Paul Brown Stadium.

You can find full coverage of the Buckeyes game here, here, here and here.

Star of the game: Quarterback Braxton Miller was 16-of-25 for 217 yards, with two passing touchdowns and a rushing score. Adolphus Washington was credited with four sacks.

How it went down: The Scarlet team was pretty loaded on offense, and it showed in a 31-14 win over the Gray. Of course, whichever team had Miller was going to have the advantage, and the Scarlet enjoyed a solid day from the Heisman Trophy candidate as the Buckeyes focused on the passing game.

"It was a pass-heavy game, an area that we weren’t very good at last year, an area that we have to get better in," head coach Urban Meyer said. "I thought at times that Braxton Miller and a couple of the wideouts, Philly Brown in particular, did very well. It’s been a continuation of what started all spring and Philly Brown is turning into a legitimate All-Big Ten candidate at wide receiver for us, which we need.”

Brown had five catches for 25 yards and a touchdown, while spring hero Michael Thomas had seven receptions for 79 yards and a score. In two spring games, Thomas has 19 catches for 210 yards. In 12 actual games, he has three receptions for 22 yards.

The running game didn't do much, as the two Ohio State teams combined for just 122 yards on 45 carries. Still, Meyer was mostly pleased with the offense.

"I would be disappointed if we’re not the best offense in the Big Ten," he said.

The one major concern on that side of the ball remains the right tackle spot, which is unsettled after the spring game. The defense, even with four new starters on the line, exploited that to the tune of 11 "sacks" (the quarterbacks were not live). Sophomores Washington and Noah Spence combined for seven of those. The defense as a whole gained some confidence, even with stars Bradley Roby and Ryan Shazier sitting out because of injuries.

“I think we made great strides this spring," safety C.J. Barnett said. "There were a lot of questions coming into this season, especially on the defense with guys like John Simon graduating. It was important to see guys like Adolphus Washington step up and make some plays.”

Miller, who has worked on becoming a better passer, showed off some improved mechanics even as he did not get a chance to display his running skills.

"Fundamentally, he's pretty good,” Urban Meyer said. “But when it breaks down, that's when it starts to go. And I thought today that was pretty good. He had a couple situations where it didn't look very good, he went back to the old days and started running instead of keeping your eyes downfield. But he's much improved.”

There weren't many surprises in the Ohio State spring game -- everybody knows, for instance, that Miller is good. But the Buckeyes showed that they have some impressive young talent on the defensive line and an offense that is going to create problems for opponents once again in 2013.

Defense carries day for Stanford

September, 9, 2012
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PALO ALTO, Calif. -- That's more like it.

A week after Stanford sputtered to a 20-17 win against San Jose State, the Cardinal returned to form in a 50-13 victory against Duke.

Back to usual on the Farm? Not exactly.

The lopsided win didn't follow the script Stanford fans have become accustomed to over the past three years. There was no power running game to open up the pass, in fact Duke's nine-man defensive fronts caused the Cardinal to nearly abandon the run completely.

"If anyone has nine-man front run plays, please, don't keep them to yourselves," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "I give the coaching staff of Duke a lot of credit. They did the same thing to us last year; they made it tough on us. They made it hard on us and just like last year, you got to make plays in the passing game."

Stanford (2-0) finished with just 92 yards rushing on 26 carries, which snapped a 49-game streak in which the Cardinal ran for over 100 yards as a team. The last time it fell short of the century mark was a 31-14 loss at TCU on Sept. 13, 2008.

Without much room to operate, running back Stepfan Taylor ran for 69 yards on 14 carries and scored on a 13-yard run early in the second quarter.

While Duke (1-1) stacked the box to have success against the run, the Cardinal’s base 3-4 defense fared even better. The Blue Devils had negative yards rushing for most of the first half and finished the game with 27 yards on 23 carries.

[+] EnlargeEd Reynolds
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezEd Reynolds, left, scored two interceptions against Duke, returning one 71 yards for a touchdown.
By no coincidence did the stout defensive effort coincide with the return of linebacker Shayne Skov. Skov, who missed most of last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, made just four tackles, but the potential All-American’s presence on the field was no doubt felt by his teammates.

“It’s great to have his energy,” safety Ed Reynolds said. “He brings so much passion to the game as a teammate, as a leader and just having him out there running around doing what he does best was definitely a plus for us.”

Skov said there were no lingering effects from the torn anterior cruciate ligament.

“It didn’t bother me at all today. I think adrenaline is a hell of a deal, it can completely change you,” Skov said. “It changes how you feel and tomorrow, if you ask me how I feel, it’ll probably be a completely different answer.”

When it mattered, the Cardinal pass defense was effective too. Duke lived on a steady diet of quick, high-percentage passes to the perimeter throughout the game and didn’t hit on anything deeper until the game was well out of hand.

Reynolds, who has taken on a lot of the responsibilities that Michael Thomas held last year, has been an obvious bright spot through the first two games. After opening the season with an interception last week, he added two more against Duke and returned the first 71 yards for a touchdown to put Stanford up 43-6 late in the third quarter.

“Nothing has ever seemed too big for him,” Shaw said. “He’s got a great knack for reading quarterbacks and great knack for getting to the ball and the thing with him is that he’s a former running back, so once he gets his hands on the ball he can be dangerous.”

Last year, Thomas led the team with three interceptions and it took the team seven games to combine for that many.

Duke quarterbacks Sean Renfree and Anthony Boone combined to complete 42 of 63 passes for 358 yards, but just 105 of those yards came in the first half as Stanford built a 23-3 lead.

Drew Terrell took a lot of the pressure off the Stanford offense before it hand a chance to step on the field. After the defense forced a three-and-out to open the game, Terrell took the ensuing punt 78 yards for a touchdown.

“I saw on film earlier in the week that their punt team wasn’t real good at getting out,” Terrell said. “The punter outpunted the coverage. I saw there was one guy to beat. Fortunately, I was able to get inside of him and I saw it was me and the punter and as a returner you can’t let the kicker bring you down.”

Quarterback Josh Nunes couldn’t have been happier with how things opened up.

“That gave us an extra boost of confidence,” he said, “seeing Drew run down the sideline, it gets us all hyped up.”

Terrell added three catches for 39 yards and another touchdown to round out the best game of his college career.

With Duke set on stopping the run, Nunes had a chance to air it out more than in his debut. He completed 16 of 30 passes for 275 yards and three touchdowns, but threw his first career interception.

As well as the Cardinal played Saturday, it’ll take another significant week of improvement if the team expects to contend with No. 2 USC in the Pac-12 opener for both teams next week.

“All hand on deck, honestly,” Skov said. “It’s going to take everything we got and we know what’s ahead of us.”

Instant analysis: Stanford 50, Duke 13

September, 9, 2012
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PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Thanks to a 78-yard punt return for a touchdown by Drew Terrell following the first series of the game, the Stanford offense didn't take a snap without the lead as the Cardinal cruised to a 50-13 win. Here are a few highlights from the Cardinal's impressive victory:

It was over when: Duke failed to recover an onside kick to begin the second half. Stanford capitalized with a quick touchdown drive -- capped by a 19-yard pass from Josh Nunes to Terrell -- to go up 30-3.

Game ball goes to: Safety Ed Reynolds already has as many interceptions this season (three) as team leader Michael Thomas did all of last year. He had two picks against Duke, the first of which he returned 78 yards for a touchdown.

Stat of the game: Four yards rushing for Duke in the first half. Stanford forced the Blue Devils to be one-dimensional from the start, which had a trickle down effect on their passing game. Duke settled for quick passes to the perimeter, which played into Stanford's strength on defense.

Unsung hero: Shayne Skov. Coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament, Skov might not have shown up in the box score like he's been known to do (four tackles, one pass breakup), but his presence added a noticeable swagger to the defense -- something it lacked against San Jose State.

What it means: Stanford will still be big underdogs next week when it hosts No. 2 USC, but the prognosis for the rest of the season looks much better than it did after its closer-than-anticipated win against San Jose State in the season opener. By building a big early lead, coach David Shaw and offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton were able to keep a lid on portions of the offense that'll be available against the Trojans.
A couple of weeks ago, I took a look at the Big Ten quarterbacks who were most likely to throw for 3,000 yards. Last week, I examined the running backs most likely to crack 1,000 yards. If you sense a pattern, you're right. Today, we're going to check out which players can reach the milestone of 1,000 receiving yards in 2012.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. Kenny Bell, Nebraska: Bell had a really strong freshman campaign, leading the Huskers with 432 receiving yards. Word out of Lincoln is that Taylor Martinez and the passing game look a lot better. Still, since Nebraska has never had a 1,000-yard receiver in its history, we're going to call this one a long shot.
Taking a page from our friends at the SEC blog, we're going to look at several Big Ten players who have a lot to prove during the 2012 season.

We'll break this up into divisions, starting with the Leaders.

Here are five players with plenty to prove this fall:

1. Matthew McGloin, QB, Penn State: New Penn State coach Bill O'Brien hasn't officially named his starting quarterback, but the expectation is McGloin will get the nod. McGloin has made 10 starts during the past two seasons but taken the majority of snaps for the Nittany Lions. He'll likely get the first shot to run O'Brien's straight-from-the-NFL offense, which will put a lot of pressure on the signal caller. Most folks have written off Penn State's passing attack after the past two seasons, but McGloin doesn't lack confidence and embraces the opportunity to prove his doubters wrong.

[+] EnlargeMatt McGloin
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarPenn State QB Matthew McGloin will likely get the first shot at running Bill O'Brien's new offense.
2. Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State: From the moment Ohio State introduced Urban Meyer as its next head coach in November, the assumption was that Miller would flourish in Meyer's spread scheme. Miller showed his speed and athleticism as a freshman last fall, but he rarely got to throw the ball in an ultra conservative scheme and completed only 54.1 percent of his passes. Although he impressed Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman with his passing skills this spring, he has to show consistency when the games begin this fall. Ohio State's lack of depth at receiver isn't a secret, and while Miller has a few nice weapons (Jake Stoneburner, Jordan Hall, maybe freshman Michael Thomas), he'll need to make things happen for the offense to click in Year 1.

3. Michael Buchanan, DE, Illinois: The Illini have grown accustomed to producing elite defensive linemen, and the hope is that Buchanan will be the next surging star. Buchanan impressed the new coaching staff this spring with his explosiveness from the end spot. Illinois must replace All-American end Whitney Mercilus, who led the nation in sacks (16) and ranked second in tackles for loss (22.5). The Illini likely will be a defense-driven team because there's more continuity on that side of the ball. And while the overall defensive line looks strong, Buchanan can provide a major boost if he takes his game from good to great.

4. Ricky Wagner, OT, Wisconsin: Speaking of teams that mass-produce elite linemen, Wisconsin's success along the offensive front has been unparalleled in the Big Ten in recent years. The Badgers have had multiple All-Americans on the offensive line in each of the past two seasons. Who's the next star? All eyes are on Wagner, who has started 24 games at the tackle position in the past two seasons. He's entering his second year as the starting left tackle and will be protecting the blind side of the team's new starting quarterback. Wagner also will be instrumental in maintaining Wisconsin's rushing success behind Heisman Trophy candidate Montee Ball. Again, here's a guy who needs to take his game to the elite level.

5. Rob Henry, QB, Purdue: The Boilers have a unique quarterback dynamic entering the season -- they have three players who have made multiple starts -- and it's hard to know where Henry fits into the mix. He would have been the starter in 2011 after a strong offseason, but he tore his ACL in late August and missed the year. Henry was limited this spring and needs to catch Caleb TerBush and Robert Marve on the depth chart. There's no doubt Henry is the best athlete of the bunch, but he'll need to convince the coaches he's the best man to lead the offense. Last month, he had to shoot down rumors (via Twitter) that he would be switching positions. This fall, he can reclaim his place at the helm of the offense.
Spring practice is a time when coaches install new schemes or just instill the fundamentals. The most exciting part of spring practice is potential new stars emerge, with newcomers or former reserves turning heads with their performances.

Some of these guys will fade back into the shadows come fall. But others will be making major contributions on a field near you. Here's a list of some players who had breakout springs:

Josh Ferguson, RB, Illinois: Redshirted last year after a hamstring injury, Ferguson blew up for 130 yards and caught six passes in the Illini spring game. He flashed his speed and versatility for an offense that desperately needs playmakers in its new spread attack. Ferguson should be in line to get a lot of touches in 2012.

Michael Thomas, WR, Ohio State: A true freshman who enrolled in January after spending a year in prep school, Thomas suddenly became Braxton Miller's favorite target in the spring game, hauling in 12 catches for 131 yards. Like Ferguson, he gave a glimmer of hope to a position that was sorely in need of a boost for the Buckeyes, and he'll get a shot at plenty of playing time right away.

Darien Harris, LB, Michigan State: Few people were talking about Harris at the start of spring, especially since the Spartans return all three starting linebackers. But with Chris Norman out this spring with an injury, Harris got a bunch of reps and ran with it. Mark Dantonio called the redshirt freshman "one of the exciting surprises of the spring." He'll play this fall, but the question is how much?

[+] EnlargeBill Belton
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicBill Belton had a nice performance during Penn State's Blue-White spring game, rushing for 53 yards and a TD.
Joey Burzinski, OL, Michigan: Even most Wolverines fans had probably not heard of Buzinski, a walk-on freshman, before this spring. But a strong work ethic and a lack of depth on the Michigan O-line helped him make a move until he found himself working with the first string. Burzinski is no lock to start but should see minutes somewhere on the line and is a great story.

Bill Belton, RB, Penn State: Belton was a highly-regard recruit who started to make an impact at the end of last season. Moved to full-time running back this spring, he responded by making a lot of plays and adding depth to a spot that was extremely thin behind Silas Redd. Belton's versatility should help him become a useful weapon in Bill O'Brien's offense.

David Cooper, LB, Indiana: There's no question that the Hoosiers desperately needed some help on defense, and head coach Kevin Wilson scoured the junior college ranks for a talent injection. Cooper, along with Jacarri Alexander, proved he could run and tackle this spring, and he also brought a high energy level that rubbed off on his teammates. He's slated to start at middle linebacker and hopefully bring some improvement to the overall defensive effort.

C.J. Fiedorowicz, TE, Iowa: He was a hyped recruit, and now Fiedorowicz might be about to show why. A matchup nightmare at 6-foot-7 and 265 pounds, the junior is expected to play a major role in new offensive coordinator Greg Davis's offense, and James Vandenberg has to love having such a big target.

Frankie Williams, S, Purdue: By the end of last season, Danny Hope regretted his decision to redshirt Williams because he felt he could have contributed at cornerback. Williams moved to safety this spring and got the start there in the spring game. The Boilers are deep at corner but could use a little help at safety, and Williams looks ready to fill that need.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Bradley Roby came to Ohio State with a specific plan mapped out.

Redshirt the first year, in part because the Buckeyes had two senior starters returning at cornerback (Chimdi Chekwa and Devon Torrence). Check.

Earn a starting job as a redshirt freshman and keep it throughout Year 2 in the program. Check.

Cover the Big Ten's best wide receivers -- including four selected in last month's NFL draft -- both in games and in Buckeyes practices. Check.

"That's what I put all my efforts into," Roby told ESPN.com, "and I'm glad it came to fruition."

One item not included on Roby's plan was upset a future first-round pick with both skills and trash talk. But he succeeded in doing so during Ohio State's victory at Illinois in October. Roby held Illini star receiver A.J. Jenkins to 80 yards and no touchdowns -- Jenkins came in averaging 135.8 yards and 1.2 touchdowns per game. Roby also set up Ohio State's first touchdown with a 36-yard interception return.

Roby had sparked some fireworks earlier in the week when he described Jenkins as "decent, but he's nothing special, really." Jenkins had proclaimed himself the Big Ten's top receiver earlier in the season, and he had been backing it up. Roby now says the media spun his comments "out of control" but admits his words added excitement to the game.

The Buckeyes cornerback doesn't hide the fact he likes to talk trash during games, but most of his targets don't return fire. Jenkins did.

"I guess that's because I got in his head," Roby said. "Because if they're not responding to you, most likely they’re trying to ignore you. But if they're yelling back at you, it means you're getting to them. So keep doing it."

Roby will keep yapping, and he'll continue seeking out the best competition. Last fall, he lined up across from standouts like Michigan State's B.J. Cunningham and Wisconsin's Nick Toon. He already has watched some tape of California standout Keenan Allen, a first-team All-Pac-12 selection in 2011 who will visit Ohio State in Week 3.

The 5-foot-11, 190-pound Roby also challenged himself in practice by seeking out DeVier Posey, Ohio State's top receiver. Posey played in just three games last season because of suspension, but was drafted in the third round in April.

"I always would want to go against DeVier last year to make sure I'm getting better," Roby said. "You only get better when you go against better people. If you can hang with DeVier, you can hang with any receiver in the Big Ten."

Ohio State's lack of depth at receiver entering 2012 is well documented, and asked who he sought out this spring, Roby replied, "Nobody, really." Still, he has a good eye for talent. When we talked two days before Ohio State's spring game, Roby spotted freshman Michael Thomas walking by and told me to look out for him. Thomas ended up recording 12 catches for 131 yards in the spring game.

Roby spent much of the spring working on off-man coverage, a focal point for new secondary coaches Everett Withers and Kerry Coombs. Ohio State played mostly press coverage in 2011 and will continue to do so, but off-man will be a bigger part of the scheme going forward. Roby welcomes the change.

"If you're a good athlete, anybody can play press," he said. "Coach Withers told me that's one thing in the [NFL] a lot of corners don't know how to do when they come from college. They just press, and they can't play off-man. Some teams need their corners to play off-man, so if you can't do that, you can't play. So me being able to learn this at this age, having three years left eligibility-wise, it will definitely help me by the time I get to that next level."

The next level is certainly part of Roby's plan, and broadening his coverage skills is crucial in taking that step.

"Technique, eyes in the right place, making sure you stay low," he said. "You've got to be disciplined to play off-man, because one false move, it's a touchdown."

Roby made some false moves during his first season in the fire, but he also showed he's a playmaker, tying for the team lead in interceptions (3), leading the team in pass breakups (6) and adding a forced fumble and 3.5 tackles for loss. The rapid rise didn't surprise Roby, who, in case it's not obvious, oozes confidence.

"To be a DB, you've got to have that," Buckeyes safety C.J. Barnett said. "You've got to think you're the best out there, because you don't have confidence, you're going to get beat. Roby, he exerts that. I really wasn’t surprised by what he did last year. We all knew that he was good. He just needed his time and he stepped up."
Stanford's secondary is going to be young next season. Not exactly breaking news, but that's the reality when four seniors, three of them starters, graduate. But the players returning also have some experience and quality playing time, which should help compensate for their youth.

In other words, there no excuses.

"I think [defensive coordinator Derek] Mason might have been a little more tolerant with us last year, a little more patient," said safety Jordan Richards. "Not anymore. We've all been here and have a full season under our belts. This is on us -- and coach Mason is making sure we know that."

[+] EnlargeJordan Richards
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireJordan Richards is one of many young Cardinal defensive backs that will have to replace three senior starters.
The back four -- two cornerbacks and two safeties -- have to be getting tired of hearing how good the front seven is going to be. They are so experienced. This guy is back and that guy is back. It gets old. And if the front seven is considered Stanford's defensive strength, by virtue of elimination, the back four can't be.

That perception is something the group is looking to alter. But first they'll need to settle some competition. Gone are safeties Delano Howell and Michael Thomas. Gone are cornerbacks Johnson Bademosi and Corey Gatewood.

Terrence Brown and Barry Browning are back at cornerback, along with the highly-touted Wayne Lyons who is returning from a foot injury. Usua Amanam should also be in the mix and don't be surprised if Alex Carter makes an immediate impact when he arrives in the summer. Also returning are Richards and Devon Carrington at the safety spot along with Ed Reynolds, who is also returning from injury. Kyle Olugbode has also seen reps this spring.

Richards was one of the true freshman called into action when Howell went down for several games with a hand injury. He started three games for Stanford last year -- the most brutal stretch of the season that included at USC, at Oregon State and home to Oregon. Tough detail.

"It was, at times, a blur," Richards said. "And other times, I felt like I was in control and the game slowed."

The telling part of that quote is the "at times" portion. Richards notched eight tackles in his first start against USC. Then a couple of games later he watched Oregon run all over the Cardinal. Sometimes good, sometimes bad. In his second year, he's striving for more consistency. And having had the chance to learn behind Thomas and Howell, he thinks he's found it.

"I learned how to see the game from those guys," Richards said. "As a freshman, you come in with tunnel vision. You need to learn to see how things move around. Now it's a transition. You've been here for a year, you learn to read formational cues and the game slows down a lot more. You know what the offensive tendencies are. That's the biggest difference. You're not a deer in the headlights anymore. You just go out and play and try not to over think it."

Brown has the most experience at cornerback, followed by Browning who started three games last season. According to Richards, Brown and Reynolds have taken on the leadership roles vacated by the departed seniors.

"As a group, it's been TB and Ed," Richards said. "Those guys have been around. But we all know what's at stake, and we're all trying to be leaders and be on our game as a group because we know that we are going to be young and people are going to try to come after us."

Like in Week 3, when the Cardinal host USC -- a pass happy offense with the Heisman front-runner at quarterback, the top wide receiving duo in the country and possibly the No. 1-ranked team in the nation. So this group is going to have to find a way to come together quickly.

"That's what the spring is all about," Richards said. "We're working hard to be a cohesive group. Coach Mason is pushing us and I think we're going to come together."

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