NCF Nation: Mike Ekeler

Spring Q&A: Indiana's Kevin Wilson

February, 28, 2013
2/28/13
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There's reason to be cautiously optimistic about Indiana football in 2013. The Hoosiers improved their wins total last fall by three and amazingly in November found themselves in contention to represent the Leaders Division at the Big Ten title game. All but three starters return, including the playmakers from an offense that finished second in the Big Ten. Quarterback Tre Roberson has recovered from a broken leg and will compete to reclaim his starting job this spring. The schedule features eight home games for just the second time in team history. IU isn't without major concerns, namely a defense that hasn't consistently stopped anyone for more than a decade and recently lost co-coordinator Mike Ekeler to USC. The team only went 4-8 in 2012 and must build much better depth at several positions, starting in spring ball, which kicks off Saturday.

ESPN.com caught up with IU head coach Kevin Wilson to discuss the spring.

What's the big theme for your team entering the spring?

Kevin Wilson: We've got enough guys back, we're stronger, we're mature, we understand each other and understand the standard. We've just got to continue to work at a higher level. When you're not mentally or physically as strong as you want to be, you've got to gain on it. There's different levels of that. It's nice that we get a lot of guys back, but you start over. We are starting over at a better spot because a lot of guys are back. We're building a foundation to play better football next year.

Where would you like to be from a depth standpoint by the end of the spring?

KW: Everybody's got depth issues and we could be better in certain areas, but we only lose about four or five guys who really played [in 2012]. We've got a lot of what's back, and we've got, on paper, a nice recruiting class that will help, but really it's not about the depth as much as it's about competition. Guys are pushing guys to be on the field. We've got a lot of guys back who have been second-teamers and the first-teamer [ahead of them] is back. Now how do you push that first-teamer and beat him him out? A great example is at quarterback. We've got three guys that have all played, they've all played kind of well, their stats are OK, but we haven't won a lot of games. There's really not a proven winner. We've got guys that look like they can do OK, but they haven't proven they can win at a high level of Big Ten football. I think that will be an awesome competition. We want to see that across the board.

[+] EnlargeKevin Wilson
AP Photo/Darron CummingsWith numerous key players returning, Indiana coach Kevin Wilson is optimistic heading into spring workouts.
How do you identify winners in that group or other groups when you're not playing games?

KW: Sometimes you'll see who moves around, who gets the group in the end zone. But that sometimes can be skewed. A guy busts a coverage and a guy scores a touchdown, does that mean the quarterback is a better quarterback? Sometimes it's a play where there's not a good call and he's got to throw it out of bounds and it's a great play because there's nothing open. I just think your body of work, your body language, your leadership skills. Are you the best extension of the coaching staff and what we're trying to do? The game's called football and we put the football in your hands every snap. It's got to be a guy you trust because you give him the game, every game, and say, 'Go play.' Right now, those guys have all had some fair stats, but we want to see winning football played at that position.

How is Tre [Roberson] physically, and what do you expect out of him?

KW: He's been full-go. Right now, we're doing our offseason program, our agility program, and he's full-go. There's no limitations. I don't want him to be tackled, but we don't tackle the quarterbacks anyway, so I would anticipate he'll be out there every day. He's gotten bigger. When he got hurt, he was under 185 [pounds], right around there, and now he's pushing 200 pounds. He's bigger, stronger, looks good running. I don't think he's at full tilt, but every day he gets stronger, every day he gets better and every day he gets more confident. Knock on wood, he should have no limitations, and he'll compete every day with those other two guys [Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld].

You really bring back a lot at wide receiver, running back and tight end. How much competition is there at those other offensive positions?

KW: We've got everybody back except [center] Will Matte on offense. We didn't lose a quarterback, we don't lose a running back, we don't lose any receivers. So we've got basically the crowd back. It's the same deal. Our kids realize, though, that the deal is we're going to play a number of guys. It doesn't matter whether you go out there first or second, we're going to play six, seven, eight, nine guys. We need to have one or two more receivers than we have. We're going to [use] two tight ends at least, with two or three running backs and seven or eight receivers. So when you say depth, it would be nice to see some of these guys that redshirted continue to come on and help us as complementary tight end guys and complementary receivers.

The tempo we play with, you've got to play a number of skill guys. A lot of guys are back, they've seen that we're going to throw the ball to them, and they believe they have quarterbacks who will get it to them so they can make plays. I'm expecting that receiver group to pick it up. We'll see if they can keep plugging along there.

You lose a few pieces up front on defense. How does the defensive line shape up entering the spring?

KW: We signed two JC guys, one guy is here now [Jordan Heiderman]. We redshirted a big guy who we like. We did sign a couple of guys there, so some of those guys might get into the mix when preseason rolls around. But we need to play better across the board because we're making tweaks with what we're doing. We definitely need to play better run defense.

Schematically, will there be some new things on defense?

KW: I don't know if it's that. We've just got to look at the position we're putting guys in, where we're playing them. It's not major [changes]. Same with offense, you're always playing to your strengths and weaknesses. Right now, we've played OK on offense, and not very good on defense. So we have to keep coming on both sides. Defensively, we're developing players, but we have to make sure we're putting them in the right spots with play calling to play winning football.

We have enough guys coming back. We should continue to improve this program. We should continue to take a very positive step this year. That being said, we have to play better football on the defensive side. We made some subtle changes from Year 1 to 2. It still wasn't what we needed. There won't be wholesale changes, major deals, but we've got to keep looking for what works.

Where do you see the leadership emerging on the team, and can the secondary be a strength for you guys because you have quite a few players back who have played?

KW: Probably more competition and depth back there than we've had. And I think we've signed a couple kids who can get in the mix to help us. The linebacker corps got real beat up last year. Jacarri Alexander and Chase Hoobler missed some games, two of our starting three missed four, five, six games independent of each other. It took a toll. We're losing [Adam] Replogle and [Larry] Black and Will Matte and Nick Sliger, those are the four guys who really played. The fifth guy would be Charles Love, the backup tight end. So when you look at the football team, basically everyone's back, so with the leadership, hopefully you'll see that linebacker corps pick up and the secondary. We've got to establish a standard of what winning defensive football is at Indiana, and how we're going to play it. We'll build a mindset, we'll do some subtle structure things to hopefully position our players in better places, and we'll tackle better and get off the field and make stops and get some turnovers.

We've got to take a step offensively, be more wide open, continue to improve, take care of the ball and score more points. And we've got to improve defensively. When you're a 4-8 football team, that's not good. We're definitely moving in the right direction. Nineteen starters are back, and 14 of them are sophomores and juniors. So we've got some guys we can work with, and we've got the best recruiting class we've brought in. We basically have five seniors on scholarship and we signed 22. So we've got the core team back. It needs to get better. I think we'll make some nice additions as preseason comes around, and hopefully we'll continue to be more competitive and play the brand of football we're trying to build here.
The showdown will happen: Wisconsin at Indiana, next Saturday in Bloomington, a berth in the Big Ten title game likely at stake.

If you expected it before the season, board a plane to Las Vegas. For the rest of us, it comes as a huge surprise.

Indiana stayed very much alive in the chase to represent the Leaders Division at the Big Ten title game Dec. 1 in Indianapolis, holding off Iowa 24-21 at Memorial Stadium. After a miserable start, the Hoosiers made more plays on both sides of the ball and recorded their first Big Ten home win since 2009. They've won back-to-back Big Ten games for the first time since 2007, the last time they reached a bowl game.

Kevin Wilson's squad didn't get an offensive explosion Saturday, but wide receiver Cody Latimer stepped up in a big way with seven catches for 113 yards and three touchdowns, including a 30-yard catch with 10:58 left that proved to be the game-winner. After quarterback Nate Sudfeld had provided a boost in recent weeks, Cameron Coffman proved to be the more effective signal caller against Iowa, competing 21 of 32 passes for 315 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. Wilson was right: Coffman and Sudfeld are very even, and both can be effective at times.

Indiana should have had more than 24 points but made several mistakes in Iowa territory, including its first lost fumble of the season in the fourth quarter by Stephen Houston.

Yet the Hoosiers (4-5, 2-3) were the better team and showed it, especially on defense, a unit that has struggled much of the season. Coordinator Mike Ekeler called out the defense after last week's win against Illinois, and his crew answered, holding Iowa to just 14 offensive points (the Hawkeyes had a pick-six by Christian Kirksey against Sudfeld) and 5 of 14 third-down conversions. The Hawkeyes finished with only 96 rush yards on 30 carries.

Iowa (4-5, 2-3) got the start it needed, jumping ahead 14-0 behind a James Vandenberg touchdown pass to Kevonte Martin-Manley (7 catches, 131 yards) and Kirksey's 18-yard interception return. Vandenberg completed 10 of 15 passes in the first half, but made a costly error in the third quarter, throwing an interception in the end zone. It has been a nightmarish senior season for Vandenberg (21-of-34, 251 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) despite some bright spots in the past two weeks.

The offense gave Iowa a chance with the go-ahead score early in the fourth quarter, but the defense couldn't get off of the field. Coffman converted two key third downs to tight end Ted Bolser, and wide receiver Kofi Hughes (6 catches, 110 yards) had a big afternoon.

Iowa has lost three straight and must win two of its final three to get bowl-eligible.

Indiana is building its program, but in this year's Big Ten, it finds itself with a tremendous opportunity. The Hoosiers control their own fate in repping the Leaders division, and a win next week against Wisconsin will move them much closer to Lucas Oil Stadium.
At 3:07 p.m. ET last Saturday, Indiana beat Illinois to record its first Big Ten victory in 701 days.

It qualified as a fairly big deal.

But it became an even bigger deal three and a half hours later, when Wisconsin fell to Michigan State in overtime. All of a sudden, Indiana found itself in the thick of the race to represent the Leaders Division at the Big Ten title game. Ohio State and Penn State are both ineligible, and both Purdue and Illinois are out of the picture. If the Hoosiers win this week against Iowa, they would set up a potential play-in game Nov. 10 against Wisconsin in Bloomington.

Talk about jumping from Point A to Point I -- as in, Indianapolis.

While no Big Ten campus is located closer to Lucas Oil Stadium than Indiana's (49 miles), no Big Ten program must travel further on the road to respectability than IU, which has won one or zero Big Ten games in eight of the past 10 seasons. This is a team that failed to beat an FBS opponent in 2011.

So you can forgive Indiana coach Kevin Wilson and his players for not getting too wrapped up in the title game talk.

"We finally did have a scoreboard go our way Saturday," Wilson said. "We still have a lot of things we can clean up, and we addressed that with those guys first thing Monday. We have a long way to go in building our team, and we've had very short success, very small success, so I don't think we’re strong enough to look at the big picture.

[+] EnlargeIndiana's Kevin Wilson
Evan Habeeb/US PRESSWIREIndiana coach Kevin Wilson and the Hoosiers got their first Big Ten win last week, and still have a chance to win the Leaders Division.
"We're just trying to keep it very small and very simple."

If you're looking for progress, you can find it with IU. Despite a 3-5 record, the Hoosiers have held a second-half lead in six of their eight games. They've been within one score in their other two contests (Ohio State and Northwestern). Look at where IU stacks up statistically in the national rankings in 2012 vs. 2011, and you'll see sizable gains across the board.

Not convinced? Check out what co-defensive coordinator Mike Ekeler had to say following the Illinois win, a game in which Indiana allowed 17 points and racked up 12 tackles for loss and seven sacks.

"That was our worst game we played all year on defense," Ekeler told ESPN.com. "I felt like we were a step slow. We weren't getting off blocks. I'm not taking anything away from Illinois, but I feel like we were just running in mud. We left a lot out there."

Keep in mind Indiana recorded season highs in both sacks and tackles for loss against the Illini. The Hoosiers had surrendered an average of 39.8 points in the five games heading into last Saturday's.

"I felt we weren't very physical," Ekeler continued. "We had way too many loafs. One's too many, but we didn’t play even close to our ability, and that's frustrating. You've got to earn it every week, and I just feel like we didn't earn it last week."

Whether it's a motivational ploy or a reflection of his true belief, Ekeler's statements make it clear the standards are being raised for Indiana, and particularly for a defense that has been the Big Ten's single worst unit for more than a decade.

"After the game, I felt like we'd played really well," Hoosiers defensive back Greg Heban told ESPN.com. "But coming in and watching the film Monday, we kind of agreed with [Ekeler]. Small things like missed assignments that can hurt us, that maybe didn’t hurt us during the game but could have.

"One thing it says about our program is we can go out there and not play to the best of our ability and still win. That's how far we've come."

Indiana's defense is, in many ways, the best barometer for program. The Hoosiers have put up points under offensive-minded coaches before, just like they are with Wilson. But the defense hasn't turned a corner.

There's hope this season as Ekeler sees improved depth and a changing culture. Indiana has two clear defensive leaders and standouts in Heban and senior defensive tackle Adam Replogle (52 tackles, 7 TFLs, 4 sacks, 2 forced fumbles). Each has been named the team's defensive player of the week four times this season. Indiana already has more sacks (18) than it had all of last season (20), and as many tackles for loss (60) as it had in 2011.

"All our kids have played their tails off," Ekeler said. "They're up here all the time, more so than any other place I’ve ever been. These kids are invested."

Heban also sees an uptick in enthusiasm throughout the team.

"Last year, we felt we didn't have anyone's respect, so we got down on ourselves," he said. "This year, we know we're capable. We feel confident in ourselves."

Wilson has made "Win Today" the program's motto. Although a unique Big Ten season and an especially unique situation in the Leaders Division leaves the door open for a breakthrough, Indiana still must show it can win consecutive Big Ten games -- something it hasn't done since the 2007 season, the last time the Hoosiers went bowling.

Indiana aims for its first conference home win since 2009 on Saturday against Iowa.

"If you're good, you can do it back-to-back weeks," Wilson said. "... To build our team, to play up to our capabilities, to build a winning program, we've got to keep pushing to get better. We're not near as good as we’re capable of being. We're not near as good as you need to be to be a consistent winning program."

But they're getting a little bit closer.
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Wisconsin is looking down at the rest of the conference after its dominating performance against Nebraska. Michigan deserves some love after eviscerating Minnesota, while Illinois keeps finding ways to win. Michigan State continues to play lock-down defense, while the rest of the conference doesn't look good at all.

There's not a ton of shuffling in this week's power rankings, but the league race is starting to take shape.

And away we go ...

1. Wisconsin (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten): After stomping subpar nonconference foes, Wisconsin turned its attention to Nebraska and rudely welcomed the Huskers to their new league with a 48-17 beat-down. Quarterback Russell Wilson is the big story, and for good reason, but the entire offense continues to click and looks practically unstoppable. The defense, meanwhile, capitalized on Taylor Martinez's mistakes as Wisconsin pulled away. The win left no doubt that Wisconsin is the team to beat in the Big Ten.

2. Michigan (5-0, 1-0): Minnesota is horrendous, but we're beginning to buy into this Michigan team. The defense has made some significant strides after a historically poor three-year stretch, and Denard Robinson leads a dynamic offensive attack. Michigan got creative against Minnesota and everything worked in a 58-0 romp. We'll learn more about the Wolverines as they hit the road the next two weeks against Northwestern and Michigan State. But so far, so good.

3. Nebraska (4-1, 0-1): We're keeping the Huskers here for now, but we need to see a much better performance this week against Ohio State. Coach Bo Pelini said he was embarrassed by his team's defensive performance in Madison. While Wisconsin makes a lot of defenses look bad, there's something wrong with a Blackshirts unit that entered the season with such promise. Nebraska also needs to stick to its run-based offense as Martinez still can't avoid momentum-killing mistakes.

4. Illinois (5-0, 1-0): Football is all about response and finding ways to win, and Illinois has displayed plenty of fight and fortitude this season. The Illini are making mistakes that normally get you beat, yet still finding ways to pull out the Ws. After the defense secured wins against Arizona State and Western Michigan, the offense stepped up in a big way against Northwestern. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase was brilliant in the second half, and A.J. Jenkins showed why he's one of the Big Ten's best receivers.

5. Michigan State (4-1, 1-0): It wasn't a pretty game in Columbus, but Michigan State will gladly take its first win at The Shoe since 1998. The Spartans have defined themselves as a defensive football team this season, as their D smothered Braxton Miller and the Ohio State offense all afternoon. Defense can carry teams a long way, particularly in difficult road games, and Michigan State will be a squad to watch during what is shaping up to be a competitive Legends division race. The offense still must eliminate mistakes in plus territory.

6. Iowa (3-1, 0-0): The idle Hawkeyes move up a bit before opening the Big Ten season this week at Penn State. It's a critical game for two teams that have the potential to improve as the season goes along. A Hawkeyes offense surging behind quarterback James Vandenberg and a talented receiving corps will face a Penn State defense that has been brilliant for most of the season. Iowa's defense, meanwhile, has a chance to gain some confidence against the Lions, who still lack an offensive identity. If Iowa can continue its win streak against Penn State, look out for Kirk Ferentz's crew.

7. Ohio State (3-2, 0-1): It's a coin flip between Ohio State and Penn State here, as both teams have significant problems on offense and good defenses. Both teams also have one semi-quality win -- Ohio State against Toledo, Penn State against Temple. Fortunately for us, the Rockets and Owls played Saturday and Toledo crushed Temple 36-13 in Philly. So congrats, Buckeyes, you're No. 7 for now. Better go fix that offense, though.

8. Penn State (4-1, 1-0): The Nittany Lions had to be thinking Saturday would provide clarity and confidence for the offense. Nope. From the quarterbacks to the offensive line, Penn State isn't generating the consistency it needs to beat better Big Ten teams, beginning this week against Iowa. The defense has been outstanding all season, especially now without star linebacker Michael Mauti and several others. But unless the offense shows some life soon -- figuring out the quarterback would be a nice start -- Penn State is headed for more mediocrity.

9. Northwestern (2-2, 0-1): Everything seemed to be coming together for Northwestern, which surged to a 28-10 third-quarter lead at Illinois behind superb play from quarterback Dan Persa (career-high 4 touchdown passes). And then it all fell apart, as it has often the past year and a half. While Persa likely won't miss time after aggravating his surgically repaired Achilles tendon, Northwestern has to fix a defense that endured multiple breakdowns and never adjusted to Illinois' passing attack. Next up: Denard Robinson and Michigan. Yikes.

10. Purdue (2-2, 0-0): We were tempted to drop the Boilers lower, and we will if they don't turn things around in Big Ten play. The major mistakes and confusion that have surfaced throughout the Danny Hope era doomed Purdue against Notre Dame in a non-competitive game. Purdue's big night went south from the start, as an interception led to a quick Fighting Irish touchdown. Notre Dame dominated on both sides of the ball, leaving Hope to mull over a "very poor showing" by his squad, which was coming off of a bye week. Not good.

11. Indiana (1-4, 0-1): After hitting rock bottom at North Texas, Indiana rebounded nicely against Penn State, particularly on defense. Hoosiers defenders responded well to coordinator Mike Ekeler's challenge and forced two turnovers in their own red zone. A short-handed offense once again struggled to get going in the first half and didn't reach the end zone for more than 56 minutes. Indiana still has a bunch of flaws, but it can build off of an encouraging performance against a more talented opponent.

12. Minnesota (1-4, 0-1): While Indiana's rock-bottom moment came last week, Minnesota's arrived at the Big House, as the Gophers absorbed the third-worst defeat in team history and the worst in Jerry Kill's 18 years as a coach. The Gophers couldn't score, they couldn't tackle and, most depressing, they couldn't compete against Michigan. There might not be worse major-conference team than Minnesota, which might take up permanent residence in the "Bottom 10." Kill likened his team to a "broken-down company." Hard to argue.
Indiana will gladly take ugly so far as the 1-3 Hoosiers have more than kept pace with Penn State so far.

Let's take a look at the first half.

Penn State 3, Indiana 3: Penn State quarterbacks Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin showed a sense of humor this week about their never-ending competition.

It has been no laughing matter today. The Penn State offense looks like a total mess against the nation's 78th-ranked defense. Neither Bolden nor McGloin has looked like Big Ten starting quarterbacks, as they've combined to complete 8 of 21 passes for 131 yards with no touchdowns and an interception in the end zone. Ugh. Does Penn State have two quarterbacks or no quarterbacks? We'd all like to see a decision made, but McGloin and Bolden aren't making it easy. Maybe it'll change in the second half.

On the flip side, Indiana deserves a ton of credit for stifling Penn State, especially after last week's loss to North Texas. Co-defensive coordinator Mike Ekeler called out the unit and it has responded, recording two takeaways and keeping Penn State out of the end zone.

Dusty Kiel got the start at quarterback for Indiana because Ed Wright-Baker sustained a knee injury in practice this week. Kiel has completed 10 of 18 passes with an interception. He's getting no help from the run game and needs to find ways to stretch the field in the second half. But Indiana is right there in this one, 30 minutes away from a confidence-boosting win.
The Big Ten preseason position rankings have reached the home stretch as we take a look at the secondaries. Although individual positions like center and defensive tackle could boast more star power, the Big Ten's overall strength in the secondary jumps out.

There's a lot to like about the Big Ten cornerbacks as nearly every team boasts experience and/or exciting young players. The Big Ten loses All-Conference safeties Tyler Sash and Jermale Hines but brings back quite a few solid contributors.

There's definite separation after the top four groups, while Nos. 6-9 are extremely close.

Here's the rundown (coming soon: cornerbacks and safeties rankings) ...

[+] EnlargeDrew Astorino and D'Anton Lynn
Maxwell Kruger/US PresswirePenn State has an experienced secondary that includes safety Drew Astorino, right, and cornerback D'Anton Lynn, shown celebrating an Astorino interception last season.
1. Penn State: The Lions' linebackers seem to be generating more preseason buzz, but I really like what Penn State brings back in the defensive backfield. There's plenty of experience with safeties Drew Astorino and Nick Sukay, and cornerbacks D'Anton Lynn and Stephon Morris. Penn State needs Sukay to regain the form he showed in the first half of 2010 before a torn pectoral muscle ended his season. Lynn is a bona fide All-Big Ten candidate. If Malcolm Willis, Chaz Powell and others solidify depth here, Penn State should have an elite secondary.

2. Ohio State: This is a group the Buckeyes rarely have to worry about, even after losing three starters. The good news is several key players return from injuries, including safeties Tyler Moeller, C.J. Barnett and Christian Bryant. Moeller should provide a major boost at the "star" position. The cornerback spots should be fun to watch as Travis Howard and Dominic Clarke fend off some challengers for the starting jobs.

3. Nebraska: Like Ohio State, Nebraska can rely on having an elite pass defense under the Pelini brothers, even after losing several standout players. All-American corner Prince Amukamara will be missed, but Alfonzo Dennard is ready for a starring role. Nebraska needs Ciante Evans to follow what Dennard did in 2010. The Huskers likely will use more linebackers this season, but they'll need to fill holes at safety as Austin Cassidy, Courtney Osborne and others are in the mix.

4. Wisconsin: The Badgers' secondary took a major step forward in Chris Ash's first season on the staff. The key is continued progress, continued playmaking and becoming a truly elite group like Ohio State and Nebraska. Wisconsin seems to have the pieces in place with veteran Aaron Henry at safety, as well as All-Big Ten selection Antonio Fenelus and Devin Smith at cornerback. The Badgers must fill the other safety spot, and speedster Shelton Johnson could fill in there.

5. Michigan State: The secondary triggered Michigan State's 2010 turnaround, improving from 112th nationally in pass defense in 2009 to 60th last season. After recording 17 interceptions last season, the Spartans must stick to their MAP motto -- Make A Play -- as they aim for a repeat championship this fall. Safety Trenton Robinson is among the league's most experienced defensive backs, and hopes are high for cornerback Johnny Adams, who had an excellent spring. The unit could hinge on young players like Darqueze Dennard, Isaiah Lewis and Tony Lippett.

6. Iowa: The bad news is Iowa loses veteran safeties Sash and Brett Greenwood from a defense that slipped to 84th nationally against the pass in 2010. The good news is All-Big Ten cornerback Shaun Prater returns along with playmaking junior Micah Hyde. Prater could be a shutdown corner this fall, and Hyde, whose pick-six won the Insight Bowl, could play either corner or safety. Iowa must build depth around them with Jordan Bernstine, Greg Castillo, Tanner Miller and others.

7. Purdue: One of the Boilers' big question marks entering 2010 turned out to be a pleasant surprise, and the secondary could be a big strength this fall. Here's a group that could make a move up these rankings by November. Cornerback Ricardo Allen is a budding superstar who recorded two pick-sixes last season. Safety Logan Link is always around the football, and Josh Johnson could take a significant step as he complements Allen.

8. Illinois: I'm tempted to rank Illinois a few notches higher, and if the Illini address several questions in the secondary, I'll gladly do so after the season. If safety Supo Sanni returns to form and both he and cornerback Terry Hawthorne stay healthy, this could be an excellent group. Tavon Wilson returns to his preferred position of cornerback and could have a big season, while Trulon Henry brings experience to the safety spot.

9. Northwestern: Given the question marks in the front seven, Northwestern needs its veteran secondary to step up. Players like cornerback Jordan Mabin and safety Brian Peters should answer the bell this fall. Both multiyear starters can make plays on the football and change games. There's good competition between David Arnold and Ibraheim Campbell at the other safety spot, while Jeravin Matthews emerged this spring to win the starting corner job opposite Mabin.

10. Michigan: I'll probably take some heat from Wolverines fans, who will point to the return of cornerbacks Troy Woolfolk and J.T. Floyd, the emergence of young players like Carvin Johnson and a defensive makeover under Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison. All of that could lead to better results, but Michigan still has fewer certainties in the secondary than do most teams on this list. This unit has been a disaster the past few years, and it'll take a lot of things to go right to get things back on track.

11. Minnesota: Linebacker looks like a strength for the Gophers' defense, but there are questions both up front and in the secondary. The secondary will need more help from a line that generated no pass rush in 2010, but the defensive backs must help themselves, too. Cornerback Troy Stoudermire had a good spring and adds a big hitter to the group. Minnesota really needs big things from safety Kim Royston, who wants to lead the way after receiving a sixth year of eligibility. Building depth around Stoudermire and Royston will be vital in preseason camp.

12. Indiana: Fixing this group is arguably the biggest challenge for new coach Kevin Wilson and co-defensive coordinators Mike Ekeler and Doug Mallory. Indiana simply hasn't had enough Big Ten-caliber defensive backs in recent years, and the results have been ugly. The Hoosiers surrendered a league-worst 27 touchdown passes in 2010 and finished 114th nationally in pass defense efficiency. Sophomore safety Greg Heban is a nice piece, but Indiana will need a boost from Lawrence Barnett, Lenyatta Kiles and others.
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Kevin Wilson faces the two-pronged challenge of installing a scheme and installing a mindset this spring at Indiana.

There's no doubt which element matters more to the new Hoosiers' coach.

Wilson made it clear in a recent practice, eschewing his play-calling creativity in an effort to elicit the cornerstone values he wants in his program.

"It was third-and-1 or fourth-and-1, and every time we were going to run straight ahead and see if somebody knocks somebody backwards ... on either side of the ball," Wilson said. "Somebody's going to knock somebody backwards and get a stop or get a first down. A lot of times, we're running the same play over and over and over."

[+] EnlargeKevin Wilson
AP Photo/Darron CummingsKevin Wilson knows that he needs to change his players' attitude and mindset before he can start installing a complex offensive scheme.
Wilson might have landed this gig because of his imaginative play calls as Oklahoma's offensive coordinator. But before Indiana can run Oklahoma's offense, the Hoosiers must practice like the Sooners.

"I don't think our talent is as far off as you or most [reporters] think," Wilson said. "But our mental approach, our physical approach to practice, is not what I'm used to."

Wilson can live with the mistakes as players adjust to new systems on both sides of the ball. But he won't tolerate practicing at anything less than full tilt.

"You've got to push them," he said. "There's no patience in going hard. Patience is learning schemes, and you need time, but going hard is just a mindset. Being physical is a mindset. Every year, you start back at ground zero. You build the physical-ness of your team, the toughness of your team and the attitude of your team."

Indiana's attitude needs to change after the team found creative ways to lose the past several years. There's no excuse for a 3-21 mark in Big Ten play since 2007, but Indiana hasn't been far away from getting over that elusive hump.

Every time the Hoosiers near a breakthrough, something goes wrong. There have been blown leads (28-3 against Northwestern, 24-14 against Iowa in 2009); tough calls (the interception/reception at Michigan in 2009, the touchdown reversal at Iowa in 2009, a 97-yard touchdown called back on a holding penalty that resulted in a safety against Michigan State in 2008) and heartbreaking moments (a dropped touchdown pass in the final minute against Iowa in 2010).

After so many disappointments, players are almost conditioned to expect failure, even in spring ball.

"I was joking with [linebacker] Jeff Thomas in practice," guard Justin Pagan said. "We were doing field goals, and he's like, 'He'll probably miss it,' and I'm like, 'Yeah, he probably will.'

"You've got to break the thinking of, 'We did a good play, but what's going to happen now?' It's like, 'What's next?' Instead of, 'OK, let's keep it going.'"

That's where Wilson comes in.

"He wants us to believe in ourselves more than we do," Pagan said. "He can see we believe in ourselves, but he thinks it can go way farther than where we are."

Although Wilson's background is on the offensive side -- he hasn't ruled out calling plays this season -- he understands that Indiana only will turn a corner when it upgrades the defense. The Hoosiers have finished no higher than 71st nationally in total defense in the past 11 seasons and ranked 88th or worse nine times.

Wilson faced some hurdles in hiring assistants -- four left for other positions shortly after coming to IU -- but his final staff has a defensive flavor. Indiana has assigned assistants to defensive tackles (Mark Hagen), defensive ends (Brett Diersen), safeties (Doug Mallory) and cornerbacks (Brandon Shelby). Co-coordinator Mike Ekeler will oversee the linebackers, as he did at Nebraska.

Wilson, meanwhile, is coaching Indiana's tight ends because of how he organized his assistants.

"I've never been involved in a staff where we've had five full-time [assistants] on defense," said Mallory, who shares coordinator duties with Ekeler. "It's nice to have an extra coach."

Added Wilson: "We're doing that to make the strides defensively."

Mallory says he hasn't watched any tape of Indiana's defense from 2010, wanting to give his new players a clean slate. Instead, players are seeing clips of defenses like Nebraska's and LSU's that Ekeler and Mallory helped to shape.

"They don't talk about the time they had there; they just bring what they did here," defensive end Darius Johnson said. "They're just trying to get us to do the same thing."

The new staff has demanded a lot from the players, from a ramped-up winter conditioning program to up-tempo practices this spring. Scheme installation is part of the challenge, but Wilson doesn't want to get too bogged down in details right now.

He isn't sure if he'll stick with the no-huddle offense that always seemed to keep Oklahoma ahead of its competition. He doesn't have a depth chart and seems in no rush to put one together.

"We're not trying to overwhelm them with being smart coaches in scheme," Wilson. "We're trying to overwhelm them with how to be a physical, tough, hard-nosed player on both sides of the ball."
Spring practice is creeping closer, and Purdue will hit the field in less than two weeks (March 1 to be exact) for the first of its 15 workouts.

Here's a snapshot of what to expect in the Leaders Division this spring.

ILLINOIS

Spring practice starts: March 29
Spring game: April 23

What to watch:
  • New look at linebacker: Illinois loses first-team All-Big Ten selection Martez Wilson as well as playmaker Nate Bussey. They combined for 195 tackles, 20 tackles for loss, two interceptions and four fumble recoveries. The Illini need a middle linebacker and could turn to productive senior Ian Thomas or promising sophomore Jonathan Brown. Illinois also is replacing linebackers coach Dan Disch.
  • Ford tough: All-American running back Mikel Leshoure departs, turning the spotlight to Jason Ford. At 235 pounds, Ford is a true power back who will give the Illinois offense a slightly different look in 2011. The Illini also want to build depth at running back with players like Troy Pollard.
  • Replacing Liuget: Illinois begins the difficult task of replacing the Big Ten's most disruptive interior defensive lineman in Corey Liuget, a likely first-round draft pick in April. Akeem Spence had a very solid redshirt freshman season and will take on a larger role, but Illinois must build around him with Glenn Foster and others. This is a major priority for defensive coordinator Vic Koenning and line coach Keith Gilmore this spring.
INDIANA

Start of spring practice: March 8
Spring game: April 16
End of spring practice: April 19

What to watch:
  • Culture change: Kevin Wilson has talked extensively about changing the culture around the Indiana program, and the process begins in full force this spring. Players will have to adjust to the demands of Wilson and his staff, which still isn't in place but soon will be. There will be plenty of teaching and learning, as players must absorb Wilson's offense and a 4-3 defensive scheme (IU operated out of the 3-4 for part of last season).
  • Quarterback competition: Three-year starter Ben Chappell departs, and there's no clear-cut successor entering spring practice. Both Dusty Kiel and Edward Wright-Baker played sparingly in five games last season, and they bring different skills to the table. It'll be interesting to see who emerges under center this spring before acclaimed recruit Tre Roberson arrives for fall camp.
  • Identify defensive contributors: Indiana can't expect to get over the hump until it upgrades the defense, and co-coordinators Mike Ekeler and Doug Mallory begin a crucial evaluation process this spring. The Hoosiers need to build depth and identify Big Ten-ready players throughout the defense, particularly in the back seven after losing standout linebacker Tyler Replogle and others.
OHIO STATE

Start of spring practice: March 31
Spring game: April 23
  • Suspension preparation: Ohio State knows it will be without four offensive starters and a key defensive reserve for the first chunk of the 2011 season. This spring, the Buckeyes start the process of evaluating who will step in, especially at the quarterback spot for Terrelle Pryor. Joe Bauserman holds an edge in experience (though little has come in games), and he'll compete with Kenny Guiton and heralded incoming freshman Braxton Miller.
  • Receiving orders for Drayton: Stan Drayton left Florida for Ohio State primarily to expand his coaching repertoire and oversee a new position group. The career running backs coach will work with a mostly unproven group of Ohio State wide receivers this spring. Ohio State must replace All-Big Ten standout Dane Sanzenbacher, and DeVier Posey is among those suspended for the first part of the season. Says Drayton of his receivers, "Personnel wise, they're in competition with the whole offensive unit."
  • Up-the-middle defensive replacements: Excuse the baseball reference, but Ohio State loses several standout players in the core of its defense: linemen Cameron Heyward and Dexter Larimore, linebackers Brian Rolle and Ross Homan, and safety Jermale Hines. Although the Buckeyes always find ways to reload on defense, it will be interesting to see who emerges this spring, especially at linebacker.
PENN STATE

Start of spring practice: March 18
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • The quarterbacks, especially Rob Bolden: Penn State's quarterback competition should be wide open this spring, and it might be the most fascinating race in the Big Ten. You've got sophomore Rob Bolden, who asked for his release after the Gator Bowl but didn't get it from Joe Paterno, and has returned to compete for a job he thought he never should have lost. Junior Matt McGloin tries to redeem himself after the bowl disaster, and Paul Jones and Kevin Newsome also are in the mix.
  • Line play on both sides: The Lions boast enough at the skill positions on both sides of the ball to be a much improved team in 2011. But they have to get better and more consistent on both lines. The offensive line must replace standout Stefen Wisniewski and find the form it displayed in 2008. The defensive line tries to regain its swagger after backsliding in 2010, and identify a pass-rushing threat or two.
  • Kicking it: Collin Wagner was Penn State's top offensive weapon for much of the 2010 season, but the standout kicker departs the program, leaving a void. Punter Anthony Fera likely will handle the bulk of the kicking duties this spring until incoming freshman Sam Ficken arrives.
PURDUE

Start of spring practice: March 2
Spring game: April 9

What to watch:
  • Replacing Superman: Purdue returns nine defensive starters, but the Boilers lose Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Ryan Kerrigan. The Boilers were the league's top pass-rushing team in 2010, but Kerrigan's production and presence played huge roles in the overall sacks and tackles for loss totals. The entire defensive line took a step forward last fall, and will need to do so again without No. 94.
  • The quarterbacks: Robert Marve is still recovering from his second ACL tear, so Rob Henry, Caleb TerBush and Sean Robinson will be in the spotlight this spring. Henry showed promise when healthy in 2010, and TerBush had a strong spring a year ago before being ruled academically ineligible for the season. The quarterback race won't be decided until the summer, but all the candidates can help themselves in spring ball.
  • The offensive identity: A wave of injuries forced Purdue to overhaul its plan on offense in 2010. Although several key players will be out or limited this spring, the Boilers can start to reshape their plan on offense. Coach Danny Hope is optimistic Marve and the others return at full strength, but he doesn't want to take anything for granted. This is a huge spring for players a notch or two down the depth chart to get noticed.
WISCONSIN

Start of spring practice: March 22
Spring game: April 23

What to watch:
  • Finding Tolzien's successor: After a one-year respite, Wisconsin's annual spring quarterback competition resumes. Sort of. Jon Budmayr will have every opportunity to establish himself as the Badgers' top option before Curt Phillips (knee) returns to full strength. Budmayr turned heads with his performance two springs ago, but played sparingly last season behind Scott Tolzien.
  • New leadership on defense: Charlie Partridge and Chris Ash are familiar faces who step into new roles this spring. Partridge and Ash were promoted to co-defensive coordinators following Dave Doeren's departure, and they'll get their first opportunity to shape the defensive vision this spring.
  • Reloading on the lines: Wisconsin loses three All-American linemen from 2010: Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt on the offensive side, and J.J. Watt at defensive end. Although the Badgers must replace more bodies on the offensive front, they boast excellent depth there and should be able to fill the gaps. Watt leaves a bigger void, and Wisconsin needs strong springs from players like Louis Nzegwu and David Gilbert.
Doug Mallory and Mike Ekeler will try to accomplish something no one has done for at least a decade.

Make Indiana's defense respectable.

The Hoosiers' defensive struggles have kept the program from turning a corner in Big Ten play. Indiana has ranked 75th nationally or worse in total defense in nine of the past 11 seasons.

New coach Kevin Wilson hopes Mallory and Ekeler change the trend soon. Mallory, whose connections to the Indiana program run deep, returns to Bloomington following coaching stops at New Mexico, LSU, Oklahoma State and Maryland. Ekeler comes to Indiana from Nebraska, where he coached linebackers, and rejoins Mallory, with whom he worked at LSU.

I caught up with both men last week while they were recruiting and discussed their vision for the Hoosiers' D.

How would you describe your philosophy for this defense going forward?

[+] EnlargeDoug Mallory
AP Photo/Tim SharpDoug Mallory, shown during his stint at Oklahoma State, says Indiana will play a 4-3 scheme.
Mallory: Mike and I both come from the same background. We're going to run a system that will more than likely be what we did at LSU. Both of us have evolved since then and certainly we'll get input from other guys on the staff, but we're going to base out of a 4-3 and try to be multiple, but be simple for the kids. Everything we're going to start with is just fundamentals: the ability to defeat a block, the ability to get to the football and the ability to be productive at the end of a play, whether it's tackling or making a play on the ball. I think the first thing we'll do after we finish up the recruiting class is study the offenses here in the Big Ten and modify our system toward that. And then from there, as we get to know our current players and the incoming players, we're certainly going to have to modify it to their talent.

Ekeler: We worked together for three years at LSU and last year, Doug brought his staff to Nebraska. We're so similar. We may have done a few different things last year that we haven't in the past, and he's done a few things, but the whole package, we're already on the same page. As far as terminology, as far as schematically, we're already there. Our general philosophy is No. 1, our defense will be known for effort. It's not lip service. When you watch Indiana football, you're going to see 11 guys out there playing with passion and flying around and playing harder than anyone else. We want to [be] multiple but simple. You've got to be good at what you do. You base out of a 4-3 and you're an over and under team, you have a lot of pressures out of both fronts and you can sub personnel and it changes up a little bit.

We're seeing more and more co-coordinators throughout college football. What are some of the benefits of having the shared title?

Mallory: Two guys are going to have a title, but I want to make sure we're getting input from every member of the staff. Every defensive staff I've been involved with, everyone's given input to formulate game plans as the week goes on. It's going to be a group effort. When it comes to calling the game, it's going to be Mike and I, and even then, there's constant communication. I don't know who's going to be in the [press] box and who's going to be on the field, but we'll be constantly communicating, the ability to make the call, the ability to make an adjustment. I think it's a system that can work.

Ekeler: We're already on the same page coming in with coach Wilson and Doug. And then you have Corey Raymond, who was on the same staff at LSU for three years. Toss in Mark Hagen, who visited us quite a bit when we were at LSU. And then Jerry Montgomery comes in and has a little bit different background, more of a two-gap system at Iowa as a player and then did similar things at Wyoming. It all melds together well.

Why do you think it has been such a struggle for Indiana on defense?

Mallory: I really don't know. I know they've been very successful on the offensive side on the ball. I haven't spent a whole lot of time viewing what they've done in the past. I've watched a little bit of tape, but watched it more trying to evaluate the type of offenses that they were facing. I had an opportunity to work here from '94-97 with my dad [former IU coach Bill Mallory]. He had had some good defenses here back in the late 80s and early 90s. You look at any championship football program, and you've got to be able to play good defense. It's going to be a main point of emphasis this spring.

[+] EnlargeMike Ekeler
Donald Miralle/Getty ImagesMike Ekeler, shown while with Nebraska, says Indiana will build with players who love the game.
Ekeler: I haven't been here, so I really don't worry about the past. I just worry about the here and now. I've been part of some unbelievable defenses. So has Doug and so has the rest of our staff. We know what it takes, so it's just about laying that foundation. All I'm worried about is what's going to happen today and what's going to happen tomorrow.

When there has been a sustained period of struggling, is there a greater need to go back and look at what went wrong?

Mallory: No. I really don't worry about what's happened in the past. We've got a good plan. Kevin's done a tremendous job of putting the staff together. Every guy that he's hired has been involved with championship style programs. We all know what it takes to win and be successful. It's just a matter of us being on the same page, and hopefully that's going to filter down to our players.

Ekeler: Not at all. Players are players and we've got good players here. We have players who are eager to learn. We believe in what we've done defensively, and it's got a proven track record. It works. It's just a matter of teaching it and developing an attitude on defense and developing a culture where guys trust one another, they trust us and we'll just get after it. As far as anything that's happened in the past, that's history. We're going to make some new history, and that's all I'm focused on.

What do you look for when you're out there recruiting for this defense?

Mallory: The first thing in recruiting, you've got to evaluate the character of the individual, make sure he's a good quality person. And then make sure football's important to him. I look for a guy who's got the athletic ability to play whatever position we're recruiting him for. And a lot of intangibles come in. You'd like to have a kid that comes from a winning program, a guy that's been coached hard throughout his career, a guy that's going to take the coaching, a guy that will compete with tremendous effort. So you look at the talent, the size, the weight, the growth potential.

Ekeler: Obviously, the talent factor is No. 1. But then you factor in, is the guy tough? We want tough football players, hard-nosed guys. And then, does he love the game? I always ask the kid, 'If you couldn't play football anymore, how would that make you feel?' And if the kid is like, 'I don't know what I'd do, I love the game, it's everything to me,' those are the guys we want. Because when you come to college, that really separates guys. It's pretty much a job when you get here, and you've got to love it. If you don't love it, you can be good, but I don't know if you can ever be great. It's very similar to what the NFL scouts look for. They don't want to invest millions of dollars in a young man who somewhat likes the game. You've got to love it.
Indiana made things official Monday afternoon and announced Mike Ekeler and Doug Mallory as its new co-defensive coordinators.

Ekeler comes to IU from future Big Ten member Nebraska, where he coached the linebackers and helped mold players like Lavonte David and Phillip Dillard into stars. Mallory, a very familiar surname to Indiana fans, served as New Mexico's defensive coordinator the past two seasons.

Ekeler will continue to coach linebackers with the Hoosiers, while Mallory, the son of former IU coach Bill Mallory, will work with the safeties.
"I am excited to have Doug, Mike and their families join the IU football family," new Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said in a prepared statement. "They are both great additions to our program, university and the Bloomington community. Both men bring unparalleled character, energy, experience, enthusiasm and winning attitudes. This is a great start to the foundation we are building here."

These are undoubtedly Wilson's most important hires as he forms his staff at Indiana. The Hoosiers' defense has been bad for more than a decade and has prevented the program from consistently competing in Big Ten play. Wilson has the track record and the personnel to make things happen on offense at Indiana, but if Ekeler and Mallory can't get the job done on defense, it won't matter.

I like both hires as individuals -- especially Ekeler -- but I've never been a fan of co-coordinators. It didn't serve Indiana well the past few seasons with Joe Palcic and Brian George. Illinois also encountered problems with Dan Disch and Doug Mallory's brother, Curt, before Ron Zook brought in Vic Koenning as the sole coordinator last year.

Maybe this time the pairing works, but the jury is out.

I'm very interested to see how Ekeler and Mallory will work together. Mallory brings a lot of experience to the table and served as Indiana's defensive backs/special teams coach in 1994-96. Ekeler is a rising star and did great work at Nebraska under Bo and Carl Pelini, but he inherits a much tougher challenge in Bloomington.

Indiana's defensive staff also will include Mark Hagen, who moves over from archrival Purdue to coach the Hoosiers' defensive line and special teams. Although IU hasn't officially announced Hagen's hiring, it's going to happen.

Hagen spent the past 11 seasons at Purdue, the past two as the Boilers' linebackers coach. The Indiana alum is no stranger to coaching line play as he worked with Purdue's defensive tackles for most of his tenure in West Lafayette and helped to mold players like Mike Neal and Alex Magee. He's a strong recruiter in the state and in the region.

Overall, I like these hires for Wilson at IU, but it all comes down to whether the co-coordinator thing can actually work.

Big 12 weekend roundup

December, 20, 2010
12/20/10
9:00
AM ET
A few thoughts on the weekend's happenings:

Roy Finch has arguably been Oklahoma's most electrifying ballcarrier this season, but they'll be without him in the Fiesta Bowl after the freshman running back suffered a stress fracture in a non-contact drill during practice last week. Finch will be missed most in Oklahoma's "diamond" formation that featured three running backs surrounding quarterback Landry Jones, and he'll finish the year with 398 yards and a pair of touchdowns, just missing my Big 12 All-Freshman team.

Senior Mossis Madu will fill Finch's void, so it's not a pressing concern for the Fiesta Bowl's heavy favorites.You'll remember, he missed the first five games of the season after fracturing his left ankle on the same foot that suffered this most recent injury. The Sooners can take some comfort in the injury taking place in the same foot, and Finch will take 6-7 weeks to heal before returning for spring practice.

But moving forward, one more injury, especially one that's unrelated to the 5-foot-8, 180-pound speedster's left foot, is going to cause some legitimate concerns about Finch's durability. He's unquestionably emerged in 2010 as the future of Oklahoma's running game, beating out guys like Jermie Calhoun, Brennan Clay and Jonathan Miller, but he can't do any good on the sidelines. Moving through spring and fall camps, Oklahoma fans and coaches will be able to sleep a lot better if he can stay healthy through next August.

And consider also: For all the flack that DeMarco Murray gets for being "injury-prone," he got a high volume of carries in all four seasons as a Sooner.

Through just one season, Finch has already missed the same number of games (6) as Murray did throughout his entire career.


New Colorado coach Jon Embree officially finalized his staff, and it's clear what his priorities were. Outside of defensive line coach Mike Tuiasosopo, every hire had ties to Colorado, either the state or program. You definitely foster a very specific attitude in doing so, but we'll see if that results in wins after a move to the Pac-12 next year. He sacrificed experience for ties to the program in a couple of these hires, but no one will care if the wins come with them. If they don't, however, that fact will definitely be brought up as a criticism very quickly.

Here's Embree's latest staff hires, with more on the entire staff here:

Greg Brown - defensive coordinator/defensive backs

J.D. Brookhart - special teams coordinator/offensive passing game coordinator/tight ends

Kanavis McGhee/Mike Tuiasosopo - defensive line

Steve Marshall - offensive line

Former Colorado running back Eric Bieniemy, who also interviewed for the head coaching job and was hired at the same time as Embree, will serve as Embree's offensive coordinator.


Nebraska linebackers coach Mike Ekeler is headed to Indiana to take over as the Hoosiers defensive coordinator under new coach Kevin Wilson. Most notably, he'll be the first assistant under Bo Pelini to leave for a different job during Pelini's three seasons in Lincoln.

Wilson worked with Ekeler at Oklahoma when Ekeler was a graduate assistant in 2003-04 and Wilson coached the offensive line. Ekeler must have made an impression on Wilson during those years and again in the Big 12 Championship game. First-year linebacker Lavonte David also leads the Big 12 in tackles, including 17 in the Big 12 title game.

Indiana and Nebraska aren't scheduled to meet in Big 12 play until the 2013 season.


I DVR'd the Teas Class 5A Division II state championship and got my first good, long look at a couple possible future Big 12 stars headed to the conference in 2011.

Texas running back commit Malcolm Brown and Oklahoma State quarterback and cornerback commits J.W. Walsh and Josh Stewart faced off in Cowboys Stadium. Brown's Cibolo (Steele) team took down Walsh and Stewart's Denton (Guyer) squad, 24-21.

It's tough to tell a lot definitively in one look at a pressure-filled game, but all three had their moments. Brown doesn't have a ton of straight-line speed, but he's a smart, powerful runner with a good sense of holes and looked pretty skilled at reading his blocks. The physical talent is obvious, but if he carries that to Austin next fall, my guess is it's something that sets him apart from his competition. He's not one to shy away from contact, and he showed up every time Steele needed a big run. He finished with 107 yards on 28 carries and the game-winning touchdown.

Though Walsh's release is quick and his accuracy is good, he's still got plenty of room for improvement as a decision-maker. That said, he's a dangerous dual-threat guy that, if he ends up becoming the heir apparent to Brandon Weeden, would be pretty fun to watch in Oklahoma State's spread system, a la Zac Robinson.

He finished with 123 yards rushing and 9-of-17 passing for 91 yards with a pair of picks -- including one late that sealed the game. He had just four interceptions in Guyer's first 15 games, and averaged more than 200 yards passing.

His one touchdown pass was a 43-yard strike to Stewart, who also plays receiver.

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

I can't give out ESPYs for monumental spring performances. But I still have a few awards for outstanding achievement during spring practices around the Big 12.

Here are some of my more notable choices:

Best spring game performance by a quarterback: Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin picked up where he left off last season by passing for 310 yards and three TDs and rushing for 41 yards and another score in the Bears' spring scrimmage.

Best spring game performance by a non-quarterback: Texas A&M wide receiver Jeff Fuller produced nine catches for 154 yards and a touchdown and was the highest points producer in coach Mike Sherman's convoluted spring scrimmage that finished with a 117-107 final score. No, it wasn't an old ABA basketball game.

Best collective performance, offense: After finally getting healthy, Colorado's offensive line dominated throughout the spring. The Buffaloes culminated their development by producing 274 rushing yards and netting nearly 5.5 yards per carry, even when five sacks were factored into the statistics.

Best spring-game defensive performance: Kansas State's Brandon Harold was a pass-rushing beast, contributing three sacks along with a tackle for loss and nine tackles in the Wildcats' Purple-White game.

Best collective performance, defense: Texas' secondary showed two-deep talent throughout the camp, but saved their last for the Longhorns' spring game. They terrorized Heisman Trophy runner-up Colt McCoy, who completed only 11 of 24 passes for 95 yards. Most importantly, they produced two interceptions after notching only six during the entire 2008 season.

"Mr. April:" What is it about spring games and Oklahoma cornerback Dominique Franks? Franks produced two interceptions, including a 42-yard return for a touchdown, in the Sooners' Red-White game. Last year, Franks had three interceptions in the Sooners' spring game.

Best unlikely spring performance: Former Kansas State walk-on linebacker Alex Hrebec thrived in new coordinator Vic Koenning's new defense by notching 19 tackles in the Wildcats' spring game.

Best position change: Missouri redshirt freshman Brad Madison's move from offensive tackle to defensive end didn't catch many eyes early in spring practice. But Madison came on with a productive finish, capped by two sacks in a late scrimmage and development that pushed him into the mix for playing time in the fall.

Best performance by a freshman: Texas is looking for a boost in its pass rush after the departure of starters Brian Orakpo and Henry Melton from last season. Early enrollee Alex Okafor was stunning in his early work. Texas coach Mack Brown has always been hesitant to play freshmen, but Okafor's quick development in Will Muschamp's defense might cause him to change his opinion.

Best spring game atmosphere: What is it they say about there being no place like Nebraska? That certainly was the case for Bo Pelini's second spring game. Even with a $5 admission charged, a Big 12 high 77,670 turned out for the Cornhuskers' spring game. The total ranked third nationally, trailing only Ohio State and Alabama.

Best story of the spring: After struggling as he recovered from a career-threatening hip injury, Oklahoma State defensive end Richetti Jones finally started living up to the form that once earned him the nickname of the "Sack Master." Jones' development into a consistent threat will be important as new OSU coordinator Bill Young tries to cook up enough consistent defensive pressure to push the Cowboys into contention for their first South Division title.

Biggest spring non-story: The Robert Marve victory tour. The former Miami quarterback kept showing up around the Big 12 trying to find his next playing situation. He appeared for a few minutes at the Nebraska spring game and also met with Texas Tech coach Mike Leach about transferring there. Earlier, he unsuccessfully tried to convince Oklahoma and Oklahoma State coaches to join their programs.

Quotes of the spring:

"Young is not in our vocabulary. There will be no excuses. We've got to go out there and we've got to play as good as any linebacker corps in the country." Nebraska linebacker coach Mike Ekeler, telling the Lincoln Journal-Star he's not satisfied with his unit's improvement during the spring.

"Have you ever seen anything as boring as that?" Kansas State coach Bill Snyder after not exactly being enthused with his team's performance at its spring game.

"This isn't a team that walks around like the Steel Curtain. They know they gave up a lot of points, they know they gave up a lot of yards and know they didn't tackle well. That's where you have to start." Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads on his team's need for defensive growth.

"It doesn't matter to me at all. I know there isn't one on ours. And I know where the trophy is." Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, commenting to the Norman Transcript about Texas' claiming of the 2008* Big 12 title. The Longhorns briefly included last season -- with an asterisk -- among a group of team championships at the Longhorns' football training facility.

"Ed didn't like showing up and studying at places I felt like he needed to and like the academic people asked him to, so he can go study out there on the 50-yard line." Texas Tech coach Mike Leach, who explained to the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal why wide receiver Edward Britton was forced to study in the middle of the field at Jones AT&T Stadium after an early spring practice -- during the middle of a brief snowstorm.

"I challenged them. We have to do things that exceed what other people do because we need to get further faster." Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman, on his team's need for immediate improvement heading into the season.

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Bo Pelini's new contract received much of the buzz Monday as the Cornhuskers' second-year coach received a hike that will push his yearly contract to $1.851 million per season.

Lost in that fanfare was the 22.2 percent boost that Nebraska assistant coaches received in the new deal.

The highest-paid assistant will be offensive coordinator Shawn Watson, who will receive a whopping 66.7 percent increase from last season. Watson's new yearly salary will be hiked to $375,000,according to figures obtained by the Lincoln Journal Star. It will make Watson the highest-paid assistant coach in Nebraska football history.

Here's a look at the salaries of Pelini's staff for the 2009 season.

Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson                                   $375,000

Defensive coordinator/defensive line coach Carl Pelini           $208,360

Running backs coach Tim Beck                                           $208,360

Tight ends coach Ron Brown                                               $208,360

Offensive line coach/associate head coach Barney Cotton      $208,360

Wide receivers coach/assistant head coach Ted Gilmore        $208,360

Secondary coach Marvin Sanders                                        $208,360

Linebackers coach Mike Ekeler                                            $150,000

Defensive ends coach John Papuchis                                   $150,000

The collective package will pay Nebraska assistants a total of $1,925,160 -- the highest collective total ever paid to Nebraska assistant coaches. The school said the assistants' new salaries rank sixth among Big 12 teams.

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

And then there were three.

Big 12 teams, that is, who will have begun spring practice after Tuesday afternoon (Baylor and Texas are the other two). Oklahoma's practice begins today.

Bob Stoops will be busy trying to rebuild an offensive line that loses four starters and finding a few new receiving threats for Sam Bradford to throw to. It should be an interesting spring around his team over the next several weeks.

Here are some stories around the Big 12 for your lunchtime perusal this afternoon. Enjoy them.

  • The Miami Red Hawks are trying to get out of their Sept. 12 game against Colorado in order to play a potentially more lucrative game against Kentucky in Cincinnati, Boulder Daily Camera beat writer Kyle Ringo reports. If the move is made, the Mid-American Conference will work to find a suitable replacement for the Buffaloes that could be Akron, Bowling Green or Toledo.
  • The Waco Tribune-Herald's John Werner writes that converted Baylor running back Jeremy Sanders can help the Bears at his new position of safety due to his athleticism.
  • Oklahoma redshirt freshman linebacker Austin Box was cited by Norman police for urinating in public early Saturday morning, the Tulsa World's John Hoover reports.
  • The Kansas City Star reports that Illinois State athletic director Sheahon Zenger, a Kansas State graduate and a former associate athletic director for development at KSU, could emerge as a leading candidate for the vacant athletic director job at his alma mater. The school announced an eight-member search committee that will help KSU president-elect Kirk Schulz find the president, according to the Topeka Capital-Journal.
  • Austin American-Statesman columnists Kirk Bohls and Cedric Golden have video breakinf down what they've seen at Texas' first two spring practices.
  • Nebraska offensive coordinator Shawn Watson's experience in developing quarterbacks in his previous coaching history should be invaluable as he attempts to find a new starter for the Cornhuskers this spring, Lincoln Journal-Star columnist Steve Sipple reports.
  • Nebraska linebackers coach Mike Ekeler turned down a restructured offer from South Florida coach Jim Leavitt to become a defensive co-coordinator for the Bulls, Greg Auman of the St. Petersburg Times reports. The Tampa Tribune's Brett McMurphy reported that Ekeler, who had earlier turned down a similar offer to join Leavitt's staff, was offered a co-coordinator position along with Iowa State secondary coach Chris Ash.
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

• South Florida's defensive coordinator search hit yet another snag, Brett McMurphy writes in the Tampa Tribune. Head coach Jim Leavitt went back to Nebraska linebackers coach Mike Ekeler to offer him the job a second time, but Ekeler again said no. Next in line might be Iowa State secondary coach Chris Ash.

• The St. Petersburg Times has coverage of the dramatic rescue of former Bulls player Nick Schuyler and the Coast Guard's search for the three other missing men, including ex-USF player Will Bleakley.

Rutgers lost $184,000 on its trip to the Papajohns.com Bowl in December, The Star-Ledger reports. That could buy a lot of pizza. With just a $300,000 payout, that bowl game is not exactly a major financial boost for any team.

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