NCF Nation: Mike Hankwitz


EVANSTON, Ill. -- Mike Hankwitz didn't inherit a bare cupboard when he arrived as Northwestern's defensive coordinator in 2008.

The defense included several future NFL players, including end Corey Wootton and cornerback Sherrick McManis. Eight starters returned, and the unit improved from 88th nationally in points allowed to 26th in Hankwitz's first season.

But something was missing. As Hankwitz surveyed the number of spread offenses in college football -- not to mention the one his defense practiced against every day at Northwestern -- he knew the Wildcats' defense needed a speed boost.

"We had some players with good speed, but as a total defense, we didn't have that same speed at every position," Hankwitz told ESPN.com. "In this day in age with spread offenses, you need to have athletes who have the ability and speed to make plays in space. That's where we were a little deficient at the time. If you had a guy hurt, the next guy might not have been as fast. So we recruited to that end. We tried to recruit better speed to cornerback, and we're making progress in that way.

"As a whole, our team defensive speed has improved, and we're excited about that."

It was noticeable last season as Northwestern's defense improved to 47th nationally after plummeting to 80th the year before. Several younger players who were part of the speed-driven recruiting push played key roles, including defensive backs Ibraheim Campbell and Nick VanHoose, linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo and linemen Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson.

Northwestern's speed upgrade on defense has jumped out during spring practice. In Tuesday's workout, Lowry zoomed past a tackle for an easy "sack" against quarterback Trevor Siemian. Speed has helped cornerback Dwight White put himself in position to start opposite VanHoose in the fall. The same holds true for safeties like Traveon Henry, Jimmy Hall and Terrance Brown, competing to start next to Campbell.

"Our team speed is definitely much improved," head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "Our secondary runs as well as it has at all four positions."

The popularity of the spread offense, which Northwestern has used since 2000, fueled the team's speed push in recruiting. Northwestern needed more athletes who could make plays in space, especially in the secondary.

Not surprisingly, the secondary had the most dramatic upgrade last season, and depth at both cornerback and safety has improved for 2013. The secondary not only has more speed but better size.

"Traveon Henry's a 6-[foot]-1, 200-plus-pound safety, Jimmy Hall's the same way, Terrance Brown is the same way; we've upgraded our size at corner," Fitzgerald said. "Most of our guys used to be 5-foot-9 and 5-foot-10. Now we're 5-11 and 6-foot. That size-speed combination is critically important if we want to take the next step in this league."

Greater speed allows Hankwitz to be "a little more aggressive" with his defensive calls. It also helps younger players get on the field early as they can overcome some weaknesses technically and fundamentally.

"Last year, being a little undersized at D-end as a freshman, I relied on my speed a lot of times to beat tackles," said Lowry, who had a sack, six quarterback hurries and three tackles for loss as a true freshman. "When you're fast, it sets up moves, so if a tackle is overset, you come back with a counter. You've got to make sure you use your technique, use your hands where the coaches teach you. But having the extra speed, it's almost like you can't teach that.

"It's something most guys don't have."

Northwestern's speed push started with the linebackers and spread quickly to the secondary, but the line hasn't been neglected. Redshirt freshman end Ifeadi Odenigbo, the team's most-decorated recruit in years, only started playing football as a high school sophomore but made his mark with speed, twice tracking down Braxton Miller in a playoff game.

Both Odenigbo and Gibson ran track in high school, while both Gibson and Lowry played basketball.

"They're very, very athletic," senior end Tyler Scott said. "Dean's very athletic. Deonte, when he's healthy, is a force coming off the edge. And Ifeadi, he's got some speed that we haven't seen here for a while."

Northwestern's defense expects to be seeing more of that speed in the coming seasons.

"We're still not quite there where we have all five classes at an elite level athletically," Fitzgerald said, "but I think we're really close."

Big Ten Friday mailblog

September, 7, 2012
9/07/12
4:30
PM ET
Should be a fun Saturday of games. Hope you enjoy 'em.

Victor 614 from Columbus, Ohio, writes: Whats up with all this hate on the Big Ten? I know Michigan got killed by alabama, but I think everyone knew they were overrated. And I know that the rest of the teams struggled, but Wisconsin is breaking in a new QB, Iowa isn't the Iowa of 4 years ago, and Northwestern has always been shaky at best. Michigan State beat Boise State, who all of a sudden is a bad team without Kellen Moore and Doug Martin, even though they've proven to be a consistent program. I know Michigan was expected to compete for a Big Ten title in the preseason, but it was just that, preseason. The Big Ten isn't on SEC level or even USC or Oregan's level, but this is really a rebuilding year for the conference as a whole. Am I wrong to think that there is alot of unfair animosity toward the Big Ten compared to other conferences?

Adam Rittenberg: Victor, I agree that any win against Boise State means something, and while I think some go too far in using Michigan's performance to paint the entire Big Ten, you can't spin Week 1 as a positive one for the league. Other than Nebraska and, to a certain extent, Illinois, no team notched a truly impressive win. Part of that was the schedule, but the week would have been a bit better had Wisconsin pounded Northern Iowa, Northwestern held onto its big lead at Syracuse and Penn State beaten Ohio. That said, it's way too soon to say the Big Ten is down or a bad conference this year. The league clearly can't compete with the nation's elite at the very top, and its recent record against top 5 teams is downright shameful. But as I've written many times, it's all about building depth in the Big Ten. I see progress there with Ohio State on the rise again, Michigan State and Wisconsin racking up wins, Nebraska stabilizing and Michigan recruiting really well. The overall depth in the league could turn out to be decent this year, although we'll likely only find that out when the bowl season rolls around.

Decker from Hastings, Neb., writes: Adam, Haven't heard much about DeAnthony Arnett so far, after quite the buzz during the offseason. What can you tell me about his status right now and also whether you expect the Spartan wideouts to pick up their game. I know Maxwell was rushed on plenty of throws on Friday but we saw a handful of miscues from the receivers. This weekend should be good for Maxwell and the rest of his offensive squad to find their rhythm. Your thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Decker, I was really surprised not to see more of Arnett against Boise State, especially given the Spartans' struggles in the pass game. Michigan State receivers coach Terry Samuel said this week that Arnett should have a bigger role Saturday against Central Michigan. While Arnett might not have had the best offseason as far as standing out among the receiver group, he seems to be picking things up now. Plus, the guy had 24 catches last year in the SEC as a freshman. Can't hurt to make him a bigger part of the game plan this week.

JT from West Coast Hawk Town writes: You and Brian both picked Iowa over Iowa State this weekend. That gives me some relief. The clones seem overly confident in this game. The clone fanbase is usually delusional, but I'm still not confident in my Hawks yet. What do you guys see, aside from the game being in Kinnick, that gives Iowa the edge?

Adam Rittenberg: Playing at Kinnick obviously benefits Iowa. Only two of the Hawkeyes' seven losses to Iowa State under Kirk Ferentz have happened at home and none since 2002. Iowa usually takes care of its turf, even against the dreaded Cyclones. Also, I was pleasantly surprised with the defensive line play against Northern Illinois. Steele Jantz had his way with Iowa last year, and the Hawkeyes must put more pressure on him Saturday. I feel better about that happening after seeing what Joe Gaglione, Dom Alvis and co., did against NIU. I also don't think Iowa State can handle Iowa's rushing attack for four quarters, especially if Damon Bullock duplicates what he did in the opener, getting stronger as the game goes on. It'll be close, but Iowa should prevail.

Ben from Ann Arbor, Mich., writes: Adam, today you posted an article saying that Penn State and OSU ARE eligible to be named Leaders Division champs. If this is true, and, say, Wisconsin finishes second or third in the standings behind them yet beats the Legends Division champion in the B10 championship, Wisconsin would officially be named Big Ten Champion, but not a division champion. That, like Alabama being National Champions but not Conference Champions, just doesn't sound right. Penn State and OSU are banned from the postseason and B10 championship, they shouldn't be a champion of their division.

Adam Rittenberg: I hear ya, Ben, and it sets up some potentially embarrassing situations, like having to present a team on postseason probation an official Big Ten trophy for winning the division. The Big Ten's rationale is that because Ohio State's and Penn State's games count in the division race, they should be part of that race. It would be odd to have a division champion go against a division "representative" in Indianapolis and for that representative to win the title. But that's the path the Big Ten has chosen to go down with two of its marquee programs on postseason probation.

Brian from Portland, Ore., writes: Adam, Longtime Northwestern football fan, which I know seems like an oxymoron (don't worry, Illini fans; it's OK that you don't know what that word means). Given the incredible disparity between the offense and the defense for the past few seasons, is it legitimate to question whether Fitz should replace Hankwitz? I know we had a good defensive season or two, but the recruiting is getting better and the results don't show on the field. I know Fitz is loyal, but there has to be a limit, right?

Adam Rittenberg: Brian, while I'm not in favor of coaches making rash changes whenever things start to go downhill, everyone on a staff needs to be held accountable. I think this is an important season for Hankwitz and the rest of Northwestern's defensive staff. Hankwitz boasts a ton of experience, but he has been dumped before (Wisconsin) and is far from foolproof. It's more than fair to question whether Fitzgerald is too loyal to certain folks, whether they be moderately talented veteran players or assistants who aren't getting the job done well enough in the Big Ten. I think Fitzgerald has a lot of great qualities as a head coach and clearly represents Northwestern well. But part of the job is making tough decisions with personnel and assistants, and if the defense doesn't improve, Fitz will face some difficult choices after the season.

Amit from New York writes: Adam, as a Michigan fan I'm deeply disappointed (although not unexpected) with the outcome of the Alabama game. It really seemed like Denard regressed during the game. I know you guys read MGoBlog, so I wanted to pass along the play-by-play analysis that Brian Cook did for the game: Interesting enough, he deduced that Denard actually played well, and the stagnancy/regression on offense was more so a combination of poor OL play, playcalling from Borges, inconsistency and lack of separation from the WRs, and simply fantastic DB play (from Milliner in particular).Thoughts? Passing it along not b/c it's making excuses for Denard, but it's actually insinuating that Denard played well (which I haven't heard anyone in the MSM contend).

Adam Rittenberg: Amit, good stuff. Brian and the MGoBlog crew do an excellent job, especially with play breakdowns like these. I think it's a stretch to say Denard played "well," but the game definitely showed me bigger issues at offensive line and running back than it did at quarterback. If you get dominated up front like Michigan did, you can't execute the majority of your game plan and either have to scrap it entirely or go with a limited set of plays. I'm not absolving Borges, either, but it's hard to scheme your way through an ineffective line. Michigan had to be a lot better up front in order to hang with Alabama. While it doesn't excuse some of the bad decisions Denard made, he doesn't deserve the bulk of the blame for the loss. He didn't have much of a chance to attack the Tide.

Travis from St. Louis writes: Adam- I recently located a summary B1G football schedule and noticed a trend. Four teams (Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, and MSU) get two weeks to prepare for Northwestern. Several teams in the B1G (most notably OSU and Nebraska) do not have to worry about teams getting two weeks to prepare for them at all. I realize it is not absolute that teams will win if they get two weeks to prepare for an opponent, but don?t you think there is a distinct schedule disadvantage Northwestern has to overcome?

Adam Rittenberg: Interesting observation, Travis. I'll check with the Big Ten about this and see if there are rules to prevent potential disadvantages for certain teams. That said, I think the bye week is vastly overrated as something that helps teams. We've seen examples here and here of teams struggling quite a bit following open weeks. While these breaks in the schedule allow teams to rest and recharge, the evidence doesn't show that they give teams huge edges as far as preparation.

Michael from Columbus, Ohio, writes: With Oregon State game cancelled this past weekend, how much of a disadvantage is Wisconsin at for preparing for OSU with no game tape available. I know this team needs to works on things and Wisconsin doesn't play to well on the road against Pac-12 opponents. What must the Badgers do to stymie the upset on the road?

Adam Rittenberg: It's always nice to have tape on your opponent, Michael, but I think Wisconsin just needs to play its game and not get too wrapped up in Oregon State. The Badgers destroyed this team last year and had a terrific performance on the defensive side. If Wisconsin can establish the run and the play-action pass, and generate a good pass rush up front, I don't think Oregon State can hang with the Badgers for four quarters. The Oregon State program is trending downward, and even in good seasons, Mike Riley's teams get better as the fall goes along. While I'm sure Oregon State will have some schematic things to throw off Wisconsin, it's a four-quarter game and the better team should win if it plays its game.
Every defense talks about the A-word -- aggressiveness -- and Northwestern's is no exception.

For the better part of the past two seasons, the Wildcats' defense too often has found itself in a, well, defensive posture. Opposing offenses have moved the ball too easily against the Wildcats, particularly on third down, which used to be a strength for the unit.

It's why Wildcats coaches place such a premium on the A-word entering the 2012 season. To get there, they bring up another A-word.

"It's an attitude," defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz said. "It isn't just schematics. We're going to do things to try to be more aggressive schematically, but we're not going to blitz every damn play. We're going to pick our spots, and we're going to do things. But we said we want to have a more aggressive mentality getting to the ball and being more physical.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
Reid Compton/US PresswireAfter ranking last in the Big Ten in sacks last season, Pat Fitzgerald's defense is looking to be more aggressive in 2012.
"They've embraced what our goals and objectives have been, and we're making progress."

Northwestern likely will decrease its use of an ineffective three-man rush that consistently led to third-and-long meltdowns last season and dropped the team to 114th nationally in third-down defense (50 percent conversion). Defensive end Quentin Williams is the lone returning player who recorded multiple sacks in 2011, so Hankwitz knows he can't rely too much on the line getting home on its own. The Wildcats ranked last in the Big Ten and 106th nationally in sacks last season (1.31 per game).

But at times, Hankwitz will lean on the front four and expect them to cause more problems than they did in 2011.

"We've got to be more aggressive with our calls, but we've got to also be more effective when we do rush the passer," he said. "You're not going to bring the perfect thing every time where somebody comes free, so you've got to beat guys one-on-one."

After communication breakdowns plagued the defense during a five-game losing streak, Hankwitz saw improvement in the final five contests. Players embraced the offseason objectives outlined in their first meeting in January, and the strong retention between spring practice to fall camp allowed coaches to build rather than work on reinstalling plays.

Although the defense is green at spots, namely the secondary, where redshirt freshman cornerback Nick VanHoose and two other new starters enter the mix, the unit features a number of familiar faces who had their pride challenged last season and in recent months.

"Our defense was very motivated through the positive talk they heard through the blog sites and wonderful articles they had to read all offseason," head coach Pat Fitzgerald said with just a hint of sarcasm. "And they lived it. They know they were not pleased with the way they performed, and preseason, for the first time I used some outside stuff for motivation. You get what you deserve, and we deserve everything that was said about the guys.

"And they took it personally. Guys like Bus [linebacker David Nwabuisi] that have been out there and Tyler [Scott] and Brian Arnfelt and Quentin Williams, Damien Proby, Ibraheim Campbell -- they were not pleased with the way they played, and we weren't pleased with the way we coached them and we performed. The great news is I’ll be done talking about that crap [soon]."

Campbell, a safety who led the team with 100 tackles as a redshirt freshman, describes the aggressive mindset as never being satisfied.

"If you had a PBU [pass broken up], you should have had a pick," he said. "If you made a tackle, it should have been a TFL."

A defense with plenty to prove returns to the field Saturday at Syracuse, which ranked 90th nationally in offense last fall but boasts a veteran quarterback in Ryan Nassib and some good receivers. The Wildcats hope embracing the A-word can translate into more Ws this fall.
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Pat Fitzgerald doesn't deny the hard evidence, but he also feels there's more to Northwestern's case.

Yes, the Wildcats have seen their wins total drop in each of the past three seasons, from nine in 2008 to eight in 2009 to seven in 2010 to six last fall. After back-to-back 5-3 marks in Big Ten play in 2008 and 2009, Northwestern has seen its league record flip in each of the past two seasons.

It doesn't take a mathematics major at Northwestern to see where things are going and ask the question: Has the program lost momentum?

"You can nitpick everything you want, but there has never been more positive momentum in the history of our program," Fitzgerald told ESPN.com. "If you're going to choose one thing to make it be whether or not you have momentum, that's unrealistic. But we've got to win football games and we've got to finish games better than we did a year ago.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
Reid Compton/US PresswireNorthwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald remains confident that his program is on the right track.
"The program's definitely getting better. You can analyze that one area of wins and losses, which obviously I understand is critically important, but the difference between one or two games is not very much. We could have easily had six wins when we won nine. There's such a fine line."

It's Fitzgerald's job to look at the entire picture, and he notes some of Northwestern's recent accomplishments: four consecutive bowl appearances for the first time in program history; the winningest departing senior class in the program's history; a team GPA of 3.14; a 2012 recruiting class rated by many as the best in Fitzgerald's tenure. The school is also working on a facilities plan that could be a game-changer for the football program, which lags behind most of its Big Ten brethren.

Still, college football is a bottom-line business, and if Northwestern can't reverse the won-loss trend, its bowl appearances streak will end this season.

"Have we achieved our goals? Absolutely not," Fitzgerald said. "Are we hungry to do that? Absolutely. Are we working diligently to tweak the areas we need to improve? Absolutely."

Northwestern will try to make upgrades with a younger roster -- only 11 total starters return on offense and defense -- but quite possibly a more talented one. The team must fill several gaps, none more significant than Dan Persa's at quarterback, and hopes to do so by having what it believes to be stronger recruiting classes begin to pay dividends.

It's no secret the defense needs help after backsliding sharply in the past year and a half. Since a 6-2 start in 2010, Northwestern has surrendered 30 points or more 11 times. Last fall, the defense couldn't get off of the field (114th nationally in third-down defense at 50 percent conversions), fell victim to explosion plays and generated barely any pressure (106th in sacks, 104th in tackles for loss).

"You've got to make 'em earn everything," defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz said. "If they make great throws and great catches, you can live with those things. But we had some situations last year where we busted a coverage because of communication or we didn't have anybody back there. They didn't have to make the perfect throw or the perfect catch.

"We can execute better, no question."

The challenge is to improve communication and execution with a group heavy on youth. Although Northwestern returns all three starting linebackers, it will use young players in all three sections of the defense, including redshirt freshman cornerback Nick VanHoose, sophomore linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo and redshirt freshman defensive end Deonte Gibson.

Consider that Ibraheim Campbell, a redshirt sophomore safety who led the team with 100 tackles in 2011, is viewed as the clear leader of the secondary.

Communication has been a focal point this spring, as players are taking extra measures to ensure they're on the same page.

"When I yell out a call to the D-line, the only way I know they got it is if they tap their hip," linebacker David Nwabuisi said. "We started forgetting about little stuff like that [in 2011]. Now when I make a call, if the D-lineman doesn't tap his hip, I keep on yelling at him until he does. Same thing with DBs to linebackers."

Communication shouldn't be an issue for Kain Colter, who started three games at quarterback in place of the injured Persa last season and evolved into arguably the Big Ten's most versatile offensive weapon (654 rush yards, 673 pass yards, 466 receiving yards, 18 total touchdowns). Colter is the best athlete to call signals at Northwestern since the team implemented the spread offense in 2000, but to maintain the program's recent run of top-shelf quarterbacks, he needs to become a more polished passer.

The junior emphasized velocity and arm strength during the winter -- he tore the labrum and the biceps in his throwing arm as a high school senior -- and expects to execute the high-percentage passes that drive the Wildcats' offense this fall. He'll have plenty of weapons as Northwestern boasts most likely its deepest receiving corps ever, even if USC transfer Kyle Prater can't play right away.

"My timing's getting a lot better, my arm strength's a lot better," Colter said. "I feel like I can make all the throws on the field. That hasn't been a problem this spring."

Northwestern loses four-year starters on both sides of the ball, an NCAA record holder in Persa, two-time All-Big Ten honoree Jeremy Ebert and Drake Dunsmore, the inaugural winner of the Kwalick-Clark Award as the Big Ten's top tight end. Fitzgerald likened the personnel turnover to a shift change at a factory and acknowledges the team dynamic is different.

Given the declining wins total, though, some new blood might not be a bad thing, and the coaches feel the team's overall talent level is on the uptick.

"There's better talent than people think," offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. "The cupboard's not bare. We've got guys who can play football. They just haven't had the experience yet.

"It's just their time. Let's go play."
The quarterback hurry is one of the more misleading statistics in football. It seems to be subjectively recorded and varies widely from team to team.

But Northwestern can take something away from the category known as QBH. According to statistics recorded by each Big Ten team, Northwestern finished third in the league (behind Michigan State and Nebraska) with 24 hurries in 2011. According to the official Big Ten statistics, the Wildcats ranked dead last in sacks with 17.

Translation: pressuring the quarterback isn't horseshoes.

[+] EnlargeTyler Scott
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesTyler Scott is "on the cusp of being a breakout guy nationally," said Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald.
"We left a lot of sacks out there last year," Northwestern defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz told ESPN.com. "We had a lot of missed tackles. And we got hurt on some quarterback scrambles where we got pressure and he was able to find a crease."

Tyler Scott takes Hankwitz's words to heart. Scott, a junior defensive end, showed snippets of promise last fall, displaying good speed and recording 31 tackles, an interception, two pass breakups, a team-high three fumbles recovered and, yes, two quarterback hurries.

But he only recorded one sack, two shy of the team lead. Only two Big Ten teams, Northwestern and Minnesota, didn't have a player ranked among the Big Ten's top 20 in either sacks or tackles for loss in 2011.

Not surprisingly, spring practice has been all about the pass rush for the 6-foot-4, 265-pound Scott.

"Many times I was not getting to the quarterback or not squeezing the pocket," he said. "I've started to make some improvements in that. My problem was I was going up the field too much and not attacking the man. So I'm trying to focus on attacking a spot every time and being more active with my hands."

Run defense became the peak priority for Northwestern after the 2010 season, when it surrendered 185 rush yards per game and 5.1 yards per carry. While the defense made slight improvements there -- 177.3 ypg, 4.5 ypc -- the pass rush suffered for the second consecutive year.

After recording 30 sacks in 2009, the Wildcats have just 33 combined in the past two seasons. Twenty teams had more than 33 sacks in 2011 alone. The lack of pressure particularly hurt Northwestern on third down, as opponents converted exactly half of their attempts (90 of 180) against the Wildcats, the highest percentage in the Big Ten and the seventh-highest percentage nationally.

Northwestern had been decent to good on third down in Hankwitz's first three years as coordinator -- ranking 28th, 23rd and 42nd nationally -- but the bottom fell out last fall.

"We were aware of it, but we didn't have that mentality to say, 'Yeah, we're getting off the field,'" Scott said. "It was just another down."

The mentality should change during the offseason, and Hankwitz is evaluating what he can do schematically, including whether he rushed only three linemen too often on third down. But the easiest solution is to have an effective pass-rusher or two emerge.

Scott seems to be the obvious choice.

"Tyler Scott to me is on the cusp of being a breakout guy nationally," coach Pat Fitzgerald said following last Saturday's scrimmage. "He's got some special qualities."

Scott wants one of those qualities to be putting quarterbacks on the ground this fall.
EVANSTON, Ill. -- My Big Ten spring practice tour continues today at Northwestern, where I'm spending the day after making the short drive up Ridge Road. I watched most of Northwestern's morning practice -- the team's first full-pads workout since spring break -- and visited with head coach Pat Fitzgerald, defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz and several players afterward.

The big moment in practice came when wide receiver Kyle Prater, Northwestern's coveted transfer from USC, caught a pass from Kain Colter before absorbing a massive hit from safety Jimmy Hall. Prater held onto the ball but spent several moments on the ground. Fortunately for the Wildcats, he only had the wind knocked out of him -- and some vomit -- but returned moments later and caught several more passes. Fitzgerald noted that Thursday marked just Prater's third practice with Northwestern and his first in full pads for quite some time, as injuries slowed him down during his two years at USC.

As Prater walked back to the huddle, Fitzgerald high-fived him and yelled, "Welcome back!"

"Kyle got welcomed to the Big Ten today," Wildcats linebacker David Nwabuisi said.

Should Prater become eligible for the 2012 season -- Northwestern has applied for an NCAA waiver -- he'll add to what might be the Big Ten's best receiving corps. The Wildcats are loaded at receiver with holdovers like Christian Jones, Demetrius Fields and Rashad Lawrence, along with the return of speedster Tony Jones and redshirt freshman Cameron Dickerson, who made several impressive catches Thursday.

The depth at receiver should help Colter, who split time between quarterback and receiver in 2011 but is practicing exclusively at quarterback this spring. Fitzgerald told me Colter would be his starter if the season began now, and he has been pleased with the junior's development. Colter, who has put on a bit of weight and checks in at 195 pounds, told me he worked on shoulder strengthening throughout the winter to improve his arm strength. Running back Treyvon Green has stood out for the offense and made some nice moves Thursday in practice.

There are more question marks on a young defense that struggled mightily in 2011. The unit had a few breakdowns Thursday, but there were some nice plays in the secondary, including an interception by redshirt freshman cornerback Nick VanHoose, who is right in the mix for a starting job. VanHoose also had a pass breakup during team drills, and safety Davion Fleming had a nice hit on Lawrence. Hankwitz said the mix of youth and older players on defense reminds him a bit of the 2008 team, which had the best defense during Fitzgerald's tenure.

I'll have more on the Wildcats later today and Friday, so stay tuned.
Our Big Ten spring preview continues with a look at the Legends Division.

IOWA

Start of spring practice: March 23
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • Succession plan for Stanzi: Remember James Vandenberg? The plucky young quarterback who nearly led Iowa to a milestone win at Ohio State in 2009 returns to the spotlight as Iowa looks to replace three-year starter Ricky Stanzi. Vandenberg had only eight pass attempts in 2010, so it'll be interesting to see how he adjusts to a potential featured role. John Wienke and A.J. Derby also will be in the mix.
  • A new-look defensive front: Iowa loses three multiyear starters along the defensive line, all of whom likely will go onto the NFL. Mike Daniels and Broderick Binns return, but Iowa must begin building depth around them after not playing a large rotation of linemen in 2010. It'll be a big spring for reserve defensive linemen like Lebron Daniel and Steve Bigach.
  • Rhabdo fallout: Iowa expects the 13 players hospitalized last month with rhabdomyolysis to be ready for spring ball, but there are questions about how the group responds to the rigors of practice. Expect the staff to take every precaution to make sure the players are ready to go. Iowa's internal investigation into what happened could reach its conclusion during the spring practice session.
MICHIGAN

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

What to watch:
  • Hoke springs eternal: All eyes will be on new coach Brady Hoke as he oversees his first 15 practice sessions as the leading man in Ann Arbor. Hoke and his staff introduce new offensive and defensive systems, and Hoke likely will spend much of his time with a defense that reached historic lows during former coach Rich Rodriguez's tenure. An adjustment period can be expected, but Hoke wants to get things rolling as soon as he can.
  • Denard Robinson: The 2010 Big Ten offensive player of the year thrived in Rodriguez's spread offense. How will he be used in coordinator Al Borges' system? Will Robinson's unique talents still be maximized? After making major strides last offseason, Robinson must continue to grow as he adjusts to a new offense. This is also a big spring for backup quarterback Devin Gardner.
  • The move to the 4-3: Michigan is going back to a 4-3 defensive alignment under coordinator Greg Mattison, and the transition begins this spring. The defensive front has to lead the way, and the personnel is there to get it done. The Wolverines are a little thinner at linebacker, but saw some encouraging signs from Kenny Demens this past fall. Others must emerge at the position this spring.
MICHIGAN STATE

Start of spring practice: March 29
Spring game: April 30

What to watch:
  • Familiar face, new leadership: Dan Roushar takes over as Spartans offensive coordinator, and while you shouldn't expect many dramatic changes, the veteran assistant will put his personal touch on the system. Roushar wants to fully re-establish the run game Michigan State displayed in the early part of the 2010 season. It'll also be interesting to see how he works with quarterback Kirk Cousins.
  • Reloading at linebacker: Michigan State loses two of the more productive linebackers in recent team history in Greg Jones and Eric Gordon. Returning starter Chris Norman will take on an enhanced role, and the spring will be big for younger linebackers like Max Bullough, Steve Gardiner and Denicos Allen.
  • Elevating the O-line play: You can bet Roushar will have an eye on his old position group, the offensive line, as it replaces starters at both tackle spots and at center. If Michigan State can get its offensive line play where competitors like Iowa and Wisconsin have it, the Spartans will be Big Ten title contenders for years to come. Michigan State has some nice pieces like veteran guard Joel Foreman, but it must build depth this spring.
MINNESOTA

Start of spring practice: March 24
Spring game: April 23

What to watch:
  • A time to Kill. Jerry Kill conducts his first 15 practices as Minnesota's coach and he has no shortage of challenges. He and his assistants must install new systems on both sides of the ball and, perhaps more importantly, get across their expectations for the players going forward. Kill wasn't overly thrilled with his first impression of the squad, so he has a lot of work to do.
  • Gray back at QB: After a season playing primarily wide receiver, MarQueis Gray is back at his preferred position of quarterback. Kill and his assistants made no secret of the fact that they see tremendous potential in Gray, a dual-threat signal-caller who could end up being a terrific fit for Kill's offense. It will be interesting to see how much Gray can absorb this spring as he prepares to lead the unit.
  • Kim Royston's return: Minnesota's defense got a huge boost when the NCAA somewhat surprisingly granted safety Kim Royston a sixth year of eligibility. Royston, who had a strong season in 2009 before breaking his leg last spring, is ready to go and should provide some much-needed leadership in the secondary. New defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys will be on the lookout for playmakers and leaders this spring, and he'll find one in Royston.
NEBRASKA

Start of spring practice: March 12
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • New vision on offense: Nebraska likely will have a championship-level defense in 2011, but will the offense bounce back from a poor finish to last season? Tim Beck is the man pegged to get things back on track. Coach Bo Pelini promoted Beck to offensive coordinator, and Beck will begin to implement his vision for the unit this spring. Nebraska figures to stick with the spread, but what version Beck wants to use remains to be seen.
  • The quarterbacks: Taylor Martinez stiff-armed the transfer rumors, and in January said he looked forward "getting healthy and getting my strength and speed back." The big question: Will he also get his job back as Nebraska's starting quarterback? Martinez can help himself with a strong spring, but Cody Green also is in the mix and things could get very interesting if Bubba Starling decides to stick with football rather than pursue a pro baseball career.
  • New faces on staff: In addition to promoting Beck, Pelini hired three new assistants: Corey Raymond (secondary), Ross Els (linebackers) and Rich Fisher (receivers). Raymond takes over a talented group that must replace three standout players, including cornerback Prince Amukamara. It'll be interesting to watch Fisher, who most recently coached in high school and also served as a golf teacher, as he transitions back to big-time football.
NORTHWESTERN

Start of spring practice: March 7
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • Rebuilding the defense: Northwestern figures to have one of the Big Ten's top offenses this fall, but there are major issues on the other side of the ball. The Wildcats' defense flat-lined in the final three games, surrendering 163 points and getting dominated at the line of scrimmage. It's a big spring for coordinator Mike Hankwitz, who must fill gaps at spots like linebacker, but more importantly must restore the aggressiveness seen in 2008 and part of 2009.
  • The backup QB race: Dan Persa is still rehabbing his surgically repaired Achilles' tendon and won't do much in spring ball. It provides an opportunity for Northwestern to hold an extensive competition to see who backs up Persa this coming season. Kain Colter provided a spark in the bowl game and could be the answer. Evan Watkins needs a bounce-back spring, and Trevor Siemian will be in the mix after redshirting this past fall.
  • Here's the kicker: Northwestern loses four-year starting specialist Stefan Demos and will look to identify a replacement this spring. Neither Jeff Budzien nor Steve Flaherty has attempted a field goal in a game -- they have combined for two PAT conversions -- so the race will be wide open. Special teams has cost Northwestern at inopportune times over the years, but it could be an area of strength in 2011 if the kicker situation is sorted out.

Final 2010 Big Ten power rankings

January, 11, 2011
1/11/11
11:00
AM ET
Power Rankings: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-10 | SEC | Non-AQ

The 2010 college football season is over, and the interminable wait for 2011 now begins.

Before taking a peek ahead at next fall, here's the final installment of the 2010 Big Ten power rankings.

1. Ohio State (12-1): The Buckeyes once again sit atop the rankings after holding on to beat Arkansas in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Although the circumstances surrounding the game sparked a lot of controversy, Ohio State showed tremendous focus and executed well on both sides of the ball against a good SEC opponent.

2. Wisconsin (11-2): There's no shame in losing to a team like TCU, but Wisconsin left Pasadena especially disappointed after veering ever so slightly off course in the Rose Bowl. If the Badgers had fully committed to between-the-tackles running, they likely would have celebrated another Rose Bowl championship. Still a great season for Bret Bielema's crew.

3. Michigan State (11-2): I'm reluctant to put the Spartans here after a non-competitive performance against 9-3 Alabama in the Capital One Bowl, but they still had three more wins than any other Big Ten squad below. Michigan State had a special season with a sorry ending, but the program is undoubtedly on the rise under coach Mark Dantonio.

4. Iowa (8-5): We saw a little bit of everything from Iowa in the Insight Bowl, but Micah Hyde's electrifying pick-six ensured a third consecutive bowl win and dulled the disappointment from the regular season. Returning players like Hyde and running back Marcus Coker fueled Iowa's win, and the Hawkeyes should be right at home under the radar entering 2011.

5. Illinois (7-6): No Big Ten team delivered a more complete postseason performance than Illinois, which outclassed Baylor and cruised to a 38-14 victory in the Texas Bowl. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase came of age in the bowl and the defense contained Baylor star Robert Griffin III. Illinois could be dangerous this coming season, but the NFL departures will hurt.

6. Penn State (7-6): Florida gave Penn State every opportunity to build a big lead in the first half, but the Nittany Lions fell victim to too many mistakes. The defense made strides during bowl practice and should be a solid unit in 2011. Penn State's quarterback race will open up this spring, and it'll be interesting to see how much better this team gets during the offseason.

7. Northwestern (7-6): Thanks to Kain Colter, the Wildcats found enough offense to keep pace with Texas Tech despite not having star quarterback Dan Persa. But it's pretty odd that Persa's injury seemed to take any life out of Northwestern's defense, which allowed 163 points in its final three games. Pat Fitzgerald and Mike Hankwitz need to get the D on track for 2011.

8. Michigan (7-6): Speaking of defense, Michigan had none against Mississippi State in the Progressive Gator Bowl. Rich Rodriguez's fate might already have been sealed at the school, but the lack of improvement on defense made the decision pretty easy after the worst bowl loss in team history. Michigan has some pieces in place on offense, but the next coach must address the defensive woes to get the program back on track.

9. Minnesota (4-8): No changes to the bottom three and the Gophers deserve to be here after ending the season with victories against two of the Big Ten's three bowl winners (Illinois and Iowa). I'm excited to see how MarQueis Gray fares in Jerry Kill's offense as he moves back to quarterback from receiver.

10. Indiana (5-7): Despite Brent Pease's about-face, new Indiana coach Kevin Wilson is assembling a solid staff of assistants as he tries to change the culture in Bloomington. The Hoosiers have to figure out a way to compete better on defense in Big Ten play, especially since the offense likely will take a step back as quarterback Ben Chappell departs.

11. Purdue (4-8): Danny Hope's teams have played hard amid adversity, but the results haven't shown up in his two years as head coach. Purdue gets a lot healthier during the offseason and should boast a dynamic offense in 2011. The potential for a big jump forward is here, but Purdue must reduce major mistakes, particularly in the kicking game.

Big Ten stock report: Week 9

October, 27, 2010
10/27/10
3:19
PM ET
Who moves up? Who moves down?

Let's take a look.

STOCK UP

Wisconsin RB Montee Ball: Despite losing the backup job to James White and seeing his carries decrease, Ball waited his turn and came up big against Iowa. He caught a 7-yard pass on fourth-and-4 to keep Wisconsin's game-winning drive alive and finished things off with two 8-yard runs, the second a powerful burst that reached the end zone.

Illinois' special teams: Punter Anthony Santella and kicker Derek Dimke both have been great all season, but the kicking game got another boost against Indiana as Martez Wilson and Nate Bussey both blocked punts, one resulting in a safety. It marked the first time Illinois has blocked two punts in a game since Sept. 11, 1976, against Iowa.

Ohio State's defensive line: Humbled the week before by Wisconsin, the Buckeyes' front four responded with authority against Purdue. Each starter recorded at least one tackle for loss, and ends Cameron Heyward and Nathan Williams both notched sacks as Ohio State held Purdue to nine first downs and 30 rush yards.

Penn State QB Rob Bolden: Before leaving the Minnesota game with a head injury, Bolden was on fire, completing 11 of 13 passes for 130 yards and a touchdown. The bye week clearly benefited the freshman, who settled into a nice rhythm. Hopefully, he's not out too long with an apparent concussion.

STOCK DOWN

Iowa's special teams: The indelible image from Iowa's magical 2009 season was Adrian Clayborn's punt block and return for a touchdown at Penn State. This year has been blighted by special-teams blunders, from the blocked punt and kick return touchdown against Arizona, to having an extra point try blocked and allowing Wisconsin to convert a fake punt in last Saturday's loss.

Indiana QB Ben Chappell: The senior has been outstanding in Indiana's four victories and its loss to Michigan, but it's been a different story on the road against above-average Big Ten defenses. After throwing two interceptions in a Week 6 loss to Ohio State, Chappell was picked off three times at Illinois, and the Illini returned one for a touchdown.

Northwestern's fourth-quarter defense: Everyone is still talking about the fake punt Northwestern allowed early in the fourth quarter, but it wouldn't have mattered if the Wildcats had made a stop on Michigan State's 88-yard scoring drive. Defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz took his foot off of the accelerator and didn't bring pressure, and Kirk Cousins picked apart a shaky secondary. Northwestern has allowed late scoring drives in each of its past two games.

Purdue's defense: The Boilers upgraded their play on defense in wins against Northwestern and Minnesota, but things went downhill from the get-go at The Shoe. Ohio State did pretty much as it pleased in a historic first half, piling up 42 points and 415 total yards, the highest-total for a half in the Jim Tressel era (2001-present). Ryan Kerrigan and his crew must do better this week at Illinois.

Outback Bowl preview

December, 31, 2009
12/31/09
9:30
AM ET
Here's a quick look at the first of three Big Ten games on New Year's Day, as Northwestern (8-4) squares off against Auburn (7-5) in the Outback Bowl (ESPN, 11 a.m. ET).

WHO TO WATCH: Mike Kafka. Few Big Ten players proved more valuable to their teams this fall than Kafka, who ended the season playing his best football. He complemented an efficient short passing attack with more downfield shots to receivers Andrew Brewer and Zeke Markshausen. Kafka faces an Auburn defense that defends the pass well (28th nationally) but has struggled with depth problems for most of the fall. You figure Auburn's high-powered offense will hit on some big plays against the Wildcats, so Kafka will be called upon to answer. If he plays like he did Nov. 21 against Wisconsin, Northwestern should be in good shape.

WHAT TO WATCH: The chess match between Mike Hankwitz and Gus Mulzahn. Hankwitz, the Northwestern defensive coordinator, has seen it all in two plus decades running defenses. But Mulzahn's innovative offense, which employs a huge playbook and a ton of motion before the snap, will test Hankwitz's scheming skills. Northwestern's defense got healthier and improved its tackling as the season went on, but the Wildcats have been gashed for big plays at times. Hankwitz had an excellent game plan against Missouri's high-powered offense last year in the Valero Alamo Bowl, and it will be interesting to see what he comes up with after nearly a month to prepare for Malzahn and Auburn.

WHY WATCH: Northwestern finished the season as one of the nation's hottest teams, going 3-0 in November with two wins against ranked opponents (Iowa and Wisconsin). After a lengthy layoff, the Wildcats play on New Year's Day for the first time in 13 years and search for their first bowl victory since the 1949 Rose Bowl. It's also the Big Ten's first crack at the SEC, regarded as the nation's premier conference in large part because of its BCS title game wins against Ohio State. Northwestern still struggles to shake its miserable pre-1995 history, and a win against Auburn would go a long way toward erasing the program's poor past.

PREDICTION: The Wildcats are the hotter team, as Auburn dropped five of its final seven contests, but the Tigers are feeling good about themselves after taking No. 1 Alabama to the wire in the Iron Bowl. Both teams are excited to be here, and both boast strong offenses. Auburn takes an early lead behind big plays from quarterback Chris Todd and running back Ben Tate, but Northwestern once again rallies, as it has all season. The Wildcats win this one, 31-28.

Outback Bowl

December, 6, 2009
12/06/09
9:46
PM ET
Northwestern (8-4) vs. Auburn (7-5)
Jan. 1, 11 a.m. (ESPN)

Northwestern take by Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg: After being snubbed by the Outback Bowl for Iowa last year, Northwestern received a somewhat surprising invitation to the Tampa game, as it makes its first Jan. 1 bowl appearance since 1997.

The Wildcats now look for the same result as the Hawkeyes, who last year crushed South Carolina in the Outback to claim the Big Ten's only bowl victory. Northwestern hasn't won a bowl game since the 1949 Rose.

The game pits two teams (Northwestern and Auburn) that have never played, as well as two potentially explosive spread offenses. Senior quarterback Mike Kafka, a second-team All-Big Ten selection, leads a Wildcats attack that settled into a rhythm in its final two games. Kafka will need to be sharp against an Auburn defense that ranks 28th nationally against the pass, though there could be some running room for a Wildcats rushing attack that has struggled to get on track.

Veteran defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz has been a key part of Northwestern's surge the last two seasons, but he will be tested against Auburn and spread guru Gus Malzahn. The Tigers will try just about anything on offense and boast the nation's No. 12 rushing unit, led by senior running back Ben Tate. The game features two efficient passers in Kafka and Tigers senior Chris Todd, who ranks 21st nationally in passer rating.

Northwestern comes in very hot, having gone 3-0 in November with two wins against top 20 opponents. Auburn started 5-0 before dropping five of its final seven contests, though the Tigers did give No. 1 Alabama all it could handle.


Auburn take by SEC blogger Chris Low: Auburn was one of six teams in the SEC this season finishing 7-5, but emerged out of the pack as the Outback Bowl’s top choice. The Tigers were one defensive stand away from knocking off Alabama in the regular-season finale two weeks ago and really putting a memorable stamp on Gene Chizik’s first season as head coach.

The long break before the bowl game should help Auburn as much as any team in the SEC. The Tigers battled depth problems all season, which explains in part their fast start and rocky finish to the season. They wound up losing five of their last six SEC games. But the way they played against the Crimson Tide gives everybody on the Plains hope that there are better days ahead.

Gus Malzahn’s offense is one of the more unpredictable units in the country. The Tigers like to spread you out and will run everything from reverses, to direct-snap packages to throw-back passes. Their bread and butter this season, though, was turning around and handing the ball off to Ben Tate, who rushed for 1,254 yards.

Defensively, it was a struggle for Auburn. The Tigers finished last in the SEC in scoring defense (26.9 points per game). But, again, they looked like a different defensive unit against Alabama and turned in their best effort of the season on that side of the ball, holding Mark Ingram to 30 yards rushing.

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 12

November, 19, 2009
11/19/09
10:36
AM ET
Final week of conference play. Let's make it count.

1. Buckeyes try to bowl over Michigan: After a 4-0 start, Michigan looked like a sure bet for the postseason and possibly even a Jan. 1 bowl. But the Wolverines have been a mess in Big Ten play, especially on defense, dropping six consecutive league games. Now they must end a five-game slide against Ohio State merely to get bowl eligible. A win Saturday won't salvage the season, but it will put Michigan in a bowl game and momentarily turn down the heat on head coach Rich Rodriguez, who has been under siege both on and off the field.

2. Boren returns to the Big House: Michigan has bigger things to worry about than Justin Boren, like finally beating Ohio State, but the guard's return to his old stomping grounds should be interesting. Boren expects a rough reception from Michigan fans after leaving the school to play for its arch-rival. He didn't depart quietly from Michigan and caused a stir by dressing up as Rodriguez for Halloween last year. Boren leads an improved Buckeyes offensive line against Brandon Graham and the Michigan defensive front, so it should be an interesting matchup in the trenches.

3. It's Fiesta time at Kinnick Stadium: Iowa won't be going to the Rose Bowl, but the Hawkeyes still are well positioned for a BCS at-large berth, most likely to the Fiesta Bowl. To keep the door open for Glendale, they must take care of Minnesota at Kinnick Stadium (ESPN, noon ET). Iowa comes off an emotional overtime loss to Ohio State and must regain its swagger on defense after allowing 229 rush yards. Redshirt freshman quarterback James Vandenberg exceeded all expectations in his first career start. He needs to follow it up against a decent Gophers defense.

4. Penn State aims for double digits: Much like Iowa, Penn State remains in the BCS at-large mix but must take care of business Saturday to have any chance. The Lions visit Michigan State (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET), where they fell in 2007. Joe Paterno's squad hasn't lost on the road this season, but it has started slow the last few weeks, paying the price against Ohio State. It's important for quarterback Daryll Clark and his wide receivers to take advantage of an inconsistent Spartans secondary.

5. Hankwitz getting defensive: During his introductory news conference as Northwestern's defensive coordinator in January 2008, Mike Hankwitz mentioned Saturday's game, the first time he'd get a crack at Wisconsin. The Badgers surprisingly dumped Hankwitz after the 2007 season, as head coach Bret Bielema gave Dave Doeren full control of the defense. The move has worked out well for both sides, as Hankwitz transformed Northwestern's defense the last two years and Doeren is getting excellent results from the front seven this fall. But you can bet it'll be personal for Hankwitz as the Badgers visit Ryan Field (Big Ten Network, 3:30 p.m. ET).

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Defending the spread offense isn't easy, and Mike Hankwitz should know. He's one of the nation's most experienced defensive coordinators, having held the job at six different schools, and he's witnessed every step of the spread's evolution. Now in his second year at Northwestern, Hankwitz coaches against the spread offense every day in practice. 

Hankwitz recently weighed in on the difficulties of defending the spread.

How has the spread offense changed the way you put together your game plans?

Mike Hankwitz: It has changed things because in the past, you wanted to feel like you could be more proactive and try to dictate. You could stack up against the run and force teams to throw, or you could stack your coverage and dare 'em to run. The spread does literally what it says: It spreads the field, forces you to spread your defense out more and especially with the quarterbacks that can run and throw. There's all different types of blocking schemes in the spread, aside from just the zone read.
 
So how do you counteract all of that?

MH: We try to see what the strength of their attack is. Is it the running game? How good is the quarterback in the run game? Is he a better runner than passer? If he is, then we'll commit more to the run and try to make him beat us throwing the ball. Or if they're a better passing team, then we will play more coverages and try to make them beating us running the ball. The third element when they spread you out is the unscripted, the improvised plays with the quarterback scramble. You're spread out and you're trying to rush the passer and play coverage and all of a sudden, the quarterback that can take off and scramble, it's not easy to plan for that all the time.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Pat Fitzgerald has changed the face of Northwestern football, and, in the process, has become the face of the Wildcats program.

Northwestern took a big step toward keeping the face in place Tuesday, rewarding Fitzgerald with a seven-year contract extension through the 2015 season. 

 
  AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
  Pat Fitzgerald received a contract extension, keeping him at Northwestern.

"This has been one of our top priorities the past few months," Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips said in a prepared statement. "There is no doubt that Pat is the right individual to lead Northwestern's football program well into the future. In three years, Pat has quickly developed into one of the nation's top young head coaches. He bleeds purple and has tremendous passion for Northwestern."

Phillips wanted to get a contract done by the start of the summer and nearly reached his goal. Northwestern has improved its wins total in each of Fitzgerald's past two seasons, finishing 9-4 last fall and reaching the Alamo Bowl. 

Fitzgerald stepped into a very difficult situation in 2006, taking over as the nation's youngest head coach just a week after the sudden death of program stabilizer Randy Walker. The 31-year-old showed his age at points during a very shaky first season in which the Wildcats stumbled to 4-8. 

He began to find himself as a head coach after the 2007 campaign, blending competition into every element of the team's offseason program. He made the Big Ten's best coaching hire in defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, who transformed a sorry unit into a group that reflects Fitzgerald, a former two-time National Defensive Player of the Year at Northwestern. The result with a nine-win team that amazingly included only one All-Big Ten selection (defensive end Corey Wootton). 

But with success comes speculation, especially at a place like Northwestern. With Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis on the hot seat late last fall, many tabbed Fitzgerald as a potential successor. It seemed like a perfect fit: An Irish kid from Chicago's south suburbs coaching the Fighting Irish.

Don't hold your breath on that one.

Fitzgerald is extremely happy at Northwestern. He played there. He got his degree from there. He loves Evanston and living near his family and his wife's family in Chicago's south suburbs. He has three sons who he'd love to send to Northwestern. He loves the Big Ten.

And if he did decide to leave, I highly, highly doubt it would be for Notre Dame. 

"It's no secret that I want to be the head football coach at Northwestern for many years to come," Fitzgerald said in a statement. "Our football program is succeeding both on and off the field, and we're proud of our recent accomplishments. We have greater aspirations, however, and I'm thankful to our administration for helping us support that vision."

The idea that someone would want to stay at Northwestern for the long haul seems unlikely, and the school has lost successful coaches like Ara Parseghian and Gary Barnett to more prestigious programs (Notre Dame and Colorado). But Fitzgerald's roots run much deeper at the school, and as long as he continues to receive support from the administration -- not just salary but program support -- he should stay put.

You never know what happens in the coaching business, but with Fitzgerald's age (34), he could have a Joe Paterno-like run at Northwestern.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

There were no pre-planned head-coaching changes in the Big Ten this year, but six new coordinators join the league for 2009. Last season, teams like Northwestern and Minnesota saw the benefits of new coordinators as Mike Hankwitz and Ted Roof made major improvements on the defensive side of the ball.

College Football News' Robert Cirminiello recently ranked the top 20 coordinator hires during the offseason. Two Big Ten arrivals make the list in Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Robinson and Purdue offensive coordinator Gary Nord.

Robinson checks in at No. 11.

11. Greg Robinson, Michigan (defensive coordinator) -- Long before Robinson would was a washout as a head coach, he was widely considered to be a pretty good defensive assistant. Rich Rodriguez is holding out hope that a 10-37 record in four years at Syracuse didn't rob him of his passion for the game. With far more talent than he had at his disposal in New York, Robinson hopes to install an up-tempo system that'll get after the quarterback and create plenty of turnovers. He's being shielded from heavy recruiting, which was not a strength, in favor of his expertise as an X's and O's guy.

Nord rounded out the list at No. 20.

20. Gary Nord, Purdue (offensive coordinator) -- Nord has been brought on board by Danny Hope to ignite a Boilermaker offense that reached a low point in the Joe Tiller era a year ago. With more than a quarter-century of college coaching, he comes armed with experience and a reputation as one of the game's brighter offensive minds. His ability to recruit the state of Florida and comfort level with Hope from their decade together at Louisville and Oklahoma were also key factors in this hire being made.

Roof, who left Minnesota for Auburn in January, ranks No. 10 on Cirminiello's list.

I was a little surprised not to see Minnesota's new offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch or Illinois' new offensive coordinator Mike Schultz on the rundown. Fisch will facilitate a dramatic shift in Minnesota's offensive philosophy, as the team returns to a pro-style system after two years in the spread. Schultz hopes to continue Illinois' success in the spread and improve the team's rushing attack, which dropped off last fall after leading the Big Ten in 2007 and 2008.

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