NCF Nation: Mike Kafka

Matt McGloin, Braxton Miller and Joel StaveUS PresswireThe recent performances by (L to R) Penn State's Matt McGloin, Ohio State's Braxton Miller and Wisconsin's Joel Stave give the Big Ten some hope for improved quarterback play.
Of the many theories to explain the Big Ten's collective struggles this season, the one about the league's dearth of elite quarterbacks certainly rings true.

Through eight weeks, the Big Ten has just one quarterback ranked among the nation's top 30 in pass efficiency (Nebraska's Taylor Martinez at No. 15). The league has just one quarterback in the nation's top 30 in completions per game (Penn State's Matt McGloin at No. 19). The league has zero quarterbacks ranked in the nation's top 30 in total passing yards.

As former Ohio State coach Earle Bruce told me last month, "A team can't get cut short at that position. I don't know whether the evaluation of the quarterbacks has been wrong, or they had injuries or whatever, but the quarterback position is down in the Big Ten. There's no doubt about that."

Bruce is right. There's no doubt. But there's also hope on the horizon for a league that hasn't had a quarterback selected in the first round of the NFL draft since 1995 (Penn State's Kerry Collins).

I sat in Kinnick Stadium on Saturday night and watched McGloin pick apart what had been a pretty salty Iowa defense. McGloin had complete command and tremendous awareness of his receivers and tight ends. He made correct reads and confident throws. McGloin's mobility is, well, limited, but one of his best plays came in the first quarter, when he evaded the rush and spotted tight end Jesse James on a deep crossing route to set up Penn State's first touchdown. As I tweeted at the time, McGloin is simply a different quarterback.

The same Matt McGloin who looked lost for much of the past two seasons has thrown 14 touchdown passes and just two interceptions in 259 pass attempts. The same guy whose selection as the Lions' starting quarterback this spring elicited groans from much of Nittany Nation, and understandably so, is by far the best drop-back passer in the Big Ten. Some say that's an indictment against the league, and they're right to a degree. But it's also a tribute to what new Penn State coach Bill O'Brien can do with a quarterback.

If O'Brien can do this with McGloin, a former walk-on (sorry, Matt, had to mention it) in one offseason, think of what he can do with a quarterback who comes to Penn State with bona fide next-level potential. Like Christian Hackenberg, the nation's No. 1 quarterback prospect, who has verbally committed to O'Brien and the Lions.

There are other reasons for optimism at the most important position on the field. Ohio State's Braxton Miller has exceeded all expectations in his first year as a spread-offense quarterback. Whether or not Miller hoists the Heisman Trophy in December -- or even gets to New York for the ceremony -- he'll enter 2013 as the likely Heisman front-runner. There's little doubt Miller's skills fit seamlessly with what Urban Meyer and Tom Herman want to do on offense.

Youth is a common theme among current Big Ten quarterbacks. New offensive systems is another.

Minnesota coach Jerry Kill pressed the fast-forward button Saturday, burned Philip Nelson's redshirt and decided the future is now at quarterback. While Nelson made some expected mistakes in his first career start at a very tough venue (Wisconsin's Camp Randall Stadium), he also showed why Minnesota fans are so excited about his potential. The experience this fall only will make him better in 2013.

The other quarterback on the field at Camp Randall Stadium, Wisconsin freshman Joel Stave, also is hardly a finished product. But he's a good play-action passer who doesn't make a ton of mistakes in a newish offense. Stave is another guy who should be better in 2013. Wisconsin also will have Danny O'Brien, Jon Budmayr and heralded recruit Bart Houston, provided Budmayr and Houston recover from their injuries.

Northwestern sophomore Trevor Siemian is another young Big Ten quarterback who looks his age. He's a half-step slow on his reads and his deliveries, and he's not connecting on the short-to-midrange routes that have defined Northwestern's offense for years. The good news is coordinator Mick McCall has a proven track record of developing younger quarterbacks into top-level Big Ten players in their junior and/or senior seasons (Dan Persa, Mike Kafka, C.J. Bacher). There's no reason to think Siemian, who has played more than the others as a sophomore, won't make a similar jump in 2013.

Look around the Big Ten, and most of the current signal-callers will be back next fall.

Nebraska's Martinez is a confounding player at times, particularly away from Lincoln, but he also has undoubtedly improved in 2012 -- he completes a league-best 67 percent of his passes with 15 touchdown strikes and four interceptions -- and will enter next year as one of the nation's most experienced quarterbacks. Another player who falls under that label is Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase, who has had his struggles this season but also has been operating in a new system with barely any weapons around him. Scheelhaase and the Illini offense will be better in 2013.

Indiana might have the Big Ten's deepest group of quarterbacks in 2013, as Tre Roberson returns from injury to join Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld in a pass-oriented scheme coordinated by Seth Littrell.

This isn't to suggest Big Ten teams don't have concerns at quarterback, both now and in years ahead. Andrew Maxwell's struggles at Michigan State are unsettling. Then again, he's a first-year starter with no proven receivers. Michigan loses one of the most productive players in team history in Denard Robinson. Then again, Robinson's departure accelerates Michigan's transition to the true pro-style offense Al Borges wants to run. If incoming recruit Shane Morris is as good as advertised, Michigan's future at quarterback looks promising.

No one expected Iowa's James Vandenberg to struggle so much in his senior season. Then again, the Hawkeyes are operating in a new offense under Greg Davis, and another full offseason could pay dividends for the new starter (most likely Jake Rudock).

The quarterback spot is and has been a problem in the Big Ten. There's no sugarcoating it.

But I saw reason for optimism with McGloin in Iowa City, and the combination of coaches, new systems, maturing players and incoming recruits suggests better days lie ahead.
Like all quarterbacks, Northwestern's Kain Colter must master clock management.

But not only the clock on the scoreboard. The one in his head, too.

[+] EnlargeKain Colter
AP Photo/Mary SchwalmNorthwestern's Kain Colter has passed for 301 yards and rushed for 180 over his first two career starts.
Colter has racked up yards (180 rush, 301 pass) and touchdowns (4 rushing) in his first two career starts. He also has racked up hits, a few too many for anyone's liking, especially with top quarterback Dan Persa still not medically cleared to play.

There's no doubt Colter is a special player with the ball in his hands. While Northwestern looks for its first bell-cow running back since Tyrell Sutton, the team's best option appears to be the guy taking the snaps.

"Dynamic," offensive coordinator Mick McCall said of Colter. "That's the one word that describes him best. He's a handful to defend. He's done a very, very good job and we're really pleased."

McCall's challenge is to develop Colter into a complete quarterback, one who knows when to take off and when to stand his ground in the pocket and wait for pass plays to develop. Although Northwestern boasts one of the Big Ten's deepest groups of receivers, the team ranks near the bottom of the league in pass attempts (40).

The good news is McCall has been down this road before. Mike Kafka was a run-first quarterback who led the Big Ten with 3,430 pass yards in 2009. Persa began his career as a run-first quarterback before completing a league-record 73.5 percent of his pass attempts for 2,581 yards and 15 touchdowns last season.

"You look early in Dan’s career, early in Mike's career, all them have the ability to make plays with their feet," McCall said. "They go, '1-2, I got to get out of here.'"

McCall is trying to get Colter to wait a little longer.

"There's times he's pulled it down where he didn't have to," McCall said. "Last week he checked the ball down a lot better. ... As time goes on, he'll get better at checking the ball down, getting that progression to the third or fourth [receiver] and he won't have to use his feet so much."

Colter went through some sliding drills this week in practice, and McCall is telling the sophomore when he should run out of bounds rather than absorb another hit.

"I've got to teach him to manage himself a little bit better," McCall said. "He wants to go make every play like every young guy does."

Another item on McCall's agenda is what to do at quarterback when Persa is medically cleared to play. Persa, who has had increased participation in practice, said this week he should be back by the Big Ten opener Oct. 1, at the latest. McCall said there's still a chance the senior plays Saturday at Army.

Although McCall isn't too wrapped up in how he'll use Persa and Colter, he admits the coaches will "get our creative juices going" soon.

"Until I get told that he's a full-go, that's what I'm waiting on," McCall said. "We'll see when that comes and we'll get him going again. I know he's been itching to play and he's working his fanny off. It's been a tough ordeal. It's hard coming back because you're so close but you've got to get over this hurdle. ... There's always going to be times where you get setbacks in your rehab; it doesn't matter what the injury is.

"But he's still way ahead of the game compared to the normal timeline."

While Persa tries to accelerate his return, Colter's best approach could be to slow things down just a bit.
Northwestern offensive coordinator Mick McCall is one of the nation's more underrated quarterback coaches.

Since he arrived before the 2008 season, he has helped C.J. Bacher, Mike Kafka and Dan Persa become some of the Big Ten's best signal-callers.

McCall faces yet another challenge today as sophomore Kain Colter will make his first start at quarterback in the season opener at Boston College. Persa, still hampered by a surgically repaired Achilles tendon, isn't dressed for the game and won't play.

It's certainly tough news for Northwestern and its All-Big Ten quarterback, although not surprising after the preseason. Colter took the majority of reps with the first-team offense in camp and showed improvement as a passer. Persa looked fine with his passing but struggled to move around. His legs helped him immensely in 2010, and Northwestern needs its quarterbacks to be running threats.

Still, it's a little surprising that Persa hasn't even dressed for the game. You have to wonder why Northwestern launched a Heisman Trophy campaign for the senior when his playing status was in doubt. I wouldn't expect to see Persa until a Week 3 matchup against Army, at the earliest.

Colter faces a good Boston College defense and must show he's more than a good athlete. He must connect on Northwestern's high-percentage passes, use a very good group of receivers and tight ends and limit major mistakes. It'll be a tough task.

The Wildcats need to rally around Colter and show that they can win without Persa. Northwestern fell apart on both sides of the ball last season after Persa ruptured his Achilles tendon in a Nov. 13 win against Iowa.

Will Kain be able? We'll find out very soon.
EVANSTON, Ill. -- During Northwestern's team meeting Sunday, coach Pat Fitzgerald tried to loosen up his new starting quarterback.

"I said, 'Remember when I recruited you and I told you that you were going to start your first college game at Wrigley against the Illini?' " Fitzgerald said. "And he kind of chuckled. I said, 'Just like we scripted, right?' "

Not quite.

[+] EnlargeNorthwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhAt just 37, Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald is the second-longest-tenured coach in the Big Ten.
The script certainly has changed for Northwestern after it lost star quarterback Dan Persa to a season-ending ruptured Achilles' tendon. Persa, who suffered the injury while throwing the game-winning touchdown pass Saturday against Iowa, underwent successful surgery Saturday night and is expected to make a full recovery by the spring or shortly thereafter.

The loss of Persa thrusts Watkins, a redshirt freshman, into the spotlight. And what a bright spotlight it will be.

Northwestern and Illinois play the first football game at Wrigley Field since 1970 and the first college football game at the Friendly Confines since 1938. Northwestern and Illinois haven't played at Clark & Addison since 1923, a 29-0 Illinois win. ESPN "College GameDay" also will be on site.

Add in the fact that Watkins grew up in Chicago's west suburbs.

"Growing up in the Chicagoland area, playing in Wrigley against an in-state rival, it's a perfect opportunity," Watkins said. "I'm really excited."

It's an opportunity Watkins would have gladly passed up if Persa could have avoided what Fitzgerald called "a freak injury." Watkins talked to Persa the night of Persa's surgery and visited with Persa on Monday at the football offices.

Watkins has tried to absorb as much as he can from the junior quarterback, who will be involved in practice this week and on game day. But Watkins now will lead the offense, beginning in a film-review session tonight.

"He's staying very positive," Watkins said of Persa. "He's been there for me and supporting me. Anything he needs to do to help me be prepared, he will this week, so it's been helpful. ... I just told him how sorry I was for him that it had to end like that. I've got his back, and I'm going to do everything I can for him to lead this team to victories."

Northwestern is no stranger to in-season quarterback changes.

Persa relieved Mike Kafka last year for stretches of two games after Kafka hurt his hamstring. The year before, Kafka relieved C.J. Bacher for two games after Bacher injured his hamstring. Watkins stepped in for Persa three weeks ago at Indiana after Persa suffered a concussion late in the game. On his first play, Watkins fired a 13-yard pass on third-and-8 to set up a field goal.

"He's an extremely talented quarterback," Fitzgerald said. "He's a dual-threat guy with his size at 6-6 and close to 250 pounds. A kid that can run. He's got a great arm, he's got a great understanding of our offense.

"Evan will be ready."

Watkins has appeared in four games this fall, completing 3 of 7 passes with no touchdowns or interceptions. He has only two rushing attempts, a total that will increase Saturday.

Although Watkins admits he's "not Persa-fast" -- Persa leads the team with 519 rush yards and nine touchdowns -- and likely will sit in the pocket more, he's not a plodder, either.

"He moves better than people give him credit for," offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. "He's going to run around and make some things happen."

Watkins' biggest challenge will be handling the emotions of his first start, especially in such a unique setting. He showed some savvy Monday when asked if he's a Cubs or White Sox fan.

"I'm a Chicago fan," he said.

Likely translation: He's a White Sox fan.

How will Watkins balance his emotions Saturday?

"I'm going to be excited," he said, "but you've got to stay focused and prevent any distractions. Just keep your mind on winning."

Iowa tries to overcome NU nemesis

November, 11, 2010
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Some trends in the Big Ten seem to defy explanation, and Iowa finds itself on opposite sides of two of them.

The Hawkeyes have won eight of their last nine meetings against Penn State, including each of the past three contests. Iowa derailed Penn State's national title hopes in 2008, reshuffled the Big Ten race with a win in Happy Valley last fall and held Penn State without a touchdown in a dominating win Oct. 2.

Joe Paterno has lost more games to Iowa (11) than any other team in his head-coaching career except for Ohio State (13).

Kirk Ferentz
Stephen Mally/Icon SMIIowa is 4-5 against Northwestern with Kirk Ferentz as the head coach.
But it has been a very different story for Iowa against Northwestern. The Wildcats have won four of the teams' past five meetings, including three at Kinnick Stadium, where Iowa is 49-10 since 2002. Northwestern ended Iowa's perfect season in 2009 with a 17-10 come-from-behind win at Kinnick. Kirk Ferentz is just 4-5 against Northwestern as Iowa's coach.

"I really couldn't tell you why we've had so much success against Penn State and not so much against Northwestern," Iowa senior guard Julian Vandervelde said this week. "I really do think it comes down to the little details, the mistakes, the fundamentals and the basics. Year in and year out, we're able to execute against Penn State and not so much against Northwestern."

Iowa needs a polished performance Saturday as it visits Northwestern. The 13th-ranked Hawkeyes remain very much in the Big Ten title race, but they can't afford to slip up, especially as next week's home showdown against No. 9 Ohio State looms.

By most accounts, Saturday's game is one Iowa should win. The Hawkeyes are more experienced on both sides of the ball. Iowa's biggest strengths (the play-action pass and a pressuring defensive line) match up well against two of Northwestern's weaknesses (the secondary and the offensive line). Iowa has more at stake and should have no trouble getting motivated after the struggles.

But the Hawkeyes know what should happen and what does happen are two different things, especially in this series.

Many have tried to explain Northwestern's recent success, even pointing to the Hayden Fry-Gary Barnett exchange after the 1994 Iowa beatdown of Northwestern as the start of a shift (Northwestern is 8-5 against Iowa since 1995).

Iowa has dealt with key injuries in the last two losses -- running back Shonn Greene in 2008 and quarterback Ricky Stanzi in 2009 -- but Northwestern also played most of last year's game without star quarterback Mike Kafka. Northwestern running back Adonis Smith was quoted this week as saying coach Pat Fitzgerald "hates Iowa," but does that matter on the field?

The real explanation, according to Ferentz, is pretty simple.

"They have done a good job of playing the way you're supposed to play and we haven't," he said. "I think we have had nine turnovers and they have had two in two years. ... On top of that, we screwed up on special teams, several times, a couple years ago. To me, that's been the story of it. You've got two even teams. One team played clean, played really well and the other team didn't and it's pretty academic who is going to win or lose."

Iowa has looked uncharacteristically sloppy against NU, but Vandervelde says there's no mental block against playing the Wildcats.

"People don't expect them, for some reason, to come out and swing as much as they do and hit as hard as they do," he said. "Sometimes it catches people by surprise, I think. They're smart guys, they're going to watch tape and figure out what you do, so you really can't make mistakes. You have to be ready for everything they're going to bring.

"Having played them for a couple of years now, I'm well versed in their style of play and I won't be surprised by anything, hopefully."

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 11

November, 8, 2010
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» Power Rankings: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-10 | SEC | Non-AQ

The Big Ten title race didn’t change much Saturday, but there’s always some shuffling in the power rankings. Both Michigan schools make a positive move, while the Illinois schools backslide after tough road losses.

Penn State is back among the league's top half after three consecutive wins. It'll be interesting to see how the Nittany Lions fare against improved competition down the stretch.

Remember, the power rankings reflect how a team is playing right now and will change week to week.

1. Wisconsin (8-1, 4-1 Big Ten): I really believe that when healthy, Wisconsin is the Big Ten's best team. The Badgers have had to fight through injuries in their past two games, not to mention bye week hangover in a sluggish first half at Purdue. But reserves like running back Montee Ball are stepping up, and Wisconsin’s defense made a ton of plays to lead a second-half surge.

2. Michigan State (9-1, 5-1): The Spartans took care of business against last-place Minnesota and revived their rushing attack behind dynamic sophomore Edwin Baker. Linebacker Greg Jones and the defense also regained its swagger. The team's offense in the second half was less than stellar, but it didn't need to be. Michigan State now gets a well-earned open week.

3. Ohio State (8-1, 4-1): Holding steady at No. 3 for now, Ohio State has a chance to move up as it enters its signature month under head coach Jim Tressel. The Buckeyes' Big Ten dominance can be directly traced to their November dominance. Star linebacker Ross Homan (foot) could return this week as Ohio State hosts surging Penn State before its signature showdown Nov. 20 at Iowa.

4. Iowa (7-2, 4-1): Iowa drops in the rankings after its lackluster performance at Indiana. The Hawkeyes couldn’t finish drives for most of the game and were extremely fortunate to escape with a win after Indiana's Damarlo Belcher dropped the ball in the end zone with less than a minute remaining. I liked what I saw from Ricky Stanzi in crunch time, but Iowa really dodged a bullet Saturday.

5. Penn State (6-3, 3-2): I really like what I've seen from Penn State since the bye week, especially on offense. Running back Evan Royster is rolling, and quarterback Matt McGloin has provided a jolt to a lifeless unit. A banged-up defense also showed some teeth Saturday by shutting out Northwestern in the second half. Penn State’s competition goes up quite a few notches this week in Columbus.

6. Michigan (6-3, 2-3): A great offense can carry a team at times, and Michigan's offense has helped the Wolverines become bowl eligible for the first time in coach Rich Rodriguez's tenure. The Michigan-Illinois game might have defied Big Ten tradition, but it was damn fun to watch. Everyone knows the Wolverines are an incomplete team, but their offense should strike fear in every opponent the rest of the season.

7. Illinois (5-4, 3-3): What happened to the Illinois defense? A unit that had held teams like Ohio State and Michigan State in check was no match for Michigan, which piled up 67 points, 676 offensive yards and 33 first downs. I wouldn’t like to be in the film room with coordinator Vic Koenning right now. The good news is Illinois continues to see growth from quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase.

8. Northwestern (6-3, 2-3): The Wildcats haven't put together a complete game against an FBS opponent, a troubling trend that continued Saturday in Happy Valley. Northwestern has showed it can play with more talented teams like Michigan State and Penn State, but the Wildcats are struggling to finish, especially on defense. Quarterback Dan Persa has filled the void left by Mike Kafka, but Northwestern is really missing the defensive backs it lost to graduation.

9. Indiana (4-5, 0-5): It’s the same old story for coach Bill Lynch and the Hoosiers, who did several good things Saturday but couldn’t emerge with a Big Ten victory. Indiana's defense has played noticeably better since the Ohio State loss, but the offense still isn’t putting the ball in the end zone enough. You have to feel for Belcher, an outstanding receiver who makes that catch nine out of 10 times. Things don't get easier this week with a trip to Wisconsin.

10. Purdue (4-5, 2-3): Purdue controlled the pace in the first half, forcing mistakes from Wisconsin and making several nice plays of its own. But quarterback Sean Robinson's youth caught up to the Boilers after halftime, as Purdue lost the momentum and never regained it. Turnovers kill you against good teams, and the injury-plagued Boilers have had too many miscues since the Minnesota win.

11. Minnesota (1-9, 0-6): The Gophers had to know what was coming in East Lansing, and yet they still had no answer for Baker, who racked up 179 rushing yards and four touchdowns. Minnesota's offensive inconsistency continued as it couldn't finish drives. At least only two more games remain in this death march, and Minnesota’s best chance for a win comes this week at Illinois.
Dan Persa's 86.4 percent completion ratio so far this season doesn't surprise Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald sees this all the time from the Wildcats' junior quarterback.

Asked Tuesday if Persa passes the ball as accurately in practice as he does in games, Fitzgerald flipped through his notes from the team's workout earlier that morning.

[+] EnlargeDan Persa
Jerry Lai/US PresswireDan Persa in the early national leader in pass efficiency with a rating of 212.1.
"We just got off the field and he threw for 92 percent in seven-on-seven," Fitzgerald said. "And in team [drills], he threw for 88 percent.

"So yeah, he's pretty consistent."

Persa opened the season by completing 19 of 21 passes for 222 yards and three touchdowns in a road win against Vanderbilt. He set a single-game team record for completion percentage (90.5 percent, minimum 20 attempts) and added 82 rush yards.

Last Saturday, Persa took a huge step back. He only completed 82.6 percent of his throws (19-for-23) in about a half of work against Illinois State.

On-target passing combined with five touchdown strikes and no interceptions has helped Persa lead the nation in pass efficiency with a rating of 212.1.

"It's just all about your confidence," Persa told me earlier this week. "Once it becomes second nature, you don't really think about making mistakes. You just think about getting the ball to [the receivers] as quick as you can and watch what they do with it."

Persa is only two games into his stint as Northwestern's full-time starter and entered the year with only 34 career pass attempts (20 completions). His fast start is linked to his ability to maximize the offseason, whether it was earning team awards for his weight-room prowess, working with former Northwestern quarterback Brett Basanez on his skills or leading voluntary workouts with his receivers.

Northwestern's spread offense is built around high-percentage passes, some of which coordinator Mick McCall considers the equivalent to run plays. Most of Persa's throws don't travel very far, but the execution needs to be there on both ends.

"Some are short, easy passes," Persa said, "but at the same time, we work really hard in the offseason and in fall camp to get our timing right. It's really showing right now."

Northwestern enjoyed similar accuracy with All-Big Ten quarterback Mike Kafka in 2009.

Kafka led Big Ten starters in completion percentage (64.8). He completed his first 16 passes against Syracuse, breaking a 47-year-old team record, and finished the game 35-for-42 (83.3 percent).

Persa has continued the pattern.

"I just try to make all the throws that I'm capable of," he said. "You're going to have some incompletions, just because sometimes you've got to throw the ball away or sometimes, you have to save yourself. I'm not really focused on making or missing passes as much as executing and getting the job done."

Fitzgerald said there's only one throw Persa would like to have back so far this season, a pass that sailed through the hands of a Vanderbilt linebacker and into those of Northwestern receiver Demetrius Fields.

So even when Persa messes up, he still completes the pass. Figures.

"He's managed it outstanding," Fitzgerald said. "I don't know if he could have done a better job in the first two games. ... He's a great fit to our offense. He can do everything: He can run, he can throw the quick game, he can throw on the move, he can throw the ball vertically.

"He's just the full package."

Big Ten power rankings: Week 2

September, 7, 2010
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The Big Ten's best looked good against mostly weak competition in Week 1, so no changes up top. Michigan's impressive win comes with a reward, and there's a little shuffling at the bottom.

Let's get started ...

1. Ohio State (1-0): The Big Ten's most complete team delivered a complete performance in dismantling Marshall 45-7 on Thursday night. Quarterback Terrelle Pryor looked more comfortable as he led a surprisingly dynamic offense that got a lot of its weapons involved. The defense continued its opportunistic ways. Aside from a few special-teams miscues, not much to complain about.

2. Iowa (1-0): After living on the edge throughout the 2009 season, the Hawkeyes dominated Eastern Illinois to open a year filled with high expectations. Aside from a leg injury to quarterback Ricky Stanzi that looked scarier than it actually was, Iowa fans could breathe easy Saturday. Stanzi and running back Adam Robinson both stood out, and the defense allowed only one significant drive. Things get tougher the next two weeks with Iowa State and Arizona.

3. Wisconsin (1-0): The Badgers made a few big mistakes early against UNLV, but they pulled away in the second half behind their three-headed running back monster of John Clay, Montee Ball and dynamic freshman James White. Defensive end J.J. Watt made a game-changing forced fumble early in the third quarter, and Wisconsin's power game took over from there. A good performance overall on the road, although the Badgers need to clean up a few things.

4. Penn State (1-0): Joe Paterno has found his quarterback, and (gasp!), he's a true freshman. Rob Bolden answered the call in his first career start, showing good poise in the final three quarters against Youngstown State. Receivers Brett Brackett and Derek Moye stepped up, and Chaz Powell returned a kickoff 100 yards to the end zone. Penn State's offensive line still needs to pick up its play after Evan Royster recorded only 40 rush yards against Youngstown.

5. Michigan State (1-0): After leaning on Kirk Cousins and the pass game too often last season, Michigan State re-established the run in a big way Saturday. Playing without projected starter Larry Caper (hand), the Spartans received big performances from freshman Le'Veon Bell (141 rush yards, 2 TDs) and sophomore Edwin Baker (117 rush yards 2 TDs). Linebacker Greg Jones had a forced fumble and nearly secured his first career interception.

6. Michigan (1-0): Thanks to Denard Robinson and an improved offensive line, Michigan recorded the most impressive victory of Week 1, considering the competition. Robinson has to be careful with all the hits he takes, but if he continues to complement his ridiculous speed with an accurate arm, the Wolverines will win a lot of games this fall. Michigan's defense still concerns me a bit, although I liked the aggressiveness from Craig Roh.

7. Northwestern (1-0): The Wildcats never trailed against Vanderbilt but seemed fortunate to escape Nashville with a victory. New starting quarterback Dan Persa carried the offense, much like predecessor Mike Kafka did in 2009, and showed incredible accuracy (19-for-21 passing, 222 yards, 3 TDs). The run game once again was absent, a concern for Pat Fitzgerald going forward, and Northwestern endured several special-teams miscues.

T-8. Minnesota (1-0): For the first time in a while, you can say Minnesota has an offensive identity. The Gophers held the ball for 45:34 in their come-from-behind win against Middle Tennessee, as Duane Bennett (187 rush yards) led the power rushing attack. Fullback Jon Hoese (3 rush TDs) provided the best story of Week 1, and a new-look defense did enough to hold off a Dwight Dasher-less Blue Raiders team. The Gophers really needed this one.

T-8. Purdue (0-1): A young Purdue team played predictably inconsistent football at Notre Dame. New quarterback Robert Marve looked good at times but made too many mistakes. The secondary did a decent job against Irish star receiver Michael Floyd, but Purdue allowed scores on four consecutive possessions midway through the game. Still, the Boilers had a chance at the end, and they'll get better in the coming weeks.

10. Indiana (1-0): Look out for the Hoosiers' offense this season. IU didn't miss a beat without All-Big Ten wide receiver Tandon Doss, as quarterback Ben Chappell found a rhythm against Towson and Darius Willis (102 rush yards, 2 TDs) led the ground game. The outlook on defense remains much cloudier after the Hoosiers allowed 392 yards to Towson. If the defense doesn't get better by Big Ten play, Indiana will have a tough time winning games.

11. Illinois (0-1): For a moment, it looked like Illinois would stun Missouri and finally win a game at the Edward Jones Dome. But the second half showed that the team remains a work in progress on both sides of the ball. There were some encouraging signs, particularly running back Mikel Leshoure and defenders Corey Liuget and Ian Thomas, but Illinois needs to put a complete game together. This week's home matchup against Southern Illinois will be huge.

Ranking the Big Ten quarterbacks

August, 13, 2010
8/13/10
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As you might have noticed, we're all about quarterbacks today at ESPN.com, and it's time to rank the Big Ten signal callers.

This hasn't been a Big Ten strength in recent years, but things could change this fall. Quarterbacks like Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor, Iowa's Ricky Stanzi and Wisconsin's Scott Tolzien all have proven they can win at a high level, and Ben Chappell (Indiana) and Kirk Cousins (Michigan State) put up some strong numbers last fall.

The criteria are the same I used for the top 25 preseason rankings: past performance and 2010 potential. You can gripe all you want about the top four choices, but you shouldn't be surprised because all four quarterbacks were ranked in the exact same order in June/July. The Big Ten blogger is not a hypocrite. One final note: These are individual player rankings, but I consolidated the quarterback candidates at Michigan and Penn State to make it easier.

I fully expect this list to be different in early January, but here goes:

[+] EnlargeTerrelle Pryor
AP Photo/Terry GilliamTerrelle Pryor's performance in the Rose Bowl solidified his rank as the Big Ten's best quarterback.
1. Terrelle Pryor, Ohio State: How can I rank Pryor at No. 1 based on one great performance? For starters, it took place in a huge game, the Rose Bowl, against a top 10 opponent in Oregon. Plus, I think Pryor will go forward rather than backward and become a more complete quarterback this fall. He has more natural ability than anyone else on this list, and while he'll never be a model passer, he only needs to improve a little to become a lot more dangerous.

2. Ricky Stanzi, Iowa: It's very close between Stanzi and Tolzien, but Stanzi's 18-4 mark as Iowa's starting quarterback sets him apart. Yes, you can point to the mistakes, and there were a lot of them, but no quarterback in the country made more big plays in the fourth quarter than No. 12. I expect a smarter and more efficient Stanzi in 2010. Plus, he's a damn fine American.

3. Scott Tolzien, Wisconsin: Simply stated, he's the perfect quarterback for Wisconsin. Tolzien is smart, extremely efficient and totally aware of his role in the offense. He executes the play-action well and can thread the needle when he needs to. Tolzien still needs to prove himself against the Big Ten's best defenses, but I expect a very strong senior season from him.

4. Kirk Cousins, Michigan State: Take away a few late-game mistakes and a poor second half against Penn State, and Cousins turned in a very strong season as a first-year starter. His touchdown-to-interception ratio is strong (19-9), and he'll only get better with more experience. Plus, he has an excellent group of receivers and tight ends at his disposal this fall.

5. Ben Chappell, Indiana: Chappell is the Big Ten's leading returning passer (2,941 yards in 2009), and he ranks second in completion percentage (62.6) among returning starters. He needs to cut down on his interceptions and make better throws in the red zone, but all that should come this fall. Chappell has some great receivers to work with, namely Tandon Doss, but would really benefit from a consistent run game.

6. Adam Weber, Minnesota: Some Gophers fans have given up on Weber after a poor junior season, but I still have faith in No. 8, who happens to be a record holder at the U. It hasn't been easy with three offensive coordinators in as many seasons, and the system last year would have been tough for any quarterback to run. Weber still has a ton of talent, but he needs to regain the confidence we saw for most of 2008, when he earned second-team All-Big Ten honors. He also needs to prove himself without star receiver Eric Decker.

7. Robert Marve, Purdue: Marve clearly doesn't grade high in past performance after struggling at Miami in 2008, but his potential this fall is very high. He'll benefit from working in Purdue's spread offense, and he'll have no shortage of targets in Keith Smith, Justin Siller, Cortez Smith and others. The ability always has been there with Marve, and we'll start to see results this fall.

8. Tate Forcier/Denard Robinson, Michigan: No starter has been named, and while head coach Rich Rodriguez has a bit of evidence from 2009, he'll be selecting a No. 1 quarterback based on who he believes has greater potential in 2010. Both players can run, although Robinson is more explosive on the move. Forcier was far and away the better passer in 2009, but he struggled to make plays when he wasn't freelancing. Robinson should be a better passer this fall.

9. Dan Persa, Northwestern: This isn't a knock against Persa, who has done everything right to prepare himself for this moment. I just need to see more from him in game situations, especially if Northwestern relies on him as much as it did Mike Kafka in 2009. Persa very well could be the most ideal fit for Northwestern's spread offense since Zak Kustok.

10. Kevin Newsome/Matt McGloin/Paul Jones/Robert Bolden, Penn State: The competition remains wide open, and the group has virtually no game experience aside from Newsome. Talent shouldn't be a problem, as Newsome, Jones and Bolden all were highly-touted recruits, while McGloin, a former walk-on, has made significant strides in State College. Who can handle the pressure of quarterbacking in the Big Ten? We'll find out soon.

11. Nathan Scheelhaase, Illinois: Again, not a knock against Scheelhaase, but his past performance is confined to practices and scrimmages. He's one of the most mature redshirt freshmen I've covered, but he's obviously got to prove himself in the game spotlight. Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino sees shades of Stefan LeFors in Scheelhaase. If that's the case, he'll soar up this list.

Big Ten NFL draft roundup

April, 26, 2010
4/26/10
9:00
AM ET
The 2010 NFL draft is in the books, so let's take a look at the 34 Big Ten players who heard their names called in New York. When the full list of undrafted free agents comes out, I'll post it later in the week.

ROUND 1

ROUND 2

ROUND 3

ROUND 4

ROUND 5

ROUND 6

  • No Big Ten players selected
ROUND 7


Here are the selections according to Big Ten team:

Illinois: 3
Indiana: 3
Iowa: 6
Michigan: 3
Michigan State: 1
Minnesota: 2
Northwestern: 3
Ohio State: 4
Penn State: 6
Purdue: 1
Wisconsin: 2

Quick thoughts:

  • Three of the biggest draft steals from the Big Ten were pass-catchers in 2009: Illinois wideout Arrelious Benn, Minnesota wide receiver Eric Decker and Iowa tight end Tony Moeaki. Benn had first-round skills but a fourth-round college résumé. Decker most often was compared to former Broncos wideout Ed McCaffrey, and if healthy, he could do big things in Denver. If Moeaki stays healthy, the Chiefs might have found the next Tony Gonzalez. Kirk Ferentz puts Moeaki right up there with Dallas Clark in Iowa's top tight ends.
  • Love the Colts' pick of Angerer, who could be a very good pro in a great situation in Indy. With Angerer and Indiana's Fisher going to Indianapolis, the Colts now have drafted 26 Big Ten players under Bill Polian.
  • Northwestern's Kafka also goes to a very good situation in Philly, as the Eagles love to pass the ball and will run some shotgun.
  • Penn State's Lee, Purdue's Neal, Wisconsin's Schofield and Northwestern's McManis could all be steals for their teams. Health has been an issue for Lee, Schofield and McManis, so they need to find ways to get on the field and stay there.
  • It was interesting how one Big Ten left tackle, Indiana's Saffold, rose up the draft boards late in the process, while another, Iowa's Bulaga, dropped.
  • Ohio State had four players drafted, but this has to be the Buckeyes' weakest draft class in recent memory. I thought Gibson would go in the second or third round, but Worthington, Coleman and Spitler barely made the cut. Did Jim Tressel deserve Big Ten Coach of the Year over Ferentz? The case looks stronger now.
  • Draft snubs included Michigan State wide receiver Blair White, Michigan cornerback Donovan Warren, Penn State quarterback Daryll Clark and Purdue quarterback Joey Elliott. Warren was the only Big Ten junior not to get drafted, though it was tough to fault his decision at the time. All four players have reportedly signed free-agent deals.
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Twenty years ago, a Northwestern bowl appearance would qualify as major news.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesCoach Pat Fitzgerald is trying to steer Northwestern to an unprecedented third consecutive postseason appearance.
Now the Wildcats are getting attention for what they're doing on the field in late December or early January.

Arguably no team in the country has been part of two more exciting bowl games the last two years than the Wildcats, who played overtime thrillers against both Missouri (2008 Alamo Bowl) and Auburn (2010 Outback Bowl). Both games put Northwestern on the national radar, particularly the Outback Bowl, which featured a truly wild ending and a once-in-a-generation stat line from Wildcats quarterback Mike Kafka.

The only problem: The Wildcats walked off the field as losers both times.

For decades, Northwestern was haunted by streaks of futility -- an NCAA record 34-game slide between 1979-82, a 47-year drought between bowl games -- only to overcome them, beginning with its breakthrough season in 1995. The Wildcats have reached seven bowl games in the last 15 years and established themselves in the middle of the Big Ten pack, but they're dogged by another losing streak: no postseason wins since the 1949 Rose Bowl.

"You look at the bowl appearances we've had in the last 15 years; it's an unprecedented time in our program's history," head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "There's been unfinished business in the bowl season. You look at the games, outside of a couple, they've been unbelievable.

"We just haven't gotten over the mountaintop. We'll worry about that down the road."

Fitzgerald has more immediate concerns in spring practice, like sparking the rushing attack, replacing three starters in the secondary and adjusting to a new starting quarterback in junior Dan Persa. And with only eight bowl games in team history, Northwestern knows better than to take postseason appearances for granted.

But after winning 17 games the last two seasons, the Wildcats expect to play past November. And they won't be satisfied with just another bowl invite.

"That's the only thing on my mind right now," senior defensive tackle Corbin Bryant said, "to continue to improve so we can get over the hump and win this bowl game. That's one thing I want to achieve before I leave here, and I'm sure it's something everybody, as a collective team, wants to achieve."

It's no accident that a sign displayed next to the stage in Northwestern's team meeting room ends with the words: "Consistently Prepare for Victory. Win a Bowl game." After the Outback Bowl loss, All-Big Ten cornerback Sherrick McManis, an outgoing senior, spoke to the team about what comes next.

"Sherrick said, 'It's one thing just to get there. Yeah, we went to the Outback Bowl and it's awesome, but we've got to get over that hump,'" sophomore running back Arby Fields recalled. "One of the cornerstones of our program is finishing, and we feel like we haven't finished. We get there, but we don't finish."

To get across that line, Northwestern must get more from a run game that ranked eighth in the Big Ten last fall. The Wildcats return all five starters on the offensive line as well as a running back group led by Fields, Scott Concannon and Jacob Schmidt.

Offensive coordinator Mick McCall wants to identify a clear No. 1 back, something the Wildcats failed to do last fall, but Fitzgerald is willing to let the competition play out.

"I'm pleased with the progress so far of our backs," Fitzgerald said. "I said to the team [Monday] that the one group that's embracing what we're working to accomplish is our running backs. Everybody writes negative stuff about them, so I guess they use that negative fuel to get things going in spring ball."

The defense loses McManis, All-Big Ten safety Brad Phillips and Brendan Smith, a multiyear starter at safety, as well as two starting defensive linemen. Brian Peters will step in at one safety spot, but the other position is up for grabs between converted linebacker David Arnold, sophomore Jared Carpenter and Hunter Bates and redshirt freshman Cooper Gerami.

Fitzgerald will lean on a linebacker group that he calls "as deep as we've had in a number of years." Senior outside linebacker Quentin Davie could contend for All-Big Ten honors this fall.

Northwestern showed last year that it could overcome key personnel losses and get back to a bowl game. The Wildcats face a similar challenge in 2010 as they aim for an unprecedented third consecutive postseason appearance.

"We make it to bowl games around here now," Davie said. "That's the standard that we've set already, so the only acceptable thing is to go to a bowl game and win one, too."
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Dan Persa is still a novice when it comes to playing quarterback at the college level.

His career stat line shows only 34 pass attempts, 51 rushing attempts, two touchdowns, two interceptions and zero starts. It's a résumé not unlike those of other backup quarterbacks in the Big Ten.

Where Persa distinguishes himself is leadership. He's the resident expert at Northwestern.

[+] EnlargePersa
Jerry Lai/US PresswireAlready a threat running the ball, Dan Persa is working on fine-tuning his passing skills.
Since the moment Persa arrived in Evanston, he has prepared to lead. After the 2007 season, head coach Pat Fitzgerald formed a 10-man leadership council to give players greater ownership of the offseason program. Persa is the only player elected to the council in each of the three seasons.

Despite his place on the depth chart -- behind C.J. Bacher and Mike Kafka in 2008, and behind Kafka in 2009 -- Persa always tried to find ways to assert himself and gain confidence among others. He even saw time on special teams in 2008, returning one kickoff for 15 yards.

"I tried to get in here as much as I can to show people than I'm willing to work as hard as anyone," Persa said. "Everybody looks to you for energy, they look to you for attitude. If you're having a bad day and you're wearing your feelings on your sleeve, everybody's going to see that and then they're going to be down.

"But if they see you energized and ready to go, they're like, 'Alright, let's go.'"

Persa will get his chance to lead in the spotlight this fall as he moves into a starting role. The former Pennsylvania high school superstar takes over an offense that relied almost exclusively on Kafka's right arm last season.

Although Persa established himself as a locker-room presence years ago, he cranked things up during the winter months in preparation for his first spring practice at the helm.

"Mike Kafka was an extremely hard worker," left tackle Al Netter said, "and Dan works as hard, if not harder. This offseason, he's the first guy in the football offices, and he's the last guy to leave, every single day. His work ethic is spectacular. I look up to him, all the other guys look up to him, so he's taken this role very seriously."

Persa's rationale: "Knowing that you'll be the leader of this team, it's not just taking care of yourself any more. You've got to bring the whole team, the whole offense, along. If the offense fails, it's pretty much on you."

Since installing the spread offense before the 2000 season, Northwestern has had different types of trigger men. Brett Basanez and C.J. Bacher developed into record-setting passers, while Kafka transformed himself from a run-first quarterback into the Big Ten's passing leader last fall.

In Persa, the Wildcats might have the most natural fit for the spread since Zak Kustok, who led NU to its last Big Ten championship (2000). Persa is a true dual-threat quarterback who became the first Pennsylvania high school player to eclipse 2,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in a season.

It's noteworthy that if Persa didn't end up at NU, he likely would have signed with Rich Rodriguez at West Virginia. Rodriguez is arguably the biggest reason Northwestern runs the spread, as Wildcats coaches implemented the system after visiting with Rodriguez at Clemson in 1999.

"If I don't run, I think that's taking away from one of my strengths," Persa said. "But I don't see myself running 20, 25 times a game."

NU coaches know Persa can run, so they're spending more time fine-tuning his passing skills. As a smaller quarterback -- Persa is somewhat generously listed at 6-foot-1 -- he has to be precise with his footwork to help his field vision.

"I know he worked hard last summer about really getting some depth on his drop," offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. "He did a good job with that. We're going to try and move the pocket a little bit more to help him out, but we still are who we are. We're a spread team, we're going to be in empty, we're still going to run the ball with the quarterback at times."

Persa's size hurt him a bit in the recruiting process, as some schools wanted him to play defense. But the shotgun spread offense isn't married to 6-5 quarterbacks, and so far, Persa is standing tall at Northwestern.

"He has always led," McCall said. "He was always a voice here because he still worked his fanny off in the weight room, he still worked his fanny off in workouts. But he had to be [Kafka's] right-hand man.

"Now he's the guy."
Let's take a look at three issues facing each Big Ten team heading into spring practice:

ILLINOIS

Spring practice starts: March 30

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

  • The quarterback competition. Four-year starter Juice Williams departs, and a host of young players (and one older one) are in the mix to replace him. New offensive coordinator Paul Petrino wants to shape his system around the starting signal-caller, so he'll be looking for some separation this spring. Jacob Charest got valuable playing time behind Williams in 2009, and Eddie McGee, a part-time wide receiver, has extensive playing experience at quarterback. They'll compete with redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase and true freshman Chandler Whitmer, an early enrollee.
  • Fixing the defense. New defensive coordinator Vic Koenning brings an impressive résumé to Champaign, but he'll be challenged to fix a unit that hasn't been right since J Leman and Co. left following the Rose Bowl run in 2007. Koenning wants to identify leaders on defense this spring and will look to players like end Clay Nurse and linebackers Ian Thomas and Martez Wilson. Illinois' most pressing needs likely come in the secondary after the team finished 100th nationally against the pass in 2009.
  • Line dance. Illinois needs to get tougher and better on both lines to turn things around in 2010. The Illini tied for eighth in the Big Ten in sacks allowed last fall, and while the run game got going late, top lineman Jon Asamoah departs. Perhaps a bigger priority is finding a pass rush on defense after finishing last in the league in both sacks and tackles for loss in 2009.
INDIANA

Spring practice starts: March 23

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:

  • Rebuilding the back seven on D. Indiana loses three starters in the secondary and two linebackers, including blog favorite Matt Mayberry. The Hoosiers brought in three junior college defenders, two of whom, linebacker Jeff Thomas and cornerback Lenyatta Kiles, will participate in spring practice. Needless to say, jobs are open everywhere, and coordinators Brian George and Joe Palcic will be looking for playmakers to step up. Several players are moving from offense to defense, including wideout Mitchell Evans to safety.
  • End game. Indiana loses a lot of pass-rushing production as multiyear starters Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton depart. Both starting jobs at defensive end are open this spring, and IU will look to Darius Johnson, Terrance Thomas and others to step up and make plays.
  • Willis watch. Indiana hopes 2010 is the year when running back Darius Willis becomes a superstar. Getting him through spring practice healthy will be a key first step. Willis has been impressive on the field, but he has struggled with injuries for much of his career. IU's passing attack should be very strong in 2010, and if Willis can elevate the run game, the Hoosiers should put up a ton of points.
IOWA

Spring practice starts: March 24

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:

  • The offensive line. Rebuilding the offensive line is far and away Iowa's top priority heading into the 2010 season. The Hawkeyes are stacked at running back and boast a strong passing attack, but they'll struggle if things aren't solidified up front. Tackle/guard Riley Reiff blossomed last season and guard Julian Vandervelde also returns, but Iowa will look to fill three starting spots this spring.
  • Refilling at linebacker and cornerback. Iowa's defense has been one of the nation's most opportunistic units the last two seasons, and players like Pat Angerer, A.J. Edds and Amari Spievey were three big reasons why. All three depart, so Iowa needs to reload at linebacker and find a shut-down corner (Shaun Prater?). The spotlight will be on guys like Prater, Tyler Nielsen and Jeff Tarpinian this spring.
  • Sorting out the running back spot. Iowa is absolutely loaded at running back, but there's only one ball to be carried on a given play. The Hawkeyes likely will use a rotation in 2010, but who will be the featured back? Jewel Hampton will try to reclaim the top spot, which he lost because of a knee injury last summer. Adam Robinson filled in extremely well for Hampton in the lead role, and Brandon Wegher was one of the heroes of the Orange Bowl win.
MICHIGAN

Spring practice starts: March 14

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:

  • Defense, defense, defense. Head coach Rich Rodriguez always will be known for his spread offense, but he won't be around much longer at Michigan if the defense doesn't significantly improve. A unit that ranked 82nd nationally last season loses its two best players (Brandon Graham and Donovan Warren) and must find contributors at linebacker, safety and cornerback. Help is on the way from the 2010 recruiting class, but Michigan can't afford a bad spring on defense.
  • Devin Gardner. The heralded quarterback recruit enrolled early and will enter the mix this spring. Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson are the front-runners at quarterback, but Gardner might be the ultimate answer for the Wolverines. His ability to pick up the system and push Forcier and Robinson this spring will determine whether he sees the field in the fall or takes a redshirt.
  • Running back. Carlos Brown and Brandon Minor depart, but Michigan once again should be good at the running back spot. Vincent Smith will miss spring ball as he recovers from knee surgery, but several others, including Michael Shaw and Fitzgerald Toussaint, will be competing throughout the 15 workouts. Shaw, who scored two touchdowns on 42 carries in 2009, could create a bit of separation with a good spring.
MICHIGAN STATE

Spring practice starts: March 23

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

  • Team morale. The residence hall incident and the subsequent fallout really rocked the Michigan State program. Head coach Mark Dantonio has yet to address the status of several suspended players, and the final outcome could impact the depth chart, particularly at wide receiver. It's important for Michigan State's team leaders -- Greg Jones, Kirk Cousins and others -- to unite the locker room in the spring and do all they can to prevent further problems.
  • Line dance. Michigan State needs to improve on both the offensive and defensive lines in 2010, and it all starts this spring. The Spartans must replace left tackle Rocco Cironi and center Joel Nitchman, and they also lose top pass-rusher Trevor Anderson at defensive end. As strong as the Spartans should be at the skill positions, they need to start building around linemen like Joel Foreman and Jerel Worthy.
  • Keith Nichol. The versatile junior could be moved to wide receiver, but he'll get a chance to push Cousins at quarterback this spring. Nichol's skills are too valuable to waste on the sideline, particularly if Michigan State has a pressing need at receiver, but he still could be a factor at quarterback if his improves his accuracy. The speedy Nichol could run the Wildcat in addition to serving as a wide receiver, if MSU chooses to go that route.
MINNESOTA

Spring practice starts: March 23

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

  • The coordinator and the quarterbacks. Minnesota will welcome its third offensive coordinator in as many seasons, though Jeff Horton doesn't plan to overhaul the system like Jedd Fisch did a year ago. Horton's primary task will be developing quarterbacks Adam Weber and MarQueis Gray, who both struggled last fall in the pro-style system. Weber has the edge in experience, but he needs to regain the form his showed in his first two seasons as the starter. Gray brings tremendous athleticism to the table but must prove he can succeed in a pro-style offense.
  • The offensive line. Head coach Tim Brewster has insisted that when Minnesota gets the offensive line on track, things really will get rolling. The Gophers need better players and arguably tougher players up front, and the line should benefit in Year 2 under assistant Tim Davis. The group should be motivated by finishing last in the Big Ten in rushing in each of the past two seasons.
  • Young defenders. Minnesota loses most of its starting defense from 2009, but fans are more excited about the young talent returning on that side of the ball. Spring ball could be huge for players like Michael Carter, D.L. Wilhite and Keanon Cooper as they transition into leading roles. The Gophers' biggest losses come at linebacker, as all three starters depart.
NORTHWESTERN

Spring practice starts: March 29

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

  • Identify a running back. The Wildcats produced an impressive string of standout running backs under former coach Randy Walker and at the beginning of Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure, but they struggled in the backfield in 2009. Northwestern returns the Big Ten’s most experienced offensive line, so identifying a primary ball carrier or two this spring is vital. Arby Fields and Scott Concannon showed a few flashes last year but must get more consistent, while Mike Trumpy will be an interesting addition to the mix.
  • Polishing Persa. Dan Persa steps in at quarterback for second-team All-Big Ten selection Mike Kafka, and he’ll try to walk a similar career path. Kafka transformed himself in the offseason a year ago to become an extremely consistent passer, and Persa will need to do the same. Persa could be the best running quarterback Northwestern has had since Zak Kustok, but his size and the nature of the offense suggests he’ll need to make strides with his arm. NU also needs to see progress from backup Evan Watkins, as it lacks overall depth at quarterback.
  • Reload in the secondary. Northwestern loses three starters in the secondary, including all-conference selections Sherrick McManis and Brad Phillips. Fitzgerald will lean heavily on cornerback Jordan Mabin and safety Brian Peters to lead the group, but he needs a few more players to emerge this spring. Defensive backs like Justan Vaughn have experience and must transition into featured roles.
OHIO STATE

Spring practice starts: April 1

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

  • Running back competition resumes. Brandon Saine and Dan Herron finished strong in 2009, but they can’t get too comfortable. Several young running backs, including Jordan Hall, Jaamal Berry, Jermil Martin and Carlos Hyde, will be competing for carries this spring. Saine likely has the best chance to lock down a featured role at running back, but if the hype about Berry pans out, it’ll be a dogfight.
  • Pryor’s evolution. After Ohio State’s victory in the Rose Bowl, both Terrelle Pryor and Jim Tressel talked about the game being a key juncture in Pryor’s development. The junior quarterback must build on his performance this spring, especially from a passing standpoint. Ohio State can be a more balanced and more effective offense in 2010, but Pryor needs to keep making strides.
  • Safety squeeze. The Buckeyes didn’t lose much from the 2009 team, but the safety spot took a hit as first-team All-Big Ten selection Kurt Coleman as well as key contributor Anderson Russell depart. Jermale Hines looks like the answer at one spot, and he’ll enter the spring with high expectations. Ohio State needs to build around Hines and identify playmakers for an increasingly opportunistic unit.
PENN STATE

Spring practice starts: March 26

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

  • Quarterback, quarterback, quarterback. No surprise here, as Penn State’s quarterback competition will be one of the Big Ten’s top storylines until September. Two-year starter Daryll Clark departs, leaving a major void under center. Sophomore Kevin Newsome played a bit last fall and has been in the system for a full season. He’ll enter the spring with a slight edge, but Matt McGloin and early enrollee Paul Jones also will be in the mix before Robert Bolden arrives this summer.
  • Getting better up front. All-America candidate Stefen Wisniewski leads an offensive line that will have more experience and needs to make strides this spring. The line struggled against elite defensive fronts last year (Iowa, Ohio State) but should have more cohesion after another offseason together. The tackle spots will be interesting to watch, as Dennis Landolt departs. Penn State’s defensive line needs to shore up the middle after losing Big Ten co-Defensive Player of the Year Jared Odrick.
  • Linebacker U. put to the test. Penn State has a proven track record of reloading in the defensive front seven, but it loses a lot of production, especially at linebacker. All three starting spots are open this spring, and the spotlight will turn to players like Nate Stupar, Bani Gbadyu, Chris Colasanti and others to fill the production and leadership gaps left by Sean Lee, Navorro Bowman and Josh Hull.
PURDUE

Spring practice starts: March 24

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:

  • Marve watch begins. The starting quarterback job is open, and all eyes will be on Miami transfer Robert Marve. One of the nation's most decorated recruits in 2007, Marve started for the Hurricanes in 2008 but ran into problems and transferred. Slowed by an ACL injury last summer and fall, Marve will have every chance to establish himself this spring as he competes with Caleb TerBush.
  • Wide-open secondary. All four starters depart in the secondary, creating plenty of competition back there this spring. Players like safety Albert Evans and cornerback Charlton Williams will be in the spotlight as they try to nail down jobs. Purdue should be better in the front seven in 2010, but you can bet opposing quarterbacks will attack an unproven secondary.
  • The run defense. It's a huge priority for Purdue to improve against the run after finishing last in the Big Ten in rush defense in each of the past two seasons. Linebacker Jason Werner's return for a sixth year is huge, and Purdue boasts one of the Big Ten's top D-linemen in Ryan Kerrigan. Those two must provide leadership and foster more cohesion from the younger players around them. New D-line coach Gary Emanuel will be instrumental in the process this spring.
WISCONSIN

Spring practice starts: March 13 (break from March 29-April 2)

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:

  • The secondary. Wisconsin looks pretty solid on the defensive line and at linebacker, so getting the secondary up to par will be key this spring. Safety Jay Valai is a vicious hitter, but can he become an All-Big Ten-caliber safety? Aaron Henry joins Valai at safety after struggling at cornerback in 2009. Wisconsin also will look for continued progress from corners Devin Smith and Niles Brinkley.
  • Replacing Schofield. Bret Bielema told me earlier this week that the competition at defensive line is once again heating up this offseason. Wisconsin must replace first-team All-Big Ten end O'Brien Schofield, who ranked second nationally in tackles for loss (24.5) in 2009. J.J. Watt has superstar written all over him, but Wisconsin will look for more pass-rush ability from David Gilbert and Louis Nzegwu.
  • The wide receivers/tight ends. Wisconsin showed at times last fall that its passing attack could be dynamic, and it will look for big things from several players this spring. Wideout Nick Toon certainly has what it takes to be a star in the Big Ten, and Lance Kendricks showed in the Champs Sports Bowl that he's a capable successor for Garrett Graham at tight end. The Badgers will look to David Gilreath, Isaac Anderson and Kyle Jefferson to fill the No. 2 wideout spot.
Tags:

Big Ten, Jewel Hampton, Jermil Martin, Jerel Worthy, Mitchell Evans, Ryan Kerrigan, Justan Vaughn, Louis Nzegwu, Lance Kendricks, Stefen Wisniewski, Robert Marve, Brian Peters, Brandon Wegher, Devin Smith, Jason Werner, Michael Carter, Michael Shaw, Chandler Whitmer, Jermale Hines, Kyle Jefferson, Zak Kustok, Kirk Cousins, Jacob Charest, Dan Herron, Jammie Kirlew, Jim Tressel, Keanon Cooper, Juice Williams, Daryll Clark, Sherrick McManis, Isaac Anderson, D.L. Wilhite, Bani Gbadyu, Brad Phillips, Kevin Newsome, Mark Dantonio, Adam Weber, Jaamal Berry, Eddie McGee, Brandon Saine, Donovan Warren, David Gilreath, Carlos Brown, Julian Vandervelde, Keith Nichol, Terrelle Pryor, Anderson Russell, Randy Walker, Navorro Bowman, Paul Jones, Jon Asamoah, Joel Nitchman, Chris Colasanti, Garrett Graham, Martez Wilson, Tim Brewster, Evan Watkins, Rich Rodriguez, Pat Fitzgerald, Robert Bolden, Matt Mayberry, Jordan Mabin, Dennis Landolt, Carlos Hyde, Caleb TerBush, Denard Robinson, Bret Bielema, Rocco Cironi, Pat Angerer, Brandon Graham, Niles Brinkley, Jared Odrick, Devin Gardner, Nathan Scheelhaase, Matt McGloin, Brandon Minor, Aaron Henry, Darius Willis, Tate Forcier, Kurt Coleman, Amari Spievey, Brian George, Mike Kafka, Greg Jones, Joel Foreman, Greg Middleton, Trevor Anderson, O'Brien Schofield, Adam Robinson, Arby Fields, Ian Thomas, Nate Stupar, Riley Reiff, Shaun Prater, Clay Nurse, Paul Petrino, Jeff Horton, Jeff Thomas, Lenyatta Kiles, 2010 spring what to watch, Albert Evans, Darius Johnson, David Gilbert, Fitzgerald Toussaint, Gary Emanuel, Jeff Tarpinian, Joe Palcic, Jordan Hall, Josh McKinley, Mike Trumpy, Scott Concannon, Terrance Thomas, Tyler Nielsen

Big Ten pre-spring power rankings

February, 10, 2010
2/10/10
11:08
AM ET
It's that time again.

Four weeks have passed since the year-end installment of the power rankings, and while no games were played during the span, there has been some news. We know who's coming back (Greg Jones, Evan Royster, Cameron Heyward) and who's not (Thaddeus Gibson, Navorro Bowman, Amari Spievey). We also can size up the recruiting classes for each Big Ten team.

Spring practice in the Big Ten officially kicks off March 13 at Wisconsin, so let's take a look at how the teams stack up heading into the spring. Please remember that the power rankings can -- and will -- change several times before the season begins Sept. 2.

1. Ohio State: The Buckeyes will be a consensus top 5 team and a legit national title contender entering the fall. Heyward's decision to return is huge for a talented defensive front. If quarterback Terrelle Pryor builds off of his Rose Bowl performance and Ohio State solidifies things at left tackle, safety and possibly running back, this team will be scary good.

2. Iowa: The NFL draft stung the Hawkeyes a bit, as both Spievey and left tackle Bryan Bulaga opted to turn pro. But All-America candidate Adrian Clayborn returns, and Iowa will be stacked at both running back and wide receiver in 2010. Rebuilding the offensive line will be Iowa's top priority as it aims for a Big Ten championship this fall.

3. Wisconsin: The mojo is back in Mad-town as Wisconsin returns the core players from a team that went 10-3 and finished 16th in the final AP Poll. Heisman Trophy candidate John Clay leads a balanced and efficient offense, while the defense boasts a lot of young talent but must replace star pass rusher O'Brien Schofield.

4. Penn State: No Big Ten team lost more standout players than the Nittany Lions, but Penn State has shown an ability to reload, particularly in the defensive front seven. Royster's decision to return is huge for Penn State, which will rely on the rushing attack and an improved offensive line in 2010. A crucial quarterback competition begins this spring, as Kevin Newsome tries to hold off several young challengers.

5. Michigan State: I'm a bit leery to put Michigan State this high after 2009, but Jones' decision to return eased some concerns about the defense. The Spartans must get better on both lines and in the secondary, and quarterback Kirk Cousins needs to rebound after a rough finish to his sophomore season. Recruits William Gholston and Max Bullough should help the defense right away.

6. Northwestern: The Wildcats proved in 2009 that they could overcome the losses of several offensive standouts. They'll need to do it again as All-Big Ten quarterback Mike Kafka departs and junior Dan Persa steps in. Northwestern must revive its rushing attack this spring behind an offensive line that returns fully intact. The secondary also is a concern as three starters graduate.

T-7. Michigan: The offense will put up points again, but Michigan's big concerns rest with a defense that loses standouts Brandon Graham and Donovan Warren. A recruiting class headlined by safety Demar Dorsey certainly should help matters, as Michigan needs immediate contributions from its young players. The Wolverines need a strong spring from their early enrollees as they prepare for a critical 2010 season.

T-7. Purdue: It wouldn't surprise me one bit if Purdue finishes in the top half of the Big Ten in 2010, but a few key questions remain. The biggest one comes at quarterback, where Miami transfer Robert Marve and sophomore Caleb TerBush will compete for the top job. Purdue also must reload in the secondary and improve a run defense that has ranked last in the Big Ten in each of the last two seasons.

9. Minnesota: Spring practice will be critical for a Gophers team trying to establish an identity on offense and reload on defense. The starting quarterback job is up for grabs as incumbent Adam Weber tries to hold off MarQueis Gray and impress new coordinator Jeff Horton. Minnesota must replace all three starting linebackers, both starting defensive tackles and both starting cornerbacks.

10. Indiana: The Hoosiers should be very dynamic on offense in 2010, but they must address their chronic defensive woes as soon as possible to rebound this fall. Head coach Bill Lynch is moving several offensive players to defense this spring, and IU's ability to identify impact players likely will determine whether it can rise up the rankings.

11. Illinois: Things have been anything but quiet around Champaign the last eight weeks, as head coach Ron Zook shuffled his coaching staff, bringing in two new coordinators and four new position coaches. Illinois doesn't have time for growing pains, and the new assistants will need to implement the scheme and get the most out of a roster filled with question marks. One way or another, Illinois will be a fascinating team to watch between now and the season opener.
It's still early February, but signing day is over and you can officially start looking forward to the 2010 season. But before we look at who's back in the Big Ten, let's look at who will be missed the most when the teams return to the practice field this spring.

Here are five players who leave big shoes to fill around the league:

Penn State QB Daryll Clark: Clark finished his career as one of the best quarterbacks in Penn State history, setting team records for career passing touchdowns, single-season passing touchdowns, single-season passing yards and single-season total offense. He was even more valuable as a leader both on and off the field, and few players invested as much as the two-year starter. His presence certainly will be missed.

Northwestern QB Mike Kafka: Kafka basically became the entire NU offense in 2009 as the run game struggled. He developed into a precision passer and ended up as one of the most valuable players in the Big Ten. The second-team All-Big Ten selection led the league in both passing (3,430) and total offense (3,729). Although backup Dan Persa got some playing time after Kafka was banged up against Penn State, he'll have a tough time replacing the senior.

Michigan DE Brandon Graham: The Wolverines defense struggled mightily with Graham on the field, and it's scary to think where the unit would have been without his nation-leading 26 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks. Graham was arguably the most disruptive defensive lineman in the country in 2009, and he leaves a major void on the edge. Michigan will need several players to step up to fill the production void left by Graham's departure.

Iowa CB Amari Spievey: Some will argue with this one, but of all the players Iowa loses from the 2009 team, Spievey could be the most valuable. He took away one side of the field, forcing opposing quarterbacks to look elsewhere and freeing up playmaking opportunities for safety Tyler Sash and others. Iowa has some decent corners coming back, but none with the shutdown capabilities of Spievey, who recorded two interceptions and 10 passes defended.

Penn State DT Jared Odrick: Penn State has little trouble reloading in the defensive front seven, but the Lions will be hard-pressed to find another Odrick in the middle of the defensive line. Odrick consistently commanded double- and triple-teams, opening up lanes for teammates to reach the backfield. Big Ten coaches named him Defensive Player of the Year and Defensive Lineman of the Year, high honors given the league's depth along the D-line. Odrick was the biggest reason why Penn State finished sixth nationally in rushing defense (89.9 ypg).

Five more who will be missed: Purdue QB Joey Elliott, Iowa LB Pat Angerer, Penn State LB Navorro Bowman, Wisconsin DE O'Brien Schofield, Ohio State S Kurt Coleman.

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