NCF Nation: Mike Martin

Brady HokeRobin Alam/Icon SMIBrady Hoke's drive to win the Big Ten title appears to be influencing his Michigan players.
Brady Hoke called Michigan's 2011 season a failure -- never mind the 11 wins and the Sugar Bowl championship -- because it did not result in a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl appearance.

When national titles are brought up around Hoke, he typically shifts the focus back to the Big Ten race.

Whether Hoke's singular focus excites you or disappoints you, it certainly rubs off on his players. Although they weren't happy about a 2-2 start to the season, they had no trouble turning the page to the Big Ten slate last week at Purdue. And if the Wolverines' performance in West Lafayette -- a 44-13 win -- is any indication, the Big Ten will bring out the best in them this fall.

"With the nonconference season, we had one of the toughest in the nation," Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan told ESPN.com, referring to games against No. 1 Alabama and No. 7 Notre Dame. "We took those games very seriously, but the goal's always a Big Ten championship. There's a little more fire in this team.

"We're excited about it, and every game is a Big Ten championship game."

Stifling defense and powerful offensive line play sparked Michigan in 2011, and the Wolverines appear to be reclaiming both hallmarks for the 2012 conference campaign. After struggling in just about every area against Alabama and seeing continued problems against Air Force, Michigan took a big step on defense against Notre Dame and also received better play from the offensive line as the game in South Bend went on.

Although turnovers doomed the Wolverines against the Irish, they made progress in both areas at Purdue. Michigan held a Boilers team averaging 51 points on its home field to 13 points, 213 total yards and 56 rushing yards (2.2 yards per attempt). It also controlled the line of scrimmage from the onset, holding the ball for 12:11 of the first quarter and opening the game with the program's sixth-longest drive (8:48) since 1978, a methodical 78-yard march that required 17 plays and 19 players.

Michigan's defense has surrendered only 13 points in each of its past three games, and opponents' yardage totals have dropped (259 to 239 to 213). The unit seemed to turn the corner at the same time last season, when it blanked Minnesota 58-0 in Week 5, allowing only 177 total yards. The Wolverines held six of their next seven Big Ten foes to fewer than 335 yards.

"What you're seeing is the younger guys who have been in the program for a second year, you would expect them to play up to their talent level, and that's what's happening," defensive coordinator Greg Mattison told ESPN.com. "Some of our talented young guys are starting to now become older, and play like older players."

[+] EnlargeJake Ryan
Sandra Dukes/US PresswireMichigan LB Jake Ryan continued to wow his coaches with his performance against Purdue last Saturday.
Although Mattison and his staff installed a new scheme in 2011, they had the luxury of leaning on three senior defensive linemen -- Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen and Will Heininger -- while working several young players into major roles. The difference this fall, according to Mattison: Seniors with a ton of starting experience are in short supply, so some of the unit's more seasoned players -- Jake Ryan, Desmond Morgan, Thomas Gordon -- are also young.

"We're getting a lot better communication," Mattison said. "... When you're young, at an early part of the season, you're just kind of fending for yourself. You're just trying to get yourself to play. And when you get a little older in the season, whether you're a sophomore or a senior, you start feeling more comfortable. Therefore, you can do the things that are expected of you, and that is to communicate and get everybody set.

"These are guys that are now starting to feel like veterans."

Hoke singled out the linebackers as the group that has made the most strides in recent weeks. Ryan, who started 11 games last season as a redshirt freshman, has been particularly noticeable. "You can feel him on the field," Hoke said.

Ryan recorded five tackles and a pass breakup against Notre Dame and followed it with six tackles, including two for loss and a sack, against Purdue.

"The sky's the limit for Jake," Mattison said. "He has God-given talent, and he also has showed that it's very, very important to him. He's become a very good student of the game."

After Week 3, Lewan challenged the offensive line to "play angry, play nasty." While the group isn't quite there, in Lewan's estimation, there has been progress.

Michigan averaged 5.6 yards per rush against a talented Purdue defensive front, which failed to record a sack or a quarterback hurry against Denard Robinson (235 rush yards, 105 pass yards). The Wolverines' rushing attempts also are on the rise, from 30 per game in the first two weeks to 46 per game the past three weeks.

"In the Notre Dame game, it was somewhat of a change," Lewan said. "We saw we can move the line of scrimmage. We found out we have the capability to do that. It really came together at Purdue, but we have to be a better team this week than we were last week. Every week from now on is championship week because our goal is the Big Ten championship."

Lewan, who will make his 21st consecutive start Saturday against Illinois, welcomes a leadership role on the line. He shares the responsibility with fifth-year senior guard Patrick Omameh and fifth-year senior Elliott Mealer, a first-year starter at center.

"[Offensive coordinator Al] Borges put pressure on us, so did Coach Hoke, but at the end of the day, we need to put pressure on ourselves also," Lewan said. "Coach Hoke talks about it all the time. There's a standard you play at Michigan. I can throw cliché lines at you and every program says the same thing over and over, but the fact is we have the tradition to back it up. There's a tradition at Michigan, and there's a way you play."

Especially in the Big Ten season. There are still areas to improve -- Michigan needs to spark running back Fitzgerald Toussaint (169 rushing yards, 3.3 yards per carry) and its pass rush (five sacks in as many games, 104th nationally) -- but the team's identity is taking shape.

"You don't want to say the games leading up to the Big Ten don't count," Mattison said, "but when you come to Michigan, you come to win a championship. Now, it's on the line. Every game is on the line."

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 4

September, 20, 2012
9/20/12
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Ten items to track around the Big Ten as Week 4 kicks off Saturday.

1. Notre Dame's nightmare: Few college players have tormented a rival like Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson has tormented Notre Dame the past two years. After a record-setting performance in South Bend in 2010 -- 502 yards of total offense -- Robinson led an incredible comeback last season as Michigan stunned the Irish in the first night game ever played at the Big House. Robinson returns to South Bend on Saturday, and Michigan likely needs another special effort from its senior to knock off No. 11 Notre Dame. The Irish come off of a stifling defensive effort against Michigan State, and their offense should test a young Michigan defense. Notre Dame looks like the more complete team in this contest, but if the game is close and Robinson has a chance for fourth-quarter magic, the Irish should start to worry.

2. Penn State protects its house: NCAA sanctions have limited Penn State's goals this season, but a few remain on the table. The Lions can still win a Leaders Division title. They also want to keep their winning streak against Temple alive, particularly at Beaver Stadium, where the Owls have never won. Penn State hasn't lost to Temple since 1941 (seven PSU victories between 2003-2011 were vacated). Although Temple clearly has improved in recent years, Nittany Lions seniors like linebacker Michael Mauti don't want to be the ones who let the win streak end. Penn State finally got a chance to celebrate last week against Navy and looked strong on both sides of the ball. It's important to keep the momentum going before Big Ten play kicks off with a spicy matchup at Illinois.

[+] EnlargeMax Shortell
Marilyn Indahl/US PresswireReserve QB Max Shortell has made a solid impact to help Minnesota to a 3-0 start.
3. Minnesota takes it to the Max: Life is good in Gopher Country, as Minnesota sits at 3-0 with a chance to sweep its nonconference slate Saturday night against Syracuse at TCF Bank Stadium. Backup quarterback Max Shortell stepped up in a big way last week after starter MarQueis Gray suffered a high ankle sprain. Now Shortell makes his first start of the season -- third of his career -- against a Syracuse team that has performed better than its record (1-2) would indicate. Shortell and his pass-catchers take aim at a Syracuse defense that hasn't been efficient against the pass (97th nationally, 145.1 rating). He'd be helped by a boost from Donnell Kirkwood and the run game, but Minnesota likely will need to put up points as Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib will challenge the Gophers' defense.

4. Badgers' offense looks for leadership: Wisconsin's offensive downturn has been the most surprising story in the Big Ten through the first few weeks. Line play was in the spotlight after Week 2 as Bret Bielema dumped assistant Mike Markuson, and now the attention shifts to quarterback. Wisconsin benched Danny O'Brien in favor of Joel Stave in the second half of last Saturday's win against Utah State, and both men are listed as co-starters on this week's depth chart. Bielema has made his decision on the starter, but he isn't revealing it publicly. Stave, the former walk-on, reportedly took most of the first-team reps this week in practice. Ranked 116th nationally in total offense, the Badgers need to iron out a lot of things, including their quarterback situation, before Big Ten play begins next week at Nebraska.

5. Comm studies in Champaign: Illinois attributed some of its defensive struggles at Arizona State to poor communication against the Sun Devils' fast-paced offense. Despite allowing 45 points and 510 yards to ASU, Illinois isn't losing its swagger, and linebacker Jonathan Brown declared last week, "We've got the best front seven in the country. I firmly believe that." Brown and his teammates can back up that claim Saturday night in a tricky game against Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs rank third nationally in scoring (56 ppg), fifth in total offense (603.5 ypg), ninth in rushing (289 ypg) and 17th in passing (314.5 ypg). They provide a very tough challenge for an Illinois team that says it has sorted out its communication issues. The Illini offense is banged up and still finding its identity, so Brown and the defense need a big effort Saturday night.

6. Buckeyes get back to basics: Ohio State has had quite a few highlights on defense through the first three games, but the Buckeyes' fundamentals aren't up to their typical standards. Missed tackles nearly cost Ohio State last week against Cal, and while the Buckeyes shouldn't have too much trouble with UAB on Saturday, Urban Meyer and his staff are looking for a more polished performance from the silver bullets. Meyer calls Ohio State's tackling woes "not acceptable," and he planned to double the amount of time his players spent on tackling this week in practice. As good as quarterback Braxton Miller has been, the Buckeyes need to tighten up on defense before Big Ten play begins.

7. Weisman for Heisman: Despite an inexplicable run of personnel problems at running back, Iowa always seems to find someone to step up and carry the rock. The latest back to emerge might be the most surprising: Mark Weisman, a walk-on fullback who transferred from Air Force and recorded 113 rush yards and three touchdowns in Iowa's much-needed win against Northern Iowa last week. Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz quipped that Weisman "must have not liked having guys bounce quarters off his bed" at Air Force and left for Iowa, where he got the staff's attention in the spring and really stood out during fall camp. Iowa likely won't have top backs Damon Bullock (head) and Greg Garmon (elbow) for Saturday's game against Central Michigan, and Weisman is expected to get his first career start. Weisman is quickly earning cult hero status at Iowa, and it'll be interesting to see if he can follow up last week's performance with another big one.

8. Northwestern's quarterback rotation: If there's such thing as a functional quarterback rotation, Northwestern seems to have found it with Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, neither of whom has thrown an interception this season. After Siemian led fourth-quarter drives in the Wildcats' first two wins, Colter was at the helm last week as the Wildcats put away Boston College. Coach Pat Fitzgerald seems content to stick with the rotation, go with the hotter hand when necessary and use matchups to his advantage. But in most of these cases, some separation occurs. Colter is a top-shelf athlete who extends drives with his feet but misses key throws at times. Siemian has better field vision and pure passing skills but isn't the natural playmaker Colter can be. Both men will play Saturday against South Dakota, and we could get some more clues about who will be leading the offense more as Big Ten play beckons. Despite a 3-0 start, Northwestern needs to start finishing more drives with touchdowns. The quarterback who does it best likely will be in a bigger role going forward.

9. MSU receivers look for green light: Mark Dantonio said Michigan State's staff would face some "tough decisions" after the team failed to score a touchdown or stretch the field in last week's loss to Notre Dame. Although the Spartans' depth chart for Eastern Michigan shows no adjustments at the wide receiver spots, Dantonio planned to evaluate the wideouts throughout the practice week and make no public announcements about changes. He noted that wide receiver is one of several positions where Michigan State has youth and equal ability level. If that's the case, we might see some new players in bigger roles Saturday, including Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett, who has barely played, and possibly freshmen Andre Sims Jr., Macgarrett Kings Jr. and Aaron Burbridge. Dantonio hinted that a lower-pressure game could help the young receiving corps. "We'll have to go through some of those growing pains," he said. "I think we have a lot of talent at that position, and it will show itself before the season is over. That talent will show itself."

10. Wolverines get nasty: If Michigan intends on beating Notre Dame for the fourth straight season, it must have season-best performances from both its offensive and defensive lines. Alabama overwhelmed the Wolverines at the line of scrimmage in the opener, and Michigan looks like a team missing its stars from 2011 (David Molk, Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen). Standout left tackle Taylor Lewan challenged the offensive line this week, saying, "You have to be physical, you've got to play angry, play nasty." The line faces a Notre Dame defensive front seven that overwhelmed Michigan State last week and has 11 sacks in the first three games. Coach Brady Hoke admits Michigan's defensive line remains a work in progress and doesn't generate enough push into the opposing backfield. It'll need to Saturday night against a Notre Dame team that Hoke says has superior speed to past Irish squads.
Earlier this week, we took a look at five players in the Leaders Division with something to prove this fall.

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

Ready, set, go ...

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

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

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

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

5. Roy Roundtree, WR, Michigan: The Wolverines return arguably the Big Ten's most dynamic offensive backfield in quarterback Denard Robinson and running back Fitzgerald Toussaint. The offense could be very dangerous this fall, but Michigan will need a bounce-back season from Roundtree. Michigan lacks depth at receiver following Junior Hemingway's departure and Darryl Stonum's dismissal. Roundtree flourished in the spread offense in 2010, leading the Wolverines with 72 catches for 935 yards and seven touchdowns, and earning second-team All-Big Ten honors. But his production dropped off sharply last fall in the new offense (19 receptions, 355 yards, 2 TDs). Michigan gave Roundtree the No. 21 jersey worn by Hemingway in 2011, and Roundtree will step into Hemingway's role in the offense. He's the obvious No. 1 target for Robinson, but he has to show he can get it done in this offense.
Brady Hoke/Mark DantonioGetty Images, US PresswireBrady Hoke and the Wolverines square off against Mark Dantonio and the Spartans on Oct. 20.
During the course of spring practice, Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett visited 11 of the 12 league schools, getting an up-close look at the players and coaches who will shape the 2012 season.

Now it's time for them to share their thoughts on what they saw and learned this spring, and you can follow along as they exchange emails. Check out the Leaders Division exchange here. They now turn their focus to the Legends Division.

Adam Rittenberg: Let's take a look at what I believe to be the stronger division in 2012. You spent a lot of time in the Mitten State last month, and while you didn't gorge yourself like you did in America's Dairyland, you got the money quote of spring ball from Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, who said, "We're laying in the weeds. We've beat Michigan the last four years. So where's the threat?" How spicy is the Michigan State-Michigan rivalry getting, and how good do you think these two teams will be this season after visiting both campuses?

Brian Bennett: Oh, there was some serious gorging going on at Zingerman's in Ann Arbor and Sparty's in East Lansing. Good thing there's only one spring practice session per year.

Anyway, I went into the spring thinking Michigan and Michigan State were the two strongest teams in the league, and I didn't see anything to change my opinion. While the Wolverines are more focused on Ohio State and even Alabama, they know they have to end their losing streak against Michigan State. And the Spartans take serious pride in that four-game run while bristling at all the offseason accolades thrown toward Brady Hoke's team. Oct. 20 can't come soon enough, as far as I'm concerned.

If the two teams played right now, I'd definitely take Michigan State. Dantonio has done a terrific job of developing depth on both lines and all over the defense. There's not a deeper team in the Big Ten, and the Spartans' physical play has given Michigan fits. The Wolverines still need to figure some things out in the trenches, especially on the defensive line, but that's one area where Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison excel. I believe these two teams will be neck and neck all year for the Legends title.

Of course, there's another team lurking in the division, and that's Nebraska. You went to Lincoln this spring, and it sounded like the Cornhuskers are feeling mighty ambitious this season. Do they have the necessary tools to back up their lofty goals?

Adam Rittenberg: It was interesting to see a team openly discuss the national title, Brian, especially in a league like the Big Ten. Huskers safety P.J. Smith even went so far as to say a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl championship would be "kind of disappointing." That's bold. Nebraska would have to skip a step or two to reach that point, but I can see where the confidence stems from. There's a greater comfort level between players and coaches in Lincoln, and also between the coaches and what they face in the Big Ten. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck was candid about the difficulty of preparing for so many new opponents, particularly since Nebraska's offensive and defensive systems are a little different from what we see in the rest of the league.

Quarterback Taylor Martinez received good marks from the coaches, and his focus on footwork could translate into a more consistent passing attack. Beck certainly wants to be a bit more balanced, and Nebraska returns pretty much everyone at wide receiver and tight end. We often hear the cliche that it's all about the quarterback, but it holds true with Nebraska. If Martinez actually makes strides as a passer -- he'll be operating in the same offense as the starter for the first time in his high school or college career -- the Huskers will put up points this fall. But after watching Martinez last season, it's fair to have some doubts about No. 3.

The defense expects to exploit a schematic advantage we heard a lot about last season but didn't see much on Saturdays. I like coordinator John Papuchis, and Bo Pelini made two good staff additions in D-line coach Rick Kaczenski and secondary coach Terry Joseph. They're all about details and accountability, and they believe they'll be able to replace star power with greater depth in certain areas. Nebraska also should be strong in special teams. Do the Huskers have a unit better than Michigan State's defense? Not right now. But Nebraska could end up being the division's most complete team by season's end.

Getting back to Michigan State and Michigan. Both teams lose tremendous leaders from 2011 (Kirk Cousins, Mike Martin, Jerel Worthy, Joel Foreman, David Molk, Ryan Van Bergen). Who do you see filling those roles this year?

Brian Bennett: That's a good question, and one that will have to be answered this summer. For Michigan State, Andrew Maxwell impressed me as a guy who can lead in a similar way as Cousins did; he'll just have to play well at quarterback and battle through adversity. The Spartans have some seniors on defense who can lead, like Anthony Rashad White and Johnny Adams, but they also have some highly respected juniors in Max Bullough and William Gholston.

But they are replacing some very valuable leaders, just as Michigan is doing. Denard Robinson has worked on becoming more vocal and sounded like a different guy in interviews this spring. There's no question he has the respect of his teammates. Craig Roh and Jordan Kovacs seem like natural leaders on defense, and offensive tackle Taylor Lewan says he wants to take on that role as well. But leadership can't be forced, and it remains to be seen if either team can find such strong captains as guys like Cousins and Martin were.

[+] EnlargeJames Vandenberg
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallIowa quarterback James Vandenberg threw for 3,022 yards and 25 touchdowns last season.
Speaking of question marks, I feel like Iowa and Northwestern are two of the bigger mystery teams in the league. Both have talent and potentially potent offenses, but they'll also need some players on defense to rise up out of the shadows. What did you take out of your visits to Iowa City and Evanston this spring?

Adam Rittenberg: Let's start off with Iowa, which underwent some major changes this spring with a new offensive coordinator (Greg Davis), a position coach promoted to defensive coordinator (Phil Parker) and several more assistants shuffling, arriving or being promoted. The players seemed to embrace the changes, and coach Kirk Ferentz basically said the team needed a fresh start even though he didn't want to lose his previous coordinators. There's a lot of excitement about Davis' offense, which will be more up-tempo than what we've seen in the past from Iowa. Quarterback James Vandenberg really seems to get it, but will he have enough weapons around him to execute? The running back curse struck again this spring with Jordan Canzeri's ACL injury. Iowa needs young and/or unproven players to step up there, and wide receiver isn't a deep group. It'll be a big summer for Keenan Davis.

The feeling I had coming out of Evanston is that Northwestern will be a younger team but potentially a better one. The Wildcats say goodbye to an accomplished senior class that featured some outstanding players like quarterback Dan Persa. But was it the most talented group? I don't think so. Northwestern has improved its recruiting efforts in recent years, and the team could begin seeing the benefits this year. There are a lot of new faces at spots like defensive back and defensive line. I was impressed with cornerback Nick VanHoose and end Deonte Gibson. The wide receiving corps should be one of the Big Ten's best, even if Kyle Prater isn't eligible until 2013. The Wildcats might not have many familiar names at receiver, but they boast incredible depth there. This team still has question marks -- secondary, pass rush, running back, quarterback -- but the talent level is getting a bit better.

Neither of us made it up to Minneapolis this spring, but we both talked with Gophers players and coaches. What was your sense of the second spring under coach Jerry Kill?

Brian Bennett: We swear it's nothing personal, Gophers fans. Both of us would have enjoyed a trip to the Twin Cities, but the schedule just didn't work out.

Anyway, I did sense more confidence from the Minnesota players and coaches we interviewed. That's not surprising, given that it's the second year for Kill's staff and more familiarity almost always brings a better comfort level. MarQueis Gray really started to come on late last season and appears to have made strides as a passer. He could be one of the league's top playmakers this year. Overall, the Gophers look to have a little more talent this year, thanks to some junior college imports, youngsters who got experience last year and Troy Stoudermire coming back at cornerback. The defense should have more speed, though it remains undersized. The big question for me is who will emerge as weapons alongside Gray, especially at receiver.

But I think that, with a manageable nonconference schedule, Minnesota has a chance to win five or more games this year and it will be much more competitive in Big Ten play than it was early last season. The Legends Division looks more balanced top to bottom than the Leaders and should be fun to follow all year.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- As Illinois' starting center for the past few seasons, Graham Pocic has mashed limbs with some of the nation's best defensive tackles.

Penn State's Devon Still, Purdue's Kawann Short, Michigan State's Jerel Worthy and Michigan's Mike Martin are among those who have lined up across from Pocic. But Pocic's toughest opponent is a man he never faces on Saturdays.

[+] EnlargeAkeem Spence
Michael Heinz/US PresswireAkeem Spence is following in the footsteps of several Illini turned NFL defensive linemen before him.
"I get to go against the best D-tackle in the conference every day [in practice]," Pocic said. "It's awesome."

Pocic is biased, but don't be surprised if his teammate, Akeem Spence, earns the same label from the NFL talent evaluators a year from now. Spence has been on the NFL radar for the past two seasons, earning a starting job as a redshirt freshman and starting all 26 games he has played at Illinois.

The 6-foot-1, 305-pound Spence built on his freshman-year numbers (45 tackles, 4 TFLs, 1 sack, 1 fumble recovery) by finishing fourth on the squad in tackles (69) last fall. He had 5.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery for an Illinois defense that finished seventh nationally in yards allowed and 15th in points allowed.

"His explosiveness off the ball, his strength, he's pretty athletic for his size," Pocic said. "He's just a powerful dude. If you're not ready when you go against him, he's going to get under you and make some plays in the backfield."

The Illini have had defensive linemen selected in the first round of the past two NFL drafts: tackle Corey Liuget in 2011 (No. 18 overall pick) and end Whitney Mercilus last week (No. 26 overall pick). Spence is already being mentioned as a top candidate to enter the NFL draft after his junior season this fall.

Asked last month how motivated he is to be Illinois' next elite next-level prospect, Spence's face lit up.

"I'm real motivated," he said. "I'm just working real hard, doing everything that they did, do everything right. When it's time to step up, I want to be that guy making a big sack, making a big tackle for loss, making a big turnover. That's what I'm working toward."

Spence remains in touch with Liuget, who he started alongside in 2010. Although they've had similar career arcs at the same position -- Spence actually has played more than Liuget did in his first two years -- they're different players.

"He's a lot taller than I am," Spence said.

Only two inches to be exact, but it makes a difference in the trenches.

"Corey was a little more agile and faster," Pocic said, "but Corey doesn't have the strength that Akeem has. Corey's probably a little more explosive, but Akeem's just so strong and physical inside. It's tough to deal with."

Like several other veteran defenders, Spence had concerns about the unit's direction after head coach Ron Zook's firing coordinator Vic Koenning's departure for North Carolina. He was relieved to learn the new scheme under coordinator Tim Banks closely resembles its predecessor. Illinois also retained defensive line coach Keith Gilmore, the lone holdover from the previous staff.

Spence will play mostly the 3-technique and 1-technique in Banks' scheme with some spot work out wide at the 5-technique.

"You're creating a culture of great defensive line play," Banks said. "Those kids want to uphold that standard. You talk about those guys [Liuget and Mercilus], they were just here. It's not like 10 years ago. Our guys know who they are. They say, 'If he can do it, I can do it.' There's been greatness in that room."

Spence wants to continue that legacy before he walks out the door.
The NFL draft begins Thursday night. You probably weren't aware of that, because the draft, like most things associated with the National Football League, gets very little media coverage. Ahem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Should be a fun weekend.
Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which blogger is right.

Today's Take Two topic is this: Last season, defensive tackle was clearly the strongest overall position group in the Big Ten. What position will be the best throughout the league in 2012?

Take 1: Brian Bennett

[+] EnlargeWisconsin's Montee Ball
Kelvin Kuo/US PRESSWIREMontee Ball headlines a strong group of returning running backs in the Big Ten.
I'm tempted to go with linebacker, where some high-profile players and future stars are scattered throughout the conference. But my pick is running back.

There's some major star power at the position this year in the Big Ten, starting off with last year's Heisman Trophy finalist and record breaker, Wisconsin's Montee Ball. While Ball is the obvious choice for preseason offensive player of the year, he could get pushed by some other backs, including Nebraska's tough-as-nails Rex Burkhead, who ran for 1,357 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. Even with last year's No. 2 league rusher (Iowa's Marcus Coker) gone, the position is still stacked with guys like Penn State's Silas Redd, who we both think is primed for a huge season; Michigan's Fitz Toussaint, who ran for more than 1,000 yards despite not taking over lead rushing duties until the eighth game of the season; and Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell, who came on strong late last season and looks great this spring.

Purdue has some very capable runners in Akeem Shavers, Akeem Hunt and Doug Gentry, and Ralph Bolden is coming back from an ACL injury. Ohio State has a potentially strong group with Carlos Hyde, Jordan Hall, Rod Smith and freshman Bri'onte Dunn. Stephen Houston showed some good things for Indiana last year, and transfer Isaiah Roundtree had a big spring game. Minnesota is high on junior college import James Gillum. And don't forget James White at Wisconsin, who could start for most teams in the country.

Iowa, Illinois and Northwestern have some question marks at tailback. But overall, running back is where the Big Ten's bread will be buttered this season.

Take 2: Adam Rittenberg

A good choice, Bennett, as the Big Ten returns six of its top seven running backs and would have brought back all seven if not for Marcus Coker's transfer. But my experience covering this league has taught me to never overlook the defensive line. The D-line once again will be the Big Ten's strongest group in 2012.

Sure, the league loses standouts like Devon Still, Whitney Mercilus and Jerel Worthy. But you could substitute the names Aaron Maybin and Mitch King after the 2008 season, or Brandon Graham and Jared Odrick after 2009, or J.J. Watt and Corey Liuget after 2010. The Big Ten always finds ways to reload up front, and this year will be no different. There might not be as many familiar names as there are at running back, but that soon will change.

[+] EnlargeKawann Short
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesPurdue defensive lineman Kawann Short is a potential first-round NFL draft pick.
Let's start off with the top returning linemen, Ohio State's John Simon and Purdue's Kawann Short, both of whom earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in 2011. Both men will contend for All-America honors, and could be potential first-round picks in the 2013 class. Then you have a guy we're both excited about: Michigan State defensive end William Gholston. He's a physical freak, as you recently detailed, and has the potential to dominate games and become one of the nation's truly elite defenders in 2012. I'd also include Penn State defensive tackle Jordan Hill in this group of known commodities with the potential for very big things this season. Penn State's overall depth along the defensive line should be better this year.

Now for some lesser-known names who could have breakout seasons. Let's start at Illinois with defensive end Michael Buchanan and defensive tackle Akeem Spence. Buchanan is poised for a big year, as he showed in Illinois' spring game, while Spence is a next-level player who could follow Liuget's path this season. Speaking of defensive tackles, watch out for Ohio State's Johnathan Hankins, a very big man who can do very big things this season. The Buckeyes' heralded incoming freshmen should only bolster their line.

Michigan loses two standout linemen (Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen), but it's hard to imagine the Wolverines falling back much at all up front. Nebraska boasts good depth at the defensive end spot and could see a big year from a guy like Cameron Meredith.

While there are some question marks around the league, including an unproven line at Iowa, teams like Northwestern and Minnesota should be improved up front.
Brady HokeAP Photo/Carlos OsorioThe goal for the Wolverines in Brady Hoke's second season is to win the Big Ten title.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan's players must have felt pretty good about themselves at the end of last season. The Wolverines won 11 games, captured the Sugar Bowl championship and ended a seven-year losing streak to Ohio State.

But head coach Brady Hoke delivered some sobering news in the first team meeting after the Sugar Bowl in January. Team 132, he told the players, failed.

"It probably surprised some of them a little bit," Hoke told ESPN.com about that message he delivered. "But if you have a goal and you don't achieve that goal, then you fail."

Hoke has made it clear that as long as he's the Michigan coach, the Wolverines will always have one main objective: win the Big Ten title. So even though his first team erased a lot of the bad memories from the three-year Rich Rodriguez tenure in a major bounce-back campaign, it still finished as the runner-up in the Legends Division.

"Oh, man, sitting at home watching the Big Ten championship game felt kind of weird," quarterback Denard Robinson said. "We're supposed to be the 'leaders and best,' so we sold ourselves short not being in that first one."

The motivation for Team 133 this offseason, then, became quite obvious. Michigan got back on track last season, winning 11 games for the first time since 2006 and bringing some momentum to the program. The Wolverines could enter this season ranked in the top 10 and might well be the favorite to win the Big Ten in Hoke's second year. Asked if he'd view any season that didn't end with a Big Ten title as a disappointment, Hoke didn't hesitate to answer, "Yep."

Does Michigan have what it takes to repeat and even build upon last season's success? This spring offered reasons for optimism and pessimism.

The biggest difference between Hoke's first year and the RichRod teams was the surprising defensive resurgence. After three years of futility on that side of the ball, the Wolverines finished 17th nationally in total defense and sixth in points allowed. Fueling that effort was a dominant defensive line led by seniors Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen and Will Heininger.

By Week 4 against San Diego State -- a 28-7 victory -- safety Jordan Kovacs started to notice a major difference.

"I was getting bored as a defensive back because our front seven was controlling the game," Kovacs said. "One I realized our defensive line was pretty special, I knew we were going to have a heck of a team."

With three seniors gone and the lone returning starter, Craig Roh, switching from weakside to strongside defensive end, the D-line underwent some predictable growing pains this spring. The defensive tackle spot is a particular concern, with the undersized Jibreel Black moving in from end and senior Will Campbell getting one last try to live up to his once-immense recruiting hype. The line was inconsistent at best at stopping the run in practice this spring.

While the Wolverines should have more talent and experience at the linebacker and secondary positions than they did a year ago, there's little doubt where the focus lies for Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, as both cut their teeth as defensive line coaches.

"You can't have a great defense if you're not strong up the middle," Mattison said. "We need that position to become very, very strong."

On the flip side, Martin and Van Bergen were nowhere near the players they'd become at this time last year. Mattison said he expects his linemen to make a jump in the summer.

"Last year, it was a much uglier spring ball," Kovacs said. "That's what I try to remind myself."

[+] EnlargeCraig Roh
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioCraig Roh is the lone returning starter on the defensive line.
Depth is also a major worry, not just on the defensive line but on the offensive front. True freshmen are likely to crack the two-deep on both lines, which is not a great sign in the Big Ten. Michigan was fortunate last season to stay quite healthy in the trenches until the Sugar Bowl, when Heininger was out and David Molk played on a bad leg. Can the team get some luck on the injury front in 2012?

It may need to with a schedule that looks far more demanding than last season. The Wolverines had eight home games in 2011, including the first five contests of the season. That number dips down to six this season, with challenging road games at Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State. And of course, there's the opener against defending national champion Alabama in Arlington, Texas.

"All this offseason work is pointing toward that game," receiver Roy Roundtree said. "Everybody knows who we got. It's not like it's some cupcake opener; they're the national champions. We've got to bring our A-game."

The good news is that Michigan found ways to win without its A-game last season, especially in the Sugar Bowl against Virginia Tech in which offensive coordinator Al Borges said, "we played really awful." Hoke proclaimed after the spring game that the Wolverines are much tougher than they were a year ago.

Robinson and running back Fitz Toussaint, who each ran for more than 1,000 yards last season, give the offense two special difference-makers in the backfield. Coaches say Robinson's throwing mechanics and decision-making looked greatly improved this spring, while Toussaint may get some help from emerging power runner Thomas Rawls.

Michigan figures to stay in the thick of the Big Ten race all season long, but getting close won't be good enough. Bo Schembechler's famous phrase, "Those who stay will be champions," wasn't referring to Sugar Bowl titles. The Wolverines won't be satisfied with anything less than their 43rd Big Ten championship, which is why veteran players weren't stunned by Hoke's failing grade in that January meeting.

"I think it was kind of the elephant in the room," Kovacs said. "At the end of the day, we didn't do what we wanted to do. That's what we've been about and what we'll continue to be about. And that's what is fueling us for this season."
Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is happy to see some familiar faces this spring.

The Wolverines return seven starters and many other reserves who played roles in orchestrating one of the more impressive one-year turnarounds for a defense in recent college football history. Mattison remains grateful for their contributions.

[+] EnlargeJordan Kovacs
AP Photo/Tony DingSafety Jordan Kovacs is expected to be the leader of the Wolverines' defense next season.
He also guarantees them nothing for the coming season.

"Nobody has a right to any position," Mattison told ESPN.com on Monday. "It doesn't matter if you've started for three years, four years, one year. Every practice and every week is judged. We are always going to put the best football players on the field."

While this is a common refrain for coaches, who want to maintain as much competition as possible, Mattison finds himself doing more than paying lip service in spring ball, which kicked off Saturday. The scheme is no longer new. Neither are the expectations.

The learning curve for players hasn't so much been accelerated as it has been evened out. Other than three true freshmen who enrolled early and are practicing this spring -- linebackers Joe Bolden and Kaleb Ringer and safety Jarrod Wilson -- Michigan's defenders all have gone through a full year in the system.

"If a guy was a veteran, he would have picked up the new scheme at a certain rate," Mattison said. "If he was a younger guy, it would have taken him longer to pick up the scheme. Now, they've both had it, and there shouldn't be that learning factor that sometimes separates younger guys from older guys.

"Now it's who's playing the best and understanding the defense."

Mattison didn't shy away from using young players in 2011. Michigan started three freshmen -- linebackers Jake Ryan and Desmond Morgan, and cornerback Blake Countess -- for much of the season. Although all three earned invaluable experience playing for a successful defense, they're not assured of anything in 2012.

Consider what Mattison had to say about the linebackers, a group that returns all three starters (Morgan, Ryan, senior Kenny Demens).

"Those positions are not solidified in any way," said Mattison, who stressed the need for the linebackers to improve in zone coverage. "Every day, those are evaluated."

The same standard is applied for veterans like safety Jordan Kovacs, who many expect to become the undisputed leader of the defense.

"I was really proud of what he did a year ago," Mattison said, "but it's the same thing, and he knows it, and it's why he's such a great young man. ... He knows he has to improve. He knows that if he just goes out there and plays like he did last year, that may not be good enough."

Kovacs will provide leadership, but Michigan needs more after losing standout linemen Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen. Team 132 raised the bar on defense after it has sunk to historic lows.

But simply maintaining the level won't be good enough.

"That season, Team 132, is over," Mattison said. "Some of them had a big part in that, but they're 133. What are they going to be? Just because you played on that team does not mean you automatically will play on this team."

The reproving process is under way in Ann Arbor.

Spring previews: Legends Division

February, 17, 2012
2/17/12
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The 2012 Big Ten season doesn't kick off for six-and-a-half months, but spring football is just around the corner. All 12 Big Ten squads will hit the field next month for the first of 15 spring practices. There are plenty of new faces, as the winter months brought an unprecedented number of coaching changes to the Big Ten. Should be a fun and exciting spring around the conference.

Let's take a quick look at the Leaders Division:

IOWA

Spring practice start date: March 24
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • New coaching flavor: For the first time in the Kirk Ferentz era, Iowa will welcome new coordinators on both sides of the ball. Phil Parker isn't exactly new, having served as Iowa's defensive backs coach throughout Ferentz's tenure, but he now takes charge of the defense for the first time. Will he continue running Norm Parker's scheme or shake things up? Iowa also will have a new offensive coordinator (yet to be named) and several new position coaches, including Reese Morgan, who moves from offensive line to defensive line.
  • Running back auditions: Iowa once again needs to identify a featured back after Marcus Coker transferred to Stony Brook in January. Coker basically was the team's rushing attack in 2011, accounting for 77.3 percent of the rushing yards and 61.9 percent of the carries. Jordan Canzeri and Jason White will compete with several other unproven players this spring. The good news is Iowa has had little trouble developing backs. Keeping them is another story.
  • Reloading the defensive line: The running backs might get more attention, but defensive line is Iowa's most pressing need entering the spring. The Hawkeyes lose three starters from last season's squad, including NFL prospect Mike Daniels at defensive tackle. While D-line historically has been a strength for Iowa, the Hawkeyes haven't had so much uncertainty in quite some time. Morgan, who hasn't coached on the defensive side, has his work cut out this spring.
MICHIGAN

Spring practice start date: March 17
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • Defensive line rotation: It's a good thing coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison focus so much on the defensive line. The unit needs some extra attention this spring after losing standouts Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen. The defensive tackle spot will be particularly interesting. A lot of eyes will be on Will Campbell to see if the big man can finally blossom. Quinton Washington and others are in the mix.
  • Receiving orders: Michigan needs to develop more options in the passing game this spring. The team loses top wideout Junior Hemingway, and Darryl Stonum was dismissed from the squad in January following another legal issue. Roy Roundtree needs a big spring as he looks to re-establish himself as the team's No. 1 wideout after a production drop-off last season. Tight end Kevin Koger also departs, creating an opportunity for others.
  • Al Borges' offense, Take 2: The new offense had some highs and lows in Year 1, and Michigan will be looking to establish greater consistency this season. It'll be interesting to see how a full year in the system impacts quarterback Denard Robinson. Robinson must cut down on his interceptions after tossing 15 last season. The Wolverines also are looking for an offensive line anchor following the departure of All-American center David Molk.
MICHIGAN STATE

Spring practice start date: March 27
Spring game: April 28

What to watch:
  • Take it to the Max: Andrew Maxwell's time has arrived as he steps in for three-year starter and three-time captain Kirk Cousins at quarterback. It's a tall order, but Maxwell has been groomed for this moment and has shown good potential in practices. He'll be working with a new set of leading receivers, including Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett, who hopes to be cleared to play for the upcoming season. Maxwell must establish himself as a team leader this spring.
  • We're not Worthy: All-American Jerel Worthy is gone, and Michigan State needs a replacement for the standout defensive tackle. While Anthony Rashad White returns at the other D-tackle spot, the Spartans don't have much overall depth at the position. It'll be interesting to see what the coaches do with Micajah Reynolds, who has bounced between defensive line and offensive line during his career. It's a big spring for Vanderbilt transfer James Kittredge and a host of players who redshirted last season, including Damon Knox.
  • Receiving orders: Arnett seemingly would be Michigan State's No. 1 receiver if he's ruled eligible by the NCAA, but there are no guarantees and the Spartans must identify other options this spring. Bennie Fowler showed promise in 2010 before being slowed by a foot injury last season. He needs a strong spring. Michigan State also is moving Tony Lippett back to receiver from cornerback, where he started several games last season. Lippett is an excellent athlete who can provide a boost on the edge. The Spartans also will be looking for more from tight end Dion Sims.
MINNESOTA

Spring practice start date: March 22
Spring game: April 21

What to watch:
  • The search for a pass rush: Minnesota should be improved on offense in Year 2 of the Jerry Kill era, but the team could sink or swim depending on the defense. It starts up front with a defensive line that hasn't generated much pressure for several years. Coordinator Tracy Claeys wants to be aggressive, but can he find difference-makers? The Gophers haven't had an elite pass-rusher since Willie VanDeSteeg in 2008.
  • Supporting cast on offense: Although quarterback Marqueis Gray had his ups and downs last season, he accounted for most of Minnesota's offense, leading the team with 966 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns. Gray needs more help if the Gophers intend to take the next step this season. Minnesota will be looking for a featured running back this spring, as Donnell Kirkwood and others are in the mix. The Gophers also need more options at receiver after losing Da'Jon McKnight.
  • Troy Stoudermire: Stoudermire turned heads last spring with some big hits from the cornerback spot. After receiving an additional year of eligibility from the NCAA in January, he'll look to deliver more punishment. Minnesota desperately needs leaders and playmakers to emerge in the secondary, and Stoudermire's return could be huge after he missed most last season with a broken bone in his forearm.
NEBRASKA

Spring practice start date: March 10
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • Star search on defense: No Big Ten defense loses more star power than Nebraska, which must replace linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, the league's top performers at their respective positions. David's departure is especially critical, as Nebraska lacked depth in its defensive midsection last season. Although Nebraska played most of the past season without defensive tackle Jared Crick, it needs some difference-makers to emerge in all three levels of the defense this spring.
  • Papuchis takes over: Like Iowa, Nebraska promoted a position coach to defensive coordinator, as John Papuchis takes control of a unit that fell short of expectations last season. Papuchis is young and energetic, and his rapid rise mirrors that of his boss, Huskers head coach Bo Pelini. Although no system overhaul is expected, it will be interesting to see how Papuchis puts his imprint on the defense this spring.
  • Taylor Martinez's maturation: Despite two years as the starter and the support of his coaches, Martinez enters a pivotal spring. Although Martinez remained healthy last season and showed improved decision-making at times, he also completed just 56.3 percent of his passes and didn't break off as many long runs. A full year in Tim Beck's offense could pay off for Martinez this spring, but he needs to continue to make strides. It will be interesting to see if the coaches even entertain the possibility of a competition, or if backup Brion Carnes gets more reps.
NORTHWESTERN

Spring practice start date: March 3
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • Colter and the QB race: Northwestern will have a quarterback competition this spring as it looks for Dan Persa's replacement, but the hope among many is for Kain Colter to take control. Colter stepped in for Persa last season and emerged as the team's best all-around offensive weapon. But he needs to improve his arm strength and his accuracy and show he can be a more complete quarterback at this level. Although Colter will be on the field no matter what in the fall, he has the opportunity in spring ball to solidify himself as the starting quarterback.
  • Young defenders: The defense has been a big problem for the past year and a half, and Northwestern needs to identify more playmakers before September. The good news is the Wildcats played a lot of young players last season, particularly late in the season. Northwestern needs its youth to mature, beginning in the spring. Keep an eye on players such as defensive end Tyler Scott, safety Ibraheim Campbell, linebacker Collin Ellis and cornerback Daniel Jones. Northwestern needs several of them to take the next step.
  • Spotlight on the secondary: Few Big Ten units struggled more than Northwestern's secondary did last season. Making matters worse, the Wildcats lose three starters, including All-Big Ten safety Brian Peters and cornerback Jordan Mabin, a four-year starter. If Northwestern ever intends to turn the corner as a program, it needs to build better depth in the secondary, whether it's through recruiting or from moving players from other positions. It'll be interesting to see how the group performs this spring.
We covered all the offensive position groups in our postseason rankings series here, here, here and here. Now it's time to turn our attention to the defensive side of the ball.

Defensive tackle was the strongest position in the league in 2011, so that makes this a competitive situation. There are some major changes from our preseason order as well. Remember this is about overall production, and depth matters along with star power. The top four on this list are really, really strong.

Here we go:

[+] EnlargeWilliam Gholston and Aaron Murray
J. Meric/Getty ImagesWilliam Gholston and the Spartans' defensive line helped key a Michigan State win over Georgia in the Outback Bowl.
1. Michigan State: The Spartans finished with the top total defense in the Big Ten and one of the best in the nation, and it all started with a dominant front. All-American tackle Jerel Worthy commanded extra attention inside and was joined by Kevin Pickelman and Anthony Rashad White as forces inside. William Gholston was brilliant at times, never more so than in the Outback Bowl win over Georgia. And freshman Marcus Rush turned in an outstanding season at the other defensive end spot. The Spartans had no weaknesses at this position in 2011.

2. Michigan: We projected the Wolverines would make a significant leap in '11, but the amount of improvement still surprised us. The combination of head coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, both defensive line coaches at heart, and valuable seniors Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen made this the backbone of Michigan's Sugar Bowl run. The Wolverines were especially tough in short-yardage situations because their defensive front was so stout.

3. Penn State: Big Ten defensive player of the year Devon Still wrecked just about everybody's game plan with a huge senior campaign. Jordan Hill had a solid, underrated year next to him inside. Jack Crawford stayed healthy and contributed 6.5 sacks, while Eric Latimore and Sean Stanley combined for another 7.5 quarterback takedowns.

4. Illinois: Defensive end Whitney Mercilus was a consensus first-team All-American who led the nation in sacks and forced fumbles. Nobody saw that coming. He had good company along the line as well, with guys like Akeem Spence inside and Michael Buchanan at the other end spot. The Illini may have faltered down the stretch as a team, but the D-line stayed strong throughout the year.

5. Wisconsin: The Badgers didn't have many household names on the defensive line, and certainly no one stood out like J.J. Watt the year before. But Bret Bielema relied on a solid group of veterans that helped the team finish third in the league in total defense and fifth in sacks. Patrick Butrym, Louis Nzegwu, Brendan Kelly and Ethan Hemer were part of a group that played better than the sum of its parts.

6. Ohio State: The Buckeyes had one of the best defensive players in the league in John Simon, who had 16 tackles for loss and seven sacks in a breakout season. Tackle Johnathan Hankins emerged as a disrupter at 335 pounds. But Ohio State didn't get its usual production elsewhere on the line, got beat up as the season went along and lacked depth, which is one reason why Urban Meyer went out and signed so many pass rushers in his first recruiting class.

7. Nebraska: The biggest disappointment from the preseason, as the Huskers tumbled from their No. 1 ranking last summer. Jared Crick's season-ending injury hurt the production, but he was not putting up huge numbers before he tore his pectoral muscle. Cameron Meredith, Baker Steinkuhler and Eric Martin had some nice moments, but Nebraska wasn't nearly as fierce up front as we thought it might be.

8. Purdue: Kawann Short turned in his best season, with 17 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks from his interior spot, while Bruce Gaston and Gerald Gooden provided solid support. But the Boilermakers' pass rush off the edge lacked explosiveness until freshman Ryan Russell started to come on late in the season. Everyone except Gooden returns, and with a new position coach Purdue hopes this unit can go from decent to great in 2012.

9. Iowa: Another disappointing crew, as the Hawkeyes proved it's not easy to replace three draft picks off the defensive line and simply reload. Mike Daniels and Broderick Binns were the senior anchors, but Iowa's pass rush was sluggish until late in the season. And there wasn't a whole lot of depth behind them. This group loses three starters and will be extremely young in 2012.

10. Northwestern: We ranked the Wildcats 10th in the preseason as well, but we still expected better things out of this group. Northwestern generated very little pressure on opposing quarterbacks and ranked last in the Big Ten in sacks. Vince Browne, a projected all-conference pick in the summer, had a subpar season with only 3.5 tackles for loss after putting up 15.5 in 2010. It's clear this group needs to get better for Northwestern to take the next step.

11. Minnesota: The Gophers weren't as terrible on the defensive front as they were in 2010, when they finished last in the nation with only nine sacks. In fact, they more than doubled that total with 19 last season. Still, it was a mostly anonymous crew that gave quarterbacks too much time to carve up the secondary in the passing game. Jerry Kill still needs to find more playmakers at this position.

12. Indiana: The Hoosiers had problems all over the defense, and the line was no exception. Adam Replogle and Larry Black gave the unit some veteran leadership in the middle, but Indiana resorted to playing a lot of kids at the defensive end spots. The results were about what you'd expect.

Big shoes to fill: Michigan

February, 13, 2012
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Spring practice kicks off in March, and each Big Ten team will be looking for some key replacements in their depth charts. We're going to take a look at two players on each Big Ten squad who leave big shoes to fill and who might be ready to step in at those spots.

Let's start off with the Michigan Wolverines.

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Mike Martin, DT

[+] EnlargeMike Martin
Lon Hordwedel/Icon SMIMike Martin has been a consistent presence in the middle of the defense for Michigan.
Why: Three-year starter anchored the middle of the defensive line. He earned second-team All-Big Ten honors in both 2011 and 2010. Martin appeared in 49 games, starting 37 at nose tackle, and finished his career with 172 tackles, including 25 for loss and seven sacks. His value goes far beyond the numbers, as he consistently took on double-teams and topped the opponent's scouting report before games against the Wolverines.

Replacement candidates: William Campbell (6-5, 322, Jr.); Quinton Washington (6-4, 302, So.); Ondre Pipkins (6-3, 335, incoming freshman); Richard Ash (6-3, 301, Fr.) Kenny Wilkins (6-3, 280, Fr.)

The skinny: Head coach Brady Hoke, who works directly with the nose tackles, has some work ahead this offseason in trying to replace Martin, the heart and soul of Michigan's defense. Is Campbell finally ready to take the next step? The former blue-chip recruit has the talent but hasn't quite blossomed. Pipkins arrives with a lot of buzz and could work his way into the rotation at a position with few proven players.

BIG SHOES TO FILL: David Molk, C

Why: Four-year starter won the Rimington Trophy in 2011 as the nation's top center. Molk was a consensus first-team All-America selection in 2011. He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the league's coaches in each of his final two seasons. He started 41 games at center, and his absence was felt any time he wasn't on the field. Offensive coordinator Al Borges placed a great deal of responsibility on Molk last fall, and Molk delivered for a unit adjusting to a new system.

Replacement candidates: Rocko Khoury (6-4, 287, Jr.); Ricky Barnum (6-3, 292, Jr.); Jack Miller (6-4, 263, Fr.)

The skinny: Khory has been the heir apparent to Molk for several years, but his snapping struggles early in the Sugar Bowl sounded a few alarms among Michigan fans. If Khoury isn't the answer, Barnum might be. He started three games at guard in 2011 before being slowed by ankle problems. Miller is an intriguing prospect who needs to bulk up a bit.

Big Ten recruiting team wraps

February, 2, 2012
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National signing day is in the books, and it's time to evaluate the Big Ten teams and their classes. Although several potential Big Ten recruits are announcing their plans after signing day, most of the classes are complete.

Here's how ESPN Recruiting graded the Big Ten classes Insider.

Let's take a look at how teams filled their big recruiting needs:

ILLINOIS

The Illini have had a nice run at defensive tackle with 2011 NFL first-round draft pick Corey Liuget and Akeem Spence, who enters 2012 as a legitimate pro prospect. They solidified the interior line for the future with recruits like Teko Powell and Vontrell Williams.

INDIANA

It's no secret Indiana needs to make significant upgrades on defense, and coach Kevin Wilson looked to the junior college ranks for help. Indiana added six juco defenders, including cornerback Tregg Waters and linebacker Jacarri Alexander. These players give the Hoosiers a chance to get better in a hurry.

IOWA

Running back has again become a pressing need for Iowa with the departures of Marcus Coker and Mika'il McCall. While Iowa has lost running backs at an alarming rate, it also has developed young backs very well in recent years. The coaches hope to work their magic with Greg Garmon, who could be the most significant recruit of the 2012 class.

MICHIGAN

Arguably no staff in the country makes defensive line a bigger priority than Michigan, which has three coaches, including head man Brady Hoke, focused on the front four. The Wolverines lose standouts Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen from the 2011 line, but they addressed the situation in recruiting with pickups like defensive tackle Ondre Pipkins and defensive end Chris Wormley.

MICHIGAN STATE

Michigan State is creating a nice recruiting pipeline at the wide receiver position. The Spartans lose their top two wideouts from 2011 (B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin) but added several nice receiver pickups in the 2012, including Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett and four-star prospects Monty Madaris and Aaron Burbridge.

MINNESOTA

Quarterback MarQueis Gray returns, and Minnesota needed to get him some help in the passing game after the departure of Da'Jon McKnight. The Gophers added some excellent pickups at the wide receiver position in Andre McDonald and Jamel Harbison.

NEBRASKA

The Huskers were thin at linebacker in 2011 and lose standout Lavonte David to graduation. Nebraska coaches also have discussed the need to add more traditional linebackers to face Big Ten offenses. Big Red filled the need in the 2012 recruiting classes with players such as Michael Rose and Jared Afalava.

NORTHWESTERN

Defense has been Northwestern's downfall in the past two years, and the Wildcats need more difference-makers on that side of the ball. They likely landed one in end/linebacker Ifeadi Odenigbo, an ESPNU 150 prospect who is Northwestern's most decorated defensive recruit in recent memory. Odenigbo could help immediately as a situational pass-rusher.

OHIO STATE

No Big Ten team made a bigger impact at one position than Ohio State did along the defensive line. The Buckeyes, who were a bit thin up front in 2011, got a lot better with this class, which is headlined by ESPNU 150 prospects Noah Spence, Adolphus Washington, Se'Von Pittman and Tommy Schutt.

PENN STATE

Skyler Mornhinweg's decommitment stings a bit, as Penn State needs more quarterbacks in the mix, but the Nittany Lions also need more difference-makers at wide receiver and tight end. They helped themselves in the 2012 class with wide receiver Eugene Lewis, ranked as the nation's No. 34 wideout by ESPN Recruiting. Tight end Jesse James is another nice pickup.

PURDUE

Offensive line has been a position of stability for Purdue the past few seasons, but the Boilers lose two starters from the 2011 squad (Dennis Kelly, Nick Mondek) and will say goodbye to several more after 2012. Purdue had to reload up front, and the two highest-rated players in the 2012 class, according to ESPN Recruiting -- Jordan Roos and Cameron Cermin -- all play offensive line.

WISCONSIN

Quarterback is undoubtedly Wisconsin's top priority as Russell Wilson departs and Jon Budmayr and Curt Phillips battle back from major injuries. The Badgers needed a signal-caller in a small class and landed a decorated one in Bart Houston, a four-star prospect from California powerhouse De La Salle High School.

Recruiting needs: Legends Division

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

Iowa

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

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

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

Michigan

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

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

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

Michigan State

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

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

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

Minnesota

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

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

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

Nebraska

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

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

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

Northwestern

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

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

Wide receivers: Highly productive star receiver Jeremy Ebert is gone, along with starter Charles Brown. Venric Mark and Christian Jones have a lot of potential as the next big passing targets, but Northwestern's spread offense feeds off of speed and depth at the receiver position. Four receivers have given the Wildcats their pledge in this class.
The offseason is upon us, and earlier today Brian took a look at the to-do lists for each team in the Leaders Division. Let's now turn the attention to the Legends Division and what teams need to accomplish during the next seven-plus months.

As a reminder, these items aren't recruiting needs, which we'll address in the near future, but rather areas each team needs to repair or restock before Aug. 31 or Sept. 1.

Iowa
  • Reverse the RB curse: Iowa's inability to retain promising running backs is well documented, and the Hawkeyes now must replace prolific sophomore Marcus Coker, who led the Big Ten in carries per game last fall (23.4 a game). The team has shown it produces capable backs, and several players either already on the roster or entering the mix could emerge. But it's critical that Iowa develops multiple options in the backfield in case injuries crop up or the AIRBHG (Angry Iowa Running Back-Hating God) decides to strike again.
  • Replenish the defensive line: A year after replacing three NFL draft picks from the defensive line, Iowa once again has to restock in its front four. The team loses three starters, including standout tackle Mike Daniels, and has very little proven experience back in the fold. Defensive line historically has been an area of strength for Iowa, but the team's new defensive coordinator (yet to be named) and the staff must make the front four a focal point as they try to identify difference-makers.
Michigan
  • Shore up the middle: Baseball general managers talk about the need to build a team up the middle. The same theory applies to football as teams that are strong in the center of both lines typically fare well. Michigan must replace two of the nation's best interior linemen in center David Molk, the Rimington Trophy winner, and defensive tackle Mike Martin. Both are NFL prospects and will be missed. The Wolverines need Will Campbell, Quinton Washington and others to emerge at defensive tackle. The center spot could be even more critical as coordinator Al Borges relied so heavily on Molk in 2011.
  • Tightening "Shoelace": Michigan won 11 games and a BCS bowl this past season despite enduring "good Denard, bad Denard" fluctuation at the quarterback position. Looking at the Wolverines' daunting 2012 schedule, they'll have no such luxury when September rolls around. They need Denard Robinson to perform like a senior and show good consistency and improved comfort in the offense. He'll need to cut down on turnovers and deliver more performances like the one we saw against Ohio State on Nov. 26.
Michigan State
  • Develop Andrew Maxwell: Michigan State returns the league's most dynamic defense and should be improved in the run game, too. The big question is whether or not the Spartans can replace quarterback Kirk Cousins, a three-year starter and a three-time captain. Andrew Maxwell has been groomed for the role and, barring a surprise, will lead the offense in September. It's a big offseason for Maxwell to establish himself in his own way and build chemistry with his teammates, particularly a new-look receiving corps.
  • Take line play to next level: Head coach Mark Dantonio understands that Big Ten success is tied to excellent play along both lines. The Spartans' defensive line looked elite at times in 2011, particularly when William Gholston and Jerel Worthy decided to dominate. Worthy is off to the NFL, and the Spartans will be looking to build more depth in the interior alongside Anthony Rashad White. More important, Michigan State must take a big step on the offensive line, a unit that lacked experience in 2011. The Spartans can't expect to win 11 games again with the nation's 78th-ranked rushing offense. They've established their identity on defense; it's time to return to their roots on offense and pound green pound.
Minnesota
  • Establish a defensive identity: Gophers coordinator Tracy Claeys wants to have an aggressive, pressuring defense, but the team had only 19 sacks and 61 tackles for loss in 2011. Those numbers need to increase and Minnesota must identify more playmakers along a defensive line that returns mostly intact. Keanon Cooper and Mike Rallis will lead the linebackers, but Minnesota's defense needs a new quarterback after the departure of productive safety Kim Royston.
  • MarQueis to the max: We've seen snippets of brilliance from quarterback MarQueis Gray, but at other times he looks lost and fails to complete most of his passes (50.7 percent for the season). Minnesota needs to lean on Gray in 2012, not just as a difference-maker, but as a consistent leader every Saturday. Gray enters his second offseason in the system, and his days of splitting time between quarterback and wide receiver are in the rear-view mirror. He's the leader of this football team, and he needs to make the necessary strides to elevate his game.
Nebraska
  • Star search: Nebraska's defense loses two of the nation's best in linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard. The Huskers don't necessarily need their replacements to be stars, but they need difference makers to emerge on a unit that fell short of expectations in 2011. Defensive line figures to be a very strong area for Big Red, and players like Baker Steinkuhler and Cameron Meredith will be called upon to lead the way. Nebraska also must make some adjustments to better handle the big, physical offenses in the Big Ten. Linebacker is one position that could use a makeover.
  • Maturity on offense: Running back Rex Burkhead is exempt from this, as he figures to have a huge senior season after making big strides in 2011. But Nebraska's offense has plenty of players that need to mature for the unit to reach its potential this coming season. The offensive line was green at spots and should benefit from another offseason in Tim Beck's system. Nebraska has young talent at wide receiver with Kenny Bell, Quincy Enunwa and Jamal Turner. If the wideouts can grow up, they'll be dangerous weapons in 2012. Quarterback Taylor Martinez also fits in here. He showed some good things in 2011, but must perform more like a third-year starter next fall.
Northwestern
  • Find playmakers on defense: Northwestern lacked difference-makers on defense this past season and loses one in All-Big Ten safety Brian Peters, who led the league with five interceptions. This might never be a shut-down defense, but it needs to identify more players who can influence games. Northwestern returns nine defensive starters and will look to players like defensive end Tyler Scott and safety Ibraheim Campbell to take their game to the next level. The Wildcats recorded a league-low 17 sacks in 2011 and ranked 104th nationally in tackles for loss (59).
  • Figure out the quarterback situation: Offensive coordinator Mick McCall has been masterful in turning inexperienced quarterbacks into All-Big Ten players at Northwestern. His next major project likely will be Kain Colter, who filled in admirably last season, but looked limited as a passer, and at times seemed better suited to play wide receiver. Colter will compete with Trevor Siemian and Zack Oliver for the starting job this spring. If he can make a similar jump as his Wildcats predecessors, he could be one of the division's most dangerous players in 2012.

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