NCF Nation: Niles Paul

Most would agree that Michigan's Denard Robinson and Northwestern's Dan Persa were the Big Ten's top two quarterbacks in 2010.

Both set Big Ten and team records (and, in Robinson's case, NCAA records). Both carried their squads at times. Both displayed leadership and made those around them better. And both are back for 2011, which is good news for Michigan and Northwestern.

Here's the twist: both also face significant challenges entering the season.

Robinson and Persa find themselves in the odd position of being proven players who have to prove themselves all over again.

The reasons are different.

Robinson will run a new offense this fall after thriving in Rich Rodriguez's spread, becoming the first player in NCAA history to record at least 2,500 pass yards and at least 1,500 rush yards in the same season. Al Borges, Michigan's new offensive coordinator, employs a West Coast style offense that will require some adjustments from the 2010 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. Robinson will be taking more snaps from center, using more play-action and throwing passes on different routes than he did in the spread.

[+] EnlargeDenard Robinson
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireMichigan's Denard Robinson is coming off a stellar season, but will be playing in a new scheme.
It's worth noting that Robinson took snaps from under center throughout high school. Coach Brady Hoke said last month that the staff is "smart enough to have elements he does well from what he did ... in the spread in our offense."

But Robinson will be moving from a system where he fit seamlessly to one that will take some adjustments. He didn't look too comfortable in the spring game, but has had more time to learn the scheme. Will Robinson remain the game-changer we saw in 2010? We should find out in September.

Persa, meanwhile, doesn't have to worry about a new offense. His primary concern is a surgically repaired right Achilles' tendon.

The senior hasn't played since rupturing his Achilles' on Nov. 13 against Iowa. He didn't begin running until late spring, although he's medically cleared for preseason camp, which began Monday.

It remains to be seen whether Persa is the same player after surgery and a long rehab from an injury you don't often see in college football. Although he set a Big Ten record for completion percentage (73.5) in 2010, he was exceptional with his legs, extending plays and scrambling for first downs and touchdowns. Persa wants to release the ball faster and run less this season, but he'll need his mobility to pick up where he left off.

Northwestern fell apart after Persa's injury, dropping its final three games. While Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said last month that he'd take Persa "at 40 percent over any other quarterback in the country," Persa's health and ability to produce could make or break the season.

Robinson and Persa aren't the only Big Ten returning starters at quarterback facing some uncertainty entering the fall.

Here are a few others:

Nebraska sophomore Taylor Martinez: T-Magic is adjusting to a new offense and must show he can stay healthy after fading in the second half of 2010. Martinez also loses leading receiver Niles Paul to the NFL draft.

Illinois sophomore Nathan Scheelhaase: Scheelhaase no longer shares a backfield with first-team All-Big Ten running back Mikel Leshoure. He also needs several receivers to emerge alongside A.J. Jenkins.

Michigan State senior Kirk Cousins: Cousins once again has plenty of weapons around him, but he'll play behind an offensive line replacing three starters from last season. The senior dealt with shoulder and ankle injuries during the second half of the 2010 season, and unlike the other quarterbacks on this list, he lacks top-end mobility.
Our preseason position ranking series comes to an end today with everybody's favorite group: special teams.

For this ranking, we're going to consider punters, kickers and returners only. No offense to the long-snappers or the punt-team gunners, but things like kickoff coverage units are hard to forecast. We'll give a little extra weight to teams that have returning and proven players at these spots, because it's difficult to know how new punters and kickers will fare when the pressure of real games begin.

As the guys in these positions would say, let's kick it:

[+] EnlargeDan Conroy
Andrew Weber/US PresswireDan Conroy was nearly perfect on his field goal attempts last season.
1. Michigan State: Kicker Dan Conroy made 14 of his 15 attempts last year, and Keshawn Martin led the league in punt return average. They will miss punter Aaron Bates and will have to improve their kickoff return game. And you know you always have to watch out for the fake when the Spartans line up for a kick.

2. Wisconsin: The Badgers are set at both punter and kicker, with seniors Brad Nortman and Philip Welch, respectively. Both are third-year starters who can be relied upon. Wisconsin will need to find a replacement for primary return man David Gilreath.

3. Penn State: The Nittany Lions bring back punter Anthony Fera and punt returner Devon Smith, who finished just behind Martin in yards per attempt last season. Chaz Powell and Stephfon Green are dangerous kick returners. Fera could move over to handle field goals this season if incoming freshman Sam Ficken doesn't win the job.

4. Ohio State: The Buckeyes have a veteran punter in senior Ben Buchanan and two threats to take a kick to the house in Jordan Hall and Jaamal Berry. Sophomore Drew Basil is expected to take over at place-kicker. Special teams are almost always a force in Columbus.

5. Purdue: No one in the league has a bigger leg than Carson Wiggs; the questions is whether he can consistently harness it. Punter Cody Webster averaged 43.3 yards per attempt last season, second best among returning punters. The Boilermakers' return game needs to improve.

6. Illinois: Derek Dimke was a Lou Groza semifinalist last season and broke the school record for points by a kicker. He nailed two 50-plus yarders. Ray Guy semifinalist Anthony Santella is gone, though return man Troy Pollard is back.

7. Northwestern: Brandon Williams improved at punter as his freshman year went along last season. The Wildcats at long last have an elite return option in Venric Mark. But place-kicker was a concern this spring, with Jeff Budzien and Steve Flaherty competing for the job.

8. Iowa: Kirk Ferentz's teams usually find a way to be good on special teams, so odds are the Hawkeyes will climb these rankings. But they lost a lot from 2010, including Ray Guy finalist and four-year starter Ryan Donahue, plus both primary return men. Eric Guthrie held the edge at punter after the spring. Place-kicker Mike Meyer returns after taking over that role for the final 10 games and doing a solid job.

9. Indiana: Mitch Ewald was named to the Groza watch list after a strong freshman year in which he made 16 of 19 field goals. Chris Hagerup needs to increase his punting average of 39.4 yards. The Hoosiers should have enough athletes to replace Tandon Doss on returns.

10. Minnesota: Dan Orseske's 36.1-yard average was worst among starting Big Ten punters in 2010, so that must get better. Jerry Kill must also find a new place-kicker -- NC State transfer Chris Hawthorne looks like the top option. Troy Stoudermire, one of the league's top return specialists, is back for his senior year.

11. Nebraska: Like Iowa, this is a team that will almost assuredly outperform this ranking. But boy did the Huskers lose a lot of talent and experience. It will be difficult to match the value that punter/kicker Alex Henery brought -- Brett Maher and freshman Mauro Bondi will battle to replace him -- and Adi Kunalic was a secret weapon as kickoff specialist. Top returner Niles Pau is gone, too. The Cornhuskers will likely reload, but nobody has bigger shoes to fill at these positions in the Big Ten.

12. Michigan: The kicking game looked like a disaster this spring, with neither Seth Broekhuizen nor Brendan Gibbons inspiring confidence. Incoming freshman Matt Wile might win the job this summer. This could prove to be an Achilles' heel for the Wolverines, as it was a year ago. On the plus side, Will Hagerup is the leading returning punter in the Big Ten, though he had only 33 attempts last season.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- A leadership role can be a burden at times, but it's one Nebraska wide receiver Brandon Kinnie is willing to bear.

"It's heavy," Kinnie said, "but it's a good heavy, not a stressful heavy."

[+] EnlargeNebraska wide reciever Brandon Kinnie
AP Photo/Dave WeaverNebraska's Brandon Kinnie feels a responsibility to lead the Huskies young group of receivers next season.
Kinnie and his fellow Huskers receivers were experiencing a different type of "good heavy" in early January as they chowed down on wings and other greasy delights at a local Buffalo Wild Wings. As a senior and the Huskers' only returning receiver who logged significant playing time last season, Kinnie knew he'd have to lead an unproven group of wideouts in 2011.

Affable and chatty off the field, he'd have to be a bigger vocal presence at all times. The process began when he invited all the receivers to dinner at BW3.

"The whole time we were eating, I was thinking, 'I want to say this, I want to say this,'" Kinnie recalled. "I want to reach out and let them know, 'Hey, there’s no difference here. We're all the same.'"

Last season, Kinnie and Niles Paul weren't the same. Both players had game experience and entered the fall as Nebraska's top two wideouts. They competed for catches and pushed each other in practice.

Although Paul led the receivers, he and Kinnie had natural separation from the others, both in age and in production. They accounted for more than half of Nebraska's receptions (83 of 163) and 47.9 percent of the team's receiving yards.

"It wasn't a knock on Niles being a leader," Kinnie said. "That’s just how it was. You live and you learn. Going through the experience I did last year made me learn some things I had to learn to be a good leader, just take things that didn’t happen and change. ... It wasn't a lack of leadership or anything. It was just things we didn’t do, and I could have helped as well."

Kinnie is doing his part to unite the receiver group these days. Although Nebraska brings back talented tight end Kyler Reed, who led the team with eight touchdown receptions in 2010, the Huskers return no receivers besides Kinnie who tallied more than one catch last fall.

Nebraska needs young, untested wideouts to step up. Kinnie needs them, too.

"I have all their [phone] numbers," Kinnie said. "We talk. We text. Whenever they’ve got questions, they ask me. So it's fun. I told them, 'There's no difference between me and you guys. I may be older, but that’s it. We play for the same coaches. We deal with Bo [Pelini] yelling. We deal with coach [Rich] Fisher yelling. We deal with advisers, we deal with teachers, all that stuff. There’s no difference between us but age.’

"I think that really grabbed hold of them. I’m not walking around like, 'Oh yeah, I’m the guy that played last year, I'm this and I'm that. I'm in the corps just like y'all.'"

Kinnie's teammates appreciate his effort to take charge and bring the group together.

"Brandon's been great," junior receiver Tim Marlowe said. "He said, 'I hope you hold me accountable as I hold you guys accountable. If you see me slacking, let me know.' So he's been a great leader. We had a good night at BW3, just talking as a group outside of football."

Marlowe is among the receivers competing for larger roles this spring. Wideouts like Kenny Bell, Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Curenski Gilleylen and Quincy Enunwa are also under the microscope.

But there's no question about Nebraska's top option in the pass game this fall. The 6-3, 225-pound Kinnie looks to build on his numbers from 2010 (44 receptions, 494 yards, 5 TDs).

"BK had a great year last year, and he's going to have an even better one this year," running back Rex Burkhead said. "He just naturally came into that [leadership] role. I think he's one of the best receivers in the nation. He'll definitely come out and prove that this year."

Big Ten weekend combine recap

February, 28, 2011
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All eyes were on Indianapolis this weekend as dozens of NFL prospects, including a large contingent from the Big Ten, went through the scouting combine.

My ESPN colleagues are all over the happenings in Naptown, so check out the combine blog and the latest Scouts Inc. combine notebook.

There's more testing and timing Monday with the defensive linemen and linebackers, but some results are in, so let's take a look. I'm breaking these down into top performers by position. I'll put together an overall top performers post once the combine is finished.

Wide receivers

  • Nebraska's Niles Paul finished second in bench-press reps (225 pounds) with 24
  • Paul tied for 14th in the 40-yard dash at 4.51 seconds
  • Indiana's Terrance Turner tied for second in vertical jump at 41 inches
  • Turner finished seventh in broad jump at 10 feet, 8 inches
  • Ohio State's Dane Sanzenbacher finished second in 3-cone drill at 6.46 seconds; Turner tied for 14th at 6.77 seconds
  • Sanzenbacher finished third in the 20-yard shuttle at 3.97 seconds; Paul finished 12th at 4.14 seconds; Turner finished tied for 13th at 4.15 seconds
  • Sanzenbacher finished second in the 60-yard shuttle at 10.94 seconds; Turner tied for ninth at 11.21 seconds
Quarterbacks
  • Iowa's Ricky Stanzi and Wisconsin's Scott Tolzien tied for 13th in the 40-yard dash at 4.93 seconds
  • Stanzi finished ninth in the vertical jump at 32.5 inches; Tolzien tied for 12th at 29.5 inches
  • Tolzien tied for seventh in the broad jump at 9 feet, 8 inches; Stanzi finished 12th at 9 feet, 2 inches
  • Tolzien tied for third in the 3-cone drill at 6.84 seconds; Stanzi finished 12th at 6.95 seconds
Running backs
  • Nebraska's Roy Helu Jr. finished sixth in the 40-yard dash at 4.42 seconds; Ohio State's Brandon Saine finished seventh at 4.43 seconds;
  • Illinois' Mikel Leshoure tied for third in the vertical jump at 38 inches; Helu tied for eighth at 36.5 inches
  • Leshoure tied for fourth in the broad jump at 10 feet, 2 inches; Helu finished 10th at 9 feet, 11 inches
  • Helu finished second in the 3-cone drill at 6.67 seconds; Leshoure finished sixth at 6.82 seconds
  • Helu finished first in the 20-yard shuttle at 4.01 seconds; Penn State's Evan Royster tied for eighth at 4.18 seconds
  • Helu finished first in the 60-yard shuttle at 11.07 seconds
Tight ends
  • Wisconsin's Lance Kendricks finished eighth in the 40-yard dash at 4.75 seconds; Michigan State's Charlie Gantt finished 11th at 4.93 seconds; Iowa's Allen Reisner finished 12th at 4.95 seconds
  • Gantt tied for first in bench-press reps with 27; Kendricks tied for third with 25
  • Kendricks finished sixth in vertical jump at 34.5 inches; Gantt finished 13th at 30.5 inches
  • Kendricks finished second in broad jump at 10 feet, 2 inches; Gantt finished ninth at 9 feet, 4 inches; Reisner tied for 12th at 9 feet
  • Kendricks finished sixth in the 3-cone drill at 6.94 seconds; Gantt finished 11th at 7.15 seconds
  • Kendricks tied for second in 20-yard shuttle at 4.15 seconds; Gantt tied for eighth at 4.4 seconds
  • Kendricks tied for sixth in 60-yard shuttle at 11.9 seconds; Gantt and Reisner tied for 11th at 12.12 seconds
Defensive linemen
  • Wisconsin's J.J. Watt tied for fourth in bench-press reps with 34; Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan tied for sixth with 31
Linebackers
  • Ohio State linebacker Ross Homan finished first in bench-press reps with 32; Ohio State's Brian Rolle finished fourth with 28; Illinois' Martez Wilson tied for ninth with 23
Offensive linemen
  • Iowa's Julian Vandervelde tied for 10th in the 40-yard dash at 5.21 seconds; Indiana's James Brewer and Wisconsin's Gabe Carimi tied for 14th at 5.27 seconds
  • Michigan's Stephen Schilling and Penn State's Stefen Wisniewski tied for sixth in bench-press reps with 30; Carimi tied for ninth with 29; Ohio State's Justin Boren tied for 14th with 28
  • Carimi finished fifth in vertical jump at 31.5 inches; Vandervelde tied for sixth at 31 inches; Wisconsin's John Moffitt tied for eighth at 30.5 inches
  • Carimi finished fifth in broad jump at 9 feet, 1 inch; Vandervelde finished tied for 13th at 8 feet, 8 inches
  • Vandervelde finished seventh in 3-cone drill at 7.46 seconds; Wisniewski finished eighth at 7.51 seconds; Boren finished 11th at 7.57 seconds
  • Moffitt finished sixth in 20-yard shuttle at 4.53 seconds; Vandervelde tied for seventh at 4.59 seconds; Schilling tied for ninth at 4.62 seconds;

None more 'interesting' than Nebraska

February, 8, 2011
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I first (briefly) stated my argument on Twitter: No team in college football was more interesting on and off the field for more reasons in the last year than Nebraska.

A lot of those reasons for interest were positive for the program. Others were negative. But I would argue that no team had more headline-worthy happenings on campus than the Huskers in the past year.

I hear the arguments for USC (coaching change, sanctions), Notre Dame (coaching change, student death, anticlimactic realignment) and Florida (Urban Meyer postseason flip-flop, "You're a bad guy" media incident, offensive collapse, coaching change).

I disagree.

A refresher course on the past 12 months in Nebraska football, for those who have forgotten:

Spring 2010: Starting quarterback Zac Lee is forced to sit out spring practice, and rumors about the progress of a redshirt freshman, Taylor Martinez, start to emerge. Martinez validates those rumors with a memorable spring game performance that leaves fans buzzing.

May-June 2010: Realignment rumors build into reality, and days after Big 12 spring meetings close, Nebraska leaves the Big 12 for the Big Ten, by far the biggest move of the summer's realignment. It becomes official on July 1, 2011.

August 2010: During fall camp, linebacker Sean Fisher (broken leg) and cornerback Anthony Blue (torn ACL) were injured during a closed practice, and rumors of their injuries leaked onto message boards. As a result, media members tried to reach family members, at one point, while Fisher was undergoing surgery. As a result, coach Bo Pelini banned the media from accessing his team for three days.

Sept. 4, 2010: No starter was officially announced before the season opener against Western Kentucky, but the speedy Martinez was announced during starting lineups to a raucous reception from the fans. He becomes the first freshman to start a season opener in Nebraska history. On his first career career carry, he runs for a 46-yard touchdown. Nebraska wins 49-10.

Oct. 7, 2010: Martinez had considerable buzz after rushing for 496 yards and eight scores in his first four games, but his coming out party was a nationally-televised, Thursday night game against Kansas State. He ran for four touchdowns, 241 yards and led the Huskers to a 48-13 road conference win over the bowl-bound Wildcats. That's Heisman-type stuff, and for the first time, he realistically threw his name into the Heisman race (alongside shoo-in Heisman winner Denard Robinson) and then-No. 5 Nebraska was looking like a very real national championship contender. Martinez would not score another rushing touchdown the rest of the season.

Oct. 16, 2010: Nine days later, they hit the first of many speed bumps. Texas' free fall lessened the impact of what looked like the biggest game of the year, but the Longhorns, who finished 5-7, were still able to remind Nebraska of the mysterious mojo they have over the Huskers. Martinez struggled, was benched in the fourth quarter and Nebraska suffered its first loss, 20-13, at home, in a shocker. The loss moved Nebraska to 1-9 against Texas since the Big 12 began in 1996.

Oct. 30, 2010: Roy Helu Jr. runs for 307 yards to help beat Missouri and gives the Huskers control of the Big 12 North. Martinez suffers a sprained ankle late in the first half and doesn't play in the second half. It eventually proves as one of the biggest moments of Nebraska's season.

Nov. 6, 2010: Martinez sits against Iowa State with an injured ankle, and the Cyclones erase a 24-10 lead to send the game into overtime. The Huskers score first, but intercept a wobbly pass on a fake punt to win the game, 31-30, and maintain control of the Big 12 North, which they eventually win.

Nov. 20, 2010: Nebraska is flagged a school-record 16 times, compared to Texas A&M's two. The worst of the 16 flags is a phantom roughing the passer call that extends Texas A&M's game-winning drive in the 9-6 win.

The biggest news, though, has little to do with the on-field action that resulted in a second loss.

Martinez starts, but re-injures the ankle early and heads to the locker room. There, he returns a call from his father in violation of team rules. Upon learning this information, Pelini screams inches away from a stone-faced Martinez while jabbing his chest with a finger. ESPN's cameras catch the controversial interaction, which re-airs countless times over the following days.

After the game, Pelini chases an official off the field while screaming inches away from his face as well, a scene seen on the sideline during the game. As Texas A&M fans storm the field, his brother, defensive coordinator Carl Pelini, throws down a cameraman's camera, breaking off a few detachable pieces, but doing no permanent damage to the equipment.

After the game, Pelini makes his players off-limits and briefly addresses media.

Nov. 21, 2010: Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman publicly criticizes Pelini's actions during the game. Pelini later apologizes, saying he "let it get personal" toward officials.

Throughout the day, rumors that Martinez planned transfer swirl after the freshman misses a team workout. Later, it's revealed that Martinez also suffered turf toe on his left foot to pair with his sprained right ankle. Pelini denies rumors that Martinez planned to transfer.

Nov. 23, 2010: Top receiver/kick returner Niles Paul suffers a broken foot in practice. He misses the season-ending, Big 12 North-clinching win over Colorado and the Big 12 title game but returns for the bowl game. (That's a wholly terrible four-day stretch, no?)

Dec. 4, 2010: Nebraska closes its run in the Big 12 by reviving one of the league's great rivalries, one final game against Oklahoma. The Huskers' early 17-0 lead is erased, Martinez takes seven sacks and the Huskers lose, 23-20, to land in the Holiday Bowl for the second consecutive season against Washington, a team it beat in Seattle 56-21 in September.

Dec. 30, 2010: Nebraska, 17-point favorites, suffers a shocking loss to Washington, 19-7. They finish 10-4, and lose three of their final four games.

Jan 5, 2011: Martinez's father, Casey Martinez, confirms to ESPN.com that Taylor will return to Nebraska for the 2011 winter semester, ending rumors of a transfer.

Jan. 11, 2011: Defensive tackle Jared Crick announces he'll return to Nebraska for his senior season.

Jan 26, 2011: Nebraska ends its licensing agreement with Corn Fed, Inc., Casey Martinez's apparel company. The deal paid Nebraska 10 percent royalties on all merchandise sold and began in June 2007.

Feb. 3, 2011: In Indiana, new Hoosiers coach Kevin Wilson announces that his assistant, Corey Raymond, is leaving for Nebraska to coach the secondary. Huskers secondary coach Marvin Sanders is still employed.

Pelini hasn't spoken with the media in five weeks.

Later, during his signing day teleconference, Pelini refuses to answer any questions about his staff, and says no staff members have been hired or fired yet.

Nebraska signs 20 players and four ESPNU recruits for the nation's No. 14 recruiting class, which ranks No. 3 in the Big 12 and No. 2 in the Big Ten.

Later that night, Sanders, receivers coach Ted Gilmore and offensive coordinator Shawn Watson are absent from an Omaha recruiting dinner.

Feb. 4, 2011: Sanders announces his resignation for "family and personal reasons" amid reports of possible disciplinary action toward the coach for a nonfootball issue.

Feb. 5, 2011: Charles Jackson, Nebraska's only cornerback signee, tells the Omaha World-Herald he found out about Sanders' departure from a stranger via Facebook, and expresses discontent at not being notified that any moves had occurred or that they would follow his signing. He also adds he probably would have signed with Nebraska if he had been told.

Later in the day, his father goes on Omaha radio to diffuse the situation, and says his son is content and excited to start his career.

Feb. 7, 2011: Former Huskers star Scott Frost elects to stay at Oregon as receivers coach, rather than join his alma mater, who was reportedly unwilling to offer him playcalling duties.

Today: Gilmore and Watson are still employed, and Pelini says he knew nothing of an ad posted on Nebraska's website last week looking for an offensive assistant.

Now that, folks is a whole lot of stuff that's happened in the last year. We can only assume 2011 will offer plenty more headlines in the Big Ten.

Can anybody top that? I say absolutely no way.

Recruiting needs: Big 12 North

January, 26, 2011
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Signing day is exactly a week from today, and it's time to take a look at who needs what in its 2011 class.

Some schools have addressed these with their current class. Some haven't. Others are still trying.

We'll kick things off with the artists formerly known as the Big 12 North and examine the South later today.

COLORADO

Cornerback: Jalil Brown and Jimmy Smith were pretty reliable for the Buffaloes, but both are headed to the NFL, and the Buffaloes could definitely use some depth behind their first-year starters. It's not quite as pressing of an issue considering their move to the less pass-happy Pac-12, but they still like to sling it out west.

Receiver: Colorado isn't exactly starving anywhere on offense, but receiver sticks out a bit. Toney Clemons was good, but maybe not quite what the Buffaloes hoped he'd be in 2010, but they caught a break in getting Paul Richardson back after a great freshman season. The Buffaloes need some complementary pieces around Clemons and Richardson to replace departed pass-catchers Scotty McKnight and Travon Patterson. Next year, that should be tight end Ryan Deehan and receiver Will Jefferson.

IOWA STATE

Receiver: It's been a struggle for Iowa State in recent years, but they have to get better outside to help out their quarterback. Sedrick Johnson's transfer only worsens the Cyclones depth at the position, but Jake Williams and tight end Collin Franklin, the team's leading receiver, are gone. Shontrelle Johnson looks ready to become a big factor in the offense, but the Cyclones filling the space at receiver will make it easier for Johnson to replace running back Alexander Robinson.

Safety: Both starters, David Sims and Zac Sandvig, are gone. So is the Cyclones top reserve at the position, Michael O'Connell. Sims was a top-notch talent that will be tough to replace, but Iowa State needs more depth here. They should be solid at corner with Leonard Johnson, Ter'ran Benton, Jeremy Reeves and Anthony Young, which could make the new safeties' jobs easier.

KANSAS

Defensive line: KU is losing three of four starters on the line, including the team's only All-Big 12 talent, defensive end Jake Laptad. Turner Gill wants more speed, and this is a place to install it. Tackles that tip the scales at 320 pounds aren't too necessary in this league, but speed on the edge can go a long way in stopping the pass.

Quarterback: Neither Jordan Webb or Quinn Mecham look like long-term answers at quarterback for the Jayhawks. Mecham will be a senior, and Webb might develop into a better player as a sophomore next year, but Kansas needs other options. The Jayhawks hope Brock Berglund, the top-rated recruit in Colorado, is the solution to the problem.

KANSAS STATE

Running back: I hear your cries for Bryce Brown, Wildcats fans, but K-State can't expect to hitch their wagon to the former blue-chip recruit turned Tennessee transfer in the same way it did for Daniel Thomas. Thomas and his backup, William Powell, are gone, and the Wildcats need some depth at running back to show up.

Interior offensive linemen: K-State loses both guards and its center from an offense that produced the Big 12's leading rusher in 2010. Don't expect them to do it again in 2011 without Wade Weibert, Kenneth Mayfield and Zach Kendall, as well as Thomas and Powell, but finding some new talent behind them will help them come close.

Cornerback: David Garrett emerged as a budding star in 2010 ready for a breakout senior year in 2011, but the Wildcats lose Terrance Sweeney and Stephen Harrison, as well as safety Troy Butler. Like we've mentioned earlier, good secondaries are a must for success in the Big 12, and K-State had one of the league's worst in 2010.

MISSOURI

Receiver: Missouri has some good ones ready to suit up in 2011, namely Wes Kemp, Jerrell Jackson and T.J. Moe, but the Tigers don't have a true gamebreaker. They have some younger players in Marcus Lucas and Jimmie Hunt who they hope will develop into big-time, All-American caliber receivers, a la Jeremy Maclin and Danario Alexander. In Missouri's system, though, adding a few receivers is always a good idea. They certainly don't need any more running backs.

Defensive backs: Mizzou doesn't have any huge holes that need to be filled with recruiting, but the Tigers lose both corners, Carl Gettis and Kevin Rutland from their 2010 team. Kip Edwards and E.J. Gaines look likely to fill those roles, but the Tigers could use some depth and keep recruiting in the secondary to help add some talent around Tavon Bolden and Matt White, safeties who will replace departed Jarrell Harrison, who actually had to play some linebacker in 2010 because of injuries.

NEBRASKA

Every kind of kicker: Alex Henery, the team's punter and kicker is gone. So is kickoff specialist and lover/producer of touchbacks, Adi Kunalic. Fan favorite Henery was hardly underappreciated by the Nebraska faithful, but they'll miss him even more if the Huskers can't find a suitable placekicker and punter. Bo Pelini was reportedly after Wake Forest commit Mauro Bondi this week.

Receiver: Niles Paul and Mike McNeill are gone. The Huskers need Brandon Kinnie to come through with another good year and it'd be nice if Quincy Enunwa broke through in 2011, but Taylor Martinez needs some more help at wide out, and a couple new recruits could provide it as Martinez's passing prowess matures.
National Signing Day is just about a week away, so let's take a look at the recruiting needs for each Big Ten team.

In compiling these lists, I tried to look at positions that have depth issues for 2011 and/or 2012.

Let's start off with the Legends division.

IOWA

Running back: Marcus Coker's breakout performance in the Insight Bowl got Iowa fans excited for the future, but there's still a significant depth issue here. If Adam Robinson can't get reinstated, the Hawkeyes will be looking for No. 2 and No. 3 options behind Coker. As we've seen the past two seasons, freshmen backs will see the field at Iowa.

Linebacker: Iowa felt the losses of Pat Angerer and A.J. Edds this season, and it must continue to rebuild the depth at the three linebacker spots. Multiyear starter Jeremiha Hunter departs along with players like Jeff Tarpinian and Troy Johnson. Iowa needs to build around rising star James Morris.

Wide receiver/tight end: Iowa loses Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, Allen Reisner and Colin Sandeman this year. Also, receiver Marvin McNutt and tight end Brad Herman depart after the 2011 season. Although the Hawkeyes boast young talent at both positions, they need to build depth with this class.

MICHIGAN

Secondary: The Wolverines couldn't find many answers here in 2010, and though the return of players like cornerbacks Troy Woolfolk and J.T. Floyd will help, there are opportunities for freshmen to make an immediate impact. Michigan simply needs more options at both secondary spots in 2011.

Defensive line: It's crucial for coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison to begin building depth up front. Future NFL player Mike Martin departs after 2011 along with Ryan Van Bergen, so Michigan needs to solidify both line positions.

Kicker: Field goals were an adventure in 2010, and Michigan simply can't have so much uncertainty at kicker going forward. The Wolverines need a reliable leg here ASAP.

MICHIGAN STATE

Linebacker: I like some of the young linebackers the Spartans bring back in 2011, but you can't overlook the losses of multiyear starters Greg Jones and Eric Gordon, not to mention reserve Jon Misch. Michigan State should have a decent group of first-string 'backers, but wants to build depth in the defensive midsection.

Offensive line: Not only do the Spartans lose three starters from the 2010 line, but they're still not where they need to be depth-wise up front to become a consistent top-tier Big Ten program. Michigan State wants to become like Iowa and Wisconsin. The big step is to keep fortifying both lines, especially on the offensive side.

MINNESOTA

Pass rusher: Minnesota finished last in the Big Ten in sacks last season (9) and hasn't had an intimidating pass rusher since Willie VanDeSteeg in 2008. The recent departure of defensive tackle Jewhan Edwards, who led the team in both sacks and tackles for loss in 2009, underscores this need.

Offensive line: The Gophers lose three starters up front, and while they boast some promising young linemen like tackle Ed Olson, the depth just isn't there yet. Minnesota's best teams had powerful offensive lines, and new coach Jerry Kill must continue to create competition up front.

NEBRASKA

Running back: The Huskers lose standout Roy Helu Jr., and while Rex Burkhead quickly will become one of my favorite Big Ten players, he might not be an every-down back for Nebraska going forward. You always want options in the backfield, and Nebraska must continue to address its run game with the 2011 class.

Wide receiver: Nebraska loses Niles Paul and wants to identify playmakers to surround Taylor Martinez or whomever starts at quarterback. Brandon Kinnie departs after the 2011 season, and while Burkhead helps in the receiving department, Nebraska needs others to emerge.

NORTHWESTERN

Running back: Although Mike Trumpy and Adonis Smith emerged as possible answers late in the 2010 season, Northwestern needs to create real competition here. The Wildcats have lacked a dominant back during the Pat Fitzgerald era and need a dangerous rushing option to complement Dan Persa.

Defensive line: The Wildcats lose only one starter (Corbin Bryant) from the 2010 squad, but four more rotation players (Vince Browne, Jack DiNardo, Kevin Watt and Niko Mafuli) depart after 2011. Fortifying the pass rush is a major priority going forward.

Holiday Bowl: Three keys for Nebraska

December, 29, 2010
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1. Make life easy for Taylor Martinez. Martinez has completed just 58 percent of his passes in 2010 and struggled to complete passes and get comfortable in the pocket, especially against Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game. If the Huskers can get him some easy completions early on three-step-drop slants to a sure-handed guy such as the underutilized Mike McNeill or on screens to running backs Rex Burkhead and Roy Helu Jr., they can help get Martinez comfortable. The loss to Oklahoma made it clear that Nebraska will struggle if the passing game consists of Martinez dropping back deep and relying on receivers such as Brandon Kinnie to get open and make big plays down the field. If the Huskers can manage an early lead and be afforded the luxury of passing only when they want to -- see the early season Huskers -- this gets a lot simpler.

2. Inflict déjà vu on Jake Locker. Hit him early with a variety of blitzes. Force him into mistakes. I'd be shocked if Locker has another unthinkable 4-for-20 day like he did in September, but the only quarterback who had what could be considered legitimate success against Nebraska's secondary was Oklahoma's Landry Jones. Missouri's Blaine Gabbert, Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden and Texas A&M's Ryan Tannehill all had below-average outings at best, and all three should be among the Big 12's best passers in 2011.

3. Stuff the run, especially early. Washington actually ran the ball pretty effectively against Nebraska, especially early in that game, and if Nebraska's front seven can slow that down and make the Huskies a one-dimensional offense, forcing Locker into a bad day will be quite a bit easier. The game got lopsided quickly in the second half and prevented Washington from sticking to the running game. Washington still managed 175 yards on 39 carries for an average of 4.5 yards per carry, and the Huskies will try to recreate what worked against a tough defense that has, at times, been susceptible to the run. If Washington does that, the Huskies could make a game of it. If not, expect another Nebraska blowout.

ESPN.com's All-Big 12 team

December, 8, 2010
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There were definitely plenty of tough calls in this group, and a lot of deserving guys who got left off, but here is my All-Big 12 team for the 2010 season. For reference, here is how the media voted, and how the coaches voted.

OFFENSE

QB: Brandon Weeden, Oklahoma State
RB: Kendall Hunter, Oklahoma State
RB: Daniel Thomas, Kansas State
WR: Justin Blackmon, Oklahoma State
WR: Ryan Broyles, Oklahoma
TE: Michael Egnew, Missouri
C: Tim Barnes, Missouri
OL: Levy Adcock, Oklahoma State
OL: Nate Solder, Colorado
OL: Ricky Henry, Nebraska
OL: Danny Watkins, Baylor

DEFENSE

DE: Jeremy Beal, Oklahoma
DT: Jared Crick, Nebraska
DT: Lucas Patterson, Texas A&M
DE: Sam Acho, Texas
LB: Von Miller, Texas A&M
LB: Lavonte David, Nebraska
LB: Orie Lemon, Oklahoma State
CB: Prince Amukamara, Nebraska
CB: Alfonzo Dennard, Nebraska
S: Quinton Carter, Oklahoma
S: Byron Landor, Baylor

SPECIALISTS

P: Quinn Sharp, Oklahoma State
K: Alex Henery, Nebraska
KR: Coryell Judie, Texas A&M
PR: Niles Paul, Nebraska

I'll stop short of listing who I had to snub on my own team, but the easiest positions for me to pick were receiver, linebacker, kicker and tight end. The most difficult were cornerback, kick returner, safety, defensive tackle and quarterback.

Here's how it shook out by team:

1. Nebraska (7)
2. Oklahoma State (6)
3. Texas A&M (3)
3. Oklahoma (3)
5. Missouri (2)
5. Baylor (2)
7. Texas (1)
7. Kansas State (1)
7. Colorado (1)
10. Kansas (0)
10. Iowa State (0)
10. Texas Tech (0)

Physical drives provide rare scores

November, 20, 2010
11/20/10
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M hasn't found many creases in Nebraska's defense Saturday, but the Aggies found enough for a drive to put themselves ahead.

Sure enough, Nebraska answered after being backed up on their own five-yard line to start its next drive.

Add it up, and we're tied at six here midway through the fourth quarter after a pair of field goals.

Both teams did it on the ground, with Rex Burkhead digging Nebraska out of a hole with a 33-yard run on the first play of the drive. Niles Paul also made a big catch-and-run for 24 yards on a 3rd-and-8.

Neither team had been able to find a rhythm, but the penalty-plagued Huskers will take it, tying the game in a timely fashion.

Taylor Martinez is back in the game for Nebraska, but he's been able to do very little with his legs after returning from a re-injured ankle.

Here's how both drives shaped up:
  • Texas A&M: 15 plays, 84 yards, 5:21. Finished with a 28-yard field goal by Randy Bullock.
  • Nebraska: 12 plays, 78 yards, 6:02. Finished with a 29-yard field goal by Alex Henery.

What is this, the Big Ten?
Oklahoma State and Nebraska will both be without suspended players on Saturday.

Oklahoma State announced a one-game suspension for receiver Justin Blackmon, currently the nation's leader in receiving yards and touchdowns. Blackmon attended Monday night's Dallas Cowboys game, and was pulled over by police doing 92 mph in a 60 mph zone just north of Dallas in Carrollton, Texas at 3:45 a.m. on Tuesday morning.

Police charged Blackmon, 20, with a misdemeanor DUI. In Texas, persons can be charged with a DUI for any amount of alcohol if they are under 21 and driving. An officer said Blackmon fell into that category.

Blackmon declined to discuss where he got the tickets to Monday's game, but school officials told reporters on Wednesday evening that the compliance office determined it was not a concern.

No. 20 Oklahoma State plays at Kansas State on Saturday. Blackmon will not travel with the team.


Elsewhere, the Big 12 announced on Wednesday afternoon that Nebraska sophomore reserve linebacker Eric Martin would be suspended for an illegal hit in the Huskers' 51-41 win over Oklahoma State last week.
Nebraska kick returner Niles Paul returned a kick 100 yards for a score with 6:27 to play in the first quarter of the Cornhuskers' 51-41 win over Oklahoma State last week, but on the play, Martin made helmet-to-helmet contact on a block with Cowboys freshman defensive end Andrew Hudson.

Hudson was attended to for several minutes before being carted off the field.

"Mr. Martin committed a flagrant act of targeting an opponent with the crown of his helmet in violation of NCAA football rules," commissioner Dan Beebe said in a statement. "This dangerous hit is one that we in the football community are trying to remove from the game."

No penalty was assessed on the play, but Big 12 officials reviewed the game tape and issued a suspension in accordance with NCAA Football Rule 9-6-3, which states, "if subsequent review of a game by a conference reveals plays involving flagrant personal fouls that game officials did not call, the conference may impose sanctions prior to the next scheduled game."

No. 14 Nebraska hosts No. 6 Missouri on Saturday.
Nebraska's only loss of the season, a home defeat to Texas, was full of mistakes, especially from the offense. Receiver Niles Paul doesn't need a reminder of that.

There were the handful of dropped passes, including a few by Paul. The five fumbles -- though just one was lost--were troubling as well.

But if there's one thing positive to take away from an emotionally crushing 20-13 loss to Texas, it's that Nebraska can reasonably feel like it has yet to lose to a team not named Nebraska.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Martinez
Mark D Smith/US PresswireTaylor Martinez can't afford to be careless with the ball against Missouri.
It bounced back from one of its sloppiest offensive performances against the Longhorns to one of its best and most balanced in a 51-41 win over Oklahoma State.

"We were in and adverse situation coming off the Texas game and I know the offense took a lot of crap from the Texas game," said Paul, who was inundated with so many negative Facebook messages after the game he shut down his account. Fans also harassed him outside the stadium after the game. "We just came out and played with a chip on our shoulder and had a good game," Paul said.

To beat No. 6 Missouri on Saturday, Nebraska has to avoid the same mistakes it made against the Longhorns, mistakes that are most-often among the most frustrating: self-inflicted mistakes.

"We do our ball drills, keep it high and tight and we do what we need to do. If you fumble, you’ve got to do this or that, so it’s pretty much the same," Paul said. "When it comes to drops, that’s definitely out of character for us. We make an effort to catch at least 100 balls a day."

Look for an emphasis on making sure Texas: The Sequel never makes it to the big screen at Memorial Stadium on Saturday.

Missouri has forced 17 turnovers in seven games this year, third-most in the Big 12.

"They get after the football, and that’s something we always emphasize. You’ve got to keep working on it, and they want to take the football away, so that’s always a concern," said coach Bo Pelini. "I think we’re getting better there. It’s something you’ve got to do, constantly preach, constantly talk about and get it done."

Redemption is everywhere for Huskers

October, 23, 2010
10/23/10
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Brandon Kinnie opened the game's scoring with a receiving touchdown.

Niles Paul just added another score on a kick return to put Nebraska up 14-6.

This week, Paul shut down his Facebook account and faced harassment from Nebraska fans after several drops last week, including one that would have been a touchdown.

"It hurts that people were yelling stuff at me. It's disrespectful," Paul said Tuesday. "As an athlete I have to keep my cool and stay focused, because I don't want to do something to put my situation in jeopardy."

Kinnie dropped a late pass last week that would have gone for a touchdown to bring Nebraska within seven points late in the game if he'd been able to haul it in.

After Paul's touchdown, Nebraska fans are likely changing their tune.

Taylor Martinez threw a pretty pass to Kinnie to set up the first score, but protected the ball poorly on a run that resulted in a fumble to set up Oklahoma State's second field goal.

Big 12 weekend rewind: Week 7

October, 18, 2010
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Here's a look back at the best and worst of the week that was in the Big 12.

Best offensive player: Tie, Justin Blackmon (OSU), Landry Jones (OU), Ryan Broyles (OU), Robert Griffin (BU). Call it a cop out if you must, but there's really no way to differentiate between these guys. Blackmon had a career-high 207 yards receiving and a huge 62-yard score. Jones completed 30 of 34 passes in a 52-point conference win. Broyles had 10 catches for 131 yards and a score two minutes into the second quarter. Griffin engineered a conference road win, throwing for 234 yards and running for 137 more. I honestly just can't pick between these guys. You could make a solid case for any one of them.

Best defensive player: Brad Madison, DE, Missouri. Splitting time with Michael Sam in place of injured end Aldon Smith, Madison sacked Jerrod Johnson three times to help Missouri beat the Aggies 30-9. Honorable mention: Orie Lemon, LB, Oklahoma State.

[+] EnlargeTexas Longhorns players celebrate
Bruce Thorson/US PresswireTexas surprised Nebraska in the Longhorns' upset victory over the Cornhuskers.
Best team performance: Texas. Shock the world is probably too strong, but the Longhorns mildly disturbed the majority of the population by knocking off the then-No. 4 Huskers in Lincoln, ruining one of the most anticipated games in Nebraska history.

Best offensive freshman: Joseph Randle, RB, Oklahoma State. Randle carried the ball 17 times for 95 yards and a touchdown in the Cowboys 34-17 win over Texas Tech, providing a great second option to Kendall Hunter. Honorable mention: Baylor WR Tevin Reese and Oklahoma RB Roy Finch.

Best defensive freshman: Tre' Porter, CB, Texas Tech. Porter takes home the award for a second consecutive week, with eight tackles, a tackle for loss and a pass breakup.

Best play: Eric Hagg, S, Nebraska. Yeah, it was in a losing effort, but Hagg's school-record, 95-yard touchdown return of Justin Tucker's pooch punt injected some unexpected late drama into a Nebraska-Texas game that needed it. He made plenty of guys miss, shook off a few tackles, and put Nebraska within a recovered onside kick of having a chance to send its game against Texas into overtime.

Worst play: Tie, Nebraska RB Rex Burkhead, WRs Niles Paul and Brandon Kinnie. All three dropped touchdown passes that weren't necessarily easy grabs, but trailing to Texas in a game of that magnitude, those are plays that have to be made. None of them did, and the team added a handful of other drops that added up to a frustrating day for the Huskers.

Worst call: Dan Hawkins, Colorado. If someone can explain to me the rationale behind going for two after first touchdown of the game late in the first quarter, I'm all ears. Going for it again (and failing again) only makes it worse.

"That is just the same thing that we did against Georgia. You get it and you`re feeling good," Dan Hawkins told reporters after the game. "And as it ended up it was kind of negligible anyway, so then we had to go for two in a sense the second time."

Maybe that's over my head, but the only teams in America that do that are dominant high school teams. Colorado would be a dominant high school team, no doubt. But this is the Big 12. Take the points and the Buffs Hail Mary to tie the game becomes a field goal to win it. That's not hindsight. That's common sense.

Worst quarter: Kansas' second quarter. Kansas let Carson Coffman run in a pair of touchdowns, throw for another and gave up a rushing touchdown to get outscored 28-0 in the quarter. The Jayhawks were in it after 15 minutes, down just 3-0. After the second quarter, it was officially ugly.

Worst team performance: Kansas. I said enough on Thursday night, but still. Almost two weeks to prepare. Rivalry game at home. 52-point loss. Can't do that.

Best game: Texas 20, Nebraska 13. Baylor's win over Colorado had the drama and late heroics, but Texas' masterful job covering Taylor Martinez provided a shock of its own: Martinez getting benched in favor of Zac Lee. Lee played well and led a lengthy drive that nearly ended in seven points. The shock of the Nebraska crowd, as well as that of everyone watching, provided somewhat of a surreal scene.

Texas chalks one up for the Big 12

October, 16, 2010
10/16/10
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You know what's not good for a conference? Having two national title contenders, with one planning to leave the league at the end of the year.

Thanks to Texas, the number of undefeated Big 12 teams in the top 10 -- for now, anyway -- is trimmed to one: Oklahoma, who kicks off against Iowa State in a few minutes.

Undefeated Missouri and Oklahoma State are looming near the top 20, but Nebraska's national championship run is officially derailed.

Just like this summer, Texas has miraculously saved the Big 12. I kid.

But seriously, the worst-case scenario for the Big 12 was having Nebraska win the league or national title and split for the Big Ten.

Instead, whatever mystique Texas has in games like this has been extended, in one of its most unlikely scenarios.

Now, Texas moves to 13-0 in games after the Red River Rivalry under Mack Brown and Nebraska falls to 1-9 against the Longhorns in Big 12 play, perhaps no loss as painful as this one. Today's 20-13 win is also the third consecutive time and unranked Texas team has beaten a Nebraska team ranked in the top 5.

The Longhorns dodged a pooch punt gone horribly wrong, shut down Taylor Martinez, weathered an impressive drive by his replacement, Zac Lee, to give up just a field goal and beat Nebraska.

The Huskers looked like a team tailor-made to beat Texas, focused on the ground game without a need to throw into the most talented part of the Texas team, the secondary. Today, the Huskers had to throw to come back, but Niles Paul and Brandon Kinnie dropped potential touchdown passes, squandering the opportunities Nebraska did get down the field.

The Longhorns debuted a game plan with a running quarterback in Garrett Gilbert (10 carries, 68 yards, 2 TDs in the first half) and beat Nebraska while Gilbert completed just 4-of-16 passes for 62 yards, including a 41-yard catch-and-run to Fozzy Whittaker and just one completion to a receiver, a five-yarder to Malcolm Williams. The defense that looked so vulnerable against UCLA's zone-read scheme stymied Nebraska's. Credit Will Muschamp's scheme and the pursuit and tackling of Texas' defenders on that one.

This wasn't the Texas we saw in the first five games, both in strategy and execution. When people talk about Brown as one of the best coaches in the Big 12 and college football, games like this provide more big reasons why.video

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