NCF Nation: Raekwon McMillan

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If Ron Burgundy coached college football -- the San Diego Border Terriers, perhaps? -- he would only need to learn two lines to survive spring practice.

1. "I like my team."

2. "I'm glad we don't have a game tomorrow."

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Jeff HaynesPat Fitzgerald's Wildcats had to deal with a lot off the field this spring.
College coaches have recited those phrases in spring ball for decades. The 14 men leading Big Ten programs are no exceptions. But the standard spring sentiments apply to the league more this year than most.

There are reasons to believe the Big Ten will be better this fall, but the work is far from over on most campuses. This isn't a league of finished products, and the coming months take on added importance before the 2014 season kicks off in late August.

"I don't think we're that far behind; it's just painfully obvious that we're not there," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "This next phase will be the most important phase of this team's life. It's always important, but with a lot of things we've gone though, we've got to come together."

Northwestern went through a lot in the spring, mostly away from the field, as the campaign for a player union gained national media attention, especially after players were declared employees of the school in March. The team held a historic vote Friday, after Fitzgerald had expressed his opposition to unionizing. Some players expressed concern that the vote could split the team.

It will be months before we know if the union plan goes through, but the Wildcats continue preparing for a pivotal season. They found their quarterback this spring in senior Trevor Siemian and an offensive identity based around the passing game. But questions along both lines remain.

The spring also produced quarterback answers at Iowa (Jake Rudock) and Minnesota (Mitch Leidner). Michigan's Devin Gardner had a rough spring game but still seems likely to retain his job. Another senior signal-caller, Rutgers' Gary Nova, is a good bet to remain atop the depth chart. Although Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong lacks Nova's or Gardner's experience, he exited spring just as he entered it: as the Huskers' top quarterback.

Indiana's platoon system of Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson frustrates some, but not coach Kevin Wilson, who has given every indication that he'll continue to use both for another season.

Other quarterback races have been reduced but not resolved. Illinois will pick between Wes Lunt, the Oklahoma State transfer who impressed for much of the spring, and veteran backup Reilly O'Toole. Coach Tim Beckman wants a resolution before two-a-day practices in August.

Purdue's Danny Etling, who started the final seven games of his freshman season, appeared to have a slight lead coming out of the spring, but coach Darrell Hazell isn't ready to declare a starter. So Austin Appleby and David Blough remain alive.

Wisconsin reduced its candidate pool from four to two as Joel Stave, who boasts 19 career starts but also a nagging throwing shoulder injury, will compete with dual-threat Tanner McEvoy in camp.

"It will be a fight," coach Gary Andersen said.

Quarterback is just one spot where Wisconsin has questions. The Badgers went through much of the spring with only four healthy wide receivers. They've also revamped their defensive front seven, which returns only one starter from 2013.

[+] EnlargeRaekwon McMillan
Miller Safrit/ESPNEarly enrollee Raekwon McMillan could make an immediate impact for Ohio State's defense this fall.
Ohio State didn't have star quarterback Braxton Miller for spring ball because of shoulder surgery, but the Buckeyes focused on bolstering a defense that struggled last fall. Freshman Raekwon McMillan, an early enrollee, is pushing for the starting middle linebacker spot, and competition will continue at the cornerback spot opposite Doran Grant. Chris Ash, the Buckeyes' new co-defensive coordinator, worked to simplify the scheme this spring.

"We only have about six defensive calls," safety Tyvis Powell said after the spring game. "We had too many last year."

Offensive line remains Michigan's focal point coming out of the spring. A sloppy spring game didn't ease fears about the Wolverines' front five, although coach Brady Hoke saw positive signs in earlier practices. A critical summer awaits new coordinator Doug Nussmeier, tasked with resurrecting Michigan's run game.

At Penn State, new coach James Franklin continues to energize both players and fans. But he's also realistic about the depth challenge his team faces, particularly along the offensive line.

"When you don't have a two-deep of scholarship players, you've got issues that you're going to have to overcome," Franklin said. "We don't."

Like Rutgers, Maryland began its Big Ten transition this spring and welcomed running back Wes Brown and wideout Marcus Leak after absences from the team. If the Terrapins finally stay healthy, they could be worth watching in a loaded East Division.

Sitting atop the division is defending Big Ten champ Michigan State. The Spartans had a relatively stress-free spring, but they must fill key spots on defense, especially at linebacker and cornerback, where players like Taiwan Jones and Darian Hicks step in.

The returning pieces for teams like Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin fuel optimism around the league. But in spring, optimism is always tempered by what lies ahead.

"We're improving," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Saturday, "but we're hardly ready to play."

They won't have to for 132 days.

Until then, stay classy, Big Ten fans.


COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Urban Meyer is always trying to find new ways to motivate his players.

Last spring, he had a banner put up in the Ohio State field house reading “The Chase …” in reference to the Buckeyes’ championship pursuits. Meyer said he thought about changing the display for the 2014 offseason. In the end, though, he stuck with the same one.

“We didn’t accomplish it,” Meyer told ESPN.com. “We chased it but didn’t catch it. So the chase is still on.”

Ohio State, of course, nearly made it to its desired finish line. After going 12-0 for the second straight season under Meyer, the Buckeyes just needed to beat Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game to clinch a date with Florida State for the BCS national title. Instead, they fell 34-24 to the Spartans and closed the year on a two-game losing streak with a 40-35 setback against Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteUrban Meyer says Ohio State is still trying to finish "The Chase."
So the chase continues, albeit with a much different-looking team in the 2014 starting gate. Gone is four-fifths of the offensive line that formed the backbone of the Big Ten’s top-scoring offense the past two seasons. Also gone are reigning Big Ten running back of the year Carlos Hyde and top receiver Corey “Philly” Brown, as well as the two biggest stars on defense -- linebacker Ryan Shazier and cornerback Bradley Roby -- who opted to enter the NFL draft.

Experience is lacking in many key areas, but Meyer is ready to let some talented youngsters loose, including true freshmen. In retrospect, he wishes he had done so last year, when defensive end Joey Bosa and receiver Dontre Wilson were the only first-year players to make a big impact until safety Vonn Bell started in the Orange Bowl.

“We redshirted too many last year, and that was our fault,” he said. “There was a misunderstanding, and we just didn’t do a good job, especially on defense. When they show up on campus, we need to get them ready to play.”

This spring, early enrollees Raekwon McMillan (linebacker), Curtis Samuel (tailback) and Johnnie Dixon (receiver) were all heavily involved and have secured roles in the fall. Redshirt freshman are also at or near the top of the depth chart at strongside linebacker (Darron Lee and Chris Worley) and cornerback (Gareon Conley and Eli Apple), while true sophomores like safety Cam Burrows and tailback Ezekiel Elliott could force their way into the starting lineup.

“When you talk about inexperience, that’s a good thing right now,” said Chris Ash, who was hired from Arkansas as co-defensive coordinator to help fix Ohio State’s pass defense. “There aren’t a lot of habits that we have to change to fit what we’re trying to do. We don’t have older guys that are comfortable with where they’re at in their careers.”

An already young offense became even greener this spring because of injuries to three senior leaders: tight end Jeff Heuerman, receiver Evan Spencer and quarterback Braxton Miller. The Buckeyes will no doubt look a lot different when Miller returns from shoulder surgery. During the 15 spring practices, the two-time defending Big Ten player of the year often stood behind the offense and wore a camera on his head so coaches could go over what he was seeing on the field.

“We're exhausting every avenue and even inventing different avenues to make sure he's engaged and getting mental reps,” offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. “We're doing the best we can with a bad situation. He has embraced it and is working his tail off, making sure he’s getting the most out of it.”

Herman says the Buckeyes should be more explosive on the perimeter this season, with guys like Wilson, Dixon, junior college transfer Corey Smith, sophomore Michael Thomas and freshman Jalin Marshall at receiver and a stable of athletic tailbacks. The safeties are longer and quicker than they have been in the past, and the defensive line -- which could be one of the nation’s best -- will have four starters who all used to be defensive ends.

The objective is clear: more speed. To that end, Meyer has hammered a new mantra in the players' heads: “4 to 6, A to B.” That means play hard for four to six seconds and get from point A to point B as quickly as possible. It's hard to interview an Ohio State player these days without hearing the phrase.

“That’s all he’s been preaching this spring.” defensive tackle Adolphus Washington said. “He said he’s not really worried about technique and all that stuff. It’s just about playing hard, because if you play hard, effort makes up for mistakes.”

Washington said the defense was greatly simplified this spring, with only about four or five different calls to learn. Aggressiveness trumped scheme.

“The culture of Ohio State is to go hard, not trick you,” Meyer said. “I just felt like there was too much stuff last year, instead of just going hard.”

By moving faster and playing harder, the Buckeyes hope to overcome their youth and track down what they've been hunting. They have been tantalizingly close.

“We’re still on a chase,” Washington said. “We’ve just got to finish it.”

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