NCF Nation: Seth Littrell

Scottie Montgomery returned to Duke last year from an NFL world where quarterbacks were never, ever hit in practice.

So when his quarterbacks started begging him to go live this spring, his first reaction was, ‘No way!’ He was in protection mode, the way he was as a Steelers assistant. But veterans Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette persisted, and he slowly relented -- only a few times, and with clear instructions to the defense.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston, Jimbo Fisher
AP Photo/Phil SearsFlorida State coach Jimbo Fisher had Jameis Winston go live last spring when he was dueling Jacob Coker for the starting job.
“My initial feel is, ‘Don't ever let anybody get touched, so I have to fight myself at times, because I want to protect these guys and these guys want to compete for jobs,” said Montgomery, the offensive coordinator.

His is a dilemma that many coaches across the league have faced this spring. Do you allow your quarterbacks to get hit in practice to help simulate game situations and foster competition, knowing you have increased their injury risk? Or do you never even broach the subject because the priority should always be to protect the quarterback?

Four ACC teams allowed their quarterbacks to go live at some point during spring practice, more than any other power-five league. Clemson did it for the first time under offensive coordinator Chad Morris, believing he would see more out of the three quarterbacks vying for the starting job. Early enrollee freshman Deshaun Watson ended up getting hurt and missing the spring game.

Florida State allowed its younger quarterbacks to go live this spring. Coach Jimbo Fisher said he did the same last year, when Jameis Winston was a redshirt freshman competing to win the starting job.

“They’ve got to be able to feel things around them and react,” Fisher said. “They get in a false security blanket sometimes.”

Does that cause him extra worry?

“It’s no different than when we run the running backs, and I get nervous in the scrimmages when the backs are running and get tackled,” Fisher said. “Our guys know if they’ve got a kill shot, not to. There’s a certain limit of how we practice with each other. You know those shots that everyone wants to have? We won’t take those on each other even if we’re in a live scrimmage because it’s not productive to the organization. Tough to me is when you’re eyeball to eyeball, not when a guy’s exposed and you can do that.”

The coaches are not the only ones who wrestle with the idea. NC State quarterback Jacoby Brissett was not live this spring. But when he was competing for the starting job at Florida with Jeff Driskel back in 2012, both were allowed to go live early on in fall practice. The first day they were allowed to take hits, Driskel hurt his shoulder.

[+] EnlargeDeshaun Watson
AP Photo/Anderson Independent-Mail/Mark CrammerClemson freshman Deshaun Watson was injured in practice and missed the spring game.
“There's a right time and wrong time for quarterbacks to be live,” Brissett said. “We haven't done live practices, but in the fall sometimes we will have a live scrimmage on a Saturday. It helps out with the game speed reps.”

For a running quarterback such as Brissett, that helps. Same for the Duke quarterbacks. Georgia Tech has its quarterbacks live during practice for that reason.

Some coaches believe going live helps separate the competition. But Clemson was the only school with an open quarterback competition to allow its quarterbacks to go live during scrimmage situations. North Carolina, for example, has Marquise Williams and Mitch Trubisky battling to win the starting job, but offensive coordinator Seth Littrell does not believe it is necessary to allow quarterbacks to get hit. “I’ve never done it,” he said.

Virginia Tech also is in the middle of an intense competition, but quarterbacks have been off limits so far this spring. Veteran Mark Leal would have no problem if the coaches changed their minds.

“Honestly, I'd like to be live,” he said. “I think the rest of the quarterbacks would, too, because it gives more of a game feel. If you're not live, sometimes the whistle gets blown early when you don't think you should have been sacked or the play gets messed up because when there's a rush around you, the first thing the coaches want to do is blow the whistle, rather than you continue to play or go through your reads and progressions and finish the play.”

Depth concerns often dictate what coaches do. Pitt only had two scholarship quarterbacks this spring, so there was no way they were going live. Virginia Tech only has three quarterbacks on the roster this spring.

Still, all the protections most coaches take are not enough to keep their quarterbacks injury-free. Miami quarterbacks were off limits this spring, but Ryan Williams tore his ACL during a scrimmage.

It was a noncontact injury.
Backup quarterbacks are always the most popular guys on campus. They offer the potential of the unknown, a possible cure for all the things nagging fans about their team's offense.

And then they get their shot to play, and that popularity quickly vanishes.

At least that's the way it usually goes. But as Indiana and Michigan State get ready for their biggest nonconference games of the year on Saturday, they will be led by two guys who began the season as second man in at quarterback.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
AP Photo/Al GoldisConnor Cook has given the Michigan State passing game and offense a spark heading into Saturday's game at Notre Dame.
Michigan State's quarterback carousel seemed to be spinning out of control this time a week ago, when Mark Dantonio once again opened up the competition. But at long last, the position may be settled after sophomore Connor Cook threw for 202 yards and four touchdown passes in a 55-17 win over Youngstown State. Sure, it was an FCS opponent, but consider that the Spartans had only four touchdown passes in their five previous games combined dating back to last year.

"It was fun to see a bunch of different guys make plays," Cook told ESPN.com. "Everybody was having a good time, and guys were feeding off each other. I'm glad we finally got the rock rolling."

Michigan State has a long way to go before its passing game ranks among the top half of the Big Ten. But Cook brings a little more swagger to the offense. At 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, he's been described as a gunslinger for his fearlessness in making throws into tight spaces, and he can make more plays on the move than former starter Andrew Maxwell.

"If you lack confidence, something's wrong with you as a quarterback," Cook said. "You've always got to believe in yourself and your ability to go out there and make plays."

Cook will need that confidence this week as the 3-0 Spartans play at Notre Dame. Dantonio says it's a huge moment for Cook in making his first road start in a difficult environment, one that should prepare him well for Big Ten play down the road.

"Connor Cook is always a guy that moves forward," Dantonio said. "He's not going to back down from a challenge. He's pretty light in terms of how he approaches things. He's going to do the best he can and have fun with it. I think that's good right now for his mindset as he goes into his first big away game."

Indiana will play at home for the fourth straight week but will take on its first AQ team when 2-0 Missouri comes to Bloomington. Nate Sudfeld should make just his second career start for the Hoosiers, though it seems like he's been starting a lot longer.
The sophomore played often last year as Cameron Coffman's backup, and he logged far more time than starter Tre Roberson in Indiana's first two games. But Sudfeld didn't get his first start until last week against Bowling Green.

[+] EnlargeNate Sudfeld
Pat Lovell/USA TODAY SportsNate Sudfeld has thrown for over 300 yards in his last two games and seems to have taken control of the Indiana QB situation.
"He had always come off the bench and always been a guy who played well after maybe seeing some things," coach Kevin Wilson said. "But I thought that after the way he played in the previous game against Navy, he deserved to go in there first."

Wilson has approached his delicate quarterback situation carefully. He had a three-way preseason competition between Sudfeld, Coffman -- who threw for 2,700 yards last year -- and Roberson, who was the starter before he broke his leg early last year. Sudfeld and Roberson are both sophomores, and Wilson likely doesn't want Roberson -- an important recruit for the program out of Indianapolis and a big-time athlete -- to get frustrated and consider transferring. He insists that all three guys still play a major role on the team this season.

But it's getting harder and harder to deny that Sudfeld is the main guy. He has thrown for over 300 yards in each of his last two games, including a 335-yard showing in last week's win. He leads all Big Ten quarterbacks in passing yards and touchdowns, and ranks seventh nationally in pass efficiency. He's also tied for first in the FBS in most completions over 20 yards, with 19 of them.

"He's been on the money on some of those deep balls," Hoosiers offensive coordinator Seth Littrell said. "He's got a great touch."

The 6-5 Sudfeld wound up at Indiana in part because of Rich Rodriguez. He originally committed to Arizona, where Littrell had been the offensive coordinator under Mike Stoops. But when Stoops and his staff got fired, the Wildcats hired Rodriguez, whose style of play did not fit Sudfeld, a prototypical pocket passer.

The Littrell connection helped get Sudfeld to IU, and the quarterback has steadily improved. Littrell credits that to Sudfeld's work ethic.

"You'll be up there watching film at night, and he'll come in and want to sit down with you and watch cutups," Littrell said. "As you're game planning, he'll be talking through some of the things he likes. He wants to be involved."

Both Cook and Sudfeld are more heavily involved in their teams' respective plans we have anticipated a few weeks ago. Throw in the success of Kenny Guiton at Ohio State, and Big Ten backup quarterbacks may never have been more popular.
Ohio State already had started paying more competitive salaries for assistant coaches before Urban Meyer arrived in November 2011.

But when Meyer and athletic director Gene Smith sat down to discuss staff pay, Smith soon realized he needed to do more.

"I think Michigan had stepped up with their coordinators," Smith recalled last week during Big Ten spring meetings in Chicago. "So we were already going to that before Urban Meyer came, but we bumped it up a little more. Any time there's change, you have that opportunity."

[+] EnlargeGreg Mattison
Lon Horwedel/Icon SMIMichigan DC Greg Mattison ranks as the highest-paid assistant coach in the Big Ten for the 2013 season.
"Everyone's always focused on head coaches' salaries," Smith continued. "That's always the thing. But really when you look at the changes, it's really been assistants' salaries across the country -- not just in the SEC, but the Big 12, Pac-12, all across the country."

The Big Ten is part of the change, too, as the league is allocating more money toward football assistants than ever before. The Detroit Free Press has an excellent look at Big Ten assistants' salaries, complete with a database that includes 10 of the 12 current members (Northwestern doesn't submit salaries as a private institution, and Penn State doesn't have to because of state laws).

The Free Press found that eight of the 10 schools are paying more for assistants in 2013 than they did in 2012 (only Indiana and Illinois are not). There are some significant total increases, such as Wisconsin (up $558,000), Nebraska (up $518,500), Purdue ($400,000) and Minnesota ($355,000). Staff pay had been an issue at Wisconsin, which lost six assistant coaches following the 2012 Rose Bowl, and at Purdue, which paid less for its staff during the Danny Hope era than any Big Ten school.

The total trend among the 10 schools is an increase of $1,720,852.24 for 2013.

Ohio State and Michigan remain No. 1 and No. 2 in Big Ten staff salary, as the Buckeyes allocate $3.416 million and the Wolverines allocate $2.805 million. Nebraska and Wisconsin make the biggest moves in the league for 2013, as the Huskers rise from sixth to third and the Badgers rise from seventh to fourth.

Illinois, which replaced five assistants from the 2012 team, including co-offensive coordinators Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzales, dropped from third in staff pay ($2.314 million) to eighth ($2.065 million).

The database shows that nearly every Big Ten assistant with "coordinator" in his title -- whether he's the sole coordinator or a co-coordinator -- will earn north of $300,000 for 2013. Only 18 assistants listed will make less than $200,000 in 2013 -- 15 work for Minnesota, Illinois, Purdue and Indiana.


Some notes:

  • Although Wisconsin paid former offensive coordinator Paul Chryst good coin, the school has increased its commitment for Gary Andersen's staff, not only with the coordinators but with some coveted position coaches like running backs coach Thomas Hammock ($300,000).
  • All of Nebraska's assistants are earning $200,000 or more for 2013, but there's a huge drop-off between Beck and the next highest-paid assistant (defensive coordinator John Papuchis at $310,000).
  • Michigan State has a similar drop off between Narduzzi and co-offensive coordinators Dave Warner ($270,000) and Jim Bollman ($260,000). Warner will be the primary offensive play-caller and has been on Mark Dantonio's staff since 2006, while Bollman is a newcomer.
  • Although Michigan is paying top dollar for its coordinators, the school gets its assistants for a relative bargain. Receivers coach/recruiting coordinator Jeff Hecklinski will earn $225,000 in 2013, while the others all will earn $205,000. Ohio State, meanwhile, pays all but one of its assistants $286,000 or more.
  • The Big Ten's three lowest-paid assistants all are in their first years: Illinois wide receivers coach Mike Bellamy ($125,000) and Purdue linebackers coach Marcus Freeman and running backs coach Jafar Williams (both at $120,000).
  • Although schools like Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa ($325,000) pay their coordinators the exact same amount, others have slight differences in salary. Purdue's Shoop makes $5,000 more than defensive coordinator Greg Hudson. Minnesota defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys ($340,000) makes $5,000 more than offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover. Wonder if that leads to any underlying jealousy?
  • Most Big Ten schools have assistant salaries in round numbers, but there are some interesting totals from Indiana, which pays co-offensive coordinators Seth Littrell and Kevin Johns $255,500.04 and new recruiting coordinator/assistant defensive line coach James Patton $173,740.08. Never know when that change can come in handy.

The Big Ten still lacks some of the OMG totals seen in the SEC -- LSU is paying new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron $3.4 million in the next three years -- but the overall trend puts the league more on par with what we're seeing nationally.
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Indiana led the Big Ten in passing yards last year, and by a pretty wide margin. But receiver Kofi Hughes says the Hoosiers could have done so much more.

"After last year, I thought as receivers we were balling," Hughes told ESPN.com. "But then I looked at the film and was like, 'Oh my gosh, we really weren't that good at all.

"We finished No. 1 in the Big Ten, but what a lot of people don't know is that we left so many plays and so many yards on the field. This year, we want to blow it out of the water."

That could very well happen. While much of the focus this spring centered on the three experienced quarterbacks battling for the starting job, perhaps not enough attention was paid to the guys who will be catching the ball. Indiana -- yes, Indiana -- boasts the most productive group of returning receivers in the league.

[+] EnlargeCody Latimer
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsCody Latimer led a productive group of Hoosiers receivers last season with 806 yards and six touchdowns.
Non-believers, you can check the stats. Cody Latimer, Hughes and Shane Wynn finished No. 2, No. 6 and No. 8 in the league, respectively, in receiving yards per game in 2012. Throw in tight end Ted Bolser, who had 41 grabs for 445 yards last season, along with some emerging young players, and no Big Ten team has more weapons right now in the passing game.

"On the outside, we've got some big bodies, which are good targets," quarterback Cameron Coffman said. "And on the inside, we've got small, quick guys who can get open in space."

Leading the way on the perimeter are Latimer and Hughes, who have developed into two of the best wideouts in the Big Ten despite being lightly recruited for their current roles.

Coming out of Dayton, Ohio, the 6-foot-3 Latimer received more interest from colleges as a defensive back or linebacker. But he always wanted to play receiver, and he said he bonded with Hughes and Duwyce Wilson on his IU visit. He knew the Hoosiers had a history of throwing the ball and he loved watching Oklahoma receiver Ryan Broyles. When Indiana hired former Sooners offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson as head coach, he knew he'd made the right choice to go to Bloomington.

The 6-foot-2 Hughes was the 2009 Gatorade Indiana player of the year who led Indianapolis Cathedral to a state title as a quarterback. He was labeled an athlete, and colleges didn't quite know what to make of him. Hughes said he was asked to play defensive back at an Ohio State camp, a position he'd never even lined up at before. He eventually took his only scholarship offer, to IU. He decided to play receiver in college simply because he saw an opening for early playing time.

"I was hard-headed and wanted to play as a true freshman," the senior said. "I was horrible my freshman year, a very sloppy route-runner. I could have probably redshirted and waited, and who knows what would have happened?"

What has happened is the two have become close friends -- and big-time players. Latimer led the team with 805 receiving yards and six touchdowns on 51 catches last year, while Hughes had 639 yards and three touchdowns on 43 receptions. They each made a pact this offseason to be bluntly honest and critical about the other's performance. Here's what they had to say about each other:

Latimer on Hughes: "He's very smart. When you go into the film room, he can tell you everything that's going on. He even gives the coaches ideas."

Hughes on Latimer: "He makes competitive catches. He's so strong. I don't know how the ball always stays in his hands, like whether it hits his shoulder and rolls into his hands or what. But every time you throw it to Cody, he's going to catch it."

Wynn, at just 5-foot-7, completes the lead triumvirate of Hoosier targets. The spark plug in the slot caught a team-best 68 balls last season for 660 yards and six scores. Hughes said Wynn is deceptively strong and wasn't afraid to lower his shoulder into a defender to gain extra yards this spring.

As good as Latimer and Hughes are on the outside, Indiana might have even more options in the middle of the field with the emergence this spring of Isaiah Roundtree and Tevin Coleman to go along with Wynn.

"All three of those guys can play anywhere from the backfield to the slots," offensive coordinator Seth Littrell said. "I think we can create a lot of different matchups that way. If people want to play us man to man, fine. We can always get those guys in the backfield versus a linebacker."

And if all the Hoosiers receivers live up to their potential, they might just blow things out of the water in 2013.
Tre RobersonAP Photo/Stephan SavoiaIndiana QB Tre Roberson is ready to return to the field after playing in just five quarters in 2012.
The first and most important question, especially for a mobile quarterback recovering from a broken leg, is how Tre Roberson is feeling.

"Really good," the Indiana signal caller told ESPN.com on Tuesday. "My leg, it doesn't hurt or anything, so it's probably about 95 [percent]."

Roberson, whose promising start to the 2012 season was cut short when he broke his leg in the second quarter of the second game, began working out and throwing passes two days after Indiana's season ended in November. He participated in winter workouts and has been fully cleared for spring practice (like IU's other quarterbacks, he isn't taking contact).

Although he's not "all the way back" mobility-wise, he's getting closer every day.

The next question, arguably just as important, concerns Roberson's reintegration to the practice field. Although he separated himself as Indiana's top quarterback last summer and looked very good early on, racking up five touchdowns (3 rush, 2 pass) and 501 yards in five-plus quarters, he hasn't taken meaningful snaps for six months.

"I'm a little rusty, still out here thinking a little bit, trying to get back into football form," he said. "I've just got to remember where to go with each coverage, and just look at the defense and know what's going on. Playing quarterback, you've always got to be in the flow. It's always the rhythm of the game, so when you're out for a year, you lose that rhythm.

"I’m trying to get that rhythm back."

Roberson has found his groove in spurts, completing several passes in a row during drills. The goal for the rest of the spring is to feel the rhythm more often. Indiana's no-huddle, up-tempo spread offense demands it.

"Our offense is pretty rhythmic," Roberson said. "Everything is timing."

Hoosiers offensive coordinator Seth Littrell said he hasn't overloaded the unit with tempo during the first part of spring, but it's coming. Indiana's speed and efficiency in running plays helped the offense rise from 83rd nationally in 2011 to 34th last season.

IU loses only one offensive starter from 2012 (center Will Matte) and boasts arguably the Big Ten's deepest wide receiving corps and a line with several promising young players. The offense will play fast this fall, perhaps faster than it did last season. Roberson's challenge this spring, interestingly enough, is slowing down.

"He's got to slow the game back down a little bit," Littrell told ESPN.com. "His strengths are on the perimeter, and he can definitely pull the ball down to run. But what comes with that is maybe you're a little quick-footed in the pocket and you get a little quick to run. He's just got to be able to settle in there.

"He can make the throws, he can sit in the pocket tall and he can be a quarterback and read defenses, so he's really improving on that."

Roberson finds himself in the same position as last summer, needing to beat out Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld for the starting job. The difference now is both Coffman and Sudfeld now have extensive experience in the Big Ten.

Coffman started Indiana's final 10 games following Roberson's injury and passed for 2,734 yards with 15 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Sudfeld saw the field in seven games and passed for 632 yards with seven scoring strikes and only one interception. Both have displayed a great comfort level this spring, Littrell said.

"It makes it more competitive," Roberson said. "Both of them are good quarterbacks. They can be the starter, just like I can. I'm learning from them because they had a lot of reps [last] season."

Littrell describes the quarterback spot, like every other offensive position, as "wide open," and the competition among Roberson, Coffman and Sudfeld almost certainly will stretch into preseason camp.

Head coach Kevin Wilson is looking for winning qualities in his quarterback, noting that while all three have put up nice numbers, none has consistently led Indiana to victories.

"He's looking for somebody with a good attitude, willing to put in the extra work and just keep our standard," Roberson said. "Being poised, standing straight up, looking the defense and the offense in the eye and just leading the team.

"I try to bring that energy and that drive."

The leadership element never left the 6-foot, 200-pound Roberson, who continued to encourage his teammates from the sideline last fall. In 2011, he became the first true freshman to start at quarterback in team history, making five starts and racking up 937 pass yards and 426 rush yards.

His task the rest of the spring is to regain the form he showed during those first five quarters of 2012.

"Everything was super slow," he said. "It felt like I was out at practice. I'm trying to get back to that feeling."

Big Ten's best assistants in 2012

December, 12, 2012
12/12/12
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Head coaches are like quarterbacks. They get too much credit and too much blame.

Assistant coaches are like nose tackles. They don't get nearly enough credit despite playing vital roles.

Today, we'll change it up and give some recognition to Big Ten assistant coaches who did exemplary jobs with their position groups or, in some cases, units in 2012. Each of these coaches fostered improvement this season. Some took units in bad shape and made them better. Others took units in decent shape and made them very good. Some entered the season with skeptics and quieted them.

We came up with 13 assistants who deserve recognition. Yes, we realize we're leaving out some quality folks, but we had to cap it somewhere and wanted to spread the love around to the different teams.

Here's the rundown in alphabetical order:

Chris Ash, Wisconsin, defensive coordinator/secondary: All the attention on the offense's turbulent season took the spotlight away from the good things happening on the defensive side. Wisconsin finished in the top 25 nationally in total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense and pass efficiency defense. The Badgers held nine opponents to 21 points or fewer and gave an inconsistent offense chances to win every time out. Ash will be missed as he joins ex-Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema at Arkansas.

[+] EnlargeTim Beck, Bo Pelini
AP Photo/Nati Harnik, FileTim Beck, right, coordinated Nebraska's Big Ten-leading offense for head coach Bo Pelini.
Tim Beck, Nebraska, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks: The second-year play caller oversaw the Big Ten's top offense, which averaged 462.2 yards per game (24th nationally) and 35.1 points per game (28th nationally). Junior quarterback Taylor Martinez made significant strides under Beck's watch, and Nebraska survived the loss of star running back Rex Burkhead for most of the season thanks to contributions from Ameer Abdullah and others.

Tracy Claeys, Minnesota, defensive coordinator: An improved defense sparked Minnesota to a 4-0 start and eventually to bowl eligibility for the first time since the 2009 season. The Gophers pass rush showed life for the first time in years as senior end D.L. Wilhite and others put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Minnesota was especially good against the pass, ranking 11th nationally and 20th in pass defense efficiency. Although the offense remains a work in progress, Minnesota should be pleased with the direction on defense under Claeys.

Adam Cushing, Northwestern, offensive line: Cushing's recruiting ability always has stood out, but his coaching skills had been questioned as Northwestern struggled to convert promising line prospects into powerful blockers. The Wildcats went from a finesse offense to a power offense this season, blasting off of the line to the tune of 230.9 rush yards per game. Red zone offense went from a weakness to a strength as Northwestern tied for 17th nationally. Cushing's line paved the way for star running back Venric Mark.

Rich Fisher, Nebraska, wide receivers: Nebraska isn't known for its wide receiver play, but things are changing under Fisher's watch. Led by standout sophomore Kenny Bell, the Huskers' top three receivers combined for 1,657 yards and 11 touchdowns on 115 receptions. Just as important, the receiving corps helped Nebraska's bread-and-butter run game with effective blocking throughout the season. Fisher's hiring after the 2010 season raised some eyebrows, as he had taken a break from college coaching, returned to the high school ranks and also served as a golf instructor in Massachusetts. But he definitely looks like a great addition to Bo Pelini's staff.

Patrick Higgins, Purdue, wide receivers: Higgins played a significant role in Purdue's late-season surge, as he took over the offensive play-calling duties after coordinator Gary Nord suffered a severe back injury. Purdue won its final three games with Higgins and head coach Danny Hope handling the play calls. Higgins also did a nice job with Purdue's wide receiving corps, despite the fluctuating quarterback situation. Three veteran Boilers receivers eclipsed 40 catches and 300 receiving yards, and redshirt freshman Dolapo Macarthy showed promise.

Seth Littrell, Indiana, offensive coordinator/tight ends/fullbacks: Head coach Kevin Wilson brought in Littrell to boost Indiana's passing attack, and Littrell delivered despite losing starting quarterback Tre Roberson in Week 2. Indiana went from 80th nationally in pass offense to 19th, leading the Big Ten with 311.2 yards per game. With help from assistant offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Kevin Johns, Littrell managed the quarterback situation pretty well as both Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld had success. Littrell will go largely unnoticed because of Indiana's low profile and 4-8 record, but he was one of the Big Ten's best coaching additions for 2012.

Curt Mallory, Michigan, secondary: Michigan's defensive line dominates the spotlight because that's where coordinator Greg Mattison and head coach Brady Hoke put their primary focus, but Mallory has done a really nice job with a secondary that struggled mightily under the previous regime. Despite losing promising cornerback Blake Countess to a torn ACL in the season opener, Michigan still finished second nationally (behind Nebraska) in pass defense (155.2 ypg allowed). Safety Jordan Kovacs has blossomed under Mallory's watch, and while the depth in the secondary isn't where it will be eventually, Mallory has managed things well.

[+] EnlargeBart MIller
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsBart Miller went from grad assistant to coach of a Wisconsin O-line that pummeled its way to Pasadena.
Bart Miller, Wisconsin, offensive line: Miller began the season as a graduate assistant and moved into one of the team's top assistant roles in Week 3 after the surprising dismissal of veteran line coach Mike Markuson. Although Wisconsin's line didn't have its typical dominant performances every time out, Miller fostered obvious improvement and cohesion during the course of the season. The finished product showed up in the Big Ten championship game against Nebraska, as Wisconsin bullied the Huskers to the tune of 70 points, 539 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns.

Reese Morgan, Iowa, defensive line: Iowa didn't have much to cheer about in 2012, and some of the staff changes Kirk Ferentz made led to some growing pains. Morgan faced a significant challenge in moving from offensive line to defensive line, which returned only a handful of players who had logged field time in 2011. Given the youth and inexperience along the Hawkeyes' defensive front, Morgan did a nice job in Year 1. Joe Gaglione had a nice senior season (9 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles) and young players like Louis Trinca-Pasat showed promise. The line held its own in the first half of the season before struggling late.

Pat Narduzzi, Michigan State, defensive coordinator: Many of these assistants took questionable units and improved them. Narduzzi led an elite defense that entered the season with high expectations and met them. Make no mistake: Michigan State's defense is the only reason the team found itself in every game this season. The Spartans had a few standouts, namely linebacker Max Bullough, but their overall team defense and stinginess stood out. Narduzzi is one of the nation's premier coordinators and should land a head-coaching job in the near future.

John Strollo, Penn State, tight ends: Although O'Brien's offense is a tight end's dream, Strollo did a terrific job of developing young and unproven players this season. Redshirt freshman Kyle Carter emerged into one of the Nittany Lions' top passing threats, and junior Matt Lehman and true freshman Jesse James also stepped up at times. Of Penn State's top five receiving-yards leaders this season, three players are tight ends (Carter, Lehman and James).

Ed Warinner, Ohio State, offensive line/co-offensive coordinator: Warinner took an underachieving Buckeyes offensive line with serious depth questions and turned it into quite possibly the best line in the league. The Buckeyes' front five turned a corner in Big Ten play and created lanes for Braxton Miller, Carlos Hyde and the Big Ten's top scoring offense. Warinner was the Big Ten's best assistant hire of the last offseason and earns our vote as the league's top assistant in 2012.
Matt McGloin, Braxton Miller and Joel StaveUS PresswireThe recent performances by (L to R) Penn State's Matt McGloin, Ohio State's Braxton Miller and Wisconsin's Joel Stave give the Big Ten some hope for improved quarterback play.
Of the many theories to explain the Big Ten's collective struggles this season, the one about the league's dearth of elite quarterbacks certainly rings true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I saw reason for optimism with McGloin in Iowa City, and the combination of coaches, new systems, maturing players and incoming recruits suggests better days lie ahead.
It's not Cody Latimer's fault that a sports hernia cut short his promising freshman season at Indiana.

Good luck trying to convince him of that.

"I feel like I let them down," Latimer told ESPN.com, referring to his Hoosiers teammates. "I felt like I missed out on a lot because of my injury. I really didn't pick up the offense that well, so this year, I felt like I needed to master the offense as best as I can so I could play faster and make big plays for my team.

[+] EnlargeCody Latimer
AJ Mast/Icon SMICody Latimer already has 223 yards on 14 catches after three games this season.
"I feel like I owed 'em."

Latimer, a wide receiver for the Hoosiers, is making up for lost time this season. The 6-foot-3, 208-pound sophomore leads Indiana in both receiving yards (223) and yards per reception (15.9), while ranking second behind Shane Wynn in both receptions (14) and touchdowns (2).

Indiana is emphasizing the pass game more this year with new offensive coordinator Seth Littrell, a Mike Leach disciple. The Hoosiers lead the Big Ten in passing average (326 ypg) and have more pass yards (978) than all but one Big Ten team despite playing one fewer game than all but one league squad.

Often the team's featured outside receiver, Latimer is a big part of Indiana's plans this season and beyond.

"Disappointed the injury kind of slowed him last year," head coach Kevin Wilson said, "but [with] the emphasis on passing and throwing the football this year, his maturity, his development, he's in position to have a solid season for us. He's a good young player with a lot of potential."

One of 16 true freshmen to see the field for Indiana in 2011, Latimer appeared in eight games, starting two, and had 12 receptions for 141 yards and two touchdowns, before being shut down with the hernia in early November. An offseason spent on film study and route refining has helped Latimer -- and many of his teammates -- get a better handle on the offense.

"It's way easier, and we're going full speed at it," he said. "Most people have mastered it and know what we're doing now. There are no questions out there, so we're just going."

Latimer, a native of Dayton, Ohio, received scholarship offers on both sides of the ball coming out of Jefferson Township High School. Michigan State recruited him as a safety, Ball State as a linebacker and Connecticut as a receiver. His decision came down to one factor -- "I want to score touchdowns," he said -- and he picked Indiana, which had a strong tradition at the position.

Latimer committed to Indiana in October 2010, while Bill Lynch was still the Hoosiers' coach. He had built friendships with Hoosiers' receivers Tandon Doss and Damarlo Belcher.

"I knew they were always throwing them the ball," he said. "And then when the coaching change happened [to Wilson], I know they were really going to throw the ball with the Oklahoma offense. I'm a receiver, and I want to get the ball, so I've got to go here."

Latimer grew up admiring Randy Moss, noting that they have similar size and look to make game-changing plays on the perimeter.

"He's got a really good skill set," Wilson said. "Very strong, good hands, he’s learning every day, getting better. He's got a lot of qualities you're looking for. ... He's got a long way to go, but he's off to a good start."
One characteristic many seek in a leader is the ability to speak candidly about past failures.

Indiana tight end Ted Bolser has this covered pretty well.

[+] EnlargeIndiana Hoosiers tight end Ted Bolser
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesIndiana Hoosiers tight end Ted Bolser is hoping to catch 50 passes in a revamped offense.
"Bolser doesn't hold back when assessing what went wrong in 2011 -- when Indiana finished 1-11 and went winless in the Big Ten and against FBS competition -- and what's going right these days in Bloomington.

"I'd like to say we trimmed the fat off our team last year, got rid of a lot of guys who didn't want to be here," Bolser told ESPN.com. "Everybody here wants to play, and plans on starting, so there's a lot of competition going on. We need competition to win. That's what we didn't have in the past. People just gave up their roles."

Such a passive attitude -- or a disinterested one -- played into the Hoosiers losing so many games.

"It was a huge distraction," Bolser said. "Not only during game day did some people just not care, but weekends, after hours, [when] coaches weren't around. ... We didn't have much leadership last year. Everybody was just kind of wandering in their own heads. The leadership's really changed this year."

Bolser is part of a small but vocal group stepping forward. Indiana enters 2012 with only eight seniors on the roster -- seven fifth-year players and one true senior (defensive tackle Adam Replogle). Given the small number, Bolser and other fourth-year juniors are taking bigger leadership roles, as are younger players.

He mentioned center Will Matte, linebackers Jacarri Alexander and David Cooper and quarterback Tre Roberson as players taking steps as leaders. Although Roberson is a true sophomore, "we’re treating him like he's a senior," Bolser said.

"With the few upperclassmen we have, just about all of us are having our own leadership role," Bolser continued. "For myself, I've noticed a tremendous leap."

Part of that leap is personal accountability, and Bolser is setting the bar high in 2012. He recorded 27 receptions for 407 yards and five touchdowns as a redshirt freshman in 2010, making seven starts. But his numbers dipped in all four categories last season -- 14 catches, 165 receiving yards, one touchdown, six starts. To be fair the decline largely can be attributed to a run-based offense led by a freshman quarterback.

Head coach Kevin Wilson wants to emphasize the pass much more this season and brought in a new offensive coordinator, Seth Littrell, who comes from the Mike Leach coaching tree and oversaw an Arizona offense that ranked third nationally in passing a year ago (370.8 ypg).

"This year, we're throwing the ball no matter what," Bolser said. "For myself and the wide receivers, we're expecting big things."

How big?

"I'm expecting better numbers than I had my freshman year by far," he said. "I had around 30 catches my freshman year, and I'm hoping to get around 50 plus this year. I'm hoping to be in the game just about every play, blocking or catching passes. As much as we're going to be throwing it, the ball has to go to somebody, and I'm hoping it goes to me."

Arguably no Indiana could benefit more from Littrell's arrival than Bolser. Littrell, who will directly coach tight ends and fullbacks at IU, worked at Arizona with Rob Gronkowski, who Bolser calls "just about every tight end's idol."

"Especially when I'm watching film, we go over what [Gronkowski] does and previous things he's done, how their relationship blossomed, how they worked with each other and a lot of things like that," Bolser said. "Things are changing, especially lately. You've got to be a block- and pass-oriented tight end. You've got to have both, which he has."

Bolser hopes to be the complete package for Indiana this year -- minus The Gronk Spike.

Said Bolser: "I can't do that."
Assistant coach salaries are on the rise throughout college football, and the Big Ten is no exception. If you're interested in how much coin Big Ten assistants are making, be sure and bookmark this excellent list put together by Joe Rexrode of the Lansing State Journal. Rexrode compiled assistant salary information from 10 of the league's 12 programs (Northwestern and Penn State don't disclose assistant coach salaries).

Most of this information has been publicized in team-by-team form, but it's interesting to examine from a league-wide perspective. Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell and Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison are the league's highest-paid assistants, both earning $750,000. Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges ($550,000) is next, followed by Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi ($500,000), who recently received a raise that more than doubled his previous salary ($233,000).

Several of the Big Ten's highest-paid assistants from 2011 -- Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, Illinois defensive coordinator Vic Koenning -- since have left the league for other jobs.

Here are the totals paid for assistants among the 10 schools reporting salaries:

1. Ohio State -- $3.22 million
2. Michigan -- $2.755 million
3. Illinois -- $2.314 million
4. Michigan State -- $2.18 million
5. Iowa -- $2.16 million
6. Nebraska -- $2.13 million
7. Wisconsin -- $1.973 million
8. Indiana -- $1.96 million
9. Minnesota -- $1.745 million
10. Purdue -- $1.61 million

When factoring in the head coach salaries, the rankings look like this:

1. Ohio State -- $7.22 million
2. Iowa -- $6.035 million
3. Michigan -- $6.009 million
4. Nebraska -- $4.905 million
5. Wisconsin -- $4.571 million
6. Michigan State -- $4.098 million
7. Illinois -- $3.914 million
8. Minnesota -- $3.445 million
9. Indiana -- $3.22 million
10. Purdue -- $2.535 million

The Big Ten had 40 overall coaching changes during the past offseason (head coach and assistant). Here are the highest-paid new assistants among the programs reporting salaries (not including assistants promoted internally).

1. Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers -- $450,000
2. Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman -- $420,000
T-3. Illinois defensive coordinator Tim Banks -- $400,000
T-3. Illinois co-offensive coordinator Billy Gonzales -- $400,000
T-3. Illinois co-offensive coordinator Chris Beatty -- $400,000
6. Ohio State co-offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Ed Warinner -- $350,000
7. Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis -- $300,000
8. Wisconsin offensive coordinator Matt Canada -- $265,000
T-9. Purdue defensive coordinator Tim Tibesar -- $250,000
T-9. Indiana offensive coordinator Seth Littrell -- $250,000

Some thoughts:
  • It's no surprise Ohio State paid top dollar for head coach Urban Meyer, but the school also has increased its commitment for assistant coaches. Former coach Jim Tressel had a fairly anonymous staff for a big-time program, and while there were good coaches on it, you knew the overall financial commitment would need to be increased. The Buckeyes have three assistants making more than $400,000. Interestingly enough, Illinois is the only other Big Ten squad listed here with three aides at the $400,000 mark.
  • As Rexrode points out in his post, Michigan State's staff was a major bargain before the recent raise. The Spartans paid approximately $1.6 million for a staff that helped them to 21 wins in the past two seasons. The pay increases put Michigan State fourth in the Big Ten in assistant coach pay, which sounds about right.
  • Illinois' athletic director transition from Ron Guenther to Mike Thomas didn't change the school's approach toward rewarding assistants. Guenther allowed former coach Ron Zook to open the coffers after a disappointing 2009 season and land high-priced coordinators (Petrino and Koenning). While new Illini head coach Tim Beckman ranks eighth in the league in salary, he was allowed to spend a lot for his staff, which includes just one holdover (D-line coach Keith Gilmore, who earns $200,000). It's why Illinois ranks third in the league in assistant coach pay.
  • Wisconsin's staff turnover after the Rose Bowl resulted in lower overall compensation, which isn't a huge shock because of Chryst's departure. It's a bit surprising that Badgers coordinators Chris Ash (holdover from staff) and Matt Canada (new addition) are near the bottom of the league in coordinator pay. Wisconsin did spent a good amount for new offensive line coach Mike Markuson ($255,000).
  • Some Nebraska fans I've heard from complain that Bo Pelini's staff lacks prestige, given the program's tradition and resources. The Huskers have a mostly young staff that ranks in the middle of the league in compensation. Pelini lured new secondary coach Terry Joseph for $230,000, while new defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski made the move from Iowa and will earn $195,000. Kaczenski is a bargain in my view.
  • Anyone else find it odd that Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker, promoted during the winter from secondary coach, makes $1,000 more than new offensive coordinator Greg Davis? While it's nice for Iowa to reward Parker's loyalty as a position coach, the $1,000 difference seems a little trivial, especially since Davis has been a coordinator for decades.
  • Purdue pays less for assistant coaches than the nine other Big Ten schools reporting information here. Penn State obviously doesn't rank at the bottom in paying assistants, and I've been told Northwestern doesn't, either. Factoring in head coach Danny Hope's salary, and Purdue's overall coach compensation is significantly lower than others, including its arch-rival Indiana. Boilers fans, how do you feel about this?
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Tre Roberson's throwing arm was sore during Thursday morning's passing drills. And as far as Indiana is concerned, that's not a bad thing.

Roberson made a promising debut last season as a true freshman, starting the Hoosiers' final five games and showing off a strong mix of athleticism and poise. Now in his first college spring practice, Roberson is working on his passing. A lot.

"He's throwing it a ton," first-year Indiana offensive coordinator Seth Littrell said. "He's not fully used to it. He's always been a spread, run type of quarterback."

[+] EnlargeTre Roberson
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesIndiana's Tre Roberson has shown that he can run. Now he aims to be a more efficient QB.
The Hoosiers know that Roberson can take off and run, but that's not the only thing they want out of a quarterback. Littrell and head coach Kevin Wilson come from the Mike Leach/Oklahoma offensive system, where high-percentage passing makes everything go.

Wilson said the two easiest ways for IU to improve on its 1-11 record this season is to become a high-efficient passing team and to get more physical overall. Roberson completed 57 percent of his throws during his rookie campaign, which needs to go up. The good news is, the talent -- and the pedigree -- is there.

"I do think he has a skill set where I'll be very disappointed if he doesn't become a complete quarterback," Wilson said. "He throws it well, his mechanics are clean and I think he plays like a quarterback.

"It's nice that he has good feet and can make some plays on the run and you can design a quarterback run or run the option once in a while. ... But I don't think we can be an elite team running zone read or pulling it all the time."

At the beginning of last season, Roberson's path to playing time appeared uncertain. He was third on the depth chart behind Ed Wright-Baker and Dusty Kiel. Hotshot recruit Gunner Kiel, Dusty's brother, had committed to Indiana in the summer.

But injuries and ineffectiveness by Wright-Baker and the elder Kiel allowed Roberson to become the first true freshman ever to start for the Hoosiers. In his first career start, on the road against Iowa, he completed 16-of-24 passes for 197 yards and a touchdown and ran for 84 yards.

"I just wanted to bring fun to the huddle," he said. "We weren't having a lot of fun last year. So I was just coming in and smiling and saying, 'Let's go. We can do this.'"

Football is in his genes. His grandfather, Larry Highbaugh, played defensive back at Indiana and later in the Canadian Football League, where he won six Grey Cups. Highbaugh was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. Roberson said he used to see CFL trophies all over his grandfather's house growing up. But he really remembers watching his father, Gajuan, play semi-pro football on Friday nights.

Tre led Lawrence Central High School to the state championship game and won Indiana Mr. Football honors. Roberson always knew he wanted to go to Indiana, where two of his grandparents and a couple of cousins had attended. He committed when Bill Lynch was still the coach and kept his word even through the coaching change. The Hoosiers' less-than-stellar tradition never deterred him.

"I just felt like, if I came here I'd have the ability to help it change," he said.

Now he's the center of that effort to change things. Wright-Baker and Dusty Kiel both transferred in the offseason, and Gunner Kiel wound up at Notre Dame. Tre Roberson looks like the future at Indiana. His arm better get ready for lots of work.
The Big Ten saw an unprecedented number of coaching changes during the offseason, as three head coaches were dismissed, Wisconsin's staff lost six assistants and many other moves were made. Barring an unexpected change, only four teams -- Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota and Northwestern -- will return their full staffs intact for the 2012 campaign.

Although the coaching carousel hasn't quite reached its end, Big Ten teams have filled all of their coordinator vacancies for the coming season. The league will have 13 new coordinators at eight different programs.

It's time to pass out quick grades for the coordinator hires (co-coordinators are graded together):

ILLINOIS

Co-offensive coordinators Billy Gonzales and Chris Beatty
Previously:
Gonzales was LSU's receivers coach and pass-game coordinator; Beatty was Vanderbilt's receivers coach

Grades

Adam Rittenberg: C

Gonzales and Beatty both are strong recruiters who should help bring talented players to Champaign, but they're both young and unproven as playcallers. They should bolster Illinois' receiving corps, but I'd expect a few growing pains on game days as they adjust to bigger roles with a unit that flat-lined late in the 2011 season.

Brian Bennett: B-

Both are energetic guys who should adapt well to Tim Beckman's style, and both were considered up-and-comers. But as Adam mentioned, neither had led an offense before, so it's hard to give this too high a grade yet.

Defensive coordinator Tim Banks
Previously:
Co-defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach at Cincinnati

Grades

Adam Rittenberg: A-

After a very successful 2011 season, Illinois' defense is looking for continuity and Banks can provide it. His aggressive style and pressure packages should translate well for a unit that still has a lot of talent in the front seven with linebacker Jonathan Brown, defensive tackle Akeem Spence and others.

Brian Bennett: B+

Vic Koenning declined to stay, and Jon Tenuta took the job for about 20 minutes before deciding to stay at NC State. As a third choice, Banks is a really nice hire and a better fit, in my opinion, than Tenuta would have been. After a tough first year with a Cincinnati defense lacking depth and experience, Banks did a great job turning that unit around in 2011. At Illinois, he merely needs to keep it going.

INDIANA

Offensive coordinator Seth Littrell
Previously:
Offensive coordinator and tight ends coach at Arizona

Grades

Adam Rittenberg: B+

Littrell wasn't the reason Arizona made a coaching change in 2011, as his offense ranked third nationally in passing (370.8 ypg) and 15th in total yards (465.2 ypg). He comes from the fertile Mike Leach coaching tree and should help Indiana's offense become more balanced behind promising quarterback Tre Roberson.

Brian Bennett: A

It isn't easy to hire big-name coaches at Indiana, but Kevin Wilson got a good one as Littrell was left looking for a gig. The addition of Littrell already helped the Hoosiers land promising quarterback Nathan Sudfeld on the recruiting trail.

IOWA

Offensive coordinator Greg Davis
Previously:
Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Texas (didn't coach in 2011)

Grades

Adam Rittenberg: B

Davis is an experienced coach who has coordinated offenses at the highest level and won a national title at Texas. He should help James Vandenberg's development at quarterback. The concern is he has been predictable at times and had his most recent success in a spread system, which Iowa likely won't use.

Brian Bennett: C+

Davis oversaw some record-breaking offenses at Texas, but he won't have the same kind of blue-chip talent at Iowa. Then again, in Kirk Ferentz's system, he won't be asked to generate 50 points per game. He's great with quarterbacks, and Ferentz will feel comfortable with a veteran coach who'll keep things simple. But to hire a guy who'd been out of football for a year was not very exciting for a program that probably could have used a battery recharge.

Defensive coordinator Phil Parker
Previously:
Defensive backs coach at Iowa

Grades

Adam Rittenberg: B

Parker knows the Hawkeyes' personnel and brings an energetic personality to the defense, but he's not the big-splash addition some were hoping for after Norm Parker's retirement. Phil Parker has coached defensive backs forever but has yet to serve in a coordinator role. It'll be interesting to see how much he actually tweaks the scheme in Iowa City.

Brian Bennett: B-

Parker knows the Hawkeyes defense in and out, and I doubt much will change with the approach now that he is in charge. There was a curiously long time between Norm Parker's retirement and his successor's appointment, and Phil Parker has never been a coordinator before, so that brings my grade down a notch.

NEBRASKA

Defensive coordinator John Papuchis
Previously:
Defensive line coach and special teams coordinator, Nebraska

Grades

Adam Rittenberg: B

Papuchis is a rising star and most likely a head coach in the near future. While I'm tempted to give him a higher grade, he hasn't been a playcaller and is just four years removed from being a football intern at LSU. Inexperience is the only main drawback here.

Brian Bennett: B-

Like Adam said, the grade level is held down here by a lack of previous experience. But every coordinator has to start somewhere, and Bo Pelini has been really high on Papuchis, who has done excellent work everywhere he's been put to use so far. Any growing pains should be offset by the knowledge Pelini can impart as a defensive-minded head coach.

OHIO STATE

Offensive coordinator Tom Herman
Previously:
Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, Iowa State

Grades

Adam Rittenberg: B+

Herman is regarded as a rising star and a sharp offensive mind who, with the help of Urban Meyer, will inject some life into a bland Ohio State offense. The only potential drawbacks are that he hasn't proven himself in a big-time job like Ohio State, and Iowa State's offensive numbers from 2011 don't exactly jump off the page.

Brian Bennett: B-

Ohio State fans were probably expecting a bigger name when Meyer promised to bring in the best staff in the country. But Meyer has an eye for offensive talent and will be heavily involved in the offensive game planning himself. Though Herman hasn't done it on a major stage, he'll be working with a lot more talent in Columbus, and this grade could easily prove to be an A in the future.

Defensive coordinator Luke Fickell and co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers
Previously:
Fickell was Ohio State's head coach; Withers was North Carolina's head coach

Grades

Adam Rittenberg: A-

There's a lot to like about this pair, as both men return to coaching defense after being put in awkward positions last season. It'll be interesting to see how Fickell fares as the primary defensive playcaller. Withers has a few blotches on his résumé (Minnesota 2007) but brings a lot of experience to the table.

Brian Bennett: A

The head-coaching experience both men got last year should only help their development as coaches, and both are excellent recruiters. My only concern is whether there are too many cooks in the kitchen, but there's no reason to believe that Fickell and Withers won't get along and accept their roles. If so, this should work out really well.

PENN STATE

Defensive coordinator Ted Roof
Previously:
Defensive coordinator at Auburn (briefly took Central Florida defensive coordinator job in December)

Grades

Adam Rittenberg: C+

While I loved what Roof did at Minnesota in 2008, his exit from Auburn after some struggles there raises a few red flags. The good news is he steps into a very good situation with Penn State's defense, and he has three good assistants: Larry Johnson, Ron Vanderlinden and John Butler, two of whom (Johnson and Vanderlinden) are holdovers from the previous staff.

Brian Bennett: C

Roof has some very bright spots on his long résumé, but he's also been a serial job-changer whom Auburn fans couldn't wait to see leave town despite the national title. Bill O'Brien could have retained Tom Bradley or promoted Johnson and probably done just as well, if not better. But he has a previous relationship with Roof, so the trust factor should be high.

PURDUE

Defensive coordinator Tim Tibesar
Previously:
Defensive coordinator for the CFL's Montreal Alouettes

Grades

Adam Rittenberg: C

Both the change and the hire surprised me a bit, and Tibesar is a bit of a wild card coming back to college football from the CFL. He knows how to face the spread offense, a primary reason Danny Hope hired him, and had some success in Montreal. But his previous FBS stop at Kansas State resulted in some struggles (117th-rated defense in 2008).

Brian Bennett: C-

If Tibesar pans out as a successful defensive coordinator, perhaps Hope will start a trend of teams looking to the Great White North for assistant coaches. I'll give Hope some credit for making an unconventional choice, but I'm a little skeptical about just how well the CFL experience will translate to college.

WISCONSIN

Offensive coordinator Matt Canada
Previously:
Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Northern Illinois

Grades

Adam Rittenberg: B

Canada has extensive coordinator experience, including four seasons in the Big Ten at Indiana, but he has been primarily a spread coach in recent seasons. While he had success running a pro-style system during his first stint at Northern Illinois (2003), he'll have to make some adjustments. The good news: he inherits a lot of talent and understands his main job is to keep the momentum going.

Brian Bennett: B-

I was surprised that Bret Bielema didn't chose someone who was a pro-style disciple through and through given his strong comments about not changing the offense much after Paul Chryst left. As Adam said, Canada knows his stuff and has done some good work as a coordinator. But anytime a coach has to adjust his style to a larger system and not the other way around creates a seed of doubt.

Spring preview: Leaders Division

February, 17, 2012
2/17/12
10:00
AM ET
After taking a look at the Legends Division outlook for spring practice, it's time to turn the focus to the Leaders Division.

Away we go ...

ILLINOIS

Start of spring practice: March 7
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • New faces in new roles: Tim Beckman and his assistants get their first chance to work with the players on the field. Beckman retained only one assistant (defensive line coach Keith Gilmore) from the previous staff, so it'll be important for the players and coaches to get acclimated. It's also a big spring for co-offensive coordinators Billy Gonzales and Chris Beatty, both of whom will be primary playcallers for the first time at this level.
  • The quarterbacks: Nathan Scheelhaase is a two-year starter, but he'll have to re-establish himself as the team's top option at quarterback. Reilly O'Toole received a decent amount of field time last season, and Illinois should have a competition under center in spring practice. Both men will have to learn a new offense and show good decision-making skills after combining to throw 12 interceptions last fall.
  • No Merci: All-American defensive end Whitney Mercilus is gone, and Illinois will be looking for his replacement this spring. The defensive line could once again be a strength for the Illini, especially with Gilmore back and an aggressive defensive coordinator in Tim Banks. It'll be interesting to see how the coaches use Michael Buchanan and Justin Staples, who played the "bandit" position in the previous scheme and boast speed but don't have typical defensive end size.
INDIANA

Start of spring practice: March 3
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • Juco fever: Indiana needs a quick fix on defense, and it hopes an influx of junior college players can provide one. Six juco players already are enrolled and will participate in spring practice, including five on the defensive side. It will be interesting to see how players such as defensive back Tregg Waters and linebackers Justin Rayside and Jacarri Alexander perform this spring as they compete to play right away.
  • New direction on offense: Coach Kevin Wilson wants to be more productive in the passing game, and he hired an offensive coordinator in Seth Littrell who can help in that area. Littrell guided an Arizona offense that last season ranked third nationally in passing (370.8 ypg) and 27th in pass efficiency (145.2). He'll try to help Tre Roberson, who Wilson said he thinks can elevate his game significantly as a passer despite throwing twice as many interceptions (six) as touchdowns (three) as a freshman.
  • Who has grown up: Indiana played 32 freshmen (16 true, 16 redshirt) in 2011, the most in the FBS. The early experience should pay off for several players, and Indiana needs them to grow up quickly during the spring. Roberson showed a lot of promise at quarterback, and safety Mark Murphy finished second on the team with 76 tackles. Keep an eye on players such as defensive end Bobby Richardson and receiver/returner Shane Wynn.
OHIO STATE

Start of spring practice: March 28
Spring game: April 21

What to watch:
  • Urban renewal: The mood has improved around Ohio State's program from the moment Urban Meyer stepped to the podium Nov. 28. After putting together his staff, signing an elite recruiting class and ticking off some of his Big Ten coaching colleagues, Meyer finally gets a chance to work with the players on the practice field. After a lackluster final season at Florida in 2010, Meyer says he's refreshed and recharged, and it'll be interesting to see how he attacks practices.
  • The new offense: Ohio State fans can't wait for a new offense after suffering through a 2011 season that featured some extremely questionable play-calling. Meyer's offensive system is well-known throughout college football, but the interesting thing this spring will be how Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman blend their ideas. Herman is a dynamic young coach who impressed a lot of folks at Iowa State. But Ohio State is a different animal, and expectations will be high for quarterback Braxton Miller and the unit.
  • Fickell back on defense: After spending last season as Ohio State's head coach, Luke Fickell returns to an assistant role on the defensive side. And for the first time, Fickell will be the Buckeyes' primary defensive playcaller. Ohio State's defense took a step back last season and will be looking to regain its traditional form. Fickell will work alongside co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers and look to identify some leaders to complement defensive lineman John Simon.
PENN STATE

Start of spring practice: March 26
Spring game: April 21

What to watch:
  • O'Brien's time: Much will be made of Penn State opening spring ball without Joe Paterno, but the real story is how critical these practices will be for new coach Bill O'Brien and his team. Penn State will be acclimating to new systems on both sides of the ball and a new coaching style from O'Brien and his assistant coaches, all but two of whom are from the outside. The learning curve will be accelerated for all involved, as Penn State needs to get a lot done in 15 workouts.
  • The quarterbacks: It's good that O'Brien has extensive experience coaching quarterbacks because no position needs a bigger upgrade at Penn State. The Lions struggled mightily under center last season and need a major boost beginning this spring. Can O'Brien get more out of Matthew McGloin and Rob Bolden, both of whom have seen extensive time in the Big Ten? How does Paul Jones factor into the mix? It'll be interesting to see how the signal-callers perform this spring.
  • Filling gaps on defense: Penn State should have one of the nation's best linebacker groups this season, but the Lions need to fill some holes on the line and in the secondary. Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Devon Still departs, and Penn State will be leaning on Jordan Hill and others to step up. A bigger concern is the secondary, which loses two multiyear starters at safety (Drew Astorino and Nick Sukay). Penn State also has a new defensive coordinator in Ted Roof, who will be looking for better results than he had at Auburn.
PURDUE

Start of spring practice: March 7
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • Another quarterback competition: Boilers coach Danny Hope loves having options at quarterback, and he'll once again get his wish during spring practice. Caleb TerBush, Robert Marve,Rob Henry and Sean Robinson all boast starting experience and will vie for the No. 1 job when workouts resume. Henry, who sizzled last spring and would have started the season if not for a torn ACL, has been cleared to participate in noncontact drills. Marve received an extra year of eligibility and will be in the mix. TerBush started every game last season.
  • Tisebar takes over: Purdue has a new defensive coordinator for the third consecutive season, as Tim Tisebar takes over this spring. Tisebar returns to college football after spending the past three seasons with the Canadian Football League's Montreal Alouettes. Hope hired Tisebar to help Purdue improve against the spread offense and the zone-read game. It will be interesting to see what spin Tisebar puts on the defense as the Boilers enter a pivotal season.
  • Offensive line depth: One of Purdue's strengths last season is a bit light on bodies following several departures. The Boilers need a left tackle to replace Dennis Kelly, and they also must increase depth on the interior line. Purdue already has moved tight end Robert Kugler to center, and Hope said earlier this month that several other tight ends could practice at offensive tackle during the spring.
WISCONSIN

Start of spring practice: March 17
Spring game: April 28

What to watch:
  • A revamped staff: Bret Bielema hired six new assistant coaches during the winter months, including offensive coordinator Matt Canada. The new coaches will have their first opportunity to work with players on the field this spring. It's important for both sides to acclimate, mainly because Wisconsin has had tremendous success the past two seasons and doesn't want the staff shakeup to throw things off course. Quarterback Russell Wilson made a seamless transition to the program last summer. Let's see if the new assistants can do the same in spring ball.
  • The quarterbacks: Speaking of Wilson, he departs Madison, leaving a major void under center. Jon Budmayr and Curt Phillips are coming off of major injuries, and while they're both making progress it could be tough to get a gauge on them this spring. Canada will spend much of his time working with Joel Stave and Joe Brennan, who need to get comfortable with Canada's adjustments to the offense and start establishing themselves as potential team leaders.
  • Reloading up front: Wisconsin will have to replace two All-American offensive linemen for the second consecutive year, and the Badgers lose three All-Big Ten selections up front (Peter Konz, Kevin Zeitler and Josh Oglesby). While the Badgers are built to reload, offensive line coach Mike Markuson has a lot of evaluating to do this spring. On the defensive line, Wisconsin loses two starters (Patrick Butrym and Louis Nzegwu) and will be looking for some difference-makers. End David Gilbert returns to the mix after missing most of last season with a broken foot.
The Big Ten had four 1,000-yard receivers in 2011, all of whom are graduating.

In fact, the league loses its top five receivers -- Iowa's Marvin McNutt, Illinois' A.J. Jenkins, Michigan State's B.J. Cunningham, Northwestern's Jeremy Ebert and Wisconsin's Nick Toon -- and returns just two of its top-10 pass catchers (Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis and Iowa's Keenan Davis). But the departures don't necessarily mean the Big Ten will be scrambling for elite wideouts in 2011.

Consider: of the league's top-10 receivers last fall, only four of them -- Ebert, McNutt, Penn State's Derek Moye and Minnesota's Da'Jon McKnight -- ranked in the top 10 the previous season. So there are receivers who take their game to the next level every season. Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis might have been the best example this past fall, as he caught 35 more passes and recorded 644 more receiving yards than he had in 2010.

[+] EnlargeIowa's Keenan Davis
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesIowa's Keenan Davis is one of two returning players from the Big Ten's top-10 receivers in 2011.
Who will break out in 2012? Again, we're talking wide receivers here, not tight ends, of which there are several talented ones in the Big Ten.

Colleague KC Joyner thinks the Hawkeyes' Davis will take the next step. Davis, pegged to be Iowa's No. 1 wideout following McNutt's departure, is among the players Joyner lists in a recent piece on breakout receivers.

He writes:
An optimist would note that McNutt really wasn't a dominant wideout (his 9.0 YPA was only slightly higher than Davis'), that [Ken] O'Keefe often called, as ESPN.com Big Ten blogger Brian Bennett noted, a "buttoned-down style of play" and that Iowa has a potential Big Ten first-team quarterback in James Vandenberg.

I recently mentioned Davis as one of the Hawkeyes who needs a big offseason to take the next step this fall.

Who are some other potential breakout receivers in the Big Ten?

  • Penn State's Justin Brown: Quarterback is Penn State's top offseason priority, but the Lions also need more from the receiver position. Moye's departure puts Brown in position to be the team's No. 1 target in the passing game. Brown averaged 14.8 yards per catch in 2011 and has the size to beat defensive backs for the ball.
  • Michigan's Roy Roundtree: Roundtree might not qualify as a breakout player as he already has turned in a productive season (72 receptions, 935 receiving yards, 7 TDs in 2010). But after a significant production drop-off last year, Roundtree needs to elevate his play for a Michigan offense looking for a No. 1 wide receiver.
  • Purdue's Antavian Edison: We've seen flashes from Edison in his first two seasons, both as a rusher and as a receiver. He clearly has the ability to take another step after recording 44 receptions for 584 yards and three touchdowns last fall. While Purdue likes to get a lot of players touches on offense, it needs a No. 1 receiver after Justin Siller's departure and Edison has a great opportunity to be that guy.
  • Michigan State's DeAnthony Arnett: Arnett's placement comes with a caveat, as he must attain approval from the NCAA to avoid sitting out a season. But if the Tennessee transfer can play this fall, look out. Michigan State loses its top three receivers and its top tight end from 2011 and needs targets for new quarterback Andrew Maxwell. Arnett had 24 receptions for 242 yards as a freshman at Tennessee and could take a big step forward with the Spartans.
  • Nebraska's Kenny Bell: Bell showed a lot of promise as a true freshman, averaging 14.4 yards per reception with three touchdowns. He had three or more receptions in five of the eight Big Ten games and added three catches and a touchdown against South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl. The Huskers need a lot more from their receivers in 2012, and Bell could move into a featured role.
  • Indiana's Kofi Hughes: I really liked Hughes after watching him last spring, but like many, I assumed Damarlo Belcher would be the team's No. 1 wide receiver and not wash out midseason. Hughes ended up leading Indiana with 36 receptions for 536 receiving yards. He's still relatively new to the position and could take a big step forward in Year 2 of the Kevin Wilson era, as pass-friendly offensive coordinator Seth Littrell arrives.
TUCSON, Ariz. -- It's not difficult to come up with a fair explanation for Arizona's 7-1 start that devolved into a 0-5 finish. In the first eight games, the Wildcats played an easy schedule. They were better than teams such as Toledo, Washington State and UCLA. In the last five games, they played a brutal schedule. Their opponents went a combined 49-15, including two top-five (Stanford and Oregon) and one top-10 team (Oklahoma State).

Still, at 7-1 and ranked 13th with a win over Iowa, the Wildcats headed into a marquee showdown with Stanford on Nov. 6 believing they could play with anyone. Turns out they couldn't. And, considering the Cardinal, Ducks and Cowboys whipped up the Wildcats badly, well, a fair explanation only goes so far.

"It still exposes some things within your team," coach Mike Stoops said. "It told you when the going got tough, we didn't respond as well as we needed to."

[+] EnlargeStanford's Anthony Wilkerson
Jason O. Watson/US PRESSWIREDuring a five-game losing streak that began with a loss to Stanford, coach Mike Stoops said his Wildcats were exposed. "The physical part of it, we didn't respond well," he said.
And where the Wildcats most didn't respond clearly bothers Stoops.

"The physical part of it, we didn't respond well," he said. "We have to be more than just a finesse team. The physical matchup is what I didn't like."

Therein lies the challenge for the Wildcats as they leave spring practices behind and focus on offseason workouts. They must find five new starters on the offensive line -- the 2010 unit decidedly underachieved -- and they must replace the best defensive end combination in the Pac-10: Brooks Reed and Ricky Elmore.

That suggests a need for some finesse due to physical losses. The defense is likely going to have to blitz more, while the offense -- which welcomes back quarterback Nick Foles and one of the best groups of receivers in the country -- is likely going to be pass-heavy.

Said Stoops, "We're going to have to throw to set up the run, I don't think there's any question about that."

Offensive coordinator Seth Littrell, who learned offense from spread savant Mike Leach after four years coaching at Texas Tech, talks about finding "different ways as coaches to scheme people to run the football," but he admits there's going to be a temptation to scrap the handoffs and throw 50 times a game.

"Absolutely. Especially because that's kind of the background where I came from," he said. "That's what I, at times, feel comfortable with. But at the same time you've got to take pressure off the quarterback by running the football."

A key proponent of balance: Foles. All quarterbacks like to throw the ball, but the passing game is much easier when defenses have to respect the run.

"There's definitely a need for balance," Foles said. "People saw that in the national championship game with Oregon, one of the nation's most high-powered offenses. When you can't run the ball, it's tough. Passing is great but to be a great team you've got to be able to do both."

During the five-game losing streak, the Wildcats averaged 98 yards rushing. Not good.

On the other side of the ball, the run defense wasn't much better during the downturn. Oregon rushed for a whopping 389 yards, while Stanford and USC both went over 200.

That's the out-physical-ed part that irks Stoops.

The Wildcats also head into the 2011 season with significant changes on the staff, starting with the departures of one half of the coordinator tandems they used on both sides of the ball in 2010. That means the offense is up to Littrell and the defense belongs to Tim Kish. Stoops said the co-coordinator setup was more of a challenge on offense. The theme this spring was simplify.

"We were trying to mix and match too much last year," he said. "We got discombobulated, I think. We got exposed late in the year on some things. Seth has to grow into this position and have total control with Nick. We need to all be on the same page."

Stoops has built a winning program but taking the next step means that no portion of the schedule proves insurmountable. And, yes, that five-game losing streak still lingers in just about every Wildcats' head, coaches and players.

"We all have it in the back of our minds," linebacker Paul Vassallo said. "It's not talked about anymore. It's the 2011 season. But we're all hungry to get that first win, that's for sure."

Ah, but the scheduled does a reverse next fall. The Wildcats figure to get their first win -- and end the losing streak -- in the opener against Northern Arizona, but then look at the schedule: Oklahoma State, Stanford, Oregon and USC on consecutive weekends. The Cowboys, Cardinal and Ducks each will be ranked in the preseason top-10, and it's still not easy to visit the Coliseum.

It won't be too difficult to come up with a fair explanation for a slow start. But those fair explanations have a shelf life. Stoops and his Wildcats don't want to give them anymore. And Wildcats fans don't want to hear them.

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