NCF Nation: Stephen Hopkins

It's game day at Notre Dame Stadium

September, 22, 2012
9/22/12
6:15
PM ET
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- I'm back at Notre Dame Stadium for the first time since 2007, gearing up for No. 18 Michigan (2-1) against the 11th-ranked Fighting Irish (3-0).

In case you've been in a cave, this series has been just a bit entertaining in recent years, thanks mostly to one man: Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, who celebrates his 22nd birthday today (on Sept. 22, eerie!). The Wolverines senior has been Notre Dame's nightmare the past two seasons, rallying Michigan for wins and setting numerous records in the process. The Wolverines-Irish game takes place under the lights for the second consecutive year after last year's unbelievable finish at the Big House.

Michigan has won its past three meetings with Notre Dame -- all by four points -- and aims for its first four-game win streak in the series since 1898-1908. Although Notre Dame comes off of a big win at Michigan State, the Irish players should be locked in for this one. Notre Dame running back Theo Riddick said this week the three-game slide to Michigan is "basically tatted on us."

Robinson obviously is a huge key for Michigan, but he'll also need help from his receivers to pull off the mini upset tonight. Notre Dame's secondary is the weakness on a mostly stellar defense, and the Irish will be without starting safety Jamoris Slaughter, who suffered a season-ending ruptured Achilles' at Michigan State. The Spartans receivers simply couldn't attack Notre Dame; Michigan's core -- Devin Gardner, Roy Roundtree, Jeremy Gallon, Devin Funchess -- must create separation. It's also a big night for Michigan's lines, which struggled mightily in the season opener against Alabama and will be tested by Notre Dame's fronts on both sides of the ball.

The Wolverines are relatively healthy for the game. Linebacker Desmond Morgan and running back Stephen Hopkins both should return from injuries this week.

I picked Notre Dame 27-20, while Bennett forecasts another Michigan win (28-24).

Stay tuned for more coverage throughout the night.
Michigan's challenge against defending national champion Alabama may have just gotten even more difficult.

[+] EnlargeFitzgerald Toussaint
Rick Osentoski/US PresswireRB Fitzgerald Toussaint has been suspended indefinitely.
Star running back Fitz Toussaint has been suspended indefinitely following a weekend arrest for drunk driving. According to reports, the junior was stopped for a traffic violation in downtown Ann Arbor just a little before midnight Saturday and failed a breathalyzer test. Head coach Brady Hoke announced Monday afternoon that Toussaint is suspended indefinitely.

By definition, we don't know how long that indefinite suspension will last. It is reasonable, however, to conclude that Toussaint may not be available for the opener against the Crimson Tide at Cowboys Stadium. And if so, that's a tough blow.

Toussaint ran for 1,041 yards last season, doing much of his best work late in the season. He spoke confidently this spring about surpassing 1,600 rushing yards this season. His emergence in the middle of last year lightened the offensive load on star quarterback Denard Robinson and made the Wolverines' offense that much more versatile and dangerous. Michigan will need all the weapons it has to try and move the ball effectively against what is expected to be another fierce Alabama defense.

If Toussaint is out for the opener, or even longer, the Wolverines would most likely turn to sophomore Thomas Rawls as their main tailback. A physical, 219-pounder, Rawls earned praise from Hoke for his play this spring and was described by offensive coordinator Al Borges as "a battering ram." He doesn't have the explosiveness of Toussaint, but a guy who can run through tackles might not be bad to have against 'Bama, anyway.

Other options at tailback include veterans Vincent Smith and Stephen Hopkins and sophomore Justice Hayes. Still, there's a big dropoff from Toussaint to anyone else in terms of experience and production.

Again, we don't know for sure how long this suspension will last. Hoke dismissed receiver Darryl Stonum this winter after traffic violations landed Stonum in jail, but the troubled player had previous run-ins with the law. This is, as far as we know, Toussaint's first misstep.

It hasn't been a great offseason for Michigan players. Starting defensive tackle Will Campbell pleaded guilty earlier Monday to a civil infraction for blocking a sidewalk; he'll be sentenced later this week for a misdemeanor destruction of property charge. He had originally been charged with felony destruction of property and possession of alcohol by a minor. Receiver Jerald Robinson had a warrant out for his arrest for allegedly damaging a parking gate; his case is scheduled to be heard later this summer.

But Toussaint is the biggest name of the bunch and his suspension could be costly. Without him, the Michigan offense could be back to a familiar place in the 2012 opener: relying on Denard Robinson to make some magic.
If Al Borges had his preference, Michigan would be running more of a pro-style offense. That's clearly the future for the Wolverines and the type of players they have been recruiting.

But Borges is no dummy. He knows he has Denard Robinson at quarterback for one more year. Michigan wisely did not try to cram Robinson into an ill-fitting system last year, as Borges adjusted his offense to his star player's unique talents. That worked out pretty well, as the Wolverines went 11-2 and won the Sugar Bowl.

So the full-fledged movement to a pro style can wait another year.

[+] EnlargeDenard Robinson
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesDenard Robinson will need to improve his accuracy and cut down on his interceptions in 2012.
"We have pieces of our offense that are still very pro style, like our passing game," Borges told ESPN.com. "But we're still very much a spread because of Denard, and we'll continue to be because that is the best thing that suits his skill set. We'll have some plays under center at times, and we were very productive at those last year. But because of Denard's running ability, that will never be a prominent part of our offense."

The most frequent and often tiresome question around the Michigan offense is how much Robinson will run the ball. Borges found a nice balance last year, using it as a weapon but also keeping his quarterback mostly healthy. He sees no reason to alter that formula.

"I don't see his role changing any," Borges said. "We may up the ante a little bit with him throwing a couple more times a game. But any change will be subtle and hardly noticeable."

Robinson completed only 55 percent of his passes last season and threw 15 interceptions, the most in the Big Ten. That obviously has to improve. Borges said he's been working on Robinson's footwork and hip placement. Another year in the system should also help.

"He's probably at the top of the list of guy who just understand better," Borges said. "Last year at this time, he couldn't call the play. Now he can call the play with no problems at all. We're still working hard on his fundamentals to get him better that way, but his understanding is so much better than it was a year ago."

Borges also knows he has another strong option in the backfield in running back Fitz Toussaint, who emerged as a star midway through last season and finished with more than 1,000 yards rushing.

"He didn't really come on until the fourth or fifth game of the season," Borges said. "Now he'll be in there from the beginning and show his worth from Day 1. If he stays healthy, he can have a hell of a year."

Michigan has good depth at running back with Vincent Smith, Stephen Hopkins and Thomas Rawls returning. Borges said the coaching staff is taking "a hard look" at redshirt freshman Justice Hayes this spring.

Wide receiver isn't quite as deep with Junior Hemingway gone and Darryl Stonum dismissed from the team. Roy Roundtree, Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo are the returning veterans, and Borges said redshirt sophomore Jerald Robinson has looked very good early on in spring practice. Some incoming freshmen will likely have a chance to contribute as well.

Roundtree might hold the key to the group. He had 72 catches for 935 receiving yards and seven touchdowns as a sophomore but caught just 19 balls for 355 yards last season. Borges has moved Roundtree to flanker, which was Hemingway's spot a year ago.

"Playing flanker, I think you'll see Roy's numbers go back up," Borges said. "He's in great shape, running well and catching the ball right now in our first couple of practices. He's playing as well as he's played since I've been here. He's learned how to run the routes and read the coverages, and he has a big-play dimension to him. If he stays in one piece, I look for him to have a big year."

Just don't look for Michigan to change too much else this year on offense.
Brian Kelly was asked Sunday about the growth of his defense since Notre Dame's loss last season to Navy, which utilized the triple-option offense to run for four touchdowns and 367 yards -- including 210 from Alexander Teich -- in a 35-17 rout by the Midshipmen.

"You know, I think the Navy game was schematic more than it was kids not understanding how to play the right kind of defense," Kelly said. "So if you look at that as not about our players, I think we've showed steady improvement since last year. I think it's continuously been better and better defensive play leading up to where we are right now.

[+] EnlargeAsher Clark
AP Photo/Luis M. AlvarezAsher Clark is averaging 9.3 yards per carry for Air Force this season.
"We still have a ways to go. But I will tell you this, that it's tough to run the ball on us, and that's where you wanna start. So our starting point was, be difficult to run the ball on, and then let's continue to improve in the back end."

After that loss last Oct. 23, the Fighting Irish did not allow another 100-yard rusher over their last five games and gave up just one touchdown run, a 1-yard sneak by USC quarterback Mitch Mustain. Over their last four games, Notre Dame did not allow so much as a 50-yard rusher.

Only one player has rushed for more than 100 yards against the Irish since their loss to Navy, and that was Denard Robinson in Week 2 of this season. Robinson's 16-carry, 108-yard effort on the ground Sept. 10 is just as notable for another number Shoelace put up that night: One, as in the number of rushing touchdowns he scored. As in the only rushing touchdown Notre Dame has allowed this season.

And even that could be considered a fluke, as Robinson simply scooped up the ball and took it in for a 1-yard score after Irish safety Harrison Smith jarred it from Michigan running back Stephen Hopkins.

In allowing just one score on the ground this year, Notre Dame is tied for the nation lead with four other schools. The Irish have allowed just 91.2 yards per game on the ground this season, good for 19th nationally.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that this Saturday's contest against Air Force and its triple-option offense should be a fascinating test of execution on each side of the ball.

The Falcons' 364.5 rushing yards per game are good for third in the nation. Only seven teams have scored more than Air Force's 15 rushing touchdowns, but six of them have played five games to the Falcons' four.

The challenge could be all the more difficult if defensive end Ethan Johnson cannot play. Johnson, a two-year starter, suffered a right ankle sprain in Saturday's 38-10 win at Purdue, and Kelly would only say that there's a chance he could return this weekend.

"We'll immobilize him for the next few days and then get him moving and see," the second-year coach said. "It's one of those things where it's such an individual case-by-case situation when it comes to ankles, so he'll be immobilized.

"Last night he was in a boot. He'll stay in that until probably mid-week and then we'll start moving him and see what he looks like."

If Johnson can't go, Aaron Lynch will likely get the start. Known for his ability to rush the passer, Lynch saw more action Saturday after fellow freshman Stephon Tuitt did not make the trip to West Lafayette, Ind., because of a violation of Kelly's missed-class policy.

Kelly said after the game he expected Tuitt back, but neither Tuitt nor Lynch played Week 2 at Michigan because of the complex offense the Wolverines and, more specifically, Robinson, ran.

In any event, it makes this week's contest all the more important, one that can't be overlooked with a bye week and USC looming afterward.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Just when Notre Dame thought it had some breathing room, Denard Robinson showed what all the hype is about. And he's keeping Michigan in the game.

Robinson hit Junior Hemingway on a short pass in the open field that went for 77 yards to the Irish 6 and faced a third-and-goal from the 1 at the start of the fourth quarter. Notre Dame, victim of so many red zone troubles so far, finally got its payback, knocking the ball loose from Stephen Hopkins.

Of course, Robinson was right there to pick it up and walk in for the score.

It's 24-14 Irish with 14:54 to go, plenty of time for a few more unconventional clutch plays from a Michigan quarterback. Notre Dame fans have seen this before, and the Irish will look to flip the script this time around.
Beginning today, we're going to start ranking each position group in the Big Ten. These rankings will reflect the overall strength at each position, so depth matters as well as individual star power. Following each group ranking, we'll also give out our list of the top individual players at that position.

Let's start out with a look at the running back groups across the Big Ten.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball and James White
AP Photo/Morry GashMontee Ball and James White did a lot of celebrating last season, as the duo combined for 32 TDs.
1. Wisconsin: No surprise at the top. Even with John Clay gone and Zach Brown transferring, the Badgers are loaded at tailback. They've still got junior Montee Ball, who finished four yards shy of 1,000 last season with 18 touchdowns, along with reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year James White, who ran for 1,052 yards and 14 touchdowns. Throw in senior fullback Bradie Ewing and redshirt freshman Jeff Lewis, and the Badgers should be powerful on the ground yet again in 2011.

2. Michigan State: Other than Wisconsin, the Spartans have the best collection of experience and talent in the backfield. First-team All-Big Ten performer Edwin Baker ran for 1,201 yards and 13 scores last year. Le'Veon Bell, a 237-pound bruiser, complemented him as a true freshman with 605 yards and eight scores. Larry Caper is a capable veteran, and fifth-year senior Todd Anderson starts at fullback. The Spartans are deep and versatile in their rushing attack.

3. Ohio State: The Buckeyes might have earned a higher ranking if Dan Herron were eligible to play a full season. But with Herron (1,155 yards and 16 scores in '10) suspended for the first five games, Ohio State will need some youngsters to fill his shoes. The good news is that there are plenty of talented candidates. Jaamal Berry is the leading returning rusher outside of Herron, and he averaged 8.3 yards per carry in a limited role last season. Jordan Hall and Carlos Hyde will also battle for more playing time, while redshirt freshman Rod Smith could emerge as the No. 1 tailback after an impressive offseason. Zach Boren is back at fullback. Things may be in flux in Columbus, but you can almost always count on a good running game from the Buckeyes.

[+] EnlargeNebraska's Rex Burkhead
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesJunior Rex Burkhead averaged 5.5 yards per carry last season and scored seven TDs.
4. Nebraska: The Cornhuskers led the Big 12 in rushing last season with 247.6 yards per game on the ground, good for ninth in the FBS. Leading rusher Roy Helu Jr. is gone, but junior Rex Burkhead returns after a 951-yard campaign. He will occasionally line up at receiver or take snaps in the Wildcat. The Cornhuskers lack experience behind him but are expecting big contributions from incoming freshmen Aaron Green and Amer Abdullah. ESPN Recruiting ranked Green as the No. 11 player overall in the Class of 2011.

5. Penn State: Yes, the school's all-time leading rusher has moved on, as Evan Royster graduated. But the Nittany Lions still feel confident about their running game, which should be led by sophomore Silas Redd. He ran for 461 yards and 5.7 yards per carry as a true freshman, showing a physical style. Senior Stephfon Green will be asked to take on a larger role, and Brandon Beachum is back after missing last season with a knee injury. Joe Suhey and Michael Zordich are productive players at the fullback spot.

6. Purdue: The Boilermakers' stock in this chart could go up if Ralph Bolden successfully returns from injury. So far, so good for Bolden, who was a second-team All-Big Ten performer in 2009. Rob Henry led the team in rushing last year with 547 yards, but fullback Dan Dierking graduated. Junior college transfer Akeem Shavers got a lot of carries this spring and should contribute, and Reggie Pegram also is in the mix.

7. Iowa: Running back depth is a serious issue for Kirk Ferentz and the Hawkeyes. Adam Robinson, who would have been the leading returning running back in the Big Ten in terms of yards per game, was dismissed from the team following a December arrest. Marcus Coker could emerge as a superstar, however, after starting four of Iowa's final five games as a true freshman. He was the offensive MVP of the Insight Bowl with 219 rushing yards on 33 carries and has drawn comparisons to former Doak Walker Award winner Shonn Greene. There's virtually no proven experience behind him, though, and three-year starting fullback Brett Morse is no longer around.

8. Michigan: If only we could count Denard Robinson as a running back. Brady Hoke plans to cut down on Shoelace's carries, which means the Wolverines' tailbacks will get more of a chance to shine. The question is who will step up. Senior Michael Shaw and junior Vincent Smith split time as starters last season, while Stephen Hopkins and Michael Cox are in the mix for more carries. Can celebrated recruit Justice Hayes contribute right away?

9. Illinois: Mikel Leshoure's dash to the NFL left the Illini with uncertainty at running back. Senior Jason Ford, the most likely successor, sat out much of spring ball with a hurt knee, while Troy Pollard's promising spring was cut short by a concussion. Incoming freshman Donovonn Young will get a look this fall.

10. Northwestern: Like Nebraska and Michigan, Northwestern relied on its quarterback -- in this case Dan Persa-- for a heavy chunk of the rushing yards. Mike Trumpy came on late in the year as a freshman and solidified his starting spot with a strong spring. Sophomore Adonis Smith, senior Jacob Schmidt and junior Tyris Jones will fight for carries behind him.

11. Minnesota: There was healthy competition at tailback this spring with a mixture of veterans and fresh faces. DeLeon Eskridge led the team last year with 698 rushing yards, while Duane Bennett added 529. They're being pushed by redshirt freshmen Donnell Kirkwood and Lamonte Edwards. New coach Jerry Kill will look to improve on the Gophers' paltry 3.6 yards per carry average last season. This is a group that could make a major move up the rankings.

12. Indiana: New Hoosiers coach Kevin Wilson has a challenge in figuring out this group. Three of the top candidates for the starting tailback job, Darius Willis, Antonio Banks and Xavier Whitaker, all suffered season-ending knee injuries in 2010 and missed spring practice. IU's leading rusher last season finished with just 352 yards. Nick Turner and Matt Perez got the bulk of the reps in the spring. Perhaps Wilson's high-tempo offense will improve the stats for Indiana ball carriers.
Since many of you have asked, I won't be attending any spring games this weekend (or next, for that matter). It's a little tough to explain to non-media folks, but I get a lot more out of visiting campuses midweek than for spring games, when things are chaotic. The good news: I'll recap every spring game Monday.

Now it's time to preview the six Big Ten spring games on tap Saturday (in reverse alphabetical order) ...

PENN STATE

The vitals: Blue-White Game presented by AAA kicks off at 2 p.m. ET Saturday at Beaver Stadium; admission and parking are free

More details: Penn State has a pregame autograph session and a ton of events planned for the weekend. All the information can be found here.

Three things to watch

1. The quarterbacks: The race for the starting job has been the top story at Penn State this spring, and all four candidates will be on the field Saturday. Most eyes will be on sophomore Rob Bolden and junior Matt McGloin, who split the starts in 2010 and have paced one another throughout the spring. Both players have impressed the coaches, who likely won't name a starter until the summer. Saturday marks the final chance for Bolden and McGloin to showcase their abilities for the coaches and fans before spring ball concludes.

2. Line play: Penn State has to upgrade both lines if it wants to contend in the Leaders division this season. The Lions have very little depth at defensive end because of injuries, but fans should keep an eye on defensive tackles Devon Still, Jordan Hill and Brandon Ware, all of whom have drawn praise from the coaches this spring. Penn State needs a big year from its interior linemen. The offensive line boasts four seniors and should be solid at the tackle spots, but it'll be interesting to see how the guards and centers perform as Penn State must replace standout Stefen Wisniewski.

3. Running backs: Injuries will keep several Penn State playmakers on the sideline Saturday, but fans should get a clear read on the running backs. There's a lot of hype for Silas Redd after a solid freshman season, but he's being pushed by Stephfon Green and Brandon Beachum, who has stood out this spring after missing all of last season with a torn ACL. Green and Redd both have breakaway ability, while Beachum could be the power back Penn State has missed in recent years.

NORTHWESTERN

The vitals: The spring football "exhibition," which will be more of a situational scrimmage, kicks off at noon CT (1 p.m. ET) at Ryan Field; admission and parking are free but fans are encouraged to bring nonperishable canned-food items for a food drive.

More details: Northwestern is holding a youth football clinic and several other events. All the info can be found here.

Three things to watch

1. The race for backup QB: All-Big Ten selection Dan Persa is on track to return by late May or early June, but he won't be taking any snaps Saturday. Northwestern will divide the reps evenly between three signal-callers -- sophomore Kain Colter, junior Evan Watkins and redshirt freshman Trevor Siemian -- vying to play behind Persa this season. Colter is the most intriguing candidate after a breakout performance against Texas Tech in the TicketCity Bowl, but all three players have endured some ups and downs this spring.

2. New faces on defense: The coaches feel they've upgraded the athleticism on defense with recent recruiting, especially at spots like linebacker and defensive back. Northwestern's defense looked slow and overmatched at times last season, and quite a few jobs are open this spring. Keep an eye on players such as linebackers David Nwabuisi and Damian Proby and redshirt freshman safety Ibraheim Campbell, a player coach Pat Fitzgerald has praised multiple times this spring.

3. The running backs: Persa carried the run game in 2010 but admits he took too many shots and will try to limit the damage this fall. He could use more help from a run game that has suffered since Tyrell Sutton graduated. Mike Trumpy provided a spark late last year and has had a good spring, and Adonis Smith has a year under his belt. Keep an eye on Tyris Jones, a physical runner who has stepped up this spring as a running back/H-back.

(Read full post)

Recapping the Big Ten scrimmages

August, 23, 2010
8/23/10
9:07
AM ET
Scrimmages took center stage around the Big Ten this weekend as teams moved closer to the end of camp and the start of game preparations. I have links and a few thoughts on each scrimmage below, but only on the teams that put out information about what happened or had media in attendance. Those teams are: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern, Ohio State and Wisconsin.

I'll do my best with Michigan's scrimmage, which oddly was open to fans but not media.

ILLINOIS

The Illini broke camp in Rantoul, Ill., and scrimmaged Saturday at Memorial Stadium. Check out what happened here and here and here and here.

Quick hitters
  • Illinois' coaches can talk all they want about running back by committee, but it's clear that junior Mikel Leshoure is the team's top option. As he did throughout the second half of last season, Leshoure showcased his big-play ability Saturday with a 49-yard touchdown run. Leshoure finished with 102 rush yards and two scores on only 12 carries. Jason Ford also had a nice day Saturday, but Leshoure is the guy to watch out for this fall.
  • After struggling in the first camp scrimmage, Illinois' first-team defense rebounded nicely Saturday. According to Mark Tupper, the first-team defense allowed only 59 net yards in 41 plays in the scrimmage. Defensive end Michael Buchanan and linebacker Martez Wilson were among the standouts.
  • Although starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase had a shaky day, Illinois might have found another capable wide receiver in Eddie McGee, the team's former backup quarterback. McGee beat cornerback Miami Thomas on a jump ball in the end zone to record a touchdown and finished with three receptions for 56 yards.
INDIANA

The Hoosiers held a 96-play Saturday at Memorial Stadium, and you can read all about it here, here (subscription required) and here.

Quick hitters
  • Redshirt freshman Dusty Kiel has established himself as the team's backup quarterback in camp. Kiel, who has been competing with Edward Wright-Baker, had an excellent scrimmage, completing 14 of 16 passes for 129 yards and a touchdown.
  • Indiana used the scrimmage to assess its offensive line depth and limited the participation for sure-fire starters like center Will Matte and right tackle James Brewer. Coach Bill Lynch wanted to get a better read on his backup center and had Jordan Marquette, Chris Ahlfeld and Steve Fiacable take reps in the scrimmage. Ted Bolser stepped up nicely at tight end with five catches for 46 yards and a touchdown.
  • The Hoosiers' already-shaky secondary suffered a blow as safety Chris Adkins had to be carried off the field because of an ankle injury. The extent of Adkins' injury is unclear at this point.
MICHIGAN

Michigan held a scrimmage Saturday at Michigan Stadium. It was open to some fans but not media, and while I love fan reports, I'm relying mostly on this video from the school's official website.
  • I really like what I've seen from freshman running back Stephen Hopkins, both in Saturday's scrimmage and during the Big Ten Network's tour stop. He gives the Wolverines a different look in the backfield at 6-foot, 227 pounds. Michigan boasts plenty of speed backs, but Hopkins provides the type of downhill, between-the-tackles running you need in the Big Ten.
  • Quarterback Denard Robinson looked pretty smooth in the scrimmage video, both as a passer and a runner. He hit his receivers in stride and broke off a long touchdown run, juking safety Jared Van Slyke before reaching the end zone. All signs continue to point toward Robinson being named the starter, but we'll see.
MICHIGAN STATE

The Spartans held a 130-play controlled scrimmage Saturday at Spartan Stadium, closed to the media. The defense prevailed 45-32 as the team used a modified scoring system. Recaps can be found here and here.

Quick hitters
  • It was a good day for the defense and a great day for the linebackers, who should be Michigan State's strongest unit this fall. Eric Gordon recorded a scrimmage-best nine tackles, while Greg Jones added eight, including two for loss. Jon Misch had 2.5 tackles for loss and a quarterback hurry, and Chris Norman had six tackles and a pass breakup. "The linebackers were very active," coach Mark Dantonio said.
  • Wide receiver B.J. Cunningham is having a very strong camp, and he continued it Saturday with five receptions for 67 yards, including a 30-yard touchdown from Kirk Cousins. Cousins and Cunningham hooked up for two touchdowns in the team's first fall scrimmage. It's a pretty crowded mix at receiver, but Cunningham has put himself in a great position.
MINNESOTA

Minnesota held an open scrimmage Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium, and you can read all about it here, here and here.

Quick hitters
  • Minnesota's first-string offensive line stepped up nicely in the scrimmage, keeping quarterback Adam Weber safe and allowing him to complete 7 of 9 passes for 70 yards and two touchdowns. There was, however, a significant drop-off when the second- and third-team offensive linemen entered the scrimmage. "I didn't feel like some of the [second and third team] took advantage of the opportunity to go play today," coach Tim Brewster told the (St. Paul) Pioneer Press.
  • Freshman running back Donnell Kirkwood has put himself in the mix for carries this fall alongside Duane Bennett and DeLeon Eskridge. Kirkwood had 19 carries in Saturday's scrimmage with a long run of 14 yards. Offensive coordinator Jeff Horton praised Kirkwood when we talked a few weeks ago.
  • MarQueis Gray is still getting reps as a reserve quarterback, but it's coming clear his primary role this fall will be at wide receiver, as long as Weber stays healthy. Gray seems to be embracing the change, and his big frame could really help the Gophers after the loss of Eric Decker. "I am pretty sure I can find a hole somewhere to catch the ball and get upfield for Weber when he throws it to me," he told the Star Tribune.
NORTHWESTERN

The Wildcats ended their off-campus training in Kenosha, Wis., with an open scrimmage. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald held out a large group of starters on both sides, so second- and third-teamers got most of the work. Recaps can be found here and here.

Quick hitters
  • Freshman receiver Venric Mark will make an immediate impact this fall, especially for Northwestern's middling return teams. Mark had an excellent scrimmage, recording a 28-yard touchdown catch and breaking off several big returns. Generously listed at 5-8 and 165 pounds, Mark also threw a block that helped classmate Adonis Smith reach the end zone.
  • A battle could be brewing at backup quarterback. As starter Dan Persa watched from the sideline, true freshman Trevor Siemian completed 10 of 13 passes for 112 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Siemian could push redshirt freshman Evan Watkins, who completed only four of seven passes.
  • Freshman defensive end Will Hampton could work his way into the rotation this fall. Hampton recorded a tackle for loss in the scrimmage.
OHIO STATE

Ohio State held its jersey scrimmage Saturday at Ohio Stadium, as the offense prevailed 54-48 after 130-140 plays. The scrimmage was open to the media, and you can find recaps here, here and here.

Quick hitters
  • Quarterback Terrelle Pryor had a so-so day, although he wore a no-contact jersey and couldn't be the running threat he'll be after Sept. 4. Pryor completed only 10 of 24 pass attempts but did fire a 25-yard touchdown strike to Taurian Washington, considered the front-runner for the No. 3 wide receiver spot. He also found tight end Jake Stoneburner for a 25-yard gain and nearly threw an interception in the end zone.
  • Andrew Sweat appears to have a slight edge on Etienne Sabino for the third starting linebacker spot. Sabino entered camp as the favorite to start, but Sweat logged more time with the first-team defense Saturday and recovered a Brandon Saine fumble.
  • Coach Jim Tressel said he hopes to get defensive end Nathan Williams (knee) back by the Sept. 2 opener against Marshall. Meanwhile, several young defensive linemen stood out Saturday. Redshirt freshman Adam Bellamy recorded three sacks and true freshman Johnathan Hankins added one.
WISCONSIN

The Badgers scrimmaged Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium. The session was open to the media, and you can read all about it here and here.
  • Wisconsin's offense moved the ball decently but struggled to finish drives, as Antonio Fenelus picked off a Scott Tolzien pass and safety Aaron Henry broke up a pass in the end zone. It was a theme throughout the scrimmage. There's little doubt Wisconsin can control the clock and keep moving the chains with its balanced attack, but it must execute in the red zone.
  • Freshman running back James White had a good day and could push Zach Brown for the No. 3 spot on the depth chart. White had runs of 29, 26 and 22 yards, the last for a touchdown, in the scrimmage. Starting tailback John Clay, by the way, had 11 carries for 51 yards.
  • Backup quarterback Jon Budmayr had a tough scrimmage, going 0-for-9 passing on his first three series with two near interceptions. He finished 9-for-27 for 107 yards for a touchdown and an interception. Wisconsin really can't lose Tolzien and would get a big boost if Curt Phillips can return from his knee injury early in the season.
I'll be providing brief recaps of all 11 Big Ten spring games during the next few weeks. Let's get started with Michigan, one of five teams to hold its spring game on Saturday.

[+] EnlargeRobinson
AP Photo/Tony DingDenard Robinson seems to be more comfortable in the Rich Rodriguez offense during the spring game.
As expected, the Wolverines' quarterbacks were in the spotlight at the Big House, and sophomore Denard Robinson rose to the occasion. Robinson, who last year couldn't complement his fast feet with consistent passing, showed excellent zip on the ball and connected for several big plays, none bigger than a 97-yard touchdown strike to Roy Roundtree. He seemed to be making better reads instead of forcing things like he did last season. Clearly, a full offseason has paid off for Shoelace.

Robinson took the field first and led the offense to touchdowns on five of six possessions against the second-team defense. Forcier worked mainly against the first-team defense and led three scoring drives in six possessions. So Foricer had the tougher assignment overall.

Head coach Rich Rodriguez said Robinson and Forcier will enter fall camp neck-and-neck for the starting job, with true freshman Devin Gardner a bit behind them, but Robinson has the momentum entering the summer.

From The Detroit News:

"Tate and Denard are a little bit ahead of Devin, because they have a little more experience," Rodriguez said. "And Denard, overall in the spring, has probably had a few better practices than Tate has."



I saw most of Michigan's scrimmage on the Big Ten Network, and Robinson looked like the most confident quarterback out there. I wouldn't count out Forcier, who has more experience and still made some nice plays, but he'll need to match Robinson in August to retain the starting job for the season. He seemed really disappointed after a holding penalty negated a touchdown during the overtime session, brushing past a teammate on the sideline. Rodriguez has challenged Forcier throughout the spring, and he'll need to step up.

Other nuggets:

  • Michigan's defense still needs a bit of work, though linebacker Obi Ezeh had a nice scrimmage, intercepting a pass from Gardner, who showed some freshman nerves. It would have been nice to see the first-team defense go more against the No. 1 offense, but Michigan has done more of that during closed practices this spring.
  • The kicking game could be a real adventure for Michigan, which really needs incoming freshman punter Will Hagerup to provide a boost. Keep in mind that punting has been arguably Michigan's greatest strength the last two years with All-American Zoltan Mesko booming kicks, so field position likely will change this fall.
  • The Wolverines will play more than one running back this season, and they seem to have decent depth there. Michael Shaw enters the summer with a slight edge, but both Michael Cox and Fitzgerald Toussaint showed some good signs during spring ball. Michigan's most intriguing running back prospect might be 236-pound freshman Stephen Hopkins, who brings some size to the backfield. Vincent Smith rejoins the mix in August.
  • Starting cornerback Troy Woolfolk missed the spring game after breaking a finger in practice while breaking up a Gardner pass. According to the Detroit Free Press, the bone broke through the skin but Woolfolk, who now goes by T-wolf, didn't cry.

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