NCF Nation: Stephfon Green

Before leaving Penn State for a new home at USC, running back Silas Redd left Bill Belton with a simple message.

"He said, 'It's your time now. You've got to move forward and prepare yourself for the big games coming up this year,'" Belton recalled.

Belton has done just that.

Football is a game of opportunity, whether it comes by virtue of injury, academic missteps or, in Penn State's case, historic NCAA sanctions that prompted a wave of transfers. Redd, a second-team All-Big Ten selection in 2011, was among those to depart Happy Valley, leaving Penn State with a sizable void in the backfield.

Belton is working to fill it for the 2012 season. Despite little experience as a primary running back, Belton locked up the starting job in preseason camp.

"He's definitely cemented himself as a starter at this point," coach Bill O'Brien said last week. "Other guys will play, but Billy will start the game. ... Billy's a good football player."

[+] EnlargeBill Belton
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarBill Belton saw time as a receiver and Wildcat quarterback last season but will start at tailback as a sophomore for Penn State this fall.
After playing wide receiver and some Wildcat quarterback as a true freshman in 2011, Belton transitioned to running back this spring. Little did he know how much his move would mean. Redd's departure, along with the losses of Stephfon Green and Brandon Beachum, leave Penn State without a back who recorded more than 50 carries in 2011. Curtis Dukes, who missed spring practice because of academic issues, logged 41 carries for 237 yards last fall. Penn State's next-most-productive ball-carrier? Belton, with 13 carries for 65 yards, many as the speedy triggerman for the Wildcat offense.

Regardless of his inexperience as a primary running back -- Belton played quarterback for Winslow Township High School in Atco, N.J. -- he impressed O'Brien this spring and continued to do so after Redd's departure July 31.

"Sy was big here," Belton said of Redd, who rushed for 1,241 yards and seven touchdowns last fall. "Silas is a great friend of mine and I wish him the best of luck. But I'm definitely ready for the opportunity moving forward."

Belton prepared himself in the weight room this summer with new strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald. Running backs coach Charles London told Belton about the physical toll pass protection takes on running backs. Like Redd, who transformed his body between the 2010 and 2011 seasons to take the pounding, Belton "leaned up" and added muscle mass.

Although he actually was a bit heavier in 2011 and hopes to play around 203 pounds this season, Belton is confident in his progress.

"I feel like I'm in the best shape of my life right now," he said.

Penn State will lean on Belton for carries behind a potentially improved offensive line, but the sophomore's versatility could be his biggest asset for the offense. The receiver position returns almost no experience, and while Belton recorded only one reception in 2011, he can help the passing game.

"That adds a dimension to the game," Belton said. "You've got to account for the backs, too."

O'Brien said Belton recorded an 80-yard touchdown run in a scrimmage early in camp and has improved his pass protection. Asked how many carries he can handle, Belton said as many as the coaches give him.

"You strive to be the best," he said. "That's basically what I’m trying to do this year. I'm definitely looking forward to September 1st "


COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The tendency during a time of crisis is to go conservative, limit risks and simply try to survive.

Penn State is mired in a crisis, perhaps the biggest crisis in college sports history. A sex-abuse scandal has enveloped the institution. Beloved football coach Joe Paterno has been fired, and recently his son Scott said his father had been diagnosed with a treatable form of lung cancer. Assistant coach Mike McQueary has been placed on administrative leave. Coaches are shuffling responsibilities. The future is hazy.

And, by the way, Penn State finds itself in the thick of the Big Ten title race.

Given these circumstances, few would blame Penn State, already known as one of the nation's most conservative football programs, to play it even safer with its schemes and personnel. Crisis Management 101, right?

Think again.

Interim coach Tom Bradley and his staff decided this would be the perfect time to shake up the offense. The Wildcat formation, run by two former high school quarterbacks, Curtis Drake and Bill Belton, fueled a potent rushing attack in Penn State's 20-14 victory against Ohio State at Ohio Stadium.

The new wrinkle led to a new result in a place Penn State had won just once before (2008) as a member of the Big Ten.

"With all that we've been going through, we need a spark," said Drake, who had a 38-yard scamper and finished with 50 yards on three carries. "We need something new, we need to uplift ourselves. ... [The coaches] were looking at it just to say, 'We've got nothing else to lose. We've been kicked, we've been spit on by everybody. So now let's just go out and play.'"

[+] EnlargePenn State's Curtis Drake
Kirk Irwin/Getty ImagesCurtis Drake was one of two Penn State players to take snaps out of the wildcat. "With all that we've been going through, we need a spark," Drake said.
Penn State set the tone Saturday on its opening drive when Drake, lined up in the Wildcat, took the snap and handed the ball to Stephfon Green, who raced 39 yards to the end zone. Penn State racked up 91 yards out of the Wildcat in the first half and finished the game with 239 rush yards and two touchdowns on 39 carries (6.1 ypc).

Belton had practiced at quarterback on the scout team heading into the Nebraska game. After seeing Belton "torch" his defense for 10 days, Bradley wanted to use Belton against the opposition. Drake always had been an option at Wildcat, but his recovery from a leg injury kept the plan on hold.

"We'd thought about it a while ago, but we never just got to the package," Bradley said. "We thought today coming in, it would just give us a little change of pace, which it did."

No team in America could use a change of pace more than Penn State. The program has been under siege the past two weeks. Paterno's firing last Wednesday triggered an outpouring of emotion, and the players weren't immune from it.

Then came Friday, when Bradley informed the players of Paterno's cancer diagnosis.

"When it rains, it pours," linebacker Glenn Carson said. "That was what was said amongst each other. It's been a tough week, it's been a tough couple days for us. But I can't be more proud of how this team [handled] the adversity."

Joe's son Jay, the team's quarterbacks coach, wanted to keep the news about his father private until the end of the season, but realized it wouldn't be possible with the intense media attention. While Jay Paterno learned of his father's diagnosis last week, he didn't even tell his children until Friday.

Bradley repeatedly checked in with Jay Paterno, telling him if he needed to miss a meeting to be with his family, don't hesitate to do go. Jay stayed.

"I would go to work and look at film of Ohio State and that was frightening enough," he said. "Working on the game plan, it really kept me distracted. ... It's one of those things that if I didn't do my job and didn't carry it like I'm supposed to, I think I'd be disappointed in myself. But it's not easy."

The other coaches have taken a similar approach.

"It's very emotional," said defensive line coach Larry Johnson, who coordinated the defense with linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden on Saturday. "I try to leave the house in the morning, try to leave all that behind, walk in the [football] building and try to turn myself back into a coach as quick as possible. You can't help but have emotion with the things that have happened. The Coach Paterno news, the victims, we pray for them every day and we make sure we honor them.

"And then we go to work."

Johnson said the players, despite their age, might have an easier time focusing because they didn't know former assistant Jerry Sandusky and weren't at the school when the alleged sexual abuse occurred. But the players know Paterno and they know McQueary, who wide receiver Derek Moye said played a huge role communicating offensive plays and personnel decisions.

Although Friday's news was yet another blow, game day brought players a refuge.

"Guys are anxious to get on the field," quarterback Matthew McGloin said, "just to forget about what's been going on for however long it is, three hours, and just have fun and play the game. That's what we were able to do today, and that's what we were able to do all week in practice.

"Your problems off the field aren't going to go away, but once you step on the field, you have to focus."

In the Big Ten title race, Penn State's game Saturday meant nothing. Wisconsin's victory at Illinois earlier in the day ensured the Leaders Division would come down to next week's game between Penn State and the Badgers in Madison.

But for the Lions' players and coaches, Saturday meant everything, and it showed. Midway through the third quarter, Penn State faced fourth-and-goal from the Ohio State 1-yard line, leading by six.

"Normally, I would have probably kicked it," Bradley said. "But I felt that would have been the wrong decision. ... I'm asking those guys to go to the wall, so I'm going to the wall."

Although Penn State couldn't punch it in, it prevailed in the end. Team Crisis now heads to Madison with a chance to reach the Big Ten championship game.

"We're still at the top of the division, it's still in our hands," McGloin said. "I don't think people are too worried about what's going on outside."

3Q update: Penn State still up 20-14

November, 19, 2011
11/19/11
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Now that's more like it, a scoreless quarter between Penn State and Ohio State. Here are some notes and observations after 45 minutes of play, as No. 21 Penn State still leads Ohio State 20-14.
  • Both teams are in love with the Wildcat formation and have had some success, Penn State more than Ohio State. The Buckeyes went to the well one too many times deep in their own territory as running backs Jordan Hall and Dan Herron couldn't complete a handoff, leading to a fumble. Fortunately for Ohio State, its defense turned in an impressive goal-line stand to keep Penn State from taking a two-score lead.
  • I loved Penn State's decision to go for the touchdown on fourth-and-goal from the 1, but the play calls before were highly questionable. Running backs Stephfon Green, Silas Redd and Brandon Beachum have been terrific, and yet Penn State went with two Michael Zordich runs and a Matthew McGloin sneak. You've got to give the ball to the running backs before fourth down.
  • Ohio State seemed to have its offense cooking late in the quarter before a Carlos Hyde fumble. The turnovers are killers, but the Buckeyes must continue to pound away at the Penn State defense with Herron, Braxton Miller and others. Ohio State has had good success running to the outside.
  • Penn State kicker/punter Anthony Fera might be the team's MVP so far today. He has kicked field goals of 43 and 46 yards, both career longs. He also pinned Ohio State at its own 3-yard line late in the quarter.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Well, well, this has been a much more exciting game than I expected. Anyone predict these two teams to combine for 34 first-half points. Yeah, didn't think so.

No. 21 Penn State takes a 6-point lead into the locker room.

Some quick halftime hits:

Turning point: Penn State led 17-7 and had the ball in good field position when a Matthew McGloin first-down pass was tipped and intercepted by Ohio State cornerback Orhian Johnson. Buckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller answered with an electrifying 24-yard run and fired a touchdown pass to Jake Stoneburner to cut his team's deficit to three points.

Stat of the half: Both teams have been terrific on third down, with each converting 5 of 7 chances. DeVier Posey's brilliant one-handed grab on third-and-10 moved the chains and set up Ohio State's first touchdown. Derek Moye had a 16-yard grab on third-and-4 to set up Penn State's opening touchdown. Ohio State entered the game ranked 78th nationally in third-down conversions (38.4 percent), while Penn State ranked 96th (38.5 percent).

What Penn State needs to do: Continue the creativity in the run game. Penn State has mixed backs and formations and had good success. The Lions finished the half with 188 rush yards on 21 carries. They got 91 of those yards from the Wildcat formation, as wide receivers Curtis Drake and Bill Belton both have been effective. Drake, Stephfon Green and Silas Redd each have runs of 38 yards or longer. Defensively, it's all about containing Miller, who has been tough to bring down in the open field.

What Ohio State needs to do: Shore up the tackling, for starters. Luke Fickell can't be pleased with his defense, which has missed tackles and been out of position repeatedly against Penn State's offense. The Buckeyes need to tighten things up a bit. Offensively, Ohio State should show greater willingness to throw the ball, especially with Posey (2 catches, 57 yards) back in the fold. The Buckeyes must let Miller be a playmaker out there.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- After another rough week off of the field, No. 21 Penn State looks poised so far at Ohio Stadium, where it leads Ohio State 10-0.

Some notes and observations:
  • Penn State's offense looks good early in this one. Coordinator Galen Hall is mixing personnel well and giving several ball-carriers chances. Top running back Silas Redd (collarbone) is a bit banged up, so Stephfon Green and Brandon Beachum are getting work. Green looks good for the second straight week and scored on a 39-yard run out of the Wildcat formation. Penn State mounted scoring drives of 80 and 54 yards and finished with 76 rush yards on 10 carries in the quarter.
  • Lions quarterback Matthew McGloin made some good early throws but finished the quarter completing just 4 of 9 attempts. He didn't get much help from his receivers, who had several drops.
  • Ohio State needs to mix it up more on offense and get its playmaking quarterback, Braxton Miller, in better positions to make plays. Miller's biggest play, a 39-yard completion to DeVier Posey, came while freelancing under pressure. The Buckeyes should consider moving the pocket with Miller in passing situations and letting him create.
  • Slow starts have been a problem for Ohio State in recent weeks, and the trend has continued today. Penn State started fast here in last year's contest, surging out to a 14-3 halftime lead before allowing 35 unanswered points. Let's see if the Lions can make their fast start hold up this time around.
They couldn't stop raving about the moves.

Silas Redd gave Penn State fans their money's worth in 2010, despite a limited role in the offense. He had only 77 carries, but he made them count, averaging 5.7 yards per rush. Although the freshman dynamo had no run longer than 30 yards, he left Nittany Nation salivating with his lateral speed, his creativity and his ability to make opposing defenders look bad.

Redd was an entertaining back in 2010. These days, some might say he's more of a boring back to watch.

He's also undeniably a much better back.

[+] EnlargePenn State's Silas Redd
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesPenn State's Silas Redd rushed for 137 yards against Illinois.
Redd has accomplished something few young college players achieve so early in their careers. He has reinvented himself as a runner, and it's paying off for Penn State.

The sophomore just completed one of the best individual months in recent Penn State history. Redd recorded five consecutive 100-yard rushing performances in October -- he had 129 yards or more in each game -- and racked up more rush yards in the month (703) than any other FBS player. He averaged 140.6 yards a game and 5.3 yards a carry.

Showy Silas has become Steady Silas. He's the first Penn State player to record five consecutive 100-yard rushing games since Curtis Enis in 1997.

"My running style has kind of changed from last year," Redd recently told ESPN.com "I'm more of a straight-line runner, one-move-and-go type guy. Not too much dancing. Just try and hit that hole and do what I can."

Redd is doing it all for a Penn State offense that has been inconsistent, to put it nicely, in the passing attack, ranking 88th nationally in passing yards and 106th in passing efficiency. If ever Penn State needed a workhorse in the backfield, this would be the season, and Redd has delivered.

"He's fast, he's quick, he runs hard," said Nebraska coach Bo Pelini, whose team faces Redd and the Lions on Saturday in State College. "He's a really good football player. He's their featured guy. He has good vision. He can hurt you with his speed and his elusiveness outside, and he can run between the tackles.

"He's a pretty complete back.”

Few would have labeled Redd as a complete back when he arrived at Penn State as a freshman generously listed at 5-10 and 200 pounds. Lions coach Joe Paterno said last week that Redd struggled with some assignments as well as pass blocking, and had some fumbling issues.

Although the potential was there, Redd had a long way to go.

His offseason training regimen, some of which you can see here, helped him take the next step. He spent three days per week on strength training but focused more on body weight exercises and free weights, working out at a beach near his home in Connecticut rather than in a gym. He spent two days a week on speed and agility training. Redd stuck to a similar program as a high school star in Stamford, Conn.

"I never really had a problem with getting hit," Redd said. "I just wanted make sure my body was able to handle it. It has so far, and I've been icing and recovering and doing what I have to do to stay healthy."

Redd didn't set explicit individual goals other than to have a better year than he did in 2010. Penn State was losing its all-time career rushing leader, Evan Royster, and needed a top back to emerge. When top backup Stephfon Green didn't open preseason practice with the team, Redd and Brandon Beachum became the primary candidates to take over.

After averaging 15.5 carries during non-league play, Redd has seen his opportunities spike in Big Ten games. He has carried the ball 28 times or more in four of Penn State's five league contests.

"Obviously, he can run with the football," Paterno said last week. "He's come along well. He's still got a ways to go, but he's playing solid. He's made the most of the time when he’s had some opportunities."

Although Redd suffered a shoulder stinger Oct. 22 at Northwestern, he responded the next week and carried the ball a career-high 30 times for 137 yards and a touchdown in Penn State's 10-7 win against Illinois.

Toughness is part of his DNA. His father, Silas Sr., is an ex-Marine who now serves as a police officer.

"He was tough," Redd said of his father. "We've had a tough-love relationship for a long time. Looking back at it, I can say I appreciate it more now than I did then and understand why he treated me the way he did.

"He's proud of me. He knows my potential. He knows I haven't reached my potential yet."

That's the exciting part for Penn State fans, who could use a dazzling distraction right about now.

"Hopefully," Redd said, "I can still give the crowd some excitement."

Brandon Beachum reportedly out for Lions

September, 23, 2011
9/23/11
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Penn State running back Brandon Beachum won't be available for Saturday's game against Eastern Michigan, both the Daily Collegian and Centre Daily Times are reporting.

The Daily Collegian reported that Beachum was in a walking boot after spraining his right ankle in Tuesday's practice. He did not break any bones.

Beachum, a junior, is second on the team in rushing with 81 yards on 21 carries. He converted a key fourth down at Temple on Saturday that led to the winning touchdown.

Without Beachum and with Stephfon Green still in Joe Paterno's dog house, expect Silas Redd to get the bulk of the carries this week.
In the spring of 2008, Stephfon Green was the hot name at Penn State.

His blazing speed and nifty moves had many calling him a future superstar for the Nittany Lions. But Green never truly panned out, serving as a backup running back for the next three seasons. After putting up nice numbers as a freshman -- 578 rush yards, four touchdowns -- his production dipped in each of the past two seasons. Injuries certainly played a role, but Green also struggled to take steps in his development.

Now Green's days in State College could be over. Coach Joe Paterno said the senior hasn't been practicing with the team in camp and likely won't return this fall because of disciplinary issues. Green, expected to compete for a starting job this month, is no longer listed on the Lions' roster.
"He's had some problems with me," coach Joe Paterno said Tuesday. "I doubt he'll be back. ... I think it's best for him and the team if he steps away for a while."

Sophomore Silas Redd and junior Brandon Beachum have been getting most of the reps at running back in camp. Redd leapfrogged Green during an impressive freshman season in 2010, while Beachum adds a power back to the mix after missing all of last season with a knee injury.

Redd and Beachum provide a nice mix of speed and power, and while Green's experience could have come in handy, he might not have been a major part of the plan on offense.
Our preseason position ranking series comes to an end today with everybody's favorite group: special teams.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12. Michigan: The kicking game looked like a disaster this spring, with neither Seth Broekhuizen nor Brendan Gibbons inspiring confidence. Incoming freshman Matt Wile might win the job this summer. This could prove to be an Achilles' heel for the Wolverines, as it was a year ago. On the plus side, Will Hagerup is the leading returning punter in the Big Ten, though he had only 33 attempts last season.
Silas Redd didn't go through the grueling workouts of last Friday's Lift for Life event, which featured Penn State football players raising money for cancer research through weightlifting competitions. Redd bowed out because of a mild back strain.

[+] EnlargeSilas Redd
Rob Christy/US PresswirePenn State running back Silas Redd is preparing for a starting role.
That might have been one of the few days this summer that the Nittany Lions sophomore running back didn't press himself to the max. If you've seen this video, you know what kind of exercises Redd has been doing back home in Stamford, Conn., with a personal trainer. Redd admitted Friday that he might have overdone things a bit, in fact.

But he knows that he must prepare for what awaits him in 2011: a likely starting role as Penn State's featured back, and the pounding that comes from a full season of carries in the Big Ten.

"That's a big priority of mine," he said, "being able to last in the fourth quarter and in overtime, if need be."

Redd said he came to Penn State at 214 pounds but is now at 206 pounds. He has focused more on his overall flexibility than just lifting weights.

"The tendency with all these running backs is that they start to think they need to be 225-pounders," Penn State assistant coach Jay Paterno said. "If he manages to keep himself at the weight he's at and add weight gradually, I think he can be a big-play back for us."

Nittany Lions fans are excited about that possibility. While Evan Royster set the school's all-time career rushing record, he was never known as a burner. Redd showed that potential with some nifty moves last year, when he ran for 437 yards as a freshman, averaging 5.7 yards per carry. His best game came against Northwestern, when he had 131 yards on just 11 carries.

Many are expecting Redd to take the leap and become the program's next great back. But at least for now, Redd said he still sees himself in a competition with fellow running backs Stephfon Green and Brandon Beachum.

"Those guys are excellent running backs, so there's no way I can say I'm a clear-cut winner for the starting position," Redd said. "What I'm telling everybody is that I'm willing to play whatever role my team wants me to play. I just want to be a guy the team can count on in tough situations, when it gets down to the wire."

Redd is proud of the fact that he didn't lose a fumble in 77 carries last season and hopes to develop the trust of everyone on offense. He proved to himself last season that he can be a dependable back at this level.

"Last year was definitely a confidence booster," he said. "Am I satisfied? Absolutely not. But it definitely gave me some confidence to move forward and progress."

Redd plans on approaching the rest of the summer and fall camp as if he still needs to earn every second of his playing time. If he keeps that attitude and makes the most of a bigger opportunity, he could quickly develop into a star.

"He's got good hands and can catch the ball out of the backfield and do some things for us that way," Paterno said. "He can break some runs because he has a real good change of direction and he's shifty. We're looking for some big things out of him this fall, no question
You know the season is getting closer when the position rankings are under way. By now, you've likely seen the group rankings for Big Ten running backs. Now it's time to rank the individual players.

These rankings are based in part on past performance but also on how players project for the 2011 season. The Big Ten loses three of its top four running backs (Mikel Leshoure, John Clay and Adam Robinson) but several promising players return and others are primed for breakout seasons. One thing that stands out about this year's running back crop is the number of non-seniors.

Here's the top 10 entering '11:

[+] EnlargeJames White
Marc Sanchez/Icon SMIJames White rushed for 14 touchdowns and more than a thousand yards on 156 carries last season.
1. James White, Wisconsin, sophomore: Wisconsin is no stranger to elite running backs, but White provides a different element to the ground game with his speed and elusiveness. He came out of nowhere to win Wisconsin's backup job in preseason camp and went on to earn Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors. He finished fourth among Big Ten running backs in rush yards but averaged nearly a yard per carry more than any of them (6.7). White worked on strengthening his lower body in the winter and should be even better this fall.

2. Edwin Baker, Michigan State, junior: The man known as "Rock" flattened the competition for much of 2010, racking up 1,201 rush yards and 13 touchdowns. He boasts breakaway speed but isn't afraid to mix it up between the tackles. Don't be fooled by Baker's 5-foot-9 frame -- he's extremely sturdy and can take a pounding. Although he'll be pushed by teammates Le'Veon Bell and Larry Caper, Baker expects to build on the 2010 season and has set even higher goals for the fall. The main challenge for Baker is to record big rushing performances against elite defenses.

3. Montee Ball, Wisconsin, junior: Some might see this as too lofty for Ball, who only came on in the second half of the 2010 season. But what a half-season it was, as he racked up 777 rush yards and 15 touchdowns in Wisconsin's final five games. These rankings aim to project the coming season, and if Ball can build on his finish to 2010, look out. It'll be interesting to see how Wisconsin divides the carries between Ball and White, but you can make a case for Ball as the Badgers' featured back. Like White, Ball worked on his body during the offseason and should be a little lighter on his feet.

4. Dan Herron, Ohio State, senior: Respect hasn't come easy for Herron, especially among Buckeyes fans, but he earned some with his performance in Big Ten play last fall. Herron recorded all three of his 100-yard rushing performances against league opponents (Minnesota, Penn State, Michigan) and earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches. Like Ball, he finished strong with 800 rush yards in the final seven games. Herron also reached the end zone in all but one contest last fall. His five-game suspension to open the season could impact his carries and his ability to compete for postseason awards, but Ohio State shouldn't dismiss "Boom."

5. Rex Burkhead, Nebraska, junior: Expect big things from Burkhead in Nebraska's first season as a Big Ten member. He turned in a solid performance as a sophomore, recording 951 rush yards and seven touchdowns while averaging 5.5 yards a carry. Although Burkhead can be used in a variety of ways in the offense, he's a good bet to become Nebraska's featured running back after a strong spring. He seemed to grasp the new offense well and will challenge Big Ten defenses with his speed. While Burkhead will be pushed by heralded incoming recruit Aaron Green and others, he seems ready for a breakout season.

6. Marcus Coker, Iowa, sophomore: It's dangerous to take too much from one game, but Coker looked like the real deal in the Insight Bowl. Starting for the suspended Robinson, Coker earned bowl MVP honors with a record 219 rush yards and two touchdowns against Missouri. He showed speed on a 62-yard score, but he looks like a true power back who should only improve over time. Coker drew good reviews in spring practice and was elected to the Iowa's Leadership Council, a good sign. Iowa isn't deep at running back, so Coker will have plenty of opportunities to showcase himself this fall.

[+] EnlargeRalph Bolden
Andrew Weber/US PresswireRalph Bolden hasn't played since the 2009 season after an ACL injury sidelined him for the year.
7. Ralph Bolden, Purdue, junior: A lot depends on how Bolden performs following a lengthy ACL rehab, but unlike some others on this list, he has proven himself as a featured back in the Big Ten. Bolden started all 12 games in 2009 and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors after finishing third in the league in rushing average (77.9 ypg) and second in rushing touchdowns (11). He also can be effective as a receiver after recording 20 receptions for 261 yards in 2009. Bolden fought back from an ACL injury in high school and performed well. Can he do it again?

8. Silas Redd, Penn State, sophomore: This is another projection pick, a player who did some impressive things in 2010 but should contribute much more this coming season. Penn State needs a featured back after Evan Royster's departure, and Redd has the tools to fill the void. He averaged 5.7 yards a carry as a freshman and finished with 437 rush yards despite somewhat limited opportunities. Redd's speed and quickness give him a chance to be special, but he'll need to show he can take a pounding as an every-down back. He'll be pushed by both Stephfon Green and Brandon Beachum, but we expect Redd to enter the fall as Penn State's No. 1 back.

9. Le'Veon Bell, Michigan State, sophomore: Until hitting the proverbial freshman wall last October, Bell was one of the Big Ten's best running backs. He racked up 549 rush yards and eight touchdowns in the Spartans' first six games. While Bell didn't do much down the stretch, another offseason in the program should help him immensely. At 6-2 and 237 pounds, Bell has the body to become a featured back in this league. And despite his size, he showed last fall that he can record big plays. Bell certainly has to prove himself again, but you have to like his chances.

10. Jason Ford, Illinois, senior: Ford has more game experience than most of the men on this list. His career numbers include 277 carries, 19 rush touchdowns and 1,362 rush yards to go along with 27 career receptions. Ford's career yards-per-carry average of 4.92 also stands out. The big question is whether he can take the next step and become an every-down back for Illinois, which wants to run the ball and boasts one of the league's best offensive lines. Ford was limited this spring and offensive coordinator Paul Petrino wants to see more from him, but coach Ron Zook sounds like a believer. He's a big back who has a chance for a big senior season.
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)

Can you feel the love?

It's Valentine's Day, and the celebration is on here at ESPN.com. As some of you scramble for those last-minute gifts, I'm going to pass out Valentine's Day cards to each Big Ten squad.

The cards represent a reason why each team should feel warm and fuzzy heading into the 2011 season.

[+] EnlargeNathan Scheelhaase
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesIllinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase has a promising future.
ILLINOIS: Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. He showed a ton of promise in his first season as the starter and made significant strides with his passing between the end of the regular season and the Texas Bowl. Scheelhaase boasts the maturity, poise and confidence to lead the Illini offense for the next three seasons. It also helps that he's a perfect fit for Paul Petrino's offense.

INDIANA: A demanding coaching staff led by Kevin Wilson. Mediocrity no longer will be tolerated in Bloomington, and while it might take some time to get things fully on track, Wilson is going to change the culture around the program. He comes from a big-time program (Oklahoma), has orchestrated a big-time offense and carries big-time expectations for the Hoosiers.

IOWA: Young playmakers on both sides of the ball. Iowa didn't win the Insight Bowl because of its seniors. It won because of a record-setting performance by freshman running back Marcus Coker and a pick-six by sophomore cornerback Micah Hyde. Quarterback James Vandenberg returns to the spotlight after impressing a lot of folks in 2009. Outside expectations likely will be tempered, but the future looks promising for Iowa.

MICHIGAN: Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. Coach Brady Hoke hit a home run with his choice to rebuild an historically bad defense. Mattison boasts an impressive track record at the college and pro levels, and his recruiting prowess speaks for itself. Although Michigan's defense faces significant challenges in 2011, it no longer will be held back by coaching.

MICHIGAN STATE: A restocked offensive backfield. Most Big Ten teams lose their top quarterback or running back from 2010, but the Spartans bring back all of their leading men. Kirk Cousins enters his third season as the starting quarterback, making him the league's second-most experienced signal caller. He'll be joined by talented running backs Edwin Baker, Le'Veon Bell and Larry Caper.

MINNESOTA: Quarterback MarQueis Gray. Not only is Gray back at his preferred position of quarterback, but he'll be operating in an offense that best suits his talents. It likely will take some time for things to click, but Gray should eventually thrive in a system that values a dual-threat quarterback.

NEBRASKA: The return of three key defenders. Sure, the Huskers lose their share of defensive standouts, but to get defensive tackle Jared Crick, linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard all back for their senior seasons is huge. Crick will be the Big Ten's most decorated defensive tackle heading into 2011, and he and the other two form a very solid nucleus for Carl Pelini's unit.

OHIO STATE: No juniors departing to the NFL. The silver lining in the suspension saga is Ohio State returns all of its juniors for the 2011 season. If the Buckeyes can survive the first chunk of their season, they'll welcome back some of the league's more proven offensive performers. Ohio State also got a big boost when center Michael Brewster, who isn't among the suspended players, opted to return for his senior season to anchor the offensive line.

NORTHWESTERN: Dan Persa's work ethic. It's not easy to recover from a ruptured Achilles', but no player will work harder in his rehab than Persa, who already is well ahead of schedule. The quarterback had established himself as the team's hardest worker before the injury, and although time will tell if he reclaims his All-Big Ten form, you have to like his chances.

PENN STATE: A stockpile of offensive skill players. Whoever emerges as Penn State's starting quarterback will be surrounded by plenty of weapons in 2011. Derek Moye leads a receiving corps filled with playmakers, and Silas Redd and Stephfon Green give Penn State two home-run threats at running back. Devon Smith and Justin Brown both should see increased touches this coming season.

PURDUE: An offseason to get healthy. No college football team in America needed a healing period more than Purdue, which could be extremely explosive on offense if several players return at full strength. Quarterback Robert Marve, running back Ralph Bolden and receivers Keith Smith and Justin Siller are among the Boilers on the mend. Reserve quarterback Caleb TerBush also is expected to be back this fall.

WISCONSIN: Running backs Montee Ball and James White. Normally, a team losing its starting quarterback, its most experienced running back and two All-American offensive linemen would have reason to be concerned. But the emergence of both Ball and White plus tremendous depth along the offensive line should put Wisconsin in good shape entering the fall. The quarterback question is a valid one, but the Badgers will be able to run the ball effectively.

Big Ten personnel updates

November, 16, 2010
11/16/10
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Some personnel nuggets from around the league as we spin toward Week 12.

MICHIGAN STATE

True freshman defensive end William Gholston will miss the remainder of the season after undergoing shoulder surgery. Coach Mark Dantonio said Gholston could have played out the season with the injury, but the surgery would have kept him out for spring practice.

"We felt like, because he's a true freshman and has such a big upside, we needed to have him there for spring ball," Dantonio said.

Gholston, a decorated recruit who began preseason practice at linebacker before moving to defensive end, has appeared in all 10 games this fall and has recorded 13 tackles, five quarterback hurries, a pass breakup and a tackle for loss.

The good news is the Spartans will get dynamic receiver/return man Keshawn Martin back from a foot/ankle injury.

"Keshawn's a huge playmaker for us, a big-play guy, so it'll be a huge boost for us," Dantonio said.

PENN STATE

The Lions will stick with Matt McGloin as their starting quarterback despite the sophomore's struggles in the second half against Ohio State. McGloin tossed two first-half touchdown passes and completed 12 of his first 15 pass attempts against the Buckeyes, but he went just 3-for-13 with two interceptions returned for touchdowns in the second half.

I think Penn State needs to watch McGloin closely against Indiana. He should be able to make plays against the Hoosiers' defense, but it also presents an opportunity to get Rob Bolden some valuable reps.

Linebacker Michael Mauti (elbow) likely will miss the Indiana game, which is a big loss, while reserve running back Stephfon Green should play, Paterno said.

Paterno isn't sure if No. 2 running back Silas Redd will play after the freshman was cited for public urination earlier this week.

ILLINOIS

Sophomore linebacker Evan Frierson has been dismissed from the team two days after his arrest for aggravated battery. Check out more details here, but Frierson is alleged to have punched two people on a street near the Illinois campus early Sunday before fleeing the scene.

"As I have always done, I review each situation on an individual basis and make sure I have all the information," Illinois coach Ron Zook said in a prepared statement. "After a full review, I think it's in Evan's best interest to concentrate on his academics and his legal issues, and he no longer remains a part of our football program."

Frierson isn't a major loss for this year, as he has only six tackles in nine games played. But his departure could thin Illinois' linebacker depth for the future, as Illinois loses Nate Bussey after the season and fourth-year junior Martez Wilson could opt to enter the NFL draft.

PURDUE

The good news is that quarterback Rob Henry's hand seems better this week and the redshirt freshman should take on an increased role Saturday at No. 12 Michigan State. Purdue wants to use Henry as much as possible but will go with true freshman Sean Robinson if necessary.

"We think he's further along now than he has been, obviously, since the Ohio State game, and feel a lot better about him to go out and execute the run offense as well as a pass offense this weekend," coach Danny Hope said. "That hasn't been the case the last couple of weekends."

Justin Siller, meanwhile, likely won't return for Purdue's final two regular-season games after reaggravating his foot injury on the first play from scrimmage against Michigan. Siller made a surprise start at quarterback but left after one play.

INDIANA

Quarterback Ben Chappell didn't practice Monday, which has been the case for the last 4-5 weeks. Coach Bill Lynch remains very optimistic that the senior will play Saturday against Penn State.

That's a very good thing after Chappell left the Wisconsin game in the second quarter with a hip injury.

"As a football team, we did not handle him leaving the game," Lynch said. "As a result, we had no offensive production."

Freshman Antonio Banks will miss the rest of the season after tearing his ACL. Banks is the third Hoosiers freshman back to suffer a major knee injury, joining Matt Perez and Xavier Whitaker.

All three players likely will miss spring practice, Lynch said.

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