NCF Nation: Troy Pollard

Let's take a look at three keys for Illinois heading into Saturday's Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl matchup against UCLA.

1. Establish the run early: Top running back Jason Ford is out (academics), but Illinois still can establish the ground game against a UCLA defense ranked 95th nationally against the rush. The Bruins have surrendered more than 200 rush yards in seven games, including 352 in the Pac-12 championship against Oregon. Illinois freshman Donovonn Young has impressed in stretches and gets an opportunity to establish himself as the team's back of the future after missing the regular-season finale with an ankle injury. With fullback Jay Prosch also out (staph infection), Illinois really needs its offensive line to show up from the get-go. The line was supposed to be a strength for Illinois but has fallen short of expectations. If the Illini can get the ground game going early behind Young, Troy Pollard and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, they'll open up the pass attack with A.J. Jenkins.

2. Maintain motivation and composure: Both Illinois and UCLA are dealing with coaching transitions, suspensions and other turmoil. UCLA players recently skipped a practice. Many question how motivated the teams will be to play a minor bowl game before moving forward with new leading men (Tim Beckman and Jim Mora Jr., respectively). Illinois players say practice has gone well, and they will be playing for interim coach Vic Koenning, fired coach Ron Zook and themselves on Saturday. The Illini didn't handle adversity well down the stretch of the regular season and must keep their composure if things don't go well Saturday. Illinois must continue to limit penalties after tying for 22nd nationally in penalties per game (4.83). UCLA hasn't been nearly as disciplined, ranking 91st in penalties per game (6.85).

3. Contain UCLA's ground game: Illinois' defense will be the best unit on the field Saturday in San Francisco, but the Illini need a strong effort against the run. UCLA's rushing attack is the strength of its team, ranking 29th nationally (190.7 ypg). The Bruins have three players with more than 450 rushing yards, including quarterback Kevin Prince, who had 163 yards in a win against Cal earlier this season. Illinois struggled against the run down the stretch and needs a strong performance from a talented line featuring Whitney Mercilus, Michael Buchanan and Akeem Spence. Defensive tackle Corey Liuget had a huge performance against Baylor in last year's bowl victory. It will be interesting to see if Spence can do the same against UCLA.

Big Ten stock report: Week 5

September, 28, 2011
Let's pause and take stock.

Stock up

Illinois running back depth: The Illini have three backs who have rushed for at least 210 yards this season. Fifth-year senior Troy Pollard surprisingly leads the team with 260 yards -- including his first two career 100-yard days -- while averaging a whopping 10.4 yards per carry. Freshman Donovonn Young is averaging 7.9 yards per attempt. They make nice complements to Jason Ford, who has four rushing touchdowns this season.

Devin Smith: The Ohio State passing game hasn't exactly been firing on all cylinders lately. But true freshman Devin Smith looks impressive. The 6-foot-3 receiver made two touchdown grabs last week against Colorado despite playing only about 30 snaps. "Devin can make plays," head coach Luke Fickell said. "He's a guy that can get on top of you, have some speed. Obviously good balls were thrown to him and he made the plays. We need that."

Tom Nardo: It was neat to see the Iowa senior defensive lineman win Big Ten defensive player of the week honors after his 12-tackle performance against Louisiana Monroe. That's because Nardo was a walk-on his whole career until being awarded a scholarship this spring. He's tied for the team lead with three tackles for loss this season.

Rex Burkhead: The Nebraska I-back has run for 290 yards and four touchdowns his past two games, averaging nearly eight yards per carry. He now ranks third in the Big Ten in rushing, just one yard behind teammate Taylor Martinez. So much for those who doubted whether Burkhead could be a star without Roy Helu Jr.

James Vandenberg: The Iowa quarterback has been a man on fire since late in the third quarter of the Pitt game. He has thrown for 669 yards his past two games, with six touchdowns. For the season, the junior has tossed for 10 scores and just one interception, and he's on pace to throw for well over 3,000 yards. Not bad for a first-year, full-time starter.

Stock down

[+] EnlargeDenard Robinson
Rick Osentoski/US PresswireMichigan quarterback Denard Robinson is having a fantastic season on the ground, but is struggling in the passing game.
Denard's passing: Denard Robinson is a joy to watch when running the ball -- and right now often painful to watch throwing it. He was just 8 of 17 for 93 yards with two interceptions against San Diego State, and many of the misfires weren't close. That followed a 7-for-18 passing day against lowly Eastern Michigan. Brady Hoke says the passing problems aren't all Robinson's fault, but clearly this area has to improve for Michigan to compete for a division title.

The Illinois band's timing: Western Michigan was flagged for a false start on Saturday, but the head official waved it off and explained that the Marching Illini Band didn't stop playing in time for the Broncos to call out their snap count. At least he didn't criticize their rhythm.

Indiana kickoff returns: Frankly, the stock is very low on most things Hoosiers-related. But here's one glaring stat: Indiana is second-to-last nationally in kickoff return average, getting a little more than 15 yards per return. Considering the one strength IU seemingly has is some speedy skill players, this is surprisingly bad.

Minnesota's pass rush: The Gophers had one of the worst pass rushes in the country last year with only nine sacks for the season. Things aren't much better this year; in fact, Minnesota is on pace for an even worse year for getting to the quarterback. It is tied for last nationally with only one sack so far in four games (Indiana also only has one). The Gophers' secondary gets a lot of blame for the team's problems defending the pass, but that futility is a group effort.
Time to honor the top performers from around the Big Ten in Week 4:

  • Iowa QB James Vandenberg: Last week's Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week had another big game against Louisiana Monroe. He completed 21-of-32 passes for 273 yards and three touchdowns and ran for another score in a 45-17 victory.
  • Nebraska RB Rex Burkhead: Burkhead has been the steadying force for Nebraska's offense this season. After a solid performance last week against Washington, Burkhead went off against Wyoming for 170 rush yards and two touchdowns on only 15 carries in a 38-14 victory over Wyoming. Along with QB Taylor Martinez, Burkhead sparks Nebraska's potent rushing attack.
  • Michigan DE Craig Roh: Bigger and seemingly better, Roh helped Michigan produce its best defensive performance of the season in a 28-7 win over San Diego State. He recorded two tackles for loss, a sack and a forced fumble as the Wolverines' front seven held San Diego State in check and limited the Aztecs to one touchdown. Fellow defensive end Ryan Van Bergen and linebacker Jake Ryan also merit mentions.
  • Wisconsin WR Nick Toon: Badgers quarterback Russell Wilson has grown roots in this space, but this week we're going to honor Wilson's favorite target during a 59-10 win over South Dakota. The senior continued his bounce-back season with seven catches for 155 yards and two touchdowns. Just another weapon for the Wisconsin offense.
  • Illinois RBs Troy Pollard and Donovonn Young: With the Illini in a thriller against Western Michigan, their two backup running backs provided a big spark. Pollard, a senior, ran for 133 yards on 14 carries, while the freshman Young chipped in 100 yards on just 12 attempts in the 23-20 win.

Illinois survives scare from Broncos

September, 24, 2011
The Illini are 4-0 for the first time since 1951. But it wasn't easy getting there.

Illinois 23, Western Michigan 20: For much of the preseason and the first two weeks, we talked mostly about the Illini offense. But the past two games, Illinois has gotten the job done with its defense.

The offense was inconsistent most of the day, and the defense repeatedly had to bail the team out. Alex Carder and the Broncos were slinging it around the field all day and basically ignoring the running game. While Western Michigan found plenty of success through the air and managed to tie the game at 20 in the fourth quarter, the Illinois defense made plays when it had to, just as it did last week in a tense 17-14 win against Arizona State. The Broncos had the ball in the final minute with a chance to tie or win but couldn't even get in field goal range as the clock ran out.

Meanwhile, when the Illini needed to win the game, they turned to their running game. Nathan Scheelhaase spent a lot of time in the option, and Troy Pollard and Donovonn Young ran with confidence. Pollard had 133 yards and Young added 100. They weren't able to go in for a score or a kneel down with their final drive, but they ate a lot of clock with that ground game and put Western Michigan in a tough spot.

So Ron Zook's team remains undefeated and will likely stay ranked. This team has some flaws, but it keeps finding ways to win. Up next is the conference opener against Northwestern, and Illinois will enjoy the comforts of home for a fifth straight week to open the season.

Big Ten stock report, Week 3

September, 14, 2011
Welcome back to the one stock report you can read without having to worry about your 401(k). Here's our look at the bulls and bears of the Big Ten:

Stock up

[+] EnlargeRussell Wilson
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireRussell Wilson rates as the second most efficient quarterback in the country through two games.
Passing efficiency: Four of the top 15 most efficient passers in the country reside in the Big Ten. Wisconsin's Russell Wilson ranks second, followed by Michigan's Denard Robinson at No. 7, Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase at No. 8 and Michigan State's Kirk Cousins at No. 15. Wilson has completed 79.4 percent of his passes through two games, while Cousins has connected on 79.1 percent and Scheelhaase is at 71 percent. In addition, Northwestern's Kain Colter is completing a Persa-esque 73 percent of his throws.

Illinois' rushing attack: Losing Mikel Leshoure hasn't hurt the Illini ground game yet this season. Ron Zook's team is averaging 283 yards rushing per game, tops in the Big Ten and tied for eighth in the FBS. It's been a balanced attack, with Scheelhaase, Jason Ford, Troy Pollard and Donovonn Young all churning out at least 100 yards through two games.

Nebraska's special teams: The departure of Alex Henery has barely caused a ripple in Lincoln. Brett Maher leads the FBS in punting with a 51.3 yards-per-kick average, and he has made all four of his field-goal attempts. Freshman Ameer Abdullah ranks second nationally in kick returns and 13th in punt returns. He brought a kickoff back for a 100-yard score in last week's Fresno State game. Whoever came up with these preseason position rankings was clearly insane.

Ohio State's pass protection: The Buckeyes are one of 10 teams in the country that has yet to allow a sack. They have a veteran offensive line, even without Mike Adams, so that stat is not too surprising after two games against MAC opponents. This week's game at Miami will provide a sterner test.

Nick Toon and Junior Hemingway: Both receivers had big days on Saturday. Wisconsin's Toon had an off year last season as a junior but seems re-energized so far as a senior. He had seven catches for 69 yards and a touchdown last week against Oregon State. Michigan's Hemingway had a patch honoring Desmond Howard affixed to his No. 21 jersey before the Notre Dame game. He responded with a Howard-esque performance, catching three balls for 165 yards and a score.

Stock down

Passing inefficiency: Not all the Big Ten quarterbacks are operating at high efficiency. Nebraska's Taylor Martinez ranks 84th nationally in passer efficiency and is completing just 48.8 percent of his passes. Minnesota's MarQueis Gray is 78th in efficiency and has a 52.3 completion percentage, while Purdue's Caleb TerBush is ranked 72nd and is completing 57.8 percent. Penn State's duo of Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin have combined to connect on just 40.7 percent of their throws, making the Nittany Lions the third-least efficient passing team in the country. And though Denard Robinson ranks high in efficiency because of his long throws and touchdowns, his completion rate is just 45.1 percent.

Illinois crowds: The Illini are off to a 2-0 start and have six more home games, but so far the fans haven't been clamoring to see them. They drew an announced crowd of 45,154 for the opener and just 42,212 last week. Memorial Stadium's official capacity is 60,670. The first two opponents -- Arkansas State and South Dakota State -- weren't exactly marquee draws. Let's see if Illinois fans respond better with a ranked team coming in this week in Arizona State.

Nebraska's defense: Did the Huskers leave the Blackshirts in the Big 12? So far, the defense we heard so much about hasn't been very special. Fresno State gashed Nebraska for 444 total yards, including 169 rushing yards by running back Robbie Rouse. The Cornhuskers didn't manage a single sack in that game. "I think every now and then you need to get smacked in the face and get a wake-up call," head coach Bo Pelini told reporters Monday. "When people are telling you how good you are, sometimes you need a reality check. In this world, you get humbled in a hurry. Last week we were humbled."

Iowa's pass rush: Perhaps a step back was to be expected from a defensive line that saw three starters from last year's team get drafted in April. Regardless, the line had a tough day in Ames last weekend. The Hawkeyes struggled to get pressure on Iowa State quarterback Steele Jantz, and when they did, he was able to run away from them and keep plays alive. Iowa has only one sack in each of its first two games this season.

Kevin Wilson's fourth-down gambles: The Indiana coach has been aggressive early in his tenure, but it hasn't paid off the way he or the Hoosiers would like. With IU leading 17-14 and staring at a fourth-and-3 from the Ball State 9-yard line in the opener, Wilson decided to go for the touchdown instead of the easy field goal. Incomplete pass, Indiana eventually loses 27-20. Last week, down 23-10 to Virginia and at the Cavaliers' 8-yard line, Wilson called for the fake field goal on fourth down. Incomplete pass, Indiana eventually loses 34-31. If the calls work, Wilson looks like a genius. But they didn't. That's the nature of coaching.

Halftime updates from around Big Ten

September, 10, 2011
We've reached the halfway point of the early games around the conference.

Let's check in.

Toledo-Ohio State: The dominance Ohio State displayed in its opener hasn't been there today, although the Buckeyes rallied to take a 21-15 lead at halftime. Tim Beckman has his Toledo squad geared up against his former team, and the Rockets are attacking Ohio State decently through the air. Buckeyes quarterback Joe Bauserman hasn't been nearly as sharp today (10-for-19 passing), but the coaches clearly want to get him comfortable before next week's trip to Miami. Unless the score widens, don't expect to see much of Braxton Miller. Tight end Jake Stoneburner and running back Carlos Hyde continue to be bright spots for Ohio State's offense, while breakdowns in the kicking game are also continuing to surface.

Oregon State-Wisconsin: Unlike the opener, where everything worked, Wisconsin has had to be creative to spark its offense today. That's where Russell Wilson comes in handy. Oregon State sold out against the run early on and had success stuffing the Badgers' backs. Wilson has responded by dissecting the Beavers' secondary. He has completed 12 of 14 passes for 124 yards and three touchdowns, including two to Jacob Pedersen. His accuracy continues to impress me, as I thought Wisconsin would have a drop-off after losing Scott Tolzien. The defense also has responded against a limited Oregon State team, which can't get anything going on the ground. Wisconsin appears to be in total control.

Iowa-Iowa State: After a strong start, Iowa finds itself deadlocked at 10-10 in a place (Jack Trice Stadium) where it has struggled under coach Kirk Ferentz. Marcus Coker's fumbling issues continued following a good first-quarter surge, and his turnover set up Iowa State's only touchdown. Coker can be one of the Big Ten's better backs, but he has to hold onto the football. Iowa's new-look defense seems to be struggling a bit against quarterback Steele Jantz (great name) and running back Shontrelle Johnson, who averaged 8.4 yards a carry in the first half. Stay tuned as this one should be very interesting.

South Dakota State-Illinois: Everything is clicking for the Illini, who look like they'll once again have one of the nation's top rushing attacks. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has been a greater threat on the ground, and he's getting help from Jason Ford, Troy Pollard and dynamic freshman Donovonn Young. An experienced offensive line deserves credit, too, as Illinois already has 227 rushing yards. The defense has held South Dakota State to two first downs and only 54 total yards.

Florida Atlantic-Michigan State: After a sloppy opener, the Spartans have cleaned up their act in a big way. What a half for Pat Narduzzi's defense, which held FAU to one first down and just 26 total yards. The defensive line has been stellar, and Michigan State is capitalizing on excellent field position and converting for touchdowns. It's already a big day for receivers B.J. Cunningham (5 catches, 73 yards) and Keshawn Martin (6 catches, 68 yards), and the run game has provided a spark. Up 27-0, Michigan State can get its reserves plenty of time in the second half.

Illinois dominating on both sides

September, 10, 2011
Much like Michigan State, Illinois has replaced a slow start in Week 1 with a dominant one in Week 2.

Ron Zook's squad is eviscerating South Dakota State, piling up 27 unanswered points in the first 19 minutes of play. After the pass game surged last week, Illinois has gotten back to its bread and butter on the ground, as Troy Pollard provided a nice spark with a 61-yard dash to set up a touchdown. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase also is running the ball better than he did in Week 1 (5 carries, 55 yards).

The defense also seems to be building confidence, as safety Trulon Henry recorded a pick-six and South Dakota State has been completely unable to move the ball. The Jackrabbits still are looking for their first first down, while Illinois already has nine.

This one's over, and I'm already looking forward to Illinois-Arizona State next week, a matchup of two improved and exciting teams.
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.
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.

Big Ten scrimmage notes

April, 11, 2011
The Big Ten featured only one spring game this weekend, but plenty of teams took to the field for scrimmages. I've compiled some scrimmage highlights from around the league based on reports from official team websites and other media sources. Several teams didn't provide specifics about their scrimmages, but I included what I could find.


The Illini scrimmaged for about 90 minutes Saturday, and all players were involved in contact aside from starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase.

  • The offense prevailed in the scrimmage and gashed the defense for several big runs. Troy Pollard took most of the reps at running back as Jason Ford sat out with a sore knee, and Pollard helped his cause with 110 rush yards on 19 carries. Scheelhaase completed 7 of 12 passes for 53 yards and added 58 yards on the ground, while backup Miles Osei had a 63-yards pass to Fred Sykes and finished the day with 165 yards through the air.
  • Coach Ron Zook singled out linebacker Houston Bates for his play in the scrimmage. Bates had a sack and a quarterback hurry. He saw increased playing time after Jonathan Brown was kicked out of the scrimmage after throwing a punch and drawing a personal foul penalty.

The Hoosiers held their second scrimmage of the spring Saturday afternoon at Memorial Stadium. Check out coach Kevin Wilson's thoughts as well as some highlights.

  • The offense got the best of the defense Saturday after the D shined in Indiana's previous scrimmage. Receivers Duwyce Wilson and Kofi Hughes stood out in the highlights Indiana showed on its website, as Hughes had a long touchdown reception and Wilson was forced out just shy of the goal line. Both players have been impressive this spring and should complement top wideout Damarlo Belcher in the fall.

No official information from Iowa's scrimmage Saturday, but here's a photo gallery and some recent player interviews from the team's website.


No official information from Michigan's scrimmage Saturday, but here are video interviews with defensive tackle Mike Martin and offensive lineman Patrick Omameh. Running backs Vincent Smith, Michael Cox and Stephen Hopkins had some nice runs in the video highlights.


The Spartans held their first jersey scrimmage Friday and the defense prevailed 55-45 in a modified scoring system. The defense had 18 ways to score points, while the offense had 11 ways to score, including touchdowns and field goals.

  • The defense dominated the scrimmage, holding the offense without a first down on the first five possessions and without points for the first 13 possessions. Michigan State's D recorded three sacks and two interceptions during the stifling stanza. The only two touchdowns scored came during the goal line and red zone portions of the scrimmage.
  • Defensive ends William Gholston and Tyler Hoover combined for nine tackles, three tackles for loss, a sack and a pass breakup. Sophomore linebacker TyQuan Hammock recorded an interception. "The defense played well -- tackled effectively, pressured the quarterback and came away with some turnovers," coach Mark Dantonio said in a news release.
  • Starting quarterback Kirk Cousins had a rough day (6-for-16 passing, 41 yards, INT), although he didn't get much help from his receivers, who dropped three passes. Backup Andrew Maxwell completed 15 of 26 passes for 116 yards with an interception.
  • The touchdowns came from Edwin Baker (22-yard run) and Le'Veon Bell (6-yard run). Receiver Keith Mumphery caught a 43-yard pass from Maxwell.

The Gophers scrimmaged Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium and ran about 120 plays.

  • Minnesota's defense held the upper hand as the offense struggled to gain a first down early in the scrimmage. The defensive line had a very good day as tackles Brandon Jacobs and Brandon Kirksey both stood out. Jacobs sacked No. 1 quarterback MarQueis Gray and Kirksey recorded a blocked field goal attempt. Ends D.L. Wilhite and Ra'Shede Hageman also made some plays. "The defensive line got up the field a lot more than we have been. [It was] a lot more aggressive," coach Jerry Kill told reporters. "And we need that. We need more push. We had nine sacks last year, and that can't happen."
  • Gray and top receiver Da'Jon McKnight hooked up on receptions of 45 and 20 yards. McKnight also recorded a punt block in the scrimmage.
  • Reserve quarterback Tom Parish threw two interceptions and fumbled a snap. Moses Alipate ran a few series at quarterback and led a scoring drive.

The Huskers ran about 150 plays in a scrimmage Saturday in Lincoln. Quarterbacks Brion Carnes, Cody Green and Kody Spano took most of the reps and drew praise from coach Bo Pelini.
  • The coaches limited reps for quarterback Taylor Martinez after the sophomore hurt his toe in a recent workout. Running back Rex Burkhead participated in the scrimmage and "looked great," according to Pelini, although Burkhead's reps were limited as well.
  • Nebraska had two false-start penalties and one fumble during the scrimmage. "That's not bad," Pelini said. "Most of it is with the young guys. It shows me the emphasis is working and there's progress, but one's too many as far I'm concerned."

The Wildcats scrimmaged Saturday in Evanston in preparation for this week's spring game.

  • Top running back Mike Trumpy had runs of 33 and 25 yards, while Tyris Jones added a scoring run. Jones has had a really nice spring for the Wildcats, who are looking for more options in the backfield.
  • Trevor Siemian and Evan Watkins took the reps at quarterback as Kain Colter was held out of the scrimmage. Siemian completed 8 of 12 passes for 86 yards with an interception, while Watkins, victimized by dropped passes, completed 8 of 21 passes for 71 yards and a touchdown strike to Charles Brown.
  • Defensive end Tyler Scott picked off Siemian on the second play of the scrimmage. Siemian later responded with a 36-yard pass to Rashad Lawrence. Demetrius Fields led the receivers with five receptions, while walk-on Torin Dupper had three catches for 46 yards.

The Buckeyes held a special-teams scrimmage followed by a full jersey scrimmage Saturday in Ohio Stadium. The team went through about 20 possessions and the offense prevailed 56-45.
  • Receiver DeVier Posey recorded two touchdown receptions, a 33-yarder from Joe Bauserman and an 8-yarder from Taylor Graham. Freshman quarterback Braxton Miller had the only other touchdown of the scrimmage on an 11-yard run.
  • Bauserman completed passes of 33 and 16 yards and also threw an interception on a pass tipped by defensive lineman John Simon. Graham completed 10 of 20 passes for 80 yards, while Miller hit on 4 of 6 passes for 43 yards and looked impressive on the touchdown run. Kenny Guiton struggled at quarterback, leading the offense to only one score (field goal) in six possessions.
  • Posey recorded five receptions for 83 yards and two scores, while the other scholarship wideouts combined for only five receptions. Think Ohio State will miss No. 8 in the first five games?
  • Senior running back Dan Herron didn't get much work Saturday, and Jaamal Berry and Rod Smith stood out among the backs with several nice gains.
  • Defensive linemen Adam Bellamy and Melvin Fellows both recorded sacks, while other defensive standouts included cornerback Travis Howard and linebacker Etienne Sabino.

The Lions scrimmaged Saturday, but there's not much info out there aside from this ($$$).


The Badgers held a scrimmage Saturday, running more than 120 snaps, and coach Bret Bielema shares his thoughts here.
  • Sophomore linebacker Conor O'Neill had a big day with interceptions on back-to-back plays, picking off Joe Brennan and Joel Stave. Wisconsin auditioned O'Neill at safety last year, and his experience defending the pass is paying off.
  • Bielema said center Peter Konz will miss the rest of the spring because of ankle and knee injuries. Konz will undergo minor knee surgery and should be fine for fall camp. Versatile sophomore Ryan Groy is seeing time at center and can play all three interior line spots.
  • Remember Zach Brown? The running back is still around in Madison and hopes to enter a crowded backfield this fall. Brown had a 17-yard touchdown reception and an 8-yard scoring run Saturday. "Zach is an angry running back," Bielema told reporters. "Everybody wants to talk about those other guys. People forget he ran for 200 yards [in a game] as a freshman, and he has won some games for us."
Spring practice is creeping closer, and Purdue will hit the field in less than two weeks (March 1 to be exact) for the first of its 15 workouts.

Here's a snapshot of what to expect in the Leaders Division this spring.


Spring practice starts: March 29
Spring game: April 23

What to watch:
  • New look at linebacker: Illinois loses first-team All-Big Ten selection Martez Wilson as well as playmaker Nate Bussey. They combined for 195 tackles, 20 tackles for loss, two interceptions and four fumble recoveries. The Illini need a middle linebacker and could turn to productive senior Ian Thomas or promising sophomore Jonathan Brown. Illinois also is replacing linebackers coach Dan Disch.
  • Ford tough: All-American running back Mikel Leshoure departs, turning the spotlight to Jason Ford. At 235 pounds, Ford is a true power back who will give the Illinois offense a slightly different look in 2011. The Illini also want to build depth at running back with players like Troy Pollard.
  • Replacing Liuget: Illinois begins the difficult task of replacing the Big Ten's most disruptive interior defensive lineman in Corey Liuget, a likely first-round draft pick in April. Akeem Spence had a very solid redshirt freshman season and will take on a larger role, but Illinois must build around him with Glenn Foster and others. This is a major priority for defensive coordinator Vic Koenning and line coach Keith Gilmore this spring.

Start of spring practice: March 8
Spring game: April 16
End of spring practice: April 19

What to watch:
  • Culture change: Kevin Wilson has talked extensively about changing the culture around the Indiana program, and the process begins in full force this spring. Players will have to adjust to the demands of Wilson and his staff, which still isn't in place but soon will be. There will be plenty of teaching and learning, as players must absorb Wilson's offense and a 4-3 defensive scheme (IU operated out of the 3-4 for part of last season).
  • Quarterback competition: Three-year starter Ben Chappell departs, and there's no clear-cut successor entering spring practice. Both Dusty Kiel and Edward Wright-Baker played sparingly in five games last season, and they bring different skills to the table. It'll be interesting to see who emerges under center this spring before acclaimed recruit Tre Roberson arrives for fall camp.
  • Identify defensive contributors: Indiana can't expect to get over the hump until it upgrades the defense, and co-coordinators Mike Ekeler and Doug Mallory begin a crucial evaluation process this spring. The Hoosiers need to build depth and identify Big Ten-ready players throughout the defense, particularly in the back seven after losing standout linebacker Tyler Replogle and others.

Start of spring practice: March 31
Spring game: April 23
  • Suspension preparation: Ohio State knows it will be without four offensive starters and a key defensive reserve for the first chunk of the 2011 season. This spring, the Buckeyes start the process of evaluating who will step in, especially at the quarterback spot for Terrelle Pryor. Joe Bauserman holds an edge in experience (though little has come in games), and he'll compete with Kenny Guiton and heralded incoming freshman Braxton Miller.
  • Receiving orders for Drayton: Stan Drayton left Florida for Ohio State primarily to expand his coaching repertoire and oversee a new position group. The career running backs coach will work with a mostly unproven group of Ohio State wide receivers this spring. Ohio State must replace All-Big Ten standout Dane Sanzenbacher, and DeVier Posey is among those suspended for the first part of the season. Says Drayton of his receivers, "Personnel wise, they're in competition with the whole offensive unit."
  • Up-the-middle defensive replacements: Excuse the baseball reference, but Ohio State loses several standout players in the core of its defense: linemen Cameron Heyward and Dexter Larimore, linebackers Brian Rolle and Ross Homan, and safety Jermale Hines. Although the Buckeyes always find ways to reload on defense, it will be interesting to see who emerges this spring, especially at linebacker.

Start of spring practice: March 18
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • The quarterbacks, especially Rob Bolden: Penn State's quarterback competition should be wide open this spring, and it might be the most fascinating race in the Big Ten. You've got sophomore Rob Bolden, who asked for his release after the Gator Bowl but didn't get it from Joe Paterno, and has returned to compete for a job he thought he never should have lost. Junior Matt McGloin tries to redeem himself after the bowl disaster, and Paul Jones and Kevin Newsome also are in the mix.
  • Line play on both sides: The Lions boast enough at the skill positions on both sides of the ball to be a much improved team in 2011. But they have to get better and more consistent on both lines. The offensive line must replace standout Stefen Wisniewski and find the form it displayed in 2008. The defensive line tries to regain its swagger after backsliding in 2010, and identify a pass-rushing threat or two.
  • Kicking it: Collin Wagner was Penn State's top offensive weapon for much of the 2010 season, but the standout kicker departs the program, leaving a void. Punter Anthony Fera likely will handle the bulk of the kicking duties this spring until incoming freshman Sam Ficken arrives.

Start of spring practice: March 2
Spring game: April 9

What to watch:
  • Replacing Superman: Purdue returns nine defensive starters, but the Boilers lose Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Ryan Kerrigan. The Boilers were the league's top pass-rushing team in 2010, but Kerrigan's production and presence played huge roles in the overall sacks and tackles for loss totals. The entire defensive line took a step forward last fall, and will need to do so again without No. 94.
  • The quarterbacks: Robert Marve is still recovering from his second ACL tear, so Rob Henry, Caleb TerBush and Sean Robinson will be in the spotlight this spring. Henry showed promise when healthy in 2010, and TerBush had a strong spring a year ago before being ruled academically ineligible for the season. The quarterback race won't be decided until the summer, but all the candidates can help themselves in spring ball.
  • The offensive identity: A wave of injuries forced Purdue to overhaul its plan on offense in 2010. Although several key players will be out or limited this spring, the Boilers can start to reshape their plan on offense. Coach Danny Hope is optimistic Marve and the others return at full strength, but he doesn't want to take anything for granted. This is a huge spring for players a notch or two down the depth chart to get noticed.

Start of spring practice: March 22
Spring game: April 23

What to watch:
  • Finding Tolzien's successor: After a one-year respite, Wisconsin's annual spring quarterback competition resumes. Sort of. Jon Budmayr will have every opportunity to establish himself as the Badgers' top option before Curt Phillips (knee) returns to full strength. Budmayr turned heads with his performance two springs ago, but played sparingly last season behind Scott Tolzien.
  • New leadership on defense: Charlie Partridge and Chris Ash are familiar faces who step into new roles this spring. Partridge and Ash were promoted to co-defensive coordinators following Dave Doeren's departure, and they'll get their first opportunity to shape the defensive vision this spring.
  • Reloading on the lines: Wisconsin loses three All-American linemen from 2010: Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt on the offensive side, and J.J. Watt at defensive end. Although the Badgers must replace more bodies on the offensive front, they boast excellent depth there and should be able to fill the gaps. Watt leaves a bigger void, and Wisconsin needs strong springs from players like Louis Nzegwu and David Gilbert.

Sloppiness at the Big House so far

November, 6, 2010
Michigan's defense has showed up to play today. The problem: Denard Robinson and the Wolverines' offense keep giving it away.

The Wolverines committed three turnovers in the first quarter after having 12 through the first eight games. Robinson threw two picks in the quarter and has done little since tossing a 75-yard touchdown to Roy Roundtree on the first play from scrimmage.

Fortunately for "Shoelace," the Wolverines' defense has limited the damage and Michigan trailed by only a touchdown early in the second quarter. Illinois starting running back Mikel Leshoure is a bit banged up, so the Illini are turning to Jason Ford and Troy Pollard, who also has fumbled.

Wacky game so far, and we've still got almost three quarters to play.
Illinois junior Mikel Leshoure watches enough football to know that the era of the workhorse running back is more or less over.

You won't see many more backs like Terrell Davis in the pros or Marcus Allen in the college ranks.

"Not only college, but the NFL, too, it's a tough game, and it takes a pounding on your body," Leshoure said. "It's a long season, so it's real good to have at least one other back to split some carries with. And if you've got some other guys to step in and take some carries off of those two, that's even better."

[+] EnlargeMikel LeShoure
AP Photo/Seth PerlmanMikel Leshoure had three games of over 100 rushing yards last season, including 150 yards against Michigan.
Illinois' coaches believe they have enough players to share carries and not overburden one back. Head coach Ron Zook and new offensive coordinator Paul Petrino expect to use a committee system at running back this season.

Leshoure understands and accepts it, but he still wants to be the chairman of the committee.

"I definitely go into practice every day wanting to be the go-to guy," he recently told me. "If it's third-and-1, fourth-and-1, I want to be guy coach calls on to get it. And I want to be in the game in the fourth quarter."

Leshoure made a strong case to be Illinois' No. 1 back late last season, and he has continued to perform in preseason practice.

Few Big Ten running backs finished the 2009 season hotter than Leshoure. He recorded back-to-back 100-yard rushing performances against Purdue and Michigan, and had 76 rush yards on only 13 carries against Northwestern. Leshoure finished with a career-high 184 yards and two touchdowns on only 11 carries against Fresno State.

The late spurt vaulted Leshoure to sixth in the Big Ten in rushing yards by a running back (734). More impressive was the fact he had significantly fewer carries (108) than most Big Ten starters and averaged a whopping 6.8 yards per attempt. Leshoure received 15 or more carries just twice all season.

Most folks associated with Illinois' program couldn't wait for the season to end, as the team went 3-9. Leshoure, meanwhile, was just getting warmed up.

"Not only did I feel like I got stronger, but my confidence went up a lot," he said. "I just felt like I could come out and produce for this team. But at the same time, I'm a winner and so even though I had some good games, I would have rather won than to have had those games.

"I felt like seeing what I could accomplish just made my work ethic for the [offseason] a lot harder."

Leshoure trimmed 5-6 pounds from his frame and now checks in at 224. He also reduced his body fat to 4.2 percent.

"My stamina's is a lot better and I feel like I can be in the game a lot longer for my team," he said.

How many carries could he handle?

"I'd love to to see 20, 25 carries a game, if not more," Leshoure said.

Leshoure has been getting the first shot at running back in training camp, although he and classmate Jason Ford, who rushed for 588 yards on only 97 carries in 2009, both are working with the first-team offense. Junior Troy Pollard, sophomore Justin Green and redshirt Bud Golden are sharing time with the second- and third-teams.

The coaches have options, and they intend to use them. But Leshoure wants to make it tough for them to take him off the field.

"I understand where they’re coming from as far as running back-by-committee," he said. "They'll get people in when they need 'em or if I need a break, but I definitely want to be the guy."
The position rankings march on with one of the Big Ten's strongest units: running backs and fullbacks. I looked not only at featured backs like John Clay and Evan Royster, but also tried to identify teams with more than one solid option in the backfield.

[+] EnlargeJohn Clay
Scott A. Miller/Getty ImagesJohn Clay rushed for 1,517 yards and 18 touchdowns last season.
1. Wisconsin: Everyone knows about Clay, the 2009 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and a fringe Heisman Trophy candidate entering the fall. But the Badgers also boast good depth here with promising sophomore Montee Ball and veteran Zach Brown. Ball had 98 rushing attempts as a freshman, and he and Brown combined for seven touchdown runs.

2. Penn State: I'm tempted to put Penn State at the top, since the Lions' overall depth at running back could surpass Wisconsin's by the end of the season. Royster enters his third year as the starter and will become Penn State's all-time leading rusher barring injury. Junior Stephfon Green is waiting in the wings after rushing for 319 yards in 2009. Brandon Beachum also returns, and Penn State is excited about freshmen backs Silas Redd and Curtis Dukes. Joe Suhey is an experienced fullback.

3. Ohio State: There might not be a true featured back in Columbus yet, but Ohio State boasts more depth at running back than any Big Ten team. Senior Brandon Saine and junior Dan Herron once again top the depth chart, and Saine has a chance to emerge as the team's go-to runner. Behind them is Jordan Hall, who showed some flashes last fall, and heralded recruit Jaamal Berry looks ready after dealing with leg problems in 2009. Freshman Carlos Hyde has looked good in practice, and the Buckeyes have two good fullbacks in Zach Boren and Adam Homan.

4. Illinois: The Illini boast one of the league's best 1-2 punches at running back in juniors Mikel Leshoure and Jason Ford. The coaches maintain that the two likely will share carries, but Leshoure certainly looked like a featured back toward the end of last season. Both Leshoure and Ford averaged more than 6 yards a carry in 2009, and they complement each other well in the offense. Don't forget about Justin Green and Troy Pollard, two solid reserves.

5. Iowa: The Brandon Wegher situation and a clavicle injury to freshman Marcus Coker have raised concerns about the group, but Adam Robinson and Jewel Hampton still provide two solid options. Hampton had an excellent freshman season in 2008 and will be very effective if healthy this fall. Robinson grew up fast in 2009 and showed tremendous toughness in his quick recovery from a high ankle sprain. If Wegher returns to the team, Iowa has three capable ball carriers.

Up next: Wide receiver/tight end

More rankings ...
 AP Photo/Jay LaPrete
 Running back Daniel Dufrene has big shoes to fill this season.

 Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

RANTOUL, Ill. -- There aren't many people Daniel Dufrene meets who don't bring up Rashard Mendenhall.

Dufrene hears it from reporters, from fans, from anyone who watched Mendenhall's record-setting 2007 season at Illinois. The difference now is when Mendenhall's name comes up, Dufrene can smile and laugh.

There was none of that going on this spring.

"The coaches, they don't want me to be Rashard, they want me to be myself," said Dufrene, projected to succeed Mendenhall at running back for Illinois. "During the spring, really, I didn't listen to them as much. I just felt the pressure of trying to fill his shoes. Now I'm just more relaxed, just coming out and being myself."

The approach is helping Dufrene in preseason camp, as he moves closer to locking down the starting job. Though redshirt freshman Troy Pollard and true freshmen Jason Ford and Mikel LeShoure also are in the mix for carries, Dufrene should get the first shot when Illinois opens the season Aug. 30 against Missouri.

The 5-foot-11, 201-pound junior averaged 6.3 yards a carry in limited work last season as Mendenhall's backup. But given a chance to lock down the top spot this spring, Dufrene struggled, and so did the other backs. Offensive coordinator Mike Locksley let them know about it, publicly expressing his disappointment in the group.

"He said we weren't running tough, running hard," Dufrene said. "I just took that as a challenge."

Locksley's message seems to have hit its mark.

"Awesome," he said of the backs' performance in camp. "That's been the biggest surprise group of training camp for us on offense. Coming into summer, we felt our receiving corps was probably the strength of our offense and that the backfield was a question mark, but Daniel has packed on a couple extra pounds. He looks really good. He's been pounding the ball up inside, he's got tremendous speed outside. I've been pleased with him."

Despite the subpar spring as a runner, Dufrene geared the offseason toward improving other areas, namely pass-blocking and catching passes out of the backfield. Mendenhall punished defenses as a ball-carrier, but he also finished second on the team in receptions with 34.

Illinois' offense requires its backs to do it all, and the adjustment took time for Dufrene, a junior-college transfer who started his college career at Vanderbilt. He was in a similar system at College of the Sequoias in California, but Illinois emphasizes the run more.

"If you look at junior-college guys, a lot of times it's their second year when they really perform the way you think that they can," head coach Ron Zook said. "I don't have any reason to think that Daniel's not going to be the type of back he was when we recruited him."

Dufrene's comfort level already has improved in the first week of camp. He had 10 carries for 60 yards and a touchdown in Monday's scrimmage. Perhaps more important, he set up the score with a 43-yard reception on a swing pass from quarterback Juice Williams.

Zook is keeping the competition open for the starting spot, but Dufrene, who has taken the majority of reps with the first-team offense, feels it's his job to lose.

"I've grasped what's going on," he said. "I've always felt confident in my running ability."