NCF Nation: Tyler O'Connor

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 3

September, 12, 2013
9/12/13
10:15
AM ET
Ten items to track around Big Ten football in Week 3:

1. Illinois' Chicago Homecoming: The Fighting Illini hope to capture some interest in the Windy City, as they'll be playing at Soldier Field for the first time since 1994. Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas said back in 2011 that he hoped the university would become the "king of Chicago," and while that won't be decided with a win or loss Saturday, a victory could help the Illini take that first step. They'll be playing No. 19 Washington and could start the season 3-0 with the upset -- already surpassing their two-win total from just a year ago. Nothing helps build up fan support quite like winning.

2. Best in the nation, worst in the nation: OK, the good news first -- the Nittany Lions are a perfect 4-for-4 on fourth downs, the best rate in the country. The problem? They've converted just two third-down attempts ... in 26 tries. That happens to be the worst rate in the country. PSU has been able to overcome that handicap with some long gains, but Central Florida's defense is built to prevent those. So, something will have to give in Happy Valley this weekend if PSU wants to remain undefeated.

3. No more cupcakes for Wisconsin: The Badgers got their fill of overmatched opponents in the first two weeks by outscoring UMass and Tennessee Tech by a combined score of 93-0. Saturday night will be the first true test for Wisconsin as it takes on a good Arizona State team on the road. Can Wisky adjust, and can the running game continue to shine? Stay tuned.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsDevin Gardner opened the season on the edges of Heisman conversations. That has changed.
4. Devin Gardner's increasing Heisman stock: During the offseason, Gardner was a 40-to-1 long shot to win the Heisman. Then, as the season neared, he shot up to 25-to-1. Now, after his performance against Notre Dame? 14-to-1, according to Bovada. He's making Michigan fans and Big Ten gamblers pretty happy so far, and at this pace, he just might usurp Braxton Miller as the B1G favorite. He's contributing close to 300 yards per game and already has five passing TDs and three rushing scores to his name.

5. As the Spartans' QB carousel turns: Connor Cook will start again Saturday against Youngstown State, while true freshman Damion Terry appears to be the backup. That means Week 1 starter Andrew Maxwell could be riding the bench, alongside Tyler O'Connor, who saw action last week. It's definitely the most unique quarterback situation among teams hovering near the top 25, and Mark Dantonio is hoping to find something that works. Cook can run, and that's a plus, but the offense is still trying to find an identity outside of "three-and-out."

6. Braxton vs. sprained MCL: Ohio State's dual-threat quarterback remains a game-time decision against Cal, and Urban Meyer might be forced to start Kenny Guiton. Even if Miller can go, it will be interesting to see just how much the sprain affects him. He could have some stiffness Saturday, and that obviously could impact a quarterback who ran for more than 1,200 yards in 2012. It goes without saying that Miller plays a critical role in the OSU offense, so anything that affects Miller will affect this team in a big way.

7. Defensive vengeance: 653. Nebraska fans know what the number means. It's the number of yards the Huskers surrendered to UCLA last season, the second-most yards a Nebraska defense ever gave up. (UCLA won 36-30.) Now, with No. 16 UCLA headed to Lincoln, Neb., it's the Huskers' chance for some payback. "They're coming into our house, and we owe them," Bo Pelini told his players. This should be a good measuring stick for Nebraska's defense and should show how far it has come since last season ... if it has come anywhere at all.

8. Must-win for Kirk Ferentz. The Iowa State Cyclones have knocked off Ferentz's squad by a field goal in the past two meetings, and Iowa can ill afford a repeat here. The Hawkeyes opened the season with a loss to Northern Illinois, and a loss to their in-state rival would be devastating for a program that fans worry already might be on the decline. This is a statement game for Ferentz and his Hawkeyes.

9. Ball-hawking secondary. Quick, what college football team leads the nation in interceptions? If you said Northwestern, congratulations. This Wildcats defense has evolved into an opportunistic one and already has come up with seven picks in just two games. (It's tied with Tennessee, which also has seven.) Last season, three Big Ten teams -- Indiana, Michigan, Illinois -- finished their seasons with just seven total picks. Northwestern has an easy matchup this week against Western Michigan and could pad its leading number.

10. Erasing the question marks: Taylor Martinez is one of the most decorated quarterbacks in Nebraska history. He owns school records for passing yards, touchdowns and total offense. He's a Davey O'Brien Award candidate, and he is arguably the best passer in the Big Ten. BUT, he has been knocked for turnovers and the inability to win big games. Martinez can change that narrative and answer those question marks by beating No. 16 UCLA this weekend. This is his final season and last chance to prove he's able to win those important games -- and Saturday's is undoubtedly important.
Lessons learned from Week 2 in the Big Ten:

1. Ohio State has company at the top: The widely-accepted thought going into the season was that the Big Ten would be Ohio State and everybody else. Well, after two weeks, it's fair to say the Buckeyes have company from the team they dare not name: Michigan. The Wolverines have looked mighty impressive in their first two games, especially in Saturday's 41-30 win over Notre Dame.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsDevin Gardner wore No. 98 to honor Michigan great Tom Harmon, then played great against Notre Dame.
Devin Gardner has made Michigan's offense truly balanced, and he is as dynamic a playmaker as Ohio State's Braxton Miller. Greg Mattison's defense gave up some yards and points to Notre Dame but is always going to be solid, more so if Jake Ryan returns this year.

Ohio State was also very good in a 42-7 win over San Diego State, especially considering Miller got hurt early on and was replaced more than adequately by Kenny Guiton. The Buckeyes have yet to play good competition or reach their peak with their full lineup available. Their ceiling might remain higher than the Wolverines', but Ohio State still has to go to the Big House, where Brady Hoke has never lost as a head coach. Having both of these teams reach superpower status this year ultimately will be good for the league. It's early, but it looks like we're on our way toward that, though those two teams are not the only ones to consider in the conference race. Speaking of which ...

2. Northwestern is a legitimate contender: Ohio State and Michigan are the Big Ten's top two teams, but Northwestern isn't far behind. Pat Fitzgerald's team needed some offense from its defense to survive a tough opener at Cal last week. The offense needed no such help Saturday as top quarterback Kain Colter returned to the field and, along with quarterback Trevor Siemian, wide receiver Tony Jones and others, shredded Syracuse's defense to the tune of 48 points and 581 total yards. Colter and Siemian combined to go 30-of-37 passing for 375 yards with four touchdowns, no interceptions and 91 rush yards.

Northwestern hasn't even been at full strength yet -- star running back/return man Venric Mark continues to nurse an injury -- and still looks like a superior team to the 2012 version, which won 10 games. Although the defense remains vulnerable to the big play, it also generates takeaways, continuing a theme from last season. The tough part of the non-league slate is over, as Northwestern has only Western Michigan and Maine left before two weeks to prepare for an Oct. 5 showdown with Ohio State, which should be the most-anticipated game of Fitzgerald's tenure. Northwestern's league schedule isn't easy, but it should be in the thick of the Legends Division race when November rolls around.

3. Song remains the same for Michigan State, Indiana: What good is it being outstanding on one side of the ball if the other side can't hold its own weight? Michigan State and Indiana have changed a lot of names in an effort to shore up their crummy offense and defense, respectively, but the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The Spartans' quarterback picture is becoming an absurd theater; Mark Dantonio gave Connor Cook his first career start and Tyler O'Connor his first collegiate action but had to go back to incumbent starter Andrew Maxwell to start the second half against USF after both struggled. The three quarterbacks combined to go just 12-of-24 for 94 yards and did nothing to clear up the picture, while the offense managed only one score against a Bulls team that gave up 53 to McNeese State a week earlier. Thank goodness for the MSU defense, but it can't carry everything on its back all season again.

It's the opposite story at Indiana, which supposedly practiced all offseason to prepare for the Navy option but then looked as if it had never seen such a thing before in a dispiriting 41-35 loss. The Hoosiers have added some talented freshmen to the defensive mix, but they couldn't prevent the Midshipmen from rolling up 444 rushing yards. Indiana can still throw it and score with anybody and has put up 108 points in two games, but Kevin Wilson's team isn't going bowling unless the defense becomes competent. If only the Spartans and Hoosiers could combine into an all-star team, we'd really have something.

4. Mystery lingers around Wisconsin, Nebraska and Minnesota: We're still waiting to learn something about the Badgers, Huskers and Gophers, who are a combined 6-0 but have yet to face a true test (sorry, Wyoming).

Wisconsin has posted back-to-back shutouts to open a season for the first time since 1958, and the run game looks as strong as ever with James White, Melvin Gordon and even Corey Clement, each of whom has rushed for more than 100 yards in the first two games. But few teams have faced weaker competition (Massachusetts, Tennessee Tech).

Nebraska's defense performed much better in Week 2, as cornerbacks Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans both had pick-sixes. But the Huskers' performance came against a Southern Miss team that now has lost 14 straight.

Minnesota continues to find creative ways to score, adding touchdowns on both defense and special teams in an easy win at New Mexico State. Then again, who have the Gophers faced? Fortunately, we'll find out a lot more next week as Wisconsin travels to Arizona State and Nebraska hosts UCLA. The wait will be a little longer for Minnesota, which hosts high-powered San Jose State in Week 4.

5. Illini are cellar-dwellers no more: Illinois has held pretty steady at or near the bottom of our Big Ten power rankings for about a year. But while the Illini are still far from league contenders, they no longer can be viewed as the conference's worst team after Saturday's stunning 45-17 win over Cincinnati improved their record to 2-0. The Bill Cubit-directed offense looks legit, and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is playing as well as he has in his career.

The Big Ten's No. 12 team now has to be Purdue, which lost to that same Cincinnati squad, 42-7, in the opener and needed a pair of late defensive stops to hold off Indiana State 20-14. Yes, the same Indiana State team that Indiana destroyed 73-35 in the Hoosiers' opener. The Boilermakers once again were plagued by communication issues and an ineffective offense that got outgained by nine yards by an FCS opponent. Darrell Hazell's team figures to be a heavy underdog in its next six games, beginning with Notre Dame this weekend.

Iowa also still has a lot to prove after struggling to put away Missouri State at home until the fourth quarter. At least the Hawkeyes finally snapped their seven-game losing streak, though beating an FBS team would be nice.

Big Ten predictions: Week 2

September, 5, 2013
9/05/13
8:02
AM ET
We went a combined 23-1 in our first week of predictions, so let's see if we can keep that robust pace going. And how will our Week 2 guest picker fare?

Let's get to it:

Eastern Michigan at Penn State

Brian Bennett: Not much to see here, as Eastern Michigan has long been a Big Ten sacrificial lamb. This is a good opportunity for Christian Hackenberg to work out some kinks, and the kid throws three TD passes. ... Penn State 35, Eastern Michigan 9.

Adam Rittenberg: The Hackenberg-Allen Robinson connection will link up for two touchdowns, and Penn State coach Bill O'Brien will keep to his word and call better plays, sparking the run game to 175 yards and two scores. Lions roll. ... Penn State 31, Eastern Michigan 10

Indiana State at Purdue

Adam Rittenberg: Rob Henry gets the confidence boost he needs and Purdue fixes its communication issues on offense as running back Akeem Hunt goes for 135 yards and two touchdowns. The Boilers come out fast and get a first-quarter forced fumble from big Bruce Gaston. ... Purdue 38, Indiana State 14

Brian Bennett: The FCS just had a great weekend, so maybe we should take the three Big Ten games against FCS opponents seriously on Saturday. Nah. A team that just got done giving up 73 points to Indiana is just what the sputtering Purdue offense needs. ... Purdue 45, Indiana State 17.

Missouri State at Iowa

Brian Bennett: Iowa finally snaps its seven-game losing streak, using its superior beef to run for 200 yards, and getting a special-teams score. ... Iowa 31, Missouri State 13.

Adam Rittenberg: Yeah, this game has Mark Weisman and Damon Bullock written all over it. The tandem combines for three rushing touchdowns and Jake Rudock adds two more through the air to C.J. Fiedorowicz and Kevonte Martin-Manley. ... Iowa 38, Missouri State 10

Tennessee Tech at Wisconsin

Adam Rittenberg: James White rushing touchdown, Melvin Gordon rushing touchdown, Corey Clement rushing touchdown. Rinse and repeat. ... Wisconsin 63, Tennessee Tech 3

Brian Bennett: Yawn. Are we done with the FCS games yet? ... Wisconsin 56, Tennessee Tech 7.

South Florida at Michigan State

Brian Bennett: If the Spartans can't move the ball against a Bulls team that gave up 53 points to McNeese State last week, they've got even bigger problems than we realized. Three different QBs play for MSU, and two of them throw for TDs. ... Michigan State 30, South Florida 10.

Adam Rittenberg: I agree that Michigan State can't be much worse on offense than it was in the opener and will move the ball better, especially on the ground. Jeremy Langford and Riley Bullough both reach the end zone, and Tyler O'Connor makes the quarterback race a little more interesting. ... Michigan State 34, South Florida 3

Cincinnati at Illinois

Adam Rittenberg: The Illini start quickly and jump ahead on a Nathan Scheelhaase touchdown pass to Josh Ferguson. But reality begins to set in as a superior Cincinnati team takes charge behind its athletic defense. ... Cincinnati 28, Illinois 17

Brian Bennett: Illinois will put up a more respectable showing against the Bearcats than Purdue did. Scheelhaase throws for 300 yards and the game is close until midway through the third quarter. But there's just too much Munchie Legaux (I can't help myself). ... Cincinnati 42, Illinois 27.

San Diego State at Ohio State

Brian Bennett: I was interested in this game until San Diego State gagged against Eastern Illinois. The Buckeyes turn in a better overall effort than in Week 1, and Bradley Roby has a pick in his first game back. ... Ohio State 45, San Diego State 20.

Adam Rittenberg: My concern is Ohio State might be less interested than you are, BB. The Buckeyes overcome a sluggish start as Braxton Miller fires two second-quarter touchdown passes. Freshman Dontre Wilson scores his first touchdown for the Scarlet and Gray. ... Ohio State 41, San Diego State 13

Southern Miss at Nebraska

Adam Rittenberg: After a passionate postgame speech last week, emerging leader Ameer Abdullah takes matters into his own hands. The Huskers running back piles up 200 yards and three touchdowns. The defense has its typical hiccups early before settling down. ... Nebraska 42, Southern Miss 17

Brian Bennett: I expect -- and would hope -- that the Nebraska offense comes out mad after not finishing key drives last week. The Huskers go for the jugular this week behind Taylor Martinez's five total TDs, and the defense makes slight improvements. ... Nebraska 49, Southern Miss 24.

Navy at Indiana

Brian Bennett: It's never easy or fun to play Navy, but the Hoosiers got some experience against the option last year. The Midshipmen will shorten the game and frustrate the IU offense some, but Nate Sudfeld throws a fourth-quarter TD pass to Kofi Hughes to seal it. ... Indiana 28, Navy 20.


Adam Rittenberg: Sudfeld and the Hoosiers will finish drives better than they did last year against Navy, as Tevin Coleman twice reaches the end zone. IU forces a key third-quarter fumble and pulls away midway through the fourth quarter. Tre Roberson sees more field time in this one. ... Indiana 34, Navy 23

Syracuse at Northwestern

Adam Rittenberg: Northwestern's injury issues are worth monitoring, but the Wildcats have enough weapons on offense to outscore a Syracuse team that didn't impress me much last week against Penn State. Trevor Siemian connects with Dan Vitale on two touchdowns, and the defense comes up big again with a fourth-quarter takeaway. ... Northwestern 28, Syracuse 20

Brian Bennett: Hard to know what to expect from Northwestern because of the iffy status of both Venric Mark and Kain Colter. But Syracuse looked limited offensively last week, and I think Siemian rescues the 'Cats once again. ... Northwestern 31, Syracuse 24.

Minnesota at New Mexico State

Brian Bennett: It was a tough call between Ann Arbor and Las Cruces for the "GameDay" crew this week -- seriously, what is Minnesota doing here? Are the Gophers just big "Breaking Bad" fans who are planning a side trip to Albuquerque? Anyway, it's close for a half but the defense comes up with another score to send the Aggies to Belize. ... Minnesota 37, New Mexico State 20.

Adam Rittenberg: Maybe the Gophers can take a side trip to Roswell and check out the UFOs. Minnesota quarterback Philip Nelson will provide a few identified flying objects in this one, firing two touchdown passes in the second half. It's not a pretty game, but it's a win as Minnesota improves to 2-0. ... Minnesota 34, New Mexico State 21

Notre Dame at Michigan

Adam Rittenberg: Can't wait to witness this one under the lights at the Grande Casa. Although Michigan struggles early with Notre Dame's fearsome defensive front, the offense settles down late as Devin Gardner and Jeremy Gallon connect for two second-half touchdowns, including the game-winner in the final minutes. Tommy Rees' mastery of Michigan ends with two second-half interceptions. ... Michigan 24, Notre Dame 21

Brian Bennett: I just keep remembering how Michigan mostly outplayed Notre Dame last year except for all those picks, and I don't think Gardner will make the same mistakes. Gardner finds Gallon for a pair of scores, and Blake Countess intercepts Tommy Rees on Notre Dame's final series to turn the lights out on the Irish. ...Michigan 27, Notre Dame 24.

Now it's time to hear from our guest picker. As we announced last week, we'll be choosing one fan/loyal blog reader each week to try his or her hand at outsmarting us. There's nothing but pride and some extremely limited fame at stake. If you're interested in participating, contact us here and here. Include your full name (real names, please) and hometown and a brief description why you should be that week's guest picker. Please also include "GUEST PICKS" in all caps somewhere in your email so we can find them easily.

The response so far has been overwhelming. This week's guest picker is Nick Schmit from West Des Moines, Iowa. The floor is yours, Nick:
"As a graduate of the University of Iowa, I have been following the conference and teams for as long as I can remember. I have plenty of insight and knowledge to offer. Besides, my wife is due with our first daughter on 10/19 (Iowa vs. OSU). Other than her birth, I need something to be excited about in what looks to be another long, depressing, mediocre (or worse) season for the Hawks."

Nick's picks:


Penn State 28, Eastern Michigan 13
Purdue 28, Indiana State 21
Iowa 34, Missouri State 10
Wisconsin 70, Tennessee Tech 3
Michigan State 35, South Florida 10
Cincinnati 31, Illinois 21
Ohio State 42, San Diego State 6
Nebraska 51, Southern Miss 17
Indiana 41, Navy 31
Northwestern 42, Syracuse 20
Minnesota 33, New Mexico State 21
Notre Dame 27, Michigan 24


SEASON RECORDS

Brian Bennett: 12-0
Adam Rittenberg: 11-1
Guest picker: 9-3

Most to prove in the Big Ten

August, 28, 2013
8/28/13
10:00
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Every season, each Big Ten player, coach and team sets out to prove something. Maybe it's to prove last season was just a hiccup or that this season is the start of something special.

Whatever it is, some naturally have more to prove than others. So here's a look at 10 players, units and coaches in the Big Ten who have the most to prove:

[+] EnlargeAndrew Maxwell
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesAndrew Maxwell could be on a short leash in East Lansing, so he has plenty to prove.
1. Michigan State QB Andrew Maxwell. Despite starting every game last season, Maxwell was just named the 2013 starter on Tuesday. So it's not exactly a stretch to think he's on a short leash. Connor Cook will get some playing time Friday, Tyler O'Connor is "in the mix" and true freshman Damion Terry wowed the staff in a recent scrimmage. If Maxwell doesn't quickly prove he's the right man for the job, he'll be watching the right man from the bench.

2. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz/offensive coordinator Greg Davis. Are Ferentz's best years behind him? And was last year's passing offense the start of a trend for Davis? The Hawkeyes finished last season at 4-8, their worst record since 2000, and finished with the nation's No. 114 offense. There are plenty of questions surrounding both of these coaches right now, and quieting them would certainly go a long way in proving Iowa's winning tradition isn't gone for good.

3. Penn State special teams. The Nittany Lions ranked near the bottom statistically in nearly every special teams category in the Big Ten last year. They were tied for ninth in field goal percentage, 11th in punting average, last in kick return average and ninth in punt return average. Sam Ficken rebounded in the second half of the season after missing four field goals against Virginia, but he was sporadic again in the Blue-White Game. Alex Butterworth's hang time also needs to improve.

4. Purdue coach Darrell Hazell. He guided Kent State to an impressive 11-3 record last season, became the Mid-American Conference coach of the year and nearly earned a berth in the Rose Bowl. But that was the MAC and this is the Big Ten. There's a big difference, and he wants to show fans of the gold and black that kind of success can carry over.

5. Michigan QB Devin Gardner. He has big shoes to fill when it comes to replacing Denard Robinson, but expectations are already soaring for the player who has started just four career games at quarterback. Some sporting books have increased Gardner's odds at the Heisman to 25-to-1, which means increased confidence, and Michigan is expected to compete with Ohio State for the conference title this season. That's a lot of pressure and, by default, means Gardner has a lot to prove.

6. Wisconsin front seven. New coach Gary Andersen is hoping the new 3-4 defense can create some headaches for opposing offenses, and the front seven here are trying to show they're quick studies. Wisconsin will have to rely on these seven to win, and their adjustment to the new scheme will have a direct impact on the number of marks in the "W" column.

7. Ohio State defensive line. Having four new starters tends to mean there are question marks, and this young group will have to answer them. Noah Spence came in as the nation's No. 4 recruit back in 2012, and reports all seem to conclude he's living up to the hype. Depth here isn't great and neither is experience, but talent and health are the main things that matter.

8. Nebraska defense. There's no problem on the offensive side of the ball with players such as Taylor Martinez and Ameer Abdullah, but defense is what's preventing this team from being great. The Huskers' run defense ranked 90th in the nation last season -- allowing 653 yards, 498 yards, 640 yards and 589 yards in their four losses -- and they could be even worse this year. Three new linebackers will take the field, and Nebraska lost two of its top pass-rushers. A lot to prove? You bet.

9. Michigan RB Fitzgerald Toussaint. There's no way around it. You have to use the term "disappointment" when referring to Toussaint's 2012 season. Coming off a breakout 1,000-yard campaign in 2011, he struggled last season, averaging just four yards a carry and running inconsistently before breaking his leg against Iowa. He wants to show that 2012 was an aberration.

10. Badgers' receivers outside of Jared Abbrederis. If you're having difficulty naming a Wisconsin receiver other than Abbrederis, don't feel bad. Abbrederis caught 49 balls last season -- more than all of the other Wisconsin wideouts combined (48). Jordan Fredrick, Alex Erickson and Kenzel Doe will need to step up to make sure secondaries don't just focus on the fifth-year senior.
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Andrew Maxwell knew things would be different when he stepped into the Spartan Stadium spotlight last August for his first start at quarterback.

The packed crowd, the bright lights and the national TV cameras told him so.

But the Michigan State signal-caller needed one final reminder from a Boise State defensive end, who hit him just after he released a pass.

"I almost forgot that was an option," he told ESPN.com. "Because going through spring, going through camp, it's all been tag-off. The D-end put a good move on our tackle and I let it go and got hit in the ribs.

[+] EnlargeMichigan State's Andrew Maxwell
Andrew Weber/US PresswireAndrew Maxwell and the other Spartans quarterbacks are fair game to be hit by defenders during spring practice.
"I got up and went, 'Oh, that's a possibility.'"

As a backup quarterback for two years who played sparingly in games, Maxwell was treated somewhat like a piece of artwork: look but don't touch. Although he had taken some hits -- the 2011 Capital One Bowl against Alabama was a particularly painful day -- his typical week consisted of wearing a red jersey in practice (indicating he's off limits) and holding a clipboard on Saturday.

Everything changed last season during games, and Michigan State has taken the unusual step of making Maxwell and the other quarterbacks "live" -- able to be hit -- during spring practice as the team looks for its answers under center for the 2013 season. Maxwell, Connor Cook, Tyler O'Connor and the other signal-callers have traded in their red jerseys for green ones, just like the other offensive players, as they compete for the starting job. Most FBS teams keep their quarterbacks off limits in all practices, to preserve their safety as much as possible.

Michigan State actually began making the quarterbacks live during practices for the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl and carried things over to the spring.

"I didn't want to," head coach Mark Dantonio told ESPN.com, "but we've done it because that's what's needed to push the envelope. We didn't do that before, and it hurt us last year because [Maxwell] hadn't been in as many game situations. We've been active, but we've gone, 'OK, go ahead.'

"There's some things we need to do, and the quarterbacks are going to have to take the hit."

Added co-offensive coordinator (play-caller) Dave Warner: "It's the best way to find out if quarterbacks can extend plays and create and do the things we probably didn't do a good job of last year."

Dantonio isn't concerned about the quarterbacks taking too much pounding. He noted that in a recent practice the quarterbacks were only brought down a total of 14 times.

"But there's a possibility of them getting hit, so it's forcing their hand a little faster to make quicker decisions," Dantonio said. "That's what the game's all about."

Maxwell said in hindsight, going live in practices before the 2012 season could have helped him as a first-time starter.

"You really don't know how much time you have unless you have a guy who's actually going to bring you to the ground," Maxwell said. "When you have the red jersey on and you know you're not live, you may subconsciously give yourself an extra second that, in reality, you don't have.

"But when it's live and the possibility is there, you're making your decisions that much quicker."

Maxwell doesn't think he held the ball too long last season, but he understands the main offseason directive coming from Dantonio and the other coaches: create. The coaches want Maxwell and the other quarterbacks to scramble when a play isn't developing or buy time for receivers to get open.

"We as quarterbacks need to pose a threat and be dangerous with our feet," Maxwell said. "I'm not saying we're going to be rushing for 100 yards a game, but when things break down, if you can go north for five yards, second-and-5 is a lot better than second-and-10."
Former Michigan State offensive coordinator Dan Roushar undoubtedly absorbed the brunt of the criticism for the unit's struggles in 2012.

But starting quarterback Andrew Maxwell wasn't far behind.

Seemingly the perfect successor to Kirk Cousins, both in skill set and personality, Maxwell traveled a bumpy road in his first season at the controls. He finished fourth in the Big Ten in passing (200.5 yards per game) but completed just 52.5 percent of his passes with 13 touchdown strikes and nine interceptions. His quarterback rating of 107.1 didn't rank among the top 100 passers nationally.

[+] EnlargeMichigan State's Andrew Maxwell
Andrew Weber/US PresswireDespite coming off an underwhelming season, Andrew Maxwell enters spring practice as the Spartans' starter.
Although the junior started all 13 games for the Spartans, he was replaced by Connor Cook in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl win against TCU. When Michigan State revamped the offensive staff following Roushar's departure to the New Orleans Saints, a quarterback competition this spring would seem to be a logical step as the unit tries to get back on track.

There will be competition, head coach Mark Dantonio told ESPN.com on Thursday, but Maxwell will enter spring practice, which kicks off Tuesday, as the starter. One other thing: Dantonio remains very much in Maxwell's corner.

"He's our No. 1 quarterback based on his leadership, based on his experience," Dantonio said. "He's a proven commodity in terms of his value as a person. His leadership value, getting us into the right play, knowledge of the system. He needs to just create more when things break down. That's the next step. But he's a great person.

"We're all going to have some storms we've got to beat and work through."

Maxwell will compete with Cook and Tyler O'Connor this spring. Highly touted incoming freshman Damion Terry arrives this summer for preseason camp.

Getting the quarterbacks more help is a priority this spring as Michigan State loses its top two offensive weapons -- running back Le'Veon Bell and tight end Dion Sims -- to the NFL draft. Three players will compete this spring at running back -- Nick Hill, Jeremy Langford and Nick Tompkins -- and Michigan State returns its entire receiving corps, an oft-criticized group in 2012. Dantonio also is excited about the potential of the offensive line, calling it "one of the strengths of our team."

The coach reiterated that while quarterbacks take the brunt of the blame when things don't go well, there are other factors involved.

"Obviously, we need to get better," he said. "But I'll stand beside [Maxwell]."
Quarterback Gunner Kiel is on the move again, opting to transfer from Notre Dame after redshirting last season.

Kiel's travails are well documented. The Columbus, Ind., native, rated by RecruitingNation as the No. 3 quarterback in the 2012 recruiting class, originally committed to Indiana in July 2011, a major surprise at the time. He reopened his recruitment that fall, verbally committed to LSU but soon had second thoughts and enrolled at Notre Dame, prompting Les Miles to question his leadership abilities.

[+] EnlargeGunner Kiel
Matt Cashore/US PresswireA number of Big Ten teams could be interested in a strong-armed QB like Gunner Kiel.
IrishIllustrated.com on Thursday reported four potential transfer destinations for Kiel: Ball State, Miami (Ohio), Northern Illinois and Cincinnati. Anyone else surprised not to see a Big Ten team listed?

Kiel certainly is looking for immediate playing time, and he would have a better chance to find it by dropping down to the MAC or the Big East. He found himself behind several quarterbacks on Notre Dame's depth chart, including starter Everett Golson. Kiel talked in January about the need to be patient and wait his turn, but few seem surprised by his decision to transfer.

Although Kiel brings baggage and the potential for drama, he also brings talent. Almost every Big Ten team pursued Kiel during his initial recruitment, and several squads could use him on their roster. He can play in both a pro-style offense and a spread. While he's a good athlete, his arm strength really stands out.

It will be interesting to see if Notre Dame blocks Kiel from transferring to future Irish opponents like Purdue and Michigan State. If not, Purdue in particular might be a good landing spot as the Boilers have an unsettled situation at quarterback. Michigan State also is looking for answers under center and loses Andrew Maxwell following the 2013 season, which Kiel will sit out. The Spartans bring in heralded quarterback recruit Damion Terry this summer, and Connor Cook and Tyler O'Connor also are in the mix.

What about Iowa? The Hawkeyes don't know what they have in Jake Rudock, who couldn't get on the field last fall despite James Vandenberg's struggles. Much like Purdue, Iowa's quarterback situation is a big mystery.

Minnesota hopes Philip Nelson is its quarterback of the future, and Nelson very well could turn out to be. The Gophers also signed two quarterbacks, Chris Streveler and Donovahn Jones, in February, but do any of their signal-callers have as much potential as Kiel?

Illinois loses veteran Nathan Scheelhaase after the 2013 season. Although Reilly O'Toole has shown flashes and the team signed four-star prospect Aaron Bailey in February, there are no guarantees at quarterback for 2014 and beyond.

Wisconsin undoubtedly will be brought up as a possible landing spot, given the team's recent history with transfers. But the Badgers also have a redshirt sophomore (Joel Stave), a highly touted redshirt freshman (Bart Houston) and an incoming junior-college player with three years of eligibility left (Tanner McEvoy) in the mix at quarterback. I'd be surprised if Wisconsin pursues Kiel.

One team we can likely eliminate is Indiana. The Hoosiers are set at quarterback for the foreseeable future. Plus, they've already been down this road before.

There's risk involved given Kiel's track record, and almost every Big Ten team thinks it has the next great quarterback poised to take over. But the league isn't exactly stacked with high-ceiling quarterbacks. Kiel is from Big Ten country and needs a landing spot. Some Big Ten teams might want to roll the dice.
Some would see Michigan State's offense as needing a dire overhaul after a season in which the Spartans averaged just 20 points per game and turned most passing downs into cover-your-eyes moments.

But new playcaller Dave Warner doesn't think the situation is that drastic.

"I don't think it's broken," Warner told ESPN.com on Tuesday. "In previous years, we've been successful. We've never been tops in the conference in scoring or anything like that, but we've always been pretty efficient."

[+] EnlargeMichigan State Spartans quarterback Andrew Maxwell
Jeff Hanisch-US PRESSWIREAndrew Maxwell goes into spring practice as the incumbent at quarterback, but new playcaller Dave Warner called the QB position "somewhat wide open."
Warner should know. He served as the Spartans' quarterback coach the previous six years, including the 2011 season when a much more experienced unit scored 31 points per game. So there's no reason to discard the entire system. That said, Warner does see the need for some updates to the offense, which he noted had 25 percent fewer explosive plays in 2012 than it did in 2011.

"I think we're going to be Coach [Mark] Dantonio's offense," he said. "But at the same time, I think we need to make some changes. Whether that's more quarterback run game, more trick plays or whatever it's going to take. That's part of spring practice. That's what we're going to find out."

Warner will be aided in this quest by Jim Bollman, the former longtime Ohio State offensive coordinator. Bollman's official title with Michigan State is co-offensive coordinator, though Warner will be in charge of play calling on game days. Warner, who was last a coordinator at UConn in 1999-2000, says he'll lean on Bollman's expertise, particularly in the running game and on designed quarterback runs, which might become a bigger part of the scheme.

Bollman said he's ready to pitch in wherever.

"I think there are a lot of different ways I can help," Bollman told ESPN.com. "We'll see how it evolves.

"Any time you're working on an offense, you've got to build things together. Even at Ohio State, we worked together. You had to make some decisions on game day, but a lot of things were done during the week and planned ahead of time."

Bollman said he's excited to be reunited with Dantonio, whom he worked with for many years at Ohio State. To do so, he had to leave Purdue -- and another former Buckeyes co-worker in Boilers head coach Darrell Hazell -- after less than two months on the job as offensive line coach there.

"I'd be kidding if I said it was an easy decision," he said. "Darrell is a great guy and obviously did a very good job at Kent State. He'll do a very good job at Purdue. It's very unusual to be in a situation like that and then have another one come up at Michigan State."

While Bollman might be the more recognizable name, Warner will be the guy deciding what to do on third-and-long on Saturdays this fall. And he'll be the guy fans scrutinize, just as they did with Dan Roushar the past couple of seasons before Roushar left for the New Orleans Saints.

"I'm ready for it," he said. "I'm hopeful to do well enough to keep them off my tail for awhile."

The job won't be easy, as Michigan State will have an open competition at quarterback this spring and must replace its two most effective offensive players from last season in running back Le'Veon Bell and tight end Dion Sims.

"It's a work in progress,' Warner said. "A big part of it is evaluating our younger players like our receivers, to see how well they're developing. The running back and tight end position is open. As we find out who those guys are, that might dictate exactly which direction we go or how creative we become with the offense."

Warner called the quarterback position "somewhat wide open."

"Andrew Maxwell goes in as the No. 1 quarterback," he said. "But certainly Connor Cook has shown he can do some things, so he'll get some work. Tyler O'Connor hasn't played for us yet, but I've been very impressed with him since he's been here. The way I see it, as a quarterback makes plays and scores touchdowns, that gives them opportunities to get more reps. The better he does, the more reps he'll get. So we'll see who's the best man."

Warner hasn't talked to the players much since he was named offensive coordinator, but in his few interactions with them he has asked them one question: "Who's going to make plays for us?" Finding the answer to that will determine how successful he, and Michigan State, will be in 2013.
Michigan State officially announced the hiring of Jim Bollman on Monday as co-offensive coordinator and tight ends coach. But he will not serve as the Spartans' main playcaller.

That responsibility will belong to Dave Warner, who had been the team's quarterbacks coach the past six seasons. A team spokesman confirmed that Warner will take the lead on game days.

That's part of some major shuffling of the offensive staff by Mark Dantonio. In addition to serving as co-offensive coordinator, Warner will now also handle the running backs. Brad Salem, who had overseen the Michigan State running backs the past three years, now will take over the quarterbacks. And defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi will now have the additional title of assistant head coach.

Here's what Dantonio had to say about Warner:
"Dave has been an important figure in our offense for the past six years – both the successes as well as the setbacks. There’s power in all of that information, so it’s a great advantage for him to assume the role of co-offensive coordinator as we move forward. I’ve been impressed with his organizational and time management skills. In addition, Dave has displayed the ability to make quick decisions."

Warner has been a coordinator before, at UConn from 1999-2000. Now he'll be paired with a longtime veteran in Bollman. When news of Bollman's hiring leaked last week, it didn't exactly fire up Michigan State's fan base, since he was often criticized for being too conservative as Ohio State's OC. But it's also true that Dantonio wasn't going to completely overhaul his offensive system and that he trusts Bollman.
"This is the fourth time in my career that I’ve had an opportunity to work with Jim Bollman, so there’s definitely a comfort level there," Dantonio said in the school's official release. “He has a tremendous amount of football knowledge, especially on the offensive side of the ball. In addition to serving as co-offensive coordinator, Jim will coach the tight ends, and he spent three years coaching that position in the NFL. He also has long-standing recruiting ties in Ohio. We’re excited about having Jim and his family back in the MSU community.

"Jim has been an offensive coordinator for 11 of the last 12 years. During his tenure in Columbus, Ohio State won six Big Ten championships, a national championship and played in two other BCS National Championship Games. He has performed under pressure at the highest level and on the biggest stage. With pressure comes experience, and Jim has been rock solid in those situations. He’s respected for his development as well as treatment of his players. He’s simply a ball coach.”

The Michigan State offense merely needs to be competent if the team's defense continues to play at a high level under Narduzzi, who has more than earned his assistant head coach title.
"No one has officially held that position before on my staff, but in Pat Narduzzi’s case, it’s certainly warranted," Dantonio said. "Pat is a great leader on the defensive side of the football, who has forged strong relationships with his players, and he’s also an outstanding recruiter. Over the last six years, he has helped build one of the Big Ten’s best defenses, and over the last two years, Michigan State has become one of the nation’s elite units, ranking among the NCAA’s Top 10 in rushing defense, total defense and scoring defense.

"I also appreciate his loyalty because Pat has been approached by several programs over the last few years and he’s elected to remain a Spartan. I know he doesn’t take this position lightly. When I’m not in the office, Pat takes control of the day-to-day operation. He’s held those duties for the last two years, but without the formal title."

Warner and Salem also have a lot of work to do with their new position responsibilities. Salem needs to get Andrew Maxwell on track and work with young contenders for the quarterback job in Connor Cook, Tyler O'Connor and incoming freshman Damion Terry. Warner will have to groom the replacement for Le'Veon Bell and may have to turn to some true freshmen to help get the job done there.

Last year's offense excelled only at producing squeamishness. Time will tell if these changes help rectify matters.
"We might simplify some things, yet become more diversified as an offense," said Dantonio. "Throughout the spring, things will be added and subtracted from the offense. Changes aren’t being made for the sake of change; changes are being made with a purpose. With that mindset, we can create different opportunities for our playmakers."
Spring practice has begun in the Big Ten, so let's take a look at what to expect from each Legends Division team this spring.

IOWA

Spring start: March 27

Spring game: April 27

What to watch:

1. Questions at quarterback: The Hawkeyes played James Vandenberg for every snap last season, and now that he's gone, they have no quarterbacks on the roster with any game experience. Sophomore Jake Rudock has been viewed as Vandenberg's successor, but he's still a mostly unknown quantity who should get pushed in the spring by former junior college transfer Cody Sokol and redshirt freshman C.J. Beathard. Whoever wins the job will be tasked with improving an Iowa passing game that finished with a Big Ten-worst seven touchdown passes in 2012.

2. Skills competition: While the quarterback race is vital, Iowa also needs standouts to emerge at the other skill positions to fix an offense that sputtered under first-year coordinator Greg Davis. The wideout corps, which struggled to get separation or make big plays, now is without departed senior Keenan Davis, who tied for the team lead with 571 receiving yards. There's a reason why Iowa signed five receivers in the 2013 class. The running back position has strength in numbers, with Damon Bullock, Mark Weisman, Jordan Canzeri and Barkley Hill all competing for carries this spring. The Hawkeyes just need to finally get some luck in the health and off-field departments at that position while hoping one player emerges as the go-to back.

3. Transition game: Iowa long had one of the most stable staffs in the country. But coach Kirk Ferentz added three new assistants this offseason for the second straight year, giving the program some fresh voices but also causing some potential bumps in transition. The offense in particular didn't mesh well last season under Davis, who'll look for solutions this spring. Ferentz has new coaches overseeing the running backs (Chris White) and receivers (Bobby Kennedy) and a new defensive assistant who'll work with the linebackers (Jim Reid). The Hawkeyes hope they can inject some life into a program that has seen its fortunes dip the past couple of seasons, including last year's 4-8 disaster.

MICHIGAN

Spring start: March 16

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:

1. Devin Gardner as starter: Denard Robinson is gone and Gardner is the presumed Michigan starter for the first time. How he adjusts to that -- and how Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges develops more of a pro-style offense around him -- are a major launching point for the Wolverines next season.

2. Offensive line play: Michigan is replacing the entire interior of its offensive line and while there is a lot of young talent there, none of the potential candidates have any experience. Michigan offensive line coach Darrell Funk said he would like to have at least one of the three slots, if not two, settled by the end of spring.

3. Linebacker competition: The deepest position on Michigan’s roster also has the most competition. Jake Ryan at strongside linebacker is almost a given, but the middle and weak side slots are wide open. A bevy of freshmen and sophomores, along with returning starter Desmond Morgan, will vie for playing time in what will be a likely increased rotation in the fall.

-- Michael Rothstein, WolverineNation

MICHIGAN STATE

Spring start: March 19

Spring game: April 20

What to watch:

1. Still Maxwell's house?: Senior Andrew Maxwell started all 13 games last season at quarterback but was pulled in favor of freshman Connor Cook for the deciding drive of the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. The Spartans will open up the competition under center, with Tyler O'Connor and eventually incoming freshman Damion Terry joining the fray. Though he has a big edge in experience, Maxwell will have to prove that he can greatly increase last season's 52.5 completion percentage to hold onto the job through the spring.

2. Replacing Bell: Saying running back Le'Veon Bell was a big part of the 2012 offense is like saying Tom Hanks had substantial role in "Cast Away." Bell carried the ball 382 times last year, more than any back in the country, and gained 1,793 yards. There is no ready-made in-house replacement, as leading returning rusher Nick Hill had just 21 rushing attempts last year and may be too slight (5-foot-8, 190 pounds) to be an every-down back. Junior Jeremy Langford will move back to the backfield after seeing time at receiver. Signees Delton Williams, Gerald Holmes and R.J. Shelton might wind up with the job.

3. New playcaller in town: Mark Dantonio has yet to officially announce a replacement for former offensive coordinator Dan Roushar, who recently left for an assistant's post with the NFL's New Orleans Saints. But reports are that former Ohio State offensive coordinator Jim Bollman has been tapped to lead the Spartans' offense. Can Bollman, whom Buckeyes fans criticized as being too conservative, find the solutions for what was a dreadful attack in 2012? The Spartans' defense once again enters spring ball with very few question marks. Michigan State's hopes rely heavily on how much progress it can make on the offensive side.

MINNESOTA

Spring start: March 26

Spring game: April 27

What to watch:

1. Defensive back end: The Gophers lost two outstanding cornerbacks in Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire, as well as starting linebackers Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper. Jerry Kill has tried to address this during recruiting, adding a pair of well-regarded junior college linebackers (De'Vondre Campbell and Damien Wilson) as well as touted high school corner Jalen Myrick. But some holdovers from last season's roster will have to step into bigger roles this spring.

2. The full Nelson: True freshman Philip Nelson took over the quarterback job midseason and now will enter practice as the starter. He showed flashes of immense potential but still has a lot of things to learn. Kill has said Nelson is no lock to start in 2013 and that he'll face legitimate competition from redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner and incoming freshman Chris Streveler. Nelson has the inside track for now but must hold onto it.

3. Receiving line: The Gophers don't have a returning wideout who had more than 375 receiving yards last year, though Derrick Engel showed promise with a 100-yard day in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. You can blame some of that on the turnover and youth at quarterback. But Minnesota needs much better play at receiver to become a more balanced offense. Improvement by guys like Devin Crawford-Tufts and Isaac Fruechte this spring will help, as would some immediate contributions from recruits Eric Carter and Drew Wolitarsky.

NEBRASKA

Spring start: March 2

Spring game: April 6

What to watch:

1. Youth movement on defense: The Cornhuskers lost eight starters from last season's defense and will hope that some athletic young players are ready to step in. Guys like Charles Jackson, Jonathan Rose and Thomas Brown will be given long looks this spring. Nebraska coaches are hopeful that what they lack in experience, they'll make up for in speed. There's no bigger key for Big Red than having its young defenders make great strides in the spring.

2. Safety issues: The safety spot is an important one in Bo Pelini's scheme, and the Huskers lose both starters and a couple of top reserves from that position. Jackson will be given a look there, and the staff is high on Corey Cooper. But no starting jobs are locked down.

3. Martinez's progression: Senior quarterback Taylor Martinez won't be involved in a lot of live drills, and the spring will be a time to get freshman Tommy Armstrong some reps. But Martinez still needs to fine-tune a few parts of his game, most notably his tendency to force throws in key spots. He made great progress last offseason through extra hours of hard work; a similar leap this spring would make Martinez one of the very best players in the country.

NORTHWESTERN

Spring start: Feb. 27

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:

1. The quarterback duo: The Wildcats spent large parts of last season rotating Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, using Siemian for more obvious passing situations. Will that continue this season? Colter needs to improve as a passer to become a better option as an every-down quarterback, and Northwestern's downfield passing game must get better. You can bet there will be a lot of eyes on Colter and Siemian this spring to see what offensive coordinator Mick McCall has planned.

2. Secondary concerns: The news that cornerback Nick VanHoose won't practice this spring because of injury could be a blessing in disguise. The Wildcats' secondary struggled when he was hurt last season, so this may provide an opportunity for others to get better without him. Jimmy Hall and Traveon Henry are youngsters who should see plenty of reps this spring in the defensive backfield.

3. Offensive line makeover: Three starters are gone from last season's offensive line, including both guards and left tackle Patrick Ward. Jack Konopka is the favorite to succeed Ward but will miss the spring with injuries, while 2012 signee Adam DePietro is among those who could step in at guard. Northwestern should have one of the best running games in the Big Ten in 2013 but will need its line to begin to take shape this spring.

Spartans QB picture gets interesting

December, 31, 2012
12/31/12
9:00
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Though Andrew Maxwell had his ups and downs this season, and probably more of the latter, we assumed he would still go into 2013 as Michigan State's starting quarterback. On early Sunday morning (Eastern and Central time) we learned again that it's always dangerous to make assumptions.

When the Spartans trailed TCU 16-14 with a little more than two minutes left in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl on Saturday night, redshirt freshman Connor Cook trotted onto the field for the game-deciding drive, not Maxwell. The move paid off for Mark Dantonio and his staff, as Cook led the team on an eight-play, 45-yard drive that led to Dan Conroy's winning 47-yard field goal with 1:01 left.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Matt Kartozian/USA TODAY SportsMichigan State sophomore quarterback Connor Cook is locked in an intense battle with incumbent starter Andrew Maxwell.
"We had to go with a guy that had moved us a little bit," Dantonio told reporters afterward. "Maybe more importantly, we felt like he could scramble a little better than Andrew. We needed to get in field goal position. So that's the way we went.”

It was a bit surprising to see Cook come in for a series during the first half, since he had not thrown a pass since the Central Michigan game in Week 2, when he tossed a pick six. But getting the youngster a little bit of work to prepare him for next year made sense.

What was more surprising was that the offense moved much better with Cook in the game. He guided the team on a 90-yard scoring drive for Michigan State's first touchdown of the game in the third quarter -- the longest postseason scoring drive in program history. Though Le'Veon Bell provided much of the yardage on that march, Cook connected with Aaron Burbridge for a 15-yard touchdown pass.

Maxwell went just 6-for-15 for 28 yards, or one fewer passing yard than Bell managed on a trick play out of the Wildcat. Cook's numbers weren't great, either (4-for-11, 47 yards), but the offense did seem to find a spark with him in there.

Maxwell, who sat for three years behind Kirk Cousins, looked to be making some progress during the middle of the season. But he completed only 43 percent of his passes in his final four games, with four interceptions. He had several passes bounce off the hands of defenders in the bowl game. You have to wonder if the season-long struggles of his offensive line and the inability of his receivers to consistently catch the ball caused damage to Maxwell's confidence, but his decision-making also raised questions.

There is little doubt, however, that a full-fledged quarterback competition, if not controversy, will dominate the Spartans' offseason conversation. Redshirt freshman Tyler O’Connor and 2013 commit Damion Terry -- an intriguing option because he's a dual-threat guy -- will try to get into the mix as well. Dantonio had hinted at some changes to the offense at the end of the regular season, and offensive coordinator Dan Roushar hinted at more quarterback runs. Cook looked far more comfortable moving outside the pocket against TCU than Maxwell did.

Backup quarterbacks are always the most popular guy on campus, and it remains to be seen if Cook can perform at a consistently high level. But at the very least, Michigan State will have much more competition at the position than it did last offseason, and that should only help all the contenders for the job.

Maxwell will be the incumbent but probably won't be the favorite among fans. It's imperative that the Spartans find someone to lead a respectable passing game, because even with Bell likely bolting for the NFL, the vast majority of the offense returns. The defense should remain one of the best in the Big Ten. Michigan State's schedule should allow it to contend for a Legends Division title, but only if the offense -- which even in the bowl win punted on its first eight possessions -- improves exponentially.

We had assumed all along it would be Maxwell's job to lead that improvement project as a senior. Now, all we're sure about is that Michigan State's quarterback situation is a lot more interesting.
Michigan State went through the previous offseason with a chip on its shoulder, the product of a subpar performance on the field in 2009 and a more disappointing display off it.

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Andrew Weber/US PresswireMichigan State head coach Mark Dantonio is working to make sure the Spartans build on the momentum they created with 11 wins last season.
Throughout the winter, spring and summer of 2010, Spartans coach Mark Dantonio talked about adversity making a team stronger. His team responded with an 11-win season and a share of its first Big Ten title in 20 years.

So has the mood changed around East Lansing following the success of 2010? Not a chance.

"We have not taken the approach that we're the hunted," Dantonio told me Tuesday morning. "We still feel like there's something we have to prove and work on. We've talked a lot to our players about handling success. For every team that had a good year last year, the opportunity to repeat that same type of success becomes even more difficult.

"But with that being said, we're a more confident team, which should [help], especially when we have to go on the road this year."

Dantonio spent much of May and June meeting individually with every Spartans player for 30-40 minutes. He met Monday with quarterback Kirk Cousins.

"It's more about continuing to gain respect," Dantonio said. "We've got the same type of attitude that we carried in last summer, that we've got to prove our worth on a daily basis."

Recruiting remains a focus for Michigan State after the spring evaluation period, and lately it has been a bit of a touchy subject for Spartans fans. After several years where Michigan State excelled in the local and regional recruiting scene, archrival Michigan has re-established itself under new coach Brady Hoke and his staff.

Michigan already has 16 verbal commits for 2012, including seven in-state prospects and seven from neighboring Ohio. One of Michigan's recruits from Ohio, linebacker Kaleb Ringer, is the nephew of former Michigan State All-American running back Javon Ringer. The Wolverines' class ranks No. 6 nationally according to ESPN Recruiting.

Michigan State isn't exactly struggling on the recruiting trail. The Spartans have five commits, including Ohio quarterback recruit Tyler O'Connor and their lone in-state prospect, linebacker Riley Bullough, the younger brother of Michigan State linebacker Max Bullough.

But not surprisingly, Michigan's rapid start to recruiting has taken away some of the spotlight.

"Michigan's got a great program," Dantonio said. "When somebody new takes over, there's always going to be an influx of energy into that program. They have a lot of positives to draw from. In many ways, you grow up in this state and you're green or you're blue. That's the way it goes sometimes, but we'll continue to recruit Michigan hard. They have great high school football here, and we'll get our guys."

Dantonio described Michigan State's 2012 recruiting progress as "very, very good."

One state both Michigan State and Michigan will continue to recruit is Ohio, which could be more vulnerable because of the recent turmoil at Ohio State.

"I don't see that right now because it's so new," Dantonio said, referring to the changes at Ohio State. "We have an opportunity every single day to recruit people from all over the country."

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