NCF Nation: Will Campbell

Stakes for U-M, OSU enhance The Game

November, 19, 2012
11/19/12
2:20
PM ET
There may never be another Ohio State-Michigan clash as important as the 2006 version, when the teams entered The Game ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively.

The circumstances outside of the rivalry itself became less and less important during the Rich Rodriguez era at Michigan, as the Wolverines floundered around the .500 mark or below. Last year's game had significance for Michigan, aiming to end The Streak in The Game -- and help its cause for a BCS at-large berth. But Ohio State fell into the Michigan 2008-10 role -- a mediocre team finishing up a mediocre season.

When Ohio State hired Urban Meyer last November, the 2012 version of The Game suddenly became a lot more interesting. Both Ohio State and Michigan were projected to be strong, and the meeting could have bearing on the Rose Bowl race and, just maybe, the national title race.

Weeks later, Ohio State received a postseason ban for 2012. After Michigan started this season 2-2 -- Ohio State wasn't overly impressive in nonleague play, either -- The Game suddenly looked a lot less appetizing, aside from the whole bitter rivals thing.

Nearly two months later, the matchup couldn't be much more delicious.

Ohio State is 11-0, one win away from securing only the sixth unbeaten, untied season in team history. And it has to beat Michigan to get there in what is guaranteed to be Ohio State's final game.

[+] EnlargeBradley Roby
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarOhio State will be counting on CB Bradley Roby to make more big plays on Saturday against Michigan.
Michigan remains alive for the Legends Division title and a chance to play for a spot in the Rose Bowl. The Wolverines need some help to get there, but they have to win at Ohio Stadium for the first time since 2000 to have any chance. Michigan also needs a signature win to keep alive its hopes for a BCS at-large berth.

And there is the whole ruining perfection thing.

"It makes the game even bigger," Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby said. "That team is going to definitely play harder, and they're going to play to ruin our season. What better would it be for them to give us the only loss we've had all year? ...

"We're going to be ready. It's going to be a showdown."

Michigan players had a slightly different view of the "Ohio" game. To them, it can never get bigger.

"It's the biggest rivalry in sports," Wolverines defensive tackle Will Campbell told ESPN.com. "If they were 0-11 and we weren't going for the Big Ten championship, it would still be huge."

Added Michigan center Elliott Mealer: "It's the game, it's a huge rivalry. I don't think there's any way to raise or lower the bar on the standards of this game. It's always important."

Campbell did acknowledge that winning in Columbus would be sweeter than last year's triumph at the Big House. Ohio State also is motivated by the 2011 outcome.

"Last year, we played horrible," Roby said. "We were 6-7, a lot of things were going wrong. We just wanted to come out this year and redeem ourselves. That's exactly what we're doing. We haven't lost a game yet."

Michigan will know by the time it takes the field Saturday whether or not it remains in the running for a Big Ten title. Nebraska can punch its ticket to the championship game by beating Iowa on Friday in Iowa City.

If the Huskers lose, Michigan can represent the Legends Division in Indianapolis. But don't expect the Wolverines to be huddled around a TV on Friday.

"From now until four or five o'clock Saturday, Ohio is the only thing on my mind," Campbell said. "Nothing else really matters."

Ohio State's Meyer had tried to downplay talk of an undefeated season before last Saturday's 21-14 overtime win against Wisconsin. But he gave the green light afterward, saying, "We can talk about it now."

Meyer also talked a bit about Michigan.

"This is all I knew growing up," he told ESPN.com. "Eight of my nine [assistant] coaches are from the state of Ohio. Our players understand this rivalry. It's the greatest rivalry in all of sports. We're honored to be part of it.

"We've got to find a way to go win it."

If they do, the Buckeyes will be 12-0. They'll reestablish their control in the series. And after taking down Nebraska, Penn State and Wisconsin, they'll leave no doubt about which team rules the Big Ten, even if they won't be playing in Indy or Pasadena.

"If we beat the best teams in the league, we have to be the best," Roby said. "We're going to take this game serious, study even harder, practice even harder and be ready Saturday."
Michigan State's four-game winning streak over Michigan is not a fluke. It did not happen because of trick plays or Hail Marys or bad calls. The Spartans have simply imposed their will and pushed around their rivals, especially the past three years.

Brady Hoke and his staff were only been involved in last year's 28-14 loss, but they saw all they needed to see from that one to know the deal.

"We thoroughly got out butts kicked," he said on his radio show this week.

"They took it to us," echoed Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. "You can cut it any way you want. They lined up and they ran the football and knocked us off the football."

The numbers don't lie. Michigan State rushed for 213 yards to just 82 for the Wolverines last year in East Lansing. In 2010, the Spartans won the rushing battle 249 to 162.

So Michigan knows that if it wants to reverse the trend in this rivalry -- and enhance its Big Ten title hopes -- it had better come out and push back when the game gets physical Saturday in Ann Arbor.

"Last year, they came out and out-toughed us," senior defensive tackle Will Campbell told ESPN.com. "One of the things we preach about and really take to heart is being the tougher opponent. You can't be out-toughed if you want to play Michigan football.

[+] EnlargeDenicos Allen sacks Denard Robinson
Mike Carter/US PresswireMichigan State has beaten up on Denard Robinson and Michigan during a four-game win streak.
"If somebody tells you that you were out-toughed or that you were punked, it's going to get you fired up. You're going to work hard so it won't happen again."

Wolverines players and coaches have mostly tried to downplay the importance of this game in interviews this week. At times, they've said it's just another Saturday, that it's one of three rivalry games, along with Ohio State and Notre Dame. That's a pretty standard approach by Hoke. You get the feeling that if he were coaching a team of Earth all-stars against aliens for ownership of the planet, he'd call it just another step in winning the Big Ten title.

But don't believe the (lack of) hype. Michigan installed a countdown clock to the Michigan State game in its football complex this offseason to go along with one for the Ohio State game. The team also has a quote from Mark Dantonio hanging on its weight room wall. Don't think the Wolverines have forgotten about several Spartans players mocking Denard Robinson on Twitter as he struggled in the opener against Alabama.

This has always been a big game, but it's even bigger now for the Michigan players. Wolverines seniors have never beaten Michigan State, and with the two schools so close and so much familiarity on both sides, that eats away at them.

"I've been here five years, and it's been hard," senior receiver Roy Roundtree told ESPN.com. "Being in the same state, you hear that a lot, especially from the fans. But you can't look back like that."

"I'm from Detroit, so I hear it all the time," Campbell said. "I try to block it out, though."

At least this year, Michigan comes in with much more momentum than the 4-3 Spartans. The Wolverines have blasted their first two Big Ten opponents and have continued to improve on defense. Meanwhile, Robinson has rushed for 363 yards on just 35 carries (10.4 yards per carry) in his past two games while not turning the ball over. Robinson has had a marvelous career but a miserable time in this rivalry. Last year, he was held to just 42 yards on 18 carries. In 2010, he threw three interceptions.

Here's his last chance to beat Michigan State, which has found ways to contain, pressure and bother him in the past. But Robinson has been at peak form ever since a disastrous game at Notre Dame.

"I feel like that bye week really refreshed his mind," Roundtree said. "He's ready to go and take the lead. We've just got to cut down on our mistakes. When we get in the red zone, we've got to score."

And most importantly, Michigan had better not let Michigan State push it around again.

“It’s important for us to represent Michigan football, and we haven’t done that in four years, in my opinion," Hoke said on Thursday. "We need to play better, execute better, play more physical and all those things that go along with it.”
Michigan's challenge against defending national champion Alabama may have just gotten even more difficult.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Toussaint is the biggest name of the bunch and his suspension could be costly. Without him, the Michigan offense could be back to a familiar place in the 2012 opener: relying on Denard Robinson to make some magic.
If I had to create a TV miniseries this week about Big Ten players, it might be called, "Big Men Doing Dumb Things."

We learned Illinois defensive end Michael Buchanan suffered a broken jaw during an altercation Saturday in the Champaign area. Illini head coach Tim Beckman is still gathering details of what happened, but Buchanan, lauded for his performance during spring ball and projected as a team leader, has had his jaw wired shut. There's hope but no guarantee that the All-Big Ten pass-rusher will be ready for the start of preseason camp. Such an injury also could result in a significant weight loss.

Michigan defensive tackle Will Campbell has suffered no injuries to his body, but the damage he caused to a 2003 Lincoln Town Car during an early morning jaunt April 7 has him in hot water. Campbell on Thursday pleaded guilty to misdemeanor malicious destruction of property, admitting to sliding across the hood of the car with his 6-foot-5, 322-pound frame. He had been charged with both misdemeanor and felony counts of malicious destruction of property, but the felony charge was dropped as part of a plea agreement.

Campbell agreed to pay $2,100 in restitution for damage to the car. He'll be sentenced July 29, and he's also due in court July 23 for a pretrial hearing on a misdemeanor charge of a minor purchasing, consuming or possessing liquor stemming from the same incident.

Michigan coach Brady Hoke has declined to comment on any potential discipline for Campbell, projected as a starter for the Wolverines this fall. Any playing-time penalty would be significant as Michigan opens the season against defending national champ Alabama in Arlington, Texas.
Earlier this week, we took a look at five players in the Leaders Division with something to prove this fall.

Let's now turn our attention to the Legends Division.

Ready, set, go ...

[+] EnlargeTaylor Martinez
Rick Osentoski/US PresswireThe pressure is on Taylor Martinez, who enters his third year as Nebraska's starting quarterback.
1. Taylor Martinez, QB, Nebraska: To say it's all about the quarterback sounds a bit cliché, but the line truly applies to Nebraska this season. The Huskers return eight starters on offense and look strong at most of the positions, particularly running back. Nebraska's defense could replace star power with greater depth and a more detail-oriented approach. So in many ways, the Huskers' season comes down to Martinez, their third-year starter at quarterback. Martinez struggled with his passing in 2011, completing just 56.2 percent of his attempts and often looking uncomfortable in the pocket. He spent the offseason working on his footwork and drew good marks from the coaches this spring. Martinez will be operating in the same offensive system in consecutive seasons for the first time in his football career (college or high school). He's also fully recovered from the injuries that slowed him in 2010. Bottom line: his time is now.

2. Will Campbell, DT, Michigan: Wolverines fans see Campbell's size and potential as a space eater and continue to wait patiently for the big man to take the next step. There's no better time than this season as Michigan must replace standout defensive linemen Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen. The Wolverines could be very good in the defensive back seven, particularly in the secondary, but there are questions up front and Campbell is one of them. Campbell has been better in getting his weight under control, but the senior needs to show he can consistently display the effort and technique needed to make a difference in the interior of the line. A former five-star recruit, the 6-5, 322-pound Campbell has one final opportunity to shine. Michigan needs a big season from No. 73.

3. Andrew Maxwell, QB, Michigan State: There's little doubt Michigan State will have one of the nation's best defenses for the second consecutive season. But the Spartans lose almost all of their key offensive skill players from 2011, and the biggest void is under center, where three-year starter and three-time captain Kirk Cousins departs. In steps Maxwell, who has spent years preparing for this moment in practice but lacks game experience (51 pass attempts in nine career games). Maxwell learned a lot from Cousins and has a personality that some liken to his predecessor. But after missing the second half of spring practice with a knee injury, he needs a strong summer as he builds chemistry with his mostly unproven receivers and tight ends. While Michigan State will be a more run-heavy team this fall with lead back Le'Veon Bell and a more seasoned offensive line, the Spartans need Maxwell to establish himself if they intend to return to Indianapolis.

4. Keenan Davis, WR, Iowa: Iowa's yet-to-be-named top running back could be listed here, but the Hawkeyes likely will be a pass-oriented team because of their uncertainty at tailback as well as the return of senior quarterback James Vandenberg. While Vandenberg seems to be adapting well to new offensive coordinator Greg Davis and the new system, he lacks many proven targets, especially after the departure of the Big Ten's top wide receiver, Marvin McNutt. Davis started 12 games last season and finished second on the squad in receptions (50) and receiving yards (713). The big question is whether he can take the next step and become a true No. 1 wide receiver. Coach Kirk Ferentz admitted Davis had an "up and down" spring, and missed the latter part of the session with an injury. Davis needs to show he can stay on the field, make consistent catches and give Vandenberg a reliable top target.

5. Roy Roundtree, WR, Michigan: The Wolverines return arguably the Big Ten's most dynamic offensive backfield in quarterback Denard Robinson and running back Fitzgerald Toussaint. The offense could be very dangerous this fall, but Michigan will need a bounce-back season from Roundtree. Michigan lacks depth at receiver following Junior Hemingway's departure and Darryl Stonum's dismissal. Roundtree flourished in the spread offense in 2010, leading the Wolverines with 72 catches for 935 yards and seven touchdowns, and earning second-team All-Big Ten honors. But his production dropped off sharply last fall in the new offense (19 receptions, 355 yards, 2 TDs). Michigan gave Roundtree the No. 21 jersey worn by Hemingway in 2011, and Roundtree will step into Hemingway's role in the offense. He's the obvious No. 1 target for Robinson, but he has to show he can get it done in this offense.
Brady HokeAP Photo/Carlos OsorioThe goal for the Wolverines in Brady Hoke's second season is to win the Big Ten title.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan's players must have felt pretty good about themselves at the end of last season. The Wolverines won 11 games, captured the Sugar Bowl championship and ended a seven-year losing streak to Ohio State.

But head coach Brady Hoke delivered some sobering news in the first team meeting after the Sugar Bowl in January. Team 132, he told the players, failed.

"It probably surprised some of them a little bit," Hoke told ESPN.com about that message he delivered. "But if you have a goal and you don't achieve that goal, then you fail."

Hoke has made it clear that as long as he's the Michigan coach, the Wolverines will always have one main objective: win the Big Ten title. So even though his first team erased a lot of the bad memories from the three-year Rich Rodriguez tenure in a major bounce-back campaign, it still finished as the runner-up in the Legends Division.

"Oh, man, sitting at home watching the Big Ten championship game felt kind of weird," quarterback Denard Robinson said. "We're supposed to be the 'leaders and best,' so we sold ourselves short not being in that first one."

The motivation for Team 133 this offseason, then, became quite obvious. Michigan got back on track last season, winning 11 games for the first time since 2006 and bringing some momentum to the program. The Wolverines could enter this season ranked in the top 10 and might well be the favorite to win the Big Ten in Hoke's second year. Asked if he'd view any season that didn't end with a Big Ten title as a disappointment, Hoke didn't hesitate to answer, "Yep."

Does Michigan have what it takes to repeat and even build upon last season's success? This spring offered reasons for optimism and pessimism.

The biggest difference between Hoke's first year and the RichRod teams was the surprising defensive resurgence. After three years of futility on that side of the ball, the Wolverines finished 17th nationally in total defense and sixth in points allowed. Fueling that effort was a dominant defensive line led by seniors Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen and Will Heininger.

By Week 4 against San Diego State -- a 28-7 victory -- safety Jordan Kovacs started to notice a major difference.

"I was getting bored as a defensive back because our front seven was controlling the game," Kovacs said. "One I realized our defensive line was pretty special, I knew we were going to have a heck of a team."

With three seniors gone and the lone returning starter, Craig Roh, switching from weakside to strongside defensive end, the D-line underwent some predictable growing pains this spring. The defensive tackle spot is a particular concern, with the undersized Jibreel Black moving in from end and senior Will Campbell getting one last try to live up to his once-immense recruiting hype. The line was inconsistent at best at stopping the run in practice this spring.

While the Wolverines should have more talent and experience at the linebacker and secondary positions than they did a year ago, there's little doubt where the focus lies for Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, as both cut their teeth as defensive line coaches.

"You can't have a great defense if you're not strong up the middle," Mattison said. "We need that position to become very, very strong."

On the flip side, Martin and Van Bergen were nowhere near the players they'd become at this time last year. Mattison said he expects his linemen to make a jump in the summer.

"Last year, it was a much uglier spring ball," Kovacs said. "That's what I try to remind myself."

[+] EnlargeCraig Roh
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioCraig Roh is the lone returning starter on the defensive line.
Depth is also a major worry, not just on the defensive line but on the offensive front. True freshmen are likely to crack the two-deep on both lines, which is not a great sign in the Big Ten. Michigan was fortunate last season to stay quite healthy in the trenches until the Sugar Bowl, when Heininger was out and David Molk played on a bad leg. Can the team get some luck on the injury front in 2012?

It may need to with a schedule that looks far more demanding than last season. The Wolverines had eight home games in 2011, including the first five contests of the season. That number dips down to six this season, with challenging road games at Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State. And of course, there's the opener against defending national champion Alabama in Arlington, Texas.

"All this offseason work is pointing toward that game," receiver Roy Roundtree said. "Everybody knows who we got. It's not like it's some cupcake opener; they're the national champions. We've got to bring our A-game."

The good news is that Michigan found ways to win without its A-game last season, especially in the Sugar Bowl against Virginia Tech in which offensive coordinator Al Borges said, "we played really awful." Hoke proclaimed after the spring game that the Wolverines are much tougher than they were a year ago.

Robinson and running back Fitz Toussaint, who each ran for more than 1,000 yards last season, give the offense two special difference-makers in the backfield. Coaches say Robinson's throwing mechanics and decision-making looked greatly improved this spring, while Toussaint may get some help from emerging power runner Thomas Rawls.

Michigan figures to stay in the thick of the Big Ten race all season long, but getting close won't be good enough. Bo Schembechler's famous phrase, "Those who stay will be champions," wasn't referring to Sugar Bowl titles. The Wolverines won't be satisfied with anything less than their 43rd Big Ten championship, which is why veteran players weren't stunned by Hoke's failing grade in that January meeting.

"I think it was kind of the elephant in the room," Kovacs said. "At the end of the day, we didn't do what we wanted to do. That's what we've been about and what we'll continue to be about. And that's what is fueling us for this season."

Spring previews: Legends Division

February, 17, 2012
2/17/12
9:00
AM ET
The 2012 Big Ten season doesn't kick off for six-and-a-half months, but spring football is just around the corner. All 12 Big Ten squads will hit the field next month for the first of 15 spring practices. There are plenty of new faces, as the winter months brought an unprecedented number of coaching changes to the Big Ten. Should be a fun and exciting spring around the conference.

Let's take a quick look at the Leaders Division:

IOWA

Spring practice start date: March 24
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • New coaching flavor: For the first time in the Kirk Ferentz era, Iowa will welcome new coordinators on both sides of the ball. Phil Parker isn't exactly new, having served as Iowa's defensive backs coach throughout Ferentz's tenure, but he now takes charge of the defense for the first time. Will he continue running Norm Parker's scheme or shake things up? Iowa also will have a new offensive coordinator (yet to be named) and several new position coaches, including Reese Morgan, who moves from offensive line to defensive line.
  • Running back auditions: Iowa once again needs to identify a featured back after Marcus Coker transferred to Stony Brook in January. Coker basically was the team's rushing attack in 2011, accounting for 77.3 percent of the rushing yards and 61.9 percent of the carries. Jordan Canzeri and Jason White will compete with several other unproven players this spring. The good news is Iowa has had little trouble developing backs. Keeping them is another story.
  • Reloading the defensive line: The running backs might get more attention, but defensive line is Iowa's most pressing need entering the spring. The Hawkeyes lose three starters from last season's squad, including NFL prospect Mike Daniels at defensive tackle. While D-line historically has been a strength for Iowa, the Hawkeyes haven't had so much uncertainty in quite some time. Morgan, who hasn't coached on the defensive side, has his work cut out this spring.
MICHIGAN

Spring practice start date: March 17
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • Defensive line rotation: It's a good thing coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison focus so much on the defensive line. The unit needs some extra attention this spring after losing standouts Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen. The defensive tackle spot will be particularly interesting. A lot of eyes will be on Will Campbell to see if the big man can finally blossom. Quinton Washington and others are in the mix.
  • Receiving orders: Michigan needs to develop more options in the passing game this spring. The team loses top wideout Junior Hemingway, and Darryl Stonum was dismissed from the squad in January following another legal issue. Roy Roundtree needs a big spring as he looks to re-establish himself as the team's No. 1 wideout after a production drop-off last season. Tight end Kevin Koger also departs, creating an opportunity for others.
  • Al Borges' offense, Take 2: The new offense had some highs and lows in Year 1, and Michigan will be looking to establish greater consistency this season. It'll be interesting to see how a full year in the system impacts quarterback Denard Robinson. Robinson must cut down on his interceptions after tossing 15 last season. The Wolverines also are looking for an offensive line anchor following the departure of All-American center David Molk.
MICHIGAN STATE

Spring practice start date: March 27
Spring game: April 28

What to watch:
  • Take it to the Max: Andrew Maxwell's time has arrived as he steps in for three-year starter and three-time captain Kirk Cousins at quarterback. It's a tall order, but Maxwell has been groomed for this moment and has shown good potential in practices. He'll be working with a new set of leading receivers, including Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett, who hopes to be cleared to play for the upcoming season. Maxwell must establish himself as a team leader this spring.
  • We're not Worthy: All-American Jerel Worthy is gone, and Michigan State needs a replacement for the standout defensive tackle. While Anthony Rashad White returns at the other D-tackle spot, the Spartans don't have much overall depth at the position. It'll be interesting to see what the coaches do with Micajah Reynolds, who has bounced between defensive line and offensive line during his career. It's a big spring for Vanderbilt transfer James Kittredge and a host of players who redshirted last season, including Damon Knox.
  • Receiving orders: Arnett seemingly would be Michigan State's No. 1 receiver if he's ruled eligible by the NCAA, but there are no guarantees and the Spartans must identify other options this spring. Bennie Fowler showed promise in 2010 before being slowed by a foot injury last season. He needs a strong spring. Michigan State also is moving Tony Lippett back to receiver from cornerback, where he started several games last season. Lippett is an excellent athlete who can provide a boost on the edge. The Spartans also will be looking for more from tight end Dion Sims.
MINNESOTA

Spring practice start date: March 22
Spring game: April 21

What to watch:
  • The search for a pass rush: Minnesota should be improved on offense in Year 2 of the Jerry Kill era, but the team could sink or swim depending on the defense. It starts up front with a defensive line that hasn't generated much pressure for several years. Coordinator Tracy Claeys wants to be aggressive, but can he find difference-makers? The Gophers haven't had an elite pass-rusher since Willie VanDeSteeg in 2008.
  • Supporting cast on offense: Although quarterback Marqueis Gray had his ups and downs last season, he accounted for most of Minnesota's offense, leading the team with 966 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns. Gray needs more help if the Gophers intend to take the next step this season. Minnesota will be looking for a featured running back this spring, as Donnell Kirkwood and others are in the mix. The Gophers also need more options at receiver after losing Da'Jon McKnight.
  • Troy Stoudermire: Stoudermire turned heads last spring with some big hits from the cornerback spot. After receiving an additional year of eligibility from the NCAA in January, he'll look to deliver more punishment. Minnesota desperately needs leaders and playmakers to emerge in the secondary, and Stoudermire's return could be huge after he missed most last season with a broken bone in his forearm.
NEBRASKA

Spring practice start date: March 10
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • Star search on defense: No Big Ten defense loses more star power than Nebraska, which must replace linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, the league's top performers at their respective positions. David's departure is especially critical, as Nebraska lacked depth in its defensive midsection last season. Although Nebraska played most of the past season without defensive tackle Jared Crick, it needs some difference-makers to emerge in all three levels of the defense this spring.
  • Papuchis takes over: Like Iowa, Nebraska promoted a position coach to defensive coordinator, as John Papuchis takes control of a unit that fell short of expectations last season. Papuchis is young and energetic, and his rapid rise mirrors that of his boss, Huskers head coach Bo Pelini. Although no system overhaul is expected, it will be interesting to see how Papuchis puts his imprint on the defense this spring.
  • Taylor Martinez's maturation: Despite two years as the starter and the support of his coaches, Martinez enters a pivotal spring. Although Martinez remained healthy last season and showed improved decision-making at times, he also completed just 56.3 percent of his passes and didn't break off as many long runs. A full year in Tim Beck's offense could pay off for Martinez this spring, but he needs to continue to make strides. It will be interesting to see if the coaches even entertain the possibility of a competition, or if backup Brion Carnes gets more reps.
NORTHWESTERN

Spring practice start date: March 3
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • Colter and the QB race: Northwestern will have a quarterback competition this spring as it looks for Dan Persa's replacement, but the hope among many is for Kain Colter to take control. Colter stepped in for Persa last season and emerged as the team's best all-around offensive weapon. But he needs to improve his arm strength and his accuracy and show he can be a more complete quarterback at this level. Although Colter will be on the field no matter what in the fall, he has the opportunity in spring ball to solidify himself as the starting quarterback.
  • Young defenders: The defense has been a big problem for the past year and a half, and Northwestern needs to identify more playmakers before September. The good news is the Wildcats played a lot of young players last season, particularly late in the season. Northwestern needs its youth to mature, beginning in the spring. Keep an eye on players such as defensive end Tyler Scott, safety Ibraheim Campbell, linebacker Collin Ellis and cornerback Daniel Jones. Northwestern needs several of them to take the next step.
  • Spotlight on the secondary: Few Big Ten units struggled more than Northwestern's secondary did last season. Making matters worse, the Wildcats lose three starters, including All-Big Ten safety Brian Peters and cornerback Jordan Mabin, a four-year starter. If Northwestern ever intends to turn the corner as a program, it needs to build better depth in the secondary, whether it's through recruiting or from moving players from other positions. It'll be interesting to see how the group performs this spring.

Big shoes to fill: Michigan

February, 13, 2012
2/13/12
10:15
AM ET
Spring practice kicks off in March, and each Big Ten team will be looking for some key replacements in their depth charts. We're going to take a look at two players on each Big Ten squad who leave big shoes to fill and who might be ready to step in at those spots.

Let's start off with the Michigan Wolverines.

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Mike Martin, DT

[+] EnlargeMike Martin
Lon Hordwedel/Icon SMIMike Martin has been a consistent presence in the middle of the defense for Michigan.
Why: Three-year starter anchored the middle of the defensive line. He earned second-team All-Big Ten honors in both 2011 and 2010. Martin appeared in 49 games, starting 37 at nose tackle, and finished his career with 172 tackles, including 25 for loss and seven sacks. His value goes far beyond the numbers, as he consistently took on double-teams and topped the opponent's scouting report before games against the Wolverines.

Replacement candidates: William Campbell (6-5, 322, Jr.); Quinton Washington (6-4, 302, So.); Ondre Pipkins (6-3, 335, incoming freshman); Richard Ash (6-3, 301, Fr.) Kenny Wilkins (6-3, 280, Fr.)

The skinny: Head coach Brady Hoke, who works directly with the nose tackles, has some work ahead this offseason in trying to replace Martin, the heart and soul of Michigan's defense. Is Campbell finally ready to take the next step? The former blue-chip recruit has the talent but hasn't quite blossomed. Pipkins arrives with a lot of buzz and could work his way into the rotation at a position with few proven players.

BIG SHOES TO FILL: David Molk, C

Why: Four-year starter won the Rimington Trophy in 2011 as the nation's top center. Molk was a consensus first-team All-America selection in 2011. He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the league's coaches in each of his final two seasons. He started 41 games at center, and his absence was felt any time he wasn't on the field. Offensive coordinator Al Borges placed a great deal of responsibility on Molk last fall, and Molk delivered for a unit adjusting to a new system.

Replacement candidates: Rocko Khoury (6-4, 287, Jr.); Ricky Barnum (6-3, 292, Jr.); Jack Miller (6-4, 263, Fr.)

The skinny: Khory has been the heir apparent to Molk for several years, but his snapping struggles early in the Sugar Bowl sounded a few alarms among Michigan fans. If Khoury isn't the answer, Barnum might be. He started three games at guard in 2011 before being slowed by ankle problems. Miller is an intriguing prospect who needs to bulk up a bit.
The offseason is upon us, and earlier today Brian took a look at the to-do lists for each team in the Leaders Division. Let's now turn the attention to the Legends Division and what teams need to accomplish during the next seven-plus months.

As a reminder, these items aren't recruiting needs, which we'll address in the near future, but rather areas each team needs to repair or restock before Aug. 31 or Sept. 1.

Iowa
  • Reverse the RB curse: Iowa's inability to retain promising running backs is well documented, and the Hawkeyes now must replace prolific sophomore Marcus Coker, who led the Big Ten in carries per game last fall (23.4 a game). The team has shown it produces capable backs, and several players either already on the roster or entering the mix could emerge. But it's critical that Iowa develops multiple options in the backfield in case injuries crop up or the AIRBHG (Angry Iowa Running Back-Hating God) decides to strike again.
  • Replenish the defensive line: A year after replacing three NFL draft picks from the defensive line, Iowa once again has to restock in its front four. The team loses three starters, including standout tackle Mike Daniels, and has very little proven experience back in the fold. Defensive line historically has been an area of strength for Iowa, but the team's new defensive coordinator (yet to be named) and the staff must make the front four a focal point as they try to identify difference-makers.
Michigan
  • Shore up the middle: Baseball general managers talk about the need to build a team up the middle. The same theory applies to football as teams that are strong in the center of both lines typically fare well. Michigan must replace two of the nation's best interior linemen in center David Molk, the Rimington Trophy winner, and defensive tackle Mike Martin. Both are NFL prospects and will be missed. The Wolverines need Will Campbell, Quinton Washington and others to emerge at defensive tackle. The center spot could be even more critical as coordinator Al Borges relied so heavily on Molk in 2011.
  • Tightening "Shoelace": Michigan won 11 games and a BCS bowl this past season despite enduring "good Denard, bad Denard" fluctuation at the quarterback position. Looking at the Wolverines' daunting 2012 schedule, they'll have no such luxury when September rolls around. They need Denard Robinson to perform like a senior and show good consistency and improved comfort in the offense. He'll need to cut down on turnovers and deliver more performances like the one we saw against Ohio State on Nov. 26.
Michigan State
  • Develop Andrew Maxwell: Michigan State returns the league's most dynamic defense and should be improved in the run game, too. The big question is whether or not the Spartans can replace quarterback Kirk Cousins, a three-year starter and a three-time captain. Andrew Maxwell has been groomed for the role and, barring a surprise, will lead the offense in September. It's a big offseason for Maxwell to establish himself in his own way and build chemistry with his teammates, particularly a new-look receiving corps.
  • Take line play to next level: Head coach Mark Dantonio understands that Big Ten success is tied to excellent play along both lines. The Spartans' defensive line looked elite at times in 2011, particularly when William Gholston and Jerel Worthy decided to dominate. Worthy is off to the NFL, and the Spartans will be looking to build more depth in the interior alongside Anthony Rashad White. More important, Michigan State must take a big step on the offensive line, a unit that lacked experience in 2011. The Spartans can't expect to win 11 games again with the nation's 78th-ranked rushing offense. They've established their identity on defense; it's time to return to their roots on offense and pound green pound.
Minnesota
  • Establish a defensive identity: Gophers coordinator Tracy Claeys wants to have an aggressive, pressuring defense, but the team had only 19 sacks and 61 tackles for loss in 2011. Those numbers need to increase and Minnesota must identify more playmakers along a defensive line that returns mostly intact. Keanon Cooper and Mike Rallis will lead the linebackers, but Minnesota's defense needs a new quarterback after the departure of productive safety Kim Royston.
  • MarQueis to the max: We've seen snippets of brilliance from quarterback MarQueis Gray, but at other times he looks lost and fails to complete most of his passes (50.7 percent for the season). Minnesota needs to lean on Gray in 2012, not just as a difference-maker, but as a consistent leader every Saturday. Gray enters his second offseason in the system, and his days of splitting time between quarterback and wide receiver are in the rear-view mirror. He's the leader of this football team, and he needs to make the necessary strides to elevate his game.
Nebraska
  • Star search: Nebraska's defense loses two of the nation's best in linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard. The Huskers don't necessarily need their replacements to be stars, but they need difference makers to emerge on a unit that fell short of expectations in 2011. Defensive line figures to be a very strong area for Big Red, and players like Baker Steinkuhler and Cameron Meredith will be called upon to lead the way. Nebraska also must make some adjustments to better handle the big, physical offenses in the Big Ten. Linebacker is one position that could use a makeover.
  • Maturity on offense: Running back Rex Burkhead is exempt from this, as he figures to have a huge senior season after making big strides in 2011. But Nebraska's offense has plenty of players that need to mature for the unit to reach its potential this coming season. The offensive line was green at spots and should benefit from another offseason in Tim Beck's system. Nebraska has young talent at wide receiver with Kenny Bell, Quincy Enunwa and Jamal Turner. If the wideouts can grow up, they'll be dangerous weapons in 2012. Quarterback Taylor Martinez also fits in here. He showed some good things in 2011, but must perform more like a third-year starter next fall.
Northwestern
  • Find playmakers on defense: Northwestern lacked difference-makers on defense this past season and loses one in All-Big Ten safety Brian Peters, who led the league with five interceptions. This might never be a shut-down defense, but it needs to identify more players who can influence games. Northwestern returns nine defensive starters and will look to players like defensive end Tyler Scott and safety Ibraheim Campbell to take their game to the next level. The Wildcats recorded a league-low 17 sacks in 2011 and ranked 104th nationally in tackles for loss (59).
  • Figure out the quarterback situation: Offensive coordinator Mick McCall has been masterful in turning inexperienced quarterbacks into All-Big Ten players at Northwestern. His next major project likely will be Kain Colter, who filled in admirably last season, but looked limited as a passer, and at times seemed better suited to play wide receiver. Colter will compete with Trevor Siemian and Zack Oliver for the starting job this spring. If he can make a similar jump as his Wildcats predecessors, he could be one of the division's most dangerous players in 2012.
NEW ORLEANS -- A few pregame notes from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where the teams have been on the field going through warmups.
  • As expected, Will Campbell worked as the first-team defensive tackle alongside Mike Martin. Thomas Gordon worked as the starting free safety.
  • It's definitely looking like Michigan will have more fans tonight. A lot of Maize in the crowd, and they're very loud.
  • Michigan quarterbacks Denard Robinson and Devin Gardner both threw the ball well in warmups and then chest-bumped one another before trotting off the field. Wolverines look loose.
  • A Pac-12 officiating crew will work tonight's game. Jay Stricherz is the referee.
NEW ORLEANS -- Greetings from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where tonight No. 13 Michigan faces No. 11 Virginia Tech in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

Michigan makes its first BCS bowl appearance since the 2007 Rose Bowl, and aims for its first BCS bowl victory since the 2000 Orange Bowl, when Tom Brady led the Wolverines past Alabama. Virginia Tech, meanwhile, is used to the big stage, having played in three of the past four Orange Bowls.

A bit of pregame news, of the unsurprising variety. Michigan senior defensive lineman Will Heininger is out with a sprained right foot. Junior Will Campbell will start in his spot at defensive tackle, and Quinton Washington will back up Ryan Van Bergen at defensive tackle. Coach Brady Hoke has told Van Bergen and Mike Martin to be prepared to play every snap, and both seniors have done extra conditioning after practice to prepare. The Wolverines' defensive line depth will be tested tonight as Heininger and Nathan Brink both are out.

The fan breakdown should be interesting. For all the talk about Virginia Tech's bowl allotment, Hokies fans appear to be out in force here in the Big Easy. Plenty of Michigan fans are here as well, excited to see their team back on the big bowl stage.

Michigan seemed like the popular pick when the pairing was announced, but it seems like more folks are leaning toward Virginia Tech now, including ESPN colleagues David Pollack and Todd McShay. The teams are evenly matched, but I'm sticking with my pick: Michigan 27, Virginia Tech 21. Could be bad news for the Wolverines as I'm only 6-3 in bowl picks so far.

Much more to come from the dome throughout the night, so don't even think about going anywhere.
Big Ten bowl season wraps up Tuesday night as No. 13 Michigan takes on No. 11 Virginia Tech in the Allstate Sugar Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Wolverines aim for their first bowl win since the 2008 Capital One Bowl and their first BCS bowl win since the 2000 Orange Bowl. A victory gives Michigan four straight wins to end the season and the program's fifth 11-win season in the modern era.

Let's take a look at the matchup.

WHO TO WATCH: Michigan junior quarterback Denard Robinson. Who else? The Wolverines' fortunes are typically tied to their dreadlocked signal-caller and how he performs. Robinson ended the regular season with his best two-game stretch in a Michigan uniform, accounting for 628 yards (347 pass, 281 rush) and nine touchdowns (4 rush, 5 pass) with only one interception. If he can maintain that level, he'll provide problems for a Virginia Tech defense that couldn't stop Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd in the ACC championship game. Virginia Tech is tied for 21st nationally in interceptions with 15, and the Hokies play aggressive coverage, so Robinson will need to be smart with his decision-making after struggling with interceptions midway through Big Ten play.

WHAT TO WATCH: Michigan's defensive line versus Virginia Tech's offensive backfield. The line is the biggest reason for Michigan's renaissance on defense this season, as seniors Ryan Van Bergen and Mike Martin have led the way. But depth will be an issue as senior tackle Will Heininger likely is out with a sprained foot. Michigan will turn to Will Campbell and Quinton Washington to help fill the void. Virginia Tech boasts a backfield combination in quarterback Logan Thomas and running back David Wilson unlike any Michigan has faced this season. When the Wolverines get to Thomas, they must find ways to bring the linebacker-sized quarterback down. And they'll need to contain Wilson, who ranks sixth nationally in rushing average (125.2 ypg). Michigan's defense wasn't at its best in its last performance against Ohio State but has contained teams most of the season.

WHY TO WATCH: See if Michigan can complete its breakthrough season under first-year coach Brady Hoke with its first win in a BCS bowl since the 2000 Orange Bowl. And while the matchup has been panned nationally, it features two teams with similar profiles and some intriguing matchups. How will Robinson handle an athletic and aggressive Virginia Tech defense? Michigan appears to have the edge at the line of scrimmage on both sides, but a shorthanded defensive line will need to contain the Hokies' dangerous backfield combination. Leagues are always judged by BCS bowl games, and a favored Michigan team can boost the Big Ten with a victory and use it a springboard toward the 2012 season, when the Wolverines could be the preseason league favorites.

PREDICTION: Michigan 27, Virginia Tech 21. Don't expect the Hokies to be nearly as bad as they were in the ACC championship game, but Michigan has several matchup advantages in the game. The Wolverines are stronger along both lines and should limit the damage from Thomas and Wilson. Robinson ended the season playing his best football and will give Virginia Tech trouble if he doesn't turn over the football. Michigan goes ahead early and holds on late to win.
NEW ORLEANS -- Like many rappers, Michigan defensive end Ryan Van Bergen draws inspiration from his roots.

"It comes from the mean streets of Whitehall," Van Bergen deadpanned Saturday. "Growing up there, it's not the easiest place in the world, so you get some inspiration and thoughts off of that. It's all the cornfields and nice beaches."

OK, so Van Bergen's hometown of Whitehall, Mich., isn't the grittiest place in the world, as you can see here and here. But the Wolverines senior showed off his rapping skills Friday night at a team event in a local bowling alley.

Van Bergen and fellow defensive lineman Will Campbell took the stage in what looked like a freestyle rapping battle, but was supposed to be a duet. When Campbell didn't fulfill his end of the bargain, Van Bergen stole the show, at his teammate's expense.

"It wasn't supposed to be just me and him messing around," Van Bergen said, "but because he didn't say anything, it looked like a battle."

A battle Van Bergen won definitively. He kept his performance profanity-free -- "That might have been a bit of a struggle," defensive tackle Mike Martin said -- and had the team in stitches when discussing the 322-pound Campbell and his preferences.

"When Ryan said that Will likes big girls, that wasn't an insult, that's just true," Martin said. "He would admit to it."

Added Van Bergen: "I was trying to give him a compliment."

No word yet on whether Van Bergen will be performing at halftime of the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

Michigan D-line looks for next man in

December, 31, 2011
12/31/11
12:15
PM ET
NEW ORLEANS -- Michigan's defensive line has been the engine for a 10-win season, but the group's depth will be tested Tuesday night in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

Reserve defensive end Nathan Brink is out with an injury, and starting defensive tackle Will Heininger remains hobbled with a sprained right foot. Heininger, who sustained the injury Dec. 22, has yet to practice with the team here.

Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said Heininger is day-to-day. Heininger, a walk-on, has started all 12 games this season on the line and has 23 tackles, including four for loss and a sack.

"I've had guys that have missed an entire bowl practice and all of a sudden they were cleared [to play]," Mattison said. "And now you have another guy that can play. You can't worry about that as a coach."

Junior Will Campbell and sophomore Quinton Washington would see increased field time if Heininger can't play. Campbell, a great talent who has battled weight issues throughout his career, has two sacks and a fumble recovery this season.

"He's in tremendous shape for a guy for being 315-plus pounds," defensive end Ryan Van Bergen said. "He could be the guy who's first to the ball every time. That's what I'm saying about his raw ability that hasn't shown up. I think he'll be a tremendous, tremendous influence on guys. When your biggest guy is running to the ball the most ... everybody else will get motivated by that."

Mattison has the "utmost confidence" in Campbell.

"It truly is, at our place, with Brady [Hoke] and our staff, next guy," Mattison said. "Next guy. These are our players. This is Michigan defense. This is how you play. You're expected to know what to do."
Troy Woolfolk has been around Michigan football all his life, and he knows the hyperbole that often follows the Maize and Blue.

Woolfolk, a fifth-year senior cornerback for Michigan, heard the big declarations about the direction of the program after season-opening wins in 2009 and 2010.

He issues some words of caution entering Saturday's opener against Western Michigan.

"I have a problem with people saying, even if we win this next game, that Michigan is back," Woolfolk told ESPN.com this week. "We have to earn that right, every game, to say Michigan is back. So I won't be proud until the last game. If we win all the games, that's when I'll know we're finally back."

[+] EnlargeTroy Woolfolk
AP Photo/Tony DingTroy Woolfolk could lean on his father, Butch, himself a former Michigan star, when it came to dealing with injuries.
Woolfolk's attitude is refreshing. If the grand proclamations about Michigan after the past two openers proved true, Tate Forcier would be a Heisman Trophy candidate and the defense would consistently keep opponents out of the end zone. Obviously, neither of those things panned out.

What Saturday's opener represents is an opportunity for Michigan's defense to start the process of returning to its traditional form. The Wolverines not only veered off track the past three seasons, they totally derailed, finishing no better than 77th nationally in points allowed and bottoming out in 2010 by finishing 110th nationally in yards allowed.

While many will be watching electric quarterback Denard Robinson and his transition to a new offense Saturday, the more significant developments will take place on defense. New coach Brady Hoke and his staff, led by veteran defensive guru Greg Mattison, have spent the past few months repairing one of the nation's worst units.

The product is far from finished, but it will finally be on display.

"Michigan is known for defense," said Woolfolk, who returns Saturday after missing all of last season with a broken leg and a dislocated ankle. "The past years, we didn't live up to that, but this year, we should be able to play sound, good Michigan defense."

Any potential Wolverines turnaround starts with the defensive line, the area in which both Hoke and Mattison specialize. Hoke likes his rotation, which is led by team captain Mike Martin and senior end Ryan Van Bergen, and also features a bulked-up Craig Roh, Jibreel Black, Will Heininger and massive tackle Will Campbell, who the Wolverines hope can finally reach his potential.

"We've got some multiple alignments that we can put out on the field," Hoke said, "and that's going to help us in a lot of ways, help us keep fresh so we've got guys in there who are fresh all day long."

Hoke added that he wants to see his defenders "playing with a fanaticism."

Woolfolk also mentioned we'll see more intensity from a defense that finished 98th nationally in sacks in 2010.

But the critical question is whether Michigan can limit the fundamental meltdowns that led to so many big plays and extended so many drives the past few seasons. Even in last year's 30-10 opening win against Connecticut, Michigan's defense had breakdowns the Huskies simply couldn't exploit.

Better teams did, and the results weren't pretty.

"Those major breakdowns are due to [the need to be] a student of the game," Woolfolk said. "You have to actually know the defense and try to go in, even after practice, to study film and truly understand your position. Once you can do that, it will cancel out the big plays.

"Mistakes are going to happen. The thing we like to focus on is not making the same mistake."

Michigan hopes a more experienced secondary can learn from the past, especially Saturday against a high-powered Western Michigan passing attack led by quarterback Alex Carder and receiver Jordan White, a Biletnikoff Award semifinalist in 2010.

The lone positive for a Wolverines secondary ravaged by injuries and other personnel issues is that younger players got their feet wet -- and quite often their backsides burned -- in games.

"Courtney Avery, he played as a true freshman," Woolfolk said. "Terrence Talbott, he played as a true freshmen. So we have a lot of sophomores who played their freshmen year. Plus, we have me and J.T. [Floyd] coming back, who have also played a lot.

"We have a lot of experience, so the secondary should be fine."

It will take more than a strong performance Saturday to determine whether Woolfolk is right, but the opener marks a new beginning for a defense that craves one.

"I've seen it," Martin said. "I've been there every single day. ... It’s something you can’t hide. Every single day I can say we're getting better."

SPONSORED HEADLINES