NCF Nation: Dan Persa


Many college football coaches, moonlighting as expert mathematicians, subscribe to the equation that two quarterbacks actually equals zero quarterbacks.

Others who attempt to use quarterback rotations end up with stagnant offenses. Quarterback competitions can be beneficial, but they also often divide locker rooms and lead to transfers. There are rare cases when a two-quarterback system works, and Northwestern appears to have found the formula.

The Wildcats won 10 games last season while rotating Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian at quarterback. Although Colter started 12 of the 13 games and finished second on the team in both carries (170) and rushing yards (894), Siemian had more completions (128), pass attempts (218) and pass yards (1,312).

The offense wasn't a juggernaut -- 42nd nationally in scoring, 64th in yards -- and the rotation caused a midseason identity crisis, but Northwestern worked through it to have its most successful season under coach Pat Fitzgerald.

Both Colter and Siemian return for the 2013 campaign, and the bar has been raised.

"I believe we have two quarterbacks who can lead us to a Big Ten championship," Fitzgerald told ESPN.com before spring practice.

Why does Northwestern's two-quarterback system seem to work when many others fail?

It starts with acceptance.

As recent history shows, playing two quarterbacks is more of a necessity than a luxury in Northwestern's offense. The team has used multiple starting quarterbacks in each of the past three seasons and four times in the past five.

The nature of Northwestern's spread offense, which requires the quarterback to run and exposes him to injury, makes it essential to have multiple options.

"We'll always have to play our No. 2 quarterback no matter what because [the starter] is going to get dinged up," offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. "It's going to happen."

No player understands this more than Colter, who burned his redshirt late in the 2010 season because star quarterback Dan Persa ruptured his Achilles' tendon. Colter opened 2011 as the starter because of Persa's injury and shared time with Persa before rotating with Siemian last fall.

Colter's unique skill set -- he recorded 43 receptions in 2011 and might be the team's top receiver and best overall athlete -- increases McCall's flexibility at the quarterback spot. Siemian, meanwhile, has the stronger throwing arm of the two.

"It’d be stupid to say he’s not going to play," Colter said, referring to Siemian. "I think we both showed that we’re both going to play this year. It’s been a two-quarterback system ever since I’ve been here. Do I want the opportunity? Yeah. And I’ve had the opportunity in games where I’ve been the only quarterback, but I also feel at some point, I'm one of the best receivers we have on the field and one of the best running backs, so we have to get me in different areas."

Another key to the rotation is the strong friendship between Colter and Siemian. They both arrived at Northwestern in 2010 and studied the playbook together. Both were on track to redshirt before Persa's injury, which thrust Colter into the fire.

Siemian backed up Colter at times during the 2011 season before moving into more of a co-starter role last fall.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Siemian
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsTrevor Siemian, who passed for 440 more yards than teammate Kain Colter last season, says the two-quarterback system can flourish at Northwestern.
"We're two pretty unselfish guys," Siemian said. "A lot of times at places, I’ve heard you get a quarterback competition or you get two guys buying time, and that kind of divides the team in two. We're all in this together. That's just part of the culture here as a program. It's not like Kain and I are that special, but we're all going for a Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl."

Added Colter: "We've been through this whole thing together, all the offensive changes, all the quarterback changes. He's always helped me out and I try to help him out in any way that I can."

Colter's and Siemian's skills seemed to complement each other well for much of 2012.

As Northwestern transitioned to more of a run-based offense, Colter and running back Venric Mark shined in the zone-read game, and Colter's scrambling skills converted numerous third downs. Siemian showed off his arm on downfield throws and threaded the ball into tight windows. And while Colter didn't play nearly as much receiver because of the injury risk, he and Siemian connected nine times for 131 yards in a win against Indiana (Colter also had 161 rush yards and four touchdowns as a quarterback in the game).

"He’s one of our better receivers when he lines up out there, so for me, selfishly, I like it," Siemian said. "But then again, he's so dangerous when he lines up at quarterback."

Colter is working strictly as a quarterback in spring practice, but the door hasn't been closed to him playing other positions in the fall.

"We need him to get better at playing quarterback," McCall said. "As time goes on, there's always going to be a possibility of he and Trevor playing together on the same snap. That puts pressure on defenses. We can change some things up, they don't know actually what’s going on, it simplifies what they do. There's always going to be that opportunity as we go forward."

Colter's flexibility can keep defenses off balance, which Northwestern struggled to do with its rotation midway through the 2012 season. Offensive production dropped off in early October as Colter handled most run plays while Siemian was brought in for obvious third-and-long passing situations.

In late October, Colter questioned the unit's identity in an interview with ESPN.com, saying Northwestern had to fully commit to an option-based attack. Several days later, Colter and Mark combined for 328 rush yards in a win against Iowa.

"We know exactly who we are," Fitzgerald said. "The bottom line is we want to win, and we're going to do what’s best for the team first. Fans want to say, 'Why don't we throw it better with Kain, and why don't we run it better when Trevor’s in there?' Keep talking all you want, but the bottom line is we won the game. It's one of those situations where you want to play to guys' strengths, but you also don't want to be predictable.

"That's where the balancing act is."

There's also a balance with leadership that Colter and Siemian intend to reach in 2013. Colter, a co-captain in 2012, almost certainly will retain the title as a senior this fall.

He made his desire clear in a recent interview, saying, "No matter where I’m at [on the field], I'm going to be the leader on this team."

It's not an affront to Siemian, who doesn't take it that way.

"I'm a quarterback, so it'd be foolish for me to say I'm not a leader," Siemian said. "But Kain's a tremendous leader. He's done well leading our offense, but I have a leadership role on this team, too."

The Big Ten hasn't had a team with a true quarterback rotation win a league title in recent years. Northwestern hopes to change that this fall.
Matt McGloin, Braxton Miller and Joel StaveUS PresswireThe recent performances by (L to R) Penn State's Matt McGloin, Ohio State's Braxton Miller and Wisconsin's Joel Stave give the Big Ten some hope for improved quarterback play.
Of the many theories to explain the Big Ten's collective struggles this season, the one about the league's dearth of elite quarterbacks certainly rings true.

Through eight weeks, the Big Ten has just one quarterback ranked among the nation's top 30 in pass efficiency (Nebraska's Taylor Martinez at No. 15). The league has just one quarterback in the nation's top 30 in completions per game (Penn State's Matt McGloin at No. 19). The league has zero quarterbacks ranked in the nation's top 30 in total passing yards.

As former Ohio State coach Earle Bruce told me last month, "A team can't get cut short at that position. I don't know whether the evaluation of the quarterbacks has been wrong, or they had injuries or whatever, but the quarterback position is down in the Big Ten. There's no doubt about that."

Bruce is right. There's no doubt. But there's also hope on the horizon for a league that hasn't had a quarterback selected in the first round of the NFL draft since 1995 (Penn State's Kerry Collins).

I sat in Kinnick Stadium on Saturday night and watched McGloin pick apart what had been a pretty salty Iowa defense. McGloin had complete command and tremendous awareness of his receivers and tight ends. He made correct reads and confident throws. McGloin's mobility is, well, limited, but one of his best plays came in the first quarter, when he evaded the rush and spotted tight end Jesse James on a deep crossing route to set up Penn State's first touchdown. As I tweeted at the time, McGloin is simply a different quarterback.

The same Matt McGloin who looked lost for much of the past two seasons has thrown 14 touchdown passes and just two interceptions in 259 pass attempts. The same guy whose selection as the Lions' starting quarterback this spring elicited groans from much of Nittany Nation, and understandably so, is by far the best drop-back passer in the Big Ten. Some say that's an indictment against the league, and they're right to a degree. But it's also a tribute to what new Penn State coach Bill O'Brien can do with a quarterback.

If O'Brien can do this with McGloin, a former walk-on (sorry, Matt, had to mention it) in one offseason, think of what he can do with a quarterback who comes to Penn State with bona fide next-level potential. Like Christian Hackenberg, the nation's No. 1 quarterback prospect, who has verbally committed to O'Brien and the Lions.

There are other reasons for optimism at the most important position on the field. Ohio State's Braxton Miller has exceeded all expectations in his first year as a spread-offense quarterback. Whether or not Miller hoists the Heisman Trophy in December -- or even gets to New York for the ceremony -- he'll enter 2013 as the likely Heisman front-runner. There's little doubt Miller's skills fit seamlessly with what Urban Meyer and Tom Herman want to do on offense.

Youth is a common theme among current Big Ten quarterbacks. New offensive systems is another.

Minnesota coach Jerry Kill pressed the fast-forward button Saturday, burned Philip Nelson's redshirt and decided the future is now at quarterback. While Nelson made some expected mistakes in his first career start at a very tough venue (Wisconsin's Camp Randall Stadium), he also showed why Minnesota fans are so excited about his potential. The experience this fall only will make him better in 2013.

The other quarterback on the field at Camp Randall Stadium, Wisconsin freshman Joel Stave, also is hardly a finished product. But he's a good play-action passer who doesn't make a ton of mistakes in a newish offense. Stave is another guy who should be better in 2013. Wisconsin also will have Danny O'Brien, Jon Budmayr and heralded recruit Bart Houston, provided Budmayr and Houston recover from their injuries.

Northwestern sophomore Trevor Siemian is another young Big Ten quarterback who looks his age. He's a half-step slow on his reads and his deliveries, and he's not connecting on the short-to-midrange routes that have defined Northwestern's offense for years. The good news is coordinator Mick McCall has a proven track record of developing younger quarterbacks into top-level Big Ten players in their junior and/or senior seasons (Dan Persa, Mike Kafka, C.J. Bacher). There's no reason to think Siemian, who has played more than the others as a sophomore, won't make a similar jump in 2013.

Look around the Big Ten, and most of the current signal-callers will be back next fall.

Nebraska's Martinez is a confounding player at times, particularly away from Lincoln, but he also has undoubtedly improved in 2012 -- he completes a league-best 67 percent of his passes with 15 touchdown strikes and four interceptions -- and will enter next year as one of the nation's most experienced quarterbacks. Another player who falls under that label is Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase, who has had his struggles this season but also has been operating in a new system with barely any weapons around him. Scheelhaase and the Illini offense will be better in 2013.

Indiana might have the Big Ten's deepest group of quarterbacks in 2013, as Tre Roberson returns from injury to join Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld in a pass-oriented scheme coordinated by Seth Littrell.

This isn't to suggest Big Ten teams don't have concerns at quarterback, both now and in years ahead. Andrew Maxwell's struggles at Michigan State are unsettling. Then again, he's a first-year starter with no proven receivers. Michigan loses one of the most productive players in team history in Denard Robinson. Then again, Robinson's departure accelerates Michigan's transition to the true pro-style offense Al Borges wants to run. If incoming recruit Shane Morris is as good as advertised, Michigan's future at quarterback looks promising.

No one expected Iowa's James Vandenberg to struggle so much in his senior season. Then again, the Hawkeyes are operating in a new offense under Greg Davis, and another full offseason could pay dividends for the new starter (most likely Jake Rudock).

The quarterback spot is and has been a problem in the Big Ten. There's no sugarcoating it.

But I saw reason for optimism with McGloin in Iowa City, and the combination of coaches, new systems, maturing players and incoming recruits suggests better days lie ahead.
It's time for the second half of our Big Ten personnel roundup entering season-opening weekend. In case you missed Part I, which featured most of the Week 1 depth charts, be sure and check it out.

Michigan State released its depth chart, so we'll start there. Minnesota and Nebraska will release theirs later this week.

MICHIGAN STATE

Depth chart
  • There are two unsettled positions on defense as Michigan State lists co-starters at defensive tackle (Micajah Reynolds and Tyler Hoover) and at free safety (Jairus Jones and Kurtis Drummond). Head coach Mark Dantonio called the Reynolds-Hoover competition "a flip of the coin" and praised Reynolds' progress during fall camp. Reynolds has a 33-inch vertical leap and bench-presses more than 400 pounds. Hoover, a converted defensive end, missed all but one game last season with a fractured rib.
  • Linebacker Darien Harris and defensive end Lawrence Thomas both don't appear on the depth chart because of injuries but will be contributors this season. Harris could see the field early Friday night against Boise State. Sophomore Skyler Burkland is listed as the backup left tackle but likely won't play because of a hand injury.
  • Junior Bennie Fowler and sophomores Keith Mumphery and Tony Lippett are listed as Michigan State's top receivers. Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett, who had 24 receptions last season for the Vols, appears as Fowler's backup.

Here are some other personnel notes from around the league ...

IOWA

Running back is the big question mark for the Hawkeyes after another summer of attrition. Iowa enters Saturday's opener with three primary backs -- Damon Bullock, Greg Garmon and Michael Malloy -- as well as two fullbacks in Brad Rogers and Mark Weisman.

Bullock, who had 10 carries for 20 yards, likely will get the start against Northern Illinois, although Garmon, a heralded true freshman, should get plenty of work as well. Rogers is a familiar name, and coach Kirk Ferentz praised Weisman's progress during camp.

"You play the cards that are dealt," Ferentz said. "The running back position is one where we’ve had a lot of players playing. The good news is they've performed pretty well."

Sophomore Jordan Canzeri, who suffered a torn ACL in spring practice, has returned to practice, but Ferentz said it's "weeks or months before we talk about him entering contact or anything live at all." Iowa has been cautious about live tackling involving its running backs in practice, particularly those who have game experience.

PURDUE

Boilers coach Danny Hope didn't sound too concerned about playing without top middle linebacker Dwayne Beckford, indefinitely suspended Monday following his latest arrest. Purdue practiced without Beckford during spring ball -- he was working his way back from another legal issue -- and rotated several players at middle linebacker. Senior Antwon Higgs appears to be the next man in, and converted quarterback Sean Robinson is behind him.

Sophomore Joe Gilliam, who recorded seven tackles last year and made one start, should be a bigger part of the plan as well.

"I thought in the recruiting process he was one of the top players in our state," Hope said of Gilliam. "I thought Joe was probably the next guy in line [behind the starters]."

INDIANA
  • Not surprisingly, Tre Roberson has emerged as Indiana's starting quarterback after taking over the top spot as a true freshman in 2011. Roberson beat out junior college arrival Cam Coffman and freshman Nate Sudfeld for the job. Coffman will serve as Roberson's backup. Although Roberson struggled in Tuesday's morning workout, coach Kevin Wilson has been pleased with the sophomore. "He's embraced the challenge," Wilson said. "He definitely can make some plays as a bit of a dual-threat guy. He's embraced the competition. He has been by far our most consistent quarterback."
  • Roberson will be passing the ball more in 2012, and he'll have a deeper group of wide receivers at his disposal. How deep? Wilson said that veterans Kofi Hughes and Duwyce Wilson enter the season as the team's No. 5 and No. 6 receivers (Hughes is suspended for the opener against Indiana State). Kevin Wilson had high praise for sophomore Cody Latimer, limited by a sports hernia injury last season. Speedster Nick Stoner also should be a bigger part of the mix at receiver. "It's not because they've [Hughes and Duwyce Wilson] fallen off but because we've got some good players," the coach said. "We've got some competition, we've got some depth, we've got some young speed and I just think we're close to having a more complete unit there. We're not great at receiver, but we do have more playmakers."
ILLINOIS
  • Illinois' secondary isn't anywhere near full strength as it prepares to face Western Michigan and talented quarterback Alex Carder. The team's top two safeties, Steve Hull and Supo Sanni, both are nursing injuries and didn't appear on Monday's depth chart. Also, top cornerback Terry Hawthorne has a sprained ankle that will limit him only to defense for the first few games. Illinois wanted to use the athletic Hawthorne as another option at receiver, a position with little proven depth. The bigger question is how much the ankle will limit the senior with his primary cornerback responsibilities.
  • Although the Illini will rotate plenty at running back, receiver and tight end on Saturday, they won't employ a two-quarterback system, which had been rumored during camp. Co-offensive coordinator Chris Beatty said Tuesday that he's not a big believer in rotating quarterbacks, so junior Nathan Scheelhaase will take most or all of the snaps.
OHIO STATE
  • Urban Meyer expects "six seconds of great effort" from Ohio State's freshmen in Saturday's opener against Miami (Ohio). Asked which freshman he was most curious to see, Meyer identified defensive back Devan Bogard as well as freshman linebacker David Perkins, who "really exploded the last couple of days."
  • Meyer said freshman Bri'onte Dunn and sophomore Rod Smith are "very close" for the No. 2 running back spot behind Carlos Hyde. Dunn has been a bit more consistent in camp and has a slight edge.
  • Meyer said Storm Klein's role going forward is yet to be determined and that recently reinstated linebacker is still "making up a bunch of stuff" after missing almost all of fall camp. Meyer based his decision to reinstate Klein on a domestic violence charge being dismissed against the senior, who pleaded guilty to misdemeanor disorderly conduct.
NORTHWESTERN

Coach Pat Fitzgerald acknowledged that it has been easier to go through the preseason this year as opposed to 2011, when talk of quarterback Dan Persa's health dominated fall camp. Although Northwestern knew all along that Persa wouldn't play in the first few games and Kain Colter would start, it has been easier for Colter this time around.

"Unfortunately, Danny had to go through that tough offseason," Fitzgerald said. "That was not fun. Kain handled the opportunity really well a year ago. ... You could definitely tell it was his first start in college football Now he's settled down, he's settled into the role."
In putting together the proving ground posts for both the Leaders Division and Legends Division, I tried to mix up offense/defense and position groups. But in reality, I could have made all 10 selections quarterbacks.

SportsNation

Which Big Ten quarterback has the most to prove in 2012?

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    15%
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    14%
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    39%
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    17%
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    15%

Discuss (Total votes: 7,547)

The Big Ten loses three of its top four passers from 2011 -- Russell Wilson, Dan Persa and Kirk Cousins -- and while eight teams return their starting quarterbacks, there are question marks around the league. Quarterback competitions are unsettled at Penn State, Purdue and Wisconsin, and returning starters are hearing some footsteps at places like Indiana and Illinois.

Michigan State has spent years grooming Andrew Maxwell to be its top quarterback, but Maxwell still must show he can get it done on game day. Taylor Martinez is entering his third season as Nebraska's starting quarterback, but he still has to win over Huskers fans with more consistent performances. Everyone assumes Braxton Miller will be a big success in Ohio State's new spread offense, but Miller still has some work ahead.

Wisconsin has only three healthy quarterbacks at its disposal, and while the hope is Danny O'Brien makes a seamless transition from Maryland, like Wilson did from NC State last year, O'Brien has a lot to prove.

Let's put the debate to you fine people. Which Big Ten quarterback has the most to prove in 2012? I've listed five choices, and I'm interested to see who you choose. Be sure to vote.
Tough news for former Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa. As the Chicago Tribune's Teddy Greenstein reports, Persa needs a second surgery on his right Achilles tendon, a procedure which could end his playing career.

Persa, who went undrafted last month, re-injured the tendon during a free-agent workout with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He originally tore his Achilles near the end of the Iowa game on Nov. 13, 2010. Though the Wildcats mounted a Heisman campaign for Persa last spring, he had a couple of setbacks with his rehab and was never fully comfortable.

A foot specialist with the Indianapolis Colts told Persa he needed to shut things down now.

"He said my foot was at 65 percent," Persa told the Tribune, "and during the season, it was probably at 50 percent. He said: 'If you ever want it to be semi-normal again, you have to have another surgery.'"

Even at just 50 percent or so last year on his foot, Persa completed 73.4 percent of his passes, finishing second in the Big Ten in pass efficiency behind Wisconsin's Russell Wilson. He led the league in passing yards per game, at 237.6, and had 17 touchdowns against seven interceptions.

Still, he was no longer the running threat he used to be. Persa could have sought a redshirt last year and fully healed. But he says he has no regrets, and isn't going to mope if his football career is over.

"Six years at a place is a long time," he said. "If I never play again, I'm happy with what I've done."
Brady Hoke/Mark DantonioGetty Images, US PresswireBrady Hoke and the Wolverines square off against Mark Dantonio and the Spartans on Oct. 20.
During the course of spring practice, Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett visited 11 of the 12 league schools, getting an up-close look at the players and coaches who will shape the 2012 season.

Now it's time for them to share their thoughts on what they saw and learned this spring, and you can follow along as they exchange emails. Check out the Leaders Division exchange here. They now turn their focus to the Legends Division.

Adam Rittenberg: Let's take a look at what I believe to be the stronger division in 2012. You spent a lot of time in the Mitten State last month, and while you didn't gorge yourself like you did in America's Dairyland, you got the money quote of spring ball from Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, who said, "We're laying in the weeds. We've beat Michigan the last four years. So where's the threat?" How spicy is the Michigan State-Michigan rivalry getting, and how good do you think these two teams will be this season after visiting both campuses?

Brian Bennett: Oh, there was some serious gorging going on at Zingerman's in Ann Arbor and Sparty's in East Lansing. Good thing there's only one spring practice session per year.

Anyway, I went into the spring thinking Michigan and Michigan State were the two strongest teams in the league, and I didn't see anything to change my opinion. While the Wolverines are more focused on Ohio State and even Alabama, they know they have to end their losing streak against Michigan State. And the Spartans take serious pride in that four-game run while bristling at all the offseason accolades thrown toward Brady Hoke's team. Oct. 20 can't come soon enough, as far as I'm concerned.

If the two teams played right now, I'd definitely take Michigan State. Dantonio has done a terrific job of developing depth on both lines and all over the defense. There's not a deeper team in the Big Ten, and the Spartans' physical play has given Michigan fits. The Wolverines still need to figure some things out in the trenches, especially on the defensive line, but that's one area where Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison excel. I believe these two teams will be neck and neck all year for the Legends title.

Of course, there's another team lurking in the division, and that's Nebraska. You went to Lincoln this spring, and it sounded like the Cornhuskers are feeling mighty ambitious this season. Do they have the necessary tools to back up their lofty goals?

Adam Rittenberg: It was interesting to see a team openly discuss the national title, Brian, especially in a league like the Big Ten. Huskers safety P.J. Smith even went so far as to say a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl championship would be "kind of disappointing." That's bold. Nebraska would have to skip a step or two to reach that point, but I can see where the confidence stems from. There's a greater comfort level between players and coaches in Lincoln, and also between the coaches and what they face in the Big Ten. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck was candid about the difficulty of preparing for so many new opponents, particularly since Nebraska's offensive and defensive systems are a little different from what we see in the rest of the league.

Quarterback Taylor Martinez received good marks from the coaches, and his focus on footwork could translate into a more consistent passing attack. Beck certainly wants to be a bit more balanced, and Nebraska returns pretty much everyone at wide receiver and tight end. We often hear the cliche that it's all about the quarterback, but it holds true with Nebraska. If Martinez actually makes strides as a passer -- he'll be operating in the same offense as the starter for the first time in his high school or college career -- the Huskers will put up points this fall. But after watching Martinez last season, it's fair to have some doubts about No. 3.

The defense expects to exploit a schematic advantage we heard a lot about last season but didn't see much on Saturdays. I like coordinator John Papuchis, and Bo Pelini made two good staff additions in D-line coach Rick Kaczenski and secondary coach Terry Joseph. They're all about details and accountability, and they believe they'll be able to replace star power with greater depth in certain areas. Nebraska also should be strong in special teams. Do the Huskers have a unit better than Michigan State's defense? Not right now. But Nebraska could end up being the division's most complete team by season's end.

Getting back to Michigan State and Michigan. Both teams lose tremendous leaders from 2011 (Kirk Cousins, Mike Martin, Jerel Worthy, Joel Foreman, David Molk, Ryan Van Bergen). Who do you see filling those roles this year?

Brian Bennett: That's a good question, and one that will have to be answered this summer. For Michigan State, Andrew Maxwell impressed me as a guy who can lead in a similar way as Cousins did; he'll just have to play well at quarterback and battle through adversity. The Spartans have some seniors on defense who can lead, like Anthony Rashad White and Johnny Adams, but they also have some highly respected juniors in Max Bullough and William Gholston.

But they are replacing some very valuable leaders, just as Michigan is doing. Denard Robinson has worked on becoming more vocal and sounded like a different guy in interviews this spring. There's no question he has the respect of his teammates. Craig Roh and Jordan Kovacs seem like natural leaders on defense, and offensive tackle Taylor Lewan says he wants to take on that role as well. But leadership can't be forced, and it remains to be seen if either team can find such strong captains as guys like Cousins and Martin were.

[+] EnlargeJames Vandenberg
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallIowa quarterback James Vandenberg threw for 3,022 yards and 25 touchdowns last season.
Speaking of question marks, I feel like Iowa and Northwestern are two of the bigger mystery teams in the league. Both have talent and potentially potent offenses, but they'll also need some players on defense to rise up out of the shadows. What did you take out of your visits to Iowa City and Evanston this spring?

Adam Rittenberg: Let's start off with Iowa, which underwent some major changes this spring with a new offensive coordinator (Greg Davis), a position coach promoted to defensive coordinator (Phil Parker) and several more assistants shuffling, arriving or being promoted. The players seemed to embrace the changes, and coach Kirk Ferentz basically said the team needed a fresh start even though he didn't want to lose his previous coordinators. There's a lot of excitement about Davis' offense, which will be more up-tempo than what we've seen in the past from Iowa. Quarterback James Vandenberg really seems to get it, but will he have enough weapons around him to execute? The running back curse struck again this spring with Jordan Canzeri's ACL injury. Iowa needs young and/or unproven players to step up there, and wide receiver isn't a deep group. It'll be a big summer for Keenan Davis.

The feeling I had coming out of Evanston is that Northwestern will be a younger team but potentially a better one. The Wildcats say goodbye to an accomplished senior class that featured some outstanding players like quarterback Dan Persa. But was it the most talented group? I don't think so. Northwestern has improved its recruiting efforts in recent years, and the team could begin seeing the benefits this year. There are a lot of new faces at spots like defensive back and defensive line. I was impressed with cornerback Nick VanHoose and end Deonte Gibson. The wide receiving corps should be one of the Big Ten's best, even if Kyle Prater isn't eligible until 2013. The Wildcats might not have many familiar names at receiver, but they boast incredible depth there. This team still has question marks -- secondary, pass rush, running back, quarterback -- but the talent level is getting a bit better.

Neither of us made it up to Minneapolis this spring, but we both talked with Gophers players and coaches. What was your sense of the second spring under coach Jerry Kill?

Brian Bennett: We swear it's nothing personal, Gophers fans. Both of us would have enjoyed a trip to the Twin Cities, but the schedule just didn't work out.

Anyway, I did sense more confidence from the Minnesota players and coaches we interviewed. That's not surprising, given that it's the second year for Kill's staff and more familiarity almost always brings a better comfort level. MarQueis Gray really started to come on late last season and appears to have made strides as a passer. He could be one of the league's top playmakers this year. Overall, the Gophers look to have a little more talent this year, thanks to some junior college imports, youngsters who got experience last year and Troy Stoudermire coming back at cornerback. The defense should have more speed, though it remains undersized. The big question for me is who will emerge as weapons alongside Gray, especially at receiver.

But I think that, with a manageable nonconference schedule, Minnesota has a chance to win five or more games this year and it will be much more competitive in Big Ten play than it was early last season. The Legends Division looks more balanced top to bottom than the Leaders and should be fun to follow all year.
The NFL draft begins Thursday night. You probably weren't aware of that, because the draft, like most things associated with the National Football League, gets very little media coverage. Ahem.

Luckily, Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett are stepping into this void to talk about the draft, and specifically the Big Ten prospects hoping to hear their name called over the long weekend.

Brian Bennett: Adam, we usually leave draft talk to people with better hair than us, like Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay. But let's give it a shot. You know the NFL is a different game when Iowa's Riley Reiff is widely expected to be the top player taken from the Big Ten. Reiff is an excellent player and terrific pro prospect, no doubt. But if you would have asked league fans to pick a most valuable player from the conference this season, Reiff probably wouldn't have cracked the Top 10.

Speaking of the Top 10, the Big Ten hasn't had a player selected in that range for the past three years and is likely to make it four this year. What, if anything, does that say about the talent the league has been producing? And is Reiff the first guy you would take from the conference if you had an NFL team? (I'll resist from making wisecracks about your Big Ten fantasy team management last year).

Adam Rittenberg: Hey now, Year 2 will be different, my friend. The Shorties are coming for you. The Big Ten's Top 10 drought is certainly noteworthy, and I think it stems in part from the league producing fewer elite pro-caliber quarterbacks and cornerbacks in recent years. It does surprise me that the Big Ten hasn't had a defensive lineman in the top 10 recently, as the league has been very strong at both line spots. I think that will change in 2013. As for Reiff, he was about as under-the-radar as an elite player could get during his time at Iowa. He certainly performed well, but you didn't hear much about him, even compared to previous Hawkeyes standout linemen like Bryan Bulaga. Reiff is a masher, though, and while some say he's not the most dominant tackle, he should be able to help an NFL team this coming season.

I'd want to start my team with a potential difference-maker on the defensive line. The Big Ten has plenty of options, but Illinois' Whitney Mercilus is a natural pass-rusher who can put up big numbers. Have Merci? Yes, please. What's your view of the Big Ten's defensive line crop entering the draft?

BB: We both agreed that the defensive line, especially on the interior, is where the league's true strength lay in 2011. I'm a bit surprised that some mock drafts don't have Michigan State's Jerel Worthy, who has the chance to be a major presence on defense, in the first round and that Penn State's Devon Still, who was wildly productive last season, is being projected as a second-rounder at best. I'd rather take one of those guys than roll the dice on Memphis' Dontari Poe, a combine wonder who did next to nothing in college. And though Michigan's Mike Martin is a little short by NFL standards, I have little doubt he'll be a productive pro.

[+] EnlargeIowa's Riley Reiff
Jeffrey G. Pittenger/US PRESSWIREIowa's Riley Reiff could be the first Big Ten player selected in the NFL draft.
I'm also interested in seeing how the centers get drafted. Wisconsin's Peter Konz, Michigan's David Molk and Ohio State's Michael Brewster were arguably the top three centers in the nation last year. Molk, of course, publicly said he's the best of the three, and he did win the Rimington Trophy. Konz likely will go first, but I will be fascinated to see who ends up having the best career.

You mentioned quarterbacks. What do you think about Michigan State's Kirk Cousins and Wisconsin's Russell Wilson as potential NFL players? And will Dan Persa get a shot somewhere?

AR: Cousins should be the first Big Ten quarterback off the board, and many projections have him going in the second round. He clearly improved his stock during the predraft process. While everyone raves about the character of both Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin -- and for good reasons -- Cousins, as we both know, certainly fits into the same category as those two. He's not the fastest or most athletic guy, but he's extremely smart and played in a pro-style system at Michigan State. He could end up being a solid pro quarterback.

The issue for both Wilson and Persa is size, Persa more so than Wilson. While Wilson boasts tremendous arm strength and athleticism, his height scares teams. He does a tremendous job of extending plays and can make all of the throws, but he'll have to prove himself as a consistent pocket passer in a league where everyone is really big and really fast. Looks like a midround selection. Whether or not Persa gets drafted at all will be interesting. The guy obviously has a ton of heart and tremendous leadership skills, but he's small and suffered a major injury at Northwestern. I think Todd McShay summed up the sentiment about Persa when he told the Chicago Tribune, "I want to like Persa, but as an NFL prospect, he is limited." Persa will find his way onto a roster, but he'll have a lot to prove.

We've read a lot of draft evaluations in recent weeks. Which Big Ten player could be a real steal for a team this weekend?

BB: The guy whom I think is really undervalued is Iowa's Marvin McNutt. I've seen him going as late as the fifth or sixth round, which seems (Mc)nuts to me. Sure, it's a deep draft for receivers, and McNutt might not have blazing speed. But we saw him make some absolutely spectacular catches last season, and he closed his career as the Hawkeyes' all-time leader in receiving touchdowns. He has good size and produced 1,300 receiving yards in what was clearly not a gimmicky, pass-happy offense. If I were a GM and he was sitting there in Round 4 or later, I'd happily grab him.

Two other guys I think can be big bargains for teams are Nebraska's Lavonte David and Ohio State's Mike Adams. Both are being projected as second-rounders for different reasons (David because of size, Adams for off-the-field issues in college), but I think both will have long and stellar careers. They'll bring first-round value without the price.

Who do you see as underrated, or possibly overrated, from the Big Ten in this draft?

AR: I would have put Wisconsin guard Kevin Zeitler in the underrated category, but it seems like teams have caught on to how good he can be. He'll likely be a late first-round pick. Same with Konz and maybe Adams. It baffles me why Devon Still isn't projected higher in the draft. Two others I'd put in the underrated category are Michigan's Martin and Iowa's Mike Daniels. You don't have to be Vince Wilfork to be an effective NFL defensive tackle. Both Martin and Daniels are smaller defensive tackles, but they're both extremely strong physical and play with sound fundamentals. Both men have been tutored by excellent defensive coaches, and the teams that select them will be inheriting very hard workers.

Two of the more intriguing Big Ten prospects are Ohio State receiver DeVier Posey and Nebraska defensive tackle Jared Crick. Posey, who I chatted with briefly last week in Columbus, played only three games last fall because of suspensions stemming from NCAA violations. He's clearly a gifted guy, but it'll be interesting to see how much the off-field issues and lack of playing time impact his draft position. Crick entered 2011 as an All-America candidate but missed most of the season with injury. He definitely can help an NFL team, but like with Posey, there are question marks.

OK, time to wrap up this draft discussion. What do you think the major story line regarding the Big Ten will be coming out of this weekend's festivities?

BB: I'll go out on a limb and say Reiff is not the first Big Ten player drafted, as someone reaches for Mercilus, Worthy or Konz first. And I think the other big stories will be with the quarterbacks, as Cousins is drafted in the second round and Wilson is picked higher than people expect. What are your predictions?

AR: I wouldn't mind if that someone landing Reiff or Mercilus is my Chicago Bears, but that's another debate. Worthy's selection will be fascinating, as his stock has been pretty volatile throughout the process. I think both Martin and Daniels go earlier than expect, while Wilson has to wait a while. It'll be fascinating to see where Molk ends up. No matter where he's selected, he'll feel overlooked. As a short guy myself, I'm definitely rooting for the vertically challenged (Molk, Wilson, Persa, Martin, Daniels etc.). Another story line: Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, whose draft stock already had dropped before his arrest over the weekend.

Should be a fun weekend.
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Pat Fitzgerald doesn't deny the hard evidence, but he also feels there's more to Northwestern's case.

Yes, the Wildcats have seen their wins total drop in each of the past three seasons, from nine in 2008 to eight in 2009 to seven in 2010 to six last fall. After back-to-back 5-3 marks in Big Ten play in 2008 and 2009, Northwestern has seen its league record flip in each of the past two seasons.

It doesn't take a mathematics major at Northwestern to see where things are going and ask the question: Has the program lost momentum?

"You can nitpick everything you want, but there has never been more positive momentum in the history of our program," Fitzgerald told ESPN.com. "If you're going to choose one thing to make it be whether or not you have momentum, that's unrealistic. But we've got to win football games and we've got to finish games better than we did a year ago.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
Reid Compton/US PresswireNorthwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald remains confident that his program is on the right track.
"The program's definitely getting better. You can analyze that one area of wins and losses, which obviously I understand is critically important, but the difference between one or two games is not very much. We could have easily had six wins when we won nine. There's such a fine line."

It's Fitzgerald's job to look at the entire picture, and he notes some of Northwestern's recent accomplishments: four consecutive bowl appearances for the first time in program history; the winningest departing senior class in the program's history; a team GPA of 3.14; a 2012 recruiting class rated by many as the best in Fitzgerald's tenure. The school is also working on a facilities plan that could be a game-changer for the football program, which lags behind most of its Big Ten brethren.

Still, college football is a bottom-line business, and if Northwestern can't reverse the won-loss trend, its bowl appearances streak will end this season.

"Have we achieved our goals? Absolutely not," Fitzgerald said. "Are we hungry to do that? Absolutely. Are we working diligently to tweak the areas we need to improve? Absolutely."

Northwestern will try to make upgrades with a younger roster -- only 11 total starters return on offense and defense -- but quite possibly a more talented one. The team must fill several gaps, none more significant than Dan Persa's at quarterback, and hopes to do so by having what it believes to be stronger recruiting classes begin to pay dividends.

It's no secret the defense needs help after backsliding sharply in the past year and a half. Since a 6-2 start in 2010, Northwestern has surrendered 30 points or more 11 times. Last fall, the defense couldn't get off of the field (114th nationally in third-down defense at 50 percent conversions), fell victim to explosion plays and generated barely any pressure (106th in sacks, 104th in tackles for loss).

"You've got to make 'em earn everything," defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz said. "If they make great throws and great catches, you can live with those things. But we had some situations last year where we busted a coverage because of communication or we didn't have anybody back there. They didn't have to make the perfect throw or the perfect catch.

"We can execute better, no question."

The challenge is to improve communication and execution with a group heavy on youth. Although Northwestern returns all three starting linebackers, it will use young players in all three sections of the defense, including redshirt freshman cornerback Nick VanHoose, sophomore linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo and redshirt freshman defensive end Deonte Gibson.

Consider that Ibraheim Campbell, a redshirt sophomore safety who led the team with 100 tackles in 2011, is viewed as the clear leader of the secondary.

Communication has been a focal point this spring, as players are taking extra measures to ensure they're on the same page.

"When I yell out a call to the D-line, the only way I know they got it is if they tap their hip," linebacker David Nwabuisi said. "We started forgetting about little stuff like that [in 2011]. Now when I make a call, if the D-lineman doesn't tap his hip, I keep on yelling at him until he does. Same thing with DBs to linebackers."

Communication shouldn't be an issue for Kain Colter, who started three games at quarterback in place of the injured Persa last season and evolved into arguably the Big Ten's most versatile offensive weapon (654 rush yards, 673 pass yards, 466 receiving yards, 18 total touchdowns). Colter is the best athlete to call signals at Northwestern since the team implemented the spread offense in 2000, but to maintain the program's recent run of top-shelf quarterbacks, he needs to become a more polished passer.

The junior emphasized velocity and arm strength during the winter -- he tore the labrum and the biceps in his throwing arm as a high school senior -- and expects to execute the high-percentage passes that drive the Wildcats' offense this fall. He'll have plenty of weapons as Northwestern boasts most likely its deepest receiving corps ever, even if USC transfer Kyle Prater can't play right away.

"My timing's getting a lot better, my arm strength's a lot better," Colter said. "I feel like I can make all the throws on the field. That hasn't been a problem this spring."

Northwestern loses four-year starters on both sides of the ball, an NCAA record holder in Persa, two-time All-Big Ten honoree Jeremy Ebert and Drake Dunsmore, the inaugural winner of the Kwalick-Clark Award as the Big Ten's top tight end. Fitzgerald likened the personnel turnover to a shift change at a factory and acknowledges the team dynamic is different.

Given the declining wins total, though, some new blood might not be a bad thing, and the coaches feel the team's overall talent level is on the uptick.

"There's better talent than people think," offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. "The cupboard's not bare. We've got guys who can play football. They just haven't had the experience yet.

"It's just their time. Let's go play."

Spring previews: Legends Division

February, 17, 2012
2/17/12
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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.
Spring practice at Northwestern kicks off March 3, and for the third time in the past four years, the Wildcats don't return their starting quarterback.

Recent history shows this isn't cause for panic. Mike Kafka went from a guy who threw a backward pass in an ugly loss at Indiana in 2008 to a second-team All-Big Ten selection in 2009 who led the league in passing. Dan Persa went from a run-first, little-used backup who completed 58.8 percent of his passes in 2009 to an All-Big Ten signal caller who became the NCAA's all-time leader in completion percentage.

Northwestern is hoping for a similar one-year jump from the three signal callers who will compete for the starting job in spring ball.

[+] EnlargeKain Colter
AP Photo/Mary SchwalmNorthwestern's Kain Colter started the first three games of the 2011 season
"We've all been here before," offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Mick McCall recently told ESPN.com. "It's good that they've followed some people who have been productive. But it's college football all over again.

"You restart and away you go."

Kain Colter played a more significant role for Northwestern in 2011 than Persa did in 2009 or Kafka did in 2008. Colter started the first three games for the injured Persa and appeared in 10 games as a quarterback, leading Northwestern to a win at Nebraska. He completed 55 of 82 pass attempts for 673 yards with six touchdowns and one interception. He also was Northwestern's top rushing threat -- he recorded team-highs in carries (135), rush yards (654) and rush touchdowns (9) -- and excelled as a receiver, recording 43 receptions for 466 yards and three touchdowns.

As the numbers show, Colter is the best athlete Northwestern has had at quarterback since implementing the spread offense in 2000.

But he also faces some obstacles to make a similar jump as his predecessors.

"No. 1 is obvious," McCall said. "I'm sure people talk about it, and Kain knows it: ball speed."

Colter tore the labrum and the biceps in his throwing arm as a high school senior. The injury likely turned away Stanford, the school to which he had committed, and limited his throwing.

Although the shoulder is better now, Colter at times lacks the necessary zip on his passing, which can hamper a Northwestern offense that relies on short, quick passes and accuracy.

"I don't know if it's ever going to be the same, but it's definitely getting close," Colter said of the shoulder. "I see it in flashes. Some throws, I have a lot of velocity, and some throws, I don't. Just trying to be more consistent with it. When it's there, it really is there. I feel like timing and ball placement is more important than arm strength, just being able to make all those throws."

Despite Colter's versatility, the plan is to have him play quarterback full-time during the spring. Sophomore Trevor Siemian and redshirt freshman Zack Oliver also will compete for the starting job. Siemian and Oliver both lack Colter's explosiveness as athletes, but arm strength isn't an issue for either player.

McCall notes that Persa's ball speed wasn't great as a younger player and that he built it up by getting stronger overall in the weight room. Colter has put on 10 pounds since the end of the regular season and hopes to be in the 205 range by the fall.

"He's much stronger now than he was," McCall said. "I don't feel like that’s going to be an issue, but he's got to go out and do it, too. He's got to do a great job of anticipating breaks and taking control of the offense, not just being a playmaker but distributing the ball to our playmakers."

McCall's chief mandate to Colter and the other quarterbacks involves leadership. Persa was the first player named to Northwestern's leadership council in each of his four seasons.

"They're the changing of the guard, and who is going to step up?" McCall said. "I hope all of them step up and make the decision real, real tough. I hope all of them become leaders of our football team."

Colter is ready to answer the bell. He took losses personally in 2011 and absorbed much of the blame for the team's shortcomings.

Despite a disappointing season, he sees enough talent on the roster and is spending the winter "trying to get everybody to reach their full potential, trying to get 100 percent of the effort all the time."

Can Northwestern continue its track record of quarterback development in 2012? Given the team's issues on defense, it's critical.

"It's always going to be different," McCall said, "but we have confidence that our system works.With the guys right now who are in the room, I have a lot of confidence that we’re going to be pretty darn good at the quarterback spot."
Before the season began, we ranked every Big Ten position group from No. 1 through 12. That was based on projections and assumptions, but now we have a full season's worth of data.

So it's time to go back and assign a final 2011 ranking to each position in the league. We'll start, as usual, with the quarterbacks. You can take a look back and see how we ranked this group in the preseason here. Depth will matter more at other positions, but for this one, we're mostly concerned how the main guy fared this past season.

Let's kick it:

Russell Wilson
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireDespite losing in the Rose Bowl, Russell Wilson transformed the Badgers' offense this season.
1. Wisconsin: When we did this list in June, we didn't know yet if Russell Wilson would transfer to the Badgers. That's why we ranked Wisconsin No. 11 at the time. That seems ludicrous now. Wilson broke the NCAA single-season record for pass efficiency (191.8), finishing ahead of Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III. He completed 72.8 percent of his passes for 3,175 yards and had 33 touchdowns and only four interceptions. If that's not enough to qualify for the top spot, I don't know what is.

2. Michigan State: I'm not sure if Kirk Cousins' 2011 season was properly appreciated nationally. Cousins led the Big Ten in passing yards with 3,316 while completing 63.7 percent of his passes and throwing 25 touchdowns. He was especially good down the stretch as the Spartans' offense took off and remained one of the best leaders in college football. And Cousins didn't get nearly the same amount of support from the running game that Wilson did.

3. Michigan: Denard Robinson's numbers declined in several key areas from 2010, including his rushing yardage, passing yardage and completion percentage. Meanwhile, his interceptions went up and there was little doubt he struggled at times. Yet Robinson also had two of the most spectacular individual efforts of the season in wins against Notre Dame and Ohio State, and he still led the Big Ten in total offense per game. And in the end, it's pretty hard to argue against an 11-2 record and Sugar Bowl title.

4. Northwestern: A lingering Achilles' tendon injury and an awful defense helped obscure the fact that Dan Persa had another outstanding year when healthy. He completed 73.4 percent of his throws and actually averaged more passing yards per game (237.6) than any other Big Ten quarterback. Persa's mobility, however, was limited and that made him much less of a running threat. Kain Colter fulfilled that role and did a nice job stepping in for Persa, including his heroics in an upset win at Nebraska.

5. Nebraska: Taylor Martinez's improvement wasn't easy to measure in statistics. His completion percentage dipped to 56.3 in 2011, and he had far less of an impact running the ball over the last half of the season — he failed to run for more than 56 yards and did not have a rushing touchdown in the final seven games. But Martinez got better as a game manager and leader and remained a dual threat defenses had to account for. And he learned to protect the ball better, throwing just three interceptions in his final eight games.

6. Iowa: James Vandenberg put up some good numbers in his first year as a full-time starter, throwing for 3,022 yards and 25 touchdowns. But he compiled a lot of his stats against bad defenses like Pitt, Louisiana-Monroe, Indiana and Northwestern. He wasn't nearly as good in losses to Nebraska, Michigan State and Penn State. Vandenberg has the potential to be the best pure passer in the Big Ten, but he needs to become more consistent.

7. Ohio State: The Buckeyes would have ranked at or near the bottom of this list after the first half of the season, after initial starter Joe Bauserman was benched and freshman Braxton Miller went through some early growing pains. While Miller's passing was often reigned in, he was extremely effective as a runner, rushing for for at least 90 yards five times. Miller showed the whole package in an impressive performance against Michigan to end the regular season. With Urban Meyer's tutelage, Miller could put the Buckeyes at the top of this list in the near future.

8. Purdue: The Boilermakers' quarterback situation looked bleak to start the year, as projected starter Rob Henry went down with an ACL injury and backup Robert Marve was slow to recover from his own knee problems. But while Purdue wasn't flashy at the position, it got decent production from Caleb TerBush and from Marve later in the year. Combined, they passed for over 2,500 yards and 17 touchdowns, and TerBush was the team's fourth leading rusher.

9. Illinois: Nathan Scheelhaase looked like he'd claim a spot as one of the Big Ten's best quarterbacks with a solid start to the season, including a 426-yard, four-touchdown showing in a win over Northwestern. But like the rest of the Illini offense, his production fell off a cliff in the second half of the season, and the sophomore appeared to lose his confidence along the way. Freshman Reilly O'Toole came in for certain situations and looked close to usurping the starting job. Scheelhaase bounced back with a nice second half in the bowl win against UCLA. Now he'll have to adjust to new coach Tim Beckman's spread offense.

10. Minnesota: Early in the season, it was hard to tell if MarQueis Gray or freshman Max Shortell would win coach Jerry Kill's favor and seize control of the offense. Neither was particularly effective. But Gray, who made the transition from wide receiver, started to find a groove late in the year. He led the upset against Iowa and ran for 327 yards in the final two games. The 6-foot-4, 240-pounder is hard to stop when he takes off running, but he must improve on his 50-percent completion rate.

11. Indiana: The Hoosiers played quarterback roulette for the first half of the season, rotating between Ed Wright-Baker and Dusty Kiel. But when they finally settled on freshman Tre Roberson, they found their signal-caller of the present and future. Roberson is still a bit raw but has tremendous athleticism and instincts. He ran for 121 yards and threw for 169 against Northwestern, showing that he could be yet another dangerous dual threat quarterback in this league going forward.

12. Penn State: The Nittany Lions' handling of the quarterback situation was baffling and counterproductive in 2011. Penn State continued to trot out Rob Bolden as the starter for much of the year even though Matt McGloin was clearly the better option. McGloin did the heavy lifting off the bench, but he was not exactly a world-beater either, completing just 54 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns and five interceptions. The Nittany Lions beat Ohio State mostly because they put a couple of receivers in the Wildcat formation, and when McGloin couldn't play in the TicketCity Bowl, Bolden struggled. New coach Bill O'Brien will quickly learn that Tom Brady isn't walking through that door in 2012.
The college football season is officially over. So it's time to break out the crystal ball and offer our projections for the preposterously-too-early 2012 Big Ten power rankings.

1. Michigan State: The Spartans must replace a lot of leadership, including quarterback Kirk Cousins, receivers B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin and All-American defensive tackle Jerel Worthy. But nine starters return off the Big Ten's top overall defense, featuring Will Gholston, Denicos Allen and Isaiah Lewis as potential breakout stars. Le'Veon Bell could have a big year as the No. 1 tailback, and if Andrew Maxwell can adequately fill in for Cousins, the offense should be fine, especially if Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett gets his waiver to become immediately eligible at receiver. Plus, the road schedule (at Central Michigan, at Indiana, at Michigan, at Wisconsin, at Minnesota) is far more manageable than what the team navigated in 2011.

2. Michigan: A lot of things went right for the Wolverines in 2011, including a favorable schedule. That slate gets harder in 2012, beginning with Alabama at Cowboys Stadium and including road trips to Nebraska and Ohio State. Still, Denard Robinson and Fitz Toussaint form one of the most dangerous offensive duos in the league, and the second year under Brady Hoke and his staff should mean more familiarity and comfort. Coming off a BCS win, Michigan could start the season in the Top 10.

3. Wisconsin: The Badgers will have to overcome many challenges to reach their third straight Rose Bowl. The biggest concern is at quarterback, where there's no experience to replace Russell Wilson and his record-breaking efficiency level. Bret Bielema will have to remake almost his entire offensive coaching staff after Paul Chryst took several assistants with him to Pittsburgh. Still, Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball returns to keep the Wisconsin running game among the best in the country. And the two Big Ten teams who beat the Badgers in 2011 -- Michigan State and Ohio State -- must come to Madison in '12.

4. Ohio State: The Buckeyes aren't eligible to make the Big Ten title game, but don't be surprised if they put up the best record in the Leaders Division. A transition period can be expected as Urban Meyer takes over as head coach and installs an entirely new offensive system. But Ohio State had a small senior class in 2011 and brings back many talented players, such as defensive lineman John Simon, quarterback Braxton Miller and running back Carlos Hyde. A schedule that features eight home games should equal much improvement over this year's 6-7 record.

5. Nebraska: Few teams will be as experienced on offense as Nebraska, which returns seven starters and just about every key skill player on that side of the ball. Taylor Martinez and Rex Burkhead should be even better with another year in offensive coordinator Tim Beck's system. The questions are on defense, where the Huskers struggled at times in 2011 before losing their top two players in linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard. Nebraska must get tougher up front defensively to handle the Big Ten grind and has difficult road assignments looming at Ohio State and Michigan State.

6. Penn State: For the first time since 1965, we'll see what a Penn State team looks like that is not coached by Joe Paterno to start the season. New coach Bill O'Brien made a wise decision to retain defensive assistants Larry Johnson and Ron Vanderlinden, and even without All-American lineman Devon Still, that side of the ball should stay stout with standouts like Gerald Hodges, Jordan Hill and hopefully a healthy Michael Mauti. O'Brien's biggest impact should come on offense. The former New England Patriots offensive coordinator will try to bring the Nittany Lions attack into the 21st century with a competent passing game. Tailback Silas Redd provides a nice crutch while that transition occurs.

7. Iowa: After two straight 7-5 regular-season finishes, the Hawkeyes will look to get back into Big Ten contention. But they'll have to overcome the losses of star receiver Marvin McNutt, offensive tackle Riley Reiff, defensive linemen Mike Daniels and Broderick Binns and cornerback Shaun Prater. When he's on, James Vandenberg is as good a dropback passer as there is in the Big Ten, but making up for McNutt's production won't be easy. Assuming Marcus Coker returns from suspension, the running game should be very good. The defense simply has to improve after giving up too many big plays in 2011, and Kirk Ferentz hasn't yet named a successor to veteran defensive coordinator Norm Parker, who retired.

8. Purdue: The Boilermakers have a chance to make a move in a Leaders Division that is marked by coaching changes. They return most of the major pieces of their Little Caesars Bowl-winning team, and the return of Rob Henry from his season-ending knee surgery opens up some interesting possibilities at quarterback. Kawann Short should be one of the top defensive linemen in the league if he decides to return for his senior year. We'd still like to see more consistency from Danny Hope's program before we rank Purdue too high, however.

9. Northwestern: Dan Persa and his record-breaking accuracy are gone, along with top receiver Jeremy Ebert. Yet we're not too concerned about the offense and like the multi-dimensional options that Kain Colter provides with his all-around athleticism. Northwestern's issue is whether it can fix a defense that had trouble stopping anybody. The fact that the Wildcats lose their top three defensive backs from a secondary that was routinely torched does not inspire confidence.

10. Illinois: New coach Tim Beckman has his work cut out for him in Year One. He has to completely revamp an offense that couldn't shoot straight in the back half of 2011 while implementing a new spread style. He has to try to maintain the defense without coordinator Vic Koenning or All-American defensive end Whitney Mercilus. And he faces a schedule that sees the Illini going to Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan, all three of which won in Champaign this past season. There's still talent on defense, led by promising linebacker Jonathan Brown. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase needs to build on his second-half showing in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.

11. Minnesota: After a horrible start, the Gophers showed a lot more fight down the stretch in 2011, beating Iowa and Illinois at home. Jerry Kill knows how to build a program, and the team can't help but be better in 2012, especially if MarQueis Gray continues to develop at quarterback. But Minnesota still has some holes on its roster that can only be fixed through recruiting, and while the Gophers could make a run at bowl eligibility this year, they'll be hard-pressed to make too much noise in a stacked Legends Division.

12. Indiana: The good news for the Hoosiers is that they played a ton of freshmen in 2011, and the growing pains should start to pay off for guys such as Tre Roberson and Mark Murphy in 2012. The second year under Kevin Wilson should also bring progress. Still, this is a team that went 1-11 in 2011 with no wins over FBS teams, so it remains an uphill climb.

Instant analysis: Texas A&M 33, NU 22

December, 31, 2011
12/31/11
3:47
PM ET

After a rough season that included the death of teammate Joey Villavisencio last week and the firing of coach Mike Sherman, the Aggies got a bowl win. It's been an emotional year at Texas A&M, but it will end in fine fashion with a good win over Northwestern.

The Aggies did it without top rusher Cyrus Gray, too. Gray missed his second consecutive game and the final game of his career with a stress fracture in his shoulder that he suffered early in a win over Kansas.

Here's some instant analysis.

How the game was won: Texas A&M was the better team and proved it for the first three quarters, but like we've seen all year, the team swooned in the second half. This time it came in the fourth quarter. The Aggies survived via two huge third-down catches from Uzoma Nwachukwu and Jeff Fuller to keep the ball out of Northwestern's hands in the final minutes. This season, the Aggies blew leads of 18 (Arkansas), 17 (Oklahoma State), 14 (Missouri), 13 (Texas) and 10 (Kansas State). They avoided a sixth loss in extravagant fashion this season with a clutch late drive to close out the Wildcats.

Turning point: Trailing 7-3, Texas A&M scored on its final three drives of the first half, highlighted by a vertical, 26-yard touchdown catch by Jeff Fuller from Ryan Tannehill. The Aggies took control and the Wildcats weren't able to get within realistic reach the rest of the game. The Aggies scored the first 10 points of the second half for a 30-7 lead.

Player of the game: A&M receiver Ryan Swope. Swope continued his tear this season with eight catches for 105 yards and broke a few tackles on a 37-yard catch-and-run to set up an early touchdown that put the Aggies ahead for good. Fuller had a huge catch late to seal the game, but Swope kept the A&M offense humming in the first half while it built the big lead.

Unsung hero: Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter. He spelled what looked like a gimpy Dan Persa and ran for 65 yards and a touchdown in a nice performance.

What it means: One epic bowl losing streak ended while another lives on. Northwestern had lost five bowl games going back to 1949 and made it a sixth. Texas A&M ended its eight-game bowl losing streak dating back to 2001. The Northwestern streak was represented on the sidelines by a monkey wearing a No. 63 jersey, the number of years since the Wildcats won a bowl.

Well wishes: Coryell Judie. The Aggies' kick returner and cornerback finally returned to full health against Texas on Thanksgiving after missing a handful of games with a hamstring injury. However, he suffered a fractured wrist during his final collegiate game. It's a rough break for a huge talent, but he'll hear his name called next April in the NFL draft.

Record performance: With his first field goal midway through the first quarter, kicker Randy Bullock broke Texas A&M's single-season scoring record set back in 1927. The Lou Groza Award winner surpassed Joel Hunt's record of 128 points and finished the season with 139 points after making three field goals and three extra points on Saturday.

Three keys for Northwestern in Meineke

December, 30, 2011
12/30/11
4:30
PM ET
Here's a look at three keys for Northwestern during Saturday's Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas game against Texas A&M:

1. Protect Persa: One thing the Aggies do as well as anyone is get to the quarterback. They tied for the national lead in sacks per game this season, paced by junior linebacker Sean Porter. Northwestern's offensive line, which allowed 34 sacks this year, needs to hold the fort for quarterback Dan Persa. If he has time, he should be able to exploit a very shaky Texas A&M pass defense. Several quarterbacks had huge days against the Aggies in 2011, including Arkansas' Tyler Wilson (a school-record 510 passing yards), Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden (a school-record 438 passing yards), Baylor's Robert Griffin III (a school-record 430 passing yards) and Kansas State's Collin Klein (281 passing yards and 103 rushing yards). A fully healthy Persa and his favorite target, Jeremy Ebert, can put up similar big numbers if Persa is not running for cover.

2. Pass coverage: Good luck trying to get pressure on Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill, as his offensive line allowed only eight sacks all season. That's tied for fewest in the nation. So the Wildcats' defense is going to have to excel in pass coverage, which won't be easy without injured starting cornerback Jordan Mabin. Northwestern allowed way too many big plays in the passing game all season even with Mabin, and freshman Daniel Jones got torched when he was pressed into service in the season finale against Michigan State. That puts more pressure on players like corner Jeravin Matthews and safety Brian Peters. The Aggies have a balanced offense that's one of the most explosive in the country, and the Wildcats will have to figure out how to take something away.

3. Just hang around: One way to beat Texas A&M is just to weather the early storm and wait for an Aggies collapse. They led Oklahoma State by 17 points in the first half and lost. They led Arkansas by 18 points and lost. They led Missouri by 11 points and lost. And they led Kansas State by 10 points with six minutes left and lost. If Northwestern can keep this game close in the second half, then you have to wonder about the Aggies' psyche, especially as they're playing for an interim coach. The Wildcats have come up just short in their past couple of bowl games. This time, they just might have the advantage if the game goes down to the wire.

Car Care Bowl: Three keys for Texas A&M

December, 30, 2011
12/30/11
2:30
PM ET
Texas A&M and Northwestern will kick off the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas on Saturday at noon ET at Reliant Stadium in Houston, but here's a look at what the Aggies have to do to grab the win.

1. Be extra careful in those third quarters. It seemed like a fluke at first. Clearly, it was not. Every time, it seems like it's been something different. The common denominator in most of the second-half meltdowns, though, has been turnovers. Limit those in the second half, and Texas A&M should be fine. The Aggies are the better team here. Take care of business, and they win.

2. Make sure Dan Persa is one-dimensional. Persa's a good quarterback, and hasn't run nearly as much this year as he did in 2010 before he suffered a torn Achilles tendon. Still, the Aggies have plenty of speed at linebacker to keep Persa contained, and his arm won't be better than ones the Aggies have already seen, though they've struggled against some. Brandon Weeden, Tyler Wilson, Landry Jones, Robert Griffin and Seth Doege all have better arms than Persa, and all but perhaps Doege have better teams around them. Making sure Persa's legs are a non-factor should be enough for the defense to get the job done.

3. Play with a purpose, whatever that is. It's easy to see this game doesn't have much meaning for the Aggies. What could have been a season for the history books became a forgettable one very fast. At 6-6, the Aggies would seem to be the team that doesn't want to be here. There's plenty to play for, though. A loss would be one final indignity before leaving the Big 12 for the SEC, and a losing season with one of the most talented teams in College Station in a long time. Additionally, these guys could play as a tribute to a well-liked coach, Mike Sherman, especially the seniors. Maybe younger players can play to impress new coach Kevin Sumlin. Teammate Joey Villavisencio was killed in a car accident last week, too. He'd want nothing more than to see his team play its best game of the year. There's no reason to not give 100 percent in the preparation and in-game performance, even if that might seem like the case. If the Aggies show up and play like they're capable of playing, they win this game.

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