Remember the angst felt around the Big Ten on the night of April 25, 2013?

OK, maybe you weren't nervous. But they were a bit skittish at Big Ten headquarters as the first round of the NFL draft unfolded at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. Thirty names were called, none from the Big Ten, which found itself in danger of being excluded from the first round for the first time since 1953. Then, Dallas drafted Wisconsin center Travis Frederick and his prodigious beard at No. 31.

[+] EnlargeCody Latimer
AP Photo/Alan PetersimeCould Indiana receiver Cody Latimer be picked in the first round of the NFL draft?
Phew.

The Big Ten shouldn't be nearly as concerned as the 2014 NFL draft approaches next month. In fact, the league could have one of its better first round showings in recent years.

Earlier this week, the NFL announced that 30 players will attend the draft, including five from the Big Ten: Michigan tackle Taylor Lewan, Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby, Minnesota defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman, Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier and Indiana wide receiver Cody Latimer. If you're invited to the draft, your name likely will be called early, if not in the first round then shortly thereafter. Another likely first round prospect, Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard, is choosing to watch the draft from his home in Georgia.

ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. has all six Big Ten players going in the first round in his latest mock draft Insider.

The Big Ten might not dominate the top 10 -- Lewan is the likeliest candidate to hear his name called -- but a strong first-round showing is possible.

Latimer is soaring up the draft boards after a strong pro day at Indiana and additional workouts with teams. Some questioned his decision to skip his final season and enter the draft, but it's looking like a good choice now. I've always loved Latimer's combination of length, leaping ability and speed on the outside. He'll be a good pro.

Shazier is another Big Ten early entrant whose draft stock seems to be surging in recent weeks. Many have the former Buckeyes standout going late in the first round.

One good sign: the group of potential first-rounders includes two cornerbacks and a wide receiver. The Big Ten has struggled to produce elite players at both positions in recent years.

If the list of player invites proves prophetic, the SEC and ACC both will have a sizable presence early on May 8. But after quite possibly the worst draft in Big Ten history, the league should have more to celebrate this time.

Video: Northwestern LB Collin Ellis

April, 24, 2014
Apr 24
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video Northwestern's Collin Ellis talks with Adam Rittenberg about moving to middle linebacker this spring and how the team is handling the upcoming union vote
I used to oppose the idea of the Big Ten increasing its schedule from eight league games to nine.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
AP Photo/Dave MartinNick Saban is an ally to the Big Ten in the conference schedule debate, as he endorses the idea of a nine-game league schedule for the SEC.
Although I understood the benefits for fans (in theory, more quality games), players (the chance to play league members more often) and athletic directors (fewer games to schedule), the move seemed to hurt the Big Ten's chances to reach the national title game -- the only metric that matters when judging major conferences. Strength of schedule meant next to nothing in the BCS era, so if the Big Ten had an easier path to play for the crystal football, why deviate?

The College Football Playoff, with its promised emphasis on schedule strength, changed the game. So did an expanded Big Ten. Although I don't agree with everything commissioner Jim Delany has said about expansion, he's right that it's better for league members to play one another more, not less. So I've come around on the nine-game league schedule, which the Big Ten will adopt beginning with the 2016 season.

The Pac-12 has used a nine-game league slate for years, and the Big 12 moved to a nine-game round-robin schedule after reducing to 10 members before the 2011 season. The SEC and ACC each remain at eight league games, although both leagues are considering a move to nine.

The Big Ten already has obstacles to reach the playoff after failing to win a national title since 2002. The league needs the major conferences to align at nine. Go ahead, start the campaign: #alignat9.

SEC commissioner Mike Slive says a resolution on future conference schedules should come early next month, before the league's spring meetings in Destin, Fla. The league has presented its members with several schedule options.

Alabama coach Nick Saban long has supported a move to nine league games, but he appears to be in the minority.
"I think there's a little bit more support for staying with an eight-game schedule and everybody playing a ninth opponent that's in the five major conferences. My thing is I'm for playing nine conference games and still playing another team in the major conferences, so you play 10 games because of fan interest, people coming to games looking forward to seeing more good games."

Whether you love or loathe Saban, I'm guessing most of you agree wholeheartedly with him. I certainly do. College football fans are among the most dedicated in any sport. They deserve a better overall product, and they would get it from more league games, combined with upgraded nonleague schedules.

Most ACC coaches seem to agree with their SEC colleagues, preferring to keep an eight-game schedule. The ACC approved a nine-game schedule in May 2012 but went back to eight after forming a scheduling alliance with Notre Dame. The big difference with the ACC is that there's strong support for nine-game schedules among athletic directors, who hold more power on this issue. Two ACC coaches, Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer and Miami's Al Golden, both have stated their preference for nine league games.

The ACC could vote on the schedule at its spring meetings next month in Florida.

The Big Ten should monitor both leagues closely in the coming weeks. If both the SEC and ACC stay at eight games, the Big Ten, along with the Pac-12 and Big 12, could be at a significant disadvantage with making the playoff. Even if the playoff selection committee places a premium on schedule strength, it will have a hard time keeping out any undefeated team from a major conference. Playing eight league games in the ACC -- with or without Notre Dame -- enhances a team's chances of running the table.

Big Ten teams, meanwhile, will have to navigate nine-game league schedules plus, in the case of many, upgraded nonleague schedules. Both elements are good for fans, who are sick of seeing their teams play overmatched opponents from smaller FBS conferences or the FCS. But they could make the path to the playoff even steeper.

The ultimate goal for the Big Ten is to get its top one-loss teams into the playoff. An undefeated Big Ten team will make the field of four almost every year. But it's hard to run the table, and it will become even less likely with the improved schedules.

The playoff is designed to create more opportunities and a true national field for the national championship. If every league plays nine conference games and challenging out-of-conference games, the result should be a group of one-loss playoff candidates in most years. But if leagues are playing different types of schedules, the field will tilt.

It's why the Big Ten needs the other major conferences to align at nine.
The next 24 hours are pivotal and historic in college sports. Right now, the NCAA's Division I Board of Directors are meeting in Indianapolis, where they're expected to approve a proposal granting autonomy to the major revenue-generating conferences. This would allow the big leagues to provide significant benefits for athletes.

Then, on Friday morning, up to 76 Northwestern players will vote whether to form a union after being deemed employees of the school by the Chicago regional director of the National Labor Relations Board.

Here's what you need to know about the vote:

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
Jerry Lai/USA TODAY SportsNorthwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald has voiced his strong opposition to players unionizing.
Where: The N Club room inside McGaw Hall, just north of Ryan Field.

When: There are two voting windows, 6 a.m.-7:30 a.m. CT and 10 a.m.-noon CT

Who: Scholarship football players who are enrolled and participating in team activities. Walk-ons or incoming scholarship players who have yet to enroll are not part of the vote. Players are not required to vote.

Voting procedure: A simple majority is required to form the union. The NLRB will monitor the vote. Officials from both Northwestern and the College Athletes Players Association, which would represent players in a union, can observe the vote.

Possible outcomes: Although Friday's vote is important, its outcome is tied to a pending appeal by Northwestern of the regional director's ruling. If the NLRB's national office chooses to consider the appeal, it could overturn the original decision, effectively killing the union push. If so, the results of Friday's vote would never come to light. If the NLRB national office denies the appeal, the vote would be revealed. If a majority of players vote for the union, it would be formed and the players could attempt to collectively bargain with Northwestern. CAPA, led by president Ramogi Huma, would represent the players in negotiations with the school. If Northwestern chooses not to collectively bargain, the case would go to federal court. If the players vote down the union and the NLRB denies the appeal, confirming players as Northwestern employees, there could be another union vote in 12 months.

Lobbying: Both CAPA and Northwestern have briefed players about the implications of unionizing in recent weeks. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald outlined his anti-union position in an extensive Q&A with players and their families. Fitzgerald is allowed to state his views and provide information, but he cannot make promises or threats about the vote, nor can he solicit players about how they will vote. CAPA and former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, who launched the union push in January, also have been in contact with players about the vote. Neither side can meet with players in the 24 hours before the vote.

The buzz: Several senior leaders on the team, including quarterback Trevor Siemian and running back Venric Mark, have voiced their opposition to the union. Linebacker Collin Ellis told ESPN.com that players entered the campaign with the hope of getting change at the national level, not to cast Northwestern in a negative light. There's undoubtedly a pro-union group on the team who have been quieter leading up to the vote. Many others have weighed in, from former Northwestern players to other college coaches and players. Former Northwestern president Henry Bienen questioned whether Northwestern could continue with big-time athletics if it had a union. Several politicians, including U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, have voiced their support for CAPA and the union push. So have union leaders both inside and outside the sports world. No one has suggested the status quo remains, but many question whether unionizing is the right mechanism for players to improve their situation.

A few more thoughts:

  • The timing of the vote is fascinating, on the heels of the Division I Board of Directors meeting. An approval could signal to players that new benefits are on the horizon, such as enhanced athletic scholarships, continuing education and long-term medical coverage. Would a union be worth it at that point? Remember, neither side can meet with the players today, so they would have to track the Division I meeting on their own.
  • Check out more coverage of the union vote and its implications here and here and here and here.
  • Media are not permitted in the voting room or on campus near McGaw Hall, so coverage of Friday's vote could be limited. Northwestern is allowing players to talk to the media if they so choose, but Fitzgerald, athletic director Jim Phillips and other officials aren't expected to speak.

Big Ten lunchtime links

April, 24, 2014
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Spring games on the horizon at Michigan State, Rutgers and Iowa. Read all about it:
  • Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon and Michigan State’s Mark Hollis weigh in against the unionization of college athletes in advance of the Northwestern vote.
  • Big plans and expectations for Michigan State defensive end Demetrius Cooper. Quarterback Connor Cook goes No. 1 in the MSU draft, conducted by players, for the upcoming spring game. And walk-on receiver Matt Macksood has made an impact this spring.
  • The MihWolverines might need their defense to carry a big load.
  • Penn State has no official position on the return of a Joe Paterno statue to State College. But the school should take a stance on the former coach’s legacy, writes our Josh Moyer.
  • Kyle Flood plans to spend more time than in the past involved in the details during Rutgers’ spring game on Saturday. Meanwhile, running back Paul James continues to fight through injuries.
  • The Washington Post offers a favorable grade for Maryland football coaching salaries in comparison to the rest of its new league.
  • Big raises for Minnesota coordinators Tracy Claeys and Matt Limegrover.
  • Jake Rudock strengthens his hold on the starting quarterback job at Iowa.
  • Urban Meyer is not an advocate for spring football at Ohio high schools, but he’d like to young players receive an opportunity to spend more time with their coaches in the offseason.
  • The band 1984 Draft, its name inspired by a Nebraska fan, help keeps alive the memory of a historic period for the Huskers.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Mike Hull was once a coin flip away from transferring to Pitt, but that all seems like a lifetime ago for the Penn State linebacker.

[+] EnlargeHull
Rich Barnes/USA TODAY SportsLB Mike Hull, who has seen a lot of changes at Penn State, expects 2014 to be his breakout season.
The redshirt senior is going into his fifth season at Penn State, and he's already endured many changes and ups-and-downs. He watched his team adjust to three head coaches -- five, including the interims -- and four defensive coordinators during his career. And he bided his time as a redshirt sophomore, playing behind two All-Big Ten talents, before standing on the sideline as a starter for parts of four games last season due to injury.

But now, in his final season, and with his final college coach, Hull believes it's finally his time to break out.

"It's something I've been waiting for for a long time," Hull told ESPN.com. "It's my time to step up and lead the team and lead a good defensive unit to where we can win a Big Ten championship."

Hull isn't the loudest player on the field. He's not one to grab a mic during a pep rally and spearhead some impromptu speech like cornerback Jordan Lucas. But he's become the anchor of this defense, not unlike middle linebacker Glenn Carson last season, and he's wasted no time in making an impact on a staff that's only known him for three short months.

"The guy who has stood out the most to me at this point is Hull," James Franklin said toward the end of spring practice. "He's done a nice job. He's smart, he's got great instincts -- he's not the biggest linebacker -- but he's quick, and he's powerful, and he's freakishly strong. I've been very pleased with him."

Hull stands at just 6-foot, 227 pounds. But he's also played well enough to stand out to every coordinator who coached him -- and, seemingly, all for different reasons. Tom Bradley watched Hull zoom past would-be blockers as a freshman, clocked his 40-yard dash at 4.6 seconds and briefly tried him at safety. Ted Roof watched him out-lift every one of his teammates as a sophomore, when he benched 405-pounds to best offensive linemen who outweighed him by nearly triple digits.

John Butler praised him last season as an "all-around outstanding football player." And, now, current coordinator Bob Shoop sees a sense of maturity and leadership in Hull that he's rarely found elsewhere, in part because he's learned from so many tutors.

"Mike's very mature," Shoop said. "He's football smart. He's very distinctive. ... There's not a player I trust more than him. He's a really special guy, and he's the undisputed quarterback of the defense."

At this time last season, Hull was the favorite from experts and fans alike when it came to naming the Nittany Lions' next breakout star. But, as Hull acknowledged, that title never quite materialized. With a nagging leg injury, one that didn't see him return to 100 percent until late October, he didn't live up to expectations until the final five games of the season. And, during that stretch, Hull unsurprisingly led Penn State in tackles (44). The No. 2 tackler, Carson, had 35 in that same stretch.

With a defense lacking in depth, even more will be expected of Hull this season. There are a few things working against him -- namely new schemes and a new coordinator -- but he's been in this position before. Twice.

"It's been easier to learn just because of the way [Shoop] packages everything together," Hull added. "It seems hard, but it's simple once you get used to it."

The last era of Penn State players who competed under three different head coaches were underclassmen in 1948, so Hull's position is a unique one. Still, the soft-spoken linebacker has tried to take it in stride.

Hull has taken on extra responsibility at middle linebacker, after playing outside last season. And Shoop has been pleased with how he's adjusted to an aggressive scheme that places extra emphasis on sacks and tackles-for-loss.

Hull, a Pennsylvania native could've had a different future if that proverbial coin landed on Pitt instead of Penn State. He could've had a more stable career. But he's not looking back now; he's finally looking forward to being "the guy" at Linebacker U.

"I don't want to compare something that never happened," Hull said. "I'm thankful for my time at Penn State. It's been one of the wildest times."
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- A recent Indiana practice came down to a winner-take-all snap in the red zone.

Redshirt freshman Kris Smith ended things by sacking Nate Sudfeld (at least unofficially, since there's no tackling the quarterback in practice). That led to a scene rarely witnessed around the Hoosiers in recent years: IU defensive players celebrating something they did to secure a victory.

Even that celebration didn't last long, as new defensive coordinator Brian Knorr made his troops run sprints and do up-downs after practice as punishment for giving up too many big plays earlier in the day.

Defense has plagued this program for years. Consider that Indiana has allowed at least 34 points per game in every season since 2008, with the lone exception coming in 2009 when it gave up 29.5 ppg. Washington State is the only FBS team to have given up more points per game in that time period, and the average for all FBS teams in that span is 26.3 PPG allowed.

[+] EnlargeKevin Wilson
AP Photo/Andy ManisCoach Kevin Wilson is focused on improving IU's defense. His plan includes a new coordinator, a new scheme and increased competition.
Things haven't been trending in the right direction, either. The Hoosiers yielded a Big Ten-worst 38.8 PPG in 2013, the highest number in head coach Kevin Wilson's three seasons. Had the team played close to league- or national-average defense, it surely would have gone bowling instead of finishing 5-7 with an explosive offense that ranked 16th in the country at 38.4 PPG.

"It's not by design," Wilson told ESPN.com. "We've been able to hit a little bit better on our offensive recruiting. It's taken us time to get as many big defensive linemen. We've not had anyone stand out at linebacker since we’ve been here, and those guys impact a lot of plays. We've recruited numbers there. We've had juco guys who have played.

"We think we're starting to get it now. It's going to be our nemesis if we don’t. We need to start playing some competitive defense and get some stops."

Skepticism is understandable, given the rotten history. But with one big coaching change and a whole lot of experience returning, Wilson is hoping the tide starts to turn in 2014.

In January, he fired defensive coordinator Doug Mallory -- not an easy decision, given the power of the Mallory name in Bloomington -- and hired Knorr, a former Wake Forest assistant. He has brought in a 3-4 scheme as the Hoosiers join Wisconsin as the only other Big Ten team using that as their base. Knorr, though, insists that it won't strictly be a three-man front.

"Any more, you've got to be pretty multiple," he said. "We're able to move our guys around and get them in gaps up the field, and we'll be able to pressure as well."

Knorr has the size up front to make the scheme work. Mountainous sophomores Darius Latham and Ralph Green got most of the first-string work at tackle this spring; both are listed at 6-foot-5 and 325 pounds. Senior Bobby Richardson, who will return in the summer from an injury, is 6-3 and 290 pounds.

"This scheme is meant for us," Richardson said. "We're all pretty big, but we've still got our quicks."

Linebacker, the position Wilson mentioned as a particular bugaboo, could turn into a strength with David Cooper, Marcus Oliver and T.J. Simmons on the inside and Flo Hardin, Clyde Newton and converted defensive end Nick Mangieri on the outside. They've all played a lot and are noticeably bulked up this spring.

"We're more physical and running to the ball more," said cornerback Tim Bennett, who led the FBS with 20 pass breakups a year ago. "Coach Knorr believes in moving around and not letting the offense know what you're doing."

Wilson called the secondary "a position of development this summer," as projected starting safeties Mark Murphy and Antonio Allen missed contact drills this spring with injuries. But the Hoosiers lost only one starter on defense from a year ago -- safety Greg Heban -- and threw a bunch of freshmen into the mix once again. They also signed 15 defensive players in a well-regarded 2014 recruiting class.

Because of all that, Wilson feels like he has true competition on the defensive depth chart for the first time.

"Sometimes we had guys who've had the luxury of playing by default," he said. "It was easy to get your job, easy to get on the field. On offense, you had to fight to get on the field as a running back, wide receiver or a quarterback.

"Our defense has lacked that. Competition is what’s going to build our team, and through no one’s fault that’s been the void. You can say it’s talent, you can say it’s scheme. But it’s really been competition."

Wilson says he hasn't wanted his team to get divided the past few years, so when Indiana struggled, he'd often blame the offense for not scoring enough. While the Hoosiers have put up points at a rapid pace, that strategy hasn't led to victories. Everyone around the program is hoping the added depth and coordinator change can finally lead to more celebratory scenes like the one after Smith's sack.

"Our defensive problems are well documented and known," Wilson said. "We've got a chance to get better. But it’s all talk until we do."


Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

April, 23, 2014
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A big Monday looms with spring football wraps and spring game recaps. So I won't have a mailbag that day. But here's a full one for today:

Dan from Washington, D.C., writes: Brian, I'm sure you'll be getting thousands of comments on this point, so I'll add my two cents. You say, "You'd have to suffer from amnesia not to remember how close Bo Pelini came to losing his job at Nebraska last season." However, I don't believe you're [Nebraska athletic director] Shawn Eichorst (perhaps a FauxEichorst Twitter handle is in the works). No one outside of Eichorst and perhaps Harvey Perlman and Pelini knows "how close" Pelini came to losing his job. For weeks you, the Omaha World-Herald, and the Lincoln Journal Star lamented how tight-lipped Eichost was being about the whole situation. Then, lo and behold, he received a contract extension -- hardly something you give to someone you may not want around in a year or two. Now don't get me wrong -- if Pelini goes 5-7, he's toast -- but until he tanks, his job is safe.

Brian Bennett: Dan, you make a fair point that Eichorst's silence on the issue for so long means we don't know exactly how close Pelini came to being fired last year. But silence can also speak volumes, and not saying anything for weeks after the infamous audio tape leaked and while Nebraska lost some games said a lot as well. The pressure obviously got to Pelini in the regular-season finale against Iowa. Your timeline on the extension is a little off as well. Pelini said he signed received and signed the one-year extension in March. It would have been news had he not gotten it, since it covers him for the next five years. But don't think for a second that a one-year extension of his deal will have any bearing on whether Eichorst decides to make a change this fall -- Nebraska can easily afford to buy out of that extra year.

I think Pelini should be fine if he wins his usual nine or 10 games and avoids some of the embarrassing blowout losses we've seen. The Huskers also have a great chance to win the West Division. But anything less than that could prompt a coaching switch, which is why Pelini remains on the proverbial hot seat.


Aaron from Pittsburgh writes: Good ol' Tim Beckman is the B1G coach on the hottest hot seat, according to you guys. I fully understand this -- one conference win in two years, blah, blah, blah. But I honestly have some form of empathy for the man. He inherited a Ron Zook team so devoid of depth and talent that I think Year 1 should not be credited against Beckman's resume. Illinois isn't a powerhouse in the first place, so as long as Beckman's Illini don't regress in 2014, I think he might get one more year. What do you think?

Brian Bennett: The thing Beckman has going for him is that athletic director Mike Thomas hired him and probably wants to give the first major coaching hire of his tenure every shot to succeed. The Illini did show improvement last season, at least on offense, and Beckman has done a great job with off-the-field stuff such as academics. But Zook did take the program to back-to-back bowl games, so it's a little odd to hear he should be responsible for a 2-10 season. The biggest thing going against Beckman right now, I'd say, is the fan apathy. There were way too many empty seats in Memorial Stadium last season, and that gets an AD's attention more than anything. That's why it might be bowl or bust this year for Beckman.


Jason L. from Kansas City, Mo., writes: What's your take on Indiana replacing 2 games with South Florida with 2 games with Florida International? Doesn't this go against what B1G commissioner Jim Delany has stated that he wants (B1G teams scheduling tougher opponents)?

Brian Bennett: I've been a consistent proponent for toughest scheduling. Heck, I'm the guy who favors 10 Big Ten games and one marquee opponent every season. But for Indiana, I understand this move by athletic director Fred Glass. When you've been to one just bowl game since 1993, the first priority has to be finding any way possible to get back to the postseason. I thought the Hoosiers scheduled too aggressively last year, when they played Navy, Missouri and a good Bowling Green team. If IU, which finished 5-7 despite losses to Navy and Missouri, had played a dumbed-down nonconference schedule a la Minnesota's 2013 slate (or even Ohio State's), then the team likely would have gone bowling for the first time under Kevin Wilson. Think about the difference a bowl game would have made for the program, giving Wilson 15 extra practices and allowing for a little more offseason buzz.

The weird thing here is the idea that South Florida is too tough of an opponent. But especially when the Big Ten goes to nine league games in 2016 and Indiana is competing in the stacked East Division, a more manageable nonconference schedule makes sense. Delany wants teams to challenge themselves and build up strength-of-schedule ratings for the playoff selection committee. Let's be honest here: The playoff is not exactly on the Hoosiers' radar.


Sam C. from Fargo, N.D., writes: Hey, BB, I was just thinking about the Gophers and recruiting and how one of the best in the nation is right here in our home state in Jashon Cornell. Is it a dream for me to think we have any shot of landing him? Getting Jeff Jones was nice, but even in the last couple of weeks no one thought we would get him, saying that he was gonna go to the SEC. Just wondering what your thoughts are. Thanks!

Brian Bennett: It would be an enormous coup for the Gophers and Jerry Kill to keep Cornell in their backyard, Sam. Too many top-level prospects (Michael Floyd and Seantrel Henderson as the most prominent examples) have left over the years. Kill and his staff have been working hard to build a relationship with Cornell, but they're going to be competing with not only the best programs in the Big Ten for his services but also many of the best in the country. The facilities and traditions at some of those places will be hard to top. It's crucial that Minnesota has a good year this season to show Cornell that staying home has its perks.


Rodney from Grantville, Pa., writes: I'm obviously excited about PSU hiring James Franklin, but is it clouding my judgment? He did a fantastic job at Vandy, and his first 100 days at PSU have been great, so why are so many saying we can't do well his first year? I personally see 9-3 being doable and 10-2 not out of the question. 7-5 at the worst. The coaches are touting a more aggressive defense and better special teams, which was probably our biggest issues last year. The offensive line is obviously our Achilles' heel, but there are ways to work around that and the offense only needs to score more than the defense allows. ... So what am I missing?

Brian Bennett: Rodney, feel free to get excited. Franklin has done nothing but create optimism so far with his energy and his early recruiting returns. Really good things are on the horizon for Penn State, I believe. But while I believe the Nittany Lions could be surprise contenders in the East Division because of their advantageous schedule -- Illinois and Northwestern as crossover opponents, Ohio State and Michigan State coming to Beaver Stadium -- I still worry about the depth on the roster because of sanctions, the lack of high-level defensive playmakers and that troublesome offensive line. Those are all real issues, and remember that Bill O'Brien did a fantastic job of getting this team to 7-5 the past two seasons. I think Penn State could match or slightly exceed that this season, but that the true brighter days are still in the future.
video

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State officials ordered Joe Paterno's statue to be taken down nearly two years ago, but fans here haven't forgotten. They never will.

[+] EnlargeJoe Paterno
Ned Dishman/Getty ImagesPenn State fans won't easily forget Joe Paterno's legacy at the school, despite how his career ended.
So while controversy might swirl in other parts of the country with the news today that two alumni are seeking to install a $300,000 statue downtown, the overwhelming sentiment around here is, "About time."

You can argue about whether such a statue is appropriate, or what type of role Paterno played in the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, but common ground in that argument is about as elusive as a national title. So let's just deal with the facts here.

Fans here aren't going to forget about Paterno in another two years, 20 years or 200 years. It's about as difficult to separate Paterno from Penn State as it is to separate Penn State from Pennsylvania. Ignoring Paterno’s legacy doesn't freeze the controversy; it just builds up.

There's a growing divide between fans and university officials on this -- and no matter what your feelings are on the issue, the university owes fans an explanation. The new statue has stirred up old questions and renewed others: Will Penn State ever honor Paterno? When? Why or why not? Transparency isn't a negative in this case; the university would do well to fill in fans on its intentions.

Officials ordered the original statue to be torn down, and they've never so much as disclosed the current location. Then-president Rodney Erickson's statement read, "I now believe that, contrary to its original intention, Coach Paterno's statue has become a source of division and an obstacle to healing our university and beyond."

The ironic part is that the university's silence on the issue has also become a source of division. In the weeks and months following the statue's removal, it was easier to understand that silence. Fans may not have agreed with the decision, but they understood it. The nation was watching, and many -- rightly or wrongly -- looked at Paterno as more of a criminal than a legend. Like with anything, that extremism eventually gave way to more of a middle ground.

I reached out to a Penn State spokesman in an effort to shed some light on what the university's plans are regarding Paterno. What's the concern with putting Paterno's statue back up? Would there be national outrage? How does the university view him? Those questions remain unanswered because, unsurprisingly, the message was not immediately returned.

If officials are truly concerned about "divisions" and "obstacles," then they should open a dialogue instead of ignoring questions that most of the fan base have asked at one time or another. Maybe the university just wants to focus on a program that has real enthusiasm behind it, one that's somehow thrived under the sanctions. But staying quiet doesn't seem to be working.

Silence might bury a lot of things, but for better or worse, it's not going to bury Paterno's legacy. So no matter where you stand on the issue, one aspect should be evident: Penn State owes its fans and alumni an explanation.
The NFL's affinity for bigger, longer cornerbacks might be a recent trend, but the size debate is nothing new for players who lack it, such as Nebraska's Josh Mitchell.

"People are always going to question my size," Mitchell told ESPN.com "I don't think its so much for me to say anything about it as much as it is to show. I just try to go out there and show that the size doesn't affect my game."

He showed a lot in his most recent performance, against Georgia in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl. The 5-foot-11, 160-pound Mitchell had his best game as a Husker, recording an interception and a fumble recovery, both in Bulldogs territory. Both takeaways led to Nebraska touchdowns in a 24-19 victory.

Those in Husker Country hope the bowl victory springboards a team striving to break through the four-loss ceiling and capture a Big Ten championship. Mitchell sees the game as a catalyst.

"That was really important for me," he said. "It set me up for the next season. Coming off that game, I feel like my confidence was at an all-time high."

No kidding. Here's what Mitchell tweeted three weeks after the game:



Mitchell has never struggled to express himself -- "I talk a lot," he said -- but chattiness and confidence are different things. He didn't always have the latter, at least when the lights shined brightest.

The Corona, Calif., native started eight games in 2012 but recorded only one interception, against FCS Idaho State. Before the bowl breakout, Mitchell wasn't involved in a takeaway last season. Nebraska's defense struggled with them, recording just 18, second-fewest in the Big Ten and tied for 95th nationally.

Boosting the takeaway total is a chief goal for the Blackshirts this coming season.

"We have a faster, more explosive group," Mitchell said. "I feel like if we get more guys flying around, we'll create more turnovers. That's one of my goals. I don't have too many in my career, and I think that's just from playing nervous.

"If I can play with more confidence, I can make more plays."

After playing alongside All-Big Ten corners such as Alfonzo Dennard and Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Mitchell wants to be Nebraska's top cover man this season, matching up against opponents' best receivers. He has connected well with new secondary coach Charlton Warren and spent much of the spring working on press technique, a strength for any elite corner.

[+] EnlargeJosh Mitchell
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsNebraska cornerback Josh Mitchell said his "confidence was at an all-time high" after he had two takeaways in the Gator Bowl win over Georgia.
He also is taking a greater leadership role in the secondary alongside safety Corey Cooper, a fellow senior.

"Very instinctive, plays the ball very well," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said of Mitchell. "He's a good football player and a guy I think is going to have a big senior year for us. Love the way he competes.

"He brings great enthusiasm to the field and really adds a lot to our defense."

Pelini notes that Mitchell is getting bigger this offseason. But the two-time academic All-Big Ten selection is smart and realistic about his limits.

He would like to play his final season between 170-175 pounds.

"Of course I want to become bigger and stronger," he said. "I just don't want to get to the point where that’s where all my focus is and I start becoming stiff and losing speed. I rely on speed and footwork.

"I don't have a huge frame, so I don't want to push it too far."

Mitchell's size always might be the first thing people notice about him. If his senior season at Nebraska goes as planned, it won't be the only thing.
If all you knew about Rutgers starting defensive tackle Darius Hamilton was that he weighs a doughnut or two over 260 pounds, you might rightfully wonder whether he's ready for Big Ten trench warfare. This is not a subject unfamiliar to Hamilton.

[+] EnlargeDarius Hamilton
Rich Kane/Icon SMIRutgers defensive lineman Darius Hamilton, a former ESPN 300 recruit, says he's ready for the "challenge" of playing in the Big Ten.
"Everywhere I go, people say, 'The Big Ten's got big offensive linemen,'" he told ESPN.com. "But the way I look at it, ever since I've been in college, I've never played against a lineman smaller than me. I love a challenge."

Size is a minor issue for Hamilton. He has the pedigree and the track record to suggest that he could immediately become one of the league's top interior lineman.

He played for New Jersey prep powerhouse Don Bosco, which was ranked No. 1 nationally his senior year by several publications. He was ranked No. 69 in the 2012 ESPN 300. Recruiting offers came pouring in from programs such as Florida, Miami and Alabama.

In the end, Hamilton decided to stay close to home and was one of the most-decorated signees in Scarlet Knights history, helping push that class to a Top 25 national ranking.

"I just believed in the system and the players, especially with the group of guys that I came in with," he said. "We just believed we were going to do something special, and I believe we're well on the road to doing that."

After playing in a reserve role each game as a freshman, Hamilton began to fulfill his potential in the second half of last season. In Rutgers' final four games, he registered four sacks and 5.5 of his team-best 11.5 tackles for loss.

"I think everything finally came together as far as playbooks and scheme," he said. "I was able to play fast and not think about anything."

That big finish has carried over into the offseason. Coach Kyle Flood has praised Hamilton as one of the team leaders this spring, and that's necessary given that he's one of only two returning starters on the defensive line.

Hamilton showed that he was ready to become perhaps the face of the team when he issued a challenge to fans over Twitter this spring, telling them to either get on board with the Scarlet Knights' train or get lost.

"I was observing a a lot of people talking, talking, talking, and I wanted to voice my opinion about how I feel about this team and our chemistry," he said. "It was basically, 'If you're on the fence, you should just get off.'"

The public nature of that sentiment was new for the soft-spoken Hamilton, but his teammates weren't surprised by his intensity and passion.

"He's not the biggest three-technique [tackle] in the world, but when you see the man in pads, he's a different monster," said defensive lineman Julian Pinnix-Odrick, who is Hamilton's roommate. "I've never seen him come out and say, 'Aw, I'm not feeling it today.' He's ready to go all the time -- 24/7, he has that competitive edge."

Teammates also praise Hamilton's mastery of technique and work ethic -- "he has natural ability and on top of that, he works his butt off, Pinnix-Odrick said. "That's what makes him a great player."

The game comes instinctually to him in some ways thanks to his lineage. His father, Keith Hamilton, played 12 years in the NFL, all with the New York Giants, and had 63 sacks. Their relationship has had some difficult times, but Darius said his father always helped him improve his game.

"I went back and watched some of dad's tapes, and I saw that we're real similar in way we play the game," he said. "I never really realized it until I sat down and watched film. We both play with a lot of intensity and a lot of passion."

That passion helps make up for a lack of size. Hamilton has put on a few pounds this offseason and hopes to get to 270 by the fall. He and the other Rutgers defensive linemen will still be giving up some bulk to most Big Ten offensive lines. But there's more to the story, he insists.

"People look at us across the board and think we're not much," he said. "But we've got a lot of heart, we play really hard and play really physical. We welcome teams running the ball. When you think about the Big Ten, you think about big offensive lines that like to run the ball. And when you think about Rutgers' defense, you think about stopping the run. So it should be a fun challenge."

Big Ten lunch links

April, 23, 2014
Apr 23
12:00
PM ET
I want to share something with you: The three little sentences that will get you through life. Number 1: "Cover for me." Number 2: "Oh, good idea, Boss!" Number 3: "It was like that when I got here."
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IOWA CITY, Iowa -- No Big Ten coach takes the temperature of his team in spring practice quite like Iowa's Kirk Ferentz. No Big Ten coach has lived in as many different climates.

The dean of the league's coaches knows the sunniness that surrounds teams after redemptive seasons such as the ones the Hawkeyes had in 2001, 2008 or last fall, when Iowa improved its wins total by four. He also knows the polar vortex that exists, at least outside Iowa's football complex, after poor performances like the ones the team delivered in 2007 and 2012.

Ferentz also understands how quickly the weather changes, like it often does on spring afternoons in the Midwest.

So at a recent team meeting, Ferentz detoured from the typical spring minutia -- replacing seniors, creating depth, finding leaders, building identities -- and addressed a macro item: the preseason polls.

"He said we might be ranked," running back Jordan Canzeri told ESPN.com, "and even if we are, no one is to keep that in their head. There were several teams that were ranked and didn't get to go to a bowl game this past year. You never want to be cocky. Even if the stats show you're good, you still want to prepare as you would with any other team, so you don't get satisfied and complacent."

Iowa likely will be ranked when the preseason polls come out. The Hawkeyes appear in some way-too early versions. They return eight offensive starters, including left tackle Brandon Scherff, a preseason All-America candidate, along with three of four starting defensive linemen from a team that flipped its regular-season record in 2013.

The quarterback uncertainty that hovered over the program last spring, when no signal-caller had taken a snap in a game, is no longer there, as junior Jake Rudock has established himself. An unprecedented stretch of running back maladies has subsided as Iowa returns three veteran options (Mark Weisman, Canzeri and Damon Bullock) and two promising young players (LeShun Daniels Jr. and Barkley Hill). There's more explosiveness at wide receiver, and the defensive line, led by senior tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat, looks more like the elite units Iowa produced for most of Ferentz's tenure.

[+] EnlargeCarl Davis
David Purdy/The Des Moines Register via USA TODAY SportsWith Carl Davis and others back, Iowa's defensive line should be the team's strongest unit.
"We are a more experienced unit, probably the most experienced unit on the team," defensive line coach Reese Morgan said.

There are enough internal reasons to indicate Iowa will take another step this season, but the biggest factors in the Hawkeyes favor are external. Their new division, the Big Ten West, lacks a clear-cut favorite or a flawless team. And their schedule is undoubtedly the most favorable in the league.

Not only does Iowa miss Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State from the East Division, but it hosts both Wisconsin and Nebraska. The Hawkeyes' toughest league road game should be a Nov. 8 visit to Minnesota.

"It's a pretty favorable schedule for us," wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley said, "but every week is going to be a challenge. Nothing that happened last year really matters."

Davis looks forward to visiting Big Ten newcomer Maryland, but he had hoped to play more of the league's traditional powers. The only way Iowa sees Ohio State, Michigan State or Michigan is in the Big Ten championship game.

"When the Big Ten started, those are the teams that dominated," Davis said. "You want to be able to play those teams and beat those teams. I really look forward to it.

"I definitely feel we're in contention for a Big Ten championship. Every team says it, but we're hungry."

Ferentz has seen Iowa go from good to great in 2002 and again in 2009. He also has seen the program fall short of expectations, as it did in 2006 and 2010.

The first step to building upon success, Ferentz said, is not taking it for granted. Take Iowa's group of linebackers, which loses three multiyear starters from last year's squad: James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens.

"If we're waiting for Morris, Kirksey and Hitchens to give us 300 tackles, that ain't gonna happen," Ferentz said. "Two years ago, we had a disappointing season. Last year was a new year and this year was the flip record-wise, but it's a new year again. This team has to form its own identity, and it starts with our experienced players. We're going to need them to play their absolute best, which is what those seniors did last year."

Iowa's linebacker reset has been a top spring storyline. Quinton Alston has stepped into the lead role, earning high marks from teammates and coaches. Travis Perry and Reggie Spearman, who played as a 17-year-old freshman last fall and doesn't turn 18 until August, are likely starters alongside Alston.

The biggest challenge could be replacing Kirksey, a converted safety who brought defensive back speed to outside linebacker.

"Chris had a different skill set than the guys we have out there now," defensive coordinator Phil Parker said. "It's been a long time since we had a guy who could run that fast and still have the power and explosion to play in the box, too, or at least on the tight end. We have three or four guys we're trying to look at with that position."

Other uncertainties include the cornerback spot opposite dynamic sophomore Desmond King, free safety and the second-string offensive line, which coordinator Greg Davis lists as the unit's biggest concern.

Iowa players understand that their margin for error remains slim.

"The determining factor is going to be winning those close games," Martin-Manley said.

Iowa won several such contests in 2009, its last truly special season. The 2014 team also could reach rarefied air, but Hawkeyes won't get caught with their heads in the clouds.

"That's what we do here; we work hard," Davis said. "That's something you get used to the longer you're in this program. The grind becomes normal, and I feel like all our hard work will be able to pay off."
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Urban Meyer is always trying to find new ways to motivate his players.

Last spring, he had a banner put up in the Ohio State field house reading “The Chase …” in reference to the Buckeyes’ championship pursuits. Meyer said he thought about changing the display for the 2014 offseason. In the end, though, he stuck with the same one.

“We didn’t accomplish it,” Meyer told ESPN.com. “We chased it but didn’t catch it. So the chase is still on.”

Ohio State, of course, nearly made it to its desired finish line. After going 12-0 for the second straight season under Meyer, the Buckeyes just needed to beat Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game to clinch a date with Florida State for the BCS national title. Instead, they fell 34-24 to the Spartans and closed the year on a two-game losing streak with a 40-35 setback against Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteUrban Meyer says Ohio State is still trying to finish "The Chase."
So the chase continues, albeit with a much different-looking team in the 2014 starting gate. Gone is four-fifths of the offensive line that formed the backbone of the Big Ten’s top-scoring offense the past two seasons. Also gone are reigning Big Ten running back of the year Carlos Hyde and top receiver Corey “Philly” Brown, as well as the two biggest stars on defense -- linebacker Ryan Shazier and cornerback Bradley Roby -- who opted to enter the NFL draft.

Experience is lacking in many key areas, but Meyer is ready to let some talented youngsters loose, including true freshmen. In retrospect, he wishes he had done so last year, when defensive end Joey Bosa and receiver Dontre Wilson were the only first-year players to make a big impact until safety Vonn Bell started in the Orange Bowl.

“We redshirted too many last year, and that was our fault,” he said. “There was a misunderstanding, and we just didn’t do a good job, especially on defense. When they show up on campus, we need to get them ready to play.”

This spring, early enrollees Raekwon McMillan (linebacker), Curtis Samuel (tailback) and Johnnie Dixon (receiver) were all heavily involved and have secured roles in the fall. Redshirt freshman are also at or near the top of the depth chart at strongside linebacker (Darron Lee and Chris Worley) and cornerback (Gareon Conley and Eli Apple), while true sophomores like safety Cam Burrows and tailback Ezekiel Elliott could force their way into the starting lineup.

“When you talk about inexperience, that’s a good thing right now,” said Chris Ash, who was hired from Arkansas as co-defensive coordinator to help fix Ohio State’s pass defense. “There aren’t a lot of habits that we have to change to fit what we’re trying to do. We don’t have older guys that are comfortable with where they’re at in their careers.”

An already young offense became even greener this spring because of injuries to three senior leaders: tight end Jeff Heuerman, receiver Evan Spencer and quarterback Braxton Miller. The Buckeyes will no doubt look a lot different when Miller returns from shoulder surgery. During the 15 spring practices, the two-time defending Big Ten player of the year often stood behind the offense and wore a camera on his head so coaches could go over what he was seeing on the field.

“We're exhausting every avenue and even inventing different avenues to make sure he's engaged and getting mental reps,” offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. “We're doing the best we can with a bad situation. He has embraced it and is working his tail off, making sure he’s getting the most out of it.”

Herman says the Buckeyes should be more explosive on the perimeter this season, with guys like Wilson, Dixon, junior college transfer Corey Smith, sophomore Michael Thomas and freshman Jalin Marshall at receiver and a stable of athletic tailbacks. The safeties are longer and quicker than they have been in the past, and the defensive line -- which could be one of the nation’s best -- will have four starters who all used to be defensive ends.

The objective is clear: more speed. To that end, Meyer has hammered a new mantra in the players' heads: “4 to 6, A to B.” That means play hard for four to six seconds and get from point A to point B as quickly as possible. It's hard to interview an Ohio State player these days without hearing the phrase.

“That’s all he’s been preaching this spring.” defensive tackle Adolphus Washington said. “He said he’s not really worried about technique and all that stuff. It’s just about playing hard, because if you play hard, effort makes up for mistakes.”

Washington said the defense was greatly simplified this spring, with only about four or five different calls to learn. Aggressiveness trumped scheme.

“The culture of Ohio State is to go hard, not trick you,” Meyer said. “I just felt like there was too much stuff last year, instead of just going hard.”

By moving faster and playing harder, the Buckeyes hope to overcome their youth and track down what they've been hunting. They have been tantalizingly close.

“We’re still on a chase,” Washington said. “We’ve just got to finish it.”

Big Ten Tuesday mailblog

April, 22, 2014
Apr 22
5:00
PM ET
Prime-time schedule angst? Oh, there's plenty. The floor is yours.

Follow us.

[+] EnlargeWisconsin Celebration
Mike McGinnis/Getty ImagesWill Melvin Gordon's Heisman chances be affected by the lack of prime-time games in November?
Jackie from NYC writes: I think the biggest loser in the prime-time schedule is Melvin Gordon. We already know he's likely to split carries with Corey Clement, and now he's not going to get the chance to really put on a show in primetime during Big Ten season. Am I right? How does the schedule affect his Heisman chances?

Adam Rittenberg: That's a fair question, Jackie. Gordon undoubtedly would benefit from another prime-time game or two in November, especially if he's among the leaders for the Heisman. The good news is he has a terrific opportunity right away to make a national statement in the opener against LSU. The Tigers are consistently one of the nation's top defenses, and if Gordon has a big night in Houston, he'll be on the Heisman radar. It will be up to him to stay there with big performances against mostly middling competition until the end of the season, but the LSU game provides a platform for Gordon to make a splash. He could have another pre-Heisman prime-time opportunity if he leads Wisconsin to the Big Ten championship game in Indy, where he had a pretty decent night in 2012.




Danny O. from Davenport, Iowa, writes: The fact Iowa goes a second year in a row without any prime-time games is utterly disgusting. I know people outside of Hawkeye Nation will try and defend this decision by bringing up the the weak schedule, and normally they would be right. My question, however, is how can anyone justify giving Illinois ANY prime-time games, let alone two? If the B1G can make a case for this by giving in to Urban Meyer's whining for more prime-time games and giving them Illinois in one of those slots, certainly Iowa deserves one PT game in the past two years. Am I wrong?

Rittenberg: It's not about deserving, Danny. These are business decisions made by TV programming executives and athletic administrators from each school. Ohio State brings in larger regional and national TV audiences than Iowa, even when it's playing a team like Illinois. If Jim Tressel had wanted more night games, he would have gotten no complaints from the TV folks. So it's more of an Ohio State-Iowa issue than an Illinois-Iowa issue.

Iowa has been more conservative about night games, stating a preference about having one or two per year, not four or five. Athletic director Gary Barta said in 2012, "On our campus, one is fine. I don't know that we'll go to two. I'm confident it wouldn't go beyond that." If you combine that preference with an underwhelming schedule where the best games are at the end, when weather does enter the equation, you get no night games.




Brian from Magnolia, Texas, writes: Huge Husker fan here excited about all of the prime-time games this year. One question, when will we get to play Indiana? If memory serves correctly, we haven't played them yet and aren't scheduled to play them until at least 2015-16.

Rittenberg: The Huskers don't face Indiana until 2016 -- Oct. 15, to be exact -- when they visit Bloomington. Nebraska initially was set to face Indiana for the first time in Big Ten play on Nov. 14, 2015, but the league expansion and the schedule shuffle that ensued pushed back the meeting.




Brian from Iowa writes: For a long time now, teams like Iowa and Wisconsin have supported the B1G unconditionally, even when there has been a perceived league bias towards teams with richer histories. While I would have thought the question ridiculous a year ago, is it possible that Jim Delany's greed will eventually drive fans away? They already have trouble engaging students (future donors) and nothing endears current Big Ten boosters like a night game played at a mediocre stadium in New Jersey.

Rittenberg: Brian, I understand your anger about the prime-time selections, but you might have the wrong target. Jim Delany doesn't make the prime-time schedules. The league's television partners, along with the individual school administrators, are the power players here. Each school has its own preferences and constraints. A lot of things need to match up for a night game to work. If my team is left off the prime-time slate, I'm taking it up with my athletic director. Delany's recent expansion moves have turned off some Big Ten fans and he'll be judged appropriately. But his role in the prime-time schedule isn't as significant as many believe.




Jake from Seattle writes: What is your sense of the NU football team's response to the university's efforts to dissuade them from voting to form a union? Based on what I've read, my gut says the probability the team gets the votes needed to unionize is quite slim. I mean, having your coach and your university (both of which appear to do things the right way as far as D1 sports are concerned) openly against this must be pretty tough. Is your sense that the players are able to separate that voting to collectively bargain is not a referendum on Fitz or the university, but really on how the NCAA unfairly treats college athletes? I admit that I am biased. I think the players voting yes is in their best interest -- as well as the interests of other athletes that will invariably follow.

Rittenberg: Jake, some players might make that separation, but many feel that the debate has turned from national to Northwestern. Kain Colter's testimony at the Chicago NLRB hearing fundamentally shifted the focus from the NCAA to Northwestern. It led to a favorable ruling for Colter and CAPA, but it turned off some of his former teammates. Northwestern also thought the initial campaign was national, not local. Keep in mind that the Northwestern union ruling would apply only to private schools, which represent a small fraction of the FBS. My sense is they'll vote no, but I've been wrong on pretty much everything regarding this story.

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