Problem position: Wide receiver
Why receiver was a problem: The trouble started in August when Christian Jones, the Wildcats’ 2013 leader in receiving yardage, went down with a knee injury. The Wildcats felt his loss in 2014 as wideouts Kyle Prater and Tony Jones were effective at times but did not account for Christian Jones’ production. Superback Dan Vitale caught 40 passes, while the season of Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler was shortened by a head injury suffered in October against Nebraska. The Wildcats struggled with drops and generally required more from the receivers to operate as needed in the Northwestern spread system.
How it can be fixed: Shuler and Vitale are back as seniors, as is Christian Jones, who took a redshirt in 2014. The Wildcats need leadership from the trio as the quarterback position goes through a transition to Zack Oliver, Matt Alviti or Clayton Thorson. With a veteran corps of receivers that includes several additional upperclassmen -- Northwestern needs more from rising senior Cameron Dickerson -- the inconsistency of 2014 must give way to reliability, starting this spring.
Early 2015 outlook: If the QB job goes to Alviti or Thorson -- both in the dual-threat category -- the job description shifts a bit for the receivers. In a best-case scenario, Northwestern finds a weapon at quarterback and running back Justin Jackson builds on a strong rookie season. Among the Wildcats’ top recruits is receiver Cameron Green, the son of ex-Chicago Bears running back Mark Green. Despite the presence of veterans, the Wildcats would benefit from new blood on the edge. The more bodies, the merrier. With Jones back, though, look for a rebound performance from the receivers.
Purdue accomplished enough on offense to reasonably expect another win or two. But the Boilermakers simply didn’t make it happen with enough consistency. In fact, the consistency was downright poor. After mid-October, the offense went into a shell, reverting to the levels of its dismal 2013 season. So what happened in the three-game stretch against Illinois, Michigan State and Minnesota that raised hopes? Well, there was the newness of QB Austin Appleby and excellent balance. Purdue ran for 298 yards against the Gophers behind the big-play ability of Raheem Mostert and a nice effort by Akeem Hunt. Clearly, though, the offensive line couldn’t sustain that level, and the quarterbacks -- Appleby or Danny Etling -- were unable to shoulder the load.
It’s difficult to find one game outside of the win over FCS-level Southern Illinois in which the Boilermakers came close to a complete performance on defense. Individually, safety Landon Feichter, cornerback Frankie Williams and defensive end Jake Replogle showed nice improvement. But as a unit, coordinator Greg Hudson’s group didn’t give Purdue much of a chance. The Boilermakers, statistically, were bad against the pass (last in the Big Ten in opponent QBR) and the run, surrendering 194 yards per game. The Boilermakers blew a nine-point lead and the opportunity for a statement win in the final four minutes at Minnesota. A week later, Purdue surrendered a season-low 297 yards at Nebraska but still lost by three touchdowns. So it went all year.
Special teams: C-plus
Place-kicker Paul Griggs enjoyed an outstanding year, connecting on 16 of 20 field goal attempts, including all three attempts from beyond 50 yards. Thomas Meadows was serviceable at punter. Mostert, asked to handle a heavy load on offense, lacked the explosiveness on kickoff returns displayed early in his career. Returning punts, Williams made the most of 11 attempts, averaging nearly 16 yards. Purdue struggled in coverage, ranking 115th nationally in opponent starting position on kickoffs and 110th in opponent punt-return average.
Darrell Hazell continues to search for a breakthrough after two years in West Lafayette. He seemed to find it in October 2014 before the Boilermakers progressed in the wrong direction over the final month. Yes, the talent is lacking, but the Purdue coaches didn’t get the most out of what they had last season. The quarterback change from Etling to Appleby was likely the right move, though it failed to make a major difference. Where was the breakout year anticipated for defensive end Ryan Russell, and what happened to the 2013 production of receiver DeAngelo Yancey? Purdue also struggled with details such as third-down efficiency, kick coverage and creating turnovers.
One step forward, one step back. Midseason momentum evaporated, aided by the season-ending knee injury to receiver Danny Anthrop, who emerged as Appleby’s favorite target. But three wins in Hazell’s second year -- and a six-game skid to end -- just wasn’t good enough. In a double whammy to end the season, the Boilermakers failed in their bid to escape the Big Ten cellar with a 23-16 loss at Indiana in a game that could have left the Hoosiers winless in Big Ten play for the second time in four years.
Up next: Michigan
Problem position: Quarterback
Why quarterback was a problem in 2014: Offensive line, running back and wide receiver were no great shakes in 2014 for the Wolverines, either. But Michigan's repeated inability to develop a quarterback remains the most pressing concern, especially for new coach Jim Harbaugh and his staff. Devin Gardner regressed as a senior, throwing 15 interceptions and just 10 touchdowns, yet Michigan didn't have anyone who could beat him out. And now he's gone.
How it can be fixed (solutions on the roster): Shane Morris is the most experienced quarterback on the roster, though his main claim to fame is being left in a game after suffering a concussion. The junior has made two career starts, both of them blowout losses. Russell Bellomy looked overmatched in his previous exposure during the 2012 Nebraska game, but that was a long time ago. Wilton Speight redshirted last year.
How it can be fixed (potential help from 2015 recruiting class): Two new quarterbacks will be thrown into what should be a wide-open competition. Alex Malzone committed to Brady Hoke's staff and enrolled in January, so he'll be ready for spring practice. New coach Jim Harbaugh recently flipped former Texas commit Zach Gentry to Michigan. Both are four-star prospects, according to ESPN Recruiting.
Early 2015 outlook: Well, one thing's for sure. The era of the running quarterback is officially over, as all of Michigan's contenders for the job are suited for the pro-style system Hoke always talked about and that Harbaugh will run. Are any of them ready to step in and play well in 2015? That remains a huge question mark. The spring competition will be crowded, and the incumbents will have to learn a new set of plays and terminology. Don't be surprised if Harbaugh decided to go with one of the youngsters he recruited. There's hope for the future here, but it may take more than one more season for Michigan to finally solve its quarterback problem
Come and get your marks, Penn State.
Simply put, Penn State's offense was painful to watch most of the year. The Nittany Lions ranked dead last in the Big Ten in scoring and mustered just 14 points per game in conference action. Only Kansas, Syracuse, Vanderbilt and Wake Forest scored fewer points among Power 5 teams. The Lions' rushing "attack" was also the worst in the Big Ten in averaging a paltry 2.9 yards per carry. A patchwork offensive line that allowed 44 sacks was the main culprit, but inexperienced receivers also played a role. Supremely talented Christian Hackenberg looked shell-shocked, throwing 15 interceptions and just 12 touchdowns while often running for his life.
The Penn State defense was as good as the Penn State offense was bad. Bob Shoop's unit led the Big Ten in points allowed (18.6 ppg) and total defense (278.7 ypg), which was all the more remarkable given how many bad situations the defense was put in. Even Ohio State's mighty offense struggled to score against the Nittany Lions, as the Buckeyes managed a season-low 17 points in regulation before escaping State College with a 31-24 double overtime win. Anthony Zettel emerged as the league's most immovable object at defensive tackle, while Mike Hull won Big Ten linebacker of the year honors.
Special teams: C-minus
This grade may look generous, considering that the Nittany Lions struggled mightily in punting for most of the year and didn't pose much of a threat in the return game. But a great season by kicker Sam Ficken lifts the overall mark. Ficken made 24 of his 29 field goal attempts and converted game-winners in both the opener (UCF) and the finale (Boston College).
This is a tough one to grade, as the coaching staff faced incredible challenges with the depth and lack of experience on the roster. Few coaches would have been able to turn the offensive line situation into something more positive. The defensive performance was astounding and a major improvement over the previous season. There were some questionable clock-management issues in close games, and the relationship between Hackenberg and offensive coordinator John Donovan looked testy to outsiders at times. But the staff held things together and deserves credit for steering the team to a winning record in tough times.
We have to grade on something of a curve here. Not only was Penn State hampered by an by the scholarship reductions, the team also was operating under a new coaching staff. Maybe more could have been expected of this year's group after it started 4-0, but conference play exposed some harsh realities. Getting back to a bowl game and winning it, with the offense showing more life than had been seen in months, was a very positive step for the program. The best thing you can say about the Nittany Lions' 2014 season is that they survived it without taking much of a step backward. Dark days have passed, and the future looks bright.
Jokes about “Big Ten speed,” or lack thereof, are hereby declared dead. They have ceased because of Urban Meyer and his staff’s recruiting.
Miller, the Buckeyes' quarterback from 2011-13, will be one of the country’s top playmakers regardless of where he plays. Most people in college football believe returning is his best option, even if it means a new, varied role.
Miller’s size (6-foot-2, 215 pounds) compares well to NFL running backs such as Matt Forte, Darren McFadden and Arian Foster, according to ESPN Stats and Information. Miller, though, needs to prove to NFL teams that he can play the position without injury. Miller’s ability in space is uncanny, but I was surprised to learn that he rushed for 701 yards between the tackles in 2013 (508 outside). One more Stats & Info nugget: His 7.3 yards per carry since 2011 puts him behind only Melvin Gordon (minimum 320 carries).So, yeah, it would be highly intriguing to add Miller’s skill to the elite-level playmaking talent that’s already present.
As a redshirt freshman, Marshall was the team’s breakout playmaker in 2014. He scored eight touchdowns (six receiving, one rushing, one punt return). If something happened to Cardale Jones in the postseason, Marshall likely would have played QB, too.
Samuel, a freshman this past season, and Wilson, a sophomore, are similarly versatile. They’re the team’s primary kick returners, averaging 22.8 yards per return last season. They’re nowhere near their ceilings, either. You think new co-OC and QBs coach Tim Beck entered into a good situation?
Here are playmaker standouts from the non-Ohio State crop
Problem position: Defensive line
Why defensive line was a problem in 2014: The front actually has been a problem throughout coach Tim Beckman's tenure after Illinois produced a nice run of NFL prospects from the defensive line. Illinois finished last in the Big Ten in run defense for the second consecutive season, allowing 239.2 rush yards per game (115th nationally). The Illini also finished near the bottom in the league in sacks (23) and tackles for loss (82). The poor performance cost line coach Greg Colby his job following Illinois' bowl loss to Louisiana Tech.
How it can be fixed (solutions on the roster): Illinois has loaded up on junior-college transfers and needs several to blossom this season along the defensive line. Jihad Ward is the one to watch after recording three sacks, two forced fumbles and a team-high four fumbles recovered in his first year as an Illini end. Illinois also needs more from Joe Fotu on the inside. Illinois fans are waiting for big things from Paul James III, a decorated high school prospect. Rob Bain, who started about half of last season at tackle, is back alongside Dawuane Smoot, who had 7.5 tackles for loss as a reserve in 2014.
How it can be fixed (potential help from 2015 recruiting class): A major problem could get worse if Illinois can't finish strong in recruiting. The Illini finally landed their first defensive line recruit of the 2015 class this past weekend when junior college defensive end Sean Adesanya committed to the school. There's some talent on the current roster, but Illinois really could use another lineman or two in this class.
Early 2015 outlook: Beckman's first step is finding an assistant to coach the line after missing out on Missouri's Craig Kuligowski, who would have been excellent. Whomever Illinois hires must get more out of the talent in the program, starting with Ward, a 6-foot-6, 295-pound potential matchup nightmare for opponents, but also others like James and Smoot. Run defense must be Illinois' single biggest priority heading into another make-or-break season for Beckman.
Eric Barron told The Associated Press that the report by former FBI director Louis Freeh took a prosecutorial approach and created an "absurd" and "unwarranted" picture of students, faculty and others associated with the university.
"I have to say, I'm not a fan of the report," Barron said during a half-hour interview in his office in Old Main, the school's administrative headquarters. "There's no doubt in my mind, Freeh steered everything as if he were a prosecutor trying to convince a court to take the case."
The Freeh report concluded that former administrators Graham Spanier, Tim Curley and Gary Schultz and former football coach Joe Paterno intentionally concealed key facts about Sandusky's child sex abuse to avoid bad publicity after receiving complaints in 1998 and 2001. It also recommended more than 100 changes to school policies and procedures, and said Penn State was permeated by a culture of reverence for the football program.
The Freeh team's report, he said, "very clearly paints a picture about every student, every faculty member, every staff member and every alum. And it's absurd. It's unwarranted. So from my viewpoint, the Freeh report is not useful to make decisions."
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Up next is an Ohio State team that earned its highest marks after the calendar flipped to 2015.
It will go down as arguably the most memorable offense in Ohio State history, especially when considering the adversity it overcame. The Buckeyes lost two Heisman Trophy candidates at quarterback -- Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett -- and still led the Big Ten in scoring (44.8 ppg) and total offense (511.6 ypg). Barrett was brilliant in relief of Miller, finishing fifth in Heisman Trophy voting. Cardale Jones picked up the flag after Barrett's ankle injury and sparkled in his first three starts, all in the postseason. So many others stepped up, from running back Ezekiel Elliott to wideout Devin Smith to a reworked offensive line. Just an incredible performance.
The Buckeyes started to look like themselves again after a poor finish to the 2013 season. Big Ten defensive player of the year Joey Bosa and All-America tackle Michael Bennett triggered a pressuring unit, which led the league in both sacks (45) and tackles for loss (110). A secondary that was Ohio State's biggest weakness the previous year proved to be a strength as the four starters combined for 18 interceptions. Redshirt freshman Darron Lee sparked an undermanned linebacking corps in the postseason. After some hiccups in the regular season, especially against elite running backs, Ohio State's defense played its best in the biggest games, blanking Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game and holding both Alabama and Oregon in check during the playoff run.
Special teams: B+
After a very rocky start in a Week 2 loss to Virginia Tech, Ohio State's kicking game stabilized later in the season. Cameron Johnston worked his rugby-style magic, as the Buckeyes led the Big Ten and ranked sixth nationally in net punting (41.8-yard average). Kicker Sean Nuernberger connected on just 13 of 20 field goal attempts and struggled from distance (5-for-10 beyond 40 yards). Jalin Marshall sparked Ohio State's punt return unit, finishing second in the Big Ten (11.8 ypr). The Buckeyes excelled on kickoff coverage and were solid on punt coverage.
College football historians will be hard pressed to identify a better overall coaching job than the one Ohio State's staff delivered in 2014. The Buckeyes won a national championship with a third-string quarterback and took down the sport's top two teams in fairly dominant fashion (Oregon more so than Alabama). Offensive coordinator Tom Herman showed he's masterful not only at calling plays but developing quarterbacks. Ed Warinner showed again why he's the nation's best offensive line coach, developing a revamped unit into a major strength. Meyer's hiring of defensive assistants Chris Ash and Larry Johnson also paid off as the unit took important steps.
There's a reason why the final exam counts for such a high percentage of a team's overall grade. Ohio State struggled early but aced every test down the stretch, culminating with a 42-20 win against Oregon at the first College Football Playoff national championship game at AT&T Stadium. The playoff system allowed the Buckeyes to evolve and peak at the right time. They cemented themselves as the nation's best team on the biggest stage, winning their first national championship since 2002.
Basically, at this time of year, you've got a choice:
Buy into the hype and live large next Wednesday, convinced that your team just signed the class that will vault it past Ohio State. (If you support the Buckeyes, well, plenty of reason also exists for optimism.)
Or you can play the role of realist, bursting bubbles everywhere with stories of five-star mistakes and walk-on success stories. As Randy Peterson of the Des Moines Register illustrates well, if you buy into enough recruiting hype, you'll get burned.
The latter option makes sense. But at this time of year, who wants to make sense when you can picture every prospect as a star?
Big Ten coaches are a bit divided, as I wrote Wednesday, on the league-wide recruiting impact of good publicity in the wake of Ohio State’s national championship and the Michigan hiring of Jim Harbaugh.
For some Big Ten programs, it helps to sell the success of rival institutions. To some prospects, it matters to play at the Horseshoe or in the Big House – even as a visitor.
And for other programs, this signifies no change. Michigan State is the best example. As the Spartans build another class like those that have produced four 11-win seasons in the past five years, coach Mark Dantonio cares little about recruiting momentum generated by Ohio State or Michigan.
It’s bad enough for Michigan State coaches, players and fans that at every turn, they’re inundated with talk of Michigan’s new coach; the last thing you’ll hear from Dantonio is an acknowledgement that another team in the league might help the Spartans recruit.
“We’re selling results," he said. "When we first came here, we were selling hope.”
At the same time, Dantonio, entering his ninth year in East Lansing, told me this week he recognizes the tenuous nature of the Spartans’ spot near the top of the league.
“I think we’re here to stay,” he said, “but it’s a quick drop back to mediocrity. It’s always, ‘What have you done for me lately?’ I understand that.”
As long as Michigan State pays attention to next week and continues to restock its program -- with or without the help of other Big Ten powers -- it’s not likely to fall far from its current perch.
What about the impact of Ohio State’s national title on its own recruiting class?
Apparently, it will be felt more in 2016 and 2017. The Buckeyes, No. 7 in the ESPN class rankings, completed the bulk of their recruiting for 2015 before the College Football Playoff wins over Alabama and Oregon.
But Urban Meyer has remained busy on the recruiting trail since mid-January, scooping up elite high school sophomores and juniors at a rate that ought to alarm other Big Ten coaches.
Their commitments, of course, are non-binding, but the Buckeyes figure to compete well with programs like Alabama and Florida State in the near future for the best prospects nationally.
Recruiting, by nature, is unpredictable. Meyer, though, in building on the Buckeyes’ success, is working to remove that element of unpredictability from the game.
Around the league we go:
- What’s left to accomplish for Michigan in the next week?
- Michigan State is pursuing twins from Ohio.
- A sneak peek at signing day for Rutgers.
- Looking back at a recruit who lived up to the hype for Nebraska.
- Maryland keeps working to lock down its home territory.
- Speaking of Maryland, here’s an introduction to an Indiana pledge, Tyler Green -- a safety from Maryland who was previously committed to Ohio State.
- Meanwhile, Penn State is thinking about 2016.
- Texas prep teammates decommit from Wisconsin. Yes, decommitment season is in full swing.
- Offensive lineman Gabe Megginson chose Illinois over a reported 27 other scholarship offers.
- Profiling a homegrown offensive tackle set to sign with Purdue.
And finally, East Lansing and Minneapolis made this list of the 10 best American cities for football.
Problem position: Quarterback
Why quarterback is a problem: There are plenty of places to look within a program that's won one Big Ten game over the past two years. Sometimes, though, the most obvious answer is the correct one. Purdue has coined itself as the cradle of quarterbacks, producing stars at the position such as Len Dawson, Bob Griese, Gary Danielson, Jim Everett and Drew Brees. When the Boilermakers find a gunslinger, all other problems fade into the background. It's struggling under Darrell Hazell to identify a reliable option. Austin Appleby was the latest to try, starting the final seven games as a sophomore with varied success.
How it can be fixed: Appleby had his moments in 2014, playing well against Illinois, Michigan State and Minnesota before the Boilermakers put too much on his shoulders in November. As his pass attempts rose, efficiency dropped. Purdue can help its quarterbacks by improving in the run game. Another offseason of work under Hazell and offensive coordinator John Shoop should help Appleby if he remains atop the depth chart, by no means a certainty.
Early 2015 outlook: Look for Appleby to face stiff competition in the spring from Danny Etling, another rising junior who started as a freshman in 2013 and for the first five games of 2014. He threw for 800 yards but committed seven turnovers. David Blough, a redshirt freshman, also enters the mix. Each came to Purdue as a solid prospect and recognized on the national level in recruiting circles. For Purdue to take the desired big step as a program, one of its quarterbacks must emerge as elite.
The emergence of freshman running back Justin Jackson (1,187 rush yards, 10 touchdowns) is the only thing saving Northwestern from a failing grade. If Northwestern's offense had been anywhere near standard levels the past two seasons, the team easily would have made bowl games. The line once again got pushed around too easily, quarterback Trevor Siemian struggled with his accuracy and dropped passes became a season-long theme for the receivers. Northwestern had no explosiveness -- only three FBS teams had fewer plays of 20 yards or longer than the Wildcats' 34 -- and while play calling didn't help, no one besides Jackson consistently stepped up.
Northwestern's defense hasn't blown anyone away the past two seasons, but it has been good enough for the team to win seven or eight games. The defense gave the offense ample opportunities to succeed in five of the team's seven losses. Six players recorded multiple interceptions, safety Ibraheim Campbell quietly had an excellent season and young players emerged like safety Godwin Igwebuike and linebacker Anthony Walker. The Wildcats rarely shut teams down and didn't generate consistent pressure, but the defense did its part in most games.
Special teams: D-plus
The preseason departure of Venric Mark really stung, as Northwestern never generated much of a return game, especially on punt returns (a meager nine attempts). Coach Pat Fitzgerald was less inclined to attempt long field goals following Jeff Budzien's departure, but Jack Mitchell was solid from inside 40 yards and hit the game-winning 45-yarder at Notre Dame. Punting continued to be a major weakness (116th nationally) and coverage teams were mixed.
Fitzgerald and his staff faced plenty of challenges, including the union debate and Mark's shocking preseason exit, but Northwestern didn't look prepared for its first two games and dropped both. The Wildcats also were smacked 48-7 by a mediocre Iowa team following an open week. Northwestern had three quality wins -- Wisconsin, Penn State and Notre Dame -- but struggled at home for the second straight season. The offensive scheme was wholly unimaginative and Fitzgerald's conservative slant surfaced too often. Northwestern showed some of its trademark resiliency but not nearly enough.
Northwestern hasn't had much go its way the past two seasons, especially from an injury standpoint. But good programs have ingredients to sustain success, and Northwestern is still searching for the right formula. The Wildcats never found an offensive identity. As Fitzgerald often noted, they struggled with maturity. They couldn't defend their home turf (2-5 at Ryan Field). Northwestern showed it can beat decent teams but never displayed enough consistency to be a decent team itself.
Penn State takes its turn in the spotlight now.
Problem position: Offensive line
Why the offensive line was a problem in 2014: Everyone who followed the Nittany Lions worried about the O-line going into the season. Miles Dieffenbach suffered an injury in the offseason that would keep him sidelined most of the year, leaving left tackle Donovan Smith as the only experienced player on the unit. Depth was so thin that coach James Franklin and his staff had to flip a couple defensive tackles over to the offensive guard spots. The problems ended up being worse than just about anyone imagined, as Penn State fielded the league's worst rushing attack (101.9 yards per game) and gave up an almost unfathomable 44 sacks, which was more than every Power 5 team except Wake Forest. For comparison's sake, the 44 sacks were more than Michigan State, Wisconsin and Rutgers combined to allow in 2014. The line woes were encapsulated by this unforgettable image.
How it can be fixed (solutions on the roster): Smith played well despite the chaos and chose to enter the NFL draft rather than use his final year of eligibility. Dieffenbach, who missed the first eight games last season, also departs. Andrew Nelson showed promise as a redshirt freshman at right tackle and could move to the left side. Angelo Mangiro and Brian Gaia join him as returning starters. Penn State also redshirted four offensive linemen last season and will hope at least a couple of them are ready to contribute in 2015.
How it can be fixed (potential help from 2015 recruiting class): The Nittany Lions currently have four offensive linemen committed in this year's class, three of whom are in the ESPN 300: tackles Sterling Jenkins and Ryan Bates and guard Steven Gonzalez. The fourth is a junior college transfer: 6-foot-8, 300-pounder Paris Palmer, who could step in and start right away.
Early 2015 outlook: Franklin and position coach Herb Hand know offensive line is a major problem right now, and they have worked to address that in recruiting. Scholarship cuts from NCAA sanctions and injuries hit the unit hard, but help appears to be on the way. The line looks to be incredibly young in 2015, however, so some quick development will be needed to better protect quarterback Christian Hackenberg and establish a more reputable run game.
Here's a look at how programs in the Big Ten are faring on the recruiting trail heading into national signing day on Feb. 4.
ESPN 300 commitments: 1
Who they have: The class is led by ESPN 300 offensive lineman Gabe Megginson, an in-state commitment for the Illini. Megginson was a huge piece to this class, as his commitment gave Illinois a local presence and the staff was able to build a foundation around him. Quarterback Jimmy Fitzgerald is another in-state commitment, and despite an injury late in his high school career, he should provide competition at the position in a few years. Fitzgerald has some offensive weapons joining him with juco tight end commits Andrew Davis and Ainslie Johnson and three-star tight end Caleb Reams. The Illini have a couple good running backs committed as well in three-stars Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown.
Who they want: There are still a few holes left in this class, and one of the bigger one is at defensive tackle. Jamal Milan is a prime target, and he recently took a visit to Illinois. He plans on announcing his decision on signing day and has the Illini in his top four. It's realistic to think he ends up in this class, which would be a big deal. Illinois is also hoping to reel in running back KeShawn Vaughn, who also has the Illini in his top group.
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