Watch: Kiper on MSU CB Trae Waynes

February, 27, 2015
Feb 27
3:49
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Mel Kiper Jr. breaks down some of the strengths and weaknesses of Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes.
Michigan’s most experienced position group might be the most interesting to watch leading up to the team’s first season under new coach Jim Harbaugh.

Spring practice is generally a time to analyze and get excited about the new, and there is plenty of that in Ann Arbor this year. A new battle for the starting quarterback job started this week. There are new potential stars like defensive back Jabrill Peppers and running back Ty Isaac expected to make an impact next fall. And of course, there is the new coaching staff.

But it’s the offensive line, the only group that returns fully intact from a year ago, that might determine how much and how fast the Wolverines can improve. Two years of serving as the program’s on-field whipping boys leaves the linemen eager to practice whatever its coaches preach.

"There’s something special there," said Tim Drevno, who will coach the line along with his play-calling duties as offensive coordinator. "They want to be taught, and they want to be coached, and they want to be demanded on. You couldn’t ask for anything better. There is nobody resisting what we’re doing."

Drevno was aware of the criticism his charges have faced during the past couple years. The relatively young group floundered through the better part of the past two seasons. In 2013, the Wolverines finished near the bottom of national rankings in sacks allowed (109th) and rushing yards (103rd). Those numbers improved to the middle of the pack last fall, but not enough to quiet the disparaging remarks.

Harbaugh and Drevno have transformed more inept offenses together in the past. In 2007, they left the University of San Diego to take over the Pac-10’s worst offense at Stanford. They turned the Cardinal into a BCS bowl winner in four years. The offensive line and its power running game served as an effective sledgehammer for that remodel, and remain one of Stanford’s biggest strengths almost a decade later.

Michigan’s current skill players -- an inevitably inexperienced quarterback, young receivers and well-stocked backfield -- make the same type of power offense the program’s best bet for fast results.

"The biggest thing is just getting a great knowledge of the offense and where we want to go with it," Drevno said. "Finding out our personality on offense and who we’re going to be and what schemes we’re going to run."

The first step in that process is developing a tough mentality on the line, something Drevno says the new coaching staff will demand from his players.

"Yeah, you demand it from them," he said. "You get them to trust you. You invite them over to your house for a barbecue. You tell them that you love them. You get them to play for you. It’s pretty cool when it happens."

All of Michigan’s coaches have made a point to say they want to evaluate players without any preconceived notions of who fits where. None of the five returning starters is guaranteed his spot this season. Drevno said the first thing he wants to see from his players is how well they translate what they learn in meetings to the field. Though they are just two practices into the spring, he said he has been happy with his group’s desire to learn and willingness to be active in meetings.

"They’re going to come off the football. They’re going to know where to go," he said. "They’re going to have a want-to, a brotherhood, they’re going to take control in the room, and they’re going to lead us."
The Big Ten is exploring the idea of a "year of readiness" for freshmen. Perhaps the league should consult with Northwestern's Justin Jackson.

He arrived in Evanston last summer and immediately had to adjust to the school's rigid academics, familiarize himself with a slew of new teammates, and absorb the Wildcats' playbook. Any thoughts he might be eased into a role were dismissed early in preseason camp, when starting running back Venric Mark decided to transfer.

"I do see where they're coming from, because it's really tough [as a true freshman]," Jackson said. "But I also see the downside of it. You have a lot of guys who may be the best at their position, and if they can't play, it would really hurt their football team."

[+] EnlargeJustin Jackson
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesNorthwestern's Justin Jackson had six 100-yard performances as a freshman last season.
Imagine where Northwestern would have been last season without an eligible Jackson. He led the team in rushing in all 12 games and had six 100-yard performances. He was one of seven Big Ten backs to run for at least 1,000 yards, and he begins 2015 as the second-leading returning rusher in the conference, behind only Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott. He was easily the best offensive player on a 5-7 team.

Jackson did all that without a full offseason to train, something he's getting now as the Wildcats opened spring practice on Wednesday.

"I feel so much better," he said. "Some of the guys who were injured last year but are the same year as me had their first practice this week, and I was like, 'That was me last year in the fall.' It was crazy out there. Now I'm much more comfortable, I know the playbook a lot better and I can help the other guys."

Jackson, who was listed at 185 pounds last season, says he's put on about 10 pounds this winter. He hopes that helps him get ready for another potentially heavy workload, after he had 245 carries in 2014.

But rather than hit a freshman wall, he seemed to get stronger as the season went on. He ran for at least 130 yards in each of his final three games, including a memorable 149-yard day in the overtime upset win at Notre Dame.

The great news for Northwestern is that Jackson is not remotely satisfied with his impressive first year. In addition to the extra weight, he's worked hard on his flexibility and explosiveness after ripping off only two 40-plus yard runs last season.

"I had a lot of those runs that were right there, where it would be 15, 17 yards and I was close to breaking them," he said. "I'll never be the best at it, because I'm not Venric Mark. I'm not a 4.3 [40-yard dash]-type dude. But I can try to improve my speed and my strength so I can break out of tackles and be that guy. You don't have to have 4.3, 4.4 speed to break long runs. You just have to be smart about it and use what you have to your advantage."

Jackson's main advantages thus far have included his vision and how hard he runs. Plus his dedication to getting better through study. "Whenever I'm bored," he says, "I just pop on the film."

It's that kind of attitude that ensured Jackson was more than ready as a true freshman.

"I think that would be a tough sell," he said of the freshman ineligibility idea, "because a lot of freshmen right now are coming in more prepared to play. It's tough, but if you have great teammates and a great support system, you can definitely do it."

Not every freshman can be as good as Jackson, of course. But we're very curious to see how good he can be as a sophomore.

Michigan flips into spring practice

February, 27, 2015
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Jim Harbaugh's phrase “enthusiasm unknown to mankind” is already becoming contagious one week into spring practice at Michigan. The Wolverines are excited to be back on the field -- the handsprings and backflips kind of excited.


That’s redshirt freshman defensive back Jabrill Peppers making his way through a drill during Tuesday evening's opening practice. Peppers, who missed most of his rookie season with injuries, is expected to be a breakout performer for Michigan next fall. His floor exercise, though, still has a way to go before he catches up with teammate Blake Countess.

Here is the redshirt senior's response two days later.


Countess started formal gymnastics training when he was three years old and credits his background in the sport with helping him become a better athlete. The Wolverines have won back-to-back national championships in men’s gymnastics, so Countess has plenty of worthy competitors to keep him sharp on campus.

Michigan will take the next week off for spring break before returning to the practice field in early March. We’re already looking forward to ribbon-dancing routines.

#B1GFridayFive: Redshirt seniors

February, 27, 2015
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It’s Friday, which means it’s time for one of the Big Ten Blog’s newest regular features: #B1GFridayFive. We begin the end of each week with a new topic in hopes that it will inspire you to join the conversation, pass it along, our tell us how dumb and biased we are. Use the hashtag and give us your thoughts directly by following @MitchSherman, @BennettESPN, @ESPNJoshMoyer, @DanMurphyESPN, @ESPNRittenberg, @AWardESPN and @ESPN_BigTen.

Given the buzz about the conference’s “Year of Readiness” idea earlier this week, we decided to take a look at which players have benefitted the most from staying on the sideline during their first year on campus. Here are our top five returning redshirt seniors in the Big Ten. An important caveat: In the spirit of freshman ineligibility, no one on this list played as a true freshman. Fifth-year players who sat out later in their careers (Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller, for example) don’t qualify.

1. Shilique Calhoun, DE, Michigan State

Shilique CalhounJerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports 

The former Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year passed up the NFL draft for a season to chase a national championship in East Lansing. Calhoun is used to putting things on hold for a year. After sitting out as a true freshman, he played on the defensive line in all 13 games in 2012. He began the following year with three defensive touchdowns in his first two games and has been a staple of the Spartans defense since then. His return this year gives Michigan State a dominant pass-rusher to anchor a front seven that has some key players to replace.


2. Connor Cook, QB, Michigan State

Connor CookGregory Shamus/Getty Images 

No one benefits more from delayed gratification than the Spartans. Mark Dantonio’s system builds its players into overachievers with slow and steady progress. His quarterback is no exception. Cook improved incrementally during the 2013 season and was at the center of completing the country’s biggest two-year offensive turnaround last fall. Cook will be essential in his final season for an offense that loses top receiver Tony Lippett and top back Jeremy Langford, both of whom were also beneficiaries of a redshirt year.


3. Michael Caputo, S, Wisconsin

Michael CaputoJeff Hanisch/USA TODAY Sports 

Wisconsin is another program that doesn’t often attract the blue-chip athletes ready to compete for starting jobs when they arrive on campus. Caputo was considered the top prep player in western Pennsylvania at one point, but still waited his turn with the Badgers. In his fourth season, he led the defense with 106 tackles. After losing starting inside linebackers Marcus Trotter and Derek Landisch to graduation, Wisconsin in thrilled to have another year of Caputo keeping the middle of the defense steady.


4. Anthony Zettel, DT, Penn State

Jon Hilliman, Anthony ZettelRich Barnes/USA TODAY Sports 

Zettel became an impact player for the Nittany Lions last fall when he moved inside from the defensive end spot. His martial arts training helped him shed blockers to finish the year with 17 tackles for loss and eight sacks. Had he played in 2012, Zettel would have been a one-year wonder for Penn State. Now he has the chance to return for another season under coordinator Bob Shoop to lead a stingy front seven.


5. Paul James, RB, Rutgers

Paul JamesAP Photo/Mel Evans 

James has only 15 collegiate games under his belt after four years at Rutgers. He missed the last nine games of the season in 2014 after tearing his ACL in September. Before the injury, he scored a nation-leading six touchdowns in the first two weeks of the season. James might have competed for headlines with the plethora of Big Ten running backs had he stayed healthy. Instead, he’ll have another season in 2015 to separate himself from the pack.

Big Ten morning links

February, 27, 2015
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The best quote from the first week of spring practice at Michigan, surprisingly, came from someone other than Jim Harbaugh.

Of course, it was about Harbaugh.

“He’s the smartest man I’ve ever been around,” U-M offensive coordinator Tim Drevo told reporters Thursday night after the Wolverines’ second practice of the spring.

What, not the smartest man in the world?

It should be noted that Drevno, 45, worked with Harbaugh at Stanford from 2007 to 2010. If you take him at his word on Harbaugh, it’s safe to assume Drevno didn’t get out and about much on the Stanford campus, which is full of its share of smart people.

Otherwise, in this opening week, Drevo said he likes what he’s seen from Michigan, which returns its entire offensive line.

Drevno, who will call plays next season and coaches the line, told the Detroit News:

“There’s something special in there. Are we there yet? No. It’s Day 2, but there’s something special in there, and I’m excited about it.”

Ah, the optimism of spring.

Some intriguing data and excellent analysis here by Joseph Juan of numberFire on the NFL combine results of Melvin Gordon.

According to the numbers, the former Wisconsin All-American compares favorably to many of the great running backs of this generation.

Juan’s findings:
Gordon seems to possess a rare combination of size, speed and power that combined with his instincts and vision could make him a very formidable NFL running back. ... As a testament to the rarity of Gordon’s collection of skills, no other NFL running back for which we have combine data from the past 15 years falls within the ranges I set forth for (build, speed, power and explosiveness.)

The writer finds, in conclusion, that Gordon “appears that he’s primed for a breakout rookie season.”

Full disclaimer: While I enjoy the NFL draft, I’m not sold on the predictive ability of the combine, pro days or individual workouts. I think a player’s body of work in college serves as the best indicator of his NFL potential -- and Gordon couldn’t have done much better in that category.

Stats and measurements can be interpreted to make just about any argument. Nevertheless, the numberFire breakdown of Gordon is solid.

I agree that he’s got a chance to join the backs to whom he’s compared in this article. But the organization that drafts him in May likely ranks as the top factor in determining his shot to make a rookie splash.

A Friday trip around the rest of the Big Ten:

And finally, from Wisconsin, this is, well, it's something. Have a good weekend.
video
If you asked Mike Leach, odds are he'd probably tell you his job at Washington State is a wee bit more difficult than he might have expected when he was first hired. And it won't be long before Wake Forest fans start to realize just how remarkable Jim Grobe's tenure was in Winston-Salem.

For a variety of reasons -- namely money, scheduling, academics, facilities and recruiting -- the path to the College Football Playoff is simply easier for some Power 5 coaches and nearly impossible for others. Here's a look at the top-10 easiest coaching paths to the playoff, starting with the easiest, and the 10 most difficult coaching jobs:

EASIEST COACHING PATHS TO THE PLAYOFF

1. Texas
One of the wealthiest, most visible brand-name programs in the country wants for nothing -- and unlike Florida State, it doesn't have to navigate through a conference title game. Right now it's in a catch-22 situation. Texas has to win to own the state in recruiting again, but it has to get the recruits to win.

2. Florida State
The Noles can own and have owned the ACC, with Clemson being their most difficult hurdle. The combination of first-class facilities, in-state recruiting and available salary money makes this one of the most desirable jobs for a coach aspiring to reach the playoff.

3. Ohio State
The East Division isn't easy, but it's manageable, and the Big 33 recruiting turf and financial security -- along with the incredible support and facilities -- puts this brand-name program on the fast track to the playoff. It's easy to sell the program that has been the flagship of the conference for more than a decade.

4. Oklahoma
With no conference title game to trip over, the Sooners have one of the easiest paths to the playoff, not to mention the facilities and financial resources to recruit players and pay coaches.

5. Clemson
It's on par with the SEC as far as recruiting and facilities, but has an easier league to navigate. The program has the resources and salaries needed to recruit and coach a top-four team.

6. USC
When this storied program is at full strength -- without scholarship limitations and postseason penalties -- there's nothing in the way of a top-four ranking. Its pipeline of players to the NFL is proof.

7. Notre Dame
The Irish control their strength of schedule and can now sell an ACC bowl lineup to recruits.

8. Georgia
The Bulldogs have owned the state, and while Florida has to contend with FSU (and dreadful facilities), Georgia has had the upper hand in the series against Georgia Tech. Everything is in place for a title run.

9. Alabama
The program oozes money and tradition, luring the best players in the country. It's ranked low because of a grueling SEC West schedule and conference title game to navigate through.

10. LSU
Much like Alabama, the Tigers are the epitome of SEC success, able to cherry-pick recruits and pay for the best coaches in the country. The biggest obstacle is LSU's own conference schedule.

MOST DIFFICULT COACHING PATHS TO THE PLAYOFF

1. Vanderbilt
There's no school in the country with more of an uphill battle to the playoff than Vandy. The stringent academic requirements are a big reason the program can't recruit the elite athletes necessary to compete with the top teams in the league -- which is why it never will.

2. Wake Forest
The smallest school in the BCS had one historic Orange Bowl run, but that was an anomaly, not the trend. It's not the best program in the state, let alone the Atlantic Division.

3. Washington State
The Cougs are the Pac-12's most isolated, rural program, making recruiting difficult -- the heart of Wazzu's troubles over the past 11 straight losing seasons. It also doesn't help to be looking up at Oregon in the North Division.

4. Colorado
After nine straight losing seasons, the Buffs have faded into irrelevance, and they're competing in a South Division that's on the upswing, led by USC and Arizona. The coaching turnover, subpar recruiting and lack of investment in facilities have made the past decade a disaster.

5. Indiana
The Hoosiers have been stuck in a rut of mediocrity and are outpaced when it comes to facilities and coaching hires. Equally as problematic is IU's place in the East Division, alongside heavyweights Ohio State and Michigan State.

6. Kansas
The program has always been overshadowed by its hoops counterpart and hasn't been relevant in football since its 2007 Orange Bowl appearance.

7. Purdue
The fans have lost interest -- and apparently so have the recruits -- but the program also hasn't had the financial backing it needs to stay on pace with the rest of the conference.

8. Iowa State
Not only is there not much in-state talent, but the Cyclones have to share it with rival Iowa.

9. Kentucky
The program has made a renewed financial commitment recently and has demonstrated that bowl eligibility is a reality, but Kentucky has to win the SEC East before it can be taken seriously as a playoff contender.

10. Syracuse
There's a sense of apathy surrounding the program, which is stuck in the ACC's stronger Atlantic Division with FSU, Clemson and Louisville. There's not enough depth on Syracuse's roster to overcome injuries -- or the schedule.

Watch: Mel Kiper on IU RB Tevin Coleman

February, 26, 2015
Feb 26
4:30
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video

Mel Kiper Jr. breaks down some of the strengths and weaknesses of Indiana running back Tevin Coleman.

Big Ten slips in McShay's Mock Draft 3.0

February, 26, 2015
Feb 26
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Todd McShay has posted his third Mock Draft and the number of Big Ten players in the latest version are down. The conference now places five players in McShay's first-round mock, down from eight in his previous mock draft.

The Big Ten does, however, have three players in the top 11 picks, and to see the McShay's Mock Draft 3.0, click here. Insider
Since spring practice opened at Michigan and Northwestern this week, we’ve been ranking position groups around the Big Ten. For previous entries in the series, click here.

We come now to the end, with special teams. Since it's virtually impossible to predict what kick coverage units will look like several months from now or project how new starters will fare on field goals and such, we're basing these rankings mostly on who's coming back at place-kicker, punter and returner.

Here we go:

Best of the best: Maryland

The Terrapins return the 2014 Lou Groza Award winner in Brad Craddock, who missed only one field goal all of last season. They also bring back an elite return man in Will Likely, who led the Big Ten in kickoff return average and was third on punt return average last year. Punter Nate Renfro is also back, giving Randy Edsall both experience and trust at the key specialist spots.

Next up: Ohio State

It's entirely possible that Cam Johnston is a wizard, as his rugby-style punts somehow both cover a ton of distance yet seem to stop at the right places. He was brilliant in the Sugar Bowl. The Buckeyes also have a boatload of speed they can use in the return game, including Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson. Place-kicker Sean Nuernberger is back after a respectable freshman campaign, but it's not like Urban Meyer really wants to kick field goals, anyway.

Sleepers: Nebraska and Minnesota

"Sleeper" isn't really the right word here, but we wanted to give a shout out to both of these special-teams units.

The Huskers have one of the nation's most electrifying punt return men in De'Mornay Pierson-El, who averaged 17.5 yards per attempt and scored three touchdowns last year. Punter Sam Foltz and kicker Drew Brown also return and could improve with experience.

Minnesota has the reigning Big Ten punter of the year in Peter Mortell, plus highly productive returners Jalen Myrick and Craig James. More accuracy from kicker Ryan Santoso (12-of-18 as a freshman) would solidify the Gophers as one of the best special-teams groups around.

Problem for contenders: Penn State and Michigan

Again, it's nearly impossible to predict how new kickers will fare, as you don't really get to see how they will fare in pressure situations until the games begin. Both the Nittany Lions and Wolverines have some big shoes to fill.

Place-kicker Sam Ficken was far and away the best thing about Penn State's otherwise highly shaky special teams in 2014, and now he's graduated. The team doesn't have a scholarship kicker on the roster and may turn to walk-on Joe Julius. Punt and return teams must make major strides as well.

Michigan lost both its place-kicker (Matt Wile) and punter (Will Hagerup) to graduation, and its return game was no better than average last season. New special-teams coach John Baxter will have his work cut out for him this spring in bringing some new names -- like freshman kicker Andrew Davis -- along.
Our spring examination of position groups in the Big Ten continues with the defensive backs. For others in the series, click here.

Best of the best: Wisconsin

The Badgers lose only safety Peniel Jean from a group that held opponents to a 49 percent completion rate, fourth nationally, and led the league at 28.4 percent on an opponent's third-down conversion rate. Back are Michael Caputo as a senior, the expected defensive leader, and Lubern Figaro, who started five games as a true freshman at safety, cornerbacks Darius Hillary, a second-team All-Big Ten choice, and Sojourn Shelton. A bit undersized at 5-foot-9, Shelton took a step back after a breakout freshman season with four interceptions in 2013. If he regains form, the Badgers can field a secondary without a weakness. And they may need it after key losing contributors among a front seven that helped bolster the pass-defense numbers last season with 37 sacks and the Big Ten’s highest sack rate at 9.7 percent.

Next up: Ohio State and Minnesota

The OSU secondary played a huge role in the Buckeyes’ January success, helping hold the likes of Amari Cooper and Marcus Mariota well under their respective averages. Cornerback Doran Grant is a big loss, but Eli Apple, after a solid true freshman season, should fill his spot, while sophomores Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell emerged as reliable figures at the safety positions. Gareon Conley and Damon Webb will battle in the spring to start at corner opposite Apple.

Meanwhile, at Minnesota, the secondary featured a foursome as strong as any group in the league last year. And all return but safety Cedric Thompson. Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun form arguably the best pair of corners in the Big Ten. Safety Damarius Travis is back to start, likely to be joined by Antonio Johnson. Again, the backfield figures to rank as the Gophers’ defensive strength.

Sleeper: Nebraska

The Huskers ranked No. 2 nationally in opponent completion percentage and second in the Big Ten to Penn State in allowing 6.07 yards per passing attempt. Defensive co-captains Corey Cooper at safety and cornerback Josh Mitchell are gone, along with the whole coaching staff. New secondary coach Brian Stewart, formerly the defensive coordinator at Maryland, inherits a group that returns safety Nate Gerry as a junior after he led the Big Ten with five interceptions in league play, and corner Daniel Davie. Just as important, the Huskers get versatile defender Charles Jackson back from injury and safety LeRoy Jackson, slated to start last year, back from a suspension. Nickel Byerson Cockrell also returns, giving the Huskers an experienced group.

Problem for a contender: Michigan State

Dare we say that the Spartans’ pass defense could be a weakness in 2015? Several MSU foes, in fact, penetrated the “No Fly Zone” last year, though MSU opponents threw on 60.2 percent of their plays, the highest figure nationally. The Spartans lose All-Big Ten cornerback Trae Waynes and star safety Kurtis Drummond. Receiver Tony Lippett, who doubled as a corner late in the season, is gone, too, leaving safety RJ Williamson and cornerback Darian Hicks, who lost his job in November, with experience. Montae Nicholson and Demetrious Cox appear to own the inside track to start in 2015. There’s plenty of youth on hand also through which Harlon Barnett, promoted to co-defensive coordinator, can search this spring.

Big Ten morning links

February, 26, 2015
Feb 26
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Jim Delany and his counterparts in the Big Ten wanted to start a discussion. Mission very much accomplished.

The conference’s plan to circulate a white paper regarding keeping football and basketball players off the field for their first year on campus has become a hot topic for anyone involved with college sports this week. Reactions have ranged from cautious support to complete dismissal to “I don’t want to touch that with a 10-foot pole.”

The Big Ten’s release was flushed out with a handful of ideas that Delaney and his athletic directors would like NCAA members to mull over in the next year leading up to the organization’s national convention. Of the brainstorming icebreakers -- which included time commitments, length of season and academic requirements – the only one to gain much attention was the most outlandish and improbable: freshman ineligibility. Maybe that was the point.

Several theories about the proposal’s actual intent have been floated in the past few days: Maybe this week’s meeting was purely a public relations stunt so Delaney and other could proudly tout the Big Ten’s commitment to academics. Maybe it was to try to nudge the NBA toward raising its minimum age requirement. Or maybe it was an attention-grabbing idea designed to stir up enough interest that smart minds started thinking about more logical solutions.

The possibility of the idea actually becoming an NCAA rule seems both unrealistic and counterintuitive. This is an all-or-nothing deal, and the vast majority of Div. I universities that don’t deal with one-and-done players don’t have the resources (or the motivation) to give all their student-athletes an extra year of scholarship money. The NCAA already created a rule that will keep academically at risk athletes off the field as freshmen. It goes into effect in 2016. Does it make sense to punish the freshmen that are ready to handle school and sport by making them sit out a year too?

If the schools are genuine in their academic-first approach, shouldn’t they focus on the other ideas that create an environment where the workload for athletics is manageable for all student-athletes regardless of their year? Doesn’t the “Year of Readiness” discourage student-athletes from finishing their degrees in four years? Why rush when you know you’ve got five years on campus? And doesn’t that set student-athletes apart from all of their other peers? Isn’t that the perception the NCAA is trying to avoid in the first place?

The Big Ten’s idea, which has been endorsed by commissioners from the Big 12 and the Pac-12 as well, raises plenty of questions. If that was the point, then kudos, mission accomplished. Otherwise, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

And now, onto your links…
Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst, in step with other Big Ten administrators, supports a discussion in college athletics to bolster academics, though he's not ready to endorse freshmen ineligibility.

The Big Ten issued a statement Tuesday after its annual joint meetings in Chicago, confirming its circulation of the "White Paper," a memo that details a potential year of readiness that would keep true freshmen from participating in competition.

The league, at this point, supports only a dialogue on the topic and not a legislative proposal.

"More than anything," Eichorst said, "I give the Big Ten a lot of credit for at least stepping up and saying, 'Let's talk about it.' Why not? I've had conversations with people who thought autonomy was never going to happen.

"I'm really interested in something that will help us improve what it is we're doing from an academic perspective."

Nebraska has long been a leader nationally in integrating academics in the athletic arena. It leads the nation with 314 academic All-Americans in all sports and 107 in football. Its five-person delegation, which included Eichorst and chancellor Harvey Perlman, was among the most vocal of any school in the first Division I autonomy session in January at the NCAA convention.

Any proposal on a change to freshman eligibility would go before all of Division I -- not just the Power 5 conferences that make autonomous decisions.

Some Big Ten administrators, including Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke, have more strongly favored freshmen ineligibility. Conversation has also been initiated by leaders in the Big 12 and Pac-12.

Eichorst said he has anecdotally discussed the topic with Nebraska football coach Mike Riley and men's basketball coach Tim Miles.

"For me, it's been thought provoking," Eichorst said, "and I hope we can play a leadership role in the conversation -- and nothing more. I'm supportive of any conversation that helps us advance the ball to center academics and make sure it's the part that we're the most focused on."

Eichorst said he'd like to see analysis of the potential impact on college athletics of freshmen ineligibility.

"How can we get better in areas that will ultimately improve the academic balance without going that far, without going in the direction of a year in readiness?" he said. "Quite frankly, the conversation at this juncture is pretty premature."

The real reason Urban Meyer was stuck at sea?

February, 25, 2015
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The official story is that Ohio State coach Urban Meyer was stuck at sea because a thick fog kept the Royal Caribbean's Brilliance of the Seas from returning to port in Tampa, Florida. Meyer was on the annual Buckeye Cruise for Cancer, a major fundraiser to benefit the Urban & Shelley Meyer Fund for cancer research and The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center. So instead of docking on Monday, they returned on Tuesday.

But maybe there was a little more to it than just the fog.
Several Big Ten team will be searching this spring to replace prolific tacklers in the middle of their defense. Penn State's Mike Hull, Michigan's Jake Ryan, the Chevy Bad Boys in Wisconsin and Damien Wilson from Minnesota come to mind.

The exodus of high-profile run-stuffers leaves a large group of programs bunched together in the middle of the pack when evaluating the conference's linebacker units at the start of 2015. Most of those teams losing big-name players have good depth and a supporting cast to help fill the gaps. It may take time next fall to sort through which groups have weathered losses the best and which young players will rise to the occasion.

Best of the Best: Ohio State

No surprise here. The Buckeyes will be at the top of many of these position breakdown lists. Senior Joshua Perry returns to lead this athletic group. He finished a breakout 2014 season with a team-leading 124 tackles. Freshman Darron Lee started to emerge as a future star with the ability to make big plays late in the season, especially during an MVP performance at the Sugar Bowl. Raekwon McMillan and incoming freshman Justin Hilliard provide more young talent for a group that is still improving after a national championship this past fall.

Next up: Michigan State, Penn State

The Spartans, who had the country's stingiest rushing defense last year, will have at least one player named Bullough (junior Riley) in the second level of its defense next fall. That is historically a good sign for Michigan State. He joins senior Ed Davis, who won honorable mention All-Big Ten in 2014, to give the linebacker unit a sleeker, speedier look than on previous Mark Dantonio defenses. The departure of defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi leaves a little bit of uncertainty, but new coach Mark Snyder should help this unit remain a feared entity.

Penn State finished only a couple spots behind Michigan State in stopping the run. Hull is gone, but the majority of a deep unit returns. Starters Brandon Bell and Nyeem Wartman return for their second season in the lineup. Wartman finished second on the team last year with 75 tackles. The return of Ben Kline, who missed all of 2014 as part of an injury-riddled career so far, should also help the unit.

Sleeper: Michigan

The Wolverines lose a natural ballhawk in Jake Ryan but shouldn't take a major step back after quietly having one of the better linebacker groups in the conference last year. Senior Joe Bolden is ready to take over for Ryan after making 102 tackles last year. Fifth-year senior Desmond Morgan missed almost all of 2014 with a hand injury, but he returns for his fourth season as a starter. Two defensive assistants with great track records coaching linebackers, D.J. Durkin and Greg Mattison, should help solve any issues Michigan has at the position.

Problem for a contender: Nebraska

The Cornhuskers are still struggling to get up to speed at linebacker in the Big Ten. Michael Rose-Ivey missed a full year after setting a Nebraska freshman record with 66 tackles in 2013. He will be back on the field, but the loss of two starters (Zaire Anderson and Trevor Roach) means that there is still work to be done in filling out the two-deep. Nebraska missed out on a good chance to add experience when South Carolina transfer Kaiwan Lewis chose Rutgers over the Cornhuskers in early February.

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