Big Ten: Iowa Hawkeyes

We have a hard enough time predicting what's going to happen in the games in the fall -- you've seen our picks records, right? So trying to forecast what's going to happen in spring practice -- not a game, we're talking 'bout practice -- seems especially futile.

But let's be bold. Here are 10 predictions for spring practice in the Big Ten:

1. Cardale Jones takes command: You might remember Jones from such previous performances as "Whipping Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game," "Mauling Alabama in the Sugar Bowl" and "Beating Oregon for the national championship." Now he'll be the headliner in Ohio State's star-studded quarterback battle as the only one of the three who will be healthy enough to participate fully in drills. Expect Jones to have a big spring and take the lead in the race, though J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller will have their say this summer.

2. Tommy Armstrong Jr. leads in Lincoln: Nebraska's starting quarterback will have to prove himself all over again to a new coaching staff. But while Johnny Stanton and, to a lesser extent, Ryker Fyfe have their supporters among the Big Red fan base, Armstrong's superior leadership skills and experience will ensure that he's the man for Mike Riley this spring.

3. Penn State finds some answers on the offensive line: The Nittany Lions can't possibly be as bad up front as they were last year, and now they have a lot more options. Junior college transfer Paris Palmer will win the right tackle job and Andrew Nelson will take a step forward in a move to left tackle. Throw in some promising youngsters, and QB Christian Hackenberg will be feeling more secure heading into this fall.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Beathard
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsC.J. Beathard enters spring as the starting quarterback at Iowa.
4. C.J. Beathard wins Iowa's quarterback competition: Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz wouldn't abandon a two-year starter like Jake Rudock lightly. But Beathard seemed to give the entire offense a spark when he entered games last season, and the Hawkeyes could sure use some energy on that side of the ball. Ferentz surprisingly listed Beathard as the No. 1 quarterback on a rare January depth chart, so he's obviously serious about a possible change.

5. Joel Stave faces serious heat for his job at Wisconsin: Stave has a 20-6 career record as a starter, something few Big Ten quarterbacks can match. Yet, like Iowa, the Badgers need a jolt in their passing game. Either redshirt freshman D.J. Gillins or true freshman Austin Kafentzis will make this a real competition this spring, leaving the starting job up for grabs in fall camp.

6. Minnesota's receivers provide optimism: The passing games at Wisconsin and Iowa are prolific compared to the Gophers, largely because Minnesota has lacked playmaking wideouts the past few years. But Minnesota will emerge from the spring feeling much better about its options at the position as some redshirt freshmen make plays. Two names to watch: Isaiah Gentry and Jerry Gibson.

7. Hayden Rettig has a big spring for Rutgers: Chris Laviano has an edge in experience in the Scarlet Knights' quarterback competition, but Rettig has the pedigree. A former four-star recruit who transferred from LSU, Rettig's big arm will make a large impression this spring.

8. Indiana doesn't miss Tevin Coleman ... too much: Coleman put up the best rushing season in the Hoosiers' history, but his absence won't create a crater this spring. That's because UAB transfer Jordan Howard will step in and immediately replace most of that production. He might not match Coleman's pure explosiveness, but the offense won't suffer too much.

9. New defensive stars emerge at Michigan State: This happens every spring. Even with Pat Narduzzi gone, the Spartan Dawgs will remain strong behind new co-defensive coordinators Mike Tressel and Harlon Barnett. And they've always got a wave of players ready to step in for departed leaders. Some names to watch include Demetrious Cox, Malik McDowell, Riley Bullough, Montae Nicholson and Darian Hicks.

10. A couple of quarterbacks transfer: This has become a trend in college football -- a quarterback can be quick to bolt when he finds out he won't be the starter. Keep an eye on places where there are a lot of candidates bunched together, such as Purdue (Austin Appleby, Danny Etling, David Blough) or where the two-man competition is heated, such as Iowa. And, of course, Ohio State remains on high alert. But it's almost inevitable that there will be some quarterback transfers in the summer.

Big Ten morning links

March, 6, 2015
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The well-documented Melvin Gordon-Ameer Abdullah rivalry, which pre-dates their years in college, was effectively extinguished on Nov. 15.

Remember that day?

Nebraska players and their fans prefer to forget it. Gordon rushed for 408 yards, then an FBS record, as Wisconsin stomped the Cornhuskers 59-24. That performance propelled him to a runner-up finish in the Heisman Trophy balloting

On one good leg on that snowy afternoon in Madison, Abdullah mustered 69 yards on the ground in a performance representative of the anticlimactic finish to his record-setting career.

They met again at the NFL combine last month in Indianapolis, where both backs performed well enough to claim victory. The bigger Gordon ran a faster 40-yard dash (4.52 to 4.60), though Abdullah walked away with the best marks among an accomplished group at their position in the vertical leap, broad jump, three-cone drill and 20-yard shuttle.

Abdullah appeared to improve his 40 time -- pending official results -- Thursday at Nebraska’s pro day.

When it was over, Abdullah, typically reserved, did not mince words. He said he believes he’s the best running back in this draft class. Gordon included.

“I’m not real worried about Melvin,” Abdullah said. “He has his own agenda. I have my own agenda.”

But Abdullah, training this spring in Dallas, said more.

“I don’t know what he’s doing," Abdullah said. "He doesn’t know what I’m doing. Obviously, we want to compete, but it’s more of a mental edge than anything. When you’re working and you’re tired, I say, ‘Well, Melvin’s still working harder than me, so I’ve gotta go harder.’”

Clearly they remain linked, a salivating thought for fans of Big Ten football, anxious to watch continued competition between the talented duo play out on a new stage.

Analysts rate Gordon as the better prospect, and how can you argue with 2,587 yards -- a career figure for many that Gordon accumulated in merely 13 games last fall?

But here’s what I know about Abdullah: He’s at his most dangerous as an underdog.

The large chip on his shoulder that Abdullah carried to Nebraska out of high school in Alabama, where SEC schools declined to recruit him as a running back, fueled his journey to become the first three-time 1,000-yard rusher in Huskers history.

The chip is back. I’ve rarely, if ever, heard Abdullah speak with more conviction than Thursday after his workout.

“Whatever team that takes me,” Abdullah said, “I’m going to be in shape and ready to go when I get there.”

Whether he knows it or not, Gordon is providing a bit of fuel for Abdullah’s drive toward the draft.

Around the rest of the Big Ten:

Big Ten mailbag

March, 4, 2015
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We took last week off from the mailbag because you guys didn't come up with enough questions. So keep sending them in, either via Twitter or this link. And then you'll get whip-smart answers like these:

Brian from Portland writes:Is it hard having the greatest name in the world? Also, looking at the Nittany Lions' schedule this year, they play only one true away game (at Ohio State) over their first nine games. Am I crazy to think that even a not-still-at-full-strength Lions team could manage 10 or 11 wins?

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarChristian Hackenberg and the Nittany Lions should get off to a fast start in 2015.
Brian Bennett: Having this name is probably as difficult as it is for you to live in Portland with all those brewpubs and great restaurants.

As for Penn State, when you look at the first six games in 2015 -- at Temple, then home against Buffalo, Rutgers, San Diego State, Army and Indiana -- it's not very tough to envision a 6-0 start if the Nittany Lions play close to their potential. That trip to Columbus looms on Oct. 17, and I'm not sure anybody in the country would be able to go and win in the Horseshoe this fall. But that's followed up by games at Maryland, at home vs. Illinois and then at Northwestern, before a closing stretch vs. Michigan and at Michigan State.

There's only two games on that schedule right now -- vs. the Buckeyes and Spartans -- that I'd make Penn State a definite underdog. James Franklin and his staff have a lot of work to do, particularly with a very young offensive line and in making do with leftover effects from the sanctions. But the schedule sets up very well, and with a bounce-back year from Christian Hackenberg, I could see nine wins or even more here. The margin of error, however, remains very small as we saw last year in losses to Illinois, Maryland and Northwestern and a great escape at Rutgers.

Dan from Carefree, Arizona, writes: On this freshman ineligible topic, I am very confused about the number of players who suit up for a game. If you have 70 players on scholarship and 18 graduate you are left with a team of 52 players and no recruits to replace those who left -- not to mention any RS sophomores/juniors that leave early for the NFL. What am I missing here?

Brian Bennett: Dan, your hometown sounds like a wonderful place, especially as I wait in vain here for spring to arrive. But to your point, the "year of readiness" idea really couldn't work without additional scholarships for football. Let's say you have an incoming freshman class of 20 players. Teams are limited right now to 85 scholarships, so that's nearly a quarter of your roster that would be ineligible. You'd probably have to have at least 100 scholarships to make it work. The additional cost of those scholarships, not to mention Title IX implications, is another reason why this probably will never happen.

Mitch C. from Columbus, Ohio, writes: The opener at VaTech is scary. Will the helmets be too small for Ohio State heads? Will the QB competition be more a distraction and divisive even? Obviously, the level of intensity, sharpness of execution, will be lower than the end of last season. Will the new coaching staff fit their assignments smoothly and at the level of the former coaches who moved on? Is Ezekiel Elliot's surgery a portend of other little mishaps and irritants that erode karma? And in Columbus, it is expected that the Buckeyes start right where they left off and get better. Do the fans have any feel for how difficult that will be?

Brian Bennett: There's nothing like fans worrying about their team after they won a national title in convincing fashion. Look, it's not easy to win in Lane Stadium, and I expect that place to be absolutely buzzing on Labor Day night. It will not be an easy atmosphere for Ohio State to play in, and the defending champs will have a huge target on their backs.

But, I'm not too concerned about the Buckeyes losing that game. For one thing, the Hokies simply weren't very good last year (I can't get that 6-3, double overtime win over Wake Forest out of my mind no matter how much hypnosis therapy I undergo) and I'm not sure Frank Beamer can stop the program downturn. Sure, Virginia Tech beat Ohio State 35-21 in Columbus last year, but that's exactly why Urban Meyer's team won't be complacent for this rematch. The Buckeyes will be hungry to avenge their only regular season loss under Meyer (which is still an amazing thing to say).

Some places already list Ohio State as a 17-point favorite in this year's opener. And with good reason.

Brian Bennett: I like what C.J. Beathard brings to the Iowa offense with his big arm, flair for the dramatic and fearlessness. This attack has been far too bland and predictable for the past few seasons, and Beathard can help stretch the field. The Hawkeyes will also need him to rein in some of his more reckless tendencies. Jake Rudock is the safer choice who has much more experience, but a change might be worth it just to shake things up a bit. I still believe, however, that the key to Iowa's success still starts with a powerful running game, and we didn't see that enough last year. Brian Bennett: Lara Croft? Well, I wouldn't put anything past her. Have you seen those biceps? Oh, you probably mean freshman Demry Croft. Well, maybe in 2017. I'm surprised people are still asking about Mitch Leidner's job security. There's no question he's the guy for the Gophers and he's one of the team's best leaders. He's still not a great passer by any means, but he made strides in the bowl game and certainly hasn't had a lot of help at receiver during his career so far. Jerry Kill and his staff are extremely high on Croft, but it seems like a redshirt year would make sense for him in 2015.
The opening of spring practice around the Big Ten brings competition to each of the league’s 14 programs. Departing top players and the maturation of others lead to fights for practice reps that will help shape depth charts and summer conversation topics.

At Ohio State, the nation’s most prominent position battle looks set to be waged at quarterback upon the return from injury of Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett. This spring, the spotlight belongs to Cardale Jones.

So which position battles require close attention over the next few weeks?

Michigan quarterbacks: It’s wide-open, with junior Shane Morris, redshirt freshman Wilton Speight and true freshman Alex Malzone auditioning for Jim Harbaugh and coordinator Tim Drevno. Speight owns a size advantage. Morris has played in parts of the past two seasons, but was ineffective in place of Devin Gardner. The spring serves only as an appetizer in this race, which figures to extend to August, when freshman Zach Gentry joins the fun.

Minnesota running backs: David Cobb meant so much to the Gophers over the past two seasons as they rolled to 16 wins. Minnesota likely can’t replace his production with one back, though redshirt freshman Jeff Jones -- a homegrown, elite recruit from the Class of 2013 -- looks physically equipped to give it a shot. Senior Rodrick Williams Jr. (who showed flashes late in the year), sophomore Berkley Edwards and redshirt freshman Rodney Smith will likely also factor in the battle for the top job.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Beathard
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsJunior C.J. Beathard is in a battle with senior Jake Rudock to quarterback the Hawkeyes.
Iowa quarterbacks: Junior C.J. Beathard dodged rumors of a transfer in December and senior Jake Rudock did the same recently. Both remain in Iowa City, ready to resume the battle that ended in a bowl defeat against Tennessee with Beathard in charge of the offense. Soon after, the Hawkeyes placed him atop the depth chart. But any edge over Rudock, a 25-game starter over the past two seasons, is small and could disappear quickly this spring.

Ohio State cornerbacks: Opposite Eli Apple, the Buckeyes must replace Doran Grant. It’s no easy task, considering Grant’s value to the Ohio State defense during its national title run. But sophomores Gareon Conley and Damon Webb look up to the task. Conley played considerably more last season after a redshirt year that followed his arrival in Columbus as the No. 1 prospect in Ohio in 2013. Webb, the top prospect out of Michigan a year later, figures to make a jump after limited action last year.

Penn State offensive tackles: The urgency here outweighs the options, and the Nittany Lions have plenty of candidates to replace Donovan Smith, gone early to the NFL. Andrew Nelson started as a freshman at right tackle and may take over on the left side. Opposite Nelson, the race is on, with redshirt freshmen Noah Beh, Brendan Brosnan, Chance Sorrell and Chasz Wright set to enter the mix. Newcomer Paris Palmer, a junior, may be the man to beat, though. True freshman Sterling Jenkins joined the program in January.

Purdue quarterbacks: Juniors Austin Appleby and Danny Etling bring considerable starting experience into the spring. Redshirt freshman David Blough, who came to Purdue with credentials equally as impressive as the other two, has yet to take a collegiate snap. But for the Boilermakers, who’ve won just one Big Ten game behind the elder quarterbacks over the past two seasons, it’s all hands on deck.

Nebraska I-backs: This is a legitimate four-man race to replace three-time 1,000-yard rusher Ameer Abdullah. Senior Imani Cross has the size and experience, with 22 career touchdowns. Junior Terrell Newby is a quicker option with skills perhaps well suited to Mike Riley’s offense. Sophomore Adam Taylor offers an impressive mix of power and speed but missed last season with a knee injury. Redshirt freshman Mikale Wilbon showed promise last year in scout-team duty.

Michigan safeties: The Wolverines have a lot back at safety, including surefire starter Jarrod Wilson. But competition for the other spot may grow fierce between the likes of senior Jeremy Clark and juniors Delano Hill and Dymonte Thomas. Most intriguing, Jabrill Peppers, after injuries shortened his much-hyped true freshman season, has taken spring snaps at safety. Michigan coaches continue to audition defensive backs, so it may take much of the spring to sort out who is vying for specific spots.

Rutgers running backs: If healthy, rising senior Paul James has earned the top spot. But James needed knee surgery last fall and has battled other injuries. He’s out this spring, leaving a glut of young backs to fight for time. Sophomore Robert Martin finished last season on a strong note, but not as well as classmate Josh Hicks, who gashed North Carolina for 202 yards in the Quick Lane Bowl. Juniors Justin Goodwin and Desmon Peoples, who led the Scarlet Knights in rushing last season, add flavor to this competition.

Northwestern quarterbacks: Senior Zack Oliver is the man with the most experience as the Wildcats prepare to replace Trevor Siemian. But Oliver’s late-season turnover trouble helped open this race up for sophomore Matt Alviti and redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson. Each of the three brings a different set of skills, so a decision would help simplify matters as the season nears.

Big Ten morning links

March, 4, 2015
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Cost-of-attendance stipends were one of the first major reforms Power 5 conferences pushed through the NCAA as a result of autonomy. Pretty much everybody agreed that closing the gap between what a scholarship pays for and the actual cost of going to a university -- including things like living expenses -- was a smart way to give some assistance to players.

But like so many other issues in college sports, those stipends may also carry unintended consequences. Because the amount each school offers can be very different, some people are afraid it will become a recruiting incentive.

PennLive.com's David Jones covered this situation well on Tuesday. Based on current cost-of-attendance data, as determined by university financial aid departments, Penn State will offer the highest cost-of-attendance stipend in the Big Ten when it goes into effect next school year, at $4,788 per year per athlete. The next highest would be Wisconsin at $4,265.

Compare that to Michigan State, which would offer $1,872 per year, or Michigan at $2,054. OK, you might say, that's only a difference of about $2,000 or $3,000, so why would a recruit choose a school based on that? But add that figure up over the four or five years of a player's career, and you're talking about a difference of maybe $15,000. That's not exactly peanuts.

Some coaches are worried about how this is all going to play out.

"To me, it's going to get into being like free agency in college," Maryland coach Randy Edsall told me on signing day. "What we've heard is that some schools might have a cost of attendance of up to $6,000. Now, will kids opt to go where they can get more money? Have we opened up a can of worms, where now it becomes, 'How much money can I get at this school, compared to the other one?'"

The stipends haven't gone into effect yet and are still so new that it's hard to say for sure what will happen. But Penn State's James Franklin, who looks for every edge he can find in recruiting, has said he would use cost of attendance as a selling point.

"I know people were already selling that this year," Edsall said. "It's going to be bigger as we move forward."

The disparity in the stipend amounts isn't going to change, because those numbers are based on individual schools' tuition costs and other factors. Power 5 conference leaders have always known that the figures would vary from program to program.

But were they actually ready for this measure -- however well-intentioned -- to become a recruiting tool? We'll probably find out the first time a team loses a player who chose to go with a rival because of its higher stipend. Just another reminder that almost every change in college sports leads to another issue.

Around the league ...

Big Ten morning links

March, 3, 2015
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Minnesota opens spring practice Tuesday without a quarterback problem. Mitch Leidner, though far from prolific, brings 16 games of starting experience, a level of efficiency and style of play to the position that fits the Gophers well.

The same cannot be said of at least five teams in the Big Ten this spring.

Ohio State -- clearly not on any quarterback-deprived list -- and Michigan made this rundown by Ben Kercheval of Bleacher Report on the top QB battles of spring. It includes predicted post-spring leaders at the position.

Michigan practice is already underway, though on break this week.

Maryland and Nebraska get started before the end of the week in addition to Minnesota. The Terrapins, while likely set with Caleb Rowe, who's expected back from knee surgery in plenty of time for fall camp, are splitting time between Shane Cockerille and Perry Hills in the spring.

Let's take a look at the best Big Ten spring QB battles, sans Ohio State, where it won't get all that interesting until closer to summer:

Michigan candidates: Shane Morris (junior next season), Wilton Speight (redshirt freshman) and Alex Malzone (true freshman)

Predicted post-spring leader: Morris, simply because of his experience. But this race will extend into the spring, when true freshman Zach Gentry joins the mix. And don't go to sleep on a summer surprise.

Iowa candidates: Jake Rudock (senior), C.J. Beathard (junior)

Predicted post-spring leader: Beathard. He'll get the benefit of the doubt this spring -- treatment to which Rudock has grown accustomed over the past two years -- after the Hawkeyes placed the junior atop the depth chart in January.

Rutgers candidates: Chris Laviano (sophomore), Hayden Rettig (sophomore), Giovanni Rescigno (redshirt freshman)

Predicted post-spring leader: Rettig. He's got an upside that the other two can't match, and with a season to acclimate after his transfer from LSU, look for Rettig to emerge this spring as one of the league's top newcomers.

Northwestern candidates: Zack Oliver (senior), Matt Alviti (sophomore), Clayton Thorson (redshirt freshman)

Predicted post-spring leader: Oliver, who's tall and strong and maybe a bit underappreciated this spring because of his turnover-prone play to finish last season. He'll enjoy a nice spring, but the battle will continue in August, and don't count out Thorson.

Purdue candidates: Austin Appleby (junior), Danny Etling (junior), David Blough (redshirt freshman)

Predicted post-spring leader: Appleby, in perhaps the league's toughest spring call. He faded in November, and both competitors will apply pressure in the spring. But Appleby will draw strength from his best moments of 2014.

Around the rest of the league:
Spring is springing in the Big Ten. Michigan and Northwestern have already hit the practice field, Minnesota, Maryland and Nebraska join them this week and the rest will follow soon.

With spring in the air, we've got some burning questions about the league during this season of practice and hope:

1. Who's going to win the Ohio State quarterback race? This is a question destined to not return an answer this spring. That's because only Cardale Jones will be healthy enough to go through full spring drills. J.T. Barrett will do some light seven-on-seven stuff as he recovers from a broken ankle, while Braxton Miller won't be cleared to throw with his medically repaired shoulder until at least May. So Jones has a chance to gain an early edge in perhaps the most interesting quarterback battle of all time. Can he seize it?

2. How quickly does Jim Harbaugh remake Michigan's culture? Expecting an overnight turnaround in Ann Arbor is unfair and unrealistic, even with Harbaugh's sterling track record. The Wolverines need to find answers at quarterback, running back and receiver, but the more pressing issue is simply developing more toughness than they showed throughout much of the Brady Hoke era. How quickly Michigan adapts to Harbaugh's ways will determine how fast this rebuilding effort will go, and Harbaugh let the message be known last week.

3. What will Nebraska look like under Mike Riley? Huskers athletic director Shawn Eichorst surprised the college football world by hiring Riley away from Oregon State. Riley couldn't possibly be more different, personality-wise, from previous Nebraska coach Bo Pelini. But what does that mean in how Big Red looks on the field? Riley has been known for running a pro-style offense, though he says he'll design the offense around the strength of his players. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. will need to fend off challenges to his job this spring. The Huskers seemed to take on the volatile traits of Pelini during his tenure; can they now mirror Riley's straight-forward, low-key approach?

4. Who'll win the quarterback job at Iowa, Northwestern, Rutgers and Purdue? Who starts under center will be the dominant story line at all four places this spring. At Iowa, head coach Kirk Ferentz will let C.J. Beathard battle incumbent two-year starter Jake Rudock. Northwestern has a three-man scrum, with Zack Oliver, Matt Alviti and Clayton Thorson fighting to replace Trevor Siemien. Chris Laviano and LSU transfer Hayden Rettig are the main candidates to succeed Gary Nova at Rutgers. And Purdue will open things up once again between Austin Appleby, Danny Etling and David Blough. These competitions could all last until fall camp but will be heavily scrutinized in March and April.

5. How does Michigan State replace its stars? Under Mark Dantonio, the Spartans have usually just moved on to the next guy when a star leaves. But Michigan State, which could be ranked in the top 10 in the preseason, still has to replace some of the most productive players in recent program history, including running back Jeremy Langford, receiver Tony Lippett, cornerback Trae Waynes, defensive end Marcus Rush and safety Kurtis Drummond. We'll get to see this spring just how well those holes can be filled.

6. Can Penn State fix its offensive line? Christian Hackenberg's bruises from last year might just now be healing, as the Nittany Lions' offensive line was one of the worst in the country in 2014. The best player on that line, left tackle Donovan Smith, left for the NFL, and starting guard Miles Dieffenbach also is gone. Yet there's hope for improvement, thanks to incoming juice transfer Paris Palmer, true freshman Sterling Jenkins and some young players who redshirted. Penn State must begin to find the right mix and build cohesion there this spring.

[+] EnlargeJoel Stave
Mike McGinnis/Getty ImagesJoel Stave will be fighting for the top spot as Wisconsin looks for a starting quarterback.
7. Can Paul Chryst work magic at the quarterback position for Wisconsin? The Badgers have been a consistent Big Ten title contender for the past several years, but the quarterback position has been lacking since Russell Wilson completed his one year in Madison. New head coach/old offensive coordinator Chryst could help rectify that situation, whether it's by building on the skills of veteran Joel Stave or going young with a fresh face such as D.J. Gillins or Austin Kafentzis. Wisconsin will need much better play at that position before opening 2015 against Alabama.

8. Does Minnesota have any receivers? Jerry Kill and his staff think they can improve one of the biggest problem positions in recent years for the Gophers. Redshirt freshmen Isaiah Gentry, Melvin Holland Jr. and Desmond Gant are full of promise. They need to start fulfilling it this spring, because the security blanket of tight end Maxx Williams is gone.
9. Can changes help the defenses at Illinois and Maryland? If the Illini are going to build some momentum after last season's bowl appearance, their leaky defense must improve. Tim Beckman hired former NFL assistant Mike Phair as co-defensive coordinator this offseason, and job No. 1 is figuring out a way to stop the run, which Illinois hasn't been able to do for a few years. Maryland parted ways with defensive coordinator Brian Stewart a little more than a year after giving him a contract extension and elevated inside linebackers coach Keith Dudzinski to the role. The Terps will also switch to a 4-3 base and hope to right a defense that rarely dominated in 2014.

10. Where's the next wave of running back stars? Last season saw an unprecedented amount of production from elite running backs, including Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, Indiana's Tevin Coleman, Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, Minnesota's David Cobb and Langford. All of those guys are gone, but budding superstars such as Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott, Wisconsin's Corey Clement and Northwestern's Justin Jackson remain. In a league that churns out tailback talent, plenty of new names are sure to emerge as well.

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.

Ranking the Big Ten coaching jobs

February, 25, 2015
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ESPN.com this week ranked the Power 5 college football coaching jobs, from No. 1 to 65. While those national takes on the Big Ten hit the mark, we'll offer a few minor changes in our Big Ten rankings, No. 1 through 14, of the league seats.

1. Ohio State
Is there really any doubt? The national championship is difficult to overlook. There’s no better job in the Big Ten -- both historically, though Michigan might argue, and in the current climate.

2. Michigan
The Wolverines deserve real consideration for a spot in the top 10 nationally. With more wins than any program in college football history and the second-highest winning percentage to Notre Dame, this is a truly special job. Just ask Jim Harbaugh.

3. Penn State
Resources galore. PSU may feature the best combination in the league of location, fan support and tradition. And the urgency to win is real, an important factor in comparison to other Big Ten programs striving for the top.

4. Nebraska
Some natural disadvantages exist, yes, but no school in the Big Ten creates unity and provokes passion among its fan base like the Huskers. This is not Tom Osborne’s Nebraska, but it’s still a top job with elite institutional support.

5. Michigan State
Natural competition with Michigan and Ohio State works for the Spartans in setting a high standard -- and works against MSU in that it may never be viewed, by comparison, as a true blue blood in the sport. Still, who cares about that if you’re in the discussion for a national title?

6. Wisconsin
While the Badgers don’t have the history of the Big Ten’s other top programs, and the resources in recruiting don't ever figure to stack up with a few competitors, Wisconsin wins and produces championship-caliber competitors.

7. Maryland
The Terrapins sit a ways back from the top tier of the league in many areas. But few can compare with Maryland’s recruiting ground and built-in support system courtesy of Under Armour.

8. Iowa
The Hawkeyes compensate their coach well: Kirk Ferentz had one of the top 10 salaries in the country in 2014. And they have a strong tradition. They are the biggest show in the state, but convincing talented players to come to Iowa City remains a challenge.

9. Minnesota
Minnesota has made an effort in the past few years to upgrade facilities and invest more in resources like nutrition and player support. The results are starting to show. While the local talent might be lacking, Minneapolis is one of the more attractive cities in the Big Ten.

10. Illinois
The Illini fall slightly behind Minnesota on our list because of location. Illinois coaches have had trouble consistently getting talent from Chicago to join them in the middle of the state. The focus remains more on basketball in Champaign.

11. Rutgers
One of the Big Ten’s newcomers is making strides toward matching some of the bigger schools in the conference, but the Scarlet Knights still have a ways to go before they can get out of catch-up mode.

12. Northwestern
Stringent academic requirements and a small, private campus are obstacles for any coach at Northwestern. A new facility on the edge of Lake Michigan should help the Wildcats when it is eventually completed.

13. Indiana
Football interest wanes quickly for the Hoosiers when basketball gets started in the late fall. The resources aren’t there, which makes it difficult to survive the improving gauntlet of the Big Ten East on a yearly basis.

14. Purdue
Purdue is Indiana without the added benefit of Bloomington, a great college town. Ross-Ade Stadium could use a face-lift, and West Lafayette lacks the charm of other campuses in the conference.

Big Ten morning links

February, 24, 2015
Feb 24
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Spring football starts Tuesday at Michigan, where temperatures are forecast to dip below zero each of the next three nights.

Why do I feel like everyone on Twitter is talking to Jim Harbaugh these days?



The Wolverines will be warm and cozy at practice inside Al Glick Field House. Northwestern also starts this week. Maryland, Minnesota and Nebraska open drills next week, which makes now as good a time as any to review staff openings around the Big Ten.

Presumably, all 14 programs will get back to full strength for spring practice. For now, three teams remain down a man.

Since we last took a divisional look at offseason changes in the East and the West, Nebraska and Wisconsin lost assistant coaches. Brian Stewart left Maryland as defensive coordinator to take the opening at Nebraska.

And Purdue hired Terry Malone over the weekend to coach tight ends.

Malone made it to a 6 a.m. workout Monday with the Boilermakers.

He is an intriguing hire for Purdue. Most recently the tight ends coach of the New Orleans Saints, where he was instrumental in the development of 2013 first-team All-Pro pick Jimmy Graham, Malone coordinated Michigan's offense from 2002-05 and also worked under Lloyd Carr as offensive line coach.

Michigan won five league crowns in Malone's nine seasons. He brings an NFL pedigree and a history of success in the Big Ten. Pretty good place to start for the Boilermakers, who have won one Big Ten game in two seasons under coach Darrell Hazell.

The imminent Stewart hire at Nebraska, to replace Charlton Warren as secondary coach, also makes sense for Mike Riley, who generally picks coaches that he or his assistants know. Stewart served a solid stint in 2007-08 with the Dallas Cowboys as defensive coordinator. Also on that Dallas staff was Bruce Read, Nebraska's special teams coach and a longtime Riley assistant.

Stewart is a San Diego native and coached the secondary for the Chargers before his stint in Dallas; Riley, former head coach of the Chargers, and his staff have numerous San Diego ties.

Of little relevance, Stewart, as the Cowboys coordinator, succeeded Mike Zimmer, who -- after the 2003 season -- interviewed for the Nebraska head-coaching job. It went to Bill Callahan, who spent 2012-14 with the Cowboys.

And of minor relevance, Stewart would be the only full-time member of the Nebraska staff to coach a game at Memorial Stadium. He spent three seasons at Missouri, losing to the Huskers in 1996 and 2000 in Lincoln and in 1999 at Mizzou.

Here's a rundown of the programs with open positions:
  • Illinois still has an opening after the January firing of two assistant coaches. The spot yet to be filled was vacated by special teams coach Tim Salem, though coach Tim Beckman might hire for a different position. Beckman said recently that he had interviewed internal candidates and likely would assign Alex Golesh, the Fighting Illini recruiting coordinator who worked last season with running backs and tight ends, to handle a heavy load on special teams next season.

  • Maryland needs an assistant to replace Stewart. Inside linebackers coach Keith Dudzinski was promoted to defensive coordinator.

  • Wisconsin must hire a running backs coach to replace Thomas Brown, who left for alma mater, Georgia. John Settle, who coached the position for the Badgers from 2006-10 and for Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst at Pittsburgh last season, has been mentioned in reports as a candidate.
Let's get to the links:

Big Ten morning links

February, 20, 2015
Feb 20
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The Big Ten is gauging its member schools’ interest in making freshmen ineligible, joining other Power 5 leagues that have at least kicked the thought around.

Is it an idea whose time has come? Or an old approach that doesn’t reflect modern realities?

Unless and until more details emerge, I would lean toward the latter.

First of all, freshmen ineligibility in men’s basketball is a non-starter without a change in the NBA age-limit rule or the creation of a better non-college option than the D-league. You only have to look at Duke, Kentucky, or Ohio State to realize there are true freshmen right now who are plenty good enough to be in the NBA, and restricting them from playing in college or at that level for a year would be unfair.

Things are different in college football, where a lot of players redshirt their first year anyway. But it’s also true that many are ready to contribute as true freshmen. Justin Jackson, Mikey Dudek, Mason Cole, and De'Mornay Pierson-El are just a few names of true freshmen who made a major impact last season in the Big Ten. (No wonder Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith opposes freshmen ineligibility, since Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer says he doesn’t redshirt.)

Of course, the rule would be more about preparing players for the academic rigors of college than performing on the field. At the same time, however, teams are always going to bring in borderline students or even academic risks who have exceptional talent. Will a year off really make a huge difference for those types of players? How do you keep them engaged in school and the team when the reward of games has been removed for a year? Would players automatically get a sixth year if they need a medical redshirt later in their careers? What about transfers? And would you really want to see big-time stars -- like, say, Joey Bosa and Christian Hackenberg -- potentially jump to the NFL after only two seasons of playing for your team?

The sport's leaders should be lauded for trying to find ways to emphasize the college part of college football. Yet it's the uniquely American and mostly illogical practice of turning our universities into quasi-minor league teams that is the intractable problem. Making freshmen ineligible raises as many questions as it might solve.

Maryland changes defensive coordinators

Give the Terrapins points for stealth. Few people forecast the change Maryland made on Thursday, when it replaced defensive coordinator Brian Stewart with inside linebackers coach Keith Dudzinski.

The official Terrapins company line was that the team and Stewart agreed to "mutually part ways." But given that Stewart was handed a multi-year contract extension just 13 months ago, it’s hard to believe the decision wasn't more one-sided than that.

Stewart has a strong track record and was mentioned as a candidate for Tulsa’s head coaching job in December. Yet his defenses in College Park got a little worse each of the past three years. Despite some individual standouts on last season’s unit -- like defensive end Andre Monroe, cornerback Will Likely and linebacker Cole Farrand -- the Terps finished 95th in the FBS in yards allowed and tied for 87th in points allowed (30.2). The defense completely collapsed in the second half against Rutgers in the season finale, and gave up 45 points to Stanford in the Foster Farms Bowl.

Stewart will land on his feet and might already have another job lined up. Dudzinski, a coaching veteran who ran defenses at smaller schools in the Northeast earlier in his career, now has the task of reshaping this Terrapins defense that will break in almost an entirely new starting front seven this spring.

Elsewhere in the Big Ten ...

State of the program: Iowa Hawkeyes

February, 19, 2015
Feb 19
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With spring practice near in the Big Ten, we're taking a snapshot of every program. We'll examine recent performance, win-loss trends, coaching, current personnel and recruiting.

Iowa is up next:

2014 record: 7-6 (4-4 Big Ten, fourth in West Division)

Three-year record: 19-19

Coaching situation: Kirk Ferentz is the dean of Big Ten football coaches, heading toward his 17th season in Iowa City -- four years short of the Hayden Fry reign. Ferentz built a stable foundation, raised Iowa to a level that arguably exceeded Fry’s best years and has watched the Hawkeyes slide over the past five seasons. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker has been with Ferentz since the beginning, and offensive coordinator Greg Davis is a veteran in the business who has been criticized at multiple stops for doing less with more than some of his peers. The head coach’s son, Brian Ferentz, recently promoted to run game coordinator, is considered an innovative coach, and LeVar Woods, newly moved to coach tight ends, did nice work with the linebackers.

Roster situation: It’s not awash in talent. The Hawkeyes have developed linebackers and offensive linemen well. And the trend figures to continue with youngsters like Bo Bower and Josey Jewell on the defensive side and Ike Boettger, Boone Myers and Sean Welsh on offense. Iowa loses talented offensive tackles Andrew Donnal and Brandon Scherff (a consensus All-American); receivers Kevonte Martin-Manley and Damond Powell; running back Mark Weisman; defensive tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat; and linebacker Quinton Alston. That’s a lot to replace. Defensive end Drew Ott is a budding star, and cornerback Desmond King is already there. Iowa needs C.J. Beathard or Jake Rudock to take charge at quarterback.

Recruiting situation: The Hawkeyes signed a 21-man class this month that ranked 57th nationally and 10th in the Big Ten, one spot ahead of Indiana and also ahead of Northwestern, Minnesota and Illinois. It’s never been about rankings, though, for Iowa, which signed the No. 49 class a year ago. If the Hawkeyes find the right fits, they’re doing well. For instance, Iowa badly needs a running back to break its stretch of oddly poor luck at the position over the past several years. It had a solid candidate in Karan Higdon out of Florida, but he flipped to Michigan at the 11th hour. Iowa will always find a few hidden gems. It found a promising legacy at home in 27th-rated athlete Drew Cook and pulled the nation’s No. 5-rated center, James Daniels, out of Ohio. Still, the Hawkeyes need more high-end talent to keep up with fellow West Division contenders Wisconsin and Nebraska, against which Iowa is 1-4 over the past three years.

Trajectory: After the 2012 and 2013 seasons, the Hawkeyes’ three-year record was 19-19. Same this year. Is Iowa stuck in neutral? Sure looks like it. As recently as 2010, it's three-year record was 28-11. Go back to 2004, it was 32-7. The last time Iowa had a three-year record under .500 was 2001 after Ferentz’s third season, and the program was clearly trending up. What now? Well, at best, Iowa is treading water, though a solid showing in 2015 could put it back on track. Worst case, its troubling finish to 2014, followed by the loss of a strong senior class, more uncertainty at quarterback and a sluggish recruiting class could spell doom for this regime.
By now, you've surely seen the Ultimate ESPN 300, a list of the 300 most impactful players based on both high school and college production since 2006. The list considered players whom ESPN evaluated at both levels, so while not all 300 players were highly rated in high school, they were all somewhat known commodities.

We're all about the Big Ten here, so in the next three days we'll debate how the Ultimate ESPN 300 factors into this corner of college football.

Thursday's roundtable topic: Which Big Ten player not on the list is the most egregious omission?

Brian Bennett: Kirk Cousins, Michigan State quarterback (2008-11)

You can't blame ESPN Recruiting too much for missing out on Cousins. Before he signed with Michigan State, after all, some of his best other options were with schools like Northern Illinois, Western Michigan and Toledo. He looked kind of scrawny.

Yet Cousins finished his career as the all-time winningest quarterback in Spartans history, going 27-12 overall and 22-5 in his final two seasons. He also holds the school records for passing yards (9,131) and passing touchdowns (66) while being an exemplary leader on and off the field. Cousins has proved himself as a solid quarterback in the NFL as well. So while he may not have had the most stellar reviews coming out of high school, his college production demands complete respect. Michigan State should have more players in the Ultimate 300, anyway, and Cousins belongs in there.

Adam Rittenberg: Ricky Stanzi, Iowa quarterback (2006-10)

Perhaps more than any other Big Ten program, Iowa has taken the overlooked and developed them into overachievers at the college level. It's not surprising that the Hawkeyes, despite only one losing season during the targeted time period, have just one player in the Ultimate 300 (offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga, No. 117). There are several options of omitted Hawkeyes, including defensive end Adrian Clayborn, a first-round draft pick in 2011. But my pick is Stanzi, who engineered Iowa's rise at the end of the 2008 season and into 2009, when the Hawkeyes went 11-2 and won the Orange Bowl, falling just shy of a Big Ten title.

Rated as No. 76 quarterback in the 2006 class by ESPN Recruiting Nation, Stanzi went 26-9 as Iowa's starter and set a team record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass (21). The two-time captain became the first Iowa quarterback and just the third Big Ten quarterback to win three bowl games. He's also a damn fine American. Anyone who disagrees with the selection is just an America-hating hippie doing nothing on the Ped Mall. So Stanzi is my pick -- love it or leave it.

Mitch Sherman: Lavonte David, Nebraska linebacker (2010-11)

David sits one notch below Ndamukong Suh, ineligible for the Ultimate 300 as a 2005 high school graduate, on the list of greatest defensive players in the Bo Pelini era at Nebraska. In his lone year of Big Ten play, David earned first-team All-America honors and was named the Butkus-Fitzgerald Big Ten linebacker of the year. He was unranked out of high school because of academic issues but well known as a star among a dominant Miami Northwestern team that included linebacker Sean Spence (No. 125).

Others who attended David’s high school include Amari Cooper (No. 18) and Teddy Bridgewater (No. 82), though David is arguably the most accomplished of the group as a first-team All-Pro pick for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2013. At Nebraska, after transferring from junior college -- where he again went relatively underappreciated -- David recorded two of the five highest single-season tackle totals in school history.

Among his many memorable moments in 2011, David stripped Ohio State freshman quarterback Braxton Miller (No. 115) to spark the largest comeback win in Nebraska history.

 

Big Ten morning links

February, 19, 2015
Feb 19
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It's cold. I'm cranky. Let's get on with this. Seriously, is it almost spring?

Purdue is lowering season-ticket prices for nearly 90 percent of the seats at Ross-Ade Stadium in 2015. You can get a ticket to seven home games for less than $100 after attendance dropped in 2014 by 28 percent to 35,269 per game -- the lowest figure since 1951, according to the Lafayette Journal and Courier.

The university issued a news release Wednesday, quoting athletics director Morgan Burke, who opened with this: "We want our fans back."

Hey, at least he's not sugar-coating it.

The Boilermakers have won four games since Darrell Hazell took over two years ago, including one in Big Ten play – and it came on the road at Illinois last year.

If you wondered about the importance of next season for the third-year coach, wonder no more.

Meanwhile, at Ohio State, they're dropping ticket prices, too, though not quite like Purdue. The national champs are rolling prices to 2010 for the April 18 spring game to $5 per seat.

Five bucks to see the Bucks -- that's the best deal in the Big Ten. Apparently, this is happening in response to last year, when OSU tried to charge $20 a seat for the spring game, only to slash prices at the last minute.

Or maybe Ohio State is just preparing its fans for the letdown of a scrimmage without Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett.

I admit, if I followed Dwayne Haskins Jr., the nation's No. 2-rated pocket-passer quarterbacl, on Twitter, I would not have understood his reference to Maryland's tribute to a Drake album cover.

I thought Drake was an FCS program in Des Moines. So yeah, I'm out of touch with some of these kids. Fortunately, people exist in the media out there who can explain this stuff to me.

Now, Jameis Winston and Bryce Petty are talking up Michigan's facilities and coach Jim Harbaugh in a part-genius, part-propaganda campaign by the Wolverines with two of the nation's premier quarterback prospects for the NFL draft.

If you didn't already notice, Winston and Petty visited Ann Arbor this week to work out at Al Glick Fieldhouse and meet with Harbaugh in advance of the NFL combine.

They attended a basketball game, and Winston gushed over Harbaugh on camera for the school-run website, saying, "I wish I could have played for" the former 49ers coach.

Harbaugh and George Whitfield, personal coach for Winston and Petty, have some history together; Whitfield served as an intern with the 49ers last year.

Curious minds want to know: What do Jimbo Fisher and Art Briles think of this little exercise?

On with the rest of the links:
video
Many believe ESPN Junior 300 defensive Nick Bosa will be an even better college football player than his brother. That’s saying a lot because his brother is Joey Bosa, star defensive lineman for national champion Ohio State and one of the top projected picks for the 2016 NFL draft.

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