Big Ten: Northwestern Wildcats

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.
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.

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.

Northwestern spring preview

February, 25, 2015
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Another day brings the open of spring practice at another Big Ten school. Northwestern began drills Wednesday on the heels of a second straight losing season -- a first in Pat Fitzgerald's nine seasons.

The Wildcats, in fact, have lost 14 of 20 games since a 4-0 start two years ago that followed a 10-3 finish in 2012.

Despite the struggles, Northwestern is counting on stability to help right the ship. Fitzgerald's full staff has remained intact since 2011, the longest run nationally without a change.

Check out our reports on the state of the program at Northwestern and three position battles.

Schedule: The Wildcats, after the Wednesday start, will work out again Thursday and continue for two weeks before time off until March 31 for spring break and exams. Practice concludes April 11 with the annual Spring Showcase at Lakeside Field.

[+] EnlargeJustin Jackson
Caylor Arnold/USA TODAY SportsNorthwestern running back Justin Jackson rushed for 1,187 yards and 10 touchdowns during his freshman season.
What's new: A quarterback race will grab headlines this spring, but the Wildcats have equally large holes to fill at other spots. Northwestern faces the tall task of replacing its two best receivers in Tony Jones and Kyle Prater, two most important offensive linemen in left tackle Paul Jorgensen and four-year starter center Brandon Vitabile, QB Trevor Siemian and top defenders Chi Chi Ariguzo at linebacker and safety Ibraheim Campbell.

Fitzgerald and the Wildcats insisted that the unionization debate and April 2014 vote did not serve as a distraction last year, but the story grew legs shortly after the 2013 season and dragged through the entire offseason. A sense of normalcy around the program this spring, in comparison to a year ago, ought to help.

Biggest question: Zack Oliver, Matt Alviti or Clayton Thorson? The three quarterbacks are scheduled to split snaps during the spring after Oliver, a rising senior, received the majority of time in place of the injured Siemian late last season. Oliver was erratic, committing five turnovers in the Wildcats' loss to Illinois. So the door is open for Alviti, who played in four games as a redshirt freshman, and Thorson, a 6-foot-4 former elite recruit out of suburban Chicago who redshirted in 2014.

Three things we want to see:

1. A healthy spring. Northwestern cannot afford more of the same bad luck with injuries that has plagued it recently. By the end of last season, key contributors Siemian, receivers Miles Shuler and Christian Jones, defensive tackle Greg Kuhar and linebacker Collin Ellis, among others, were out with injuries. Ellis was forced to retire because of concussions. Jones, the Wildcats' top receiver in 2013, returns as a fifth-year senior from a knee injury suffered last August. Northwestern is relatively healthy to open the spring, and it needs to stay that way to avoid delays in progress on both sides of the ball.

2. More focus on the running game. Justin Jackson rushed for 1,187 yards and 10 touchdowns as a freshman last year and returns as the Wildcats' most known offensive commodity. With questions at quarterback that figure to linger into September, Northwestern can create stability on offense by emphasizing Jackson. Even in a spread offense, it can be done. Last year, the Wildcats ranked 11th in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game and 13th in yards per rush. Until the successor to Siemian is ready to air it out -- Northwestern may not reach that point in 2015 -- it should look to lean on Jackson.

3. A productive pass rush. Any pass rush would rate as an improvement over 2014, when Northwestern amassed 17 sacks in 12 games to rank last in the league. Considering the time it gave quarterbacks to throw, Northwestern's defensive numbers (25.2 points per game and 6.5 yards per passing attempt) look good. How much it might improve with a steady push from the front four? The Wildcats are experienced on the line, led by end Dean Lowry and Kuhar, who remains sidelined. Perhaps this spring can bring the awaited breakout of end Ifeadi Odenigbo, a former top recruit used as a pass-rush specialist in two seasons.

Big Ten morning links

February, 25, 2015
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Hurry up and get out of here, February. No one likes you.

1. It's great to have football back, even if it's only spring practice. Michigan was the first Big Ten team to open spring drills on Tuesday, and Northwestern hits the field for the first time Wednesday.

What's also great is the, uh, unique way Jim Harbaugh answers questions. While Michigan likely will never be much of a fountain of information under its new head coach (or the previous one, or ...), at least Harbaugh gives some unorthodox quotes. Like his response to a Q&A on the school's website about what it's like to start spring drills:
It's like Thanksgiving. It's like New Year's Day. It's like a family reunion. And having it all rolled into one. Most people think of Jan. 1 as the start of a new year. To people who espouse to Catholicism and Christianity, they might correlate that with the birth of Christ. Us in football, the start of spring practice and the first day of summer training camp are what you look at as the New Year with fireworks going off, it's your birthday. It's being born back into football, it's a happening.

Q: So it's the birth of a new team?

Yeah, it's like coming out of the mother's womb. You're in a nice, warm, cozy environment -- safe. And now you are out into the chaos and bright lights. It's a happening. It's all those things rolled into one.

And it's also like the first day of school. You're so excited for that first day of school, and the night before you set out your clothes, you stuff your lunch into a lunch box, and off you go. It's the start. It's laying down a benchmark. Now we have a place to start from. We have a place to improve from. We have a place to go forward from, and you hope to lay that benchmark halfway up the mountain -- and not way down on the flat land.

Love it.

Michigan's first practice was full of enthusiasm and energy, Harbaugh said.

2. Now that the NFL combine's over and we know who the top performers were, who rose and who fell from the Big Ten?

Much of that is subjective, of course, but just about everybody agrees that Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes helped himself the most. With his ridiculous 4.31 time in the 40-yard dash and other great showings in the drills, Waynes is rocketing up draft boards. According to NFL.com's Charles Davis, "Waynes has put himself in the top 10-15 territory."

Our Todd McShay is not as bullish as Waynes' former high school teammate, Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon. McShay writes that Gordon "had a decent workout but not a great one, putting up results that were average or above-average in every category." Still, our Scouts Inc. says Gordon still has a good shot to go late in the first round and adds that Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah emerged as a sleeper "who should land somewhere in the Day 2 range."

But analyst Mike Huguenin writes that Abdullah was one of five players who hurt his stock, thanks to his 4.6 time in the 40. Huguenin also includes Michigan's Devin Funchess in the stock down.

You know what they say: It only takes one team to fall in love with you.

Around the league ...
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The Big Ten has been kicking around the idea of a "year of readiness," or in more basic parlance, freshman ineligibility. The league's discussion of the idea has generated a lot of national attention in past several days, but in many ways people are missing the forest for the trees here.

First of all, this is not exactly a new idea. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany mentioned a "year of residence" for at-risk students in a four-point reform plan he announced in the summer of 2013. This is also not strictly a Big Ten issue, either, as the Pac-12 and Big 12 commissioners have also talked in depth about making freshmen ineligible.

But the most important point is that the year of readiness idea is just one of multiple possible sea changes that the Big Ten and other conferences are mulling. At the end of the annual Big Ten joint meetings in Chicago on Tuesday -- attended by league athletic directors, senior women's administrators, faculty reps and student leaders -- the sense was that any and all things should be on the table.

"It's really a national conversation that has to take place," Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips said. "It's the right time. It's time for a recalibration, a re-correction in college athletics."

Phillips, as the newly appointed chairman of the NCAA Division I council, is an important voice in college sports. And he says there's a real desire to change the entire way the entire system is run.

[+] EnlargeJim Phillips
David Banks/USA TODAY Sports"It's time for a recalibration, a re-correction in college athletics," Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips said.
So, sure, conference leaders have considered freshman ineligibility. But they also want to figure out if the length of a certain sports' seasons is too long, whether players should have fewer practice hours, if initial eligibility standards should be strengthened and what to do about transfers. Phillips even mentioned the recent uptick in the number of early enrollees in football and whether kids should be coming to college campuses that soon.

"There may not be year of readiness," he said. "It's not time to make those decisions without having fundamental conversations that are driven by, what do we want college athletics to be going forward? There are so many important areas for us to discuss. It's really a wonderful opportunity to have these conversations and move it forward."

A confluence of events have made the time right to re-evaluate everything, Phillips said. That includes lawsuits against the NCAA, the new autonomy structure for the Power 5 conferences and student-athlete welfare issues such as cost of attendance, four-year grants and unlimited meals all rising to the surface of late.

"At the heart of this thing is, we don't want to be the minor leagues of professional sports," Phillips said.

Of course, many would argue that college sports already fulfill that role, especially in football and men's basketball. Phillips would concede that point. But he doesn't agree that it's too late to squeeze that genie back into the bottle.

"That to me is a little bit of a defeatist attitude," he said. "I firmly believe that if it's in the best interest of the future of the enterprise, well, why wouldn't we make some serious changes? Why are we being forced into being anything other than what we want to be?"

The Big Ten cannot do it alone, and Phillips said there are many other leagues and leaders across the country taking the same hard look at these issues. The charge given at the end of the joint meetings was for all attendees to go back to their campuses and further these discussions with their school presidents, coaches and every colleague from other conferences they come across for the next year, and that there would at least be a consensus over which issues to tackle at the 2016 NCAA convention.

"It's time for conversation, and it is time for a declaration of where individual schools stand, where conferences stand and where levels within Division I stand," Phillips said. "I'm exceedingly excited about what's in front of us, because I just think there's an opportunity to make college athletics a better place."

There's a whole lot more here than just a discussion about freshman ineligibility. Some of these ideas may sound pie-in-the-sky, but rapid change in the NCAA has happened in the past year (much of it forced upon the schools by outside forces, of course). The Big Ten is serious about trying to put the college back in college sports.

And even if it fails, isn't that a worthwhile thing to consider?

Big Ten morning links

February, 24, 2015
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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:

B1G roundtable: Toughest coaching job

February, 23, 2015
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What's the best coaching job in the country? Stay with ESPN.com this week for an answer as the full list of Power 5 coaching seats is unveiled. The countdown began Monday, with Nos. 48-65 Insider.

Here at the Big Ten blog, we got involved by offering a look at coaching in the Big Ten. We'll offer our takes on the league's jobs.

Monday's roundtable topic: What's the toughest coaching job in the Big Ten?

Mitch Sherman: Northwestern

No Big Ten program fights for relevancy in its home market quite like Northwestern, with its long history of struggles in athletics and demands academically unlike even the other elite institutions of the league. Northwestern went 64 years without a bowl win until 2012, when it finished 10-3, just its third season out of 132 with more than nine victories. Coach Pat Fitzgerald, after a breakout season in 2008 and unprecedented success in Evanston, has clouded our minds about the difficulty of sustaining success at Northwestern. The past two 5-7 seasons, though, serve as a reminder. It’s tough. The fan base tends to get disinterested, the margin for error is slim, and the emerging culture in college athletics to empower student-athletes further establishes challenges at the league’s lone private institution that aren't as difficult elsewhere in the Big Ten.

Dan Murphy: Indiana

Expectations aren't particularly high for football among the Hoosiers faithful. A bowl game -- Indiana's first since 2007 -- would keep the masses happy, but making it through the Big Ten's East Division gets more treacherous each year. That side of the league is loaded, with two top-five programs in Ohio State and Michigan State. If Jim Harbaugh's track record follows him to Ann Arbor, Michigan won't be far behind. James Franklin is another proven winner at Penn State, and newcomers Maryland and Rutgers held their own in their first year. That leaves Indiana as a hanger-on in a league full of climbers. Unless the Hoosiers start investing more in the program as a whole, winning in Bloomington will be a tall order for Kevin Wilson or anyone else in his seat.

Brian Bennett: Purdue

In my view, the two toughest jobs in the Big Ten are both in the Hoosier State, and Indiana has struggled the most in the past two decades. But the Hoosiers have made some upgrades in their facilities, and Bloomington is an excellent college town. Purdue has a stronger tradition than IU but is in an even tougher position. It's a great school with rigorous academics, but Ross-Ade Stadium and West Lafayette both lack charm. There isn't much local talent from which to draw. Fan support and revenue are major issues, as the program recently announced it was cutting prices on its season tickets. It's even more remarkable, in retrospect, what Joe Tiller accomplished during his tenure with the Boilers. The team hasn't done much since he left.
As spring practice approaches, we're taking a snapshot of the state of each Big Ten program. We're evaluating recent performance, won-loss trends, coaching, current personnel and future personnel.

Up next: the Northwestern Wildcats

2014 record: 5-7 (3-5 Big Ten)

Three-year record: 20-20

Coaching situation: After a breakthrough season in 2012, ninth-year coach Pat Fitzgerald has reached a crossroads after consecutive bowl-less campaigns. The team stumbled out of the gate this past season with home losses to Cal and Northern Illinois. Despite three solid wins, the Wildcats never achieved consistency and struggled at Ryan Field for the second straight year. Fitzgerald kept his entire staff in place despite some calls for changes, especially on the offensive side. Although Fitzgerald is safe thanks to a contract running through 2020, the staff needs to show improvement this coming season.

Roster situation: A rash of injuries has forced Northwestern to play more underclassmen than normal, which could pay off in 2015. The team loses starting quarterback Trevor Siemian, safety Ibraheim Campbell and some key pieces at linebacker and receiver but returns good depth overall. Christian Jones, the Wildcats' top receiver in 2013, is back following injury, and the team returns both of its lines mostly intact. Young players like running back Justin Jackson and linebacker Anthony Walker provided bright spots last fall.

Recruiting situation: Northwestern's recruiting model hasn't changed dramatically despite the team's struggles, as the Wildcats typically rack up early commitments and have few signing day surprises. Although the 2015 class wasn't as acclaimed as its predecessor, Northwestern added some nice pieces at wide receiver (Flynn Nagel, Cameron Green, Jelani Roberts), linebacker (Nathan Fox) and elsewhere. The Wildcats continued to cast a national recruiting net with 20 prospects from 11 different states.

Trajectory: Down. Northwestern seemed to reach the next level by getting over its bowl bugaboo on Jan. 1, 2013, at the Gator Bowl. But since a 4-0 start the following season, the Wildcats haven't had much go their way, enduring a spike in injuries, off-field issues and choppy performance, especially on their home field. Northwestern actually has played well enough on defense to sustain its run of solid play. But the offense has lost its edge and must build an identity with a mostly or completely unproven quarterback this season. Fitzgerald talked a lot last season about immaturity and the need for younger players, thrust into action before their time, to grow up. The coaches are adamant that the talent level, especially from a speed standpoint, is better now than ever. But the results need to change, and Northwestern must recapture its vigor on offense and its ability to win close games.

Big Ten morning links

February, 17, 2015
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As new coaches shopped for assistants after the season at Michigan, Nebraska and Wisconsin, four members of the programs’ old staffs were retained.

Jim Harbaugh kept Greg Mattison, the defensive coordinator turned D-line coach at Michigan; Nebraska’s Mike Riley kept secondary coach Charlton Warren; and Paul Chryst held onto defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and running backs coach Thomas Brown at Wisconsin.

Well, news surfaced Friday that Warren was departing for North Carolina. Monday, Brown left for his alma mater, Georgia.

And so there were two ...

Both decisions make sense. Brown played at Georgia and gets the chance to coach his former position near a fountain of recruiting talent.

For Warren, it’s a move closer to home. He’s from Georgia, too. And after nearly two decades in the military or working at the Air Force Academy, the opportunity was too attractive to make a career choice that served his family first.

Warren and Brown helped the new staffs at Nebraska and Wisconsin, respectively, transition through signing day. They were key figures in the schools’ signing of top prospects. Riley and Chryst, though, had bigger plans for them.

This is an issue, in fact, that persists nationally as the coaching carousel spins at an unusually brisk mid-February pace. Assistant coaches are abandoning recruits all around -- Ohio State, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Georgia, LSU, Florida, Notre Dame, Texas, UCLA.

A few coaches to whom I’ve spoken since signing day recognize the problem. It should be addressed, Riley said last week.

I’ve also heard from readers and on social media that coaches ought to face a penalty for leaving soon after signing day. That simply won’t happen under the current governance model unless it’s written into their contracts. And until schools stop breaking deals much more often than coaches, don’t expect any such language to appear.

If the answer is an out clause for recruits, that’s a discussion for another day. And it starts with the conference commissioners, who administrate the letter of intent and meet every June as a group.

In the meantime, head coaches next winter may think twice about the value of retaining assistants.

Around the conference:
It's been quite an offseason already nationally and around the Big Ten. Earlier Monday, colleague Adam Rittenberg provided a rundown of the altered coaching landscape of the Big Ten's East Division.

We continue our recap of the coaching moves with a look at the West Division, featuring a mix of turnover at high-profile Nebraska and Wisconsin and longevity elsewhere:

ILLINOIS
Who's out?

Greg Colby, defensive line
Tim Salem, special teams

Who's in?

Mike Phair, co-defensive coordinator

Notes: Coach Tim Beckman remains in the market for an assistant coach to fill Salem's spot. The Illini got Phair from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He will run the defense with Tim Banks after Illinois ranked last in the Big Ten for the past two years in defending the run, a factor in Colby's removal. Before turning to Phair, Beckman attempted to hire Missouri defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski, but the longtime sidekick of Gary Pinkel opted to stay with the Tigers.

IOWA
Who's out?

No changes, though coach Kirk Ferentz made a few assignment shifts last week.

Promoted/moved

Brian Ferentz adds run-game coordinator to work with offensive line
Seth Wallace adds cornerbacks and nickelbacks to work as recruiting coordinator
LeVar Woods moves from linebackers to tight ends

Notes: Some have argued that Kirk Ferentz, set to enter his 17th season, should have made more significant changes after the Hawkeyes underachieved, especially on offense. Brian Ferentz has done nice work with the line. His promotion should allow offensive coordinator Greg Davis to focus more on the tenuous quarterback situation. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker can also focus on more big-picture work after the changes this month, and Jim Reid will alone handle the linebackers with Woods moving to the offensive side.

MINNESOTA
Who's out?

Are you kidding?

Notes: Status quo for the Gophers after two straight eight-win seasons. Coach Jerry Kill's staffers, including strength coach Eric Klein, have worked together for a combined 131 years, more than any staff nationally. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys has been with Kill for 20 seasons; offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover for 16 and so on. Their longevity pays obvious dividends. Little changes look big for the Gophers, such as the switch last year of Brian Anderson to coach receivers and Pat Poore to running backs.

NEBRASKA
Who's out?

Bo Pelini, head coach
Tim Beck, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks
John Papuchis, defensive coordinator
Ron Brown, running backs
Barney Cotton, assistant head coach/tight ends
Ross Els, linebackers
Rich Fisher, receivers
John Garrison, offensive line
Rick Kaczenski, defensive line
Charlton Warren, defensive backs

Who's in?

Mike Riley, head coach
Mark Banker, defensive coordinator
Danny Langsdorf, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks
Trent Bray, linebackers
Mike Cavanaugh, offensive line
Reggie Davis, running backs
Hank Hughes, defensive line
Bruce Read, special teams
Keith Williams, receivers

Notes: Riley brought Banker, Bray, Cavanaugh and Read straight from Oregon State, and added Langsdorf, a former OSU coordinator, from a one-year stopover as quarterbacks coach of the New York Giants. Davis, who came from Jim Harbaugh's staff with the San Francisco 49ers, is another former Riley assistant. Hughes came from Cincinnati, and Williams from Tulane. Riley retained Warren, but after two months with the new staff, he left last week for North Carolina, leaving the new coach to look for another man to coach the secondary -- Nebraska's fifth hire for the position in six years.

NORTHWESTERN
Who's out?

No changes.

Notes: Longevity reins in Evanston. Despite the Wildcats' struggles of the past two seasons, coach Pat Fitzgerald, entering his 10th season, has shown great confidence in his staff. Assistants Randy Bates (linebackers), Adam Cushing (offensive line), Matt MacPherson (running backs) and Jerry Brown (secondary) have been with Fitzgerald all the way. Brown, in fact, has coached at the school since 1993.

PURDUE
Who's out?

Kevin Sherman, receivers

Notes: Darrell Hazell remains in search of a replacement for Sherman, who spent two years with the Boilermakers before bolting for Pat Narduzzi's new staff at Pitt. The core of Hazell's staff has remained with him since the coach arrived from Kent State after the 2012 season.

WISCONSIN
Who's out?

Gary Andersen, head coach
Andy Ludwig, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks
Chris Beatty, receivers
Bill Busch, safeties
Jeff Genyk, tight ends/special teams
Chad Kauha'aha'a, defensive line
Ben Strickland, cornerbacks
T.J. Woods, offensive line

Who's in?

Paul Chryst, head coach
Joe Rudolph, offensive coordinator/offensive line
Inoke Breckterfield, defensive line
Chris Haering, special teams
Daronte' Jones, defensive backs
Tim Tibesar, outside linebackers
Mickey Turner, tight ends

Retained:

Dave Aranda, defensive coordinator/linebackers
Thomas Brown, running backs

Notes: Despite early reports that Matt House would come with Chryst from Pitt as defensive coordinator, Aranda remained, which was a popular move. Rudolph (a former Wisconsin player and assistant coach), Breckterfield, Haering and Turner did follow Chryst to his new job at his alma mater. Jones comes from Hawaii and Tibesar, the former Purdue defensive coordinator, comes from Northwestern where he served as a consultant last year. The Badgers also appear set to hire Ted Gilmore, who spent the past three seasons with the Oakland Raiders, as their receivers coach. Strickland looks in position to remain as an in-house recruiting coordinator.

Big Ten spring practice dates

February, 13, 2015
Feb 13
10:15
AM ET
Spring (practice) is in the air. Well, almost.

Two Big Ten teams -- Michigan and Northwestern -- will take the field for spring ball before the end of the month. Here's a handy list for when every team in the league begins practicing and when it will hold its spring game.

Illinois

Start date: March 14
Spring game: April 18

Indiana

Start date: March 26
Spring game: April 18

Iowa

Start date: March 25
Spring game: April 25

Maryland

Start date: March 2
Spring game: April 11

Michigan

Start date: Feb. 24
Spring game: April 4

Michigan State

Start date: March 24
Spring game: April 25

Minnesota

Start date: March 3
Spring game: April 11

Nebraska

Start date: March 7
Spring game: April 11

Northwestern

Start date: Feb. 25
Spring game: April 4 or 11

Ohio State

Start date: March 10
Spring game: April 18

Penn State

Start date: March 20
Spring game: April 18

Purdue

Start date: March 10
Spring game: April 18

Rutgers

Start date: March 30
Spring game: April 24

Wisconsin

Start date: March 15
Spring game: April 25

Big Ten morning links

February, 13, 2015
Feb 13
9:00
AM ET
Credit Kirk Ferentz for trying. Is it enough, though?

The Iowa coach, in preparation for his 17th season, announced changes Thursday to his staff assignments. Not coaching changes, but hey, something is better than nothing, right?

To summarize, LeVar Woods, formerly the linebackers coach, will take over the tight ends. Brian Ferentz is now the run game coordinator in addition to his responsibilities as offensive line coach. And Seth Wallace, who assisted with the defensive line last year, now coaches the nickels and cornerbacks.

Change does not come easily at Iowa, where the head coach's release of a postseason depth chart, in a departure from previous seasons, raised brows last month.

Iowa's offense needs an infusion of energy. Maybe quarterback C.J. Beathard can provide it. But the elder Ferentz is wise not to rely entirely on that. He's banking also on Woods, a linebacker on Ferentz's first two teams who did nice work on the defensive side, and the coach's son in an increased role.

Marc Morehouse of the Cedar Rapids Gazette suggests that the new job description for Brian Ferentz rates as the most interesting of the changes. But what will the younger Ferentz do as run game coordinator? Certainly, he's not about to supercede offensive coordinator Greg Davis, who has his hands full with quarterbacks Beathard and Jake Rudock.

Fact is, though, Iowa's quarterbacks -- and its defense -- would benefit most from a dynamic running game. The Hawkeyes' 4.12 yards per rush in 2014 ranked 10th in the Big Ten. It lacked explosiveness.

Brian Ferentz has extended Iowa's notable tradition of producing solid offensive linemen. If his work translates to the run game at large, maybe he can help get his dad back on the right track.

Nothing official out of Piscataway, New Jersey, yet on the potential hire of business consultant Jeff Towers as Rutgers' recruiting coordinator, but Stewart Mandel of FoxSports.com is offering praise for coach Kyle Flood.

Mandel likens Towers, who has no known experience in football, and other similar hires at major programs to general managers at the pro level -- without the ability to trade or draft players, of course. (Don't get any ideas.)

Much remains unknown about the specifics of Towers' business experience. The only details uncovered came from his LinkedIn profile. Regardless, if Flood makes this move, clearly he believes in Towers to bring a new type of leadership to the business side of the Rutgers program.

College football programs are built like corporations today. Nearly every major program employs an operations director, the most effective of whom possess freedom in making decisions on non-coaching matters. So why not have a GM-like figure to run the personnel department, otherwise known as recruiting operations?

The size and structure of these staffs loom as a possible issue for the Power 5 conferences to debate. Even so, unless major restrictions are imposed -- unexpected in this age of autonomy -- hires like Towers will soon be viewed as standard practice.

Let's get to the links:

East Division
West Division
The long wait until football returns is only beginning, but spring practice is at least another day closer. To help pass the time until Big Ten teams are back in pads, we're looking around the entire league at key position battles that could help sort out the race for a championship by the time fall eventually arrives.

Next in line: Northwestern.

1. Quarterback: The race to take the reins of the offense from Trevor Siemian may have actually started at the end of last season, and Northwestern got a glimpse at what Zack Oliver could offer as a starter. But expect all the options to open camp with a blank slate in what could be a three-man competition for the job, with Oliver, sophomore Matt Alviti and redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson all jockeying for the position. If the Wildcats are going to bounce back and be a factor in the West Division next season, identifying the right leader for the attack has to be at the top of the priority list.

2. Outside linebacker: The Wildcats are losing veterans at both outside positions at the second level and will need to replace Chi Chi Ariguzo and Jimmy Hall. Ariguzo led the team in tackles during his senior campaign, and his sidekick on the other side chipped in 58 tackles while intercepting two passes, forcing a fumble and recovering three more. Senior Drew Smith has experience already and should give the Wildcats a jump on filling one hole given his ability to line up on either side, but that still leaves a big pair of shoes to fill on the other side of Anthony Walker.

3. Center: Nobody at Northwestern ever took for granted the stability Brandon Vitabile provided in the middle of the offensive line, and it was certainly a luxury to be able to count on him for so long up front. Now the Wildcats will have to find somebody to replace everything he provided while anchoring that unit and starting every offensive play, and their appreciation for Vitabile might actually increase heading into spring practice without him. Backup Hayden Baker is gone as well, so one way or another Pat Fitzgerald is looking at some inexperience at such a crucial position.

Big Ten morning links

February, 10, 2015
Feb 10
9:00
AM ET
Happy National Umbrella Day. Big Ten spring practice begins in just weeks, if you can believe it, as Michigan is scheduled to take the practice field for the first time under Jim Harbaugh on Feb. 24.

1. Is this the end of the relationship between Ralph Friedgen and Rutgers?

Both the Star-Ledger and the Asbury Park Press reported Monday night that Friedgen would not return for a second season as the Scarlet Knights' offensive coordinator. Friedgen, 67, had hinted that he might step down after the season, and it looks like he'll be headed toward retirement.

Both newspapers mentioned wide receivers coach Ben McDaniels as the likely in-house replacement for Friedgen. McDaniels is the younger brother of New England Patriots offensive coordinator (and former Denver Broncos head coach) Josh McDaniels.

We'd be sad to see Friedgen go, especially after he did some very good work with quarterback Gary Nova last season. He would also be the fifth straight Rutgers offensive coordinator to last just one season.

2. Illinois announced on Monday that its next three scheduled home games against Northwestern (in 2015, '17 and '19) would be held at Soldier Field. The Illini do not in any way have this in mind, but I wonder if this could be a trial run for a possible Big Ten championship game in Chicago.

The league has a contract with Indianapolis that runs through 2021, and Indy has been a great and deserving host. Still, a lot of people would like to see the event staged in Chicago at some point. Two main concerns are usually voiced about the Windy City's chances of landing the game: the weather and the condition of Soldier Field's infamous turf.

Well, the Illini's three games at the stadium will all be held on Thanksgiving weekend, or typically, one week before the Big Ten championship game. If those games go off without a hitch -- if the field can hold up and the weather is manageable -- perhaps that would be enough to give Chicago another look.

3. The Mike Weber saga appears to have reached its conclusion.

The running back wavered between Michigan and Ohio State before signing with the Buckeyes, only to see Ohio State running backs coach Stan Drayton leave for an NFL job right after signing day. Weber criticized the move on Twitter, and his high school coach blasted Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes. That led to some back and forth on Twitter between Harbaugh and Buckeyes staffers, and there was at least some thought that Weber might ask out of his letter-of-intent, fueled even more by a photo on his Instagram account Monday of him working out in a Michigan T-shirt.

But Weber took to Twitter again Monday night and seemed tired of the drama, as well as fully committed to Ohio State and new position coach Tony Alford.

As always, though, Joey Bosa won Twitter. After the Instagram photo came out, Bosa tweeted that Weber "should be more worried about that baby weight."

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More links from around the league:

West Division
East Division

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