Our very own tournament marches on with the final game of the afternoon, in a rivalry that dates all the way back to 1899: Iowa vs. Illinois.
The winner of this game will move on to face the victor of the No. 3 Wisconsin-No. 14 Indiana matchup. Vote early and often; polls close midnight Wednesday.
No. 6 Iowa vs. No. 11 Illinois
Iowa: Rich history, good food, loud crowds -- there’s plenty to like about Iowa City’s game day atmosphere. Like most destinations, the real atmosphere starts in the parking lots where fans buy turkey legs on Melrose Avenue before heading to the pregame concert inside the Rec Building. Players and coaches will touch the 20-foot statue of football legend Nile Kinnick before entering Kinnick Stadium, where fans will listen to Kinnick’s moving 1939 Heisman acceptance speech on the big screen before every home game. Inside, fans will line up behind the visitors’ bench -- so close they can reach out and grab the opponents -- to make the stadium a truly intimidating venue. They’ll chant I-O-W-A after every touchdown, sit entranced at the pregame intro and hope to hear the Hawkeye Victory Polka at game’s end. Plus, opponents are still treated to a pink visitors’ locker room.
Illinois: Memorial Stadium was home to one of the greatest college football players who ever lived, Red Grange, and Illinois celebrates that. Players will touch the “Grange Rock,” which was dedicated in 1994, on their way to the field. And fans can snap a photo of the 12-foot Grange statue outside the stadium. Inside, Illinois is known for their Block I’s card stunts -- although it’s sometimes difficult to do with the scarce student crowd. The Marching Illini’s pregame show remains a fan favorite and it’s difficult to go long without hearing someone yell “I-L-L” and someone else returning, “I-N-I.” The stadium was about two-thirds full for the average game last season.
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Alarm bells started ringing in the Nicolet Football Center early Monday afternoon, with an automated voice informing all inside to evacuate because of a fire emergency.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald and his staff calmly walked outside, where they spent a few minutes in the shockingly warm, not-quite-spring air. After the ringing stopped, the coaches returned and continued to dissect film of Saturday's practice.
If a false alarm during a week where no practices are being run is the biggest distraction of Northwestern's spring session, Fitzgerald will gladly take it. A year ago, Northwestern found itself in the national spotlight, not because of the team's on-field potential, but because of the unionization debate initiated by former quarterback Kain Colter. Fitzgerald testified at a National Labor Relations Board hearing in Chicago just before spring practice kicked off. The Wildcats faced union questions after every practice. The attention remained as they voted shortly after spring ball whether to unionize.
It was a historic period in the program's history. It also was a wholly unproductive one.
"Every coach in the country, regardless of if it's college football or Major League Baseball or the NBA or NHL, you talk about eliminating distractions, and we had a big one last year," Fitzgerald said. "It's not an excuse. It was just a reality. We dealt with it, we worked through it. It's in no way, shape or form an excuse. We're not going to accept that. But it definitely was a factor."
Fitzgerald admits Northwestern was "behind" entering preseason camp. Coupled with a surge in injuries and the preseason losses of two All-Big Ten players, Northwestern stumbled to an 0-2 start, never fully recovered and finished 5-7 for the second straight year.
There are no guarantees Northwestern course-corrects this spring. It has to find a quarterback, build more explosiveness on offense and establish greater toughness along both lines. There are injury limitations, especially at defensive tackle.
But so far spring practice has been standard operating procedure for the Wildcats.
"It's great having some normalcy," Fitzgerald said. "I'm most happy for the young men and for the staff. To really just focus on the process of building a foundation of what we're trying to do, instead of dealing with an outside distraction, has been positive to this point."
An unobstructed path to the coming season should heighten the urgency for everyone associated with Northwestern football. Although the program doesn't resemble the national joke it was in the 1970s and 1980s, it still suffers from that default perception when things go poorly. Fitzgerald built Northwestern into a consistent bowl participant and, eventually, a bowl champion and a 10-win team in 2012. But three consecutive bowl-less seasons will lead many to wonder whether the Wildcats will ever turn the corner.
Fitzgerald kept his entire staff in place despite consecutive losing seasons, which says something about the power he wields and also about the place where he coaches. Most FBS coaches wouldn't have a choice but to make changes after two subpar years (or, in Bob Stoops' case, just one). Some Northwestern fans called for firings, but the scrutiny here doesn't come close to that surrounding most Power 5 programs.
"We've won a lot of games, and I'm very proud of the job our staff has done," Fitzgerald said. "We're very disappointed we haven't had three 10-win seasons. We're just like the guys, champing at the bit, have a good sense of urgency."
Offensive coordinator Mick McCall sums up the difference between this spring and last spring this way: "We're able to coach 'em."
"It's hard to coach your guys when you're trying to make sure, 'Oh, hey, by the way, this other thing's going on,'" McCall continued. "We didn't need that. If anybody in the country had to do that, they were going to struggle with ways to do it.
"We're not holding anything back. We're coaching the heck out of them."
Last fall, Fitzgerald often cited maturity issues on the team. The injury wave forced many young players into action, and though some enjoyed brief success -- freshmen defenders Anthony Walker and Godwin Igwebuike received weekly honors from the Big Ten -- there was little consistency.
McCall likes how players have responded through the first nine spring workouts. Fitzgerald added, "I think we're growing up."
Northwestern is a normal team going through a normal offseason, striving to regain what had been normal results under Fitzgerald (7-9 wins and a bowl appearance). It's a program that, quite frankly, needs more internal tension/pressure to get back to where it was in 2012, especially in the Big Ten's weaker division (West).
The Wildcats need a strong finish to spring ball. They need an even more productive preseason camp, when several injured linemen return.
"We're right there in a lot of games," Fitzgerald said. "We've got to find a way to win."
They'll attempt to do so with nothing obstructing their way.
The weekend is almost here -- finally -- so you know what that means: It’s time for the #B1GFridayFive. Our hope is that our Friday topics get you talking. So use the hashtag and pass on your thoughts by following @BennettESPN, @MitchSherman, @ESPNJoshMoyer, @DanMurphyESPN, @ESPNRittenberg, @AWardESPN, @TomVH and @ESPN_BigTen.
With three head coaching changes, it’s been a busy offseason for the conference so far. But lost amongst those big changes are the smaller ones, the assistant coaching coaching hires that can have a profound effect on a team’s success.
So, this edition of the #BigFridayFive looks beyond the head guys and takes a closer look at five of the most important assistant hires this offseason. Our five is listed below; let us know yours by using the hashtag #B1GFridayFive.
1. Nebraska OC/QB coach Danny Langsdorf
He spent last year coaching Eli Manning and Ryan Nassib with the New York Giants and was considered a bright coach with a bright NFL future. (Manning even threw for a career-high 63.1 percent completion rate.) So it was unexpected when he decided to ditch the NFL in favor of the NCAA -- and Giants coach Tom Coughlin sure wasn’t happy about it. Ultimately, Langsdorf couldn’t turn down a reunion with Mike Riley and a chance to call the plays. But he won’t have an easy task in Year 1 with the Cornhuskers because dual-threat QB Tommy Armstrong doesn’t fit his system. Still, Langsdorf is smart enough to make adjustments and he should serve as a more-than-capable upgrade.
2. Michigan DC/LB coach D.J. Durkin
Forget the fact he led Florida’s defense to back-to-back top-15 rankings as its coordinator. And forget that he even led the Gators to a bowl win as their interim head coach. Durkin is a rising star at just 37 years old and has a lot more left to accomplish. Not only does he provide the Wolverines a competent replacement for Greg Mattison, who’s now the defensive line coach, but he’s also renowned for his ability as a recruiter. He has won “Recruiter of the Year” awards and he’s just as intense as Jim Harbaugh.
3. Michigan OC/OL coach Tim Drevno
Surprised another Wolverine is on the list? Or that Drevno decided to move from sunny California to Michigan? You shouldn’t be -- on either count. Drevno spent last season as USC’s run game coordinator, but before that he was with Harbaugh dating back to 2004 at FCS San Diego. He and Harbaugh obviously boast a strong relationship, but Drevno has also built up an impressive résumé at every stop he’s been. At Idaho -- Idaho! -- he coached three offensive linemen into the NFL, he helped San Diego set school records in points scored, he teamed up to rebuild Stanford, and he sent several San Francisco 49ers linemen to the Pro Bowl. Michigan’s offensive line is in great hands here, and the offense obviously needs a lot of help. Drevno is the right man for the job.
4. Ohio State QB/Co-OC Tim Beck
No assistant coach in the nation will be more scrutinized than Beck this season. But with J.T. Barrett, Cardale Jones and Braxton Miller, it shouldn’t be too hard to find success here. Beck obviously isn’t an upgrade over Tom Herman -- who could be? -- but he’s a good fit for the Buckeyes. Beck spent the last four seasons coaching Nebraska’s signal-callers, so he’s more than familiar with making the most out of dual-threat quarterbacks. Plus, Urban Meyer wanted someone who could recruit Texas -- and Beck spent six seasons coaching high school football there. It also doesn’t hurt that Beck has Ohio roots since he was born in Youngstown, or that he’s already familiar with the Big Ten.
5. Illinois Co-DC Mike Phair
OK, he wasn’t even the Fighting Illini’s first choice -- that would be Missouri DL coach Craig Kuligowski -- but he’s still a solid addition to a team that sorely needs a boost on defense. Phair has a lot of NFL experience and is coming off a season as the DL coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, which saw its front four finish with 33 sacks. (He’s also coached for both the Chicago Bears and Seattle Seahawks.) He doesn’t have much college experience, but there’s really nowhere for Illinois to go but up. The Illini had the worst defense in the Big Ten last season and ranked No. 109 nationally in total defense. Phair should improve that number.
1. Choosing between three potential All-Americans to start at quarterback is a tough enough job without any further complications. For Tim Beck, Ohio State’s first-year offensive coordinator, evaluating his inherited riches at the position will be a little trickier.
The injuries that gave J.T. Barrett and then Cardale Jones a chance to prove themselves in 2014 are keeping Barrett and Braxton Miller from fully proving themselves this spring. Miller, who had shoulder surgery in August, is not yet throwing at full strength. Barrett is taking his time nursing the ankle he broke in November back to full health. That means only Jones is operating on all cylinders this spring. Beck might only get a few weeks in August to get a side-by-side comparison of all three of them.
Barrett and Jones said there’s no bad blood two days into spring practice and neither of them have any plans to transfer if they don’t win the battle. Beck said he was amazed at how well all of the quarterbacks supported each other. It will be interesting to see if that tune changes at all as the competition heats up this summer, when all three will presumably be healthy.
2. Michigan center Jack Miller made the rare decision this week to walk away from the table with a little bit of football still left on his plate. Miller, who won the Wolverines’ top lineman of the year award in 2014, said his passion for football has dimmed and he won’t be using his final year of eligibility next fall.
Jim Harbaugh’s non-stop energy can exhaust even innocent bystanders, but Miller said he’s been weighing his decision to move on to the next chapter of his life for most of the past year. He said Harbaugh had nothing to do with his departure.
It is surprising to see a player who has weathered bad years walk away with so much excitement surrounding the new coaching staff and the possibility of the future. But Miller’s reasoning -- that he’s pocketed enough lifelong memories in football -- makes sense when he lays out his logic. In fact, it might be more surprising that more seniors who have their degrees all but wrapped up and not much hope of a professional football future don’t choose to forego the massive sacrifice it takes to play for a top college program. The big crowds, thrills and other perks that come with a scholarship must be pretty alluring for most players.
3. Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things. Andy Dufrense and Red might not have lost their hope in Shawshank Redemption, but the same might not be true for Hoosier Red in Indiana. A poll on Cleveland.com ranked Indiana’s football and basketball programs as the most hopeless in the Big Ten. Nate Sudfeld’s return at quarterback should be at least a small boost for Indiana’s football morale, but a rough year for Tom Crean on the hardwood and a long bowl drought leave little room to argue with this assessment.
And now on to the links...
- Northwestern’s star freshman back Justin Jackson will likely miss the rest of spring practice with a lower body injury.
- Mike Riley hired a former Oregon State staffer to run the walk-on program at Nebraska.
- Braxton Miller has avoided the media since his shoulder injury in August. Updates on the former Buckeye starter’s rehab are hard to come by.
- Spring practice is only a few days away for Wisconsin. Here are some players to watch for Badgers fans.
- Penn State’s offensive line took a positive step forward in the weight room this winter.
- Devin Funchess knocked more than two-tenths of a second off his 40-yard dash at Michigan's pro day.
- Rutgers fullback Michael Burton might be playing himself into the NFL Draft after this week’s pro day performance.
- How will Jake Rudock's reported departure affect the Iowa offense?
- Michigan State is targeting an Ohio cornerback to join its 2016 recruiting class.
From 2007-12, the quarterback position undoubtedly was a strength for the Wildcats. C.J. Bacher, Mike Kafka, Dan Persa and Kain Colter all were among the Big Ten's more productive and dynamic signal-callers. In 2012, Northwestern deftly managed a two-quarterback system with Colter and Trevor Siemian, winning 10 games and ending its 64-year bowl losing streak.
But the quarterback spot has backslid the past two seasons and, not surprisingly, so have the Wildcats following consecutive 5-7 campaigns. It's unfair to place most of the blame on the signal-callers, who dealt with injuries, drop-prone receivers and inconsistent lines. Yet, the Wildcats didn't have a quarterback ranked among the Big Ten's top 10 most efficient passers.
"I wish [the decision] could be right now, but it's not going to be that way," offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. "We've got to go through this, just to see how they grow. We'll get them in some situational stuff as time goes on.
"They all have some good things they've done, some spurts they go through and then something [bad] will happen. It's more about how they respond to certain things."
Oliver's selling point is experience. He backed up Siemian and Colter the past two seasons and has 61 career pass attempts in 12 games. He's a big man (6-foot-4, 240 pounds) with a big arm, but has yet to prove himself in sustained game action.
Oliver started in place of the injured Siemian in the 2014 regular-season finale against Illinois, a game Northwestern needed to win to go bowling. Things didn't go well: Oliver committed five turnovers (three interceptions, two lost fumbles) in a 47-33 loss.
"It's not on a loop in my room over and over again, but I did watch it," Oliver said. "I will continue to watch it any time I'm feeling unsure of myself."
Wouldn't the Illinois tape make Oliver feel less sure?
"I don't want go look at my highlight tape from high school," Oliver said. "I'll go and see what I messed up on, what I did right and then use that for spring football to get better."
Oliver is the dues-paying fifth-year senior who has waited for this moment -- "I've put in my time here," he said -- but he still might not be the answer. Some expect it to be Alviti, who wears the same number as Persa (7) and boasts a similar build and skill set.
Listed at 6-foot, Alviti is the best athlete of the three and delivers escapability Northwestern typically requires of its quarterbacks but lacked last year with Siemian. Alviti also brings a strong personality to the huddle, which Northwestern might need after two lackluster seasons. A member of Northwestern's leadership council, Alviti thinks he can direct others despite his limited playing experience.
"We haven't had great leadership the last two years," Alviti said, echoing a statement he made last spring. "That all starts with our quarterbacks and guys who are leaders on offense. We need to demand more from the rest of the team. Whether it's yelling at a guy or just being able to talk to him, that all comes with building great relationships off the field."
Thorson, perhaps more than any candidate, looks like a Big Ten quarterback. He boasts good size at 6-4 and 210 pounds and has a strong arm, which he showed off at a recent practice with a perfectly placed deep ball to Miles Shuler. Thorson seems comfortable in the pocket but also has mobility, which McCall says is "huge" to push Northwestern's offense.
McCall said of Thorson and Alviti, "It'd be interesting to put them in a race."
Thorson comes from good gridiron stock. His father Chad played linebacker for the New York Giants. His brother Luke is a senior wide receiver at Division III Wheaton College, where Chad played. Another brother, Hunter, played tight end at Wheaton.
"Both were 6-7, so big targets," Clayton Thorson said of his brothers. "We would go out to the practice field a lot -- it was right across the street from us, actually -- and we'd go play there, go play with [former Hawaii and Ohio State quarterback] Taylor Graham. It was awesome."
The coaches are clamoring for clarity, but little has emerged between the patient senior, the spunky sophomore and the virtuoso freshman. Maybe it's not a bad thing.
As Northwestern tries to regain its footing both in wins and in quarterback play, it can't afford to get this decision wrong.
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:
- A spring preview of the conference by Athlon Sports.
- A pair of Ohio State defensive backs make a list of the nation's best in the secondary.
- Jim Tressel weighs in on Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh.
- Makes sense that new Wisconsin running backs coach John Settle is a fan of Paul Chryst.
- Former Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes believes he could have run faster than his 4.31-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine.
- Penn State takes stock of its gains from winter conditioning.
- An assessment of the Illinois quarterback situation.
- Maryland linebacker Abner Logan looks ready to break out this spring after a suspension cut short his redshirt freshman season last fall.
- Indiana plans an open scrimmage for the week after its annual spring game. All of Purdue's spring practices are open to the public.
- More on the creative, viral song about Kirk Ferentz and Iowa football.
- Ex-Rutgers fullback Michael Burton is glad to be labeled as a thug.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, four 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, 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.
Here's a rundown of the programs with open positions:
Nebraska needs a secondary coach to replace Charlton Warren, who left after signing day for North Carolina. Several reports have indicated the Cornhuskers are close to an agreement with Brian Stewart, who left Maryland as defensive coordinator last week in what the Terrapins termed a mutual parting.
If it is Stewart, the move makes sense for coach Mike Riley, who generally hires 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 also 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.
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:
- Michigan features a bigger backfield as spring practice opens. How will Harbaugh's big personality impact the Wolverines?
- A few Northwestern players decide to support their basketball team -- in full pads.
- Former Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes had a great day at the NFL combine.
- Ex-Wisconsin star Melvin Gordon mmight land in the first round of the NFL draft.
- Yet another reason for the Hawkeyes to be proud of Hayden Fry's contributions to Iowa.
- The coach of Ohio State running back recruit Mike Weber feels much better now about Urban Meyer.
- A review of Minnesota's three former stars at combine.
- Five players with the most to gain for Nebraska this spring.
- As the Big Ten mulls the eligibility of true freshmen, here are five rookie performances that helped Rutgers.
- Former longtime Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley is headed to UCLA after one season at West Virginia.
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:
- Penn State will get its share of bowl revenue in 2015 for the first time since 2011.
- The redshirt freshman season of freshman J.T. Barrett in photos.
- Ex-Indiana cornerback Michael Hunter is excited about his new home at Oklahoma State.
- LSU is reportedly interested in Maryland receivers coach Keenan McCardell.
- There’s a sense of urgency among Michigan State running backs to determine a pecking order before the summer arrival of elite recruit L.J. Scott.
- An interesting look at how running back Karan Higdon landed at Michigan over Iowa.
- A breakdown of the Wisconsin wide receivers.
- Fundraising efforts for Minnesota’s facilities projects are ahead of schedule, according to athletic director Norwood Teague.
- Nebraska will hold open tryouts for students who hope to walk on to the football team.
- Illinois receivers coach Mike Bellamy deserves mention among the nation’s top recruiters.
- A look at Purdue's four linebacker signees this month.
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.
John S. from Lindale, Georgia, writes: Hey Brian, in that Brady Hoke's recruiting classes were pretty highly rated, is it not possible that Michigan's new staff couldn't reasonably be expected to get the team to more than eight or nine wins next year? Seems like all the early projections for next year have a best-case scenario of no more than eight or nine wins. Thanks!
Brian Bennett: I've actually been surprised with some rosy projections for the 2015 Wolverines by fellow ESPN types in the past couple of days. Our Football Power Index has Michigan ranked 28th in the preseason, K.C. Joyner wrote that the Maize and Blue could win 10 games and challenge Ohio State in the East Division and Brad Edwards picked Michigan to make the Rose Bowl .
Um, guys, have you been watching the same Michigan team as I have? You know, the one that lost its best defensive player, best receiver and starting quarterback from last season? Jim Harbaugh deserves respect, but with a really murky quarterback situation and questions on the offensive line, at receiver and at running back, I just don't see 2015 being a banner debut season.
Yet as you mention, John, the cupboard is not entirely bare. The players Hoke and his staff recruited were ranked high for a reason, and Harbaugh and his guys are known for developing talent. That should equate to better results quickly, but maybe not this year. If Michigan can go 8-4 or better this fall, Harbaugh will have done a very good job.
Brian Bennett: Most coaches believe there should be changes made in recruiting. But good luck trying to get them all to agree on specific changes. This isn't just a Big Ten phenomenon, either. At the American Football Coaches Association national convention in Louisville last month, several of the nation's top coaches met and talked about whether there should be an early signing date and other changes. As one coach told me, "We talk about the same things every year, and nothing ever happens." It's a minor miracle that an early signing date in mid-December has a chance of coming about, though I believe the date should be earlier.
@BennettESPN Does the B1G overall (Delaney) have a stance on revamping the recruiting rules? If so, what is that viewpoint and rationale?— Corn Rows (@RowsOfCorn) February 11, 2015
The reason why it's hard to get every coach on board with the same idea is that different schools have different agendas. Moving up official visits to a prospect's junior year would greatly help some Big Ten programs like Nebraska and Wisconsin. But ones like Ohio State and Penn State, which are much closer to rich talent bases, don't really need it. Jim Delany's job is to listen to what his coaches want. They may never come to a complete consensus, but I believe Big Ten coaches share many of the same principles and concerns about the accelerated recruiting calendar.
Brian Bennett: Austin Ward covered the Scarlet Knights' revolving door of playcallers in Wednesday's morning links. You want consistency with your staff, and it's tough on players who have to adjust to new terminology and a new way of doing things year after year.
@BennettESPN What are your thoughts on Rutgers working with another first-year offensive coordinator? Will this be a setback?— Zack Morrison (@ZackMorrison18) February 11, 2015
Change isn't necessarily bad, though, and plenty of first-year offensive coordinators have done well. Michigan State's 2013 season is a prime example of that. What Rutgers has going in its favor is that the basic system hasn't really changed much since Greg Schiano's tenure began. Under Kyle Flood, the Scarlet Knights still run a pro-style set that new coordinator Ben McDaniels seems well-groomed to oversee. At some point, you'd like to see some continuity there for the players' sake, but Rutgers' success on offense this season probably depends a lot more on who's playing quarterback than who is calling plays from upstairs.
Brian Bennett: It doesn't hurt that the Hawkeyes are in the much more wide-open West Division, and they went into the final two weeks of last season with a solid chance of making it to Indianapolis before coming up short in their final two home games. In my view, it still all starts with the running game. Iowa has been mediocre at best at pounding the rock the past couple of seasons. As much as I admired Mark Weisman's story, the fact that no one could really beat him out as the primary ball carrier for two years speaks volumes.
@BennettESPN What does Iowa need to do to get back competing for Big 10 titles?— Collin Post (@postcollin90) February 11, 2015
Sure, it would be nice if Iowa developed a big-time passing game with loads of athletic receivers, but that's not all that realistic given the program's access to talent and Kirk Ferentz's philosophy. I think this program needs to rediscover some of the toughness that helped it get to major bowl games earlier in Ferentz's tenure and be more like what Wisconsin and Minnesota are, where opponents know it's going to be a long, physical day when you play them.
Brian Bennett: I can appreciate that coaches live in a bubble and devote all their energy and resources toward trying to get a large group of people all pulling in the same, successful direction. The best coaches are often control freaks who control every message their team receives, so of course they would view the media as being part of it.
@BennettESPN what's your take on Tim Beckman asking the Media to be more positive towards his program?— Joe blow (@Huskerstildeath) February 11, 2015
Naturally, though, that's not the role journalists are supposed to fill. I never see what I write as "negative" or "positive." Rather, I look at it as simply "what is." If a team is winning, the coverage will seem positive, and the opposite is true if a team is losing. Beckman and his staff perhaps deserve a bit more credit for pushing last season's team to six wins and a bowl. But true positivity around the program only stems from winning more games.
If anything, the Rutgers coach is chalking up a seemingly annual tradition of replacing his offensive coordinator as a positive, pointing to the quality of jobs his assistants have landed.
Whether that's focusing on the silver lining or truly genuine, only Flood actually knows. But either way, after Ralph Friedgen stepped down into an advisory role on Tuesday to become the fifth consecutive one-and-done offensive coordinator for the Scarlet Knights, Flood could use some consistency at some point.
"You describe it as a problem, but I think some of the guys we've had here as coordinators have left for some pretty good reasons," Flood said during his announcement teleconference. "When you hire talented people, there's always a chance that they're going to have the opportunity to go somewhere and get promoted."
That didn't happen this time with Friedgen, who wasn't looking for another job as much as a chance to "smell the roses" without the demands that come with full-time coaching in the Big Ten. He never figured to be a long-term answer for the Scarlet Knights, but it's still something of a surprise that he wound up adding his name to the list of one-and-done coordinators.
The next man up, former wide receivers coach Ben McDaniels, could potentially provide some stability moving forward and allow for the Scarlet Knights to find some comfort and rhythm. Of course, his young age (34) and famous name (he's the brother of New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels) could make him a hot commodity on the coaching market if he has success with the Scarlet Knights this season.
Perhaps there's nothing wrong with the turnover as long as Flood can keep hiring a steady stream of assistants capable of making a mark with the Scarlet Knights before moving on elsewhere. From the outside, there certainly didn't appear to be any negatives to having Friedgen around for a season, though it's fair to wonder if his apparent limitations as a recruiter might have made this move mutually beneficial heading into the future.
Regardless, the picture Flood painted about his program and a revolving door to the offensive coordinator's offense was nothing but positive. But if McDaniels can snap the streak while continuing to build the Scarlet Knights' offense, that wouldn't be a bad thing.
"Ralph and I had decided that we were going to sit down after signing day and just really take stock of the situation and have a conversation about what would be the best thing to do going forward," Flood said. "As we had that conversation, my thoughts turned to who would be who I thought would be the best person to lead our offense into the future.
"It did not take me too long to decide that that would be Ben."
After all, the hiring process is nothing new for Rutgers and Flood. If nothing else, he's getting mostly everything he needs from his coordinators aside from longevity.
- Flood has complete confidence in McDaniels to lead the Rutgers offense.
- New Ohio State assistant Tony Alford has plenty of familiarity with his new colleagues.
- Michigan defensive back Jabrill Peppers had his medical hardship approved on Tuesday.
- The buzz for Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook's draft status in 2016 is already building.
- Defenders to keep an eye on from Penn State's recruiting class.
- Maryland's Randy Edsall made sure to find time for a homecoming.
- Mike Riley has an idea that could revitalize the walk-on program at Nebraska.
- Some tongue-in-cheek questions about the "Oskee Empire" tweet from Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit.
- A closer look at the running backs Purdue signed in its latest recruiting class.
- Already itching for updates about the 2016 recruiting class? Here's an early look at what Wisconsin will be looking for over the next 11 months.
- First impressions of the new Iowa defensive linemen.
The Wildcats have branded themselves as "Chicago's Big Ten team," while the Illini have counted with the slogan, "Illinois. Our State. Our Team."
Well, now Chicago really will be home to the football rivalry between the schools and a more permanent home base for Illinois, or so the school hopes. That's because on Monday afternoon, the Illini announced that they will be playing their season finales against Northwestern at Soldier Field this year, in 2017 and in 2019. All three games will be played over Thanksgiving weekend.
The school says it has more than 140,000 alumni in the Chicagoland area and expects about 10,000 students to be in the vicinity during Thanksgiving weekend. It's still up to the football team to get people excited about coming to games, and fans have yet to fully embrace the Tim Beckman era even after last year's squad finished strong to reach a bowl. But the Illini hope to make the Soldier Field game an event with activities planned for fans and alumni around the contest.
To no one's surprise, there's a financial element in play, too. Illinois says it made $946,019 per home game in the 2014 season, a number that was brought down by the Penn State game, which netted just over $812,000. The Illini say they earned more than $1.96 million from its most recent game at Soldier Field, a 2013 loss to Washington.
That's all well and good -- unless you're one of the hardy souls who have faithfully supported Illinois at home games in Champaign and don't live particularly close to Chicago. The move affects this year's season-ticket holders, since their package now includes one fewer home contest. The school says that season tickets will have a lower price tag, reflecting that there are six home games instead of seven, and that season-ticket holders will have a chance to buy seats to the Soldier Field game at an exclusive, discounted rate. (This Q&A provides more insight).
Some fans could be negatively affected. But let's face it: the Illini haven't exactly been turning people away from home games. Their average home attendance in 2014 (53,397) ranked 12th out of 14 teams in the Big Ten, ahead of only Northwestern and Purdue. The program is right to try and do whatever it can to inspire some interest and enthusiasm and to do it in the city that's most vital for its exposure and recruiting.
There are a few other Big Ten teams who could use nearby NFL stadiums on occasion to generate interest, such as Rutgers (MetLife Stadium), Maryland (FedEx Field) and Indiana and Purdue (Lucas Oil Stadium). Heck, the most attention a Northwestern-Illinois football game has probably ever received was the 2010 game at Wrigley Field, even if that turned into something of a farce with the playing conditions.
There's a lot of upside here for Illinois. And if you're Northwestern, you have to be bending over backwards to accommodate this move, as a rivalry road game is now just a short train ride away in three of the next five years. You can bet the Wildcats will try to get their fans to flood Soldier Field and make it no less than a neutral-site atmosphere.
It will be fun to see the purple-clad Northwestern fans jostling it out with the orange-and-blue Illini backers in the stands. With today's announcement, Illinois raised the stakes in the claim to Chicago. It's appropriate that the two schools will vie for on-field supremacy in the city proper this fall and in years to come.
ESPN.com caught up with Fitzgerald to discuss the class.
Was it another no-drama signing day? How would you describe finishing off this class?
Pat Fitzgerald: It was a perfect job by our staff. We had 14 guys verbally committed prior to their senior years, which has become par for the course for us. We had to make some additions late in the process, six guys during their senior year. It's a great group of guys, a great group of families.
What positions were the biggest needs in this class?
PF: Like everyone, you look at your needs not only for this year but next year's class of guys who will move out. We felt we had to get some competition on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Added six guys who I feel are going to do that. And our skill positions, especially at wide receiver and DB, to add nine guys who can really run, good size, physical DBs.
Guys seem to play earlier at the perimeter spots. What impact do you see the new guys making at those positions?
PF: Singling one guy out would be a little premature. Charlie Fessler's a wide receiver who's a big, tall, athletic kid. Same thing with Cameron Green from here in Chicago, a tall, athletic wide receiver. And then in the slot we added two dynamic guys. Flynn Nagel is a Julian Edelman-type guy, 94 catches in his senior year. And Jelani Roberts is as fast a kid as we'll have in our program. He has the fastest 40-yard dash that I've timed at our camp that we've ended up signing. As an average, we had him at 4.3 flat. He just ran the 10th fastest 55-meter dash in high school in the country. He can really fly. In the secondary, that group is very talented, so it should add instant competition.
You also picked up several linebackers. What is your assessment of players such as Nathan Fox and Simba Short?
PF: Fox, [Tommy] Vitale and Short are three thick, big, physical, athletic guys. We've looked at guys at linebacker who played in space and have played multiple positions throughout their high school careers. These three guys are similar to that, but they're a little bit bigger and still have that athleticism. With the Big Ten West, you have to be able to stop the run, first and foremost. We really like the additions of these three.
You've redshirted a lot of players in the past. Is that still the message or do you point to Justin Jackson and other freshmen who played a lot?
PF: Philosophically, we've redshirted guys because the young men have redshirted themselves. I haven't really changed what I've told any kid. The No. 1 thing you do after you sign is you have to prepare yourself mentally, physically and emotionally to come here and staff. If you don't do that, you're going to redshirt yourself. I'm not going to have to make a decision. Each year, we've had from 4-10 guys who, two weeks into training camp, we feel like have an opportunity to play. But our staff have to evaluate whether those kids are going to play their position or just play in the kicking game. From a philosophy standpoint, I would prefer not to use a freshman year in the kicking game alone. Every coach has a different approach. I've gotten that reputation that we redshirt a lot of our guys. We don't necessarily do it as a staff. The young man does it to himself first and then if they get to a point where they're close to playing, I just don't believe in wasting a kid's year in the kicking game.
You always recruit nationally and this year saw a wide net -- Maryland, Georgia, California. Are there new areas coming up or the same target spots?
PF: Yeah, 11 states in the class. We're always going to start and end here in Chicago, and to have 25 percent of the class from where we need to win is always going to be important. But we're a national university and to add a couple young men from Maryland, now having that footprint of the league expand; to get down in Georgia and get two DBs and recruit speed and athleticism; and the areas that we always have success because of the academic brand and the Northwestern brand of football -- Texas, California and Ohio -- are always going to be areas we should be strong in.
There are a lot of decommitments now and you saw some of it. Is that just the landscape or you guys struggling the past two years?
PF: I don't think it had anything to do with us on the field. When kids watch us play a couple years ago when we started relationships, we won 10 games and you could argue we could have won some more or lost some. In the last two years, we're a handful of finishes away from me not being a D-minus head coach. That's football. It has more to do with the way the process is. The guys that fit, you have to recruit all the way to signing day. That's just the way it is.
Do I wish it was like other sports, that when you commit other schools stop recruiting kids? That's just not the case. It would be naive to say that. We go about our business a certain way and we've had things happen in the process. I wish those kids the best of luck. I appreciate their families allowing us to be part of the process. It's not the ones you don't get. It's the ones you get. We're fired up about the 20 guys we have.