Michigan Wolverines: Channing Stribling
"If I'm not in that role next year, then I'll feel like I have taken a step backwards, which just cannot happen," he told ESPN.com. "So that's definitely a goal in the back of my mind. Last year is over and done with, but moving forward means taking the next step."
While Countess had a solid 2013, finishing tied for the Big Ten lead with six interceptions, he knows he still has room to improve. And the Wolverines could be asking more of him as they try to tighten up their defense this fall.
Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison has made becoming a better blitzing team one of this spring's priorities. Michigan gave up far too many big plays in 2013, in part because it didn't do a great job bringing pressure and in part because the secondary struggled to contain wide receivers. Mattison hopes his front seven can do a better job getting to the quarterback this fall when he dials up a blitz. That means the corners have to be ready, too.
"That's where we're at now in our defense," he told reporters last month. "As you become more experienced, as our philosophy may change a little more as we feel like we can get more pressure, we've got to play more aggressive on receivers, tighten the coverage up."
Countess said he's spent a lot of time this offseason working on press and man-to-man coverage. It's a more aggressive approach than some of the zone coverages he's played in the past, and he relishes it.
"All DBs love to play press," he said. "I've never met a DB who says, 'Nah, I don't like to get up there and press.' It puts you close to the receiver, and if we give the receiver space, that's what [he wants]. So it puts you in a better position to make plays.
"A lot of guys played press all throughout high school, and then they get here and are forced to play a little bit more zone than they may have in high school. So it's kind of like getting back to what we've done in the past."
The Michigan cornerbacks have a new position coach this spring, as Roy Manning is now overseeing that group after coaching outside linebackers last season. Manning, a former Wolverines linebacker, has brought some new ideas on technique, Countess said. But his biggest contribution so far might be his attitude.
"He played here, so he knows what it means to play here," Countess said. "He's pushing us. He's done a great job of staying on top of us."
Countess is also trying to take charge of the secondary as he enters his fourth year in the program. He and senior cornerback Raymon Taylor are now the veterans of the group, and they'll need to lead guys like sophomores Jourdan Lewis, Channing Stribling and Dymonte Thomas. Heavily hyped recruit Jabrill Peppers arrives this summer and could play anywhere in the defensive backfield.
"I'm helping out a lot more with the younger guys this spring than I have in the past," Countess said. "I'm here to get the younger guys settled, because that's the future. The cornerback position has a lot of guys who have had significant snaps and game-time decisions so that's going to create a lot of competition."
Countess and others had strong moments last season, but the secondary as a whole didn't deliver as much as hoped for Michigan, which finished seventh in the Big Ten in pass defense. There's no sugarcoating the performance in Ann Arbor.
"You have to look at it as a team, and as a team we were 7-6," Countess said. "That's not good enough at all. We definitely didn't play well enough as a team and looking at our position, we didn't play well enough. I don't think anybody on the team, as far as their positions, are happy with the outcome."
The improvement, they hope, begins this spring. And a great place to start is with arguably the top returning cornerback in the Big Ten.
Prediction No. 2: Jabrill Peppers will be starting by the conference opener
Why: The Wolverines secondary struggled in 2013. Blake Countess returned from injury to play the way he did as a freshman, which was impressive, and he was probably the most consistent defensive back Michigan put on the field. He’ll return and lead the secondary, both on and off the field, but the Wolverines will need to replace Courtney Avery and Thomas Gordon.
As Channing Stribling and Jourdan Lewis both got looks at cornerback last season, they’ll likely be the ones competing for the starting spot opposite Countess this spring, but there's no reason why Peppers wouldn't be included in that conversation starting this fall. Dymonte Thomas and Jarrod Wilson seem to be the front-runners for the starting safety spots this spring, but Peppers could force his way into that competition as well.
Realistically, Peppers is the kind of talent who could really play anywhere in the secondary (also at wide receiver, returner... heck, put him on the basketball team next season, too). But with a defense that is looking to build depth, Mattison can’t put all his eggs in Peppers’ basket. They'll likely give him one spot (though that still seems up in the air right now), and by giving him one position to focus on, he can excel there and the coaches can add more to his plate as he grows more accustomed to college football.
Stats to know: The Wolverines’ secondary struggled last season. Statistically, it was the worst that it has been under Brady Hoke. Michigan allowed 231.3 passing yards per game (No. 7 in the Big Ten, No. 66 in the nation). That number was more than 60 yards worse than the previous season and 40 yards worse than the 2011 season.
The Wolverines allowed 42 completions of 20-plus yards (69th in the nation) and 23 passing touchdowns (tied for 83rd in the nation). Nearly half of opponent's completions gained at least 10 yards (49.8 percent, 87th in the nation).
One of the few bright spots of the secondary was the number of turnovers forced and the number of near turnovers the Wolverines accounted for -- Stribling, Lewis and Taylor were close on quite a few and though football doesn’t give “almost” points, it still means something when we’re breaking down a position group.
There isn’t an easy fix. However, there is a way to make quarterbacks hesitate on longer or more difficult throws: Put in a playmaker. The Wolverines really haven’t had one in quite a few years. And though it’s not realistic to say that Peppers is definitely going to be that guy for Michigan (he’s not even on campus yet, folks), he certainly has the potential.
Don’t expect Peppers to be the MVP next season. Don’t expect him to singlehandedly make Michigan the best defense in the nation. Don’t expect him to be Superman. But he might show shades of that every now and again, and that will give fans something to be excited about. And, based on how much the secondary struggled last season and knowing how serious Peppers is about wanting to contribute early, expect him to be a starter by Sept. 27, when Michigan opens the Big Ten season against Minnesota.
Other fall predictions:
No. 4: Cornerbacks Channing Stribling and Jourdan Lewis
Weight: 171 pounds
2013 statistics: seven games as a DB, 12 games total, 15 tackles, 1 forced fumble
Weight: 170 pounds
2013 statistics: eight games as a DB, 12 games total, 17 tackles, 2 passes defended
Stribling and Lewis were two of the true freshmen who were able to get quality game reps, especially as the season wore on and both players got more accustomed to the scheme.
Because of their youth and inexperience, they got picked on a bit by opposing quarterbacks, and in most of those instances both players were in a “close but not quite there” situation. But that early experience is going to pay off.
Stribling has the height advantage, but Lewis seemed to be more reliable in jump-ball situations in 2013. Both are guys who could become a part of the foundation of this defense over the upcoming seasons.
Raymon Taylor and Blake Countess return as the starting corners, so what makes these two players’ spring seasons so intriguing to watch is that they’ll likely be battling for playing time behind them. Michigan rotates its corners, so whichever player has the better spring will be first off the bench in substitution and situations where five or six DBs are needed.
The Michigan secondary needs to make major strides. In 2013 the Wolverines allowed 6.93 yards per pass attempt (54th nationally) and 49.8 percent of opponent pass completions went for at least 10 yards (87th nationally). Whether it’s Stribling or Lewis, they’ll need to step up.
However, Michigan’s participation in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl on Dec. 28 can be interpreted as a huge victory for the team, and specifically its youth.
Obviously, beating Kansas State will be put at a premium. But the coaching staff won’t overlook the fact that they’ll get extra practice time with the young players on this team.
There aren’t any special bowl-prep practice rules. Michigan can practice for the bowl as they did during the regular season -- 20 hours a week with a maximum of four hours a day.
And while Michigan isn’t going to scrap its depth chart and only work with the scout team over the next few weeks, it will be a huge opportunity for players who are lower on the depth chart or only played sporadically this season to get more repetitions.
Obviously, the offensive line had a bit of that throughout the season. Six freshmen and sophomores started at least one game this season, and while that created a lot of confusion and growing pains, left tackle Taylor Lewan preached about how much that would help the team in the next few seasons.
So during the next two-and-a-half weeks, young players such as Kyle Kalis, Erik Magnuson and Kyle Bosch will continue that growth. But it will be even more helpful as offensive line coach Darrell Funk is able to work with reserve player such as Ben Braden and Blake Bars or players who redshirted this season such as David Dawson and Patrick Kugler.
It’s the same story for the defense. Freshmen defensive backs Jourdan Lewis and Channing Stribling, linebacker Ben Gedeon and defensive lineman Taco Charlton each played this season, but during that time they were targeted by opposing teams from time to time specifically because they were freshmen.
And then there are players such as running backs Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith and tight end Jake Butt, who made large contributions by the end of the season, but didn’t really get the full season of experience as a first or second-stringer.
This cluster of practices will be like an extra three game weeks.
“A lot of these young guys have earned a right to play, and it didn’t start out the first week,” Mattison said. “It has been throughout the season, so every chance they get to play another game and to have this practice time is tremendous for us.”
While the 7-5 season isn’t what the Wolverines had hoped for, they’ll be able to use this as a new season going forward, a chance to go 1-0.
The fact that so many freshmen and sophomores played this fall shows how confident Hoke and his staff are in the job they’ve done on the recruiting trail.
“We’re very, very excited about our football team and we feel very strongly that the young men that we’ve recruited in the two or three years that we’ve been here now are the right young men,” Mattison said. “Now, it’s getting that experience. … You can’t put a price tag on these 15 more practices where you can gain on individual drills and become a smarter football player.”
The driver's seat in the Legends division is up for grabs Saturday in East Lansing, and the Spartans have a bit of head start going in to that race. Here are five things to keep your eyes on as Michigan and Michigan State take the field in Spartan Stadium...
1. The offense's productivity. The Wolverines offense had a ridiculous showing against Indiana. And yes, that was Indiana, but it definitely got in a groove, and if it can keep up any of that momentum, it'll be a very good thing. The Spartans defense is giving up just 216 yards per game, so while the Wolverines most likely won't be able to put up 700-plus yards again, getting even one third of that total could tilt the scale in Michigan's favor. The main key here is going to be getting the attack started up front with a rushing attack. Whether that be via running back Fitzgerald Toussaint (what Michigan really wants) or quarterback Devin Gardner (less desired, but possibly more likely), the Wolverines need to make sure its rushing attack can open up the passing game.
2. Speaking of the Michigan passing game... That's also key. Basically every aspect of the offense and every player within the offense is key in order for Michigan to have a chance in this game. The Spartans have recorded nine interceptions in eight games and their secondary is led by senior Darqueze Dennard, who has two interceptions and seven pass breakups. Gardner is going to need to take his shots downfield and when called upon, Jeremy Gallon and Devin Funchess will need to rise to the occasion in order to make those shots count. Gardner has gone one game without an interception. If he can get through a second consecutive game --especially considering the second game is coming against the Spartans -- that would be a big, big deal.
3. The Spartans pass rush. It only makes sense that the first three things to watch about this game are in regard to the MSU defense because it's very, very good. If Michigan's offense is very good, then it'll be interesting to watch because of how well-played the game could be, but if Michigan's offense isn't good, then the Spartans defense will be making plays and providing highlights. But keep an eye on the pass rush because if Gardner throws an interception, it'll likely be because he gets forced out of the pocket because of the MSU pass rush. The Spartans have recorded 18 sacks this season, 13 of those coming from four defensive linemen -- Shilique Calhoun, Marcus Rush, Tyler Hoover and Denzel Drone.
4. Michigan defense's response. Enough talk of the MSU defense; let's discuss the Wolverines' defense -- which needs to make a big statement after the unimpressive performance against Indiana. The Michigan defensive line, which hasn't provided a consistent pass rush, will attempt to get MSU quarterback Connor Cook out of his comfort zone. But it'll need to be stout against the run too, as Jeremy Langford is really coming in to his own at running back.
5. The environment. Spartan Stadium is going to be rocking. "Comments" are going to be flying between the two teams. And the Wolverines, who've looked far from consistent on the road this season, will be thrown right in the middle of it. Redshirt freshman Erik Magnuson and true freshman Kyle Bosch will likely be starting on the offensive line. Funchess, a sophomore, will be expected to make big plays. Freshman Derrick Green could be used to pick up some yardage. And freshmen Channing Stribling and Jourdan Lewis, who've been so close to making plays in the Wolverines secondary, could get picked apart if they aren't on their 'A' games. This will be a big moment on a huge stage, and anything less than perfect could spell disaster for Michigan.
Devin Gardner isn’t Denard Robinson, but don’t expect him to sit in the pocket. With so little depth behind Gardner at the QB position, most people thought it would be smart to keep Gardner as safe as possible -- meaning in the pocket. However, he showed on Saturday that he wasn’t afraid to take off and scramble, even if it means eventually being hit. The Wolverines weren’t primarily under center by any means and ran some very quick offense, especially early in the game. Keeping Gardner’s offensive options open will keep the Wolverines as a team that’s tough to game plan for, even without Robinson on the roster.
The defensive line has gotten better. The Wolverines have been talking about how much their D-line improved over the offseason and that getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks was one of their biggest goals this season. But we’ve heard that before and didn’t see much of a result. However, it seemed as though the Michigan D-line was much improved on Saturday. Granted, these things need to be taken with a grain of salt considering they were facing what could be one of the least talented offensive lines they’ll see all season. But it was a starting point and it showed a lot of promise. The defense accounted for four sacks and two quarterback hurries.
Penalties. Penalties. Penalties. The Wolverines racked up 55 yards worth of penalties, which isn’t a very good sign. Those are yards that they just gave over to CMU and while the Chippewas weren’t able to capitalize on those opportunities, plenty of Big Ten teams would be glad to. While the Wolverines’ youth has been a good thing, the substitution infractions, false starts and blocks in the back would be the flipside of that kind of inexperience.
It was over when: it started. Yes, Gardner threw an interception, but even when the Wolverines weren’t looking spectacular, there was never really any serious worry that this would be anything other than a blowout. Central Michigan running back Zurlon Tipton (who was held to just four carries for 10 yards) exited the game during the first quarter and QB Cody Kater followed his running back to the sideline not long after. With their biggest offensive threat and their first-string quarterback on the sideline, the Chippewas really didn’t stand much of a chance.
Game ball goes to: Wide receiver Jeremy Gallon. The senior had only four catches, but this game proved his prowess in this Michigan offense. While he’s not exactly the fit the Wolverines want at WR (he’s only 5-foot-8 … on a good day), he proved to be Gardner’s security blanket with glue for hands and a vertical that few defensive backs can match. He accounted for one 16-yard touchdown reception before exiting the game with a big Michigan lead.
Stat of the game: 35-point run. From the beginning of the second quarter until the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Wolverines went on a 35-0 scoring run. The Chippewas’ scoring drought lasted 27:24 and was a combination of Michigan’s defense (the Wolverines accounted for three sacks, one interception and one QB hurry during that drought) and a struggling CMU offense, devoid of its starting quarterback and running back (backup QB Alex Niznak was 5-of-8 during that time but CMU only accounted for 10 rushing yards).
Unsung hero: Kyle Kalis. In his first start at right guard for the Wolverines, the redshirt freshman excelled. Michigan accounted for 242 rushing yards -- much of which was behind the 302-pound guard while he was in.
What Michigan learned: It’s hard to really say too much considering one of the biggest takeaways from this game is that the Wolverines were able to beat a team they should beat. But in a game that gave the Wolverines the ability to get younger, inexperienced guys on the field, they were able to figure out that some of those guys might be able to be contributors this year. Shane Morris looked serviceable as a backup QB. Dymonte Thomas blocked a punt that was returned for a touchdown on the opening series. Derrick Green looked solid in the run game. Channing Stribling appeared stout in the secondary. These are all guys who can use this kind of experience to build on as the season goes on.
What Central Michigan learned: Life’s hard without Eric Fisher. The No. 1 overall pick in last year’s NFL draft gave the Chippewas a continuity and strength on the offensive line that just isn’t there this season. Central Michigan only accounted for 144 passing yards and 66 rushing yards and much of that came after the Wolverines began to call up their second- and third-string guys.
What are the main things you're looking for this spring?
Brady Hoke: Well, you know, we've got a lot of open spaces. Some guys graduated, some guys aren't with the program anymore and we've got a lot of young guys. I think we only have 11 starters back on both sides of the ball, so there's going to be a lot of great competition, which is exciting. I think the leadership of our seniors, they've done a nice job of holding everybody accountable. But when you get out there with the pads on, it's a little different than just running around in shorts.
BH: Well, I think the interior of both lines, there's going to be a lot of competition. We've got to find a center, and that's between [Jack] Miller and [Graham] Glasgow, and Joey Burzynski will try to figure that out a little bit, too. At the guard positions, Ben Braden is going to move down inside and start out at the left guard, but he'll have a lot of competition because Burzynski is back and so is Blake Bars. Kyle Kalis will move into the right side, and it will be interesting again with [Kyle] Bosch and some of the guys who have been here a little bit. I think it will be a really good competition at all three of those inside positions.
Having Taylor [Lewan] back is huge. I think it's great for him and great for Michigan. Mike Schofield has had a really good winter. He had some real bright spots during the course of last season, and I think his development is going to be something special.
You mentioned the defensive line, where you also lost a couple of veterans. How does that shape up?
BH: I think inside, we get Jibreel Black for another year and Quinton Washington. But once you get through that, there are a lot of young guys ... Willie Henry, Ondre Pipkins, Ryan Glasgow, Richard Ash and Chris Wormley are all guys who can either play the inside tackle or the strongside end. We'll find out the guys who are competitive. Tommy Strobel is another guy we think had a real good winter, and Keith Heitzman. So it's going to be fun to see them compete.
Does having so many young guys in key spots on the line make you nervous? Or do you have a lot of confidence in them because you recruited most of them?
BH: I think it makes you nervous if you think you may have recruited the wrong guys. But we like the work ethic. We like how they've come in to learn and with a lot of enthusiasm. I think there's some competitiveness that we need to keep pushing as a program. You know, we lost five games on the road. We've played pretty well at home but we've got to do better on the road and that's a mindset, a mentality that you have to compete through everything, on every down.
Devin Gardner goes into spring practice as your starting quarterback. How has he developed as a leader?
BH: I have been really excited about the progress he's made. I'm seeing that maturity that it takes and the leadership it takes and the competitiveness it takes to be the quarterback at Michigan. I think that's a real big part of how he's grown, and I think he's done a nice job with it. I'm liking the direction he's going, and hopefully he can just keep going and keep growing.
What about your running back position this spring, with Fitz Toussaint hurt and Derrick Green not there yet?
BH: You know, Fitz has come along pretty well. I don't think he'll do a lot of contact or anything like that, but I think he'll be cleared for a lot more drill work. That's gone real well. We've moved [Dennis] Norfleet back to running back and we're going to give him an opportunity. Dennis, he's a smaller guy, but he's a very competitive, very tough young man. Drake Johnson is a guy we redshirted a year ago, and we really liked the way he competed in scout situations. In the bowl practices, we did some scrimmages and gave him a lot of carries, and we're very excited about what he has to offer.
Thomas Rawls is coming back, and I think he learned a lot last year about the vision he needs to play with, and I like how he's competed through the [winter]. And Justice Hayes is a guy who gives you a little bit different look because of how he can get on the perimeter. He did some things in a couple of games last year, but now I think he'll have a big stage to prove himself more this spring. And he's a bigger guy now, he's 190-something pounds, so he's a little bigger.
BH: Yeah, I think so. First of all, I think the leadership with Gallon and Drew Dileo, they've done a really nice job being leaders at that position. They're not big guys, but they have a real spirit for the game and really do a nice job of working and leading. We have Amara Darboh, who played a little last year, and Jehu Chesson, who we redshirted a year ago. And I think Jeremy Jackson has had a very good winter; we're very excited about some of the progress he's made. Joe Reynolds is a guy who walked on here, and he's done a very nice job. And Bo Dever, his dad played here and he walked on. I think that during the course of the spring, we'll be in pretty good shape there. I think as we keep going, we'll keep improving at that position.
Linebacker was a strength for you last year and looks to be so again. Do you see some good competition there this spring, particularly at the weakside spot?
BH: Yeah, I think with Desmond Morgan and James Ross, there's going to be great competition. Joe Bolden and Royce Jenkins-Stone and Mike Jones are all guys who are very competitive, and I think the three young guys coming in are going to be guys who will give us a lot of good competition and a lot of good depth. Kaleb Ringer is coming back from injury, so we'll see what he can give us. At the sam linebacker, Jake [Ryan] is coming back, and we really like what Cam Gordon has done during the winter. So I think we feel a little stronger at that position.
How do you replace what Jordan Kovacs gave you in the secondary?
BH: I don't know if you ever replace that kind of leadership, but I really think Thomas Gordon, he's played a lot of football here, and it's time for him to demonstrate the leadership. And he's doing that. Because of the number of snaps and everything he's done, he's really fallen into his own a little bit. Courtney Avery has played a lot of football, and whether he's a corner a nickel or wherever, he's got to give us great leadership and great reps. Blake Countess is getting healthier; he'll do some things during the spring. Josh Furman, I think, has come on.
We've got to see where Terry Richardson is and where Marvin Robinson is. Both those guys have played a number of snaps. We've got Raymon Taylor back, who I think started every game for us last year, we're excited about his development. Dymonte Thomas is a guy who's going to compete, and he'll pressure some guys. Jarrod Wilson is another guy who played some last year for us. Ross Douglas is here early. Jeremy Clark is a 6-foot-4, 210-pound safety we redshirted a year ago, and it's going to be a big spring for him to make some moves.
So I think we may have more personnel back there. And even more in the fall when Channing Stribling gets in, and Reon Dawson gets in and Jourdan Lewis. I think it's going to add something to our secondary.
Finally, what has your message been to the team this offseason after last year's 8-5 season?
BH: Well, our message has been, we haven't met the expectations at Michigan. That's something that as a football community… that we really feel that we have to do a much better job in all areas, from the coaching aspect of it, from learning and playing with the competitiveness we want to have, from every player at every position playing with the intensity we want to play with. It's about having a mindset and a mentality of how we want to play the game. We make no excuses, but at the same time, we know we have a lot we can do to play better football.
Ohio State got: The Buckeyes were praised nationally for their wide receiver/athlete, linebacker and defensive line positions, but there’s no doubt the defensive backfield is the headliner of the 2013 recruiting class. From ESPN 150 cornerbacks Eli Apple (Voorhees, N.J./Eastern) and Cam Burrows (Trotwood, Ohio/Trotwood-Madison) to other ESPN 150 defensive backs such as Gareon Conley (Massillon, Ohio/Washington) and Vonn Bell (Rossville, Ga./Ridgeland), Ohio State is loaded in the secondary. The fact ESPN 300 safety Jayme Thompson (Toledo, Ohio/Central Catholic) is the fifth-best DB on the list shows just how strong the unit is. Add three-star safety Darron Lee (New Albany, Ohio/New Albany), who is ranked 22nd at his position, and Ohio State’s strength will come in air defense for the next four to five years.
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Mattison has coached at all levels and knows the type of player he needs on his defense to be a national contender. Through recruiting the coaching staff has been working to get back to that talent level on defense, and a big part of those efforts have been with recruiting the right type of defensive backs.
“First thing is we always want to be a pressure team, but we want to pressure more when we want to, not because we have to,” he said. “To do that you have to be able to play zone and you have to be able to play some straight man.”
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That concern was evident on the recruiting trail as Michigan currently has six defensive back commits for 2013, five of which will likely be corners. The secondary in general is a younger position group, so competition for a few spots might be up for grabs in the future.
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This was considered a position of strength entering last season, with two experienced corners getting ready to man their positions and have breakout years. It didn’t really take place as Blake Countess missed all but one game of the season with an injury and J.T. Floyd was consistent but didn’t make the next leap.
Now, entering next season, Michigan is in the same position. It has two starting cornerbacks ready to jump up a talent level and a bunch of guys behind them who are talented but don’t have much experience at all.
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1.) The Big Ten season is on the horizon, here's your chance to make one bold prediction regarding the Wolverines' conference schedule. What is it? Michael Rothstein: This fits with Michigan and the rest of the Big Ten, actually, but no team in the league finishes with fewer than two losses. The conference itself is mediocre from top to bottom, and frankly, Michigan might still be the best team in the league. It certainly has been tested the most. But as far as the Wolverines go, Michigan's leading tackler this season will not be Jordan Kovacs, but the guy next to him, Thomas Gordon.
Tom Van Haaren: With this conference I don't know if any prediction is really bold. Michigan has a chance, I think, to make it to the Big Ten championship game. The key will most likely be on Oct. 20 when Michigan takes on Michigan State. So my bold prediction will be that Michigan beats Michigan State at home to end the losing streak.
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Coaches Contending For 'King Of Spring'
BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
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