Michigan Wolverines: Chris Streveler

Big Ten Monday mailbag

April, 21, 2014
Apr 21
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I've got less than a week left in my 30s. No time for pithy intros. Hit me:

Chris from Augusta, Maine, writes: Michigan fans are clamoring for success. It seems like the main thing holding them back are the lines. The '13 O-line haul was one of the better recruiting position groups I can remember across the country with guys like Kyle Kalis, Kyle Bosch, Patrick Kugler, LTT (Logan Tuley-Tillman), David Dawson, etc. And, quality guys on the D-line like Ondre Pipkins, Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley, Bryan Mone, Lawrence Marshall, Henry Poggi, etc. are there. So, it seems like the solutions to the problem are all in place; they are just young and/or developing. When will these two position groups develop enough to make Michigan become a 10-win type team again and actually return to being a regular conference contender?

Brian Bennett: Some good points, Chris. Our microwave society doesn't allow for a lot of patience anymore, but developing players in the trenches almost always takes time. Brady Hoke and his staff inherited a program that didn't have much depth at all on the offensive line. Michigan was playing a three-man front on defense, so a transition was expected. On the flip side, you could argue that Hoke is now entering Year 4, and his highly ranked recruiting classes have yet to yield many superstars. It's not impossible for young players to contribute early on the lines -- look at what Noah Spence, Adolphus Washington and especially Joey Bosa did as true freshmen on Ohio State's defensive front the past two seasons.

But there's also a reason why coaches like Mark Dantonio often redshirt as many guys on the lines as possible. Michigan has some intriguing talent on the D-line -- Charlton, in particular, looked like a beast this spring -- while the O-line is still stacked with redshirt freshmen and sophomores. If those players can develop, the Wolverines could turn both areas into a strength in a year or two, assuming fans can wait that long.


Nick from East Lansing, Mich., writes: To preface this, I recently graduated from MSU, had season tickets and loved the football program, so this isn't coming from jealousy. It seems the tone from you, Adam, and Spartans fans in general that people believe the offense will carry the Spartans this year. I just don't see their offense being that good. Looking back at the championship game and the Rose Bowl, MSU was very lucky that their offense didn't cost them those games. Cook made quite a few poor decisions that hit defenders in the hand. If they had held on to those balls, MSU's season does not end the way it did. It seems that because MSU won those games, people are willing to forget how close the offense was to losing those games. The MSU offense will be better than at the start of last year, but I believe it is more likely to be in the bottom half of the B1G than the top.

Brian Bennett: Nick, it sounds like you are scarred emotionally from 2012. Look, no one is saying Michigan State will suddenly become a run 'n' gun team that wins a bunch of shootouts. Even if it had that kind of offensive skill, Dantonio doesn't want to play that way. But the fact is the offense returns almost all of its production from last season, when it averaged close to 30 points per game in Big Ten play. There's every reason to believe that side of the ball can hold its own or even carry the team at times if a more inexperienced defense needs a few games to jell.

Connor Cook admitted to me that he got lucky last year that some of his passes weren't picked off, but he was also a first-year starter who should make better decisions this year because of his experience. The tight ends should become more of a weapon for the team and provide some safety valves. If the offensive line can come together, this can be a very good offense, perhaps even as good as the one from 2011 that averaged 31 points per game and finished third in the Big Ten in scoring en route to a Legends Division title.

And lastly, I find your characterization of last season's final two games to be off base. The Spartans scored 34 points in the Big Ten championship game vs. Ohio State and then put up 24 against an outstanding Stanford defense, one that was No. 4 in the FBS against the run coming into the game. Michigan State scored more points against Stanford than Oregon or UCLA did. That's more than just "lucky."


Patrick D. via Twitter writes: Who sees more snaps at QB for #IUFB in 2014? Tre Roberson or Nate Sudfeld?

Brian Bennett: This might be the toughest mailbag question of the year. No joke. Indiana's quarterback situation is one of the most confounding ones I've ever seen, and even coach Kevin Wilson can't figure out who should start or play more. It's clear at this point that both Sudfeld and Roberson will play again in 2014, and the Hoosiers might just ride the hot hand. Wilson told me that Sudfeld may look a little better at times in practice, but Roberson can't truly shine in a practice setting because his elusiveness doesn't factor in when coaches call plays dead once a defender gets near a quarterback. If forced to guess, I'll pick Sudfeld for the most snaps, since he just looks like a future NFL quarterback and he played a lot more than Roberson last season. But this is what you'd call a constantly evolving situation, and the good news for Indiana is it somehow works.


Nick H. via Twitter writes: Thoughts on the Minnesota quarterback situation? Does Mitch Leidner stay the starter through the full year or does Chris Streveler dethrone him?

Brian Bennett: I'm more bullish on Leidner than most, including Rittenberg. I see a big, strong guy who can really run and should improve as a passer, and Leidner's improved leadership skills this offseason should serve him well. Yet there's no question that Minnesota's passing game needs to take a giant leap forward, and the disappointing performance in the Gophers' spring game did nothing to change that opinion. Jerry Kill has proved that he's not afraid to play more than one quarterback, and by running so much, Leidner will be more at risk for injury. So while I expect him to remain the starter, it wouldn't surprise me to see someone else under center at key times in 2014.


Tom from North Jersey writes: We all know Rutgers has gaps to fill to catch up to most of the Big Ten teams on the field, but based on your time with the Big East blog, what improvements do they need to make to catch up?

Brian Bennett: My last season covering the Big East was 2010, and I haven't followed Rutgers in great detail in the interim simply because there's little time to pay attention to teams outside the Big Ten. But from what I've seen and what I remember about the Scarlet Knights, I think the first major upgrade has to come at quarterback. Rutgers has consistently been able to field pretty good defenses but only occasionally has been dangerous on offense, and shaky quarterback play has been a big reason why. There's an open competition for that job this spring, though Gary Nova has a huge experience edge. The hiring of Ralph Friedgen as offensive coordinator is a reason for optimism, and if anybody can fix Nova, it's Friedgen. Rutgers will also need more depth and talent on both lines in order to compete on a weekly basis in the Big Ten.

Big Ten lunchtime links

March, 12, 2014
Mar 12
12:00
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Happy Patriot League tournament final day.
Spring football kicks off earlier than normal in the Big Ten, as Michigan takes the field Tuesday, Northwestern follows Wednesday and eight other squads begin their sessions by March 8.

The accelerated schedules seem appropriate in a league filled with players, coaches and teams itching for fresh starts.

New assistants get their first chance to repair struggling units, whether it's Doug Nussmeier with Michigan's offense, Brian Knorr with Indiana's defense or Chris Ash and Larry Johnson with a once-feared Ohio State defense. Quarterback competitions begin or resume at nine places, as new faces such as Illinois' Wes Lunt, Nebraska's Johnny Stanton and Minnesota's Chris Streveler enter the mix, while veterans like Wisconsin's Joel Stave and Michigan's Devin Gardner try to retain their starting jobs.

Happy Valley continues to buzz about new Penn State coach James Franklin, who seems to galvanize everyone whom he encounters. But Franklin barely has been around his new players and finally begins the real work with a team facing very real challenges.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Jeff HaynesNorthwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald hopes his team can start a rebound from a disappointing, injury-riddled 2013 season.
Spring also allows teams such as Northwestern, Michigan, Purdue and Indiana to look forward after disappointing seasons. Michigan State, meanwhile, continues to bask in the Rose Bowl glow but looks toward its next goal -- a national championship -- as spring ball kicks off March 25.

"It's big-picture stuff, building relationships with the players and everyone associated with the program," Franklin told ESPN.com. "The other thing is laying a really good foundation with the philosophies and schemes of how we're going to do things. That's going to happen naturally over time, but I'm not the most patient person. I wish it would have happened yesterday."

Franklin doesn't water down his goals for Penn State, especially in recruiting, but he's also realistic about the challenges of a reduced roster. The Nittany Lions return strong pieces such as quarterback Christian Hackenberg and defensive back Adrian Amos, but the two-deep has some holes that Franklin and his assistants must address, while installing new schemes.

"It's one thing when you get put in this situation in the first place with limited scholarships," Franklin said, "but the longer you're in it, the more effect it has. We've got some depth issues, there's no doubt about it, across the board. We're going to have to get creative."

Northwestern also is focused on depth after being hit hard by key injuries in 2013. Pat Fitzgerald blames himself and his staff for failing to get enough second-stringers ready, which proved costly in close Big Ten losses.

After their first bowl-less winter in six years, the Wildcats responded well in the weight room, as more than 50 players recorded personal bests. Although 11 players will miss spring practice, including standout running back/returner Venric Mark, the depth should be better in areas like the secondary.

"We're really emphasizing taking ownership of the finish," Fitzgerald said. "Finishing your technique, finishing the call, finishing the route. There's a lot of disappointment in the way the program didn't take the next step forward."

Michigan coach Brady Hoke restructured the roles of his defensive assistants for 2014, but the Wolverines' offense will be in the spotlight this spring after a wildly inconsistent season. Gardner, who continues to recover from a foot injury and likely won't be 100 percent until midway through the spring, will compete with Shane Morris, Russell Bellomy and midyear enrollee Wilton Speight.

But other positions, such as offensive line, figure to be just as important as Michigan tries to achieve Hoke and Nussmeier's vision.

"We had good intentions as far as what we wanted our identity to be, but obviously I don't think it came out the way we'd like it to," Hoke said. "The quarterback position is as important as any, and we have a guy [Gardner] who is very talented and had some really good games and games where we had to protect him better, have a better run game and take pressure off of him, and I don't think we did."

While Michigan turns the page on offense, Ohio State focuses on a defense that allowed 115 points in its last three games and finished 110th nationally in pass yards allowed (268 YPG). The Buckeyes lost top defenders Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby, but they also added two accomplished assistants.

Johnson, who churned out NFL linemen during 18 years at Penn State, chose Ohio State instead of remaining in State College. Ash leaves a sole coordinator role at Arkansas for a co-coordinator role at Ohio State, where he'll work with the embattled Luke Fickell and others to mend the defense through a simplified scheme.

"Back in the day when Ohio State played great defense, you knew what you were going to get," Ash said. "They played with swagger, played with confidence, played with toughness. We have to get back to that. The simplicity of the things we're going to do will lead to faster players, more plays made and a more aggressive defense.

"I wasn't here [in 2013], but I can tell you what Coach Meyer has told me, what Luke Fickell has told me and what I watch on film. I can see there's some hesitation, there's some uncertainty. Why that is, I don't know. But it's my job to get it fixed."

Purdue has plenty to fix after a 1-11 season, and players not surprisingly are wearing T-shirts with the word "FORWARD" on the backs. Maryland and Rutgers move forward to a new conference after an offseason that saw several staff changes, including new coordinators at Rutgers (Ralph Friedgen, Joe Rossi).

There's a fresh start of sorts at Wisconsin, as a large and decorated senior class departs. Coach Gary Andersen's markings will be more obvious with his second team, which begins practice March 7.

Wisconsin is just one of many places where the top quarterback job is at stake. Lunt, who sat out last season after transferring from Oklahoma State, competes with Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey at Illinois.

"Competition's competition, no matter where it's at," said Lunt, who has added about 15 pounds since his arrival and checks in at 225. "It's different because it’s different people, different coaches, but I'm excited for it."

He's not alone in the Big Ten. Spring ball can't start soon enough.
Believe it or not, spring football in the Big Ten is just around the corner. Several teams moved up their spring practice dates, and three of them -- Maryland, Michigan and Northwestern -- will take the field next week.

Spring ball is all about development, and some position groups need to make significant strides before the summer.

Here are five ...

Illinois' defensive line: Coach Tim Beckman kept his defensive staff in place for what should be a make-or-break season in Champaign. Coordinator Bill Cubit's presence should stabilize the offense despite the loss of quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, so the season likely hinges on whether the defense improves. There are some nice returning pieces at linebacker, but the line needs a boost after Illinois finished last in the Big Ten and 116th nationally against the run. Lineman Paul James, who originally signed with Illinois in 2013 but delayed his enrollment until January, is among those who will take the field this spring. There's plenty of competition throughout the line, and while help arrives this summer with Jihad Ward and others, Illinois needs some linemen to emerge right away.

Michigan's offensive line: Despite a first-round draft pick at left tackle (Taylor Lewan), Michigan's front five struggled mightily during the 2013 season, as young players didn't blossom quickly enough and the team couldn't consistently run the ball between the tackles. Coordinator Al Borges took the fall, but line coach Darrell Funk and his group will be under the microscope when the Wolverines begin spring practice Feb. 25. Michigan started nine different linemen in 2013 and used five lineup combinations. As tackles Lewan and Michael Schofield both depart, every position is up for grabs this spring. It will also be interesting to see how new coordinator Doug Nussmeier makes an impact on the line.

[+] EnlargeNebraska vs Minnesota
Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY SportsMitch Leidner is the only quarterback with college game experience on the Minnesota roster.
Minnesota's quarterbacks: At least nine Big Ten teams will have true quarterback competitions this spring, but arguably none has as much mystery as Minnesota. Philip Nelson's transfer following the season creates a wide-open race between Mitch Leidner, Chris Streveler, Conor Rhoda and Dimonic Roden-McKinzy, a dynamic, dual-threat quarterback who enrolled mid-year and will participate in spring practice. Leidner is the only quarterback with college game experience, appearing in 10 games last fall and recording 1,026 yards (619 passing, 403 rushing). Perhaps Leidner separates himself, but no matter what, Minnesota wants a clearer picture coming out of the spring.

Ohio State's linebackers: Coach Urban Meyer has made it very clear that Ohio State's linebacker play has fallen short of program standards. Meyer singled out the linebacker position in the 2014 recruiting class, saying on national signing day, "Far too many mistakes have been made in either lack of development or whatever, and it's just not where we need to be." Ohio State loses by far its best linebacker in Ryan Shazier, so there's pressure on returnees such as Curtis Grant, Joshua Perry and Camren Williams, as well as newcomers such as five-star prospect Raekwon McMillan, a mid-year enrollee who will be on the field this spring. Meyer said there are no redshirt plans for McMillan or the other three linebackers in the 2014 class.

Wisconsin's wide receivers: The Badgers' quarterback competition likely will garner more attention, but whoever emerges under center will need more options in the passing game. Jared Abbrederis has been Wisconsin's wide receiving corps for the past two season, and he'll be playing in the NFL this fall. You can only get by so much with pass-catching tight ends and running backs, so receivers coach Chris Beatty and his group need a strong spring session. Jordan Fredrick, Kenzel Doe and Alex Erickson lead the returnees, but Wisconsin needs young players such as speedster Robert Wheelwright to emerge. Help is on the way this summer as several promising recruits arrive, but Wisconsin can't pin its hopes exclusively on incoming freshmen.
The last two seasons have shown that two-quarterback systems can work in the Big Ten.

Northwestern recorded 10 wins in 2012 while rotating Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian. Indiana led the Big Ten and ranked ninth nationally in total offense last fall while alternating between Tre Roberson and Nate Sudfeld.

[+] EnlargeJoey Bosa, Connor Cook
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesAfter taking over the quarterback job in Week 5, Connor Cook led the Spartans to 10 consecutive wins.
Given the recent success, my next statement might surprise you: Every Big Ten team would be best served picking one quarterback and sticking with him in 2014. That includes Indiana and Northwestern.

Quarterback rotations can be successful in the short term, but they are rarely sustainable or desirable. We saw this at Northwestern last fall, as the Wildcats never established a consistent offensive rhythm and operated with a reduced playbook, in part because of injuries but also because the unit lacked a clear identity. Northwestern finished 10th in the league in scoring.

Minnesota alternated between quarterbacks Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner during several games, including the Texas Bowl against Syracuse. Although the Gophers had a nice surge during Big Ten play and recorded eight wins, they also finished 11th in the league in scoring and last in passing.

Nebraska had some success using two quarterbacks (Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Ron Kellogg III) last season but did so out of necessity following Taylor Martinez's injury. The Huskers also struggled to pass the ball, finishing 11th in the league.

The strongest argument for picking a quarterback and sticking with him comes from the Big Ten's best team in 2013. Michigan State's offense was a train wreck in non-league play as the Spartans used three quarterbacks. After a Week 4 loss to Notre Dame, the coaches decided Connor Cook would be their guy. You all know what happened next, but what struck me was Cook's mindset at the time.

"We went through spring ball competition and fall camp competition, it was the most stressed out I've ever been in my entire life just trying to be the quarterback," Cook said last month before the Rose Bowl. "After I got the starting job and started a couple of games, the stress went away and it turned to focus, me being focused and knowing they're not going to use other quarterbacks in the game and not stress too much that go if I make a bad play I'm going to be pulled.

"That's when the stress went out the window."

Players like Northwestern's Siemian and Indiana's Roberson and Sudfeld are more accustomed to sharing time than Cook was, but each of them, like any quarterback, would rather be the clear-cut starter.

Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase is another good example of a player who benefited from an unambiguous role. He struggled from the middle of the 2011 season through all of 2012, raising the possibility of a rotation last season. Instead, Scheelhaase started every game and led the Big Ten in passing (3,272 yards).

[+] EnlargeTommy Armstrong Jr.
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsAfter playing well in place of Taylor Martinez, sophomore signal-caller Tommy Armstrong Jr. is the favorite to start for the Cornhuskers in 2014.
I'm all for competition at quarterback, and the Big Ten will feature plenty of it this spring and summer. Only five quarterbacks -- Ohio State's Braxton Miller, Penn State's Christian Hackenberg, Michigan State's Cook, Iowa's Jake Rudock and Michigan's Devin Gardner -- can feel pretty secure about their starting roles. Gardner has been mentioned as a possible rotation candidate with Shane Morris -- some Michigan fans wouldn't mind seeing Gardner line up at wide receiver, a position of need -- but I'd be surprised if Morris leapfrogs the senior.

I'm also OK with teams employing change-up quarterbacks for a package of plays, be it the Wildcat or something else. Michigan State could be a candidate for this in 2014 with dynamic redshirt freshman Damion Terry possibly spelling Cook from time to time.

The first few games also provide a platform to use multiple quarterbacks in settings that can't be replicated on the practice field. Former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel often did this with his younger quarterbacks, giving them a first-half series or two. It makes sense. But by Week 4, roles must be identified.

The offseason is full of Big Ten quarterback questions:

  • Will Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt take the reins at Illinois?
  • How will Gardner and Hackenberg fare with new offensive coordinators?
  • After Nelson's transfer, who emerges at Minnesota among Leidner, Chris Streveler and possibly a young quarterback such as Dimonic McKinzy?
  • Nebraska's Armstrong went 6-1 as a freshman starter, but can he hold off Johnny Stanton?
  • Can Gary Nova retain his job at Rutgers?
  • Will Danny Etling keep the top job at Purdue, or will Austin Appleby and possibly early enrollee David Blough enter the mix?
  • How does Siemian bounce back at Northwestern, and do the Wildcats look at Matt Alviti and Zack Oliver?
  • Will either Roberson or Sudfeld finally separate himself at IU?

Ultimately, these questions must be answered. The teams that avoid prolonged rotations should be better off for it.

Big Ten lunchtime links

August, 5, 2013
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It's a terrible love, and I'm walking with spiders.

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