Michigan Wolverines: Devin Gardner

Earlier this week Sports on Earth took a look at the college football players facing the most pressure entering the 2014 season. The Big Ten occupied three places on the list: Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova; Ohio State cornerbacks Doran Grant and Armani Reeves; and Michigan offensive linemen Kyle Bosch, Jack Miller and Kyle Kalis.

For today's poll, I'll make it a bit simpler for you and simply list five individual Big Ten players facing pressure entering the season. It could be because of struggles last season, competition at their position or key personnel losses around them. Not surprisingly, the list is quarterback-heavy, but there are some other spots represented.

SportsNation

Which Big Ten player is facing the most pressure this season?

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    7%
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    67%
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    6%
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Discuss (Total votes: 7,987)

The candidates, please ...
  • Taylor Decker, OT, Ohio State: Last year, Decker was the young buck on the Big Ten's best offensive line. He's now the only returning starter for a group that will be in the spotlight as it must protect Ohio State's primary asset: senior quarterback Braxton Miller. The Buckeyes also have new blood in the backfield after losing bulldozer Carlos Hyde. Decker has a lot of responsibility to lead the line and maintain the standard set during the past two seasons.
  • Devin Gardner, QB, Michigan: The Wolverine linemen listed in the Sports on Earth piece undoubtedly are under the gun after a poor 2013 season, but so is Gardner. He was the most polarizing player in the Big Ten in terms of performance -- exceptional against Notre Dame, Ohio State and Indiana; shaky to woeful against Akron, Connecticut, Michigan State and Iowa (to be fair, the offensive line gave him little to no help). Now Gardner finds himself needing to wriggle free from Shane Morris, absorb a new offense and get Michigan back on track in his final season in Ann Arbor.
  • Taiwan Jones, LB, Michigan State: The Spartans survived without Max Bullough in the Rose Bowl, but they'll undoubtedly miss the player who defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi often called the "computer" of the unit. Bullough's system knowledge and ability to get his teammates on the same page helped MSU's defense rise to nationally elite levels. That responsibility now falls on Jones, who told Brian Bennett this spring, "Everybody's depending on you. You're that guy."
  • Gary Nova, QB, Rutgers: Nova is the rare three-year starter who finds himself needing to prove himself to fans entering his senior season. He started 10 games last season, but was benched down the stretch and saw his passing yards, touchdowns total and completion percentage dip from 2012. Nova competed with Mike Bimonte and Chris Laviano this spring but emerged from the session as the frontrunner to retain his job. Still, he faces pressure to step up and claim support from a fan base that has debated his merits seemingly for a decade.
  • Joel Stave, QB, Wisconsin: Stave hasn't been on the field for Wisconsin as long as Nova has for Rutgers, but there's a similar dynamic going on. Some Wisconsin fans have Stave fatigue after the quarterback struggled for stretches last season. He loses top target Jared Abbrederis and must overcome a throwing shoulder injury that limited him in the spring. Dual-threat junior Tanner McEvoy is pushing for the starting job, and with so many questions at receiver, the coaches might want more mobility at quarterback.

Key stretch: Michigan

June, 26, 2014
Jun 26
10:30
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The 2014 season continues to creep closer, and we're putting each Big Ten team's schedule under the microscope. Specifically, we're looking at the pivotal three- or four-game stretch in the slate for each league squad.

Next up is Michigan, a team trying to rebound after seeing its win total decline in each of the past two seasons.

Key stretch: Penn State on Oct. 11, at Michigan State on Oct. 25, Indiana on Nov. 1, at Northwestern on Nov. 8

Breakdown: Michigan's three biggest games are road contests against rivals that are nicely spread out -- Notre Dame (Sept. 6), Michigan State (Oct. 25) and Ohio State (Nov. 29) -- so it's a little tougher to identify a key stretch. But the Wolverines have an opportunity to rack up some wins after the Notre Dame contest, as they should be heavily favored against Miami (Ohio), Utah and Rutgers, and they always seems to have Minnesota's number. The key stretch begins with a home night game against Penn State, which stunned Michigan under the lights last year at Beaver Stadium. Like the Wolverines, the Nittany Lions are somewhat of a mystery team, but they have a quarterback (Christian Hackenberg) who gives them a chance.

The open week seems to fall at a good time before Michigan travels to Michigan State for the second consecutive season. Michigan's 29-6 loss last November wasn't nearly as close as the score indicated, as the Wolverines finished with minus-48 rush yards, the lowest single-game total in team history. This year's contest is a huge game for the embattled offensive line and new coordinator Doug Nussmeier.

Michigan can't look past Indiana, which racked up 47 points and 572 yards last year at the Big House. The Northwestern trip also should be tricky as the Wildcats had Michigan beat in each of the last two seasons, only to let the Wolverines off the hook.

Prediction: Michigan is one of the tougher Big Ten teams to gauge, which makes this exercise even more difficult. If the offensive issues stabilize and Michigan has an effective run game to complement Devin Gardner, it could sweep this stretch and challenge for the East Division title. But it's asking a lot for the Wolverines to win in East Lansing, as Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio has been Jim Tressel-like in how he approaches the Michigan rivalry. Michigan has been much better at home than on the road under Brady Hoke. It's 3-1 vs. 2-2 for me, and I'm leaning toward 2-2 for this stretch.
Big Ten reporters Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which one is right.

A couple of weeks ago, we took a look at potential 3,000-yard passers in the Big Ten in 2014. Then we had you vote on who would most likely get to that plateau this season.

The league's leading passer from last season was Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase. He's now pursuing a career in the ministry. No other 3,000-yard passers return, although Penn State's Christian Hackenberg and Michigan's Devin Gardner got very close. So today's Take Two topic is this: Who will lead the Big Ten in passing yards in 2014?

[+] EnlargeNate Sudfeld
AP Photo/Doug McSchoolerIndiana's Nate Sudfeld will have the reins to the Hoosiers' offense to his self next season.
Take 1: Brian Bennett

Hackenberg is the easy answer. But I do worry about his offensive line and the lack of experience at receiver. Gardner also had some monster games last season, but Michigan has many of the same issues as Penn State, and new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier wants to run the ball more.

That's why I'm going with Indiana's Nate Sudfeld. That might sound like a mild surprise, but after last week's announcement that Tre Roberson would transfer, I think Sudfeld is in line for a huge season. Consider that he and Roberson combined to throw for 3,651 yards last season while splitting time. Sudfeld alone passed for over 2,500 yards in just eight starts.

The junior has an NFL-caliber arm and will finally have the offense all to himself, with no other experienced quarterbacks on the roster. The Hoosiers do need to develop some receiving targets after losing Cody Latimer, Kofi Hughes and Ted Bolser to the NFL. Still, coach Kevin Wilson loves to throw the ball, and Sudfeld won't have to look over his shoulder in 2014. I think he'll go more than 3,000 yards and lead the Big Ten in passing yards.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsMichigan State's Connor Cook has most of his offensive weapons returning in 2014.
Take 2: Adam Rittenberg

I'm also tempted to go with Hackenberg, but the questions at line and at receiver, coupled with a new offensive staff, steer me elsewhere. But instead of choosing Sudfeld or Gardner, I'm going with the quarterback who ended his season playing better than any other in the Big Ten (and perhaps the country). Where's the love for Michigan State's Connor Cook?

He's the guy who won MVP honors at both the Big Ten championship game and the Rose Bowl after recording the first two 300-yard passing performances of his career. Although the first performance came against a porous Ohio State secondary, Cook also put up 332 pass yards against Stanford. He finished fourth in the Big Ten in passing yards (2,755), but he only became the clear-cut starter in league play.

Michigan State returns all but one of its core receivers, as well as tight end Josiah Price, an emerging target for Cook late in the season. Coach Mark Dantonio wants to run the ball and has Jeremy Langford back in the fold, but Cook has proven what he can do with the ball in his hands and should get more chances this year. Hackenberg is the best pure passer in the league and Sudfeld might play in the most pass-friendly offense -- although Tevin Coleman's presence could change that -- but I'm going with the hot hand in Cook.

Big Ten's lunch links

June, 4, 2014
Jun 4
12:00
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Happy hump day.
One of the things separating the Big Ten from some of the other power conferences in recent years seems to be elite quarterback play.

Take the 3,000-yard passing mark as an example. The league had just one player reach that plateau both last season (Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase) and in 2012 (Penn State's Matt McGloin). The good news is, some talented quarterbacks returned to Big Ten campuses for the 2014 season. Will any of them reach 3,000 yards?

We took a look at the most likely candidates to do so on Friday, and now we want your opinion. Which of these quarterbacks will throw for 3,000 yards this season?
    SportsNation

    Which of these QBs is most likely to throw for 3,000 yards in 2014?

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      52%
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      20%
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      21%
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      3%
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    Discuss (Total votes: 6,685)

  • Christian Hackenberg, Penn State: He finished just 45 yards shy of 3,000 as a true freshman, and that was without the benefit of a 13th game. Hackenberg should get to 3,000 during his career, but will it be this season when he learns a new offensive system and loses favorite target Allen Robinson?
  • Devin Gardner, Michigan: You might not necessarily think of Gardner as an elite passer, but he finished with five more passing yards than Hackenberg and would have easily surpassed 3,000 had he been healthy for the Wolverines' bowl game. Like Hackenberg, though, he loses his best receiver (Jeremy Gallon) and has a new offensive coordinator (Doug Nussmeier).
  • Connor Cook, Michigan State: Cook came on strong at the end of the season with consecutive 300-yard passing days in the Big Ten championship game and Rose Bowl. Unlike last season, he'll hit the ground running as the starter and should lead a much improved Spartans passing game.
  • C.J. Brown, Maryland: The pros: Brown is an experienced senior with two standout receivers in Stefon Diggs and Deon Long. The cons: Neither Brown nor his wideouts have been able to stay healthy for an entire season together.
  • Wes Lunt, Illinois: Lunt hasn't even been named the starter yet, but we expect that to happen. He started as a true freshman at Oklahoma State before transferring to the Illini, and Bill Cubit's spread offense took Scheelhaase's numbers to a whole new level. It could do the same for Lunt.

Vote now in our poll.
In the past two days, we have looked at the most likely 1,000-yard rushers and 1,000-yard receivers in the Big Ten for 2014. That leaves one major offensive statistical milestone to examine: 3,000-yard passers.

Quarterbacks who throw for 3,000 yards in the Big Ten aren't quite as rare as, say, a snow leopard, but they don't come around all that frequently, either. After all, this is a league associated with three yards and a cloud of dust, not 3,000 yards and a chem trail.

But the passing game continues to take on more and more importance throughout college football, and the conference is not immune despite producing just one 3,000-yard passer in each of the past two seasons (Penn State's Matt McGloin in 2012, Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase in 2013). Who might reach that prestigious mark in 2014? Let's take our best guesses, in order of most likely:

  • Christian Hackenberg, Penn State (2,955 passing yards in 2013): Hackenberg very nearly got to the 3k level as a true freshman, which is all the more remarkable considering the Nittany Lions didn't have the benefit of a bowl game. He probably won't get a 13th game again this season barring an NCAA surprise but should continue to improve as a sophomore and is the most gifted young quarterback in the Big Ten. The big question mark is whether his young receiving corps and a thin offensive line can help him out.
  • [+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
    AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallDespite some struggles, Michigan's Devin Gardner almost hit the 3,000-yard passing mark in 2013.
    Devin Gardner, Michigan (2,960): For all the faults people found in Gardner's game in 2013, he still almost reached 3,000 yards and would have certainly done so had he been healthy for the bowl game. He won't have favorite target Jeremy Gallon around and just about everybody else on offense is young. But he has shown he can put up big numbers when he's healthy and protecting the ball.
  • Connor Cook, Michigan State (2,755): Cook never had a 300-yard passing day before the Big Ten championship game; then he turned in two straight in winning MVP honors in Indianapolis and again in the Rose Bowl. A 14-game schedule helped get him close to 3,000 yards, but don't forget that he didn't begin the season as the starter or gain the coaches' confidence until late September. He'll have a lot more on his plate this season, and the junior could gobble up some major yardage.
  • C.J. Brown, Maryland (2,242): Brown arguably has the best two wide receivers in the Big Ten if -- and this is a big, blaring, neon if -- Stefon Diggs and Deon Long stay healthy. Avoiding injury is also a big key for Brown, who missed a pair of games last season. But the senior could be poised for a massive season if everything breaks right.
  • Wes Lunt, Illinois (1,108 yards for Oklahoma State): Lunt has yet to throw a pass for the Fighting Illini and hasn't played a down in two years. Yet he showed his immense potential as a true freshman for the Cowboys in 2012, and Bill Cubit's offense provides tremendous opportunities for quarterbacks to put up numbers (see Scheelhaase last season). Lunt still has to officially win the job, and the team must find playmakers at receiver. But who in the world thought Scheelhaase would lead the Big Ten in passing in 2013 this time last year?
  • Nate Sudfeld (2,523) or Tre Roberson (1,128), Indiana: If we believed either of these guys would hold the job full-time all season, a 3,000-yard season would be a no-brainer. The Hoosiers have juggled quarterbacks the past two years, with their signal-callers combining to go over 3,000 yards both seasons behind a prolific passing attack. Alas, you never quite know who will take the snaps or when Kevin Wilson will decide to make a change. Sudfeld is a better bet as a 3,000-yard passer since Roberson brings more of a running element to the table, but either could post sky-high stats if given the reins every Saturday.
  • Trevor Siemian, Northwestern (2,149): Siemian surpassed 2,000 yards last season despite splitting time at quarterback with Kain Colter. Now that the job is his alone, the Wildcats should become much more of a passing team to suit his skills. That could equal a big-time bump in Siemian's numbers.
  • Gary Nova, Rutgers (2,159): The first thing Nova has to do is stop throwing the ball to the other team, as he did 14 times in just 10 games last season. And he has to, you know, secure the job in the Scarlet Knights' quarterback derby. But he threw for nearly 2,700 yards in 2012, and now gets renowned quarterback guru Ralph Friedgen to guide him. So it's possible he could finally put it all together.
  • Braxton Miller, Ohio State (2,094): Miller would need to improve his numbers by almost 1,000 yards, and that's after a 14-game season by the Buckeyes. But he did miss basically three full games last season, and Ohio State wants to become a more dangerous downfield passing team. The senior missed spring practice with a shoulder injury but has worked hard on his mechanics. Don't put anything past the two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year.
The unofficial start of summer begins this holiday weekend, but we're dreaming about the fall. With that in mind, we're looking at the most indispensable players on each Big Ten team.

By indispensable, we don't necessarily mean best. We mean the players who would be hardest to replace between now and the start of the season if they got hurt/suspended/involved in a time-travel mishap, etc. That could be because of their value to the team or because of a lack of depth at their position.

We'll pick two players from each team, usually offense and defense, but not always. Our next stop in the series is the Michigan Wolverines.

[+] EnlargeDevin Funchess
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesA lack of depth at the position makes Devin Funchess an invaluable asset to Michigan's offense.
Devin Funchess, WR, Jr.

It's tempting to pick the other Devin here and go with quarterback Devin Gardner. And maybe that would be the smarter call. But Brady Hoke keeps insisting that Shane Morris has made progress and is catching up to Gardner, so the Wolverines could weather a prolonged absence from Gardner. Depth is a much more pressing issue at the position Funchess plays. After losing Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo to graduation and Jake Butt to injury, Michigan has few other experienced receiving options. Freddy Canteen turned heads this spring but is still just a true freshman, while other players such as Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh must prove themselves. Funchess caught 49 passes for 748 yards and six touchdowns last fall, and the converted tight end is a matchup nightmare, especially in the red zone. His playmaking skills would be sorely missed.

Frank Clark, DE, Sr.

The Wolverines are building talent and depth along their defensive line, but Clark is still the best playmaker up front. He led the team with 12 tackles for loss last season while adding 4.5 sacks. The 6-foot-2, 270-pounder has elite athleticism and is looking for a major breakthrough season as a senior. Michigan has other options at defensive end, including Taco Charlton and Chris Wormley. But Clark has a chance to be the leader for an improved defensive line that could be the key to the entire defense.
The last time Ohio State's Braxton Miller and Michigan's Devin Gardner shared a field, the two quarterbacks combined for 10 touchdowns and 747 yards of offense in a wildly entertaining shootout at Michigan Stadium.

It proved to be the end of Gardner's season, as a foot injury sidelined him for the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl and the first part of spring practice in March. Miller went on to suffer his first two losses under coach Urban Meyer. He injured his throwing shoulder in the Orange Bowl and underwent surgery in Feb. 21, limiting his throwing in spring practice.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesShoulder surgery limited Ohio State's Braxton Miller, but the two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year is still finding ways to improve.
Both quarterbacks have delivered record performances for their teams. Miller owns back-to-back Big Ten offensive player of the year awards and could become the league's first three-time winner this fall. Gardner has been a quarterback of extremes -- prodigiously productive in some games, bafflingly bad in others.

The final chapter for both players arrives this fall. Before that lies a pivotal summer.

Miller's first priority is to return to full strength. But some of his most important work in the coming months will be in the film room.

"In the digital age we live in, video is so easy to come by, so he can study whoever he wants," Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman told ESPN.com. "Preferably, let's study us first and figure out the ins and outs of our offense. And then when you have extra time or want to take a break from that, let's study some defenses that we'll face this season. And beyond that, the next in the pecking order is why don't you study some other offenses, study some other quarterbacks."

Two quarterbacks Herman wants Miller to study likely will compete with him for national honors in 2014: Florida State's Jameis Winston, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and national champion, and Oregon's Marcus Mariota, who might be the best pro quarterback prospect in the college ranks this season.

"What are those guys doing really well?" Herman said. "Is there anything you can glean from watching them on the field that might help your game?"

Herman had a similar plan for Miller last summer, encouraging him to watch Clemson's Tajh Boyd -- "That kid was a really good player," Herman said.

[+] EnlargeQuarterback Devin Gardner #98 of the Michigan Wolverines
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesMichigan QB Devin Gardner, coming off a foot injury, struggled in the spring, but still looks on track to start the season opener.
Gardner went through most of the spring at less than 100 percent and struggled in the spring game, completing just 2 of 10 passes with an interception. He's still learning the offense under new coordinator Doug Nussmeier, and head coach Brady Hoke praised his consistency for much of the session.

But Hoke still discusses Michigan's quarterback situation by mentioning two names -- Gardner and sophomore Shane Morris. Many question whether Michigan's quarterback competition is real or imagined. Gardner has 16 starts at quarterback, while Morris has just one (the bowl game).

But unlike Miller, Gardner has to confirm himself as the top option when preseason camp begins in August.

"He has an advantage," Hoke told ESPN.com. "I wouldn't make that mistake. Because of the experience, playing a lot of snaps, being in a lot of big games. But at the same time, Shane, how he handled himself in the bowl game, how he was composed and how he approached the game, is encouraging."

Hoke wants both quarterbacks to not only retain what they learned in the spring but grow as leaders this summer.

"The message is we can't accept the players how they are right now," Hoke said.

The same applies to Miller, as good as he has been at times the past two seasons. His approach to rehab and film study will determine whether he -- and potentially Ohio State -- takes the next step in 2014.

"He's on fire right now, doing a great job with it from what I understand," Herman said. "The things that he is now able to talk to me about on the phone when I'm out on the road recruiting or when I see him in the building, you can tell he's poured himself into it, which is good."

Big Ten Monday mailblog

May, 12, 2014
May 12
5:00
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Filling in for the vacationing Brian Bennett on today's mailblog. Because of Big Ten athletic directors' meetings Tuesday and Wednesday, my next mailblog will come to you at the usual time Friday afternoon. Send questions here or tweet 'em at me here.

Let's get going ...

Glenn from Vancouver writes: What the heck happened to Max Bullough? Four on the draft depth chart and eight ILBs taken in the draft. Presumably everyone interested in him asked what happened with the Rose Bowl suspension so either he refused to answer the question or the answer was unacceptable. Thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Always great to hear from one of my favorite North American cities, Glenn. The Rose Bowl suspension undoubtedly hurt Bullough, but he also showed up to the East-West Shrine Game much heavier than he played during the season. It seems like NFL teams went for speed and versatility at linebacker more than college production. Wisconsin's Chris Borland also went later than expected, and Iowa's James Morris, like Bullough, wasn't drafted. But not to see Bullough anywhere in seven rounds of the draft was a shock.




Jim from Baton Rouge, La., writes: Your commentary about Coach Tressel becoming YSU's President seems trite to me. At face value, it succeeds only by reducing the role of the Office to one of fundraising. And, Tressel is not a professional fundraiser, e.g., a certified one. He is not even a successful previously employed fundraiser. I find your consideration of the role of an accredited university president embarrassing, of the office, the school, the reader, and the writer.

Adam Rittenberg: Jim, university presidents obviously do much more than fundraising, but to think fundraising isn't the main thrust of their jobs is naive. That's how schools grow and, in some cases, how they survive. You say Tressel has no professional fundraising experience. You think football coaches don't schmooze university donors? C'mon, Jim. Tressel is an instantly recognizable figure, especially in northeast Ohio. He knows how to connect with large groups and, in my opinion, will be able to reach out to more potential donors than a standard university president whom many don't know.

Also, Tressel gained important experience in the university setting the past two years at Akron. From my story on him in November:
Tressel oversees areas like admissions and recruitment, academic support, retention, financial aid and the career center.

He made major changes to the way Akron attracts, admits, educates and advises students. As of last week, Akron had received about 3,000 more freshman applications than it had the previous year, an increase of 52 percent. Tressel moved the career center from a far-flung location to the middle of the student union. He set up the Roo Crew, which connects alumni and others around the university community with current students to assist with job placement. More than 700 alumni are part of the group.

Tressel isn't a traditional hire, but he can succeed in this role, whether folks want to admit it or not.




Matt from Des Moines, Iowa, writes: In Friday's mailbag, Shane from Maine asked about Iowa’s schedule and the opportunity to run the table. In your response, which as an honest fan I totally agree with, you said they will lose some close games and have a 9-10 win season. So looking through the schedule and your prediction, and obviously before that one if two losses is coming from either Nebraska or Wisconsin. My question for you is which of those two is more likely to beat the Hawks this year? And lastly, one team aside from these two to beat the Hawks?

Adam Rittenberg: Matt, both games will be tough for Iowa, but I'm going to go with Nebraska because there are more certainties about the Huskers than the Badgers at this point. Nebraska will be out to avenge last year's blowout home loss to Iowa, and the Huskers should be able to match up better with Iowa at the line of scrimmage. I'm not knocking Wisconsin, but I just have a lot of questions about the Badgers right now. They should figure things out by the Nov. 22 trip to Kinnick, but we'll see. Pitt could be a tough early season trip for Iowa, as the Panthers are on the rise. Northwestern always plays Iowa tough and easily could have won last year's game. The Minnesota trip is another tricky game, although Iowa dominated at TCF Bank Stadium last year.




@HoosierHolmes via Twitter asks: How do you see IU's offense adjusting to losing 3 of its top WR's and top TE?

Adam Rittenberg: It feels odd that wide receiver/tight end will be a question mark for the Hoosiers, as the program has been good at both spots, but there are some major voids right now. IU needs a huge year from Shane Wynn, who has explosive ability. The key will be filling spots on the outside, whether it's a veteran like Nick Stoner or Isaiah Roundtree, or a younger player like freshman Dominique Booth. Also, keep an eye on Isaac Griffith, who was impressing people before his swimming accident and could become a great story this season.




Shelby from Dallas writes: How important is the App. State game this year for Michigan? Will a win just suffice or do they need to dominate from wire to wire to erase the bad taste in their mouth from last time they met?

Adam Rittenberg: Shelby, none of the current Michigan players or coaches was part of the Appalachian State game in 2007, so I don't know if the revenge factor matters. But the Wolverines absolutely need a strong showing in the opener, especially with the questions about the offense that persisted during spring practice. The offensive line needs to dominate, Derrick Green and others need to run the ball and quarterback Devin Gardner needs to play a smart game. Michigan has a Week 2 trip to Notre Dame and needs to head there with some confidence. Keep in mind, too, that this Appalachian State team isn't nearly as strong as the 2007 version.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

May, 9, 2014
May 9
4:00
PM ET
Is it a bit drafty in here? Wishing you a great weekend.

Twitter? Yes, please.

Let's check that inbox ...

Shane from Maine writes: I usually ask Wolverines-related questions, but something else caught my attention. What are your thoughts on Iowa's schedule? It looks REALLY soft. Do you think the Hawkeyes have a chance to go undefeated in a season that has their toughest games at home against Wisconsin and Nebraska?

Adam Rittenberg: Iowa's schedule looks extremely beneficial, Shane, but I don't see the Hawkeyes running the table. They're a good team that could build on last season's success, but the Hawkeyes almost always find themselves in close games because their talent isn't head and shoulders above the competition. Easy schedule or hard schedule, you need to be a truly elite team with elite talent to run the table in a major conference (see: 2013 Florida State Seminoles). Iowa will end up on the short end of some close game, but I predict a good season (9-10 wins).


Jeff from Baltimore writes: This week, we saw what I would call (Jim) Delany's most out-of-the-box, hell, out-of-the world, decision in giving the 2017 BBall tourney to D.C. Now, living in Baltimore, I like the idea of cutting out of work early and driving to the Verizon Center, but it won't have the same feeling as if it would and should in either Indy or Chi-town. Do you see him repeating this thinking for the football championship?

Adam Rittenberg: Jeff, I wrote about this back in January. There's no desire to move the football championship game outside of the Midwest. The Big Ten loves Indianapolis and everything it brings, and it could consider sites like Chicago, Minneapolis and Detroit in future years. The difference with football is the event includes only two teams and two fan bases, not all 14. It's less likely to draw general Big Ten fans than the basketball tournament, a multi-day event featuring more games and teams. Big Ten deputy commissioner Brad Traviolia said of the hoops tournament: "Regardless of where you place it, you're going to have a team or two that basically will be a home team, whether it's Indiana and Purdue in Indianapolis or whether it's Maryland in D.C. or Rutgers and Penn State in New York." Geography matters more for the football title game.


Grant from San Francisco writes: As a lifelong Spartans fan, I am becoming increasingly weary of all the unbridled optimism surrounding the program this coming season. I have experienced this before and know just how fast the wheels can come off. You guys spent some time with the team, so maybe you can provide some insight. With a huge matchup in Week 2 against Oregon, what exactly is [Mark] Dantonio doing now that the team is starting at the top with everything to lose, rather than starting unranked with nothing to lose? Quotes keep coming out about "we are hungry"... "we are tired of talking about last year"... but how exactly are they preventing complacency?

Adam Rittenberg: Grant, I understand your concern about MSU's history when starting on top, but it's also important to acknowledge the culture change under Mark Dantonio. This team has won 11 or more games in three of the past four seasons. MSU had a disappointing 2012 season but was a few plays away from winning eight or nine games. Also, the quarterback situation with Connor Cook is much more stable than it was in 2012. Brian Bennett visited the Spartans this spring and came away thinking they're locked in and not getting complacent. The continuity in the coaching staff really helps, and most MSU players suffered through the 2012 season and haven't forgotten it. You don't really know how a team responds until the games begin, but Dantonio isn't the type to let anyone take their foot off of the gas. His recent track record confirms this.


Rolf from Seattle writes: I have to question your Ohio State draft pick of Devin Gardner. First off he went to that school up north, so that would never happen. Second, he is going to be gone next year anyway and doesn't leave Ohio State with any more time left than Braxton. Third, with three backups behind Braxton, another year in the system should get at least two of them ready to carry the torch. Fourth, Devin went to TSUN!!!!! Anyway, the blog is still awesome.

Adam Rittenberg: Thanks, Rolf, and yes, I realize sending a Michigan player to Ohio State doesn't sit well with all (Justin Boren worked out OK, though). The Buckeyes clearly need a quarterback to replace Braxton Miller, and I'm not confident enough in any of the current backups to step in, especially with a revamped offensive line. Brian had the Buckeyes adding Tre Roberson, who has more eligibility left than Gardner and also fits in a spread offense. But I think Gardner, in the right system like Ohio State's, has more upside. Despite Michigan's offensive line troubles, Gardner still finished second in the league in passing and had some huge games. Ohio State needs a one-year fill-in here, and Gardner is the best option.


Greg from Boulder writes: As a suddenly greedy Penn State fan, should I have any concern that Penn State is having trouble closing the deal on top talent in the secondary in the way-too-early 2015 class?

Adam Rittenberg: Concern? About Penn State's 2015 class? No, don't be concerned. What James Franklin and his staff have done in the past four months is rather remarkable, especially with the program still under NCAA sanctions. They already have Jarvis Miller in the fold and will add other defensive backs before signing day, which is a very long way away. Also remember that Penn State likely will only lose two players -- safeties Adrian Amos and Ryan Keiser -- from this year's secondary rotation.
Everybody is a draftnik this week, and we're putting our own Big Ten spin on things. Rather than looking at the players leaving the league -- don't worry, we'll do that, too -- we're speculating on how a draft within the conference would play out.

To recap: All current Big Ten players are eligible to be drafted (incoming recruits are not). The teams will pick in reverse order of regular-season finish last year. Picks are based on factors like position need, remaining eligibility, scheme, previous players lost in the draft.

Check out the first half of the first round here. It gets a bit messy with teams swiping each other's top players, but that makes it fun.

Now, for the final seven picks ...

Pick No. 8: Penn State

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesConnor Cook's Rose Bowl-winning resume makes him a popular choice in the second half of the first round of the Big Ten draft.
Adam Rittenberg says the Lions select ... Michigan State QB Connor Cook

The offensive line is Penn State's shakiest position group, but Christian Hackenberg (selected No. 5 by Rutgers) leaves a massive hole at quarterback. Cook, a pro-style signal-caller with a big arm and more experience than Hackenberg, makes a lot of sense as he fits the system and comes off top performances in the Big Ten championship game and the Rose Bowl.

Brian Bennett says the Lions select ... Ohio State OT Taylor Decker

Penn State does need help on the offensive line, but it can afford to be patient. Decker was playing as well as any Ohio State offensive lineman late last season, when he was only a redshirt freshman. He can come to State College and offer help now and for the next three years, seeing the Lions through probation.

Pick No. 9: Minnesota

Rittenberg says the Gophers select ... Maryland WR Stefon Diggs

Minnesota loses some star power on defense, but I expect coordinator Tracy Claeys to produce a solid unit. The bigger issue is boosting a pass offense that ranked 115th nationally last season. Diggs comes off an injury-shortened season, but he's an explosive playmaker with 88 career receptions and two years of eligibility left. He would complement promising young wideouts like Drew Wolitarsky.

Bennett says the Gophers select ... Nebraska WR Kenny Bell

The Gophers might just be a downfield receiving threat away from being actual division contenders. Bell is a senior but offers two things Jerry Kill wants: leadership and toughness as a blocker. Bell would also deliver some explosiveness while guiding Minnesota's young wideouts along.

Pick No. 10: Iowa

Rittenberg says the Hawkeyes select ... Indiana LT Jason Spriggs

Brandon Scherff (selected No. 1 by Purdue) is a major loss for Iowa, which now needs a replacement to anchor its offensive line. Spriggs might not be as big a name as Scherff, but he has quietly started the first 24 games of his college career and earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors the past two seasons. He also has two years of eligibility left.

Bennett says the Hawkeyes select ... Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon

True, Iowa has about 37 tailbacks right now. But the pure speed and playmaking ability of Gordon is tough to pass up here, especially for an offense seeking more home-run plays. Plus, he originally committed to the Hawkeyes, so this is a way for them to finally get Gordon in black and gold.

Pick No. 11: Nebraska

Rittenberg says the Huskers select ... Ohio State DE Joey Bosa

Running back Ameer Abdullah (selected No. 6 by Maryland) is a significant loss, but the Huskers have good depth behind him. They need a replacement for All-Big Ten end Randy Gregory (selected No. 4 by Indiana), and Bosa, who ended his freshman season in beast mode, is an easy choice. He should keep the expectations high for the Huskers' defensive front seven. And he has at least two seasons left.

[+] EnlargeDevin Funches
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsDevin Funchess would give Nebraska an athletic, versatile playmaker in the passing game.
Bennett says the Huskers select ... Michigan WR/TE Devin Funchess

Nebraska doesn't seem to have a lot of gaping holes but could use a playmaker in the passing game after losing Bell (selected No. 9 by Minnesota). Funchess would make a nice safety valve for Tommy Armstrong and is a destroyer of red zone defenses. Tim Beck lobbies hard for this pick and would get two years to deploy Funchess in a variety of ways.

Pick No. 12: Wisconsin

Rittenberg says the Badgers select ... Ohio State DL Michael Bennett

Like Nebraska, Wisconsin has lost an elite running back (Melvin Gordon, selected No. 7 by Michigan), and like the Huskers, the Badgers have enough to get by without him. Wisconsin has an even bigger need to upgrade its defensive front seven after losing six starters to graduation. Bennett, a junior who could play either line spot and had seven sacks last season, is a really good fit for Wisconsin.

Bennett says the Badgers select ... Michigan State QB Connor Cook

The passing game remains a sore spot for Wisconsin, and no clear starter under center emerged this spring. Cook knows how to run a pro-style offense and would have two years left in Madison.

Pick No. 13: Ohio State

Rittenberg says the Buckeyes select ... Michigan QB Devin Gardner

Well, this should be interesting. Ohio State needs a quarterback after losing Braxton Miller to Northwestern (pick No. 3), and there aren't too many proven options out there. The Buckeyes likely can get by with a one-year player to allow younger guys to develop. Gardner is a good fit in a true spread offense, and he showed at times last year that he can put up huge numbers.

Bennett says the Buckeyes select ... Indiana QB Tre Roberson

I had Rutgers snagging Miller earlier in the first round. Roberson might be the closest facsimile to Miller in the league right now, a guy with good wheels who can also sling it around the field. He has plenty of game experience and two years of eligibility left.

Pick No. 14: Michigan State

Rittenberg says the Spartans select ... Iowa QB Jake Rudock

OK, the quarterback swapping is getting a little silly, but Michigan State needs one after losing Cook (selected No. 8 by Penn State), and Rudock brings experience to the Spartans backfield. Rudock comes from a pro-style system at Iowa and should take another step this season. Plus, he has two years of eligibility left.

Bennett says the Spartans select ... Ohio State S Vonn Bell

You can't convince me that Mark Dantonio wouldn't go defense first in a draft like this. And I think the prospect of a stud defensive back would prove too hard for him to resist. Bell showed real promise in his brief exposure last year with the Buckeyes and has three years left to help fortify the No-Fly Zone.
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If Ron Burgundy coached college football -- the San Diego Border Terriers, perhaps? -- he would only need to learn two lines to survive spring practice.

1. "I like my team."

2. "I'm glad we don't have a game tomorrow."

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Jeff HaynesPat Fitzgerald's Wildcats had to deal with a lot off the field this spring.
College coaches have recited those phrases in spring ball for decades. The 14 men leading Big Ten programs are no exceptions. But the standard spring sentiments apply to the league more this year than most.

There are reasons to believe the Big Ten will be better this fall, but the work is far from over on most campuses. This isn't a league of finished products, and the coming months take on added importance before the 2014 season kicks off in late August.

"I don't think we're that far behind; it's just painfully obvious that we're not there," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "This next phase will be the most important phase of this team's life. It's always important, but with a lot of things we've gone though, we've got to come together."

Northwestern went through a lot in the spring, mostly away from the field, as the campaign for a player union gained national media attention, especially after players were declared employees of the school in March. The team held a historic vote Friday, after Fitzgerald had expressed his opposition to unionizing. Some players expressed concern that the vote could split the team.

It will be months before we know if the union plan goes through, but the Wildcats continue preparing for a pivotal season. They found their quarterback this spring in senior Trevor Siemian and an offensive identity based around the passing game. But questions along both lines remain.

The spring also produced quarterback answers at Iowa (Jake Rudock) and Minnesota (Mitch Leidner). Michigan's Devin Gardner had a rough spring game but still seems likely to retain his job. Another senior signal-caller, Rutgers' Gary Nova, is a good bet to remain atop the depth chart. Although Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong lacks Nova's or Gardner's experience, he exited spring just as he entered it: as the Huskers' top quarterback.

Indiana's platoon system of Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson frustrates some, but not coach Kevin Wilson, who has given every indication that he'll continue to use both for another season.

Other quarterback races have been reduced but not resolved. Illinois will pick between Wes Lunt, the Oklahoma State transfer who impressed for much of the spring, and veteran backup Reilly O'Toole. Coach Tim Beckman wants a resolution before two-a-day practices in August.

Purdue's Danny Etling, who started the final seven games of his freshman season, appeared to have a slight lead coming out of the spring, but coach Darrell Hazell isn't ready to declare a starter. So Austin Appleby and David Blough remain alive.

Wisconsin reduced its candidate pool from four to two as Joel Stave, who boasts 19 career starts but also a nagging throwing shoulder injury, will compete with dual-threat Tanner McEvoy in camp.

"It will be a fight," coach Gary Andersen said.

Quarterback is just one spot where Wisconsin has questions. The Badgers went through much of the spring with only four healthy wide receivers. They've also revamped their defensive front seven, which returns only one starter from 2013.

[+] EnlargeRaekwon McMillan
Miller Safrit/ESPNEarly enrollee Raekwon McMillan could make an immediate impact for Ohio State's defense this fall.
Ohio State didn't have star quarterback Braxton Miller for spring ball because of shoulder surgery, but the Buckeyes focused on bolstering a defense that struggled last fall. Freshman Raekwon McMillan, an early enrollee, is pushing for the starting middle linebacker spot, and competition will continue at the cornerback spot opposite Doran Grant. Chris Ash, the Buckeyes' new co-defensive coordinator, worked to simplify the scheme this spring.

"We only have about six defensive calls," safety Tyvis Powell said after the spring game. "We had too many last year."

Offensive line remains Michigan's focal point coming out of the spring. A sloppy spring game didn't ease fears about the Wolverines' front five, although coach Brady Hoke saw positive signs in earlier practices. A critical summer awaits new coordinator Doug Nussmeier, tasked with resurrecting Michigan's run game.

At Penn State, new coach James Franklin continues to energize both players and fans. But he's also realistic about the depth challenge his team faces, particularly along the offensive line.

"When you don't have a two-deep of scholarship players, you've got issues that you're going to have to overcome," Franklin said. "We don't."

Like Rutgers, Maryland began its Big Ten transition this spring and welcomed running back Wes Brown and wideout Marcus Leak after absences from the team. If the Terrapins finally stay healthy, they could be worth watching in a loaded East Division.

Sitting atop the division is defending Big Ten champ Michigan State. The Spartans had a relatively stress-free spring, but they must fill key spots on defense, especially at linebacker and cornerback, where players like Taiwan Jones and Darian Hicks step in.

The returning pieces for teams like Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin fuel optimism around the league. But in spring, optimism is always tempered by what lies ahead.

"We're improving," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Saturday, "but we're hardly ready to play."

They won't have to for 132 days.

Until then, stay classy, Big Ten fans.

Michigan spring wrap

April, 28, 2014
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The spring workouts are in the books and the long offseason has arrived. But before diving into summer and the painful wait for football to return, we're taking a look back at the developments from March and April and sneaking a peek at what to expect in the fall for Michigan.

Three things we learned in the spring

  • Front seven, front and center: The Wolverines didn't stand pat on defense this offseason. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is now coaching the linebackers, while Mark Smith moved down to take over the defensive line. They also shuffled their linebackers, switching Jake Ryan to the middle and emerging star James Ross III to the strong side. The moves seemed to work out well this spring, with Ryan looking like his old playmaking self a year removed from ACL surgery. The defensive line could be one of the team's strengths, led by senior defensive ends Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer and improving youngsters Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley and Willie Henry. Mattison wants to blitz more this season and hopes the defensive line can get more pressure on its own.
  • Early enrollees, immediate impact: When players skip the final half of their high school senior years to enroll in college in January, the hope is that they will be more advanced than most freshmen. Wide receiver Freddy Canteen and offensive lineman Mason Cole exceeded those expectations. Both impressed the coaching staff right away, with Canteen drawing raves and Cole getting a lot of first-team reps at left tackle. Both were with the starting unit during the spring game and figure to have roles on the team this fall.
  • More QB clarity: Brady Hoke talked of a quarterback competition this spring, and Devin Gardner wasn't originally expected to do a whole lot while recovering from a broken foot. But Gardner surprised the coaches by fulling participating in all 15 spring practices and asserting his hold on the position. Hoke said Shane Morris closed the gap a bit on Gardner and that the competition would continue. But even though Gardner didn't play well in the spring game, it's pretty clear that this remains his team.
Three questions for the fall

  • Can O-line be less offensive?: New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier has brought a simplified blocking scheme and a focus on running downhill. Players said there were times this spring when that was effective. But concerns about the youth and chemistry on the line remain, and not just because of another shaky performance in the spring game. When a mid-year enrollee (Cole) is starting at left tackle, that raises serious red flags. The return of Erik Magnuson and Joey Burzynski from injury and Graham Glasgow from his one-game suspension will help the experience and talent level. But for now, the line is full of young, unproven players who must find a way to raise their games between now and late August.
  • Skill position suspense: With Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo graduated, Devin Funchess is the only returning receiver with more than 15 career catches. Canteen's emergence provided another option at the position, but a lot of question marks remain at wideout. Michigan is hoping Jehu Chesson, Csont'e York, Da'Mario Jones and Dennis Norfleet step forward, Amara Darboh successfully returns from injury and freshman Drake Harris can contribute. But there are few sure things. At running back, the team is hopeful that Derrick Green breaks out as a sophomore and De'Veon Smith joins him for a powerful duo. Again, though, it's mostly optimism and little track record at this point.
  • Enough leadership? Hoke has suggested that he wasn't thrilled with the leadership during last season's 7-5 team. He and the players have said that the chemistry and accountability have been good this spring. The fact remains, however, that this team has only 12 seniors, and only seven of them are position players who see the field a lot. Leadership will also have to come from the junior class and elsewhere if Michigan wants to get over the hump of mediocrity.
One way-too-early prediction

Jabrill Peppers immediately becomes the team's best defensive back. That's a bold call, as Peppers isn't even on campus yet. But he was the No. 2 player in the 2014 ESPN 300 for a reason, and he should be the kind of physical, cover corner that Michigan has lacked. The Wolverines could try him in several different positions, but if he's the real deal, he can start quickly at cornerback. Program insiders believe his ceiling could be in the Charles Woodson neighborhood. No pressure, kid.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Time will tell whether Doug Nussmeier can fix Michigan's offense and finally install the kind of pro-style, power running game that Brady Hoke has talked about for the past four years.

One thing, however, appears certain: Whether Nussmeier succeeds or fails won't be because of a lack of energy.

[+] EnlargeDoug Nussmeier
AP Photo/Tony DingDoug Nussmeier added some energy to Michigan's spring practices.
The Wolverines' offense probably needed a shot of adrenaline after last season's highly inconsistent performance and lackluster showing in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl loss to Kansas State. Their first-year coordinator was there to provide that jolt during the team's 15 spring practices, as his voice often was the loudest one vibrating off the Al Glick Field House walls.

"He jumps around and screams all the time," receiver Devin Funchess told ESPN.com. "I love the energy he brings to practice. We really have to match him."

Quarterback Devin Gardner called Nussmeier "an insane, crazy man" on the practice field. Offensive lineman Kyle Kalis said, "he's spunky." Nussmeier doesn't dispute those descriptions.

"We’ll exude our passion for the game," he said. "They spend so much time and energy preparing that we want to create an environment with high energy and positivity, and I think they’ve embraced that. I get excited when I get the opportunity to go out there with them on the field."

Laid-back types won't last long working under Alabama's Nick Saban, as Nussmeier did the past two seasons. His style is a little bit different than his Michigan predecessor, Al Borges. While Borges was a beloved figure around the team, he was a bit more professorial in his approach.

"He [Nussmeier] has brought in a different way of being a good football coach," Hoke said. "His passion and energy for what he does is obvious out there."

Hoke said it was very difficult to let Borges go because of their personal relationship, but he had followed Nussmeier's career for a while. He played with Nussmeier's agent while at Ball State and nearly hired Nussmeier when he took over his alma mater as head coach.

Nussmeier has simplified things in Michigan's running game, with the goal of becoming a much more north-south ground attack. The Wolverines averaged just 3.3 yards per carry last season -- second to last in the Big Ten -- and Fitz Toussaint's 648 rushing yards led the team. Nussmeier has has a 1,000-yard rusher in each of his last six seasons as coordinator, at Alabama, Washington and Fresno State.

"We want to play physical and be a balanced team," he said. "And that all starts with what you’re doing up front in the trenches and on the line of scrimmage."

That's also where Nussmeier's biggest challenge lies, as Michigan's offensive line struggled in the interior in 2013 and is relying on a lot of freshmen and sophomores in 2014. The Wolverines' season could well depend on whether those guys develop quickly this summer.

The good news is that Nussmeier isn't just all caffeine. Gardner says that while he's frantic on the field, Nussmeier is soft-spoken and direct in meeting rooms, calling him "one of the best teachers I've ever been around, including school."

Hoke concurs. Earlier this week, he praised his new assistant for his skill at teaching details and "his ability to command a room and get the attention of an offense."

There's little question that Nussmeier has the Wolverines' attention. Now it's a matter of making the necessary repairs.

"I think that’s exactly what we need," Kalis said, "A guy that's not going to accept anything but perfect."

Big Ten lunch links

April, 11, 2014
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Have a great weekend, everybody, and enjoy all the spring games. Looks like some nice weather out there.

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