Michigan Wolverines: Greg Mattison

The first Big Ten spring game of 2014 arrives on Saturday at the Big House. Here's a quick preview of what to expect from Michigan's spring fling.

When: Saturday, 2 p.m. ET

Where: Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, Mich.

Admission: Free, though fans are encouraged to make donations to Mott Children's Hospital. Michigan Stadium gates open at 11 a.m., with an alumni flag football game scheduled to begin at noon. The men's lacrosse team will play Fairfield at 5 p.m.

TV: Big Ten Network (live)

Weather forecast: Partly sunny, with a high near 47. Winds 13 to 17 mph, with gusts as high as 28 mph.

What to watch for: Coach Brady Hoke said the Wolverines will hold about a 45- to 50-minute scrimmage after "a lot of individual grind work." Hoke said his team, which has only 12 seniors, still needs to work on its fundamentals in its 15th and final practice.

One position full of youth that will have a lot of eyeballs on it Saturday is the offensive line. It's a group full of freshmen and sophomores, but Hoke said he has seen improvement there. An encouraging performance by that unit in the spring game, even with as little as that means, could scale back some of the intense scrutiny and criticism.

Receiver is another spot with a lot of new faces, as Devin Funchess is the only proven returning player. True freshman Freddy Canteen has turned a lot of heads this spring in the slot, and fans will get their first look at him in a Michigan uniform. Fans will be curious to see the offense in general under new coordinator Doug Nussmeier. Hoke said about 80 to 85 percent of Nussmeier's offense has been installed this spring, and he said there were a lot of explosive plays in last weekend's scrimmage. The offense should include much more north-south running, and a slimmed-down Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith should lead the way.

On defense, the public gets its first view of the new linebacker arrangement, with Jake Ryan moving into the middle and James Ross III at the strongside spot. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison has talked about a more aggressive approach that will feature more blitzing, but don't expect to see much more than the usual vanilla spring schemes.

Devin Gardner seems to have answered any questions about whether he'd retain the starting quarterback job by going through the spring on a foot that isn't 100 percent healed from the Ohio State game. Shane Morris and Wilton Speight should get plenty of reps on Saturday as well.
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- On Friday, Michigan plans to unveil a new museum area inside Schembechler Hall. The centerpiece display is a glass case reaching from floor to ceiling that contains 910 footballs, or one for every Wolverines victory.

There is room in the case for at least a couple hundred more balls. It’s also safe to presume that the all-time winningest program in college football history expects to add more than seven of those per year.

But that’s how many Team 134 contributed in 2013 in a disappointing 7-6 campaign that ended with a thud in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke
AP Photo/Tony DingThe 2013 season was a frustrating one for all involved in the Michigan program, as Brady Hoke and the Wolverines stumbled to a 7-6 record.
“That wasn’t a Michigan record,” senior linebacker Jake Ryan said.

It seemed almost quaint two years ago when Brady Hoke labeled the 2011 season -- one that included 11 wins and a Sugar Bowl title -- as “a failure” because the team didn’t capture a Big Ten championship. Since then, Hoke has flirted with actual failure, going just 15-11 in his second and third seasons as head coach.

As a result, Hoke made the first major staff shakeup of his tenure this offseason. He fired offensive coordinator Al Borges -- a move he called difficult because of their personal friendship -- and hired Doug Nussmeier from Alabama. He also switched around several defensive roles and took himself out of the defensive line coaching mix. Those moves signaled what had become obvious: Change was necessary to get Michigan back to being Michigan.

“Our first message to the players this offseason was to learn from going 7-6 on every front you can,” Hoke said. “That’s from how you prepared to how you came in the building every day.

“It’s the same thing with us as coaches. We talked a lot about us doing a better job with the fundamentals of playing the game and holding everybody to those expectations. And I think you always have to check yourself before you go anywhere else with it.”

Hoke hopes Nussmeier can help establish the true pro-style, physical offense that Borges could never quite take from vision to reality. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison will coach the linebackers this season while Roy Manning and Curt Mallory will both work with the secondary, an idea Hoke said he got from talking to NFL coaches. Mattison wants to bring more pressure on defense this season, something the Wolverines didn’t do well in 2013. But with experience now in the front seven and incoming star recruit Jabrill Peppers potentially adding a lockdown cornerback, Michigan expects to go on the attack.

“In 2011, I think we had a much more aggressive style of defense,” Hoke said. “We probably got away from that a little bit.”

Perhaps the changes can finally answer last season's unsolved mystery: Who exactly are these Wolverines?

They were a wildly inconsistent crew that could set offensive records one week and fail to find the end zone the next. They nearly upset Ohio State in a thriller and lost four Big Ten games by just 11 points. But they also nearly lost to Akron, UConn and Northwestern and surrendered more than 40 points three times.

“Last year, we lacked an identity,” senior defensive end Frank Clark said. “This year, the main talk around here has been to develop an identity, as a defense especially. You look at every other top team across the country, and everybody either has a tough running game or a crazy pass game or a crazy defense. We want to go into a game and have our opponent say ‘Oh, man, it’s going to be a long day.’”

One of the main differences between his first team and the past two, Hoke said, was that the 2011 Sugar Bowl squad had “some fourth- and fifth-year guys who really understood what Michigan meant.” Leadership is a concern for this year’s team, which has only 12 seniors, though guys such as Ryan, Clark and quarterback Devin Gardner provide a great starting point. Hoke has taken his seniors to California for Navy SEALs training in the past and says he has some new ideas in store for this summer which he’s not yet ready to reveal.

The players and coaches are also trying to develop more of a competitive edge this spring.

“There’s definitely a different focus,” linebacker James Ross III said. “A lot of guys getting on each other, but it’s positive. Last year, I don’t think we had that as much. We’re holding each other accountable now, and I think we let a lot of things slide last year.”

Michigan’s success or failure in 2014 will ultimately depend on how quickly its young players, many of whom were decorated recruits, can develop. It says something about the state of the program that two guys who just enrolled in January -- receiver Freddy Canteen and offensive lineman Mason Cole -- have been among the standouts of the spring. The Maize and Blue are extremely green on offense, particularly up front on a line that has been a sore spot for the past two seasons. With tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield graduated, that group is now mostly comprised of freshmen and sophomores.

Hoke said the youth on the O-line is a remaining byproduct of the transition from Rich Rodriguez. You might recall that Rodriguez was fired in 2010 after going 7-6 in his third year. Athletic director Dave Brandon remains in Hoke’s corner, and Hoke says the only pressure he feels is the internal pressure to do right by all of his players.

Still, the message should be loud and clear when Hoke walks into Schembechler Hall every day. They don’t dedicate museum displays to teams that go 7-6.

“The atmosphere around this building now is that we’ve got to win,” defensive lineman Taco Charlton said. “That’s period, point blank, whatever we’ve got to do.”
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Not long after he tore his ACL in spring practice last year, Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan cut off the long blonde locks that used to billow out of his helmet.

The hair had become his signature look and a sign of impending doom for ball carriers unlucky enough to see it up close during his destructive 2012 season. But the maintenance became too much.

[+] EnlargeJake Ryan
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesJake Ryan is looking forward to new challenges at middle linebacker.
“My showers were taking way too long,” Ryan said. “It was way too much to take care of that and the knee. You can’t have too much on your mind.”

Ryan made a rapid return to the field last season for the Wolverines. His 2013 debut came on Oct. 12 against Penn State, less than seven months after he tore the ligament in his right knee.

But something looked a little different about him, and it wasn’t just the short hair. That he managed to play in eight games, with five starts, qualified as a minor medical marvel. Yet Ryan did not record a sack or cause a turnover last year and produced just four tackles for loss. This came a season after he racked up 16 TFLs, 4.5 sacks and four forced fumbles as Michigan’s top defensive disrupter.

Like most players coming back from a major injury, Ryan said he was a bit tentative at times.

“It was more mental than anything, because you still never know what’s going to happen [with the knee],” he said. “The first couple of games, I was kind of shaky. I was starting to feel a lot better around the Ohio State game, getting back to 100 percent. Now, I’m there.”

Where Ryan is this spring is back at full strength, creating problems for the offense. Just at a different position.

Michigan shook up its linebacker lineup this spring in an effort to maximize its athleticism and playmaking. So Ryan moved to middle linebacker. James Ross III, who finished second on the team with 85 tackles last year as a sophomore, went from the weak side to Ryan’s old strongside slot. And Desmond Morgan shifted from the middle to the weak side.

“I think the coaches did a good job of analyzing where we best fit,” Ross said. “Now, we’ve got more athletic guys in space.”

That means Ryan is in a different space, one where he has a bit more responsibility. But so far, he says, the transition suits him.

“It’s been different, because now I’m blitzing up the middle,” he said. “And last year I was looking at the tight and now I’m reading the running back. But I like it a lot better because you’re in the mix of everything. It’s cool.”

Ross, at 225 pounds, will need to take on tight ends and says he has already had many spring battles with 265-pound Wolverines tight end A.J. Williams. Ross says he’s ready for the challenge.

“I’ve been able to hold my own through my whole career,” he said. “I’ve always been kind of a smaller guy, but I’m physical at the point of attack.”

Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is coaching the linebackers this season and will look to use them in a more aggressive, blitzing style. The Wolverines’ defense ranked eighth in the Big Ten in points allowed last year and had notable breakdowns at times, especially against Indiana and Ohio State.

Linebacker once again should be the best and deepest position on the defense, as the three veteran starters get support from juniors Joe Bolden and Royce Jenkins-Stone, sophomore Ben Gedeon and redshirt freshman Mike McCray.

Mattison wants to send his linebackers on pressures more in 2014, but they have to make sure they’re actually getting home on those calls. Only Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana and Purdue collected fewer sacks than Michigan during league play a year ago.

“He’s tried to stress the fact that when he calls a blitz, I need to be antsy -- grabbing that grass and being ready to go,” Ross said. “He said if I do my job, I could be hitting that quarterback pretty often.”

The same could go for Ryan, who likes some of the blitz packages from his new spot. So far, the early reviews from practice are encouraging.

“I see Jake being a real confident guy out there making plays all over,” Ross said. “He’s a real physical player. A big-time game-changer.”

The biggest boost for Michigan’s defense could be getting back the Jake Ryan from 2012. Minus the long hair, of course.
The spring game is a preview for the season and with so many early enrollees this year, it is going to give fans and the media a pretty good look at what next season could hold for the Wolverines. So leading up to the scrimmage, we’re going to look a few stats that really matter for next season for Michigan if the Wolverines want to make the Big Ten championship game.

Stat: Michigan defense against the run

2013 review: The Wolverines struggled against the run last season. Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison were in charge of the defensive line, but Michigan never reached any level of consistency with a four-man rush, and pressuring the quarterback was no easy task last season.

The Wolverines allowed 140.2 rushing yards per game last season and 3.8 yards per rush, which put Michigan in the top 40 nationally in both of those categories. But it’s hard to compare the Wolverines’ total allowed rushing yards on a national scale, considering the difference in spread vs. pro-style teams and the effect that has on passing and rushing yardage.

However, comparing Michigan to other Big Ten teams provides a better look at where the Wolverines fell and where they could improve. Michigan finished fifth in the conference in rushing yards allowed per game, behind Michigan State (86.3), Wisconsin (102.5), Ohio State (109.4) and Iowa (128.3).

[+] EnlargeGreg Mattison
Lon Horwedel/Icon SMIMichigan's run defense under Greg Mattison ranked in the middle of the pack of the Big Ten in 2013.
Though the Wolverines did allow big rushing yards last season, they didn’t allow big rushing scores. Opponents only scored 14 rushing touchdowns on 478 rushes. That means that opposing teams only scored on 3.1 percent of its rush attempts, putting the Wolverines in the top 20 nationally in that statistic.

While the Wolverines kept rushers out of the end zone, they didn’t stop them from picking up yardage, however. Michigan struggled stopping the run in critical situations. On third downs when opponents chose to rush the ball, they converted 47.8 percent of the time. The national average was 49.3, but the Wolverines finished seventh in the Big Ten in that statistic.

And it only got worse when it came to fourth-down rushing conversions, as opponents moved the chains on 71.4 percent of their attempts. That ranked 11th in the Big Ten, only ahead of Ohio State (81.8 percent), and it put Michigan about 10 percent below the national average of 60.8 percent.

Opponents were able to convert on that percentage of third and fourth downs because the Wolverines allowed opposing offenses to pick up too many yards on first and second down. Michigan didn’t pressure opposing quarterbacks enough and get into the backfield nearly enough to wreak havoc. The Wolverines kept 109 rushes from getting past the line of scrimmage, but that was only 22.8 percent of the total rushes.

And once opponents did cross the line of scrimmage, they had relatively good success picking up solid gains. Of the 478 times opponents ran the ball against Michigan, they gained at least five yards on 171 attempts and at least 10 yards on 64 attempts. That means that, on average, at least one in three runs against Michigan got past the defensive line as well as some second-level defenders.

2014 preview: The defensive coaches have shuffled around and Hoke hopes that the combination of Mark Smith on the defensive line and Mattison coordinating the linebackers will allow Michigan to make strides next season.

But, what exactly would those strides be from a statistical standpoint? Here’s a look at the rushing stats allowed by teams that played in BCS bowl games last season and how they compare to Michigan in those same categories. Again, with some of these statistics you face the same issue of schedule and scheme, and that yielding 150 rushing yards to Auburn is a very different statistic than yielding 150 rushing yards to Purdue. But by looking at BCS bowl teams, it does give a general idea of numbers to aim for.

Yards per rush:
Michigan defense: 3.8
BCS bowl team average: 3.6

Touchdowns per rush:
Michigan defense: 3.1 percent
BCS bowl team average: 3.1

Third-down conversion percentage:
Michigan defense: 47.8 percent
BCS bowl team average: 45.1

Fourth-down conversion percentage:
Michigan defense: 71.4 percent
BCS bowl team average: 51.5

Percentage of rushes stopped before the line of scrimmage:
Michigan defense: 22.8 percent
BCS bowl team average: 27.7

Percentage of rushes going for five-plus yards:
Michigan defense: 35.8 percent
BCS bowl team average: 34.4

What these numbers show is that if the Wolverines rushing defense can step up in certain areas, they’ll be pretty similar to that of rushing defenses that played in the biggest games of the 2013-14 season. Obviously there are other parts of the game that need more growth, and the run defense is only a part of the defense as a whole.

Another thing to note about those numbers: Those defensive stats were being put up by teams that typically had much stronger offenses. When an offense is putting up 100 more yards and 14 more points per game and giving up the same amount of yardage as the Wolverines, there’s going to still be a big difference, even if some of the numbers are similar.
Seven cornerbacks were voted first- or second-team All-Big Ten from the coaches and the media in 2013. Only one of them returns this season.

[+] EnlargeBlake Countess
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsMichigan's Blake Countess, who had six interceptions in 2013, wants to be the Big Ten's best cornerback this fall.
That's Michigan junior Blake Countess who, by process of elimination, could inherit the title of league's best corner. Don't think that hasn't crossed his mind.

"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.

Big Ten's lunch links

March, 18, 2014
Mar 18
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I'll make a deal with you, Warren Buffett. You cut me a check for $10 million right now, and I'll spare you the embarrassment of acing your little challenge.

Big Ten lunch links

March, 10, 2014
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How 'bout Nebrasketball? Impressed with what's happening in Lincoln.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

March, 5, 2014
Mar 5
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The Big Ten postman always rings twice (a week, at least during the offseason) ...

Rob NitLion from Morristown, N.J. writes: Brian, you made a very good argument in this morning's Take Two -- much better, I feel, than Adam. But you asked a question at the end of your argument, that while rhetorical, I figure I'd provide an answer. "Why not?" Here is why NOT. While some programs like Rutgers and Maryland are used to playing mid-week games, a majority of their fan bases are within a two-hour commuting distance of the stadium (being from Jersey, I have a decent handle on this). It's easy for most fans to leave work and still make an 8 p.m. weekday kickoff. On the other hand, for schools like Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, etc, the fan bases are much more scattered, a large portion of the season-ticket-holder base is not within an easy driving distance of the campus, so for a Thursday night game, essentially you are asking someone like me to take a four-day weekend to see a Thursday night football game. I don't think this is plausible AND considering you guys just ran articles talking about stadium attendance being down, I cannot see some of the larger programs accepting a Thursday night game on their schedule.

Brian Bennett: The arguments from both of us were similar, and you echo many of our points, Rob. The programs with super-sized stadiums really don't ever have to think about hosting a weeknight game. (I shudder at the prospect of trying to get to Pittsburgh or Philadelphia or wherever after a Thursday night game in State College, for example.) But for programs such as Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Maryland, Rutgers and Purdue, a weeknight game can provide plenty of good exposure. Their fan bases aren't as spread out, and their stadiums aren't nearly as large. And for some of them, filling the stadium isn't easy on a Saturday, anyway, so why not grab the extra eyeballs and attention a Thursday night game could bring?


Trevor K. from Wis., writes: Say Joel Stave or Bart Houston win Wisconsin's QB battle. Could you see the Badgers utilizing D.J. Gillins' athletic ability at wide receiver? There is a HUGE hole there, and it shouldn't be out of the question if he is really that athletic.

Brian Bennett: There is precedent here, as Tanner McEvoy bowed out of the quarterback competition early last year because of an injury and ended up starting at safety. The difference, though, is that McEvoy was a junior college transfer who had already used his redshirt year at South Carolina, so he wanted to get on the field. Gillins is a true freshman, and if he's not ready at quarterback, the coaching staff might want to redshirt him. On the flip side, though, maybe the coaches see him providing value at receiver, especially if the Badgers' young wideouts don't step up this offseason, and maybe Gillins expresses a desire to play early. There are a lot of factors at play here. I'd be really surprised if Gillins makes much of an impact at quarterback this season, simply because he's so young and Wisconsin has other experienced options.

TN Spartan from Jackson, Tenn., writes: I am excited about the new bowl lineup for this next football season. Not sure if you did this anywhere, as I have not seen it, but could you project what the last bowl season would have looked like if it had the new arrangement, and then compare it to how it actually went? Perhaps you could then comment if the W/L record would have improved, or if the matchups would have been better.

Brian Bennett: It's a little tricky to project, not knowing if you want to include the new playoff system as well. Let's just say for now that the playoff wasn't involved but that the 2014 lineup was somehow superimposed on the 2013 season.

In that case, the top of the order wouldn't look much different. Michigan State would still have gone to the Rose Bowl and Ohio State would still have made a BCS game. Then the next tier would involve the Capital One, Outback and Holiday bowls, with the Big Ten having greater input on matchups. I still think Wisconsin goes to the Cap One and Iowa makes the Outback, based on their records and how they finished the season. The debate would then have come down to whether Michigan or Nebraska should go to the Holiday, much as it did with the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. Whoever didn't get picked there would fall to either the Music City or Gator Bowls, and you wonder if the league would step in to avoid placing Nebraska in that rematch with Georgia and giving the Huskers another trip to Florida.

Minnesota could then have found itself in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, which is in the third tier of picks along with the Pinstripe Bowl. The opponents wouldn't have been much different for the league at the top, but the Big Ten would have played Pac-12 teams in the Holiday and Hunger bowls. Going by 2013, that would have been Arizona State and Washington, respectively, in what would have been two tough matchups for the league.


James from Akron, Ohio, writes: With the latest position moves on defense (most notably Jake Ryan to MLB) and Greg Mattison's past experience, is there any chance that Michigan switches to a 3-4 defense this year? All of the pieces are in place to make the switch. Desmond Morgan would be the other ILB, James Ross would still be starting on the outside, while one of the current backups (Ben Gedeon/Joe Bolden/Mike McCray) would fill in the other OLB spot. Mix all of that with the fact and Michigan is thin at DT, am I crazy to think the 3-4 will make some sort of appearance this year?

Brian Bennett: It's not a crazy thought, especially because the linebacker group looks like the deepest and most talent-rich position on the Wolverines defense. Michigan hasn't really been dominant at defensive tackle since Mike Martin left town, and Mattison often ran the 3-4 while with the Baltimore Ravens. However, Michigan has run a 4-3 scheme so far under Brady Hoke, and Big Ten teams have been hesitant to go away from four down linemen very often, though Wisconsin used a 3-4 alignment often last season and had success with it. Defensive coordinators often talk about wanting to be multiple and offer different looks to the offense, so Mattison might want to at least explore the idea this spring and see how it goes. That might be the best way to get Michigan's best players on the field.


Kurt from Winter Wonderland, Ill., writes: Can we all finally acknowledge that the NU vs. "NU" rivalry has been one of the conference's best through the first three seasons of its incarnation? An underdog winning against a Top 10 Nebraska team in Lincoln, a comeback Nebraska win by one at a strong Northwestern in Ryan Field, and then a Nebraska victory on a Hail Mary last season! What will the next season bring?!

Brian Bennett: Maybe it's a budding rivalry. I also think Nebraska and Northwestern are the two most unpredictable teams on a week-to-week basis in the Big Ten, with both capable of wild swings of momentum at any time. So no wonder crazy things happen when the two get together.

Big Ten lunchtime links

March, 5, 2014
Mar 5
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So Nick Saban is saying you shouldn't smoke while playing football?

Big Ten lunchtime links

February, 27, 2014
Feb 27
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Cold, cold, go away.
As the coach hiring season nears an end, we're examining the Big Ten coaching landscape and some recent trends. Today we take a look at the rising salaries for assistants and whether a $1 million coordinator is on the horizon in the league.

In the days leading up to the Discover Orange Bowl earlier this month, Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris received nearly as much attention as the head coaches in the game.

That was because of Morris' ties to Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer and the high-powered Tigers offense he engineered. Plus, Morris was already being paid like a head coach.

In part because of Meyer's reported interest in hiring Morris in December 2011, Morris is the nation's highest-paid assistant coach at $1.3 million annually. But he's not alone in the $1 million coordinator club. LSU's John Chavis and Alabama's Kirby Smart also made more than seven figures as assistants in 2013, and Louisville recently lured defensive coordinator Todd Grantham away from Georgia with a five-year contract worth $1 million annually.

[+] EnlargeKyle Flood
Frank Victores/USA TODAY SportsAt incoming Big Ten program Rutgers, head coach Kyle Flood barely makes more than at least one Big Ten coordinator.
The Big Ten has yet to take the plunge and cross the $1 million mark for an assistant coach. But there's little doubt that the pay for top coordinators is on the rise, and so is the league's investment in them.

"I think it’s imminent," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told ESPN.com. "I don’t know when, but I think it’s imminent. Whether that's two years from now or four years from now, it’s highly possible you'll see that in our league."

Some are not that far away now. Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is the Big Ten's highest-paid assistant at $851,000 per year. The Wolverines recently hired Doug Nussmeier away from Alabama as their offensive coordinator, and while his salary hasn't been disclosed yet, athletic director Dave Brandon has said it won't exceed Mattison's. Nussmeier was making $681,500 at Alabama.

Those numbers are compiled through open records requests and public information. But Brandon told ESPN.com that because contracts often include things like performance and longevity bonuses and deferred payments, "under certain scenarios, we've got coordinators now who could make over $1 million [in 2014]."

The $1 million mark is an arbitrary one in many ways. Brandon does not see an issue with surpassing it.

"Coordinator positions are very important, and when you look at what they are being paid in the pro ranks and in other conferences, the market has taken those positions up," he said. "If you're going to make a big investment in your head coach, you’ve got to back that investment up with the people around him to really bring it all together."

The arms race in college sports used to center on facilities. But now that just about every campus has upgraded every building imaginable and the construction crews are running out of projects, pay for assistant coaches seems to be the new frontier.

Consider that in 2010, the highest-paid Big Ten assistant coach was Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, at just more than $475,000. The increased commitment can really be seen at Ohio State, where in 2008, the Buckeyes did not pay a single Jim Tressel assistant more than $275,000. Now, Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell makes $610,000 and offensive coordinator Tom Herman earns $555,000. The Buckeyes just hired Chris Ash away from Arkansas as their co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach at a salary of $520,000, and they're paying new defensive line coach Larry Johnson $400,000.

"It’s crazy," Smith said. "Stakes are higher. The revenue’s gotten bigger. So you see those assistant coaches who are extremely talented being compensated consistent with their skills. It’s blown up. And I’m not so sure it’s going to slow down.

"It’s just market-driven. It's really not unlike any other industry. Any industry or large corporation is going to pay whatever the market is for their top CFO or top COO or whatever the top positions are that they're trying to fill on their executive team. A head football coach is a CEO. And his executive team is his assistants."

That's fine for rich programs such as Ohio State and Michigan. Or Nebraska, which paid offensive coordinator Tim Beck $700,000 last year. But can every Big Ten school afford to reward its assistants like captains of industry? Consider that Clemson's Morris made more in base pay in 2013 than two Big Ten head coaches (Minnesota's Jerry Kill and Indiana's Kevin Wilson). Incoming Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood makes only $9,000 more per year than Mattison.

"It’s challenging, especially for a program like Indiana, where we have a smaller stadium, we don’t fill it," Indiana athletic director Fred Glass told ESPN.com. "So it’s tough to compete."

"I guess one of the questions is, where does it level off?," Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner told ESPN.com. "It depends on the revenue structure. If the revenue goes up and the investment causes a return that’s worthwhile, maybe things do continue to escalate, and particularly at schools that are able to financially support their programs so that it’s not a burden on the general funds."

Then again, few investments can have a more direct impact on the actual football product than paying top dollar for a truly elite coordinator. Michigan State surely doesn't regret the $558,000 it paid to defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi last year; one could argue he would be underpaid even at $1 million.

It won't be long until a Big Ten assistant gets there.

"We’re going to see it," Smith said. "Especially at places like Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State -- the big stadiums, so to speak. It’s going to end up being here at some point. "

A look at the B1G assistant salaries

December, 12, 2013
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USA Today has released its annual database of assistant coach salaries throughout college football so let's see how the Big Ten aides stack up. Ten of the 12 Big Ten schools report coaches' salaries (Northwestern and Penn State do not).

Once again, Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison leads Big Ten assistants in pay at $851,400, which ranks fourth nationally behind million-dollar coordinators Chad Morris of Clemson, Kirby Smart of Alabama and John Chavis of LSU.

Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges is the only other Big Ten assistant in the top 10 nationally in total pay ($709,300). Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck ($700,000) is next, followed by Ohio State defensive coordinators Luke Fickell ($610,000) and Everett Withers ($585,000), Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi ($558,908) and Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman ($555,000).

On the whole, the Big Ten has fewer assistants making top-20 salaries than the SEC. There's also a decent drop-off in salary after Herman, as no others make more than $500,000 (Wisconsin coordinators Dave Aranda and Andy Ludwig both make $480,000).

Here are the highest-paid assistants for the 10 Big Ten squads reporting salary:

Michigan: Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison ($851,400)
Nebraska: Offensive coordinator Tim Beck ($700,000)
Ohio State: Defensive coordinator Luke Fickell ($610,000)
Michigan State: Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi ($558,908)
Wisconsin: Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig ($480,000)
Purdue: Offensive coordinator John Shoop ($400,000)
Illinois: Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit and defensive coordinator Tim Banks ($400,000)
Indiana: Offensive coordinator Seth Littrell ($356,500)
Minnesota: Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys ($346,800)
Iowa: Defensive coordinator Phil Parker ($325,500)

Claeys clearly is the best value in the league, as he served as Minnesota's acting head coach during Jerry Kill's health-related absence and remained as the main sideline coach even after Kill returned to duty. Iowa's Parker, along with OC Greg Davis ($325,000) also earned their keep and then some as the Hawkeyes flipped their record from 4-8 to 8-4.

Some Michigan fans will scoff at Borges' salary after the Wolverines offense struggled for much of Big Ten play. Fickell, Shoop and Banks also directed units that had forgettable seasons.

One thing to keep in mind when some of these assistants are mentioned for head-coaching jobs is the pay cuts they'd likely take to lead teams in smaller conferences.

In terms of total staff pay, Ohio State leads the Big Ten and ranks sixth nationally at $3,474,504, trailing LSU, Alabama, Clemson, Texas and Auburn. Michigan comes in next at $3,072,000, which ranks 14th nationally.

Bret Bielema left Wisconsin for Arkansas in part because he had lost so many assistants in his final two years in Madison. Bielema's staff at Arkansas ranks 10th nationally in total staff pay ($3,233,000), while Gary Andersen's staff at Wisconsin ranks 28th ($2,495,000)

Here are the Big Ten teams sorted by total staff pay:

Ohio State: $3,474,504
Michigan: $3,072,000
Nebraska: $2,648,500
Wisconsin: $2,495,000
Michigan State: $2,410,483
Iowa: $2,367,500
Minnesota: $2,152,350
Indiana: $2,074,780
Illinois: $2,066,400
Purdue: $2,010,000

We can have an endless about debate whether college football coaches make too much money in general, but these numbers remain problematic for the Big Ten in my view. Only two teams are truly paying top dollar for their staffs, and some groups are undervalued.

Michigan State's staff obviously jumps out after the Spartans just won the Big Ten championship. MSU co-offensive coordinators Dave Warner ($280,800) and Jim Bollman ($262,000) are among the lowest-paid coordinators in the league, as several position coaches make more than them. Athletic director Mark Hollis said last week that raises are coming for head coach Mark Dantonio and his assistants.

Minnesota's staff also deserves a nice bump after handling such a tough situation this season. I also wonder whether Iowa's coordinators get a raise, especially considering what head coach Kirk Ferentz makes.

Purdue's Marcus Freeman and Jafar Williams are the Big Ten's lowest-paid assistants at $120,000. Only one SEC assistant, Kentucky's Derrick Ansley, makes less than $140,000.
Last week, Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon wrote a 1,059-word blog post affirming his support for head coach Brady Hoke.

[+] Enlarge Brady Hoke, Al Borges
AP Photo/Tony DingAfter a down 2013, Al Borges (left) and Brady Hoke might not have the luxury of another season for their offense to grow.
Hoke's job status at Michigan, at least for a fourth season, never seemed to be in doubt. If Jabrill Peppers, Michigan's top 2014 recruit, hadn't expressed concern about Hoke's future, Brandon could have saved himself some time at the keyboard.

Brandon urged patience with the program, mentioned coaches like Jim Harbaugh and Nick Saban in his post and praised defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, whose job, at least to the outside, always appeared safe. Noticeably absent from the post was offensive coordinator Al Borges, who, along with offensive line coach Darrell Funk, has been the subject of increasing criticism as Michigan's offense sunk to historic lows in early November before reviving itself last Saturday against archrival Ohio State.

Hoke doesn't have a blog (am I the only one who wished he did) and isn't nearly as verbose as his boss, but he also expressed some public support for his staff Monday during an appearance at Detroit's Ford Field.

From The Detroit News:
Hoke was asked if he's happy with the staff and anticipates having this staff in 2014.

"Yeah, I anticipate the staff [returning]," he said.

When pressed and asked if he does not expect any changes, he responded simply.

"Correct," Hoke said.

He was asked again if this is a "we'll-see situation."

"No," he said.

Like every coach, Hoke will conduct evaluations with his staff following the season. Not surprisingly, Brandon will be a part of those. So it's possible changes could come following Michigan's bowl appearance, but don't hold your breath.

There's no doubt Hoke is loyal, and loyalty is a fleeting quality in today's pressurized world of college coaching. Florida on Monday fired offensive coordinator Brent Pease and offensive line coach Tim Davis, and other programs either have made or will make significant staff changes.

Michigan's offensive woes and season record aren't nearly as bad as Florida's, but both programs are supposedly big time and face pressure to win championships. Brandon's counterpart at Florida, Jeremy Foley, also had to give his head coach a vote of confidence in recent days. What do the two approaches say about the culture of the programs, the leagues they play in and the standards they set for performance?

Hoke and Borges were united in their offensive vision at San Diego State, and nothing has changed at Michigan. They want to restore a pro-style offense built around the power run. But for various reasons -- personnel types, youth, lack of development -- it hasn't happened yet. Michigan's offense had negative net rushing totals in its first two November games, couldn't score a touchdown in regulation at Northwestern and racked up just 158 yards at Iowa before exploding for 41 points, 31 first downs and 603 yards against Ohio State.

The Wolverines seem to be at their best with quarterback Devin Gardner moving around and ball-carriers attacking the perimeter, rather than between the tackles. That hasn't been the long-term vision, but the plan could come into focus next season as young linemen and young running backs mature.

Borges is a smart coach, but he's also a journeyman coordinator. He had different jobs each season from 2000-04 and hasn't been at one stop for longer than five years since a seven-year stint at Portland State from 1986-92.

Like many coaches, Hoke believes in staff continuity, which is often a top indicator of success. We've seen plenty of examples in the Big Ten, including the long-tenured staffs at Michigan State and Minnesota picking up the slack when head coaches Mark Dantonio and Jerry Kill stepped away because of health reasons.

Northwestern attributes much of its recent success, at least until this year, to the staff remaining fully intact. Coach Pat Fitzgerald plans to keep it that way despite a highly disappointing 5-7 record. But Fitzgerald isn't at Michigan. He doesn't have the same external and historic demands as Hoke does, or should.

Does the patience/loyalty shown by Brandon and Hoke show that Michigan is different (in a good way), avoids knee-jerk reactions and wisely plans for long-term success? Or does it show Michigan talks like a big-time program but struggles to make the hard choices needed to compete at the highest level?

I'll admit it's a tough one. We'll probably get our answer in 2014.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

November, 29, 2013
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Hope you're stuffed from Thanksgiving. Be sure to follow us on Twitter for the final Saturday of the regular season.

To the inbox ...

Pat from Iowa writes: Who would you consider the biggest surprise team this year for good or for worse? Northwestern's down spiral, Minnesota's amazing year, or perhaps a great Iowa rebound year? Thoughts?

[+] EnlargeKain Colter
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesSince the loss to Ohio State it has been all downhill for Northwestern.
Adam Rittenberg: Northwestern's downturn definitely is the biggest surprise, especially considering where the Wildcats were on Oct. 5 (4-0, leading Ohio State in the fourth quarter, College GameDay on campus). I attended that game and also last week's home finale, where the stands were mostly empty and the team had been decimated by injuries and poor play. Northwestern returned its core from a 10-win team and won't make a bowl -- big surprise. Minnesota, while deserving a lot of credit, likely will win only two more regular-season games than it did last year. And Iowa couldn't have been much worse after the 2012 season, although the Hawkeyes have been a nice story.


Mike from Colorado Springs, Colo., writes: I appreciate your dissatisfaction with Ameer Abdullah not being a finalist for the Doak Walker Award. I think he is way underrated because of the season Nebraska is having. With all the injuries on offense, he has been the one guy they can count on. If you look at the stats he also has much fewer carries than Andre Williams and Ka'Deem Carey and they are Heisman candidates. Not to discredit what Williams has done because it is really special, but if Abdullah gets the carries he does I think the stats are pretty similar. Is Abdullah a Heisman candidate if Nebraska is more in the national picture? These other guys are and Arizona and Boston College are lower on the totem pole than Nebraska. What is hindering him from the national spotlight?

Adam Rittenberg: I thought Nebraska's relatively early exit from the national spotlight (the UCLA game) hurt Abdullah's national exposure a bit, but Arizona and Boston College aren't exactly challenging for league championships, either. So it's a bit puzzling. Abdullah's lack of touchdowns might play a role, and several of his signature plays -- like the fourth-down conversion against Northwestern before the Hail Mary -- haven't resulted in touchdowns. He has been the model of consistency and should be getting more attention, but it hasn't happened. Disappointing for sure.


Kyle from Dover, Del., writes: Adam, yes or no, does Jabrill Peppers stay committed to Michigan despite the absolutely terrible season we have had?Also, do you think Shane Morris will be ready to lead the Wolverines entering the 2014 season? God bless, go blue, happy holidays.

Adam Rittenberg: Same to you, Kyle. I fully expect Peppers to Go Blue come national signing day. Coach Brady Hoke isn't going anywhere, and neither is defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. Hoke's future never was in doubt at Michigan, but Peppers obviously got concerned about the coach keeping his job in 2014. Those concerns should go away. Peppers really seems all in for Michigan, and while recruits can always change their minds at the last minute, I wouldn't worry. As for Morris, I still think Devin Gardner is the Michigan quarterback in 2014. Gardner isn't the problem with that unit.


[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesMark Dantonio has made his feelings known about where his team belongs in the postseason.
JB from Scottsdale, Ariz., writes: Hey Adam,I know it sucks to be a MSU fan because of their bad luck getting into a BCS bowl, but all of this campaigning by Coach D is a joke. We can talk about this all we want, but the reality is if they lose the Big Ten championship game they can say hello to Orlando and the Capital One Bowl. Wisconsin should only have one loss on the season, and will be riding a seven-game winning streak. Also, the perception of a larger fan base means more money, they would go to the Orange Bowl. Most experts have Wisconsin in the Orange Bowl, and I can't see that changing. Even if MSU loses against OSU, but stays in the Top 14, Wisconsin would still be higher.

Adam Rittenberg: JB, you might be right, and Wisconsin might get an at-large berth ahead of Michigan State. But I think if the Spartans lose to Ohio State and stay in the top 14, they'll likely go ahead of Wisconsin. Maybe it's just a hunch, but Wisconsin has been to three consecutive Rose Bowls, while Michigan State hasn't been to BCS bowl during the BCS era and last went to a BCS-level bowl during the 1987 season (Rose). If the Spartans play Ohio State to the wire and lose, athletic director Mark Hollis and campaigning coach Mark Dantonio would have some good selling points. Your last point is really irrelevant as we constantly see teams ranked lower in the final BCS standings receive at-large berths. So if Michigan State remains in the top 14 -- remember, that was the issue in 2011, which no one mentions -- I think the Spartans could get an at-large spot ahead of Wisconsin.


Zach from Dallas writes: Adam, I'm going to ask you an impossible question to answer. If you had to pick one current Big Ten Player to build a defense around, who would it be? Ryan Shazier and Chris Borland are fantastic linebackers who put up big numbers. Darqueze Dennard is probably the best DB in the nation and cuts off half the field. Max Bullough is an extension of the coach on the field and can control a game by himself.

Adam Rittenberg: Zach, it is an extremely difficult question with no absolute right or wrong answer. There are so many great options in this league. But I've gone record before that Borland would be my starting point for putting together a defense. He's not only one of the smartest players I've ever covered, but he's the consummate playmaker, always around the ball and causing problems for the opponent. He has universal respect from opposing coaches and Gary Andersen, despite being with him for only one year, is calling him the best he has ever coached. So you can't go wrong here, but give me Borland.


Charles from Knoxville, Tenn., writes: Adam, if Auburn manages to do the unthinkable and beat Alabama this weekend, that should be enough to solidify OSU into a national title game slot. My question is do you think the B1G front office would put pressure on MSU to allow OSU a pass in the title game, to ensure OSU's shot at a national title?

Adam Rittenberg: Charles, while the Big Ten would love to see Ohio State reach the BCS title game, the thought it would tell another of its teams to tank in the championship game is absurd. Not only would it be highly unethical and unfair to Michigan State, but the Big Ten wouldn't want its showcase event -- the title game -- tarnished in any way. Plus, why would Michigan State listen? The Spartans are well aware of what happens to title game losers in the BCS picture, as they often miss the big bowls entirely. I also wouldn't be so certain Ohio State is safe if Auburn beats Alabama, as there would be significant pressure to have an SEC team in the title game.


Enrique from Grand Rapids, Mich., writes: Adam, please fix your Big Ten picks overall records! There are 48 non-conference games and 48 conference games to pick during the regular season (96 total). Right now you are both 74-14 for a total of 88 picks. With six games left to pick that would put you at only 94. You guys got off track a few weeks ago. You'll want to double check, but I think you're both at 76-14. And if you'd like a question for your mailbag: The disparity between the Leaders is greater than that of the Legends this year. With the alignment shift next year, which division do you think will have greater disparity between the best and worst?

Adam Rittenberg: Enrique, thanks to you and others for pointing out the error in our picks records. They've both been updated to 76-14. Math never was my strong suit, and I clearly didn't give Brian or I enough credit here. The general feeling is that the Big Ten East will be much stronger than the West, and that could happen if programs like Michigan State continue to surge. Wisconsin looks like the premier program in the West. It will be interesting to see if Nebraska, Iowa, Northwestern and Minnesota can rise up to match the Badgers in the coming years. But if Michigan and Penn State make some progress this offseason, it's easy to envision the East being stronger, perhaps much stronger.

Planning for success: Michigan

November, 21, 2013
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Michigan has struggled with consistency this season. And it hasn’t just been from game to game. It has been from one series to the next, sometimes even from one down to the next. All in all, it hasn’t seemed as though the Wolverines have been able to put together 60 minutes of good football in all facets.

However, last weekend against Northwestern might’ve been the most complete the team has looked, especially in conference play.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Green
David Banks/USA TODAY SportsMichigan was able to get freshman RBs Derrick Green (pictured) and De'Veon Smith going against Northwestern.
The Michigan run game appeared, the offensive line looked cohesive and the defense looked solid as a unit. Those three facets obviously don’t create a perfect game for the Wolverines, but Michigan will attempt build on that performance and maintain that consistency as it travels to Iowa City on Saturday.

“There’s no doubt in the consistency you want to play with and the carryover you want from one week to the next,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. “The belief that [the players] have in each other and how they persevere and all those things. You want to build off that and build off the momentum of that.”

A lot of the offensive momentum the Wolverines created against the Wildcats was in the run game.

The Michigan offensive line was physical at the line of scrimmage and Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith averaged 4.4 yards per carry. However, this week the position battle has been open and Hoke said that the carries in practice have been pretty equally split between those two tailbacks and senior Fitzgerald Toussaint.

No matter who is running the ball, the offensive line hopes to be able to spring him through for another solid game. One place the O-line must look to improve from last week, though, is in its protection. It did allow five sacks and keeping quarterback Devin Gardner safe will continue to be of premium importance.

Also of importance will be building on last weekend’s defensive performance. Hoke said earlier this week that it was the defense that kept Michigan in the Northwestern game, and the defense will certainly have to contain Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock and the Iowa run game if it wants to be in this game, as well.

“This is going to be a definite challenge,” defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. “They’re a very, very good offense. They don’t do a lot of things, but what they do, they do really, really well.”

But what the Wolverines did really well against Northwestern was creating big plays and coming up clutch for its offense in the red zone and in overtime, which defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said has been a focus for this team.

“That’s a huge emphasis,” Mattison said. “We go a two-minute [drill] every Thursday against our offense. Sometimes we do some really good things and don’t finish. ... We all know that to be the defense we need to be here, and it’s expected at Michigan, you have to finish.”

And Michigan is looking to finish this season with 10 wins, which means its next task is beating Iowa on the road. And certainly, a huge part of that will be creating a consistency that has been absent all season.

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