Michigan Wolverines: Jabrill Peppers

Big Ten Thursday mailbag

July, 24, 2014
Jul 24
5:00
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We're taking more of your mailbag questions from Twitter these days, and we now have individual Twitter handles in addition to the ESPN Big Ten account. Make sure to follow each of us for all your league news. Here is mine.

Now to the good stuff, which is your questions and my fair-to-middling answers:

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Brian Bennett: I haven't thought of it quite like that, but I get your point. Iowa has a definite shot with its advantageous schedule. With the Hawkeyes' toughest two games coming in the final two weeks at home against Wisconsin and Nebraska, they have a chance to be favored in every game. Meanwhile, Ohio State faces many more challenges, including nonconference games against Virginia Tech, Cincinnati and Navy, along with that East Division showdown on the road at Michigan State.

Yet, if I had to pick one team to go undefeated of those two, I'd take the Buckeyes. Iowa's conservative style means that more games are likely to be close -- five of last season's 13 contests were decided by a touchdown or less, while Ohio State had three such games in 14 tries. Looked at another way, the Buckeyes outgained opponents by 137.6 per game in conference play last season, while the Hawkeyes outgained their league foes by 52.5 yards per game. Though past performance shouldn't be our sole guide for looking forward, Ohio State has gone 12-0 in the regular season the past two seasons.

I like Iowa a lot this year and am leaning toward picking Kirk Ferentz's team to win the West Division. But I'd be surprised if it didn't stub its toe a time or two along the way, whereas another Ohio State undefeated season wouldn't be shocking.


Hussein from Ann Arbor writes: I was reading your DB position preview and couldn't help but notice that Michigan was absent. I understand why they might not be number 1 in the conference, but they are returning tons of talent and I would be surprised if they weren't in the top 3 this upcoming year. Blake Countess is a stud and should compete for All Big-Ten First Team (if not All-American), while Raymon Taylor is very solid at the opposite corner position. At least one safety spot should be locked up with Jarrod Wilson with the other seemingly up for grabs(?). And that's without even mentioning Jabrill Peppers ...

Brian Bennett: I strongly considered Michigan for one of the top two spots, Hussein, and as you can probably tell, those posts are intended to rank every single team. I like the Wolverines' returning experience, and Countess should be one of the top cover guys in the league. Peppers can take the group to the next level if he is the real deal, but I'm a little bit cautious about projecting so much on an incoming true freshman who didn't go through spring ball. I have little doubt Peppers will make an impact this season, but how much? Ultimately, I thought Michigan gave up too many big plays in the passing game last season and wasn't physical enough in the back end. If Peppers helps change that, this crew has a chance to be the best in the Big Ten.


Brian from Raleigh, North Carolina, writes: Hey, Brian, about the Fitz-calls-Nebraska-boring "controversy"... maybe I've got my purple-tinted glasses on, but where's the beef? How are there even Nebraska fans angry about this? I grew up in the middle of nowhere in rural Michigan, and we made fun of how empty and boring it was all the time. Fitz made a bad joke that almost every American has made at some point in their lives. Is this really such a stinging, controversial comment? Or has cliche coachspeak become so dominant that a coach acting like an actual human being for 10 seconds is news?

Brian Bennett: I'm glad you put "controversy" in quotes, because this isn't really a big deal. Pat Fitzgerald's comments about Cal coach Sonny Dykes, I thought, were more intriguing. I can see why Nebraska people wouldn't like it, though. For example, f I call my home state "boring" or insult it in some other way, that's OK; if you as a non-Kentuckian do the same, well, them's fightin' words! Still, Fitzgerald was simply yukking it up with some Northwestern boosters after a summertime golf event, so let's not make it into a culture war. If anything, it adds a little spice to a very dull period, and the Big Ten can be far too dry and polite at times.


Ed from Michigan writes: Hey, Brian. It seem like everyone who follows college football has heard of stories of cheating and then the Big 12 Commissioner says the same. My question: Where is the investigative reporting to uncover this cheating?

Brian Bennett: There is no question about two things, Ed. One, the overwhelming majority of NCAA infractions cases began with a media report, as journalists have been doing the hard legwork for NCAA investigators for years. And two, fewer newspapers and other media outlets are devoting time and resources to investigative journalism these days. Some places still are, for sure. The North Carolina academic scandal is a perfect example of an issue that would have quickly vanished (or never even bubbled up) without the great work of some dogged reporters. What's also true is that uncovering those stories is painstakingly difficult, as it's often nearly impossible to find tangible evidence of cheating and not just accusations. For all the outstanding reporting that went into the Cam Newton affair, for instance, that smoking-gun shred of a paper trail never surfaced.

The bigger issue here, to me, is not from the media side but rather how cheating will be policed in the future. Particularly if -- or, more accurately, when -- the Power 5 schools gain autonomy and write many of their own rules, who will be there to enforce them? Certainly not the understaffed NCAA enforcement division, which will have ceded much of its power anyway. It likely will be up to the schools and conferences themselves. There is a good chance, as Bob Bowlsby said, that cheating will continue to pay off. There will just be fewer rules to break.

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Brian Bennett: The Hoosiers were close last year. Had they beaten Navy -- or had they given themselves a more manageable nonconference schedule, something athletic director Fred Glass regrets in hindsight -- they would have made their first bowl since 2007. Unfortunately, the schedule is tough again this season, with road trips to Bowling Green (the preseason MAC favorite) and Missouri, a crossover road game at Iowa and the rugged East Division. The good news is that Kevin Wilson had built a standout offense, and the defense has some small reasons for optimism, so IU should at least be within range of bowl eligibility.

As for Tevin Coleman, he's probably one of the most underrated players in the league. He's an outstanding athlete whose length and speed reminds me of Melvin Gordon. In fact, he scored as many rushing touchdowns (12) as Gordon did in four fewer games last season and averaged 7.3 yards per rush. With Indiana potentially relying on the run game a bit more this season, Coleman could put up monster stats.
Nearly all of the Big Ten’s top freshmen have reported to their respective schools, but ESPN.com caught up with a few players days before to pick their brains on an array of topics.

You can read the first installment here. To recap, the participants included Northwestern QB Clayton Thorson, ranked No. 157 in the 2014 class; Penn State WR Chris Godwin, one of the top 25 receivers in the class; Michigan LB Jared Wangler, one of 11 linebackers invited to the UA Game; Iowa WR Jay Scheel, one of two four-star players in the Hawkeyes’ class; and Maryland LB Jesse Aniebonam, the second-best prospect in the state behind OL Damian Prince.

Here’s what the freshmen had to say:

Outside of your team, what B1G freshmen are you most looking forward to watching and/or playing against?

Thorson: Hmmm. Trying to think. So there’s obviously Raekwon McMillan at Ohio State. I know we don’t play them this season, but I heard he’s a great player, so it’ll be fun going against him in future years. And it’s just guys like Zack Darlington; he’s at Nebraska at quarterback and I’ve gotten to know him over the past the few months, so it’ll be cool to go against him. And, at Michigan State, Madre London and I played at the Semper Fi [All-American] Bowl together, and he’s a great athlete.

[+] EnlargeChris Godwin
Miller Safrit/ESPNChris Godwin said his goal is not only to start this year but to be the Big Ten freshman of the year.
Godwin: I’m looking forward to seeing Freddy Canteen. I know him pretty well and, with his footwork, I think he’ll have a really good year at Michigan.

Wangler: I want to watch Byron Bullough for Michigan State. We played in this Michigan all-star game [‘Border Classic’ on June 14], and we got along pretty good. So I’m excited to see how he does. I know he’s got a good history -- his father and brother were successful for Michigan State -- so I feel like Byron is going to be successful, too.

Aniebonam: Big Ten-wise, that one guy -- Peppers, Jabrill Peppers -- he’s a solid athlete. I want to see how he does. He was in the Under Armour Game; we watched it right before our game [U.S. Army All-American Bowl] and he did pretty well. So, let’s see how he does at Michigan.

Why did you decide to commit to your school, and what do you think separates it from others in the conference?

Thorson: I always knew I wanted to play in the Big Ten. My family is from Ohio and Illinois, so I always just wanted to be around them so they could see me play – so that’s kind of how I narrowed it down. And then visiting different schools like Penn State, Illinois, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Iowa – after looking at all those schools, I decided Northwestern was the best fit for me. I jelled with the guys on the team, and the coaching staff is just awesome. I thought that was the best fit for me both academically and athletically.

Godwin: I chose Penn State because I felt really comfortable on campus and with the team. It was also the right fit for me academically and socially, and I think the tradition and fan base really separate it from other teams in the conference.

Wangler: Michigan has always been my dream school to go to, and there aren’t many universities out there that offer such a great degree and a great football experience. Plus, I feel really comfortable with Coach [Brady] Hoke and Coach [Greg] Mattison. It’s a great fit. It’s close to home, my dad played there. ... It’s almost too good to be true.

Scheel: Well, personally, it’s just been a dream to play there. So, really, any other school that decided it was going to offer me was nice, but it was always my dream to go to Iowa. I’ve only heard good things about them. Playing for Iowa is really an honor. And what makes them different is they’re not known for getting big recruits -- I know that -- but they take two- and three-star recruits and turn them into NFL players.

Aniebonam: Maryland just really stood out to me. Not just because it’s my hometown team and all my friends and family will be around me, but every time I went to the campus I was just pulled in and attracted to it more and more. If you asked me in the beginning of my junior season if I wanted to go to Maryland, I would’ve said, ‘Heck no.’ But it just grew on me; it just felt right. … [What separates Maryland] is they’re well-known -- but still underdogs. I think it’s a team that is going to be really watched because people want to know what happens here.

What are your expectations for this season -- and your career?

Thorson: The coaches always say to prepare each week as if you’re going to start the game, so I’m going to do that every week. I just want to get better at leading the team and knowing the playbook and everything. The Lord has a plan for me and, whether that’s starting this year or next year, whatever happens happens. I’m just really looking forward to getting on campus and playing with these guys.

Godwin: I would consider them goals more than expectations because I haven’t done anything yet. But, this season, my goal is to earn a starting spot by UCF then continually improve as a player and a teammate and, hopefully, be Big Ten freshman of the year. As a team, a goal of mine is to go undefeated, but who doesn’t want that, right?

Wangler: I expect to win. I think this next season we have a lot of people coming back and, after having kind of a mediocre season last year, I think we’re going to come out with a lot of hunger and the team is going to do a lot better. I think that’s going to set the pace for the four years after that. I feel like I’m going to have a successful career at Michigan.

Scheel: Personally, going in, I just want to get to know the playbook better and get to know the offense as soon as I can. I pretty much think I’m going to redshirt because starting right away might be difficult. If it does work, that’d be great. But I’m just trying to do my best. With my career, I’m trying to make a big impact on Iowa football, and I just want to have fun and get on the field.

Aniebonam: I just want to make a name for myself early. I want to get myself out there and really, really put my stamp on the school and into the minds of the coaches as early as I can. … Hopefully, that’ll come quick, but nothing is ever promised. You have to work.

Big Ten's lunch links

June, 19, 2014
Jun 19
12:00
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A devastating World Cup showing for Spain. On the plus side, they get to go back to Spain.

Big Ten roundtable: Impact freshmen

June, 6, 2014
Jun 6
9:00
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With incoming freshmen set to report to their respective B1G teams later this month, we thought now would be a perfect time to take a closer look at the 2014 class.

Who'll end up as the most memorable player? And who'll see time right away? Adam Rittenberg, Brian Bennett and Josh Moyer joined Big Ten recruiting writer Tom VanHaaren in discussing the big questions surrounding the freshmen.

So let's get started ...

Based on talent, which freshman is too good to leave off the field?

[+] EnlargeJabrill Peppers
Miller Safrit/ESPNJabrill Peppers is the type of physical defensive back that Michigan's defense needs.
Bennett: First, let's start off with the caveat that college is a lot different from high school, and more goes into being successful at this level than pure physical gifts. That said, I have never heard anyone dispute the natural talent and football instincts of Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers. He was ESPN's No. 2 recruit in the Class of 2014 for a reason. The comparisons to Charles Woodson are already being made, and the corner spot is open with Blake Countess playing nickelback. Michigan needs to get more physical in its pass coverage and have more defensive playmakers in general. If Peppers fulfills even 80 percent of his hype, he'll be on the field early and often for Brady Hoke.

VanHaaren: Peppers is the first name that comes to mind. Michigan doesn't really have anyone like him on the roster. His combination of size and speed, which he displayed at a recent track meet by running a 10.52-second 100-meter dash, is something that Michigan needs in the defensive backfield. I just don't see a scenario where a healthy Peppers doesn't see the field in some capacity.

Moyer: Everyone should be familiar with Peppers, so let's forget about him for a minute. Someone whom Buckeyes fans already know -- and whom other B1G fans should familiarize themselves with -- is linebacker Raekwon McMillan, who was rated as the top inside linebacker recruit in the nation. He's already enrolled, he's already impressed Urban Meyer, and he's already a physically imposing athlete. At 240 pounds, he's bigger than all but one of OSU's 10 other linebackers. Almost every scouting report you read on the guy describes him as a "thumper," and Meyer said three months ago that there'll be no redshirt for McMillan. He should make an impact early on.

Based on need, which freshman is a lock to start from Day 1?

Bennett: I'll go with Purdue's Gelen Robinson. He's following in the footsteps, sort of, of his dad -- Boilers basketball legend Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson. The younger Robinson was Purdue's most celebrated recruit in this class, but not just because of that name. He's also an outstanding athlete who should force his way onto the field from Day 1. He'll likely play outside linebacker, which is a position of need for Darrell Hazell's team. Heck, they need players everywhere, but particularly difference-makers on defense. Robinson will get every opportunity.

Rittenberg: It's hard for true freshman offensive linemen to step in immediately, but keep an eye on Maryland's Damian Prince, the nation's No. 26 prospect in the 2014 class. The recent suspension of potential starter Moise Larose creates a need at tackle, and both Prince and Derwin Gray both have a chance to win starting jobs this summer. Wisconsin will play several of its freshman wide receivers, and I could easily see a guy like Dareian Watkins entering the starting lineup. And let's not forget about Michigan State defensive tackle Malik McDowell. The Spartans lost a few pieces on the interior defensive line.

Moyer: Penn State wideout De'Andre Thompkins. In a normal year, he might be a redshirt candidate. He's incredibly athletic -- Bill O'Brien recruited him thinking he could be a two-way player and compete at nickelback -- but he's also a bit raw since he played mostly at running back in high school. He still needs to sharpen his routes but, between the scholarship reduction and the lack of experience at receiver this season, Thompkins will have to step up sooner rather than later. The early enrollee has already proven he's the fastest player on the roster, and he's taken reps as a return man. So he should play on Day 1, in some capacity.

When this freshman class graduates, who will be remembered as the best player?

Bennett: Peppers is the easy and safe choice here. Another possibility is Maryland's Prince. He's a mountain, and given the value of offensive tackles in the NFL, we could be hearing his name early in the 2017 or 2018 draft.

VanHaaren: It could very well be either Peppers or McMillan. It's tough to argue against those two just based off of talent and ability, and I would probably go with Peppers here. I saw him at the Under Armour All-America Game and coach Herm Edwards told me Peppers was the best high school prospect he had coached in the few years he had been coaching at the event. That's high praise for a former defensive back.

[+] EnlargeDamian Prince
Tom Hauck for Student SportsThe massive Damian Prince might be too good to keep out of Maryland's starting lineup.
Rittenberg: McDowell's recruiting melodrama gained a lot of attention, overshadowing how good a player he could be for MSU. Mark Dantonio isn't one to heap praise on freshmen but held a news conference specifically to discuss McDowell, saying, "Malik will be on the field for us, he's too big and fast [not to be], he can play inside or outside." I've been told McDowell's parents are on board with MSU now, and with the distractions behind him, he should become a star for an already elite defense.

What redshirt freshman should fans keep an eye on?

Bennett: I trust the player development program at Michigan State. Guys there just seem to get better and better throughout their careers, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Defensive end Demetrius Cooper turned a lot of heads this spring and forced himself into the rotation, even with standout returning starters Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush ahead of him. Cooper was just a three-star recruit, according to ESPN, but the Spartans have made a living turning moderately-rated recruits into true college stars.

VanHaaren: I don't know if this is cheating or not because he's a sophomore, but I'm really interested to see what quarterback Wes Lunt does for Illinois. I put him here because he transferred and had to sit out the last season. I think he could be a big boost to that program if he can get things rolling offensively for the Illini.

Rittenberg: Iowa wide receiver Derrick Willies. Not only did he have a breakout spring for the Hawkeyes, but he's the type of receiver Iowa has lacked for a while: tall, fast and explosive. Iowa wants to ramp up the offensive tempo even more this season, which likely means the ball will be spread around more. Expect some big plays from Willies in his first game action.

Moyer: Minnesota running back Berkley Edwards. If it wasn't for an ankle injury early last season, he probably would've played. As it is, he'll definitely see the field this fall -- and he might see it quite a bit. Jerry Kill was asked earlier this spring if Edwards might get five to seven carries a game. "We'll see," Kill said, chuckling, to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "He might need more touches." Edwards is an exciting player who has a chance to break it anytime he touches the ball, and he could end up being an important change-of-pace back for the offense. Definitely worth watching.

Jabrill Peppers can fly

June, 3, 2014
Jun 3
5:40
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Michigan signee Jabrill Peppers ran the 100 meter dash in 10.52 seconds at his state track meet last week. That time would have put him in the top 20 of the NCAA East preliminary round that also took place this past weekend.



The 6-foot-1, 205-pound Peppers beat out 2015 Alabama commit Minkah Fitzpatrick in the race, and he was flying.

Michigan fans are excited to see that kind of speed and size combination in the defensive backfield when Peppers gets to campus in a few weeks. He should be an early contributor, as he is coming in as the No. 2-ranked prospect in the country.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

May, 28, 2014
May 28
5:00
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Only one mailbag from me this week because of the holiday. Let's make it a good one (instead of the usual, wholly adequate ones):


Brian L. via Twitter writes: Do you think MSU would be where they are today, including Mark Dantonio, if Mouse Trap and Little Giants had failed three years ago?

Brian Bennett: It's an interesting question. For sure, the 2010 season represented a breakthrough for Dantonio and the Spartans as they won 11 games and captured a share of their first Big Ten title in 20 years. While both those trick plays -- Mouse Trap vs. Northwestern and Little Giants against Notre Dame -- proved crucial to the outcome, it's possible Michigan State could have won without them, but we'll never know for sure. The key question, I guess, is if the Spartans had lost both those games, would they have continued on their upward climb? The Little Giants play in particular and that 11-win season really began to put the program back on the national radar, showed a different side of Dantonio to the public and probably contributed toward the team's momentum. So it's all part of the stew, so to speak. But I also think Dantonio and his staff had been building toward great things with their recruiting and coaching stability, so it might have happened regardless.


Ron from Michigan writes: Brian, I would say Michigan's most indispensable defensive player has to be cornerback Blake Countess. He's great in coverage and had a lot of interceptions last season which contributed to helping the offense as well. Did you at least put him in the mix for consideration?

Brian Bennett: He was definitely considered. But the fact is that Countess is now at nickelback, which is an important position (and, of course, a terrible band) but not necessarily the most important on the field. If Jabrill Peppers is the real deal, Michigan will be fine at corner. Maybe we're expecting too much of Peppers early on, but that's why Countess wasn't listed among the two most indispensable.


Clint C. via Twitter writes: Can the Hawkeyes finally get over the hump and finish in the top two this year in the Big Ten?

Brian Bennett: I assume by top two you mean winning the West Division. And Iowa has a great chance to do just that. Not only do they miss Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan from the East, they get Wisconsin and Nebraska at home the final two weeks. You simply can't ask for a better schedule, and Kirk Ferentz's team has enough experience and talent that it could be favored in every single game this season.


Luke B. via Twitter writes: What is IU's realistic ceiling for this season?

Brian Bennett: Unlike Iowa, the schedule does Indiana few favors in 2014. Consecutive nonconference road games against Bowling Green -- a potential favorite in the MAC -- and reigning SEC East Division champ Missouri will not be easy, and the Hoosiers also have road games at Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan. Still, this program has been improving under Kevin Wilson the past few years and wasn't far off from making a bowl game last season. Getting to the postseason should be the ultimate goal this year, and I think seven wins is probably the ceiling if the defense can become even moderately respectable.


Connor M. via Twitter writes: After losing 4/5 of their O-line and 3/4 of their DBs, can the Buckeyes' skill position players and defensive front seven hold it down until those groups come along?

Brian Bennett: That's really the key question for Ohio State's season. The losses in the secondary, except for Bradley Roby, don't sting that much since the pass defense was atrocious at the end of last season, anyway. There is talent to work with back there, and I think the new approach by Chris Ash should help the Buckeyes be more aggressive and better use their speed in pass coverage. I still have some questions about the linebackers. The defensive line should be one of the best in the country, provided that it weathers the storm from the loss of Noah Spence for two games and Jamal Marcus, who is transferring.

The offensive line will need to find the right mix, but Ed Warriner is one of the best in the business of figuring that stuff out. Ohio State might not have the best offensive line in the Big Ten in 2014, but I expect it to remain very good with perhaps some early growing pains. The Buckeyes are loaded with speed at the offensive skill positions, but remember they lost their top rusher (Carlos Hyde) and top receiver (Corey Brown) and that there aren't many proven players in that wideout corps.

Urban Meyer's team is young but ridiculously talented in a lot of key spots, which is why I think Ohio State is the most intriguing team in the Big Ten this season. Playing Navy, Virginia Tech and Cincinnati in three of the first four games is no cakewalk and will be a much bigger challenge than the Buckeyes experienced the past two seasons in the nonconference slate. The best news for Meyer's team is that Braxton Miller is back, and he can erase a lot of mistakes early on while all the parts come together.


Joe H. Florida writes: Brian, I have been to both Minneanoplace and the Big Guava (Tampa). You need to get out more if you think Tampa can't compare to the Twin Cities.

Brian Bennett: To each his own, Joe. But I've been to Tampa more than a dozen times in my life, and other than the great weather and proximity to the beaches, I've found it to be a very dull city without much of a central hub. Minneapolis has much more to do downtown (and you can even walk indoors when it's cold). Fans would complain about the weather in the Twin Cities, but I think they would find plenty of fun activities if Minneapolis were to host the College Football Playoff title game.

Big Ten lunch links

May, 21, 2014
May 21
12:00
PM ET
Only 99 days left.

Big Ten's lunch links

May, 19, 2014
May 19
12:00
PM ET
Seven more to go and Stanley sticks around for another year.
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Nick the Quick from Nashville writes: The B1G's programs are raking in the dough. The article Monday on B1G revenue should surprise no one. When will the lesser programs start making more solid and needed financial investments in their football programs? Seems so simple to me. Is it that simple or is this a case of jaded B1G fans desperately looking for answers on why these teams struggle but make money hand over fist?

Adam Rittenberg: Nick, this topic fascinates me, and I wrote extensively about it last season. It doesn't seem to add up: record revenues generated, but a football league that hasn't consistently been among the nation's elite. As Big Ten athletic directors told me, there are other factors to consider like sponsoring so many non-revenue sports, which is at the core of the league's broad-based philosophy but isn't the best business approach. Most Big Ten schools have made significant investments in recent years, whether it's facilities or coaches' salaries, but there's still a sizable gap in football budgets. As Indiana AD Fred Glass told me, Michigan made $147.5 million in football revenue last year, while Indiana made only about $4.5 million.

The money and investments definitely matter, but as B1G commissioner Jim Delany said, it's not a one-to-one relationship and doesn't guarantee success.


Glen from Minneapolis writes: Everyone has been saying the Gophers have become improved recently, including yourself. However, there always seem to be a caveat that follows (loss of Ra'Shede Hageman, Mitch Leidner's abilities to pass, etc.). I would like to know -- with your ranking of the Gophers' 2014 conference schedule as the second toughest in the league and first impressions post-spring game/practices -- will the Gophers make a bowl game? Should fans be as happy (or grateful) about a 6-6 record as they were with going 8-4 last season?

Adam Rittenberg: Asking college football fans to be pragmatic is akin to asking them to abstain from beer or charred meat on Saturdays. I get that. But I think it would serve Minnesota fans well this season. Minnesota very well could have a better team that ends up with a worse regular-season record. The crossover games are tough, and Minnesota has three very challenging league road games (Wisconsin, Nebraska and Michigan). But Gophers fans should expect at least six wins and a bowl appearance. Anything less would qualify as a disappointment from a fourth-year coaching staff that returns some nice pieces. Should fans be grateful at 6-6? No. But they also should be realistic about what Minnesota is up against.


Ethan from New Jersey writes: Do you think the B1G would ever allow permanent end-of-season rivalry games with either the Big 12 or the ACC like the SEC and ACC already do? (think Penn State-Pitt, Iowa-Iowa State, Nebraska-Oklahoma) I think if could give a true rival to some teams in the league without one and could sometimes prove the depth of the B1G by having consistent Power 5 play.

Adam Rittenberg: Ethan, the Big Ten really wants to make the final weekend about its own product, not out-of-conference games. The league wants to give Nebraska-Iowa time to grow. Maybe it evolves into a nice rivalry, maybe not. I hope the Big Ten considers allowing Penn State to play Pitt at the end of the season. There's no other league rival for PSU, and the Pitt series has a ton of history and typically took place between Nov. 19-30. I can't see Iowa-Iowa State moving to the end of the season. Aside from the 2001 game, it has taken place in September since the series resumed in 1977. Bottom line: The Big Ten wants to maximize its own rivalries that weekend, but it should be open to nonconference games involving certain teams.


Pete from Cincinnati writes: Agree with your assessment rating the strength of crossover schedules this coming season. This can't be an accident, can it? The conference knows the West needs credibility, and to get that it needs Iowa and Wisconsin to be successful. The conference's best shot at a title team is in Columbus. And while we're at it, let's do what we can to make sure the new guys don't wind up too high in the standings, lest people start talking. Thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Pete, while I appreciate your conspiracy theories and think Wisconsin is extremely fortunate to draw both Big Ten newcomers in Years 1 and 2, I don't know if the league is trying to achieve all the objectives you mention. Remember parity-based scheduling, which pairs historically more successful teams against one another more often? It should go into effect in 2016 and beyond. "You'll see Wisconsin and Nebraska and Iowa playing a lot of competition against Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan," Jim Delany told ESPN.com last year. Wisconsin in 2016 has crossovers against Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State -- in successive weeks, no less. Iowa has both Penn State and Michigan that year, in addition to Rutgers. So while I agree the West Division needs credibility, the initial crossover schedules aren't indicative of how things will be most years.


Punky's Girl from Virginia Beach, Va., writes: Could Jabrill Peppers play as an occasional WR, like Charles Woodson did? If so, would he be a double threat?

Adam Rittenberg: He would be if he replicates what he did in high school as a two-way player at the college level. It could happen, but I don't think it will right away unless Michigan really struggles at receiver this year. Michigan coach Brady Hoke, asked in February about Peppers' potential to play offense, urged patience. Peppers first has to show what he can do at cornerback. "Could there be a play in there somewhere for him offensively?" Hoke said. "There could be. But let's let the kid walk on campus, go to a class during the summer and be a freshman."
Spring practice in the Big Ten has sadly come to an end, and we're both back home after some trips around the conference. Wednesday, we shared out thoughts on the Big Ten's West Division, and now it's time to turn our focus to the beast known as the East.

Brian dropped in on Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Indiana, and Adam stopped by Penn State.

Adam Rittenberg: Let's begin with your trip to the Mitten State. You made your first stop in Ann Arbor, where Michigan was wrapping up its first spring with new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. Michigan's top priority is the offense and fixing the line. What did you gather about the unit, and how are the changes on the defense -- player positions and coaching roles -- working out?

[+] EnlargeDoug Nussmeier
AP Photo/Tony DingNew OC Doug Nussmeier's top priority is fixing Michigan's offensive line.
Brian Bennett: Things definitely seem a lot smoother on defense. Jake Ryan adopted quickly to playing middle linebacker, and James Ross III is talented enough to play anywhere. Mark Smith picked a good time to take over the defensive line, as he'll have a pair of senior ends in Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer and some nice young talent to work with in Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley, Willie Henry, etc. Throw Jabrill Peppers into the mix in the back end this summer, and this has a chance to be a very solid defense.

It's just a matter of whether the offense can keep up. The Wolverines are very young on that side of the ball, and the line is full of redshirt freshmen and sophomores right now. Mason Cole enrolled in January and was starting at left tackle in spring ball, which said a lot about the state of the position. Michigan's season likely depends on whether that O-line can come together and raise its collective level of play. There are some good-looking athletes at receiver and running back, but not many of them are proven. Many big questions remain in Ann Arbor.

AR: There are fewer questions at Michigan State. How did the defending Big Ten/Rose Bowl champs seem to be handling their success? And how are they replacing defensive standouts such as cornerback Darqueze Dennard?

BB: Several players told me they were sick of talking about the Rose Bowl, which is a good sign. I saw a team that could definitely repeat as Big Ten champions. The offense brings back most of its major pieces and will add new weapons suchas tight end Jamal Lyles and quarterback/athlete Damion Terry. The early-season scoring droughts of years past should not happen again this fall.

No doubt Pat Narduzzi's crew lost a lot -- four All-Big Ten defenders, plus both starting defensive tackles. Michigan State has a big experience gap to make up, especially at linebacker. But this is a program that just seems to reload on defense now and has recruited so well to its system. Guys like defensive tackle Joel Heath, defensive end Demetrius Cooper and safety Jalyn Powell all came on strong this spring. Three of the corners vying to replace Dennard had interceptions in the spring game. I have supreme confidence that Narduzzi will have this defense dominating again in 2014.

AR: Ohio State's defense has many more question marks after a rough 2013 campaign. The line should be terrific but how did the back seven look during your trip to Columbus? And how are new assistants Chris Ash and Larry Johnson fitting into the mix? What else stood out about the Buckeyes?

BB: In my eyes, this is one of the most intriguing teams anywhere. The Buckeyes are almost frightfully young on offense outside of Braxton Miller and are breaking in lots of new players at linebacker and in the secondary. Yet they also have some impressive looking athletes and more overall explosiveness than the previous two seasons under Urban Meyer. Ash is installing a quarters coverage look, but maybe even more important is the fact that the safeties can really run and cover now. The revamped offensive line is a big question mark, as is the inexperience at receiver and the linebacker spot. But when you see young guys like linebacker Raekwon McMillan and tailback Curtis Samuel running around, you realize there aren't a lot of Big Ten teams that look like the Buckeyes.

Adam, you made it up to State College to check in on Penn State and new coach James Franklin. What's the vibe like up there?

AR: Electric. The charismatic staff has quickly formed bonds with the players, some of whom knew Franklin from the recruiting process. The defense should be better under Bob Shoop's leadership, as long as the starters stay healthy. There's decent depth up front and safety Adrian Amos and cornerback Jordan Lucas anchor the secondary. Linebacker Mike Hull is embracing his role as the unit's leader. Christian Hackenberg can really spin the ball -- very impressive. But can PSU protect him? No Big Ten team, including Ohio State, has bigger issues along the offensive line. Running back Bill Belton looked great, and I like the depth at tight end. Franklin is realistic about the depth issues and knows his team can't afford many more injuries.

You also visited Indiana this spring. How did the Hoosiers look, especially on defense with new coordinator Brian Knorr?

BB: You know the drill. Indiana could make some real noise if it could actually, you know, stop anybody. Knorr has them playing a 3-4, and hey have some major beef inside with the defensive tackles in 325-pounders Darius Latham and Ralph Green III. Ten starters are back and some promising recruits are on the way, so there's more depth on defense than before. But it's still a major construction project, and the offense might lose a little of its big-play ability as it tries to replace three of its top four receivers from a season ago.

OK, lightning-round finish. I still see Michigan State and Ohio State as the heavy favorites here, with Penn State a dark horse if its O-line issues can be solved. What about you?

AR: MSU is the team to beat because of the quarterback and the track record on defense. Ohio State definitely is in that mix, too. Michigan remains young at spots but could contend with a serviceable run game. Offensive line is a huge issue in this division. Sleeper-wise, I wouldn't count out Penn State, Indiana or Maryland, which could be dynamic on offense if it finally stays healthy.

Michigan spring wrap

April, 28, 2014
Apr 28
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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.

Big Ten lunch links

April, 21, 2014
Apr 21
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Monday couldn't come soon enough for Chicago sports fans after a weekend of bad.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

April, 11, 2014
Apr 11
4:30
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Enjoy all the spring games this weekend. We'll recap each early next week.

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To the inbox ...

Ethan from Abbottstown, Pa., writes: While watching March Madness, I couldn't help but notice how full the stands were for semis and finals. One of the arguments against the college playoff was that fans wouldn't travel on short notice. Why? I never understood that argument. March Madness has been in play for more than 75 years and the less popular college basketball with smaller fan bases have been traveling to game sites for under a week's notice for years.

Adam Rittenberg: Ethan, the concern isn't so much that fans would travel to a national semifinal but whether they could travel to both a semifinal and the championship game the following week. Are Ohio State fans going to attend the Rose Bowl in Pasadena and then head back to Arlington, Texas, the following week for the championship game? Would Oregon fans make two potentially long trips back to back? The nice thing about basketball's Final Four is that both the semis and title game are at the same site. Remember, you're filling much larger stadiums for football, and you ideally don't want the title game to just feature a corporate crowd.

 




LoveLikeLacey from Chicago writes: What are your thoughts on how the backup QB situation will work out at MSU? There are a great deal of implications if either Damion Terry or Tyler O'Connor transfer, since Sparty didn't take a QB in the 2014 class. I realize Terry has a great skill set and might even see the field this year in certain packages, but O'Connor was fairly highly recruited himself and I believe he also has some skills.

Adam Rittenberg: Love the name, Lacey. It will be interesting to see how that competition unfolds. Before Connor Cook became Connor Cook, some folks criticized the staff for not giving O'Connor much of a chance to prove himself in games. O'Connor seemed to perform well in last week's jersey scrimmage (10-for-15 passing, 132 yards, TD), and he has created some separation with Terry since the start of the spring. It might be a case in which MSU uses Terry in different ways to keep him involved this year, but Cook still has two years left, so a true O'Connor-Terry competition might not take place until 2016. It's not ideal, and it could result in one player leaving.

 




A.J. from Madison, Wis., writes: Adam, I love how Gary Andersen tries to adapt his schemes to the personnel he has. What has been driving me nuts, however, is the continual position switching of players back and forth. I get that he wants to maximize the talent on the field, but doesn't it hurt the development of the players? If you want to get the best players at the positions, part of that is learning technique and scheme, which seems difficult to do if guys keep getting moved.

Adam Rittenberg: A.J., it could come back to hurt Andersen, and as he told me this week, the switches don't always work, but you never know if you don't try. The good thing is Andersen has a track record for moving players around on defense and making it work. He did it at Utah State, which typically has less talent than Wisconsin, and produced strong defenses. There's definitely a big emphasis on technique as well, but the coaches need to see how a player looks at a certain position before making their determination.

 




Bob from Virginia writes: I didn't think you were fair with your comments about Julie Hermann and the Star-Ledger's campaign against her, specifically Steve Politi. I'd like to see you tell her face to face that you actually believe she was glad those people lost their jobs. You know it's not true. Have some integrity and stand up for what's right, Adam, not for a has-been columnist who had more to do with his paper's demise than anything else. Here's a different point of view of what happened in that classroom: Last I heard it was a free country, and if Julie felt the way she did about a newspaper, she had a good reason for it.

Adam Rittenberg: Bob, whether or not she's actually glad to see the newspaper struggling, she should have been more careful with her comments. Stand up for what's right? How about showing some poise despite the pressure? That's what other Big Ten athletic directors do. I understand there are discretion policies about comments made in classroom settings at Rutgers, but the risk of something like this getting out outweighs the potential benefit (is there a benefit?) of making that comment.

I doubt you're the only Rutgers fan who feels this way, but I look at the bigger picture. Very few people are fired up about Rutgers in the Big Ten. A lot of Big Ten fans strongly believe Rutgers doesn't belong. The events of the past year at Rutgers only reinforce this perception. It's up to Hermann, with help from Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, to change the perception. This didn't help.

 




Mitch from Massachusetts writes: With Michigan's relatively new tradition of giving the numbers of great players from the past to current stars, do you see them ever giving out Charles Woodson's number 2? If so, who (besides Jabrill Peppers) has a shot of wearing it?

Adam Rittenberg: Interesting question, Mitch. Most of the legends Michigan is honoring played a long time ago, such as Tom Harmon (QB Devin Gardner wears his No. 98) or Bennie Oosterbaan (LB Jake Ryan wears his No. 47). I'm not sure how Michigan would feel about doing the same thing for a fairly recent player like Woodson, who is still active in the NFL. My sense is the program would rather wait and honor other players who might be lesser known by most younger fans. While Peppers could be a star, I'd be shocked if he received such an honor early in his career. Veteran CB Blake Countess would be a better bet.

Spring game recap: Michigan

April, 7, 2014
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Spring (practice) has officially sprung for Michigan, which became the first Big Ten team to hold its spring game on Saturday at the Big House.

An estimated crowd of 15,000 took in the festivities, which included a non-scoring scrimmage. You can find coverage of the game here, here and here. And here's a brief recap:

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsQuarterback Devin Gardner threw two interceptions and completed just two passes in the Wolverines' spring game.
Star of the game: Cornerback Jourdan Lewis had two interceptions on the day, though he was also whistled for two pass interference penalties.

How it went down: It was just a spring game, and as most teams are wont to do, the Wolverines kept things very vanilla for their first public practice session of the year.

Still, fans had hoped to see some inklings of progress, especially from the new offense led by coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who was hired away from Alabama in the winter. Players had talked about making more big plays in practice in Nussmeier's scheme.

There wasn't much evidence of that on Saturday. On the very first snap of the scrimmage, Devin Gardner was intercepted by Lewis in his own territory. Gardner -- still not 100 percent on his healing foot -- would finish just 2-for-10 for 53 yards, though he's in no danger of losing the job. Backup Shane Morris went 5-for-11 for 73 yards, and his final throw was also picked off by Lewis, who started at corner and made a nice impression in that competition. (He'll need to keep doing that this summer, since Jabrill Peppers is on the way).

"I definitely think we're going to be tighter on offenses this year," Lewis said afterward. "We are playing more man-to-man and we'll be closer to those guys to break it up or intercept it."

The one big play was a 44-yard strike from Gardner to Freddy Canteen, the early enrollee who has been the talk of the spring in Ann Arbor. He looks like the real deal and will likely earn a starting job at receiver.

The running game produced mixed results. De'Veon Smith got the most reps with the first unit, running nine times for 21 yards. Derrick Green added 16 yards on six carries, while Justice Hayes had six attempts for 33 yards. The offensive line, which included early enrollee Mason Cole as the first-team left tackle, struggled to open up holes and get a push up front. The defense registered five sacks, including one each from defensive linemen Frank Clark, Brennen Beyer and Willie Henry.

"Inconsistent" is how coach Brady Hoke described the offensive performance.

"I think there were a couple good runs in there that they did a pretty good job with," he said. "We needed to be a little more consistent in the protection game. Through the course of the 15 practices, I think there has been some real improvements made."

Hoke has maintained all along that a team depending on many freshmen and sophomores will need some time to come together. On Saturday, they showed that in several key areas.

"There's no question," Hoke said, "we need a lot of improvement."

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.”

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