Michigan Wolverines: Brady Hoke

Big Ten lunch links

June, 27, 2014
Jun 27
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So, the USA outlasts Spain, Italy and England? Losing never felt so good.

Key stretch: Michigan

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction: Michigan is one of the tougher Big Ten teams to gauge, which makes this exercise even more difficult. If the offensive issues stabilize and Michigan has an effective run game to complement Devin Gardner, it could sweep this stretch and challenge for the East Division title. But it's asking a lot for the Wolverines to win in East Lansing, as Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio has been Jim Tressel-like in how he approaches the Michigan rivalry. Michigan has been much better at home than on the road under Brady Hoke. It's 3-1 vs. 2-2 for me, and I'm leaning toward 2-2 for this stretch.
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 lunch links

June, 20, 2014
Jun 20
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If we hit that bull's-eye, the rest of the dominoes will fall like a house of cards. Checkmate.

Big Ten lunch links

June, 18, 2014
Jun 18
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Friday is Take Your Dog to Work Day. Which won't be anything different for my pooch.

Big Ten lunch links

June, 17, 2014
Jun 17
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You're next, Portugal.

Key stretch: Michigan

June, 16, 2014
Jun 16
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The first official day of summer is approaching. That means football can't be far behind. As we continue to count down toward the season, we're taking a look at the key three- or four-game stretch in the schedule for each Big Ten team.

The Michigan Wolverines are on the board today.

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

Breakdown: If Michigan can find a way to win at Notre Dame in Week 2, it doesn't take much of a stretch to imagine the Wolverines sitting at 6-0 midway through the season. Their only other road game before Oct. 25 is at Rutgers. Of course, Brady Hoke's team will have to play with a lot more consistency than it showed last year for that to become even remotely possible and its chances in the East Division race probably will be decided in the first two games of this key stretch. Penn State beat Michigan in a four-overtime thriller in State College last year and enters the season with many of the same questions (offensive line, inexperienced receivers) as the Wolverines. The big showdown, of course, is the trip to East Lansing to take on a Spartans team that has won the Paul Bunyan Trophy in five of the past six years. The game against Indiana doesn't loom quite as large, though the Hoosiers showed last year that they can pile up points and yards in Ann Arbor (while giving up even more). The stretch concludes with a road game at Northwestern, a team that has taken Michigan to the absolute brink the past two seasons.

Prediction: The schedule sets up pretty well for Michigan, which gets a week off between the Penn State game and the crucial matchup with Michigan State. The Wolverines could be favored in three of these games, and a 3-1 record or better would keep them in the thick of the East Division chase. We have to favor the Spartans both because of the recent history and the home-field advantage. The games against the Nittany Lions and Wildcats look like toss-ups, while Indiana has upset potential. Given the up-and-down nature of this program the past couple of seasons, we'll go the safe route and predict a 2-2 mark for Michigan in this stretch. Anything better probably signals a bounce-back year for Hoke's crew.

Big Ten lunch links

June, 12, 2014
Jun 12
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Cows don't look like cows on film. You gotta use horses.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

June, 11, 2014
Jun 11
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It's mailbag time once again. Don't forget to follow us on Twitter, and you can ask us mailbag questions there.

Rob NitLion from Morristown, N.J., writes: Brian, this whole scheduling FCS teams issue REALLY makes me upset as a fan and a season ticket holder. I think it's really quite ridiculous that the Power 5 conferences want to play by their own set of rules, but also schedule games against teams that are already at a competitive disadvantage. Why is it that no one in the media is questioning the logic behind, as you said in your most recent article "with power teams needing seven home games to make budget", how does this make sense when schools are bringing in tens of millions of dollars more in media contracts now than they were 10 years ago? It seems the Power 5 conferences want to play by their own rules and act autonomously, but yet refuse to work together on scheduling partnerships to ease the process for nonconference scheduling. I'm also sick of the excuse that the B1G needs to consider scheduling FCS schools to maximize potential to get into the new "Playoff." I think the selection committee should ignore any game played against an FCS school when identifying the best teams for the playoff.

Brian Bennett: Some very good points, Rob, and you and I appear to be in total agreement that these FCS games should be eliminated. I didn't even mention ticket prices in my post, but the rising costs of attending games is yet another reason why these games are abhorrent. And I also agree that the seven home games argument is a bit odd given the massive amount of money flowing into Power 5 conference teams. It has been projected that the Big Ten could distribute $45 million to each of its member schools after the league's new TV contract is negotiated. Surely some of this can help make up for a lack of a seventh home game in some seasons, no? Or do schools need to continue to raise coaches' salaries and build even more spectacular facilities with that cash?

I also love your last point about the selection committee ignoring wins over FCS opponents. So if, say, an ACC team is 11-1 but has a win over an FCS team, it should be considered 10-1. That might make a big difference when comparing it to an 11-1 team from another conference that has 11 wins over actual FBS teams. I think that would change some schools' willingness to schedule FCS opponents very quickly.


Dave from Minneapolis writes: Honestly, I love the no-FCS mandate, as well as the nine-game B1G schedule for entertainment, but it is not the best move for getting into the playoff. While the schedule will be considered, it certainly won't be enough to counter a loss to a lower-level FBS (former) team. If an 11-2 B1G team is up against a 12-1 ACC/SEC team for playoff selection, the B1G team won't get selected. Sure, it may help when 12-1 against 12-1, but seems the extra risk might not be worth the reward ... for those concerned with the "playoff." All the more reason why it should be an eight-team playoff, with each major conference champ gaining entrance.

Brian Bennett: Dave, while I agree with you on an eight-team playoff, which in my view would be the perfect setup, we need to be happy that we at long last have some sort of a playoff system. And it will eventually expand, I believe. I also don't think the FCS mandate will have much impact on the Playoff in terms of wins or losses. Let's face it: Any team that loses to an FCS or lower-level FBS team is not going to make the four-team Playoff field anyway. What not scheduling FCS opponents does for the Big Ten is raise its overall strength-of-schedule component, which could be key for selection purposes.


Jared from Minnesota writes: Your recent article about B1G needing to stay the course and ultimately refrain from scheduling FCS opponents is definitely legitimate. However, I recall a mailbag post a little bit ago where (I'm not sure if it was you or Rittenberg) argued the point that some schools -- Indiana, for example -- might benefit from scheduling an FCS team in order to help their program to move to the next level, in the Hoosiers' case, become bowl eligible. Would you agree (or still agree if that was your stance) that there is still some stock to that scenario?

Brian Bennett: I don't believe I ever said that schools like Indiana should schedule FCS schools. However, I do believe a team like the Hoosiers should dumb down its schedule if it needs to get over the hump and into a bowl game. Last year, Indiana played Navy, Missouri and Bowling Green in the nonconference schedule, which seemed to me a bit too ambitious for a program looking for its second bowl appearance since 1993 and first in six years. There are plenty of easier games against lower-level FBS schools to be had, even if it means a home-and-home series to reduce costs.


Josh from NYC writes: When do you think Michigan becomes a national, or at least regional, power again? Other programs have faced or are facing similar paths, Bama between Bryant and Saban, Oklahoma and Texas now, and it'll happen again. However the school is just built for success and I don't see anything shy of the death sentence keeping this program down. Not that I'm not enjoying MSU's recent success, but it's fun to see some brotherly competition.

Brian Bennett: Great question, Josh, and it's something that needs to happen, not just for Michigan but to strengthen the entire Big Ten. Michigan has every possible resource you would need, including the nation's largest stadium and huge revenue streams. Brady Hoke's staff has recruited highly ranked classes. So there's really nothing that should be keeping this program down. Either Hoke will get it there in the next couple of years, or someone else will get a chance to try.


JK from NoVA writes: Brian, have you actually looked at Ohio State's offensive line? That was a rhetorical question because if you did, you wouldn't post this rubbish. Ohio State's talent level up front is shameful. They will likely duke it out with Michigan for the worst offensive line in the Big Ten. They have next to no experience, very little talent, and they make Penn State's depth situation look positively good (it is actually far better than most think).

Brian Bennett: Shameful? Really? I have "actually looked" at the Buckeyes' line and have seen them in practice. That line includes left tackle Taylor Decker, who started last year and who Urban Meyer said was playing as well as any Ohio State lineman at the end of 2013. It includes Chad Lindsay, who transferred from Alabama after starting several games there at center. It also includes Pat Elflein, who filled in for Marcus Hall very well last year. Fourth-year junior Antonio Underwood and fifth-year senior Darryl Baldwin ran with the first team most of the spring. There are a lot of younger players behind them pushing for time.

Meyer wasn't satisfied with his line play this spring, but to say the group lacks talent is disingenuous. Remember there were many questions about the line before 2012, and Ed Warriner quickly shaped that group into one of the country's strongest units. Warriner is one of the best in the business, and while this year's O-line likely won't be as good as the 2013 version, he'll get it figured out.

Big Ten lunch links

June, 11, 2014
Jun 11
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If you tried to clap, you'd miss your hands.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

June, 6, 2014
Jun 6
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Wishing you a great weekend. Be sure to follow us on Twitter.

Inbox time ...

Kyle from Dayton, Ohio, writes: If you could arrange the B1G divisions and crossover games, what would your B1G look like?

Adam Rittenberg: Kyle, my opinion has changed since this post, and I actually liked the original division setup, based on competitive balance, despite the geographical challenges. I wouldn't put Ohio State, Michigan, MSU and PSU in the same division. I'd likely move MSU to the West and Purdue to the East to create more balance. I would have just one permanent crossover game -- Michigan-Michigan State -- as I don't like these games in general because they reduce overall schedule rotation and defeat the purpose of a league. I would like to see the historically better teams in each division play one another more often than not, but I would not create any more permanent crossovers as Purdue and Indiana would be in the same division.

 




[+] EnlargeTy Isaac
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsMichigan fans might not see Ty Isaac in maize and blue this season.
Mike from Cincinnati writes: Hey Brian, Ty Isaac committing to UM seems to be a big get for the Wolverines, but it doesn't sound like he will get to play this year. Any chance the NCAA rules him eligible for 2014? Also with UM only having limited scholarship spots in these classes, what are the implications of him snatching one up?

Adam Rittenberg: The NCAA seemingly has been more lenient in granting hardship waivers. Transfers such as Michigan State's DeAnthony Arnett and Northwestern's Kyle Prater received them and avoided sitting out a year. One difference is that both Arnett and Prater selected schools very close to their homes, while Michigan is about 250 miles from Isaac's home in Shorewood, Ill. So we'll see how it goes. Coach Brady Hoke told me Michigan likely will sign 15 or 16 players in the 2015 class, but I don't think Isaac changes the scholarship breakdown, especially after Damien Harris decommitted in January.

 




Russ from New Orleans writes: Adam, I'm looking over Athlon's predictions for the B1G next year, and I really have to question their decisions to put Penn State at 10-2. I have zero doubt that Hackenberg is the real deal, and they've got a decent stable of running backs, but who does Hackenberg have to throw to now that [Allen] Robinson is gone? Moreover, their O-Line is decimated and an injury or two away from utter disaster. Not to mention that it seems like the defense doesn't have anyone that truly wows you. But what are your thoughts? I'm sure James Franklin is a good coach, but 10-2? I think somewhere between 7-8 wins is far more reasonable.

Adam Rittenberg: I agree completely, Russ. While it's possible Penn State reaches 10-2 with a mostly favorable schedule, almost everything would need to go right, especially on the health front. Penn State can't afford many or any injuries on the offensive line or at linebacker, and if Christian Hackenberg misses any extended time, the Lions are in major trouble. Penn State enters the season as an underdog in at least two games: Ohio State and Michigan State, which are both at home but will be tough. The Lions also face Michigan on the road at night -- hardly an obvious win -- plus a good UCF team in Ireland. Penn State can't look past opponents like Northwestern (home) and Rutgers (road). I don't see 10-2 with the potential problems. An 8-win season seems more reasonable.

 




[+] Enlargefield goal
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesField conditions and weather should not concern fans when the Big Ten considers Soldier Field as a championship site.
Brian from Atlanta writes: Adam, you keep campaigning for the CCG to move to Chicago and I really don't understand why. It's a December night game and Soldier Field has no roof and a playing surface most high schools would be embarrassed to have. Indy is a short drive from Chicago and is very walkable for those who stay by the stadium. This is an on-night event, not a weeklong vacation. What's the big upside of moving the game to Chicago that cancels out the negatives for the actual game?

Adam Rittenberg: Some good points here, Brian. The Soldier Field playing surface is a major drawback and must be addressed before the Big Ten considers moving its title game there. I don't think the outdoor factor is as big as some make it seem. Sure, an early December game could be cold, but it also could be a lot like the final few Saturdays of the regular season. Big Ten teams have played in those conditions forever.

Indy is a great site and makes it easy on the fans that go, but it's not a major event there like it would be in Chicago. The Big Ten basketball tournament draws way better there and it truly is the nerve center for Big Ten fans. I live here and meet Big Ten fans pretty much everywhere I go. I'm not saying the event should be in Chicago every year, but once every four years would be fun. Attendance wouldn't be a concern and it would be more of a major event than it has been in Indy.

 




Wallace from Cincinnati writes: I completely agree that official visits should be moved up to help the teams in the North. What my question is do you think it could get passed if only B1G teams are the ones pushing for it? What if the B1G schools get with other Northern school from other conferences -- say, Boston College, Oregon, Oregon State, Washington, Kansas State -- and try and get the backing from multiple schools? Would that be enough to get rules changed?

Adam Rittenberg: It's not a bad idea, Wallace. Several Big Ten coaches we talked to expressed concern about the challenge of pushing for such a big change to the recruiting calendar. Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said, "If that thing ever goes to a vote, everybody is going to say is that the Big Ten is just complaining. They'll keep rallying their troops." Well, if the Big Ten has more troops to rally -- teams from other conferences experiencing similar recruiting disadvantages because of their locations -- it has a better chance of fostering change. But the first step in my view is for the Big Ten coaches to take a united position on earlier official visits. Other leagues have done so and the Big Ten should follow.

Big Ten roundtable: Impact freshmen

June, 6, 2014
Jun 6
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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.
Unlike the ACC or SEC, the Big Ten hasn't taken an official position on an early signing period. Many Big Ten coaches see the benefits, but there has been no united front.

Here's a bit of advice: The Big Ten coaches should band together about an urgent recruiting item, but not the early signing period.

The Big Ten must campaign for official visits to be moved up. No other league is affected more by population shifts that have created dense pockets of top recruits located far from its footprint. The Big Ten is expanding its recruiting reach, especially to the Southeast, but its proximity to many talent bases remains a significant obstacle.

If the Big Ten can't get prospects to its campuses before decisions are made, it will continue to fall behind in the recruiting race.

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
AP Photo/Nati HarnikEarlier official visits would be a boon to Bo Pelini and Nebraska, as the Cornhuskers have to recruit nationally because of a limited local talent base.
"The first thing we have to do is get kids on campus earlier," Michigan coach Brady Hoke told ESPN.com. "I'm sure our friends in the Pac-12 and the SEC would rather not that be the case. They'd rather have kids come in to Ann Arbor if it's winter.

"But I think it would help the guys from distance and the guys from those climates to come on campus to see what it is like."

NCAA rules state that prospects can't begin taking their five official visits -- paid for by the schools -- until the start of their senior year in high school. But many recruits make their college choices much earlier.

The accelerated recruiting cycle has minimized the significance of official visits. Many prospects commit after taking unofficial visits, for which they pay their own way. But the distance between Big Ten schools and the highest concentrations of elite prospects makes it challenging for recruits and their families to fund long, expensive trips.

"Since the trend is for early commitments, it makes sense that it favors schools located in population bases that produce a lot of players," said Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo, a former coach at Indiana, LSU and Vanderbilt. "So how do you combat that? How does a kid from Atlanta get to Lincoln, Nebraska, in the summer on their own expense?"

DiNardo views Nebraska as the FBS school most impacted by accelerated recruiting cycle. Nebraska always has recruited nationally because of its small local population base, but former coach Tom Osborne -- "a tireless recruiter," DiNardo said -- capitalized on the fact that recruits made their choices after an official visit to Lincoln.

Huskers coach Bo Pelini acknowledges earlier official visits "would help us."

"When you take official visits away from the equation, it really hurts a place like Nebraska," DiNardo said. "So early signing day has to be partnered up with official visits in a prospect's junior year.

"If just the date moves up without official visits, it sets the Big Ten even further behind."

DiNardo notes that a program such as Ohio State is less affected by the official visits timetable because it has a large local talent base that can easily reach its campus. But other Big Ten programs must cast a wider recruiting net.

It's especially true for programs in the western part of the league: Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

"It gives some of the schools that aren't surrounded by a lot of schools or a lot of places, it gives us a chance," Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said. "But I don't know if that's going to happen or not. People in Texas aren't going to vote for that because they never have to leave Texas."

Most Big Ten coaches interviewed by ESPN.com favor earlier official visits but want clear guidelines. One question is timing.

Several coaches mention late May or early June as the ideal time because many recruits already are touring schools unofficially and most staffs are conducting on-campus camps.

"With the way people are traveling around right now, it might be good to afford a prospect to take a couple of visits in June," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "Also, I think it'd be great to afford at least a parent the opportunity to join that prospect and make it part of the official trip."

Coaches say the parental component is critical.

"Sometimes kids just don't have the means to be able to get here, and they definitely don't have the means to have their parents come," Pelini said. "Hopefully, they'll change that. It's too big of a decision for a 17-year-old or 18-year-old kid to make without his parents or somebody being there."

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesMark Dantonio wants an early official-visit period, but would prefer for it to be in a limited window instead of spanning the entire spring and summer.
Both Pelini and Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio want a limit on the number of official visitors schools could have in the spring. FBS teams can provide up to 56 official visits, but Dantonio rarely uses more than half of the allotment.

"It's not just carte blanche," Dantonio said. "I would make it a two-week window and cap those numbers."

Allowing 10-20 early official visits could work. Dantonio and Pelini also think prospects should be allowed to take multiple official visits to the same school.

Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen favors an earlier signing date in December, but he needs more clarity on official visits -- when they would take place, and for how long.

"I have to look at quality of life for my coaches," Andersen said. "Are we willing to take 4-5 weeks away in the summer? I don’t want to do that."

Added Purdue coach Darrell Hazell: "You lose your life. The month of July, you need a little bit of decompression time."

The first two weeks in June makes the most sense. Create a dead period in July so coaches can take time off.

It also doesn't mean official visits in September and October will stop. Andersen can talk about Wisconsin's "Jump Around" and show videos, but, he said, "there’s nothing like being there."

Big Ten teams still will have the chance to showcase their stadiums, facilities and campuses during football season. But they can't afford to wait that long for far-flung prospects to arrive, especially when they can afford to bring them in sooner.

"It would help everybody," Hoke said. "The other conferences aren’t just staying in their region, either."

That's true, but the Big Ten has the most to gain, and pushing for change won't be easy.

"If that thing ever goes to a vote, everybody is going to say is that the Big Ten is just complaining," Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said. "They'll keep rallying their troops because they want to keep those kids at home."

The Big Ten coaches must rally, too. Otherwise, the recruiting gap will widen.
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Momentum seems to be building for creating an early signing period in college football. The Conference Commissioners Association will discuss the idea as part of its agenda at a meeting later this month.

As with many things in life, the devil is in the details. The ACC recommended an early signing date of Aug. 1. The SEC at its meetings last month came out against changing the recruiting calendar, but would like to use the Monday after Thanksgiving if an early signing period does happen.

The Big Ten has not endorsed a specific stance on an early signing date as a conference. Based on interviews given to ESPN.com and other media outlets, most league coaches are in favor of it. Again, though, preferences on the when and the how differ.

Several coaches support the junior college signing period of mid-December as the right time to allow high school prospects who don't want to wait until February to sign their national letters of intent.

[+] EnlargeKirk Ferentz
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsIowa's Kirk Ferentz is among the Big Ten coaches who favor an early signing period after the regular season.
"To me, that would be the perfect time," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said last summer. "I still don't understand the resistance. All it is is an opportunity to sign. They don't have to sign. I don't think anyone is going to lose a scholarship. It just gives everyone a chance to lay their cards on the table and say, 'I'm 100 percent sure now' or, 'Still not quite there.' That would be great for both parties, I think."

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, Wisconsin's Gary Andersen and Michigan State's Mark Dantonio are among others who back an early signing period in December.

"It sure would clear up recruiting for a lot of us," Andersen told ESPN.com. "In my opinion, if a kid's committed, let's have him go to the school where he wants to go, and we'll move on in recruiting and get the guys we want. I think it's the most logical answer."

A possible downside of having the early signing period in December would be that it puts more pressure on coaches to concentrate on recruiting late in the season, when championships could be on the line, or during bowl preparation. In-season recruiting pressures would grow even higher with the SEC's post-Thanksgiving recommendation.

Most who favor an early signing period say their schools and coaching staffs are spending too much valuable time, money and energy trying to re-recruit players who might have signed earlier. That's why some coaches, such as Indiana's Kevin Wilson, support a signing date before or right at the beginning of the season.

"I had guys who were committed in the summer who in the last weekend [before the February signing date] changed their minds," Wilson told ESPN.com. "It would be nice if there was an early signing period on the first of September. I don't know if we've got to move the calendar up, but we waste a lot of time and a lot of money babysitting kids who have made their decisions."

Michigan is one school that could have benefited in recent seasons from an early signing period. The Wolverines have sewn up the majority of their classes under Brady Hoke in the summer before the prospects' senior year of high school. Hoke's staff could have locked up those commitments and focused on filling out the final few spots or moving on to the following year's class.

Hoke would like to see an early signing date, but with a caveat.

"If there's an early signing period, there probably needs to be an early visitation period for those kids," he told ESPN.com. "Maybe the first two weeks in June to get on your campus."

That's a big deal for Big Ten coaches, who would love to see prospects be able to take official visits before the start of their senior year. An early signing date without an earlier visit calendar could put the league at a disadvantage against schools in more talent-rich areas. (We'll look more closely at this issue on Thursday in the blog.)

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesNebraska's Bo Pelini says allowing earlier official visits must be a part of any move toward an early signing period.
Nebraska's Bo Pelini has said he would not support an earlier signing date without those earlier visits (and even then, he said he would need more time to study the issue). Schools such as Nebraska and Minnesota, which are farther away from talent-rich hubs, simply wouldn't see many benefits to an early signing day if the rest of the recruiting calendar remained the same. Players in blue chip-heavy areas -- such as the South, Texas and California -- would be more apt to take unofficial visits at schools closer to home and then could get pressured into signing before they ever made a trip up north.

Ohio State under Urban Meyer has thrived during the final weeks of recruiting before the February signing day, as his staff has built a reputation of being great "closers." So it's no surprise that Meyer was one of three SEC coaches to vote against a proposal to support an early signing date in 2008, when he was still at Florida. Meyer said at the time that "recruiting should be done in December, January and February. I think [an early date] speeds up 17- and 18-year-olds to make a decision that affects the rest of their lives."

Maryland's Randy Edsall has proposed that schools shouldn't even send out any type of scholarship offer until Sept. 1 of a high school prospect's senior year in high school, and then those offers would come from the university's admissions office, not the coaches. That would slow things way down and make sure prospects have achieved the necessary test scores and admission standards. Yet Edsall also said this spring that if recruiting continues at its current accelerated pace, that "there definitely has to be an early signing period."

There are other issues with the early signing date, including what protection the players would have if the coach left for another job after they signed. Plus plans change in recruiting all the time.

"I see the pluses and the minuses with it," Dantonio told ESPN.com. "If you have a committed guy and he signs with you, he truly is committed. That’s a positive. I also think if you take one quarterback and he thinks he’s the only one, and all of a sudden you take two, how does that all play out?

"I do think it keeps people from poaching off you, whether it be us poaching off somebody or somebody else [poaching]. It makes people hold to their word. If they don't want to sign then, they’re still open, and you know they’re open. But I would make it a mid-December type deal. I’m not in favor of August; I'm not in favor of September. I'm in favor of, ‘They've had a chance to at least visit and be on campus a couple places, so they have a feel.’”

College football does appear headed for an early signing date soon, if only the details can get ironed out.

"We get into these discussions, and everybody kind of has their own agenda of what's in the best interests for their school," Penn State coach James Franklin told ESPN.com. "But for a lot of different reasons, an early signing period makes sense for everybody."

Big Ten Friday mailblog

May, 30, 2014
May 30
4:30
PM ET
The next time we meet (barring breaking news), it will be June. One month closer to the season.

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Looks like I made a few friends down South after this post.

To the inbox ...

Jonathan from San Antonio writes: While I get the irony of oversigning and then standing on "integrity" to complain about Franklin, do you get the irony of your article? You seem to defend Franklin's strategy based on the fact that others do it and that it's within the rules. Yet, you (Big Ten proponents and fans) complain about oversigning, when it too is a "others are doing it," and "it's within the rules" equally applies to that practice. So if you want the SEC to stop complaining about this particular issue (and join in), then the Big Ten needs to stop complaining about oversigning (and join in).

Adam Rittenberg: Jonathan, you can't possibly be equating oversigning to guest-coaching at another program's camp? Only one of those tactics hurts players. Only one involves dishonesty. My post had a heavy dose of sarcasm, but just to be clear, I don't like oversigning. I have no problem with guest-coaching at camps. Who does it harm? It's a brilliant move by James Franklin, and other coaches either have or will follow. The SEC should get rid of its rule and guest-coach as well. No issue there. These are two extremely different tactics, and only oversigning does real damage, in my view.


Tracie from Manhattan, Kan., writes: You obviously have a personal vendetta against the SEC and are using your public platform to voice your biased opinion. It's disappointing that ESPN allows this type of journalism to be on the website. The message that I received from this article is how jealous you are of the SEC and will try to put the conference down in order to make the Big Ten look better. What actually happened is you made the Big Ten look like all it can do to compete with the SEC is to try to find a loophole. Good luck in your future attempts at journalism, this was a complete fail. Go Hogs.

Adam Rittenberg: It's kind of funny, Tracie, because every third email I receive states how ESPN promotes the SEC whenever possible. I don't have a vendetta against the SEC. It's a great league with great coaches. It's also a league that doesn't get called out enough for things like this. People might think I'm a Big Ten homer for writing that post. Those who read me know that's far from the truth. The Big Ten is justifiably criticized for its missteps. The SEC seems to get a pass because it wins national championships. It's not a jealousy issue. The Big Ten is way behind the SEC when it comes to recruiting and winning. That's why Franklin's guest-coaching plan makes complete sense. The funny part is that the SEC, a league very good at football but also very good at bending recruiting rules to its advantage, has a problem with it. Woo Pig Sooie!


Zac from Colorado Springs, Colo., writes: No Ezekiel Elliott on your list? I know Meyer only has one 1,000-yard (running back) rusher all time, but Elliott is going to get the majority of the carries this year for the Buckeyes. He's more of a home-run threat than Hyde and I'm sure he'll get 1,000-plus this year.

Adam Rittenberg: I like your confidence, but I need to see more from Elliott to include him on the list of likely 1,000-yard rushers. I can't include every player who eclipsed 250 yards last year. The list becomes pointless. Elliott is a talented back, but 162 of his 262 rushing yards last year came against Florida A&M. He had more than two carries in only one Big Ten game, against last-place Purdue. I also think Ohio State will mix and match backs. So while Elliott could reach 1,000 yards, he needs to prove himself this season.


Kevin from Fort Myers, Fla., writes: Adam, I know there has been talk about [head coach Brady] Hoke being on the hot seat or even let go if there is another losing or unsatisfactory season. If this were to occur (knocking on wood), would there be a chance Coach [Doug Nussmeier] would take over, seeing how he has the résumé for it and that there was talk that his stop at U of M was just temporary until a college came for him as a head coach? Head coach of the Wolverines would be an attractive job for Nuss. ... Your thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: It would be an attractive job, Kevin, but it won't happen for several reasons. The biggest one is simple logic. If Michigan is to consider Nussmeier for the top job, Nussmeier would have to perform well as offensive coordinator this season. And if the offense performs better, the team seemingly will, too. Michigan's defense should be as good and likely better than it was in 2013. The team's big issues are on offense. If those are rectified, the win total goes up and Hoke stays. Athletic director Dave Brandon does not want to fire Hoke, whom he hired. Plus, I'd be surprised if Michigan would replace Hoke with a first-time head coach.


Anthony from Columbus, Ohio, writes: It seems like whenever a Big Ten team has a successful year (aka beating Ohio State), that team always underperforms the next season. Penn State, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan have all made it to BCS bowls after winning against Ohio State, but didn't have the same success the next year. Do you think this will happen with Michigan State?

Adam Rittenberg: Interesting observation, Anthony, although I wouldn't say the 2011 Wisconsin team, which beat Ohio State in 2010 but repeated as Big Ten champion the following year, grossly underperformed. This seems more coincidental than anything else. Michigan State could take a step back if certain linebackers and defensive backs struggle, or if some of Connor Cook's near interceptions turn into actual interceptions. But I like how the Spartans, who have been very good at home under Mark Dantonio, get Ohio State, Michigan and Nebraska on their home field.

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