Nebraska Cornhuskers: Ameer Abdullah

What to watch: Nebraska-Fresno State

September, 12, 2014
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What to watch in Week 3 for Nebraska as it hits the road for the first time, playing Fresno State on Saturday at 10:30 p.m. ET:
  • The start: It’s an overused talking point to suggest the beginning of a game rates as important; of course, it does. But in this instance, the first half of the first quarter figures to provide more insight than usual, considering the psyche of both teams. Fresno State is something of a wounded animal after consecutive blowout losses on the road against USC and Utah. The Bulldogs are not accustomed to such failure and have won 13 straight games at home, the second-longest active streak among FBS teams. But prolific quarterback Derek Carr is gone, replaced by Brandon Connette and Brian Burrell. Fresno ranks 107th nationally in total offense and 109th in scoring. The home field might make a huge difference. We should know early. Meanwhile, what is the Nebraska mindset after winning in the final minute against McNeese State? The Huskers could respond with excellent focus -- a common trait of Bo Pelini teams in road games -- or with a shaky level of confidence, potentially worsened by any mistake early against the Bulldogs. Pay attention to the first two drives for both teams.
  • The health: Hit hard in preseason practice by injuries, the Huskers haven’t fared much better in the opening two games. First, junior Randy Gregory, an All-America candidate at defensive end, went down with a knee injury during the opening series against Florida Atlantic that required minor surgery. Then senior wide receiver and captain Kenny Bell suffered a groin injury early in the win against McNeese State. To complicate the situation at receiver, Nebraska lost Jamal Turner for the reason with a torn Achilles tendon and has yet to gain the services Sam Burtch and Brandon Reilly, who are not traveling to California. Gregory and Bell are expected back. They are two of Nebraska’s best athletes. Their presence transforms the look of this team. If healthy, Gregory and Bell figure to inject life into the Huskers' pass rush and passing game -- both of which went dormant in the second half under adverse conditions last week.
  • Offensive distribution: Nebraska operated with such efficiency in Week 1, accumulating a Big Ten modern day-record 784 yards, that it was sure to experience some decline last week. Still, the difference was stunning. Chief among the reasons for the Huskers’ failure to generate offense after halftime against McNeese State was the inexplicable absence of Ameer Abdullah. The senior I-back went missing for most of the final 30 minutes until his remarkable 58-yard touchdown catch that provided the game-winning points with 20 seconds to play. In the aftermath, Pelini and offensive coordinator Tim Beck harped on the need to more involve Abdullah, who rushed for 232 yards in the opener and just 54 in Week 2. The Huskers are ripe for a game plan that overcompensates, and you can bet Fresno will be ready for Abdullah. Nebraska has plenty of weapons on offense, especially if Bell is good to go. Receivers Jordan Westerkamp and Alonzo Moore, tight end Cethan Carter and running backs Imani Cross and Terrell Newby need to be involved. Abdullah is good, but he is not built to be a one-man show, despite his late heroics last week.

Huskers lose back Adam Taylor to injury

August, 11, 2014
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Another day and another setback at preseason camp for Nebraska.

Coach Bo Pelini said on Monday that sophomore I-back Adam Taylor is out indefinitely with a broken ankle suffered on Saturday.

A depth chart at the open of practice this month likely would have listed Taylor at No. 4 behind senior All-Big Ten back Ameer Abdullah, junior Imani Cross and sophomore Terrell Newby. But even casual observers of the Huskers knew Taylor was far from your average fourth-stringer.

He shined in the spring after a redshirt year. Taylor, at 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, gained 2,754 yards and scored 45 touchdowns as a senior for 5A state champion Katy (Texas) High School in 2012.

If healthy, Taylor would have been in line for playing time this fall, even in a crowded backfield.

“I feel bad for Adam,” offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. “He has had a great spring and was really playing well this fall. My heart goes out for him. He has worked extremely hard, but on the same token, it’s a very loaded position for us.”

Taylor's injury capped a brutal opening week of practice in Lincoln as Nebraska lost three potential defensive starters for the entire season. Junior nickel back Charles Jackson went down first. Pelini then announced the suspension of sophomore safety LeRoy Alexander, and sophomore middle linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey sustained a knee injury.

Big Ten lunch links

July, 21, 2014
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Saw Jack White perform "Seven Nation Army" live this weekend. Felt like I was back in a Big Ten football stadium. Soon enough.
If the preseason All-America teams are any indication, the Big Ten will have a very good year in the offensive backfield -- both carrying the ball out of it and penetrating it.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Reese Strickland/USA TODAY SportsMelvin Gordon has averaged a gaudy 8.1 yards per rushing attempt during his career.
Running back and defensive line appear to be the league's two strongest position groups -- possibly by a wide margin -- entering the 2014 season. Athlon on Monday came out with its preseason All-America teams, following up Phil Steele, who released his last week. Three Big Ten players made Athlon's first team: Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon, Ohio State defensive tackle Michael Bennett and Michigan State punter Mike Sadler. Four other defensive linemen -- Nebraska's Randy Gregory (second team), Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun (second team), Ohio State's Joey Bosa (fourth team) and Iowa's Carl Davis (fourth team) -- made one of the remaining three teams, and two other running backs -- Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah (second team) and Michigan State's Jeremy Langford (fourth team) -- also appear.

Steele had Bennett and Calhoun on his first team, Gregory and Bosa on his second team and Davis on his third team. Like Athlon, he lists Gordon as a first-team running back and Abdullah on the second team. It's interesting to see Calhoun getting a bit more love than Gregory, even though Gregory led the Big Ten in sacks and is projected as a higher draft pick.

Not sure about you, but I can't wait for Calhoun and Gregory to share the field Oct. 4 at Spartan Stadium, or for longtime friends Gordon and Abdullah to match up on Nov. 15 at Camp Randall Stadium. Both matchups should be fun to watch all season.

It's not unusual for defensive line and running back to headline the Big Ten. Both positions historically are strong in the league, especially defensive line. A potential concern is that only one quarterback -- Ohio State's Braxton Miller -- and zero wide receivers make any of Athlon's teams. Steele has two Big Ten wideouts, Maryland's Stefon Diggs and Michigan's Devin Funchess (has played tight end but listed as a receiver), on his third team. Still, it's clear these are two positions where the Big Ten continues to need upgrades.

Other Athlon preseason All-America selections include: Iowa offensive tackle Brandon Scherff (second team), Ohio State tight end Jeff Heuerman (third team), Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond (third team), Ohio State punter Cameron Johnston (third team), Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan (fourth team), Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes (fourth team) and Northwestern punt returner Venric Mark (fourth team).

The Big Ten is tied with the Pac-12 for third among overall Athlon All-America selections with 18, trailing both the ACC (27) and SEC (26).
Big Ten reporters Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which one is right.

A couple of weeks ago, we took a look at potential 1,000-yard rushers in the Big Ten in 2014. Then we had you vote on who would break through to that plateau this season.

The league had seven 1,000-yard rushers in 2013 and a handful of others who got pretty close, and many of them return. The race for this year's rushing title should be extremely competitive. So Tuesday's Take Two topic is this: Who will lead the Big Ten in rushing yards in 2014?

Take 1: Brian Bennett

[+] EnlargeGordon
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesMelvin Gordon is a big-play threat at Wisconsin.
There are so many good contenders here. It's hard to go against the heart and determination of Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah. Michigan State's Jeremy Langford could be even better this year after coming on in midseason last year on his way to 1,422 yards and 18 scores. Indiana's Tevin Coleman is so explosive, and Northwestern's Venric Mark is back from injury.

But I keep coming back to Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon. He finished 81 yards behind Abdullah last season, and it was Gordon's first full year as a starter. He also had 206 carries, which was 75 fewer than Abdullah and 86 fewer than Langford. Heck, Gordon didn't even get the most carries on his own team, as James White received 221. I don't expect Gordon to suddenly become a 300-carry guy, and the Badgers will continue their successful backfield tandem style with promising sophomore Corey Clement.

I do believe, though, that Gordon will have more rushing attempts this season than he did a year ago, possibly in the 250 range. And for a guy who averaged a ridiculous 7.8 yards per carry a year ago, that could translate into a huge yardage total. Assuming he becomes a little better between the tackles and avoids fumbling issues, the Wisconsin junior should challenge not only for the Big Ten rushing title, but also the FBS one.

Take 2: Adam Rittenberg

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
AP Photo/Nati HarnikAmeer Abdullah will get plenty of chances to impress at Nebraska.
I'm really tempted to join you with the Gordon pick, as he's the nation's top big-play back -- a must-see every time he touches the ball. But I'm going with Abdullah for several reasons. He was the more consistent back in 2013, eclipsing 100 rushing yards in 11 of 13 games. Gordon got there eight times, but only twice in Wisconsin's final six games. White had a lot to do with that and he's not in Madison anymore, but I think the Badgers will have a tough time keeping Clement off the field.

That gets me to my second point. Although Clement and Nebraska's Imani Cross both are talented backups, I give Clement the edge. If he builds on a strong spring, I don't see Gordon logging more than 260 carries. The big-play factor could put Gordon ahead of Abdullah, but Abdullah should log more carries again. Abdullah is hardly a plodder, averaging 5.4 yards per carry in his career and six yards per carry last season. Only two Big Ten teams (Michigan and Iowa) held him to fewer than five yards per rush.

This is a really tough call, and like you, I wouldn't count out players such as Coleman, Langford and Mark. If Coleman gets enough chances behind a massively underrated line, he could be the league's yards leader. But Abdullah has been so good for so long, and he'll end his senior season atop the Big Ten's rushing chart.
The 2015 NFL draft is nearly a year away and doesn't even have a determined location, so why should you get excited about it? Because the Big Ten could have a breakthrough.

ESPN's Mel Kiper has produced lists of top prospects at quarterback, defensive end, running back and defensive tackle. If Kiper's projections prove true, it will be a very good draft for the Big Ten, which hasn't had a top-10 pick since 2008, when Michigan tackle Jake Long went No. 1 overall.

Check out each of Kiper's lists on ESPN Insider for more detailed analysis, but here's where the Big Ten players stack up.

[+] EnlargeRandy Gregory
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesThanks to players like Nebraska's Randy Gregory, defensive line talent is a strength in the Big Ten this fall.
Quarterback
Defensive end
Running back
Defensive tackle
We know about the Big Ten's strength at running back with Abdullah and Gordon at the top, but defensive line once again figures to be the league's strength when it comes to top draft prospects. Two players soaring on the early draft boards: Nebraska's Gregory and Ohio State's Bennett.

What do you think about the Big Ten projections?
Few preseason prognosticators create as much excitement around their summer picks as Phil Steele.

The college football guru packs a tremendous amount of information and research into his preseason magazines. And Steele has released his choices for the 2014 All-Big Ten team, which you can find here.

[+] EnlargeStefon Diggs
Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY SportsMaryland receiver Stefon Diggs could make an immediate impact in the Big Ten.
Some thoughts on the selections:

Steele sees newcomers Maryland and Rutgers bringing some talent into the league quickly, as he has two Terrapins (wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long) and two Scarlet Knights (guard Kaleb Johnson and linebacker Steve Longa) on the first team. ... A mild surprise on the first team is Michigan State linebacker Taiwan Jones, who will attempt to take over the middle spot from Max Bullough this year. ... The first-team defensive line is absolutely loaded, with Nebraska's Randy Gregory, Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun, and Ohio State's Michael Bennett and Joey Bosa. Iowa's Carl Davis and Minnesota's Theiren Cockran were relegated to second-team status. ... Speaking of the second team, Steele puts Northwestern wide receiver Kyle Prater there, apparently expecting big things at long last from the former USC transfer. ... Steele also has Ohio State's Dontre Wilson and Devin Smith breaking out as second-team All-Big Ten receivers. ... Penn State fans might be a bit miffed to see Christian Hackenberg as only the third-team quarterback. Michigan State's Connor Cook is Steele's choice for second-team QB, with Braxton Miller obviously No. 1. ... Michigan State leads the way with five players on Steele's first-team offense and defense. Ohio State has four, while Wisconsin, Nebraska and Michigan each have three.

Steele also has released his preseason All-America team, which includes some familiar Big Ten names. Here's a quick rundown:

First team:

Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon

Ohio State DT Michael Bennett

Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun

Second team:

Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah

Iowa OT Brandon Scherff

Nebraska DE Randy Gregory

Ohio State DE Joey Bosa

Iowa PR Kevonte Martin-Manley

Third team:

Ohio State QB Braxton Miller

Maryland WR Stefon Diggs

Michigan WR Devin Funchess

Iowa DT Carl Davis

Michigan LB Jake Ryan

Michigan State CB Trae Waynes

Michigan State S Kurtis Drummond

Illinois PR V'Angelo Bentley

Indiana LS Matt Dooley

Fourth team:

Michigan State RB Jeremy Langford

Ohio State TE Jeff Heuerman

Wisconsin OT Rob Havenstein

Northwestern RB/KR Venric Mark
Most would agree New Year's Day bowl games don't mean what they used to. You could say the same thing about rushing for 1,000 yards. There are more games and more plays in the sport today, and it's hardly uncommon for a player to reach four digits on the ground, as 51 FBS players got there in 2013.

Still, the 1,000-yard rushing mark is no small feat, and it's a good gauge for assessing players, teams and leagues. The Big Ten had seven 1,000-yard rushers in 2013, one fewer than it had in 2012.

We begin a series of statistical projections for the 2014 season with 1,000 rush yards, and our analysis begins with the five men who got there last fall and who return to their teams this year.

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsNebraska's Ameer Abdullah is looking to post his third season of rushing for over 1,000 yards.
Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska (1,690 rush yards in 2013): Abdullah was one of the most consistent backs in the country last fall, eclipsing 100 rush yards in 11 of 13 games, including a streak of eight consecutive 100-yard performances. He will try to become the first Husker with three seasons of 1,000 rush yards or more. Although it might be tough for Abdullah to match last year's overall rushing numbers, barring injury, he should have little trouble reaching the 1,000-yard mark.

Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin (1,609 yards): Gordon surged out of the gate with 140 rush yards or more in each of his first four games last season, as he topped the FBS rushing chart. Despite sharing time with fellow 1,000-yard back James White and never logging more than 22 carries, Gordon had eight games with at least 140 rush yards and averaged 7.8 yards per carry. He's arguably the nation's top big-play ball-carrying threat and should easily eclipse 1,000 rush yards as he steps into a bigger role.

Jeremy Langford, RB, Michigan State (1,422): It's impossible to quietly rush for 1,400 yards in a season, but Langford slipped under the radar as his teammates on defense and at quarterback received more attention. Still, his consistency should not be overlooked: He set a team record with eight consecutive 100-yard rushing performances and led the Big Ten with 18 rushing touchdowns. He did much of his damage late in games. Although Langford likely won't get 292 carries again, he should easily get to 1,000 rush yards.

David Cobb, RB, Minnesota (1,202) Arguably no Gophers player benefited more from the team's commitment to the power run on offense. Cobb logged 237 carries -- second in the Big Ten behind Langford and Abdullah -- and had five 100-yard rushing performances, the most by a Minnesota player since Marion Barber III in 2003. Cobb did much of his damage in Big Ten play, recording four consecutive 100-yard rushing performances. Another 1,000-yard season is possible, but Cobb faces arguably more competition than any back on this list and will have to keep progressing.

Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State (1,068): Miller is poised to finish his career as one of the Big Ten's most productive offensive players. The league's reigning two-time offensive player of the year needs just 842 rush yards to move into second place on the Big Ten's all-time quarterback rushing list. More impressive, he needs 715 yards to claim second place on Ohio State's all-time rushing list (all players). Miller certainly is capable of a third 1,000-yard season, but a revamped line and his goal of improving as a passer could make it challenging.

Now let's take a look at eight other players who could challenge that 1,000-yard mark in 2013, in order of likelihood:

Tevin Coleman, RB, Indiana (958 rush yards in 2013): Coleman finished ahead of Langford, Cobb and Miller in rushing average (106.4 ypg) and easily would have reached four digits had he played in more than nine games. A big-play threat who averaged a Gordon-like 7.3 yards per carry last season, Coleman should have no trouble surging past 1,000 yards this season.

[+] EnlargeMark Weisman
David Purdy/Getty ImagesIowa's Mark Weisman has just missed 1,000 yards in the past two years, but this could be the season he tops that magic number.
Mark Weisman, RB, Iowa (975): Weisman has been close to 1,000 yards in each of the past two seasons and should get there as a senior. He will be sharing carries with Jordan Canzeri and others, and Iowa likely will balance out Weisman's touches a bit more. But if Weisman can break off a few more big runs behind a good offensive line, he'll get to 1,000.

Zach Zwinak, RB, Penn State (989): Some would argue Zwinak isn't the best running back on his team (Bill Belton), but the fact remains he reached 1,000 yards in 2012 and nearly got there last season. The carries balanced between Zwinak and Belton could make it tougher for either back to reach the milestone, and the offensive line is a concern.

Paul James, RB, Rutgers (881): Know the name, Big Ten fans. James rushed for 881 yards on only 156 carries last season. His rushing total through the first four games (573 yards) trailed only Gordon for the FBS lead. Health is a concern here, but if James stays on the field, a 1,000-yard season is easily within reach.

Venric Mark, RB, Northwestern: Projecting Mark is tricky as he rushed for 1,371 yards in 2012 but missed most of last season with injuries and remains prone to more health issues. He's an excellent candidate to gash defenses for big yards if he remains on the field, and he should play behind an improved offensive line.

Josh Ferguson, RB, Illinois (779): It all comes down to opportunities for Ferguson, who averaged 5.5 yards per carry last season but also finished second on the team in receptions with 50. A true big-play threat, Ferguson is capable of getting to 1,000 yards but likely needs at least 25 more carries.

Bill Belton, RB, Penn State (803): Like Zwinak, Belton faces some challenges: sharing carries and playing behind a potentially leaky line. But he has shown superstar potential at times and turned in a strong spring for the new coaching staff.

Corey Clement, RB, Wisconsin (547): Like Gordon, Clement makes the most of his opportunities. He averaged 8.2 yards per carry as a freshman, and while he's Gordon's backup now, he could become a 1A player by midseason. Gordon and White set an NCAA record for single-season rush yards by teammates. Gordon and Clement could challenge it.

Who do you think reaches 1,000 rush yards this fall? Let us know.
The playoff era is here in college football, so feel free to do somersaults and backflips (no lawsuits if you get hurt). We're previewing the playoff and its top contenders today, and if you'd like to chat with Mark Schlabach, Brett McMurphy and Brad Edwards, go here right now. The blog isn't going anywhere.

ESPN.com's contenders preview features 16 potential playoff teams picked by our mock selection committee, including three Big Ten squads: Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin. Most would agree Michigan State, the defending Big Ten and Rose Bowl champion, and Ohio State, which has the league's most accomplished coach (Urban Meyer) and typically the most talent, belong in the conversation.

Wisconsin? I'm not so sure. The Badgers are going through a roster redux and have major questions on both sides of the ball. Their schedule is favorable, especially in Big Ten play, but in my view, Wisconsin is on the very fringes of the playoff conversation right now.

Disagree with me? Here's your chance to show it.

Today's poll question asks: Which team is the Big Ten's third playoff contender? Wisconsin is on the list, as are three other schools.

SportsNation

Besides Michigan State and Ohio State, which team should be the Big Ten's third playoff contender in 2014?

  •  
    19%
  •  
    17%
  •  
    31%
  •  
    19%
  •  
    14%

Discuss (Total votes: 12,505)

The candidates ...

Iowa: For the first time since the summer of 2010, Iowa is in the national discussion. A rebound season in 2013 is one reason. A roster that returns plenty of linemen, running backs and quarterbacks is another. But the most convincing argument for the Hawkeyes as playoff contenders is what lies ahead. Their schedule doesn't include Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State or Michigan, and Iowa will play host to both Wisconsin and Nebraska at Kinnick Stadium.

Michigan: Why include a Michigan team that hasn't even made the Big Ten championship game and took a significant step back last season? At some point, the talent has to rise, and this could be the year. Coach Brady Hoke hopes new coordinator Doug Nussmeier creates more consistency on offense, and Michigan returns most of its core pieces on defense. It will be an uphill climb as the Wolverines face Notre Dame, MSU and Ohio State all on the road, where they've struggled under Hoke.

Nebraska: Bo Pelini's players always have been open about discussing the national title, even though the Huskers last played for one in January 2002 and last won a conference title in 1999. It will take a Big Ten championship -- and perhaps a 14-0 record -- for Nebraska to make the playoff, but there's optimism in Lincoln as superstars such as running back Ameer Abdullah and defensive end Randy Gregory return. Like Michigan, Nebraska will need to be tough on the road as it visits East Lansing, Madison and Iowa City.

Wisconsin: The Badgers have been close to nationally elite status in recent years but seem to struggle to take that next step. Star running back Melvin Gordon made it clear that he bypassed the NFL draft for a chance to take the Badgers over the threshold. Wisconsin will need a revamped defensive front seven to hold up and a threat to emerge at quarterback, whether it's incumbent starter Joel Stave or dual-threat Tanner McEvoy, who took most of the reps in the spring. If Wisconsin beats LSU in the season opener, a playoff run is possible as the Badgers don't play Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State in the East Division.

Don't think any of these teams are true playoff candidates? That's why we included a fifth option.

Time to vote.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

May, 16, 2014
May 16
4:00
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Happy weekend to you. Follow us on Twitter.

To the inbox ...

Jared from Nebraska writes: As a big Husker fan, I was obviously excited to see Ameer Abdullah return for his senior season. My worry is though that he might not have as good of a year this year. If I was an opposing defensive coordinator, I would load the box and blitz to stop the run and make Tommy Armstrong Jr. pass knowing that he has had some interception troubles and NU has only one solid WR. Now if I thought of this I'm sure the coaches actually hired to this position have as well. Wouldn't this make it very hard for Abdullah to have the senior season he is looking for?

Adam Rittenberg: Jared, Abdullah obviously needs Nebraska to pose a passing threat, and he would benefit from Armstrong's improvement in the program. But keep in mind that Abdullah rushed for 1,690 yards in 2013 with Armstrong as a new starting quarterback for most of the season. If Armstrong develops, Abdullah should have room to run. The key area to me is whether a somewhat new-look offensive line holds up. Although Quincy Enunwa is a big loss at receiver, I think the Huskers will be all right if players such as Jordan Westerkamp, Jamal Turner and Taariq Allen continue to take steps this offseason.

Could Abdullah's numbers go down? Sure. But I don't think the opposing strategy against him changes too much from 2013 to 2014.

 




 

Pete from Cincinnati writes: I think the odds are good that the Big Ten will have a top-10 pick next year. If I had to pick one player based on what I saw last year, I'd pick Calhoun. Awesome talent. But the reason I think the odds are good is because there are several candidates who could make it, including Scherff and Gregory. Here's a sleeper pick: Iowa's Carl Davis. Like Gregory, if he continues to improve on pace with last year, he'll have a very big year .

Adam Rittenberg: Really good point, Pete. I agree that having more candidates with the potential to make the top 10 improves the Big Ten's chances considerably. There's no doubt Shilique Calhoun, Randy Gregory and Brandon Scherff all are on the NFL radar, and all play positions where you see quite a few top-10 draft picks. Good call on Carl Davis from Iowa. He's a big body at defensive tackle and could become a dominant player this season. He would have to boost his sacks and tackles for loss numbers and become a truly disruptive player to rise that high.

 




 

Brett from Alliance, Ohio, writes: What about Noah Spence? I saw a mock draft with him in the top 15. If he repeats his production from 2013 could he go first round?

Adam Rittenberg: It's possible, Brett, although some would ask whether Spence is the best defensive end on his own team. After the way Joey Bosa ended his freshman season, he could be the one rocketing up draft boards, albeit for 2016, not 2015. It's certainly a good situation for Ohio State to have, as Spence and Bosa combined for 15.5 sacks last season. But you're right. If Spence has a big junior year, he could be in the first-round mix.

 




 

John from Phoenix writes: Your B1G Must Strike East-Midwest Balance article was very enlightening. One quote grabbed my attention regarding the "New B1G." Barry Alvarez said, "Our fans have to accept it." I respond: You're wrong Mr. Alvarez, the fans don't have to accept it. They can walk. Ever heard of the NFL? I found the Alvarez statement arrogant and reveals how Jim Delany and the rest of the money-mongers running the B1G take fan loyalty for granted. In closing, Adam, do you believe the B1G is in danger of losing fans while chasing the money on the East Coast? I am a Husker alumnus, so I will always follow my team to some extent, but my interest in college ball is waning, and sacrificing product in favor of TV money may be the last straw.

Adam Rittenberg: John, I think it's important the Big Ten doesn't take its fans for granted. The league must listen to its fans and not alienate them while going forward with its expansion and building the brand in a new region. Although I understand your frustration, you mentioned that you'll always follow Nebraska to a degree. Many Big Ten fans will do so with their teams. College football remains incredibly popular, and while there might not be league loyalty there still is school loyalty. The Big Ten is cognizant of the declining game attendance in college football and wants to upgrade the stadium experience for its fans. But this sport is driven by TV money, and that's why the Big Ten is making these moves.

 




 

Kenny from Cincy writes: I read the Michigan-Notre Dame article about the series being dead. Can you give me some inside information on why? I know U-M made it seem like ND was "chickening out." But is U-M at fault too? Do you think both programs' recent struggles may factor into the equation (rather have an easy win than a maybe)? I feel like the main reason, money, is involved but I feel like they both stand to make lots more off of a rivalry.

Adam Rittenberg: Michigan has made it pretty clear that it wanted to continue the Notre Dame series in some form. Michigan added series like Arkansas and UCLA, and games like Florida, after Notre Dame pulled out of the 2015-17 games. Several factors fueled Notre Dame's decision: the schedule agreement with the ACC; the desire to keep playing rivals USC, Navy and Stanford; and a desire to play more often outside the Midwest. But the ACC pact really was the driving force. You bring up the two programs' recent struggles. That's an interesting point because beating Michigan or beating Notre Dame doesn't mean what it used to. Plus, the ability to play more of a national schedule could help both teams as they target playoff spots.
Last week, Brian Bennett explained why he believes Ohio State's defensive line is the Big Ten's top position group coming out of spring practice. The Buckeyes return an excellent mix of depth and talent as players like Michael Bennett, Noah Spence, Joey Bosa and Adolphus Washington all are back.

Not surprisingly, Bennett's post generated some spirited responses from fan bases who believe different position groups merit top billing. Well, here's your chance to show what you think.

Today's poll question is simple: What is the Big Ten's top position group coming out of spring ball?

SportsNation

What is the Big Ten's strongest position group coming out of the spring?

  •  
    22%
  •  
    38%
  •  
    26%
  •  
    14%

Discuss (Total votes: 7,299)

The candidates ...

Michigan State's defensive line: Defensive end Shilique Calhoun became a superstar in 2013, leading the Big Ten in forced fumbles and recording 7.5 sacks. Underrated senior Marcus Rush returns opposite Calhoun, and there's good depth with Lawrence Thomas and Demetrius Cooper, who stood out in the spring game. There are more questions inside but Joel Heath looked promising this spring.

Nebraska's running backs: All-America candidate Ameer Abdullah leads an impressive group after rushing for 1,690 yards and nine touchdowns during a spectacular junior season. The Huskers boast experience with Imani Cross, who has 17 career touchdowns, along with talented younger players like Terrell Newby and Adam Taylor.

Ohio State's defensive line: The Buckeyes return three of the Big Ten's top six sack masters from 2013 in Spence, Bosa and Bennett. They have speed on the edge and athleticism inside, and they can plug in some space eaters like Tommy Schutt and Chris Carter.

Wisconsin's running backs: A year after producing the top single-season rushing tandem in FBS history -- Melvin Gordon and James White -- Wisconsin has another talented pair in Gordon and Corey Clement. Gordon, a Heisman Trophy candidate entering his redshirt junior season, rushed for 1,609 yards and averaged 7.8 yards per carry last fall. Clement looked great in limited work, and recruit Taiwan Deal enters the mix this fall.
So there's this little event called the NFL draft that begins Thursday night in New York. First you've heard of it? Don't fret. There has been virtually no buildup.

Like every year, we'll recap the Big Ten's draft performance, but we're admittedly more focused on the players still in the conference. That's why we're bringing back our version of a mock draft, where we select current Big Ten players to help current Big Ten teams. We did this last year and it was a lot of fun.

Here's how it works: All current Big Ten players are eligible to be drafted (incoming recruits are not). The teams will pick in reverse order of regular season finish last year, just like the NFL. Big Ten newcomers Rutgers and Maryland will pick based on their 2013 records in other leagues, so they will select fifth and sixth, respectively.

We're also making picks based on several factors. It's not simply about selecting the best overall player. What does a team need based on its personnel and schemes? Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller might not be the best fit for a non-spread offense. Also, eligibility matters as some teams might want to build for the future and make a real push in 2015 or 2016 rather than this fall.

Things get a bit messy as once a player gets drafted, it creates a hole on his former team. But that's all part of the draft debate.

Our first seven first-round picks are below. We'll finish up the first round a little later.

Pick No. 1: Purdue

Adam Rittenberg says the Boilers select ... Iowa LT Brandon Scherff

[+] EnlargeBrandon Scherff
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsBrandon Scherff is one of the Big Ten's best linemen and would be a great fit for a lot of teams.
Purdue's priority is line play, and while both fronts need help, I like the potential more on defense. The offensive line must improve significantly for Purdue to have any chance this fall, and it's why the Boilers need Scherff, a first-team All-Big Ten selection who could have been a first round draft pick if he had declared. Even though Scherff is a senior, he makes Purdue better immediately.

Brian Bennett says the Boilers select ... Ohio State DE Joey Bosa

Let's face it: Purdue is in a major rebuilding effort and won't be contending any time soon. So eligibility matters here. Bosa is a true sophomore who could offer the Boilermakers three more years of high-end production and the big-time pass rush the Boilermakers haven't had in a while. I say a defensive end goes first in both the NFL (Jadeveon Clowney) and imaginary Big Ten drafts.

Pick No. 2: Illinois

Rittenberg says the Illini select ... Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun

I thought about Braxton Miller as Illinois needs a quarterback, but I have enough faith in coordinator Bill Cubit to find the answers. Illinois' defense was the big problem in 2013, especially the line. Calhoun, a junior, provides a significant playmaking presence after recording 7.5 sacks, a league-high four forced fumbles and 14 tackles for loss last fall.

Bennett says the Illini select ... Calhoun

As bad as the Illini were against the run last year, they could probably use a defensive tackle even more. But since I don't see a lot of surefire, dominant run-stuffers in the league right now, Calhoun is a solid pick here for a defense-hungry team. Tim Beckman is in win-now mode, so eligibility isn't as big of a factor here.

Pick No. 3: Northwestern

Rittenberg says the Wildcats select ... Ohio State QB Braxton Miller

I thought about going offensive line here, as Northwestern really struggled up front in 2013. But Miller is simply too good a fit for a spread offense that needs a major jolt after finishing 10th in the Big Ten in scoring (26.2 ppg). The return of running back Venric Mark plays a role here, too, as the Miller-Mark speed combination would be extremely tough to stop.

Bennett says the Wildcats select ... Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg

Sure, Miller is probably a better fit for Northwestern's preferred offensive style than Hackenberg, but I just can't see Hackenberg -- who has three years of eligibility left after an outstanding freshman season -- falling lower than third in this draft. Mick McCall would be more than happy to build his offense around this young stud.

Pick No. 4: Indiana

Rittenberg says the Hoosiers select ... Nebraska DE Randy Gregory

Gregory nearly began his college career in the Hoosier State at Purdue before heading to a junior college and then to Nebraska, where he dazzled in his first season, recording 19 tackles for loss, a league-high 10.5 sacks and 18 quarterback hurries. It's no secret Indiana needs stars on defense, especially up front.

Bennett says the Hoosiers select ... Gregory

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Nabil K. Mark/Centre Daily Times/Getty ImagesChristian Hackenberg doesn't fit the offensive style of all the Big Ten teams, but his future might be the brightest of all the league's QBs.
As much as Kevin Wilson loves offense and quarterbacks, I could see him being tempted by Miller (or even somehow trading up to get Hackenberg). But he knows as well as anyone that Indiana is desperate for playmakers on defense. Gregory would fit in extremely well in the Hoosiers' new 3-4 and might be enough to get them over the hump and into a bowl game immediately.

Pick No. 5: Rutgers

Rittenberg says the Scarlet Knights select ... Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg

I considered going defensive line here as Rutgers needs to bulk up there, but a difference-maker at quarterback takes precedence. Hackenberg looks like a future NFL player and has three seasons of eligibility remaining, which would be huge for a Rutgers program transitioning to the Big Ten.

Bennett says the Scarlet Knights select ... Ohio State QB Braxton Miller

Though Miller only has one year of eligibility left, snagging him at No. 5 for a team with major quarterback issues is a coup for the Scarlet Knights. Kyle Flood might need to reach a bowl game to feel safe about his job in 2015, so why not roll with the two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year?

Pick No. 6: Maryland

Rittenberg says the Terrapins select ... Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah

Yes, I know Maryland returns a lot of options at running back, but none brings Abdullah's consistency, production and leadership. He'll stay on the field for a unit ravaged by injury and bring the toughness for a program transitioning to a physical league.

Bennett says the Terrapins select ... Michigan State CB Trae Waynes

The Terps are pretty solid on offense, assuming everyone comes back healthy. Will Likely had an impressive spring at one cornerback spot, but the other starting job is up for grabs. Waynes could instantly solidify that secondary and the junior could potentially lock down one side of the field for two years for Randy Edsall.

Pick No. 7: Michigan

Rittenberg says the Wolverines select ... Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon

Offensive line would be my preference here but there isn't a guaranteed difference-maker available. Fortunately, Gordon doesn't need much room to do some special things with the ball in his hands. He gives Michigan's shaky run game a true big-play threat, and the combination of Gordon and Derrick Green could turn out very well.

Bennett says the Wolverines select ... Iowa offensive tackle Brandon Scherff

Brady Hoke would run to the podium to turn in this pick if Scherff was still on the board. He only has one year of eligibility left, but the Hawkeyes' left tackle could add much-needed stability and leadership to a Wolverines offensive line with all kinds of question marks.

Nebraska spring wrap

April, 28, 2014
Apr 28
7:30
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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 Nebraska.

Three things we learned in the spring

  • Nebraska boasts an embarrassment of riches at running back: If there’s a better group of backs in the Big Ten, good luck to any defense tasked to stop it. The Huskers return the nation’s top yardage producer in Ameer Abdullah with a stacked group of runners behind him, led by Imani Cross.
  • Nathan Gerry’s position shift solidifies the secondary: After an inconsistent freshman season at linebacker, Gerry moved to safety, a more natural fit, and looked comfortable from the first practice. With Corey Cooper sidelined, Gerry and LeRoy Alexander more than held their own. That trio offers an upgrade over 2013.
  • The left side of the offensive line looks nasty: Jake Cotton at left guard already fits as the line’s leader. Cotton brings a mean streak. But the addition of Colorado transfer Alex Lewis at left tackle gives the Huskers an attitude that has long been missing up front.
Three questions for the fall

  • Who’s going to step up at linebacker?: Coach Bo Pelini challenged this group after the spring to find a big-time player or two. Nebraska has plenty of depth in the heart of its defense and a few potential stars in the making. But who’s going to do it now? Keep an eye on senior Zaire Anderson.
  • Who’s the backup QB?: Tommy Armstrong Jr. diffused the top storyline at the start of the spring by taking control at quarterback. While Johnny Stanton or Ryker Fyfe could still challenge Armstrong in August, their battle offers more intrigue. Stanton shows the higher ceiling, but Fyfe was more consistent through the spring.
  • Can the fun feeling carry over?: Pelini unveiled a side of his personality seen in the past only by Nebraska staffers and players. He was inviting and open to fun. The fall will surely bring a return of buttoned-up Bo, but can the lightened atmosphere of spring help the Huskers deal with scrutiny and pressure situations?
One way too early prediction

Nebraska’s streak of four-loss seasons will end in 2014. Six straight years of 9-4 or 10-4 have led to some feelings of unrest about the program’s direction. This is the year the Huskers move out of neutral. Will they shift into drive or reverse? The pieces are in place to make a run at the Big Ten title, but a stretch of five consecutive night games that starts on Sept. 13 at Fresno State could prove treacherous.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Spring football is done. It’s time to work on the little things, which, for Nebraska, equate to the big things.

Coach Bo Pelini left the Huskers with a message after Nebraska completed 15 practices over the past five weeks.

“The challenge I laid out to this football team is to move forward,” Pelini said. “If we don’t keep thinking about football, if we don’t attack it and we don’t keep continuing to work at it, to spend some time away from the facility, put themselves in position to keep learning and build, if we forget about football until August and just worry about the conditioning part of it, it won’t happen for this football team.”

Pelini’s words are as clear as a slap in the face. It’s not good enough to remain in good shape during the offseason.

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
AP Photo/Nati HarnikBo Pelini is looking for team leaders to be serious about offseason workouts.
College players once went above and beyond by staying committed to a training regimen in the summer. Today, that’s only half the quest, especially at Nebraska, where mental aspects of the game have appeared, in recent years, to largely prevent a breakthrough back into the nation’s elite.

The Huskers struggled again last season in some areas of special teams. Turnovers were costly, too, as Nebraska finished minus-10 in its four losses. It was minus-11 for the season, 117th out of 126 nationally and one of two teams -- Cincinnati was the other -- to place among the bottom 57 while winning more than eight games.

“Everything’s out there,” Pelini said, “as far as I’m concerned, for this football team to achieve, but it won’t happen by chance. It won’t happen if we’re half in. We’ve got to have a group of guys who are absolutely all in to get done what we want to get done. I think they understand that.”

Pelini delivered his message with notable eloquence. The seventh-year coach, no doubt, has devoted considerable thought to this subject.

He’s looking for leaders within the team to repeat his words in May, June and July.

“I’m not worried about that at all,” senior receiver Kenny Bell said. “We did it this entire winter. The hard work doesn’t stop.”

Offensively, Bell and classmate I-back Ameer Abdullah at I-back, alongside senior linemen Jake Cotton and Mark Pelini, have formed a strong voice. They’re joined by sophomore quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. in keeping Pelini’s message on the minds of the Huskers.

Armstrong, in particular, said he wants to continue to drill the importance of ball security through the offseason.

“I take all responsibility for it,” he said.

Armstrong said he believes the turnover problems were responsible for every Nebraska loss last year – a debatable assertion that, nonetheless, marks a step in the quarterback’s development as a leader.

“We can win all of our games if we take care of the football,” Armstrong said.

Teammates share similar confidence in the ability of Armstrong to lead.

“When you see it day in and day out, a guy putting your team in right positions, you have confidence,” junior I-back Imani Cross said. “That’s something we have in Tommy.”

Defensively, leadership remains more uncertain. Senior defensive backs Josh Mitchell and Corey Cooper are entrenched. Among the front seven, the Huskers look to junior Randy Gregory and veteran linebackers David Santos, Zaire Anderson and Trevor Roach.

The defenders hear the same message.

“I think everyone has to come together,” Anderson said, “and be committed to the team being able to make strides every day.”

It’s no easy task, Pelini said. Even this spring, he said, the Nebraska coaches saw various levels of commitment.

“There are some guys taking advantage of their opportunity and some who haven’t,” Pelini said.

“There are some guys who probably haven’t put the necessary time in. Bottom line, when that happens and I put on the film day after day and I see repeat errors, you send a message to us as coaches that it’s not important enough to you – either that or you don’t show the ability to be able to execute our football.”

The majority of the Huskers moved forward this spring, he said. The coach walked away from spring practice with a good feeling about his team and an understanding of areas in which Nebraska must improve.

There’s a plan in place, he said.

“Now it’s going to be time to go into the next phase and move this football team forward,” Pelini said. “This has just begun.”
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- An hour after the spring game ended on Saturday, Jeff Jamrog still looked tired as he stood in the lobby of the Nebraska practice facility, down one story and across an enclosed bridge from the football nerve center.

Jamrog clutched a bundle of papers, held tight in his right arm three hours prior as the assistant athletic director for football operations walked alongside cat-cradling Nebraska coach Bo Pelini to lead the team out of its locker room for the most unusual Tunnel Walk ever.

[+] EnlargeNebraska Cornhuskers
AP Photo/The Journal-Star/Francis GardlerIt's been an entertaining spring for Bo Pelini, his cat and his team.
I visited briefly with Jamrog about the entertaining antics of the afternoon, which included a goal-post throwing contest between Pelini and flamboyant wideout Kenny Bell and a marriage proposal by recently departed offensive tackle Jeremiah Sirles to former Nebraska soccer player Emma Stevens amidst a punt, pass and kick competition between ex-football players.

“If you’ve got any more ideas...,” said Jamrog, a former Division II head coach, Nebraska assistant and ex-Husker walk-on- turned-academic-All-American.

Just call him the Idea Man. The actual mastermind of this cat-themed offseason remains a secret between Pelini, his players and staff. It began with a Twitter bang by Pelini during the BCS title game and picked up steam on the recruiting trail.

When asked where the ideas were born to pull the mask off the old, frowning coach to reveal this fun and open side, they all say it just happened naturally.

It’s something that’s always been there,” Bell said.

Perhaps. You can bet, though, just about anything outside the box of this normally buttoned-up program passed the desk of Jamrog, who promoted Twitter handles of I-back Ameer Abdullah and linebacker Josh Banderas while explaining practice drills during breaks in the Saturday scrimmage.

The script was likely detailed in that bundle of papers.

Pelini said he nixed an idea to wear a sweater, a la his popular alter-ego. I’d like to know what else didn’t make the cut.

Regardless, keep it up, within reason. Even if the cat humor has run its course, continue to find ways to engage this fan base. Memorial Stadium on Saturday held a crowd of 61,772, most of whom paid $10 plus parking to watch a circus-like scrimmage.

Nebraska fans are hungry to see the human side of their coach and players. They’re more hungry, of course, for the next championship, but the past 3 months -- on the heels of a difficult finish to the 2013 regular season -- have provided a nice diversion.

We’ve seen Pelini reunite a U.S. Army sergeant with his wife and support basketball coach Tim Miles, who was ejected in Nebraska’s return to the NCAA tournament last month.

This spring, Pelini opened practices to the media. He said he’ll likely keep it up in August. He answered all questions in a thoughtful manner. He joked on Saturday about his dogs’ reaction to the cat stunt. He teased Bell, who schooled the coach in the goal-post throwing contest, over the receiver’s poor form.

Clearly, Pelini and the people close to him have made an effort turned the page from last season, stained by the coach’s post-Thanksgiving outbursts on the field and in the press conference after Iowa beat Nebraska on senior day.

“I’m not doing anything really different,” Pelini said in response to a question on Saturday about the lighter mood around his team.

If it feels different, fine, he said, but that’s not his intention.

“We’re trying to make sure we handle our business and enjoy the game,” Bell said. “You’ve gotta remember, football’s fun.

“You can forget that with all the crap you’ve got to deal with sometimes.”

But will all of the fun and goodwill matter to the football-watching public next fall, when the spotlight shines so much more brightly? Will we even remember this new-look Bo if the Huskers play poorly at home against Miami or fail to win the Big Ten West?

The answer to both: Probably not.

Still, Pelini sets the tone for the Huskers, inside the locker room and out. If he’s more comfortable living under the microscope, his players might be, too. That could help on the field in the fall.

It’s an idea.

If you’ve got any others, Jamrog is ready to listen.

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