Nebraska Cornhuskers: Cethan Carter

We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. The wide receivers and tight ends are up next.

Illinois: The Illini are looking for more from this group after losing top target Steve Hull, who exploded late in the season to finish just shy of 1,000 receiving yards. While running back Josh Ferguson (50 catches in 2013) will continue to contribute, Illinois could use a boost from Martize Barr, who arrived with high expectations but only had 26 receptions last fall. Another junior-college transfer, Geronimo Allison, could make an impact beginning this spring, but there's some mystery at wideout. Illinois looks more solid at tight end with seniors Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse.

Indiana: Despite the somewhat surprising early departure of All-Big Ten selection Cody Latimer, Indiana should be fine here. Shane Wynn is the veteran of the group after recording 633 receiving yards on 46 catches last season. Kofi Hughes and Duwyce Wilson also depart, so Indiana will be leaning more on Nick Stoner and Isaiah Roundtree. The Hoosiers have high hopes for early enrollee Dominique Booth, a decorated recruit who could fill Latimer's spot on the outside. Productive tight end Ted Bolser departs and several players will compete, including early enrollee Jordan Fuchs.

Iowa: Almost all the wide receivers are back from a group in which none eclipsed more than 400 receiving yards in 2013. Balance is nice, but separation could be nicer for the Hawkeyes this spring. Kevonte Martin-Manley is the most experienced wideout and has 122 career receptions. Tevaun Smith also returns, and Iowa fans are excited about big-play threat Damond Powell, who averaged 24.2 yards on only 12 receptions last season. Iowa loses its top red-zone target in tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz and will need Jake Duzey to deliver more Ohio State-like performances.

Maryland: When the Terrapins get healthy, they might have the Big Ten's best wide receiving corps. Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, both of whom sustained broken legs against Wake Forest last season, have the ability to stretch the field as both averaged more than 15 yards per reception before the injuries struck. Leading receiver Levern Jacobs also returns, alongside junior Nigel King and sophomore Amba Etta-Tawo, who averaged more than 16 yards per catch in 2013. Marcus Leak, who started seven games in 2012, rejoins the team after a year away. The Terps are unproven at tight end after losing Dave Stinebaugh.

Michigan: There's a reason why some Michigan fans want Devin Gardner to return to wide receiver for his final season. The Wolverines are thin on the perimeter after losing Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo. Redshirt sophomores Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh are both candidates to start, and Dennis Norfleet could be the answer in the slot. But there's plenty of opportunity for younger players like Drake Harris, an early enrollee. Michigan's best pass-catching option, Devin Funchess, is listed as a tight end but plays more like a receiver. The Wolverines will be without their second-string tight end, Jake Butt, who suffered an ACL tear in winter conditioning.

Michigan State: Remember all the justified angst about this group a year ago? It has pretty much gone away as the Spartans wideouts rebounded nicely in 2013. Bennie Fowler departs, but MSU brings back its top two receivers in Tony Lippett and Macgarrett Kings, who showed explosiveness down the stretch last fall. Aaron Burbridge had a bit of a sophomore slump but provides another option alongside veteran Keith Mumphery, who averaged 16.6 yards per catch in 2013. Josiah Price leads the tight end group after a solid freshman season.

Minnesota: Here's a group to watch during spring practice, particularly the wide receivers. Minnesota has proven it can run the ball and defend under Jerry Kill, but the passing game was putrid in 2013, ranking last in the Big Ten and 115th nationally. Youth is partly to blame, and while the Gophers still lack experience, they can expect more from promising players like Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones. Senior Isaac Fruechte provides a veteran presence. Minnesota looks solid at tight end with sophomore Maxx Williams, the team's receiving yards leader (417) in 2013.

Nebraska: The Huskers lose a significant piece in Quincy Enunwa, who led the team in receiving yards (753) and had three times as many receiving touchdowns (12) as anyone else in 2013. Kenny Bell is set to recapture the No. 1 receiver role, which he had in 2012, and comes off of a 52-catch season as a junior. Nebraska must build around Bell this spring with players like the mustachioed Jordan Westerkamp, who had 20 catches as a freshman, including a rather memorable one to beat Northwestern. Will Jamal Turner turn the corner this offseason? Juniors Sam Burtch and Taariq Allen also return. Cethan Carter started six games at tight end last fall and should take over the top spot there as Jake Long departs.

Northwestern: The passing game fell short of expectations in 2013, but there's reason for optimism as Northwestern returns its top three pass-catchers in Tony Jones, Christian Jones and Dan Vitale. The two Joneses (no relation), who combined for 109 catches in 2013, lead the receiving corps along with junior Cameron Dickerson. Speedy Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler provides a playmaking spark, possibly at slot receiver. Vitale, who had a somewhat disappointing sophomore season, has All-Big Ten potential at the superback (tight end) spot. Although Northwestern rarely plays true freshmen, superback Garrett Dickerson, Cameron's brother, could see the field right away.

Ohio State: A group that drew heavy criticism from coach Urban Meyer two springs ago is stockpiling talent. Devin Smith is the familiar name, a big-play senior who has started each of the past two seasons and boasts 18 career touchdowns. Ohio State must replace top wideout Corey Brown and will look for more from Evan Spencer. Michael Thomas has stood out in practices but must translate his performance to games. This could be a breakout year for H-back Dontre Wilson, who averaged nine yards per touch as a freshman. Buckeyes fans are eager to see redshirt freshmen Jalin Marshall and James Clark, and incoming players like Johnnie Dixon could make a splash right away. Ohio State returns an elite tight end in Jeff Heuerman.

Penn State: The Lions have very different depth situations at receiver and tight end. They're looking for contributors on the perimeter after losing Allen Robinson, the Big Ten's top wide receiver the past two seasons, who accounted for 46 percent of the team's receiving production in 2013. Brandon Felder also departs, leaving Geno Lewis as the likeliest candidate to move into a featured role. Richy Anderson also returns, but there will be plenty of competition/opportunity at receiver, a position new coach James Franklin targeted in recruiting with players like Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall. Things are much more stable at tight end as the Lions return three talented players in Jesse James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman.

Purdue: If you're looking for hope at Purdue, these spots aren't bad places to start. There are several promising young players like receiver DeAngelo Yancey, who recorded a team-leading 546 receiving yards as a freshman. Cameron Posey also had a decent freshman year (26 catches, 297 yards), and Danny Anthrop averaged 18.4 yards as a sophomore. A full offseason with quarterbacks Danny Etling and Austin Appleby should help the group. Tight end also should be a strength as Justin Sinz, who led Purdue with 41 catches last season, is back along with Gabe Holmes, who returns after missing most of 2013 with a wrist injury.

Rutgers: The good news is tight end Tyler Kroft returns after leading Rutgers in both receptions (43) and receiving yards (573) last season. Kroft will immediately contend for All-Big Ten honors. Things are murkier at wide receiver, where top contributors Brandon Coleman and Quron Pratt both depart. Leonte Carroo took a nice step as a sophomore, averaging 17.1 yards per catch and enters the spring as the frontrunner to become the team's No. 1 wideout. Ruhann Peele is another promising young receiver for the Scarlet Knights, who boast size with Carlton Agudosi (6-foot-6) and Andre Patton (6-4).

Wisconsin: The quarterback competition will gain more attention this spring, but Wisconsin's receiver/tight end situation could be more critical. The Badgers lose Jared Abbrederis, their only major threat at receiver the past two seasons, as well as top tight end Jacob Pedersen. Players like Jordan Fredrick and Kenzel Doe must translate their experience into greater production, and Wisconsin will look for more from young receivers like Alex Erickson and Robert Wheelwright. Help is on the way as Wisconsin signed five receivers in the 2014 class, but wideout definitely is a position of concern right now. Sam Arneson is the logical candidate to step in for Pedersen, but there should be competition as the Badgers lose a lot at the position.
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Big Ten Conference, Illinois Fighting Illini, Indiana Hoosiers, Iowa Hawkeyes, Michigan State Spartans, Michigan Wolverines, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Northwestern Wildcats, Ohio State Buckeyes, Penn State Nittany Lions, Purdue Boilermakers, Wisconsin Badgers, Football Recruiting, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Maryland Terrapins, Alex Erickson, Jared Abbrederis, Jordan Fredrick, Kenzel Doe, Allen Robinson, Quincy Enunwa, Kenny Bell, Jamal Turner, Garrett Dickerson, Shane Wynn, Devin Smith, Jeremy Gallon, Drake Harris, Geronimo Allison, Sam Burtch, Cethan Carter, Tony Jones, Danny Anthrop, Dontre Wilson, Christian Jones, Kofi Hughes, Ted Bolser, Jalin Marshall, james clark, Gabe Holmes, Josh Ferguson, Kevonte Martin-Manley, Justin Sinz, Nick Stoner, Adam Breneman, Richy Anderson, Steve Hull, Johnnie Dixon, Cameron Posey, Damond Powell, Danny Etling, Corey Brown, Jordan Westerkamp, MacGarrett Kings, Cody Latimer, Devin Funchess, Jacob Pedersen, DeAngelo Yancey, Chris Godwin, Jake Duzey, C.J. Fiedorowicz, Kyle Carter, Maxx Williams, Dan Vitale, Keith Mumphery, Drew Dileo, Dominique Booth, Donovahn Jones, Drew Wolitarsky, Josiah Price, Martize Barr, Tony Lippett, Austin Appleby, Saeed Blacknall, Brandon Coleman, Robert Wheelwright, Tevaun Smith, B1G spring positions 14, Aaron Burbridge, Amara Darboh, Amba Etta-Tawo, Andre Patton, Brandon Felder, Cameron Dickerson, Carlton Agudosi, Dave Stinebaugh, Duwyce Wilson, Evan Spencer, Geno Lewis, Isaac Fruechte, Isaiah Roundtree, Jehu Chesson, Jesse James, Jordan Fuchs, Leonte Carroo, Levern Jacobs, Marcus Leak, Matt LaCosse, Michael Thomas, Miles Shuler, Nigel King, Quron Pratt, Ruhann Peele, Sam Arneson, Stefon Diggs, Taariq Allen, Tyler Kroft

We’ve reached the fourth day in our pre-spring countdown of Nebraska’s position groups with most room to improve.

Up next, a group that went unnoticed at times -- all the evidence required for inclusion on this list. At No. 2, it’s the tight ends:

Major losses: Jake Long looked poised for a nice senior season after stepping into a starting role vacated last year by the departure of Ben Cotton and Kyler Reed. Because of injuries, it didn’t materialize as planned, much like the senior season of Long’s twin brother, All-Big Ten guard Spencer Long. Jake caught just eight passes for 121 yards.

[+] EnlargeCethan Carter
AP Photo/Nati HarnikCethan Carter led Nebraska tight ends with 10 catches in the 2013 season.
Top returnees: Cethan Carter showed flashes as a true freshman. He grabbed 10 passes for 127 yards. Sam Cotton, as a redshirt freshman, caught three passes for 22 yards, including a 3-yard touchdown against Minnesota, the only score by a tight end last season. Rising sophomore Trey Foster and junior David Sutton played minor roles in 2013.

Numbers to know: Tight ends at Nebraska caught 22 passes in 14 games, with no gain longer than 26 yards. That’s just not good enough for Barney Cotton’s group, even with all the inexperience and Long’s hobbled state. Here’s one number to watch: 39.2. It’s the Huskers’ third-down conversion rate last season, 72nd nationally and ninth in the Big Ten. With a productive core of tight ends, that will improve.

Key question: Productive tight ends can make a huge difference in the play-action passing game for Nebraska, potentially a strength for Tommy Armstrong Jr. or Johnny Stanton at quarterback. Is that tight end on the roster?

The outlook: The lack of tight end production last year involved more than injuries and inexperience. Part of it fell on Armstrong, who started eight games and locked too often on top receiving options Kenny Bell and Quincy Enunwa.

They were excellent choices, but so is a dangerous tight end, which adds a difficult-to-defend element to any offense.

Nebraska’s quarterbacks get an offseason to work with Carter, who should develop into a big-play threat, and Cotton. The overall comfort level should improve, and the addition of redshirt freshman Greg Hart adds another big target.

True freshman Freedom Akinmoladun rates as a dark horse in the 2014 recruiting class to make a quick impact. If he’s ready, the opportunity is there.

Countdown of Nebraska position groups with most room to improve:

No. 5: Secondary
No. 4: Quarterbacks
No. 3: Linebackers
Nebraska secondary coach Terry Joseph is weighing a move from Lincoln to Texas A&M, saying on Saturday that he had been offered a position to coach defensive backs for Kevin Sumlin.

Formerly the secondary coach and recruiting coordinator at Tennesssee, Joseph came to Nebraska before the 2012 season. He told the Lincoln (Neb.) Journal-Star that he needed to speak with Nebraska coach Bo Pelini after the visit this weekend to College Station.

“They offered me the job,” Joseph said to the newspaper. "It’s a lot of money, but I told Bo I would come back and talk to him before I took the job.

[+] Enlarge Stanley Jean-Baptiste
Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY SportsSenior CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste was part of a dramatically improved secondary under assistant coach Terry Joseph.
“Now, if you say, ‘It’s a lot of money and Nebraska isn’t going to match it?’ Then, yeah, it’s a done deal, because that’s what it comes down to, getting my contract extended and me getting a lot of money.”

How's that for a money quote?

Joseph earned $245,000 at Nebraska this year as part of a group that ranks third in the Big Ten in coaching staff pay. Former A&M secondary coach and co-defensive coordinator Marcel Yates, who left recently for Boise State, earned $308,200 on Sumlin’s staff.

Mitch Sherman, who covers Nebraska for ESPN.com, and A&M reporter Sam Khan discuss the situation:

How significant would the loss of Joseph rate for Nebraska?

Sherman: It’s a big deal. Under Joseph in two years, Nebraska ranked fourth nationally in opponent completion percentage. In 2012, it led the nation in that category. And in 2013, the Huskers ranked seventh in opponent third-down conversion rate in large part because of the work of his defensive backs. Cornerbacks Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste improved considerably under Joseph in addition to safety Corey Cooper, who developed into one of the Huskers’ top tacklers this year. In the Huskers’ TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl win over Georgia, cornerback Josh Mitchell intercepted a pass and recovered a fumbled punt return. And young players like LeRoy Alexander have shown signs of growth under Joseph’s watch. His secondary, over two years, easily rates as the most consistent area of a Nebraska defense that has undergone a transformation. Without him, the task to replace Evans and Jean-Baptiste turns much more complex.

Would the addition of Joseph rank as a big score for Sumlin and the Aggies?

Khan: Definitely. The secondary is an area that still needs improvement for the Aggies (all you had to do was watch the Chick-fil-A Bowl to figure that out), and the sooner the Aggies fill the void left by Yates, the better. But aside from on-field coaching, Sumlin puts a priority on guys who can recruit. Joseph clearly can. His background as a high school coach and a college assistant in the state of Louisiana is attractive to Sumlin and the Aggies because that's a state in which they're continuing to grow a presence. Several key defensive starters hail from "The Boot," and the Aggies are trying to go toe to toe with LSU and recently won a key battle in nabbing five-star athlete Speedy Noil. Joseph can likely help the Aggies efforts in recruiting that state.

How else has Joseph impacted Nebraska?

Sherman: He’s one of the Huskers’ top recruiters, landing prospects such as tight end Cethan Carter, defensive back Boaz Joseph and receiver Tre'Vell Dixon a year ago. Joseph helped land athlete Jaevon Walton and defensive backs Joshua Kalu and Trai Mosley in the unsigned 2014 class. His connections run deep in fertile Louisiana, where Joseph played baseball at Northwestern State and coached football in the high school ranks before a stint as the secondary coach at Louisiana Tech.

What would Joseph have to work with in Aggieland?

Khan: There's some depth in the defensive backfield at cornerback with starters Deshazor Everett and De'Vante Harris set to return in 2014. Behind those two are several young corners that were part of a large 2013 recruiting class haul, including Noel Ellis, Tavares Garner and Alex Sezer, all of whom saw playing time on either defense or special teams as true freshmen this season. Safety is another story. The Aggies do have returnees back there in Howard Matthews, Floyd Raven and Clay Honeycutt, but all of them struggled last season. Freshman Kameron Miles, who injured his knee in training camp and redshirted and 6-foot-3 freshman Jonathan Wiggins, who played in nine games mostly on special teams, should be ready to contribute come next season.

What would his absence mean for Nebraska?

Sherman: While never good to lose a coach in a lateral move, Sumlin is offering money the Huskers just may not want to match. Pelini is well connected and should find a solid replacement. But Joseph’s departure, inevitably, would raise questions about the staffers’ confidence in the stability at Nebraska after Pelini received a stay from the school’s administration at the close of a rocky regular season.

What would his impact mean at Texas A&M?

Khan: He would be a quality addition to the coaching staff and fulfills the requirements Sumlin looks for in assistants: someone who can be both a good on-field coach and a presence in recruiting. He has worked in the SEC and has a solid overall resume, so he should be a solid fit in Aggieland.

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Somebody’s going to bring it up if for no reason other than because Nebraska is entering a bye week and the defense is a depressing topic and he throws such a pretty ball.

Why not go with Tommy Armstrong?

The redshirt freshman quarterback looked spectacular in his starting debut, a 59-20 Husker victory over South Dakota State on Saturday at Memorial Stadium -- in his own way just as good as another redshirt freshman who got everyone so excited three years ago this month.

[+] EnlargeTommy Armstrong
Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY SportsRedshirt freshman signal-caller Tommy Armstrong was nearly flawless in the Cornhuskers' win over South Dakota State.
Armstrong commanded the offense with precision in place of injured senior Taylor Martinez.

He led five drives. Four went for touchdowns. The other ended when Kenny Bell fumbled after a catch and run to the SDSU 10-yard line. Armstrong finished 12-of-15 passing for 169 yards and a touchdown. He rushed five times for 38 yards. He didn’t commit a turnover.

“It’s what we’ve been saying, since he’s been here,” offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. “He’s just a gamer. That’s what he is. He thrives in situations like this and played extremely well.”

Freshmen quarterbacks create a sparkle in the eye of every fan. They offer a promise of something better.

Stop right there, though. This is Martinez’s team. Sure, he has looked out of sync this year, especially last week in a 41-21 loss to UCLA. He has yet to prove he can lead Nebraska to a championship.

But before the subject gains steam and the crowd here grows restless when the offense sputters behind Martinez for a couple series in Big Ten play, remember this: Armstrong will have his day. Soon, too. It’s just not now, as long as Martinez is healthy.

Martinez started 32 straight games before Saturday and 43 in his career, more than any Nebraska quarterback.

He’s not Wally Pipp.

And Armstrong is not the answer. Not yet, anyway.

That said, wow, the kid looked good. Armstrong faced just four third downs on his five possessions. The Huskers converted all of them, two on Armstrong completions to go-to receiver Quincy Enunwa and two on runs by Imani Cross.

Armstrong played with a swagger. Coach Bo Pelini mentioned it after the game. Armstrong set the tempo. He got the Huskers off fast, a problem before Saturday. Nebraska ate chunks of yardage on its first possession, covering 24 yards, 13, 28 and 5 for the touchdown.

“It took us back to summer,” Armstrong said. “When our number is called, we have to set the tone. That’s one thing we did, we set the tone for the defense.”

Armstrong said he couldn’t sleep on Friday night.

The quarterback envisioned this moment since he arrived last year from Texas, where he directed Cibolo Steele to a pair of 5A title-game appearances. Armstrong learned how to lead from running back Malcolm Brown and defensive tackle Marquis Anderson, who left Steele before Armstrong for Texas and Oklahoma, respectively.

So when the moment arrived this week, he embraced it.

And when South Dakota State answered his opening pair of touchdown drives with scores of its own and Armstrong turned the offense to Ron Kellogg III, only to watch the Huskers lose a fumble and FCS-level Jackrabbits go ahead, the young QB gathered teammates on the sideline.

“I told them, ‘Hey, don’t worry, we’re going to go down and score and get a stop,' " he said “That’s pretty much the mindset.”

It happened. He returned after Kellogg directed a TD march and led an 11-play, 80-yard drive, hitting Sam Burtch for 16 yards in the end zone.

On the touchdown, Cethan Carter flashed wide open before Armstrong hesitated a bit and found Burtch near the corner.

South Dakota State was slow to react. A better defense might have made Armstrong pay. That’s about the only critique of him from this game. And it’s a stretch.

Armstrong showed no sign of losing his rhythm by sitting out after his first two drives, then for two more after his third possession -- a difficult ask of any quarterback, let alone a freshman in his first start.

“He handled it like a pro,” Kellogg said.

Pelini said he learned nothing about Armstrong that he didn’t already know. And Pelini doesn’t care if the performance came against South Dakota State or Michigan State.

“I look at the execution,” said Pelini, whose team opens league play in two weeks against Illinois. “It doesn’t matter who you’re executing against.”

Armstrong learned he would start from Beck after Pelini told the media on Tuesday that it appeared likely. At the end of a difficult week for the program following the loss to UCLA and a storm of controversy around the coach, a big ovation greeted Armstrong as he took the field.

Of course. He’s the freshman, the fresh face. But don’t go there. It’s not time.

Here’s what we learned: Armstrong, after Saturday, owns the edge next spring over Johnny Stanton, who’s redshirting this fall, when Martinez and Kellogg are gone.

For some, considering the apparent stalled progress of this program, the future can’t get here fast enough.

What we learned: Week 2

September, 8, 2013
9/08/13
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LINCOLN, Neb. – Nebraska bounced back nicely from a shaky opening weekend with a solid, 56-13 victory on Saturday over Southern Miss. Here’s what we know about the Huskers as a result of this second victory:

When opportunity knocks, these Blackshirts can answer: Nebraska gets no credit for beating a great opponent on Saturday; Southern Miss has lost 14 straight and looked like it of Saturday, often failing to get out of its own way. But when the Golden Eagles opened the door, the Nebraska defense stormed through, starting with Stanley Jean-Baptiste’s interception return for a touchdown 73 seconds into the game. Ciante Evans repeated the feat late in the first quarter. Nebraska last scored two defensive touchdowns in 2010 against Idaho. It intercepted four passes total and finished plus-3 in turnover margin for the first time since a win over Colorado in 2010. And the Huskers’ nine tackles behind the line of scrimmage marked their highest count since notching 12 last September against Idaho State.

Nebraska is serious about its youth movement: It required all of one week for the Huskers to sit David Santos, who won the starting middle linebacker job and a Blackshirt practice jersey last month. Santos actually led the Huskers with 12 tackles in the opener, but true freshman Josh Banderas and redshirt freshman Michael Rose outplayed him in the days before Southern Miss came to town, so the rookies saw more time on Saturday. Banderas got the start alongside another true freshman linebacker, Nathan Gerry. Newcomer Randy Gregory played like Nebraska’s best defensive lineman off the edge. True freshman defensive tackle Maliek Collins registered a sack. Offensively, true freshman tight end Cethan Carter caught his first pass, and classmate Terrell Newby ran well again, gaining 60 yards.

Taylor Martinez is more comfortable than ever in the pocket: The senior quarterback trusts his veteran cast of offensive linemen, but there’s something more at work here. Martinez, after bruising his non-throwing shoulder in the opener, rarely looked to run on Saturday. When he took off, Martinez appeared a bit tentative, but it mattered little as he distributed 15 completions on 23 attempts to seven receivers. He’s completed 71.1 percent of his throws through two games with six touchdowns and one interception, showing the kind of maturity expected from a fourth-year starter. It represents a new side of Martinez, who, in the past, often scurried from the pocket before the protection broke down. His patience is paying dividends top for receivers Kenny Bell, Quincy Enunwa and Jamal Turner.

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BIG TEN SCOREBOARD

Saturday, 12/20
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Friday, 12/26
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Thursday, 1/1
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