Nebraska Cornhuskers: Johnny Stanton

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

May, 7, 2014
May 7
5:00
PM ET
By the time you read this, I'll be somewhere over the Atlantic. (Where are the best Big Ten bars in Italy?). But before my Euro trip, I had time to answer your postcards ... er, emails:

Rob from New York writes: Brian, a lot of the Big Ten rivalry games aren't really rivalries anymore (or maybe ever). Not sure anyone is really getting up for the Illibuck, Governor's Victory Bell or the Old Brass Spittoon, not to mention lesser games like the Land Grant or Little Brown Jug. In your opinion, which games (A) deserve to be recognized rivalry games, (B) deserve to be trophy games, and (C) which ones should be retired and/or have their trophies burned to the ground? (Hint: the unanimous ugliest of them all.) My vote goes to Wisconsin/Michigan State becoming a rivalry AND trophy game, with a brass penalty flag as the trophy, since the series is littered with controversial calls and Michigan State fans whining about them (yeah, I'm biased). A non-trophy rivalry game could be Indiana and Michigan State, since it's not really a rivalry anymore. And a rivalry game that needs to die is Minnesota and Penn State (honestly, would anyone notice?).

Brian Bennett: Rob, Adam and I did a full assessment of the state of the Big Ten rivalries last year as the conference was working on realigning the division. You can find that post here. There's a difference between rivalries and trophy games. You can hand out a trophy for any game, but rivalries reveal themselves. For example, Wisconsin and Michigan State had grown into a rivalry without a trophy, while hardly anybody thinks the Old Brass Spittoon game is an actual rivalry. Alas, the Badgers and Spartans will be in different divisions now, didn't play last year and won't meet in 2014 or '15, so it's going to be hard to keep that going as a rivalry. I like the trophies, because many of them are goofy and fun and have some interesting history. But it will be worth tracking how the new division alignment and expansion affect actual rivalries.




 

Ben from Omaha writes: OK, I'm going to do my best to not be a homer here, but I'm a little shocked Nebraska isn't a favorite over Wisconsin in the West Division. Nebraska returns almost all of its D and as long as Tommy Armstrong just plays consistently and doesn't turn it over, our offense will be great again. Wisconsin, on the other hand, loses a ton of its D and O, and its only returning contributors are Joel Stave and Melvin Gordon. I get that Nebraska can be tough to trust, but I'd still take them based off returning players. Am I being a homer here or am I on to something?

Brian Bennett: First, Ben, I'd have to ask where you're getting the idea that there's a favorite in the West. I think the division is pretty wide open, and it's only early May. Colleagues Mark Schlabach and Brian Fremeau do have Wisconsin ranked higher than Nebraska right now, but I don't believe there's any real consensus. I am higher on the Huskers than the Badgers, because I think Gary Andersen's team has too many question marks. But the schedule is a real factor here. Wisconsin and Iowa have much easier roads to Indianapolis than does Nebraska, which has to go to Michigan State as one of its crossovers and plays the Badgers and Hawkeyes on the road. I think sometimes we overrate schedules in the preseason, though.




 

MonsterHunter via Twitter writes: Did the Big Ten do any due diligence about Rutgers before handing them their Golden Ticket? Strictly amateur hour in N.J.

Brian Bennett: Rutgers can't seem to get out of its own way when it comes to bad PR. moves, the latest being the flap over the Eric LeGrand speech. I don't think the LeGrand incident is that big of a deal in its own right, but it adds to the string of poor decisions and tin-eared communication skills of the administration. The school has a lot of different political factions tugging it in many directions, so it can often be hard to get everybody on the same page. But for the sake of the Scarlet Knights and the Big Ten, Rutgers really needs to get its house in order and stop creating controversy. Playing good football would make a lot of this stuff go away.




 

Alex from York, Neb., writes: Hi, Brian. My question is why do I get the feeling from the media that the Nebraska QB battle has already been won? It's only spring. I know Tommy Armstrong is the incumbent starter but that's no reason to end a position battle. Tommy is going to look better in practices because he's been around longer, but in the spring game, the closest to a real game situation we've seen so far, Johnny Stanton and ever Ryker Fyfe looked much better than TAJR. I'm not saying he won't win the battle, but why do people seem to think the battle is over already?

Brian Bennett: Armstrong has such an experience edge that I think he would have had to do something to lose the job this offseason. And by all accounts, he played well and took on a bigger leadership role this spring. I don't put much stock in spring game performances. Armstrong can't rest on his laurels, and if he doesn't play well early this season, he has a chance to get passed by. But I'd be really surprised if he weren't the starter in September.




 

Kevin from Fairfax writes: Seriously, someone has Michigan ranked in the top 25? Michigan is going to be lucky to break .500 this year. As for Sparty, they were one of the two best teams in the country last year, while the defense might take a half step back, the offense should help. Right now there are five Big Ten teams that deserve to be ranked: Michigan State, Ohio State, a Penn State team that was far closer to an 11-win team than most admit, Wisconsin and Nebraska.

Brian Bennett: I don't quite get ranking Michigan either, though the Wolverines clearly have some talent if they can figure things out. But based on what we saw last year and given some of the issues on the offensive line, this is a team that will have to show me something before I consider it as a Top 25-caliber club. I disagree with you about Penn State. While the Nittany Lions definitely have some upper-echelon players and a pretty good schedule, there are depth questions and an offensive line that might be even more problematic than the one in Ann Arbor. With a new staff in place, this is another show-me team (and I'd like you to show me how a team that lost by double digits to Indiana and Minnesota and by 49 points to Ohio State was almost an 11-win team). The five teams I think should be ranked are, in order, Michigan State, Ohio State, Nebraska, Iowa and Wisconsin.

That's it for me and the mailbag for a bit as it's vacation time. Arrivederci!

Nebraska spring wrap

April, 28, 2014
Apr 28
7:30
AM ET
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. -- The Red-White game began in truly unique fashion on Saturday as Nebraska coach Bo Pelini exited the locker room for the Cornhuskers’ traditional Tunnel Walk cuddling a cat.

In continuing a series of humorous moments related to his Twitter alter-ego, Pelini held the feline aloft seconds before the Huskers took the field for a scrimmage won by the offense, 55-46, over the defense before a crowd of 61,772 at Memorial Stadium.

[+] EnlargeTommy Armstrong Jr.
AP Photo/Nati HarnikTommy Armstrong Jr. still has work to do to solidify his hold on the starting quarterback role at Nebraska.
None of that means much to the Huskers in 2014. Here’s a look at what does matter from Saturday:

As suspected, this stable of I-backs might rate as Nebraska’s best in many years. With Ameer Abdullah, the nation’s top returning rusher, on the sideline, Imani Cross, Terrell Newby and Adam Taylor put on quite a show. Cross, in particular, showed great skill on his six carries, netting 100 yards and two touchdowns. The junior produced scoring runs of 20 and 39 yards in the first half against the No. 1 defense. Cross flashed a few moves and, of course, the power that helped him rush for 447 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. Newby gained 51 yards and caught a pass out of the backfield. The redshirt freshman Taylor rushed for 41 yards. He actually looked more impressive in other spring workouts. Each of the top four offer skills to help this offense.

The quarterback situation remains unsettled. Tommy Armstrong Jr. used this spring to solidify a once-tenuous hold on the No. 1 position, but he’s still not a lock to start on Aug. 30, when Florida Atlantic visits Lincoln. Johnny Stanton and Ryker Fyfe displayed improvement through the 15 practices of March and April. Stanton, in particular, looks much more comfortable and in command of the offense in comparison to a month ago. If Armstrong slips, either backup is capable of snatching the job. Stanton threw for a team-high 135 yards and two scores on Saturday; Fyfe threw for 89. Neither QB was intercepted, and safety Nathan Gerry picked off Armstrong on the first drive of the day. Look past the numbers, though: Armstrong faced better competition. This position is about leadership. Because of his experience and overall poise, Armstrong has an edge. But watch the race for No. 2, and know the gap could be further sliced.

No obvious hole exists within the Nebraska defense. The Huskers looked strong at linebacker to start the spring. The results of Saturday did nothing to dispel that belief as Zaire Anderson, Michael Rose and Josh Banderas -- a potential starting trio -- produced nice moments. Optimism comes from the growth of the secondary and the line. At safety, Gerry played well before suffering a shoulder stinger. LeRoy Alexander finished a solid spring at a position set to grow stronger with the return of Corey Cooper. Charles Jackson developed into a good option at the nickel spot. Up front, even without Randy Gregory on Saturday, the linemen held their own. Greg McMullen showed impressive pursuit of Armstrong on a sack. Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins also appeared to play well.

Spring game preview: Nebraska

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
1:00
PM ET
A big crowd, as usual, is expected on Saturday as Nebraska wraps spring practice amid the annual festivities on campus that accompany the Red-White Game. Here’s a preview:

When: Saturday, 3 p.m. ET

Where: Memorial Stadium, Lincoln, Neb.

Admission: Reserved seats are $10. As of Wednesday, nearly 48,000 tickets had been sold. Youth in eighth grade or below receive free admission for participating in the Drug Free Pledge at halftime; a complimentary ticket is required. Free youth tickets are available only at the stadium ticket office.

TV: Big Ten Network (Saturday at 8 p.m. ET)

Weather forecast: Warm and possibly wet. A mix of clouds and sun is forecast, with a high of 82 degrees and wind from the south at 16 mph. The chance of rain is 60 percent during the day, with the potential for severe thunderstorms.

[+] EnlargePelini
Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY SportsBo Pelini will watch from the sidelines as his Cornhuskers close the spring with Red-White Game on Saturday.
What to watch for: First, know that the format is atypical. Coach Bo Pelini plans to roll out a scoring system that awards points to the offense and defense for good plays. There will be no Red and White teams, as in the past. The top offense will match against the No. 1 defense, No. 2 against No. 2 and so on. Leave the social scene outside the stadium a few minutes early, so you can get a grasp on the format before kickoff. An explanation will likely be displayed on the HuskerVision screens.

Nebraska opted for this change in order to protect its players from injury. With a roster of two teams, the Huskers would have been spread thin for the coaches' comfort level.

That said, you’ll see plenty of the top Huskers, minus returning All-Big Ten honorees Ameer Abdullah at I-back and defensive end Randy Gregory. They’ve done enough this spring.

Behind Abdullah, Nebraska features an exciting group of backs. Keep an eye on the expanded pass-catching role of Terrell Newby and the tantalizing combination of size and speed offered by redshirt freshman Adam Taylor.

Of course, the quarterbacks will draw many eyes. Watch how Tommy Armstrong Jr. commands the attention of teammates and shows a noticeable improvement over his redshirt freshman season in surveying the field. The performance on Saturday of Johnny Stanton and Ryker Fyfe will serve as the last opportunity for nearly four months to impress coaches in their bid for the job of No. 2 QB.

Defensively, Josh Mitchell provides a vocal presence from his cornerback position. Alongside Mitchell, safeties LeRoy Alexander and Nathan Gerry have enjoyed breakout springs to help solidify the secondary. Corners Jonathan Rose and Byerson Cockrell are locked in a battle, and Charles Jackson has appeared to finally come of age in taking control of nickel spot.

Up front, Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins have taken hold of the top spots in the interior and may give Nebraska its most talented pair of tackles in five years. Collins also shifts to the outside, where the Huskers are thin and have begun to look to linebacker Marcus Newby as an intriguing option to rush the passer.
Nebraska's big start to its 2015 recruiting class got even bigger Saturday with the addition of an ESPN Junior 300 quarterback.

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska has completed three practices -- 20 percent of its spring workload -- with five sessions set for the next week before a weeklong break. Yes, it goes fast at this time of year.

Already, storylines are taking shape. Here are a few of the most interesting topics from the opening week:
    [+] EnlargeNebraska
    Phil Sears/USA TODAY SportsTommy Armstrong Jr. has seized control of the quarterbacks group and taken the most reps with the first team so far this spring.
  • Tommy Armstrong Jr. is taking charge. Perhaps even more than expected, Armstrong has embraced his new role as leader of the quarterbacks. Nebraska coaches have made it clear in practice that he’s the man. Armstrong receives the majority of repetitions with the No. 1 offense. Redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton is a clear No. 2, and the experiment with Jamal Turner largely fizzled out after two practices. Sure, Turner may still factor in packages next fall, but Armstrong looks like the man for the job to direct this offense after starting eight games a redshirt freshman.

  • Look everywhere for leadership. Sure, teammates look to seniors like Ameer Abdullah, Jake Cotton, Kenny Bell and Corey Cooper. Josh Mitchell has emerged in the secondary. The defensive linemen watch Randy Gregory. Michael Rose, though just a sophomore, is a natural as quarterback of the defense. But key figures on the practice field come from all backgrounds. For example, senior linebacker Trevor Roach and junior receiver Sam Burtch, both of whom came to Nebraska as walk-ons, show up often in practice as two of the Huskers’ hardest workers. Teammates notice them too. Their work ethic makes a difference.

  • As advertised at linebacker. As soon as the full pads came out on Wednesday, the intensity increased. And Nebraska’s linebackers made their presence known. Tackling was not on the agenda, but that didn’t stop senior Zaire Anderson from delivering a few big hits. Anderson looks ready to make the most of his final season. Rose and David Santos have grown comfortable in their roles, and Josh Banderas has settled into a versatile spot. Coach Bo Pelini said the linebackers, as a group, have progressed to “another galaxy” from a year ago. Just wait until redshirt freshmen Courtney Love and Marcus Newby settle into roles.

  • Keep an eye of the young safeties. Even without Cooper, Nebraska’s top tackler last season who’s fighting a foot injury, the duo in the middle of the secondary rates as one of the most promising on the field. Sophomores Nathan Gerry and LeRoy Alexander have worked with the top defense. Both showed flashes a year ago and bring excellent athleticism. Behind them, though, redshirt freshmen Drake Martinez and D.J. Singleton appear just as talented. If new secondary coach Charlton Warren harnesses the potential of these safeties, he may have a special group on his hands by the end of 2014.

  • A crowded backfield. The nation’s top returning rusher doesn’t need to fear for his starting spot. In fact, Abdullah’s prowess is something to behold. But the guys behind him aren’t getting complacent. Top backup Imani Cross, who scored a team-high 10 touchdowns last season, has added weight to more resemble his shape as a freshman two years ago. Terrell Newby looks ready to assume a more important job, particularly as a pass catcher. And the new guy to the mix, redshirt freshman Adam Taylor, might possess the best mix of physical attributes of any back in the group. The Huskers want to get creative with personnel groupings, so don’t be surprised to see more of the two-back sets next seasons.

We've reached October in our 2014 ultimate Big Ten road trip. Keep in mind this is basically pure fantasy because of budget limitations (but if you guys want to contribute to a Kickstarter to get us out to the biggest games every week, well, we wouldn't be opposed).

For those just joining in, we're each selecting one Big Ten game to attend each week during the 2014 season. We aren't tied down by a travel budget or nagging editors. If we want to attend a game -- depending on matchup, location, culinary offerings or any other factors -- we can go.

Here's our menu of selections for Week 6:

North Texas at Indiana
Nebraska at Michigan State
Michigan at Rutgers
Ohio State at Maryland
Purdue at Illinois
Wisconsin at Northwestern

Open date: Iowa, Minnesota, Penn State

Brian Bennett's pick: Nebraska at Michigan State

Well, this one's a no-brainer. While it might be fun to watch Big Ten newbies Maryland and Rutgers play host to the two most storied names in league history, you just can't beat Huskers-Spartans for competitive and entertainment purposes. They are the only two teams to ever represent the Legends Division in the Big Ten title game, and now they'll be playing a cross-division, East-West matchup that could have a huge impact on who gets to Indianapolis this December.

This has been a pretty good series in the last three years, with Nebraska unexpectedly dominating the Spartans at home in 2011, the Huskers pulling off a miracle comeback in East Lansing in 2012 and Michigan State exacting revenge in Lincoln last year in a wild, turnover-filled game. I'd pay money just to watch Randy Gregory and Shilique Calhoun on the same field. Then you've got Ameer Abdullah and Jeremy Langford at tailback, two of the more interesting young quarterbacks in the league in Connor Cook and Tommy Armstrong Jr. and what could be two of the conference's best defenses, if Nebraska's young talent continues to develop.

I didn't have to think twice about this one. Adam, should I save a spot for you at Crunchy's, or will you be checking out one of those titanic tilts in Bloomington or Champaign?

Adam Rittenberg's pick: Nebraska at Michigan State

Crunchy's? Yes, please. And before that, we can stop by The Peanut Barrel, where sources tell me colleague Jesse Palmer once ordered the rod-ay-o burger and was rightly panned. I considered staying home for Wisconsin-Northwestern, especially because my son turns 1 a few days later, but I'll be back in plenty of time for a birthday he certainly won't remember.

Although this game loses a bit of luster because it's no longer within the Legends Division (tear), the teams and the storylines make up for it. I've never seen a Michigan State-Nebraska contest and don't want to miss a key game for both squads. You've got two potential All-America candidates at defensive end in Calhoun and Gregory. Abdullah faces a new-look defensive front seven, but one that should still be pretty solid despite departures at both defensive tackle and linebacker. Nebraska has given Michigan State's defense some trouble in recent years, and the Huskers will feature a dual-threat quarterback, whether it's Armstrong, Johnny Stanton or wide receiver Jamal Turner, who has been taking snaps at QB this spring. Cook and the Big Ten's most improved receiver corps take aim at a Nebraska secondary trying to reload after losing two all-conference cornerbacks (Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans).

The game could be a preview of the Big Ten championship, and I've yet to see Michigan State play in this series. There's something about Nebraska that brings us together, Bennett. Meet you in Sparta.

Road trip itinerary

Week 1: Brian at Penn State-UCF (in Dublin, Ireland); Adam at Wisconsin-LSU (in Houston)
Week 2: Adam at Michigan-Notre Dame; Brian at Michigan State-Oregon
Week 3: Brian at Minnesota-TCU; Adam at Penn State-Rutgers
Week 4: Adam at Miami-Nebraska; Brian at Miami-Nebraska
Week 5: Brian at Cincinnati-Ohio State, Adam at Minnesota-Michigan
Nine Big Ten programs will feature true quarterback competitions this spring, and we're taking a closer look at the candidates, the circumstances and the stakes of each race. Today's installment: Nebraska.

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Competition means something different to everyone.

It’s a battle for some; for others, a necessity.

For Tommy Armstrong Jr., competition is a way of life. He embraced it last season when many might have withered, grasping the top quarterback job at Nebraska as a redshirt freshman in place of injured, career-long starter Taylor Martinez.

Armstrong fought consistency but came out on top, winning his final start against Georgia in the Gator Bowl.

[+] EnlargeTommy Armstrong Jr.
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesWith eight starts under his belt, Tommy Armstrong Jr. is intent on being Nebraska's starting quarterback in 2014.
And that’s when Kenny Bell was sure about Armstrong.

“You know guys who have that fire inside,” said Bell, a rising senior and the Huskers’ top wide receiver.

Notably, Bell points to I-back Ameer Abdullah, the top returning rusher nationally.

“In my mind, he’s the best running back in the country,” Bell said. “Tommy has that same kind of fire.

“I love Tommy. I’m all in with Tommy. I’ve got nothing but faith in the kid. What he showed me against Georgia, he might not make every perfect read or every perfect play, but the kid will compete. That’s what I care about. That’s most important to me -- guys who genuinely care about this team and compete with everything they have. That’s what I love and respect about Tommy.”

Spring practice began at Nebraska on Saturday with an open quarterback competition among Armstrong, redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton, senior wide-receiver convert Jamal Turner and walk-on sophomore Ryker Fyfe.

Seventh-year coach Bo Pelini said he doesn’t classify the sophomore Armstrong, who started eight games and threw for 966 yards in 2013, in the same category as returners such as Bell or Abdullah.

Realistically, though, Armstrong owns the inside track to start next fall. And he doesn’t plan to give an inch.

“Everything’s a competition,” Armstrong said on Monday after the Huskers’ second of 15 practices this spring. “Anything can happen. Last year, my number was called. This year, I’m the No. 1 guy right now, and I just want to keep that.”

The confident Texan completed 51.9 percent of his throws (68 of 131) and threw nine touchdowns. He also tossed eight interceptions and lost two fumbles.

Freshmen stuff, Armstrong said.

He often repeated mistakes within a game.

“It was a domino effect,” he said.

No more. Armstrong says he is smarter and more in control. He’s poised to serve as a leader of the quarterbacks despite his tenuous position among the group.

Looking back, he said, he wasn’t nearly as ready for last season -- just 15 months out of high school -- as he thought at the time of his first start in September. The competition fueled him.

“Last year it was just a thing that happened,” Armstrong said. “But this year, I’m trying to work as hard as I can to become the No. 1 guy and keep that in control, become better at the game, become better at what I did last year.”

Important people back him. And not just Bell.

“He’s a very confident kid,” said Abdullah, returning for his senior season after rushing for 1,690 yards in 2013. “It doesn’t take you long to see that ... We have a lot of faith in him. I expect a lot out of Tommy.”

Abdullah described Armstrong, six months after his first start, as a “guy with influence” among the Huskers.

“We need him to be a leader,” Abdullah said. “All the guys look up to him, because, let’s face, he touches the ball every play.”

Abdullah won’t let Armstrong rest of his accomplishments. After all, he's not alone in Lincoln as an accomplished quarterback.

Stanton, a state-champion QB from Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., earned co-MVP honors at the prestigious Elite 11 competition in the summer of 2012.

Stanton seems to enjoy a good competition, too. So far, like Armstrong a year ago, he’s fighting to prove himself.

Armstrong shared a close relationship last season with senior Ron Kellogg III.

It’s not like that with Stanton.

“We like competing,” Armstrong said. “That’s just how we were taught, growing up when it comes to our football, where we’re from. Texas is big-time football; California is big-time football. That’s the competitive nature of both of us.”

Turner, who came to Nebraska as a quarterback three years ago, adds another element to the mix.

“One thing I try to bring is that swag,” he said. “Everyone else can see that and play a little harder -- play with the swag that I have.”

Armstrong and Stanton directed state championship runs in their home states, as did true freshman Zack Darlington in Florida two years ago. Darlington joined the Huskers in January. Classmate A.J. Bush plans to enroll in August. He won a state title last fall in Georgia.

Clearly, Pelini likes the winning pedigree and the competition it breeds.

“I want each guy to worry about making themselves better each and every day,” he said. “That’s the key. Don’t worry about where you’re repping, who you’re repping with or anything else. Try to play efficient, winning football.

“I think they’re all guys who are athletic. They have the tools to get it done. But across the board, they’ve got a lot to learn.”
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Jamal Turner said he watched Johnny Manziel, the Heisman Trophy-winning fellow Texan, during the past two seasons, and the Nebraska receiver wondered if he had missed his chance.

[+] EnlargeJamal Turner
AP Photo/Nati HarnikA receiver for his three seasons at Nebraska, Jamal Turner has moved back to his high school position of quarterback this spring.
Turner listened as his coaches talked of using him to throw passes on trick plays. Then he sat by, struggling with injuries, as opportunities went to teammates.

“This is my time,” the senior said Monday after the Huskers’ second practice of the spring.

Offensive coordinator Tim Beck informed Turner not long after the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl victory of the decision to try him as a quarterback, the position at which he starred in high school.

Though Turner struggled on Monday, he’s in it to win the position.

If he can’t outplay returning eight-game starter Tommy Armstrong Jr. and redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton, Turner said he would return to receiver.

“And if they need any depth at the quarterback position,” he said, “they always have me.”

The 6-foot-1, 185-pound senior caught 60 passes in the past three seasons, but he’s failed to meet the lofty expectations that accompanied his arrival in Lincoln as a heralded prospect in the spring of 2011. Rated as the No. 6 athlete nationally out of high school, he played QB for a short time in his first spring at Nebraska.

The move back to his old position has not been easy.

“You just have so much stuff going through your head,” Turner said. “I can read blitzes and I can read coverages. It’s when there’s so much on your plate.

“I need to get what we’re doing first."

Basic plays have given him trouble.

"I should be getting these things down," he said. "I should know these things.”

It's time to watch more film, Turner said. He’s studied plenty since January, learning concepts and the significant changes to terminology in the structure of Nebraska’s offense.

Armstrong welcomes the competition.

“It’s tough for him right now because of the simple fact that he’s playing (receiver) and he’s playing quarterback,” Armstrong said. “I give him props, because that’s hard.”

Turner is confident, he said, that he’ll make strides this spring.

“I have to remember I’m in charge of the offense,” he said, “and what I say, everyone’s going to do, so I have to make sure it’s right.”

The Huskers return to practice Wednesday.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- How’s this for a surprise on the opening day of spring football practice? Nebraska has a new quarterback.

Well, Jamal Turner is not new; the 6-foot-1, 185-pound senior caught 60 passes over the past three seasons. And he has played quarterback -- in high school.

[+] EnlargeJamal Turner
Hannah Foslien/Getty ImagesJamal Turner will workout at both receiver and quarterback this spring.
Turner shared time at QB on Saturday with several others behind Tommy Armstrong Jr. as the Huskers completed the first of 15 spring practices at their indoor practice facility.

Coach Bo Pelini said Nebraska plans “significant reps” for Turner in March and April.

Turner has tried the position in the past at Nebraska, Pelini said, but never in such an expanded role.

“This spring is a time for us to experiment and maybe take it to a different level," Pelini said. "He likes it. He thinks he’s [NFL quarterback] Russell Wilson. Jamal isn’t lacking for confidence.

“I thought he handled some things pretty well. He was further ahead than I thought he’d be. But when you play wideout, you kind of get how the offense runs.”

Turner also spent time at receiver on Saturday. He accounted for more than 10,000 yards in his high school career at Arlington (Texas) Sam Houston.

Armstrong performed well on Saturday with the top offensive unit. Redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton also worked at the position in addition to walk-ons Ryker Fyfe and Tyson Broekemeier. Freshman Zack Darlington, who joined the team in January, wore a green jersey to restrict contact in his first workout.

Senior I-back Ameer Abdullah said he liked the element that Turner adds.

“We’re just trying every new wrinkle we can to make this offense more dynamic,” Abdullah said.

Pelini said he was pleased with the opening day.

“I liked the tempo, the enthusiasm,” the seventh-year coach said. “Obviously, different guys are at different levels right now, as far as their knowledge, but I thought it was a good start.”

The Huskers have installed changes this spring to terminology and other logistics in an attempt to simplify aspects of the offense.

Pelini said he expected more mistakes than occurred.

“I was surprised how smooth it went,” he said. “There were very few missed assignments and alignment errors.”

Other Notes

Secondary matters: Senior safety Corey Cooper, Nebraska’s top tackler in 2013, sat out on Saturday with turf toe, Pelini said. Cooper suffered the injury last week in a conditioning drill.

“I’m not going to push Coop at this time of year,” Pelini said. “We want to make sure he’s 100 percent.”

Sophomores LeRoy Alexander and Nathan Gerry, a converted linebacker, played safety with the top defense in Cooper’s absence.

Pelini said the Huskers used juniors Charles Jackson and Byerson Cockrell, a newcomer out of junior college, at nickel, the spot manned last season by versatile defender Ciante Evans. Junior Jonathan Rose performed well at cornerback opposite returning starter Josh Mitchell.

Getting bigger: All-Big Ten defensive end Randy Gregory has made important strides in recent weeks, Pelini said, as the junior attempts to add weight.

The 6-6 Gregory, who recorded 10 sacks last season, looked especially thin in January. But Gregory is back up to about 235 pounds, the coach said.

“His offseason has only begun,” Pelini said. “He’s got a long way to go before we play a game.

“Every day is important for Randy to get bigger.”

Time to reflect: Senior receiver Kenny Bell caught 52 passes for 577 yards last season and remains on track to shatter school records in both categories.

He’s not resting on his accomplishments, though.

“I was disappointed in my year last year, for selfish reasons," Bell said. "I wanted to perform better.”

Bell’s production dropped from his sophomore season, when he caught 50 passes for 863 yards and a career-best eight touchdowns.

“I had a lot of time to self-reflect and think about it over these past three months,” he said.

Spring football is often unenjoyable, Bell said, but he’s determined to improve.

“I’m here to work, definitely. I want to win football games with my team. I want to do something that hasn’t been done here in a long time, and that’s win a conference championship."
Just three weeks into our ultimate Big Ten road trip, I've logged visits to Ireland, Oregon and Texas, while Adam has seen three potentially historic games. What does Week 4 hold?

For those just joining us, we're picking one game featuring a Big Ten team to attend throughout the 2014 season. There's no travel budget or nagging editors. We can go where we want to see who we want. Our choices are based on matchup quality, how often we've seen certain teams play, location and other factors.

Here are our options for Week 4:

Sept. 20

Texas State at Illinois
Indiana at Missouri
Iowa at Pitt
Maryland at Syracuse
Utah at Michigan
Eastern Michigan at Michigan State
San Jose State at Minnesota
Miami at Nebraska
Western Illinois at Northwestern
UMass at Penn State
Southern Illinois at Purdue
Rutgers at Navy
Bowling Green at Wisconsin

Open week: Ohio State

Brian Bennett's pick: Miami at Nebraska

Week 4 doesn't the most appetizing slate of games, so the choice here becomes a pretty easy one. While the stakes in this showdown between the Hurricanes and Cornhuskers aren't quite what they were in 1983 or 2001 (or '88, '91 or '94, for that matter), this could still be an important nonconference game for both teams.

Assuming Nebraska survives its trip to Fresno State, this looms as the biggest test before league play for Bo Pelini's team. That kind of challenge didn't end so well the last two years, as the Huskers lost to UCLA both on the road and at home. But while the Bruins were on the upswing, Miami still seems locked in a kind of purgatory, unable to escape mediocrity. Both programs are looking to recapture past glory, and win here wouldn't be a bad place to start on that climb.

The Canes, as always, will bring high-level athletes, so this should provide a nice early gauge of where Nebraska is. Pelini's defense has a chance to be really good, with a lot of players returning in the front seven, led by defensive end Randy Gregory. Will Tommy Armstrong Jr. have grasped control of the offense by this point, or will Johnny Stanton or someone else be at the controls? And in a big spot like this, you'd expect an all-out performance from Ameer Abdullah.

This matchup easily ranks as the most intriguing of Week 4, thanks to the brand names, the talent involved and, of course, the history. I'm sure Tom Osborne will be watching closely.

Adam Rittenberg's pick: Miami at Nebraska

OK, Mr. World Traveler, looks like I'll be seeing you in Husker Country. The Big Ten slate is really bland in Week 4, and while I considered Iowa-Pitt, this is a fairly easy call. I haven't been to Lincoln since 2012, Nebraska is a fascinating team that should contend in the West Division, and looking at the Huskers' remaining home schedule -- Illinois, Rutgers, Purdue and Minnesota -- this is my best bet to visit one of the great settings in college football.

The game itself should be a lot of fun. Neither team carries the prestige it did in the 1990s, but both have talented players and high hopes for 2014. Pelini enters a pivotal season, and this is the type of game that could springboard his team before Big Ten play. Miami also is looking to take an important step under Al Golden and boasts some weapons, such as explosive running back Duke Johnson. The matchup between Johnson and Abdullah is a nice subplot.

Miami's offense could provide a good challenge for the Blackshirts, who will turn the corner if the linebackers hold up and several key parts are replaced in the secondary. The transition from Stephen Morris to a new quarterback, most likely Ryan Williams, could be good for the Canes. Nebraska should win this game, especially at home, but the Huskers have to play for four quarters, not a half, as they did against UCLA.

History has been my unofficial theme, and these two teams certainly have some, splitting 10 meetings. This marks their first regular-season contest since 1975 after matching up in four Orange Bowls and a Rose Bowl (national championship) between 1983 and 2001.

Bottom line: It's been far too long since I've been to Lincoln. My arteries miss Misty's. Maybe I'll even get a Runza this time around. Meet you in the heartland, Bennett.

Road trip itinerary

Week 1: Brian at Penn State-UCF (in Dublin, Ireland); Adam at Wisconsin-LSU (in Houston)
Week 2: Adam at Michigan-Notre Dame; Brian at Michigan State-Oregon
Week 3: Brian at Minnesota-TCU; Adam at Penn State-Rutgers
The countdown of Nebraska spring practice predictions has reached its final two days.

Time to get serious with a topic you might have thought we’d save for the final day, since it’s likely to draw the most eyes in March and April. At No. 2:

[+] EnlargeTommy Armstrong Jr.
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesNebraska's Tommy Armstrong Jr. filled in admirably for Taylor Martinez in 2013. Can Armstrong win the QB battle this spring?
Tommy Armstrong Jr. will take command at quarterback

To be fair, the third-year sophomore Armstrong enters spring in command of the QB position. There’s a disagreement among pundits, nationally and locally, though, over how serious a challenge redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton can mount through these 15 practices.

Stanton is a talent. More than that, he’s a winner, and he possesses the intangibles and likeability factor to win over teammates, fans, coaches and media.

Thing is, Armstrong has all of that, too. And we’ve seen him in action. Armstrong has an edge about him that figures to only intensify with his increased experience.

And while his stats as a freshman in nine games -- 51.7 Total QBR and 52-percent completion rate -- aren’t spectacular, his impact on the 2013 Huskers goes beyond the numbers. Just imagine where Nebraska might have been without him last season; it wouldn’t have won nine games or played on New Year's Day.

Stanton will bring a different style to the field. He figures to play with more physicality than Armstrong, and the younger QB will no doubt draw rave reviews in the spring and summer for his personality and leadership traits.

But exactly what advantage does Stanton have on Armstrong? Stanton is not faster. He doesn’t have a better arm. His grasp of the offense likely lags behind. It looks like an uphill climb for the Californian.

Nebraska plans to simplify its offense a bit this year as a measure to reduce turnovers, which were so troublesome last season. Armstrong contributed to the problems. As an unintended consequence of the simplifications, Stanton and walk-on sophomore Ryker Fyfe might place a bit of pressure on Armstrong.

From what we’ve seen, Armstrong will embrace the competition. He didn’t back down last season from a potential controversy with Taylor Martinez, which never materialized because of the senior's foot injury. And don't underestimate that Armstrong has already received the endorsement of senior I-back Ameer Abdullah, who has earned ultimate respect from teammates.

By the Red-White game, look for Armstrong to solidify his grasp of the top spot.

Countdown of Nebraska spring practice predictions:

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

February, 26, 2014
Feb 26
5:00
PM ET
Time for my second mailbag of the week already. Just can't get enough of your emails. And don't forget to follow us on Twitter. Maybe you'll get lucky and win a fabulous prize* by becoming our 100,000th follower.

(*-offer not valid)

Grant from San Francisco writes: Jeremy Gallon's performance against Indiana is really going to be your top individual performance of the season? In your own explanation you say, "The list takes into account the difficulty of opponent and stakes of the game..." How then does Jeremy Gallon's performance against a NON-DIVISIONAL OPPONENT with the WORST defense in the league even come close to the top of the list? Were his stats impressive in the game? Yes. But the top individual performance this year, based on the criteria listed above? Not even close. The only thing that could top Connor Cook's B1GCG performance (No. 2 on your list) is his Rose Bowl performance. How does an impressive receiving performance against Indiana even compare to propelling MSU to a Rose Bowl victory against perennial national championship contender Stanford?

Brian Bennett: Yes, I took into account the stakes of the game and the opponent. But, as I went on to say in the opening of all those posts, I tried to identify "record-breaking, honor-winning, jaw-dropping games" by Big Ten players. Hey, I love what Connor Cook did in both the Big Ten title game and the Rose Bowl (though, as I wrote, players were limited to one appearance only on the list). And Indiana's defense was awful. But ... come on. Gallon had the second-most receiving yards in an FBS game ever. He shattered the Big Ten receiving yards record. I don't care if you're playing against air -- 369 receiving yards is an insane performance, and it was entirely deserving of the No. 1 spot.


Cody from Omaha writes: Explain to me how a team like the Huskers, who had not only the league's leading rusher, but the league leader in sacks as well as many other good skill position players, doesn't crack the individual performance top 10? You would think somewhere along the way of leading the league in those categories they would of put up a top-10 individual for a game. Thoughts?

Brian Bennett: When I first sat down to make the list of top individual performances, I came up with about 20 of them. It was an incredibly difficult process to pare it down to 10, even with the caveat that players were limited to only one entry.

I really figured I would include Ameer Abdullah in there somewhere, but as I begin to narrow things down, it became clear to me that Abdullah's best trait in 2013 was his incredible consistency. He had one game of more than 165 yards rushing, and that was against Illinois' terrible defense. His 225-yard, two-touchdown performance there was impressive, but not as great as Carlos Hyde's destruction of the Illini. Abdullah's second-best rushing day came in a double-digit loss at Minnesota, and his third-best came against Penn State in a game in which he didn't score a touchdown. While I love Abdullah's game as much as anyone and remember many incredible moments, such as his fourth-down catch vs. Northwestern, I just didn't see a top-10 overall performance there.

I also considered Randy Gregory for his showing against Michigan, but ultimately it fell just outside the top 10. No offense to the Huskers; it was just an exclusive list that also didn't include many other standout performances throughout the league.


Pat from Iowa writes: How is Kevonte Martin-Manley NOT on your top 10 individual performances for returning two punts for touchdowns against Western Michigan? That is an incredible stat, even if it is against a poor opponent! Shame on you!

Brian Bennett: Let's save the shame when we're talking about accomplishments vs. Western Michigan, which finished 1-11. Those two punt returns by Martin-Manley were great, but they came against one of the weakest opponents in the FBS, and he also had just one catch for six yards in that game. Moving on.


William from Hastings, Neb., writes: I was reading your article celebrating the diversity of the B1G, and I caught myself thinking "hmm... old news." Even before Nebraska's entry into the B1G, I always respected the ability of all member institutions to not only embrace diversity, but in many cases, also be the pioneers in that respect. Granted, not always so much in football, but certainly in a lot of other sports, and the B1G really went unquestioned when it came to academic opportunities. Was I just completely off base on that perception, or does the B1G, like any other corporate entity, just need to ensure that even the work of the trailblazers be shared?

Brian Bennett: William, I think you're right that the Big Ten, for the most part, has a rich history of embracing diversity, at least in comparison to some other leagues throughout the country. Several schools were pioneers in integration, Ohio State's Gene Smith is one of the most influential African-American athletic directors and, as Jim Delany suggested, hiring minorities in basketball hasn't been an issue. Still, football is the Big Ten's premier sport, and the fact that the league did not have a single African-American football head coach for a decade was notable. Other factors such as coaching stability at several schools played a factor. The league has made progress on that front with its most recent hires, although the number of minority head coaches across the nation is still too low.


Lance S. from Greensboro, N.C., writes: While I'm happy to see more diversity among B1G football coaches, why does no one give Wisconsin credit for having a Hispanic as head football coach and/or athletic director for the past 34 years? Because Coach [Barry] Alvarez's family comes from Spain rather than Latin America, no one seems to recognize that he's a highly successful Hispanic-American. Probably good to be color-blind, but he does seem to fall through the cracks in these discussions.

Brian Bennett: A good point, Lance, and one I should have mentioned in the story. Hispanic and Latino Americans traditionally have been underrepresented in college sports.


Husker from Minneapolis writes: You wrote: "Sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr. entered the offseason as the clear No. 1 quarterback for the first time after taking over for the injured Taylor Martinez (and splitting some snaps with Ron Kellogg III) last season." Huh? Clear No. 1? He was a Band-Aid last year and if he's going to be the "clear No. 1" he's going to have to improve exponentially from last year. In reality, it's an open competition where Tim Beck will have to pick from his 2012, 2013, and 2014 top dual-threat QB recruits. Armstrong has some game experience, but should by no means have much else above the competition.

Brian Bennett: Husker, I'll answer your "Huh?" with a "Huh?" of my own. How can you dispute that Armstrong entered the offseason as the No. 1 quarterback for Nebraska? He played in eight games last year and was 6-1 as a starter, including the bowl win over Georgia. Was he great last year? No, not even close. But as a redshirt freshman thrown into a difficult situation, he showed excellent poise. I know there's nothing fans love more than the promising backup quarterback, and maybe Johnny Stanton or Zack Darlington or A.J. Bush are future superstars. But the fact is that none of them has ever stepped foot on the field in a college game, so we have no idea. One of them conceivably could beat out Armstrong this spring or summer. Given Armstrong's huge experience edge, however, he's clearly the No. 1 guy for now.


Kamil Z. from Greenwich, Conn., writes: What's up, Brian? I just started coming here after the addition of Rutgers, and I love seeing RU mentioned on this awesome blog. My question to you is whether you plan on showing up to Rutgers for a game in the upcoming season? I believe you were there in 2009 for the opening vs. the Cincinnati Bearcats (you liked it, too, I think). Thanks.

Brian Bennett: I was there for that Labor Day opener in 2009, one of several enjoyable visits I've made to Rutgers. It's way too soon for us to know our game assignments for 2014, but I would be surprised if one of us is not at the Sept. 13 game vs. Penn State. That will be the Scarlet Knights' first-ever Big Ten game, there are not a lot of other big games that weekend and the atmosphere should be great. Save me a stool at Harvest Moon just in case.
Let's look at what to expect this spring in the Big Ten's wild, wild West:

ILLINOIS

Spring start: March 5
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Toughening up on 'D': The Fighting Illini had one of the nation's worst defenses, especially against the run. Tim Beckman brought back defensive coordinator Tim Banks and hopes an extra year of maturity can help strengthen the front seven. Juco import Joe Fotu could win a starting job this spring, and Jihad Ward should help when he arrives in the summer.
  • 'Haase cleaning: Nathan Scheelhaase wrapped up his career by leading the Big Ten in passing yards last season. Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt likely takes over the reins, but backups Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey plan on fighting for the job, as well. Bill Cubit's offense should equal big numbers for whoever wins out.
  • Target practice: Whoever wins the quarterback job needs someone to catch the ball, and Illinois' top two receivers from '13 -- Steve Hull and Miles Osei -- both are gone. Junior college arrival Geronimo Allison will be counted on for some immediate help.
IOWA

Spring start: March 27 or 28
Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • A new big three: The Hawkeyes begin the process of trying to replace their three standout senior linebackers from last season: James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey. They were the heart of the defense in 2013, and now guys such as Quinton Alston, Reggie Spearman and Travis Perry need to make major leaps forward in the spring.
  • Develop more playmakers: Iowa was able to win the games it should have won last year, but struggled against those with strong defenses because of its lack of explosiveness. Sophomore Tevaun Smith and junior Damond Powell showed flashes of their potential late in the year at wideout. They need to continue to develop to give quarterback Jake Rudock and the offense ways to stretch the field.
  • Solidify the right tackle spot: The offensive line should once again be the team's strength, but the departure of veteran right tackle Brett Van Sloten means someone has to take on that role. Whether that's senior Andrew Donnal or redshirt freshman Ryan Ward could be determined this spring.
MINNESOTA

Spring start: March 4
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Mitch's pitches: Philip Nelson's transfer means redshirt sophomore Mitch Leidner enters spring practice as the No. 1 quarterback. He's a load to bring down when he runs, but Leidner needs to improve his passing accuracy after completing 55 percent of his passes in the regular season and only half of his 22 attempts in the Texas Bowl game loss to Syracuse. Added experience should help. If not, he's got some talented youngsters such as Chris Streveler and Dimonic Roden-McKinzy aiming to dethrone him.
  • Mitch's catchers: Of course, part of the problem behind the Gophers' Big Ten-worst passing offense was a lack of threats at receiver. Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones showed promise as true freshmen and should only improve with an offseason of work. It's critical that they do, or else Minnesota might have to count on three receiver signees early.
  • Replacing Ra'Shede: The Gophers only lost four senior starters, but defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman might be the most difficult to replace. The first-team All-Big Ten selection created havoc inside defensively, and there aren't many athletes like him floating around. Scott Ekpe could take many of Hageman's reps, but the defensive line overall will have to pick up the slack.
NEBRASKA

Spring start: March 8
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Tommy's turn: Sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr. entered the offseason as the clear No. 1 quarterback for the first time after taking over for the injured Taylor Martinez (and splitting some snaps with Ron Kellogg III) last season. Armstrong showed maturity beyond his years in 2013 but needs to continue developing as a passer and deepen his understanding of the offense. Redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton could push him in the spring.
  • Get the OL up to speed: Nebraska loses a lot of experience on the offensive line, including both starting tackles (Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale), plus interior mainstays Spencer Long, Andrew Rodriguez and Cole Pensick. The Huskers do return seniors Mark Pelini, Jake Cotton and Mike Moudy, junior Zach Sterup, plus three freshmen and a junior-college transfer who redshirted last year. A strong group of incoming freshmen may also contribute. Big Red usually figures it out on the O-line, but there will be a lot of players in new roles this season.
  • Reload in the secondary: The Blackshirts have plenty of experience in the front seven, but the defensive backfield has a new coach (Charlton Warren) and will be without top playmakers Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans. The safety spot next to Corey Cooper was a problem area last season, and the Huskers are hoping Charles Jackson takes a major step forward. Warren has talent to work with but must find the right combination.
NORTHWESTERN

Spring start: Feb. 26
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Trevor's time?: Trevor Siemian split reps with Kain Colter at quarterback the past two seasons, serving as sort of the designated passer. Siemian threw for 414 yards in the season finale against Illinois and has a clear path toward starting with Colter gone. That could mean more of a pass-first offense than Northwestern ran with Colter. Redshirt freshman and heralded recruit Matt Alviti also looms as an option.
  • Manning the middle: Northwestern brings back a solid corps on defense but lost middle linebacker Damien Proby, who led the team in tackles the past two seasons. Pat Fitzgerald has some options, including making backups Drew Smith or Jaylen Prater a starter or moving Collin Ellis inside. He can experiment and find the best match this spring.
  • Patch it together: The Wildcats' health woes from 2013 aren't over, as 11 players will be held out of practice for medical reasons, including star running back/returner Venric Mark. Add in that the school doesn't have early enrollees, and the team will be trying to practice severely undermanned this spring. The biggest key is to get through spring without any more major problems and to get the injured guys healthy for the fall.
PURDUE

Spring start: March 6
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Moving forward: Purdue players wore T-shirts emblazoned with the word "Forward" during winter workouts, and no wonder. They don't want to look backward to last year's abysmal 1-11 season. It's time to turn the page and get some positive momentum going in Year 2 under Darrell Hazell. Luckily, optimism abounds in spring.
  • Trench focus: The Boilermakers simply couldn't cut it on the lines in Big Ten play, and Hazell went about trying to sign bigger offensive linemen this offseason for his physical style of play. Both starting tackles and three starting defensive linemen all graduated, and no one should feel safe about his job after last season's performance. Kentucky transfer Langston Newton (defense) and early enrollee Kirk Barron (offense) could push for playing time on the lines.
  • Find an identity: What was Purdue good at last season? Not much, as the team ranked near the bottom of the country in just about every major statistical category. The Boilers found some good things late in the passing game with freshmen Danny Etling and DeAngelo Yancey, but Hazell must do a better job instilling the toughness he wants and locating playmakers.
WISCONSIN

Spring start: March 7
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Catching on: The biggest concern heading into the spring is at receiver after the team's only dependable wideout the past two seasons, Jared Abbrederis, graduated. Tight end Jacob Pedersen, who was second on the team in receiving yards last season, is also gone. The Badgers have struggled to develop new weapons in the passing game but now have no choice. Gary Andersen signed five receivers in the 2014 class but none enrolled early, so guys such as Kenzel Doe and Robert Wheelwright need to take charge this spring.
  • Stave-ing off the competition?: Joel Stave started all 13 games at quarterback last year, while no one else on the roster has any real experience under center. Yet the redshirt junior should face some competition this spring after the Badgers' passing game struggled down the stretch. Andersen likes more mobile quarterbacks and has three guys in Bart Houston, Tanner McEvoy and freshman early enrollee D.J. Gillins, who can offer that skill. Stave must hold them off to keep his job.
  • New leaders on defense: Wisconsin lost a large group of seniors, including nine major contributors on the defensive side. That includes inside linebacker and team leader Chris Borland, plus defensive linemen Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer, outside linebacker Brendan Kelly and safety Dezmen Southward. That's a whole lot of leadership and production to replace, and the process begins in earnest this spring.
Spring football kicks off earlier than normal in the Big Ten, as Michigan takes the field Tuesday, Northwestern follows Wednesday and eight other squads begin their sessions by March 8.

The accelerated schedules seem appropriate in a league filled with players, coaches and teams itching for fresh starts.

New assistants get their first chance to repair struggling units, whether it's Doug Nussmeier with Michigan's offense, Brian Knorr with Indiana's defense or Chris Ash and Larry Johnson with a once-feared Ohio State defense. Quarterback competitions begin or resume at nine places, as new faces such as Illinois' Wes Lunt, Nebraska's Johnny Stanton and Minnesota's Chris Streveler enter the mix, while veterans like Wisconsin's Joel Stave and Michigan's Devin Gardner try to retain their starting jobs.

Happy Valley continues to buzz about new Penn State coach James Franklin, who seems to galvanize everyone whom he encounters. But Franklin barely has been around his new players and finally begins the real work with a team facing very real challenges.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Jeff HaynesNorthwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald hopes his team can start a rebound from a disappointing, injury-riddled 2013 season.
Spring also allows teams such as Northwestern, Michigan, Purdue and Indiana to look forward after disappointing seasons. Michigan State, meanwhile, continues to bask in the Rose Bowl glow but looks toward its next goal -- a national championship -- as spring ball kicks off March 25.

"It's big-picture stuff, building relationships with the players and everyone associated with the program," Franklin told ESPN.com. "The other thing is laying a really good foundation with the philosophies and schemes of how we're going to do things. That's going to happen naturally over time, but I'm not the most patient person. I wish it would have happened yesterday."

Franklin doesn't water down his goals for Penn State, especially in recruiting, but he's also realistic about the challenges of a reduced roster. The Nittany Lions return strong pieces such as quarterback Christian Hackenberg and defensive back Adrian Amos, but the two-deep has some holes that Franklin and his assistants must address, while installing new schemes.

"It's one thing when you get put in this situation in the first place with limited scholarships," Franklin said, "but the longer you're in it, the more effect it has. We've got some depth issues, there's no doubt about it, across the board. We're going to have to get creative."

Northwestern also is focused on depth after being hit hard by key injuries in 2013. Pat Fitzgerald blames himself and his staff for failing to get enough second-stringers ready, which proved costly in close Big Ten losses.

After their first bowl-less winter in six years, the Wildcats responded well in the weight room, as more than 50 players recorded personal bests. Although 11 players will miss spring practice, including standout running back/returner Venric Mark, the depth should be better in areas like the secondary.

"We're really emphasizing taking ownership of the finish," Fitzgerald said. "Finishing your technique, finishing the call, finishing the route. There's a lot of disappointment in the way the program didn't take the next step forward."

Michigan coach Brady Hoke restructured the roles of his defensive assistants for 2014, but the Wolverines' offense will be in the spotlight this spring after a wildly inconsistent season. Gardner, who continues to recover from a foot injury and likely won't be 100 percent until midway through the spring, will compete with Shane Morris, Russell Bellomy and midyear enrollee Wilton Speight.

But other positions, such as offensive line, figure to be just as important as Michigan tries to achieve Hoke and Nussmeier's vision.

"We had good intentions as far as what we wanted our identity to be, but obviously I don't think it came out the way we'd like it to," Hoke said. "The quarterback position is as important as any, and we have a guy [Gardner] who is very talented and had some really good games and games where we had to protect him better, have a better run game and take pressure off of him, and I don't think we did."

While Michigan turns the page on offense, Ohio State focuses on a defense that allowed 115 points in its last three games and finished 110th nationally in pass yards allowed (268 YPG). The Buckeyes lost top defenders Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby, but they also added two accomplished assistants.

Johnson, who churned out NFL linemen during 18 years at Penn State, chose Ohio State instead of remaining in State College. Ash leaves a sole coordinator role at Arkansas for a co-coordinator role at Ohio State, where he'll work with the embattled Luke Fickell and others to mend the defense through a simplified scheme.

"Back in the day when Ohio State played great defense, you knew what you were going to get," Ash said. "They played with swagger, played with confidence, played with toughness. We have to get back to that. The simplicity of the things we're going to do will lead to faster players, more plays made and a more aggressive defense.

"I wasn't here [in 2013], but I can tell you what Coach Meyer has told me, what Luke Fickell has told me and what I watch on film. I can see there's some hesitation, there's some uncertainty. Why that is, I don't know. But it's my job to get it fixed."

Purdue has plenty to fix after a 1-11 season, and players not surprisingly are wearing T-shirts with the word "FORWARD" on the backs. Maryland and Rutgers move forward to a new conference after an offseason that saw several staff changes, including new coordinators at Rutgers (Ralph Friedgen, Joe Rossi).

There's a fresh start of sorts at Wisconsin, as a large and decorated senior class departs. Coach Gary Andersen's markings will be more obvious with his second team, which begins practice March 7.

Wisconsin is just one of many places where the top quarterback job is at stake. Lunt, who sat out last season after transferring from Oklahoma State, competes with Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey at Illinois.

"Competition's competition, no matter where it's at," said Lunt, who has added about 15 pounds since his arrival and checks in at 225. "It's different because it’s different people, different coaches, but I'm excited for it."

He's not alone in the Big Ten. Spring ball can't start soon enough.

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Ameer Abdullah finished the day with 146 yards rushing and four touchdowns in No. 19 Nebraska's 38-17 win over Northwestern.
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