Nebraska Cornhuskers: Josh Banderas

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LINCOLN, Neb. -- An hour after the spring game ended on Saturday, Jeff Jamrog still looked tired as he stood in the lobby of the Nebraska practice facility, down one story and across an enclosed bridge from the football nerve center.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The script was likely detailed in that bundle of papers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The answer to both: Probably not.

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

It’s an idea.

If you’ve got any others, Jamrog is ready to listen.
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.
LINCOLN, Neb. – Spring is for competition. Preparation can largely wait until August. Now is the time to wage battles on the practice field.

Nebraska is 60 percent finished with spring practice. Just five workouts remain until the April 12 Red-White game, for which more than 41,000 tickets have been sold.

At some positions, this time has served only to more deeply entrench top players. I-back Ameer Abdullah, receiver Kenny Bell, cornerback Josh Mitchell, defensive end Randy Gregory and left guard Jake Cotton need not worry about losing their starting jobs.

[+] EnlargeSam Burtch
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesSam Burtch, who Bo Pelini says is headed for a scholarship, continues to impress after three touchdown catches in 2013.
Others, such as left tackle Alex Lewis, nickelback Charles Jackson and safety LeRoy Alexander, have made strong moves to win positions.

Here’s a look at the three battles that have only intensified as the spring progressed:

  • Cornerback opposite Mitchell. With the departure of Stanley Jean-Baptiste, junior Jonathan Rose appeared poised to win a starting spot this spring. Rose had the advantage of two years in the program after transferring in 2012 from Auburn. A former elite recruit out of Alabama, he worked primarily with the top defense early in spring. But as Jackson emerged at nickel, the Huskers felt comfortable shifting newcomer Byerson Cockrell to cornerback. Now, Rose, at 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, and the 6-foot, 185-pound Cockrell, who played safety last year in junior college, look nearly interchangeable at corner. “I like everything about Byerson Cockrell,” coach Bo Pelini said on Monday. “I think he’s physical. I think he’s really picked things up well. He’s fast. He competes. He can change direction. He plays with an attitude. He’s going to help us.”
  • Middle linebacker. Sophomore Michael Rose began the spring with a sizable edge over the competition to remain as the Huskers’ No. 1 option in the heart of the defense. Rose, who recorded a Nebraska freshman-record 66 tackles last year, figures hold his starting job, but he has competition. Classmate Josh Banderas took snaps ahead of Rose with the first-team defense on Monday, Pelini said. He said the Huskers want to continue to “tweak” the spot and ensure versatility. More than likely, they also want to push Rose, who made 40 tackles in the Huskers’ final four regular-season games, including 17 against Iowa. Banderas, who played well at time as a freshman last fall, had worked primarily at Buck linebacker this spring. The shifts Monday, as Nebraska returned from a 10-day break, no doubt, reminded all among a young group of linebackers that the competition remains fierce.
  • Wide receiver. Aside from Bell, who is on track to leave Nebraska after next season with an armful of career records, competition continues at slot receiver between sure-handed sophomore Jordan Westerkamp and senior big-play threat Jamal Turner. The other starting spot, though, looks just as intriguing as juniors Taariq Allen and Sam Burtch compete for snaps. It has been a breakout spring for Allen, who was slowed by injury and caught just three passes last year. But the development of Burtch, who walked on out of Murdock, Neb., is just as notable. He caught 12 passes last fall, including three touchdowns, and keeps getting better, Pelini said. “The guy understands how to play football. He’s big. He’s physical. He’s fast. There’s a lot of different things he does to help our football team. On top of that, he’s a great character kid and a big-time leader.” Burtch has developed into a favorite option of Armstrong in practice. Asked if Burtch has been placed on scholarship, Pelini said, “If he’s not, he will be soon.” Congrats in advance, Sam.
This is the end, our friends. The last stop on our ultimate Big Ten road trip for 2014.

For those just joining us, we're each selecting one Big Ten game to attend each week during the forthcoming season. This almost assuredly isn't our actual schedule because of travel budgets or editors' decisions. But we can and did pretend with this fantasy itinerary, and it was a lot of fun.

Let's close it out with the Week 14 options:


Nov. 28-29

Illinois at Northwestern
Nebraska at Iowa
Michigan at Ohio State
Michigan State at Penn State
Minnesota at Wisconsin
Purdue at Indiana
Rutgers at Maryland

Adam Rittenberg's pick: Michigan at Ohio State

This wasn't a slam-dunk choice as there are potentially good options in Iowa City, Madison and State College. But after attending last year's 42-41 thriller in Ann Arbor, I'm not passing up another edition of The Game. The rivalry has become much more interesting since Brady Hoke came to Michigan. He beat Ohio State in his first year and nearly pulled off a significant upset in last year's contest, where defense was most certainly optional. It's a big year for Hoke, whose wins total has declined from 11 to eight to seven, and while he's not on the hot seat now, he could be on Nov. 29. A Michigan win at Ohio Stadium for the first time since 2000 would be a major boost for the Wolverines and their coach.

Braxton Miller will try to prevent it in his final home game for the Buckeyes. Miller has been productive in his first three games against Michigan, especially on the ground with 301 rush yards and four touchdowns. The quarterback could be closing in on an unprecedented third Big Ten offensive player of the year award, and possibly the Heisman Trophy, but OSU will need a stronger defensive performance, especially in the secondary, after allowing Devin Gardner to go nuts last season. Gardner will be aiming for a signature win.

The Ohio State-Michigan matchup in the Big Ten title game never came to fruition, but the teams could be competing for a spot in Indy, and maybe more in 2014. No better place for me to end this road trip than The Shoe.

Brian Bennett's pick: Nebraska at Iowa

I strongly considered The Game, which is always a great choice. But since we'll both be in Indianapolis for the Big Ten title game, that would mean five straight weeks in the same city as Rittenberg. I'm afraid we'd start bickering like an old married couple.

So instead, I'll spend a second straight weekend in Iowa City, this time on Black Friday. Maybe I'll just stay there for the full seven days, crash on Kirk Ferentz's couch. The Heroes Game hasn't really reached liftoff as a must-watch rivalry yet, but the Hawkeyes' upset win in Lincoln last year added some ignition fluid to the series. Perhaps the West Division title will be on the line here, which would really start to make this rivalry combustible.

Iowa's 2014 season could well be made or broken by its final two games as it hosts Wisconsin and these Huskers at Kinnick. Nebraska limped into last year's meeting while dealing with an assortment of injuries and couldn't deal with the Hawkeyes' senior linebacker trio of James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens. This time around, the Huskers could have a dominant defense if its young linebackers like Michael Rose, David Santos and Josh Banderas continue to develop over the course of the season. It will also be Ameer Abdullah's final regular season game, and I'd expect him to leave everything on the field, which he always does.

My ultimate road trip began in Ireland, and it ends with me spending Thanksgiving in Iowa. Sounds just about perfect.

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
Week 6: Adam at Nebraska-Michigan State; Brian at Nebraska-Michigan State
Week 7: Brian at Penn State-Michigan; Adam at Northwestern-Minnesota
Week 8: Adam at Iowa-Maryland; Brian at Nebraska-Northwestern
Week 9: Brian at Michigan-Michigan State; Adam at Ohio State-Penn State
Week 10: Adam at Northwestern-Iowa; Brian at Wisconsin-Rutgers
Week 11: Brian and Adam at Ohio State-Michigan State
Week 12: Adam and Brian at Nebraska-Wisconsin
Week 13: Brian and Adam at Wisconsin-Iowa

 

Big Ten Monday mailbag

March, 17, 2014
Mar 17
4:00
PM ET
Let's round out this Monday with another edition of the ol' mailbag. Remember to keep those emails coming or to hit us up on Twitter.

Michael from Remsen, Iowa, writes: Do you think that NEBRASKA's young but very talented linebackers will take that step up this year and be the best linebacking group in the Big Ten? Also, who do you think wins the starting left tackle spot?

Brian Bennett: Michael, the potential is certainly there. Not all of the linebackers are young; the coaches have loved senior Zaire Anderson's talent and potential for some time, but he's just got to stay healthy and in the lineup. Michael Rose looks like a rising star, Josh Banderas has turned some heads in spring practice so far, and David Santos gained a lot of experience last year. Throw in newcomers like Marcus Newby and Courtney Love, and this is a deep group with loads of athleticism. Best in the Big Ten? I'm not so sure about that, but the league did lose an abundance of star linebackers to the NFL draft. I still need to see the Huskers' defense deliver consistently, but the future looks really bright in that front seven.

As for left tackle, Alex Lewis has been getting reps with the No. 1 unit so far this spring. Lewis transferred in after playing two years at Colorado and withstood some legal troubles. The reshuffling of Nebraska's offensive line remains a big story to watch this offseason.


Ol' Red from Sandusky, Ohio, writes: In your "Ultimate B1G 2014 road trip: Week 9" pick of the Michigan-Michigan State game, you pointed out that Michigan has only scored 32 combined points the last three seasons. Just another tidbit I'd like to throw your way... Although Michigan has won four, the Spartans have held U of M to less points than the preceding year for 9 straight games (45, 34, 31, 28, 21, 20, 17, 14, 12, 6). If that trend continues, it will be awfully tough for the Spartans to lose giving up less than 6 points. This really shows the improvement in Mark Dantonio's defense year-to-year. I expect the Wolverines to score only three this upcoming season and be shut out in 2015.

Brian Bennett: A Rose Bowl victory followed by a Big Ten tournament title and seemingly every expert picking them to win the NCAA tournament understandably has Spartans fans feeling a bit chesty. Michigan State's defense has locked things down against Michigan the past few years. You need some bulletin board material, Doug Nussmeier?


Jase from Nebraska writes: I imagine most networks are doing something very similar to your fantasy trip planning, but on a much larger scale. My worry is at all the *meh* weeks we're racking up will mean few televised game and less exposure.

Brian Bennett: The return of the dreaded double-bye does make for some less-than-stellar weeks on the 2014 schedule. But the nonconference opponents this year are much better than they were in 2013, and there are still some excellent heavyweight matchups sprinkled throughout the conference season. Ohio State-Michigan State, Nebraska-Wisconsin, Penn State-Michigan, Michigan State-Michigan, Ohio State-Penn State are just a few of those. The biggest question from the broadcast side is how many games will be picked up for primetime, especially in November? But the Big Ten isn't exactly hurting for exposure.


Craig from Braintree, Mass., writes: I see that in the West Division poll, Minnesota is rated a distant fourth, barely over Northwestern. I guess most consider Minnesota's performance in 2013 to be a one-time occurrence. I think the team may have a difficult time improving on last year's win-loss totals though the team may be better than last year's.

Brian Bennett: No doubt there are still some doubters on Minnesota (and polls like that tend to favor the biggest fan bases). The Gophers had a great run in the 2013 season but have yet to really break through as serious division contenders. It's going to be tough to do that without some major improvement in the passing game, something the team is emphasizing this spring for sure. Minnesota has a tougher schedule this year with a road game at TCU, crossover games against Ohio State and Michigan and intra-division road trips to Wisconsin and Nebraska. Still, a solid core returns from last year's team, and the arrow is pointing up in Minneapolis. I'm guessing Jerry Kill doesn't mind being the underdog right now.


Scott from Marinette, Wis., writes: Why is no one talking about Vince Biegel this year for Wisconsin on defense? I truly believe he will make a big difference for the Badgers on the front seven this year. He is an absolute animal and will create havoc for opposing offenses this coming year.

Brian Bennett: Biegel ... animal ... Jack Russell ... nope, I'm going to stay strong. Biegel made an impact as a redshirt freshman at outside linebacker in the 3-4 and will step into a much bigger role this season. He needs to because the Badgers lost so much talent and experience in that front seven, including linebackers Chris Borland, Ethan Armstrong and Brendan Kelly. At 6-foot-4 and 233 pounds, Biegel has great size and a good chance to make some plays from that pass-rushing position. He's still a young guy, but he'll have to be an anchor for this rebuilt defense.
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're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the linebackers.

Illinois: The Illini lose an All-Big Ten player in Jonathan Brown but still have decent overall depth at linebacker. Mason Monheim started every game at middle linebacker in 2013, and Mike Svetina started all but one game at the star position. Both players return as juniors. Svetina will move into Brown's spot on the weak side, while the other position could be filled by T.J. Neal, who recorded 38 tackles last season. Ralph Cooper has logged significant reps as a reserve, and Eric Finney gives Illinois some flexibility after playing the star position (safety/outside linebacker).

Indiana: This becomes a more significant position under coordinator Brian Knorr, who plans to use a 3-4 alignment. Indiana should have enough depth to make the transition as it returns two full-time starters from 2013 -- David Cooper and T.J. Simmons -- as well as two part-time starters in Forisse Hardin and Clyde Newton, who started the final four games of his freshman season. Like Simmons and Newton, Marcus Oliver played a lot as a freshman and provides some depth. The key here will be converting all the experience into sharper, more consistent play.

Iowa: If you're of the mindset that Iowa always reloads at linebacker, you can rest easy this spring. If not, keep a very close eye on what happens as the Hawkeyes begin replacing one of the more productive linebacker groups in team history: James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens. There are high hopes for sophomore Reggie Spearman, who played in 10 games as a freshman last fall. Spearman, junior Travis Perry and senior Quinton Alston enter the spring as the front-runners to take over the top spots. The biggest challenge could be building depth behind them with Cole Fisher and others.

Maryland: The good news is the Terrapins return three productive starters from 2013 in Cole Farrand, L.A. Goree and Matt Robinson, who combined for 233 tackles, including 19 for loss. The bad news is Maryland loses its top playmaker at the position in Marcus Whitfield, who recorded nine sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss last season. But the overall picture is favorable, and the depth should be strong when Alex Twine and Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil return from their injuries. Young players such as Abner Logan (37 tackles in 2013) will push for more time.

Michigan: There are a lot of familiar faces in new positions as Michigan not only has shuffled the roles of its defensive assistant coaches, but also its top linebackers. Standout Jake Ryan moves from strong-side linebacker to the middle, while junior James Ross III moves from the weak side to the strong side and Desmond Morgan shifts from the middle to the weak side. Joe Bolden, who had 54 tackles last season, can play both outside and inside, and players such as Ben Gedeon, Royce Jenkins-Stone and Allen Gant add depth. The talent is there for a big year if the position switches pan out.

Michigan State: It won't be easy to replace the Big Ten's top linebacker tandem in Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, not to mention Rose Bowl hero Kyler Elsworth, but Michigan State has some promising options. Ed Davis appears ready to step in for Allen after recording four sacks as a sophomore. Junior Darien Harris and two redshirt freshmen, Shane Jones and Jon Reschke, will compete at middle linebacker. Returning starter Taiwan Jones is back at the star position, and Mylan Hicks should be in the rotation. Depth is a bit of a question mark here entering the spring.

Minnesota: The Gophers lose key pieces in all three areas of the defense, and linebacker is no exception as two starters (Aaron Hill and James Manuel) depart. Minnesota will lean on Damien Wilson, who started in 12 games at middle linebacker in his first season with the Gophers and recorded 78 tackles. Junior De'Vondre Campbell seems ready to claim a starting spot after backing up Manuel last season. There will be plenty of competition at the strong-side linebacker spot, as Nick Rallis, De'Niro Laster and others are in the mix. Jack Lynn is backing up Wilson at middle linebacker but could work his way into a starting spot on the outside with a good spring.

Nebraska: Optimism is building for the Blackshirts in 2014, thanks in large part to the returning linebackers. The three players who finished last season as the starters -- David Santos, Michael Rose and Zaire Anderson -- all are back, as Rose will lead the way in the middle. Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry also have starting experience and return for 2014. If younger players such as Marcus Newby develop this spring, Nebraska could have the Big Ten's deepest group of linebackers, a dramatic departure from the Huskers' first few years in the conference. Good things are happening here.

Northwestern: The top two playmakers return here in Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis, who combined for seven interceptions and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2014. Northwestern's challenge is replacing the leadership Damien Proby provided in the middle. Ellis has shifted from the strong side to the middle, and Northwestern has moved safety Jimmy Hall from safety to strong-side linebacker. Drew Smith and Hall will compete for the third starting spot throughout the offseason. Sophomores Jaylen Prater and Joseph Jones should provide some depth.

Ohio State: Coach Urban Meyer has made it clear that Ohio State needs more from the linebackers, so it's a huge offseason for this crew, which loses superstar Ryan Shazier. The Buckeyes return starters at the outside spots in Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry, although competition will continue throughout the spring and summer. Redshirt freshman Darron Lee surprisingly opened spring practice Tuesday working with Grant and Perry on the first-team defense. Camren Williams appeared in all 13 games as a reserve and will be part of the rotation, along with Trey Johnson. Meyer said last month that the incoming linebacker recruits won't redshirt, which means an opportunity for mid-year enrollee Raekwon McMillan.

Penn State: Linebacker U is looking for more bodies at the position after struggling with depth issues throughout 2013. The Lions lose leading tackler Glenn Carson but bring back two players, Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman, who started most of the season. The new coaching staff is counting on Hull to become a star as a senior. Brandon Bell, who appeared in nine games and recorded 24 tackles as a freshman, will compete for a starting spot along with Gary Wooten. Penn State hopes Ben Kline can stay healthy as he provides some experience, and incoming freshman Troy Reeder could enter the rotation right away.

Purdue: Expect plenty of competition here as Purdue loses leading tackler Will Lucas and must get more consistent play from the group. Joe Gilliam started for most of the 2013 season and should occupy a top spot this fall. Sean Robinson also brings experience to the field, and Ryan Russell could fill more of a hybrid linebacker/defensive end role this season. Redshirt freshman Danny Ezechukwu is an intriguing prospect to watch this spring as he aims for a bigger role. Ezechukwu is just one of several younger players, including decorated incoming recruit Gelen Robinson, who have opportunities to make a splash.

Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights return a good deal of production here with Steve Longa and Kevin Snyder, who combined for 219 tackles, including 15 tackles for loss and five sacks. Quentin Gause also is back after racking up 53 tackles (8.5 for loss) in a mostly reserve role last season. Gause likely will claim the starting strong-side linebacker spot as Jamal Merrell departs. The starting spots are seemingly set, so Rutgers will look to build depth with Davon Jacobs, who had 30 tackles as a reserve last season, and L.J. Liston, both sophomores.

Wisconsin: Do-it-all linebacker Chris Borland is gone, along with Ethan Armstrong and Conor O'Neill, so Wisconsin must replace three of its top four tacklers from 2013. Derek Landisch and Joe Schobert can be penciled in as starters, along with Michael Caputo, who played mostly safety last season but should slide into one of the outside spots. Marcus Trotter brings experience to the rotation. The spotlight will be on younger linebackers such as Vince Biegel, who had 25 tackles last season, as well as dynamic sophomore Leon Jacobs and Alec James, a decorated recruit who redshirted in 2013.
Tags:

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, Big Ten, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Maryland Terrapins, Raekwon McMillan, Nathan Gerry, David Santos, Zaire Anderson, Jake Ryan, Max Bullough, Collin Ellis, Josh Banderas, Derek Landisch, Michael Rose, Mason Monheim, Gelen Robinson, De'Vondre Campbell, Joe Schobert, Jonathan Brown, Damien Proby, Brandon Bell, Clyde Newton, Marcus Oliver, T.J. Simmons, Mylan Hicks, Troy Reeder, Curtis Grant, Taiwan Jones, Ryan Russell, Denicos Allen, Ben Kline, Mike Hull, Ed Davis, Marcus Trotter, Nyeem Wartman, Marcus Newby, Darien Harris, Brian Knorr, Chi Chi Ariguzo, Drew Smith, Jaylen Prater, Quinton Alston, Reggie Spearman, Travis Perry, B1G spring positions 14, Matt Robinson, Abner Logan, Alec James, Alex Twine, Allen Gant, Ben Gedeon, Camren Williams, Cole Farrand, Cole Fisher, Damien Wilson, Danny Ezechukwu, Darron Lee, David Cooper, Davon Jacobs, De'Niro Laster, Eric Finney, Forisse Hardin, Gary Wooten, Jack Lynn, Jamal Merrell, James Ross III, Jimmy Hall, Joe Bolden, Joe Gilliam, Jon Reschke, Joseph Jones, Joshua Perry, Kevin Snyder, L.A. Goree, L.J. Liston, Leon Jacobs, Marcus Whitfield, Michael Trotter, Mike Svetina, Nick Rallis, Quentin Gause, Ralph Cooper, Royce Jenkins-Stone, Shane Jones, Steve Longa, T.J. Neal, Trey Johnson, Vince Biegel, Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil

Top spring position battles: No. 5

February, 24, 2014
Feb 24
9:00
AM ET
Two weeks of the ESPN.com countdown to spring football practice are in the books, with our crowning of the top position group and player to watch during the 15 practices of March and April.

It’s on to a new category this week: position battles. At this time of year, analysis gets tricky because personnel continues to shift, especially among position groups with multiple spots, like the offensive and defensive lines.

So remember, this is speculative. Feel free to send me a tweet with your suggestions or complaints. With that, let’s get this countdown started with the No. 5 position battle to watch this spring:

Outside linebacker

The contenders: Senior Zaire Anderson; junior David Santos; sophomores Nathan Gerry and Josh Banderas; and redshirt freshmen Marcus Newby and Courtney Love

The storylines: Let’s assume first that the emergence and leadership potential of Michael Rose in the middle ices that position for the sophomore and pushes Banderas and Santos to the outside. Both started games at middle linebacker last season, and the Huskers remain thin behind Rose without them, so it’s no slam dunk. But their value on the outside is high, and linebackers coach Ross Els, no doubt, wants efficiency from his roster.

We’ll assume also that the Huskers stay with three linebackers as their base defensive alignment. If a surplus at linebacker and lack of depth up front causes a shift, obviously, it impacts the number of bodies available at many positions.

Love, listed at 230 pounds, could also play inside, though his athleticism should allow him to fit on the outside. He offers a powerful option that was missing at times in 2013. Additionally, Gerry, another superb athlete, may get summoned to safety, something of a more natural position for him.

The outlook: Best bet is that the Huskers start with Anderson and Santos on the outside. Both are veterans who settled nicely into their roles last season during Big Ten play. Banderas, with room to grow and a high football IQ, could fit well as a multi-position option at linebacker or even slide to defensive end at times. And Newby, like Love, brings plenty of athleticism. So does newcomer Jaevon Walton, who will join the mix in August.
Spring practice at Nebraska starts in 3 weeks, and our first of four countdowns has reached the halfway point.

We’re listing the position groups with most room to improve. At No. 3 is a unit flush with youth -- the linebackers:

Major losses: Jared Afalava didn’t make the offseason roster after a troubled freshman year in which he played in just four games. He started two and showed promise but was out before the Gator Bowl. Also gone are a few walk-ons, notably Colby Starkebaum, who played in every game and contributed six tackles.

[+] EnlargeMichael Rose, Josh Ferguson
John S. Peterson/Icon SMILed by Michael Rose, Nebraska returns a deep and and promising group of linebackers.
Top returnees: Just about everyone, led by rising sophomore Michael Rose, who emerged in midseason to start seven games and rank third on the team with 66 tackles. Junior David Santos overcame early setbacks to record 87 tackles. Senior Zaire Anderson also showed great promise in five starts and ranks as a candidate to break out in 2014. Sophomores Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry, after starting as true freshmen, will enter their second seasons with a better understanding of their jobs and important experience.

Numbers to know: After a poor start last fall in wins over Wyoming and South Dakota State and a loss to UCLA, the Huskers -- in large part because of their improved play at linebacker -- responded with solid defensive stats in Big Ten play. Nebraska allowed 329.4 yards per game after Oct. 1 (11th nationally and fourth in the Big Ten), 4.6 yards per play (seventh and second) and limited opponents to a 30.5 percent conversion rate on third down (sixth and second).

Key question: Might Nebraska, with its sudden depth at linebacker and lack of it at defensive end, take a cue from Wisconsin and employ a look -- at least occasionally -- that features four linebackers instead of the its typical three?

The outlook: It’s bright. Despite the promising numbers from the final two-thirds of the season, there is plenty of room to grow -- as you’d expect from a group with just one senior among its top seven players.

Rose, the Huskers’ most high-profile recruit two years ago, possesses the kind of intangibles desired in a defensive quarterback. Santos, Anderson, Gerry and Banderas all ought to show growth as soon as next month in spring practice.

Just as exciting as the returning starters’ potential, the Huskers get to unveil redshirt freshmen Courtney Love and Marcus Newby. Newcomer Jaevon Walton may find a role, too, because of his playmaking ability and readiness to contribute to special teams. The possible inclusion of three athletic freshmen presents intriguing possibilities for a position group that looks set to rank among the Huskers’ best beyond 2014.

Countdown of Nebraska position groups with most room to improve:
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Departing receiver Quincy Enunwa, who often plays with the aggression of a defender, likes what he sees from the guys he practices with every day.

“I’m very excited about the defense,” Enunwa said.

[+] EnlargeIowa/Nebraska
Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY SportsCorey Cooper, Nebraska's leading tackler, will be back for the Cornhuskers' resurgent defense next season.
The TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, Jan. 1 against Georgia in Jacksonville, Fla., marks the final chance for this defensive unit to display the improvement that has served as a highlight for the Huskers amid a rocky season. In December practices -- Nebraska returned to work last weekend -- the promise of a dominant defense next year ranks as a driving force.

Nebraska heads into the postseason ranked No. 36 in total defense, allowing 367 yards per game, and 37th in yards allowed per play at 5.22. In the same categories at the start of October, the Huskers sat 107th and 108th, respectively.

What happened?

“They’ve grown up a lot, matured,” senior defensive end Jason Ankrah said. “The maturity brought the confidence out of them.”

The turnaround started, according to Enunwa, after a team meeting that followed the slow defensive start.

“We told them that we knew what they can do,” Enunwa said, “and they responded. The past three, four games, they were leading the team. They were the ones who were picking us up.”

That should continue next season with the Huskers set to return their top five tacklers in 2014, led by safety Corey Cooper and linebacker David Santos. But Cooper, a senior next year, and the rising junior Santos are just two of many reasons for optimism on defense.

An overall infusion of youth and athleticism, which figures to continue next season, tops the list.

Start with defensive end Randy Gregory, who led the Big Ten with 9 sacks as a sophomore in his first season at Nebraska out of junior college. An offseason in Lincoln figures to turn Gregory from a first-team all-conference pick into an All-America caliber defender.

“He brings a kind of athleticism to the defense that we haven’t had here in a while,” Ankrah said.

But it’s more than Gregory that excites Enunwa and the Huskers.

Fellow bookend Avery Moss earned all-freshman honors in the Big Ten, as tabbed by ESPN.com, along with middle linebacker Michael Rose, who emerged as a leader in the second half of the season. Redshirt freshman defensive tackle Vincent Valentine showed promise, as did freshman linebackers Josh Banderas, Nathan Gerry and Jared Afalava.

Speedy outside linebacker Zaire Anderson returns as a senior. Throw in Courtney Love, the defensive scout team MVP, and Marcus Newby, both of who redshirted, and you’ve got a deep and versatile group of linebackers.

Up front, Kevin Maurice and Maliek Collins played as true freshmen this year. Commitments from junior college tackle Terrell Clinkscales and end Joe Keels show that the Huskers aren’t slowing in their bid to stockpile man power.

“We have a lot of guys with a lot of great ability,” returning defensive back Josh Mitchell said. “We’re losing the most in the secondary, so that’s just a piece of the puzzle we’re going to fill in.

“But I think we’re going to be very explosive and very fast.”

Cooper and Mitchell, who has played multiple spots, return in the secondary in addition to part-time starting safety Harvey Jackson and promising underclassmen LeRoy Alexander and Charles Jackson.

The Huskers lose top cornerbacks Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste, easily the biggest shoes to fill. Both intercepted four passes this year.

Secondary coach Terry Joseph will likely shift a few bodies, and the Huskers could rely on redshirt freshman Boaz Joseph or little-used Auburn transfer Jonathan Rose to compete for time.

Regardless, the challenges look minimal in comparison to the hurdles cleared this year.

And this month -- and New Year’s Day -- should only help springboard the Cornhuskers into next season, Mitchell said.

“It’s going to give us a jump on next year,” he said. “Everyone’s going to remember their last couple practices. So whatever you learn now and whatever we can improve on now, it will carry over into the spring.”
Earlier today, we presented our All-Big Ten team. Now it's time to honor the top freshmen from 2013 with our Big Ten all-freshman team.

Here it is:

OFFENSE
QB: Christian Hackenberg, Penn State (captain)
RB: Corey Clement, Wisconsin
WR: DeAngelo Yancey, Purdue
WR: Jordan Westerkamp, Nebraska*
TE: Maxx Williams, Minnesota*
TE: Jake Butt, Michigan
OL: Dan Voltz, Wisconsin*
OL: Ben Lauer, Minnesota*
OL: Jack Conklin, Michigan State*
OL: Jacob Bailey, Indiana*
OL: Kyle Kalis, Michigan*

DEFENSE
DL: Joey Bosa, Ohio State (captain)
DL: Austin Johnson, Penn State*
DL: Avery Moss, Nebraska*
DL: Willie Henry, Michigan*
LB: Michael Rose, Nebraska*
LB: Nyeem Wartman, Penn State*
LB: T.J. Simmons, Indiana
DB: Sojourn Shelton, Wisconsin
DB: Desmond King, Iowa
DB: Tyvis Powell, Ohio State*
DB: Matthew Harris, Northwestern

SPECIALISTS
K: Michael Geiger, Michigan State
P: Cameron Johnston, Ohio State
All purpose: Dontre Wilson, Ohio State

* -- redshirt freshman

It was a pretty strong year for freshmen in the league, highlighted by Hackenberg and Bosa. Shelton was terrific as well. ... Tight end is a promising position for the future. Penn State's Adam Breneman just missed, but he looks like a future star. And Michigan State's Josiah Price had a big impact in the Big Ten title game. ... Nebraska's young defense could really turn into something special. We also considered defensive lineman Vincent Valentine and linebackers Jared Afalava, Nathan Gerry and Josh Banderas. ... It was also a good year for rookie QBs, as beyond Hackenberg there was Purdue's Danny Etling, Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong and Minnesota's Mitch Leidner. ... Ohio State's Wilson didn't have a true position, but he did a lot of things and was a good return man, so that's why he gets our all-purpose slot. ... Some others we considered included Penn State receiver Geno Lewis and linebacker Brandon Bell, Purdue offensive lineman Jason King and Indiana defensive lineman Ralphael Green.

Big Ten lunchtime links

November, 7, 2013
11/07/13
12:30
PM ET
Nothing big happening in college football today, is there?
  • Brady Hoke responds to critical comments about his program and left tackle Taylor Lewan.
  • Off the radar as a recruit, Darqueze Dennard has turned himself into one of the most productive defensive players in the country at Michigan State.
  • Minnesota may have some options it feels good about at wide receiver, but it would certainly prefer to have Derrick Engel (recovering from ankle injury) available when it takes on Penn State.
  • There have been ups and downs for Nebraska linebacker Josh Banderas, but it looks like he's on the rise heading into a crucial game for the Blackshirts at Michigan.
  • Ohio State's BCS future could become more clear on Thursday night, and Urban Meyer and his players will tune in to watch.
  • The tattoo on the right arm of Penn State defensive lineman Anthony Zettel set the tone for a player whose toughness is easy to see on the football field.
  • Not everybody appears to be a fan of Northwestern's special uniforms for next week's game with Michigan.
  • Conor Boffeli remembers the feeling of nervousness all too well before his first start on the Iowa offensive line. Experience is definitely helping him sleep better.
  • Illinois might like to run the football better, but it actually doesn't appear to be a priority for offensive coordinator Bill Cubit.
  • The jury is still out on Purdue's new-look defense.

Five things: Northwestern-Nebraska

November, 2, 2013
11/02/13
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska went back to the drawing board in the wake of a troubling loss at Minnesota, shuffling personnel on both sides of the ball as it looked to sharpen focus with the strength of the schedule at hand. Will it make a difference against Northwestern?

Here’s what we'll be watching:

The return of Tommy Armstrong: Every discussion about this roller-coaster ride of a season for the Huskers seemingly starts with the quarterback position. This week, Taylor Martinez is out, and the redshirt freshman Armstrong is back for a fourth start, marking the first season since 1999 that two Nebraska QBs will have started more than three games. A sense exists that if Armstrong and his backup, senior Ron Kellogg III, enjoy success on Saturday, the move away from Martinez, regardless of his health, might turn permanent.

[+] EnlargeTommy Armstrong Jr.
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesCould a solid performance against Northwestern give Tommy Armstrong the starting job for the remainder of the season?
Distribution of the football: Offensive coordinator Tim Beck drew criticism for his balance in the game plan last week. The Huskers rushed the football 30 times and threw it 30 times. Sounds good, but a closer look shows that Nebraska experienced much more success on the ground than through the air. Considering the weather conditions favored a ground attack, and with Martinez’s iffy health, Beck might have been better suited to stay conservative. The same thing applies this week, though star I-back Ameer Abdullah missed practice time with an ankle injury. The Huskers might have to rely some on backups Imani Cross and Terrell Newby -- plus Armstrong in the option game -- against the Wildcats.

Leadership on defense: It’s safe to say the Huskers are continuing to search for answers on the defensive side. After the Gophers gouged Nebraska for 271 yards rushing, the Blackshirt jerseys disappeared from practice in Lincoln this week. Two starters were replaced in the heart of the defense. Perhaps freshmen linebackers Josh Banderas and Michael Rose can provide the necessary spark for this unit to regain some of the energy it displayed against Illinois and Purdue, but they’re young, obviously, as is so much of that front seven.

Northwestern’s state of mind: Since a 4-0 start, the season has turned disastrous for the Wildcats. They’ve lost four in a row and played large stretches without star running back Venric Mark and play-making quarterback Kain Colter. Mark might try to take a redshirt. Colter, instrumental two years ago in his team’s win in Lincoln, returned last week in the Wildcats’ overtime loss at Iowa, but he’s still limited by an ankle injury. So will Northwestern look at Saturday as an opportunity to get well against another wounded team, or have the Wildcats lost their way in this difficult stretch?

It’s that time of year: Coach Bo Pelini’s teams have traditionally played their best football in November. The Huskers are 16-4 in the final month of the regular season in five seasons under Pelini, including perfect Novembers in 2009 and 2012 to earn division championships. The calendar flipped just in time for Pelini, who might feel the walls closing in a bit as the margin for error in this season has grown thin. A poor performance against Northwestern would threaten to send the Huskers into a tailspin, facing a trip to Michigan next week, followed by a visit from Legends Division front-runner Michigan State.

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 10

October, 31, 2013
10/31/13
10:15
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Storylines to watch this week in the Big Ten:

1. The long October is over. Has it really been five weeks since Ohio State and Wisconsin played? In some ways, it feels like 10. The Big Ten's October schedule was downright scary -- and not in a Happy Halloween kind of way. Well, the league slate turns interesting again this week as No. 21 Michigan visits No. 22 Michigan State and No. 24 Wisconsin visits resurgent Iowa. Even Minnesota's visit to Indiana holds some intrigue. So long to mismatches like Ohio State-Purdue. That's this week, too? OK, they can't all look good.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Langford
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsJeremy Langford and Michigan State can all but run away with the Legends division with a win over Michigan on Saturday.
2. Michigan State might run away with the Legends division. We'll find out this week. If the Spartans beat Michigan and Northwestern snaps its four-game skid at Nebraska, MSU can book its tickets to Indy. With five straight wins, Michigan State is clearly playing the best football in the Legends. Other than the Spartans, only Minnesota has won consecutive games to enter November. And really, looking at Nebraska's schedule and the way it played last week, it's hard to consider the Huskers a contender at this stage.

3. Let's go bowling. Friday is Nov. 1, so it's OK to discuss bowl lineups. Taking a peak at the Big Ten, Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan and Minnesota are bowl eligible. Wisconsin or Iowa will join the mix Saturday, as can Nebraska with a victory over Northwestern. As for the Wildcats, after going 0 for October, it will be getting late in their bid to get back to the postseason without a victory in Lincoln. Indiana has some serious work to do, and Illinois ... the Illini just need to win for the first time in 18 Big Ten games.

4. That's offensive. Five Big Ten teams rank among the top 16 nationally in scoring. Thirty-six times this year, a Big Ten team has scored 40 or more points -- already up from 27 times all of last season. This week, two of the league's best offensive units face stern tests. Notably, Michigan, which averages 42.4 points, faces a Michigan State defense that allows only 12.3 points, third nationally. Wisconsin, averaging 39.9, visits Iowa and its 12th-ranked scoring defense, giving up 18.1. What will give? Answer that, and you've got your story of the weekend.

5. Braxton Miller needs to do something for an encore. The Ohio State quarterback is playing the best football of his career after a super-efficient effort last week in the Buckeyes' stomping of Penn State. Miller accounted for 320 yards and five touchdowns on only 35 total-offense attempts in less than three quarters. Up next, Purdue. You've got to wonder when the Boiler D caves, getting no help from the dismal Purdue offense. Maybe it's this week against an Ohio State juggernaut that's scoring 47.3 points per game.

6. Nebraska is searching for defensive answers. The Huskers expected growing pains with this defense, but they did not expect to be remain so unsettled in the 10th week of the season. Particularly at linebacker, Nebraska has developed little consistency. This week, apparently, freshmen Josh Banderas and Michael Rose return as starters. Coach Bo Pelini stripped the top-unit players of their Blackshirt practice jerseys. Juggling personnel won't work, though, if the Huskers can't develop a more physical presence.

7. Minnesota coach Jerry Kill is moving toward a return. Kill, since taking a medical leave of absence following his fifth game-day seizure on Oct. 5, has resumed more coaching responsibilities over the past two weeks. He watched from the press box as the Gophers beat Northwestern, and coached a bit from the booth in Minnesota's upset win over Nebraska. On the road against Indiana on Saturday, Kill plans to do more of the coaching, though he continues to leave control of the sideline to Tracy Claeys, acting head coach and defensive coordinator.

8. Big test for Iowa. It's time to find out if the Hawkeyes are just a nice story, with their competitive play against Michigan State and Ohio State, followed by an overtime win over Northwestern, or if coach Kirk Ferentz's club is going to make some real noise this fall. Wisconsin presents a stiff challenge, but Iowa's solid rush defense and physical offensive play might make this a good matchup for the Hawkeyes. The schedule sets up well this month for Iowa to turn into perhaps the Big Ten's biggest surprise.

9. Penn State needs to find a fast defensive fix. The past two losses have turned ugly for the Nittany Lions, who surrendered more points to Ohio State last week than in any game since the 19th century. In its other October games, PSU allowed 84 points, splitting with Michigan and Indiana. All of it has led to scrutiny of defensive coordinator John Butler, defended adamantly this week by coach Bill O'Brien. The Nittany Lions get some relief Saturday against Illinois. Butler shifted a few bodies in the secondary, but he can only work with the talent on hand, and it's not great after key losses to graduation and low numbers because of probation.

10. Michigan is trying to shake its road woes. Even with that forgettable escape at Connecticut in September, Michigan remains just 6-8 away from the Big House under coach Brady Hoke. He's 19-0 at home, but that won't do any good on Saturday in East Lansing, where Michigan State sacked Michigan quarterbacks seven times in a 28-14 win two years ago. The Wolverines said this week they embrace the hostile environments at their rivals' stadiums. Numbers tell a different story.

Q&A: Nebraska LB Michael Rose

October, 30, 2013
10/30/13
3:00
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- Redshirt freshman linebacker Michael Rose has played in six games and started one, but the once-heralded recruit out of Kansas City (Mo.) Rockhurst already shows signs of developing into a leader on the Nebraska defense.

After the Huskers were gouged for 271 rushing yards, a season-high figure, in a 34-23 loss at Minnesota last week, coach Bo Pelini stripped the Blackshirt practice jerseys from his top players. Pelini has talked of personnel changes as Nebraska prepares to face Northwestern on Saturday.

Among the moves, Rose appears set to start at strongside linebacker alongside true freshman Josh Banderas and sophomore David Santos.

Rose was candid this week in an interview about a range of topics in regard to the maligned defensive unit. A sampling of his answers:

[+] EnlargeMichael Rose, Josh Ferguson
John S. Peterson/Icon SMIRedshirt freshman Michael Rose, who had a strong game against Illinois, appears poised to start at strongside linebacker..
Did you get a sense of where the linebackers made mistakes against Minnesota?

Michael Rose: It was a great game plan by Minnesota. It’s a very, very unusual offense in this time and era of spread offense, four and five wide receivers. I haven’t seen the Maryland I-formation since playing video games. You know, that was interesting to see, but with things like that, it’s the small details. You’ve got to be in your gap, or they’re going to bust it for 5 or 6 yards. And that’s just tough. I think we were out there for 12-or 13-play drives, just getting pushed back. It’s tough, you know, being out there and keeping your head up, when you’re like, “Wow, we can’t do anything to stop it right now.”

What’s your level of concern about this team's ability to stop the run?

MR: I’m not concerned. I feel like we’re going to come back even harder in our preparation. Please believe me, we don’t like the feeling of losing as much as anybody else. We don’t like the feeling of losing to a team we feel like we should have handled. We don’t like the feeling of being talked about as, you know, our defense is terrible -- we’re not good enough to win ball games right now. We take those things to heart, and we’re definitely going to try to do our best to go out there and make sure that’s not a problem again. I think that starts with our captains and our leaders. And we’re going to step up as a team. We’re going to start carrying along guys, and Coach Bo is going to make the necessary changes he needs to make. But all in all, it starts with us individually, and we need to make sure we have a commitment to this team and this place and this program. I think you’re going to see that from us in the remaining five weeks.

How do you feel about the leadership displayed last week?

MR: Everybody was upbeat. No one was really down on the sideline. I think at some point, though, it was kind of a shock, like, “This is happening right now.” You know, you’ve just got to get over it. Teams are going to make plays. They recruit good players, just like we recruit good players. Teams are going to make yardage. They’re going to make plays, but when you need that stop -- when you need third down to get them out of plus territory, so when they punt the ball, you’re offense isn’t on the 5-yard line -- you’ve got to make that play. And I think, individually, we all got to start stepping up. Create your own energy. Don’t wait for someone to make the play. You go make the play yourself.

Are you comfortable leading as a freshman?

MR: Coach Bo has said it. You started off as a freshman; you’re no longer looked as a freshman at this point in the season. It’s time for everybody to step up. It’s time for everybody to voice their opinion. It’s not a bad thing. The worst thing is, you don’t want to tell your teammate, “Hey, you need to step up.” I think we all just need to take the personal accountability to hold each other responsible and to hold ourselves accountable as individuals.

How do you balance the attempts at big plays and stay within the defensive scheme?

MR: I think our mindset within the scheme is too robotic right now for us as players. We’ve just got to realize we’re still out there playing football. It’s just football. It’s a game we’ve all been playing for quite a while now. ... You don’t have to go to three downs or four downs to get the ball to your offense. Take the ball on first down. Take the ball on second down. You can still be in the framework of the scheme of this defense and go make plays. Guys like [Ndamukong] Suh and Lavonte [David] and Alfonzo [Dennard], all those guys who are in the NFL right now, you can’t tell me they didn’t make plays in this scheme.

Is the youth a factor?

MR: I think the main thing is, we’re trying to memorize defenses against certain things instead of just reacting. Especially at linebacker, I know coach [Ross] Els talked about that (on Sunday) when we had our meeting. We can draw it up, but even if you’re in the right fit, you’ve got to get off blocks and you’ve gotta go make tackles.

What’s your attitude toward negativity among the fans and on social media?

MR: Anytime you’re getting personally attacked, you’re going to feel some type of way about it. You may have your choice words you want to say. Being in that position, we’ve always got to take the high road. It’s not always easy to do that, especially when you’re being personally attacked by people, but sometimes they don’t know the full story about things. I know it’s all in good faith. Husker fans are just very, very into the program. They’re very, very smart as a fan base. They know football. Sometimes, it could go overboard, but we always appreciate the support of Husker fans. It’s not us against the Husker fans or us against whoever is attacking us on social media. ... We’ve got to take the high road and be the bigger and better person. If things are said to us, keep it in house and discuss it between us. Don’t give anybody any ammo to say we’re not being an upstanding citizen, being good people.

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