Nebraska Cornhuskers: Kenny Bell

What to watch: Nebraska-Fresno State

September, 12, 2014
Sep 12
12:00
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What to watch in Week 3 for Nebraska as it hits the road for the first time, playing Fresno State on Saturday at 10:30 p.m. ET:
  • The start: It’s an overused talking point to suggest the beginning of a game rates as important; of course, it does. But in this instance, the first half of the first quarter figures to provide more insight than usual, considering the psyche of both teams. Fresno State is something of a wounded animal after consecutive blowout losses on the road against USC and Utah. The Bulldogs are not accustomed to such failure and have won 13 straight games at home, the second-longest active streak among FBS teams. But prolific quarterback Derek Carr is gone, replaced by Brandon Connette and Brian Burrell. Fresno ranks 107th nationally in total offense and 109th in scoring. The home field might make a huge difference. We should know early. Meanwhile, what is the Nebraska mindset after winning in the final minute against McNeese State? The Huskers could respond with excellent focus -- a common trait of Bo Pelini teams in road games -- or with a shaky level of confidence, potentially worsened by any mistake early against the Bulldogs. Pay attention to the first two drives for both teams.
  • The health: Hit hard in preseason practice by injuries, the Huskers haven’t fared much better in the opening two games. First, junior Randy Gregory, an All-America candidate at defensive end, went down with a knee injury during the opening series against Florida Atlantic that required minor surgery. Then senior wide receiver and captain Kenny Bell suffered a groin injury early in the win against McNeese State. To complicate the situation at receiver, Nebraska lost Jamal Turner for the reason with a torn Achilles tendon and has yet to gain the services Sam Burtch and Brandon Reilly, who are not traveling to California. Gregory and Bell are expected back. They are two of Nebraska’s best athletes. Their presence transforms the look of this team. If healthy, Gregory and Bell figure to inject life into the Huskers' pass rush and passing game -- both of which went dormant in the second half under adverse conditions last week.
  • Offensive distribution: Nebraska operated with such efficiency in Week 1, accumulating a Big Ten modern day-record 784 yards, that it was sure to experience some decline last week. Still, the difference was stunning. Chief among the reasons for the Huskers’ failure to generate offense after halftime against McNeese State was the inexplicable absence of Ameer Abdullah. The senior I-back went missing for most of the final 30 minutes until his remarkable 58-yard touchdown catch that provided the game-winning points with 20 seconds to play. In the aftermath, Pelini and offensive coordinator Tim Beck harped on the need to more involve Abdullah, who rushed for 232 yards in the opener and just 54 in Week 2. The Huskers are ripe for a game plan that overcompensates, and you can bet Fresno will be ready for Abdullah. Nebraska has plenty of weapons on offense, especially if Bell is good to go. Receivers Jordan Westerkamp and Alonzo Moore, tight end Cethan Carter and running backs Imani Cross and Terrell Newby need to be involved. Abdullah is good, but he is not built to be a one-man show, despite his late heroics last week.

Big Ten's lunch links

July, 1, 2014
Jul 1
12:00
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Happy Maryland and Rutgers Day.
Summer is a time in college football where the only news is usually bad news. With that in mind, we're looking at the most indispensable players on each Big Ten team.

By indispensable, we don't necessarily mean best. We mean the players who would be hardest to replace between now and the start of the season if they got hurt/suspended/encounter Sharknado. That could be because of their value to the team or because of a lack of depth at their position.

We'll pick two players from each team, usually offense and defense, but not always. The series wraps up Wednesday with the Nebraska Cornhuskers.

[+] EnlargeRandy Gregory
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesRandy Gregory arrived in the Big Ten with a bang, leading the league in sacks.
Randy Gregory, DE, junior

This selection won't surprise Nebraska fans who fell in love with Gregory during his first season with Big Red. Few defenders have to be accounted for on every play, but Gregory does after leading the Big Ten in sacks (10.5) and tying for second in tackles for loss (17.5). Gregory recorded nine sacks in league games, including three in a road win against Michigan. He led the team with 18 quarterback hurries and recorded a pick-six, a fumble forced and a fumble recovered. Nebraska's defensive end depth isn't great as Avery Moss serves a year-long suspension, and while Greg McMullen looks promising, Gregory undoubtedly is the linchpin. Nebraska's defense needs No. 44 on the field to continue its progress from late last season.

Kenny Bell, WR, senior

Bell no longer has the Big Ten's most indispensable 'fro, but his value remains high for the Huskers. He's one of the nation's most experienced wide receivers with 134 career receptions for 1,901 yards and 15 touchdowns. Although his yards numbers went down from 2012 to 2013, his receptions total went up. Nebraska loses Quincy Enunwa and likely will rely more on Bell, who not only gives quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. a proven target but provides excellent perimeter blocking skills for Ameer Abdullah and the run game. Nebraska is still waiting for Jamal Turner to blossom. Jordan Westerkamp and Alonzo Moore are young and Taariq Allen hasn't been in a featured role. Bell contributes in so many ways and would be missed if he's not on the field this fall.
Big Ten receivers undoubtedly took a step forward last season after struggling mightily the year before. Will the group continue to improve or backslide after losing standouts such as Allen Robinson, the back-to-back Big Ten receiver of the year, Jared Abbrederis, Jeremy Gallon and Cody Latimer?

The 1,000-yard mark means more to wide receivers than rushers, especially in the Big Ten. Four players reached the milestone in 2013 after just one (Robinson) in 2012. The Big Ten had four 1,000-yard receivers in 2011 but none in 2010 and just one (Purdue's Keith Smith) in 2009. So this category can be tricky to forecast.

Although no Big Ten returning player had more than 800 receiving yards in 2013, the league boasts several potential breakout stars. Your task today: Select the Big Ten player most likely to eclipse 1,000 receiving yards this fall.

The candidates ...

SportsNation

Which Big Ten player is most likely to reach 1,000 receiving yards this season?

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    32%
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    11%
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    21%
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    5%
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    31%

Discuss (Total votes: 6,552)

Kenny Bell, Nebraska, senior: The 'fro, tragically, is no mo' after Bell lost a bet to his friend, Northern Colorado defensive lineman Devontae Chapple. But perhaps less hair will mean more production after Bell's receiving yards went from 863 in 2012 to 577 last year. Nebraska never has had a 1,000-yard receiver, and quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. has much to prove as a passer, but Bell is one of the nation's most experienced wideouts.

Stefon Diggs, Maryland, junior: Big Ten fans who haven't seen Diggs are in for a treat, at least when he's not facing their favorite team. An ESPN 150 recruit who picked Maryland over Ohio State and others, Diggs finished eighth nationally in all-purpose yards (174.2) as a true freshman. He averaged 17.3 yards per reception through Maryland's first seven contests last season before suffering a broken leg. Diggs should be fine for the season and can put up huge numbers with his big-play ability. Maryland's depth at receiver -- Deon Long also returns from a broken leg -- could make it tough for Diggs to get to 1,000 yards.

Devin Funchess, Michigan, junior: Funchess is listed as a tight end and won the Big Ten's tight end of the year award last fall, but he plays like a bigger receiver at 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds. He has averaged 15.5 yards per reception in his first two seasons with 11 touchdowns, setting a team record for receiving yards by a tight end with 748 last fall. Funchess becomes quarterback Devin Gardner's favorite target as Gallon departs. Michigan needs its receivers to step up, but Funchess could threaten 1,000 yards this year.

Shane Wynn, Indiana, senior: Like Bell, Wynn saw a slight production drop from 2012, when he led Indiana with 68 receptions, to last season, when he had 46 but still put up about the same yardage. But the departures of Latimer and tight end Ted Bolser, both selected in the NFL draft, along with Kofi Hughes and Duwyce Wilson leave Wynn as undoubtedly Indiana's No. 1 passing target. Quarterbacks Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson will be looking for Wynn a lot this fall, and his numbers could surge in a productive IU offense.

And, finally ...

Mystery man: Don't like any of these candidate to reach 1,000 receiving yards? This is the spot for you. Maybe Rutgers' Leonte Carroo complements his touchdowns with bigger yards totals this fall. One of the Northwestern Joneses (Christian or Tony) might reach 1,000 yards in a more pass-driven offense. Geno Lewis could follow Robinson's path at Penn State. Maybe Ohio State's Devin Smith gets there. Will one of Michigan State's receivers -- Tony Lippett, Macgarrett Kings, Aaron Burbridge, Keith Mumphery -- separate from the pack? Maybe one of the spring standouts -- Iowa's Derrick Willies, Illinois' Geronimo Allison or Mikey Dudek, Michigan's Freddy Canteen -- has a true breakout season.
On Wednesday, Adam took a look at which backs were most likely to top 1,000 yards rushing in 2014. Today, we examine another yardage milestone for offensive skill players: 1,000 yards receiving.

Unlike the 1,000-yard mark for a back, getting to 1,000 yards receiving is not always easy, especially in a league like the Big Ten that often lacks prolific passing attacks. In 2012, just one Big Ten receiver reached quadruple digits in yardage -- Penn State's Allen Robinson, who had 1,013. Last year was a much better season for league wideouts, as Robinson, Michigan's Jeremy Gallon, Indiana's Cody Latimer and Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis all got to that plateau. Illinois' Steve Hull just missed it with 993 yards in 12 games.

But all five of those players are gone, along with three others who finished in the top 10 in receiving yards per game in the conference: Indiana's Kofi Hughes, Nebraska's Quincy Enunwa and Ohio State's Corey Brown.

So it's a bit of a rebuilding year, receiving-wise, for the Big Ten in 2014. Still, let's take a look at the top prospects for a 1,000-yard season among the league wideouts:

[+] EnlargeStefon Diggs
Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY SportsThere's no doubt that Maryland WR Stefon Diggs has the talent. He just needs to stay healthy to reach the 1,000-yard mark.
Stefon Diggs, Maryland (587 receiving yards in 2013): His numbers weren't huge last season because he missed the final six games because of injuries. Diggs -- who compiled 848 receiving yards in 11 games as a freshman in 2012 -- is arguably the most talented receiver in the Big Ten. He just needs to stay healthy. Throw in teammate Deon Long as well. He had 809 yards receiving in 2011 but has struggled with injuries the past two seasons.

Shane Wynn, Indiana (633): Wynn is one of the most explosive players in the league and had 11 touchdown receptions last season. As the Hoosiers look to replace Latimer and Hughes, he should become an even larger factor in the offense despite his diminutive stature (5-foot-7).

Devin Funchess, Michigan (748): Funchess would be one of the more unconventional players to register 1,000 yards receiving, as a 6-5, 230-pound converted tight end. But he is the Wolverines' leading returning receiver, and if he can fix a mild case of the dropsies, he could go even higher in 2014.

Leonte Carroo, Rutgers (478): Carroo flashed his ability as a sophomore in 2013, grabbing nine touchdowns in just 10 games. The Scarlet Knights rave about his talent. The team's passing game must improve significantly for any receiver to have a chance at 1,000 yards, but new offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen might be the man to fix it.

Kenny Bell, Nebraska (577): Bell seems to make this list every year, and he got close to becoming the Huskers' first-ever 1,000-yard receiver in 2012 with 863 yards. His numbers dipped last season, but a more consistent passing attack could help him turn in a big senior season. He is, after all, a little more aerodynamic now.

DeAngelo Yancey, Purdue (546): Yancey got more than halfway to 1,000 as a freshman despite having one or zero receptions in seven games and often playing with a true freshman quarterback in Danny Etling. He averaged 17.1 yards per catch, showing his explosiveness. The Boilers have a long way to go on offense, but Yancey is a playmaker they can build around.

Christian Jones (668) and Tony Jones (630), Northwestern: The Wildcats have spread the ball out so much lately that no one receiver has put up monster stats (though if you combined these two guys into one receiver named ChrisTony Jones, you'd have a 1,300-yard wideout). But Northwestern should pass the ball more and run option a lot less with Trevor Siemian as the starting quarterback, so that could increase everybody's numbers in the passing game.

Geno Lewis, Penn State (234): It would be quite a leap for Lewis to go from his modest 2013 numbers to the 1k level. But with Robinson gone, Christian Hackenberg needs someone to catch his passes. Lewis is the most experienced target and a talented player who could take advantage of a great opportunity. If not, perhaps a freshman such as De'Andre Thompkins or one of the team's tight ends steps up.

Big Ten lunch links

May, 28, 2014
May 28
12:00
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Every time an old man starts talking about Napoleon, you know he's going to die.

Big Ten Monday mailbag

May, 19, 2014
May 19
5:00
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I'm back from my Italian adventure (10 days, nine cities and about 25 extra pounds). Let's catch up, shall we?

Brutus from The Ninth Circle writes: Brian, what are you looking forward to the most this coming season? Seeing a team coached by James Franklin? Seeing Maryland and Rutgers play their first games in the B1G? Seeing more night games at Michigan? Personally, I can't wait to see Maryland's games in the B1G. The eastward expansion should play havoc on my Saturday TV scheduling, but bring it on!

Brian Bennett: From a big-picture perspective, what I'm most excited about is the new playoff system, and in particular the semifinals on New Year's Day. That could be one of the best days in college football history. From, um, a B1G-picture perspective, I'm really interested in how Maryland and Rutgers fit into the league, how Franklin's Penn State debut will go and how the new division alignment shakes out. But I'm probably most excited about an upgraded nonconference schedule that includes games like Michigan State-Oregon, Wisconsin-LSU and Ohio State-Virginia Tech. There's nothing like high-profile out-of-league games early on to get a read on just how strong the Big Ten might be in 2014.


Grant from San Francisco writes: Hey, Brian. As a lifelong Spartan fan, I am becoming increasingly weary of all the unbridled optimism surrounding the program this coming season. I have experienced this before and know just how fast the wheels can come off. You guys spent some time with the team, so maybe you can provide some insight. With a huge match-up in Week 2 against Oregon, what exactly is Mark Dantonio doing now that the team is starting at the top with everything to lose, rather than starting unranked with nothing to lose? Quotes keep coming out about "we are hungry" ... "We are tired of talking about last year" ... but how exactly are they preventing complacency?

Brian Bennett: Grant, I wrote about this a lot in a piece last month following a visit to East Lansing. Dantonio started warning about complacency in the first team meeting back home after the Rose Bowl, and he pushed the start of spring practice back to late March so he could have the players go through grueling, early-morning winter conditioning longer. That's one way to deflate big heads. I also thought it was an encouraging sign that Michigan State players like Connor Cook told me they were sick of talking about the Rose Bowl and 2013 this offseason and that they wanted to create their own legacy. Add in the fight for playing time at several defensive positions and along the offensive line and other spots, and there is reason to believe this team won't rest on its '13 accomplishments. You never really know. But that Week 2 showdown against the Ducks on the road should be enough to get these Spartans focused on the here and now, or else they're going to learn that lesson the hard way.


Art from Columbus, Ohio, writes: I wanted to get your thoughts on James Franklin's recruiting approach of dominating the state (PA) and Northeast vs. Urban Meyer's approach of recruiting the best players in the country. My feeling is that Coach Franklin has the better long term approach to build a program and wish Meyer would take an approach of getting the best players in Ohio first and then meet other needs from the rest of the country. My thinking is that if you don't put Ohio first, you will start to turn Ohio kids and high school coaches off to the program. What do you think?

Brian Bennett: Meyer does collect top talent from Ohio -- he signed nine players from the Buckeye State in the 2014 class, for example -- but he doesn't just rely on homegrown players. Ohio State wants to compete for national titles, and the way to do that is to get the best players, no matter where they're from. Fact is, Big Ten country doesn't produce as many elite athletes as it once did, and many of those guys are in the South, in Texas and California. Any Big Ten program with legitimate national title aspirations has to recruit outside its region, as well as protecting its own backyard.


Husker from Tucson, AZ, writes: While considering the football playoffs, a thought came to mind. A team which gets a tough loss early in the season but then wins out gets hurt in the rankings (case in point: MSU and the Notre Dame game). This essentially eliminated them from the championship game but they probably would have gotten into the playoffs in the new system. However, it's conceivable to me that there will be teams like this in the future who miss out on even the playoffs. It would be nice if we could somehow reduce the emphasis on numbers like 11-1 vs. 12-0 especially when that one loss comes early in a season before players have really had a chance to develop (Connor Cook to name one for MSU). Do you think we could ever see college football have games "pre-preseason" which have no effect on teams' records? I worry that if this was the case we would get what are essentially spring games as teams rest their best players and go at half-speed, but it might be nice to consider. Any thoughts on this?

Brian Bennett: I firmly believe that one of the absolute best things about college football is the supreme importance of the regular season. Every week, in essence, becomes a playoff. Having a four-team playoff at the end will dilute that slightly but not enough, in my opinion, to hurt the sport. So I'm against any idea that would make games in any part of the season lose their significance.

Michigan State's problem last year was not so much its loss at Notre Dame but the fact that it really didn't play another marquee game until the Big Ten championship game against Ohio State. That's why upgraded schedules for the league are so important. A loss (or possibly even two, in some years) will be much easier to forgive if a team has played a grueling schedule and collected impressive wins throughout. I do hope the selection committee pays particular attention to schedule strength and does not get caught up on picking teams who might have simply coasted to a 12- or 11-win season. The in-season polls that the committee will release seem problematic to me, but everything they have said so far indicates they will judge teams on the quality of their résumés.


Luke from Ord, Neb., writes: Brian, first I hope that your vacation is going well for you. I wanted your thoughts on how much will Nebraska's WRs benefit with a quarterback that will be able to deliver the ball with more accuracy and consistency than the past 3.5 years. In my opinion Quincy Enunwa was hurt in draft status because he didn't have QB that could consistently get him the ball in stride and let him move. I think guys like Kenny Bell and Jamal Turner can do wonders if they can get a quarterback with short and intermediate passing accuracy.

Brian Bennett: Thanks, Luke. It was a dream trip, and I highly recommend it. As for Nebraska, I've thought for a while that guys like Bell and Turner could do even more with a consistent passing game. Taylor Martinez was actually pretty solid in 2012, throwing for 2,871 yards and 23 touchdowns, though his 62 percent completion rate wasn't spectacular. It's no coincidence that Bell had by far his best season in 2012. There was too much turnover and inexperience under center last year for Nebraska once Martinez got injured. Tommy Armstrong simply has to improve on his 51.9 percent completion rate from a year ago, and he's got the playmakers to make big things happen.
Everybody is a draftnik this week, and we're putting our own Big Ten spin on things. Rather than looking at the players leaving the league -- don't worry, we'll do that, too -- we're speculating on how a draft within the conference would play out.

To recap: All current Big Ten players are eligible to be drafted (incoming recruits are not). The teams will pick in reverse order of regular-season finish last year. Picks are based on factors like position need, remaining eligibility, scheme, previous players lost in the draft.

Check out the first half of the first round here. It gets a bit messy with teams swiping each other's top players, but that makes it fun.

Now, for the final seven picks ...

Pick No. 8: Penn State

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesConnor Cook's Rose Bowl-winning resume makes him a popular choice in the second half of the first round of the Big Ten draft.
Adam Rittenberg says the Lions select ... Michigan State QB Connor Cook

The offensive line is Penn State's shakiest position group, but Christian Hackenberg (selected No. 5 by Rutgers) leaves a massive hole at quarterback. Cook, a pro-style signal-caller with a big arm and more experience than Hackenberg, makes a lot of sense as he fits the system and comes off top performances in the Big Ten championship game and the Rose Bowl.

Brian Bennett says the Lions select ... Ohio State OT Taylor Decker

Penn State does need help on the offensive line, but it can afford to be patient. Decker was playing as well as any Ohio State offensive lineman late last season, when he was only a redshirt freshman. He can come to State College and offer help now and for the next three years, seeing the Lions through probation.

Pick No. 9: Minnesota

Rittenberg says the Gophers select ... Maryland WR Stefon Diggs

Minnesota loses some star power on defense, but I expect coordinator Tracy Claeys to produce a solid unit. The bigger issue is boosting a pass offense that ranked 115th nationally last season. Diggs comes off an injury-shortened season, but he's an explosive playmaker with 88 career receptions and two years of eligibility left. He would complement promising young wideouts like Drew Wolitarsky.

Bennett says the Gophers select ... Nebraska WR Kenny Bell

The Gophers might just be a downfield receiving threat away from being actual division contenders. Bell is a senior but offers two things Jerry Kill wants: leadership and toughness as a blocker. Bell would also deliver some explosiveness while guiding Minnesota's young wideouts along.

Pick No. 10: Iowa

Rittenberg says the Hawkeyes select ... Indiana LT Jason Spriggs

Brandon Scherff (selected No. 1 by Purdue) is a major loss for Iowa, which now needs a replacement to anchor its offensive line. Spriggs might not be as big a name as Scherff, but he has quietly started the first 24 games of his college career and earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors the past two seasons. He also has two years of eligibility left.

Bennett says the Hawkeyes select ... Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon

True, Iowa has about 37 tailbacks right now. But the pure speed and playmaking ability of Gordon is tough to pass up here, especially for an offense seeking more home-run plays. Plus, he originally committed to the Hawkeyes, so this is a way for them to finally get Gordon in black and gold.

Pick No. 11: Nebraska

Rittenberg says the Huskers select ... Ohio State DE Joey Bosa

Running back Ameer Abdullah (selected No. 6 by Maryland) is a significant loss, but the Huskers have good depth behind him. They need a replacement for All-Big Ten end Randy Gregory (selected No. 4 by Indiana), and Bosa, who ended his freshman season in beast mode, is an easy choice. He should keep the expectations high for the Huskers' defensive front seven. And he has at least two seasons left.

[+] EnlargeDevin Funches
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsDevin Funchess would give Nebraska an athletic, versatile playmaker in the passing game.
Bennett says the Huskers select ... Michigan WR/TE Devin Funchess

Nebraska doesn't seem to have a lot of gaping holes but could use a playmaker in the passing game after losing Bell (selected No. 9 by Minnesota). Funchess would make a nice safety valve for Tommy Armstrong and is a destroyer of red zone defenses. Tim Beck lobbies hard for this pick and would get two years to deploy Funchess in a variety of ways.

Pick No. 12: Wisconsin

Rittenberg says the Badgers select ... Ohio State DL Michael Bennett

Like Nebraska, Wisconsin has lost an elite running back (Melvin Gordon, selected No. 7 by Michigan), and like the Huskers, the Badgers have enough to get by without him. Wisconsin has an even bigger need to upgrade its defensive front seven after losing six starters to graduation. Bennett, a junior who could play either line spot and had seven sacks last season, is a really good fit for Wisconsin.

Bennett says the Badgers select ... Michigan State QB Connor Cook

The passing game remains a sore spot for Wisconsin, and no clear starter under center emerged this spring. Cook knows how to run a pro-style offense and would have two years left in Madison.

Pick No. 13: Ohio State

Rittenberg says the Buckeyes select ... Michigan QB Devin Gardner

Well, this should be interesting. Ohio State needs a quarterback after losing Braxton Miller to Northwestern (pick No. 3), and there aren't too many proven options out there. The Buckeyes likely can get by with a one-year player to allow younger guys to develop. Gardner is a good fit in a true spread offense, and he showed at times last year that he can put up huge numbers.

Bennett says the Buckeyes select ... Indiana QB Tre Roberson

I had Rutgers snagging Miller earlier in the first round. Roberson might be the closest facsimile to Miller in the league right now, a guy with good wheels who can also sling it around the field. He has plenty of game experience and two years of eligibility left.

Pick No. 14: Michigan State

Rittenberg says the Spartans select ... Iowa QB Jake Rudock

OK, the quarterback swapping is getting a little silly, but Michigan State needs one after losing Cook (selected No. 8 by Penn State), and Rudock brings experience to the Spartans backfield. Rudock comes from a pro-style system at Iowa and should take another step this season. Plus, he has two years of eligibility left.

Bennett says the Spartans select ... Ohio State S Vonn Bell

You can't convince me that Mark Dantonio wouldn't go defense first in a draft like this. And I think the prospect of a stud defensive back would prove too hard for him to resist. Bell showed real promise in his brief exposure last year with the Buckeyes and has three years left to help fortify the No-Fly Zone.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Spring football is done. It’s time to work on the little things, which, for Nebraska, equate to the big things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The defenders hear the same message.

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

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

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

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

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

There’s a plan in place, he said.

“Now it’s going to be time to go into the next phase and move this football team forward,” Pelini said. “This has just begun.”
video
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.
The head coaches from the new Big Ten West Division, along with a player from each team, addressed reporters today on a teleconference. The East Division coaches and players will follow Thursday.

To the notebook:

WISCONSIN
  • Coach Gary Andersen has some concern about QB Joel Stave's lingering shoulder injury. Stave, who hurt the AC joint of his throwing shoulder in the Capital One Bowl, has been shut down for the rest of the spring and will undergo an MRI. "The challenge is to truly identify the situation and start the rehab process," Andersen said.
  • Wisconsin's blockbuster opener against LSU in Houston has motivated players during the offseason. The Badgers typically open seasons with FCS or lower-level FBS opponents, so this is different. "It would give me an edge if I were a player," Andersen said.
  • RB Melvin Gordon said he turned down the NFL draft to try to lead Wisconsin into the inaugural College Football Playoff. Andersen on Gordon's return: "Huge is not a big-enough word."
NORTHWESTERN
  • The two-quarterback system is dead, at least for the 2014 season, as senior Trevor Siemian has established himself as the clear starter this spring. Coach Pat Fitzgerald said, "This is Trevor Siemian's football team." Siemian added that while sharing time with Kain Colter had its benefits, he's excited for his moment. "It's been a long time coming," he said.
  • WR Miles Shuler, who transferred from Rutgers last September, will be an impact player for the Wildcats, Fitzgerald said. Shuler spent last season in several roles, including mimicking Braxton Miller and other mobile quarterbacks on Northwestern's scout team. "You just have to get the ball in his hands," Siemian said.
  • Injuries along the defensive line will prevent Northwestern from having a true spring game Saturday. Fitzgerald said the Wildcats will hold more two-a-day practices this summer to make up for the lost scrimmage time. Northwestern didn't have any two-a-days last year.
NEBRASKA
  • RB Ameer Abdullah has spent the spring trying to become a more complete back. It includes improving his pass-blocking by facing players like DE Randy Gregory and LB Zaire Anderson. Abdullah said Gregory is "the best that we're going to see in the conference, and luckily he's on our team."
  • Coach Bo Pelini described his epic Twitter interaction with alter ego Faux Pelini during the BCS national title game as "having a bit of fun." He didn't think it would go viral, although he's aware of Faux's strong following. Pelini doesn't follow Faux but his wife provides him updates "all the time."
  • Abdullah thinks WR Kenny Bell will have a breakout season after not getting the ball thrown his way as much in 2013. Bell's post routes and linear speed impress Abdullah.
  • The Huskers' spring game on Saturday will feature the offense against the defense and a modified points system.
PURDUE
  • RB Raheem Mostert and DT Ra'Zahn Howard both have stood out this spring. Mostert, who won two gold medals at the Big Ten indoor track championships earlier this year, has made a strong push for a starting spot. Howard is showing greater stamina and explosiveness after losing weight during the offseason, coach Darrell Hazell said. Veteran DE Ryan Russell also has emerged late in the spring.
  • Purdue's current lack of depth at tight end doesn't worry Hazell. Dolapo Macarthy (shoulder) will be fine by preseason camp, and Gabe Holmes should return after missing the spring because of academic issues.
  • The Boilers have dramatically reduced their turnovers and mental errors in practice this spring. "Last year, we couldn't even line up correctly," QB Danny Etling said.
ILLINOIS
  • Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, filling in for coach Tim Beckman, said new wide receivers Geronimo Allison (junior college transfer) and Mike Dudek (a freshman early enrollee) both have exceeded expectations so far this spring.
  • Cubit sees separation at times in the quarterback competition but is in "no rush" to name a starter, noting that some players take longer to develop than others. Although Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt has looked the part so far in the spring, it seems as though Cubit will let this play out a little longer.
MINNESOTA
  • Like Siemian at Northwestern, Gophers QB Mitch Leidner has taken ownership of the team this spring and appears to be the obvious starter. Coach Jerry Kill said Leidner "became a coach" during winter workouts. "Everybody sees me as the leader of this team," Leidner said.
  • Leidner admits he was fairly shocked when QB Philip Nelson decided to transfer to Rutgers after the season. Nelson and Leidner shared snaps last season, and Leidner said he came to Minnesota to compete with Nelson.
  • The running back competition already is heating up, as redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards has turned in a strong spring alongside David Cobb and others. Edwards, the younger brother of former Michigan star WR Braylon Edwards, redshirted last season because of an ankle injury. Kill sounds as if he can't get enough ball-carrying options, as recruits Jeff Jones and Rodney Smith arrive this summer.
IOWA
  • Coach Kirk Ferentz said QB Jake Rudock is "perfectly healthy" after being bothered by knee injuries late in the season. The quarterback situation has a different feel this spring as both Rudock and C.J. Beathard gained experience in 2013. "It's a situation where both guys have to be at their best," Ferentz said.
  • Brandon Scherff had only played quarterback and tight end in high school when he committed to play for Iowa. He since has blossomed into an offensive tackle whom Ferentz said could have been a first-round draft pick had he decided to skip his senior season with the Hawkeyes. "My goal is to be one of the best offensive linemen in the nation," Scherff said.
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.
The best offenses are usually the ones with the best triple threats: a big-time quarterback, an elite running back and a go-to wide receiver.

So which Big Ten offenses have the most intimidating three-headed monsters on offense for 2014? Glad you asked. We're going to look at each team's top triple-threat combo and rank them in their divisions. First up: the Big Ten West.

1. Nebraska

QB Tommy Armstrong Jr., RB Ameer Abdullah, WR Kenny Bell

The skinny: Yes, Armstrong still has a lot to prove as a full-time starting quarterback. But the Huskers have one of the best running backs in the country in Abdullah and a proven wideout in Bell. As you'll see, not every team in the division has that luxury. If Armstrong can simply be steady, the Nebraska offense should produce at a high level.

2. Wisconsin

QB Joel Stave, RB Melvin Gordon, RB Corey Clement

The skinny: Who emerges as the Badgers' top wide receiver is anyone's guess after the departure of Jared Abbrederis. But Wisconsin has shown the ability to pile up yards simply by running the ball, and the duo of Gordon and Clement has the potential to be really special if Clement makes the expected leap. Stave, however, needs to find more consistency -- assuming he even retains the starting job this season.

3. Northwestern

QB Trevor Siemian, RB Venric Mark, WR Christian Jones

The skinny: The Wildcats have a chance to improve this standing if Mark is fully recovered from last season's injuries and if Siemian continues to develop as a passer. But they lack a true No. 1 wideout -- Jones had 54 catches for 688 yards and four touchdowns, while Tony Jones caught 55 balls for 630 yards last season.

4. Iowa

QB Jake Rudock, RB Mark Weisman, WR Kevonte Martin-Manley

The skinny: Rudock completed 59 percent of his passes as a first-year starter and faces a bit of competition this spring from C.J. Beathard. The strength of the Hawkeyes' offense remains their running game, led by Weisman. Iowa needs more from its receivers, as the senior Martin-Manley led the team with just 388 receiving yards last season. Perhaps Damond Powell or Tevaun Smith can add some sizzle to the passing game.

5. Illinois

QB Wes Lunt, RB Josh Ferguson, WR Martize Barr

The skinny: We trust offensive coordinator Bill Cubit to put together a potent attack this fall and probably make this ranking look way too low. But there are a lot of uncertainties right now, as Oklahoma State transfer Lunt hasn't even officially won the starting job and Barr is the top returning receiver despite posting just 246 receiving yards last season.

6. Minnesota

QB Mitch Leidner, RB David Cobb, TE Maxx Williams

The skinny: Scoring in bunches wasn't exactly the Gophers' calling card last season. On the plus side, they do return a 1,200-yard back in Cobb, who will be joined by Donnell Kirkwood (926 yards in 2012) and incoming top recruit Jeff Jones to form a deep backfield. But the passing game was one of the least productive in the FBS last season and needs major steps forward from Leidner and young receivers like Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones.

7. Purdue

QB Danny Etling, RB Akeem Hunt, WR DeAngelo Yancey

The skinny: The Boilers averaged a putrid 14.9 ppg last season, though the potential for better things is there with true sophomores Etling and Yancey. The running game simply has to get better, however, as Hunt led the team with just 464 yards on the ground in 2013.
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.

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