Ultimate Big Ten road trip: Week 1

March, 16, 2015
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It's nice that spring practice is back to give us a little bit of a football fix in this long offseason. But it only has us jonesing for some real games, which are still a long way away.

We'll have to make do by planning -- for fantasy purposes, at least -- our dream schedules for the fall. We're going to take a look at each week of the 2015 Big Ten schedule and pick where we'd go if money and editorial decisions were no object. The only limit is that we can only choose one game per week.

Let's get started with Week 1:

Thursday, Sept. 3

TCU at Minnesota

Michigan at Utah

Friday, Sept. 4

Kent State at Illinois

Michigan State at Western Michigan

Saturday, Sept. 5

Southern Illinois at Indiana

Illinois State at Iowa

Richmond at Maryland

BYU at Nebraska

Norfolk State at Rutgers

Penn State at Temple

Wisconsin vs. Alabama (Arlington, Texas)

Stanford at Northwestern

Sunday, Sept. 6

Purdue at Marshall

Monday, Sept. 7

Ohio State at Virginia Tech

Brian Bennett's pick: Ohio State at Virginia Tech

There are some outstanding opening-week games on the docket, which gets me even more excited for Labor Day weekend. I'm very torn on my choice, because TCU-Minnesota could be great, Wisconsin-Alabama is another chance for the Big Ten to continue its momentum from the postseason, and the Jim Harbaugh debut in Salt Lake City is mighty tempting. But I want to see the defending champs go on the road on Labor Day night behind whoever is starting at quarterback, and it would be my first time in Lane Stadium. I'll bring ear plugs.

Austin Ward's pick: Michigan at Utah

There aren’t many opportunities to follow the Big Ten west to Salt Lake City and one of the most gorgeous venues in college football, and this trip comes with the added intrigue of Harbaugh’s debut with the Wolverines. There are perhaps more appealing matchups on the opening slate, but the combination of seeing how Harbaugh’s team looks early and the atmosphere The Muss provides is too good to pass up.

Dan Murphy's pick: Ohio State at Virginia Tech

Listening to "Enter Sandman" at Lane Stadium belongs on every college football bucket list. I've yet to cross it off mine, and can't think of a better week to do it. Ohio State returns to Virginia Tech on a Monday night to avenge its only loss of the 2014 season. That game might be our first look at the Buckeyes' solution to their overabundance of quarterbacks and the Hokie fans are sure to make it an electric atmosphere for at least the first few series.

Josh Moyer's pick: Wisconsin vs. Alabama

I’m a sucker for BBQ and good football, so I’ll be taking my talents down south to AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Don’t get me wrong; I’d prefer seeing the pageantry at Tuscaloosa or Madison. But checking out the world’s fourth-largest HDTV – and a shot at seeing the B1G shock the SEC one more – isn’t a terrible consolation.

Big Ten morning links

March, 16, 2015
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Even with every NFL team represented at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, there was a noticeable lack of fanfare as Ohio State showcased its seniors for scouts, coaches and general mangers on its pro day.

Clearly the Buckeyes must be saving it up for what promises to be a circus at this time next year.

There were a couple guys making a final push to try to sneak into the first round. Wide receiver Devin Smith drew ample attention during his positional workout as teams weigh their options with one of the most successful collegiate deep threats in recent memory. But for the most part, Friday inadvertently served as just one more reminder of how much talent Ohio State has returning to defend the national title. The buzz is already building for what figures to be a more meaningful pro day in terms of shaping the early rounds of the the 2016 NFL draft.

There will probably be a couple quarterbacks to evaluate. Ohio State will have a pair of multi-year starters on the offensive line working out, plus a couple defenders with three years of first-team experience. But the real show could be put on by a handful of blue-chip prospects who could be foregoing their final year of eligibility, with defensive end Joey Bosa, running back Ezekiel Elliott, wide receiver Michael Thomas and safety Vonn Bell all looking like potential options to jump to the next level at this early stage.

The collection of talent Urban Meyer has recruited for the Buckeyes since taking over the program is staggering, though NFL teams are still going to have to wait a little longer to get their hands on most of it. And while Ohio State has long been a pipeline for the pros, the floodgates might really open up next season with one more year to develop for the core of last year's title team.

The roles Smith, defensive tackle Michael Bennett, cornerback Doran Grant and tight end Jeff Heuerman played for the Buckeyes obviously shouldn't be overlooked, and all of them have the tools to be valuable assets at the next level even if they don't have their names called early in the draft. But it seems pretty clear that some of the most coveted Buckeyes were just watching the festivities from the sideline on Friday, and their chance to show what they can do next year is going to draw a crowd that just might test the capacity of the practice facility.

Elsewhere in the Big Ten

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- There’s never been any doubts about his deep-strike ability.

His game film and a solid showing at the NFL combine proved what organizations already knew about Devin Smith and his blazing speed.

The former Ohio State wide receiver even joked that teams were well aware of the sparkling undefeated record the Buckeyes posted when he scored a touchdown.

All of that adds up to an appealing package for scouts and general managers evaluating Smith for the upcoming draft. But determining whether he might be worth spending a first-round pick on has required showcasing the parts of his game that weren’t as regularly on display, which made his route-running and hands the most closely watched parts of Ohio State’s pro day on Friday morning at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.

[+] EnlargeDevin Smith
AP Photo/Paul Vernon"From the Senior Bowl to the combine to now at pro day, I think I've shown the whole route tree," Devin Smith following his workout.
“From the Senior Bowl to the combine to now at pro day, I think I’ve shown the whole route tree,” Smith said after the workout. “I’ve shown I can run the whole route tree, and now for me, it’s really just about being consistent and making sure my body is healthy, making sure I’m catching the ball consistently, running the routes consistently, making sure I’m at my right depth and things like that.

“You know, there were a few coaches that did know I could run all the routes, but there were a few others who just wanted to see it. It was just a matter of me showing it.”

Smith cruised through the patterns on an otherwise light day for one of the top prospects from the reigning national champions. He skipped the 40-yard dash and elected to let his previous times stand for scouts.

His trademark speed was on display anyway as he hauled in balls from former Ohio State quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith, showing off crisp footwork, tracking the ball down on deep routes and making one impressive grab on a slant that was thrown high and well in front of him.

There was one pass that slipped through his hands, and if there was anything during his stint with the Buckeyes that was ever questioned it was the occasional lapse in concentration that produced a couple of drops early in his career. It wasn’t much of an issue during his productive senior season, though, and Smith typically more than made up for it with his explosiveness and a knack for delivering touchdowns from anywhere on the field during a final campaign that included 12 scores and a jaw-dropping 28 yards per reception.

“It’s just like being in a game,” Smith said. “When you make a mistake or drop a pass, let it go and come right back for the next one. Let it go, come back and do it again, catch it.

“A lot of coaches are impressed with how I catch and ball skills and things like that. I’ve been hearing a lot of good things, and I’m just trying to keep it going up.”

There’s not much left for Smith to prove now. And with one more audition for an audience that included representatives of every NFL team, he did everything he could to make sure they saw more than just a long-ball specialist.

The weekend is almost here -- finally -- so you know what that means: It’s time for the #B1GFridayFive. Our hope is that our Friday topics get you talking. So use the hashtag and pass on your thoughts by following @BennettESPN, @MitchSherman, @ESPNJoshMoyer, @DanMurphyESPN, @ESPNRittenberg, @AWardESPN, @TomVH and @ESPN_BigTen.

With three head coaching changes, it’s been a busy offseason for the conference so far. But lost amongst those big changes are the smaller ones, the assistant coaching coaching hires that can have a profound effect on a team’s success.

So, this edition of the #BigFridayFive looks beyond the head guys and takes a closer look at five of the most important assistant hires this offseason. Our five is listed below; let us know yours by using the hashtag #B1GFridayFive.

1. Nebraska OC/QB coach Danny Langsdorf

Danny LangsdorfAP Photo/Nati Harnik 


He spent last year coaching Eli Manning and Ryan Nassib with the New York Giants and was considered a bright coach with a bright NFL future. (Manning even threw for a career-high 63.1 percent completion rate.) So it was unexpected when he decided to ditch the NFL in favor of the NCAA -- and Giants coach Tom Coughlin sure wasn’t happy about it. Ultimately, Langsdorf couldn’t turn down a reunion with Mike Riley and a chance to call the plays. But he won’t have an easy task in Year 1 with the Cornhuskers because dual-threat QB Tommy Armstrong doesn’t fit his system. Still, Langsdorf is smart enough to make adjustments and he should serve as a more-than-capable upgrade.


2. Michigan DC/LB coach D.J. Durkin

D.J. DurkinAP Photo/Butch Dill 


Forget the fact he led Florida’s defense to back-to-back top-15 rankings as its coordinator. And forget that he even led the Gators to a bowl win as their interim head coach. Durkin is a rising star at just 37 years old and has a lot more left to accomplish. Not only does he provide the Wolverines a competent replacement for Greg Mattison, who’s now the defensive line coach, but he’s also renowned for his ability as a recruiter. He has won “Recruiter of the Year” awards and he’s just as intense as Jim Harbaugh.


3. Michigan OC/OL coach Tim Drevno

Tim DrevnoFred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire 


Surprised another Wolverine is on the list? Or that Drevno decided to move from sunny California to Michigan? You shouldn’t be -- on either count. Drevno spent last season as USC’s run game coordinator, but before that he was with Harbaugh dating back to 2004 at FCS San Diego. He and Harbaugh obviously boast a strong relationship, but Drevno has also built up an impressive résumé at every stop he’s been. At Idaho -- Idaho! -- he coached three offensive linemen into the NFL, he helped San Diego set school records in points scored, he teamed up to rebuild Stanford, and he sent several San Francisco 49ers linemen to the Pro Bowl. Michigan’s offensive line is in great hands here, and the offense obviously needs a lot of help. Drevno is the right man for the job.


4. Ohio State QB/Co-OC Tim Beck

Tim BeckAP Photo/Nati Harnik 


No assistant coach in the nation will be more scrutinized than Beck this season. But with J.T. Barrett, Cardale Jones and Braxton Miller, it shouldn’t be too hard to find success here. Beck obviously isn’t an upgrade over Tom Herman -- who could be? -- but he’s a good fit for the Buckeyes. Beck spent the last four seasons coaching Nebraska’s signal-callers, so he’s more than familiar with making the most out of dual-threat quarterbacks. Plus, Urban Meyer wanted someone who could recruit Texas -- and Beck spent six seasons coaching high school football there. It also doesn’t hurt that Beck has Ohio roots since he was born in Youngstown, or that he’s already familiar with the Big Ten.


5. Illinois Co-DC Mike Phair

Mike PhairCliff Welch/Icon Sportswire 


OK, he wasn’t even the Fighting Illini’s first choice -- that would be Missouri DL coach Craig Kuligowski -- but he’s still a solid addition to a team that sorely needs a boost on defense. Phair has a lot of NFL experience and is coming off a season as the DL coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, which saw its front four finish with 33 sacks. (He’s also coached for both the Chicago Bears and Seattle Seahawks.) He doesn’t have much college experience, but there’s really nowhere for Illinois to go but up. The Illini had the worst defense in the Big Ten last season and ranked No. 109 nationally in total defense. Phair should improve that number.

Big Ten morning links

March, 13, 2015
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Happy Friday. Since we won’t be here for your morning links tomorrow, Happy Pi Day. Be sure to set your alarms for 9:26 a.m. tomorrow morning for a once-in-a-century calendar event.

1. Choosing between three potential All-Americans to start at quarterback is a tough enough job without any further complications. For Tim Beck, Ohio State’s first-year offensive coordinator, evaluating his inherited riches at the position will be a little trickier.

The injuries that gave J.T. Barrett and then Cardale Jones a chance to prove themselves in 2014 are keeping Barrett and Braxton Miller from fully proving themselves this spring. Miller, who had shoulder surgery in August, is not yet throwing at full strength. Barrett is taking his time nursing the ankle he broke in November back to full health. That means only Jones is operating on all cylinders this spring. Beck might only get a few weeks in August to get a side-by-side comparison of all three of them.

Barrett and Jones said there’s no bad blood two days into spring practice and neither of them have any plans to transfer if they don’t win the battle. Beck said he was amazed at how well all of the quarterbacks supported each other. It will be interesting to see if that tune changes at all as the competition heats up this summer, when all three will presumably be healthy.

2. Michigan center Jack Miller made the rare decision this week to walk away from the table with a little bit of football still left on his plate. Miller, who won the Wolverines’ top lineman of the year award in 2014, said his passion for football has dimmed and he won’t be using his final year of eligibility next fall.

Jim Harbaugh’s non-stop energy can exhaust even innocent bystanders, but Miller said he’s been weighing his decision to move on to the next chapter of his life for most of the past year. He said Harbaugh had nothing to do with his departure.

It is surprising to see a player who has weathered bad years walk away with so much excitement surrounding the new coaching staff and the possibility of the future. But Miller’s reasoning -- that he’s pocketed enough lifelong memories in football -- makes sense when he lays out his logic. In fact, it might be more surprising that more seniors who have their degrees all but wrapped up and not much hope of a professional football future don’t choose to forego the massive sacrifice it takes to play for a top college program. The big crowds, thrills and other perks that come with a scholarship must be pretty alluring for most players.

3. Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things. Andy Dufrense and Red might not have lost their hope in Shawshank Redemption, but the same might not be true for Hoosier Red in Indiana. A poll on Cleveland.com ranked Indiana’s football and basketball programs as the most hopeless in the Big Ten. Nate Sudfeld’s return at quarterback should be at least a small boost for Indiana’s football morale, but a rough year for Tom Crean on the hardwood and a long bowl drought leave little room to argue with this assessment.

And now on to the links...
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- There is something of a historical pecking order in the Ohio State quarterback derby, and J.T. Barrett helpfully offered a quick refresher course after walking off the practice field.

The redshirt sophomore never beat out Braxton Miller when both were healthy. Before Barrett broke his ankle, Cardale Jones wasn't able to leap to the top of the depth chart to start a game for the Buckeyes, either.

But almost as soon as Barrett offers that dose of perspective to a three-way competition that hasn't even officially started thanks to those health concerns, he's quick to dismiss the past when it comes to settling on the best option to lead Ohio State's defense of its national title in the fall.

If Miller has never been topped before injury, and Barrett had the edge over Jones, does that mean it should be the depth chart when all are healthy?

"No, no, no," Barrett said. "It’s still a competition, it’s just the thought that nobody beat out anybody.

"When I came in and started playing, I was just doing my part as far as being a quarterback on the team. Same thing when I got hurt, Cardale was just doing his part. I think oftentimes it’s out there thinking that one person beat out another person, but nobody really beat out anybody. We were definitely competing when everybody was healthy trying to play, but then when the unfortunate things happened with Braxton and myself, we were just doing our part knowing that somebody had to step in and make plays."

The success Barrett and Jones had when pressed into that situation is what has created this three-man circus, with the seamless transition Barrett made replacing a Heisman Trophy candidate by becoming one himself, and then Jones taking over to lead the run to the championship, giving Ohio State an apparent embarrassment of riches.

Both former backups offered another history lesson after the second practice of spring camp on Thursday morning, stressing that a battle between these particular quarterbacks at Ohio State is really nothing new.

"It’s always been a competition to us, ever since I stepped on campus and Kenny [Guiton] was here," Jones said. "For you guys, this is the first time ever you guys got to see all three of us get a chance to play, but it’s always been a competition.

"[Last year] really doesn’t mean anything now. That meant a lot to us as far going through that run we had, but I don’t think last year is going to affect the competition for this year."

Similarly, Miller's track record leading the spread offense and his two Big Ten Player of the Year trophies won't have any impact moving forward for the Buckeyes, which in many ways makes the reflecting about past competitions irrelevant.

It does, however, offer something of an indication of how much respect Miller still has from his peers in perhaps the most closely scrutinized quarterback room in college football history. Though he declined to meet with the media and hasn't spoken publicly since injuring his shoulder for the second time during training camp before last season, his decision to put on an Ohio State uniform this spring and not use his degree to transfer elsewhere suggests he's not afraid of competing once more against two guys he's already held off before.

Of course, there wasn't a fifth-place finisher in the Heisman race or a postseason dynamo who won the inaugural College Football Playoff to contend with back then, either. The faces haven't changed since this time a year ago for Ohio State, but Miller is no longer the only guy with history on his side.

"That’s the thing, we compete every year," Barrett said. "We encourage each other, there’s not any bad blood between any of us. Those are like my brothers, my older brothers, and we’re just competing to try to get better for the program.

"Last year there was a competition, and that’s the way it is. Nobody is really safe around here. You start playing bad, the guy behind you is probably just as good. You really can’t be relaxed with anything you’re doing. It’s always a competition, that’s just what it is."

The Buckeyes have been through all this before, and they are well aware of how it turned out. But this is a new chapter, and the record books aren't going to decide the future for Ohio State.
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller can run but can't yet throw during spring practice.

Conversely, Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett can throw but can't yet run.

That leaves Cardale Jones as the only returning Ohio State quarterback who can do everything in spring practice.

While the injuries might not be the most ideal situation for defending national champion Ohio State, it isn't the worst scenario imaginable. If Barrett and Miller can't fully participate in spring practice, they technically can't lose the starting job. And that's why all three might still be on campus when the Buckeyes open preseason camp in August.

August is when Ohio State's pressure cooker scenario really begins. Perhaps never before have three quarterbacks who accomplished so much in college football battled for one starting job. It will be one of the most-watched position battles in recent history.

"Somebody asked me if I was stressed about it," Ohio State coach Urban Meyer told ESPN.com Thursday. "Not at all, because Plan A is good, Plan B is good and Plan C is really good. I don't know what it is. The stressful part is when you start thinking about the people involved, and they're great people."


(Read full post)


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Marty Smith discusses the competition among Cardale Jones, J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller to be Ohio State's starting quarterback.
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With three starting quarterbacks on the roster, two of those players are going to be watching plays from the sidelines this season. Cardale Jones says he's prepared for that potential bittersweet feeling.
Last season was undoubtedly the "Year of the Running Back" in the Big Ten.

We've talked about it ad nauseam around here, but in case you need a refresher course, the league featured such star tailbacks as Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, Indiana's Tevin Coleman, Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, Minnesota's David Cobb, Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott, Michigan State's Jeremy Langford and Northwestern's Justin Jackson. When you have two 2,000-yard rushers and five others go over 1,100 yards -- including the offensive MVP of two playoff games -- then there's no debate which position is the strongest.

The running back position isn't going to drop off a cliff this year, either, as Elliott and Jackson return and new stars like Wisconsin's Corey Clement will emerge. But 2015 is going to be the "Year of the Quarterback" in the Big Ten.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsConnor Cook has a 23-3 record as a starter at Michigan State.
That might sound silly, just based on recent history. Elite quarterback play in this league has been hard to find at times in the past few years, and the conference has not produced a first-round NFL draft pick at quarterback since Penn State's Kerry Collins in 1995. That streak won't end with this spring's draft, either.

But the drought almost certainly will change with the 2016 draft. In fact, there's a good chance the Big Ten will have multiple quarterbacks taken in the first round next year -- and we're not just talking about all of Ohio State's guys.

The Buckeyes are a great place to start in this discussion, as one of their three candidates for this year's starting job -- Cardale Jones, Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett -- instantly will become a Heisman Trophy front-runner the second he earns the gig. Assuming all three stick around until the fall, that will be a continuing topic of conversation and curiosity in Columbus and beyond.

There's zero quarterback controversy in East Lansing, as Connor Cook decided to return to Michigan State for his senior year. He's got a 23-3 record as a starter (and is 16-1 in Big Ten games) and already has led the team to victories in the Rose and Cotton bowls. If Cook can shore up some of his footwork and decision-making, he could be the first quarterback off the board next year ... unless, that is, Penn State's Christian Hackenberg comes out as a junior.

Hackenberg had major struggles last season as a sophomore, owing a lot to an offensive line held together with spit and string. But his natural talent is undeniable, and he reminded everybody of that by throwing for 350 yards and four touchdowns against Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl. With better protection and more experience at receiver, Hackenberg could bounce back in a big way in 2015.

There aren't as many household names under center at other Big Ten campuses. But Indiana's Nate Sudfeld has long been viewed as a pro prospect. His 2014 season was cut short by a shoulder injury, and he should be fully healed by the start of 2015. Illinois' Wes Lunt also was hampered by injuries last year, but when he was healthy, he threw for at least 266 yards four times. Both Sudfeld and Lunt are listed at 6-foot-5 and have the classic quarterback builds.

Tommy Armstrong Jr. has the perfect last name for a quarterback and could take the next step in his development as a junior for Nebraska. He'll play in a more passer-friendly offense under Mike Riley, and Armstrong gave a hint of his potential with a 381-yard, three-touchdown showing against USC in the Holiday Bowl.

Questions abound at other places, like Wisconsin, Rutgers, Purdue, Northwestern and Michigan. But each team has talented options that could be unlocked. Mitch Leidner moves into his third year of starting for Minnesota and had one of his better games in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl. C.J. Beathard appears to be the man moving forward for Iowa, and his big arm and fearlessness gave the offense a spark last year.

The Big Ten looks like it's on an upswing, especially after a strong showing in the postseason. Improved quarterback play is a big reason why. This will be the best crop of signal-callers throughout the league in a long time, which is why 2015 will be the Year of the Quarterback.

Big Ten morning links

March, 12, 2015
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Gary Nova is fast?

The former four-year starting quarterback at Rutgers ran the 40-yard dash in 4.61 seconds Wednesday at pro day in Piscataway, part of an overall solid performance before scouts from every NFL team.

Nova gained 141 rushing yards as a senior and lost 146. He was sacked 69 times in his career and was rarely known as a threat to escape the pocket.

Apparently, though, he can run. Nova clocked a 4.65 in his second shot at the 40. His best mark Wednesday would have ranked fourth among quarterbacks -- behind Marcus Mariota, Nick Marshall and Blake Sims -- at the NFL combine last month.

Nova was not among 15 quarterbacks invited to the combine after he threw for 9,258 yards and 73 touchdowns at Rutgers over four seasons. He measured 6-foot-1 and 222 pounds at pro day.

Mentored by former NFL QB Jay Fiedler, Nova is viewed as a likely free-agent signing after the draft. Clearly, if he makes a roster, Nova -- who turns 22 the week of the draft -- won't be asked to showcase that 4.6 speed at the next level.

Perhaps the knowledge that he's more athletic and mobile than his time at Rutgers indicated, though, will convince more organizations to give him consideration. It can't hurt.

David Jones of PennLive.com offered a thought-provoking comparison this week between Penn State football and Syracuse basketball, recently hit with sanctions by the NCAA for widespread violations.

Both programs achieved huge success under iconic coaches and built brands known nationally.

While it may not be the case for a variety of reasons at Syracuse, Jones suggests that PSU was well equipped to weather its sanctions because of the Nittany Lions’ reputation as a football power.

He writes:
Even though the Sunbelt has transcended this area as the nation's talent honeypot, gifted athletes and players across the country know the brand name. They know it as a place where you can play with other great talents which means everything in this age of herding.

It takes a lot to undo that name recognition and resultant power. Even the Sandusky scandal, Joe Paterno's dismissal and NCAA sanctions could not unplug Penn State's cachet.

So the next question: Are some brands in college athletics too big to fail? It’s a sobering thought, but one worth considering as the powerful programs gain even more power in this era of autonomy.

We hit the final installment of the Omaha World-Herald's four-part series on Mike Riley Wednesday in the links with this story on the influence of the new Nebraska coach on the career of Paul Chryst.

The earlier articles, also worth a look, documented Riley's courtship at the college and pro levels of Tom Brady and the how the rise of Oregon’s money-driven powerhouse cast a shadow over Riley at Oregon State, playing a role in his departure.

Dirk Chatelain's anchor piece, which details Riley’s upbringing and his long path to Lincoln, is a must-read for those interested in learning more about the man in charge at Nebraska.

Riley’s hire in December stunned many observers, primarily those who knew little about the 61-year-old coach. Now, the more Nebraskans learn about Riley -- and nothing published in the past three months revealed more than a small fraction of the detail offered in this series -- the more this move makes sense.

On to the rest of the links:

Big Ten morning links

March, 11, 2015
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The Big Ten men's basketball tournament begins today. Remember when one of these things didn't take five days to complete?

1. The defending national champions opened spring ball on Tuesday. While everybody was understandably talking about the quarterback "battle" on the first day -- it's not much of a battle right now, of course, with J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller recovering from injuries -- that's more or less a sideshow.

Sure, it's going to be utterly fascinating to see whether Cardale Jones can hold off the previous starters for the job. In the long run, however, it won't matter if Jones, Barrett, Miller or even Stephen Collier or Stephen Colbert starts for the Buckeyes. Quarterback is really the least of Urban Meyer's concerns.

He doesn't actually have many on this loaded roster. Yet if there's anything that could hold back Ohio State from making a repeat trip to the College Football Playoff, it's the defensive line. That might sound funny, since we were singing the praises of that unit as a dominant one all last year. But the Buckeyes had very little depth on the line last year and lost senior All-America tackle Michael Bennett, as well as senior defensive end Steve Miller.

Incoming freshman defensive end Dre'Mont Jones, whom we'd tabbed as one of five instant impact signees in the Big Ten last month, may not be able to contribute at all this year because of a recent knee injury.

It's going to be extremely important that holdover players like Michael Hill, Tyquan Lewis, Donovan Munger and Jalyn Holmes make a difference to keep this defensive line playing at a high level. And it's telling that none of them made much of a dent on the team last year even though Meyer isn't afraid to play rookies.

"I'm very disappointed in the young defensive linemen we brought in here," Meyer said, according to Cleveland.com. "Not with what kind of people they are, just with performance."

Spring practice is just beginning in Columbus and the pads haven't even come on, so there's no good way to tell yet if some of those players have made improvement. But watching for that will be more critical to Ohio State's 2015 prospects than whatever happens with the quarterbacks.

2. Student attendance is an issue for several Big Ten schools and one Adam Rittenberg addressed in the blog a year ago. Recently, Iowa and Michigan lowered prices on their student season tickets in part to lure students back in.

The Cedar Rapids Gazette's Marc Morehouse has a look at student ticket prices throughout the league and how Iowa compares. After Michigan's reduction, Ohio State tops the conference at $272 for student season tickets, while Penn State is second at $218. Supply and demand appear to be at work here, as those two schools have the largest and most energetic student sections in the Big Ten.

Six other schools have remaining ticket packages that top $100 for the season. Maybe I'm old (check that: I am really old) but I don't remember having that kind of extra spending money lying around when I was a college student. Maybe we shouldn't criticize student for not turning out at some of these places but applaud the ones who make the effort and pay the expense to do so. Just a thought.

Around the league:
Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett, and Cardale JonesGetty ImagesThe three-headed QB monster should hurt only opponents ... until Urban Meyer picks a starter.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The paths may all be separate for now for Ohio State's trio of quarterbacks, but eventually they're all going to lead to the same place.

In a couple of months, Braxton Miller won't be limited to going through warmups or just throwing lightly on the side of the practice field. The two-time Big Ten Player of the Year should have all the strength back in his surgically repaired shoulder by the summer, and he's not returning to play a different position.

Sometime soon, maybe even ahead of schedule at his current pace, J.T. Barrett won't have to sit out when quarterbacks are required to run around as he recovers from his fractured ankle. The reigning Big Ten Quarterback of the Year was already throwing during parts of practice when the Buckeyes opened camp on Tuesday, and even in a limited sampling he appeared to be delivering the football the way a fifth-place finisher in the Heisman Trophy race should.

And while those two journeys back to full health are taking place, Cardale Jones is progressing in his own way, continuing life leading the first-team offense after his charmed run through the postseason on the way to the national title. He may still have a small body of work, but considering his three-game winning streak in the biggest outings of the year and his impressive physical attributes, the chance to add even more reps without sharing much with Miller or Barrett could be invaluable.

[+] EnlargeCardale Jones
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesThe deep ball and his physical running style make Cardale Jones a unique signal-caller.
At some point, the Buckeyes are going to have to pick just one. Urban Meyer knows it and doesn't appear to be looking forward to handing down a verdict, though the Ohio State coach is making clear that a quarterback derby that might come with unprecedented scrutiny is impossible to evaluate evenly at the moment. And until his options are all on the same road, there's no reason to worry about who is driving.

"I’ve never been in this situation," Meyer said after practice Tuesday morning. "I think it's unique. I’ve had it at other positions where all of a sudden you have three or four really good receivers, but you play more than one at a time.

"I think at some point there will be some [pressure] because of the great respect I have for those three guys, and it’s a position where you only play one. ... For me, there’s no stress at all as far as the functionality of the position. It’s the personalities, families, people involved."

Meyer tried to downplay the difficulty of sorting through his decorated candidates, and during spring practice, there's no reason for him to really rush it. Until all the restrictions on Miller's shoulder and Barrett's ankle are lifted, the choice is easy for the Buckeyes. Not to mention Jones has proven more than capable of taking control of the attack.

But for all of his intense focus and the way Meyer emphasized trying just to get to the next practice, he did acknowledge at some point he'll have to solve a problem that most coaches would love to have and that it won't be easy -- even if he's confident there is no wrong answer.

Miller's athleticism is beyond question, even if a year away might have dimmed some of the memories of what his electrifying mobility can do to defenders. Barrett's ability to distribute the ball and manage the spread offense produced record-breaking offensive numbers. And the incredible arm strength Jones brought to the passing attack stretched defenses thin, with his size and strength making him a load to bring down as a rusher.

The Buckeyes can surely keep winning with any of the three. But at some point Meyer is going to have to tell two of them they aren't starting, and that more than anything appears to be his biggest hangup.

"If I disliked one or two of them, it would not be that hard," Meyer said. "I have a lot of respect for those guys, and everybody around here has seen what they’ve done. That’s the only [tough] thing that I can see happening, but it’s not right now, we’re not even focused on that.

"I want to see [Miller] get healthy, J.T. get healthy and Cardale continue to improve."

The three talented options are obviously all on those respective roads now. Once they finally arrive at the same intersection then things will really get interesting for Meyer and the Buckeyes.
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Marty Smith reports from Columbus, where the inaugural CFP champion Ohio State Buckeyes took the field for spring practice and coach Urban Meyer spoke about the team's quarterback situation.

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