STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Spring practice has just begun for Penn State, but James Franklin already knows the keys for the Nittany Lions this offseason: offensive line and middle linebacker.
It’s really no secret. On offense, the line is without its most experienced asset in NFL draft hopeful Donovan Smith – and, even with him, PSU ranked No. 118 nationally last season in tackles-for-loss allowed (7.54 per game). On defense, PSU needs to replace its top leader in departing senior and All-B1G athlete Mike Hull.
“I think that’s clearly our challenge on defense,” Franklin said prior to Friday's first practice, “not just because of the football player Mike Hull was, but also his leadership and the position he played, being the quarterback of the defense.”
PSU will seek to fill his presence with some combination of three players: returning OLB starter Nyeem Wartman, redshirt junior Gary Wooten and talented-but-injury prone Ben Kline. Wartman is believed to have the inside track on the job due to his experience – although Franklin declined to name an early favorite.
But defense isn’t a huge concern for Linebacker U, especially considering the return of defensive coordinator Bob Shoop and his second-ranked total defense. The real worry this spring, the unit all eyes will be on, is once again the offensive line.
Only six offensive lines in the FBS allowed more sacks in 2014, and only produced fewer rushing yards. But, despite the numbers, Franklin is looking at the positive.
“Last year, at this point, we had two returning starters in the start of spring ball,” he said. “Had a bunch of new faces in there with a new system. It’s completely different.”
Now, PSU finally at least boasts a two-deep on the line and returns six players with some starting experience. That’s still far from ideal – Franklin preferably would teach players in the system for two seasons before starting them as redshirt sophomores – but that depth is not yet established.
The line has still made strides when it comes to experience, as the two DTs-turned-OGs now have a year under their belts, and graduate transfer Kevin Reihner will enroll sometime after spring practice. Obviously that means good news for the running game -- but it might just mean better news for someone else.
“There’s nobody that is happier about this group returning and the strides they’ve made than Mr. and Mrs. Hackenberg,” Franklin said with a smile, referring to the parents of quarterback Christian Hackenberg. “I’m excited about them. I know [OL coach] Herb [Hand] is excited about working with them. I know they’re so much more confident mentally and physically.”
After the spring’s second practice on Saturday, Franklin said it was still too early to gauge the exact progress of the line and linebackers – “hard to evaluate truly without pads on” – but he remains hopeful for the spring.
He’s already noticed an improvement in his team’s footwork and assignments. The next step is simply fostering more competition until the spring game April 18.
The picture? A photoshopped rendition of a black-and-red Ohio State uniform, something not yet in the Buckeyes' repertoire. "How Sick Would This Be," Jones wrote.
A special uniform like that would be long (and somewhat) overdue for the Buckeyes. Rumors of a black alternate uniform circulated last season before Urban Meyer halted the fun by saying there were no such plans. Still, Meyer said he would be fine with it "somewhere down the road."
It's definitely pretty slick. But, for whatever reason, it just seems like black is a great choice for a uniform. (Just ask Iowa fans.) Twitter was aflutter just three months ago for a similar wardrobe change at Penn State. Defensive back Jordan Lucas and running back Akeel Lynch excited the fan base with this Photoshop, and James Franklin was eventually asked about the possibility. The answer? Possibly, but time moves slow on uniform changes.
Maybe we'll see something similar in The Horseshoe soon enough. Or maybe schools should open up some sort of concept contest to fans because there's been some cool-looking mock-ups floating around. (Hint, hint, Maryland.)
Now, on to the links ...
- If Nebraska DE Joe Keels was a bust last season, he had his reasons -- he learned his brother and father were killed in separate incidents on back-to-back days.
- Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott is one of seven finalists for the Sullivan Award, which goes to the nation's top amateur athlete.
- Retired ex-Wisconsin LB Chris Borland will return three-fourths of his signing bonus to the San Francisco 49ers.
- Illinois QB Wes Lunt is welcoming the pressure.
- Michigan WR Devin Funchess says he's still not 100 percent because of a severe toe injury that occurred during the season.
- Quarterback Jake Rudock could still transfer to Michigan, and his former high school coach called him a "tremendous leader."
- Michigan State running back Jeremy Langford wants to remain in-state at the next level by landing with the Detroit Lions in the NFL.
- Redshirt freshman DeAndre Thompkins is one of a handful of standouts early on in Penn State's spring practice, according to coach James Franklin.
- One blog believes Minnesota RB David Cobb could be a "mid-to-late round steal" in the NFL draft.
- Several former Rutgers football players took part in a charity basketball game over the weekend, hosted by ex-LB Antonio Lowery.
James Franklin's squad ended the 2014 season on a high note -- overcoming a two-TD deficit to shock Boston College in Pinstripe Bowl overtime -- and it is hoping to build off that in 2015.
The schedule is aligned pretty well for the Lions this season. Its nonconference slate includes a slew of cupcakes (Temple, Buffalo, San Diego State, Army), and a 6-0 start certainly isn't out of the question. That's one of the reasons we named Penn State one of two potential Cinderellas this season.
But, of course, there's this whole matter of getting through the spring first ...
Spring schedule: Practice begins this wintry Friday and continues on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays until the annual scrimmage. (PSU will also practice the Friday before the scrimmage.). The annual Blue-White Game will take place 4 p.m. ET on Saturday, April 18, and remains free and open to the public. Parking is also free.
What's new? For the first time since the spring of 2011, there isn't a whole lot of change to the coaching staff. Actually, outside of new graduate assistants and a re-shuffling of some administration, there's nothing new to report. Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop turned down an offer from LSU and signed a new deal with Penn State, and defensive line coach Sean Spencer decided to stick with the Lions despite a "dramatic raise" elsewhere. For the first time in any current player's career, the entire coaching staff returns.
Biggest question: It's the same as last season -- what kind of liability will this offensive line be? Only six offensive lines allowed more sacks last season, and only eight sprang their running backs to fewer rushing yards. Assistant Herb Hand is widely regarded as a solid offensive line coach, but he's no magician. There wasn't enough talent, depth or experience on the roster last season, and this line still has its fair share of question marks once again this season. Left tackle Donovan Smith declared early for the NFL draft, so PSU will need to find a replacement this spring. (Junior-college transfer Paris Palmer is among the candidates.) How much progress can PSU's line make? And how will PSU fill the void left by Smith? Those are two very important questions this spring.
Three things we want to see:
1. Christian Hackenberg shaking off last season and taking time with his throws: Give the passer credit for not throwing in the towel and blaming his offensive line for his struggles last season. He's still a great quarterback -- one with top-10 potential in next year's draft -- but he has to rebound mentally from last season and not react as if he's going to get hit every play. That's primarily what it boils down to this spring. He's a smart player and, when he's on, few are better.
2. Someone filling MLB Mike Hull's shoes: Hull was the heartbeat of the 2014 team, and it might take more than one player to fill his leadership role. That being said, for now, we're more interested in who'll be taking his MLB spot. Franklin mentioned three candidates on Tuesday -- Nyeem Wartman, Gary Wooten and Ben Kline -- and Wartman should be considered the early favorite since he started outside last season. The earlier this position is decided, the better it is for Penn State. Wartman has always been a hard tackler, and he could be in store for a breakout 2015.
3. A maturing group of wide receivers: This is the position that was big on talent but short on experience last season. And that should change at least a bit. DaeSean Hamilton, an All-B1G selection, returns as the primary target -- but there's no telling who might end up as the No. 2. Geno Lewis is athletic but inconsistent, and several highly-recruited players are looking to vye for more time. Sophomores Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall showed flashes as first-year players last season, and strong springs for them mean better times are ahead for Hackenberg.
It’s time once again to start winding down your week with the last edition of the #B1GFridayFive. Take a few minutes at halftime during the NCAA Tournament to check out this week’s post and share your thoughts on our picks with social media. Join the conversation by using the hashtag and giving us your opinions directly by following @BennettESPN, @MitchSherman, @ESPNJoshMoyer, @DanMurphyESPN, @ESPNRittenberg, @AWardESPN, @TomVH and @ESPN_BigTen.
This week has already had its share of memorable buzzer-beaters thanks to the NCAA tourney. In honor of the excitement, we compile a list of five last-second victories in Big Ten football games that are sure to make you fall out of your chair.
Some ground rules: We stuck to games within the last 25 years to make sure we could provide you with video evidence, because what fun is a Hail Mary win without listening to the home team’s radio announcer lose his mind when describing it? All games also had to be between conference opponents. So you won’t find Iowa’s comeback against LSU in the 2005 Capital One Bowl or other classics like this one or this one.
With those qualifications in mind, here are our five favorite dramatic finishes in the Big Ten in chronological order.
1. Ohio State def. Iowa, 27-26, Nov. 10, 1990
Trailing by five, the Buckeyes had less than a minute to go 48 yards and complete a comeback against Hayden Fry’s Hawkeyes. Iowa was ranked No. 6 in the nation and had yet to lose a conference game that season. Ohio State quarterback Greg Frey worked his team down to the 3-yard line before connecting with receiver Bobby Olive, who managed to squeeze both feet to the ground in front of the end line for a game-winning score with one second left on the clock.
2. Minnesota def. Penn State, 24-23, Nov. 6, 1999
No. 2 Penn State invited Minnesota to Happy Valley for its homecoming in 1999. The Gophers had not been to a bowl game since 1986. But Dan Nystrom’s 32-yard field goal as time expired at Beaver Stadium changed all of that. Minnesota got its sixth win to qualify for the postseason. The Nittany Lions lost the two games that followed and fell to the Alamo Bowl instead of getting a shot at a national title.
3. Iowa def. Penn State, 24-23, Nov. 8, 2008
Nine years later, almost to the day, history repeated itself for Penn State fans. Their Lions were 9-0, ranked No. 3 and hoping to get Joe Paterno a national championship late in his career. A middle-of-the-pack Iowa team derailed those plans. Running back Shonn Greene put the Hawkeyes within striking distance with a fourth-quarter touchdown to make the score 23-21 with nine minutes to play. An interception gave the Hawkeyes a final drive late in the game and Daniel Murray finished the upset with a 31-yard field goal.
4. Michigan State def. Wisconsin, 37-31, Oct. 22, 2011
Kirk Cousins connected with Keith Nichol a true Hail Mary play to upset the Badgers in a meeting between ranked teams. The 44-yard pass ricocheted off one Spartans receiver in the end zone and dropped into Nichols’ arms at the 1-yard line. He wrestled his way toward the end zone, but was marked down just shy of the goal line. Referees reviewed the play and saw that Nichols had broken the plane before a pair of Wisconsin defenders threw him backward.
5. Nebraska def. Northwestern, 27-24, Nov. 2, 2013
What a scene in Lincoln, baby! That was the Nebraska radio call when Jordan Westerkamp pulled in a tipped ball on the final play of a 27-24 win over Northwestern in 2013. Ron Kellogg threw a 50-yard pass that skipped off of a pile of players at the goal line and on to Westerkamp who was waiting behind the crowd. The win gave the Huskers a 6-2 record. It was just another week for the Wildcats, who lost seven straight that season including overtime defeats in the week before and after the heartbreaker in Lincoln.
Honorable mention: Michigan State def. Ohio State, 16-13, Nov. 9, 1974
You can’t mention Big Ten buzzer-beaters without including one of the more bizarre finishes in conference history. Ohio State, led by eventual Heisman winner Archie Griffin, was undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the country. Michigan State held an improbable field goal lead late in the fourth quarter, but Griffin and the Buckeyes had one final drive. Spartan coach Duffy Daugherty told his players to expect Woody Hayes to go for the win rather than kick a field goal.
The Buckeyes drove down to the 1-yard line with less than 30 seconds remaining. Their first attempt from that distance fell just short. The players scrambled back into position for one final play. It crossed the goal line but referees said time had expired before the snap. Big Ten commissioner Wayne Duke, who was at the game, forced both teams to stay in the stadium while he chased down the referees for an explanation. Forty-six minutes later, without the benefit of instant replay, they decided there was no buzzer-beater. Michigan State held on to win.
Throughout this week, all sorts of columnists and experts have chimed in with their opinions on Chris Borland's decision to retire. It's either the start of a trend, or the start of nothing. A significant and symbolic move, or a trivial decision in the grand scheme.
I'm not going to share my opinion -- every stance has already been expressed -- but I will pass on one that I feel deserves to be read.
Take a look at this essay by ex-Penn State offensive guard John Urschel: "Why I Play Football." Maybe no one in the NFL has more on the line than him. He's been published in major journals, graduated with a 4.0 GPA, and is intent on earning a chess title. Basically, by all accounts, he boasts a brain that seems more befitting a brain surgeon than a brawny ballplayer.
He doesn't need football. He says as much. He could make a living in mathematics instead of hitting grown men for a living. So, why does someone with so much on the line keep playing? Why does he keep risking his future on the present? His words:
"What my mother and a great majority of my friends, family, and fellow mathematicians don’t understand is that I’m not playing for the money. I’m not playing for some social status associated with being an elite athlete. No, the media has not brainwashed me into thinking this is what real men do. ... I play because I love the game. I love hitting people. There’s a rush you get when you go out on the field, lay everything on the line and physically dominate the player across from you. This is a feeling I’m (for lack of a better word) addicted to, and I’m hard-pressed to find anywhere else."
You can call him idealistic, but don't call him dishonest. Maybe no player's take is more relevant.
Urschel's words might not hold true for all players. Heck, maybe that truth is different for each player. But it's a take worth reading.
He ends with: "Simply put, right now, not playing football isn’t an option for me. And for that reason, I truly envy Chris Borland."
Now, on to the links ...
- Tanner McEvoy is ready to make an impact at safety for Wisconsin. Barry Alvarez discusses Borland's decision to retire.
- Defensive line coach Greg Mattison is fitting in just fine with the new Michigan staff.
- Indiana tight end Jordan Fuchs joined the basketball team in February and has been a physical presence at practice.
- Former Penn State tight end Matt Lehman worked at a pizza shop while preparing for one more shot at the NFL.
- The Hawkeyes' recruiting spending mushroomed between 2009 and 2013, from $240K to $477K, and only Penn State experienced a greater increase.
- Michigan State linebacker Taiwan Jones improved on his combine numbers and said he felt relaxed "back at home."
- The Nebraska freshman who blocked a punt in the Holiday Bowl, Kieron Williams, is intent on earning the starting job at safety.
- Ex-Rutgers star Brian Leonard said his NFL future remains "up in the air."
Those projections didn’t deter either underclassman. They said on Thursday afternoon – the first time they spoke publicly since their decisions – they simply felt they were ready. It didn’t matter what the board said.
“No, I don’t regret it at all,” Barnes said, when asked if he’d reconsider had he known he wouldn’t receive an invitation to the NFL combine. “It wasn’t a quick decision.”
Said James: “I just felt prepared. I sent my thing into the advisory board and they told me to go back to school, but I had confidence in myself that I would succeed and that I would do good throughout this process.”
Left tackle Donovan Smith also declared early – and received criticism from at least one scout for doing so – but left before speaking with the media. It’s the first time, at least in the modern era, that three junior PSU starters declared early for the NFL draft.
Those decisions led to plenty of question marks and second-guessing. But Barnes and James – who’ve seen four head-coaching changes, including the interims, in the last four years -- dispelled any notion they left because of program differences or scheme disagreements. Ultimately, they said, it came down to the same question: Why stay if you feel ready now?
“It doesn’t matter what other people say,” James said. “It’s all about how you feel about yourself. And I feel prepared.”
Barnes and James looked prepared during Thursday’s pro day, where 30 of 32 teams attended. (Seattle and Detroit were the only no-shows.) James – who came in at 6-foot-7.1 inches and 262 pounds – pumped his arms and said he ran the 40-yard dash in the 4.65-second range. (He ran a 4.83 at the combine.) That 40 time would’ve tied him for second-best at the NFL combine, alongside Ohio State’s Jeff Heuerman and South Alabama’s Wes Saxton.
Barnes might have turned more heads, as this was the first time scouts watched him perform in shorts. Several alumni and assistants hooted and hollered as Barnes performed 31 reps during the bench press. That would’ve been second-best among defensive ends at the combine, behind only Florida State’s Mario Edwards Jr., who did 32.
Barnes said he’s not setting his sights on a particular round; he just wants to get a shot to play football. James? He’s a bit more ambitious. He’s currently ranked as Mel Kiper Jr.'s eighth-best tight end, but James wants to be the first TE off the board.
The pair won’t find out where they go until April 30-May 2, when the draft takes place in Chicago. Until then, they’ll both continue moving on from Penn State – because, they insisted, it’s time. They’re ready.
“If I felt I wasn’t prepared for the next level,” James said, “I would’ve stayed.”
Added Barnes: “I felt like I was physically, mentally ready. I felt like it was that time.”
It’s that time of year when American sports fans inevitably find a new underdog to celebrate. March Madness has a steady history of producing upsets and unexpected runs because of the nature of the tournament. In college football it’s much tougher to dethrone the powers that be, but there are a couple teams that have the potential to play a Cinderella role in the Big Ten next fall.
Despite scratching out a bowl win in their return to the postseason last season, the Nittany Lions never threatened to return to the top of the conference during James Franklin’s first season. They could be primed for a run this season, thanks to a forgiving schedule and some undervalued talent.
Penn State’s biggest weakness in 2014 was its offensive line. That group still has work to do, but if it can find a groove the rest of the roster is in good shape. Franklin has added good depth to a wide receiver corps with a pair of returning standouts in Geno Lewis and DaeSean Hamilton. They have an NFL-caliber quarterback throwing to them and one of the country’s top defenses on the other side of the ball.
The 2015 schedule should give the offensive line time to figure things out. Penn State has a good chance to start 6-0 before traveling to Columbus in October. Even with a loss to Ohio State, a 9-1 record heading into pivotal games against Michigan and Michigan State to close the season is very realistic. A couple wins against the East Division’s three evil stepsisters (OK, two evil stepsisters and a third threatening to return to her evil ways soon) would qualify the Nittany Lions for Cinderella status.
Minnesota, with facilities that qualify as a hollowed-out pumpkin when compared to some of its competition, has strung together consecutive eight-win seasons. The Gophers are a threat to get over the hump in the West Division because of their ability to keep games close.
Quarterback Mitch Leidner returns with an offense that needs to find new playmakers. If the Gophers can find another workhorse at running back, they should be able to continue to shorten games and keep up with more talented opponents -- like they did in a seven-point loss to Ohio State last November. Leidner needs to improve the passing attack to give the offense a chance to make big plays and pull out those types of upsets late in the game.
The teams to beat in the West -- Nebraska and Wisconsin -- both have new coaching staffs this season, which opens a window for the Gophers. Midnight might come for this group in October, when they have to face the Cornhuskers, Michigan and Ohio State in three straight games.
Here in the throes of March Madness, football takes a temporary backseat, especially for the Big Ten schools involved in the NCAA tournament.
(In 30 seconds, name the league’s seven men’s basketball teams vying for the big prize. Scroll down for the answer.)
They’re still talking football in Iowa, even as the state’s three basketball programs compete in the tournament. The cost of football recruiting, to be more exact.
The Des Moines Register examined recruiting costs associated with campus visits and coaches’ travel, finding that Iowa nearly doubled its spending over a five-year period that ended in 2013. The 98.7-percent increase ranked second in the Big Ten to Penn State over that same time.
Interestingly, the Hawkeyes still trailed rival Iowa State by more than $100,000 on recruiting expenditures in 2013, and spent 35 percent less than ISU over the five years.
Of the spending increase, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz told the Register: "It’s really a national trend. I think everybody’s being a little more aggressive than they used to be."
It’s a good sign for Iowa that it’s trying to keep pace. The Hawkeyes and Ferentz, entering his 17th season, are too often slow to adjust at times. Over the five years of gathered data, Iowa ranks 10th in the Big Ten in total spending on recruiting.
To reverse its current trajectory on the field, Iowa would be well served to rank higher than 10th over the next five years.
Here’s the full list of schools nationally, as compiled by USA Today. Just wondering, but how did Auburn spend nearly $1.4 million on recruiting in 2013 when more than 80 percent of its signees in 2013 and 2014 lived within the SEC footprint?
A final aside on recruiting expenses: Though they offer an excellent window into these programs, be careful about comparisons.
Air travel, the most significant recruiting expense, is classified by programs in different ways. Some schools own planes, jetting coaches from coast to coast; others receive donated private air time; others rely solely on commercial travel.
And here is your answer to the above question: Ohio State and Purdue play Thursday. Michigan State, Indiana, Maryland, Iowa, and Wisconsin take the court Friday. Enjoy the basketball.
Let's go around the rest of the league:
- No school nationally can match Wisconsin's combined run of postseason appearances in football and basketball.
- Meet Scarlet Gray Victory, the baby girl named after Ohio State's national title.
- Pro day at Michigan State drew an impressive crowd and went well for projected first-rounder Trae Waynes.
- A spring assessment of the Michigan linebackers.
- Here is a guide to spring practice at Penn State.
- A 27-year-old former Rutgers fullback continues to chase his dream of playing in the NFL.
- A recruit with a familiar name joins the Minnesota class for 2016 at linebacker.
- No one will mistake him for Randy Gregory, but Nebraska defensive end Jack Gangwish plans to fill big shoes for the Huskers.
- Versatile athlete Gelen Robinson looks ready to step into a big role for Purdue as a defensive end.
- Illinois' young receivers are seeking more growth in spring practice.
We're straight trippin' here at the Big Ten blog this week.
And by that, we mean we're coming up with the ultimate road trip for the 2015 season, picking the game each we week we'd attend if travel and editorial decisions were no issue. We're up to Week 3 right now, and here are the options:
Sat. Sept. 19
Western Kentucky at Indiana
South Florida at Maryland
UNLV at Michigan
Air Force at Michigan State
Kent State at Minnesota
Northern Illinois at Ohio State
Rutgers at Penn State
Troy at Wisconsin
Northwestern at Duke
Nebraska at Miami (Fla.)
Illinois at North Carolina
Pittsburgh at Iowa
Virginia Tech at Purdue
Mitch Sherman’s pick: Rutgers at Penn State
Since the Big Ten remains behind much of the rest of college football in scheduling early season league games – they’re coming eventually – this is the best we get for the second straight year. In a game scheduled before Rutgers joined the Big Ten, this matchup did not disappoint in 2014 as Christian Hackenberg led the Nittany Lions on a late drive to win 13-10 and spoil the Scarlet Knights’ league debut. The rematch should feature a pair of 2-0 teams and will mark Rutgers’ first trip to Beaver Stadium since 1994. It’s also, surprisingly, the first time Penn State has opened Big Ten play at home since 2009.
Dan Murphy's pick: Rutgers at Penn State
Rutgers and Penn State get conference play underway early in the season for the second year in a row. The trip to Miami is hard to pass up, but there aren't many big names coming to Happy Valley this year and that stadium is worth an annual trip. This matchup -- which proved to be an exciting one in 2014 -- will be Penn State's first test and its only real measuring stick before a mid-October trip to Ohio State.
Austin Ward's pick: Nebraska at Miami
The stakes might not be as high between the storied programs anymore, and they played each other last season at Nebraska. But there is still something special about the Hurricanes and Huskers hooking up, and without all that many appealing matchups between Power 5 opponents on the schedule, this one figures to be the most entertaining of the weekend. It might even provide a hint as to which traditional power is closest to returning to compete again on a national scale.
Brian Bennett: Nebraska at Miami
Miami home games usually have about as much atmosphere as a first-round at a senior PGA golf tournament. But Big Red travels everywhere and will help fill up the stands for the Hurricanes. Miami still has a lot of talent and will put it together one day, while this is the first big road test for Mike Riley as Nebraska's coach. Plus, I'm not going to lie: slipping over to South Beach the day before the game is slightly appealing.
Week 1: Bennett and Murphy at Ohio State-Virginia Tech; Ward at Michigan-Utah; Moyer at Wisconsin-Alabama
Week 2: Unanimous: Oregon at Michigan State
Hitting the links before diving headfirst into the brackets ...
1. Penn State coach James Franklin offered a preview of spring practice on Tuesday, and one of the most interesting developments to come out of it was the official revelation that cornerback Jordan Lucas is moving to safety.
Lucas has started the past two years at corner and has been excellent at the position. But Franklin said that while Lucas has the talent to play cornerback in the NFL, he has a chance to "be special" at safety.
The move had been hinted at earlier this offseason. Penn State is light at safety after Adrian Amos, Ryan Keiser and Jesse Della Valle all graduated, but it is flush with young talent at corner. Lucas should make a relatively smooth transition to safety, and at this point, you have to give Bob Shoop the benefit of the doubt on all matters pertaining to defense.
2. Michigan State's task of replacing ultra-productive running back Jeremy Langford might have gotten a little more difficult.
The team's leading returning rusher, sophomore Delton Williams, was suspended from all team activities on Tuesday by head coach Mark Dantonio. He was charged with brandishing a firearm in an apparent road rage incident on Monday night (side note: is the word brandishing ever used with anything else but a weapon?).
Williams reportedly had a permit for the handgun, and the charge is only a misdemeanor. However, Michigan State's code of conduct prohibits any guns on campus property, so some serious university sanctions could be coming as well.
Williams, who ran for 316 yards and five touchdowns last season, was seen as the early frontrunner to replace Langford. For at least the time being, sophomore Gerald Holmes is the most experienced returning back with 44 rushing yards last season. Redshirt freshman Madre London and true freshman L.J. Scott could also take on bigger responsibilities.
Another Michigan State player -- receiver Macgarrett Kings Jr. -- was arrested late last month on drunken and disorderly charges. The Spartans don't start spring practice until next week, and hopefully no more players will make bad decisions before then.
Around the Big Ten ...
- Wisconsin's Corey Clement is dealing with yet another coaching change. Former Badgers teammates react to Chris Borland's surprising decision to retire.
- Michigan passing game coordinator Jedd Fisch is excited about the Wolverines' returning wide receivers. John Baxter has a unique philosophy for Michigan's special teams.
- Minnesota likes its linebacker depth this spring.
- Nebraska offensive lineman Zach Hannon is making strides after dropping some pounds.
- The On Iowa podcast takes a look at the C.J. Beathard era.
- Previewing the offensive line this spring for Indiana.
- Some potential wide receiver recruits for Ohio State.
Former Penn State president Graham Spanier is suing former FBI chief Louis J. Freeh for defamation and tortious interference and Penn State University for breach of contract, according to a complaint filed Wednesday afternoon in Centre County, Pennsylvania.
The 140-page lawsuit accuses Freeh and his law firm, Freeh Sporkin & Sullivan, of "knowingly and maliciously" publishing "false and defamatory" statements about Spanier in the July 2012 Freeh report that accused the longtime PSU president of being part of a cover-up of child sex abuse by retired assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.
Spanier, 66, filed his civil lawsuit while waiting to stand trial on charges of perjury, endangering the welfare of children, obstruction of justice, failure to report child abuse, conspiracy to commit perjury and conspiracy to endanger the welfare of children.
"By all accounts, Dr. Spanier was one of the most honored and decorated university presidents with a sterling reputation before Freeh and Penn State published these false conclusions," said Libby Locke, a lawyer for Spanier and a partner at Clare Locke in Alexandria, Virginia. "Dr. Spanier knows that he is innocent. And once an impartial jury has the opportunity to weigh the full body of evidence -- not just Freeh's one-sided presentation of it -- Dr. Spanier is confident that the public will know it, too."
Officials from Penn State declined comment; Freeh's office said he was traveling and not available for comment.
The complaint also accuses "certain members" of Penn State's board of trustees of making "disparaging statements" about Spanier in the weeks and months following Sandusky's arrest in November 2011.
Spanier served as Penn State's president from 1995 through 2011.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- For the first time since 2011, Penn State finally has some stability this spring.
No current player has experienced back-to-back springs with the same head coach and coordinators. None have seen the entire staff of assistants return. And none have really had a chance to get comfortable with a system.
They finally do now -- although it was revealed Tuesday that it might have been a closer call than some imagined. Turns out defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, who reportedly interviewed with LSU before accepting a new PSU deal, wasn’t the only assistant being courted.
"Bob is the guy that it became a big story, but we got a bunch of guys on our staff that got offers and opportunities to move on and turned it down," James Franklin said during a Tuesday news conference. "[DL coach] Sean Spencer is a guy I’m so appreciative of and so proud of, because he got an offer with a dramatic raise at a school people would consider a historic school and turned it down without even telling me. I found out from the other coaches."
Franklin declined to mention the specific school that Spencer received an offer from, but it hasn’t been uncommon to see Franklin’s assistants earn offers outside the program. One news outlet stumped for offensive line coach Herb Hand this offseason as Tulsa's new head coach, and Hand was a candidate as Vanderbilt’s head coach last winter. Linebackers coach Brent Pry also turned down a head-coaching job at Georgia Southern last January to stick with Franklin.
"I think that’s a great example of the commitment that our guys have to this program, to the university ... and to our players," Franklin said. “That’s Bob, that’s Sean, that’s a number of them. I could go on and on.
"The fact we were able to keep them all together -- and the administrative staff -- keeping all those people intact is really important."
That continuity is undoubtedly important to these players. Franklin noticed a "wall" last season when he first joined Penn State, and it took some time to break that down and breed familiarity and trust. As a further example, Franklin said he spoke with guard/center Angelo Mangiro on Monday, and the redshirt senior commented about how he never before went through a cadence snapping the ball. Until Franklin, that is.
Now, thanks to that stability, there is a foundation to build on when spring practice starts Friday. A foundation that most of the roster hasn’t yet experienced.
"That stability and that continuity that we saw here at Penn State for a long time, we want to try to be able to do it as well, because we know how valuable it is," Franklin said. "... Joe was here for 62 years, and I was here 62 weeks. Got a long way to go."
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Historically, the Big Ten hasn’t been a great passing conference.
How bad has it been? Well, when it comes to producing 2,500-yard passers, we crunched the numbers and found that no Power 5 conference has had fewer -- either in 2014 or over the past five seasons -- than the ground-and-pound conference.
Over the past five years, there has been a wide gulf between the B1G and everybody else. Even when you take all the B1G realignment into account, a B1G team produces a 2,500-yard quarterback at less than a 40 percent clip. Compare that to the Pac-12 (68.3 percent) or even the SEC (48.6 percent), and it’s not too pretty.
But it’s not all doom-and-gloom for the Big Ten. This season should put an end -- at least temporarily -- to those poor passing numbers. Three returning Big Ten signal-callers reached the milestone last season and are near-locks to surpass 2,500 yards again: Michigan State’s Connor Cook, Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg, and Nebraska’s Tommy Armstrong.
Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett also surpassed 2,500 yards in 2014, although there is no telling what his numbers might be with a crowded race under center. Still, boasting three NFL-caliber quarterbacks on the same roster should merit some extra credit.
On top of those four returners, healthy quarterbacks like Nate Sudfeld and Wes Lunt have great opportunities for 2,500 yards, and Iowa was just 64 yards shy last season after C.J. Beathard split time with Jake Rudock. With Rudock seeking a transfer, that passing mark seems more attainable this season. Maryland also would have achieved the feat last season if C.J. Brown had remained healthy, so Caleb Rowe could very well end the Terps’ seven-year drought this season.
Other teams need to settle on their quarterbacks first. And no one is expecting Wisconsin or Minnesota to become pass-first teams overnight. But trends like this tend to happen in cycles, and it looks as if the Big Ten is finally on an upswing in 2015.
It’s basically the opposite message from last week, with the 1,000-yard rushing club. The Big Ten had a great 2014, and it likely won’t equal that rushing performance again in 2015. With passing, it saw only five of 14 starting quarterbacks surpass 2,500 yards last season -- again, the worst among the Power 5, by far -- but it would be a huge surprise if it didn’t improve upon that number.
Now, our most recent chart doesn’t necessarily measure passing success. Two- and three-quarterback systems, signal-caller battles and injured players tend to blur those numbers, but this should be a memorable year for the B1G through the air. If Purdue, Michigan, Northwestern or Rutgers can settle on a starter and get off to a quick start, it could be even better.
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.
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...
- Northwestern’s star freshman back Justin Jackson will likely miss the rest of spring practice with a lower body injury.
- Mike Riley hired a former Oregon State staffer to run the walk-on program at Nebraska.
- Braxton Miller has avoided the media since his shoulder injury in August. Updates on the former Buckeye starter’s rehab are hard to come by.
- Spring practice is only a few days away for Wisconsin. Here are some players to watch for Badgers fans.
- Penn State’s offensive line took a positive step forward in the weight room this winter.
- Devin Funchess knocked more than two-tenths of a second off his 40-yard dash at Michigan's pro day.
- Rutgers fullback Michael Burton might be playing himself into the NFL Draft after this week’s pro day performance.
- How will Jake Rudock's reported departure affect the Iowa offense?
- Michigan State is targeting an Ohio cornerback to join its 2016 recruiting class.
BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
TBD Southern Illinois Indiana TBD Illinois State Iowa TBD Richmond Maryland TBD BYU Nebraska TBD Norfolk State Rutgers TBD Penn State Temple TBD Wisconsin Alabama TBD Stanford Northwestern