We talked about Illinois’ Red Grange and Minnesota’s Bronko Nagurski. We even mentioned modern players like Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne and Purdue’s Drew Brees. But there’s one guy I feel we skipped over, one player who has never really gotten the due he deserves.
Michigan running back Willie Heston (1901-1904).
Maybe you’ve heard of him; maybe not. BTN’s Dave Revsine wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal earlier this week and mentioned player compensation and past precedents like “Willie Heston Cigars.” Adam Rittenberg recently alluded to the same anecdote, as well. But Heston is not exactly a household name.
Sure, you’ve heard plenty about other old-time legends, like Yale’s Walter Camp and Notre Dame’s Knute Rockne. But what about Heston? Why should you care? Well, Camp named him to four of his All-American teams (two on his first team). And Heston was so good, give a listen as to what Rockne had to say about him:
“Willie Heston gets my vote as the greatest back of all-time. Since those days many wonderful backs have flashed on the gridiron, including Red Grange and my own Four Horsemen of 1924, and my choice is still Heston.”
That’s right – one of college football’s coaching legends just said Heston was better than Grange. That’s high praise. But look at the numbers. In Grange’s career, which spanned from 1923 to 1925, he finished with 2,071 rushing yards, 5.3 yards a carry and 34 total touchdowns. Heston? 2,339 rushing yards, 8.4 yards a carry and 72 touchdowns.
Still not impressed? Well, did I mention most of Heston's rushing stats only came from 17 – let me emphasize that again, 17 – of Heston’s career games, since the NCAA couldn’t confirm numbers from them all? Some estimate Heston actually rushed for 5,000 yards in his career; others go as high as 7,000 yards.
Heston’s on-field exploits read like a comic book hero's. He could reportedly outrun gold medalist Archie Hahn in short races, he helped Michigan win four national titles and outscore opponents – this isn’t a typo – during his career by 2,326 to 40. He went 43-0-1 in four years and was just as tough on defense.
I’ll stop listing details before you start accusing me of hyperbole. But I’m sure by now you’re wondering why on earth you don’t know the Wolverines’ Superman. Well, when Heston played, we were still nearly 20 years away from the official start to the NFL. Heston tried his hand at coaching following his U-M career, then went into law and real estate.
In many ways, his football career – at least the most important part of it – lasted just four seasons. That counts for something when it comes to seeping into the national consciousness. If that's incorrect, Penn State linebacker Dennis Onkotz – who played incredible college ball but sparingly in the NFL due to an injury --would still be mentioned in the same breath as Jack Ham.
My point is simply this: There are a lot of great players in the Big Ten, and there are a lot of unsung heroes. None tower above Heston. And he deserves to be remembered.
Who do you think is an unsung hero? List him in the comments. But let’s move on to more current football now …
- Maryland coach Randy Edsall voiced disappointment with his receiving corps last week. Now? It's a different story in Week 2 of practice.
- Alabama transfer and current Ohio State Buckeye Chad Lindsay is competing for a starting spot at center.
- Michigan State boasts about seven offensive linemen who can be a part of the rotation, but assistant coach Mark Staten wants more.
- Indiana coach Kevin Wilson says this has been the Hoosiers' best summer and believes his team could be poised to break out.
- A closer look at Rutgers' Thursday practice, from the opening song (Jackson 5's "ABC") to highlights of the day.
- Observations from Penn State's practice and who's standing out so far.
- Michigan's Saturday scrimmage will likely have an impact on how the starting offensive line turns out.
- Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda wants to play up to his players' intelligence by asking them to be more versatile. The Badgers' freshman class is already starting to make an impression.
- Northwestern is remaining mum on the surprise transfer of Venric Mark but, the Chicago Tribune's Teddy Greenstein writes, "it seems apparent Mark would have faced more discipline beyond the two-game suspension ..."
- Who's going to be Minnesota's No. 2 tailback? Good question -- because the Gophers are still trying to figure that out.
- Purdue hasn't named Danny Etling the starting quarterback quite yet. Right now, it's an "equal opportunity" for all the signal-callers.
- Nebraska junior Givens Price might have found a home as the starting right tackle.
- True freshman wideout Mike Dudek is already impressing on-lookers at Illinois' practices, and one teammate called him the "most consistent wide receiver this camp."
- Without three of last season's top linebackers, the Hawkeyes have plenty of questions at the position -- but they also have plenty of depth.
- Our friends over at Grantland previewed the Big Ten.
The Penn State Nittany Lions are up next.
Nonconference schedule (with 2013 records)
Aug. 30: vs. Central Florida (12-1)
Sept 6: Akron (5-7)
Sept. 20: Massachusetts (1-11)
Nov. 15: Temple (2-10)
East Division games
Sept. 13: at Rutgers
Oct. 11: at Michigan
Oct. 25: Ohio State
Nov. 1: Maryland
Nov. 8: at Indiana
Nov. 29: Michigan State
Sept. 27: Northwestern
Nov. 22: at Illinois
Gut-check game: With an off week before and after the trip to Michigan and the memory fresh of the Nittany Lions’ four-overtime defeat of the Wolverines a year ago, this looks like a game to circle on the schedule as a gauge of progress in James Franklin’s initial season. Penn State has won four straight over Michigan, which saves its two most difficult games for the final six weeks and should meet Penn State with a decent amount of momentum. These blue-blood program are new division rivals. The October meeting offers a chance for Christian Hackenberg to show just how much he’s improved since his last visit to a 100,000-seat road venue after the debacle last year at Ohio State.
Trap game: Look no further than Rutgers in the Big Ten opener. It’s conceivable that the Lions will need at least a week to return to normalcy from the trip overseas. This early start to Big Ten play may fall at just the right time for Rutgers, which can make its season with a win over traditionally superior Penn State, which has regularly beat the Scarlet Knights for recruits in the state of New Jersey. Plus, Rutgers’ defensive line matches well against the suspect PSU offensive front.
Snoozer: After the ultra-interesting opener, the out-of-league games offer little. We’ll go with UMass as the foe with the least to offer after a 1-11 run through the MAC a year ago. The Minutemen’s schedule is brutal, with games against Boston College, Colorado and Vanderbilt before the trip to Penn State.
Nonconference challenge: The August trip to Ireland to face Central Florida, which beat PSU last year in State College, jumps off the page. Franklin likes to joke that when he took the job in January and heard about the season opener in Dublin, he thought it was Ohio. Blake Bortles is gone for UCF, but the Knights return plenty, especially on defense, from a team that won the Fiesta Bowl last season. Penn State figures to get plenty of support at the 82,000-seat Croke Park, but the whole thing will feel foreign. And nothing would pop the Franklin bubble like an opening-game loss.
Analysis: After the tricky first three weeks, featuring the trip to Ireland and rekindling the series with Rutgers -- scheduled as a nonleague game before the Scarlet Knights accepted an invite to join the Big Ten -- it gets fairly standard. The Lions don’t have to worry about the top three teams in the West, dropping Nebraska from the schedule after three straight losses to the Huskers in crossover play. Considering the sanctions in place, it would be nice to give Franklin a layup in his opener. Instead, the outcome against UCF figures to set a tone that will carry into October. Home games against Ohio State and Michigan State are nice, but are either truly winnable? A bowl ban remains in place, though some hope exists that the NCAA might reduce it from four years to two, allowing Penn State to play this year in the postseason.
For the early enrollees, some over-the-top praise and projections of early impacts might keep going through April. Around July and media days, the optimism from coaches about their talented, athletic, mature-for-their-age freshmen usually gets a second wind.
But then reality hits when training camp arrives, and with just two weeks until the season starts, by now it's pretty easy to tell if the hype was legitimate and time to start picking out a handful of newcomers truly capable of making a splash right away this fall.
At Ohio State, the indicators were there on the opening day of camp when linebacker Raekwon McMillan and versatile offensive weapon Curtis Samuel were thrown in with the veterans instead of the rookies during split-squad workouts. A stronger suggestion arrived when they were the first two players to have their black stripes removed to be considered bonafide Buckeyes.
Congrats to Curtis Samuel and Raekwon McMillan for being the first 2 freshmen to get their black stripes removed! pic.twitter.com/OZg6314sZ9— Urban Meyer (@OSUCoachMeyer) August 10, 2014
At Michigan State, the confirmation comes straight from the head man. When the midway point of camp arrives and Mark Dantonio is still willing to include players such as defensive tackle Malik McDowell and linebacker Chris Frey in his two-deep, it's safe to assume those two will be on the field.
The same is true elsewhere around the league, with Minnesota praising its new talent at wide receiver or Maryland tinkering with five-star lineman Damian Prince's position presumably to ease his transition to the lineup at guard. Sometimes it's not quite as obvious, with Michigan coach Brady Hoke trying to temper expectations about defensive back Jabrill Peppers -- although the occasional first-team reps that he's received according to coordinator Greg Mattison might have spilled the secret.
Sure, there's still time for the hype machine to dial back up. There are some overmatched opponents to play during the first month of the season, and more than just the surefire impact freshmen will get to see the field and raise expectations for what they are capable of providing.
But by now, coaches have typically seen enough to get a reasonably good idea of who can help their team right away. And if there are names which haven't been mentioned much lately, it's probably safe to hold off on getting to know them until next season.
- Ohio State's planned home-and-home with North Carolina in 2017-18 has been cancelled. No money exchanged hands. Could this be an opening for a neutral-site game Urban Meyer suggested at media days might be in the works?
- What is James Franklin Time? A look at the new work week for Penn State.
- The linebacker unit remains unsettled for Michigan State. Details from Mike Griffith after an open practice for the Spartans.
- A look at the captains for Rutgers this season.
- Even Maryland's defense had to concede that the offense has been looking good in camp.
- Indiana safeties coach Noah Joseph is still looking for more consistency from his unit.
- Ross Douglas is on the move for Michigan again, this time moving to wide receiver.
- There is speed to burn in the Minnesota secondary, where a former state-champion sprinter is adding depth in the defensive backfield.
- Purdue is shaking things up at practice and keeping players on their toes.
- Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst called the football program "stable" under Bo Pelini and talks about his priorities for the coach.
- Wisconsin is looking to fill critical leadership roles on defense, and Gary Andersen still feels like the Badgers have something to prove.
- Iowa safety John Lowdermilk finds himself as one of the most experienced players on the team, now charged with bringing along some younger guys and helping turn them into contributors.
- An interesting look at potential attendance problems for Northwestern and two possible solutions in the future.
- Illinois is keeping things light at camp, and cooling coach Tim Beckman down in the process.
- Check out what Ralph Friedgen had been up to before diving back into coaching. Maybe he made the wrong choice.
Clips and columns about Penn State’s offensive line have revolved around a central theme the last five months: This unit likely isn’t going to be any good. Smith can’t escape all that chatter. With every compliment thrown Christian Hackenberg ’s way, there’s another question mark tossed at the offensive line.
Hackenberg can be great … but will he have enough time to pass? Penn State returns two experienced tailbacks … but does that matter if this line can’t generate any push? A lot of the criticism seems deserved, or at least understandable. Only Smith returns as a starter on the line, and two converted defensive tackles might very well start at guard in time for the opener. That’s not exactly cause for a confidence boost.
That doesn’t mean players here are scouring ESPN or the local news sites for bulletin-board material. Far from it. But they don’t have to go very far to hear those doubts. It’s on Facebook and Twitter; it’s talked about on campus and in classrooms. It’s been an unwanted storyline that’s hovered since news broke in March that Miles Dieffenbach, the Nittany Lions’ most experienced lineman, suffered what could be a season-ending injury.
Depth is obviously an ongoing issue during these years under scholarship limits because of NCAA sanctions. It's created a huge concern on an offensive line that returns just three scholarship athletes with OL game experience. And no unit is reminded of it more often.
“It’s hard to ignore,” said redshirt junior Angelo Mangiro, who played in every game last season but never started. “It’s sticking in. I don’t go digging my nose in it and looking for it. But it’s hard to avoid, so you definitely remember it.
“It’s sticking with me, and it’s sticking with the rest of the guys. So we have something to come out and prove.”
Offensive line coach Herb Hand stood near his thinned-out unit last week and wore a permanent smile. He didn’t look like a man whose line features just two healthy upperclassmen, four sophomores and 13 freshmen (including redshirts and walk-ons). He insisted he felt no pressure and quoted NFL coaching great Chuck Noll: “Pressure is something you feel when you don’t know what you’re doing.”
Hand, who was a candidate to become Vanderbilt’s head coach, does know – and has been a beacon of positivity for these Lions. Often in the spring, he pulled aside the converted defensive tackles -- Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia – and offered encouragement and advice on pass protection. Gaia still remembers those first few days, of confusion and sometimes blocking no one during an inevitable sack play. But Gaia caught on in about a week and a half; he was then holding his own against pass-rush specialist Anthony Zettel. Gaia won an award in the spring as the offense’s most improved player.
Players have thrown a lot of praise Hand’s way. But, then again, if there’s one answer to all these question marks, it might come from Hand, since he faced an identical situation in the past. Back in 2007, before his hair shifted to gray, during his first year at Tulsa, Hand’s offensive line had just one regular returning starter. He even moved a defensive tackle over to offense. The result?
“We led the nation in offense that year, in 2007,” he said. “It’s a whole different animal in the Big Ten, obviously, but this is not something new. I’ve done it before. There’s a lot of growth that needs to take place and a lot of learning. But if you have guys that will work hard, that have great attitudes and bring a tremendous work ethic … you can accomplish great things.”
The situation at offensive line was never quite this dire before at Penn State, but there is still some precedent at the school as well. The 2006 squad also returned just one starter, left tackle Levi Brown, but still fared OK and helped the team finish 9-4 with an Outback Bowl victory. Four of the linemen on that team – Brown, Gerald Cadogan, Rich Ohrnberger and A.Q. Shipley – went on to earn All-B1G honors during their careers, and three were drafted into the NFL.
But this is a different line, and the future of this unit remains unknown. There are question marks – big question marks -- and, precedents or not, there will undoubtedly be more columns and stories wondering aloud just how this unit will fare. But Smith, Mangiro and the rest of the current linemen already know what the clips are going to say. And they’re hoping to prove them all wrong starting Aug. 30.
“It is what it is,” Smith said. “They talk about you good, bad – and we’re up for the challenge.”
The second-year quarterback was announced as a team captain Wednesday morning, making him the first sophomore to earn the honor in the team’s 128-year history. Injured senior guard Miles Dieffenbach joins him as the other offensive captain.
“Christian’s got a lot of tools, there’s no doubt about it,” James Franklin said during Big Ten media days. “The thing that I’m most impressed with is how humble and how hungry and how open he is to coaching.”
The captaincy isn’t a huge surprise since Hackenberg is widely regarded as the team’s top player. It’s more surprising he’s the first sophomore ever in program history to achieve the feat.
Then again, he became just the third quarterback to ever start a season opener as a true freshman, so the opportunity hasn’t often been there in the past. Eugene “Shorty” Miller became the first to start in 1910 and Rob Bolden the second exactly a century later.
Hackenberg is actually only the second-youngest player to earn the honor, though. Tailback Johnny Chuckran became the first and only freshman team captain in 1944, during World War II. According to Penn State historian Lou Prato, Chuckran was named captain in Week 4 after all the Marines -- which included six starters -- left.
Penn State also named the defensive co-captains as linebacker Mike Hull and defensive end C.J. Olaniyan. Three players – kicker Sam Ficken and safeties Jesse Della Valle and Ryan Keiser – were the special teams co-captains.
If the College Football Playoff had been in place for the 2006 season, there’s very little doubt that two Big Ten teams -- Ohio State and Michigan -- would have reached the four-team field. The conference, which finished the year with three Top 10 teams, could have called itself the nation’s best league without anyone snickering.
Fast forward eight years, and everything has changed. The SEC reigns supreme. The Big Ten is the butt of many jokes and, in the eyes of many, ranks fifth among the Power 5 conferences.
"People think the Big Ten is kind of weak," Ohio State defensive tackle Michael Bennett said. "I think we have the whole stigma of, 'The Big Ten can’t win bowl games.'"
Yet the perception of the Big Ten’s downturn appears to paint a worse picture than the reality. Even when league teams ascend, they often get dragged down by the court of public opinion. Take last season's Big Ten champs, for instance. Michigan State won all of its league games by double digits and went on to beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl. But the Spartans did not crack the Top 12 in either major poll or the BCS standings until Nov. 24, when they were 10-1.
Last season's Wisconsin Badgers were 9-2 at one point, with their only losses coming on an all-time officiating hose job at eventual Pac-12 division winner Arizona State and at Ohio State. Still, the Badgers had trouble gaining much affection from pollsters. Or how about this season's Iowa club? Despite winning eight games in 2013 and taking LSU to the wire in the Outback Bowl, and despite having what everyone considers a highly advantageous schedule in 2014, the Hawkeyes were ranked No. 33 in the first preseason USA Today coaches’ poll.
"The lack of insight on the Big Ten is an interesting thing," Nebraska receiver Kenny Bell said, "because there are stout players and solid teams in the Big Ten. We beat Georgia [in the Gator Bowl], Iowa had LSU on their skates ... and Sparty went and beat Stanford. We’re steadily coming back into the frame of major college football."
The Big Ten needs to improve both its track record and its perception problem this season, with the first year of the Playoff looming. The nightmare scenario for the league is to see its champion left out of the field because the conference isn’t considered strong enough. There is really only one way to change that.
"You’ve got to win games," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "One of the positive byproducts of the Playoff is that the preseason doesn’t matter. If you want to get yourself in the Playoff and talk about being the best, it’s going to come down to winning football games and playing a competitive schedule. If you want to change perception, you’ve got to win those games. That’s the bottom line."
The Big Ten has plenty of opportunities to help itself this season, beginning in Week 1 when Wisconsin plays LSU in Houston.
"It’s a new year, and the Big Ten as a whole is trying to make a prominent statement," Badgers running back Melvin Gordon said. "It’ll set a big statement for the Big Ten if we come out and win that game."
Michigan State goes to Oregon in Week 2 in another major showcase opportunity. Others include Nebraska hosting Miami, Ohio State taking on Virginia Tech and Michigan and Northwestern playing at Notre Dame. Schedules will continue to get more difficult in the near future, as league commissioner Jim Delany instructed his teams to play top nonconference competition to impress the selection committee.
"What we've tried to do is structure ... our scheduling to deliver an opportunity for our teams if they're successful," Delany said. "We make no predictions. We make no excuses."
There is hope for the future. Ohio State’s Urban Meyer and Penn State’s James Franklin are former SEC coaches who have brought an aggressive, nationwide approach to recruiting. The Buckeyes are 24-2 the past two seasons yet are just now building the type of roster Meyer envisions. Michigan State joined the elite last season and will try to stay there.
"I see a league that’s improving," Meyer said. "I just see a lot of positive recruiting going on in our conference, a lot of great coaches, and more importantly, a lot of great players. I think people are watching the Big Ten expecting a bunch of improvement going forward."
The conference still must convince others that improvement is for real. The surest sign of that would be to get a team into the inaugural Playoff.
"This is as good a year as any to show the Big Ten is strong and that we’re going to stay strong from here on out," Bennett said. "[But] for us to say that, we have to make it to the Playoff."
What, you don’t even fully understand the ramifications of the decision last week by the NCAA Division I Board of Directors that grants power to the Big Ten, SEC, ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 to create policy on a wide range of legislative topics designed to enhance the student-athlete experience?
Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Coaches at many schools in the Power Five conferences appear to remain in the dark about what’s to come next year and beyond.
Really, most of us are waiting with curiosity. I talked to several Big Ten coaches about the subject last month in Chicago and came away unsure if they knew what was really afoot, beyond the primary talking points.
We know the cost-of-attendance topic -- basically a stipend for student-athletes at the Power Five schools -- is atop the agenda.
From there, it gets a bit murky. All of it, though, stands to positively impact the Big Ten, with its many rich athletic departments funded by football programs with giant stadiums and fruitful TV contracts.
Predictably, the cries have already begun that autonomy will simply serve as a tool for the power players to push their agenda.
Colleague Jeremy Crabtree wrote this week of a Big 12 recruiting coordinator who said he feared that the autonomy vote would open “Pandora’s box” for biggest schools to reshape rules in their favor.
Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen told me at Big Ten media days that he hoped autonomy would lead to official recruiting visits in the summer, currently off limits. But Andersen said more.
“Let’s just throw it out there,” he said. “I’ll be the guy to say it, that’s fine. Certain people don’t want recruiting trips to take place to the Big Ten in the summer -- certain conferences.”
Newsflash: He’s talking about the SEC. They’re all talking about the SEC. If they’re not talking about the SEC, they’re at least thinking about the SEC.
How long before a coach or administrator flat-out blames the SEC for all that could potentially go wrong with this first go-round of autonomy? It’ll happen before Oct. 1, when potential rule changes must be submitted for vote at the NCAA Convention in January.
And what are the chances that coach or administrator resides in the Big Ten?
Look, the SEC can’t change college football alone. The rules of autonomy require a 60 percent majority of the 80-member voting panel -- which includes 15 student-athletes -- and approval from three of the Power Five leagues, or a simple majority of the panel and approval from four of the five league.
So what the SEC wants, the SEC can’t get without help from other leagues.
Remember that if you hear someone from the Big Ten complain over the next six weeks about who’s running football. The vote last week ensures that the Big Ten and others in the Power Five are offered the same opportunity as that league down south to initiate and steer change.
Around the league ...
- Seriously, first-year offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier does not feel added pressure to fix Michigan’s offense?
- The BTN crew weighs in on Michigan State’s talent.
- Is everyone overlooking Penn State wideout DaeSean Hamilton?
- Ohio State’s walkout ‘backer.
- An Iowa perspective on Indiana.
- Rutgers’ new director of recruiting opens up about the 2015 class.
- Maryland will implement fullback Kenneth Goins into its 2014 plan.
- Northwestern’s Venric Mark aims to find a positive in his two-game suspension.
- Purdue safety Taylor Richards is suspended, too, and he’s far from absent.
- Minnesota’s secondary is coming of age.
- QB Wes Lunt continues to progress well in camp at Illinois.
- Iowa defensive end Drew Ott is a champion hay-bale thrower.
- The kindness of strangers toward his family has moved Wisconsin offensive guard Kyle Costigan.
- Assessing the Nebraska offense through one week of practice.
- This might have something to do with what got Michigan receiver Csont'e York suspended indefinitely.
- The gas leak that forced MSU to relocate its Tuesday practice has been fixed.
- Brandon Scherff returns a punt, because he’s Brandon Scherff.
- Here’s a real student-athlete.
Rutgers and Penn State announced Tuesday that a pair of inspirational icons -- former Scarlet Knight Eric LeGrand and former Nittany Lion Adam Taliaferro -- would serve as honorary game captains when the teams play on Sept. 13 at High Point Solutions Stadium.
The two players are linked by the spinal cord injuries they suffered on the field and, even more so, by the way they handled their recovery efforts and post-playing careers.
"It's going to be pretty cool," LeGrand told ScarletKnights.com. "Adam is a role model for me. From meeting him for the first time, seeing him on his feet again when doctors told him he'd never be on his feet, he has really pushed me during my recovery. He's still a big inspiration to me."
Taliaferro was paralyzed after rupturing a vertebrae and bruising his spinal cord on a tackle against Ohio State on Sept. 23, 2000. He beat the odds by making a full recovery.
LeGrand fractured two vertebrae on a kickoff tackle vs. against Army on Oct. 16, 2010. He remains paralyzed from the neck down but has regained some movement in his core. His No. 52 jersey is the only one Rutgers has ever retired, and he has served as an ambassador for the program through broadcasting and other public appearances.
We usually come up with our own questions to consider, but Tuesday's Take Two topic arrives courtesy of a really interesting reader submission:
Andrew from Chicago writes: This may be a "Take Two" topic, but I was wondering which position looks stronger in the Big Ten for the upcoming season -- running back or defensive end?
The question for me, in tackling this discussion, is this: Are we basing the answer on accomplishments or potential? No doubt, the Big Ten's group of defensive ends is full of promise and future pros. But in comparison to the track record and depth of the running backs in the league, the ends fall short.
Thirteen of the top 15 rushers return from a year ago, headlined by Ameer Abdullah at Nebraska and Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon -- the top two coming back nationally in yardage gained as both topped 1,600 yards last season. Abdullah can cement his place in Husker history as the school's first back to exceed 1,000 yards in three seasons; Gordon, meanwhile, aims to lead the nation in per-carry average for a third straight year.
But the running backs win this argument not on the laurels of their top two. The supporting cast seals the deal. Michigan State's Jeremy Langford gained more yards than all but four returning backs nationally. Tevin Coleman at Indiana averaged better than 100 yards per game, and he barely registers as an all-conference candidate. The list goes on, with Minnesota's David Cobb, who surpassed 1,200 yards a year ago, Penn State's duo of Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton, who combined for nearly 1,800 yards, Iowa's Mark Weisman and Jordan Canzeri, the multi-talented Josh Ferguson at Illinois and the speedy duo of Raheem Mostert and Akeem Hunt at Purdue.
There's also Venric Mark, Northwestern's 1,300-yard rusher from 2012 who returns in September after a two-game suspension. And we've not mentioned the league newcomers. In Paul James and Brandon Ross, Rutgers and Maryland return accomplished backs.
Ohio State and Michigan, interestingly, face some of the Big Ten's biggest questions at running back. Of course, though, they have talent, led by Ezekiel Elliott for the Buckeyes and the Wolverines' De'Veon Smith.
Compared to other leagues' lineups, the Big Ten features an embarrassment of riches at running back, a real rarity in this conference.
The running backs in this league are very impressive indeed. Yet, with very few exceptions, the Big Ten is always stacked at tailback. Meanwhile, I think we could be looking at potentially -- a key word, that -- a historic crop of defensive ends in this league.
Nebraska's Randy Gregory is already being projected as a possible top 10 NFL draft pick next year. He led the league in sacks in his first year in FBS, and he's a physically superior athlete who looks like guys who play on Sundays. Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun already has a Big Ten defensive lineman of the year trophy on his mantle, and he still has plenty of room to grow (while his teammate, Marcus Rush, is about to complete one of the most underappreciated four-year careers around). Ohio State has a tremendous tandem in Joey Bosa, who was so good as a true freshman that the sky seems the limit for him, and Noah Spence, a quick-twitch, pass-rushing force. Minnesota's Theiren Cockran is getting better and better, while Maryland's Andre Monroe could easily finish with double-digit sacks. Michigan's Frank Clark is solid, while we're still waiting for Penn State's Deion Barnes to return to his freshman form. Northwestern has a promising young pass rusher in Ifeadi Odenigbo.
NFL stock doesn't mean everything, but I see at least four potential first-round picks out of this bunch, while I doubt more than one Big Ten running back goes that high. The league running backs are a great bunch, no doubt. But I think the defensive ends have a chance to be even greater.
With 196 commits within the conference, here is a look at what current 2015 commits are filling the biggest needs for each team in the Big Ten.
"Coach [Brady] Hoke brought me here to be the offensive coordinator and coach the quarterbacks," Nussmeier said.
(Well, if this guy needs a stand-in, we know where to find him.)
Yes, that's literally the job description. But there's more to it. The word savior isn't in Nussmeier's contract, but many Michigan fans hope he saves a unit that veered off track too often last season. It's up to Nussmeier to have Michigan's offense operating with the consistency and toughness that Hoke envisioned when he returned to Ann Arbor in January 2011.
Like any head coach, Hoke will have to answer for Michigan's performance this season. Rutgers' Kyle Flood and Indiana's Kevin Wilson find themselves in the same boat. The three coaches are facing varied degrees of scrutiny after seasons that fell short of expectations.
All three also made key coordinator hires this winter. It's the year of the running back in the Big Ten with the likes of Melvin Gordon and Ameer Abdullah on the field, but it also could be the year of the savior coordinator.
Ralph Friedgen doesn't like the savior label, although many Rutgers fans hope The Fridge will work his magic with quarterback Gary Nova and a Scarlet Knights offense that struggled to move the ball and gave it away far too often last season.
From The Star-Ledger:
"Trust me, that is not me," Friedgen said. "I only can coach what I've got. They've got to play. My job is to put them in a position to make plays, but they've got to make them. Remember, I'm the guy that got fired."
True, he was fired at Maryland despite a rebound 2010 season. But he also has overseen successful offenses and quarterbacks throughout his career at both the college and NFL levels. As columnist Steve Politi writes, "It's hard to look at Friedgen's résumé and not come to this conclusion: He is the most accomplished football coach to ever walk into [Rutgers'] Hale Center."
If Nova and the Rutgers offense rebounds, the team could hold its own despite a potentially brutal schedule. And the heat surrounding Flood could subside a bit.
Offense is undoubtedly the overarching question at Michigan, too. The defense figures to be good and potentially better than good, but the progress Hoke needs in Year 4 won't come if Michigan can't block anyone. The Wolverines can't have games like last year's clunkers against both Michigan State (minus-48 rush yards) and Nebraska (minus-21 rush yards).
Although Hoke's job isn't in jeopardy -- athletic director Dave Brandon recently told me the hot-seat talk is "crap" and "baloney" -- the Michigan faithful want to see an offense that looks like the one they remember, and the one Hoke promised when he took the job. That's where Nussmeier comes in.
His track record might not be as extensive as Friedgen's, but the 43-year-old succeeded as a coordinator at Fresno State, Washington and, most recently, Alabama. While Friedgen becomes the highest-paid assistant in Rutgers history ($500,000), Nussmeier signed a three-year contract with Michigan worth at least $2.57 million.
"We want to be a physical and explosive offense," Nussmeier said. "It's a mind-set. It's not about the plays."
Like Friedgen, Nussmeier downplayed his role, saying he doesn't feel any extra pressure. But he added that he knows about expectations, and Michigan fans still set the bar high despite the team's drought since its last Big Ten title.
Indiana's expectations might not be as high as Michigan's, but the Hoosiers expect a bowl appearance in Wilson's fourth season. To get there, they need Brian Knorr to do what so many others could not: make the defense respectable. That's why Wilson brought in Knorr from Wake Forest after dismissing Doug Mallory, a decision that didn't sit well with Mallory's father, former Indiana coach Bill Mallory. It likely will be the most significant move of Wilson's IU tenure, the one that will show whether he's the right guy or another offensive-minded coach who couldn't fix the other side of the ball.
IU's defense doesn't need to become Michigan State's this fall. Minimal to moderate gains should be enough, given the offense's expected productivity, to get the Hoosiers over the bowl eligibility hump. IU needs to make that extra stop it couldn't against Navy and Minnesota last year, which could have been the difference in bowl or no bowl. But the unit has been very bad for a very long time, and while recruiting has improved and there's more experience, Knorr is fighting history.
The early returns are good with Knorr and his 3-4 scheme, as the defense has claimed the coveted crimson jerseys at most of the first few practices.
"We want to see who is going to be our dynamic playmaker," Knorr said following Saturday's scrimmage. "Who can we count on when things are tough?"
Wilson is counting on Knorr for immediate results, just like Hoke is counting on Nussmeier and Flood is counting on Friedgen. Saviors or not, the three coordinators will play large roles in whether their teams -- and possibly their bosses -- sink or swim in 2014.
Taking a spin around the Big Ten ...
- A look at how tight end Adam Breneman's injury impacts Penn State this season.
- Nebraska will be without reserve running back Adam Taylor (ankle).
- Ohio State LB Kyle Berger suffers another ACL tear.
- The grind begins this week for Michigan State. The wait for DeAnthony Arnett to make an impact with MSU could be over soon. Arnett came out of the spring feeling great about his progress, telling me, "It's given me a chance to, I don't know, re-state myself. I feel more comfortable knowing everything, knowing all the positions, about where to go on the field. Now it's making plays."
- Notes following Maryland's first scrimmage, including the impressive play of running back Brandon Ross.
- This Ohio State practice video is brilliant.
- The latest practice report from Rutgers, which produced no answers about the backup quarterback spot.
- Michigan's offensive line still has a lot of moving parts. The BTN crew weighed in on Michigan's practice on Monday.
- Previewing Indiana.
- Austin Appleby is closing the gap on Danny Etling and keeping Purdue's QB race very much alive.
- Kevin Trahan explains how a dull town in southern Wisconsin is the perfect place for Northwestern to focus on football.
- Illinois' offensive line is coming together these days.
- Marc Morehouse puts Iowa's running back group under the microscope.
- New Illinois defensive lineman Jihad Ward honors his mom every time he puts on No. 17.
- Wisconsin ends practice with a chipping contest, and coach Gary Andersen hits the mark.
- Minnesota RB Berkley Edwards talks about the advice he has received from his big brother, Braylon.
- Veteran Maryland QB C.J. Brown leads the Terrapins into the Big Ten.
- The best of Robin Williams. RIP.
Let's do this ...
Adam Rittenberg: Matt, we know this much: the Pitt game will be easier from a logistical standpoint than the Arizona trip was in 2010. It's a shorter flight, a friendlier kickoff time (it hasn't been set yet, but the Iowa-Arizona game started at 9:41 p.m. Iowa time) and, most likely, better weather (it was 97 degrees at kickoff in Tucson that night). Iowa didn't look ready to play against Arizona and paid a price. I also think the 2010 Wildcats are better than the 2014 Panthers, although Pitt cannot be overlooked. Panthers coach Paul Chryst, the former Wisconsin offensive coordinator, knows Iowa well and will have his team ready to go.
@ESPNRittenberg Adam, could you see Iowa's game at Pitt this year similar to the 2010 Arizona game? Also any chance gameday a comes to IC?— Matt Mackowiak (@mtmackowiak) August 11, 2014
This is a game Iowa cannot overlook. Pitt has an explosive young wide receiver in Tyler Boyd and other weapons. The Panthers should be 3-0 when Iowa comes to the Steel City. This could be a sneaky good matchup, but it's not nearly as scary as the Arizona game, which had letdown written all over it.
As for "GameDay," I have no idea and have zero input on where they go. But potential late-season showdowns against both Wisconsin and Nebraska, Iowa has a chance to host.
Tim from Raleigh writes: From my count, the B1G plays 15 non conference games against the power 5 conferences, 5 of which are against teams ranked in the preseason top 25 with a few others close (TCU, Mizzou, Miami, Va Tech). How many of these games do we need to win to get the respect of the rest of the NCAA?
Adam Rittenberg: It's a good question, Tim, as the Big Ten has more riding on nonleague performance than most major conferences. Two games really jump out as perception shapers: Wisconsin-LSU in Houston and Michigan State at Oregon. Lose both of these, especially by wide margins, and it might not matter what happens in the other games. The Big Ten is supposed to pick up wins against Miami (Nebraska) and Virginia Tech (Ohio State), so I'm not sure how much credit the league would get. The recent wins against Notre Dame haven't done much to boost the Big Ten's rep.
The league could use some surprising results, like Rutgers or Illinois beating Washington State and Washington on the road, or Indiana knocking off defending SEC champ Missouri in Columbia, Missouri. TCU would be a nice road win for Minnesota and Penn State should get some credit for beating Fiesta Bowl champion UCF in Ireland. You also want to see Michigan take care of Utah, Iowa to beat Pitt on the road, and Northwestern and Maryland to hold serve against Cal and West Virginia, respectively.
But the two nonconference opponents that really pop for the Big Ten are LSU and Oregon. The league needs one of those games.
Adam Rittenberg: Jared, making a third consecutive bowl game (and winning one) is a good start. But I think you're onto something here with setting the minimum bar at one signature win. It's important for Minnesota to get over the hump against Michigan, which has won six straight against the Gophers despite a down period in its history. But it's even more important for the Gophers to finish the 2014 season on a stronger note than they did last fall, when they dropped their final three games (and scored a total of 27 points).
@ESPNRittenberg, what does Minnesota need to do to keep up the optimism around the program? Is beating UW, UM or Iowa a must this year?— Jared Frank (@JarRFrank) August 11, 2014
I look at Minnesota's closing stretch -- Iowa (Nov. 8), Ohio State (Nov. 15), at Nebraska (Nov. 22), at Wisconsin (Nov. 29) as a defining period for Jerry Kill's program. Can these Gophers rise up and beat the big boys, especially those in the West Division? Or is Minnesota still not quite there and belongs in the second tier? You can't go 0-4 to finish the regular season and claim progress, so at least one win in that stretch is critical. Two would show things are definitely headed in the right direction.
Adam Rittenberg: It's crazy that we're talking about this before Franklin coaches his first game at Penn State, but it's a relevant question. Franklin's name came up in several NFL coach searches after the 2013 season. All but one season of his coaching career has taken place in the college ranks -- he coached the Green Bay Packers' wide receivers in 2005 -- and his personality seems to fit better at the college level, where he can shine as a recruiter. But the NFL can be tough to resist, not only from a financial standpoint but a competitive one.
@ESPNRittenberg How long can Penn State fans expect Franklin to stay as the head coach?— A-A-ron (@josh_euphonium) August 11, 2014
It's all about timing, and Franklin needs to boost Penn State's program before he can look at the NFL. I see him staying for at least three years, and it wouldn't surprise me if he's there longer. He's an ambitious guy but seems like a good fit in State College.
Head coach James Franklin has a policy not to disclose injuries and has refused to comment or confirm past ones. So Franklin’s announcement Monday afternoon definitely came as a surprise and might speak to its severity.
The injury isn’t the first to Breneman, who was ranked as the 67th best overall player in the 2013 class. He missed his entire senior season of high school with a torn ACL but still enrolled in January 2013 and dismissed any talk of redshirting. He recovered quickly enough to play in 11 games last season and finished with 15 catches for 186 yards and three touchdowns.
Depth is a concern for Penn State, but tight end is just about the only position where that concern doesn’t apply. Jesse James, a junior, returns as the top tight end and the Lions’ leading receiver. Kyle Carter, who caught 18 passes last season, also returns and was a candidate for Big Ten tight end of the year two seasons ago.
Penn State also has Brent Wilkerson, who missed last season with an injury, and true freshman Mike Gesicki on the roster at tight end.
Breneman would’ve added another wrinkle into the passing attack and likely would’ve seen an increased role while splitting time with Carter. The injury hardly means it’s time for this offense to panic, but the question now centers on where Breneman will fit in with this team once he recovers.
With a little more than a week of preseason practice in the books at most Big Ten campuses, it's too early to say which teams are having the best August so far. But we can definitely point to the team that had the toughest opening week-plus in the league: Nebraska.
In a three-day period, the Cornhuskers lost three potential starters on defense. First, projected starting nickel back Charles Jackson went down with a season-ending knee injury. The nickel position has grown in stature with the rise of spread offenses, and Ciante Evans showed how important it can be in Nebraska's system the past couple of years.
A day after Jackson's injury, coach Bo Pelini announced that safety LeRoy Alexander, who was battling for a starting job, would be suspended for the season. Then on Friday night, linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey informed the world via Instagram -- and later confirmed by Pelini -- that he would miss the season with a torn ACL.
Much of the optimism around Nebraska this season stemmed from what fans saw as potentially the best defense under Pelini during the Huskers' run in the Big Ten. The offense has a lot of potential, especially if quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. can step forward. But defensive breakdowns have haunted Big Red in some of their biggest Big Ten games.
Rose-Ivey, who appeared to be really improving, is probably the easiest to replace, as defensive coordinator John Papuchis has a deep well of linebackers to call upon. Josh Banderas likely takes over his spot.
It's a little murkier in the secondary, where junior college transfer Byerson Cockrell now likely takes on an even larger role, and Nathan Gerry -- who played linebacker as a freshman in 2013 -- must make the adjustment to safety.
The Lincoln Journal Star's Steven M. Sipple remains optimistic about the Nebraska defense despite the injuries.
"There's been predictable overreaction," Sipple writes. "But to say the three losses have decimated Nebraska's defense would be a significant overstatement. I spoke with Pelini late Saturday afternoon. As one might expect, he retained confidence. He said there was no reason to start holding anything back schematically. All systems go, he said.
"The Huskers still look excellent in the front seven and possess better-than-decent overall talent and depth in the secondary, but a handful of newcomers will have to step up quickly."
These injuries shouldn't make or break the Huskers' season. Pelini has built depth on that side of the ball. But that depth has taken a shot to its broad side, and Nebraska needs good health the rest of training camp or else some of that early optimism could start to fade.
Depth chart stuff
- This has the makings of a potentially incredible story: Tom Hruby, a 32-year-old active Navy SEAL, is trying to walk on to Northwestern's team as a defensive end, Seth Gruen writes.
"I don’t feel like where I’m at today is some outstanding or amazing thing," Hruby told the Chicago Sun-Times. "It’s just more of a challenging route ... the way I kind of think about finding and accepting and trying to take on these challenges that most people would probably say are impossible, one, or very unlikely or just plain dumb."
- Indiana defensive end David Kenney has taken a leave of absence.
- Brady Hoke says De'Veon Smith is leading Michigan's running back race, while Derrick Green is third behind Smith and Drake Johnson.
- Illinois is starting to winnow its options at receiver.
- Nebraska is figuring things out on the offensive line, especially on the right side.
- Freshmen linebackers Gelen Robinson and Ja'Whaun Bentley are making an early splash at Purdue. Head coach Darrell Hazell told me in Bristol last month that the 250-pound Bentley was winning about nine out of every 10 gassers among the linebackers. They should both play a lot, if not start, right away.
- Some discouraging news for Wisconsin's Vonte Jackson, whose attempt to return from three previous torn ACLs was dealt a setback.
- Maryland star receiver Stefon Diggs, coming off a broken leg, says he is ahead of where he should be right now.
- Ohio State starting running back Ezekiel Elliott had surgery on his left wrist, but he is expected to play in the opener.
- Minnesota's offense unfortunately looked a lot like it did at the end of last season in Saturday's scrimmage, settling for three field goals but no touchdowns. Give some of the credit to the Gophers' defense, and big-play cornerback Derrick Wells.
- The offense had a big day in Michigan State's first scrimmage.
- Quarterbacks Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy both played well in Wisconsin's Sunday scrimmage, and Gary Andersen said both could play in the opener.
- Will Brian Ferentz follow his dad's footsteps and become a head coach? His presence on the Iowa staff has been energizing, and with his NFL experience to boot, the younger Ferentz should be able to write his own ticket soon.
- How the Hawkeyes' Carl Davis -- who was once deemed too big to play football -- put it all together.
- Very entertaining piece here on Nebraska video coordinator Mike Nobler, the resident court jester on Pelini's staff
- Illinois wants to have bowl plans this season.
Instant Awesome: Franklin's Daughter Dominates
BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
Final Eastern Illinois 20 Minnesota 42 Final Rutgers 41 Washington State 38
8:30 AM ET Penn State UCF 12:00 PM ET Indiana State Indiana 12:00 PM ET Northern Iowa Iowa 12:00 PM ET Appalachian State Michigan 12:00 PM ET 5 Ohio State Navy 12:00 PM ET Western Michigan Purdue 12:05 PM ET Youngstown State Illinois 3:30 PM ET James Madison Maryland 3:30 PM ET Florida Atlantic 22 Nebraska 3:30 PM ET California Northwestern 9:00 PM ET 14 Wisconsin 13 LSU