Penn State Nittany Lions: Kenny Bell
1. The new, aggressive defense is a winner: This wasn’t a terrible Akron offense, and the defense came up big time and time again. First quarter? Held the Zips to a (missed) field-goal attempt after Akron reached the 7-yard line. Second quarter? Made the Zips punt after they reached the PSU 34. Third quarter? Well, you get the idea. Whether it was a huge stop on fourth-down (Brandon Bell) or a touchdown-saving tackle (Ryan Keiser), this defense was the epitome of bend-don’t-break. And it barely bent at all in the second half. At this point, it seems safe to say: This Bob Shoop defense is a big upgrade over John Butler’s.
2. Christian Hackenberg is forcing the ball, in part, because the running game is non-existent: There is a lot of pressure on Hackenberg in this offense. If he struggles, the entire offense struggles because the offensive line simply can’t open up holes for the backs. Through three quarters Saturday, Penn State averaged just 2.3 yards per carry. Hackenberg has to get smarter on some of his throws -- several were truly head-scratchers -- but, if he can’t get the job done, it seems like no one else on this offense can. This is Penn State’s top concern going forward. Hackenberg has to play smarter, but this offensive line also has to jell quicker.
3. The Wildcat isn’t going anywhere: This is what coach James Franklin said after the game: "I know people seem to hate the Wildcat. I love it." The WildZach didn’t make an appearance this week -- thankfully -- but Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch both saw some time in the formation. It especially makes sense for Belton since he played quarterback in high school. He is versatile and can really open up the playbook when taking the direct snap. PSU needs this running game to work somehow, and it found quite a bit of success with the Wildcat on Saturday. Expect to see more of it going forward.
4. DaeSean Hamilton-Geno Lewis might be the top receiving tandem in the B1G: There, I said it. It’s difficult to find a team with two other solid options. Maybe Nebraska’s Kenny Bell and Jordan Westerkamp? Or Maryland’s Stefon Diggs and Deon Long? But PSU certainly belongs in the conversation. Lewis has the ability to catch the deep ball, and Hamilton has a knack for turning those short passes into longer gains. Both guys complement each other well, and it’s a unique development compared to last season’s "Just throw the ball to A-Rob" offense. Fearless prediction: Lewis makes at least two "SportsCenter top 10" plays this season. He might not have the team’s best hands, but he’s one heck of an athlete.
5. Special teams have definitely improved: Sam Ficken was a perfect 4-of-4 last week, and punter Chris Gulla broke a freshman record Saturday with an average of 48.8 yards per punt. Gulla was incredibly consistent; he punted five times and kicked three within the 20. There weren’t many complaints about the kick coverage teams, either, and Von Walker had a nice return. So you can definitely see the extra practice hours paying off here. Then again, after last season's awful special teams, there was really no place to go but up.
Coaches are talking about the importance of taking it one game at a time while chasing a conference title. Players have busted out their finest suits and are raving about how difficult the offseason conditioning program was at their schools. And the media grabbed some free food between interviews.
There is one more day to go before the circus leaves Chicago, but before we get to that, the Big Ten blog is handing out some awards to put a bow on the opening day.
Best-dressed player: Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond. The honors could just as easily have gone to teammates Shilique Calhoun or Connor Cook, the former for his bow tie and the latter for his accessorizing with his enormous championship ring. But Drummond stole the show as the sharpest of the Spartans, who clearly looked the part of returning conference champs.
I think the Best Dressed award has been locked up today. Kurtis Drummond, folks. pic.twitter.com/XAnHXjJWKP— Austin Ward (@AWardESPN) July 28, 2014
Most fun-loving players: The bright spotlight and huge crowd around him might have kept Ohio State coach Urban Meyer a bit guarded, but his players certainly welcomed the attention and weren't afraid of being playful with the media. Tight end Jeff Heuerman loosened things up by locking quarterback Braxton Miller in a headlock, and after that, both decided to moonlight as media members by sneaking over to ask Meyer a few questions toward the end of a session -- a rare glimpse at the personalities off the field of two of the league's best talents on it.
Ohio State's Jeff Heuerman and Braxton Miller decided to join the media today and interview Urban Meyer. pic.twitter.com/scWhYDZRNs— Austin Ward (@AWardESPN) July 28, 2014
Biggest missed opportunity: The Wisconsin-LSU matchup to open the season is appealing enough at a neutral site. But the Badgers and Tigers could have taken the intrigue to another level by hosting those games at two of the loudest, most hostile stadiums in the country -- if only Gary Andersen had been around a couple of years earlier. The Badgers' coach said he "would have said yes" to a home-and-home series at Camp Randall and in Death Valley, a tantalizing what-might-have-been if the Tigers might have been as willing as Andersen.
Most appropriate Twitter handle: Nebraska’s Kenny Bell (@AFRO_THUNDER80). The 6-foot-1 receiver was probably the easiest player to pick out of a crowd, as his puffy afro towered over opposing players. Bell’s play didn’t earn him an award last season -- he was honorable mention on the All-Big Ten team -- but we just couldn’t go one more day without recognizing that 'fro.
Best-dressed coach: Penn State’s James Franklin. Every day, the head coach spends 22 minutes to shave his head in every direction and trim that goatee ... so it seems slightly surprising that he is probably the coach who spends the most time on his head, considering he’s bald. But, hey, it takes time to pull that look off -- and he was also looking dapper with that Penn State lapel, blue tie and matching pocket square. Franklin often jokes that he doesn’t need to sleep, so maybe he uses some of that extra time to pick out the right clothes.
James Franklin and our Josh Moyer are sharing head shaving techniques. Seriously. pic.twitter.com/S7iVnnNvo9— Brian Bennett (@BennettESPN) July 28, 2014
Quote of the day: Penn State linebacker Mike Hull has learned under three head coaches -- Joe Paterno, Bill O'Brien and Franklin -- during his career, and their personalities really couldn’t have been any different. Hull laughed while providing their takes on social media as an example.
“Yeah, I’ve seen the whole evolution,” he said. “Joe didn’t know what Facebook was, O’Brien called Facebook ‘Spacebook’ and, now, Coach Franklin probably has every social media there is to have. It’s crazy.”
Most Big Ten quote: “How are you going to approach the Rose Bowl?” -- Michigan coach Brady Hoke, lamenting some aspects of the College Football Playoff in years, like this season, when the Granddaddy of Them All is to serve as a national semifinal game. Hoke suggested that some of the pageantry associated with the game -- for instance, the Beef Bowl team competition at Lawry’s, a prime rib restaurant in Beverly Hills -- will be eliminated because of the high stakes and need for a regular game-week regimen. Of the traditional Rose Bowl, Hoke added: “It’s the greatest experience in America for kids.”
Most Iowa quote (maybe ever): “Sometimes, old school is a good school.” -- Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz on his program’s resistance to some of the offensive innovation that has swept college football.
Best quote about a player not in attendance: “I don’t like standing too close to him because it seems like the wind is always blowing through his hair. When he smiles, this little thing comes off his tooth like in the toothpaste commercial.” -- Penn State coach James Franklin on sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
- What Rutgers can expect in its new home. Ten reasons for the Scarlet Knights to be excited.
- Who will be Maryland's rival in the Big Ten?
- Braxton Miller has been working hard this summer -- even on Friday nights.
- Can Kenny Bell still get loose deep for Nebraska?
- Top Minnesota recruit Jeff Jones is still academically ineligible, putting his status for this season in doubt.
- Michigan's 2015 class is filling up fast. The Wolverines' defense needs to go from good to great.
- Who would be on Iowa's quarterback Mt. Rushmore?
- A closer look at Penn State's linebacker corps.
- Former Wisconsin players are in favor of boosting scholarships.
- A Florida linebacker committed to Purdue.
The 1,000-yard mark means more to wide receivers than rushers, especially in the Big Ten. Four players reached the milestone in 2013 after just one (Robinson) in 2012. The Big Ten had four 1,000-yard receivers in 2011 but none in 2010 and just one (Purdue's Keith Smith) in 2009. So this category can be tricky to forecast.
Although no Big Ten returning player had more than 800 receiving yards in 2013, the league boasts several potential breakout stars. Your task today: Select the Big Ten player most likely to eclipse 1,000 receiving yards this fall.
The candidates ...
Kenny Bell, Nebraska, senior: The 'fro, tragically, is no mo' after Bell lost a bet to his friend, Northern Colorado defensive lineman Devontae Chapple. But perhaps less hair will mean more production after Bell's receiving yards went from 863 in 2012 to 577 last year. Nebraska never has had a 1,000-yard receiver, and quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. has much to prove as a passer, but Bell is one of the nation's most experienced wideouts.
Stefon Diggs, Maryland, junior: Big Ten fans who haven't seen Diggs are in for a treat, at least when he's not facing their favorite team. An ESPN 150 recruit who picked Maryland over Ohio State and others, Diggs finished eighth nationally in all-purpose yards (174.2) as a true freshman. He averaged 17.3 yards per reception through Maryland's first seven contests last season before suffering a broken leg. Diggs should be fine for the season and can put up huge numbers with his big-play ability. Maryland's depth at receiver -- Deon Long also returns from a broken leg -- could make it tough for Diggs to get to 1,000 yards.
Devin Funchess, Michigan, junior: Funchess is listed as a tight end and won the Big Ten's tight end of the year award last fall, but he plays like a bigger receiver at 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds. He has averaged 15.5 yards per reception in his first two seasons with 11 touchdowns, setting a team record for receiving yards by a tight end with 748 last fall. Funchess becomes quarterback Devin Gardner's favorite target as Gallon departs. Michigan needs its receivers to step up, but Funchess could threaten 1,000 yards this year.
Shane Wynn, Indiana, senior: Like Bell, Wynn saw a slight production drop from 2012, when he led Indiana with 68 receptions, to last season, when he had 46 but still put up about the same yardage. But the departures of Latimer and tight end Ted Bolser, both selected in the NFL draft, along with Kofi Hughes and Duwyce Wilson leave Wynn as undoubtedly Indiana's No. 1 passing target. Quarterbacks Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson will be looking for Wynn a lot this fall, and his numbers could surge in a productive IU offense.
And, finally ...
Mystery man: Don't like any of these candidate to reach 1,000 receiving yards? This is the spot for you. Maybe Rutgers' Leonte Carroo complements his touchdowns with bigger yards totals this fall. One of the Northwestern Joneses (Christian or Tony) might reach 1,000 yards in a more pass-driven offense. Geno Lewis could follow Robinson's path at Penn State. Maybe Ohio State's Devin Smith gets there. Will one of Michigan State's receivers -- Tony Lippett, Macgarrett Kings, Aaron Burbridge, Keith Mumphery -- separate from the pack? Maybe one of the spring standouts -- Iowa's Derrick Willies, Illinois' Geronimo Allison or Mikey Dudek, Michigan's Freddy Canteen -- has a true breakout season.
Unlike the 1,000-yard mark for a back, getting to 1,000 yards receiving is not always easy, especially in a league like the Big Ten that often lacks prolific passing attacks. In 2012, just one Big Ten receiver reached quadruple digits in yardage -- Penn State's Allen Robinson, who had 1,013. Last year was a much better season for league wideouts, as Robinson, Michigan's Jeremy Gallon, Indiana's Cody Latimer and Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis all got to that plateau. Illinois' Steve Hull just missed it with 993 yards in 12 games.
But all five of those players are gone, along with three others who finished in the top 10 in receiving yards per game in the conference: Indiana's Kofi Hughes, Nebraska's Quincy Enunwa and Ohio State's Corey Brown.
So it's a bit of a rebuilding year, receiving-wise, for the Big Ten in 2014. Still, let's take a look at the top prospects for a 1,000-yard season among the league wideouts:
Shane Wynn, Indiana (633): Wynn is one of the most explosive players in the league and had 11 touchdown receptions last season. As the Hoosiers look to replace Latimer and Hughes, he should become an even larger factor in the offense despite his diminutive stature (5-foot-7).
Devin Funchess, Michigan (748): Funchess would be one of the more unconventional players to register 1,000 yards receiving, as a 6-5, 230-pound converted tight end. But he is the Wolverines' leading returning receiver, and if he can fix a mild case of the dropsies, he could go even higher in 2014.
Leonte Carroo, Rutgers (478): Carroo flashed his ability as a sophomore in 2013, grabbing nine touchdowns in just 10 games. The Scarlet Knights rave about his talent. The team's passing game must improve significantly for any receiver to have a chance at 1,000 yards, but new offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen might be the man to fix it.
Kenny Bell, Nebraska (577): Bell seems to make this list every year, and he got close to becoming the Huskers' first-ever 1,000-yard receiver in 2012 with 863 yards. His numbers dipped last season, but a more consistent passing attack could help him turn in a big senior season. He is, after all, a little more aerodynamic now.
DeAngelo Yancey, Purdue (546): Yancey got more than halfway to 1,000 as a freshman despite having one or zero receptions in seven games and often playing with a true freshman quarterback in Danny Etling. He averaged 17.1 yards per catch, showing his explosiveness. The Boilers have a long way to go on offense, but Yancey is a playmaker they can build around.
Christian Jones (668) and Tony Jones (630), Northwestern: The Wildcats have spread the ball out so much lately that no one receiver has put up monster stats (though if you combined these two guys into one receiver named ChrisTony Jones, you'd have a 1,300-yard wideout). But Northwestern should pass the ball more and run option a lot less with Trevor Siemian as the starting quarterback, so that could increase everybody's numbers in the passing game.
Geno Lewis, Penn State (234): It would be quite a leap for Lewis to go from his modest 2013 numbers to the 1k level. But with Robinson gone, Christian Hackenberg needs someone to catch his passes. Lewis is the most experienced target and a talented player who could take advantage of a great opportunity. If not, perhaps a freshman such as De'Andre Thompkins or one of the team's tight ends steps up.
- Mark Dantonio is planning on keeping Michigan State football on a roll.
- Improving Penn State's branding is high on James Franklin's to-do list. A rather exhaustive preview of the 2014 Nittany Lions.
- Ohio State landed a quarterback for its 2015 class, and it could take another. A look at the Buckeyes' play-action package.
- Nebraska's summer camps will feature some new experts: current Huskers players. Sadly, Kenny Bell's tremendous Afro is gone.
- Minnesota offensive lineman Caleb Bak called it quits on his career.
- Illinois got a commitment from a Washington, D.C., running back.
- Seven home games per year is not necessarily the way of the future for Big Ten teams.
- Former Michigan receiver Drew Dileo will get a shot with the Miami Dolphins.
- Looking back on how Rutgers' 2011 recruiting class panned out.
- Athlon lists its best quarterback-head coach tandems for 2014, and it includes several Big Ten duos.
Brutus from The Ninth Circle writes: Brian, what are you looking forward to the most this coming season? Seeing a team coached by James Franklin? Seeing Maryland and Rutgers play their first games in the B1G? Seeing more night games at Michigan? Personally, I can't wait to see Maryland's games in the B1G. The eastward expansion should play havoc on my Saturday TV scheduling, but bring it on!
Brian Bennett: From a big-picture perspective, what I'm most excited about is the new playoff system, and in particular the semifinals on New Year's Day. That could be one of the best days in college football history. From, um, a B1G-picture perspective, I'm really interested in how Maryland and Rutgers fit into the league, how Franklin's Penn State debut will go and how the new division alignment shakes out. But I'm probably most excited about an upgraded nonconference schedule that includes games like Michigan State-Oregon, Wisconsin-LSU and Ohio State-Virginia Tech. There's nothing like high-profile out-of-league games early on to get a read on just how strong the Big Ten might be in 2014.
Brian Bennett: Grant, I wrote about this a lot in a piece last month following a visit to East Lansing. Dantonio started warning about complacency in the first team meeting back home after the Rose Bowl, and he pushed the start of spring practice back to late March so he could have the players go through grueling, early-morning winter conditioning longer. That's one way to deflate big heads. I also thought it was an encouraging sign that Michigan State players like Connor Cook told me they were sick of talking about the Rose Bowl and 2013 this offseason and that they wanted to create their own legacy. Add in the fight for playing time at several defensive positions and along the offensive line and other spots, and there is reason to believe this team won't rest on its '13 accomplishments. You never really know. But that Week 2 showdown against the Ducks on the road should be enough to get these Spartans focused on the here and now, or else they're going to learn that lesson the hard way.
Brian Bennett: Meyer does collect top talent from Ohio -- he signed nine players from the Buckeye State in the 2014 class, for example -- but he doesn't just rely on homegrown players. Ohio State wants to compete for national titles, and the way to do that is to get the best players, no matter where they're from. Fact is, Big Ten country doesn't produce as many elite athletes as it once did, and many of those guys are in the South, in Texas and California. Any Big Ten program with legitimate national title aspirations has to recruit outside its region, as well as protecting its own backyard.
Brian Bennett: I firmly believe that one of the absolute best things about college football is the supreme importance of the regular season. Every week, in essence, becomes a playoff. Having a four-team playoff at the end will dilute that slightly but not enough, in my opinion, to hurt the sport. So I'm against any idea that would make games in any part of the season lose their significance.
Michigan State's problem last year was not so much its loss at Notre Dame but the fact that it really didn't play another marquee game until the Big Ten championship game against Ohio State. That's why upgraded schedules for the league are so important. A loss (or possibly even two, in some years) will be much easier to forgive if a team has played a grueling schedule and collected impressive wins throughout. I do hope the selection committee pays particular attention to schedule strength and does not get caught up on picking teams who might have simply coasted to a 12- or 11-win season. The in-season polls that the committee will release seem problematic to me, but everything they have said so far indicates they will judge teams on the quality of their résumés.
Brian Bennett: Thanks, Luke. It was a dream trip, and I highly recommend it. As for Nebraska, I've thought for a while that guys like Bell and Turner could do even more with a consistent passing game. Taylor Martinez was actually pretty solid in 2012, throwing for 2,871 yards and 23 touchdowns, though his 62 percent completion rate wasn't spectacular. It's no coincidence that Bell had by far his best season in 2012. There was too much turnover and inexperience under center last year for Nebraska once Martinez got injured. Tommy Armstrong simply has to improve on his 51.9 percent completion rate from a year ago, and he's got the playmakers to make big things happen.
To recap: All current Big Ten players are eligible to be drafted (incoming recruits are not). The teams will pick in reverse order of regular-season finish last year. Picks are based on factors like position need, remaining eligibility, scheme, previous players lost in the draft.
Check out the first half of the first round here. It gets a bit messy with teams swiping each other's top players, but that makes it fun.
Now, for the final seven picks ...
Pick No. 8: Penn State
The offensive line is Penn State's shakiest position group, but Christian Hackenberg (selected No. 5 by Rutgers) leaves a massive hole at quarterback. Cook, a pro-style signal-caller with a big arm and more experience than Hackenberg, makes a lot of sense as he fits the system and comes off top performances in the Big Ten championship game and the Rose Bowl.
Brian Bennett says the Lions select ... Ohio State OT Taylor Decker
Penn State does need help on the offensive line, but it can afford to be patient. Decker was playing as well as any Ohio State offensive lineman late last season, when he was only a redshirt freshman. He can come to State College and offer help now and for the next three years, seeing the Lions through probation.
Pick No. 9: Minnesota
Rittenberg says the Gophers select ... Maryland WR Stefon Diggs
Minnesota loses some star power on defense, but I expect coordinator Tracy Claeys to produce a solid unit. The bigger issue is boosting a pass offense that ranked 115th nationally last season. Diggs comes off an injury-shortened season, but he's an explosive playmaker with 88 career receptions and two years of eligibility left. He would complement promising young wideouts like Drew Wolitarsky.
Bennett says the Gophers select ... Nebraska WR Kenny Bell
The Gophers might just be a downfield receiving threat away from being actual division contenders. Bell is a senior but offers two things Jerry Kill wants: leadership and toughness as a blocker. Bell would also deliver some explosiveness while guiding Minnesota's young wideouts along.
Pick No. 10: Iowa
Rittenberg says the Hawkeyes select ... Indiana LT Jason Spriggs
Brandon Scherff (selected No. 1 by Purdue) is a major loss for Iowa, which now needs a replacement to anchor its offensive line. Spriggs might not be as big a name as Scherff, but he has quietly started the first 24 games of his college career and earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors the past two seasons. He also has two years of eligibility left.
Bennett says the Hawkeyes select ... Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon
True, Iowa has about 37 tailbacks right now. But the pure speed and playmaking ability of Gordon is tough to pass up here, especially for an offense seeking more home-run plays. Plus, he originally committed to the Hawkeyes, so this is a way for them to finally get Gordon in black and gold.
Pick No. 11: Nebraska
Rittenberg says the Huskers select ... Ohio State DE Joey Bosa
Running back Ameer Abdullah (selected No. 6 by Maryland) is a significant loss, but the Huskers have good depth behind him. They need a replacement for All-Big Ten end Randy Gregory (selected No. 4 by Indiana), and Bosa, who ended his freshman season in beast mode, is an easy choice. He should keep the expectations high for the Huskers' defensive front seven. And he has at least two seasons left.
Nebraska doesn't seem to have a lot of gaping holes but could use a playmaker in the passing game after losing Bell (selected No. 9 by Minnesota). Funchess would make a nice safety valve for Tommy Armstrong and is a destroyer of red zone defenses. Tim Beck lobbies hard for this pick and would get two years to deploy Funchess in a variety of ways.
Pick No. 12: Wisconsin
Rittenberg says the Badgers select ... Ohio State DL Michael Bennett
Like Nebraska, Wisconsin has lost an elite running back (Melvin Gordon, selected No. 7 by Michigan), and like the Huskers, the Badgers have enough to get by without him. Wisconsin has an even bigger need to upgrade its defensive front seven after losing six starters to graduation. Bennett, a junior who could play either line spot and had seven sacks last season, is a really good fit for Wisconsin.
Bennett says the Badgers select ... Michigan State QB Connor Cook
The passing game remains a sore spot for Wisconsin, and no clear starter under center emerged this spring. Cook knows how to run a pro-style offense and would have two years left in Madison.
Pick No. 13: Ohio State
Rittenberg says the Buckeyes select ... Michigan QB Devin Gardner
Well, this should be interesting. Ohio State needs a quarterback after losing Braxton Miller to Northwestern (pick No. 3), and there aren't too many proven options out there. The Buckeyes likely can get by with a one-year player to allow younger guys to develop. Gardner is a good fit in a true spread offense, and he showed at times last year that he can put up huge numbers.
Bennett says the Buckeyes select ... Indiana QB Tre Roberson
I had Rutgers snagging Miller earlier in the first round. Roberson might be the closest facsimile to Miller in the league right now, a guy with good wheels who can also sling it around the field. He has plenty of game experience and two years of eligibility left.
Pick No. 14: Michigan State
Rittenberg says the Spartans select ... Iowa QB Jake Rudock
OK, the quarterback swapping is getting a little silly, but Michigan State needs one after losing Cook (selected No. 8 by Penn State), and Rudock brings experience to the Spartans backfield. Rudock comes from a pro-style system at Iowa and should take another step this season. Plus, he has two years of eligibility left.
Bennett says the Spartans select ... Ohio State S Vonn Bell
You can't convince me that Mark Dantonio wouldn't go defense first in a draft like this. And I think the prospect of a stud defensive back would prove too hard for him to resist. Bell showed real promise in his brief exposure last year with the Buckeyes and has three years left to help fortify the No-Fly Zone.
- Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman hosted a meeting of some top offensive minds last week in Columbus. A pro day recap from Ohio State.
- Maryland RB Wes Brown had a reality check last fall when he lost the chance to play football.
- Tom Mulhern shares his thoughts on the first week of Wisconsin's spring practice.
- Nebraska WR Kenny Bell forms a strong connection with QB Tommy Armstrong.
- Illinois coach Tim Beckman is open to weeknight games. Former Illini RB Rashard Mendenhall on why he's retiring at 26.
- Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison thinks the experience among younger players will pay off this season.
- Penn State dished out more than $2.5 million in football severance payments in 2012 and 2013.
- Andy Graham debates whether Indiana should name a starting quarterback before the end of the spring (subscription required).
- Spring Q&As with Purdue defensive coordinator Greg Hudson and offensive coordinator John Shoop.
- Athlon picks the top Big Ten defensive backs of the BCS era.
- Former Michigan State LBs Max Bullough and Kyler Elsworth, who signed autographs together Sunday, will always be linked in Spartans lore.
Illinois:The Illini might not be exceptional in the kicking game, but they're in better shape than they were when coach Tim Beckman arrived. Punter Justin DuVernois returns after a solid junior season, while Taylor Zalewski looks for a bit more consistency in his second full season as the placekicker. Zalewski made 12 of 17 field-goal attempts last fall. The return game is the real plus, as V'Angelo Bentley provides a major threat, especially on punt returns.
Indiana: Like Illinois, Indiana brings back a dynamic returner in Shane Wynn, who averaged 14 yards on punt run-backs despite limited work. Punter Erich Toth also is back for his third season as the starter. Toth placed 18 of 52 attempts inside the opponent's 20-yard line. IU suffers a big loss at kicker as Mitch Ewald, the team's career field goals and field-goal percentage leader, departs. Aaron Del Grosso and Griffin Oakes will compete at kicker, and Jake Shake (shake and bake!) could enter the mix this summer.
Iowa: Here's another Big Ten team that looks very strong on returns, as Iowa boasts the Big Ten's most dynamic tandem in Kevonte Martin-Manley (punts) and Jordan Cotton (kickoffs). Martin-Manley had two punt-return touchdowns in 2013. Punter Connor Kornbrath ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in average, but placed 27 of 65 attempts inside the opponent's 20. Iowa loses kicker Mike Meyer, a four-year starter. Junior Marshall Koehn seems likely to step up, but could be pushed by incoming freshman Mick Ellis and others.
Maryland: Notice a theme so far? Most Big Ten teams are strong in the return game, and Maryland is no exception. If Stefon Diggs returns at full strength from his leg injury, he'll be a dangerous man with punts and kickoffs in his hands. Will Likely performed extremely well in Diggs' spot, averaging 26 yards on kickoff returns and 12.8 yards on punt returns. Maryland brings back an excellent kicker in Brad Craddock (21-for-25 on field goals last year), and punter Nathan Renfro enters his third season as the starter.
Michigan: Matt Wile has done a bit of everything for Michigan, but could settle into the starting placekicker role this fall. Wile handled kicking duties late last season and also served as Michigan's punter after Will Hagerup was suspended for the season. Hagerup, the Big Ten's punter of the year in 2012, will reclaim the role if he can avoid off-field problems that have surfaced throughout his career. Wile then could focus on kicking, as Kenny Allen is the only other option there. Michigan is still waiting for big things from kick returner Dennis Norfleet and must find someone to handle punts. Top recruit Jabrill Peppers could help.
Michigan State: Special teams once again should be a strength for MSU, which returns All-Big Ten punter Mike Sadler, a Ray Guy award semifinalist who will contend for All-America honors in 2014. Kicker Michael Geiger also is back after connecting on 15 of 16 field-goal attempts as a true freshman. Macgarrett Kings Jr. and Andre Sims Jr. both put up good numbers on punt returns. Michigan State had by far the fewest kick returns (18) in the Big Ten last year and will look for a boost from R.J. Shelton and others.
Minnesota: After an above-average year on special teams in 2013, Minnesota again should be good in the third phase. Punter Peter Mortell didn't get as many accolades as Sadler or Purdue's Cody Webster, but he had an excellent sophomore season, averaging 43.3 yards per attempt with 15 of 50 yards or longer. Marcus Jones is a major threat on returns after bringing back both a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns last fall. Redshirt freshman kickers Ryan Santoso and Andrew Harte will compete as the Gophers lose Chris Hawthorne.
Nebraska: The Huskers are looking for some upgrades on special teams, particularly on punt returns, as Nebraska ranked 123rd in the FBS last fall. Primary returner Jordan Westerkamp is back, but he'll face some competition. Nebraska brings back punter Sam Foltz, who had a solid freshman season, averaging 41.6 yards per boot. Mauro Bondi is set to step in at kicker as Pat Smith departs. If Bondi struggles, incoming freshman Kris Brown could get a look this summer. Kenny Bell, who led the Big Ten in kick return average (26.5 yards per return), is back.
Northwestern: The Wildcats lose a huge piece in Jeff Budzien, named the Big Ten's top kicker in each of his final two seasons. Hunter Niswander can handle both kickoffs and punts but seems likely to slide into Budzien's spot. Northwestern's punting was a mess in 2013, ranking 118th nationally in net average (33.2 ypp). Brandon Williams departs and Chris Gradone or Niswander will take over. The big news is Northwestern brings back Venric Mark , an All-America punt returner in 2012. Primary kick returner Matt Harris is back after a solid freshman season.
Ohio State: Aussie, Aussie, Aussie. Indeed, the Aussie is back at punter as Cameron Johnston returns after an excellent debut season (I refuse to call a 21-year-old a freshman). Ohio State hopes for similar results from another first-year specialist in kicker Sean Nuernberger, an early enrollee expected to step in for the departing Drew Basil. Sophomore Dontre Wilson will continue to have a big role on returns after handling kickoffs last year. Ohio State must replace Corey Brown on punt returns and could look to redshirt freshman Jalin Marshall or true freshmen Curtis Samuel and Johnnie Dixon.
Penn State: The kicking game continues to be an area of concern.Sam Ficken owns the team record for consecutive field goals (15) and started strong last season but ended with just 15 of 23 conversions, including four misses inside 40 yards. Penn State needs a new punter after losing Alex Butterworth, and will turn to Chris Gulla. Jesse Della Valle did a good job on punt returns, but Penn State needs a boost on kickoffs after finishing last in the league (19.1 yards per return). The Lions could stick with Geno Lewis or look for a newcomer such as De'Andre Thompkins to emerge. PSU also must shore up its coverage units.
Purdue: As if the Boilers didn't have enough to address on offense and defense, the kicking game needs attention. Punter Cody Webster finished his spectacular career with All-America honors, and the Boilers finished second nationally in net punting (41.7 yards per punt). Incoming freshman Austin McGehee will take over for Webster. Paul Griggs and Thomas Meadows continue to work at kicker, as Griggs made only 50 percent of his attempts (6 of 12) last season. The kick return game is strong with Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert, but Purdue must replace punt returner Ricardo Allen. B.J. Knauf could be a good fit there.
Rutgers: The kicking game historically is a strength for Rutgers, which has a knack for blocking kicks and pulling off fakes. Rutgers loses a productive piece in punter Nick Marsh, who also handled kickoffs. The Scarlet Knights will turn to Joseph Roth as their replacement. Kicker Kyle Federico finished the season well, particularly in the Pinstripe Bowl, and returns for his junior season. Rutgers has a major weapon on returns in Janarion Grant, who brought back both a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown during his freshman season.
Wisconsin: The kicking game has held back Wisconsin in the past, so it's definitely an area to watch during the offseason. Kicker Jack Russell converted 9 of 13 field-goal attempts after taking over for Kyle French. He'll try to hold off incoming freshman Rafael Gaglianone. Andrew Endicott, who handled kickoffs last fall, also returns. Wisconsin is looking for more from punter Drew Meyer, who averaged just 38.6 yards per attempt in 2013. Top returner Kenzel Doe is back and should handle both punts and kickoffs, although Wisconsin could look to others for help, such as newcomers Serge Trezy and Natrell Jamerson.
More position breakdowns
Illinois: The Illini are looking for more from this group after losing top target Steve Hull, who exploded late in the season to finish just shy of 1,000 receiving yards. While running back Josh Ferguson (50 catches in 2013) will continue to contribute, Illinois could use a boost from Martize Barr, who arrived with high expectations but only had 26 receptions last fall. Another junior-college transfer, Geronimo Allison, could make an impact beginning this spring, but there's some mystery at wideout. Illinois looks more solid at tight end with seniors Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse.
Indiana: Despite the somewhat surprising early departure of All-Big Ten selection Cody Latimer, Indiana should be fine here. Shane Wynn is the veteran of the group after recording 633 receiving yards on 46 catches last season. Kofi Hughes and Duwyce Wilson also depart, so Indiana will be leaning more on Nick Stoner and Isaiah Roundtree. The Hoosiers have high hopes for early enrollee Dominique Booth, a decorated recruit who could fill Latimer's spot on the outside. Productive tight end Ted Bolser departs and several players will compete, including early enrollee Jordan Fuchs.
Iowa: Almost all the wide receivers are back from a group in which none eclipsed more than 400 receiving yards in 2013. Balance is nice, but separation could be nicer for the Hawkeyes this spring. Kevonte Martin-Manley is the most experienced wideout and has 122 career receptions. Tevaun Smith also returns, and Iowa fans are excited about big-play threat Damond Powell, who averaged 24.2 yards on only 12 receptions last season. Iowa loses its top red-zone target in tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz and will need Jake Duzey to deliver more Ohio State-like performances.
Maryland: When the Terrapins get healthy, they might have the Big Ten's best wide receiving corps. Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, both of whom sustained broken legs against Wake Forest last season, have the ability to stretch the field as both averaged more than 15 yards per reception before the injuries struck. Leading receiver Levern Jacobs also returns, alongside junior Nigel King and sophomore Amba Etta-Tawo, who averaged more than 16 yards per catch in 2013. Marcus Leak, who started seven games in 2012, rejoins the team after a year away. The Terps are unproven at tight end after losing Dave Stinebaugh.
Michigan: There's a reason why some Michigan fans want Devin Gardner to return to wide receiver for his final season. The Wolverines are thin on the perimeter after losing Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo. Redshirt sophomores Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh are both candidates to start, and Dennis Norfleet could be the answer in the slot. But there's plenty of opportunity for younger players like Drake Harris, an early enrollee. Michigan's best pass-catching option, Devin Funchess, is listed as a tight end but plays more like a receiver. The Wolverines will be without their second-string tight end, Jake Butt, who suffered an ACL tear in winter conditioning.
Michigan State: Remember all the justified angst about this group a year ago? It has pretty much gone away as the Spartans wideouts rebounded nicely in 2013. Bennie Fowler departs, but MSU brings back its top two receivers in Tony Lippett and Macgarrett Kings, who showed explosiveness down the stretch last fall. Aaron Burbridge had a bit of a sophomore slump but provides another option alongside veteran Keith Mumphery, who averaged 16.6 yards per catch in 2013. Josiah Price leads the tight end group after a solid freshman season.
Minnesota: Here's a group to watch during spring practice, particularly the wide receivers. Minnesota has proven it can run the ball and defend under Jerry Kill, but the passing game was putrid in 2013, ranking last in the Big Ten and 115th nationally. Youth is partly to blame, and while the Gophers still lack experience, they can expect more from promising players like Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones. Senior Isaac Fruechte provides a veteran presence. Minnesota looks solid at tight end with sophomore Maxx Williams, the team's receiving yards leader (417) in 2013.
Nebraska: The Huskers lose a significant piece in Quincy Enunwa, who led the team in receiving yards (753) and had three times as many receiving touchdowns (12) as anyone else in 2013. Kenny Bell is set to recapture the No. 1 receiver role, which he had in 2012, and comes off of a 52-catch season as a junior. Nebraska must build around Bell this spring with players like the mustachioed Jordan Westerkamp, who had 20 catches as a freshman, including a rather memorable one to beat Northwestern. Will Jamal Turner turn the corner this offseason? Juniors Sam Burtch and Taariq Allen also return. Cethan Carter started six games at tight end last fall and should take over the top spot there as Jake Long departs.
Northwestern: The passing game fell short of expectations in 2013, but there's reason for optimism as Northwestern returns its top three pass-catchers in Tony Jones, Christian Jones and Dan Vitale. The two Joneses (no relation), who combined for 109 catches in 2013, lead the receiving corps along with junior Cameron Dickerson. Speedy Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler provides a playmaking spark, possibly at slot receiver. Vitale, who had a somewhat disappointing sophomore season, has All-Big Ten potential at the superback (tight end) spot. Although Northwestern rarely plays true freshmen, superback Garrett Dickerson, Cameron's brother, could see the field right away.
Ohio State: A group that drew heavy criticism from coach Urban Meyer two springs ago is stockpiling talent. Devin Smith is the familiar name, a big-play senior who has started each of the past two seasons and boasts 18 career touchdowns. Ohio State must replace top wideout Corey Brown and will look for more from Evan Spencer. Michael Thomas has stood out in practices but must translate his performance to games. This could be a breakout year for H-back Dontre Wilson, who averaged nine yards per touch as a freshman. Buckeyes fans are eager to see redshirt freshmen Jalin Marshall and James Clark, and incoming players like Johnnie Dixon could make a splash right away. Ohio State returns an elite tight end in Jeff Heuerman.
Penn State: The Lions have very different depth situations at receiver and tight end. They're looking for contributors on the perimeter after losing Allen Robinson, the Big Ten's top wide receiver the past two seasons, who accounted for 46 percent of the team's receiving production in 2013. Brandon Felder also departs, leaving Geno Lewis as the likeliest candidate to move into a featured role. Richy Anderson also returns, but there will be plenty of competition/opportunity at receiver, a position new coach James Franklin targeted in recruiting with players like Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall. Things are much more stable at tight end as the Lions return three talented players in Jesse James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman.
Purdue: If you're looking for hope at Purdue, these spots aren't bad places to start. There are several promising young players like receiver DeAngelo Yancey, who recorded a team-leading 546 receiving yards as a freshman. Cameron Posey also had a decent freshman year (26 catches, 297 yards), and Danny Anthrop averaged 18.4 yards as a sophomore. A full offseason with quarterbacks Danny Etling and Austin Appleby should help the group. Tight end also should be a strength as Justin Sinz, who led Purdue with 41 catches last season, is back along with Gabe Holmes, who returns after missing most of 2013 with a wrist injury.
Rutgers: The good news is tight end Tyler Kroft returns after leading Rutgers in both receptions (43) and receiving yards (573) last season. Kroft will immediately contend for All-Big Ten honors. Things are murkier at wide receiver, where top contributors Brandon Coleman and Quron Pratt both depart. Leonte Carroo took a nice step as a sophomore, averaging 17.1 yards per catch and enters the spring as the frontrunner to become the team's No. 1 wideout. Ruhann Peele is another promising young receiver for the Scarlet Knights, who boast size with Carlton Agudosi (6-foot-6) and Andre Patton (6-4).
Wisconsin: The quarterback competition will gain more attention this spring, but Wisconsin's receiver/tight end situation could be more critical. The Badgers lose Jared Abbrederis, their only major threat at receiver the past two seasons, as well as top tight end Jacob Pedersen. Players like Jordan Fredrick and Kenzel Doe must translate their experience into greater production, and Wisconsin will look for more from young receivers like Alex Erickson and Robert Wheelwright. Help is on the way as Wisconsin signed five receivers in the 2014 class, but wideout definitely is a position of concern right now. Sam Arneson is the logical candidate to step in for Pedersen, but there should be competition as the Badgers lose a lot at the position.
Much will change between now and August. Heck, much will change between now and spring practice. But for right now, the 2014 Big Ten season is shaping up as one that possibly lacks a clear-cut, slam-dunk favorite in either of the new East or West divisions.
In colleague Mark Schlabach's way-too-early Top 25 for next season, Michigan State tops all league teams by checking in at No. 6. Makes plenty of sense, as the Spartans went 13-1, won the Rose Bowl over Stanford and return the vast majority of their offense, along with a solid core on that outstanding defense.
"I have held all along that the Buckeyes, close as they were in 2013, were built for '14," Haney writes. "The talented 2013 freshman class that Urban Meyer brought in [ranked third in the nation according to ESPN's RecruitingNation] had bright spots, such as Joey Bosa at defensive end, but it'll really start to have an impact next season. The defense could quickly go from liability to strength, with young players such as Bosa, safety Vonn Bell and end Noah Spence becoming bigger pieces."
I think there's a lot of truth to that about the defense, which started six freshmen or sophomores against Clemson in the Orange Bowl loss. But Ohio State also loses Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby from a defense that struggled down the stretch, and the offense must replace 80 percent of the offensive line, leading rusher Carlos Hyde and leading receiver Philly Brown. Plus, the Buckeyes have to play at Michigan State.
Those two will headline the new East, and it's up to teams like Michigan and Penn State to get better and make that more than a two-team race. The West Division looks even more wide open.
Schlabach ranks Wisconsin No. 15, which comes as a bit of a surprise considering all of the valuable seniors the Badgers lose on defense, plus receiver Jared Abbrederis. The Badgers also have to open the season against LSU, though the schedule is much more favorable after that with no Michigan, Michigan State or Ohio State on the docket.
Iowa checks in at No. 21 in Schlabach's rankings and has to be considered a West contender after going 8-4 in the regular season. The Hawkeyes' offense could make strides in 2014 with most of the key pieces returning, but replacing those three senior starting linebackers won't be easy.
Schlabach does not rank Nebraska, which surprises me. The Huskers finished 9-4, which apparently is an annual federal requirement under Bo Pelini, and bring back just about everybody on defense, plus Ameer Abdullah, Tommy Armstrong Jr., Kenny Bell and several other key players on offense. If forced to choose right now, I'd make Nebraska the West favorite, even though the Huskers have to go to Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan State in the fall.
Northwestern figures to bounce back from an incredibly unlucky 2013, and Minnesota won eight games with a lot of young players in major roles this year. Neither can be counted out in the division.
The East looks stronger at the top in 2014 than the West, at least for now. But unlike the 2013 season, when Ohio State was the clear favorite after going 12-0 the previous year, there's no slam-dunk, clear-cut favorite in either division.
Each team receives a grade for offense, defense, special teams and overall play.
Up next: Penn State.
Penn State naturally started off slow with a rookie quarterback and an offensive line that struggled early, but this group showed progress as the season went on. Bill O'Brien opted to keep his star quarterback on a short leash in the opener against Syracuse, as he called for runs on third-and-long and rarely called a pass over 10 yards. But O'Brien had unleashed Hackenberg by the season finale -- and the freshman led an aggressive attack against then-No. 15 Wisconsin to the tune of 339 passing yards, four TDs and no interceptions.
Robinson accounted for 46 percent of the passing offense over the season, and he was -- by far -- the most valuable player on this team. He was named the Big Ten's receiver of the year for the second straight season, while his quarterback was named B1G freshman of the year.
This offense never really had a No. 2 receiving threat, and the running backs struggled with holding onto the ball, as Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak combined for a half-dozen fumbles. But Penn State ended the season on a high note and showed it wasn't one-dimensional.
Penn State has become accustomed to great defenses, as it's ranked within the top 20 in yards allowed seven times since 2004. But that certainly wasn't the case this season.
The secondary was a constant liability. Third-and-long was no shoo-in for a punt the next down, and pass-first teams tormented the Lions -- just take a look at UCF and Indiana. The historic 63-14 loss to Ohio State certainly stands out as one of the worst-ever defensive performances by Penn State, as it was the worst PSU loss in 114 years.
So, why isn't this grade lower then? Well, in the Lions' last five conference games, they held all but Purdue -- whom they beat 45-21 -- to less than their season average in points scored. DT DaQuan Jones finished with 11.5 tackles-for-loss and led a stout run defense that plugged the middle in just about every game outside of Ohio State. For example, Wisconsin managed just 120 total rushing yards on 30 carries. Penn State also finished fourth in the Big Ten in sacks (28) and ranked No. 49 nationally in total defense.
This wasn't a great defense. It was an average one -- with a below-average secondary and an above-average front-seven -- that failed big against Ohio State but grabbed high marks against Wisconsin.
Special teams: D-minus
There's really not a whole lot of good to say here. Jesse Della Valle returned 18 punts and averaged a respectable 8.7 yards a return, while Alex Butterworth had 17 of his 51 punts wind up inside the 20.
And that's where the highlights end.
The Nittany Lions ranked last in the Big Ten in kick return average, 10th in punting average and second-to-last in both field goal percentage and kickoff coverage. Kicker Sam Ficken cooled off by the halfway point, and special teams cost Penn State a win against Nebraska.
Ficken missed a 37-yard field goal and an extra point against the Cornhuskers, while Kenny Bell returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown. Penn State lost in overtime, 23-20.
Sixty-one scholarship players? A quarterback who was on campus for just two months before the opener? A defense short on individual talent? There were plenty of question marks surrounding this team before the season, but the Nittany Lions once again overcame the odds to finish with a winning record. They picked up a win on the road against a top-15 opponent, Wisconsin, for the first time since 2008. And they pulled out two wins in a conference record-tying three overtime games this season. Penn State might have had more odds stacked against it this season than last, and it showed once again you can never totally count this team out.
But we can also say with confidence that we watched more Big Ten football here at the blog than anyone else. So here are our picks for the 2013 ESPN.com All-Big Ten team:
RB: Carlos Hyde, Ohio State
RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
WR: Allen Robinson, Penn State
WR: Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin
TE: Devin Funchess, Michigan
OL: Jack Mewhort, Ohio State
OL: Brandon Scherff, Iowa
OL: Taylor Lewan, Michigan
OL: Corey Linsley, Ohio State
OL: Ryan Groy, Wisconsin
DE: Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State
DT: Ra’Shede Hageman, Minnesota
DE: Randy Gregory, Nebraska
LB: Ryan Shazier, Ohio State
LB: Chris Borland, Wisconsin
LB: Max Bullough, Michigan State
LB: James Morris, Iowa
DB: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State
DB: Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State
DB: Bradley Roby, Ohio State
DB: Brock Vereen, Minnesota
K: Jeff Budzien, Northwestern
P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State
KR: Kenny Bell, Nebraska
PR: Kevonte Martin-Manley, Iowa
OK, so we cheated just a bit on positions, going with three tackles on our offensive line and a 3-4 defense. But considering the coaches had six defensive backs and two punters on their first team, we don't feel too bad about it. ... We wanted to include Scherff, Lewan and Mewhort on the first team, because we thought they were the three best linemen in the league. If we had to field an actual team with these guys, we're sure we could figure it out. It was a tough call between Groy and Penn State's John Urschel, whom we love for his on- and off-the-field accomplishments. We just felt Wisconsin had the better overall season as an offensive line, so we went with Groy. ... We went with the 3-4 because linebacker was such a deep position in this league -- so deep that we had to leave off some deserving players, like Michigan State's Denicos Allen -- while defensive line wasn't nearly as strong. ... The defensive backfield was a tough call (no wonder the coaches had an, ahem, pick six there). Dennard was a lock, and we felt that Drummond was the league's best safety in a year when that position was a bit weak conference-wide. We like what Vereen did in providing versatility and leadership for the Gophers, and Roby overcame a slow start to do his usual fine work. We had to leave off very good cornerbacks like Michigan's Blake Countess, Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Iowa's B.J. Lowery -- but that's what a second team is for. Stay tuned. ... Ohio State leads the way with six selections, followed by Michigan State with five. It's almost as if those were the two best teams in the league or something.
1. Running-back-by-committee is nice -- but not required. Bill Belton missed the game with an undisclosed illness and stood on the sideline in street clothes, so it was the "Zach Zwinak Show" on Saturday -- and he came through just fine. Zwinak carried the ball 35 times for 149 yards. But it wasn't the first time a Penn State tailback has been asked to carry the full load. Belton had 36 carries against Illinois while Zwinak was in the midst of his fumbling phase (at least we think it was a phase). So it's clear these tailbacks are conditioned enough to handle a heavy load. Obviously, neither guy can do this every game over a full season. But if one guy is injured for a week or two? Definitely not time to hit the panic button. Having two guys who can run like that definitely has to make the staff feel better about its depth at the position.
2. Special teams needs more than just coaching to improve. Bill O'Brien said last Saturday, following the win against Purdue, that maybe he needed to find hungrier players to put on the kick-coverage team. On Tuesday, he changed his mind and said he just needed to coach better. Well, Bo Pelini said the players were coached just fine, but PSU's special-teams units still had their worst combined performance of the season. Kenny Bell ran back a kick 99 yards for a TD, a punt return was fumbled, a punt was blocked, and an extra point was missed. It was a day to forget for the special teams and, clearly, something has to give there. Maybe O'Brien and Co. need to coach better, but maybe they also need to find more athletic run-ons for special teams, too.
3. Tight ends could be the answer next season. Senior Brandon Felder and redshirt freshman Eugene Lewis had games to forget for Penn State as wideouts. But, outside of Allen Robinson, the tight ends really showed up to play. Six-foot-7 TE Jesse James flashed some speed on a swing pass that turned into a 46-yard touchdown. TE Adam Breneman caught a nice touchdown pass. And Kyle Carter looked good at times, as well. If Robinson doesn't return next season -- and that's looking more and more like an inevitability -- then these tight ends might just be the future. Saturday's game could've been a glimpse of that.
4. There could be some hope for this defense after all. It's not time to break open the champagne or anything, but true freshman linebacker Brandon Bell played well. And the secondary didn't look completely lost against a receiving corps that Jordan Lucas called the best it would face all season. The defense surrendered just one touchdown -- special teams allowed the other -- and, if it can string together more bend-don't-break games like that, then fewer fans are sure to call for the head of defensive coordinator John Butler. It was a positive step. The defensive line got great pressure on Nebraska, and that seemed to be key.