Penn State Nittany Lions: Michael Bennett

Head coaches from the Big Ten East Division, along with a player from each team, addressed the media this afternoon on teleconferences. The West Division players and coaches spoke Wednesday.

Here's a closer look at the East:

INDIANA
  • Defense has been a lingering Indiana concern for years, but coach Kevin Wilson believes he's starting to see a change, thanks to new defensive coordinator Brian Knorr. The scheme hasn't changed radically, but the Hoosiers return 10 starters there -- and Wilson's seen a promising spring so far with an added focus on competition and communication: "They've for sure held their own on a daily basis -- and, in some ways, probably even better -- against the offense."
  • Wilson believes teams need to invest scholarships into the kicking game, but he thinks it's also too risky to offer recruits straight out of high school. If you look at the NCAA's top 25 kickers, Wilson estimated at least 15 started out as walk-ons. So he's hoping to find some walk-ons who are willing to work for a scholarship, rather than be granted one right away.
  • At 5-foot-7, Shane Wynn is the Hoosiers' leading returning receiver, and he's transitioning to playing the outside. It's been a little different for Wynn, who said he's had to watch more film as a result. He's reading the corners now, instead of the safeties, as just one example.
MARYLAND
  • Maryland coach Randy Edsall is confident in his offense and believes the Terrapins have enough options so that opponents can't focus on just one person. If defenses lock on to wideout Stefon Diggs, then quarterback C.J. Brown can take off running or receiver Deon Long can pick up some slack. "The No. 1 thing I do like," Edsall said, "is we can spread the field."
  • Maryland's staff has already started looking at film of Big Ten teams, so they know what to expect when the conference season begins. Edsall said he wants to at least get a feel for their personnel and what kind of schemes he'll face. He's also confident the Terps will be ready: "We fully expect to be able to compete when we get into the Big Ten this year."
  • Brown said one of the main reasons he committed to Maryland was the coach who recruited him at the time, former Terps assistant and current Penn State coach James Franklin. He's looking forward to squaring off against Franklin this season, and Edsall said there's no question he would like to develop a rivalry with the Nittany Lions.
MICHIGAN
  • The quarterback derby will continue, and Brady Hoke included all three of his options in the discussion heading into the offseason. The Wolverines coach did acknowledge, though, that Devin Gardner “probably would be” the starter if there was a game on the schedule this weekend. There isn’t, so Shane Morris and Wilton Speight will continue to be in the conversation.
  • The first opponent on the schedule will always stir emotions for Michigan fans, but Hoke didn’t attach any revenge or sentimentality to his reasons for wanting to take on Appalachian State in the opener this fall. “We needed a game,” Hoke said. “I thought it would be a good game.” Defensive end Frank Clark was certainly aware of the history between the programs, even though he was still years away from joining Michigan and getting a shot at making up for the upset loss in 2007 -- which he called “shocking” and “shows how hard those guys play.”
MICHIGAN STATE
  • Michigan State is coming off a Rose Bowl victory, but coach Mark Dantonio and quarterback Connor Cook would prefer not to think about that any longer. Dantonio said they've talked a lot these last four months about not growing complacent, and Cook only echoed his coach. "A lot of people keep bringing up the Rose Bowl," Cook said. "But we're past that. We're focusing on the now."
  • The offensive line has made some big strides since January, at least according to Cook. He felt like he had no time in the pocket last spring and said the pass rush was getting to him every time. This spring? He doesn't feel rushed in the pocket, and he thinks that's pretty indicative of how far this line has come.
  • Jeremy Langford earned a lot of praise from Cook, who said the running back has become a much bigger part of the passing attack. "He's improved a lot with catching the ball," Cook said, complimenting Langford's versatility. "He's done so many different things for us."
OHIO STATE
  • There is still work to be done in addressing the most glaring weakness on the team last season, but Urban Meyer called Ohio State’s pass defense “drastically improved” and will be watching closely for more signs of progress in Saturday’s spring game. The Buckeyes will play a traditional game, but the emphasis will be on throwing the football and assessing the skill players on both offense and defense -- giving Meyer a chance to evaluate backup quarterback Cardale Jones in a live setting in addition to checking out the secondary.
  • Arguably the strongest part of last season's team is undergoing a transition without four senior starters, and the offensive line is somewhat of a concern for Meyer heading into the offseason. With guard Pat Elflein the only other player to have earned a first-team slot to play alongside junior Taylor Decker at this point, that competition is likely to spill over into preseason camp in August. Both tackle Darryl Baldwin and guard Antonio Underwood were praised for their work by defensive tackle Michael Bennett, and Billy Price and Jacoby Boren are dueling at center.
PENN STATE
  • Franklin said he knew exactly what he was getting into at Penn State, in terms of the current depth and sanctions. He and former coach Bill O'Brien worked together at Maryland, and he said the two had a lot of honest conversations about the current state of the Nittany Lions. The two have continued to talk since.
  • Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia are both making transitions from defensive tackle to offensive guard, and Franklin said he has been pleased with their performances so far: "They're doing a good job for us -- and they have to. We're thin at that position."
  • Franklin said he feels especially comfortable with the talent at running back and defensive line. Middle linebacker Mike Hull was more specific about naming the players who impressed him, pointing to backup linebacker Gary Wooten and cornerback Da'Quan Davis. Hull said Wooten is always around the football and that Davis, who missed part of the spring with a hamstring injury, has come up with several interceptions.
RUTGERS
  • Another open competition at the most critical position on the field -- quarterback -- is still playing out at Rutgers, and coach Kyle Flood isn’t ready to declare a winner in what would seem to be a wide-open battle. Flood indicated that Gary Nova, Mike Bimonte and Chris Laviano are all “really vying for that first-team job.”
  • The change in conference affiliation has been welcomed with open arms by the Scarlet Knights, who can “feel the energy” as theypractice for their first season in the Big Ten. Defensive tackle Darius Hamilton said the team was already buzzing with excitement about the opportunity, and Flood called joining the league a “positive in every way.” The move also presents the opportunity for a rivalry to develop with new divisional neighbor Penn State, with both Flood and Hamilton citing the proximity between the schools as a bonus.

Big Ten's lunch links

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It’s April Fool’s Day. Resist the urge.

Enjoy some spring football:
  • A feel-good story as a group of players from Rutgers continue to use their spring breaks to help rebuild infrastructure in Haiti. A grim outlook for Rutgers in the Big Ten, courtesy of a former long-time New Jersey legislator.

  • Penn State’s initial recruiting success under James Franklin is gaining notice nationally and on the local scene.

  • Ohio State looks forward to a deeper rotation on the defensive line, which means fewer snaps for Michael Bennett. As for the Buckeyes' offensive line, depth is still a concern.

  • The pursuit of defensive tackle Malik McDowell, once a Michigan State pledge, remains unsettled despite the passing of a deadline. The Spartans look for 5:30 a.m. workouts to build mental toughness.

  • Meanwhile, Michigan is also in search this spring of that elusive element of toughness, writes Jeremy Fowler. Michigan offensive lineman Ben Braden developed his athletic skills as a hockey player.

  • An op-ed from the New York Times on justice being served as Northwestern players bid to unionize. The leader of the newly-formed association is looking forward. But hold off on drawing major conclusions over all the recent union talk.

  • Minnesota linebacker Cody Poock reportedly has suffered a torn knee ligament.

  • Nebraska coach Bo Pelini says offensive tackle Alex Lewis has exceeded expectations and requirements in his transition to Lincoln after a troublesome time last year as he prepared to depart Colorado. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. must be pushed, writes Steve Sipple.




STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg hasn't even completed two weeks of spring practice, so it's still anybody's guess how the reigning Big Ten freshman of the year will perform in 2014.

But, over the last 25 years, five other Big Ten quarterbacks have found themselves in similar positions. Like Hackenberg, they impressed fans with memorable rookie campaigns, were named the Big Ten freshman of the year and raised expectations over the offseason.

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
MCT via Getty ImagesHow will Nittany Lions signal-caller Christian Hackenberg follow up his fantastic freshman season?
Hackenberg's sophomore season won't be in the books for quite some time. But here's a look at those other five QBs and how they fared in their sophomore seasons and in their careers:

Braxton Miller, Ohio State, won award in 2011

Sophomore stats (2012): 148-of-254 passing (58.3 percent); 2,039 yards, 15 TDs, 6 INTs; 227 carries, 1,271 yards, 13 TDs

Ohio State record (2012): 12-0, no postseason due to sanctions (2011: 6-7, lost to Florida in Gator Bowl)

Sophomore synopsis: It would've been difficult to ask Miller for a much better sophomore campaign. He was the Big Ten's offensive player of the year, finished fifth in the Heisman voting and even bested Carlos Hyde in both rushing yards (1,271 to, 970) and yards per carry (5.6 ypc to 5.2 ypc). Miller was more renowned for his legs than his arm, but he was still the second-most efficient passer in the conference. He also came up big when his team needed; the Buckeyes won six games that were decided by a touchdown or less.

His career: He could've opted to leave early for the NFL this offseason but instead decided to stay one last season. He's becoming more well-rounded with each season, and he's once again one of the favorites to win the Heisman.

Terrelle Pryor, Ohio State, won award in 2008

Sophomore stats (2009): 167-of-295 passing (56.6 percent); 2,094 yards, 18 TDs, 11 INTs; 162 carries, 779 yards, 7 TDs

Ohio State record (2009): 11-2, beat Oregon in Rose Bowl (2008: 10-3, lost Fiesta Bowl vs. Texas)

Sophomore synopsis: With the top tailback (Chris Wells) and wideout (Brian Robiskie) from 2008 both gone, Pryor put the offense on his back and carried it to an improved record. Pryor led the team in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns, and he was instrumental in the Buckeyes' Rose Bowl win. He threw for 266 yards, rushed for a game-high 72 yards and was named the MVP. Statistically, his sophomore campaign wasn't his best season -- but he had a lot to overcome.

His career: He led the Buckeyes to three straight BCS bowl berths, but his legacy was marred by an early exit. He was suspended for the first five games of his senior season -- due to Tattoo-Gate -- so he instead opted for the NFL's supplemental draft in 2011. The Oakland Raiders took him in exchange for a third-round pick, although reports this week have said Pryor is now seeking to cut ties with the Raiders because he hopes to be a starter somewhere.

Brooks Bollinger, Wisconsin, won award in 1999

Sophomore stats (2000): 110-of-209 passing (52.6 percent); 1,479 yards, 10 TDs, 7 INTs; 157 carries, 459 yards, 6 TDs

Wisconsin record (2000): 9-4, beat UCLA in Sun Bowl (1999: 10-2, beat Stanford in Rose Bowl)

Sophomore synopsis: The Badgers needed to fill the big shoes of Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne, so they leaned a little more on the passing game in 2000. But, make no mistake about it, this was a run-first team that lived and died on the ground while relying heavily on Michael Bennett. Still, Bollinger played a big role as an effective dual-threat quarterback -- and this Wisconsin team came close to equaling success from the year before. Three of the Badgers' four losses were decided by six points or less, and two of those losses came in overtime.

His career: Bollinger never put up big passing numbers -- he never ranked higher than third in a given Big Ten stat category -- but he was consistent and did what was asked of him. The Big Ten Network even chose him as one of the 10 best quarterbacks in the conference from 2000 to 2010. He played five seasons in the NFL and was the Pittsburgh Panthers' QB coach for two seasons.

Antwaan Randle El, Indiana, won award in 1998

Sophomore stats (1999): 150-of-279 passing (53.8 percent); 2,277 yards, 17 TDs, 7 INTs; 224 carries, 788 yards, 13 TDs

Indiana record (1999): 4-7 (1998: 4-7)

Sophomore synopsis: Randle El's sophomore season was his best, by passing numbers, in his four years as a starter. He accounted for 69 percent of the entire offense that season and led the Big Ten with 30 combined touchdowns. The main reason Randle El couldn't lead Indiana to more wins? The defense allowed at least 30 points in nine of 11 contests. The highlight of the Randle El's season came against Illinois in October, when he overcame a 21-point deficit late in the third quarter to force overtime. Neil Rackers nailed a field goal to open up overtime for Illinois, but Randle El tossed a 25-yard TD pass on the very next play to seal the 34-31 win.

His career: The Hoosiers never won more than five games during his career, but he was clearly the team's best player. (And he was probably the most athletic person on campus -- he also played two years of basketball and one year of baseball.) He had a nine-year NFL career with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Washington Redskins.

Eric Hunter, Purdue, won award in 1989

Sophomore stats (1990): 200-of-366 passing (54.6 percent); 2,355 passing yards, 12 TDs, 14 INTs; 97 carries, 0 yards, 7 TDs

Purdue record (1990): 2-9 (1989: 3-8)

Sophomore synopsis: Hunter was looked upon as a young Randall Cunningham, but his career never lived up to those freshman expectations. He threw 11 TDs on 178 attempts as a freshman and just 12 TDs on 366 attempts as a sophomore. The main problem was an inexperienced offensive line, and it only got worse as the season wore on. In the last five games, Hunter had 11 picks.

His career: Those sophomore struggles led to the firing of Purdue's coach, which meant a new coach and a new system for Hunter. The line continued to struggle, Hunter never got back on track, and he saw less time on the field each season thereafter. He earned a reputation for his inability to read defenses, and the Boilermakers never won more than four games a season during his career.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

December, 20, 2013
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Wishing you a great weekend. Check out the full ESPN bowl schedule (with broadcast teams).

Don't forget to follow us on Twitter if you aren't already.

To the inbox ...

Mike from Allentown, Pa., writes: Hey Adam, with all the talk about Penn State's bowl ban being looked into this offseason, I have a hypothetical question for you. If the NCAA were to drop Penn State's bowl ban, would the Big Ten comply and make them eligible for the Big Ten championship? Or, is it possible the Big Ten could extend that ban separate from the NCAA?

Adam Rittenberg: Mike, the Big Ten's penalties always were tied to the NCAA's. Big Ten rules state that if the NCAA declares a team ineligible for postseason play, that team can't play in the Big Ten championship game. So if the NCAA lifts the bowl ban, the Big Ten would declare Penn State eligible for a league title (the Lions already can win their division). Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has been pleased with Penn State's response to former Sen. George Mitchell, the independent athletics integrity monitor assigned to the school. So I'd be shocked if the Big Ten added or maintained any sanctions against Penn State once the NCAA ones are lifted.


Josh from Indy writes: Have you ever thought about the comparison between Darqueze and his cousin Alfonzo? Both had great careers for their respective teams. Just wanted your take on this.

Adam Rittenberg: Josh, I definitely thought about it after Darqueze Dennard won the Big Ten's Tatum-Woodson Defensive Back of the Year award, which Nebraska's Alfonzo Dennard claimed in 2011. I can't imagine two family members have won the same award while playing for different teams in the same league. Pretty cool. Darqueze's numbers this season are more impressive than Alfonzo's in 2011, although Alfonzo was a true shut-down guy who basically eliminated one side of the field. Darqueze's pro prospects are better, as many peg him as a first-round draft pick. We'll never know where Alfonzo would have been drafted if he hadn't had the off-field trouble. Both are great players, though.


Derek from Preston, Iowa, writes: Hey Adam, I was just curious as to what you thoughts were on Derrell Johnson-Koulianos' Twitter tirade against Kirk Ferentz. Ferentz is beloved for the most part in Hawkeye Country, and this whole thing just seems weird. Why now?

Adam Rittenberg: The timing is interesting, Derek, as much of this happened three years ago. I understand Derrell's perspective that Ferentz blackballed him with the NFL and stifled his playing career. Some of his teammates back up the accusations against Ferentz and strength coach Chris Doyle. It's an unfortunate situation, but I would be very surprised if Ferentz or Iowa has anything to say about the accusations, especially so long after the fact. Iowa has moved forward and Ferentz's word still carries weight in NFL circles.

DJK has the right to air his grievances, and he has never held back on his views. Honestly, I can't think of a Big Ten player I've covered who fit in less with a particular program. But I doubt there will be major consequences for Ferentz or Iowa.


Fatback from Newark, Ohio, writes: Just wanting to know what your thoughts about Ohio State's defensive coordinator position. I know Fickell is an OSU guy, but we definitely need a change of pace. What do you think about Fickell moving down to just a position coach ( if he doesn't get another job this offseason), and hiring another person from the outside or moving Mike Vrabel up? I think with Vrabel we would play much more aggressive and sit back in all the zone coverage that teams seem to kill us on. Again, your thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: It would be tough for Ohio State to demote Fickell, who was the Big Ten's third highest-paid assistant this year ($610,000). You're not going to pay that salary to a position coach (at least you shouldn't). Fickell still brings a lot of value to Ohio State as a recruiter, and while his defense has its issues this year, youth in the front seven and Christian Bryant's injury didn't help matters. On the other hand, Urban Meyer has extremely high standards, and if he feels Fickell isn't helping the team to a national championship, maybe you make the change.

I've heard that Vrabel has definite head-coaching potential, and he did a nice job with a young defensive line this year. With Everett Withers reportedly departing to James Madison, don't be surprised to see a co-coordinator situation with Vrabel and Fickell. Perhaps Vrabel has more say on play calls. I just can't see Ohio State forcing out Fickell right now.


Joe from Kentucky writes: How can you guys leave off Blake Countess and Stanley Jean-Baptiste from the All-B1G selection for Bradley Roby? Roby was suspended for his off-the-field antics (looks really all-conference) and he got exposed by any of the good WRs he faced. Jared Abbrederis and Jeremy Gallon made him look silly to the tune of almost 400 yards combined. That does not sound like an all-conference performer to me. On the other hand, Countess led the conference in INTs and Jean-Baptiste was right there (if not tied). I think you guys were a little biased in trying to make MSU and OSU the top two represented teams (which their records show). Also, Ryan Shazier is the only person on that Ohio State defense to be named All-B1G.

Adam Rittenberg: Roby's one-game suspension really isn't relevant, as we included Carlos Hyde on the team despite his three-game suspension because he was the Big Ten's best running back in league play (few would argue). I agree that Roby struggled against Abbrederis in the Wisconsin game, but many of Gallon's yards didn't come against Roby in the Michigan game. Roby made a touchdown-saving tackle on Gallon, running completely across the field, one of several displays of athleticism he had this season. He had a very good Big Ten season and is one of the better special-teams players I can remember in this league. SJB had a nice season but no picks in Big Ten play. You could make a case for Countess, but I still feel Roby performed better in Big Ten play than any corner other than MSU's Dennard. Shazier is the only other Buckeye defender on our All-Big Ten team, although lineman Michael Bennett deservedly made the second-team.


Will from Columbus, Ohio, writes: Should I be concerned that Michigan will be breaking in two new starters at both offensive tackle positions in 2014? Lewan and Schofield took 99.9 percent of the snaps this year, likely making their replacements having VERY little, to no game experience. After the abysmal display on the interior of the line this year, I do believe there are positives in game time reps of the interior line translating to better protection up the middle next season. Will inexperience on the edge hurt the line more next year than the inside this year, or can you mask the youth more on the outside than in?

Adam Rittenberg: Some good points here, Will. I agree that Michigan's interior line will be improved next year because of all the experience gained, even through some tough times. It will be interesting to see what Michigan does with Erik Magnuson, who can play either guard or tackle but might be best at tackle depending on his development. The staff was excited about Ben Braden's development in the offseason, and he could step in for Lewan at left tackle. I'm really interested to see how the line performs in Arizona following bowl practices, but you're right that the group will continue to be under the microscope with both veteran tackles departing.


Ken from Carmel, Ind., writes: When Clifton Garrett recently committed to LSU, he mentioned the great game-day atmosphere. Having attended a game there, I agree. Sometimes I think the B10 doesn't get that -- and is slow to pick up other little things like that (night games) that can make the difference in winning or losing recruiting battles, and eventually games. As an Iowa grad, the large number of 11 a.m. games certainly don't help the game-day atmosphere. I get the feeling that the people at the top -- president, and A.D. -- don't understand this. You'll have a couple more arrests with later games, but most people just cheer louder and have more fun - a.k.a., better game-day atmosphere. Your thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Couldn't agree more, Ken, and I've been writing this for years. The Big Ten needs to prioritize prime-time games and become more open to weekday games, which would get some of the smaller programs some much-needed exposure. The good news: the league is definitely warming up to the idea, adding more prime-time games and becoming open to November night games, most likely in the 2014 season. Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke said Thursday that the Big Ten's next television contract will feature more prime-time games. That's a good thing, as the noon ET and 3:30 p.m. ET windows just don't carry the same weight with recruits.
We've reflected on the first half of the Big Ten season, evaluated each team and looked ahead to what promises to be a more exciting second half.

As we put a bow on the first half, we're selecting a midseason All-Big Ten team. This list certainly isn't as significant as the postseason squad, but these players merit recognition for their performances during the first seven weeks of the season.

The envelope, please ...

OFFENSE

QB: Nathan Scheelhaase, Illinois
RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin
RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
WR: Allen Robinson, Penn State
WR: Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin
TE: Ted Bolser, Indiana
C: Corey Linsley, Ohio State
OL: Spencer Long, Nebraska
OL: Brandon Scherff, Iowa
OL:
Rob Havenstein, Wisconsin
OL:
Jack Mewhort, Ohio State

DEFENSE

DE: Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State
DT: DaQuan Jones, Penn State
DE: Tyler Scott, Northwestern
LB: Chris Borland, Wisconsin
LB: Ryan Shazier, Ohio State
LB: Max Bullough, Michigan State
LB: James Morris, Iowa
DB: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State
DB: Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Nebraska
DB: Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern
DB: Blake Countess, Michigan


SPECIALISTS

K: Jeff Budzien, Northwestern
P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State
KR: Marcus Jones, Minnesota
PR: Kevonte Martin-Manley, Iowa

We'll start with the quarterback spot, which has been underwhelming around most of the league, partly because of injury. It was a close call between Scheelhaase and Penn State true freshman Christian Hackenberg, but Scheelhaase gets a slight edge with more touchdown passes and fewer interceptions. We had another tough decision at the No. 2 running back spot between Abdullah and Iowa's Mark Weisman, who has been very productive so far. Ultimately, Abdullah has made more out of his carries and got the nod.

The Big Ten's depth at linebacker prompted us to go with a 3-4 defensive alignment for the midseason team. We had some debate for the lone defensive tackle spot between Jones, Ohio State's Michael Bennett and Minnesota's Ra'Shede Hageman, but went with Jones, the league's leader in tackles for loss (8.5). Linebacker is so deep that it was tough limiting the list to only four. We ultimately went with Morris over Illinois' Jonathan Brown because Morris has made more game-changing plays. Cornerback has been a deeper position than safety through the first half, so we went with three corners and only one safety.

Kick returner was another close call between Minnesota's Jones and Illinois' V'Angelo Bentley.

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