Penn State Nittany Lions: Mike Markuson

Big Ten's best assistants in 2012

December, 12, 2012
12/12/12
9:00
AM ET
Head coaches are like quarterbacks. They get too much credit and too much blame.

Assistant coaches are like nose tackles. They don't get nearly enough credit despite playing vital roles.

Today, we'll change it up and give some recognition to Big Ten assistant coaches who did exemplary jobs with their position groups or, in some cases, units in 2012. Each of these coaches fostered improvement this season. Some took units in bad shape and made them better. Others took units in decent shape and made them very good. Some entered the season with skeptics and quieted them.

We came up with 13 assistants who deserve recognition. Yes, we realize we're leaving out some quality folks, but we had to cap it somewhere and wanted to spread the love around to the different teams.

Here's the rundown in alphabetical order:

Chris Ash, Wisconsin, defensive coordinator/secondary: All the attention on the offense's turbulent season took the spotlight away from the good things happening on the defensive side. Wisconsin finished in the top 25 nationally in total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense and pass efficiency defense. The Badgers held nine opponents to 21 points or fewer and gave an inconsistent offense chances to win every time out. Ash will be missed as he joins ex-Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema at Arkansas.

[+] EnlargeTim Beck, Bo Pelini
AP Photo/Nati Harnik, FileTim Beck, right, coordinated Nebraska's Big Ten-leading offense for head coach Bo Pelini.
Tim Beck, Nebraska, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks: The second-year play caller oversaw the Big Ten's top offense, which averaged 462.2 yards per game (24th nationally) and 35.1 points per game (28th nationally). Junior quarterback Taylor Martinez made significant strides under Beck's watch, and Nebraska survived the loss of star running back Rex Burkhead for most of the season thanks to contributions from Ameer Abdullah and others.

Tracy Claeys, Minnesota, defensive coordinator: An improved defense sparked Minnesota to a 4-0 start and eventually to bowl eligibility for the first time since the 2009 season. The Gophers pass rush showed life for the first time in years as senior end D.L. Wilhite and others put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Minnesota was especially good against the pass, ranking 11th nationally and 20th in pass defense efficiency. Although the offense remains a work in progress, Minnesota should be pleased with the direction on defense under Claeys.

Adam Cushing, Northwestern, offensive line: Cushing's recruiting ability always has stood out, but his coaching skills had been questioned as Northwestern struggled to convert promising line prospects into powerful blockers. The Wildcats went from a finesse offense to a power offense this season, blasting off of the line to the tune of 230.9 rush yards per game. Red zone offense went from a weakness to a strength as Northwestern tied for 17th nationally. Cushing's line paved the way for star running back Venric Mark.

Rich Fisher, Nebraska, wide receivers: Nebraska isn't known for its wide receiver play, but things are changing under Fisher's watch. Led by standout sophomore Kenny Bell, the Huskers' top three receivers combined for 1,657 yards and 11 touchdowns on 115 receptions. Just as important, the receiving corps helped Nebraska's bread-and-butter run game with effective blocking throughout the season. Fisher's hiring after the 2010 season raised some eyebrows, as he had taken a break from college coaching, returned to the high school ranks and also served as a golf instructor in Massachusetts. But he definitely looks like a great addition to Bo Pelini's staff.

Patrick Higgins, Purdue, wide receivers: Higgins played a significant role in Purdue's late-season surge, as he took over the offensive play-calling duties after coordinator Gary Nord suffered a severe back injury. Purdue won its final three games with Higgins and head coach Danny Hope handling the play calls. Higgins also did a nice job with Purdue's wide receiving corps, despite the fluctuating quarterback situation. Three veteran Boilers receivers eclipsed 40 catches and 300 receiving yards, and redshirt freshman Dolapo Macarthy showed promise.

Seth Littrell, Indiana, offensive coordinator/tight ends/fullbacks: Head coach Kevin Wilson brought in Littrell to boost Indiana's passing attack, and Littrell delivered despite losing starting quarterback Tre Roberson in Week 2. Indiana went from 80th nationally in pass offense to 19th, leading the Big Ten with 311.2 yards per game. With help from assistant offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Kevin Johns, Littrell managed the quarterback situation pretty well as both Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld had success. Littrell will go largely unnoticed because of Indiana's low profile and 4-8 record, but he was one of the Big Ten's best coaching additions for 2012.

Curt Mallory, Michigan, secondary: Michigan's defensive line dominates the spotlight because that's where coordinator Greg Mattison and head coach Brady Hoke put their primary focus, but Mallory has done a really nice job with a secondary that struggled mightily under the previous regime. Despite losing promising cornerback Blake Countess to a torn ACL in the season opener, Michigan still finished second nationally (behind Nebraska) in pass defense (155.2 ypg allowed). Safety Jordan Kovacs has blossomed under Mallory's watch, and while the depth in the secondary isn't where it will be eventually, Mallory has managed things well.

[+] EnlargeBart MIller
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsBart Miller went from grad assistant to coach of a Wisconsin O-line that pummeled its way to Pasadena.
Bart Miller, Wisconsin, offensive line: Miller began the season as a graduate assistant and moved into one of the team's top assistant roles in Week 3 after the surprising dismissal of veteran line coach Mike Markuson. Although Wisconsin's line didn't have its typical dominant performances every time out, Miller fostered obvious improvement and cohesion during the course of the season. The finished product showed up in the Big Ten championship game against Nebraska, as Wisconsin bullied the Huskers to the tune of 70 points, 539 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns.

Reese Morgan, Iowa, defensive line: Iowa didn't have much to cheer about in 2012, and some of the staff changes Kirk Ferentz made led to some growing pains. Morgan faced a significant challenge in moving from offensive line to defensive line, which returned only a handful of players who had logged field time in 2011. Given the youth and inexperience along the Hawkeyes' defensive front, Morgan did a nice job in Year 1. Joe Gaglione had a nice senior season (9 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles) and young players like Louis Trinca-Pasat showed promise. The line held its own in the first half of the season before struggling late.

Pat Narduzzi, Michigan State, defensive coordinator: Many of these assistants took questionable units and improved them. Narduzzi led an elite defense that entered the season with high expectations and met them. Make no mistake: Michigan State's defense is the only reason the team found itself in every game this season. The Spartans had a few standouts, namely linebacker Max Bullough, but their overall team defense and stinginess stood out. Narduzzi is one of the nation's premier coordinators and should land a head-coaching job in the near future.

John Strollo, Penn State, tight ends: Although O'Brien's offense is a tight end's dream, Strollo did a terrific job of developing young and unproven players this season. Redshirt freshman Kyle Carter emerged into one of the Nittany Lions' top passing threats, and junior Matt Lehman and true freshman Jesse James also stepped up at times. Of Penn State's top five receiving-yards leaders this season, three players are tight ends (Carter, Lehman and James).

Ed Warinner, Ohio State, offensive line/co-offensive coordinator: Warinner took an underachieving Buckeyes offensive line with serious depth questions and turned it into quite possibly the best line in the league. The Buckeyes' front five turned a corner in Big Ten play and created lanes for Braxton Miller, Carlos Hyde and the Big Ten's top scoring offense. Warinner was the Big Ten's best assistant hire of the last offseason and earns our vote as the league's top assistant in 2012.

2012 Big Ten midseason report

October, 15, 2012
10/15/12
11:00
AM ET
After a historic offseason of transition, the Big Ten endured a historic first half of ineptitude.

The league entered the fall with unique circumstances, as two of its premier programs (Ohio State and Penn State) couldn't compete in the postseason because of NCAA sanctions. But between a surging Michigan State program, a Michigan team coming off of a Sugar Bowl championships, a Wisconsin team that had made consecutive Rose Bowl appearances and a veteran-laden Nebraska squad, the Big Ten had ample reasons for optimism. They soon vanished.

Things got off to a rocky start at JerryWorld, as Michigan was stomped 41-14 by defending national champ Alabama. They only got worse in Week 2, the Big Ten's worst regular-season Saturday in recent memory. Big Ten teams went 6-6, including three losses at Pac-12 venues, including two by ranked teams (Wisconsin and Nebraska) against unranked foes (Oregon State and UCLA). The Big Ten went 6-9 against teams from BCS automatic-qualifying conferences and Notre Dame, with three wins coming from one team (Northwestern). Although Ohio State hasn't lost a game under new coach Urban Meyer, the Big Ten removed itself from the national title talk earlier than anyone expected.

(Read full post)

Big Ten stock report: Week 3

September, 12, 2012
9/12/12
3:45
PM ET
Investor confidence in the Big Ten neared an all-time low in Week 2. But past performance does not necessarily indicate future results. Let's check the stock market:

Stock up

Chi Chi Ariguzo: The Northwestern linebacker moved into a starting role for the first time this season, and the move has gone very well for the redshirt sophomore. Ariguzo -- whose actual first name is Ikechi -- was named the Big Ten defensive player of the week after collecting 10 tackles, including three for loss, against Vanderbilt. In Week 1 at at Syracuse, he had an interception and returned a botched lateral for a touchdown. He currently leads the Big Ten with 4.5 tackles for loss.

Devin Funchess: The Michigan true freshman tight end was outstanding against Air Force, hauling in four catches for 106 yards and a touchdown. The athletic 6-foot-5, 229-pounder showed receiving skills, and could provide a much needed target for Denard Robinson. He has future star written all over him.

[+] EnlargeDonnell Kirkwood
AP Photo/Tom OlmscheidRunning back Donnell Kirkwood has sparked an improved rushing attack for Minnesota.
Minnesota's running game: The Gophers currently rank fourth in the Big Ten at 224.5 rushing yards per game, a marked improvement over last season's 160 yards per game. It hasn't just been quarterback MarQueis Gray, either, as sophomore Donnell Kirkwood has rushed for at least 70 yards in the first two games. Head coach Jerry Kill says better play out of the receivers is opening some things up for the running game. Minnesota must prove it against better defenses than UNLV and New Hampshire, but is off to a good start in building a more complete offense.

Iowa's linebackers: Not much has gone right for the Hawkeyes' offense, but the linebackers have done their part. Head coach Kirk Ferentz said James Morris, who had 12 tackles and a key interception late against Iowa State, played tremendously last week. Christian Kirksey has been doing his part as well, which Ferentz said has opened opportunities for Anthony Hitchens. A first-year starter, Hitchens tallied an eye-popping 19 tackles last week. Now, if the defense could just get some help ...

Purdue in the red zone: Boiler up inside the 20. Purdue is currently tied for the national lead in red-zone offense, scoring on all nine drives inside the opponent's 20-yard line. That includes eight touchdowns. The Boilermakers also rank 13th nationally in red-zone defense, having surrendered just four scores -- and only two touchdowns -- during their opponents' seven trips inside their 20.

Stock down

Iowa in the red zone: The Hawkeyes, of course, have scored only one touchdown all season, and that came from outside the red zone on a 23-yard run by Damon Bullock against Northern Illinois. Iowa has been in the red zone on offense six times in two games -- and come away with only five field goals.

Wisconsin's running game: You knew the Badgers' offensive output was atrocious, which led to offensive line coach Mike Markuson being dumped this week. Wisconsin has only 203 rushing yards as a team after two games, an average of 101.5 yards per game. To put that in perspective, Montee Ball alone only had three games all of last season when he failed to gain at least 115 yards, and he exceeded 203 yards against both Purdue (223) and Illinois (224).

Quarterback fears vs. Spartans, Buckeyes: There was near universal agreement this preseason that Michigan State and Ohio State would field the best defensive lines in the Big Ten this season. While they haven't been bad, it's somewhat shocking to see that the Spartans and Buckeyes have combined for only four total sacks this season. Urban Meyer has stressed the need for a better pass rush from his team. Michigan State has gotten decent pressure, but has only sack to show for it, and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi says he's not happy with the play of the defense overall. Sack numbers can be overrated, but it's also true that both lines can do a better job bringing down quarterbacks.

Illinois' defense: The Illini defense looked terrific in the opener against Western Michigan, continuing a string of great performances dating to last season. Which is why it was so shocking to see Arizona State move the ball at will against Illinois in last week's 45-14 shellacking. Players said this week that they had mix-ups in communication and were caught off guard by the Sun Devils' tempo. The latter doesn't make much sense since Todd Graham's teams have always played up-tempo, and the Illini defenders practiced against their own spread offense all preseason. We'll see if this was just one bad showing or an alarm bell.

Big Ten expansion candidates: With Notre Dame off the chessboard and the ACC going to a $50 million exit fee, who's left if the Big Ten ever decides to expand again? Rutgers? UConn? Louisville? None of those are very appealing, and it means that the league will be better off staying at 12 for the foreseeable future -- or at least until the next big seismic conference shift.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

One Thing To Know: Big Ten Recruiting
Recruiting reporter Tom VanHaaren discusses the top storyline to watch in 2015 college football recruiting within the Big Ten. Penn State leads the way and, despite sanctions, could finish atop the conference.
VIDEO PLAYLIST video