NCF On The Trail: Michigan State Spartans

The linebacker position doesn't often receive much attention during 7-on-7 events, where quarterbacks, wide receivers and defensive backs dominate headlines. But with hundreds of players descending upon Las Vegas for the Pylon Elite 7v7 event this weekend, Caleb Kelly and Lokeni Toailoa -- the top outside and inside linebackers in the West region -- were among several must-see prospects on hand.

By now, you've surely seen the Ultimate ESPN 300, a list of the 300 most impactful players based on both high school and college production since 2006. The list considered players whom ESPN evaluated at both levels, so while not all 300 players were highly rated in high school, they were all somewhat known commodities.

We're all about the Big Ten here, so in the next three days we'll debate how the Ultimate ESPN 300 factors into this corner of college football.

Thursday's roundtable topic: Which Big Ten player not on the list is the most egregious omission?

Brian Bennett: Kirk Cousins, Michigan State quarterback (2008-11)

You can't blame ESPN Recruiting too much for missing out on Cousins. Before he signed with Michigan State, after all, some of his best other options were with schools like Northern Illinois, Western Michigan and Toledo. He looked kind of scrawny.

Yet Cousins finished his career as the all-time winningest quarterback in Spartans history, going 27-12 overall and 22-5 in his final two seasons. He also holds the school records for passing yards (9,131) and passing touchdowns (66) while being an exemplary leader on and off the field. Cousins has proved himself as a solid quarterback in the NFL as well. So while he may not have had the most stellar reviews coming out of high school, his college production demands complete respect. Michigan State should have more players in the Ultimate 300, anyway, and Cousins belongs in there.

Adam Rittenberg: Ricky Stanzi, Iowa quarterback (2006-10)

Perhaps more than any other Big Ten program, Iowa has taken the overlooked and developed them into overachievers at the college level. It's not surprising that the Hawkeyes, despite only one losing season during the targeted time period, have just one player in the Ultimate 300 (offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga, No. 117). There are several options of omitted Hawkeyes, including defensive end Adrian Clayborn, a first-round draft pick in 2011. But my pick is Stanzi, who engineered Iowa's rise at the end of the 2008 season and into 2009, when the Hawkeyes went 11-2 and won the Orange Bowl, falling just shy of a Big Ten title.

Rated as No. 76 quarterback in the 2006 class by ESPN Recruiting Nation, Stanzi went 26-9 as Iowa's starter and set a team record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass (21). The two-time captain became the first Iowa quarterback and just the third Big Ten quarterback to win three bowl games. He's also a damn fine American. Anyone who disagrees with the selection is just an America-hating hippie doing nothing on the Ped Mall. So Stanzi is my pick -- love it or leave it.

Mitch Sherman: Lavonte David, Nebraska linebacker (2010-11)

David sits one notch below Ndamukong Suh, ineligible for the Ultimate 300 as a 2005 high school graduate, on the list of greatest defensive players in the Bo Pelini era at Nebraska. In his lone year of Big Ten play, David earned first-team All-America honors and was named the Butkus-Fitzgerald Big Ten linebacker of the year. He was unranked out of high school because of academic issues but well known as a star among a dominant Miami Northwestern team that included linebacker Sean Spence (No. 125).

Others who attended David’s high school include Amari Cooper (No. 18) and Teddy Bridgewater (No. 82), though David is arguably the most accomplished of the group as a first-team All-Pro pick for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2013. At Nebraska, after transferring from junior college -- where he again went relatively underappreciated -- David recorded two of the five highest single-season tackle totals in school history.

Among his many memorable moments in 2011, David stripped Ohio State freshman quarterback Braxton Miller (No. 115) to spark the largest comeback win in Nebraska history.

 
The Ultimate ESPN 300 list is loaded with intriguing stories. From unheralded players rising to the top to players not yet reaching their potential, the list has everything. To outline a few of those intriguing players, here is a look at the top five within the Big Ten:


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The Ultimate ESPN 300 list is out and the Big Ten is well-represented from top to bottom. When it comes to re-ranking players, there are always surprises and sleeper players after the fact, which is why we put together our list of the top five surprises from the ultimate list.


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The longest days in Big Ten recruiting

February, 6, 2015
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Recruiting can be a non-stop grind for the coaches who have to procure that talent. Some days are longer than others. We talked to several Big Ten head coaches this week and asked them to describe their longest days out on the trail. Here are their stories:

Nebraska's Mike Riley

"It seemed the whole thing was full of long, memorable days. But when recruiting reopened in January after the dead period, I’ve got our personnel staff and our coaches usually making my schedule, where I need to go. So my first day out, I visited North and Central High in Omaha. I did a home visit with Michael Decker. I went to the Outland (Trophy) banquet, and I did another home visit with Daishon Neal. And then it was 10 o’clock at night. It was a full day, and it was a great day, because I hadn’t been in those high schools before. I loved meeting the coaches and seeing our players at the high schools. I always like home visits. I think it’s a real important part of the process."

Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald

"My last week of recruiting, I started on Sunday, flew from Chicago to the Bay Area. Then Sunday night, flew down to L.A. I was in L.A. on Monday and then Monday night I flew to Dallas, spent Tuesday in Dallas, flew Tuesday night to Houston, spent Wednesday in Houston, flew to Atlanta, spent Thursday in Atlanta, and then spent Friday in Chicago. Spent a lot of time at Chick-fil-A. It was a long week and our staff did a great job."

Michigan State's Mark Dantonio

"It hit me when I came out of a hotel room one day. I stayed in the same chain of hotels, and I walked out of the room and down the hall and I couldn't remember what room I was in. I walked back and took a guess on which room I was in, just to check my key to make sure I was in the same room. I was basically going from place to place for two weeks and sometimes two places in a day. I think I was in Orlando. I got back in the room. There were three doors and I guessed the right one."

Penn State's James Franklin

"One day I remember from a previous year. I had just taken a job [at Vanderbilt] and I was flying around and my luggage got lost and I wore the same suit for five days. I'm a hugger, and my hugs got a little less intimate as the week went on. My luggage couldn't keep up with me. Every time I got to a city or a state, the next day the luggage would get there and I'd already gone to the next state. It wasn't real fun. I was going to Target and buying underwear and undershirts, all that kind of stuff, and kept dousing myself with deodorant and cologne. It didn't help that we were flying commercially."

Rutgers' Kyle Flood

"We had one day where we went from New Jersey to Chicago to Tampa and then back to New Jersey. We started at about 6 in the morning and I finished at about 2 in the morning. I was with Norries Wilson and Jim Panagos at different legs of the trip. Norries came with me to Chicago and then to Tampa. He stayed there and went to Jacksonville. And then I picked up Coach Panagos in Tampa and he came back with me. We were fortunate. Everything ran according to schedule, the way I like it."

Maryland's Randy Edsall

"One day, I was here in Maryland, I was down on the east coast of Florida, then to the west coast, and then all the way to Mobile, Alabama. Then the next day I was in Charlotte and then Virginia Beach. Got all that done, really, in a day and a half. You kind of think, 'hey, what day is it, what time is it,' all those sort of things. But those are the things you have to do."

Minnesota's Jerry Kill

"I've gone from Mobile to Mississippi to Texas, and back to Chicago. But the most unique story I can tell you is something that happened for the first time ever this year. I was on a plane that was starting to go down the runway when I had a kid commit. Seriously, we were going down the runway, I didn't think we'd hear from the kid and he calls me. I'm trying to get the pilot to keep the wheels down so I can talk to him."

Indiana's Kevin Wilson

"My longest day was when we finished up on Martin Luther King day. We had a team leadership program going on, we had recruits on campus and then we had to leave Bloomington and go to Shadyshide, Ohio. By the time we get back to Columbus, it's about 1 a.m. Shoot, there was one day where we had official visits going, I was interviewing a couple of guys for behind-the-scenes jobs, and we had a walk-on day. Those kinds of days wear you out, and you're like, "Who planned all this [stuff]? You're killing me?" And it was me. I'm the guy who planned it. Sometimes we all get screwed by travel and those days, and you're like 'hey, just got to get it done. I'm kind of tired. I want to put my feet up here for like 15 minutes and take a little nap.'"

Completed class: Michigan State Spartans

February, 4, 2015
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Michigan State has announced its 2015 class:

ESPN 300
L.J. Scott RB -- Hubbard High School, Ohio
Kyonta Stallworth OT -- Martin Luther King High School, Michigan
Brian Lewerke QB-PP -- Pinnacle High School, Arizona

Four-stars
David Dowell ATH -- Saint Edward High School, Ohio

Three-stars
Josh Butler CB -- West Mesquite High School, Texas
Tyler Higby OT -- The Kinkaid School, Texas
Raequan Williams DT -- DePaul College Prep, Illinois
Mufi Hunt DE -- Brighton High School, Utah
Grayson Miller S -- Scott County High School, Kentucky
Darrell Stewart WR -- Nimitz High School, Texas
Cassius Peat OLB -- Corona Del Sol High School, Arizona
Kaleel Gaines S -- Frostproof High School, Florida
Tyriq Thompson OLB -- Martin Luther King High School, Michigan
Felton Davis WR -- Highland Springs High School, Virginia
Noah Listermann OT -- Winton Woods High School, Ohio
Tyson Smith CB -- Saint Mary's Preparatory School, Michigan
Andrew Dowell RB -- Saint Edward High School, Ohio
Justice Alexander DE -- Nordonia High School, Ohio
Khari Willis RB -- Lumen Christi High School, Michigan

Ungraded
Drake Martinez ATH -- Saddleback College, California
Michigan State might be the nation’s best developmental program, turning overlooked and undervalued prospects into stars. But after back-to-back top-5 finishes and major bowl wins, the Spartans are upgrading their profile on the recruiting trail. As coach Mark Dantonio said throughout signing day, MSU is no longer selling hope, but results.

The school on Wednesday signed a 20-member class that could crack the Top 25 of ESPN RecruitingNation's final rankings. Michigan State hit it big at quarterback, running back and offensive line, while adding some quality pieces to its signature defense as well. Unlike signing day 2014, Wednesday provided much less drama in East Lansing.

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Joe Robbins/Getty Images"We're going to take the best players we can and get them to play as fast as they can," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said.
ESPN.com caught up with Dantonio to discuss Michigan State's latest class.

What stands out most about this class, especially on the heels of the team's success?

Mark Dantonio: Just the quality of class as individuals. Everybody's got ability, but the way they went about their business, there was no drama involved. It was very much, 'This is what we're going to do,' and they stayed with their decisions. It's an outstanding class. I don't know how many top 300 players we have, probably 10 or so. We got an outstanding running back, a big-time defensive end. We've got enough defensive backs and somebody will play as a true freshman, no question about that. You've got active linebackers who can run and defensive linemen. As long as you continue to recruit quality defensive linemen, you're going to have a chance to be a good football team.

How do the recent results resonate in schools and homes?

MD: When we came here, we had to sell hope. We had to invest in ourselves and people came here with the idea that, 'OK, things are going to possible," from what we were saying. Now there's credibility in what we've said. There's facilities, there's continuity, there's opportunities in the NFL, there's winning in a large degree, and when you go in there, you have much better name recognition. There's obviously things you have to be able to overcome in the area with who we compete against. It's always difficult. All of those players seem to be looking in our direction. They could be going other places, but they all look in this direction.

You made some lofty comparisons between the current recruits and some recent Spartans stars. What led you to make those?

MD: You always tend to compare the guys who are coming with the guys who have left and have had great success. That's what coaches do. That's what I've always done, said, 'This guy reminds me of so-and-so who played for us and had great success.' I feel pretty strongly that a lot of these guys do that. Cassius Peat reminds me a bit of Will Smith when I was at Ohio State.

Can Scott compete immediately at running back after you lose a productive player in Jeremy Langford?

MD: L.J. Scott's going to be in the mix, but it all depends on how fast he learns the system, how he pass-protects at times, how well he catches the ball out of the backfield, which looks pretty good. I don't think there's any question whether he can run the football. And can he stay healthy? That's always key as a young player, get through camp and transition to the season. But he has the skills and he has the opportunity. We do not have a guy coming back with 200 carries. We lost two guys [Langford and Nick Hill] who had a combination of about 350 carries between them.

How does Brian Lewerke fit the profile of what you want at quarterback?

MD: He's very, very similar to Kirk Cousins in the way he attacks things from a learning standpoint. He has a very live arm. We didn't take a quarterback last year so this is an ideal fit for him. He was heavily involved in the recruiting process early on. He had so many different people offering him, but he paired it down and he made a decision and he came here a number of times. The culture, the chemistry, the relationship he has with coach [Brad] Salem, all of those things were very big factors in him coming to school here. The fact that we're a pro-style team. We'll have four guys in the NFL playing quarterback, and that factors into it as well.

It was quite a process for the Dowell twins. How did you get involved and get them to come to Michigan State?

MD: First of all, there always has to be a need because they were a package deal. They both wanted to go to school at the same place. We had a need for a defensive back/wide receiver, which happened. And then we needed to find another outside backer. Sometimes you watch a guy as a running back as a junior and all of a sudden, in the case of Andrew, he played safety his senior year and really was a downhill safety, much like a outside linebacker. You're always trying to find that guy who maybe on the first go-round you got somebody else and the second time around, you end up saying, 'Hey, we only have three scholarships left but I want that guy.' That's where we were with the Dowell brothers. We had four scholarships left or whatever it was and said, 'We want those two guys on our football team.'

With [Kyonta] Stallworth, you've upgraded your offensive line recently. Where do you see him fitting in?

MD: Kyonta's a guy we've seen for a long time here. He's been in our camps, we watched him play in person, he's been in other camps we've watched him at. He was sort of a must guy early on, who we wanted to get. We offered early. Very active, very athletic, displays a lot of power and can really, really run.

Michigan State has been known as a great developmental program. Are you approaching this process any differently now, looking for more guys who can help immediately?

MD: We're going to take the best players we can and get them to play as fast as they can. That's natural. There's been some guys here, so-called developmental guys, but the reality is Le'Veon Bell played as a true freshman, Darqueze Dennard played as a true freshman, Jack Conklin started as a redshirt freshman, and Chris Norman played as a true freshman. We've got some under-developed guys who played early in their careers. Kirk Cousins started as a sophomore. They came and they invested themselves right away.
Michigan State’s Cotton Bowl win last month was the program’s first game in Texas in five years. The program has plans to strengthen its ties to the Lone Star State moving forward.

The Spartans' recent success, especially during bowl season, has helped open recruiting doors outside the Midwest. Three high school seniors from Texas are expected to sign letters of intent Wednesday to play for Michigan State. Another, four-star quarterback Brian Lewerke, is coming from Arizona. Prior to this year’s cycle the only Texan to sign during coach Mark Dantonio’s tenure at Michigan State was quarterback Nick Foles, who headed south to Arizona after his freshman season.

Texas is one the nation’s three most reliable exporters of football talent along with Florida and California. Michigan State has taken a more regional approach under Dantonio, filling its roster with overlooked overachievers en route to 42 wins in the past four years. The program is hoping to capitalize on its recent success on the field by expanding that footprint.

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
AJ Mast/Icon SportswireMark Dantonio and the Spartans are expected to get three high school seniors from Texas to sign letters of intent Wednesday.
"I think we’ve finally reached that point where people have seen the product several years in a row," said assistant coach Terry Samuel, a Houston native. "You win four bowl games in a row, and the high school coaches start to get really receptive to what you’re doing."

Samuel said he’s been planting seeds in Texas since he joined the Spartans staff four years ago. The Rose Bowl win a year ago was a turning point for gaining some traction among high school players in the state.

Before that 13-1 season, Samuel said, Texas prospects were interested but would hold out for offers from in-state powers like the Longhorns and Texas A&M. By the time some of those players were ready to commit to Michigan State, their spots had been filled.

"Now they’re just jumping in. That’s the difference," Samuel said. "That’s the difference the exposure makes. Kids are seeing it’s a top 10 program instead of a top 20."

All four of the Texas and Southwest recruits expected to sign this year committed to the Spartans before the end of the 2014 regular season. Three of the four -- Lewerke, Josh Butler and Tyler Higby -- were on board before summer training camp began.

"They’ve definitely built their brand over the past few years," said Jeff Neill, who coached Butler at West Mesquite High School.

Neill has worked at West Mesquite for the past 10 years. His program produces three or four Div. I prospects each year, and this is the first time he’s seen Michigan State make a run at any of them. Neill said the Spartans no longer need to introduce themselves to most Texas football fans. Their growing reputation, along with their defensive philosophy (Butler is a cornerback) and their approach in recruiting attracted Butler.

Dana Zupke, who coached Lewerke at Pinnacle High in Phoenix, said Michigan State’s staff also made a good first impression in his area this season.

"They’ve been incredible, just awesome guys that are really successful and down to earth," he said. "Brian is a very high character guy and that definitely resonated. Their staff and the vibe he got at Michigan State really resonated with Brian."

Samuel said seeking players with the personality and character that fit Michigan State is still a top priority. The Spartans are still looking for the same fish, just trying to search in a larger pond.

The wider net is still in experimental stage. Samuel said the 2015 season will be the first time the staff gets to see how recruits from an expanded recruiting area fit in on the field. If all goes well, he said Michigan State plans to increase its presence on the recruiting trail outside of the Midwest. The addition of new defensive assistant Mark Snyder, who spent the past three years at Texas A&M, should help open more doors in Texas.

With the influx of new aggressive coaches in the Big Ten -- from Urban Meyer to James Franklin to Jim Harbaugh -- competition for the best players in Michigan and Ohio will continue to increase. Michigan State has always carved its niche by finding a different type of athlete to fill its roster, but if the Spartans want to continue competing for conference titles and top-10 finishes, they will need to continue to upgrade their talent. Looking beyond the Midwest can be an important part of that process.
Signing day is less than 48 hours away. While you breathlessly await your team's official unveiling of its class and chew your fingernails over late decisions, a great debate continues over whether recruiting rankings really tell us anything.

For a little more enlightenment, we decided to look at this year's first-team All-Big Ten honorees to see where each player ranked as a prospect. Any player on offense or defense who made either the coaches' first team or was a first-team pick by the media was categorized through their ESPN Recruiting rankings (we'll save kicker prospect rankings for another conversation).

Here's what we found:

Five-star recruits

None

Four-star recruits (7)
Three-star recruits (14)
Two-star recruits (2)
Not ranked (3)

* -- junior college recruits

Three-star recruits typically don't generate a lot of hype on signing day, but that's where the bulk of the Big Ten's top performers checked in out of high school. That includes 2014 Big Ten offensive player of the year and Doak Walker Award winner Gordon; Big Ten offensive lineman of the year and Outland Trophy winner Scherff; Coleman, who also rushed for 2,000 yards; Big Ten receiver of the year Lippett; Big Ten linebacker of the year Hull; Big Ten defensive back of the year Drummond; a possible first-round pick in Waynes; 2013 Big Ten defensive lineman of the year Calhoun.

Seven four-star prospects more than lived up to their rankings, especially Barrett, Bosa and Zettel in the 2014 season. But there were almost as many two-star and not-ranked prospects as there were four-star recruits on the All-Big Ten first team. Not surprisingly, Wisconsin and Minnesota were able to unearth those diamonds in the rough.

The All-Big Ten second teams are another eclectic mix. They include four-star prospects who fulfilled their promise such as Ohio State defensive tackle Michael Bennett, Maryland receiver Stefon Diggs and Wisconsin center Dan Voltz. There are also a whole bunch of three-star guys who more than reached their potential, like Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook, Minnesota running back David Cobb, Ohio State offensive tackle Taylor Decker. Then there are the true overachievers, with two-star prospects like Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah and Northwestern's Nick VanHoose, and guys who were almost completely overlooked in Michigan State left tackle Jack Conklin and Minnesota defensive back Eric Murray.

The lesson here? Nothing is really guaranteed in recruiting rankings. While you may be focusing on the four- and five-star guys on Wednesday with good reason, sometimes the two- and three-star prospects become the ones you really have to watch on Saturdays.
New Year's Day and national signing day used to be the two most disheartening days on the Big Ten football calendar.

Make no mistake, New Year's Day had been much more of a buzzkill. The Big Ten's poor results on an afternoon where it clustered its top postseason games on big stages damaged the league's reputation and depressed its fans.

National signing day had been a different kind of downer. Unlike New Year's Day, when the Big Ten's collective struggles were front and center, national signing day pushed the league off to the side. The Big Ten went from being embarrassed on Jan. 1 to being largely ignored on the first Wednesday in February.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesOhio State raised a trophy in January and raised expectations for the Big Ten on signing day.
Of course, this was ESPN's fault, as all things were/are. ESPN's in-season obsession with all things SEC spilled into its recruiting coverage, Big Ten fans contended.

Two things to note:

1. Recruiting rankings are inherently subjective

2. The numbers don't lie. Every recruiting list shows more elite prospects in the South -- many of whom choose to play for SEC schools -- than in the Midwest

The bottom line is signing day had become more of an SEC and ACC event than a Big Ten exposition. There's a reason why every year around this time, I snarkily ask our friends in ACC country if they're ready for the biggest day on their football calendar.

But signing day 2015, arriving in just 36 hours, could have a different feel around the Big Ten. For the first time in a while, the Big Ten is the most talked-about league in the sport. Ohio State just won the first College Football Playoff national championship, securing its first title -- and the Big Ten's -- in 12 seasons. The Buckeyes capped a Big Ten bowl season that far surpassed expectations (6-5 overall, 2-0 in New Year's Six games).

Michigan made the top coaching move of the offseason by landing Jim Harbaugh. Two former Big Ten quarterbacks shined Sunday night in Super Bowl XLIX, with former Michigan signal-caller Tom Brady coming away with his fourth ring.

The Big Ten has tangible momentum that it wants to sustain through the offseason, beginning with national signing day.

How realistic is that goal?

Signing day is largely about hype, and the Big Ten undoubtedly will be discussed more this year than in the past.

Ohio State's class, ranked No. 7 nationally by ESPN RecruitingNation, will be examined as the Buckeyes bring in standouts such as Justin Hilliard and Jashon Cornell, and hope to keep Torrance Gibson. Unlike many Big Ten coaches, Ohio State's Urban Meyer eschews redshirting and has quickly turned young players into key contributors. Meyer's first full class in 2013 -- featuring Joey Bosa, J.T. Barrett, Ezekiel Elliott, Vonn Bell, Jalin Marshall and Darron Lee -- played a huge role in this year's title run.

Michigan's first class under Harbaugh also will be in the spotlight. It will be small -- the Wolverines have only nine verbal commitments -- but Harbaugh already has bolstered the quarterback spot with Zach Gentry, who had originally picked Texas. Michigan could finish strong with tight end Chris Clark, linebacker Roquan Smith and cornerback Iman Marshall, all of whom are announcing their decisions on signing day.

James Franklin's first full class at Penn State should get Lions fans excited for the future. Franklin and his staff put much of the group together last spring, landing 13 commitments before the end of May. They've upgraded their top problem unit, offensive line, with recruitsSterling Jenkins and Ryan Bates, to go along with junior college transfer Paris Palmer.

Michigan State is arguably the nation's top player development program. But after consecutive top-5 finishes, the Spartans' recruiting efforts are getting noticed. MSU is poised to sign a top-30 class and might have locked up its future offensive backfield with quarterback Brian Lewerke and running back L.J. Scott. Twin brothers Andrew and David Dowell, one-time Northwestern and Kentucky commits, recently switched their pledge to MSU.

Wisconsin and Nebraska also could end up among ESPN RecruitingNation's top 30 classes. Not surprisingly, the Badgers have seen attrition in their class after the surprising departure of coach Gary Andersen to Oregon State, but they've bolstered their offense with running backs Bradrick Shaw and Jordan Stevenson, tight end Kyle Penniston and quarterback Austin Kafentzis. Nebraska also went through a coaching change but has made a nice push under Mike Riley and his innovative recruiting approach, landing offensive lineman Jalin Barnett and holding onto defensive back Eric Lee and others.

As colleague Mitch Sherman wrote last week, Big Ten coaches had no consensus about whether the league's recent on-field surge would improve recruiting, especially for non-traditional powers. Maryland, despite losing two recruits to Indiana this past weekend, will be a program to watch Wednesday as linemen Austrian Robinson and Isaiah Prince make their decisions. Illinois hopes to upgrade its defensive line with Jamal Milan, who also is considering Minnesota and Indiana. Minnesota, Rutgers, Northwestern, Indiana and others look to lock up solid classes on Wednesday.

There will be Big Ten teams that don't move the needle regionally or nationally, as there are every year. But there's optimism about the league's overall recruiting efforts, fueled by the bowl/playoff momentum.

The Big Ten changed its fortunes on New Year's Day. National signing day looms, and league should gain a greater market share of the spotlight, providing a springboard to the offseason.

Best of the visits: Big Ten

February, 1, 2015
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The final recruiting visit weekend for the 2015 class was a last-minute effort to get prospects on board. A few Big Ten teams were hosting big visitors, so here is a look at the best of the weekend.

The Michigan State equipment staff opened the weekend by showing the fans what the locker room setup looks like for visiting prospects. This is where the jersey and helmet pictures come from and the recruits get a look at their potential future jerseys.


Ohio State is close to filling its 2015 class, but there are still some big targets on the board. Two of the bigger prospects happened to be on campus this weekend with defensive back Damon Arnette and linebacker Porter Gustin.

Gustin got a chance to see the new championship trophy and hang out on campus for his final visit.


The ESPN 300 prospect made the trip with most of his family, which gave everyone a look at what the Buckeyes have to offer.


While he wasn’t on a visit to Ohio State, Buckeyes quarterback commit Torrance Gibson was on a visit to Miami. Gibson has seen interest from the Hurricanes, Auburn and LSU in recent weeks and has Ohio State fans nervous about what he will do on signing day.


Penn State is also close to filling its 2015 class, especially after the commitment of defensive back John Petrishen on his visit.


Because the 2015 class is so close to being full, the Penn State coaching staff was able to hold a junior day of sorts and host some of the top targets in the 2016 class as well. That included all of the 2016 commits with Shane Simmons, Miles Sanders and Jake Zembiec.


Penn State added to that 2016 commit list over the weekend when Detroit defensive back Lavert Hill announced his commitment to the Nittany Lions on the visit.


What would a visit weekend be without a few cookie cakes, right? Illinois went with a giant cookie cake that looks to resemble a football for Cameron Watkins’ visit.


Michigan had a few big visitors on campus as well, including Washington State wide receiver commit Deontay Burnett.


The Wolverines are looking to add a receiver to this class, which is why Ole Miss receiver commit Van Jefferson was also visiting. Jefferson grew up in Michigan while his father, Shawn, was the wide receivers coach for the Detroit Lions until 2012.


Wisconsin hosted a somewhat new target this weekend in linebacker Jake Whalen. He has been on the Badgers’ target list for a while, but he was only recently offered a full scholarship.

Iowa had been looking good to land Whalen, but now with the Wisconsin offer, that decision could go for the Badgers.


Nebraska received some good news from a few of the visitors in Lincoln on Sunday. Defensive end Alex Davis tweeted he was decommitting from Georgia Southern and committing to Nebraska.

Best of the visits: Big Ten

January, 25, 2015
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It was a huge recruiting visit weekend in the Big Ten, as eight commitments had taken place in the conference by Sunday morning. With a little more than a week left until signing day (Feb. 4), programs have put their recruiting efforts into overdrive to try to close out their classes strong.

These visits were crucial to help get some of those big targets to make final decisions, so here's a look at some of the best social posts from those recruiting visits.

PENN STATE:

The Nittany Lions had a ton of visitors on campus, mostly comprised of current commitments. Offensive line commit Steven Gonzalez took a picture with all the visitors and his future offensive line coach, Herb Hand.


The Penn State coaches did land a commitment from one of their visitors in defensive tackle Robert Windsor on Sunday morning. The staff had a few uncommitted prospects on hand, including defensive end Shareef Miller.

MICHIGAN:

The Michigan staff was hoping this weekend would produce a few commitments, and it did just that. The Wolverines had six 2015 commitments prior to the weekend but ended up flipping former Texas quarterback commit Zach Gentry during the Michigan basketball game.


Gentry is an ESPN 300 prospect and the No. 9-ranked pocket passer in the 2015 class. He joins fellow quarterback commit Alex Malzone in Michigan’s class and will help bolster much-needed competition at the position.

Florida defensive end Reuben Jones also committed to the Wolverines on his visit and happens to fill another need on the depth chart.


The Wolverines are still hoping the weekend produces a few more commitments from some of the visitors, including defensive back Chris Williamson.

ILLINOIS:

Illinois had some big visitors on campus, including defensive tackle Jamal Milan and running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn. Both prospects would be huge additions to the class, so it was only the finest ice sculptures and cake that came out for the visitors.

MARYLAND:

The Terps have been on a nice streak of landing commitments, and the coaches continued that this weekend by getting 2016 wide receiver D.J. Turner.

OHIO STATE:

The Buckeyes had an excellent weekend for big visitors, as the visit weekend coincided with the national championship celebration. It gave the recruits a chance to see all the trophies Ohio State won this season while seeing what else the Buckeyes have to offer.

Danny Clark, a 2017 quarterback commit for Ohio State, was on campus doing some recruiting for his future team.


The coaches were doing a ton of recruiting themselves, especially with the 2015 official visitors. Wide receiver K.J. Hill showed off the cookie cake he received on his visit.


Since the 2015 class only has a few pieces left to fill, Ohio State also had a junior day of sorts with some of the top 2016 targets on campus. ESPN Junior 300 receiver Austin Mack stopped to take a selfie with the head man himself on the trip.

INDIANA:

If you haven’t noticed that cookie cakes and desserts are a common theme of recruiting, then here's another reminder. Hoosiers quarterback commit Austin King tweeted a picture of his cookie cake on his visit to Indiana.

WISCONSIN:

The Badgers had a successful weekend of their own by landing two big commitments. The first was defensive tackle Kraig Howe from Ohio, who tweeted his announcement.


The second was 2015 running back Bradrick Shaw, who also took to Twitter to announce his decision.



Howe fills a need for the Badgers and Shaw gives Wisconsin three running back commits ranked as four-star prospects between the 2015 and 2016 classes. The Wisconsin staff is reloading at running back to continue the excellent tradition at the position.

MICHIGAN STATE:

The Spartans didn’t have a ton of big-name visitors on campus this weekend, but the coaches were hosting a very important target for the 2015 class. ESPN 300 linebacker Quart’e Sapp took his visit to Michigan State and took to Twitter to show off his time on the trip.


Sapp would be a huge get for the Spartans, who find themselves in his top four along with Miami, Missouri and Tennessee.

NEBRASKA:

Nebraska’s new staff has hit a groove in recruiting and hosted a big visitor list this weekend, including plenty of the Cornhuskers’ commitments. Offensive lineman Christian Gaylord shared a picture of some of the offensive linemen on the visit in uniform.


Linebacker Tyrin Ferguson also took to Twitter to show his time in Lincoln.


The staff did also have a few targets on campus who were not committed to Nebraska, including Kansas State commit Mohammed Barry.

Nebraska was also hosting a few commitments it is trying to hang onto and convince to stay on board come signing day. That included defensive lineman Daishon Neal, who became that much more important with the decommitment of Reuben Jones.

Best of the visits: Big Ten

January, 18, 2015
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We are in the final contact period before signing day, which means official visits are upon us. This weekend was an important one for the Big Ten, as plenty of top targets were on campuses. The visiting prospects took to Twitter and social media to document their trips.

Here is a look at the visits from the eyes of the recruits:

It wouldn’t be a visit weekend without cookie cakes, so to kick this post off properly, Northwestern commit Simba Short shared his cookie cake spread while on his visit to see the Wildcats.


Cookie cakes are the way to any recruit’s commitment.

Michigan State doesn’t have much to fill in the 2015 class, but linebacker Anthony McKee is one prospect the coaches would still like to land. McKee took a visit to see the Spartans this weekend and is slated to make it out to Wisconsin and Minnesota as well.


Maryland only had a few official visitors on campus in commit Adam McLean and Oseh Saine, who committed on his visit this weekend.


Offensive lineman Quarvez Boulware also committed to Maryland this weekend, but he came up on an unofficial visit.

McLean took to Twitter to show off the entertainment side of his visit at a restaurant.


While the Terps gained the most from their visit weekend, there is no denying Michigan had the biggest prospects on campus.

The Wolverines hosted ESPN 300 prospects Roquan Smith and Chris Clark as well as South Carolina commit Damon Arnette and defensive end Shelton Johnson.

Smith is the No. 29-ranked prospect in the country and became immediately interested when Michigan hired defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin. The Wolverines vaulted into his top list, and Smith set up this visit to see what Michigan has to offer.


Smith will decide on signing day, and as of right now Michigan will be on his short list for that decision.

The Wolverines are also on the short list for Clark, who was committed at one point. He has UCLA and Michigan in his top two and still has a visit to see the Bruins next weekend before deciding.


The two uncommitted prospects were joined on the visit by a few Michigan commitments, including safety Tyree Kinnel.


The visit was just as important for Kinnel as the uncommitted prospects because Kinnel got a chance to help recruit, but he also got the opportunity to build a relationship with the new coaching staff in person.

Penn State’s big visit weekend won’t be until next weekend, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t an exciting weekend for the Nittany Lions. Coach James Franklin posed with Flavor Flav at Penn State's basketball game. Flav later tweeted he has a cousin on Penn State’s basketball team.


Illinois had a good opportunity to get a few 2016 prospects on campus as it waits for a few big 2015 visitors next weekend. Offensive lineman Nik Urban made the trip and tweeted he was too small for his car, a problem most offensive linemen likely have.


Iowa also hosted a 2016 target in running back Toren Young, who took to Twitter to express his feelings on the visit.


Minnesota still has a few big 2015 targets left in this class, and one was on campus this weekend in defensive tackle Jamal Milan. Milan still has a visit to Illinois on Jan. 23 and will make his decision on signing day between the Gophers, Illinois, Indiana and Iowa State.

=™=¨To The Airport  for my official visit= at the University of Minnesota ==(=«

A photo posted by @bigmanmal on

Big Ten's top recruiting visits 

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It’s the first weekend of the contact period, so there are plenty visits on tap within the Big Ten. Some teams are trying to secure commitments, and some teams are just trying to build better relationships with the prospects already committed. Either way, this weekend will help a few programs seal the deal on signing day.

Michigan


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Top 10 instant-impact recruits in 2015 

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With signing day a few weeks away, early enrollees already on campus and the national championship game in the books, which teams are reloading with talent that can hit the field and make an immediate impact?

Here are 10 committed prospect who have the chance to contribute early and often in the 2015 season:


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