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Big Ten predictions (way too early version)

July 15, 2008 5:39 PM

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Harry How/Getty Images

Beanie Wells ran for 1,463 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2007.

It's July, and a ton could change before the season opens Aug. 30, but I'll roll the dice anyway. Everyone loves predictions, and I give my people what they want. Or what they don't want. (Note: Please address e-mails to Mr. Idiot. Thanks.)

Anyway, here are a few:

Big Ten champion: Ohio State (really going out on a limb here, guys)

Offensive MVP: Beanie Wells, RB, Ohio State

Defensive MVP: Malcolm Jenkins, CB, Ohio State

Freshman of the Year: Darryl Stonum, WR, Michigan (Pryor won't play enough)

Coach of the Year: Joe Paterno

Surprise team: Michigan State

Potential bust: Iowa

Tough schedules: Ohio State (at USC, at Wisconsin, at Illinois) and Purdue (Oregon, Central Michigan, at Notre Dame, at Ohio State)

Favorable schedules: Iowa (no Ohio State or Michigan) and Indiana (four non-con home games, no Ohio State)

Best day of games: Sept. 13 (Ohio State at USC, Michigan at Notre Dame, Wisconsin at Fresno State, Oregon at Purdue)

Postseason coaching changes: None

Big Ten Conference, Ohio State Buckeyes, Beanie Wells, Malcolm Jenkins, Darryl Stonum, Joe Paterno, Michigan State Spartans, Iowa Hawkeyes, Wisconsin Badgers, Illinois Fighting Illini, Purdue Boilermakers, USC Trojans, Central Michigan Chippewas, Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Michigan Wolverines, Fresno State Bulldogs, Oregon Ducks

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Keep your eyes on these 11

July 15, 2008 4:00 PM

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

AP Photo/Robert K. O'Daniell

Martez Wilson has already been a defensive playmaker for Ron Zook.

We'll get to the Big Ten's top freshmen before long, but on this preview day, I'd like to spotlight a player on each team who I can't wait to watch this fall. I didn't want to restrict this to freshmen, so the criteria are fairly open. The picks are true freshmen, redshirt freshmen, players returning from injury/off-field issues or guys finally getting their shot at major field time. Here's the list:

Illinois: Martez Wilson, LB (6-4, 246, So.) -- Wilson will be featured in Illinois' defensive midsection, which loses starters J Leman and Antonio Steele. Often likened to former Illini star Simeon Rice, he was among the headliners of Illinois' program-changing 2007 recruiting class. Wilson added 10-15 pounds of muscle during the offseason while maintaining top-shelf speed. He'll be a force at outside linebacker.

Indiana: Darius Willis, RB (6-0, 220, Fr.) -- Indiana needs another backfield threat to complement reinstated quarterback Kellen Lewis, and Willis could be the answer. The true freshman headlined Indiana's recruiting class, finishing as the runner-up for Mr. Football in the state last year. Willis has good size and strength and could be the power runner IU wants.

Iowa: Shonn Greene, RB (5-11, 227, Sr.) -- Iowa needs a savior at running back and hopes to find it in Greene, who returns to the team after spending 2007 at a junior college to improve his academics. Greene has 69 career carries and performed well as a reserve, but how he transitions back to Big Ten football after a year away will be interesting to watch.

Michigan: Darryl Stonum, WR (6-2, 190, Fr.) -- Whoever wins the starting quarterback job will need help from a new-look wide receivers corps, and Stonum should be a factor right away. The true freshman enrolled early and impressed during spring ball. He has put on 20 pounds and provides the big-play skills Michigan must have after losing Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington.

Michigan State: Trevor Anderson, DE (6-2, 255, Jr.) -- An All-Big East selection at Cincinnati, Anderson followed coach Mark Dantonio to Michigan State and will step in this fall after sitting out 2007. He fills an immediate need at end, where the Spartans lose top pass rusher Jonal Saint-Dic (10 sacks in '07). Anderson has good speed and spent the last year improving his strength.

Minnesota: Tramaine Brock, FS (6-0, 187, Jr.) -- Of the seven junior-college transfers Minnesota brought in, Brock could see the most immediate playing time. He dazzled the coaches during spring practice and fills a hole in a secondary that got shredded last season. The hard-hitting Brock plays with an edge Minnesota could use as it rebuilds on defense.

Northwestern: Andrew Brewer, WR (6-3, 210, Jr.) -- Brewer would have been NU's No. 1 wide receiver entering last season, but he fractured his humerus two weeks before the opener. His size and speed make him a matchup headache at slot receiver, but he's caught only one pass in a college game after playing quarterback his freshman year. Northwestern's offense is based on short passes, but Brewer gives quarterback C.J. Bacher a downfield threat.

Ohio State: Terrelle Pryor, QB (6-6, 220, Fr.) -- An obvious choice here. All eyes will be on Pryor and how Ohio State uses the nation's No. 1 recruit to complement starter Todd Boeckman. The Tim Tebow comparisons are out there, and Pryor's rare combination of size, speed and strength won't go to waste as Ohio State tries to get back to the national title game.

Penn State: Stephfon Green, RB (5-10, 189, Fr.) -- Sophomore Evan Royster likely will start, but Green is all the rage in Happy Valley. He hasn't touched the ball in a game, but his breakaway bursts during spring practice signal exciting times are on the way this fall. With sprinter's speed and the ability to score on any play, Green could be the greatest asset for Penn State's new starting quarterback.

Purdue: Jason Werner, LB (6-4, 221, Jr.) -- Back surgery in December 2006 nearly ended Werner's career, but he has since come on strong and appears on the brink of a breakout season. The former Indiana Mr. Football likely will start at strongside linebacker after moving down from safety. He's the team's most athletic linebacker, and his experience at defensive back will pay off in pass defense.

Wisconsin: John Clay, RB (6-2, 237, Fr.) -- For now he'll share carries as a member of the league's deepest group of running backs, but before long Clay will be featured in the Badgers' offense. Wisconsin has done well with big backs and Clay should fit right in, bringing a mix of size and speed. He rushed for 94 yards in the spring game and should see time behind P.J. Hill.

Illinois Fighting Illini, Martez Wilson, J Leman, Antonio Steele, Indiana Hoosiers, Darius Willis, Kellen Lewis, Iowa Hawkeyes, Shonn Greene, Michigan Wolverines, Darryl Stonum, Mario Manningham, Adrian Arrington, Michigan State Spartans, Trevor Anderson, Mark Dantonio, Jonal Saint-Dic, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Tramaine Brock, Northwestern Wildcats, Andrew Brewer, C.J. Bacher, Ohio State Buckeyes, Terrelle Pryor, Todd Boeckman, Tim Tebow, Penn State Nittany Lions, Stephfon Green, Evan Royster, Purdue Boilermakers, Jason Werner, Wisconsin Badgers, John Clay, P.J. Hill

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Big Ten Hot Seat: July Edition

July 15, 2008 3:00 PM

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Scott Boehm/Getty Images

Kirk Ferentz has averaged just 6.3 wins the last three years.

This is the first installment of a series I'll post throughout preseason camp and the season. It will take a look at five people or groups facing heavy pressure to perform. To be extremely clear, this isn't a list of coaches I want to see fired, or quarterbacks I want to see replaced. Some of those names inevitably will make the rundown, but it will change based on what takes place on Saturdays.

We're 46 days away from the opener and two and a half weeks from the start of camp, so let's take a look:

1. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz -- His contract extension takes him through the 2012 season and includes a heavy buyout, but Ferentz needs strong results this season to solidify his status in Iowa City. He has averaged just 6.3 wins the last three years, down from 10.3 during 2002-'04. More unsettling is the wave of player arrests -- 14 since last April -- that have plagued the program. He's trying to address the disciplinary issues -- Iowa expects to add a player development position to work with first-year players -- but his ultimate fate will be decided on the field. Iowa has a history of turning things around and several key players return from injuries, but quarterback and running back remain unsettled entering camp.

2. Ohio State's seniors -- It was admirable how James Laurinaitis, Malcolm Jenkins, Alex Boone and Marcus Freeman passed up NFL bucks to remain Buckeyes. Yet anything less than a return trip to the title game, or at least the Rose Bowl, would be considered a disappointment for this talented group. That's a ton of pressure, especially with a Sept. 13 date with USC looming. Ohio State is the Big Ten's deepest and most talented team, but road games against Wisconsin, Illinois and even Michigan State aren't easy. Keep in mind: No team has won the Big Ten title outright in three consecutive seasons.

3. Iowa quarterback Jake Christensen -- Not far behind the Hawkeyes' coach is the junior quarterback who comes off a difficult first season at the helm of the offense. Christensen had a good TD-INT ratio (17-6) last fall, but he took too many sacks and completed just 53.5 percent of his passes. The left-hander remains the team's top quarterback but must cement the job in camp, where he'll be pushed by Ricky Stanzi and Marvin McNutt. If Christensen wins the job, he'll have two top targets, wide receiver Andy Brodell and tight end Tony Moeaki, back in the fold. But with a coach and a fan base needing better results, he could be a on a short leash.

4. Minnesota coach Tim Brewster -- Brewster isn't going anywhere, but another season like 2007 will make Gophers fans long for the Glen Mason days. With a new on-campus stadium opening next fall, Minnesota needed a charismatic front man and got one in the bubbly Brewster, a strong recruiter who will do well in a talent-rich state. But he must build momentum immediately, which starts by producing a respectable defense. Brewster is entrusting former Duke coach Ted Roof to jump-start the nation's worst unit (518.7 ypg allowed).

5. Paul Chryst and Galen Hall -- Both offensive coordinators will make critical evaluations at quarterback this summer, especially since their respective teams (Wisconsin and Penn State) are expected to challenge Ohio State for the league title. Chryst hoped to have a better idea of Wisconsin's starting quarterback by now but didn't see much separation between Allan Evridge, Dustin Sherer and Scott Tolzien this spring. Penn State likely will employ more of the spread offense this fall, so Hall could go with the speedy Daryll Clark, who performed well in the Alamo Bowl, or Pennsylvania prep standout Pat Devlin.

Iowa Hawkeyes, Kirk Ferentz, Ohio State Buckeyes, James Laurinaitis, Malcolm Jenkins, Alex Boone, Marcus Freeman, Wisconsin Badgers, Illinois Fighting Illini, Michigan State Spartans, Jake Christensen, Ricky Stanzi, Marvin McNutt, Andy Brodell, Tony Moeaki, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Tim Brewster, Paul Chryst, Galen Hall, Penn State Nittany Lions, Allan Evridge, Dustin Sherer, Scott Tolzien, Daryll Clark, Pat Devlin

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Catching up with ... Javon Ringer, Part II

July 15, 2008 1:45 PM

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Here's the second half of my chat with Michigan State running back Javon Ringer.

After the team lost so many close games, is it easy to look at the next year and say, 'We can make that jump?'

Javon Ringer: It's easier to watch a game where you're like, 'Aw, man, if we just had that play. That would have made the big difference that we needed.' Instead of watching games where, 'We made that mistake. Yeah, we made that one, too. And that one. And that one. And we got blown out.' It's a lot different to look at the games where you were close to see the mistakes that you made instead of getting blown out.

Let's talk about the opener at Cal. You guys haven't started off with a game like that for a while. How big of a challenge will that be?

JR: We just need to keep doing everything we've been doing since we started winter conditioning. I don't see us really getting too overwhelmed. We're all looking at it as it's real exciting for us. It's more exciting to look forward to a team where it's like, 'Man, this is going to be a big game,' instead of a team you know you're probably going to beat. It's a whole different mind-set that we have knowing that we're playing against Cal. That's going to be a fight. It's something we're all looking forward to. As long as we're excited, our motivation is just going to come.

You talked last year about how different it is to be in this offense, how it features the running game more. How do you view your career, going from the previous system to this one?

JR: My freshman year and sophomore year, we really weren't much of a running offense. Now when Coach D came, that's something we want to emphasize first, the running game. My freshman and sophomore year when we had Drew [stanton] and the whole spread, a lot of times it was pass first and run second. It's a different chapter.

Harry How/Getty Images

Quarterback Brian Hoyer threw for 20 touchdowns last season.

What have you seen from quarterback Brian Hoyer this offseason? He had a pretty good season last year that ended on a bad note in the bowl game. What's his mind-set going into the fall?

JR: He's really excited, too. He knows it's his senior year. He knows we still have a lot more to prove. Us as seniors, this is our last shot. We don't have another year after this. So this is basically our last go-round, and Hoyer is looking forward to leading our offense to hopefully a big bowl game.

How do you guys replace Devin Thomas at wide receiver? What have you seen from that group?

JR: A lot of people don't understand the talent we have with the seniors because a lot of times last year, Devin was mostly getting the passes, either him or Kellen (Davis). But we have so many good receivers like Mark Dell and B.J. Cunningham and Blair White. We have good receivers all around instead of that one big-time playmaker like Devin. It's going to be an overall thing. A lot of times last year, people could just have keyed on Devin and from what the stats showed, that was pretty much our passing game, comparing the catches he had to what everybody else had. Hoyer's going to do a lot more spreading the ball around. We have a lot of playmakers and a lot of talent at receiver. Everybody's going to be able to see that against Cal.

I know you're focused on Cal, but in talking about respect, how excited will you be for the Michigan game? What will that mean for you as a senior?

JR: I have not beaten Michigan yet and I really, really, really don't want to go through my whole college career without beating my rival school. That would just really put a damper on my whole college career if I went through all four years and couldn't beat this one school. That's something I really would hate. And I'm really looking forward to playing at the Big House because really, I haven't played there yet. I'm really excited for it.

Javon Ringer, Michigan State Spartans, California Golden Bears, Devin Thomas, Brian Hoyer, Kellen Davis, Mark Dell, B.J. Cunningham, Blair White, Michigan Wolverines

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Catching up with ... Javon Ringer, Part I

July 15, 2008 1:00 PM

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Ohio State's Beanie Wells will garner the Heisman hype, but there's more than one notable running back in the Big Ten. Javon Ringer comes off a breakout junior season in which he rushed for 1,447 yards and matched Wells' yards-per-carry average (5.9). After sitting out spring ball with a surgically repaired shoulder, Ringer is ready to help Michigan State gain league-wide respect -- and, in the process, get some for himself.

I caught up with Ringer last week, and here's what he had to say.

First off, how's the shoulder?

Javon Ringer: It feels great. My shoulder was feeling really good when spring started, but talking to our athletic trainers and everything, they basically came to a conclusion. Even though it was feeling good, I still didn't need to be out there hitting. I just did all the drills and everything. I haven't hit since the bowl game, so I'm looking forward to camp.

How much did it bother you during the season?

JR: It never bothered me during practice or in a game. I don't even know how it happened. Just one day, I started to bench [press] and it was just sore. I'm thinking it was maybe a game. It was just hurting me one day in the weight room. The only reason we didn't really go into depth about what it was during the season was because it never bothered me. It didn't hurt me to block, it didn't hurt me to hit somebody, it didn't hurt me to carry the ball at all. It never affected my play.

I know Beanie gets a lot of attention in the league, but your numbers weren't that far off from his last year. Do people overlook some of the other backs in the league?

JR: Beanie Wells, man, he's a really, really talented running back. I enjoy watching him play. But as a competitor, there's no way you're going to hear me say, 'Aw, yeah, that guy's just so much better than I am.' No, I will not say that at all. Of course, that man is a really good running back. The main difference you would have to say between us two would be our offensive lines. His offensive line did a tremendous job for him last year, as well as mine did, but I feel that I'm just as good as Chris Wells, if not better. There is more than just one good running back in the Big Ten. He's not the only one. I feel like I am, too. I also feel like those running backs at Wisconsin. They've got a group of great running backs. The Big Ten is full of talented running backs. It's not just Chris Wells.

You played with Jehuu Caulcrick for your first three years. I'm sure it'll be nice to get some of those touchdowns for yourself, but what will life be like without Jehuu in the backfield?

JR: A little bit more of the workload will be put on my shoulders in the running game. We still do have other capable backs, but honestly, realistically, it's not the same. Me and Jehuu were two different types of running backs, so it was good that we could rotate in there, just switch it up every time. It's a little different now.

Getting a chance to watch some of the other backs this spring, who stood out to you?

JR: Honestly, all three of them. A.J. Jimmerson looked good, Andre Anderson looked really good and so did Ashton [Leggett]. Right now, I still don't think we know who my backup is, so that's something they're still going to be fighting for come summer.

Last year at Big Ten media days, you and Coach Dantonio both talked about getting the respect back for Michigan State. Have you seen that happen?

JR: Definitely. Throughout this past year, we fought hard in every single game. We never lost a game by more than a touchdown. Even when we didn't win, we still were so close. A couple plays here or there. Previously, we felt like our fans would be upset because some games we would just get blown out once things just weren't going right. But with this coaching staff and our team, we're all about gaining the respect back. Even if things go wrong, keep playing, keep fighting. We showed that last year, and I feel like our fans appreciate that more.

How have you seen that translate from fans?

JR: You can tell how they're behind us, they're really proud of us, just with our effort and how we're fighting. Us as a team, we're thankful for that. We're not satisfied with last year at all. We still feel like we still have a lot more to achieve and a lot more things to do. We still want more. But our fans respect us a lot more seeing the fight that we had. That's something we need to continue.

Michigan State Spartans, Javon Ringer, Beanie Wells, Ohio State Buckeyes, Wisconsin Badgers, Jehuu Caulcrick, A.J. Jimmerson, Andre Anderson, Ashton Leggett

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Top three must-see games in the Big Ten

July 15, 2008 12:47 PM

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

If this list were longer, it would include Penn State's attempt to break a nine-game losing streak to Michigan and Illinois' matchups against Missouri and Ohio State. Oh well, here goes:

1. Ohio State at USC, Sept. 13 -- Unless your favorite college team is playing at the same time, you have no excuse to miss this one. The game has it all -- national championship implications, brutalizing defenses, rival leagues, dynamic running backs, no shortage of pro prospects and two coaches with different personalities but similar track records of success. After being ripped for its title game flops, Ohio State can regain national respect. With a win, USC will only get more.

2. Ohio State at Wisconsin, Oct. 4 -- The Buckeyes' road tour reaches Madison, where they haven't been since 2003. Wisconsin's four-pack of running backs go against arguably the nation's best front seven, while Heisman contender Beanie Wells faces a formidable defensive line led by end Matt Shaughnessy. It's a game that will delight Big Ten purists and could decide the conference title.

3. Michigan at Ohio State, Nov. 22 -- A new chapter in the league's premier rivalry begins as Rich Rodriguez tries to do what his predecessor didn't do enough -- beat Ohio State. Michigan might be a year away from a BCS run, but a win in Columbus to snap a four-game losing streak would highlight Rodriguez's first season. Ohio State likely will be looking to wrap up its third consecutive conference title and, possibly, another trip to the BCS National Championship game.

Big Ten Conference, Penn State Nittany Lions, Michigan Wolvierines, Illinois Fighting Illini, USC Trojans, Wisconsin Badgers, Beanie Wells, Matt Shaughnessy, Rich Rodriguez

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Top five questions in the Big Ten

July 15, 2008 11:45 AM

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

1. Will this be Joe Paterno's final season in Happy Valley?

His contract expires at the end of the season, and rumors are ramping up that the 81-year-old won't be back in 2009. Then again, if anyone deserves to decide his exit strategy, shouldn't it be Paterno? University president Graham Spanier says no succession plan is in place, and Paterno has guided Penn State to three consecutive bowl wins. He might not be done yet.

2. Can anyone stop Ohio State from winning another Big Ten championship?

Doubt it. All four of the primary challengers -- Wisconsin, Penn State, Illinois and Michigan -- have issues at major offensive positions, while Ohio State's biggest concern will be finding time for dynamic freshman Terrelle Pryor. A rough road schedule -- featuring both Wisconsin and Illinois -- could derail things, but the seniors should guide the team to another league title.

3. Will offensive innovator Rich Rodriguez win at Michigan in Year 1?

His offense usually doesn't catch on right away, and he's installing it with mostly unproven personnel. Expect some struggles during a rough opening stretch, but Michigan will get it together soon enough. None of the quarterback candidates seamlessly fit RichRod's system, but if a reliable running back emerges to share the load, there could be early dividends.

4. How can Iowa keep Kirk Ferentz off the hot seat?

Stay out of the blotter, for starters. Fourteen Hawkeyes players have been arrested since last April. If the off-field discipline improves and the league's worst scoring offense reignites behind Jake Christensen, Ferentz should be fine. A league schedule lacking Ohio State and Michigan helps, though the Hawks must avoid another November nosedive.

5. Will Illinois continue its evolution as a Big Ten power or return to obscurity?

In the past, losing players like Rashard Mendenhall and J Leman would signal certain doom for Illinois. But Ron Zook's recent recruiting bonanza should keep the team on the upswing. You already know about Arrelious Benn. Get ready to meet linebacker Martez Wilson, another member of the stacked 2007 class. If Juice Williams steadies the offense, Illinois should be back in a major bowl.

Big Ten Conference, Penn State Nittany Lions, Joe Paterno, Graham Spanier, Ohio State Buckeyes, Terrelle Pryor, Michigan Wolverines, Rich Rodriguez, Iowa Hawkeyes, Kirk Ferentz, Jake Christensen, Illinois Fighting Illini, Rashard Mendenhall, J Leman, Ron Zook, Arrelious Benn, Martez Wilson, Juice Williams

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Healthy Benn wants to do it all this fall

July 15, 2008 11:09 AM

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Illinois wideout Arrelious Benn is looking to build on his strong freshman campaign.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The term "freshman" is attached to Arrelious Benn's top honor as a college player, but the Illinois star neither looks nor acts the part.

Benn was anything but a novice last fall, as he sizzled as a wide receiver, kickoff returner and occasional backfield ball-carrier, racking up 1,114 all-purpose yards. The rare player who immediately lived up to his recruiting hype, Benn helped Illinois complete the nation's biggest one-year turnaround and reach the Rose Bowl.

He's the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year, but if you saw him without pads, you'd peg him for an NFL veteran or an assistant coach. I even spotted some gray in his goatee when we talked this spring. The guy looks 30. At least.

"I hear it all the time," Benn said last week of his adult appearance.

Does he ever have to convince his fellow students that he's one of them?

"Nah," Benn said, laughing. "A lot of people on campus know my face."

If the rest of the Big Ten doesn't already know his face, they soon will. At least they'll know the back of his helmet.

As Illinois goes out to prove that last season's Rose Bowl run was no fluke, Benn takes the field with his own lofty goals.

"My potential is to have a 1,000 yards (receiving) and at least 500 yards rushing," he said.

Why shouldn't he think big? Benn finished last season with 54 receptions and 676 receiving yards -- both Illinois freshman records -- to go along with a 28-yard average on kickoff returns. And he did it all with a right shoulder that spent more time out of its socket than in it. He first dislocated the shoulder during a preseason intrasquad scrimmage and reinjured it several times during the season.

Benn underwent shoulder surgery in January and sat out spring practice, participating only in agility drills and catching passes with the JUGS machine. Though the injury kept him off the field, the 6-2, 214-pound wideout still found ways to stand out.

"The first day I was in the weight room, I threw up some crazy numbers," said Benn, who often draws comparisons to the Arizona Cardinals' Anquan Boldin because of his size. "I couldn't rep stuff like I could at first. I had to build my endurance back up, but I still could lift the heavy weight that I did -- and more. I'm stronger than I ever was before."

Benn expects to shoulder a greater burden this fall as Illinois starts life without running back Rashard Mendenhall, the 2007 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. Spring practice produced few answers at running back, and the Illini need a viable threat for an offense that utilizes a lot of read-option from the shotgun. A reliable backfield presence will help junior Juice Williams, whom Benn reiterates is "a quarterback, not a running back."

Benn has someone in mind for the job.

"The coaches, as far as giving me the ball, they took it a little bit away from me because of the bum shoulder," said Benn, who had 32 carries for 158 yards last year. "I'm still a receiver, but they're taking a notice of what I can do out of the backfield. Any way to just get the ball in my hands, that's what it's all about."

Stabilizing the ground game is critical, but with Williams evolving as a passer, Illinois likely will go to the air more this fall.

That means more of the spotlight for the man everyone calls "Rejus." Benn doesn't know where the nickname came from, but it has stuck ever since he was little. Even his mom, Denise, uses it most of the time.

"She calls me Arrelious when she's mad," Benn said.

Opposing teams might come up with their own handle for Benn if he continues to burn them.

First up is Missouri, the team many wanted to see in a BCS bowl game instead of Illinois. The Tigers edged the Illinois 40-34 last season, and the teams' annual meeting Aug. 30 in St. Louis will have much more than Braggin' Rights on the line.

"They're top 5, we're top 20," Benn said. "We just want to go out and play. After what we did last year, we want to keep rolling. We're taking it from the bottom to the top."

Illinois Fighting Illini, Arrelious Benn, Rashard Mendenhall, Juice Williams, Missouri Tigers, Anquan Boldin

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Big Ten preseason rankings

July 15, 2008 10:00 AM

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Ohio State's defense will be anchored in 2008 by linebacker James Laurinaitis.

The top line is a no-brainer, but then it gets a bit tricky. Wisconsin and Penn State need quarterbacks, Illinois needs a running back and Michigan needs, well, pick a position on offense. But all four teams could contend for the No. 2 spot, while Michigan State isn't far behind. Here's the rundown:

1. Ohio State -- The national championship game hasn't been kind to the Buckeyes, but they continue to dominate their conference. With 19 starters back and some dude named Pryor joining the mix, Ohio State could have its best team yet. Linebacker James Laurinaitis, cornerback Malcolm Jenkins and tackle Alex Boone bypassed NFL millions for one more national title push, and the seniors should wrap up their third consecutive Big Ten championship. What could stop them? A grueling road schedule.

2. Wisconsin -- Health is a concern after injuries depleted the roster during the offseason, but the Badgers will be close to full strength by Aug. 30. They welcome a new starting quarterback for the second straight year but boast the league's deepest rushing attack, a veteran defense with new leadership (Dave Doeren) and an All-American tight end (Travis Beckum). The conference schedule also works in their favor, as Ohio State, Illinois and Penn State all visit Mad-town.

3. Penn State -- Will this be Joe Paterno's final season on the sidelines? His future will dominate the discourse heading into the season, but the team deserves some buzz as well. If a capable quarterback is found, an offense boasting veteran receivers and dynamic running back Stephfon Green could sizzle. The loss of Sean Lee will sting on defense, but Penn State is called Linebacker U. for a reason.

4. Illinois -- Determined to prove last year's Rose Bowl run was no fluke, Ron Zook's team still has BCS bowl aspirations. A replacement for star running back Rashard Mendenhall tops the preseason priority list, but with emerging quarterback Juice Williams and a fully healthy Arrelious Benn, the offense should be strong again. There are new faces at both linebacker and safety, but the defensive line could be among the league's best.

5. Michigan -- Bring on the hate mail, but I can't justify putting this team higher before seeing it play. Rich Rodriguez's offense doesn't usually click in Year 1, and the skill-position purge can't be underestimated. The Wolverines will be a dangerous team by October, as improved conditioning and knowledge of the system kick in, but a taxing August/September slate surely will bring growing pains.

6. Michigan State -- October nosedives and a lack of mental toughness used to be guarantees in East Lansing, but coach Mark Dantonio is changing the culture there. All of the team's six losses last year came by seven points or fewer, and expectations are elevated. The opener against Cal provides an immediate test for a team led by an all-senior backfield but looking for playmakers at wide receiver and along the defensive line.

7. Purdue -- The knock on Joe Tiller has been a lack of marquee wins. In his final season at Purdue, he'll have plenty of opportunities to remove the tag. A brutal schedule greets a team with experience in its offensive backfield but questions up front and at wide receiver. Tiller will become the program's all-time winningest coach and deserves a strong sendoff, but getting bowl eligible could be a chore.

8. Northwestern -- The program might never rid the loser label, but this is a vital season to begin peeling it off. Seniors fill the offensive skill positions, and a favorable early schedule could translate into a strong start. The offensive line is a major concern and first-year coordinator Mike Hankwitz needs to craft production from a perpetually underachieving defense, but Northwestern should be in the bowl mix.

9. Iowa -- Remember when Kirk Ferentz was the toast of the Big Ten? Not anymore. Ferentz needs more wins on the field and fewer players arrested off of it. The team's history and a favorable schedule suggest brighter days are ahead, but a glance at the depth chart brings more angst than excitement. Quarterback Jake Christensen can't be sack-prone and erratic, especially with the league's least experienced group of running backs behind him.

10. Indiana -- Quarterback Kellen Lewis is back with the team, and I'm tempted to bump up the Hoosiers a spot or two. If Lewis is a quick study with the new no-huddle offense and someone helps him share the rushing load, the offense should shine. Then again, Indiana's fate usually hinges on its defense. National sacks leader Greg Middleton returns, but the unit struggles to stop the run and has questions at cornerback.

11. Minnesota -- The school decided that seven wins and mid-level bowl games weren't good enough when it fired Glen Mason. Such a scenario wouldn't sound too bad now after a 1-11 clunker in 2007. Tim Brewster's squad will be better, particularly on the offensive side, but the wins will come only if new coordinator Ted Roof can fix the nation's worst defense from a year ago.

Big Ten Conference, Ohio State Buckeyes, Wisconsin Badgers, Penn State Nittany Lions, Illinois Fighting Illini, Michigan Wolverines, Michigan State Spartans, Purdue Boilermakers, Northwestern Wildcats, Iowa Hawkeyes, Indiana Hoosiers, Minnesota Golden Gophers, James Laurinaitis, Alex Boone, Malcolm Jenkins, Dave Doeren, Travis Beckum, Joe Paterno, Stephfron Green, Sean Lee, Ron Zook, Rashard Mendenhall, Juice Williams, Arrelious Benn, Rich Rodriguez, Mark Dantonio, California Golden Bears, Joe Tiller, Mike Hankwitz, Kirk Ferentz, Jake Christensen, Kellen Lewis, Glen Mason, Tim Brewster, Ted Roof

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Morning Briefing: Dantonio sparking MSU, Lions players pick Bradley

July 15, 2008 9:36 AM

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

It's a big day on the Big Ten blog, with the Blue Ribbon previews rolling out. Check back for rankings, interviews and other preview-related items. Also, Ohio State coach Jim Tressel will be chatting at 1 ET, followed by yours truly at 4. Every headliner needs an opening act, so Tressel will suffice for me.

Let's take a look at the happenings around the league.

* Mark Dantonio enters just his second year as Michigan State coach, but he's already providing the program the identity it lacked for some time, Eric Lacy writes in The Detroit News. Recruiting is shaping up well for 2009, and player conduct has improved. Lacy writes:

Following a recent trip to Italy to visit family, Dantonio went online to catch up on the problems several football programs have experienced this offseason. He logged off with a sense of pride, because he says Michigan State hasn't had any players in trouble this summer, other than a couple who need to meet academic requirements by next month.

* Whether Dantonio can fill seats at Spartan Stadium remains to be seen. Season-ticket sales are projected to be about 1,000 short of last year's total, the Lansing State Journal reports.

* Missed this one from the weekend: The Altoona Mirror polled 32 Penn State players at Friday's Lift For Life event, asking them who they thought would be JoePa's successor. The verdict wasn't surprising: defensive coordinator Tom Bradley in a landslide. Rutgers coach Greg Schiano got shut out.

* This isn't a Big Ten item per se, but it has ramifications for the league and the rest of college football. Looks like Notre Dame is throwing us a curveball with its choice for a new athletic director, the Chicago Tribune reports. Indianapolis attorney and Notre Dame alum Jack Swarbrick appears to be the pick, according to several media outlets. Quite frankly, I'm stunned. I understand that selecting an ND graduate was a priority, but there are plenty of qualified candidates in college athletics. Then again, Swarbrick's legal background could pay off -- it certainly has for the Big Ten with commissioner Jim Delany.

* The RichRod-West Virginia saga continues to creep into the headlines. A column in The (Huntington, W.Va.) Herald-Dispatch ripping RichRod and U of M made its way to several Michigan news blogs. Chris Burke of The Diag wants West Virginia to take its money and go away already.

* Jim Tressel's new book already is a hot item, the Cleveland Plain Dealer's Doug Lesmerises writes in his blog.

* The Decatur Herald & Review's Mark Tupper is somewhat surprised to see Illinois opening its doors to the Big Ten Network, which feature the program on a 12-episode series entitled "Illinois Football: The Journey," this fall.

Ohio State Buckeyes, Jim Tressel, Mark Dantonio, Michigan State Spartans, Penn State Nittany Lions, Tom Bradley, Joe Paterno, Greg Schiano, Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Jack Swarbrick, Jim Delany, Illinois Fighting Illini

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Afternoon notes: Northwestern transfer official, Tressel's new book

July 14, 2008 6:38 PM

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

You've waited for it and on Tuesday, you'll get it. Our series of Blue Ribbon previews will spotlight the Big Ten, and the blog will have plenty for you to digest, including team rankings, interviews, games to watch and the debut of Big Ten Hot Seat. So check in early and often. For now, here are a few tidbits I found this afternoon.

* This was first reported back in May but it's now official: Linebacker Aaron Nagel has transferred from Notre Dame to Northwestern. Nagel, originally recruited by the Wildcats, will join his younger brother, Brett, a incoming freshman superback (think fullback-tight end hybrid) in Evanston this fall. Nagel's chances of seeing the field in South Bend didn't look promising, and he should challenge for playing time in 2009. Northwestern has had some good luck with Notre Dame transfers, most notably quarterback Zak Kustok, who led the team to a share of the league title in 2000.

* Jim Tressel still prays for former player Maurice Clarett and doesn't get too down after losses, the Ohio State coach details in his new book, "The Winners Manual: For the Game of Life." Wonder if he'll feel the same way should the Buckeyes suffer another title-game whipping.

* The preseason magazines can be wrong, as the Columbus Dispatch notes. Could that spell trouble for Ohio State, this year's slam-dunk pick in the Big Ten?

* Cedric Everson, one of two Iowa football players facing sexual assault charges, pleaded not guilty Monday.

Northwestern Wildcats, Aaron Nagel, Brett Nagel, Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Zak Kustok, Ohio State Buckeyes, Jim Tressel, Iowa Hawkeyes, Cedric Everson

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Here they are ... Michigan's new threads

July 14, 2008 5:12 PM

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Courtesy of adidas

Michigan's new jerseys were unveiled Monday.

Things are changing in Ann Arbor, from the coach to the offense to the strength program and, now, to the attire. Michigan's new football jerseys, produced by new sponsor adidas, were unveiled Monday.

Check them out for yourself. Are you "amaized?" I'll be here all night.

Among the highlights:

* Former coach Bo Schembechler's famous message -- "Those who stay will be champions" -- is embroidered on the inside hem of the jersey. Nice touch.

* Prints of Michigan's 42 Big Ten championship seasons line the interior shoulder panels. We can't see them, but the players can.

* The ClimaCool fabric placed around the jersey allows for good ventilation. That will pay off for what should be a toasty Aug. 30 opener against Utah.

The home jerseys don't look a heck of a lot different, but the road ones could spark some debate among the old blues. The maize stripes wrapping around the sides might take time to get used to. Replica jerseys are available Tuesday, while fans can begin buying authentic jerseys Aug. 1.

According to the Detroit Free Press, coach Rich Rodriguez signed off on the jerseys, which were part of the eight-year, $60 million licensing agreement reached by Michigan and adidas.

Michigan Wolverines, Rich Rodriguez, Bo Schembechler, adidas

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Experts weigh in on Big Ten's badness

July 14, 2008 4:03 PM

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Let's see if the blog editors let me get away with this headline. Who needs grammar anyway?

Anyway, I missed this from College Football News, which is asking its panel of media experts, including ESPN The Magazine's Bruce Feldman, to address the sport's biggest questions. Last week, they tackled how bad the Big Ten had become and what they would do if the BCS title game once again features Ohio State vs. some supposedly superior SEC team.

The general consensus wasn't as biting as some might expect. Though the league is struggling -- particularly among its middle class -- things aren't that bad and Ohio State remains one of the nation's elite programs. The Big Ten is not the SEC, or even the Big 12, but there's still a reason to pay attention.

The biggest problem could be a growing gap between Ohio State and the rest of the league. As SI.com's Stewart Mandel said:

"I feel like we're in a very similar era to the '70s, when Woody and Bo's teams would beat up on the rest of the conference, then go to the Rose Bowl and get smoked by USC or UCLA. The good news this year is we'll get a very good read on Ohio State pretty early when they face USC. If they win that, nobody will be able to say they don't belong in the national title game, should they go 11-1 again."

CBSsports.com's Dennis Dodd might need a straightjacket if Ohio State makes it to Miami in January, but he also sees the distance between the Buckeyes and the others.

"Pesky programs like Purdue, Michigan State and Iowa have fallen off. Michigan certainly isn't going to be a factor this season. Rich Rod is going to get it going but it's a square-peg, round-hole thing in 2008. That said, Ohio State is on the cusp of a dynasty."

Big Ten Conference, Ohio State Buckeyes, Southeastern Conference, Big 12 Conference, Purdue Boilermakers, Michigan State Spartans, Iowa Hawkeyes, Rich Rodriguez

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Checking in with ... Mike Barwis, Part II

July 14, 2008 3:19 PM

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Here's the second part of my interview with Mike Barwis, Michigan's director of strength and conditioning.

Obviously you have to focus on the whole team, but is there a position group that needs to come along faster or that you're focusing on more?

Mike Barwis: At West Virginia and as we are doing here, we force the big men to be athletes, too. They will go through all the protocols and they will go through all the speed work, the agility work, the plyometics and the other areas as well. I don't feel that there's one area that's predominant over another area. One thing we need to do is transcend all areas and ensure that we're going to have athletes at every position instead of just large, massive guys. It's great to have that mass, but I want it lean mass that's explosive, powerful, strong, can change direction, can go a long time and can do what we need to do on that football field. We were very athletic at West Virginia because we worked that way and those guys we willing to pay that price. These guys have done the same thing. As a unit, as a team, they've done a tremendous job. All of those guys are expected to do all of those things.

Who has stood out to you so far in the program?

MB: They're all progressing to great magnitudes. If you're looking for an example, at 287 pounds, Brandon Graham did 315 pounds on the bench press. We cut him all the way down to 250 and then brought him back up to 269. At 269 today, he did 475 for two (repetitions) on the bench. That's pretty good. Everybody's increasing across the board. They've come a tremendously long way from learning exercises in the winter as freshmen, to being incredibly strong and functional with those exercises by the time the summer ends.

Obviously, you're an intense guy. You come at them hard. Did you see any resistance at the start?

MB: Kids don't tend to resist me, I don't know why (laughs). When we arrived here, the kids didn't know what to expect. It was something new and they thought, 'Oh, boy, this guy's freaking crazy,' as everybody thinks. 'He's going to come in here and hammer us.' But none of them had a bad attitude. We had a couple guys when we first got here who were a little lazy and didn't want to work real hard and weren't willing to pay that price. Most of those guys went about their way. Some of them quit, some of them moved on. It's not for everybody. Everybody is not capable of training at this level, and everybody is not willing to pay the price to train at this level. That's OK. It doesn't have to be for everybody. The people that are here are going to be successful with what they do because they're willing to pay that price and they're willing to do what Coach Rodriguez needs them to do to be successful. Those that don't want to be here, they have to look for another opportunity that fits their mold. The kids that have been here have been tremendously committed and they've made regular gains throughout the year, and they're very excited about those gains, so it's made it easier for them to commit. They also know we care a lot about them.

How much is coach Rodriguez involved with your program?

MB: Coach Rodriguez and I are always together. He's the reason I'm at Michigan. He's a person that cares a lot about his kids, that's what I like about him. He's very intense, he's very motivational, he's very directed and he's hard on the kids. That's good because he cares. He's gonna push them. Everything that I do is run by coach Rodriguez. I meet with him and we go over that. It's all designed to reach the results that he needs.

You mentioned that guys think you're nuts right away. Do you look at yourself a motivator in addition to a scientific strength coach?

MB: We have to understand science, we have be able to apply science. There's a lot of scientists out there who don't know a **** thing about strength training. They know everything about the body, they can study it and they can understand what I'm talking about. However, those scientists can't apply it to training. They might think they can, but they can't. They don't know how to take and elicit the results, utilizing drills and different movements, as well as the key component to be able to motivate and unify a unit. That's an absolute asset to a coach and is something that's an absolute necessity to success. You have to have energy, you have to be motivational, you have to care about the kids more than you care about yourself. In the offseason, we've had 32 NFL players come back here to train. One of the greatest compliments I've ever received, I had a guy who plays in the NFL (Steelers safety Mike Lorello) say, 'Coach, I just want to let you know, I never missed a sprint with you, ever.' That's pretty hard to say. Our conditioning is absolute ****. I said, 'That's pretty impressive. You're a tough guy.' And he said, 'Nah, coach, I didn't want to let you down 'cause you never let me down.' To me, that's everything. That's what drives you.

Michigan Wolverines, West Virginia Mountaineers, Mike Barwis, Rich Rodriguez, Brandon Graham, Mike Lorello

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Checking in with ... Mike Barwis, Part I

July 14, 2008 2:26 PM

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

If you've read anything about Rich Rodriguez and his mission at Michigan, the name Mike Barwis should be familiar. As Rodriguez tries to transform the team on the field, Barwis is doing the same in the weight room.

Before coming to Ann Arbor, Barwis spent the last 14 years at West Virginia, the last five as the strength and conditioning coach for the Mountaineers football team coached by Rodriguez. His training programs became legendary at West Virginia, which thrived behind an offense that demanded athletes at every position. He's looking for similar success with the Wolverines, who have taken flack for their conditioning and toughness in recent years.

Oh, and Barwis is sort of intense. OK, he's insane. He'll fire up teams before games with four-letter words, and then launch into scientific language most Ph.D.'s couldn't understand (if you can figure out his explanation of his training philosophy, let me know). I chatted with Michigan's gravel-voiced director of strength and conditioning on Monday, and here's the first part of our discussion.

Are you surprised how popular you've become? Your name is out there quite a bit.

Mike Barwis: You know, it's not really anything I pay much attention to. I just do the best I can to help Coach Rodriguez. I'm just lucky to be a part of everything. Every day I just try to do the best I can in this life.

A lot people think this will be one of Rich's biggest challenges as a coach. For you, how much of a challenge has it been so far, working with a new group of players?

MB: They've given us an outstanding effort since we've arrived. It's a major transition or change in their training protocols, but they embraced it. They've been excited about it. They've taken a great attitude and for me, everything in life has its challenges. The thing is how we enter those challenges and what we're willing to pay to make things successful. We've really made an effort to make sure the kids understand what they're going through. The training's been rigorous, I'm not gonna lie. It's incredibly difficult. They've been put through a lot, but they've made tremendous adaptations and they've had the will to sustain. Guys have really pushed themselves.

You mention they had some pretty dramatic changes in what they're doing with you. What are some of those changes?

MB: We're very, very holistic in our approach. We're probably one of the most holistic, if not the most holistic program in the country. We do a lot of variances of training. Not to say that there was anything good or bad about the old training program -- I have the utmost respect for Mike Gittleson, he was a tremendous strength coach, he's a guy who was a pioneer in the field -- but what we do is very different. They've never done Olympic movements here. They never really squatted here. So basically in the winter, we came in and we had 100 freshmen. We had to teach them all the movements and work through the progressions. I do all the Olympic movements, we do squats. Some of the things we do that a lot of people don't do; we do a lot of balance and functional movements, working on kinesthetic awareness, or awareness of the body in three-dimensional space. We also work on functional flexibility progressions, flexibility through different active movement progressions and range of motions. We also do injury prevention and stabilization of the common joins that are injured in the game of football: neck, knee, ankle, shoulder, those types of things. We work on the abdominals, low back and the pelvis region, trying to strengthen that using instable apparatus so that the body learns to transfer power from the upper to lower extremities and vice-versa. We do plyometrics, explosive training and impulse training. Tuesdays and Thursdays, we do speed and agility progressions. For speed progressions, it's training our team like elite sprinters. I've worked with a lot of elite sprinters, and we run all our guys through speed cycles. The agility pertains specifically to football. It's a pretty heavy progression. Most of those modes were not things that were part of the old program because the old program had a different agenda or result they were looking for. Ours is more about athletics, explosiveness, speed, power, those types of things. On Mondays and Fridays, they go through conditioning, and conditioning is absolute **** with us. I'm not gonna lie. It's a rigorous, punishing conditioning. It's all based on bioenergetics and how the energy systems adapt to accommodate the game of football the way Rich Rodriguez plays it. Everything we do is designed to make better football players, not better weightlifters, not better generalized runners. Everything we do ends up with a scientific approach for results on the football field. And it comes down to one thing. I can give them all the tools and all the direction in the world, but if they're not willing to pay the price, we're not going to go anywhere. These guys have been willing to pay the price.

Of all those new things that you mentioned, for a guy that hasn't done them before, what aspect is the most challenging?

MB: It's funny. [The players] were joking around with me the other day and they said, 'Coach, is there anything we do that's not hard anymore?' And I started laughing and said, 'No. You can pretty much assume that it's all hard, fellas.' They're all going to be challenging because as things adapt, I continue to adapt with them so that their cycles continue to press them further and further. Each one of those phases is significantly challenging. Once you've developed to a certain point, then we adapt that aspect so that there's always going to be a challenge for the athlete. They get through one thing and they think, 'Well, that doesn't look that hard,' and soon they think it's the hardest thing on earth. We move to the next exercise and they say, 'Well, this is the hardest thing.' I say, 'Well, ****, that was the hardest thing.' They say, '[shoot], they're all hard.' That's a good thing. It's difficult to adapt to things we've never done before, however, after we get into training, the idea is to eliminate all the weaknesses we have and develop the greatest performance. These kids have been able to elicit some tremendous results out of themselves.

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