Big Ten’s best defenses come out of spring in rebuild mode

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Coordinator changes and heavy player personnel losses made it a spring of uncertainty for the top Big Ten defenses.

Start with Wisconsin, which has been in the national top five in total defense three straight years and lower than that just twice since 2014. The Badgers must replace eight of their top 10 tacklers.

Penn State, in the top 10 in scoring defense three of the last five seasons, has a new coordinator in Manny Diaz. The former Miami coach spent the spring fitting pieces together to compensate for the loss of as many as six players who could be drafted.

Defending conference champion Michigan, coming off its first College Football Playoff appearance, hired Jesse Minter as its coordinator after Mike MacDonald left after one year for the Baltimore Ravens. Minter must replace seven starters, including possible No. 1 draft pick Aidan Hutchinson.

Ohio State also is retooling its defense after it got exposed early last season against Oregon and again in a 42-27 loss to Michigan. Coordinator Kerry Coombs was fired and Jim Knowles, who excelled as Oklahoma State’s coordinator, was hired and began installing a 4-2-5 scheme.

“The biggest revelation of the spring was that regardless of talent, these players that we have, they want to learn. They soaked up everything I did,” Knowles said. “They’re just into it; into football, into us, into culture change and the way we run meetings. They picked it up. I mean, they picked it up at a high speed.”


There is plenty of starting quarterback experience around the league. Ten of the top 11 passers return, including the top three – C.J. Stroud of Ohio State, Aidan O'Connell of Purdue and Taulia Tagovailoa of Maryland.

Six teams, at most, are exploring their options.

New Indiana offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Walt Bell will continue auditioning Missouri transfer Connor Bazelak, Jack Tuttle and Donaven McCulley in preseason practice.

Iowa, which won the West despite having one of the least productive offenses in the nation, opened up the competition between Spencer Petras and Alex Padilla.

Syracuse transfer Tommy DeVito stood out in Illinois’ spring game but will be pushed in the preseason when Artur Sitkowski returns from injury. Ryan Hilinski is first in line at Northwestern, though he had some shaky performances last season.

With J.J. McCarthy still recovering from a shoulder injury, an expected competition at Michigan didn’t materialize between him and incumbent Cade McNamara.

At Nebraska, all signs point to Texas transfer Casey Thompson taking over for Adrian Martinez, the four-year starter who transferred to Kansas State.


Kenneth Walker III was a revelation right away for Michigan State, running 75 yards for a touchdown on the first play from scrimmage in the opener against Northwestern. The Wake Forest transfer went on to lead the Big Ten in rushing and win the Doak Walker Award.

With Walker gone, the Spartans are hoping to have similar results with another transfer, either Jalen Berger or Jarek Broussard.

Berger was Wisconsin’s leading rusher in 2020 before he lost his job to Braelon Allen and was dismissed from the team a month into the 2021 season.

Berger appears to have come out of spring No. 1 on the depth chart, but more competition in one the way. Broussard is scheduled to arrive next month from Colorado, where he was Pac-12 offensive player of the year in 2020 and received All-Pac 12 honorable mention last year.


Sixth-year center John Michael Schmitz is Minnesota’s only returning starter from a unit that led the country with 235 combined career starts and is expected to produce multiple draft picks.

Line coach Brian Callahan began the rebuild this spring. Two transfers will figure prominently, with guard Chuck Filiaga from Michigan and tackle Quinn Carroll from Notre Dame.

Alex Ruschmeyer, who can play guard and tackle, is the second-most experienced lineman behind Schmitz. Tackle Aireontae Ersery might have the highest ceiling.

“Brian Callahan is one of the best developers of talent when we’re talking about offensive line play and if there is anybody who needs a challenge like that, Brian Callahan can nail it and crush it,” coach P.J. Fleck said.


The season opens Aug. 27 with Nebraska playing Northwestern at Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland, and Wyoming visiting Illinois.

Other openers: Sept. 1, Penn State at Purdue; New Mexico State at Minnesota; Sept. 2, Illinois at Indiana; Western Michigan at Michigan State; Sept. 3, Notre Dame at Ohio State; South Dakota State at Iowa; Rutgers at Boston College; Buffalo at Maryland; Colorado State at Michigan; Illinois State at Wisconsin.

Notable: Nebraska was supposed to play Illinois in Ireland last year but the trip was canceled because of the pandemic. … The Illini get only five days between their first and second games.

Vick, Fitzgerald and Suggs among stars on College Football Hall of Fame ballot for 1st time

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Michael Vick, Larry Fitzgerald and Terrell Suggs are among the college football stars who will be considered for induction to the Hall of Fame for the first time this year.

The National Football Foundation released Monday a list of 78 players and nine coaches from major college football who are on the Hall of Fame ballot. There also are 101 players and 32 coaches from lower divisions of college football up for consideration.

Vick, who led Virginia Tech to the BCS championship game against Florida State as a redshirt freshman in 1999, is among the most notable players appearing on the ballot in his first year of eligibility.

Vick finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting in 1999. He played one season of college football before being drafted No. 1 overall by the Atlanta Falcons in 2001. Vick’s professional career was interrupted when he served 21 months in prison for his involvement in dog fighting.

Fitzgerald was the Heisman runner-up in 2003 to Oklahoma quarterback Jason White. He scored 34 touchdowns in just two seasons at Pitt.

Suggs led the nation in sacks with 24 in 2002 for Arizona State.

The 2024 Hall of Fame class will be chosen by the National Football Foundation’s Honors Court and announced in January. Induction into the Atlanta-based hall is the following December.

Alabama freshman DB Mitchell says he wasn’t sure he’d get to play again after arrest

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Alabama defensive back Tony Mitchell said he feared his football career was over after his arrest on a drug charge.

The Crimson Tide freshman said in a video posted Sunday on social media that he knew “something much bigger could have happened.”

A judge in Holmes County, Florida, sentenced Mitchell to three years of probation with a fine and community service on May 24 after Mitchell pleaded guilty to a charge of possession of more than 20 grams of cannabis.

“I didn’t know if I’d be able to play football again, but I continued to work out and stay close with the Lord and those who love me unconditionally,” Mitchell said. “During those times, it helped me to keep my mind off it. But when I was by myself looking at social media, what everybody had to say about it, it just felt like it happened again.

“I didn’t sleep at night.”

He was suspended from the Alabama team following the arrest, but Mitchell’s father, Tony Sr., posted on Facebook last week that the defensive back had been reinstated. An Alabama spokesman declined to comment on Mitchell’s status.

Tony Mitchell Sr. shared his son’s video on Facebook, saying it was filmed during a talk to youth.

“I was doing things I knew I shouldn’t to try to fit in,” the younger Mitchell said, “but not everybody’s your friend.”

Mitchell, who is from Alabaster, Alabama, was a four-star prospect and the 15th-rated safety in the 247Composite rankings.

He had been charged in March with possession of a controlled substance with intent to sell after a traffic stop when authorities said he drove over 141 mph (227 kph) while trying to evade deputies in the Florida Panhandle. A deputy had spotted Mitchell’s black Dodge Challenger traveling 78 mph (125 kph) in a 55 mph (88 kph) zone on a rural highway north of Bonifay.

He also received 100 hours of community service and paid a fine of $1,560.

Mitchell and a passenger were both charged with possession of marijuana with the intent to sell or deliver, according to a Holmes County Sheriff’s Office arrest report. The other man also was charged with carrying a concealed gun without a permit.