Big Ten mailbag

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

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Brian from Batavia, Ill., writes: Adam, I think we all need to watch out for a huge break out season from Thaddeus Gibson this next year. We saw that he has the game breaker ability when he returned a fumble this year for a touchdown! He had a solid Fiesta Bowl (even though he got flagged for personnel fouls???), but i was wondering what players also are bound to have huge breakout seasons this next year?

Adam Rittenberg: Brian, I completely agree with you on Thad Gibson. He was a force during the second half of the season and really made the Buckeyes' defensive line better. I look for huge things from him in 2009. Other guys who should step up next fall include Penn State linebacker Navorro Bowman, Michigan defensive end Brandon Graham, Iowa running back Jewel Hampton, Northwestern safety Brad Phillips, Minnesota quarterback Adam Weber, Illinois linebacker Martez Wilson and Ohio State wide receiver DeVier Posey. I could go on and on.

Rob from Seattle writes: Who do you think RichRod WILL get to fill the DC vacancy at Michigan, and who do you think he SHOULD get? I think Corwin Brown would be a great fit - he's played and coached the 3-4 and 3-3 defenses, he's got Michigan roots (which Rod could REALLY use) and he should be available, given the situation at ND.

Adam Rittenberg: That's an interesting take, Rob. I doubt Corwin would want to leave Notre Dame for another coordinator spot, but you never know. It's a bit of an odd arrangement in South Bend with Brown and Jon Tenuta, but Brown has some loyalty to Charlie Weis. I don't see him leaving unless it's a head-coaching position. The fact Rich Rodriguez hasn't promoted another assistant (Jay Hopson) suggests he'll be talking to candidates this week at the AFCA Convention. West Virginia defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel would seem like a good fit, but he didn't join Rodriguez the first time around at Michigan. I think Rich wants to go with a three-man front, so he should find someone who specializes in that alignment.

Brian from New York writes: Dear Adam, Watching Terrelle Pryor in the Fiesta Bowl evade tacklers in the open field and catch that fade pass for a TD over a hapless Texas DB had me wondering. Is Terrelle Pryor in fact a better pro prospect at WR rather than QB. OSU will win more with him at QB, but if he spent the next two years learning how to run precise pass routes instead of fixing his subpar throwing mechanics (which clearly have a long way to go), he could become unstoppable in college and perhaps the next Randy Moss at the pro level with his combination of size, speed, and hand-eye coordination. Then again, he could just wait until he graduates to switch over to WR like Matt Jones or Antwan Randle El, but I'm assuming some NFL scouts have already started thinking about this possibility.

Adam Rittenberg: Brian, you're not the first person to bring up the point about Pryor playing wide receiver in the NFL. But Ohio State surely will stick with him at quarterback and try to help him develop as a passer. Keep in mind that he just finished his freshman year and has time to improve his passing. After watching him repeatedly beat Texas defenders to the corner in the Fiesta Bowl, I think Pryor needs to have the ball as much as possible for the Buckeyes. He needs to run the ball as much as Tim Tebow does for Florida. Pryor still can become a top-line pro prospect at quarterback, and my sense is that's where he'll stay throughout his pro career. But Ohio State should use his talents in as many ways as possible.

J.T. from Evansville writes: With Dustin Sherer being the probable starter the upcoming season for Wisconsin. How short of a leash will they have on Dustin with majority of the Badger fans calling for Kurt Phillips to be the QB? Personally i believe they should let Dustin go out there and do his thing....without any kind of leash at all.

Adam Rittenberg: Sherer did a nice job under less-than ideal circumstances this fall, but he definitely needs to re-earn the starting job during the offseason. Quarterback play simply killed Wisconsin this fall, whether it was during the four-game losing streak (Allan Evridge) or the bowl game (Sherer). The Badgers also need to look at having a starting quarterback for more than one season, simply to build some continuity. Sherer could very well develop as the best quarterback in spring practice and preseason camp, and if so he'll get the job. But if Curt Phillips is ready, I think he'll get the nod from offensive coordinator Paul Chryst.

Travs from East Lansing, Mich., writes: Michigan State graduates starting QB Brian Hoyer this year and has to start looking to next year, but who is the top pick for that starter spot? The Spartans have two pretty decent looking quarterbacks to turn to in Keith Nichol and Kirk Cousins...not to mention incoming freshmen and Elite 11 quarterback Andrew Maxwell. Who do you think will get the nod from Dantonio to be the main man next season?

Adam Rittenberg: It will be Cousins or Nichol in 2009, and it will be a heck of a competition this spring and perhaps into preseason camp. I really liked what I saw from Cousins this season, and he seems to have the intangibles to lead the offense. But Nichol also comes in with some strong credentials, and he'll be itching to play after essentially sitting out two seasons. My money is on Cousins winning the job, but the quarterback competition at Michigan State will be one of the league's top position battles during the offseason.

Kyle from Chicago writes: Just a fun, hypothetical question for the mailbag; several of us on this Big Ten blog have recently been mulling over who a logical/desirable/willing 12th member of the conference would be. Jim Delany and Co. don't seem to be in any hurry to expand the conference, but this is the kind of off-season stuff that's fun just for debate's sake. I've always felt the best candidates (excluding arrogant Notre Dame) are, in descending order, Pitt, Syracuse, Missouri and Rutgers. So, Adam, if the conference ever gets around to it, who would be the best fit for the league?

Adam Rittenberg: Kyle, you're right about Delany being in no hurry to expand, but it's always fun to speculate. The Big Ten won't make another run at Notre Dame, but I like the list you have there. Pitt always seemed like a good fit to me, especially with the natural rivalry against Penn State. What's important to keep in mind is whether the university fits with the other 11 schools as far as enrollment, focus, philosophy, etc. Pitt seems to fit the profile. Missouri also would be a possibility, as would Rutgers. I don't see Syracuse leaving the Big East.

Erich from Chicago writes: Adam: With all due respe
ct, how do you justify ranking Iowa ahead of Northwestern on your final ballot? Prior to the bowl games, NU was ranked higher given its superior overall record and head-to-head result. In their respective bowl games, NU lost to a ranked Big 12 opponent in overtime (though outplayed them), while Iowa beat a mediocre (at best) SEC team. Who is to say NU wouldn't have had the same result against South Carolina? You seem to be punishing NU for losing to an opponent far superior to (the other) USC.

Adam Rittenberg: Though Northwestern performed admirably against Missouri and Iowa beat up on a much weaker bowl opponent, I think the Hawkeyes finished the season as the stronger team. Iowa evolved on both sides of the ball to win six of its final seven games. Northwestern also made strides on defense, but Mick McCall's offense never really seemed to click in terms of generating both yards and points. Iowa also had a signature win against a top 10 team in Penn State. It's not so much punishing Northwestern by ranking them below Iowa than it is rewarding the Hawkeyes for an excellent finish. I think there's a good case that Northwestern eclipsed Michigan State at season's end even though the Spartans won the head-to-head battle. You'll have to check the final power rankings Wednesday to find out.