Sound Of Swagger
CHICAGO -- Brady Hoke said the words Michigan fans have been yearning to hear.
As in, "We're great."
Hoke dropped that line more than once from the podium here at Big Ten media days. And even if the facts don't back up the boast, a beaten-down fan base has to love the sound of swagger returning to its football program.
The first time Hoke said it was in response to a question that used the word "rebuild": "I don't think we're rebuilding, period. I mean, we're Michigan."
(Immediate reaction: Did he watch the Wolverines get clubbed 52-14 in the Gator Bowl by Mississippi State? I guess not, because that team needs rebuilding.)
The second time Hoke said it was when asked about his rapid recruiting success since being hired this past winter: "This might sound arrogant, and if it is, it is. We're Michigan. We have a global education. We're the winningest program in the history of college football. We have a tremendous staff of guys. The lifeblood for all of us, no doubt, is the guys you bring in your program. We've really tried to focus on the guys that fit the mold of Michigan with the integrity and character that we want to have. We want guys who will play with a toughness, play with an accountability and on a team for each other.
"Those [recruiters] out on the road, they work it and they do a tremendous job. But first and foremost, it's Michigan."
For a program that has always been rather proud of itself, this is a return to normalcy. The insecurity of program outsider Rich Rodriguez is out. The arrogance is back in the form of the Michigan Man now in charge of the program.
"Our current coach is all about Michigan," Wolverines athletic director Dave Brandon said. "That becomes apparent to all who meet him or listen to him. He actually understands the history and traditions of the Michigan program. I think that's extremely important to our players and our fans."
Oh, Hoke gets it, all right. He's never shied away from the immensity of the rivalry with Ohio State. He's embraced it at every occasion, doing what he can to stoke the fires of a matchup that has been losing heat in recent years.
In fact, he's employed an old Jackie Sherrill technique of subtle disrespect for the Buckeyes, referring to the school routinely as "Ohio" instead of "Ohio State." When Sherrill was the coach at Mississippi State, he infuriated rival Ole Miss fans by only calling the school "Mississippi."
Of course, chest thumping and slight verbal digs aren't going to get first downs against the Buckeyes, who have beaten Michigan an unprecedented seven straight seasons. It will take more than a healthy self-esteem to turn that around. But the opportunity is there.
With the jarring departures of coach Jim Tressel and quarterback Terrelle Pryor, the Buckeyes are as vulnerable as they've been in a decade. The question is whether Michigan is improved enough to capitalize on it.
A lot of that will depend on how well Hoke's talented coordinators can meld with their new players. Al Borges has the job of working gifted runner Denard Robinson into a more pro-style offense -- a job Hoke said is made easier by Robinson having played in such a system in high school. Greg Mattison is tasked with improving a pathetic Michigan defense that surrendered 34 or more points nine times in 2010.
There is a lot of improving to do. But Hoke has a track record of improving programs, having worked remarkable turnarounds at Ball State and San Diego State before getting this opportunity at a school where he once worked as an assistant from 1995 to 2002.
It was then that Hoke got a feeling for Michigan's healthy self-image. It's now his job to restore it, and he's off to a strong start in the rhetoric department. We'll know in the fall whether that carries over to the field.
Delany Reads Coaches The Riot Act
CHICAGO -- Before the Big Ten football coaches met with the media and put a happy face on the league's 2011 season, they got something of a lecture behind closed doors.
Commissioner Jim Delany spoke to the league's 12 coaches about rules compliance, what he called "an opportunity to look them in the eye." He had fresh cautionary tales from the probation assessed to Michigan last fall and the upcoming hearing with the NCAA Committee on Infractions for Ohio State.
"I wanted to call them together today and speak to them candidly and from the heart, explain to them that in many ways the game is as healthy as it's ever been," Delany said. "But also, in my view, we have as a conference been hurt by the two institutions that have been involved in NCAA allegations and findings, and that I wanted to let them know that I expected them to lead their programs in a way that wouldn't put us in that circumstance again.
"I felt very comfortable with a very candid reaction. I think everybody understands where we're going and why we're going in that direction."
Delany said the current NCAA model is outdated, describing it as "a system established in the '50s and stuck in the '70s." But he held member institutions responsible for that, reminding everyone that the schools make the rules, not the NCAA itself. And as long as the current rules are on the books, he wants them complied with in the Big Ten.
The shining counterpoint to the problems at Michigan and Ohio State is the presence of Joe Paterno. He's in his 46th season at Penn State and still without a major violation on his watch.
"I'm proud of that," Paterno said. "But I'm not going around gloating about it."
Pelini Anticipates An Improved Martinez
CHICAGO -- The turning point in Nebraska's final season in the Big 12 in 2010 came in the second half of the Cornhuskers' 9-6 loss at Texas A&M on Nov. 20.
After then-freshman quarterback Taylor Martinez reinjured his right ankle in the first half, he was berated on the sideline by coach Bo Pelini for, of all things, answering his father's phone call in the locker room. Nebraska's players are prohibited from making phone calls during games.
After a 9-1 start, the Cornhuskers dropped three of their last four games, including a 19-7 loss to Washington in the Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl.
Because of foot and ankle injuries, Martinez was never the same after a brilliant start to his college career. He ran for 75 yards or more in six of his first seven games, including a 241-yard, four-touchdown performance in a 48-13 rout at Kansas State. He also threw for 323 yards with five touchdowns in a 51-41 victory at Oklahoma State.
But Martinez missed two of Nebraska's last seven games and ran for only 95 yards combined in the five contests in which he played.
As the Cornhuskers embark on their first season in the Big Ten, Pelini said Thursday that Martinez is healthy and their misunderstanding at Texas A&M is in the rearview mirror.
"We feel really good about where Taylor is," Pelini said. "He's had a great offseason. He had a tremendous spring. He's had a phenomenal summer. I think he's more engaged as a leader."
Pelini shook up his offensive staff during the offseason, replacing offensive coordinator Shawn Watson with running backs coach Tim Beck, who promises to speed up the Cornhuskers' attack and build it around a powerful running game.
Martinez, a sophomore from Corona, Calif., still figures to have the ball in his hands most of the time.
"I think Taylor has all the tools you look for," Pelini said. "He's very fast. He's quick. He gets to top speed in a hurry. He can make all the throws. He can do really everything you ask a quarterback to do. He has good arm talent. He can throw the ball outside. He has a long way to go in his decision-making, just his knowledge of the game overall. With more experience, he's going to continue to get better."
In hindsight, Pelini even wonders whether Martinez enjoyed too much success too soon.
"It was interesting because last year he had such tremendous success early on that everybody wanted to jump ahead," Pelini said. "The pressure went up in a hurry. People were talking Heisman candidate, all those things. He was two, three games into his career, which was crazy. Then he got hurt later on in the year. But the young man is committed."
Wisconsin Will Wait And See With Wilson
CHICAGO -- Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema's best news during the offseason came from a piece of paper sitting on his desk.
"I came in [to the office] in the middle of spring," Bielema said. "I had a fax on my desk. We get a lot of that, where kids want to talk to us about transfer opportunities. Russell Wilson jumped right in my head right away. I remember watching him on some games the past couple seasons."
The fax couldn't have come at a better time for the Badgers, who are trying to replace departed quarterback Scott Tolzien, the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award winner in 2010, who led Wisconsin to a co-Big Ten title and Rose Bowl appearance last season.
Wilson, who threw for more than 8,500 yards with 76 touchdowns and 26 interceptions during his three seasons as NC State's starting quarterback, was college football's hottest free agent this summer. He was released from his scholarship by NC State coach Tom O'Brien, who wanted Wilson to make a full-time commitment to football.
Wilson, a senior from Richmond, Va., spent this spring and summer playing baseball for the Colorado Rockies' Class A affiliate in Asheville, N.C.
After deciding to return to football for one more season, Wilson was eligible to transfer and play immediately at another school under NCAA rules because he already had earned an undergraduate degree from NC State.
Wilson forfeited much of the signing bonus from the Rockies when he chose to enroll at Wisconsin; he also considered Auburn.
"No matter how good a football player Russell Wilson is, the first thing I wanted to find out is what kind of person he is," Bielema said. "I always say that in recruiting, you recruit your own problems. I wanted to make sure that I wasn't recruiting somebody that was going to potentially be a problem at Wisconsin."
Bielema said Wilson already has won over many of his new teammates during his short time at Wisconsin. Once preseason camp opens next month, Wilson will battle sophomore Jon Budmayr and freshmen Joe Brennan and Joel Stave for the starting job.
Bielema said Wilson will have to earn a starting job, just like every other player on his team.
"I was very open with Russell during the recruiting process," Bielema said. "I think that's one of the things that attracted him to our program. We were honest, truthful. • I haven't seen Russell Wilson complete one snap competitively in practice. I think I might know what will happen, but until it happens, that's where we're at."
For Northwestern, A Running Question
CHICAGO -- With a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback, the Big Ten's leading wide receiver returning and 137 career starts among its offensive linemen, Northwestern possesses nearly every piece needed to be a highly potent offense in 2011.
But like a year ago, the question of Northwestern's offense continues to be whether its running game will boost its scoring ability or hold it back. The Wildcats' ground production improved last season (3.6 yards per carry) from 2009 (3.0 yards), but they still ranked sixth in the Big Ten and struggled until late in the season to find a primary ball carrier -- more than a third of their rushing yards were gained by their quarterbacks.
"As I look at the group as whole [this season], I think we have very solid, competitive depth, but we got to be more consistent there, No. 1, and start faster than we did a year ago," Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said during Big Ten media days Thursday. "I would love to have a bell cow. There's no question about it. You go back to when we had Tyrell [Sutton], go back to when we had a great two-headed monster in Jason Wright, Noah Herron, going back to my days with Darnell [Autry]."
The hope is sophomore Mike Trumpy could be that current guy for Northwestern. Trumpy wasn't in the mix to start last season, but he emerged as the team's top back midway through it.
Trumpy became the first Wildcats running back to rush for 100 yards since Sutton did it in 2008 when he went for 110 yards against Indiana on Oct. 30. Trumpy added a 129-yard and two-touchdown performance against Illinois on Nov. 20. He sat out the team's final two games with a wrist injury but still led the team with 530 rushing yards.
"Mike Trumpy enters fall camp as our starter," Fitzgerald said. "The way he finished the season was encouraging to me. Mike has got good size, good speed, understands the concepts we're trying to do.
"As the season went along, those young guys really started to evolve and they started to take over, then we started to the run the ball efficiently. I thought we were better at the end than we were in the beginning, and we want to build on that. Not take a step back like we did last year."
Iowa: Kirk Ferentz
One Good Thing
Illinois: Illinois coach Ron Zook considered turning Craig Wilson into a defensive tackle two years ago, but his offensive coaches talked him out of it. Zook regrets not making the move then, but he still believes there's time for the 6-foot-6, 320-pound Wilson, now a senior, to be an impact defensive player and will start him at defensive tackle this season. "He's got to learn to play the position, but he's a big load," Zook said. "He can hunker down in there and help you in the middle there."
Indiana: Kevin Wilson is giving his Indiana players a totally clean slate heading into the fall. He purposely hasn't watched any snaps from the 2010 season. "If you're a police officer trying to catch me, you're going to have to chase me a while because I'm not looking in the rearview mirror," Wilson said. While past shortcomings won't hurt IU players, they must prove themselves to Wilson, particularly the quarterbacks. "You have to earn the position," he said.
Iowa: The Hawkeyes must replace three defensive linemen selected in April's NFL draft, an exodus of stars coach Kirk Ferentz doesn't expect to see happen again soon. Iowa's departures actually should increase the number of players in the D-line rotation this fall. While veterans Mike Daniels and Broderick Binns can be penciled into the lineup, Iowa will feature more variety up front. "Might be a little bit more by committee than it was the last two years," Ferentz said. "We'll find a way."
Michigan: Quarterback Denard Robinson won't be stepping completely out of his comfort zone this fall. After excelling in the spread offense, Robinson will be operating a new scheme but not an entirely different one. "We were smart enough to have elements of what he does well from the past in the spread in our offense," coach Brady Hoke said. Hoke added that having a pro-style offense better prepares Michigan's defense -- which faces the offense daily in practice -- for a physical conference like the Big Ten.
Michigan State: The next step for Michigan State's program is obvious to coach Mark Dantonio. He knows the Spartans have to become consistently elite with their line play. The offensive line is a focal point, as Michigan State must replace three starters to block for arguably the league's deepest group of running backs. "When we have lost to Iowa, couldn't run it, when we lost to Ohio State, couldn't run it, when we lost to Alabama, couldn't run it," Dantonio said. "That really is the difference-maker."
Minnesota: There's no doubt about the Gophers' centerpiece entering the season. Quarterback MarQueis Gray has made a significant impression on first-year coach Jerry Kill, who thinks Gray could be "scary" had he logged more snaps at quarterbacks the past two years. Although Kill says Gray's passing ability is better than many think, the junior's variety of skills jumps out to the coach. "Our big key is how we are going to utilize his talents at quarterback," Kill said.
Nebraska: Bo Pelini was a gracious guest in his first trip to the Big Ten preseason party. The Nebraska coach, who played safety at Ohio State, gushed about the Big Ten's tradition and integrity and called it a model conference for college sports. "Maybe I'm a little bit biased because I played in this conference, grew up in the area," Pelini said, "but I think you see the other conferences strive to be what the Big Ten is. That's why it's so great to be going into our first year."
Northwestern: Having a healthy Dan Persa back at quarterback gives Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald plenty of optimism in his offense for the upcoming season, but he's also confident because wide receiver Jeremy Ebert is returning. Ebert led the Big Ten in receiving last year with 953 yards and a 73.3-yard average per game. He also caught 62 passes for eight touchdowns. "Jeremy Ebert, I believe, is if not the top wide receiver, he's in that conversation in this conference," Fitzgerald said. "I'm just expecting big things from him."
Ohio State: Star center Mike Brewster and his teammates are trying to embrace the adversity they've faced in recent months. Brewster reiterated the Buckeyes will enter the season "much more pissed off" and determined to prove that despite a unique set of hurdles, the Big Ten hierarchy won't change. "We've been Big Ten champs six years in a row, beat Michigan seven times in a row," Brewster said. "We don't want to be the team to break that."
Penn State: Joe Paterno looked much better Thursday than his shaky media days appearance a year ago, and the 84-year-old is feeling better, too. After breaking his leg during the 2006 season, injuring his hip before the 2008 season and dealing with an illness in the spring of 2010, Paterno's health is strong. "I'm back to doing a lot of things I used to do, walking a lot more," Paterno said. "I've been watching what I eat. I feel good. I enjoyed this spring, have a lot more enthusiasm."
Purdue: Carson Wiggs is the only Big Ten specialist appearing at media days, mainly because of his prodigious right leg. He owns the four longest field goals in Purdue history (59 yards, 55, 53 and 52) and hits "world record field goals on a regular basis in practice," coach Danny Hope said. But Wiggs is more than just a strong leg. "If he was a little bit bigger, wasn't such a good kicker, we'd probably move him to linebacker," Hope said. "He's a heck of a football player."
Wisconsin: At least one Big Ten team will miss Terrelle Pryor this season. A week after Wisconsin defeated Ohio State last October, Pryor said the Buckeyes would beat the Badgers nine out of 10 times they played. "There wasn't any question about who won that football game," Badgers coach Bret Bielema said Thursday. "The only bad part about Terrelle leaving is he kind of claimed the week after that it was a fluke. To me, we really wanted to play that game against him. Unfortunately we won't."
Nebraska: Bo Pelini
Michigan State: Edwin Baker
Best call for change: Jim Delany. The Big Ten commissioner said he wouldn't disagree with any of the reform proposals SEC commissioner Mike Slive raised last week. Delany said college football leaders need to work together and clean up the game.
"We compete with the Big 12, the Pac-10 and SEC on the field," he said. "This is not a time for competition. This is a time for collaboration, for coming together, for giving [NCAA president] Mark Emmert the ideas and concepts that he needs to produce to university presidents around the country and to establish a renewed way of ensuring that the intercollegiate athletic model can be sustained in the 21st century."
Best sartorial statement: Nick Toon, Wisconsin. One of the fun parts of any media day is seeing how the players deck themselves out. The most head-turning outfit of the day belonged to Wisconsin receiver Nick Toon, who combined a seersucker suit with a pink tie and white shoes. "I am a wardrobe connoisseur," he said. "I was debating whether to pull it out, but why not?" Red carpet analysts might have had a field day debating another one of Toon's choices: going sockless with his suit.
Best guest questioner: Orhian Johnson, Ohio State. As new Ohio State coach Luke Fickell dealt with a mob of reporters, defensive back Johnson sneaked into the scrum and asked the coach where the players were heading for dinner. Fickell said it depended on how well behaved the players were. "So are we getting steak?" Johnson asked. "That's to be determined," Fickell answered.
Best quote: Joe Paterno. You can always count on the Penn State legend to make things interesting on media day. Here is how Paterno answered a question about all the recent scandals in college football:
"The old days when I first started to coach, I used to get a telephone call from one of the campus cops who'd say, 'Hey, Coach, you better come up here and get a hold of Mike. Too much to drink, making a lot of noise.' I'd go up at 2 in the morning, grab Mike, put him in bed, get him up at 5 in the morning, run his rear end off for a week. You guys never heard about it.
"Every once in a while, I hear one of these guys that I know a little bit talking about when they were 19 and 20, about all the kids today. They ought to go back and read Socrates. Socrates, 400 years B.C., said, 'The kids today are terrible; they're tyrants. They don't pay attention.' That's 2,500 years ago, OK?'
"Anyway, I'm shooting my mouth off too much. Let's go."
Best memory: Jeff Allen. Most college football fans probably would be hard-pressed to identify which teams are in the Legends Division and which are in the Leaders Division. Not Jeff Allen. The Illinois left tackle said he studied the divisions in the offseason, then proved it by correctly naming each team's division assignment. If Allen is that good at comprehending scouting reports, Nathan Scheelhaase won't have to worry about his backside this season.
Best tribute: Mark Dantonio. Jim Tressel wasn't at Big Ten media days for the first time since 2000, but his close friend and former colleague had some warm words for the disgraced Ohio State coach.
"He's had a lot to do with my life as a mentor really since 1983, and that's a long time," Dantonio said. "He's done a lot of good for college football. Every person he's come in contact with as a player and a coach, he's made a positive impact on their lives.
"To me, it's tragic. He becomes a tragic hero in my respect, in my view. Usually tragic heroes have the ability to rise above it all in the end, and that's what I'll look for in the end."
Minnesota: MarQueis Gray
Tracking Big Ten media days