Sights and sounds at Big Ten media days:


The media buzz surrounding Ron Zook and the trio of Jeff Allen, Tavon Wilson and AJ Jenkins was down near Purdue and Minnesota levels, save for a Pat Forde jab or two at Zook. In fact, of the first four questions asked of Zook just one directly pertained to Illinois.

The Illini are flying under the radar despite returning one of the top ground games in the Midwest. And aside from the respect bit, I don’t think you’d find too many members of the coaching staff who are too displeased.

One lingering concern: Zook praised his offensive line during the weekend, but since then a twin issue has popped up: depth. With breakout candidate Corey Lewis hampered by a pair of knee injuries sustained in last year’s spring game and February of this year, redshirt freshmen Michael Heitz and Simon Cvijanovic are suddenly battling for the starting weakside tackle job. As of now, Cvijanovic will be counted on as the sixth man, so to speak, but his camp struggles have brought the depth issue to the forefront.

*Northwestern (Oct. 1)*

With long-term contracts secured for head coach Pat Fitzgerald and athletic director Jim Phillips, large-scale renovations coming in the near future to Ryan Field and three straight bowl appearances, Northwestern is at a major crossroads. If there is ever a time for the program to elevate from scrappy 6-7 perennial to the level Stanford has reached as of late, now is when that climb will take place.

The Northwestern formula calls for a heady quarterback who can churn out 1,000 yards and few turnovers. They have two and a half out of the three in senior signal caller Dan Persa alone, but that Darnell Autry/Jason Wright “bellcow” back, as Fitzgerald pointed to in his Day One press conference, has eluded them since Tyrell Sutton’s departure. Sophomore Mike Trumpy has a leg up on Adonis Smith, and the two put up yards per carry averages in the high fours, but Trumpy also battled a broken bone in his right wrist in 2010.

One lingering concern: If Persa should tweak his Achilles tendon, then the team’s bowl hopes may as well take a knee barring Kain Colter or Evan Watkins breaking out. Persa accounted for 75 percent of the team’s offense in 2010 (tops in the FBS) and the team spiraled out of control down the stretch in his absence.

*Indiana (Oct. 8 in Bloomington)*

Sitting down at first-year head coach Kevin Wilson’s table on Day Two made me a believer in the former Northwestern assistant, regardless of whether it’s merited.

Wilson, who comes to the conference doormat after orchestrating the series of record-breaking offenses at Oklahoma, is right out of central casting. Of the nation’s new head honchos, one would be hard-pressed to find one more put together and chomping at the bit to lead a team. He clearly has confidence in his system and method for preparing for the season; as of late July, Wilson said and reiterated that he hadn’t watched more than one play of last year’s Indiana team on film.

One lingering concern: A lack of time travel. Going one year in the past (to grab 2010 Big Ten passing champion Ben Chappell) or one in the future (to pluck Under Armor All-American and recent commit Gunner Kiel) would stabilize a depleted offense, but for now Wilson is left to choose between Gunner’s older brother Dusty, a sophomore, or Ed Wright-Baker, neither of whom has shone particularly in the offseason.

Perhaps the top talent at this position won’t see the field until well into the season or even next. Fast-rising freshman Tre Roberson has gained praise from Wilson, though Wilson seems adamant that a freshman won’t get time right away.

*Ohio State (Oct. 15)*

If Brady Hoke was a bull on the podium, then forgive Jim Tressel’s young replacement Luke Fickell for appearing, well, less so. Apart from his sweaty appearance on Day One (that you would have too if you had to answer the same napalm-filled questions), you won’t see him sweat over losing six of the team’s top eight tacklers from last season.

The reason? It’s the same as always in Columbus, home of the reloading roster. Nathan Williams and John Simon form one of the top bookend duos in the country, and while Garrett Goebel and Johnathan Hankins have zero starts combined in the interior line, Goebel is highly touted and Hankins was cast in the Vince Wilfork mold.

One lingering concern: As the season ticks closer, the quarterback situation only gets more and more interesting.

Joe Bauserman at age 26 is a safer pick for the long-term health of the program, so count on him to at least start the season at the helm. Freshman phenom Braxton Miller isn’t far behind, though, and he will likely take over barring a Chris Weinke-type performance by the former minor leaguer Bauserman.

*Purdue (Oct. 22 in West Lafayette)*

Most coaches in the Big Ten seem to shy away from the dual-QB attack, but not Danny Hope. When asked if he would use Miami transfer Robert Marve and running specialist Rob Henry, Hope answered with a refreshingly direct and definitive response:

“It’s very likely we’ll use a two-quarterback system in the fall. We had some plans last year to utilize a two-quarterback system, especially with Rob Henry being new to the quarterback position,” which came minutes after he said, “A lot of people talk about our quarterback situation saying if you don’t have a starter, you don’t have a quarterback. I disagree.”

One lingering concern: Ralph Bolden’s knee. Kudos Hope for his optimism, but the offense will rely heavily (more like exclusively) on Bolden returning to his Second-Team All-Big Ten form as a sophomore following an ACL injury that wiped out last year’s campaign.

With Justin Siller bouncing from quarterback to receiver last season and a pair of unproven wideouts in Justin Siller and Antavian Edison opposite him, the offense will sputter a la 2010 should Bolden face any complications.

*Penn State (Oct. 29 in State College)*

The venerable Joe Paterno was up to his old tricks on the podium on Day One, turning the obligatory and excruciating questions of his health and contract statuses into a lighthearted affair (“Is this the last year of my contract?” he said, laughing. “I don’t even know I got a contract. I don’t pay attention to that.”)

He took full responsibility for the team’s woes last year on Day Two, saying “We were so young at so many key spots, I was reluctant to push them too hard and I think I made a couple of mistakes.”

That, plus hearing him speak candidly about the Rob Bolden situation at quarterback (in which the blue chipper wanted a release from his scholarship) made the media huddled around him realize how much control he still has in the program. Hairline fracture of the pelvis or not, Paterno is still in the captain’s seat.

One lingering concern: It’s funny seeing as the team was a paltry 7-6 by Penn State standards just months ago, but this group is well primed for a climb up into the top third of the conference again and features few weaknesses. Evan Royster exits as the primary ballcarrier, but sophomore Silas Redd is more than capable of taking over after shining with 5.7 yards per carry last season.

Derek Moye (885 yards, eight touchdowns) is not only a big target at 6-5 but he’s a serious deep-ball threat too, with a 16.7 yards per catch average in 2010 to back it up. Pending Bolden or junior Matt McGloin can feed him and Redd the ball consistently, the offense will benefit from another monster crop of linebackers that will wreak havoc on the offenses of the Big Ten.

*Michigan (Nov. 12)*

You didn’t need to be at Brady Hoke’s press conference to know the stout Michigan Man is bold. Hoke has done things his way — read: Bo’s way — from redecorating the tunnel out to the field to redecorating Rich Rodriguez’s offense. Denard Robinson’s much-publicized move to under center doesn’t worry me or anyone else for that matter. One 286-pound reason? David Molk.

The center was named First-Team All-Big Ten last season despite Ohio State’s Mike Brewster winning First-Team All-America honors. His presence up front will mitigate any early-season sloppiness due to the new offense.

One lingering concern: Last year’s secondary became a punch line thanks to injuries to Troy Woolfolk, TJ Floyd and a pair of backups.

This year five regulars return, but one of them isn’t James Rogers, who started all 13 games and tied for the team lead with three interceptions. Mike Martin will anchor the defense up front, and they could have a budding star in underachieving Will Campbell. The five-star recruit has five tackles in two years but reportedly weighs in the 316 range after leaving in the spring around 342.

*Wisconsin (Nov. 19)*

Rob Riggle, er, Bret Bielema, loses a significant amount with the departure of quarterback Scott Tolzien, 1000-yard rusher John Clay and leading receiver Lance Kendricks. This group has another ridiculously large offensive line, though, and backs James White and Montee Ball to run behind it.

The last time Wisconsin came to Memorial Stadium, the Illini fended off a late comeback attempt and secured a 31-26 win. Bielema was reluctant to anoint Russell Wilson his starter on Day One, but the move is inevitable and the NC State transfer will help dampen the loss of Tolzein despite his height concerns.

One lingering concern: There are no glaring holes on this roster, with the possible exception of a perimeter unit on offense that features an inexperienced and lightly recruited bunch including Jared Abbrederis, Jeff Duckworth and Isaiah Williams opposite senior Nick Toon. Should Toon miss time, then opposing defenses will be able to throw the kitchen sink at Russell Wilson and make him beat them deep.

*Minnesota (Nov. 26 in Minneapolis)*

You won’t find a more genuinely friendly coach than Jerry Kill. Having been through a no-frills upbringing and a bout with cancer, Kill is about as grounded as they come.

He will bring a similar approach to Minneapolis, where Gopher fans will have to be patient as he instills the character-first system that made him a success at both Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois. This group appears headed toward the three-win territory they finished in last season, even with the electrifying MarQueis Gray back under center after primarily serving as a receiver last season.

One lingering concern: It’s hard to pick just one, but the front seven is one area in which the team can make significant strides this season. The six top linebackers return this year along with 35 starts on the defensive line. The problem is, one of the losses was Jewhan Edwards (team-high three sacks in 2010), who along with tackle Anthony Jacobs, provided the team’s only viable pass rush.

_Gordon Voit is a senior in LAS. He can be reached at [email protected]_