Last updated: July 28. 2014 4:14PM - 1331 Views
By - dlevarse@civitasmedia.com

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CHICAGO — The unofficial start of college football season is here as Big Ten media days begin at the Hilton Chicago, and The Times Leader is providing live updates all the way up through Penn State coach James Franklin’s time at the podium at 2 p.m.

Here’s a rundown of what to expect from the first day of interviews.

Check back to this page for updates from various Big Ten coaches and follow @TLdlevarse on Twitter.

James Franklin, Penn State

In a stroke of interesting timing, it was revealed Monday morning that five Pennsylvania congressmen sent a letter to NCAA president Mark Emmert last week, asking for the removal of all sanctions against Penn State.

The NCAA began to rescind sanctions last fall after the recommendation of the former Sen. George Mitchell, who has installed as the independent monitor at Penn State to measure how the university is implementing changes suggested by the Freeh Report.

At the time, Mitchell suggested that further reductions could come down the line given Penn State’s continuing compliance, creating much speculation that the Nittany Lions’ postseason ban could be lifted in time for the 2014 season.

Whatever his opinion may be behind closed doors, Franklin wasn’t about to get his hopes up publicly.

“My focus is on what to call on third down against Central Florida,” Franklin said. “Obviously, that’s something that’s floating out there. We’ll see what happens.

“But we spend very little time thinking and talking about those things because I don’t want to be disappointed. I don’t want our players to be disappointed. So we just focus on what we know. And right now, it’s very black and white. So we focus on that.”

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said he was not aware of the letter sent by Pennsylvania representatives — Charles Dent, Jim Gerlach, Glenn Thompson, Michael Doyle and Mike Kelly — to Emmert. He did, however, express support for any further recommendations from Mitchell.

“I hope that the NCAA would look positively on any request that is suggested by Sen. Mitchell,” Delany said. “The leadership (at Penn State) has really met the challenge as far as we’re concerned.

Urban Meyer, Ohio State

Straightforward as usual, the Buckeyes boss quickly broke down his team’s strengths and weaknesses.

Right at the top on the plus side is quarterback Braxton Miller, whom Meyer said was “in the best shape of his life.”

Keeping Miller in that condition could be tough. Miller’s frequent scrambles and designed keepers have led to him battling numerous injuries during his two-plus seasons as a starter.

Meyer is most focused on getting a starting offensive line assembled to keep Miller in one piece.

“Concern number one. That’s it,” Meyer said. “Developing that offensive line is number one. It’s where a lot of our focus is right now.”

He was also blunt about the state of his pass defense, saying that the unit was basically “blown up” in the offseason.

“We’re completely starting from scratch there.”

Ohio State lost one of its top assistants and recruiters in Mike Vrabel, who joined Bill O’Brien’s staff in Houston, replacing him with long-time Penn State coach Larry Johnson.

“A top-shelf coach,” Meyer said of Johnson. “Great respect. Players love him already. There’s incredible trust there. He walked into a good situation.”

Randy Edsall, Maryland

For the Terrapins, the shift to the Big Ten isn’t quite as dramatic in terms of competition as it will be for Rutgers. After all, the ACC did just field the defending national championship.

“It’s an outstanding move from our institution,” Edsall said. “I was all for it. I think it will be a really good move for us. I’m just glad we’re finally to the point now where we can go and play games.”

Edsall mentioned his experience of leading UConn into the Big East several years ago as being an important experience for this transition.

“Change is inevitable in life,” Edsall said. “What you do is embrace change. I’ve got to make sure I keep everyone looking straight ahead and concentrating on the season.”

Not surprisingly, Edsall was asked about recruiting battles with Penn State.

“We know that we’re in an area that there are going to be a lot of schools that come in and recruit where we’re at,” Edsall said.

Bo Pelini, Nebraska

“It’s good to be back,” Pelini said to lead off.

That was far from a sure thing after the Huskers coach had a minor meltdown last November, getting ejected from a game. A recording from a few years ago of him ranting about Nebraska fans was leaked out for more bad publicity.

Pelini said he knows he needs to keep his temper in check.

“You’ve gotta keep things light,” Pelini said. “There’s a lot of pressure in college football now. Sometimes it gets crazy at times, especially during the season. Someone sees me going after the referee. You go out there and get upset and people think that’s how you are all the time. That’s not me.

“As I grow as a football coach, I realized that’s an area I need to improve.”

Star running back Ameer Abdullah could help Pelini and Huskers fans control their blood pressure in 2014.

“You’ve got to be able to run the football, but you have to have balance,” Pelini said. “We’ve been about a 60-40 run-pass team, but you’d like to get as close to 50-50 as you possibly can.”

Mark Dantonio, Michigan State

It was a satisfying victory lap for the Spartans after a Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl win. But all that is over now.

Michigan State has had a history of up-and-down performances with trouble of sustaining success. Dantonio, however, looks to be reversing that trend.

“What we try to talk about is how we handle success now,” Dantonio said. “We’ve done some special things. What’s next? That’s one of the biggest things we have to deal with this year. I think we’re one of the hunted. That’s a good place to be but a precarious to be.”

With an emerging young quarterback in Connor Cook and a defense that still looks plenty ornery despite some departures to the NFL, Michigan State will have a reasonable chance to defend its title.

“We’re not looking for any entitlement,” Dantonio said. “We’ll get what we earn.”

No doubt. Aside from playing Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State every season now, the Spartans have a huge September matchup against Oregon this season.

Had the new College Football Playoff existed last season, Michigan State would have been in the mix for the national title, and playing a tough schedule will help their chances at getting there in 2014.

Jerry Kill, Minnesota

Minnesota looks to be back on the upswing under Kill’s watch, but the lingering questions of the coach’s health hang over the program.

Kill was forced to step away for a few weeks during the 2013 season as he deals with severe seizures. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys did an admirable job filling in as acting head coach when needed.

Kill said the Gophers’ improvement to eight wins was fairly simple.

“We played more physical,” Kill said. “Gotta run the ball and stop the run, and I think we did that better. We’re a much stronger, faster team than a year ago.”

One thing Kill said he believes will make a difference is that he has already settled on a starting quarterback, getting away from the carousel that has existed at the position recently.

Mitch Leidner has been installed as the full-time starter after Philip Nelson left the team in the offseason.

“We’re hungry to play,” Kill said. “We’re starving for the fall.”

Kyle Flood, Rutgers

The Rutgers coach has been asked a few hundred times by now how it feels to be a member of the Big Ten.

“It feels right,” Flood said. “I think it’s only right. … I see a tremendous match. I don’t think there’s any other conference we’d want to play in.”

Though Penn State and Rutgers haven’t played each other since the mid-90s, there’s already a bit of a rivalry brewing as Penn State has heavily pillaged New Jersey on the recruiting trail, including James Franklin’s late flip of receiver Saeed Blacknall from the Scarlet Knights last January.

Asked about that dynamic, Flood didn’t refer to Penn State by name.

“Certainly as we recruit, we recruit what we call the state of Rutgers,” Flood said. “That will not change. The Big Ten schools, whether it’s our neighbor to the West, our neighbor to the South, have always recruited New Jersey.”

Flood’s biggest feather in the cap may be the addition of former Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen as his new offensive coordinator.

“I had reached out to him two years ago, but the timing wasn’t right,” Flood said. “We went back to it this year, and it’s been a tremendous fit.”

Brady Hoke, Michigan

The biggest storyline in Ann Arbor was undoubtedly the hiring of former Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier to replace the much-maligned Al Borges.

“He’s come in with a championship pedigree and has done a tremendous job so far,” Hoke said. “When you watch the tempo of the offense and the physicality of the practices, that’s where it starts.”

It’s an important addition — arguably the biggest in the conference — after Michigan fell flat last season after losing that famous four-overtime game in Happy Valley. The Wolverines stumbled to a 7-6 finish including a loss to Kansas State in the bowl game.

Hoke said he isn’t concerned with the perceived pressure on him and his staff.

“Why do you coach? Why do you really coach?” Hoke said. “The only pressure is every day preparing guys for life after football. That’s the only pressure, as a coach, that I’ve ever felt.”

On the plus side, Hoke has had some solid recruiting classes that have rebuilt the Wolverines’ depth after the three-year setback that was the Rich Rodriguez era.

All eyes will be on one of the most heralded true freshmen in the country, Jabrill Peppers, who figures to play right away in the secondary.

“Well, let’s anoint him when he does something,” Hoke said. “Let’s see what he can do.”

Tim Beckman, Illinois

Beckman begins his time by basically laying out the case why this is a make-or-break season for him. The struggling third-year coach estimated that the Illini have 40 of their top 50 players back from last season’s two-deep.

In other words, another two- or three-win season isn’t going to cut it if Beckman wants to be back here for a fourth season. And he knows the pressure is on.

“That’s the life of a football coach,” Beckman said. “It’s just part of it. I’m a competitive winner, I believe.”

The first thing is finding a new quarterback after the departure of Nathan Scheelhaase.

“How do you replace a four-year starter and a leader?” Beckman said. “I’ve been around football for 49 years, and there’s only one Nathan Scheelhaase I’ve ever met.”

Well-regarded Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt figures to be the favorite, but nothing is set in stone.

“We need to make tremendous strides,” Beckman said. “We didn’t play very well on defense last year.”

Gary Andersen, Wisconsin

Much like his predecessor in Madison, Bret Bielema, Andersen had a solid coaching debut for the Badgers in 2013, that season finale letdown against Penn State notwithstanding.

All eyes will be on the Badgers right from Week 1 this season as Wisconsin heads to Houston to take on LSU in the season opener.

“LSU is LSU,” Andersen said. “One of the best in the country. … Our veteran players are making sure are young players are getting ready for this challenge.”

The Badgers also have a deceptively tough early non-conference game against Bowling Green, one of the favorites in the MAC.

Wisconsin has the benefit of one of the country’s better running backs in Melvin Gordon coming back. But the Badgers are unsettled under center as Joel Stave and Tanner McAvoy will split reps during camp with no set timeline for naming a starter.

With top receiver Jared Abbrederis having graduated, Wisconsin, like Penn State, is looking for help at wideout.

“Quite frankly, we need some help there moving forward,” Andersen said. “We have to replace Jared with two or three players. The challenge is for the youth to step up.”

Darrell Hazell, Purdue

The depth of Hazell’s challenge to rebuild Purdue was on full display last season, his first in West Lafayette. The Boilermakers went 1-11 and were on pace for one of the worst campaigns by any Big Ten team in many years.

“Last year at this time,” Hazell said, “we couldn’t even call a play.”

“When you take over a program, nobody’s at fault, but there’s so much learning that has to happen in that first year. At this junction, as a staff, everybody knows where they’re supposed to be. That’s the biggest step between year one and year two.”

Germane to Penn State, perhaps, Hazell said he felt it took until after his first season as a coach at a new school before everyone felt in tune with one another.

Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern

Fitzgerald and the Wildcats had one of the most eventful offseasons of any Big Ten team thanks to the push for unionization by some of his players, drawing national attention on Evanston.

That’s the life at Northwestern. When other schools refer to “offseason distractions” as Fitzgerald did, they usually mean transfers, disciplinary issues or staff turnover. For the Cats, it’s the National Labor Board.

“I believe there’s no more unified team in the country,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve probably been through more than most since January.”

On the field, Northwestern had a miserable time last fall, stunningly going 1-7 in the Big Ten.

“We’re going to reestablish who we are this year. We’re going to get back to who we are,” Fitzgerald said. “When adversity strikes, we didn’t do a good enough job of responding a year ago.”

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