All roads lead to Rome, and college football is joining the caravan this weekend. Michigan's football team will land in the Eternal City on Saturday for what could be the most unusual week of practice in the game’s history.
Jim Harbaugh, his staff and 99 of their football players will hold three workouts next week in Italy. They’ll spend the rest of their time abroad touring Rome and some of its biggest attractions. Harbaugh billed the trip in February as a cultural, educational and international football experience for his program. Earlier this week, he said he’s hoping the week is “the best experience in these youngsters’ lives up until this point” and the best experience of his too.
It’s an idea, hatched by the head man himself, that makes it awfully difficult for outsiders within the sport and beyond to criticize his desire to take Michigan on the road. His stated plans to make these international trips an annual affair is an obvious recruiting incentive (paid for by a single anonymous donor) that few other schools can afford to offer. It’s also a genuine effort to find creative ways to enrich his players’ lives within restrictive NCAA rules.
Pushing boundaries to seek any possible competitive advantage while simultaneously trying to spread the good word of football has, as much as anything, defined the first two-plus years of Harbaugh’s tenure at his alma mater. Rome may be his splashiest move to date, but it fits the mold.
Here’s more on what Michigan has planned this week and how in the world the winged helmet (now adorned with an Italian flag sticker) ended up flying nearly 5,000 miles from Ann Arbor:
How did we get here?
A year ago, Harbaugh shipped his team to Florida for a week of practice during the school’s spring break. The trip raised the ire of several other coaches and powerful figures in college football, and future trips like it were subsequently outlawed.
Harbaugh’s response came to him while flying to a satellite camp last June -- he would take the team to Rome. Naysayers would have a hard time spinning the trip as only about football practice or a detriment to the student-athlete’s welfare. It also skirted the new rule prohibiting spring break practices by waiting until the academic semester finished to make the journey. Ten months of planning ensued, including coordinating plans with pro sports teams, U.S. government agencies for security purposes and the Vatican.
What’s on the agenda?
The bulk of Michigan’s roughly 150-person travel party arrives in Rome on Saturday, April 22. Others who haven’t yet finished their final exams will join the team later and some players are opting to skip the trip for academic or personal reasons. The team will practice on April 27, 28 and 29 before heading home on April 30.
When they’re not in pads, the coaches and players will meet with refugees, visit Rome’s most historic landmarks and even have an audience with Pope Francis at Vatican City later in the week. The team also has plans to take in an opera, learn some Italian cooking tips, visit a gladiator training center and perhaps reenact a bit of Italian history with the help of paintball guns.
“From what I’ve heard, we’re celebrating the liberation of Italy by playing paintball as a team,” quarterback Garrett Moores said earlier this week. “If that happens, it’s going to be pretty cool.”
Liberation Day in Italy, which celebrates the fall of the Fascist regime at the end of World War II, is celebrated each year on April 25.
What about the football?
Michigan will hold its first two practices at Giulio Onesti Olympic Center, about 15 minutes north of the center of Rome. The team has had help setting up its workouts from AS Roma, a soccer team from Italy’s top-level Serie A league, and FIDAF, Italy’s American Football federation. The second workout will be followed by a brief coaches’ clinic, according to FIDAF’s website.
Michigan hasn't shared much information about its practice plans and said some of the details won’t be hashed out until they are on the ground in Italy. The team didn't bring over any of its own blocking sleds or larger equipment. FIDAF said it has provided some support for the Wolverines in terms of making sure they have all the elements they’ll need to run a practice. The Wolverines will connect with AS Roma on their final day of practice and potentially one day earlier for some competition between the two groups of athletes.
The team will wrap up its spring season with some form of a scrimmage at a different Italian stadium -- Stadio dei Marmi. The game will kick off at 2 p.m. local time and is open to any and all curious onlookers or diehard fans making their way to Rome.
Where do they go from here?
Roughly a quarter of the players in Italy will use their trip to Rome as a jumping-off point for internships, classes and travel around the globe. Four players will stay in Italy for international internships and 20 others are planning to study abroad in places that range from Belgium to Iceland to Costa Rica and Argentina.
Harbaugh gave his players the entire month of May off from football activities to open the door for those types of trips. The abbreviated courses were developed by the university to give athletes a chance to study abroad. Shari Acho, who helped develop Michigan's internship program for football players in the U.S. and overseas, said she’s been working in a similar role for more than two decades and has never had a more supportive coach than Harbaugh.
“He’s the first coach to really get it and really change the culture,” she said.
Harbaugh has said he wants to continue exploring the world with his team in the future. He has tentative plans to visit South Africa, Japan, Israel and maybe New Zealand in the next five years.
MADISON, Wis. -- Wisconsin kicker Rafael Gaglianone can laugh at the idea that he spent the first few weeks of spring practice scaling down his workload. Yes, specialists often bear the brunt of jokes about their perceived lack of physical exertion. But Gaglianone also understood that in order to move forward from a season-ending back injury a year ago, he needed to prepare slowly and efficiently.
"In reality, it's kind of behind-the-scenes work," Gaglianone said. "It doesn't matter to us if we get that label of slackers because we know that if we put in the work, when it comes game time, they're going to be willing to trust us, and that's all that really matters for us."
Although Gaglianone may hear an occasional wisecrack, it's no joke how valuable his health will be to the Badgers next season. Gaglianone has established himself as one of the best kickers to come through Wisconsin. He opened his freshman season in 2014 by drilling a 51-yard field goal against LSU, showcasing his range in a nationally televised game. Later that season, he converted 14 consecutive field goal attempts, which matched Vitaly Pisetsky (1999) for the longest such streak in school history. Already, his three game-winning field goals have established a new school record.
Gaglianone's consistency and leg strength provide Wisconsin with a weapon few opponents can match. And given the way the Badgers rarely take themselves out of games, his presence could make the difference in one-possession contests as Wisconsin pushes toward a repeat Big Ten West championship.
Badgers coach Paul Chryst noted Gaglianone wasn't yet in game shape, but he expressed optimism about what his kicker can give the team this fall.
"He feels good, and therefore I feel good that way with his health," Chryst said. "Certainly a good kicker is huge for your team. I thought last year he was performing at a high level, and he's got to come back and have that. And still there's things he can do to continue to get better. But a good Raf is really good for this team."
Last season, Gaglianone started the year on fire after dedicating himself to fitness and losing 26 offseason pounds. He made all three of his field goal attempts in the opener against LSU, including a 47-yard game winner. His performance helped Wisconsin defeat a top-five nonconference opponent in the regular season for the first time since 1974. But Gaglianone felt back pain in the days leading up to Wisconsin's Week 3 game against Georgia State. He uncharacteristically missed a 30-yard field goal and was seen noticeably limping after making a 41-yard field goal in the fourth quarter.
"Maybe I shouldn't have played that game and I should've just stayed on the bench," Gaglianone said. "But it was just tough to give up on something that you worked so hard for. Definitely I look back at that miss and I see the swing wasn't there. The leg wasn't working quite the same way. So I knew at that point in that game I wasn't really myself."
Gaglianone sat out the following week against Michigan State, but his condition only worsened. He had suffered a herniated disc, which created "excruciating pain." As a result, he opted for season-ending surgery, finishing the year 7 for 8 on field goal tries and 10 of 10 on extra point attempts.
"It was all going well, and I felt really good with everything and that happened and it's almost a shock," Gaglianone said. "It's the last thing that you're expecting when you're going from the possible best season of your life to it getting cut short and watching the whole rest of the season."
Last fall was not the first time Gaglianone dealt with back pain while at Wisconsin. The 5-foot-11, 230-pounder from Sao Paulo, Brazil, did not participate in spring practice two years ago because of back issues. Gaglianone's lack of offseason weight training then affected his leg strength in 2015. He made 18 of 27 field goal tries (66.7 percent) -- a mild disappointment considering his stellar freshman campaign.
This spring, Gaglianone has steadily ramped up his training. He said he felt healthy and already was making 55-yard field goals in Wisconsin's indoor practice facility. The most significant hindrance, he said, was regaining trust in himself that putting pressure on his back wouldn't cause another injury. He also is trying to find confidence and a rhythm in the three-step operation with the long snapper, holder and kicker.
Because Gaglianone appeared only in three games last season, he was able to apply for a medical hardship waver with the NCAA and expects to earn another year of competition, which would make him a redshirt junior in the fall. Gaglianone believed he was on a trajectory toward being among the best kickers in the Big Ten, if not the country. Now, he's trying to reclaim his form and spend the next two seasons proving why he can again be a reliable kicking force.
"As bad as the situation was, it kind of worked out great," Gaglianone said. "It sucks to be hurt during the season, but at least it's the best in terms of getting back healthy for that next season. Because you have that whole time to take it easy and be careful in the rehab and then slowly start pushing your buttons, and that's what we've done this spring. We didn't all of a sudden start trying to hit 50 yarders. We start with the PATs. I'm feeling like I'm sort of myself again."
Michigan assistant Michael Zordich has a well-earned side trip planned for when the Wolverines wrap up practice in Rome next week. He’ll be visiting his son, Alex, who is finishing a master’s degree in winemaking in northern Italy.
The younger Zordich, following in his maternal grandfather’s footsteps, has been an aspiring vintner for several years. The Michigan-based Zordich said he’s got a batch of his son’s work at home, but he’s waiting patiently before trying it to make sure it ages properly. He doesn’t have the same luxury with the Wolverines secondary this coming fall.
Michigan’s cornerbacks are the peak of the oozing-with-potential, lacking-in-experience make-up of the team’s defense heading into 2017. Zordich said he can’t remember working with a less experienced group in his coaching career, but he won’t be letting the players ferment any longer by changing up the way the Wolverines play defense.
“We’re going to do everything we did with [last year’s veterans],” he said earlier this week. “We have to. We play man [coverage]. We need to make all the same calls with the young guys as with the old guys. That’s what we do. We’re not going to stray from what we do. We’re going to find the guys that are going to be able to handle it.”
A year ago, seniors Jourdan Lewis and Channing Stribling were two of the top cover corners in the Big Ten, if not the nation, and played a big role in creating the stingiest pass defense in the FBS. Their ability to lock down receivers in press man coverage also gave defensive coordinator Don Brown and his staff more opportunities to dip into his deep well of blitz packages and control the line of scrimmage. Both players rarely left the field, which means the pool of mostly underclassmen vying to replace them is virtually untested.
Sophomores Lavert Hill and David Long have been considered the most talented candidates to win those jobs throughout the spring. Hill has suffered through some minor injuries, which Zordich said is part of the process of learning to play at a higher level. He added that the competition for those jobs is “absolutely 100 percent wide open” as spring practices draw toward a close.
Freshman Benjamin St-Juste, who enrolled in January, played more snaps than anyone else in the group during Michigan’s spring game last Saturday. He intercepted a pass and made three tackles, but Zordich said he and fellow early enrollee Ambry Thomas both started to drift away from the techniques they’ve been taught as the game went on.
“Maybe when you get a little bit tired you start losing concentration and his technique started to wane and he gave up some plays,” Zordich said. “It’s good for him, too, because he felt bad after the game. He felt bad, but it was his first time here. It was a good experience for him.”
On the more experienced end of the spectrum, redshirt junior Brandon Watson has been the most consistent player in coverage for the Wolverines this spring, according to his coaches. Redshirt sophomore Keith Washington has also made good strides this spring after the former high school quarterback spent the last two seasons putting on weight and getting comfortable in a collegiate defensive backfield.
Zordich said that despite some growing pains, the entire group benefited from Michigan’s four-hour practice sessions during the first month of spring ball. Long days add up to a lot of extra reps, which is what his group needs more than anything at this point.
“We’re young and talented, but there is still a ways to go,” Zordich said. “Those guys being here and getting all those reps in practice right now, they’re going to walk in here in August and say, ‘OK this is pretty good, pretty easy.’ This time will be the hardest on them.”
Lani Fettig decided last summer that she wanted to find a sports-related name that started with “H” for her fourth son. As lifelong Michigan fans from the state’s Upper Peninsula, Harbaugh was the obvious choice for the newest addition to the Fettig family.
Harbaugh Fettig was born on Sept. 1, 2016, and not long after was snuggled up next to a Wolverines football. The Fettig family sent a birth announcement to Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh earlier this month, and the coach gave his social media seal of approval for the new fan’s first name earlier this week.
Something about this kid, A Winner & Champ all the way! Enthusiasm! M Fan! Harbaugh Lee Fettig, keep an eye on him. pic.twitter.com/aq7fpA0LjE
— Coach Harbaugh (@CoachJim4UM) April 18, 2017
Gregg Fettig, Harbaugh’s father, said he remembers watching Jim Harbaugh as a quarterback at Michigan in the 1980s and liked the idea of a good, tough football name for his son. It fits with the theme he and his wife established with their three other boys. His oldest, Hogan, is named after former pro wrestler Hulk Hogan. Colt and Case got their names from the quarterbacking McCoy brothers who both started at Texas.
“We didn’t want to go with really eccentric names, but I’m a football guy and a college football guy,” he said. “… I asked my wife, ‘What about Harbaugh?’ and she loved it.”
Lani’s father worked for the state police in Ypsilanti, Michigan, (next door to Ann Arbor) and covered a few Wolverines games. Both have been Michigan fans for as long as they can remember.
Fettig is a high school principal in St. Ignace, Michigan, and said several of his students have stopped him in the hallways this week to make sure he knew that Harbaugh was tweeting about his new son. A lot of the employees at LaSalle High School are Michigan State alumni or Spartan fans. The new name hasn’t been so popular with some of them. Fettig said some of them have refused to let that name slip from their lips.
“Well, that’s OK,” he told them. “You can call him by his nickname.”
“What’s his nickname, then?” they asked.
Bo, of course.
MADISON, Wis. -- The task of playing defensive line at Wisconsin can be a thankless endeavor packed with occupying double-teams, creating openings for teammates and then watching as others reap the rewards for all that grunt work. In this way, an innate level of selflessness must come with performing the roles up front in the Badgers' 3-4 scheme.
But this season, Wisconsin's coaches want to make sure players understand expectations are changing. No longer will it be considered adequate for linemen to allow the team's linebackers to make impact plays in the front seven. With a returning defensive line unit as good and experienced as the Badgers', there should be no excuses for them not to make a significant mark this fall.
"You appreciate the mindset they take of just they're going to work," Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said. "They don't care if they get any credit.
"To me, it's a little bit flippant, that mindset. Now they are the veteran group. They are the guys with experience. We have some big playmakers in there. Be that playmaker. Don't always be the unselfish guy. It's trying to get that across to them. They're good enough to where they can do their job and more."
Wisconsin's defense returns seven starters off last year's Cotton Bowl-winning team, which ranked fourth in the FBS in scoring defense (15.6 points per game) and seventh in total defense (301.4 yards per game). But the only position group to bring back all of its starters and key reserves comes on the defensive line. That unit likely will have as much of a hand as any in helping the Badgers repeat as Big Ten West division champions.
From a statistical standpoint, it's often difficult to discern how much Wisconsin's defensive linemen mean to the team. No player on the unit recorded more than 27 total tackles last season. None produced more than four tackles for a loss or 3.5 sacks. Still, teammates say their value and experience was immense, particularly in helping the Badgers' linebacker unit thrive as one of the most feared in the country.
"They're extremely underrated," Wisconsin linebacker Chris Orr said. "We can't get anything done on defense without our D-line. Whether that's interceptions, TFLs for us, or even just stopping the run, everything starts up front with those guys. We can't operate without them, literally. We run a 3-4, so it'll be a little harder for them to get the double-digit sacks in a season, but those guys are some great players."
Defensive end Chikwe Obasih already has played in 41 games with 31 starts. Defensive end Conor Sheehy has appeared in 40 games with 19 starts and easily can slide into Wisconsin's starting nose guard role. Last season, he filled in admirably at nose guard when starter Olive Sagapolu missed five games with a right hand injury. Sagapolu, a 6-foot-2, 348-pound junior from American Samoa, has played in 22 games with nine starts. Defensive end Alec James has played in 39 career games with 12 starts.
Another name to watch could be 6-7 redshirt freshman Isaiahh Loudermilk. He has been impressive this spring while filling in for Obasih, who is out with an unspecified injury. Throw in defensive end Garrett Rand and nose guard Billy Hirschfeld, who have combined for 30 career games, and there are few defensive lines in the Big Ten with as much overall talent and game experience as Wisconsin's.
"I feel like the core group of us knows exactly how to do what we want to do, and we're going to do it," Obasih said. "We know our big plays and what we consider big plays besides the ones with stats. I think we're going to make a lot of big plays, and we're going to be happy doing it."
As an example of the impact Wisconsin's defensive line can have, consider what happened during last year's Big Ten championship game against Penn State. Neither Sheehy nor James played because of injury, and the Badgers struggled to maintain a consistent pass rush. Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley set a Big Ten title game record with 384 yards passing and added four touchdowns with no interceptions in the Nittany Lions' comeback victory.
Sheehy said members of the unit have expressed excitement and confidence given all their returning skill. Sheehy, James and Obasih were the most effective of the Badgers' linemen last season. That trio combined for 72 tackles, 9.0 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. By boosting Wisconsin's defensive line depth and adding versatility, expectations are as high as they have been on the line in years.
In other words, a group that largely has gone ignored by college football enthusiasts should gain far more attention for its performance in 2017.
"They're capable of impacting the game and producing in numbers," Badgers coach Paul Chryst said. "It's not just a selflessness they've got to play with. They can have a little edge of selfishness directed the right way."
The Big Ten had a banner year in 2016, with four teams jockeying for spots in the College Football Playoff until the final days of the regular season.
The postseason didn’t go so well for the league, as only one of its four New Year’s Six bowl participants (Wisconsin) brought home a victory. That brought out the usual Big Ten skeptics who wondered if the conference had been overrated all along and whether 2016 was just a fluke.
There’s no guarantee of a repeat of last year’s success in 2017. But there is one simple yet large reason to be very excited about the league’s fortunes this fall and beyond: the Big Ten has the best roster of head coaches of any conference in America.
A grand statement like that naturally requires lots of evidence to back it up. So here goes.
Start with Ohio State's Urban Meyer. He’s no worse than one of the two best coaches in college football, with only Alabama’s Nick Saban as serious competition. Meyer has three national titles, the highest winning percentage among active coaches (.851 -- third-highest all time among those who coached at least 10 years) -- and an absurd 61-6 record with the Buckeyes. Enough said.
Michigan's Jim Harbaugh also belongs on the short list of best coaches in the land. Though he has never won a national title, he’s the master of the program turnaround. He’s gone 32-7 in his last three seasons in college, including Stanford, and was the NFL coach of the year during his time in San Francisco. Whether you like his online shtick or find it annoying, dude can coach 'em up as well as anyone.
Penn State's James Franklin joined the ranks of the elite coaches last year by leading the Nittany Lions to a surprise Big Ten title. Franklin had already worked wonders at Vanderbilt, of all places, and he silenced his doubters en route to winning Sporting News national coach of the year honors in 2016.
Though Michigan State is going through some turbulent times right now after a 3-9 debacle, Mark Dantonio has firmly established himself as one of the top coaches. His Spartans won at least 11 games five times in the six years prior to last season and made the playoff in 2015.
That’s four cream-of-the-crop coaches right there. What other league can claim that?
The ACC might come the closest, with Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher owning national titles and Louisville’s Bobby Petrino being one of the top offensive minds around. But unless you’re buying into North Carolina’s Larry Fedora or Virginia Tech’s Justin Fuente as elite, the list pretty much stops at three.
The Big 12 has Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, TCU’s Gary Patterson and legendary Kansas State boss Bill Snyder. Maybe first-year Texas coach Tom Herman lives up to the hype. Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy has done good work but hasn’t quite reached the level of the Big Ten’s top four.
In the Pac-12, Washington’s Chris Petersen belongs on any short list of top coaches. Stanford’s David Shaw is highly accomplished, and Colorado’s Mike McIntyre won several national coach of the year honors last year. The jury is still out on USC’s Clay Helton, though he did beat Penn State in the Rose Bowl.
What about the SEC, you ask? Saban rules, obviously. But who’s the second-best coach in that league? It might be Florida’s Jim McElwain. Or Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen. Would either school’s fan base trade them for Harbaugh? You betcha.
It’s not just the top tier that makes the Big Ten coaching roster so special, either. Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst is quickly rising up the ladder toward elite, having gone 21-6 in two years at his alma mater. His middling 19-19 record at Pitt before returning to Madison must be considered in relation to the mess he inherited there.
Chryst is also a perfect fit for the Badgers, just as Pat Fitzgerald is at Northwestern and Kirk Ferentz is for Iowa. Fitzgerald’s 11-year run in Evanston seems unusually long except when compared to Ferentz, who’s going into Year 19 with the Hawkeyes while showing signs of slowing down.
Nebraska's Mike Riley is one of the most respected coaches around, and while it’s fair to question whether he was the right fit for the Cornhuskers, he has won 10 of his last 14 games in Lincoln. Illinois' Lovie Smith has plenty to prove as a college coach but had a strong track record in the NFL.
The Big Ten also added two of the hottest young coaches in the country this offseason in Minnesota's P.J. Fleck, who led Western Michigan to a 13-0 record and Cotton Bowl appearance last year, and Purdue's Jeff Brohm, who went 30-10 at Western Kentucky with one of the nation’s most dynamic offenses.The story is still being written for Indiana's Tom Allen, Maryland's D.J. Durkin and Rutgers' Chris Ash, though all three were outstanding defensive coordinators.
Add it all up, and you’ve got the best lineup of coaches in any conference.
“I think it’s outstanding,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve gotten a huge commitment from all of our teams to do whatever it takes to be successful. It’s a special time to be a part of the Big Ten.”
Akrum Wadley was strongly considering skipping his senior year at Iowa and entering the NFL draft at the end of last season. That is, until he got advice from the most influential coach in his life: his mother.
“She made me come back,” Wadley said with a laugh.
That’s not entirely true. But Sheronda Phelps, Wadley’s mother and a high school girls' basketball coach, said her son was ready to turn pro regardless of what round he’d be drafted. She had a different perspective.
“Most times, I feel like parents just go along with the kid’s decision,” Phelps said. “But I told him, ‘You’re not really done proving yourself. If you go back, you’ll get a chance to really prove yourself.’”
That’s just what the Hawkeyes senior plans to do in 2017, the first year in which he’ll enter the season as the team’s undisputed No. 1 running back.
Wadley had a breakout year last fall, rushing for 1,081 yards on just 168 carries and scoring 13 total touchdowns. It marked the first year that he had the full trust of Iowa’s coaching staff, though he still split time in the backfield with LeShun Daniels, as the pair became the first duo in school history to record 1,000-yard rushing campaigns in the same season.
With Daniels graduated, Wadley stands poised to become an even bigger focal point of the offense. As such, he’s getting the veteran star treatment this spring, staying out of most contact work and tutoring the younger players at his position.
“Last year he really took a big step,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “We’ve seen him grow right in front of our eyes.”
He almost never got here, at least not in Iowa City. The 5-foot-11 Wadley arrived on campus weighing about 167 pounds, and he heard constant prodding from Ferentz and the other coaches about how he needed to put on more weight to withstand the rigors of the Big Ten. Fumbling problems earlier in his career prompted a brief switch to defense.
Phelps said Wadley got so fed up with all the weight talk at one point that he told her he wanted to transfer. She put a stop to that idea, too.
“I said, ‘Be quiet and listen to me: You’re not going anywhere,’” she said. “‘If I have to move to Iowa and cook for you, I’ll do it.’”
Luckily, those worries are in the past. Wadley, who eats five times a day to maintain his weight, now checks in at around 192 pounds and is hoping to be 195 by the season opener.
“The storm is over,” he said. “Yeah, it’s been tough. But I understand the difference and what they’ve been trying to tell me, because Big Ten backs get hit a lot and it’s important to be able to carry on a greater load.”
Explosiveness has always been a big part of his game -- he’s averaging more than 6 yards per carry for his career. Now he’s hoping to become a more complete back.
Wadley said he’s spent time studying former Iowa greats Fred Russell and Shonn Greene and wants to follow in their footsteps. One of his goals for this season is to win the Doak Walker Award, as Greene did in 2008. Of course, Greene weighed about 25 pounds more than Wadley and carried the ball 307 times his final year as a Hawkeye.
Wadley showed that he could be a high-volume rusher late last season. He ran the ball 23 times for 115 yards in the monumental upset of Michigan and 22 times for 115 yards in the Outback Bowl loss to Florida. He says he’s ready if new offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz wants him to be a 20- to 25-carry-a-game player, but he’s also confident the young backs behind him like Toks Akinribade and Toren Young can fill complementary roles as he once did.
Meanwhile, he continues to get good advice from his mother. Phelps played college basketball and currently teaches physical education while coaching at Malcolm X Shabazz High School in Newark, New Jersey. Wadley calls her after every game, and after his performance in the Michigan win, she joked, “You just bought me a house!"
Still she believes her son has more left to show in college and that he’s ready to become nationally known. During the turbulent part of his earlier career, Phelps used to text him every morning with the same saying: “Work hard and pray for what you want.”
By the end of last season, Wadley noticed his mom had stopped sending him that text. When he asked why, she answered, “You’re pretty much there now.”
All that’s left is for him to run with this last big opportunity at Iowa.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The touchdowns were nice, especially since Johnnie Dixon hadn't caught one with a crowd watching since high school.
The frequent targets, his team-high yardage total in the spring game and a couple of jaw-dropping moves were positives as well, signs that he could be a major factor at wide receiver for an Ohio State team that could use a new weapon for the passing attack.
But Dixon's measure of success for his work in camp over the past month was a bit simpler. And as soon as he stepped on the field at the Horseshoe on Saturday to give him a perfect participation grade over Ohio State's 15 workouts, Dixon was already a winner heading into the summer.
"Yeah, it's amazing -- I haven't missed a day of practice," Dixon said. "It's been a long time since I've done that. It was amazing to be out there every day, bringing energy to the group and all that. It was an amazing feeling.
"It's always fun to go out there and be able to compete and feel fully healthy. I mean, I haven't been able to catch a passing touchdown since my high school days."
The Buckeyes would have had a hard time envisioning the drought would last this long for Dixon, who arrived on campus early in 2014 with plenty of fanfare and no shortage of hype about his potential as a playmaker.
But knee injuries and tendinitis not only robbed the redshirt junior of chances to make a splash on game days for the Buckeyes, they largely made it difficult for him to even get through consecutive practices. And after a season in which he was limited to just seven appearances, including one with his only career rushing touchdown in a blowout win over Rutgers, there were legitimate questions about his ability and desire to even give another year a shot.
"Johnnie is an enigma," coach Urban Meyer said. "A very talented guy, nice person. But he got here, had this tendinitis and issues in his knees, and he would go two practices and have to miss two. ... He probably shouldn't have come back, if you had a career like he's had.
"But his teammates, his position coach, Zach Smith, and I talked to him, and he wanted one last swing. And he had the best spring -- he didn't miss a practice. I was so happy to see him have great success today, because we really need him."
Ohio State's receivers underwhelmed collectively last season and then lost their top three players in the offseason. There's perhaps no unit on the roster more in need of emerging talent. And while Dixon only has seven receptions on his résumé, his experience around the program could help set him apart from the new wave of touted recruits coming in looking to boost a sagging passing game.
On top of that, the former ESPN 300 pick also shown that he can handle adversity after working back from his injuries. And he hasn't backed down from the challenge when it would have been easy to just walk away from the game.
"After the year, he had to really see if he could get his body healthy and get it to where it is today," Smith said. "And he did, so we're excited to see a healthy Johnnie Dixon, you know? He's healthy right now, but he's still developing. He's played, but for three years he really has been kind of not practicing.
"At the same time, he's been mentally developed for three years. He understands football, he understands the position, he understands the offense, so he's ahead of where a young kid would be. But physically, the grind of being able to go through 15 practices and push through it and get better -- that's what he’s dealing with and having to push through."
In front of a sold-out crowd at Ohio Stadium on what eventually turned into a sunny afternoon, Dixon did more than just survive one final spring practice.
And while getting healthy was an important step, the 108 yards and two touchdowns hinted that it might almost be time to find a new way to measure his success.
"It's been some of the toughest times I've been through," Dixon said. "I wouldn't say there were doubts, because it was more like me not knowing if I wanted to continue to play or whatever.
"We all sat down and had the meeting, decided to take one more swing at it. I'm glad we did."
And if the Buckeyes can keep him swinging day after day in the fall, odds are Dixon will be in line to catch some touchdowns when it really counts.
Michigan sophomore running back Chris Evans has noticed the difference in practice this spring. After spending his first year of college football running into one of the nation’s best defenses, Evans says this spring hasn’t been much different. In fact, he thinks the new group of Wolverines might have a step or two on last year’s team.
“They’re just faster to the ball,” he said Saturday after the team’s spring game. “They’re all together. As soon as you bounce something, the DBs are darting. I feel like they’re faster.”
Ten starters from last year’s defense are gone. All of them landed some version of an all-conference honor at the end of a 2016 season in which Michigan held its opponents to 14.1 points (second in the FBS) and 261.8 yards (tied for first) per game. Experience and depth will both take a hit as Michigan tries to gear for a run at a championship in Jim Harbaugh’s third season in Ann Arbor. Defensive coordinator Don Brown & Co. are hoping they can make up for the difference with speed.
Brown came to Michigan a year ago and inherited a group of seasoned veterans, many of whom will be NFL draft picks a couple of weeks from now. His “solve your problems with aggression” approach to attacking an opponent’s backfield netted immediate results but took time for players to fully understand. Senior linebacker Mike McCray, the lone returning starter, thinks that an extra year of familiarity with the playbook has been a big part of the acceleration this spring.
“We’re going after it, we’re not afraid to make mistakes,” he said. “I don’t think we were afraid to make mistakes last year, but now you can see that because we know the system, we’re just out there playing. We don’t have to think as much.”
Beyond the handful of midyear enrollees, who are still “swimming” in new information according to Brown, many of the players who are stepping into new starting spots were at least able to get their feet wet in games during 2016. The expected starters at defensive line all played as regular rotation players last fall. Newcomers in the back end of the defense such as Khaleke Hudson and Tyree Kinnel, who combined for 10 tackles and a sack during Saturday’s spring game, were special teams mainstays a year ago.
While the list of ready-to-go players may not be as deep this time around, Michigan’s upperclassmen say the jump from being part of the rotation to being the main guy at a position hasn’t been very significant.
“For me, it feels the same,” defensive lineman Mo Hurst said. “I was in for big situations in games [last year]. It feels basically the same.”
Hurst and others said they’ve noticed a steady increase in athleticism on the recruiting trail since the new staff arrived at Michigan more than two years ago. Those top-10 recruiting hauls will have to start paying major dividends this fall, especially in the secondary. The unit that finished last season with the best passing defense in the nation didn’t rotate nearly as much as the defensive line. Brown said he was impressed with how the new wave performed on a bigger stage during the spring game.
McCray saw the same thing. He said that a lack of experience wasn’t going to be an acceptable excuse for the defense this season and so far it hasn’t been slowing them down.
“If you can play, you can play,” he said. “You can see, you can just tell at practice. I don’t know how to explain it, but you can tell we’re playing faster.”
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Not long after Michigan’s spring game wrapped up Saturday afternoon, quarterback Wilton Speight leaned back in his chair at center stage on top of a raised platform inside Michigan Stadium and fielded questions about his day. Speight’s backup, redshirt freshman Brandon Peters, stood several feet below him in the corner of the same room with another group of reporters.
Their spots were a good representation of the Wolverines’ pecking order at quarterback as spring practice begins to wind down. Speight remains comfortable in his growing role as the team’s leader despite Peters pushing him with a better statistical day in his first Big House performance.
“He made quite a few throws today that were elite throws,” Speight said when asked about his understudy. “That’s really the Brandon we’ve been seeing since he got here last year. He has an arm that’s capable of making any throw, and [he’s] poised to stand in the pocket and do what he needs to do.”
Peters finished 9-of-17 with 160 passing yards and a 12-yard rushing touchdown in his first “start” as college player. His first throw of the day was a strike that resulted in a 55-yard touchdown pass to Zach Gentry, a former quarterback who switched to receiver in search of some playing time. That’s looking like a smart move for Gentry. The crew of quarterbacks Jim Harbaugh has assembled in Ann Arbor is deep and getting deeper.
In a small sample size, Peters looked the part as much as Speight and redshirt senior John O’Korn -- both of whom have a full season of starting experience at the college level. Meanwhile, incoming freshman Dylan McCaffrey, one of the country’s top quarterback prospects in the most recent recruiting cycle, watched from the sideline. He’ll join the team this summer.
Speight said he’s sees the growing list of competitors nipping at his heels as a positive rather than a threat. He’s hung on to a quote from former Wolverine Tom Brady during the past couple of months to drive home that point.
“I saw a quote from Tom Brady very recently after the Super Bowl that was like, ‘I’ve gotta be in there every day because I don’t know who’s going to come in and take my job,’” Speight said. “Obviously I’m not comparing the two of us, but you have to have that mindset.”
Speight completed nine of his 26 attempts Saturday. He had a chance to display some increased quickness (he says he’s down to roughly 235 pounds after dropping nearly 20 pounds during the winter) while under constant pressure early in the afternoon. He also threw two interceptions -- mistakes he blamed on trying to force balls into windows that were too small.
Those are decisions that Speight said he has been eliminating for most of spring practice thus far. A couple of missteps didn’t do anything to shake the confidence that helped Speight lead the Wolverines’ offense to a 10-win season during his first year as a starter in 2016.
Peters said the command and control that have helped Speight excel are the areas of his own game that need the most work. Harbaugh and company have been pushing him to speak up since he got to campus last year.
“That’s probably my biggest thing I need to work on as far as getting things executed,” he said. “Making sure everyone hears me, they line up right, and we get the play going as fast as possible.”
The Indiana native said he "of course" would like to take over the No. 1 job, but his focus remains on competing on a daily basis. He was happy with how well he read the defense -- save for one interception -- on Saturday and thinks he has made big strides in seeing the field and his footwork in his first year at college. Throwing the deep ball has been one of his biggest strengths since high school, and that showed again this weekend.
Nonetheless, it remains a safe bet that Speight will be the face of Michigan’s offense and its steady rudder when the team starts next fall against the Florida Gators in Texas. Saturday’s spring game didn’t change much there. It’s more clear now, though, that the growing stable of arms waiting in line has what it takes to push him.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Any clarity on the future of the most important position at Ohio State was tossed aside just two plays into the second drive of its spring game.
As always, the actual results of a scrimmage in April don’t really mean anything. And, sure, there’s a danger into reading too much into the allotment of snaps for an exhibition at the Horseshoe.
But coach Urban Meyer has been clear over the years that he wants to see how the Buckeyes perform in front of crowds like the one of over 80,000 that packed Ohio Stadium this past Saturday afternoon. Which makes it telling that during the first opportunity for one of the backups to lead the offense, Meyer elected to use both of them and rotate Joe Burrow and Dwayne Haskins every two plays.
Both played well enough to ensure the Buckeyes will clearly still be in good shape when J.T. Barrett’s career ends after this season. But right now, it’s tough to tell just who he will be passing off the torch to when Ohio State moves on without him.
“We haven't had that [conversation] yet,” Meyer said. “I know it is very close. But I'm not prepared to say who is No. 2, who is No. 3, et cetera, yet.”
The Buckeyes can skip over the top spot, where Barrett remains entrenched as the unquestioned starter heading into his senior season. And despite getting hit in the pocket once to disrupt a pass that was intercepted, the veteran looked sharp while completing 8 of his 12 throws with a touchdown in a short outing before spending the rest of the afternoon standing next to Meyer and watching the intriguing battle to back him up unfold.
Both Burrow and Haskins made compelling cases that they are more than capable of leading Ohio State’s power-spread attack. Burrow, who came in with the edge in experience and at least was given the first snaps on that second drive, delivered the ball accurately and efficiently in throwing for 262 yards and three scores to lead the Scarlet to the scrimmage victory. But Haskins matched him with three touchdowns of his own, hitting on 26 of his 37 attempts and finishing with 293 yards after eventually switching teams and taking over for Barrett on the Gray.
There is certainly no reason for Meyer to rush to a decision about his depth chart this early in the year, particularly since the Buckeyes still have a whole training camp looming in August. But even with a clear-cut starter returning for the fall, the eventual call figures to be significant since it will send a clear signal about who Ohio State believes will be next in line for 2018 -- even if that’s not the primary focus for a team already chasing a national title right now.
“I think it’s definitely close,” Haskins said. “It’s up to the coaches to decide who they want to be No. 2. But I think I’ve done everything that I possibly could do during the spring to show what I can do.
“They haven’t given me a timeline or set a time when they want to announce it. It’s a backup role, and the most important player is the starter. So right now, we’re just competing and getting each other better going into fall camp.”
Once it arrives, the attention on both of them and the urgency to sort out a pecking order will increase. And it might also even include true freshman Tate Martell after he flashed some athleticism during his late-scrimmage cameo, although he appears to have plenty of ground to make up based on how extensively the Buckeyes worked Haskins and Burrow on Saturday.
Nobody at Ohio State has to be reminded the importance of the backup roles, especially not with Barrett still around and Cardale Jones popping by the Horseshoe to flash his arm strength at halftime. Once upon a time, they were competing to take the reins for Braxton Miller -- and for both of them, that moment actually arrived before it was supposed to on the way to a championship.
The message for Haskins and Burrow: Get ready.
“I thought we played really well this spring,” Burrow said. “We got a lot better. Obviously the focus on deep balls this spring was high, and I think we got a lot better, lot more accurate this spring.
“I’m just going to keep getting better, do what I can do, control what I can control and it will all work out eventually.”
The Buckeyes can sort out the exact details later. For now, it looks like Ohio State will be in good hands either way.
MADISON, Wis. -- Wisconsin Badgers cornerback Nick Nelson is trying to remain modest, but the smile creasing his face is a dead giveaway for how he truly feels. Last season, Nelson redshirted after transferring into the program and watched as Wisconsin's defensive backs wreaked havoc on opposing quarterbacks.
Wisconsin finished tied for second in the FBS with 22 interceptions, which represented the most for the team in 14 years. Of those 22 picks, 16 came from the Badgers' defensive backs. But two starters who played vital roles on the back end exhausted their eligibility. Nelson will be tasked with helping to sustain the unit's immense success.
Nelson certainly does not lack confidence. That is why, when asked if the group could be as good this season, he flashed a wide grin.
"I feel like we might be even better," Nelson said.
Of course, no player in college football has ever said he expected to play on a unit that would fare worse than the previous season. But at Wisconsin, there is a genuine sense of enthusiasm about what is possible for the Badgers' defensive backs despite the loss of veterans Leo Musso and Sojourn Shelton.
"Leo and Sojourn taught us a lot," Badgers safety Natrell Jamerson said. "We feel like we can build off of that. This spring, we're doing a lot of good things. Even though it's just the spring, we're catching a lot of picks, making a lot of plays. I feel like when the season rolls around, we'll all be on the same strings, the same chord."
The performances of Nelson and Jamerson will go a long way toward determining just how successful Wisconsin's defensive backs are in 2017. Nelson's addition, in particular, has created quite a buzz this spring. He started 21 games in two seasons at Hawaii and actually played Wisconsin in Camp Randall Stadium during the 2015 season, recording a career-high eight tackles with a pass deflection in a 28-0 loss to the Badgers. Nelson said Hawaii's team arrived in Madison on a Thursday, so he was able to see some of the town. The game-day atmosphere convinced him he should play there when he made the decision to transfer.
Nelson was so good on Wisconsin's scout team last season that coaches had no problem penciling him into a starting cornerback role this season to replace Shelton, who started a school-record 51 games and matched the team record with 54 career games played.
"He's a big, physical corner, but he can run," said Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard of Nelson. "I haven't seen very many guys run past him. He kind of has that very good mix. The confidence that he brings just to try something new, to do something a little bit different, you saw that even a year ago. He's sitting out, but you saw him kind of go to work and improve on different parts of his game. That's why you felt very comfortable this spring, knowing that he was going to be a big-time factor."
Nelson said his confidence comes from the fact that he already has played against some of the top wide receivers in the country. He squared off against Wisconsin all-conference receiver Alex Erickson, as well as Ohio State's Michael Thomas and Washington's John Ross.
"I had a pretty solid game against those guys, so I feel like I could've played anybody," Nelson said.
Jamerson began his Badgers career as a wide receiver and then spent two seasons at cornerback. He played as the Badgers' No. 3 cornerback last season and recorded 19 tackles in seven games. Jamerson also is a dangerous man in the return game on special teams. He'll be tasked with filling the void left behind by Musso, who led the team with five interceptions and finished second with 75 tackles. Jamerson noted his biggest challenge was learning to call out plays or coverage adjustments to his teammates.
Leonhard, who also coaches the Badgers' defensive backs, said Jamerson's move to safety was an opportunity "to get the best 11 guys out there on defense." Wisconsin returns two defensive back starters in cornerback Derrick Tindal and safety D'Cota Dixon. That pair combined for 94 tackles, 15 pass breakups and seven interceptions last season.
With experienced backups such as safeties Joe Ferguson and Lubern Figaro, as well as emerging prospects Dontye Carriere-Williams and Patrick Johnson, Wisconsin has depth at defensive back. And while Leonhard isn't ready yet to lather on praise about his current group for what it has yet to accomplish, he is optimistic about its ability to match the success of last year's unit.
"They definitely have a chance," Leonhard said. "Very athletic. Last year with Leo's leadership and communication, some of the things he was able to talk quarterbacks into doing, and then Sojourn's experience on top of that, it's going to be hard to top that. But we have very talented guys. We do have that."
Odds are, the Ohio State senior is going to be in for a short afternoon of work at the Horseshoe as his final spring camp with the program comes to a close on Saturday.
That doesn’t mean Barrett can’t offer some glimpses of improved footwork, better timing with his receivers or add some fuel to the Heisman Trophy conversation by hitting some deep throws before Urban Meyer pulls him off the field. And considering that Barrett still is trying to silence some skeptics after a humbling shutout loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff, he almost certainly will be looking forward to the chance to remind the world that Ohio State still is his team.
“I’m still trying to enhance myself and get better in order for us to be what we want to be,” Barrett said after an early spring practice. “That’s all I can do. It’s full throttle, pedal to the metal.
“School is taken care of [after graduating], and it’s really ball, that’s what I have left here at Ohio State. I’m taking a couple online classes, but right now, my life is football, literally. Just ball, and I’m trying to make sure that at the end of the day we can all be on the same page.”
Barrett’s script figures to be short when the Scarlet and Gray square off, but even without him, there is a huge amount to be learned about the Buckeyes any time the football is in the air this weekend. Here’s what Meyer will be watching closely.
Backup battle: Barrett’s spot on the depth chart is secure, but there is plenty of intrigue behind him in the backup role. Joe Burrow hasn’t done anything to lose the spot he had last season, and his experience and command of the power spread offense continues to make him a viable option down the road.
But even if Burrow hasn’t done anything wrong, he’s still getting a strong push from Dwayne Haskins that could ultimately shake up the pecking order. With another sellout crowd expected, Meyer will get a chance to see how the strong-armed redshirt freshman performs under some pressure. While an encouraging outing may not elevate Haskins right away, it may stick in the back of the minds at Ohio State when training camp rolls around. And whenever the decision is made about the No. 2 quarterback, it will have ramifications not just this season if Barrett is sidelined at some point, but also into the future when he’s gone.
Target practice: The top three wide receivers from last season all are gone. And by the players’ own admission, the unit didn’t exactly live up to expectations even with Noah Brown, Curtis Samuel and Dontre Wilson catching passes a year ago.
The pressure has been squarely on the wideouts to take a step forward as part of Meyer’s mission to expand the passing attack after the offense largely became one dimensional against top-notch defenses last season. So guys such as Parris Campbell, K.J. Hill, Binjimen Victor, Austin Mack, Terry McLaurin and Johnnie Dixon will be under the microscope one last time before heading into the offseason. Spring game results always come with a grain of salt, but with Meyer unlikely to hand the football off much in an exhibition, there will be no shortage of chances for the receivers to make an impression.
Secondary matters: It’s not just the offense that is going to be evaluated in the passing game, and how the group of young cornerbacks handles any throws that come their way could help determine who makes it into the rotation this fall -- or who might become the next first-round pick.
The Buckeyes consider Denzel Ward a returning starter, but the early losses of Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley to the NFL draft still leave a pair of enormous shoes to fill in the secondary. Ohio State has recruited perhaps better than any program in the country when it comes to defensive backs, and Kendall Sheffield, Jeffrey Okudah, Marcus Williamson and Shaun Wade all will get the same number of opportunities to show their stuff as their counterparts on the other side of the ball.