Kain Colter during Northwestern spring football practice at the Lakeside Field Athletic Complex in Evanston, Ill., on Saturday, April 13, 2013. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 14, 2013 6:24AM
College football coaches love this time of the year.
Most of them are still smothering moments of angst because they occupy a level playing field until game one.
Ask just about any question and “excited” is the buzz word that pops up more often than a bee sting at the annual Popcorn Fest.
Excited to be here ... It’s an exciting time ... Blah, blah. Et cetera and so forth.
Early hype aside, fans who are emotionally connected to the Legends Division have reason to believe what issued from the annual Big Ten Kickoff. Having navigated the Leaders Division in an earlier column, let’s turn our attention to such exotic locales as Northestern, Nebraska and Michigan where dynamic quarterbacks should offer more bang for the buck.
Think versatile. Think Kain Colter. Think Taylor Martinez. Think Devin Gardner. These versatile athletes wield more tools than a master carpenter.
Northwestern’s Colter guided the Wildcats to 10 victories and a Gator Bowl victory over Mississippi State. Let me count the ways: 894 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns, 67.8 completion percentage for 872 yards and eight touchdowns. He also dabbled as a receiver (16 catches for 196 yards)
Nebraska’s Martinez has guided the Big Red to three straight seasons of nine-plus victories and already owns the school record of 9,449 yards for total offense. The senior captain threw 23 touchdown passes to help the Cornhuskers overcome double digit deficits in the second half of four victories.
Teaming up with running back Ameer Abdullah (1,137 yards), he also rushed for 1,000 yards.
Michigan’s Gardner overshadowed Heisman Trophy finalist Denard Robinson, who became the first NCAA athlete to pass for 2,500 yards and rush for 1,500 in 2010, but was hampered by injuries last year before migrating to Jacksonville.
Gardner completed 59.5 percent of his passes for 1,219 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also scored on four of his 16 receptions (266 yards).
Here’s a rundown on the Legends:
NEBRASKA (10-4, 7-1): Martinez will share the wealth with receivers Quincy Enunya (42 catches), Kenny Bell and Jamal Turner, who combined for 1,750 yards in receptions.
Offensive tackle Spencer Long is a returning all-Big Ten lineman.
MICHIGAN (8-5, 6-2): Fifth-year senior Taylor Lewan was the Big Ten offensive lineman of the year. Punter Will Hagerup averaged 45 yards a kick, tops in Division I.
NORTHWESTERN (10-3, 5-3): Coming off their first bowl victory in 64 years, the Wildcats are pumped up with Colter and team MVP Venric Mark. The nifty tailback rushed for 1,366 yards, the program’s best since 2006, and earned All-American honors with an 18.7 yard average and two touchdowns on punt returns. Mark also led the Big Ten with 2,171 all-purpose yards.
End Tyler Scott, the conference sack leader with nine, anchors an underrated defense.
MICHIGAN ST. (7-6, 3-5): Quarterback issues make it difficult to take the Spartans seriously. Guard Blake Treadwell could leave with five letters, having earned one with three starts in a medical redshirt year.
Veteran linebacker Max Bullock earned his third letter with 111 tackles last year. Valparaiso grad Paul Andrie, a reserve quarterback, is the only left-hander on the roster.
IOWA (4-8, 2-6): Wide receivers coach Erik Campbell (Gary Roosevelt) exited for the Montreal Alouettes after 17 years in the Big Ten with Iowa (4) and Michigan (13). The reshuffling Hawkeyes need a strong non-conference showing to create a positive buzz after last year’s disaster, which included four losses by a total of 11 points. Veteran quarterback James Vandenberg has departed, leaving a major question mark behind center.
Look for a more ground-minded offense with the return of running backs Mark Weisman (875 yards) and Damon Bullock (513 yards, 18 catches), who was limited to six games because of injuries.
MINNESOTA (6-7, 2-6): Health issues stemming from epilepsy were brushed off by coach Jerry Kill, who proclaimed himself physically fit at the Big Ten Kickoff.
Workhorse Donnell Kirkwood, who rushed for 926 yards, accounted for more than 40 percent of Minnesota’s carries last season. The Gophers hope for more staying power. Last year they faded after a 4-0 start. Hopefully, quarterback Phil Nelson will improve on his freshman numbers of 873 yards and eight touchdowns.
Baseball fizzles, Hawkins sizzles
Thanks to the die-soft Cubs and White Sox going belly-up, area interest in the national past-time has dropped below the Mendoza line, but they are rejoicing in Pittsburgh’s overdue renaissance.
The sizzling Pirates are closing in on their first winning season since Atlanta denied them a trip to the 1992 World Series and are also flirting with the best record in the national pastime.
Setup man LaTroy Hawkins switched roles in the bullpen when Mets closer Bobby Parnell was placed on the disabled list. The Gary native responded with three straight saves against Colorado and Arizona in a five-day stretch.
His track record includes eight straight scoreless outings. Through Sunday the ageless veteran has given up only one run in his last 10 appearances while lowering his ERA to 2.75 with just nine walks in 52 appearances.
Jeff Samardzija ranks among the top five for strikeouts in the National League, but the hirsute Cub has tailspinned since July with a 5.47 ERA over his last 13 starts.
Last year he pitched 174 innings and should easily surpass that with nine possible starts over the next five weeks. Still, arm fatigue could be an issue with four of Samardzija’s last six outings being six innings or less. Contract extension issues are also weighing on his mind.
The former Valparaiso star is only 29 and should have plenty of mileage left in his right arm since baseball was on the backburner during his Notre Dame years as an All-American wide receiver, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Cubs shut him down early. In this meaningless season it would make perfect sense to protect their investment.