CHICAGO — For the first time since Nebraska joined the Big Ten, the Huskers do not have a representative on the league’s preseason watch list.

The conference doesn’t release an official coaches’ poll or a position-by-position all-league squad. Instead, the Big Ten relies on a select media panel to pick 10 players to honor before each season.

And this year, no Huskers made the cut.

That’s not entirely a surprise, considering NU had a 6-7 record in 2015 and lost five Big Ten games. Two of its top NFL prospects, Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine, decided not to return for their senior seasons (they were drafted instead).

So the current Husker players will have something to prove this fall.

The previous NU honorees: defensive tackle Jared Crick (2011), linebacker Lavonte David (2011), running back Rex Burkhead (2012), quarterback Taylor Martinez (2013), running back Ameer Abdullah (2014), defensive end Randy Gregory (2014), receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El (2015) and Collins (2015).

This season’s 10 Big Ten players to watch: Michigan defensive back Jabrill Peppers, Michigan State defensive tackle Malik McDowell, Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett, Ohio State linebacker Raekwon McMillan, Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard, Iowa defensive back Desmond King, Northwestern running back Justin Jackson, Northwestern linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. and Wisconsin running back Corey Clement.

Els made an impression

Former Nebraska assistant Ross Els is back in the Big Ten because of the strong first impression he had on Purdue coach Darrell Hazell.

Els spent six years as a linebacker coach at Ohio. Hazell, a former Kent State coach, had heard good things.

And all of the recommendations were strengthened by a four-hour meeting in a Chicago hotel room, Hazell said. He hired Els as the Boilermakers’ defensive coordinator soon after that, announcing it on Jan. 1.

“We talked football. We talked life,” Hazell said. “I knew right away that he was the right guy, and what we were looking for. He’s excellent.”

Els spent four years on the Husker coaching staff, tutoring the linebackers, running NU’s special teams units and overseeing the program’s recruiting efforts. He coached at UNO and led Hastings College for four years as well.

Fitzgerald high on Huskers

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald is aware that Nebraska finished with a losing record last year. But his offseason film study of NU didn’t reflect a 6-7 team.

The one thing that stood out to Fitzgerald: the Huskers’ improvement. NU won three of its final four games, including an upset of Michigan State and a bowl game against UCLA.

Nebraska’s seven losses were by a total of 31 points. The Huskers are set for a rebound, Fitzgerald said.

“Great talent. Mike (Riley) has had great success at all of his stops. They’ll be back,” Fitzgerald said. “I wouldn’t shed a tear for GBR. I think Big Red will be fine. Mike will do a good job.”

Claeys kicking around idea

Minnesota’s Tracy Claeys said Big Ten coaches haven’t had much discussion about exploring a possible replacement for kickoffs in college football. But Claeys has an idea.

The kickoff has been linked to severe injuries, sparking conversations about its place in the future of the sport. The Ivy League has agreed to implement an experimental rule: kickoffs will take place from the 40-yard line this year, instead of the 35.

If the data indicates that the kickoff is a danger to player safety, adjustments must be made, Claeys said.

His thought? Only allow man-to-man blocking schemes. Eliminate the two-on-one situations. See how that goes. Then adjust.

“If the injuries continue to happen on that one play, I think it’s in the best interests of the game to find another option,” Claeys said.

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