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2014 Big Ten football position rankings: Coaches (part two)

Friday, August 15th, 2014


Big-Ten-position-rankings-header-Coaches

This week, as part of our summer-long preview of Michigan football in 2014, we at Maize and Go Blue are ranking who will be the top head coaches in the Big Ten this upcoming season. This may be bending the definition of “position,” but this series has already listed who will be the best offensive, defensive, and special-teams players in the Big Ten in 2014. The head coaches included in this top 10 are whom we believe have been the best coaches recently and will be next season, not necessarily those who have had the best overall careers. Yesterday, we revealed the Big Ten head coaches ranked No. 6 through No. 10. If you missed it, we encourage you to catch up here. Done? Perfect! On that note, let’s unveil who will be the five best head coaches in the Big Ten this fall.

Previously

Quarterbacks: Part One, Part Two | Running Backs: Part One, Part Two | Wide Receivers: Part One, Part Two
Tight Ends: Part One, Part Two | Offensive Line: Part One, Part Two | Defensive Line: Part One, Part Two
Linebackers: Part One, Part Two | Cornerbacks: Part One, Part Two | Safeties:Part One, Part Two
Special Teams: Kicking Specialists, Return Specialists | Coaches: Part One

5. Gary Andersen, Wisconsin | Overall Record: 39-35 (6 yrs) – Record at Wisconsin: 9-4 (1 yr)
Big Ten Records Overall W/L Big Ten W/L Standing Bowl
2013 9-4 6-2 2nd (Leaders) Capital One (L)
Career Totals 9-4 6-2   0-1
(Brian Ebner, AP)

(Brian Ebner, AP)

Of all the head coaches in the Big Ten, Wisconsin’s Gary Andersen probably is the toughest to peg. Until this past season, Andersen had no experience coaching in a Power Five conference. He made his head-coaching debut at Southern Utah, a Division I-AA program, in 2003. He departed after the season to become an assistant at Utah—before it joined the Pac-12—where eventually he was promoted to defensive coordinator. He held that position when the Utes’ undefeated squad upset Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl. Andersen utilized that success to land the head-coaching gig at a floundering Utah State program. The Aggies had not won more than seven games in a season since 1979. Andersen’s first two years there were no different, but, thereafter, he took Utah State to unforeseen heights. The next two seasons, the Aggies totaled an 18-8 record, which included a program-best 11 wins in 2012. No longer was Utah State some bottom-of-the-barrel program. It now was a legitimate “mid-major” power.

Andersen’s achievements in college football’s lower levels were noticed after 2012 as Power Five schools with head-coaching vacancies came calling. One such school was Wisconsin, whom former head coach Bret Bielema had stunned by ditching the Badgers for Arkansas in the SEC. Bielema left behind a Big Ten powerhouse that won a share of the conference crown and appeared in the Rose Bowl each of his final three seasons in Madison. With Bielema no longer in the picture, someone needed to step in and maintain Wisconsin’s success; Andersen was tabbed to be that person. He did well in his first season with the Badgers last year, too. Although their streak of Big Ten championships ended, Andersen coached them to a 9-4 record and national rank of 19th in the F/+ Combined Ratings—a set of rankings which combines two advanced statistical algorithms. It was an encouraging sign that Wisconsin experienced little drop-off with Andersen holding the reins.

Yet this will be the season that really tests whether Andersen deserves to be considered one of the five best coaches in the Big Ten. While Wisconsin will benefit from possessing what should be one of the nation’s most explosive rushing attacks and a weak conference slate, the Badgers still must replace their entire starting front seven on defense and find answers—any answer—for their depleted receiving corps. The talent and depth that has bolstered Wisconsin in years past does not seem to be quite there in 2014. This means that Andersen’s coaching ability will need to be at the top of its game because Wisconsin will not be able to afford as many errors. Then, after the season, we will be able to evaluate Andersen’s performance and finally peg exactly where he should fall on this list.

4. James Franklin, Penn State | Overall Record: 24-15 (3 yrs) – Record at Penn State: 0-0 (0 yrs)
Record at Vanderbilt Overall W/L SEC W/L Standing Bowl
2013 9-4 4-4 4th (East) BBVA Compass (W)
2012 9-4 5-3 4th (East) Music City (W)
2011 6-7 2-6 T4th (East) Liberty (L)
Career Totals 24-15 11-13   2-1
(Matthew O'Haren, USA Today Sports)

(Matthew O’Haren, USA Today Sports)

James Franklin has been a collegiate head coach for only three seasons, but he has taken the nation by storm in that short span. Franklin made his head-coaching debut at Vanderbilt in 2011. Vanderbilt always has been one of the toughest coaching jobs in America due to its small enrollment, academic focus, and SEC membership. Since 1982, the Commodores had recorded only one winning season—a 7-6 record in 2008—prior to Franklin’s arrival and consistently found themselves near the bottom of the F/+ Combined Ratings. They were perennial losers, a team SEC powerhouses viewed as an automatic conference win. But Franklin changed all of that the instant he stepped on the Vanderbilt campus.

Under Franklin, the Commodores were no longer pushovers. In his first season in 2011, he coached Vanderbilt to a 6-7 record and only its second bowl appearance since 1982. The record was not flashy, but, unlike previous seasons, Vanderbilt actually was competitive against its tougher opponents, losing to Georgia, Arkansas, and Florida by a combined 13 points. It is no surprise that advanced statistics really liked what the Commodores offered in 2011, ranking them 39th in the F/+ Combined Ratings just one year after placing 101st. It was significant progress in just one season with Franklin in charge, but he was not finished. In each of the next two seasons, the Commodores posted a 9-4 record and no less than four SEC victories. The last time they had a nine-win season? 1915. And Vanderbilt just accomplished the feat two years in a row. In three seasons at Vanderbilt, Franklin tallied 24 wins overall, which tied the best three-year stretch in school history. Franklin’s stint at Vanderbilt was an overwhelming success as he was able to achieve things there that no one had done in decades and decades.

This translated into instant stardom for Franklin and made him a hot commodity as the coaching carousel spun and spun. Initially, it seemed like Franklin would remain at Vanderbilt for a fourth season. But, then, Penn State coach Bill O’Brien left Happy Valley for a shot at the NFL with the Houston Texans. The Nittany Lions, hoping to appease its disappointed fan base with a popular hire, traveled into SEC territory and persuaded Franklin to join them in the Big Ten. Since then, Franklin and Penn State have torched the recruiting trail. According to 247 Sports, Penn State already has 19 commits in the 2015 class, 12 of which are four-stars, and the sixth-best class in the nation. While Franklin’s recruiting prowess certainly has been noted, the real question is how Franklin will do on the sidelines in his first season at Penn State. The Nittany Lions still are dealing with the scholarship reductions and postseason ban handed to them in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Will Franklin continue to be a star and have immediate success at Penn State like he did at Vanderbilt? Or will the lack of talented depth at multiple positions be too much to overcome? My guess: Franklin’s star may not shine as bright after a 2014 season that will be a tougher challenge than most expect.

3. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern | Overall Record: 55-46 (8 yrs) – Record at Northwestern: 55-46 (8 yrs)
Big Ten Records Overall W/L Big Ten W/L Standing Bowl
2013 5-7 1-7 6th (Legends)
2012 10-3 5-3 3rd (Legends) Gator (W)
2011 6-7 3-5 5th (Legends) Meineke Car Care (L)
2010 7-6 3-5 T7th Ticket City (L)
2009 8-5 5-3 T4th Outback (L)
2008 9-4 5-3 T4th Alamo (L)
2007 6-6 3-5 T7th
2006 4-8 2-6 T8th
Career Totals 55-46 27-37   1-4
(US Presswire)

(US Presswire)

Similar to Penn State’s James Franklin, Pat Fitzgerald has built his coaching reputation by transforming what has traditionally been a down-in-the-dumps football program with lofty academic standards and limited resources into a respectable one. In 2006, Fitzgerald, a former All-American linebacker at Northwestern, was promoted by his alma mater from an assistant to head coach. Prior to Fitzgerald assuming the top spot on its coaching staff, Northwestern had managed an eight-plus-win season only three times since it had joined the Big Ten in 1953. Yet it took the Wildcats only the first seven seasons of Fitzgerald’s tenure to accomplish the same feat, recording nine wins in 2008, eight in 2009, and a program-best 10 in 2012. Not every season has been such a triumph for Fitzgerald’s Wildcats, but no longer are they an easy out for Big Ten opponents.

For example, many may question Fitzgerald’s spot at No. 3 on this list following Northwestern’s underachieving 2013 campaign. Entering last season, the Wildcats were projected to build off their 10-win season in 2012 and possibly contend for a Big Ten championship. However, after sweeping its four non-conference foes, Northwestern suffered one bad break after the other. There was quarterback Kain Colter’s bobbled snap on fourth-and-one as Northwestern was driving for a game-winning score late in the fourth quarter against Ohio State. Then, there was the Hail Mary the Wildcats allowed to Nebraska on the final play of the game to lose by three points. There was also the hurried field goal Michigan somehow managed to kick before time expired to force overtime, which led to Northwestern losing in the third extra frame. And none of this bad luck even accounts for the countless number of Northwestern players that went down with injuries all season. Essentially, everything that could go wrong went wrong. Should Fitzgerald be responsible for some of this? Possibly. But most of the reasons why Northwestern had a 5-7 record last season were out of his control.

This is why Fitzgerald still is considered one of the best coaches in the Big Ten. He put Northwestern in a position to potentially contend for a Big Ten title before bad karma struck and struck hard. Do you know how many other coaches could put Northwestern in such a position? Very, very few. Fitzgerald very likely would experience much more success and more wins if he chose to leave Northwestern for a blue-chip, top-of-the-line college football factory that has exponentially more resources. But he has chosen to stay in Evanston and sustain Northwestern’s new reputation as a respectable program. This fall, even after the recent news that playmaker Venric Mark will transfer and top wideout Christian Jones suffered a season-ending knee injury, the Wildcats still have an outside shot at winning what will be a weak Big Ten West. And this is all possible because of Fitzgerald.

2. Urban Meyer, Ohio State | Overall Record: 128-25 (12 yrs) – Record at Ohio State: 24-2 (2 yrs)
Big Ten Records Overall W/L Big Ten W/L Standing Bowl
2013 12-2 8-0 1st (Leaders) Orange (L)
2012 12-0 8-0 1st (Leaders)
Career Totals 24-2 16-0   0-1
(Bradley Leeb, USA Today Sports)

(Bradley Leeb, USA Today Sports)

There is no doubt that Urban Meyer has the best resume of any head coach in the Big Ten and one of the best in the nation.  Meyer won at an astonishing level at each of his first three stops. When he was first hired as a head coach by Bowling Green in 2001, he took over a program that went 2-9 the previous season. But this did not prevent the Falcons from earning 17 wins in Meyer’s two seasons at the helm. Meyer then moved to the Mountain West Conference to become Utah’s head coach. Just like at Bowling Green, he was there for only two seasons. This time, though, Meyer coached the Utes to a 22-2 record and two conference championships, including an undefeated season and Fiesta Bowl victory in 2004. Meyer experienced the same type of success once he departed for Florida prior to 2005 and joined the “big leagues,” so to speak. In his six years with the Gators, he compiled a 65-15 record, three 13-win seasons, and two BCS national championships (2006 and 2008). In just a short decade, Meyer’s status skyrocketed from being a nobody to being considered one of the best coaches in the country.

After a one-year “reprieve” from college coaching in 2011 to “spend more time with his family,” Meyer dove back into it by taking the head job at Ohio State. The Buckeyes needed a new coach to guide the program after Jim Tressel resigned amid NCAA violations resulting from a tattoo-parlor scandal that saw the NCAA allege that Tressel had knowingly withheld information to maintain his players’ eligibility. Meyer decided he was the man to replace Tressel as the face of the prestigious program. His first two seasons have seen him win just like he has at every other stop he had as a head coach. The Buckeyes won their first 24 contests under Meyer and achieved a perfect season in 2012. Their only two losses were to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game and Clemson in the Orange Bowl last season. Given Ohio State’s current recruiting and Meyer’s astounding track record of winning, Ohio State does not seem like it will be slowing down any time soon.

Accordingly, you are probably wondering why Meyer is at No. 2 on this list rather than in the top spot given the accolades he has received throughout his head-coaching career. Once again, the purpose of this list is to rank who will be the best head coaches in 2014, not necessarily the ones who have had the best careers. There is no doubt that Meyer has had the best career among Big Ten coaches. No other Big Ten coach can claim winning a national championship, let alone two. And no other Big Ten coach can claim to have won 24 consecutive contests at any point of their head-coaching career. Nonetheless, there is another Big Ten coach who has been more impressive than Meyer recently, turning a mediocre program into a consistent contender despite having far less to work with in the cupboard.

1. Mark Dantonio, Michigan State | Overall Record: 82-46 (10 yrs) – Record at Michigan St: 64-29 (7 yrs)
Big Ten Records Overall W/L Big Ten W/L Standing Bowl
2013 13-1 8-0 1st (Legends) Rose (W)
2012 7-6 3-5 4th (Legends) Buffalo Wild Wings (W)
2011 11-3 7-1 1st (Legends) Outback (W)
2010 11-2 7-1 T1st Capital One (L)
2009 6-7 4-4 T6th Alamo (L)
2008 9-4 6-2 3rd Capital One (L)
2007 7-6 3-5 T7th Champs Sports (L)
Career Totals 64-29 38-18   3-4
(AP)

(AP)

Before Mark Dantonio left Cincinnati to assume command of the Michigan State football program in 2007, the Spartans were in a funk. Since the 1987 season, which had been the last time they had participated in the Rose Bowl, the Spartans had managed to win more than eight games only once—a 10-2 record in in 1999 with Nick Saban as head coach. Not only was Michigan State failing to win enough games to contend for conference championships, it also was struggling mightily against its premier rival Michigan. During that two-decade span, the Spartans were only 5-15 against the Wolverines from Ann Arbor. Accordingly, Michigan State was looked down upon by the Big Ten’s best, seen only as a middle-of-the-pack program that caused a minor inconvenience.

When Dantonio first arrived in East Lansing, there was not much to write home about. In his first three seasons at Michigan State, Dantonio’s Spartans put together only a 22-17 record, even though they did beat Rich Rodriguez-led Michigan twice. It was unclear whether Dantonio could take them to the top. It is not fuzzy anymore. In the past four seasons, Michigan State has been one of the best programs in the Big Ten. The Spartans have attained a 42-12 record and 77.8-win-percentage in those four years, which is second in the Big Ten only to Ohio State in that span, and won at least 11 games in three of those years. This increase in wins has brought the Spartans a share of two Big Ten championships—their first since 1990—and their first Rose Bowl victory since 1987. The Spartans now are surging under Dantonio.

So why is Dantonio slotted in the top spot ahead of Meyer? Michigan State’s win against Ohio State in the 2013 Big Ten Championship Game could be used as evidence, but let’s move that to the side for a minute. In the past four seasons, both Michigan State and Ohio State have 42 wins. Ohio State has a better winning percentage only because it has two fewer losses. It is that close. And, yet, Dantonio has achieved this with either loads of recruiting gems or less talented players than Ohio State. From 2009 to 2013, Michigan State’s recruiting classes’ average national ranking was 30.6 according to 247 Sports. Ohio State’s? 7.6. The Buckeyes have had much more raw talent at their disposal than the Spartans, but this has not stopped Dantonio, with the help of defensive wizard Pat Narduzzi, from putting out an equivalent product. No, Meyer has not been at Ohio State for the past four years, but he had much more to work with the moment he stepped foot in Columbus. And, despite this, Michigan State is on the same playing field as Ohio State, which is why Dantonio currently is the best head coach in the Big Ten.

So what do you think? Do you agree or disagree with our list? Is Mark Dantonio currently the best head football coach in the Big Ten? Or should that honor belong to Urban Meyer? And what about Brady Hoke? Does he deserve to be in the top five? Please leave your thoughts below in the comments section.

2014 Big Ten football position rankings: Coaches (part one)

Thursday, August 14th, 2014


Big-Ten-position-rankings-header-Coaches

This is the 11th installment of Maize and Go Blue’s series that ranks the best Big Ten players at each position for the upcoming season. Each week, until Michigan’s opener, one position will be previewed, looking at the players who will excel in 2014, not necessarily the ones who did so in previous seasons. However, now that offense, defense, and special teams have been covered, we are bending the definition of the words “position” and “players” and ranking the Big Ten’s best head coaches. This list will be split into two parts in order to provide you with thorough and in-depth analysis. Here’s Part One:

Previously

Quarterbacks: Part One, Part Two | Running Backs: Part One, Part Two | Wide Receivers: Part One, Part Two
Tight Ends: Part One, Part Two | Offensive Line: Part One, Part Two | Defensive Line: Part One, Part Two
Linebackers: Part One, Part Two | Cornerbacks: Part One, Part Two | Safeties:Part One, Part Two
Special Teams: Kicking Specialists, Return Specialists

10. Kevin Wilson, Indiana | Overall Record: 10-26 (3 yrs) – Record at Indiana: 10-26 (3 yrs)
Big Ten Records Overall W/L Big Ten W/L Standing Bowl
2013 5-7 3-5 4th (Leaders)
2012 4-8 2-6 5th (Leaders)
2011 1-11 0-8 6th (Leaders)
Career Totals 10-26 5-19    
(Michael Conroy, AP)

(Michael Conroy, AP)

Two Big Ten head coaches vied for the 10th spot on this list: Indiana’s Kevin Wilson and Maryland’s Randy Edsall. Both enter 2014 with their respective programs in oddly similar predicaments. Both assumed the head-coaching position at their respective programs prior to 2011, and both wish that their first seasons in Bloomington and College Park—Indiana went 1-11 and Maryland went 2-10—could be wiped from everyone’s memory Men in Black-style. Since those initial debacles, though, their programs have progressed gradually. Wilson’s Hoosiers increased their win total to four in 2012 and five in 2013, while Edsall’s Terrapins notched four and seven wins in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Both now find themselves in the Big Ten East, where they both yearn to lead their programs into the upper echelon of the division, joining the likes of Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Penn State.

So which of these two head coaches is most capable of making this possible? At first glance, Edsall seems like the correct choice. Edsall spent his first 12 years as a head coach at Connecticut, transforming the Huskies from a Division I-AA football program into a two-time Big East champion and 2011 Fiesta Bowl participant. Then, after a rocky start in College Park, his Terrapins were poised to break out last year. They won five of their first six games, suffering their only loss, albeit a rout, to eventual national champion Florida State. However, significant injuries to key players, like quarterback C.J. Brown, wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, and defensive backs Dexter McDougle and Jeremiah Johnson, derailed their season. What could have been a nine- or, heck, even a 10-win season finished with an underwhelming seven victories. This fall, though, most of those injured Terps will be back and healthy, which is why Maryland has been selected by many as a potential sleeper in the Big Ten. Accordingly, an inclusion of Edsall in the top 10 of this list would be justified.

However, Edsall needs to have one of his best seasons ever as a coach for Maryland to surprise folks, and I do not think he has it in him. Maryland may have a talented team, but let’s just say that the Big Ten did the Terps no favors with regards to scheduling. The two opponents that Maryland must face from the Big Ten West? The two favorites: Wisconsin and Iowa. Throw those two smack dab in the middle of a six-game gauntlet that includes home games against Ohio State and Michigan State and road contests against Penn State and Michigan, and the losses suddenly start to add up quickly.  Maryland has the talent to cobble together a double-digit-win season, but, with that schedule, a six- or seven-game losing streak certainly is not out of the question. If Maryland begins to fall into a tailspin, can Edsall pull the Terps together and out of such a dive? My prediction: no.

This is why Wilson sneaked past Edsall into the No. 10 spot. Indiana by no means has a gimme schedule, but Wilson has already done more with less than Edsall. When Wilson became the head coach at Indiana, he took over a program that had been a perennial doormat in the Big Ten. The Hoosiers have had only one winning season since 1994 (2007). They finished no higher than 69th nationally and higher than 86th only once in the F/+ Combined Ratings—a set of rankings which combines two advanced statistical algorithms—from 2005 to 2011. Yet, in 2012 and 2013, Indiana ranked 74th and 56th in the F/+ Combined Ratings, respectively. With an offense full of firepower, Wilson undeniably has Indiana on an upward trajectory. If Wilson and new defensive coordinator Brian Knorr can repair what has been the Big Ten’s worst defense each season of Wilson’s tenure, the Hoosiers have a fantastic opportunity to play in just their second bowl game in the past two decades.

9. Jerry Kill, Minnesota | Overall Record: 144-94 (20 yrs) – Record at Minnesota: 17-21 (3 yrs)
Big Ten Records Overall W/L Big Ten W/L Standing Bowl
2013 8-5 4-4 4th (Legends) Texas Bowl (L)
2012 6-7 2-6 T5th (Legends) Texas Bowl (L)
2011 3-9 2-6 6th (Legends)
Career Totals 17-21 8-16   0-2
(AP)

(AP)

New Year’s Eve in 2006 was a turning point for the Minnesota football program. It was two days after the Gophers had crapped away a 31-point, third-quarter lead to lose to Texas Tech in the Insight Bowl and finish with a 6-7 record. It was also the day they shockingly announced they had fired head coach Glen Mason. In his ten years in Minneapolis, Mason had transformed Minnesota into a respectable Big Ten football program. His 53.5-win-percentage was the best among any Gophers head coach since George Hauser, who coached them from 1942 to 1944. Mason also led them to seven bowl games in an eight-year span after they had not played in one for 12 straight seasons. However, after the crushing collapse in the Insight Bowl, the Gophers, who never placed higher than fourth in the Big Ten under Mason, believed that he could not take them from mediocrity to excellence. Thus, they kicked him out.

Four years later, Minnesota realized it had made a monumental mistake and needed to rectify it. Jerry Kill, who had been very successful in his first four stops as a head coach at Saginaw Valley State, Emporia State, Southern Illinois, and Northern Illinois, was hired by Minnesota to clean up the mess left behind by Tim Brewster. Minnesota had hired Brewster to lead it to the next tier of Big Ten football, except he submarined the Gophers back to the depths of the obscurity they experienced for decades before Mason arrived. Thus far, Kill seems to be pulling them back to the level where Mason had the Gophers. After a tough first season during which Minnesota won only three games, Kill’s Gophers have been 14-12 the past two years with back-to-back appearances in a bowl game. In fact, the eight wins Minnesota tallied last season were the most by the program since it won 10 in 2003. Kill has Minnesota back on the right track, and he may just be the coach that can take Minnesota to where Mason never could.

On the other hand, Kill unfortunately has a disorder that may prevent him from accomplishing this feat. Kill has been diagnosed with epilepsy, a neurological “disorder in which the nerve cell activity in one’s brain is disturbed, causing a seizure during which one experiences abnormal behavior, symptoms and sensations, including loss of consciousness.” Kill tries to control it by taking certain medication, but he still experiences epileptic seizures occasionally. He suffered at least one seizure each of his first three seasons at Minnesota, including one on the sidelines in his first home game in 2011 and one just before facing Michigan in 2013. The seizure in 2013 forced Kill to take a leave of absence to address his health issues. It would be naïve to think that his epileptic seizures cannot be a distraction to his staff and his players. The seizures are not a distraction in that his staff and players always wonder when the next one will occur. But the seizures can be a distraction when they happen, causing those around Kill to be more concerned for his health and safety, as they should, than anything else. This is not to say that Kill should not coach. This is not to say Kill is a poor coach. This is to say only that his epilepsy may limit his potential as a coach. Nonetheless, nothing would be better than to see Kill fully control his epilepsy and no longer experience seizures in 2014 and beyond. Let’s hope this is what comes to fruition.

8. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa | Overall Record: 120-100 (18 yrs) – Record at Iowa: 108-79 (15 yrs)
Big Ten Records Overall W/L Big Ten W/L Standing Bowl
2013 8-5 5-3 T2nd (Legends) Outback (L)
2012 4-8 2-6 T5th (Legends)
2011 7-6 4-4 4th (Legends) Insight (L)
2010 8-5 4-4 T4th Insight (W)
2009 11-2 6-2 T2nd Orange (W)
2008 9-4 5-3 T4th Outback (W)
2007 6-6 4-4 T5th
2006 6-7 2-6 T8th Alamo (L)
2005 7-5 5-3 T3rd Outback (L)
2004 10-2 7-1 T1st Capital One (W)
2003 10-3 5-3 T4th Outback (W)
2002 11-2 8-0 T1st Orange (L)
2001 7-5 4-4 T4th Alamo (W)
2000 3-9 3-5 8th
1999 1-10 0-8 11th
Career Totals 108-79 64-56   6-5
(Scott Boehm, Getty Images)

(Scott Boehm, Getty Images)

A person may be one of the longest-tenured head coaches in college football, but this does not mean that he or she is one of the best head coaches in college football. I present to you Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz. On December 2, 1998, Iowa named Ferentz the head coach of its football program. Over 15 years later, Ferentz still is the head man in Iowa City, making him the fourth-longest tenured active head coach in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS). In 15 seasons, Ferentz has done plenty of good at a program located in a state not fertile with talented high-school recruits. At Iowa, he has won a share of two Big Ten championships (2002 and 2004) and appeared in two Orange Bowls (2003 and 2010). Accordingly, in the past, many have praised Ferentz’s coaching ability, claiming few could do at Iowa what he has done.

However, after Iowa’s appearance in the 2010 Orange Bowl, Ferentz’s coaching ability had slipped as Iowa’s record gradually had dipped each season. In 2010, Iowa had an 8-5 record with the help of a bowl win and finished No. 21 in the F/+ Combined Ratings. In 2011, Iowa lost its bowl game, causing its record and F/+ Combined Rating to fall to 7-6 and 46th, respectively. Then, in 2012, the bottom seemed to drop out. The Hawkeyes managed to win only four games and was not bowl-eligible for the first time under Ferentz since 2000. It should be no surprise that Iowa’s F/+ Combined Rating plummeted all the way down to 72nd. Fans were furious. Yes, they were upset that the program was trending downwards, but they were even more upset because there was nothing the school could do about it. Ferentz’s contract has been extended all the way until 2020, and, if Iowa had chosen to fire him after 2012, the buyout would have been just shy of $19 million! Iowa was stuck with Ferentz, whether it wanted be or not.

Yet Ferentz not only stopped the bleeding last year but momentarily turned the program back around. Iowa’s 8-5 record may not be sparkly, but the Hawkeyes did not suffer one bad loss all season. In fact, the five opponents to whom they lost—Northern Illinois, Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin, and LSU—combined for a 56-12 record in 2013. Instead, Iowa defeated all teams it was supposed to and even a few it was not, helping Iowa rank 29th in the F/+ Combined Ratings. It was a satisfying season for the Hawkeyes that gave their fans hope that, with a much more accommodating schedule this season, the program can contend for a third Big Ten championship under Ferentz in 2014. However, with an oft-ridiculed offensive coordinator in Greg Davis on staff, Ferentz still needs to prove that last season was not an outlier and that his coaching ways from a decade ago have indeed returned.

7. Bo Pelini, Nebraska | Overall Record: 58-24 (6 yrs) – Record at Nebraska: 58-24 (6 yrs)
Big Ten Records Overall W/L Big Ten W/L Standing Bowl
2013 9-4 5-3 T2nd (Legends) Gator (W)
2012 10-4 7-1 1st (Legends) Capital One (L)
2011 9-4 5-3 3rd (Legends) Capital One (L)
Career Totals 28-12 17-7   1-2
(Bruce Thorson, USA Today Sports)

(Bruce Thorson, USA Today Sports)

The head coach of a Nebraska football program that has displayed uncanny consistency during his regime has had one heck of a rollercoaster ride. Bo Pelini has been Nebraska’s head coach for six seasons. And, in each of those seasons, Nebraska has recorded exactly four losses. Yes, that is correct. This means that, for six straight seasons, Nebraska has had either a 9-4 or 10-4 record under Pelini.

After enduring the train wreck that was Bill Callahan, Huskers fans initially were pleased. In each of the first three seasons of Pelini’s tenure, Nebraska won a share of the Big 12 North, which led to appearances in the Big 12 Championship Game in 2009 and 2010. In both of those championship games, the Huskers came oh-so close to becoming conference champions. In 2009 against Oklahoma, they blew a 17-point, second-quarter lead to lose, 23-20; in 2010 against undefeated Texas, they conceded a 46-yard field goal as time expired to fall by a one-point margin, 13-12. These undoubtedly were devastating losses for Nebraska and its faithful, but the belief was that Pelini would breakthrough and win that first conference title soon after Nebraska joined the Big Ten in 2011.

However, this has yet to materialize, and Huskers fans have become more than agitated with Pelini. They thought the conference-championship drought would finally end in 2012 when the hot Huskers met 7-5 Wisconsin rather than undefeated Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game because the Buckeyes had been handed a postseason ban. Instead, Wisconsin wiped the floor with the Huskers, running through them for 539 rushing yards and routing them, 70-31. Things got only worse for Pelini last season. After a home loss to UCLA, a two-year-old audio tape with a profane tirade by Pelini criticizing the fan base was leaked to the media, causing Pelini to further lose fan support. Then, following a humiliating loss to Iowa in the season finale in which Pelini threw multiple temper tantrums on the sideline, he declared in the postgame press conference, “If they want to fire me, go ahead. … I don’t apologize for anything I have done.” It seemed imminent that Nebraska would let Pelini go.

But Nebraska decided to hold onto Pelini, and there subsequently has been an uptick in his support. First, he coached the Huskers to a win against an SEC opponent, albeit the injury-riddled Georgia Bulldogs, in the Gator Bowl, Second, he began to show a lighter, more comedic side to his personality on social media and at Nebraska’s spring game. No longer is Pelini viewed only as a coach that can explode into a thousand suns on the sideline but as a coach that knows when not to take himself too seriously. While this has been positive for Pelini’s public relations, it does not change what is expected from him and his team this fall. Nebraska is facing lots of tough questions about its quarterback, its offensive line, and its defense, which has lost multiple starters to injuries within the past week. It seems quite possible that Nebraska’s streak of four-loss seasons could come to a halt and not for the better. If this is the case, will the slight boost in Pelini’s public perception mitigate the damage? Likely not. Therefore, Pelini must show that Nebraska, a proud football program, is heading in the right direction. Otherwise, his rollercoaster ride may come to a stop.

6. Brady Hoke, Michigan | Overall Record: 73-63 (11 yrs) – Record at Michigan: 26-13 (3 yrs)
Big Ten Records Overall W/L Big Ten W/L Standing Bowl
2013 7-6 3-5 5th (Legends) Buffalo Wild Wings (L)
2012 8-5 6-2 2nd (Legends) Outback (L)
2011 11-2 6-2 2nd (Legends) Sugar (W)
Career Totals 26-13 15-9   1-2
(Charlie Neibergall, AP)

(Charlie Neibergall, AP)

Throughout the offseason, there has been much talk by media and fans alike about Michigan head coach Brady Hoke sitting of the hot seat. They point to Hoke’s sub-.500 record (47-50) prior to his current stint at Michigan as a sign that he is underqualified. They point to him not wearing a headset on the sideline as an indication that he is in over his head. They point to Michigan’s 15-11 record the past two seasons, after the Wolverines had an unexpected trip to the Sugar Bowl in his first year in 2011, as proof that the program is deteriorating under his watch. Heck, the talk was loud enough that even we at Maize and Go Blue had a roundtable to address the topic. The truth is Hoke is not currently on the hot seat. It may be a bit warm, but, unless Michigan fails to be bowl-eligible, Hoke will be back in 2015.

What many fail to realize is just how much the Rich Rodriguez era set Michigan back. Many believed that the Wolverines had completely recovered and returned to prominence after their 11-2 record in 2011, but it was just a façade. The underlying crevices in the foundation were still there, waiting to be unearthed. Rodriguez’s recruiting in 2010 and 2011 left Michigan with too many holes in the depth chart, especially at offensive line, which currently has only one scholarship upperclassman. Hoke has tried to plug the holes in the depth chart as quickly as possible, landing the No. 6 and No. 4 recruiting classes in 2012 and 2013, respectively, according to 247 Sports, but these talented recruits have been only sophomores or freshmen. Mix this in with poor injury luck and head-scratching play-calling from former offensive coordinator Al Borges, and Michigan’s record the past two seasons makes more sense.

This does not mean that Hoke is immune from blame, though. It was Hoke who hired Borges and allowed him to implement such disjointed offensive schemes. It was also Hoke, as the head coach, that reportedly failed to manage the chemistry and leadership among the players last season. However, Hoke seems to have fixed these mistakes, firing Borges to bring former Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier on staff and altering the leadership structure of Michigan’s roster. However, there are few excuses left to shield Hoke. Yes, the offensive line still is ridiculously young and inexperienced, and Michigan must play all three of its main rivals on the road for the first time in school history. But, with the resources at his disposal, now is the time for Hoke to show that Michigan is on its way back to being one of, if not the, best in the Big Ten. If that happens, the “hot seat” talk will die and Hoke will find himself in the top five on this list. If it does not happen, well, he may not be on this list in a few years.

So what do you think? Do you agree or disagree with Part One of these rankings? Should Michigan’s Brady Hoke be at No. 6? Or is he too high or too low? Is there a head coach that should be in the bottom half of the top 10 of these rankings? And who do you think will top this list at No. 1? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below. Tomorrow, we will reveal who will be the five best head coaches in the Big Ten this fall.

2014 opponent preview: Northwestern

Tuesday, August 12th, 2014


2014-Opponent-Preview-NW

Our last two opponent previews have been about the new kids on the block, Rutgers and Maryland. Today, we take a look at one of the old guards, the Northwestern Wildcats, who we feel will be the fifth-toughest opponent on Michigan’s schedule. Previously, we previewed Appalachian State, Miami (Ohio), Minnesota, Utah, Indiana, Rutgers, and Maryland.

Overview

Schedule
Date Opponent
Aug. 30 California
Sept. 6 Northern Illinois
Sept. 20 Western Illinois
Sept. 27 at Penn State
Oct. 4 Wisconsin
Oct. 11 at Minnesota
Oct. 18 Nebraska
Nov. 1 at Iowa
Nov. 8 Michigan
Nov. 15 at Notre Dame
Nov. 22 at Purdue
Nov. 29 Illinois

A year ago at this time, there was a lot of excitement surrounding the Northwestern program that many assumed was ready to take the next step forward. The Wildcats were coming off a 10-win season and a bowl victory and started the 2013 season ranked for the first time in over a decade. A 4-0 start got Northwestern to 16th in the country heading into a Big Ten opener against fourth-ranked Ohio State. ESPN College GameDay was there for the nationally televised primetime battle.

Instead of pulling off a program-building upset, its was the beginning of the end for Pat Fitzgerald’s 2013 squad. Northwestern held a 30-27 lead midway through the fourth quarter, but Ohio State scored two touchdowns in the final five minutes to steal the win. From there, the Wildcats lost seven straight, including two in overtime before finishing the season with a  37-34 win over Illinois. Instead of building on the 10-win 2012 season, Northwestern cut its win total in half at 5-7.

Then came the offseason and the circus came to town. Departing quarterback Kain Colter led a unionization push that Fitzgerald strongly opposed. It led to a team vote and brought the nation’s media to Evanston in search of a story that could forever change the landscape of college athletics. Instead of simply focusing on improving through the offseason, Fitzgerald had to keep his players focused on football despite all of the distractions and visions of grandeur. By many accounts, the situation galvanized the team, but while the vote came and went, the result has yet to be announced and could become a distraction once again this fall when the National Labor Relations Board releases the outcome.

If the process really did bring the team together, and if Fitzgerald can keep his team focused through the NLRB ruling, the expectations from last season could come to fruition this fall. Seventeen starters return from last year’s team, including nine on offense, and the Wildcats don’t have to deal with Ohio State or Michigan State this season. Could Northwestern make a run at the Big Ten West title? Let’s take a closer look.

Offense

Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2013 Stats
QB Trevor Siemian 6’3″, 210 178-298 for 2,149 yds, 11 TD, 9 INT
RB Venric Mark 5’8″, 175 97 yds (3.1 avg), 5 rec, 48  rec. yards
SB Dan Vitale 6’2″, 225 34 rec, 382 rec. yds, 3 rec. TD
WR Tony Jones 6’0″, 195 55 rec. for 630 yds, 4 TD
WR Christian Jones 6’3″, 225 54 rec. for 668 yds, 4 TD
WR Cameron Dickerson 6’3″, 235 11 rec. for 125 yds, 1 TD
LT Paul Jorgenson 6’6″, 295 12 starts (13 career starts)
LG Geoff Mogus 6’5″, 295 11 starts (11 career starts)
C Brandon Vitabile 6’3″, 300 12 starts (38 career starts)
RG Matt Frazier 6’4″, 290 4 starts (4 career starts)
RT Eric Olson 6’6″, 290 0 starts (0 career starts)

Last season, Northwestern’s offense stormed out of the gate averaging 41.3 points per game in the 4-0 start. A 30-point performance in the loss to Ohio State was good as well, but the offense took a nose dive from there. The Wildcats failed to score more than 24 points in any of its next six games — all losses — and averaged just 13.7 points in that stretch. The 37 points put up in the finale against Illinois brought Northwestern’s season average to 26.2 points per game, which ranked 83rd nationally. The total offense ranked 73rd (399.6 yards per game), rush offense ranked 62nd (172.4 yards per game), and pass offense ranked 71st (227.2 yard per game). That’s a far cry from the way the first five games of the season went and offensive coordinator Mike McCall will have to find a way to sustain the offense through Big Ten play if the Wildcats want any chance of competing.

The major change will be handing the reigns of the offense completely to fifth-year senior quarterback Trevor Siemian, who has spent the past two seasons splitting time with Colter. The do-everything Colter was a freak athlete playing quarterback to keep defenses off balance while Siemian is your more traditional true quarterback with less big-play ability, but also more stable. In 2013, Siemian completed 59.7 percent of his passes for 2,149 yards, 11 touchdowns, and nine interceptions. In that Ohio State game, he completed 13-of-18 for 245 yards, two touchdowns, and a pick and he capped the season with a 414-yard, four-touchdown game against Illinois.

Venric Mark returns from injury as one of the most explosive running backs in the Big Ten

Venric Mark returns from injury as one of the most explosive running backs in the Big Ten

While the offense loses the mobility of Colter, it still has one of the Big Ten’s most electric running backs, Venric Mark. The 5’8″, 175-pound senior was plagued by injuries last season and played in just three games as a result. But when he was healthy in 2012, Mark rushed for 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns on six yard per carry, earning second team All-Big Ten honors. Drew rated Mark the sixth-best running back in the Big Ten this fall, though it likely would have been higher if not for the questions about his health.

Mark isn’t alone in the backfield, however. Fellow senior Treyvon Green picked up the slack in Mark’s absence last season, leading the Wildcats with 736 rushing yards and eight touchdowns while averaging 5.4 yards per carry. At 5’10″, 215, Green is a much bigger back than Mark and creates a nice one-two punch. Then there’s redshirt sophomore Stephen Buckley, who saw limited action in nine games last season and averaged 5.3 yards per carry. In the one game he saw a full workload, he rushed for 99 yards on 17 carries against an Iowa defense that held Michigan to just 60 rushing yards on 29 carries.

Like the backfield, a lot of production returns at receiver, but the one thing the group lacks is explosiveness. Five of the top six receivers from a year ago return, but the only Wildcat that caught at least 10 passes and averaged a respectable yards per catch — Rashad Lawrence (14.9) — is gone. Senior Christian Jones, who led the team with 668 yards and four touchdowns on 54 catches, averaged just 12.4 yards per catch. Fellow senior Tony Jones led the team in receptions (55), finished second in yards (630), and also had four scores, averaged just 11.5 yards per catch. Don’t get me wrong; they’re a good receiving duo — Drew ranked them the sixth- and seventh-best receivers in the Big Ten this fall — but they lack the big-play ability that Stefon Diggs and Deon Long have.

There are a couple of contenders to complement them. USC transfer Kyle Prater, who has been hampered by injuries since he’s been in Evanston, and Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler were both highly-ranked recruits and if at least one of them can pan out, Siemian will have plenty of options to work with. McCall and Fitzgerald have stated their intention to spread the ball around a lot more this season and superback Dan Vitale, who caught 34 passes for 382 yards and three touchdowns in 2013, will also get plenty of targets. Finally, there’s junior Cameron Dickerson, who caught just 11 passes for 125 yards and a touchdown last season but is expected to take on a bigger role in the passing game this fall.

The offensive line has a chance to be among the Big Ten’s best with everyone returning. All 60 starts from last season are back with 100 combined career starts between them. The anchor of the line is fifth-year senior Brandon Vitabile, an honorable mention All-Big Ten performer a year ago who has started 38 straight games. Drew ranked Vitabile as the eight-best offensive lineman in the conference this fall. Last year’s left tackle, Jack Konopka, who has 25 career starts, may be the odd man looking in as he has been replaced by fifth-year senior Paul Jorgensen, who moves over from right tackle to help protect Siemian. Rising redshirt sophomore Eric Olsen will likely take the spot Jorgensen vacated at right tackle, while Konopka will be the top backup to both of them. At guard, redshirt juniors Geoff Mogus (11 career starts) and Matt Frazier (four) will start on the left and right, respectively.

Defense

Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2013 Stats
DE Dean Lowry 6’6″, 265 33 tackles, 7 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 2 INT, 1 FR
DT Sean McEvilly 6’5″, 290 9 tackles, 2 TFL, 2 QBH
DT C.J. Robbins 6’5″, 285 3 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 0.5 sacks, 1 PD
DE Deonte Gibson 6’3″, 260 22 tackles, 7 TFL, 3 sacks, 2 QBH, 2 PD
SAM Drew Smith 6’1″, 215 31 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 3 QBH
MLB Collin Ellis 6’2″, 230 78 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 0.5 sacks, 3 INT, 9 PD
WLB Chi Chi Ariguzo 6’3″, 235 106 tackles, 6 TFL, 2 sacks, 4 INT, 6 PD
CB Nick VanHoose 6’0″, 190 61 tackles, 5 TFL, 8 PD
CB Matthew Harris 5’11″, 180 36 tackles, 5 PD
S Ibraheim Campbell 5’11″, 205 73 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 sack, 4 INT, 9 PD
S Traveon Henry 6’1″, 200 77 tackles, 4 TFL, 1 INT, 2 PD

Fitzgerald came to Northwestern promising a tough, hard-nosed defense just like he was as a linebacker for the Wildcats in the mid-1990s. But last season, Northwestern got pushed around, and while some of that can be pinned on the offensive meltdown in the second half of the season, the defense just wasn’t put to par. It ranked 69th nationally in scoring defense (27.1 points per game), 89th in total defense (423.4 yards per game), 68th in rush defense (167.7 yards per game), and 101st in pass defense (255.8 yards per game).

Senior Ibraheim Campbell is a ball-hawking safety (Michael Bojda, The Daily Illini)

Senior Ibraheim Campbell is one of the top safeties in the conference (Michael Bojda, The Daily Illini)

Fitzgerald’s defensive coordinator, Mike Hankwitz, played at Michigan and was a part of the 1969 Big Ten championship team in Bo Schembechler’s first season. He then served as a graduate assistant for Bo from 1970-72 before moving on. He has been a defensive coordinator since 1982 and has been at Northwestern since 2008.

His first order of business this season will be finding a replacement for the production lost by defensive end Tyler Scott’s departure. Scott led the team with 10 tackles for loss and six sacks and was a second team All-Big Ten selection. The good news is that juniors Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson and redshirt sophomore Ifeadi Odenigbo, a former four-star recruit, are talented and experienced. The three combined for 20.5 tackles for loss and 13 sacks in 2013. The interior of the line is where the questions lie. Former four-star Greg Kuhar, now a redshirt sophomore, worked his way into the rotation late last season and will be needed to play an increased role this fall. Seniors Sean McEvilly and Chance Carter are the presumed starters, but Kuhar and redshirt junior C.J. Robbins are pushing them with good spring performances.

Similar to the situation on the line, the linebacker corps has to replace its most productive player from 2013, but does have solid talent and experience returning. Damien Proby led the team with 112 tackles in addition to five tackles for loss and a sack, but will be replaced by either junior Drew Smith or senior Jimmy Hall. Hall, a converted safety, tallied 36 tackles and an interception last year, while Smith contributed 31 tackles, 4.5 of which went for loss. The returning starters are seniors Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis, who were second and third on the team in tackles last season with 106 and 78, respectively. Ariguzo had six tackles for loss, two sacks, and a team-high four interceptions, while Ellis had 5.5 tackles for loss, half a sack, and three picks.

Northwestern’s secondary was pretty bad a year ago, but has some good playmakers and enough experience returning that it could be a strength this season. Senior safety Ibraheim Campbell is one of the Big Ten’s best. Drew ranked him the fourth-best safety in the league. He recorded 73 tackles, 2.5 for loss, one sack, and four interceptions last season. His safety mate is junior Traveon Henry, who excels in run support. He notched 77 tackle, four for loss, and one pick. There will be some competition at corner. Redshirt junior Nick VanHoose has 22 career starts and should have one of the spots locked up. Sophomore Matthew Harris started the final five games of last season and will battle with Daniel Jones, who started the season opener in 2013 but blew out his knee and missed the rest of the year, and sophomore Dwight White.

Special Teams

Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2013 Stats
PK Arthur Omilian 5’11″, 160
P Chris Gradone 6’2″, 190 37.8 avg, 5 In-20, 1 TB, 1 50+
KR Matthew Harris 5’11″, 180 21 ret, 23.0 avg
PR Venric Mark 5’8″, 175 15 ret, 18.7 avg., 2 TD (in 2012)

While Northwestern has returning starters all over the offense and defense, the Wildcats have to replace a very good kicker. Jeff Budzien made 87.3 percent of his field goal attempts the last three years (48-of-55) and if you throw out his 2011 season, he converted 93.3 percent (42-of-45) in 2012 and ’13. He won the Bakken-Andersen Big Ten Kicker of the Year award both years. But now his reliability is gone and Fitzgerald has to find someone to replace him. That will be a battle between redshirt freshman Hunter Niswander and redshirt junior Arthur Omilian. The former was the 12th-ranked kicker in the 2013 class, while the latter served as Budzien’s backup last season. Punter Brandon Williams is also gone, but he averaged just 36 yards per punt. Junior Chris Gradone, who handled punting duties for the final three games last season, will assume the role.

The return game will be led by Mark and Harris. When healthy in 2012, Mark was a first team All-America punt returner, averaging 18.7 yards per  return with two touchdowns. He was less explosive on kick returns, averaging just 19.8 yards, but he’ll still share the job with Harris, who averaged 23 yards per kick return in 2013.

Outlook

Injuries really hurt Northwestern last season, but in reality, the 5-7 record very easily could have been 8-4 plus a bowl game. The Wildcats lost to Iowa in overtime, Nebraska on a last-second Hail Mary, and Michigan in overtime after the Wolverines converted an improbably last-second field goal in regulation. Five wins should be guaranteed right off the bat — the first three against California, Northern Illinois, and Western Illinois and the last two against Purdue and Illinois. Then they’ll have to fight for wins against a tough middle slate. Mark’s return and more stability at quarterback should certainly help avoid the offensive pitfalls of last season and the overall depth on defense should help them finish games better than they did a year ago. Anywhere between a 6-6 and 9-3 regular season is doable and it will all depend on whether Siemian and Mark can stay healthy.

What it means for Michigan

Michigan has to travel to Evanston for a second straight season, but that’s not as bad as having to travel to East Lansing two years in a row. Michigan always has strong fan support in Chicago, so the environment isn’t as tough. But Michigan and Northwestern have essentially played as evenly as it gets the past two years. A case could certainly be made that Northwestern outplayed Michigan in both despite Michigan winning both, as both required near miracles in the closing seconds of regulation. That’s great motivation for Fitzgerald’s squad. Another close one this year is probably a safe bet.

2014 opponent preview: Maryland

Monday, August 11th, 2014


2014-Opponent-Preview-Maryland

Last week we previewed the first of the two new Big Ten additions, Rutgers. Today, it’s time to take a look at the second, the Maryland Terrapins, who we feel will be the seventh-easiest, or sixth toughest, opponent on Michigan’s schedule. Previously, we previewed Appalachian State, Miami (Ohio), Minnesota, Utah, and Indiana, and Rutgers.

Overview

Schedule
Date Opponent
Aug. 30 James Madison
Sept. 6 at South Florida
Sept. 13 West Virginia
Sept. 20 at Syracuse
Sept. 27 at Indiana
Oct. 4 Ohio State
Oct. 18 Iowa
Oct. 25 at Wisconsin
Nov. 1 at Penn State
Nov. 15 Michigan State
Nov. 22 at Michigan
Nov. 29 Rutgers

In last week’s Rutgers preview, I mentioned the intrigue that new offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen brings to the Rutgers offense. As the head coach at Maryland for 10 seasons, Friedgen raised the Terrapins profile, transforming a program that had just one winning season in the previous decade — and a 6-5 one at that — into a perennial ACC contender. The program hadn’t won a bowl game for 15 years prior to his tenure, but Friedgen guided the Terps to five bowl victories. But he was unceremoniously let go after a 9-4 campaign in 2010 — a season in which Maryland finished second in the ACC, won a bowl game, and finished ranked nationally — and replaced him with UConn’s Randy Edsall.

Edsall proceded to go 2-10 in his first season and 4-8 in his second. He finally broke the .500 mark last season with a 7-6 record, but at least it was a second straight season of progress. The main problem was that his team was incredibly young and injury-ridden. At one point late in the season, 15 players were listed as out. It would be tough for Alabama to have a successful season in that scenario, and that’s with a team full of five-stars backing up five-stars. Marlyand had talent, but not enough to overcome a tidal wave of injuries.

Now, Edsall has to get acquainted to a new conference, and like Rutgers, will have to cope with a less than friendly schedule. The Terps do miss out on Nebraska, but their other conference no-plays are Minnesota, Purdue, Illinois, and Northwestern. That’s basically the bottom half of the Big Ten. Maryland’s conference opener and closer will be the two most winnable of the bunch, at Indiana and home versus Rutgers, but the middle six will be as tough as any stretch in the conference. Maryland hosts Ohio State and Iowa, travels to Wisconsin and Penn State, comes back home against Michigan State, and then travels to Michigan. Welcome to the Big Ten.

The good news for Edsall is that he brings a wealth of young talent with him, and if his Terps can avoid the injury bug they could make some noise. But with such a difficult schedule, do they have enough talent to have a good season? Let’s take a look.

Offense

Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2013 Stats
QB C.J. Brown 6’3″, 218 166-282 for 2,242 yds, 13 TD, 7 INT, 576 rush yds (4.1 avg), 12 TD
RB Brandon Ross 5’10″, 210 776 yds (4.7 avg), 4 TD
FB Kenneth Goins Jr. 5’9″, 230 48 yds (5.3 avg), 4 rec for 49 yds, 1 TD
WR Deon Long 6’0″, 185 32 rec. for 489 yds, 1 TD
WR Stefon Diggs 6’0″, 190 34 rec. for 587 yds, 3 TD
TE P.J. Gallo 6’2″, 250
LT Michael Dunn 6’5″, 300 13 starts (13 career starts)
LG Salvino Altamirano 6’2″, 290 0 starts (0 career starts)
C Sal Conaboy 6’3″, 295 13 starts (22 career starts)
RG Andrew Zeller 6’4″, 310 3 starts (6 career starts)
RT Ryan Doyle 6’4″, 300 13 starts (13 career starts)

Offensive coordinator Mike Locksley is no stranger to the Big Ten, having spent four seasons as offensive coordinator under Ron Zook at Illinois from 2005-2008. His 2007 offense ranked fifth nationally in rushing, led by Rashard Mendenhall and quarterback Juice Williams. The Illini upset top-ranked Ohio State that season and went to their first Rose Bowl since 1984. A year later, Locksley took the head coaching job at New Mexico, but didn’t have the same kind of success, going 2-26 in two and a half seasons before being fired. Maryland scooped him up to replace current Penn State head coach James Franklin, who took the Vanderbilt job following the 2010 season.

Locksley’s offenses at Maryland have been nothing to write hime about so far, ranking 67th nationally in total offense in 2011, 123rd in 2012, and 77th last season. Last year’s squad also ranked 83rd in scoring (26.2 points per game), 84th in rushing (148.4 yards per game), and 49th in passing (248.2 yards per game).

Former Michigan target Stefon Diggs is one of the best receivers in the Big Ten

Former Michigan target Stefon Diggs is one of the best receivers in the Big Ten

The offense will once again be led by dual-threat quarterback C.J. Brown, now a fifth-year senior with about as much experience as Devin Gardner. He started five games in 2011 and was the starter heading into 2012 before tearing his ACL and missing the entire season. He came back and had a very good 2013 campaign, finishing third in the ACC with 256.2 yards per game. He completed 58.9 percent of his passes for 2,242 yards, 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions and rushed for 576 yards and 12 touchdowns on 4.1 yards per carry despite missing two games midseason. He became the first Maryland quarterback to throw for 2,000 yards and rush for 500 in a season. Rushing-wise, Brown was hit-or-miss a year ago. He had four 100-yard rushing games, accumulating 487 yards in those games, an average of 122 yard per game. But in the other seven, he had a combined 89 yards — an average of just 12.7 yards per game.

Brown was joined in the rushing game by Brandon Ross, who 776 yards and four touchdowns, averaging 4.7 yards per carry. But Ross was the starter in 2013 because Wes Brown, a four-star recruit in the 2012 class, missed all of last season due to a suspension. Brown was the team’s second-leading rusher as a true freshman in 2012. He and Ross are listed as co-starters on the depth chart as of now, but both will likely play a big role in the backfield. Junior Albert Reid and sophomore Jacquille Veii will also serve as change-of-pace backs. The two combined for 109 carries for 440 yards and two scores last season.

The receiving corps is where talent abounds. A pair of five-star receivers, Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, return from broken legs that kept them out of the second half of last season. The duo will form perhaps the top receiving tandem on the conference this fall. Drew ranked them best and fifth-best receivers in the Big Ten. Prior to getting injured in the seventh game, Diggs caught 34 passes for 587 yards and three touchdowns, leading the team with an average of 17.3 yards per catch. In the same time, Long had 32 catches for 489 yards and one touchdown. Average those numbers out for an entire season and Diggs would  have had 63 for 1,090 and Long 59 for 908.

Instead, their injuries allowed Levern Jacobs to step up. Jacobs led the team in receptions (47) and yards (640), but really emerged in the second half of the season, increasing his catches and yards per game from 1.9 and 35 to 6.8 and 79. He had an eight-catch, 158-yard, one touchdown performance against Clemson. Amba Etta-Tawo finished third on the team with 500 yards on 31 catches, while Nigel King added 450 yards and led the group with four touchdowns. All five of those guys are back this season in addition to Marcus Leak, who missed all of last season, but was the team’s second-leading receiver in 2012. Throw in four-star redshirt freshman slot man Taivon Jacobs, and this is as deep and talented a unit as there is in the conference.

While plenty of experience returns at quarterback, running back, and receiver, the offensive line is where things get interesting. The Terps do return 42 starts from last season and 59 career starts, but it’s a very thin depth chart. The entire left side needs to be replaced after the graduation of guard De’Onte Arnett’s, who started all 13 games, transfer of tackle Mike Madaras, who started eight, and suspension of Moise Larose, who started four. The leader of the line is senior center Sal Conaboy, a Rimington Trophy Watch List member who has 22 career starts. The tackles will be redshirt junior Ryan Doyle (13 starts) on one side and redshirt sophomore Michael Dunn (13 starts) on the other. Redshirt junior Andrew Zeller, who started the final three games last season at right guard will keep the job, while senior Silvano Altamirano will move into the lineup at led guard.

Defense

Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2013 Stats
DE Andre Monroe 5’11″, 282 42 tackles, 17 TFL, 9.5 sacks, 2 FF
NT Darius Kilgo 6’3″, 319 37 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 FR
DE Quinton Jefferson 6’3″, 285 47 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 3 sacks, 2 QBH, 1 FF
OLB Matt Robinson 6’3″, 245 73 tackles, 10 TFL, 0.5 sacks, 4 PD, 2 FR
MB Cole Farrand 6’3″, 245 84 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 0.5 sacks, 1 FF
MLB L.A. Goree 6’2″, 245 76 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 1 sacks, 1 PD, 1 FF
OLB Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil 6’2″, 250 18 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 3 sacks, 1 INT
CB William Likely 5’7″, 175 70 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 1 INT, 7 PD
CB Alvin Hill 5’11″, 195 24 tackles, 2 PD
FS Sean Davis 6’1″, 200 102 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 0.5 sacks, 2 INT, 5 PD
SS Anthony Nixon 6’1″, 200 60 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 1 sack

Following Edsall’s first season at Maryland, he also replaced defensive coordinator Todd Bradford and replaced him with former Houston defensive coordinator Brian Stewart. He inherited a defense that ranked 102nd in scoring defense, 108th in total defense, 111th against the run, and 74th against the pass in 2011. He immediately turned that around in 2012, and it slipped a little bit last season, but still ranked 54th in scoring defense (25.3 points per game), 44th in total defense (375.2 yards per game), 46th in rush defense (150.1 yard per game), and 57th in pass defense (225.1 yards per game).

Despite being just 5'7", William Likely is a good corner and a dangerous return man (G. Fiume, Getty Images)

Despite being just 5’7″, William Likely is a good corner and a dangerous return man (G. Fiume, Getty Images)

While the defense regressed slightly in 2013, it returns nine starters and should be at least above average again this fall. The line should be pretty good with everyone of substance returning. Senior end Andre Monroe led the team with 17 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks last season and Drew ranks him as the seventh-best defensive lineman in the Big Ten this fall, one spot ahead of Frank Clark. On the other end is junior Quinton Jefferson, a former four-star who added 7.5 tackles for loss and three sacks last season. The middle of the line is anchored by seniors Keith Bowers and Darius Kilgo. They’re listed as co-starters as of now, but both will play regularly. Kilgo started 12 games last season and contributed 37 tackles, 6.5 for loss, and two sacks. Bowers started nine games and recorded 32 tackles.

The linebacker group returns a lot of production, except for outside linebacker Marcus Whitfield, who finished second on the team with 15.5 tackles for loss and nine sacks a year ago. The second- and third-leading tackles from 2013 are the two returning inside linebackers, seniors Cole Ferrand and L.A. Goree. The pair combined for 160 tackles, nine for loss, and 1.5 sacks. Returning outside linebacker Matt Robinson also tallied 73 tackles, a third-best 10 tackles for loss, and half a sack. Senior Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil will replace Whitfield. Cudjoe-Virgil played in six games last season, his first after transferring from Seton Hill University, and notched 18 tackles, 3.5 for loss, three sacks, and an interception. The linebacker corps is full of experienced, but there are some touted youngsters waiting in the wings, such as four-star sophomore Yannick Ngakoue and redshirt freshman Jalen Brooks, who had a solid spring.

The secondary is also pretty stacked with potential, most notably sophomore corner William Likely, who Drew ranked as the ninth-best corner in the Big Ten this fall, one spot behind Raymon Taylor. Likely was fifth on the team with 70 tackles as a true freshman last season and led the team with seven passes defended while picking off one pass. Opposite Likely will be a battle between fifth-year senior Jeremiah Johnson, who started 12 games in 2012 and began last season as the starter but broke his toe and missed 10 games, and junior Alvin Hill, who was listed as the starter in the pre-camp depth chart.

Junior free safety Sean Davis was the team’s leading tackler last fall with 102 tackles. He also picked off two passes and had five passes defended. Drew ranked him the seventh-best safety in the conference, right behind Jarrod Wilson. Junior Anthony Nixon returns as the strong safety after a 60-tackle campaign in 2013.

Special Teams

Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2013 Stats
PK Brad Craddock 6’0″, 190 21-of-25, Long 50
P Nathan Renfro 6’0″, 175 40.8 avg, 18 In-20, 9 TB
KR William Likely 5’7″, 175 28 ret, 26.0 avg
PR William Likely 5’7″, 175 16 ret, 12.8 avg., 1 TD

Both kicking specialists are back from last season. Kicker Brad Craddock is our fourth-best kicker in the conference after converting 21-of-25 field goal attempts in 2013 with a long of 50. He missed only two from inside 50 yards. Punter Nathan Renfro averaged 40.8 yard per punt last season, which ranked 10th in the ACC.

There is big-play potential in the return game from Diggs and Likely. Diggs averaged 23.4 yards per kick return prior to his injury and Likely averaged 26, which ranked third in the ACC. Likely also handled punt return duties and averaged a conference fourth-best 12.8 yards per return, including one touchdown.

Outlook

It’s quite obvious that this Maryland team has a lot of experience and talent in its starting lineup, certainly enough to improve on its 7-6 record if it avoids the injury bug and if it were still in the ACC. But the conference schedule is a tough one and the Terps have West Virginia and Syracuse on the non-conference slate. Both of those teams should be beatable, but they have more meat on them than the usual non-conference foes. Maryland should be able to get through the first four unscathed and then face a shootout at Indiana. The Terps will need to win that one if they want to have a successful season because then the gauntlet begins.

With all the talent Maryland has at receiver and an experienced returning quarterback and backfield, the offensive line is still an issue and could be the stumbling block against Big Ten defenses. Edsall’s squad will need to steal one that it shouldn’t in October or November to ensure a winnings season, but may need to beat Rutgers at season’s end to simply break even. A 7-5 regular season should be considered a positive one for the Terps this fall and anything beyond that a great one. But 5-7 is also a very realistic possibility.

What it means for Michigan

Michigan will be in for a good test from Maryland in late November with a trip to Columbus looming the following week. The good news is that Michigan gets a bye week after Northwestern on Nov. 8 to prepare for Maryland, and by then they’ll have plenty of film to look at. Michigan’s defense projects to be very good this season, and this late in the season will be battle tested. The secondary will have its hands full with Diggs and Long, but Michigan certainly has enough talent and depth on its defense to handle them. Look for a close, hard-fought game throughout that Michigan should be able to win.

2014 Big Ten football position rankings: Return specialists

Friday, August 8th, 2014


Big-Ten-position-rankings-header-ReturnSpecialists

This week, as part of our summer-long preview of Michigan football in 2014, we at Maize and Go Blue are ranking who will be the top special-teams performers in the Big Ten this upcoming season. The players listed here are whom we believe will be the most successful in 2014, not necessarily those who have performed the best in previous years. On Wednesday, we ranked who will be the five best kicking specialists—placekickers or punters—in the conference. Today, we reveal who will be the five best return specialists in the Big Ten this fall.

Previously

Quarterbacks: Part One, Part Two | Running Backs: Part One, Part Two | Wide Receivers: Part One, Part Two
Tight Ends: Part One, Part Two | Offensive Line: Part One, Part Two | Defensive Line: Part One, Part Two
Linebackers: Part One, Part Two | Cornerbacks: Part One, Part Two | Safeties:Part One, Part Two |
Special Teams: Kicking Specialists,

5. Kevonte Martin-Manley, Iowa (WR) | 5th-yr Senior – 6’0”, 205 lbs
Kick Ret Yds/Ret Long TD Punt Ret Yds/Ret Long TD
2013 0 0 0 0 20 15.7 83 2
2012 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
2011 4 20.5 23 0 0 0 0 0
2011 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 4 20.5 23 0 20 15.7 83 2
(Denny Medley, US Presswire)

(Denny Medley, US Presswire)

So what criteria should be used to determine who will be the best return specialists in the Big Ten? Are the better returners the ones that are more likely to break one for a touchdown on any given return, even if they have fewer returns because they field either only kickoffs or only punts, like Nebraska’s Kenny Bell and Purdue’s Akeem Hunt? Or should players that are not only explosive but also expected to pull double duty and return both kickoffs and punts, such as Ohio State’s Dontre Wilson and Wisconsin’s Kenzel Doe, be given priority? Although all four of the aforementioned players were not ranked on this list, we decided to focus more on the latter group because they will have a larger overall impact on special teams. But this does not mean that a player that specializes in only one type of return cannot crack the top five.

Iowa’s Kevonte Martin-Manley has made a name for himself as a premier punt returner, but this was not the case until recently. After redshirting in 2010, his first two seasons spent on the field were devoted to his true position of wide receiver, where he was quite productive. Martin-Manley turned in a 30-catch, 323-yard campaign as a freshman before becoming Iowa’s leading receiver with 52 receptions for 571 yards as a sophomore. But, during these first two years, he took zero reps as a punt returner, playing only sparingly as a kickoff returner as a freshman. Instead, at that time, the punt returner job belonged to defensive back Micah Hyde, who fielded 29 of the 30 punts Iowa returned in 2011 and 2012. However, Hyde graduated after the 2012 season, and Iowa needed to locate his successor for the following season. Martin-Manley was the choice.

So how did Martin-Manley perform as a punt returner despite having not played the position since he was a high-school senior in 2009? Pretty, pretty good. He led the Big Ten with 314 yards on 20 punt returns for an average of 15.70 yards per punt return. Not only was his average the second-best in the Big Ten, it was the eighth-best nationally. These praiseworthy numbers can mostly be attributed to one spectacular performance against Western Michigan early in the season. In that matchup, he returned four punts for an astonishing 184 yards, averaging 46 yards per return. But the most remarkable feat of the day was Martin-Manley scoring two touchdowns on back-to-back punt returns about a minute apart—an 83-yarder and a 63-yarder. He became the first Big Ten player to ever return back-to-back punts for touchdowns and just the second player in the past decade to return two punts for touchdowns in the same quarter. This achievement alone was sufficient to earn himself a spot as a specialist on last year’s All-Big Ten first team by multiple media outlets.

As a fifth-year senior this fall, Martin-Manley should resume his role as Iowa’s punt returner. Although it is unlikely that he again will have the type of performance he had against Western Michigan, he should still be one of the most feared punt returners in the Big Ten. What makes Martin-Manley such a dangerous returner is not his speed—even head coach Kirk Ferentz admits that Martin-Manley is not a “burner”—but his vision. He is a smart runner that can see the hole before it materializes and set up his blocks accordingly. This is a valuable trait for any returner to have, yet so few possess it. This is why it would not be a surprise to see Martin-Manley return one or two more punts for a touchdown in 2014.

4. Marcus Jones, Minnesota (DB) | Senior – 5’8”, 173 lbs.
Kick Ret Yds/Ret Long TD Punt Ret Yds/Ret Long TD
2013 25 24.9 98 1 11 10.5 65 1
2012 4 18.8 22 0 3 15.7 22 0
2011 13 28.5 92 1 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 42 25.4 98 2 14 11.6 65 1
(Tim Fuller, US Presswire)

(Tim Fuller, US Presswire)

It takes time for some football players to discover their niche on a team. Minnesota’s Marcus Jones is a great example. In all honesty, he should have found his niche as a true freshman. Notwithstanding his status as a former two-star cornerback recruit, Jones impressed the Minnesota staff as a wide receiver the moment he stepped on campus, which led to him starting in the opener against USC. After seeing Jones’ athleticism in action, the staff asked him to start returning kickoffs as conference play began. In his first three Big Ten contests, Jones electrified the crowds in that role. He returned 13 kickoffs for 370 yards, including a 92-yard touchdown against Purdue. If he had maintained his average of 28.46 yards per kickoff for the remainder of the season, it would have been the third-best in the Big Ten. Jones may have been a productive receiver, but his potential as a special-teams star was enormous.

The potential seemed like it would never be fulfilled, though. In a practice after that third Big Ten contest, Jones blew out his left knee, tearing an ACL, which forced him to miss the rest of his freshman year. Then, he had far less of an impact on offense and special teams the following season. The staff rarely utilized him as a returner—he fielded only seven total kicks in the first 11 games—and he played many fewer snaps at wideout. To compound matters, Jones then tore his other ACL near the end of his sophomore campaign, creating another significant setback he would need to overcome. Many began to question whether Jones would lose a step after two serious knee injuries or ever regain the form he had early as a freshman.

Those questions were answered quite swiftly in 2013. In Minnesota’s season opener against UNLV, Jones caught a kickoff at his own two-yard line and exploded through a hole for a 98-yard sprint to pay dirt. The following week, Jones proved that his return touchdown in the opener was not a fluke. In the second quarter against New Mexico State, he hauled in a punt, broke a tackle as soon as he secured the football, and sped 65 yards for his second special-teams touchdown in as many weeks. Jones’ status as Minnesota’s starting kickoff and punt returner was cemented. He finished the season with an average of 10.45 yards per punt return—the third-highest among Big Ten players that returned at least 10 punts—and 24.88 yards per kickoff return. Not too shabby for a player coming off two knee surgeries in successive seasons.

In 2014, there are no more concerns, questions, or doubt about Jones and what is capable of performing on special teams. Although Minnesota has some talented speedsters on its roster, such as Antonio Johnson, KJ Maye, and Berkley Edwards, none of them will supplant Jones as the starting kickoff and punt returner. For the first time since he arrived in Minneapolis as a true freshman, Jones will not be beginning the season after suffering a significant injury the year prior. Accordingly, he should be able to shine more than ever as a special-teams specialist. He may not have the shiftiness that some of the others on this list have, but he will thrive as a cut-and-go returner. This will be his only role for Minnesota this season. It took three years, but Jones finally found his niche.

3. William Likely, Maryland (DB) | Sophomore – 5’7″, 175 lbs
Kick Ret Yds/Ret Long TD Punt Ret Yds/Ret Long TD
2013 28 26.0 51 0 16 12.8 63 1
Career Totals 28 26.0 51 0 16 12.8 63 1
(G. Fiume, Getty Images)

(G. Fiume, Getty Images)

This is William Likely’s second appearance in the 2014 Big Ten Position Rankings series. Two weeks ago, Likely was ranked as the No. 9 cornerback in the Big Ten after recording 70 tackles, 4.5 tackles-for-loss, and eight passes defended in 11 starts as a true freshman last year. He is expected to make a sophomore leap like many have before him and shore up a Maryland secondary that, quite frankly, was only mediocre in 2013. However, this is not the only area where Likely will contribute this season.

In 2013, before he was inserted into the starting lineup as a cornerback, Likely made his debut on special teams, starring as Maryland’s kickoff returner. He proved immediately how exhilarating he could be in that role for the Terrapins, taking the first career kickoff he fielded 43 yards against Old Dominion. He then followed that up with a 45-yard kickoff return versus Connecticut, a 50-yard kickoff return versus Boston College, and a career-long 51-yard kickoff return versus North Carolina State. With the help of four 40-plus-yard kickoff returns, Likely averaged 26.04 yards per kickoff return, which was the third-best in the ACC and would have been the fourth-best in the Big Ten. Likely’s performance as a kickoff returner, along with limited assistance from Stefon Diggs before he suffered a season-ending injury, propelled Maryland to the sixth-best Kickoff Return Efficiency rating nationally according to FEI. But Likely’s impact on special teams did not end there.

Likely’s abilities as a punt returner were just as effective. He returned 16 punts for 205 yards and an average of 12.81 yards per return. His per-punt-return average was the fourth-highest in the ACC and would have been the third-highest in the Big Ten. This can be credited to returning three punts 20-plus yards, including a 63-yarder that he took to the house against Virginia Tech after one shifty juke and a burst of speed. It was not all sunshine and rainbows, though. Likely did muff one punt in the opener against Florida International and admitted he had trouble tracking very high punts. Nonetheless, Likely improved throughout the season and finished as one of the most dynamic returners in the ACC.

Likely should reassume his duties as Maryland’s kickoff and punt returner this fall. As a sophomore, he should be as productive in the return game as he was last season. Not only does Likely possess great speed and lateral quickness, his 5’7” stature makes him a small target for coverage units to bring down. However, the reason he is not higher on this list is because Maryland may rotate other players at both positions. Diggs, a former five-star athlete that averaged 28.52 yards per kickoff and returned two kickoffs for a touchdown as a freshman in 2012, is healthy again, although it is unclear how much he will play there because he took a backseat to Likely before the injury last year. Other options also include brothers Levern and Taivon Jacobs, the latter of which was a member of the United States Junior Olympic Track and Field team. While Maryland has lots of pieces with which to work, ultimately, Likely should be featured at both return positions and continue to produce on both defense and special teams.

2. V’Angelo Bentley, Illinois (DB) | Junior – 5’10″, 190 lbs
Kick Ret Yds/Ret Long TD Punt Ret Yds/Ret Long TD
2013 10 663 100 1 10 189 67 1
2012 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 10 663 100 1 10 189 67 1
(Anthony Souffle, Chicago Tribune)

(Anthony Souffle, Chicago Tribune)

Similar to Maryland’s William Likely, Illinois’ V’Angelo Bentley is a cornerback and a return specialist. Dissimilar to Likely, though, Bentley is not near being one of the best cornerbacks in the Big Ten. Last season was the first time Bentley saw extensive action in the defensive backfield, starting eight games at cornerback. He tallied an impressive four tackles-for-loss but recorded only 22 tackles and three passes defended. Although fewer tackles is not necessarily a slight against cornerback play, Bentley still was a starting defensive back for what advanced statistics considered to be the 108th-ranked pass defense in the country. Bentley has much upon which to improve when it comes to his performance as a cornerback. As a return specialist, though? Not so much.

Last season, Bentley was one of, if not the, best punt returners in the Big Ten. Among all Big Ten players that returned a minimum of 10 punts, no one had a better per-punt-return average than Bentley’s 15.75 yards, which was also the seventh-highest in the nation. It certainly helped that 25 percent of his 12 punt returns gained at least 25 yards. He had a 26-yarder against Cincinnati and a 50-yarder against Miami (OH), but none compared to his 67-yard touchdown return against Ohio State. Not only was the return itself a dandy, but it is even more impressive that he did it against the Buckeyes. Ohio State’s punt coverage unit was exceptional last season. Through its first nine games, it allowed only two punts to be returned for three yards. That is it. But Bentley just shrugged that off and returned three punts for 82 yards against the Buckeyes, scoring the only punt-return touchdown they allowed all season. This feat speaks to the type of talent Bentley has as a punt returner.

However, Bentley needs to work out some kinks as a kickoff returner. Whereas he had the highest per-punt-return average in the Big Ten, he had the second-lowest per-kickoff-return average among Big Ten players with a minimum of 10 kickoffs (21.39 yards). Too many times he would receive the kickoff at the goal line or just in front of it and fail to bring the ball out past the 20-yard line. While some of this is due to poor blocking by his teammates on the kickoff return unit, some of this also is due to Bentley dancing around in an attempt to reel off the big play. Although Bentley can provide that big play every once in a while, like this 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Southern Illinois that features an excellent cutback, he needs to be more patient when there is no hole and power forward for yards to give Illinois better starting field position. If Bentley can make this adjustment next season, he very well could be the best return specialist in the conference given his prowess as a punt returner.

1. Janarion Grant, Rutgers (WR) | Sophomore - 5’11″, 175 lbs
Kick Ret Yds/Ret Long TD Punt Ret Yds/Ret Long TD
2013 21 24.6 100 1 17 9.2 58 1
Career Totals 21 24.6 100 1 17 9.2 58 1
(Tom Ciszek, NJ Sports Photo)

(Tom Ciszek, NJ Sports Photo)

There are ridiculously few college football players that can honestly claim that they scored a touchdown the very first snap of their career. As all Michigan fans know, former quarterback Denard Robinson is one. What Michigan fans do not know—until now—is that Rutgers’ Janarion Grant is another. In Rutgers’ season opener against Fresno State last season, Grant made his collegiate debut when he stepped onto the gridiron to return a kickoff after Fresno State scored on its opening drive. Grant received the kickoff with the soles of his feet on the goal line, spotted a hole, and hit the turbo button as he sprinted 100 yards untouched into the end zone. In just 12 seconds, a special-teams stud was born.

As a true freshman, Grant was one of the best return specialists in the AAC last season. Among all AAC players that returned a minimum of 10 kickoffs or 10 punts, Grant had the second-best per-punt-return average (9.18 yards) and the fourth-best per-kickoff-return average (24.64 yards) in the AAC. While these yardage averages may not seem as impressive in comparison to the averages other returners on this list have earned, it is imperative to remember that not all coverage units that a returner faces are created equal. The AAC had some of the best punt and kickoff coverage units in the nation, and, unlike the specialists in the Big Ten, Grant had the challenge to return against all of them. Accordingly, notwithstanding Grant’s low yardage averages, Rutgers’ FEI rating for Punt Return Efficiency and Kickoff Return Efficiency was ranked second and 13th nationally, respectively. There were few schools, if any, that had a better overall return unit than Rutgers. And Grant was the star of the special-teams show.

Grant likely will produce even better numbers as a return specialist next season. First, Grant likely will face coverage units in the Big Ten that are not as strong as the one he went against in the AAC. The only exceptions are Ohio State, Michigan State, and maybe Michigan only if it scraps its traditional punting formation. Second, Grant should field more kickoffs and punts this season than last. In 2013, he shared his return responsibilities with then-senior Quron Pratt. With Pratt gone, the majority of those remaining returns should be allocated to Grant. This will provide him with more opportunities to score special-teams touchdowns like this punt he returned 58 yards for a touchdown against Arkansas. So Big Ten opponents should not be surprised if Grant breaks off a huge return when they face Rutgers this season. He demonstrated from the very first play of his career that he is a threat that cannot be taken lightly.

What do you think? Do you think Rutgers’ Janarion Grant will be the best return specialist in the Big Ten this season? Or do you think it will be someone else? Do you think it was unfair to leave returners like Nebraska’s Kenny Bell and Purdue’s Akeem Hunt off the list because they specialize in only one type of return? And do you think any of Michigan’s potential return specialists, whether it is Dennis Norfleet or Jabrill Peppers, should have cracked this top five? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below. Next week, we will bend our definition of the word “position” and rank the best Big Ten coaching staffs.

Predicting Michigan: The special teams

Thursday, August 7th, 2014


Predicting-Michigan-SpecialTeams

Will Hagerup(Adam Glanzman, The Michigan Daily)

Special teams never receives the same attention as the offense or defense, but this unit has a major impact on every game and how the field position battle is determined. Young players use special teams reps to earn time at their natural positions early in their careers, so the athletes that Michigan has brought to Ann Arbor in recent recruiting classes bodes well for coach Dan Ferrigno. In 2014 Michigan will feature a new-look core of specialists despite an array of familiar faces.

Kicker

Special teams utility man Matt Wile will take over the primary kicking duties during his senior year after an up-and-down campaign as the starting punter. Wile gives Michigan an added dimension to the offense, as his power makes longer field goal attempts much more of a reality.

Wile showed flashes of greatness during 2013, including a 49-yard field goal through the rain in East Lansing to give Michigan a temporary 3-0 lead. The junior also booted one of the finest punts in school history: A 69-yard blast that pinned Nebraska on its own three-yard line on Nov. 9.

As a senior Wile has a chance to be an excellent place kicker for Doug Nussmeier, whose pro-style offense will attempt field goals more often than take a chance in a fourth-down situation. Wile has converted five field goals on eight career attempts and is a perfect 4-of-4 inside 50 yards. He has has also made all five extra points he has attempted in his career.

Career Stats – Wile
Year FGM FGA FG % Long 1-39 40-49 50+ PAT
2011 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
2012 2 3 66.7 52 0-0 1-1 1-2 0-0
2013 3 5 60.0 49 2-2 1-1 0-2 5-5
Totals 5 8 62.5 52 2-2 2-2 1-4 5-5

Punter

Michigan’s 2012 Big Ten Punter of the Year returns from a year-long suspension to resume punting duties for his final season of eligibility. Will Hagerup is one of the finest punters that Michigan has ever seen on the field, and if he can keep his act together off the field he could be one of the top special teams performers in the country this season.

When Hagerup last played for the Wolverines, he led the Big Ten with a school-record 45 yards per punt and added 13 punts of over 50 yards. Though punters are often overlooked, Hagerup was the most valuable player for Michigan at times during his junior season, including the opening game against Alabama when he averaged 51.3 yards on six punts and crushed his season-long 62-yarder.

In Hagerup’s absence, Wile struggled with consistency as punter in 2013, kicking several attempts off the side of his foot and straight out of bounds. Hagerup will give Michigan a reliable option that flips the field on the opposing offense nearly every punt. Expect Brady Hoke to punt more often on fourth down because of the consistency Hagerup offers.

Career Stats – Hagerup
Year Punts Yards Average Long TB FC In-20 Blk
2010 33 1,440 43.6 72 2 6 11 1
2011 29 1,043 36.0 50 1 8 5 0
2012 33 1,486 45.0 62 4 4 3 0
2013 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Totals 95 3,969 41.8 72 7 18 19 1

Returners

Michigan lost one of its top kick return options when Jeremy Gallon graduated and entered the NFL Draft, but a star recruit is coming to Ann Arbor to try to revive a Wolverine return game that has lain dormant since Steve Breaston last donned the Maize and Blue.

For the past two seasons, the speedy Dennis Norfleet has been largely considered the best return option for the Wolverines. Unfortunately, reality has shown that the 160-pound junior struggles to follow his blockers and break big returns. Norfleet has shown brief glimpses of potential as a returner — such as a 42-yard punt return against Illinois in 2012 — but he has shaky hands and averages just 23.6 yards per return on kicks.

While Norfleet will likely hold the starting job out of camp, incoming freshman Jabrill Peppers offers an intriguing second option. Peppers will play predominately in the secondary as a Wolverine, but he also owns the skills to be a valuable specialist. His pure athletic ability and strong build equip the five-star with the tools to be an electric kick and punt returner. If Norfleet has an average start to the 2014 season, expect Michigan to give Peppers an opportunity as a freshman because of his enormous breakout potential.

Michigan also gave sophomore Jourdan Lewis a look at punt returner during the spring game. Lewis is an athletic defensive back and could start the season on punt returns if the coaching staff is hesitant to hand the reins to Norfleet, who has returned just five punts in his career.

Career Stats – Norfleet
Year Kick Ret Yds/Ret Long TD Punt Ret Yds/Ret Long TD
2012 35 23.6 38 0 2 26.5 42 0
2013 40 23.4 44 0 3 -0.3 2 0
Totals 75 23.5 44 0 5 10.4 42 0
Career Stats – Lewis
Year Kick Ret Yds/Ret Long TD Punt Ret Yds/Ret Long TD
2013 1 18.0 18 0 0 0 0 0
Totals 1 18.0 18 0 0 0 0 0

Overall, while neither kicking specialist will be the same as last season, there is still plenty of talent returning, and if Peppers can live up to the hype that has surrounded him since his commitment, Michigan’s special teams could be a big strength this fall.

2014 Big Ten football position rankings: Kicking specialists

Wednesday, August 6th, 2014


Big-Ten-position-rankings-header-KickingSpecialists

This is the 10th installment of Maize and Go Blue’s series that ranks the best Big Ten players at each position for the upcoming season. Each week, until Michigan’s opener, one position will be previewed, looking at the players who will excel in 2014, not necessarily the ones who did so in previous seasons. This week, we are taking a look at special teams. Like the past nine editions of this series, this position preview is split into two parts—one for kicking specialists and one for return specialists—in order to provide thorough and in-depth analysis of each of player ranked. Today, we reveal who will be the top five kicking specialists—placekickers or punters—in the Big Ten this upcoming season.

Previously

Quarterbacks: Part One, Part Two | Running Backs: Part One, Part Two | Wide Receivers: Part One, Part Two
Tight Ends: Part One, Part Two | Offensive Line: Part One, Part Two | Defensive Line: Part One, Part Two
Linebackers: Part One, Part Two | Cornerbacks: Part One, Part Two | Safeties:Part One, Part Two

5. Matt Wile, Michigan (K) | Senior – 6’2”, 219 lbs
FG Made FG Att FG % Long 1-39 40+ PATs
2013 3 5 60.0 49 2-2 1-3 5-5
2012 2 3 66.7 52 0-0 2-3 0-0
2011 0 0 0 0 0 0 0-0
Career Totals 5 8 62.5 52 2-2 3-6 5-5
(Melanie Maxwell, AnnArbor.com)

(Melanie Maxwell, AnnArbor.com)

Matt Wile was supposed to be the savior that salvaged Michigan’s placekicking the moment he stepped on campus. He arrived in Ann Arbor the summer after Michigan went a ghastly 4-of-14 on field goals in 2010. He was expected to wrestle away the starting job from Brendan Gibbons, who made only one of his five field-goal attempts in 2010, immediately. However, not only did Gibbons enter the 2011 season atop the depth chart, he transformed into one of the most productive placekickers in Michigan history, breaking a few records and kicking numerous clutch field goals during the next three years. With Gibbons entrenched as the starter, Wile was left to perform the remaining odd jobs, becoming Michigan’s long-distance kicker, pooch punter, and kickoff specialist. Wile’s versatility proved to be a great asset to Michigan’s special teams the past three seasons, but he never has had the chance to be the kicker.

Wile finally will have that chance this fall. With Gibbons no longer a part of the program, Wile will be Michigan’s full-time placekicker. What we already know is that he has the leg to drill the football through the uprights from at least 45 yards out. As Michigan’s long-distance kicker the past two seasons, he attempted six field goals from at least that distance and made half of them, hitting from 48, 49, and 52 yards. While a 50-percent success rate from there already is respectable for a college kicker, it should be even better this year. This will be the first time of his career that he will be able to devote all of his time to honing his placekicking form and ability. Wile should be even more lethal from 45-plus-yards.

On the other hand, what we have yet to learn is whether Wile can be consistent from inside 45 yards. A big leg is a prized weapon, but coaches would be willing to trade it in for a kicker that is automatic from shorter distances. The only opportunity we have had to see Wile attempt a field goal from closer range was when he filled in for a suspended Gibbons in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl last season. He had two tries—22 and 26 yards out—and connected on both. But these were just chip shots. Can Wile convert the ones from 35 to 45 yards on a regular basis? Given that Wile was 19-of-25 his last two years in high school and invited to the U.S. Army All-American Game, my projection is that he will and there will be little drop-off from Gibbons to Wile for Michigan.

4. Brad Craddock, Maryland (K) | Junior – 6’0″, 185 lbs
FG Made FG Att FG % Long 1-39 40+ PAT
2013 21 25 84.0 50 16-17 5-8 37-38
2012 10 16 62.5 52 6-10 4-6 23-25
Career Totals 31 41 75.6 52 22-27 9-14 60-63
(Andrew Shurtleff)

(Andrew Shurtleff)

Just three years ago, Brad Craddock had never played American football. Growing up in Australia, he played four sports: soccer, tennis, track, and Australian-rules football. It is the last one that is the reason why he now finds himself on the Maryland football team. While playing Australian-rules football as a youth, he broke his arm three years in a row. This forced him to spend much of that time on the sidelines, but it did not prevent him from building his leg strength. Over time, his leg became a cannon, which led to one of head coach Randy Edsall’s former punters tipping Edsall off about Craddock. Edsall took a look at Craddock’s film and decided to take a chance on him.

Unsurprisingly, Craddock’s first season at Maryland was rocky. Not only did he need to adjust to playing American football for the first time in his life far away from his home continent, he was forced to play a position he had not been recruited to play. Craddock was meant to be only a punter and kickoff specialist. Yet, right before the 2012 season, Maryland’s starting placekicker Nick Ferrara suffered what would ultimately be a season-ending injury. Next thing he knew, Craddock was the starter despite essentially never having practiced any proper placekicking technique. He made only 10 of his 16 field goals as a freshman and dinged off the left upright would what would have been a game-winner against North Carolina State. The disappointment caused him to seriously consider not returning to Maryland for his sophomore season, but he decided to give it another shot. It is a good thing he did.

After working with one of the most accurate placekickers in NFL history in Matt Stover in the offseason, Craddock became one of the nation’s better placekickers last year. Craddock made 21 of the 25 field goals he attempted, increasing his conversation rate from 62.5 percent as a freshman to 84 percent as a sophomore. His 21 makes were tied for the most in the ACC and seventh-most nationally. Plus, Craddock still flashed the power his leg possesses, drilling a 50-yarder against West Virginia that would have been good from 60 yards. Craddock’s significant improvement was recognized as he was named a semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award, which is given to the nation’s best placekicker. What Stover was able to do was harness Craddock’s power and mold him into a consistent kicker by teaching him the proper technique. It was the first time Craddock understood the intricacies of placekicking and why he had been missing kicks left or right. With another offseason of development and practice under his belt, the sky is the limit for the Aussie who will be playing just his third season of American football this fall.

3. Michael Geiger, Michigan State (K) | Sophomore – 5’8”, 189 lbs.
FG Made FG Att FG % Long 1-30 40+ PAT
2013 15 16 93.8 49 7-8 8-8 36-38
Career Totals 15 16 93.8 49 7-8 8-8 36-38

After the 2012 season, Michigan State had a huge hole to fill on special teams. The Spartans’ three-year starter at placekicker, Dan Conroy, was graduating. With Conroy’s departure, Michigan State lost the kicker with third-best accuracy (77.5 pct.) and fourth-most career field goals (55) in school history. Michigan State needed to find a suitable replacement and quickly. So how does a school accomplish this? Recruiting the best high-school placekicker in the nation is a good place to start.

Michael Geiger arrived in East Lansing as the No. 1 kicker in the 2013 recruiting class according to Rivals, 247 Sports, and kicking guru Chris Sailer, and demonstrated quickly that the recruiting services were spot-on. As a true freshman last season, Geiger connected on 15 of his 16 field-goal attempts for an astounding 93.8-percent conversion rate. His conversion rate not only set a Michigan State single-season record but also was tops in the Big Ten and tied for the fourth-best in the nation. His only slipup of the entire season was a 36-yard miss against Iowa on only the third field-goal attempt his career. He then followed that up by making his next 13 tries, including all seven that were 40-plus yards. Geiger can put some power into his kicks, too. His long of the season was 49 yards. He has yet to attempt one from longer than 50 yards, but all evidence indicates this would not be a problem for him. Simply, not only did Geiger replace Conroy adequately, he was better than Conroy.

Next season, Geiger should be the best placekicker in the Big Ten. A strong case could be made that he was the best kicker in the conference last season, but Nebraska’s Pat Smith,  Northwestern’s Jeff Budzien, and Ohio State’s Drew Basil all made at least 90 percent of their field goals, too. However, all three of these kickers, as well as Indiana’s Mitch Ewald (81.8 pct.), Minnesota’s Chris Hawthorne (77.8 pct.), and Michigan’s Brendan Gibbons (75.0 pct.), were seniors last year. This mass exodus of kickers means that Geiger is one of the few known kicking commodities remaining in Big Ten. Although kickers are weird and all are vulnerable to strange slumps, it would be a shock if Geiger did not replicate his production from his freshman season and contend for All-Big Ten first-team honors in 2014.

2. Mike Sadler, Michigan State (P) | 5th-yr Senior – 6’0″, 175 lbs
Punts Yards Average Long TB FC In-20
2013 76 3,233 42.5 69 9 19 33
2012 79 3,422 43.3 70 6 21 31
2011 61 2,509 41.1 57 7 15 25
2010 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 216 9,164 42.4 70 22 55 89
(247 Sports)

(247 Sports)

Michael Geiger may be the best placekicker in the Big Ten, but he is not even the best kicking specialist named Michael or Mike on his own team. That distinction belongs to Mike Sadler. Entering his fourth and final season as Michigan State’s starting punter, Sadler has cobbled together quite an impressive career. In 2011, he was just one of 14 true or redshirt freshmen starting punters nationally. It was a successful debut, but it was not until his sophomore season when he sprung into the spotlight. In 2012, Sadler was named to the coaches’ All-Big Ten first team. Sadler then proceeded to be honored as not only a member of the All-Big Ten first team for the second straight season as a junior but also a member of select All-American squads and a semifinalist for the Ray Guy Award, which is given to the nation’s top punter. Undoubtedly, Sadler is one of college football’s most decorated and distinguished punters.

What makes Sadler such a special-teams stud is his ability to flip field position. Although his per-punt average dipped from 43.3 to 42.5 yards, the percentage of times he backed his opponent up against its goal line spiked last season. In 2012, Sadler pinned his opponent inside the 20-yard line 39.2 percent of the time and the 10-yard line 21.5 percent of the time. These percentages increased to 43.4 and 31.6 percent, respectively, in 2013, the latter of which was the best in the nation. He also dropped a remarkable eight punts inside the five-yard line, including three at the one-yard line, last year. Plus, Sadler could hit the deep ball when Michigan State was on its own side of the field. Over 21 percent of his punts sailed at least 50 yards—one of the higher figures in the Big Ten. Accordingly, Michigan State was fourth in the nation in Opponent Starting Field Position, which is the average distance of yards from the end zone an opponent begins its offensive, non-garbage possessions. It is already well-known that the Spartans arguably had the best defense in the nation last year, but not as many understand how vital of a role Sadler played in putting that defense in a position wreak havoc game in and game out.

However, given the accolades Sadler has earned thus far in his career, many will be surprised that he is No. 2 on this list and not No. 1. The popular opinion circulating among college football and Big Ten circles is that Sadler is undisputedly the best punter in the conference, if not the nation. There really are no negatives to Sadler’s game. He does everything very well, whether it be booming a punt 50-plus yards, placing a punt inside the opponent’s 10-yard line, or even executing a well-designed fake. But there just so happens to be another punter in the Big Ten that does all of these things a little bit better than Sadler, although very few realize it because he is not utilized nearly as often as Sadler.

1. Cameron Johnston, Ohio State (P) | Sophomore - 6’0″, 195 lbs
Punts Yards Average Long TB FC In-20
2013 49 2,156 44.0 71 2 24 31
Career Totals 49 2,156 44.0 71 2 24 31
(Greg Bartram, USA Today Sports)

(Greg Bartram, USA Today Sports)

Maryland’s Brad Craddock is not the only Aussie on this short list. Joining him is Ohio State punter Cameron Johnston. Johnston, like Craddock, grew up playing Australian-rules football. Unlike Craddock, though, Johnston practiced American football kicking techniques before coming to the States. Johnston was accepted into Prokick Australia in Melbourne—a program which rigorously trains Australian kickers for American football for a 12-month period. His trainer at Prokick Australia, Nathan Chapman, raved about Johnston, claiming Johnston is the best player his program has produced and listing off punting distances and hang times that seem like hyperbole. Chapman just needed to find an American college that would gamble on Johnston.

In September 2012, Chapman contacted Ohio State about opening a roster spot for Johnston. The Buckeyes’ coaching staff watched his film and liked what it saw but already had received a commitment from Johnny Townsend, the second-best punter in the 2013 recruiting class according to 247 Sports’ composite rankings. Accordingly, Ohio State told Johnston and Chapman, “No thanks.” Johnston received little interest from other major programs, so it seemed likely he would need to wait another year before the right opportunity became available. However, on National Signing Day, Townsend changed his mind and flipped to Florida, leaving Ohio State without a punter in its class. The prevailing thought was that then-senior placekicker Drew Basil would pull off double duty and do the punting, too. But Ohio State’s coaching staff changed its mind in June 2013 and reached out to Johnston about playing for the Buckeyes. Johnston was on a plane to Ohio shortly thereafter.

It did not take very long for Johnston to prove that Ohio State’s decision to bring him on board was the best one. Last season as a true freshman, albeit a 21-year-old freshman, Johnston demonstrated just how explosive his leg is by leading the Big Ten with a per-punt average of 44 yards. It also did not hurt his average that his long for the season was 71 yards and 18.4 percent of his punts traveled over 50 yards. But Johnston also demonstrated that he had mastered how to pin opponents deep in their own territory. He led the nation in percentage of punts downed inside the 20-yard line at an incredible 63.3 percent and ranked second nationally with 28.6 percent of his punts downed inside the 10-yard line. Further, the hang time he put on his punts was spectacular, forcing punt returners to call a fair catch almost half the time. As a result, Ohio State finished first in the Big Ten and fifth in the nation in net punting. Johnston’s debut season in Columbus was an astonishing success.

Best Big Ten Punter? Mike Sadler-Cameron Johnston 2013 comparison
Avg/Punt Downed In-20 % Downed In-10 % Touchback % Fair Catch % 50+ %
Johnston 44.0 63.3 28.6 4.1 49.0 18.4
Sadler 42.5 43.4 31.6 11.8 25.0 21.1

Yet, despite Johnston having better numbers almost all the way across the board as shown in the foregoing table, Michigan State’s Mike Sadler was named to the All-Big Ten first team last year. Sadler is a fantastic punter and worthy of the honor, but he was selected instead of Johnston only because he punted 27 more times last season and receives more media attention for his hilarious engagement on social media. With its dynamic offense, Ohio State did not need to deploy Johnston as often as Michigan State did with Sadler, but, if a team needs a punter for just one punt, the numbers indicate that Johnston is the better option. Therefore, contrary to popular belief, Johnston will be the best punter in the Big Ten in 2014, not Sadler, especially now that Johnston will be more accustomed to American culture and football in his second year in the States.

So what do you think? Do you agree with our list? Or did we make a mistake by putting Ohio State’s Cameron Johnston ahead of Michigan State’s Mike Sadler? Did Michigan’s Matt Wile deserve to make the cut? And how do you think Michigan’s Will Hagerup will perform this season? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below. Later this week, we will rank who will be the five best return specialists in the Big Ten in 2014.

2014 opponent preview: Rutgers

Tuesday, August 5th, 2014


2014-Opponent-Preview-Rutgers

Chugging along with our opponent preview series, we have come to the first of two new additions to the conference, the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, who we feel will be the sixth-easiest . Previously, we previewed, in order from easiest to not-so-easiest, Appalachian State, Miami (Ohio), Minnesota, Utah, and Indiana.

Overview

Schedule
Date Opponent
Aug. 28 at Washington State
Sept. 6 Howard
Sept. 13 Penn State
Sept. 20 at Navy
Sept. 27 Tulane
Oct. 4 Michigan
Oct. 18 at Ohio State
Oct. 25 at Nebraska
Nov. 1 Wisconsin
Nov. 15 Indiana
Nov. 22 at Michigan State
Nov. 29 at Maryland

Remember 2006 when Michigan was unbeaten heading into Columbus for the game of the century? You know, the last time Michigan was really good? Well, Rutgers is also trying to get back to those days. Since going 11-2 that season and finishing ranked 12th nationally, the Scarlet Knights have gone 8-5, 8-5, 9-4, 4-8, 9-4, 9-4, and 6-7. Now, as they move into the Big Ten with considerable experience returning, they were done no favors by their new conference.

Rutgers doesn’t get to dodge any of the Big Ten elite teams this fall, traveling to Ohio State, Nebraska, and Michigan State, and hosting Penn State, Michigan, and Wisconsin. I guess they can be happy that they avoid Iowa, but when one considers that Wisconsin misses out on Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan, and Penn State this fall, it’s not a very warm welcome for the Scarlet Knights.

Head coach Kyle Flood enters his third season as a head coach and his third straight season in a different conference. The former offensive line coach and assistant head coach under Greg Schiano took over in 2012 when his predesessor left for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In his first season, Rutgers tied for first in the Big East, but the caveat would be that four of the eight teams in the conference shared the title, all with 5-2 records. Rutgers had a chance to win it outright by beating Louisville in the final week, but the Cardinals won 20-17 and ultimately earned the conference’s BCS berth. Rutgers then lost to Virginia Tech 13-10 in the Citrus Bowl. Flood shared Big East Coach of the Year honors with then-Louisville head coach Charlie Strong.

Flood lost both of his coordinators following the 2012 season and brought in former Kansas State head coach Ron Prince to run the offense. After a 52-51 overtime loss at Fresno State to open the season, Rutgers won four straight, including a four-point win over Arkansas and a 55-52 triple-overtime thriller over SMU. But then the wheels fell off. They went 2-6 the rest of the way with a 29-16 loss to Notre Dame in the Pinstripe Bowl to end the season.

Prince’s time in Piscataway would be short-lived as he jumped to the Detroit Lions following the season, and Flood replaced him with former Maryland head coach Ralph Friedgen. Flood also fired defensive coordinator Dave Cohen, who had been promoted from linebackers coach prior to the 2013 season, and promoted special teams coach Joe Rossi. Needless to say, Flood has faced plenty of turnover in his short tenure thus far and hopes the move to the Big Ten will provide more stability. But how will Flood be able to navigate such a challenging schedule in 2014? Let’s take a look.

Offense

Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2013 Stats
QB Gary Nova 6’2″, 220 165-303 for 2,159 yds, 18 TD, 14 INT
RB Paul James 6’0″, 205 881 yds (5.6 avg), 9 TD
FB Michael Burton 6’0″, 230 61 yds (6.8 avg), 19 rec for 149 yds, 2 TD
WR Leonte Carroo 6’1″, 205 28 rec. for 478 yds, 9 TD
WR Andre Patton 6’4″, 200 3 rec. for 49 yds, 1 TD
TE Tyler Kroft 6’6″, 240 43 rec. for 573 yds, 4 TD
LT Keith Lumpkin 6’8″, 310 13 starts (13 career starts)
LG Kaleb Johnson 6’4″, 300 13 starts (37 career starts)
C Betim Bujari 6’4″, 295 7 starts (23 career starts)
RG Chris Muller 6’6″, 300 12 starts (12 career starts)
RT Taj Alexander 6’4″, 290 10 starts (14 career starts)

Nine starters return on an offensive unit that ranked 77th nationally in scoring (26.5 points per game), 96th in total offense (365.2 yards per game), 101st in rushing (129.5 yards per game), and 64th in passing (235.6 yards per game). However, last season’s performance doesn’t mean much with a new offensive coordinator in place. The 66-year-old Friedgen is known as a great offensive mind and has coached offense since 1977.

Tyler Kroft may be the best tight end Michigan faces all season (Matt Cashore, USA Today Sports)

Tyler Kroft may be the best tight end Michigan faces all season (Matt Cashore, USA Today Sports)

The first order of business for Friedgen will be developing a quarterback. Gary Nova has three years of experience under his belt, but last year was less than inspiring to be sure. He completed just 54.5 percent of his passes for 2,159 yards, 18 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions. After his season-opening performance against Fresno State (26-of-41 for 348 yards, five touchdowns, one interception), it was all downhill. In a two-game stretch mid-season against Louisville and Houston, Nova went 26-of-51 for 340 yards, one touchdown, and seven interceptions. He was replaced by then-senior Chas Dodd for the final three games, but Friedgen insists he’s the best option this fall. In Rutgers’ 2014 media guide, Nova was listed as the co-starter along with junior Mike Bimonte and redshirt freshman Chris Laviano. Neither Bimonte or Laviano has thrown a pass.

He does have a pretty good running back coming back in junior Paul James, who rushed for 881 yards and nine touchdowns on 5.6 yards per carry despite missing four games with a leg injury. He missed part of spring practice with a shoulder injury, but should be ready to go this season. He opened 2013 with three straight 100-yard games and averaged 143.3 yards per game –and 7.3 per carry — in the first four prior to the injury. When he returned, those numbers dropped to 61.6 and 3.9 over the final five games. The main question will be whether he can stay healthy all season and return to his early season form.

Sophomore Justin Goodwin was impressive in James’ absence, averaging 102 yards per game and 4.7 yards per carry in those four games. He finished the season with 521 yards and five touchdowns and should be a solid second option. Fullback Michael Burton only carried the ball nine times, but caught 19 passes for 149 yards and two touchdowns.

While the backfield is set, two of the top three receivers from last season are gone. Brandon Coleman (34 receptions for 538 yards and four touchdowns) and Quron Pratt (32 receptions for 516 yards) leave some openings to fill, but tight end Tyler Kroft and receiver Leonte Carroo are good pieces to start with. Kroft actually led the team in receiving in 2013 with 43 catches for 573 yards and four touchdowns. Drew ranked Kroft the top tight end in the Big Ten this season. Carroo caught 28 passes for 478 yards and led the team with nine touchdowns despite missing the final three games with a head injury. He was held out of contact during spring practice, but will be ready to go for fall camp. Sophomore Ruhann Peele who caught 28 passes for 281 yards and one touchdown last season, was slated to start opposite Carroo, but needed foot surgery. In his place on the depth chart is sophomore Andre Patton, who had three catches for 49 yards and one touchdown a year ago.

The line returns all five starters, most notably senior center Betim Bujari, who was second team All-American Athletic Conference in 2013. He has 23 career starts. Left tackle Keith Lumpkin started all 13 games last season — the only starts of his career — and left guard Kaleb Johnson, who has 37 consecutive starts, will form the left side. Right tackle Chris Muller (12 starts) and right tackle Taj Alexander (14 starts) round out the line.

Defense

Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2013 Stats
DE David Milewski 6’4″, 245 34 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1.0 sacks, 2 FR
NG Kenneth Kirksey 6’1″, 275 7 tackles, 0.5 TFL
DT Darius Hamilton 6’4″, 255 48 tackles, 11.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 1 FF, 1 FR
DE Djwany Mera 6’4″, 260 34 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 1 FF, 1 FR
WLB Steve Longa 6’1″, 225 123 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks, 2 FF, 1 FR
MLB Kevin Snyder 6’3″, 235 96 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 2 sacks
SLB Quentin Gause 6’1″, 220 53 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 1.0 sack, 1 FR
CB Gareef Glashen 5’10″, 180 41 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 INT, 4 PD
CB Anthony Cioffi 6’0″, 185 31 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 1 sack, 4 PD, 2 FF, 1 FR
FS Delon Stephenson 5’11″, 190 9 tackles, 1 INT, 2 PD
SS Lorenzo Waters 6’0″, 195 62 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 INT, 5 PD, 2 FF, 1 FR

While Friedgen has a lot of pieces to work with on offense, Rossi has more work to do on defense with only five starters returning. Last year, the unit ranked 81st nationally in scoring defense (29.8 points per game), 74th in total defense (412.8 yards per game), fourth in rush defense (100.8 yards per game), and 122nd in pass defense (312 yards per game). Yes, you read that right. Rutgers had the fourth-best rush defense and the fourth-worst pass defense in the country. Of the three rush defenses that were better — Louisville, Michigan State, and Stanford — two had very good overall defenses. Louisville’s pass defense ranked fifth and Michigan State’s ranked third. Stanford had a somewhat similar gap as Rutgers with a pass defense that ranked 98th, but it still allowed 60 fewer passing yards per game than Rutgers did.

Steve Longa ranked 13th nationally with 10.23 tackles per game last season (Ben Solomon)

Steve Longa ranked 18th nationally with 123 tackles last season (Ben Solomon)

The line lost one of last year’s starting ends, Marcus Thompson, who recorded 51 tackles, 7.5 for loss, and 5.5 sacks. The sacks led the team and the tackles for loss ranked third. In his place will be fifth-year senior Dave Milewski, who will join redshirt junior Djwany Mera in the starting lineup. Milewski got one start last season and recorded 34 tackles, 1.5 for loss, one sack, and two fumble recoveries. Mera started all 13 games and tallied 34 tackles, 5.5 for loss, and 2.5 sacks. On the inside, senior nose guard Kenneth Kirksey is back from injury. He recorded seven tackles and half of a tackle for loss in the first three games last season before missing the final 10 with a triceps injury. Tackle Darius Hamilton returns to the starting lineup to join him, and we ranked him the ninth-best defensive lineman in the conference. The 6’4″, 255-pound junior led the team with 11.5 tackles for loss to go along with 48 tackles and 4.5 sacks.

The linebacker corps went through a shuffle similar to Michigan this spring, although unlike Michigan, the best linebacker was moved from the middle to the weak-side. That would be redshirt sophomore Steve Longa, who led the team with 123 tackles, ranked third with 7.5 tackles for loss, and third with three sacks. Drew ranked him as the fourth-best linebacker in the Big Ten this fall and Sporting News named him a first team freshman All-America last season. Senior Kevin Snyder, who ranked second with 96 tackles and also had 7.5 for loss and a pair of sacks, will move to the middle. Redshirt junior Quentin Gause will join the starting lineup to replace Jamal Merrell. Gause started against Arkansas, but played a reserve role all season. He finished fourth on the team with 55 tackles, second with 8.5 tackles for loss, and added one sack. He had his best game of the season against Notre Dame in the Pinstripe Bowl, notching nine tackles, one for loss, and a fumble recovery.

The secondary is where things get interesting. Remember, this is the group that ranked 122nd nationally against the pass a year ago. Aside from free safety Jeremy Deering, pretty much everybody is back, and that could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on which way you look at it. Several true freshmen played considerable time, which contributed to how bad the unit was, but bodes well for depth this fall. The only safe bet to start is strong safety Lorenzo Waters, who started 11 games in 2013 and ranked third on the team with 62 tackles. Eight players are listed on the depth chart in the Rugers media guide as co-starters at corner. Fifth-year senior Gareef Glashen started six game last season and tallied 41 tackles, 4.5 for loss, two sacks, and an interception, so he’s a good bet to start on one side. Sophomore Delon Stephenson ran with the corners in the spring, but is likely to wind up at free safety. If so, the other corner spot will be a battle to watch in fall camp between several others, most likely Anthony Cioffi, who started five games last season, and Nadir Barwell, who started four. Another to watch is true freshman Dre Boggs, a three-star prospect who had offers from Penn State and Wisconsin, and could push for playing time.

Special Teams

Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2013 Stats
PK Kyle Federico 6’0″, 190 12-of-18, Long 48
P Joseph Roth 6’0″, 175 (Redshirted)
KR Janarion Grant 5’11″, 175 21 ret, 24.6 avg., 1 TD
PR Janarion Grant 5’11″, 175 17 ret, 9.2 avg., 1 TD

Junior kicker Kyle Federico made 12-of-18 field goal attempts last season with a long of 48 and will assume the duties once again. Punter Nick Marsh, who averaged 40.6 yards per punt, is gone and will be replaced by redshirt junior Joseph Roth, who transferred from College of the Canyons and redshirted last fall. Sophomore Janarion Grant is the danger man in the return game. He averaged 9.2 yards per punt return with one touchdown and 24.6 yards per kick return with one touchdown as a true freshman, earning second team All-AAC honors.

Outlook

Rutgers could eventually succeed in the Big Ten, but is stuck in the East Division with Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Penn State. Regardless, it won’t happen this fall as this team is still way too young to even think about competing for the division title. Washington State, Howard, and Tulane are extremely winnable non-conference games, but Navy will be tough. If Rutgers starts Big Ten play 3-1, it will have a hard time finding three more wins to become bowl eligible. Penn State, Indiana, and Maryland are most likely, and the Scarlet Knights will hope to capitalize on a “black out” against Michigan. Turning this schedule into a winning season would be a major achievement for Flood, but a 5-7 campaign is more likely.

What it means for Michigan

The first meetings with both Rutgers and Maryland this season will feel like non-conference games since Michigan hasn’t played either in years. Neither team will really know that much about the other aside from a few early season game tapes. That and the fact that Michigan has struggled on the road under Brady Hoke are the reasons Rutgers isn’t ranked behind Indiana in terms of toughness on Michigan’s schedule. You can bet Rutgers will be pumped up for the primetime matchup under the lights at High Points Solutions Stadium, just their second ever Big Ten game. But make no mistake; Michigan is the better team, and as long as the Wolverines can handle the environment, should have no problem winning the first ever meeting between the two historic programs.

If Michigan performs like it did in a similar environment at UConn last season, it could be in trouble, but unless Rossi can shore up the shaky Rutgers secondary, Devin Gardner and the Michigan passing game will have a field day. Sure, it loses Jeremy Gallon, but Gardner will have five games to gel with Devin Funchess and the rest of the group prior to the trip to New Jersey. Four opponents threw for more than 400 yards and five more topped 300 against Rutgers in 2013. Gardner threw for 503 and 451 against similarly ranked pass defenses, Indiana and Ohio State. He’ll have a big day and lead Michigan to the win.

M&GB Roundtable talks freshmen, but not THAT freshman

Friday, August 1st, 2014


Roundtable-Freshmen

Canteen

So far this offseason we have discussed the status of Hoke’s hot seat (we pretty much all agreed this is not a make or break season for him) and the Michigan Football Legends jerseys program (we’re all in agreement that we like them, but they need a few guidelines). As we continue our offseason staff roundtable series today, we’re providing our thoughts on freshmen. You may have heard about this incoming defensive back named Jabrill Peppers, but we’re not talking about him. Here’s the question:

Which freshman — true or redshirt — are you most excited about this season, not named Jabrill Peppers? Who, other than Peppers, do you think will have the biggest impact this fall, and why?

Justin-banner

Jabrill Peppers is undoubtedly the freshman everyone is excited about. At Big Ten Media Days, it seemed that every other question for Brady Hoke, Devin Gardner, Jake Ryan, and Frank Clark was about Peppers. The amount of hype for an 18-year-old kid that hasn’t played a down of college football yet is unreal, and while we all hope it’s warranted, it was clear that Hoke and Michigan’s player representatives were tired of talking about it.

The only other freshman that has received a good amount of hype is receiver Freddy Canteen, and he’s who I’m most excited about. He was the talk of spring practice, showing off great speed, agility, and explosiveness — a combination Michigan has lacked at receiver for years. Jeremy Gallon, Roy Roundtree, and Junior Hemingway have been very good receivers the past few years, but they were all different types of receivers than Canteen. Michigan hasn’t had the Mario Manningham or Steve Breaston type of receiver (yes, I know Manningham played outside) that can complement the bigger possession receivers. And with the 6’5″, 230-pound Devin Funchess out wide, a speedy Canteen in the slot would be the perfect complement.

The big question mark for the receiving corps is redshirt sophomore Amara Darboh, who was the offseason hype machine and in line to start last season before breaking his foot in fall camp. That allowed Jehu Chesson, who was behind Darboh at the time, to work his way into the lineup. Chesson had an okay season (15 catches for 221 yards and a touchdown), but didn’t show the consistent playmaking ability. He flashed it — a catch-and-run across the middle touchdown against Akron and a jump ball in double coverage at Michigan State — but averaged barely over one catch a game. His blocking ability — a very important trait for a receiver, especially in Michigan’s offense — will keep him in the rotation, but he’ll likely battle with Darboh for the second outside spot opposite Funchess.

Canteen will likely battle with Dennis Norfleet for the slot job, and if they spring hype is accurate, has the leg up. Norfleet is just 5’7″, 169-pounds, and although shifty, has yet to fulfill the hype many expected of him. He was used sparingly on offense last season, and to mild success, because when he was on the field, it was a tell-tale sign that he was getting the ball on a trick play. Canteen’s size and game-breaking ability will allow him to stay on the field and be available for those trick plays without giving them away.

With Funchess playing the Gallon, Roundtree, and Hemingway role as The Man, Darboh and Chesson providing consistency and reliability on the other side, and Canteen giving big-play potential in the slot, this could be a very good receiving corps. There are a lot of ‘ifs’ but the potential is there, and for the first time in several years, there doesn’t appear to be a weak link in the group. The ideal situation would be for Darboh to return to the level he was pre-injury and start opposite Funchess with Canteen in the slot and Chesson rotating in for Darboh. Of course, the possibility exists that Canteen grabs the No. 2 receiver job on the outside — opposite Funchess — but that would leave Norfleet in the slot and both Darboh and Chesson coming off the bench, so that’s not ideal.

Drew-banner

There really are only a few legitimate candidates that can be considered. For the first time in a few seasons, Michigan finally will have experienced depth at most positions this fall thanks mostly to Brady Hoke’s work on the recruiting trail. In 2012 and 2013, the years he brought in his first two full recruiting classes, Hoke received commitments from 53 prospects. Currently, 52 of them still are on scholarship at Michigan, with only linebacker Kaleb Ringer transferring after he suffered a significant knee injury. The superb retention rate and lack of attrition in the 2012 and 2013 classes have allowed talented juniors and sophomores to flood Michigan’s depth chart. Accordingly, there are very few spots where Michigan needs freshmen—true or redshirt—to contribute immediately.

The only freshmen—other than Jabrill Peppers—that have an opportunity to start or see extensive playing time on either offense or defense are wide receiver Freddy Canteen and defensive tackle Maurice Hurst, Jr. There are a few other freshmen that could make notable contributions, though. Tight ends Khalid Hill and Ian Bunting may be valuable assets early in the season while Jake Butt completes his recovery from an ACL tear. Defensive tackle Bryan Mone, an early enrollee, may work his way into the defensive-line rotation by season’s end. And there are multiple offensive linemen with freshman eligibility that may be promoted to first string if the presumed starters—four sophomores and a junior—cannot improve upon what was arguably the nation’s worst offensive line last season, but Michigan fans are hoping this development does not come to fruition. Nevertheless, no freshman other than Peppers will have the impact that Canteen or Hurst, Jr. will have.

Although Hurst, Jr. may have a bigger impact as a plausible starter on the defensive line, the freshman not named Peppers that I am most excited about undoubtedly is Canteen. Canteen was a complete unknown when he committed to the Wolverines shortly after participating in Michigan’s summer camp in 2013. However, it was clear that he was unheralded only because his high school team played just three games his junior season. Once Michigan fans saw his game film and Vines of his terrific footwork, they started buzzing. Then, after he enrolled early last January, the coaching staff and his teammates began buzzing, too. Canteen provided a small taste of what he is capable of in the “spring game” when he flashed his swift speed and brisk footwork for what should have been two long completions, including one where he burned All-Big Ten first-team cornerback Blake Countess deep. With his crisp routes, he has the ability to be a playmaker immediately.

Canteen may not start, but he will play many snaps as a true freshman. Michigan lost four wide receivers, including record-setter Jeremy Gallon, to graduation in the offseason. Although the Wolverines still have arguably the Big Ten’s best wideout in Devin Funchess, they will need the younger guys to step up as the No. 2 and No. 3 options. Canteen will compete with sophomores Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson for those spots and already may have the edge on both. Plus, Michigan always could slide him in at slot receiver ahead of Dennis Norfleet. Either way, few freshmen will earn as much playing time in 2014 as Canteen, and he should dazzle all of us with his moves.

Josh-banner

In a perfect world we wouldn’t be asking this question. Personally, I would like to see ALL first year players get redshirted, sit and learn and pack on some weight without any pressure to perform. Sadly we don’t live in that world and so here we are. At first I wanted to say Freddy Canteen after his spring game showing. I mean c’mon it makes perfect sense, with Jeremy Gallon in the NFL and Jake Butt sidelined, someone has to catch the balls not thrown to Funchess. But after I thought about it a while a certain press conference came to mind, and to paraphrase of one of the greatest sports rants ever; “We talkin’ bout practice. Not a game, not a game, not a game, we talkin’ about practice.”

I’m going to head to the other side of the ball and go with Bryan Mone. The defensive line struggles, as with all of Michigan’s struggles in ’13, were well documented. They didn’t generate sufficient pass pressure, didn’t stop the run (to put it lightly) and overall were just, well not that good. Mone is a big boy, a very big boy, and by all accounts the kid can move quite well. A guy who can eat up space and occupy more than one blocker can be devastating, and if he can get into the backfield all the better. Now I won’t go so far as to say I think he’ll be Vince Wilfork, he’s a once in a lifetime player, but I do think given the chance Mone can make some noise and help get Michigan’s defense back to being a Michigan defense.

Derick-banner

I’m hoping I don’t jinx him by choosing another wide receiver this year (Darboh didn’t exactly break out last season), but how can fans not be excited about Freddy Canteen? The freshman wide receiver stormed onto the stage during the Spring Game, offering one of the few bright spots in what turned out to be a sloppy performance.

Canteen separated himself from a loaded group of young wide receivers and should line up with the starters along with captain Devin Funchess. His speed will give the offense another dimension that it badly needed after the loss of both Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo to graduation.

Canteen isn’t the most talented freshman receiver in Ann Arbor, but unlike classmates Drake Harris and Maurice Ways, the youngster has the offensive coaching staff buzzing about his ability as the calendar turns to August. Look for Canteen to give quarterback Devin Gardner a second option to Funchess early in the nonconference season.

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So what do you think? Is Canteen your guy as well, or are you more excited about another freshman? Do you think any other freshmen will make a big contribution to the team this fall? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

2014 Big Ten football position rankings: Safeties (part two)

Thursday, July 31st, 2014


Big-Ten-position-rankings-header-Safeties

This week, as part of our summer-long preview of Michigan football in 2014, we at Maize and Go Blue are ranking who will be the top safeties in the Big Ten this upcoming season. The players listed are whom we believe will be the most successful in 2014, not necessarily those who have performed the best in previous years. Part One of our safeties rankings was posted yesterday. It revealed the bottom half of who will be the Big Ten’s 10 best safeties. If you have not had an opportunity to read it yet, I encourage you to do so before proceeding. All set? Excellent! Let’s unveil who will be the five best safeties in the Big Ten this fall.

Previously

Quarterbacks: Part OnePart Two | Running Backs: Part OnePart Two | Wide Receivers: Part OnePart Two
Tight Ends: Part OnePart Two | Offensive Line: Part OnePart Two | Defensive Line: Part OnePart Two
Linebackers: Part OnePart Two | Cornerbacks: Part OnePart Two | Safeties: Part One

5. Corey Cooper, Nebraska | 5th-yr Senior – 6’1”, 215 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 52 39 91 5.0 2.0 1 1
2012 8 9 17 2.0 0.5 0 0
2012 8 1 9 0 0 0 0
2012 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 68 49 117 7.0 2.5 1 1
(Lincoln Star Journal)

(Lincoln Star Journal)

Nebraska’s Corey Cooper may have played some cornerback and nickelback earlier in his career, but all it takes is one glance at his stats to see that he essentially plays like a hybrid linebacker. Last season, in 13 starts at strong safety, Cooper led the Huskers in both tackles (91) and solo stops (52). Although it is not uncommon for safeties to lead their teams in tackles, what really reveals Cooper’s linebacker tendencies are his plays made behind the line of scrimmage and lack of passes defended. His five tackles-for-loss, which included two sacks, are the most by any returning defensive back in the Big Ten. On the other hand, Cooper tallied only a measly two passes defended. And it is not as if Nebraska never dropped Cooper back into one-high coverage. The Huskers did plenty. But Cooper rarely ever made a play on the ball in the air. Instead, the crux of his game was to flow down towards the line of scrimmage and make plays or clean up the linebackers’ messes.

Nonetheless, even if Cooper did not knock down many passes in the secondary, it still was his job to help solidify Nebraska’s pass defense and prevent big plays. He did not do this very well, though. To be fair, Nebraska’s pass defense was not half bad. The Huskers were 33rd nationally in passing yards allowed per game, 41st in Passing Defense S&P+, and 46th in passing efficiency defense. However, a good chunk of this success can be attributed to Nebraska’s pass rush, which had the seventh-most sacks in the country. When sacks are removed from the equation, Nebraska’s pass defense was not so stout, as evidenced by the 7.2 passing yards per attempt it allowed, which was 69th nationally. This number was so high because, if Nebraska’s defensive line could not get to the quarterback, big plays through the air would ensue. The Huskers were 10th in the conference in both 15-plus-yard completions (72) and 25-plus-yard completions (31) allowed. Safeties are supposed to be the last line of defense. They are the ones that are supposed to keep the play in front of them. So, when Nebraska repeatedly conceded these momentum-shifting completions, fingers must be pointed at Cooper.

It likely will not be much better in coverage for Cooper this upcoming season, either. Cooper is the only returning starter from last year’s secondary as cornerbacks Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans and safety Andrew Green graduated. There is some other starting experience in the back-four with cornerback Josh Mitchell still around, but it will not be easy to replace the production of Jean-Baptiste and Evans, who combined for 13.5 tackles-for-loss, 26 passes defended, and eight interceptions last year. Cooper will continue to be a terrific tackler, closing down on the line of scrimmage. It would not be a surprise if he led the Huskers in tackles for the second straight season. But, unless Cooper starts making more plays in coverage or at least does not allow as many throws to get behind him, Cooper and Nebraska’s pass defense will not enjoy the 2014 season.

4. Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern | 5th-yr Senior – 5’11″, 205 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 40 33 73 2.5 1 5 4
2013 59 30 89 0.5 0 12 2
2013 54 46 100 3.5 0 4 2
2013 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 153 109 262 6.5 1 21 8
Nam Y. Huh, AP)

Nam Y. Huh, AP)

Very few Big Ten safeties will have as productive of a career as Northwestern’s Ibraheim Campbell. Campbell is one of the lucky few to have been a starter as soon as he stepped onto the gridiron. After redshirting in 2010, he has been the Wildcats’ starting strong safety each of the past three seasons. In this span, Campbell has totaled 262 tackles, 6.5 tackles-for-loss, a sack, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, eight interceptions, and 21 pass breakups. Therefore, he has averaged 87.3 tackles, 2.2 tackles-for-loss, and 9.7 passes defended each season. A Big Ten safety would be pleased if he recorded these numbers in just one season. Campbell has the luxury of claiming he averaged them over three. This would make one think that he should be in consideration for the top spot on this list as he enters his fourth year as a starter.

However, Campbell sits at No. 4 for two reasons. First, his statistics have steadily dropped each of the past three years. In 2011, Campbell led the Wildcats with 100 tackles. In 2012, he was fourth on the team with 89 stops. Last year, he finished fifth on the roster with 73. Although most coaches would prefer their defensive backs not lead the team in tackles, even the number of passes Campbell defended fell from 14 in 2012 to nine in 2013. Second, Northwestern’s pass defense has not been near stellar during his tenure. In 2011, the Wildcats’ defensive S&P+ rating was 108th nationally on passing downs—second down with eight or more yards to go and third or fourth down with five or more yards to go—and 117th against the pass. This is understandable as it was Campbell’s first year as a starter. But what is not as clear is the Wildcats’ defensive S&P+ rating against the pass slumping from No. 63 in 2012 to No. 73 in 2013. No, Campbell is not the only Northwestern defensive starter responsible for this, but, as the leader of the secondary, he is held more accountable.

Nonetheless, Campbell still is one of the better safeties in the Big Ten. As aforementioned, he has the ability to be a playmaker, whether it be tackling players behind the line of scrimmage or forcing turnovers. He can stuff a stat line. Further, he makes a valiant effort to limit opponents from reeling off big gains. Northwestern allowed only 20 completions that gained at least 25 yards—the second-best in the conference—and 12 runs that gained at least 20 yards—only two more than the number Michigan State and Iowa allowed. Once again, Campbell will do a fine job of keeping plays in front of him as he is supposed to do as a safety. But, given his lack of improvement as his career progressed, he just does not seem to have the talent the next three on this list possess.

3. John Lowdermilk, Iowa | Senior – 6’2”, 210 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 36 42 78 4.5 0 2 1
2012 3 3 6 0 0 0 0
2011 3 1 4 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 42 46 88 4.5 0 2 1
(Brian Ray, Hawkeyesports.com)

(Brian Ray, Hawkeyesports.com)

In John Lowdermilk’s first two seasons at Iowa, he played sparingly, spending the majority of his time on special teams and earning few snaps on defense as a second-stringer. During this time, Iowa’s pass defense was shoddy at best. In 2011, although the number of passing yards the Hawkeyes allowed per attempt was mediocre, ranking 56th nationally, the secondary was much worse according to advanced metrics. The Hawkeyes’ S&P+ rating was 72nd-best on passing downs and even poorer against the pass at 83rd. It did not progress in 2012. Iowa slightly upped their S&P+ rating on passing downs to 64th-best in the nation, but its rating against the pass slipped to 89th. The Hawkeyes were missing something. They had talent in the secondary in cornerback B.J. Lowery and free safety Tanner Miller but needed to find the last piece to complete the puzzle.

That final puzzle piece was Lowdermilk, who became Iowa’s starting strong safety in 2013. His individual statistics were decent. His 78 tackles were the fourth-most on the team behind Iowa’s trio of starting linebackers, and his 4.5 tackles-for-loss were quite good for a defensive back, even if that defensive back was a strong safety playing closer to the line of scrimmage. The one drawback of this, though, was that he defended only three passes and did not intercept his first pass until the final game of the season in the Outback Bowl. Lowdermilk’s production still earned him an honorable mention on the media’s All-Big Ten team.

However, Lowdermilk’s biggest impact can be seen in the improvement of Iowa’s pass defense from 2011 and 2012 to 2013, not his individual numbers. Lowery and Miller were back from the 2011 and 2012 seasons, yet, once Lowdermilk was inserted into the lineup, Iowa transformed into one of the nation’s best overall defenses, especially against the pass. The Hawkeyes’ S&P+ ratings skyrocketed. They finished 11th on passing downs and 13th against the pass. On top of that, they placed 10th-best in the country in sack-adjusted passing yards allowed per attempt. It was a tremendous turnaround by Iowa’s secondary. Thus, when one tries to discover how this happened, one needs to find only the new variable. And that new variable was Lowdermilk.

Lowdermilk returns this fall for his senior season. We know how well he performs when he has battle-tested talent around him, but will he be able to sustain it after Iowa experienced an exodus in the defensive back-seven? Not only did Lowery and Miller graduate, all three of Iowa’s starting linebackers did as well. And with them went 12 of Iowa’s 13 interceptions from last season. In all likelihood, Iowa’s defense should regress some, but Lowdermilk’s presence will mitigate the slide. However, next season would be the perfect time for him to make more plays in coverage and generate more interceptions now that he is the unquestioned leader in Iowa’s secondary.

2. Adrian Amos, Penn State | Senior – 6’0″, 209 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 32 18 50 4.0 2.5 6 1
2012 31 13 44 2.5 0.5 5 0
2011 9 4 13 0 0 5 1
Career Totals 72 35 107 6.5 3.0 16 2
(Matthew O'Haren, USA Today Sports)

(Matthew O’Haren, USA Today Sports)

There may be no defensive back as versatile as Penn State’s Adrian Amos. Need Amos to compete at cornerback? No worries. He has 19 starts under his belt at cornerback over the course of the past three seasons. Need Amos to fill in at safety? No problem. He started the first six games there last year. Not only can Amos play both positions, but he also can perform well at both spots. In 2013, he started the first half of the season at safety and the second half at cornerback, producing 50 tackles, four tackles-for-loss, 2.5 sacks, an interception, and five pass breakups. Although his statistics are not necessarily overwhelming, his game film illuminates why Amos is so versatile.

Unlike former Penn State walk-on Ryan Keiser, who was ranked at No. 9 on this list yesterday, Amos has the complete package athletically. Let’s begin with his speed. Amos is one of the fastest, if not the fastest, players on Penn State. According to his official bio, he reportedly ran a 4.45 40-yard time in the spring, which easily was among the best times on the roster. He then pools this with his agility and quick hips, which allow him to run stride for stride and stick with swift receivers down the field. One can see this in this highlight package here and on this pass deflection that led to Penn State’s game-sealing interception in overtime against Illinois. What one can also see in that highlight package is Amos’ size and physicality. Amos certainly does not shy away from contact. He does not hesitate when he attacks the line of scrimmage to crush ball-carriers and seems to deliver bone-crushing hits to receivers that cross paths with him in the middle of the field often. Not many defensive backs are blessed with these athletic gifts, which is why Amos is able to play either cornerback or safety.

Next season, Amos will return to his role as Penn State’s starting strong safety, which could be inferred from his placement on this list. He will team up with Keiser and cornerback Jordan Lucas, who was ranked the third-best cornerback in the Big Ten in this series, to form one of the best secondaries in this conference. Last season, the Nittany Lions’ pass defense was so-so, finishing 43rd in sack-adjusted passing yards allowed per attempt, 48th in Passing Defense S&P+, and 50th in passing efficiency defense. However, players in the secondary were shuffled around frequently, as evidenced by Amos’ shift from strong safety to cornerback at the midway point. The secondary should be much more settled this fall. And, despite limited depth due to scholarship sanctions, the Nittany Lions have very talented starters in the back-four. Barring any injuries, Amos should be the leader of a secondary that is the second- or third-best in the Big Ten in 2014.

1. Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State | 5th-yr Senior - 6’1”, 200 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 49 42 91 3.5 0 6 4
2012 29 24 53 4.5 0 4 2
2011 9 8 17 1.0 1.0 0 2
2010 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 87 74 161 9.0 1.0 10 8
(Robert Hendricks)

(Robert Hendricks)

There is no debate here. None whatsoever. While valid points can be made on behalf of Penn State’s Adrian Amos, Iowa’s John Lowdermilk, Northwestern’s Ibraheim Campbell, or Nebraska’s Corey Cooper that they are the Big Ten’s second-best safety, none can even try to whisper to the effect that they are worthy of being considered the best. Why? Because Michigan State free safety Kurtis Drummond is head and shoulders above them all.

Drummond is an elite free safety. And when I say “elite,” I mean “most likely the best in the nation.” Just look at his stats last season—his first as a full-time starter. In 14 starts, Drummond tallied 91 tackles, the second-most by any Spartan and the 12th-most in the conference, and 3.5 tackles-for-loss. At first glance, this would be worrisome because a free safety making this many tackles generally indicates that the defense in front of him is a sieve. However, Michigan State’s defense was the exact opposite, ranking second nationally in total defense, second in rushing defense, third in passing yards allowed per game, and first in passing efficiency defense. Essentially, the Spartans’ defense finished in the top three nationally of every major defensive category. So for Drummond to record that many stops from the free safety position on arguably the best defense in the country is quite an accomplishment.

Further, whereas most safeties on this list have demonstrated they are either a tackling machine or a playmaker in pass coverage, Drummond is one of the few who can do both. In addition to his 91 tackles, he defended 10 passes, four of which he intercepted. And, unlike many of the other free safeties on this list, Drummond did not defend these passes because he played only deep center field. As part of Michigan State’s Cover 4 scheme, he was forced to play lots of single coverage. Most safeties would not hold up well in such a scenario because they do not have the hips or the speed to maintain tight single coverage on an opponent’s outside receivers. However, it is clear that Drummond is not most safeties.

Just like last year, Drummond will do it all in the back for the Spartans, whether it is cutting down plays before they break for large gains or swatting passes out of the sky. He, along with Trae Waynes, who should be the Big Ten’s best cornerback, will be the stalwarts in the secondary that propel Michigan State’s defense to the top yet again this upcoming season, even after losing cornerback Darqueze Dennard and safety Isaiah Lewis to the NFL. For his efforts, Drummond will earn All-American and All-Big Ten honors for the second straight season before being the first free safety off the board in the first round in next year’s NFL Draft. It should be quite a senior season for what is undoubtedly the Big Ten’s best defensive back.

So what do you think? Do you agree with our rankings? Will Michigan State’s Kurtis Drummond be the Big Ten’s best safety next season? Or will someone else claim his throne? Was there another safety that should have been in the top five? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below. Next week, we will rank all things special teams in the Big Ten.