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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.

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

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014


Big-Ten-position-rankings-header-Safeties

This is the eighth 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. The analysis provided is thorough and in-depth, so each position preview will be split into two parts. The best Big Ten players on offense and in the defensive front seven have been covered. This week, it is time to preview who will be the best cornerbacks in the conference this season. Here is 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

11. Jabrill Peppers, Michigan | Freshman – 6’1”, 202 lbs
(247 Sports)

(247 Sports)

Okay, I am cheating. The parameters of this 2014 Big Ten Position Rankings series indicate that only the Big Ten players who will be among the 10 best at their respective position shall be ranked. However, an exception must be made for Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers, whom you just may have already heard a bit about here and there.

No incoming Big Ten freshman has received more hype, praise, acclaim, etc. than Peppers. For good reason, too. Peppers was the highest-rated 2014 prospect to commit to a Big Ten school. According to 247 Sports’ national composite rankings, Peppers is the third-best recruit in his class; there were no other Big Ten commits in the top 20. Further, Peppers is the highest-rated prospect to commit to the Wolverines since the creation of online recruiting services. Michigan earned commitments from No. 4 overall LaMarr Woodley and No. 5 overall Prescott Burgess in 2003 and No. 5 overall Ryan Mallett in 2007. But never before has Michigan been graced with a top-three prospect.

“But, Drew, how can you place Peppers on this list when he has not even played a single snap of college football yet? How do you know he will not be a bust?” Have you seen his highlights? Have you seen his physique? Have you seen his speed? Peppers is a physical specimen. Or, as fellow Michigan writer Bryan Mac penned perfectly at MGoBlog, Peppers “is basically a glitch in the physics engine.” Even an unnamed assistant coach at USC claimed that the only two high-school football players he had seen with a body like Peppers are Adrian Peterson and Patrick Peterson. That is some fine company. At 6’1” and 202 pounds, with his unbelievable burst, speed, and athleticism, everything about Peppers’ game should translate to the college level. He will be a playmaker the instant he steps on the field for the Wolverines.

However, the questions Michigan fans are asking are where and how often Peppers will play as a true freshman this season. Earlier this month, head coach Brady Hoke indicated Peppers would begin at nickelback, where Michigan previously has positioned its young, talented defensive backs for them to get their feet wet. Yet Peppers is listed in these rankings as a safety, not a cornerback. Michigan needs its best talent on the field as much as possible, and the Wolverines are already set at cornerback with Blake Countess, Raymon Taylor, and Jourdan Lewis as the starters. On the other hand, there is a vacancy at strong safety with Thomas Gordon’s departure. While Delano Hill and Dymonte Thomas currently are competing for that job, it seems like the perfect spot for the versatile Peppers to make the biggest impact. I have projected that Peppers will be Michigan’s starting strong safety by Big Ten play, where he should flourish and be considered one of the best 10 safeties in the Big Ten. Still, until Hoke makes that move official, Peppers must remain out of the top 10.

10. Michael Caputo, Wisconsin | RS Junior – 6’1”, 212 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 36 27 63 3.0 0 3 0
2012 8 2 10 0 0 0 0
2011 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 44 29 73 3.0 0 3 0
(Jeff Hanisch, USA Today Sports)

(Jeff Hanisch, USA Today Sports)

Wisconsin strong safety Michael Caputo is a pseudo-linebacker who shortly became a linebacker before reverting back to a pseudo-linebacker. Got all of that? No? Okay, let me explain. Last season, Caputo was the Badgers’ full-time starter at strong safety. However, despite being listed as a safety, he played more of a hybrid position, where he acted as a linebacker who could cover more than anything else. Accordingly, Caputo was Wisconsin’s second-leading tackler with 63 stops, 36 of which were solo, and three tackles-for-loss. Unsurprisingly, And, unsurprisingly, his impact was most felt in Wisconsin’s rushing defense, which allowed the fourth-fewest sack-adjusted yards allowed per carry nationally.

This does not mean that Caputo did not contribute to Wisconsin’s passing defense, which was 19th in the nation in sack-adjusted passing yards allowed per attempt, though. In fact, he played a vital role in it, which was exemplified by his absence in the regular-season finale against Penn State. Caputo missed most of the game due to concussion-like symptoms. Without him on the field, the Badgers allowed a talented but true freshman quarterback to complete 70 percent of his passes for 339 yards, 11.3 yards per attempt, and four touchdowns. Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda admitted afterwards how much Wisconsin’s passing defense missed Caputo, acknowledging that there were certain coverages and schematic adjustments that only Caputo did. Caputo may have only had three passes defended all season, but he was a key element to Wisconsin stopping the opponent’s aerial assault.

However, this season will be an interesting test for both Caputo and the Badgers. Wisconsin must replace the entire front seven on defense. Wisconsin tried to mitigate this by shifting Caputo from strong safety to linebacker in the offseason, thinking that Caputo’s play already resembled that of a linebacker. The problem was that Wisconsin had even more inexperience behind Caputo at safety, so Wisconsin moved him back to his original spot.

Even though Caputo will be comfortable with the position he is playing, lining up alongside two returning starters at cornerback, it is unclear just how much Caputo will miss his old partners in crime in the front seven. As aforementioned, Caputo made his biggest contribution stopping the run. But how effective will he be with an entirely new front-seven in front of him? How much did he benefit from the presence of the prior defensive front-seven? Will he not be able to make the same number of stops or have the same type of impact this year? These are the questions that must be answered and the reasons why Caputo, a returning starter from a very good defense, is only No. 10 on this list.

9. Ryan Keiser, Penn State | 5th-yr Senior – 6’1″, 208 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 26 12 38 2.0 1.0 11 3
2013 3 2 5 0 0 0 0
2013 2 4 6 0 0 0 0
2013 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 31 18 49 2.5 1.0 11 3
(247 Sports)

(247 Sports)

Safety Ryan Keiser is Penn State’s version of Jordan Kovacs. In high school, Keiser was a two-time member of the PA Football News Class AAA all-state first team but received little interest from FBS programs. In fact, Keiser was so under-recruited that he was considered a zero-star prospect by 247 Sports. With no scholarship offers in hand, Keiser chose to walk on to the football team at his in-state school, Penn State. He spent his first few seasons in State College doing whatever he could to get on the football field. He became Penn State’s holder and became a fixture on other special-teams units. But it was not until last season when Keiser proved he was much more than a special-teams star.

In 2013, Keiser began the season as a reserve defensive back for Penn State. He earned some playing time earlier in the year, which included an outstanding performance against Kent State, during which he had four tackles, a sack, an interception, and three pass breakups. Keiser continued to perform well and impress the Penn State coaching staff. Accordingly, he made his first career start against Michigan before starting the final four games of the season at free safety. Keiser finished with 38 tackles, two tackles-for-loss, one sack, three interceptions, and eight pass breakups. His 11 passes defended were the ninth-most in the Big Ten, which is even more impressive than usual because he started only about half of the season. Further, although Keiser had only 38 tackles all season, 23 of those were in his final four starts. If that average had been extrapolated over the course of the entire season, he would have had 69 tackles, which would have been the third-most on the team. By the end of the year, Keiser had demonstrated that he has a knack for being a ball-hawk and is not a liability in run support.

However, there is a reason why Keiser was a walk-on coming out of high school. This is a total shocker, but Keiser is not the most athletically gifted player. There are times when Keiser can be vulnerable over the top because he does not have the speed to keep pace with some of the Big Ten’s faster receivers. This can be seen even on plays where Keiser makes a positive impact. For example, Keiser made the game-clinching interception in the end zone in overtime against Illinois. However, the tape reveals that he had been beat initially. The only reason why Keiser made the pick was because fellow safety-cornerback Adrian Amos tipped the ball, allowing a recovering Keiser to snatch it out of the air. Nonetheless, Keiser, like Kovacs at Michigan before him, has proven that walk-ons can make an enormous impact at safety. Expect Keiser to have his best season in his first and only year as a full-time starter and be a member of one of the better pass defenses in the Big Ten.

8. R.J. Williamson, Michigan State | RS Junior – 6’0”, 205 lbs.
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 17 27 44 3.0 0 2 1
2012 19 8 27 1.0 0 4 2
2011 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 36 35 71 4.0 0 6 3
(Natalie Kolb, The State News)

(Natalie Kolb, The State News)

The power of Pat Narduzzi will strike again. In each the past three seasons, Michigan State has had a top-10 passing defense according to the S&P+ rankings, including the best pass defense the last two years. And Narduzzi and Michigan State have been able to maintain this level of excellence despite losing key pieces to the NFL or graduation each year. This past offseason, three-year starter and All-Big ten first-team selection Isaiah Lewis graduated and moved on to the NFL. If this were any other defense, fans and media alike would be concerned about who would replace Lewis and his production at strong safety. However, because of the reputation Michigan State’s defense has earned the past few years under Narduzzi, everyone expects the next man in line to step up without a hitch.

The next man in line: R.J. Williamson. Williamson saw extensive action last season as Michigan State’s de facto starting nickelback. As the nickelback, Williamson did not produce overwhelming numbers because he played fewer snaps than Michigan State’s other four starting defensive backs. Nevertheless, Williamson was no slouch. He registered 44 tackles, three tackles-for-loss, an interception, and two pass breakups. Williamson also performed very well in the one game in which he played the majority of the snaps, recording 10 tackles in a start versus Notre Dame and seven tackles and a pass breakup after Lewis was ejected for targeting in the first quarter against Northwestern. And, of course, Williamson did all of this for a defense that ranked second nationally in total defense, third in passing yards allowed per game, second in sack-adjusted passing yards allowed per attempt, and first in passing efficiency defense.

In 2014, Williamson is the front-runner to replace Lewis at strong safety. The competition for the spot is not over yet, though. Williamson reportedly left the door open after he had some sloppy moments during spring drills. Even Narduzzi has said that Williamson has all of the ability, but “we have to keep him consistent, and he’s got to do his job all the time.” Nevertheless, it would be a surprise if anyone other Williamson started at strong safety for Michigan State this season. He has the experience, prior production, and size—6’0” and 205 pounds—to complement free safety Kurtis Drummond perfectly. There are various other reasons why Williamson will mitigate much of damage resulting from Lewis’ departure, but, ultimately, all that needs to be said is that very few defensive coordinators get more out of their players than Narduzzi. Narduzzi will wield his magical powers once again and transform Williamson into one of the better safeties in the Big Ten.

7. Sean Davis, Maryland | Junior – 6’1″, 200 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 62 40 102 1.5 0.5 5 2
2012 8 5 13 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 70 45 115 1.5 0.5 5 2
(Andrew Shurtleff)

(Andrew Shurtleff)

There are a few different terms that may be used to describe Maryland free safety Sean Davis’ game. Wrecking ball. Bullet train. Missile. Wreaker of havoc and punishment. Last season, Davis was the full-time starter at free safety for the first time in his career as only a true sophomore. And, in his first campaign as the starter, he laid wood, and he did it often. He led Maryland and was eighth in the ACC with 103 tackles, averaging 9.56 tackles per game over the final nine contests of the season. Davis produced such gaudy tackle numbers because of his full-out attacking style. Once Davis diagnosed the play in front of him, whether it was a run or a short completion, he charged downhill instantly, weaving his way through traffic to deliver a bone-crushing hit. If you look at his highlights from last season, you notice just how often he sticks the ball-carrier and drives them backwards. Davis is a very physical player that can make his presence felt with just one jarring hit.

However, Davis, as the free safety, struggled as the last line of Maryland’s defense. Maryland was 57th nationally in passing yards allowed per game, 64th in passing efficiency defense, and 64th in Passing Defense S&P+. This indicates that the Terrapins’ pass defense was just an average outfit. Yet Maryland actually was worse on passing downs. Passing downs are defined as second down with eight or more yards to go and third or fourth down with five or more yards to go. In these situations, the Terps were only 84th-best in the country. It did not help that Maryland allowed 71 completions that gained at least 15 yards, which would have been the third-worst in the Big Ten. Simply, Maryland’s pass defense was not that great when it could not generate a pass rush.

Much of these woes fell on Davis. Yes, he has a knack for making aggressive plays as evidenced by his two interceptions and three pass breakups. However, a look at his highlights indicates that his two interceptions were the result of two awful throws by the quarterback into no man’s land. They were not the result of an instinctual free safety who read the quarterback to undercut the intended receiver. The problem is that, when Davis did try to make plays in pass coverage, too often he was too aggressive and did not execute his assignment correctly. There is nothing wrong with being an aggressive, attacking free safety. But it can become an issue when that free safety continually allows big plays to get behind him. If Davis can rectify these mistakes and pick his spots better when to be uber-aggressive, he could be one of the best safeties in the Big Ten. But it would be a surprise to see that development this season.

6. Jarrod Wilson, Michigan | Junior - 6’2″, 205 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 28 22 50 2.0 0 2 2
2012 4 4 8 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 32 26 58 2.0 0 2 2
(Matthew O, USA Today Sports)

(Matthew O’Haren, USA Today Sports)

Although there is much debate among Michigan fans about who will start for the Wolverines at strong safety, there is no such debate at free safety. After having a bit of an up-and-down campaign last year, Jarrod Wilson is Michigan’s unquestioned starter there. As a true sophomore, Wilson played well right out of the gate last season. He started the first seven games, during which he accumulated 33 tackles and four passes defended, including two interceptions. He was on pace for a very solid season statistically and was the back line of a defense that had been commendable until allowing Indiana’s up-tempo offense to explode for 47 points.

However, for reasons unknown, head coach Brady Hoke removed Wilson from the starting lineup prior to Michigan’s next game against in-state rival Michigan State, inserting converted cornerback Courtney Avery in his place. Michigan’s pass defense deteriorated thereafter, and it definitely was not a coincidence. In their first seven games with Wilson as a starter, the Wolverines allowed only 6.60 passing yards per attempt. In their final six games, they allowed 7.48 passing yards per attempt. Some of the discrepancy can be explained by Michigan facing better passing offenses later in the season than the likes of Central Michigan, Akron, and Connecticut. But there is no better example of Wilson’s importance in Michigan’s pass defense than against Ohio State, a game in which he barely played because of a broken hand. The Buckeyes completed only six of their 15 pass attempts against the Wolverines, but still managed to gain 133 passing yards for an excellent 8.9 yards per attempt. This fell on Michigan’s safeties—Thomas Gordon and Josh Furman—who were routinely beat deep. Does this happen if Wilson is healthy and starting? We will never be certain, but the answer likely is “no.”

This season, unless injured, there is no chance Wilson will be replaced by anyone behind him on the depth chart. He will have a full season to exhibit that he has great instincts in the back of Michigan’s secondary. Not only will he continue to make smart, athletic plays in coverage, he will continue to take the right angles to make tackles near the line of scrimmage. Also, with some starting experience under his belt, Wilson should not be as prone to mental errors as—like his untimely pass interference penalty in the fourth overtime against Penn State. Wilson should fulfill the potential he had as a four-star recruit and become a solid, boring free safety this fall. Although “boring” has a negative connotation, given the big plays Michigan allowed at the end of 2013 while playing roulette with its safeties, boring should be refreshing for Michigan. And, if Wilson demonstrates he is more than boring and defends more passes in the secondary, he will have an argument that he is one of the five best safeties in this conference.

What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with Part One of our 2014 Big Ten Safeties Rankings? Should Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers be in the top 10? Should Michigan’s Jarrod Wilson be in the top five? Is there a blatant omission from the top 10? And what would your top five be? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below. Tomorrow, we will reveal who will be the five best safeties in the Big Ten this upcoming season.

Big Ten Media Days: Word clouding the Big Ten coaches

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014


All 14 Big Ten coaches got 15 minutes apiece at the podium in front of the assembled media in the Hilton Chicago on Monday. Each delivered an opening statement and then fielded a few questions. Typically, there isn’t much news to come out of these sessions. It’s more of a time to drum up excitement about the upcoming season and tout all the things they’re excited about. Every coach has fantasies about Big Ten titles this time of year and doesn’t want to reveal too much, so to spice things up a bit we took an idea that we really liked from the SEC SB Nation blog Team Speed Kills and applied it to each of the Big Ten coaches’ speeches.

We used Wordle to spit out a word cloud for each coach based on the transcript from his 15 minutes at the podium. The bigger the word, the more often it was used, so you can get an idea of what each coach places the most emphasis on. As a Maize and Go Blue exclusive, we also scrubbed away the coach speak and translated what each coach was really saying.

Brady Hoke – Michigan

Hoke

There must be something wrong with this thing. “Tremendous” doesn’t fill the entire page. Neither does “Well…” or “Fergodsakes”. And contrary to popular belief in Columbus and East Lansing, although “think” was his most-used word today, Hoke does “think” about more than just donuts. He didn’t even mention them once in his 15 minutes. But I wouldn’t blame him if he did. There’s a great donut shop a short walk from the Hilton.

Urban Meyer – Ohio State

Urban

I THINK we’re GOING to be GOOD you GUYS. Good enough to have a grand total of zero Big Ten titles and zero bowl wins in my first two seasons. You know what else is good? This Chicago pizza. Have you guys ever had this stuff? It’s JUST so cheesy and…deep. So much better than that other stuff.

Mark Dantonio – Michigan State

Dantonio

You know, we had a GREAT season last YEAR and it was all because of that one GAME when we beat Michigan. The way THINGS are GOING, we’re number ONE in the state as far as FOOTBALL is concerned. Oh, we won the Rose Bowl? Well, we beat Michigan. Where’s the threat?

Bo Pelini – Nebraska

Pelini

I THINK my cat is enjoying himself up in the room. As soon as I’m done talking about FOOTBALL, I’m GOING to take him to see a LOT of Chicago THINGS. It will MAKE his day. You know, it’s LOOKING like he’s the secret ingredient to the TEAM’s success this season. I wouldn’t be where I am today without him.

James Franklin – Penn State

Franklin

I’m REALLY EXCITED about this PROGRAM. I THINK it’s GOING to be much easier than it was in the SEC. THINGS aren’t really comparable as far as facilities are concerned, but hey, it’s an OPPORTUNITY and I can’t wait to meet Sandy Barbour woman.

Gary Andersen – Wisconsin

Andersen

I’m glad to begin my second YEAR at Wisconsin. We don’t hear much about Brigham YOUNG around here and that’s always a GOOD thing. These cheese-loving folks are about as GOOD as it GETs. You know, the Packers have that tradition where they let the KIDS give the PLAYERS bike rides, and with the YOUTH we have I THINK that’s a good POSITION to take with this TEAM.

Pat Fitzgerald – Northwestern

Fitzgerald

I THINK it’s so GREAT that you GUYS haven’t asked about unions yet. We just want to play FOOTBALL. I’m not GOING to talk about the WAY our former QUARTERBACK tried to hurt our PROGRAM last YEAR by trying to unionize. These guys are a TEAM, not employees. LOOK, I won’t talk about it at all.

Kirk Ferentz – Iowa

Ferentz

It’s CERTAINLY a GREAT YEAR for Big Ten Media Days with the addition of Rutgers and Maryland. I’ve been coming to this THING for 16 YEARS and it has gotten stale. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve GOT some GOOD coaches in this conference but I THINK Kyle and Randy have what it takes to spice things up a little bit, kind of like Greg Davis and Phil Parker did for me in Iowa City last season.

Kevin Wilson – Indiana

Wilson

Wait, we can’t JUST PLAY offense in the Big Ten? Why didn’t you GUYS tell me that three YEARs ago? My boy Rich Rod told me that’s how you succeed in this conference. I’m starting to THINK he was just pulling my chain. I had to bring in a new defensive coordinator this offseason and he’s GOING to have to get the job done. Go big or go HOME, right?

Jerry Kill – Minnesota

Kill

I’ve GOT this program trending in the right direction, getting BETTER each YEAR, and I THINK that will continue. Have you guys seen that brown jug thing? My KIDS were asking about it, but I’ve GOTTA say, I don’t think that thing actually exists. If it does, our PLAYERS are going to GET it DONE this season. Oh, who am I kidding?

Randy Edsall – Maryland

Edsall

Crabcakes and football. That’s what MARYLAND does! We’re GOING to win the BIG East…I mean ACC…I mean American Athletic Conf…wait, what conference am I in now? Big TEN! That’s right. I THINK I’m gonna need Kirk to show me around.

Tim Beckman – Illinois

Beckman

FOOTBALL! We’ve got lots of PLAYERS, man. But with Scheelhaase gone we need a new QUARTERBACK, so this offseason I set up shop in Tallahassee when I heard Famous Jameis might be in trouble. I really WANT that guy. But it didn’t work out. Anyone else have sanctions going on this YEAR?

Kyle Flood – Rutgers

Flood

This is a cute city you midwestern folks have out here. I mean, REALLY, it’s cute, but it doesn’t compare to the BIG city we have in my part of the country. Chicago has one FOOTBALL team, New York have two, and you know what: they play in Jersey, home of RUTGERS, the school that started football.

Darrell Hazell – Purdue

Hazell

Alright you GUYS. THINGS are GOING just RIGHT for us this YEAR. Have you heard about our 6-foot-8, 400-pound PLAYER? We’ve got the biggest drum and now the biggest FOOTBALL player in the conference. That should guarantee us at least two wins this year.

Big Ten Media Day Quotes: Gardner, Clark, Ryan, Hoke

Monday, July 28th, 2014


Earlier this afternoon, we posted the full transcript from Brady Hoke’s 15-minute podium session. Shortly after that, Hoke and Michigan’s three player representatives — Devin Gardner, Jake Ryan, and FrankClark — met with the media at individual podiums, allowing an opportunity for further questions in a smaller group setting. Here are some select quotes from each of them.

Devin Gardner

Gardner(Justin Potts, M&GB)

Have you reflected on last season?
“Definitely. I feel like I know what I accomplished last year. As my first time starting I feel like I accomplished a lot. I had a lot of success, a lot of adversity, but I feel like I battled through it. I continued to fight. I was there when my team needed me. Coach Nuss always says, ‘the quarterback’s always there, no matter what’ and I feel like I was always there for my team when I could and I did what I could. “

 Even though you lost to Ohio State, everybody appreciates the performance. Did anyone reach out to you after that game?
“Charles Davis was a big one and Eddie George reached out to me. A lot of different people – Archie Manning. It was great. Even though it didn’t turn out the way we wanted it to, being able to fight through something like that is big when it’s for your team and the fan base, but it doesn’t really matter if the fans appreciate it. My teammates appreciate it and they know what I went through and I’m excited to be able to fight with my teammates.”

What did Eddie George tell you?
“He just told me that I had a great game. He was excited. We built those relationships at the Manning Academy two years ago and he’s really excited to see the way I fought, the way that I played in that game. That’s pretty much it. He also said his sons are big fans, so that’s pretty cool.”

Are you excited to be in the same division as Ohio State and Michigan State?
“Our mentality this year is just to take every game one at a time and don’t treat other games as bigger games than some other games, and don’t discount anyone either. Obviously, as our rivals, and now they’re in our division, it will be a little heightened intensity during those games, but until we get to those we can’t see. I’m sure they’ll be really excited and pumped up to play us too, but we’re going to bring everything we have and we’re going to play as hard as we can.

Can you talk about Coach Nussmeier and what he brings to the table that Michigan fans haven’t seen in the past?
“I don’t know if it’s something we haven’t seen, but he’s his own coach. He’s very intense and he’s a fun guy to be around. He’s a player’s coach for sure. We can talk off the field and he helps me with football and sometimes it always comes back to some type of football lesson, so that’s really cool. He brings a different perspective as a guy that’s played NFL, played in college and excelled, coached NFL and excelled. He just brings a winning attitude and a successful attitude to the entire Michigan brand.”

What’s the hardest road venue in the Big Ten?
“I think Iowa, just because the fans are so close. You always try to block out the fans, but when they’re close enough to touch you, it’s hard to ignore everything they say, so Iowa’s kind of tough. But I feel like our stadium is a tough place to play as well.”

Who are some new guys that have really stood out?
“Freddy Canteen has done a really nice job for us on offense. He came in (and) I didn’t know anything about him until the first day of spring practice. He came out and made a lot of good catches and throughout the spring he’s been really consistent in making big plays, and being accountable and being there when we need him.

“On defense, I like the way Jabrill Peppers is competing. I don’t know yet what he can do on the field, and as far as knowing the plays and knowing where you need to be, and we haven’t put on the pads. But from an athletic standpoint and a competitive standpoint, he’s one of the best competitors I’ve seen in the freshman class.”

Who has stepped up defensively?
“Joe Bolden. He’s always been a pretty vocal leader. He’s a very high energy, high intensity guy. I really enjoy seeing him play. Sometimes he treats us like we’re the other team, on offense, but it’s great to see. Coach Hoke always says – any coach will say this – you would rather have to say ‘whoa’ than ‘attack’. I feel like that’s great for him that he’s always in attack mode. I’m really looking forward to seeing him this year.”

Is Bolden too intense?
“No, no, no. We can’t say too intense. We don’t want to say that. He is very intense in practice. He hits us – I mean, he doesn’t hit me, quarterback’s off limits – but he hits really hard in practice and he gives it everything he has like it’s his last play, and that’s how it should be.”

Are you excited about Ty Isaac joining the team?
“I haven’t seen him yet. I met him when he was a recruit. I hosted him when he came for a visit, but I haven’t seen him this summer or anything like that. But if he’s going to be a part of our team we’ll welcome him just like any other teammate. He’s not going to be more special or less special than anyone on the team. Whether he’s a walk-on guy or a scholarship guy, we treat everybody as a teammate and as a brother, so he’s welcome into this brotherhood. When I get a chance to meet him he’s going to be treated as such.”

Does the uncertainty of the offensive line make it harder for you?
“My job is to encourage those guys, encourage every guy that’s out there, whether they’re going to start, or who’s going to play. My job is to encourage them and for me to work on myself as a consistent quarterback. It’s not my job to be like ‘who’s going to play’ or ‘what’s going to happen with those guys’. I’m just encouraging everybody, having dinner at my house, inviting them over, and continuing to work on being a great quarterback.”

Frank Clark

Frank Clark(Justin Potts, M&GB)

Who is the toughest player you’ve ever gone against?
“The toughest guy I ever went against, who was here last year, is Taylor Lewan. I mean, I don’t really see another offensive lineman that was really close.

Who is the toughest you’ve gone up against on this year’s team?
“It’s weird because I’m the old one. I’m used to being the younger one. I’m used to going against Taylor every day. This year it’s like I’m the old one. I guess if you flip that around you’ll have to ask the younger players who’s the toughest to go against on the defensive line.”

Who has stepped up on the defensive line?
“Man, we’ve got guys like Taco Charlton, guys like Henry Poggi, guys like Maurice Hurst, Ryan Glasgow, Willie Henry. These are guys that are younger but have experience. When you have a young, experienced defensive line, the possibilities are limitless. We have a defensive line unit that has very good players, it’s almost like having a first team two times. So when your first team goes out, when Frank Clark needs a break, or Brennen Beyer needs a break, you can send the next man in. You can send a Mario Ojemudia in. You can send a Lawrence Marshall in, who’s a freshman. You can send a Taco Charlton in and it’s going to be like having your first team stay on the field.”

How tough was it to get over the Ohio State loss last year?
“It was tough. Every loss is tough. But at the same time it was a close loss. I believe it was 42-40. It was a tough loss and it was a loss that we didn’t really expect. Every game you go into playing against Ohio, that’s one game, without being confident or without being cocky, that’s one game that you expect to win, being at Michigan. You know it’s going to be a hard game, but it was hard. It just gave us that extra fire and that extra energy in every workout through the winter, through the spring, and through the summer.”

Jake Ryan

Jake Ryan(Justin Potts, M&GB)

Will playing Maryland and Rutgers feel like conference games?
“Now they’re a part of the Big Ten and I think it’s going to be great for us and great for the conference. It’ll be interesting.”

How important is it to be the better program in the state of Michigan?
“We’re both great programs, we both have great coaches. It’s just where we are on the map. It’s not who’s better, who’s worse.”

Why would you not be concerned about being the better program?
“I mean, it’s a rivalry game, it’s one of the biggest games, but we’re focused on Appalachian State. I’m not going to focus on Michigan State right now.”

Is one of the new Big Ten divisions better than the other?
“I think they’re both great divisions and I think they’re both going to do very well.”

Do you guys have a loop running of the 2007 Appalachian State game?
“No. They’re a whole different team and we’re a whole different team. We’re going to go into that game like we prepare for every other game, so it’s going to be a fun game to play in.”

How is the offense shaping up?
“I think Devin’s running really well. He’s running the offense really well. Coach Nussmeier has been doing a great job with the guys. Devin has gotten guys in the film room, coaching them up on things they’re doing wrong, so I think it’s going to good and it’s going to be fun to watch.”

Will it look like a different offense?
“I think it’s the same offense, but it’s just a matter of the guys coming in and doing their thing. Like I said before, Devin’s been doing a great job running it.”

On Joe Bolden
“Joe Bolden is a great player. He knows what he’s doing, very smart player. Joe’s always there and if I need help, or anyone else needs help, Joe’s doing his job.”

Is there a freshman that has stood out?
“All of the freshmen have really stood out. Everyone has different character, everyone has been doing their job, going through the runs and workouts great.”

Brady Hoke said let’s not anoint Jabrill Peppers yet, but Devin said he’s pretty special…
“He’s a good player. I mean, he’s very athletic, brings energy. But I think there are a lot of freshmen that do that as well and it can’t just be one guy. It’s got to be all of them.”

How has Jabrill tempered the expectations?
“He’s keeping to himself and he’s going through the workouts, going through everything else like every other guy.”

Is there a part of you that, despite all the hype, says Jabrill needs to earn it?
“Every single guy has got to earn it on the field. Every single guy has got to do their job in order to play.”

What do you think of the pictures he posts of his abs?
“Hey, that’s not my…I try to stick to golfing pictures, stuff like that. He can do whatever he wants.”

What does it feel like to watch Ohio State go 24-2 and Michigan State win the league the past couple years?
“I’m not focused on those teams. I’m focused on what we need to do as a team our first game against Appalachian State. It will be a really fun game to play.”

What do you need to do to get ready for Appalachian State?
“Every single day, take that step forward that you need to take. Technique, fundamentals, the game of football. And do it every single day.”

Did you talk to former players about the Appalachian State game?
“I have not. Nope. Whole different team.”

How do you keep that mentality that it’s a big game?
“Every single game’s a big game. Every single game. We prepare for every single game.”

Did you seek out any advice from middle linebackers in the NFL about the position switch?
“I’ve definitely gotten a lot of tips, talked to a lot of guys. Jarrett Irons is a great guy to talk to, but everyone’s pushing me. Coach Mattison is the greatest coach you could have. He knows everything about the position, so just going to him and talking is great.”

Will the switch to middle linebacker allow you to play more instinctually?
“It’s a little different. But a lot of positions are instincts, but there are always those fundamentals or techniques that you need to play with every single play. I mean, some of it is instincts, but you also need those things.”

What was the offseason like?
“Very good offseason. I thought we did really well, prepared really well. Runs and lifts were great.”

Was it any different from previous years?
“A little different because I was older, leading the guys. There’s different leaders out there, but I think it’s great and I think it’s great for our team.”

When installing the new offense, how long did it take for them to figure it out?
“They were figuring it out the first day they got it. They were running on us, they were doing well.”

How have you seen Coach Hoke evolve over the past few years?
“Coach Hoke has been the same guy ever since I met him. Hard-nosed, tough, you can always talk to him, go into his office. If you have a problem, bring it to him. He’s going to be the same guy every single time and I love that about him.”

Brady Hoke

Brady Hoke(Justin Potts, M&GB)

How close is the Big Ten to winning a national title?
“I don’t know why they couldn’t this year. A team comes out of here as champion, why couldn’t they? Now, I don’t know these other teams. I mean, when we vote on this stuff, I don’t know them. I don’t know who they’re playing…Wofford – nothing against Wofford – but I mean there are nine conference games that we’re going to end up playing.”

Why do you think it has been so long since a Big Ten team won it all?
“I can’t believe it.”

Do you feel comfortable turning over the postseason selection process, versus before when the coaches at least had a vote?
“How many of those coaches really did it themselves? I’ve got a guy who I talk to about it, but I mean, this group, the integrity these people have as far as the committee itself, it’s what the fans want. I don’t know if you all wanted it. I worry about the bowl system. I think that was always a good system. I worry about the semifinals in the Rose Bowl, how are you going to approach the Rose Bowl? It’s the greatest experience there is in America for kids. How are you going to do it? They’re certainly not going to go out and stay for 10 days and go to Lawry’s two nights before, whatever it is. It’s not going to happen. It’s a game. And I’m sure the Sugar, when they’re a semifinal, all those things go away now.”

Do you address what’s appropriate with your freshmen?
“Yes, we educate them every day. We educate them to not embarrass themselves, what their grandma wouldn’t want to see out there. Why would you do it?”

Have you had any instances?
“Oh yeah. You’ve probably made some dumb decisions.”

You talk a lot about ‘this is Michigan’. Can you talk about the importance of this season for the program and for yourself?
“It’s not personal. Believe me. Nothing’s personal. It’s about Michigan and it’s about the program as you said, and it’s about the kids in the program.”

Big Ten Media Day Transcript: Brady Hoke (podium)

Monday, July 28th, 2014


Hoke at podium

Day one of Big Ten Media Days is in full swing and Brady Hoke was the fifth coach to take to the podium on Monday morning. He delivered an opening statement and then answered questions about Jabrill Peppers, the offensive line, the competition for positions, Ty Isaac, and more. Below is the full transcript, as provided by the Big Ten and ASAP Sports.

Opening statement

COACH HOKE: We’re all excited for another season to get started and looking forward to the start of fall camp on Sunday. Our football team has come together this summer and worked very hard. I think they’ve worked hard and I think a lot of that is the foundation that’s been laid over the last three years and the depth that we have on our football team, it’s as competitive as a team that I’ve been around at all positions.

And I think that is exactly what, as Michigan, the leaders and the best, we should have. And so the way they’ve come together, the things they’ve done, we’re excited about. You never know what kind of team you’re going to have until the season’s over.

But the one thing I can tell you, that we’re encouraged by the qualities we have seen from our football team and throughout the spring and throughout the summer. Again, I believe the foundation has been laid. And you’re going to talk with three of our great representatives in Jake Ryan, Frank Clark, and Devin Gardner who have represented Michigan in a positive way.

We’re excited for August. We need to have a good August camp. And I think every coach in here will tell you that. You need to stay healthy, but you better be competitive and you better be good. And you better have a great camp. And so excited about that coming up.

We’ve got a great schedule. Okay. It’s a good schedule. But the schedule starts on August 30th with Appalachian State, and that’s where our focus will be, because you can’t win all your games unless you win the first game.

And expectations at Michigan are what they are and what they should be. They’re high. And so we’re excited about getting that started.

Staff-wise, Doug Nussmeier, who has come in and done a tremendous job offensively, came in with a championship pedigree, came in with a pedigree of molding quarterbacks. And what I’ve seen, and his track record speaks for itself, but it’s not just something that speaks for it, he’s doing it on a daily basis.

The moves that we made in the secondary and on defense, allowing Coach Mattison to be more involved from the middle of the defense instead of up front only has been very positive.

The movement of Jake Ryan to the inside of our defense has been very positive. I think Roy Manning coaching our corners and Curt Mallory coaching the safeties, because of the variables with the offense you face, I think has been something very positive for our football team and positive for our players.

Last, and I’ll take questions, we’re very proud of who we are, and we will continue to be proud of what kind of young men, student-athletes we have at Michigan.

Q&A

I just want to know, back in June, you had done the interview I believe with Bonnie Bernstein talking about Jabrill and the fact that he would come in at nickel. You’ve had the summer; you’ve probably talked to some of your players about what they’ve seen out of him. Is the plan still to play him at nickel or safety or corner when you open fall camp?
“That hasn’t changed. The plan hasn’t changed. I think we’ve got to be careful about anointing any true freshmen starting their college career, but that’s where he will start.”

Your program has a very great storied tradition. Your stadium has a great storied tradition. On Saturday, I believe the big house is supposed to break the record for the highest attended soccer game in American history. That’s two of the biggest storied traditions of clubs. Are you going to take your team? Have you been involved with that at all or any –
“I’d like to be, but I won’t be, simply because our freshmen, that’s their first day coming in as far as some of the administrative details we need to take care of.

“But I think we’re going to break a record.”

You’re in the East Division. How daunting is that division? How do you think it kind of shakes out?
“I think it’s a great competitive division. How it shakes out, we’ll find out. But as far as the competitiveness of the division, and at the end of the day, you know, it’s whatweallwanttodo,andweallwanttodoiswe want to compete. We want to compete on every Saturday.

“So as far as we’re concerned, we’re looking forward to it.”

Coach, how far into fall camp do you anticipate going before determining an offensive line for the sake of consistency and seeing those guys play together as a unit?
“I think we’ll start camp with a lineup that we’ve come out of spring with, and that will be based some things on what has been done during the course of the summer and when you see the work ethic and all those things, but a lot of it will be based on coming out spring football obviously.

“So we’ll go through that lineup, but at the same time what will change it up every day a little bit to see where the pieces fit. But I wouldn’t say — take two weeks maybe at the most.”

Considering how last season ended, has the pressure become bigger heading into this year for you to perform?
“You know, why do you coach? I mean, why do you really coach? If we’re doing everything we can for 115 guys, sons on our roster, from the graduation, since we’ve been there, 69 of 69 seniors have graduated. That’s important.

“Because football’s only going to last so long. So the only pressure is every day preparing those guys for life after football. Competition, hard work and all that, that’s part of it. But socially and academically, that’s a big part of it.

“So when you talk about that, that’s the only pressure as a coach that I’ve ever felt – making sure we’re doing it for the student-athletes.”

We’re going into a new era with college football with the playoff in the ’14 playoff, last year the Big Ten kind of struggled in the marquee non-conference games. This year the list of them is top to bottom you play Notre Dame and Michigan State’s playing Oregon. How important for the Big Ten and its champion, whoever gets out of this conference, will it be for the conference as a whole to do better in those non-conference games?
“First and foremost, we’re very proud of the Big Ten Conference. Very proud of the schools and the competition and the way our teams play and how our schools from an academic standpoint graduate student-athletes.

“Do we want to win every game? There’s no question every guy who is going to be at this podium, they want to win every game. And when you talk about the non-conference schedule, we welcome those challenges. I know our conference does and I think our conference is going to play very well in those games.”

You mentioned about having as much competition at every position that you’ve ever been a part of or that you’ve seen in the foundation that you’ve laid there. So usually the first step toward narrowing the gap between where you are and where you want to be?
“You know what, ask that one more time because I missed some part of it.”

The competition, the amount of competition that you have at every — is that really the first step toward narrowing the gap from where you are and where you want to be in any place you’ve been in the past?
“Yeah, I think so. I think that’s always been part of it. We had a very good year in 2011, ’11-12. We played in the Sugar Bowl. But because of depth, Mike Martin played 82 plays as a nose tackle. I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy, because that’s playing a lot of snaps and that’s taking a lot of hits.

“But if it was today, Mike Martin would play 50 plays. So that’s what we have now.”

Michigan has a history of playing the MAC early on. What sort of relationship does that program have with the Mid-American where you can have those non-conference games scheduled so easily?
“Well, I think it’s always been a nice — I was head coach of Ball State and we played Indiana twice. We played Purdue twice. Played Michigan once. I think it’s great for the Mid-American Conference, which I have a ton of respect for, and I think it’s great for regionally for families. I think it’s both for both schools, and obviously you’ve seen the Mid-American Conference teams come in and play awfully well and beat some of the Big Ten teams.

“So I think it’s a great partnership because of the competitive base.”

You mentioned Doug and what he’s done so far. But where have you seen the difference that he’s made, tangible changes he’s made? And also as far as Peppers, when can we anoint him?
“Let’s anoint him when he does something, right? I mean, let’s see what he can do.

“What Doug has done, is I think when you watch the practice in the spring, you watch the tempo of the offense, you watch the physicalness every day that guys are playing with, I think that’s where it starts.”

Is there any update right now on Drake Harris’s health, and are there any players you expect –
“Drake Harris, he’s fine.”

Any players you expect will be limited going into camp?
“No, not yet, not that I can think of or that I want to share at this time.”

Curious if you know anything about Ty Isaac and his potential eligibility.
“As far as the hardship and everything, we don’t know of anything. We expect Ty to report on August 3rd, and we’re still going through the hardship with compliance and all those things.”

Could you talk about the last — in the foreseeable future, your match-up with Notre Dame this year, and is that a little more emphasized with your players this year?
“It definitely will be an emphasis, simply because it’s a national rivalry. It’s a shame that that series is over with, because of the national rivalry that it carried with it.”

They changed the divisions obviously in the Big Ten this year, Ohio State and Michigan now in the same division. Obviously that game means so much, but now as a division game with what you thought, were you happy to see that change made?
“Yeah, I mean as long as those two great programs, you know, with their storied history, are still playing.”page3image27128page3image27288page3image28056

Big Ten Media Days primer

Sunday, July 27th, 2014


B1G Media Days(@B1GFootball)

Big Ten Media Days are upon us, which means two days of speeches, interviews, roundtables, predictions, and more, and Maize and Go Blue will be there to cover it first hand. For those watching at home — or tuning in from work — we’ve got you covered with a full rundown of what to expect.

Overview

This year marks the 43rd year of Big Ten Media Days. The event will be held at the Hilton Chicago on Monday and Tuesday. In attendance will be 42 players — three from each team — and all 14 coaches, in addition to Big Ten personnel and other special guests. The two-day event will conclude with the annual Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon, which will feature an autograph session for all fans in attendance as well as more interviews and speeches. ESPN’s Rece Davis will emcee the Luncheon and Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah will deliver the keynote speech.

Big Ten Network and ESPNU will air coverage of the event. Beginning at 9:30 a.m. CT, BTN will air the opening media sessions with coaches (schedule below), as well as BTN president Mark Silverman, College Football Playoff COO Michael Kelly, and Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany. Gerry DiNardo and Rick Pizzo will anchor the network’s coverage, which will also re-air at 6 p.m. CT. BTN will also air a Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon special at 6 p.m. CT on Wednesday.

ESPNU will air the 14 head coaches’ press conferences between noon and 3 p.m. on both Monday and Tuesday, as well as those by Kelly and Delany. Some Big Ten coaches will also appear on other ESPN shows, such as SportsCenter and College Football Live, throughout the day.

The schedule - Monday, July 28

Opening media session with coaches
Time Name School
9:30 a.m. – 9:45 a.m. Pat Fitzgerald Northwestern
9:45 a.m. – 10:00 a.m. Darrell Hazell Purdue
10:00 a.m. – 10:15 a.m. Gary Andersen Wisconsin
10:15 a.m. – 10:30 a.m. Tim Beckman Illinois
10:30 a.m. – 10:45 a.m. Brady Hoke Michigan
11:00 a.m. – 11:15 a.m. Kyle Flood Rutgers
11:15 a.m. – 11:30 a.m. Jerry Kill Minnesota
11:30 a.m. – 11:45 a.m. Mark Dantonio Michigan State
12:00 p.m. – 12:15 p.m. Bo Pelini Nebraska
12:15 p.m. – 12:30 p.m. Randy Edsall Maryland
12:30 p.m. – 12:45 p.m. Urban Meyer Ohio State
1:00 p.m. – 1:15 p.m. James Franklin Penn State
1:15 p.m. – 1:30 p.m. Kevin Wilson Indiana
1:30 p.m. – 1:45 p.m. Kirk Ferentz Iowa
Media session for BTN, College Football Playoff, and Big Ten
Time Name Affiliation
1:45 p.m. – 2:00 p.m. Mark Silverman BTN President
2:00 p.m. – 2:15 p.m. Michael Kelly College Football Playoff
2:15 p.m. – 2:45 p.m. Jim Delany Big Ten Commissioner
One-on-one podium interviews
Time Name School
10:00 a.m. – 10:30 a.m. Pat Fitzgerald, Ibraheim Campbell, Collin Ellis, Trevor Siemian Northwestern
10:15 a.m. – 10:45 a.m. Darrell Hazell, Raheem Mostert, Sean Robinson, Ryan Russell Purdue
10:30 a.m. – 11:00 a.m. Gary Andersen, Melvin Gordon, Rob Havenstein, Warren Herring Wisconsin
10:45 a.m. – 11:15 a.m. Tim Beckman, Simon Cvijanovic, Jon Davis, Austin Teitsma Illinois
11:00 a.m. – 11:30 a.m. Brady Hoke, Devin Gardner, Jake Ryan, Frank Clark Michigan
11:30 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. Kyle Flood, Michael Burton, Darius Hamilton, Lorenzo Waters Rutgers
11:45 a.m. – 12:15 p.m. Jerry Kill, David Cobb, Mitch Leidner, Cedric Thompson Minnesota
12:00 p.m. – 12:30 p.m. Mark Dantonio, Shilique Calhoun, Connor Cook, Kurtis Drummond Michigan State
12:30 p.m. – 1:00 p.m. Bo Pelini, Ameer Abdullah, Kenny Bell, Corey Cooper Nebraska
12:45 p.m. – 1:15 p.m. Randy Edsall, C.J. Brown, Stefon Diggs, Jeremiah Johnson Maryland
1:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m. Urban Meyer, Braxton Miller, Michael Bennett, Jeff Heuermann Ohio State
1:30 p.m. – 2:00 p.m. James Franklin, Bill Belton, Sam Ficken, Mike Hull Penn State
1:45 p.m. – 2:15 p.m. Kevin Wilson, David Cooper, Nate Sudfeld, Shane Wynn Indiana
2:00 p.m. – 2:30 p.m. Kirk Ferentz, Carl Davis, Brandon Scherff, Mark Weisman Iowa

As you can see, the Michigan coach and player interviews will happen between 10:30 and 11:30 a.m. and we will have news and reactions from this sessions afterward. You can watch Hoke’s session live at 10:30 on BTN.

The schedule - Tuesday, July 29

One-on-One Round Table Interviews
8:00 a.m. – 10:00 a.m. All coaches and players available
Autograph session
10:00 a.m. – 10:50 a.m. Coaches and former players sign autographs with fans attending the Luncheon
43rd Annual Kickoff Luncheon
11:30 a.m. Interviews and keynote speech, emceed by ESPN’s Rece Davis

Follow @maizeandgoblue on Twitter for live Michigan-related updates throughout the day and check back here for more coverage. You can also follow @B1GFootball for updates about every team in the conference and other happenings.

2014 opponent preview: Indiana

Sunday, July 27th, 2014


2014-Opponent-Preview-Indiana

The fifth opponent in our season preview series is the Indiana Hoosiers, who we feel will be the fifth-easiest — or seventh-toughest — opponent on the schedule. We have already previewed, from easiest to not-so-easiest, Appalachian State, Miami (Ohio), Minnesota, and Utah.

Overview

Schedule
Date Opponent
Aug. 30 Indiana State
Sept. 13 at Bowling Green
Sept. 20 at Missouri
Sept. 27 Maryland
Oct. 4 North Texas
Oct. 11 at Iowa
Oct. 18 Michigan State
Nov. 1 at Michigan
Nov. 8 Penn State
Nov. 15 at Rutgers
Nov. 22 at Ohio State
Nov. 29 Purdue

In a similar fashion to Jerry Kill at Minnesota, Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson has his program headed in the right direction. In his first season after taking over from Bill Lynch in 2011, the Hoosiers managed just a single win, topping South Carolina State of the Football Championship Subdivision, 38-21. His first four losses were all within a touchdown, but the rest of the season wasn’t even close. Indiana lost its final seven games of that season by an average of 25 points.

Year two was better as the Hoosiers improved the win total by three, going 4-8, and winning two conference games, a 31-17 win at Illinois and a 24-21 win over Iowa the following week. There were still lopsided losses — 62-14 to Wisconsin, 45-22 at Penn State, and 56-35 to Purdue — but there were also near-upsets — a 52-49 loss to Ohio State, 31-27 loss to Michigan State, and a one-point heartbreaker at Navy. Progress.

Last season, Wilson’s squad managed five wins, none over FCS opponents, and three against Big Ten foes, the most notable being a 44-24 win at Penn State early in the season. The Hoosiers faltered down the stretch, losing 51-3 at Wisconsin and 41-14 at Ohio State, but the progress was evident. The offense was second only to Ohio State in the Big Ten and scored more points (28) than anyone all season against Michigan State’s vaunted defense (Nebraska also scored 28), including Ohio State.

The progress may not be as noticeable in the win column as Kill’s, but it’s there nonetheless, and Wilson has the Hoosiers knocking on the postseason once again. The program hasn’t been to a bowl game since the 1997 Insight Bowl, and the last one before that was the 1993 Independence Bowl. With 17 starters returning, including eight on that explosive offense, Wilson hopes this is the year to end that drought.

But in order to do so, he better fix the defense that surrendered a Big Ten-worst 38.8 points per game in 2013. In fact, the Hoosier defense under Wilson has finished last in the conference all three seasons. Enter Brian Knorr. The former Wake Forest defensive coordinator was brought on in place of Doug Mallory, the brother of Michigan’s safeties coach, Curt Mallory. Knorr took the Wake Forest defense from 91st in 2012 to 31st a year ago and has also had defensive success at Air Force. If he can do the same in Bloomington, Indiana should set its goals higher than simply becoming bowl eligible. But is that realistic for this fall? Let’s take a look.

Offense

Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2013 Stats
QB Nate Sudfeld 6’5″, 232 194-322 for 2,523 yds, 21 TD, 9 INT
RB Tevin Coleman 6’1″, 210 998 yds (7.3 avg), 12 TD
WR Shane Wynn 5’7″, 167 46 rec. for 633 yds, 11 TD
WR Nick Stoner 6’1″, 191 12 rec. for 226 yds, 1 TD
WR Isaiah Roundtree 5’11″, 200 14 rec. for 136 yds, 1 TD
TE Danny Friend 6’5″, 255
LT Jason Spriggs 6’7″, 307 12 starts (24 career starts)
LG Bernard Taylor 6’2″, 307 9 starts (25 career starts)
C Collin Rahrig 6’2″, 290 10 starts (24 career starts)
RG Dan Feeney 6’4″, 305 Injured (12 career starts)
RT Peyton Eckert 6’6″, 305 Injured (18 career starts)

As mentioned above, offense has not been the problem for Wilson. Last year’s offense ranked 16th nationally in scoring offense (38.4 points per game), ninth in total offense (508.5 yards per game), 30th in rushing (201.8 yards per game), and 17th in passing (306.7 yards per game). Those are pretty darn good numbers for any offense, let alone one that won just five games. Consider that the eight teams that had better total offenses — Baylor, Oregon, Fresno State, Texas A&M, Northern Illinois, Florida State, Ohio State, and Texas Tech — had a combined average record of 11-2 and you see that this Indiana offense is in good company.

The offense took a small blow last month when one part of the two-headed quarterback monster announced his decision to transfer to Illinois State. Tre Roberson started four games for the Hoosiers in 2013, passing for 1,128 yards and 15 touchdowns, and rushing for 423 yards and five more touchdowns. He performed well against Michigan (16-of-23 for 288 yards, three touchdowns, and an interception) and tied a 70-year-old school record with six touchdowns in the season finale against Purdue. But he wasn’t content to share time with Nate Sudfeld, and now this is Sudfeld’s team.

Coleman is one of the Big Ten's best returning running backs (Doug McSchooler, AP)

Coleman is one of the Big Ten’s best returning running backs (Doug McSchooler, AP)

The junior from Modesto, Calif. ranked highly in the Big Ten in most passing categories despite splitting time with Roberson. He finished fifth in passing yards (2,523), total offense per game (207.4), and completion percentage (60.2), and third in yards per completion (13.0) and yards per attempt (7.8). He threw 21 touchdowns and just nine interceptions and looks to take another step forward as the main man this fall.

Unfortunately, four of his top five pass-catchers from 2013 are no longer in Bloomington, most notably the Big Ten’s third-leading receiver, Cody Latimer, who was drafted by the Denver Broncos in the second round of the NFL Draft. The leading returning receiver is senior Shane Wynn, who caught 46 passes for 633 yards and a  team-high 11 touchdowns. The 5’7″, 167-pound slot receiver ranks fifth in career receiving touchdowns in Indiana history (17), eighth in receptions (133), and 17th in receiving yards (1,490). Joining him will be fellow seniors Nick Stoner and Isaiah Roundtree. The two combined for 26 receptions, 362 yards, and two touchdowns last season, but will need to take a much bigger role this fall. Pushing them, however, will be four-star recruit Dominique Booth, who enrolled early and already has the size (6’1″, 208) to contribute immediately.

While there’s a lot of production to replace out wide, the backfield returns the best part of its one-two punch. One of the Big Ten’s best running backs, Tevin Coleman, is back for his junior season. Drew ranked him third behind Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon and Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah. Coleman just missed 1,000 yards last season, rushing for 958 yards and 12 touchdowns on 7.1 yards per carry. Oh, and he did it all in nine games before he missed the final three with an ankle injury. He had 78 yards on 11 carries against Michigan and an astounding 215 yards on just 15 carries against Illinois.

The second part of IU’s one-two punch from 2013, Stephen Houston, is gone. He had just 19 fewer carries than Coleman and rushed for 753 yards (6.7 yards per carry) and five touchdowns. Replacing him will be senior D’Angelo Roberts, who had 232 yards on 4.5 yards per carry last season. Nearly half of his yardage came in the season finale against Purdue, in which he rushed for 113 yards on just 14 carries. Prior to Coleman’s injury, however, Roberts had just 17 carries in nine games, so he’ll need to adjust to a bigger workload. Redshirt junior Anthony Davis, who transferred from the University of Dayton in 2012, could earn reps (he carried 10 times for 65 yards in the season opener last year), and incoming freshman Tommy Mister, the 2013 Chicago Catholic League Player of the Year, will also get a chance to earn playing time.

The offensive line returns plenty of starting experience that will certainly be beneficial for Coleman and Sudfeld. The unit has ranked as one of the Big Ten’s best the past two years, and this year should be no different. Left tackle Jason Spriggs is our third-best lineman individual lineman the conference. The 6’7″, 307-pound junior has started all 24 games of his career thus far and was named honorable mention All-Big Ten in both 2012 and 2013. Left guard Bernard Taylor has the most career starts on the team (25). He started nine games a year ago. Center Collin Rahrig started 10 games in 2013, earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors by the media. The former walk-on has started 24 career games.

The right side of the line is where it gets interesting. Right guard Dan Feeney and right tackle Peyton Eckert both suffered season-ending injuries in fall camp, making room for others to step in. Redshirt junior Ralston Evans started all 12 games at right tackle, while Jake Reed, David Kaminski, and Jacob Bailey all started games at right guard and all return. Feeney was an honorable mention All-Big Ten member as a true freshman in 2012 and Eckert started a combined 18 games in 2011 and 2012. With that much returning experience, the Hoosiers should once again have one of the best lines in the Big Ten.

Defense

Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2013 Stats
DE Darius Latham 6’5″, 325 22 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 1 FR
DT Ralph Green 6’5″, 325 25 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 1.0 sack, 1 FF
DE Bobby Richardson 6’3″, 288 39 tackles, 3.5 TFL
OLB Nick Mangieri 6’5″, 265 26 tackles, 7.0 TFL, 3.0 sacks, 1 FF, 1 INT
MLB T.J. Simmons 6’0″, 228 68 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 1.0 sack
MLB Flo Hardin 6’1″, 230 59 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 3 FF, 1 FR
OLB David Cooper 6’1″, 237 85 tackles, 6.0 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 1 FR
CB Tim Bennett 5’9″, 186 73 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 1 INT, 20 PBU, 1 FR
CB Michael Hunter 6’1″, 194 42 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 1 INT, 7 PD, 1 FF
FS Antonio Allen 5’10″, 205 35 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1 FR
SS Mark Murphy 6’2″, 210 84 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 1 INT, 1 PD, 1 FF

There can’t be many teams that have had such a dichotomy between offense and defense. Remember in Rich Rodriguez’s last season when Michigan’s scoring offense ranked 25th nationally but its scoring defense ranked 107th? Well, Indiana’s scoring offense last season ranked 16th and its scoring defense ranked 115th. Only nine teams in the country allowed more points per game than the Hoosiers did. They ranked 123rd in total defense (527.9 yards per game), 117th in rush defense (237.8 yards per game), 120th in pass defense (290.2 yards per game), and 114th in third-down conversion defense (46.2 percent).

New defensive coordinator Brian Knorr may be the most important factor in how high Indiana's ceiling is this season (Mark Dolejs, USA Today Sports)

New defensive coordinator Brian Knorr may be the most important factor in how high Indiana’s ceiling is this season (Mark Dolejs, USA Today Sports)

The new defensive coordinator will be charged with simply improving the defense to average, which would surely improve the Hoosiers’ win total. The biggest change will be transforming from a 4-3 to a 3-4, which Knorr ran at Wake Forest.

“I think the system makes you more multiple,” Knorr said. “The opportunity to have three linemen and to get more linebackers on the field. And it helps not having to recruit four true down linemen. It’s hoped the alignment will make it more difficult for foes to tell where pressure and blitzes are coming from.”

The good news is he has some bodies to work with up front. Redshirt sophomore Ralph Green started nine games last season and was named to BTN.com’s honorable mention All-Big Ten team and CollegeFootballNews.com’s honorable mention Freshman All-American team. At 6’5″, 325-pounds, he’s a nice big body to clog the middle. Redshirt junior Adarius Rayner has only two starts under his belt, but will provide depth, as will redshirt freshman Nate Hoff, who was a scout team star a year ago.

Sophomore Darius Latham, a four-star recruit who had several big-time offers, and senior Bobby Richardson, who has 16 career starts, will be in the mix to start. Richardson led all IU linemen with 39 tackles last season, while Latham impressed as a true freshman, being named honorable mention All-Big Ten Freshman by BTN.com. The other end who will factor in is another former four-star, sophomore David Kenney, who recorded nine tackles in seven games last season.

The top six tackles among Indiana’s linebackers from 2013 all return, and converted defensive end Nick Mangieri will join them. The 6’5″, 265-pound junior started 10 games last season, leading the team with 85 tackles, and ranking second with three sacks and six tackles-for-loss. Fifth-year senior David Cooper has started all 24 games since transferring from Coffeyville Community College in 2012. Fellow senior Flo Hardin has three years of experience under his belt, while a host of sophomores, T.J. Simmons, Marcus Oliver, and Clyde Newton, will be among the rotation.

Both of last year’s starting corners are back in senior Tim Bennett and redshirt junior Michael Hunter. Bennett was named honorable mention All-Big Ten by the media after leading the nation with 20 pass breakups and 21 passes defended. Hunter recorded seven pass breakups and picked off one pass. They will be backed by redshirt freshman Rashard Fant, a former four-star recruit. Strong safety Mark Murphy, who has 28 career starts at strong safety is back, but the loss of free safety Greg Heban, who started 38 career games, will hurt. Stepping in will be another former four-star recruit, sophomore Antonio Allen. He played in seven games last season and got his first career start against Michigan, but tore his ACL in that game and missed the rest of the season.

Special Teams

Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2013 Stats
PK Aaron Del Grosso 5’10″, 195 (Redshirted)
P Erich Toth 6’3″, 206 40.6 avg, 18 in-20, 7 50+
KR Shane Wynn 5’7″, 167 18 ret, 23.1 avg.
PR Shane Wynn 5’7″, 167 7 ret, 14.0 avg., 1 TD

Kicker Mitch Ewald, who was named second team All-Big Ten by the coaches last season, has graduated. He made 9-of-11 field goals and finished an impressive career having made 53-of-66 (80.3 percent). No other kicker has attempted a field goal at Indiana since 2010, and Wilson will be hard-pressed to find one as consistent as Ewald. The most likely candidate this fall is redshirt freshman walk-on Aaron Del Grosso. Punter Erich Toth is back after booting 52 punts for an average of 40.6 yards last season. That tied with Michigan punter Matt Wile for seventh-best in the conference.

The return game is led by Wynn, who averaged 23.1 yards per kick return a year ago, and while he didn’t take one all the way in 2013, he does have one in his career. He also returned a punt for a touchdown last season and averaged 14 yards per punt return. However, Indiana’s defense didn’t force many punts, so Wynn’s seven returns weren’t enough to rank among the conference leaders. If it was, he would have ranked third.

Outlook

As I’ve already mentioned, if the defense can simply improve slightly, it should be enough to at least get the Hoosiers back into the postseason. Even with the relative inexperience at receiver, the offense shouldn’t miss a beat. Sudfeld should thrive as the full-time starter, especially with a home-run threat like Coleman in the backfield and a talented and experienced front line.

The main issue lies in the schedule, which sees the Hoosiers travel to Missouri in Week 4 (their third game), then face a rough stretch of at Iowa, home against Michigan State, at Michigan, home against Penn State. They also have to travel to Columbus the second-to-last week of the season. Wilson’s squad should be able to get through the non-conference at 3-1, but will have trouble getting any momentum. Count the conference-opener with Maryland and the season-ender with Purdue as wins, and the Hoosiers will need to pull off a road win at Rutgers or knock off one of the aforementioned teams to become bowl-eligible. It’s certainly doable, but will take some work. Six wins are likely, seven would be great, and anything above that might get Wilson nominated for mayor in Bloomington.

What it means for Michigan

Indiana gets a bye week between hosting Michigan State and traveling to Ann Arbor, while Michigan will be coming off a trip to East Lansing. It will be a tough one emotionally for the Wolverines because they’ll either be coming down from the high of their second win over their in-state rival in seven years — their second in three years — or trying to rebound from the stinging disappointment of a sixth loss in seven years. But Michigan has Indiana’s number, having won the last 18 meetings and 33 of the last 34. Indiana’s strength — its offense — will match up against what should be a very good Michigan defense. The Wolverines surely won’t allow 47 points as they did last year, and while the offense probably won’t score 63, it won’t have to. Look for a comfortable Michigan win in this one.

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

Friday, July 25th, 2014


Big-Ten-position-rankings-header-CB

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 best cornerbacks 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 had the most success in previous years. Part One of our cornerback rankings was posted yesterday. It revealed the bottom half of the Big Ten’s top-10 cornerbacks. If you have not had the chance to read it yet, I recommend that you do so before proceeding. Read it? Fantastic! Then let’s unveil who will be the five best cornerbacks 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 One

5. Desmond King, Iowa | Sophomore – 5’11”, 190 lbs.
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 44 25 69 3.0 0 8 0
Career Totals 44 25 69 3.0 0 8 0
(AP)

(AP)

Iowa’s Desmond King is one of two rising sophomores to make the top five on this list. Last summer, King arrived in Iowa City with little fanfare. He had been only a middling three-star recruit, not even in the top 1,000 of 247’s composite national rankings. King, who had offers from only MAC schools throughout most of the recruiting process, was set to attend Ball State before a late offer from the Hawkeyes convinced him to play in the Big Ten. It turned out to be the correct decision for both parties.

As a true freshman last season, King flashed potential that could turn him into a star cornerback in this conference. He started 12 of 13 games for one of the best defenses—against both the run and the pass—in the nation. The Hawkeyes were ninth nationally in scoring defense, sixth in total defense, and ninth in passing yards allowed per game. Thusly, it should be no surprise that Iowa’s pass defense was considered to be just as stout by advanced metrics. Iowa was 10th in the nation in sack-adjusted passing yards allowed per attempt, 17th in passing efficiency defense, and 13th in Passing Defense S&P+, an advanced statistical model which analyzes what defenses allow on a given play versus what they are expected to allow. Simply, Iowa’s pass defense was exceptional, and King was a big reason for it.

Although King was the No. 2 cornerback on the roster behind B.J. Lowery, what made his campaign so impressive was the versatility he displayed as only a true freshman. In coverage, King tallied eight pass defended. Although he failed to grab one interception, there have been freshman cornerbacks in the past who have were unable to earn one their first season before recording a heap of them later in their career. For instance, see a certain Michigan cornerback below. But what was most important was that King showed he could succeed both in Iowa’s Cover-2 scheme and on an island in man-to-man. Further, King also proved he can be an asset in run support. He posted 69 tackles, 44 solo stops, which were the most by any Iowa defensive back, and three tackles-for-loss. There are few things King cannot do.

It is clear that Iowa landed a gem in King. He appears to be a blossoming stud in the Big Ten. However, there is one concern that must be noted about King’s upcoming sophomore season. Although it was already implied that Lowery graduated, the Hawkeyes also lost safety Tanner Miller and the entire corps of starting linebacker. Among the five of them, they accounted for 12 of Iowa’s 13 interceptions last season. How much will Iowa’s pass defense suffer with the departure of five starters in the back-seven? Can King do enough to replace that production? Or will Iowa’s pass defense experience a significant dip? It will be interesting to see how King performs without the help he had from these talented teammates last year, which is why he is No. 5 on this list.

4. Sojourn Shelton, Wisconsin | Sophomore – 5’9″, 172 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 25 5 30 0 0 4 4
Career Totals 25 5 30 0 0 4 4
(Jonathan Quilter, Columbus Dispatch)

(Jonathan Quilter, Columbus Dispatch)

The other rising sophomore that should become one of the best cornerbacks in the Big Ten this season is Wisconsin’s Sojourn Shelton. Like Iowa’s Desmond King, Shelton was a true freshman that started 12 of 13 games at cornerback for the Badgers. Unlike King, though, Shelton proved that he can be an elite cover corner. At 5’9” and 160 pounds, Shelton was not the biggest corner by any means, but he had the speed and agility to keep pace with any receiver in the conference. Accordingly, he had nine passes defended last season. But, more importantly, four of those nine were interceptions. His four interceptions were tied for the third-most in the conference and led Wisconsin. Because of his speed and reflexes, Shelton will always be a threat to pick off passes thrown in his direction.

However, although Shelton has beefed up to 172 pounds this year, he still is very small. This negatively impacts him in two ways. First, Shelton will struggle to be effective in press coverage. He does not have the size to jam the receiver at the line of scrimmage and may be too vulnerable to being torched over the top. Second, Shelton will not provide much assistance in stopping the run. While it is clear that Shelton does not shy away from delivering physical hits, his lack of size makes it easy for blockers to escort him out of the area. This is a big reason why he had only 36 tackles last year, even if 31 of them were solo stops. Shelton still will be an excellent corner in the Big Ten, but his lack of size will always be something that holds him back a bit.

Yet, with a year of experience under his belt, Shelton should be ready to improve upon a fantastic freshman season. He returns to a secondary that performed very well last year. Wisconsin finished 17th nationally in passing yards allowed per game, 19th in sack-adjusted passing yards allowed per attempt, 18th in passing efficiency defense, and 28th in Passing Defense S&P+. This was essentially a top-20 pass defense that returns three of its four starters. Shelton will be comfortable with his fellow teammates in the secondary and may be able to contend for All-Big Ten honors, assuming Wisconsin can adequately replace its entire defensive front-seven.

3. Jordan Lucas, Penn State | Junior – 6’0”, 198 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 45 20 65 4.5 1.0 16 3
2012 1 0 1 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 46 20 66 4.5 1.0 16 3
(Jason Plotkin, The York Daily Record)

(Jason Plotkin, The York Daily Record)

With the two sophomores—Wisconsin’s Sojourn Shelton and Iowa’s Desmond King—sliding in at No. 4 and No. 5 on this list, we are left with three juniors that will vie for the label as the Big Ten’s best cornerback. One of these juniors is Penn State’s Jordan Lucas. Lucas became a full-time starter last season and demonstrated very quickly that he was the best cornerback on Penn State’s roster. He defended a remarkable 16 passes—three interceptions, 13 pass breakups—in 2013. Not only was this five more than the number of passes defended by any other Nittany Lion, it also was tied for the third-most in the conference with Ohio State’s Bradley Roby and Nebraska’s Stanley Jean-Baptiste—both of whom were selected in the first two rounds of the 2014 NFL Draft. And, unlike Indiana’s Tim Bennett, who led the nation with 21 passes defended, Lucas earned that number as the leader of a passing defense that allowed the fourth-fewest passing yards per attempt in the conference.

Further, Lucas exhibited a level of physicality on the perimeter that few Big Ten cornerbacks exuded last season. In addition to his 16 passes defended, Lucas added 65 tackles, 4.5 tackles-for-loss, and one sack. He was the third-leading tackler on Penn State, and no Nittany Lion had as many solo tackles as he did (45). Plus, as discussed yesterday when breaking down Northwestern’s Nick VanHoose and Maryland’s William Likely, 4.5 tackles-for-loss is an exceptional number for any cornerback. It indicates that he can knife his way into the backfield to make key stops against the run. And, if you want even more proof that Lucas can lay the wood, he also forced two fumbles. There are many cornerbacks that can provide tight coverage against the pass, but there are few that like to hit as hard as Lucas does.

In 2014, Lucas should be able to do much of the same as he did last season. He once again will be the top cornerback in a secondary that returns two other starters. Lucas will benefit from having Adrian Amos, who alternated between cornerback and safety last year, alongside him. The two of them will form one of the best corner-safety tandems in the Big Ten. If there is one area where they need to improve, though, it is their pass defense in third-and-long situations. Last season, Penn State allowed its opponent to convert 13 first downs when the opponent needed 10 or more yards on third down. No other Big Ten team conceded as many first downs in such a distance-and-down situation. If Lucas can rectify this problem, not only will Penn State’s pass defense improve according to basic and advanced metrics, he also will contend for All-Big Ten first-team honors this fall.

2. Blake Countess, Michigan | RS Junior – 5’10″, 183 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 26 20 46 2.0 0 4 6
2012 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
2011 30 14 44 1.5 0 6 0
Career Totals 56 34 90 3.5 0 10 6
(Rick Osentoski, USA Today Sports)

(Rick Osentoski, USA Today Sports)

The two cornerbacks who will be the best in the Big Ten in 2014 both reside in the state of Michigan. Once again, fans of the Wolverines and Spartans will have something about which to bicker and debate. And, to be fair, both sides have several solid arguments they can offer to support the idea that their player will be the best cornerback in the conference. But the best guess is that Michigan’s Blake Countess will have to settle for No. 2.

Entering last season, there was a giant question mark hanging over Countess. After an impressive debut season in 2011 that unfairly drew comparisons to Michigan legend Charles Woodson, Countess tore his ACL while covering a punt in the opening quarter of the 2012 season. He was forced to miss the rest of the year and redshirt. Although players, especially the more athletic ones, generally can recover quickly from an ACL injury given today’s advances in medical science, there was anxiety among the Michigan fan base about whether Countess would regain his freshman form. Not only did he regain it, he significantly improved upon it.

Last season, Countess had one of the best campaigns by a Michigan cornerback in quite some time. After not intercepting one pass as a freshman, he completely flipped the switch last fall. He led the conference with six picks, which also was tied for seventh nationally. Further, his six interceptions were the most by a Wolverine since Todd Howard also had six in 2000. Countess was an interception magnet because he became adept at suckering the quarterback into poor throws. He would feign that he was playing a certain coverage, tricking the quarterback to believe that another receiver in the nearby area was open. But, as the quarterback began to step into his throw, Countess would quickly shift into that area and undercut the pass for an interception. It was beautiful to watch. Although, Big Ten quarterbacks would disagree as they began to avoid Countess’ side of the field later in the season.

However, Countess could not top this list because there is a red flag about his press coverage, which he will be playing much more of this season. Michigan’s passing defense regressed in 2013 and was only an average unit. The Wolverines were 66th nationally in passing yards allowed per game, 57th in sack-adjusted passing yards allowed per attempt, 51st in passing efficiency defense, and 54th in Passing Defense S&P+. The mediocrity of these ranks can be attributed to the soft coverage Michigan played, which involved its corners lining up 10 yards off the line of scrimmage. And, given referees’ inclination not to call defensive pass interference on every play, Michigan believes its passing defense will be more effective with more press coverage.

But Countess is not the most physical cornerback at 5’10”, 180 pounds and has struggled in press coverage in the past. The best example is when Michigan left Countess on an island against Kansas State’s Tyler Lockett, who then proceeded to haul in 10 catches for 176 yards and three touchdowns. The good news for Michigan is that Lockett was one of the best and most explosive wideouts in the country. Countess likely will not have that a challenge like that in the Big Ten this fall. Nonetheless, there is still a concern about being beat over the top, which is why Countess should be the second-best, but not the best, Big Ten cornerback in 2014.

1. Trae Waynes, Michigan State | RS Junior - 6’1”, 183 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 35 15 50 1.5 0 5 3
2012 2 3 5 0.5 0.5 0 0
2011 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 37 18 55 2.0 0.5 5 3
(Gary A. Vasquez, USA Today Sports)

(Gary A. Vasquez, USA Today Sports)

Michigan’s Blake Countess may have had the better individual numbers last season, but Michigan State’s Trae Waynes arguably was a starter for the nation’s best passing defense. Under the tutelage of head coach Mark Dantonio and, especially, defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, the Spartans have set the standard for passing defense the past three seasons. Michigan State has finished in the top 10 in Passing Defense S&P+ each of the past three year and in the top spot in 2012 and 2013. Further, looking at last year’s stats alone, Michigan State was third nationally in passing yards allowed per game, second in sack-adjusted passing yards allowed per attempt, and first in passing efficiency defense. So, if you were starter for a secondary that put up those numbers, you probably are alright at this cornerback thing.

Last season, Waynes started all 14 games in his first season as a full-time starter. He registered 50 tackles, 35 of which were solo, 1.5 tackles-for-loss, one fumble recovery, and eight passes defended—three interceptions and five pass breakups. None of these numbers are super exciting, especially when offenses were more inclined to target Waynes rather than future first-round selection Darqueze Denard. But it is always important to note the context in which Waynes produced these numbers. Michigan State prefers that its safeties are uber-aggressive. They play closer to and attack the line of scrimmage more frequently than other teams’ safeties, which leaves Michigan State’s corners on an island more often. Yet the Spartans still had the best passing defense in the nation. This is because Waynes, at 6’1” and 183 pounds, not only has the size to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage but also can run step for step with the receiver if he does release. Sure, there were times when Waynes would be beat over the top, like on Stanford’s opening drive in the Rose Bowl, but it usually took a perfect throw from the quarterback to do it.

Next season, Waynes will be Michigan State’s top cornerback now that Dennard is in the NFL. Given the trend the Spartans have set as consistently being one of the best pass defenses in the nation, accordingly, Waynes should be considered one of the best cornerbacks in the nation as well. In fact, he is ranked as the second-best cornerback prospect in the 2016 NFL Draft class and already projected by some to be a first-round selection as an early entrant in next year’s draft. No cornerback in the Big Ten has the size, press skills, and cover skills that Waynes has, which is why he will be the best cornerback in the conference this fall.

So what do you think? Do you agree with our list? Should Michigan State’s Trae Waynes or Michigan’s Blake Countess be ranked No. 1 on this list? Or should it be someone else? And was there another Big Ten cornerback that should have made the top five on this list? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below. Next week, we will tackle the remainder of the secondary by ranking who will be the best safeties in the Big Ten.

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

Thursday, July 24th, 2014


Big-Ten-position-rankings-header-CB

This is the eighth 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. The analysis provided is thorough and in-depth, so each position preview will be split into two parts. The best Big Ten players on offense and in the defensive front seven have been covered. This week, it is time to preview who will be the best cornerbacks in the conference this season. Here is 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

10. Nick VanHoose, Northwestern | RS Junior – 6’0”, 190 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 40 21 61 5.0 0 8 0
2012 26 7 33 0.5 0 7 3
2011 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 66 28 94 5.5 0 15 3
(Meghan White, The Daily Northwestern)

(Meghan White, The Daily Northwestern)

Despite having fewer tackles, interceptions, and pass breakups than Indiana’s Tim Bennett, Northwestern’s Nick VanHoose cracks this top-10 list while Bennett is left out in the cold. In fact, Bennett—even with 73 tackles, 3.5 tackles-for-loss, one interception, and a nation-best 21 passes defended last season—was never really in consideration. There were two or three other Big Ten cornerbacks, including Michigan State sophomore Darian Hicks, who participated primarily on special teams last year, that had better odds to knock VanHoose out of the top 10 than Bennett. How so? There is more to an evaluation of a cornerback than just individual statistics.

Although Bennett led the country in both pass breakups (20) and passes defended (21) last season, he was a member of one of the worst secondaries in the nation. You may want to look away. The following numbers are quite horrifying. Indiana finished 118th nationally in passing yards allowed per game (290.2), 112th in sack-adjusted passing yards allowed per attempt (7.7), 103rd in passing efficiency defense (147.15), and allowed more 25-plus-yard completions than any other team in the Big Ten. While all of this cannot be blamed on Bennett, it was his responsibility to cover and contain the opponent’s No. 1 receiver. And Bennett was quite irresponsible. He allowed top wideouts like Michigan’s Jeremy Gallon (14 catches, Big Ten-record 369 yards, two touchdowns), Penn State’s Allen Robinson (12 catches, 173 yards, two touchdowns), and Illinois’ Steve Hull (9 catches, 224 yards, two touchdowns) to have their best performance of the season against the Hoosiers. Therefore, do not let individual statistics like passes defended fool you. There is always a bigger picture. And, here, the picture is clear: Bennett is not near one of the best 10 cornerbacks in the Big Ten.

One who will be this upcoming season is VanHoose. He has experience—he started 22 games at cornerback as a redshirt freshman and sophomore the past two seasons—and has produced in various ways. As a redshirt freshman, VanHoose notched 33 tackles and seven pass breakups but made his biggest impact generating turnovers. He intercepted three passes—his average of 0.30 picks per game was fourth-best in the Big Ten—and recovered three fumbles. The following year, the turnovers vanished, as VanHoose forced only one fumble and intercepted no passes. Nonetheless, he found other ways to contribute. Mainly, he improved his run support, accumulating 61 tackles and five tackles-for-loss, which are the most among returning Big Ten defensive backs. And, despite failing to record an interception last season, VanHoose still was in the vicinity of the receiver, breaking up eight passes. Entering his third year as a starter, VanHoose should be able to demonstrate all of these abilities as a pass and run defender in one season and put together the most all-around campaign of his career.

Similar to Bennett and Indiana, questions will be asked about VanHoose and Northwestern’s pass defense overall. The Wildcats’ national rank in passing yards allowed per game was dreadful (99th), but the advanced metrics indicate their pass defense was better than that suggests. The Wildcats were 52nd in sack-adjusted passing yards allowed per attempt (6.1) and 73rd in Passing Defense S&P+, an advanced statistical model which analyzes what defenses allow on a given play versus what they are expected to allow. Northwestern’s pass defense was not nearly as poor as Indiana’s last year, but it still was below average.

9. William Likely, Maryland | Sophomore – 5’7″, 175 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 51 19 70 4.5 0 7 1
Career Totals 51 19 70 4.5 0 7 1
(Bruce Chapman, Winston-Salem Journal)

(Bruce Chapman, Winston-Salem Journal)

At 5’7”, Maryland’s William Likely will be the shortest cornerback on this list. However, Likely has never allowed his limited stature to prevent him from excelling as a cornerback on the football field. In high school, Likely was considered a high three-star recruit in 247’s composite national rankings, but two recruiting services—Rivals and ESPN—rated him as a four-star. And Likely certainly had the offers of a four-star prospect, too. Reportedly, he received scholarship offers from LSU, Stanford, and Miami (FL) but chose to enroll at Maryland.

As a true freshman last season, Likely did not expect much playing time in the secondary with experienced starters Dexter McDougle and Jeremiah Johnson on the roster. However, McDougle broke his shoulder blade and Johnson fractured his toe early in the year, thrusting Likely into the lineup just a few weeks into his collegiate career. For a true freshman cornerback, Likely performed well in his 11 starts. He led the Terrapins with seven passes defended, one of which was an interception against Syracuse. Likely has a significant height disadvantage when marking outside wide receivers but compensates with his superb speed and agility to maintain tight coverage on his man. In case you are wondering just how superb, he was also Maryland’s kick and punt returner last season. What was even more impressive for a player of his size, though, was his willingness to provide solid run support. Likely had had the fifth-most tackles on the team with 70 and 4.5 tackles-for-loss, which is a high number for any cornerback, let alone one listed at 5’7”. Likely still had his freshman flaws throughout the year, but it was an impressive debut considering the circumstances.

Accordingly, big things are expected from Likely as a sophomore this fall. The question is whether Likely will sufficiently improve to shape up an experienced secondary that was only average against the pass last season. The Terrapins finished 57th nationally in passing yards allowed per game, 64th in passing efficiency defense, and 64th in Passing Defense S&P+. However, these probably would have been worse if not for Maryland’s pass rush. The Terps averaged 2.85 sacks per game, which was 18th-best in the country. Consequently, with sacks included, Maryland allowed only 5.7 passing yards per attempt, good enough for 26th-best in the nation. Some of these sacks were the result of excellent coverage where the quarterback had nowhere to throw, but the prevailing thought is that Maryland’s front-seven saved an average secondary’s behind. The bad news for Maryland is that it lost one of its top pass-rushers in linebacker Marcus Whitfield (15.5 tackles-for-loss, nine sacks). The good news is that it returns all of its other key defensive contributors, including the rest of the pass-rushing front-seven. If Likely makes the sophomore leap that many expect, Maryland’s pass defense should see a boost in its performance.

8. Raymon Taylor, Michigan | Senior – 5’10”, 182 lbs.
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 61 25 86 1.5 0.5 9 4
2012 33 12 45 0 0 1 2
2011 1 1 2 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 95 38 133 1.5 0.5 10 6
(Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images)

(Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images)

For much of last season, Raymon Taylor was the subject of frequent discussion among Michigan fans about whether he had developed into an above-average cornerback in the Big Ten. When Taylor became a permanent fixture in the starting lineup early in the 2012 season as a true sophomore, his impact was limited. Although he intercepted two passes, including a key one he returned 63 yards for a touchdown to ignite a rout of Purdue, he broke up only one other pass all season long. Three passes defended in 11 starts and 13 games? This is the sign of a cornerback who either had such tight coverage that quarterbacks did not throw in his general direction or struggled to stay close with his man. Given that Michigan was ranked No. 54 nationally in Passing Defense S&P+ and eighth in the Big Ten in passing yards allowed per attempt, the latter option is the answer here. Plus, Taylor provided little in run support, registering only 45 tackles and zero tackles-for-loss. Accordingly, fans began to look at the depth chart and incoming recruits to see if there was a suitable replacement for Taylor for 2013 season.

Yet Taylor demonstrated that there was no suitable replacement for him, even after Michigan brought in a blossoming crop of freshmen defensive backs in Jourdan Lewis, Channing Stribling, and Dymonte Thomas. He showed improvement in all facets of the game. Against the pass, Taylor transformed from a cornerback that rarely made plays on the ball into one that got his hands on multiple throws. His 13 passes defended were tied for the seventh-most in the Big Ten, and his four interceptions were tied for the third-most. What was most impressive about his interceptions was that they were created by his coverage, not by lucky bounces or ricochets. He played much tighter coverage on his man and, accordingly, saw favorable results. Against the run, Taylor still had issues, but he was much better in 2013 than in 2012. He actually led Michigan with 86 tackles, 61 of which were solo, almost doubling the number of tackles he had the prior season. Although many of Taylor’s stops can be attributed to tackles he made after he allowed his receiver catch the ball underneath against soft coverage, the large increase in tackles indicated he was more willing to assist his teammates in run support.

So, to answer many Michigan fans’ question, yes, Taylor is an above-average cornerback in the Big Ten. He still has room to improve in defending and containing the run on the perimeter, but his coverage is much tighter and more technically sound. Plus, this season, Michigan plans to play more press coverage, which suits Taylor’s abilities more than dropping him into a soft zone where he has a tendency to let free the receiver he is supposed to mark. Of course, even in press coverage, there still are concerns that he will be beat over the top like Kansas State’s Tyler Lockett and everyone from Indiana did time and time again. However, Lockett was one of the best wideouts in the nation last season, and Indiana’s no-huddle tempo was the reason for the slipups in coverage. Entering his senior season and third year as a starter, Taylor will put together his best campaign yet. He should have fewer tackles because he will not allow as many catches underneath in press coverage, but his passes defended should increase. Teams will try to test Taylor to avoid Michigan’s other cornerback, who is a bit higher on this list, only to discover that Taylor, too, is one of the better corners in the Big Ten.

7. Doran Grant, Ohio State | Senior – 5’11″, 193 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 43 15 58 2.0 0 13 3
2012 15 4 19 1.0 1.0 2 1
2011 3 3 6 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 61 22 83 3.0 1.0 15 4
(Jim Davidson, The Ozone)

(Jim Davidson, The Ozone)

Ohio State’s Doran Grant is considered by NFL scouts and personnel to be one of the best senior cornerback prospects in the nation. In fact, some scouts foresee Grant being the fourth cornerback selected in the next NFL Draft, meaning he would be taken in the one of the first two rounds. NFL personnel drool over Grant because he oozes with physical talent that can translate to the next level. As a former high four-star prospect in high school, he drips with the type of athleticism that gives him the ability to frequently make game-changing plays. Just look at the impact he had as Ohio State’s second corner in his first full season as a starter last year. Grant posted 58 tackles, 43 of which were solo, two tackles-for-loss, one forced fumble, three interceptions, and 10 pass breakups. His 13 passes defended were tied for the seventh-most in the conference, and he proved he could be an asset in run support. Ultimately, with his athleticism, Grant is a player that has unbelievable potential as a cornerback.

However, there is a “but,” and, in this case, it is significant. For all of the positive momentum-shifting plays Grant makes with his dynamic athleticism, he makes just as many negative ones. Grant has too many mental mishaps that allow opponents to break what should be no or small gains into huge plays. Whether it was misplaying his coverage or taking a poor angle on a tackle attempt, Grant simply made too many mistakes. And he was not the only Buckeye defensive back with this problem either. For example, no Big Ten team allowed more completions of 15 yards or more than Ohio State with 77 of them last season. Further, Grant was a member of an Ohio State secondary enriched with NFL talent that was only eighth in the Big Ten in passing yards allowed per attempt (7.0). The Buckeyes had one of the best pass rushes nationally, so their sack-adjusted numbers are much better. Nonetheless, this indicates that Ohio State, including Grant, pass defense struggled if the pass rush from the front-seven did not get home. This was a very poor reflection on Ohio State’s secondary.

And it is difficult to see Ohio State’s secondary improving this upcoming season. The Buckeyes lost both of their starting safeties and first-round cornerback Bradley Roby to the NFL this past spring. Grant is the only returning starter of the defensive back-four, and Ohio State’s returning safeties have very little experience. It will be upon Grant to replace the impact lost with Roby’s departure as the top cornerback on the depth chart and shore up the holes in this secondary. Grant continues to receive praise from NFL personnel and Ohio State coaches that claim Grant just needs to continue to “make strides in man coverage” to rise up the draft boards. But how much improvement mentally can be expected from a cornerback that fell asleep too often last season? If Grant realizes his full potential, he easily would be one of the top five cornerbacks in the conference. But the best guess is that Grant will continue to make too many dumb errors next season, which is why he is No. 7 on this list.

6. Eric Murray, Minnesota | Junior - 6’0”, 195 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 44 8 52 1.0 0 10 0
2012 4 1 5 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 48 9 57 1.0 0 10 0
(Amanda Snyder, Minnesota Daily)

(Amanda Snyder, Minnesota Daily)

Minnesota’s Eric Murray probably was the best Big Ten cornerback that no one talked about last season. After contributing primarily on special teams as a true freshman in 2012, Murray stepped into the starting cornerback role as a sophomore last year. Although Minnesota’s defense was somewhat below average, finishing 81st nationally in yards allowed per play and 65th in Defensive S&P+, much of those woes fell on Minnesota’s front-seven, not Murray and the rest of the secondary. Minnesota’s passing defense was slight above average, ranking fifth in the Big Ten in passing yards allowed per play and 47th nationally in Passing Defense S&P+. And Murray played a big role in this, leading the Gophers with 10 pass breakups, which already ties for the 11th-most all-time in school history. Additionally, Murray registered 52 tackles, 44 of which were solo, one tackle-for-loss, and a fumble recovery. By the end of the season, the Big Ten coaches and media began to recognize his performance, giving him an honorable mention on the All-Big Ten team. But, during the season, he received no attention.

The key reason why Murray received little press was because, unlike many of the other corners on this list, he did not accumulate any interceptions. Interceptions are flashy and easy indicators that a cornerback is performing well. But there is always a bigger picture. A look at Murray’s game film reveals why he has yet to nab his first interception. Murray thrives in press coverage when Minnesota lines up in man-to-man. At 6’0” and 195 pounds, he is able to jam the opposing receivers on the line, preventing them from releasing into their route. Accordingly, Murray did not have many passes to defend because the quarterback only occasionally had the opportunity to target Murray’s man. On the other hand, many of the Big Ten’s best wide receivers had their worst days against Minnesota. Penn State’s Allen Robinson, who averaged 119.3 receiving yards per game, gained only 18 yards in the nine times he was defended by Murray. Michigan’s Jeremy Gallon, who averaged 105.6 receiving yards per game, had only 30 yards in the 11 plays he was guarded by Murray. Indiana’s Cody Latimer, who averaged 91.3 yards per game? Only 25 yards in the 13 plays Murray locked him up. The trend is pretty clear: despite the lack of interceptions, Murray’s press coverage is a difficult challenge for even the Big Ten’s best wideouts.

Expect much of the same from Murray in 2014. With a one year of starting experience under his belt, he will be able to fine-tune his press technique and improve upon it even further. Wideouts will continue to have a hard time releasing off the line of scrimmage against him. There will be times when those wideouts are successful and beat Murray over the top, but this is the consequence of banking on your ability to press and press some more. Also, it certainly would not hurt if Murray decided to record a few interceptions either this year. Because, if he does, he may be better than one—or some—of the next five cornerbacks on this list. And then he would receive all of the attention he would ever need.

What do you think so far? Do you agree with the first five names on this list? Did we leave someone out of the top 10 that deserves to be here? What about Michigan’s Raymon Taylor? Should he be higher or lower than No. 8 on this list? Who do you think will round out the top five tomorrow? Please leave your thoughts in the comment section below.

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

Friday, July 18th, 2014


Big-Ten-position-rankings-header-LB

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 best linebackers 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 had the most success in previous years. Part One of our linebacker rankings was posted yesterday. It revealed who is in the bottom half of the Big Ten’s top-10 linebackers. If you have not had the opportunity to read it yet, I encourage that you do so before proceeding. Read it? Excellent! Let’s reveal who will be the five best linebackers 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.

5. Quinton Alston, Iowa | Senior – 6’1”, 232 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks QBH
2013 5 7 12 0 0 0
2012 2 3 5 0 0 0
2011 4 3 7 0.5 0 0
Career Totals 11 13 24 0.5 0 0
(Rob Howe, Scout.com)

(Rob Howe, Scout.com)

“Quinton who?” This likely is how many of you responded when you saw Iowa middle linebacker Quinton Alston’s name at No. 5 on this list. To those not following the Big Ten program residing in Iowa City, Alston is a complete unknown. In his first three seasons at Iowa, he was a reserve in 28 of the 29 games in which he participated and made only 24 total tackles. So why is a linebacker like Alston with such a bare resume in this top five? Because Alston is one of my biggest Big Ten sleepers for this fall.

Last season, Iowa trotted out one of the best all-around defenses in the nation. Both basic and advanced statistics agreed with this assessment. According to basic statistics, the Hawkeyes were sixth in national defense, ninth in scoring defense, 19th in rushing defense, and 17th in passing efficiency defense. According to advanced formulas, they were eighth in Defensive S&P+, seventh in Rushing Defense S&P+, and 13th in Passing Defense S&P+. These high rankings can be attributed in large part to Iowa’s trio of senior linebackers—James Morris, Anthony Hitchens, and Christian Kirksey. They were forces to be reckoned with in terms of their production. Last year alone, they combined for 322 tackles, 35.5 tackles-for-loss, 11.5 sacks, six forced fumbles, and six interceptions. They were the heart and soul of Iowa’s defense and propelled it to an elite level.

However, Iowa fans may not miss them as much as they anticipate. One significant reason why Morris, Hitchens, and Kirksey produced the statistics they did was due to the strength of Iowa’s defensive line. Nothing makes a linebacker look better than having a clean route to the gap he must fill. Last season, defensive tackles Carl Davis—a projected first-rounder—and Louis Trinca-Pasat held their ground against double teams every game. This allowed Iowa’s linebackers to plug holes at the line of scrimmage before offensive linemen could release to the next level. It also allowed Iowa’s linebackers to rack up the number of tackles they did. So, in a way, Morris, Hitchens, and Kirksey earned much of the credit for Davis, Trinca-Pasat, and the rest of the defensive line’s work.

This season, Davis and Trinca-Pasat return, as well as a third full-time starter along the defensive line, so there is little reason to think that Iowa’s new crop of linebackers will not be able to replace Morris, Hitchens, and Kirksey’s production for the most part. Enter: Alston. Just like those before him, Alston should be able to remain clean as Iowa’s defensive line wins the battle at the line of scrimmage. Plus, despite being a backup for his first three seasons, Alston has received heavy praise from his coaches for his ability and leadership. According to them, the only reason why Alston did not start the past two seasons was Morris and Hitchens. However, with both gone, Alston will be the one that finally will be in the spotlight. You may not have heard Alston’s name before you read this piece, but you will hear it plenty once the season begins.

4. Steve Longa, Rutgers | RS Sophomore – 6’1″, 220 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks QBH
2013 51 72 123 7.5 3.0 2
2012 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 51 72 123 7.5 3.0 2
(Mark Sullivan, MyCentralJersey.com)

(Mark Sullivan, MyCentralJersey.com)

Yes, I know what you are thinking: “Drew, are you telling me that there are two—TWO—Rutgers linebackers in this top 10?” Yes, this is what I am telling you. Yesterday, I claimed that Rutgers linebacker Kevin Snyder will be the eighth-best Big Ten linebacker next season. Today, I slot Rutgers linebacker Steve Longa at No. 4. Longa surprised folks with a splendid redshirt freshman campaign last year. Initially, Longa was not even supposed to be a linebacker. He was recruited by Rutgers as a safety and had practiced at linebacker for only a few months before the Scarlet Knights’ season opener. And, yet, it did not take very long for Longa to burst onto the scene. Longa recorded 123 tackles, which were the most on his team, the third-most in the AAC, and are the most among returning Big Ten players. He was consistent week in and week out, making at least seven tackles in 11 of 13 games and a minimum of 10 tackles in eight games. In addition, he registered 7.5 tackles-for-loss, three sacks, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, and four pass breakups. Longa was simply a playmaker in his first season on the field.

As I detailed in yesterday’s breakdown of Snyder, Longa was a member of a linebacker unit that was surprisingly exceptional against the run. Rutgers ranked fourth nationally in rushing defense (100.77 yards allowed per game) and fifth in yards allowed per carry (3.10). Even after removing sacks from those numbers, the Scarlet Knights rush defense still ranked up there with Michigan State and Wisconsin. To be fair, very few teams tried to run against Rutgers because they wanted to exploit one of the worst passing defenses. Offenses averaged only 32.45 carries per game against Rutgers, which was tied for the ninth-fewest against any defense in the country. Nonetheless, the yards-allowed-per-carry numbers speak for themselves: Rutgers—led by Longa, Snyder, and defensive lineman Darius Hamilton—could stop the run very well.

Next season, Longa will be featured as Rutgers’ weak-side linebacker rather than at middle linebacker. Given Longa’s size, listed at 6’1” and 220 pounds, this will suit him much better as Rutgers enters the Big Ten. His smaller stature could have given him serious problems if he was forced to take on larger Big Ten offensive linemen in the middle of the play—heck, it still might. However, on the outside, he will be shifted away from lead blockers and allowed to use his speed and agility to dart his way into the play to make tackles. It remains to be seen if Longa can post another 100-tackle season against a bigger and more competitive Big Ten. It also remains to be seen if Longa can improve his coverage skills, given just how abysmal Rutgers was in the back. Nonetheless, Longa still will only be a redshirt sophomore this fall. It will be a treat to see how much he improves in just his second year ever playing the linebacking position. He has the potential to really blossom next season. Yes, even at Rutgers. This is why you should not be surprised to hear that he is on Phil Steele’s preseason All-Big Ten first team.

3. Taiwan Jones, Michigan State | Senior – 6’3”, 252 lbs.
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks QBH
2013 38 29 67 7.0 0 1
2012 19 19 38 5.5 1.0 1
2011 3 15 18 0.5 0.5 0
Career Totals 60 63 123 13.0 1.5 2
(Danny Moloshok, AP)

(Danny Moloshok, AP)

If there is one thing college football fans have learned the past few seasons, it is that they should never doubt the caliber of Michigan State’s defense with head coach Mark Dantonio and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi in East Lansing. Yes, it was only last week when I declared that Michigan State defensive end Shilique Calhoun is overrated, but this does not mean I believe he is untalented or negatively impacting his team. In the past three seasons, Michigan State has been second, fifth, and sixth nationally in Defensive S&P+. And the Spartans have achieved this each year despite needing to replace key defensive players every season. So, when I see that their top two linebackers from 2013, Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, have graduated, I do not expect their defense to fall into a tailspin. Rather, I just expect the next linebacker in the queue to step up and become an All-Big Ten player.

Taiwan Jones will be that player in 2014. In the past two seasons, Jones has flashed his talent in stretches while spending his time at the Star linebacker position—essentially a hybrid on the outside. If there is one skill he has demonstrated in that time, it is that he is a dominant run-stopper that fills gaps effectively and is extremely difficult to block. In 2012, in 13 games, mostly as a reserve, he made 38 tackles, 5.5 of which were for a loss, sacked the quarterback once, and broke up three passes. Jones then followed that up with 67 tackles and seven tackles-for-loss as a full-time starter last season. It may seem odd that a full-time starting linebacker with fewer than 67 tackles is in the top three of this list. But low tackle numbers are to be expected when you are lined up alongside Bullough and Allen, who combined for 174 stops last season. So do not let Jones’ tackle totals fool you: Jones is a great talent at linebacker.

With Bullough and Allen gone, and the wizardry of Narduzzi still present, Jones will have a senior sendoff that a player of his caliber deserves. Jones will be leaving the Star spot to succeed Bullough at middle linebacker. As the middle linebacker, Jones will be the centerpiece of Michigan State’s defense, the one who organizes the defense, and the one who calls out the offense’s play. Further, in the middle, Jones will be involved in more plays and will have more opportunities to display his run-stuffing ability. Accordingly, the number of tackles he records this fall should skyrocket. The number may not surpass the 100-stop threshold, but it would be a surprise if he had less than 85 tackles and five tackles-for-loss in 2014. With this type of production on a defense that likely will remain one of the best in the conference—and possibly the nation—yet again, Jones should be recognized as one of the best linebackers in the Big Ten next year.

2. Chi Chi Ariguzo, Northwestern | 5th-yr Senior - 6’3″, 235 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks QBH
2013 62 44 106 6.0 2.0 3
2012 56 35 91 10.5 3.0 2
2011 14 18 32 1.5 0 1
2010 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 132 97 229 17.0 5.0 6
(Rafi Letzter, The Daily Northwestern)

(Rafi Letzter, The Daily Northwestern)

The Big Ten linebackers listed in these rankings thus far have been one-dimensional. Most have demonstrated that they are at their best when plugging holes the line of scrimmage, while some thrive when dropping back into coverage. But, because of the large exodus of Big Ten linebackers in the offseason, very few returning linebackers in this conference have proven they excel at all aspects of linebacking: finding the ball-carrier, pressuring the passer, and playing proper pass defense. One of these linebackers, though, is Northwestern’s Chi Chi Ariguzo.

Since Ariguzo became a fixture in the starting lineup in 2012, he has been one of the most versatile linebackers in the Big Ten. He has quite the knack for placing his helmet on the opponent’s ball-carrier. He made 91 tackles and 10.5 tackles-for-loss in 2012, which was the third-most and most on the Northwestern roster, respectively. Then, in 2013, Ariguzo achieved a 100-tackle season with 106 stops, including six for a loss. His average of 8.83 tackles per game that season were the fifth-most in the Big Ten. Ariguzo achieved these numbers because he can diagnose the offense’s play quickly and attack accordingly.

However, Ariguzo is not the type of linebacker that impacts the game only with tackles and tackles-for-loss. He also has been a turnover machine. In his past two seasons as a starter, Ariguzo has intercepted six passes, recovered five fumbles, and forced a fumble as well. The number that stands out the most is his six interceptions—and seven pass breakups. They indicate three things about Ariguzo’s splendid pass defense: (1) he gets the proper depth on his drops into coverage; (2) he knows how to bait the quarterback into throws that he can undercut; and (3) he has the hands to complete the play by making the interception. While his five fumble recoveries are nothing to scoff at, they are more the result of good luck or being in the right place at the right time rather than a reflection of his skill. Nonetheless, over the course of his two years as a starter, at both outside linebacker spots no less, Ariguzo averaged 98.5 tackles, 8.25 tackles-for-loss, 2.5 sacks, 2.5 fumble recoveries, three interceptions, and 3.5 pass breakups per season. Most linebackers would kill for one season with these numbers. Ariguzo has averaged them in a two-year span. It speaks to the versatility and production Ariguzo brings to this Northwestern program.

What is even more impressive about Ariguzo is that he has been able to do this with little assistance from his teammates. In his two years as a starter, Northwestern’s defense has been average at best. In 2012, the Wildcats finished 50th nationally in Defensive S&P+, 63rd in Rushing Defense S&P+, and 53rd in Passing Defense S&P+. In 2013, they finished 56th, 57th, and 73rd in the country, respectively. A review of Ariguzo’s game film reveals that he frequently needed to evade or fight through unblocked offensive linemen to make the plays he did. Unlike others on this, Ariguzo’s defensive line did not give him a clean path to ball-carriers.

And this should be the case once again in 2014. Nonetheless, he still will produce at an elite level because he has demonstrated an ability to play well in tight spaces and make plays when in coverage. At this point, Ariguzo is one of the few known commodities the Big Ten has at linebacker. We know what to expect from him. And what we expect is for Ariguzo to be the best all-around linebacker in the conference that stuffs all columns of the stat sheet. However, he does not quite have the potential for a monster season like the next linebacker on this list, which is why Ariguzo is ranked at No. 2.

1. Jake Ryan, Michigan | 5th-yr Senior – 6’3”, 235 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks QBH
2013 23 7 30 4.5 0 2
2012 56 32 88 16.0 4.5 2
2011 20 17 37 11.0 3.0 0
2010 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 99 56 155 31.5 7.5 4
(Gregory Shamus, Getty Images)

(Gregory Shamus, Getty Images)

Northwestern’s Chi Chi Ariguzo likely is the safest bet to be the Big Ten’s best linebacker in 2014. However, if you asked any follower of the Big Ten who will be the best at that position next season, the answer would be a near-consensus: Michigan’s Jake Ryan. Ryan was only a generic three-star recruit in high school, but rumors leaked during his redshirt season in 2010 that he had crazy athleticism and the potential to be a star. Michigan fans saw glimpses of this during his redshirt freshman campaign in 2011. Ryan had only 37 tackles in 13 games, but what intrigued fans of the Wolverines were his 11 tackles-for-loss. As Michigan’s strong-side linebacker in a 4-3 under scheme, Ryan was lined up as a quasi-defensive end and had a knack for knifing into the offensive backfield for big plays. This was never more evident than in Michigan’s Sugar Bowl victory against Virginia Tech when Ryan had four tackles-for-loss. It was a breakout performance for Ryan and left Michigan fans to wonder what they would see from him as a redshirt sophomore.

What Michigan fans saw was one of the best linebackers in the Big Ten. In 2012, Ryan blossomed into a star. He led the Wolverines in tackles (88), tackles-for-loss (16), sacks (4.5), and forced fumbles (four). His 16 tackles-for-loss were the third-most in the Big Ten. His four forced fumbles were tied for the most in the conference and tied a Michigan single-season record. Ryan’s unorthodox style left opposing offenses spinning in circles trying to find ways to prevent him from pitching his tent in the backfield. He had the speed to beat tight ends and offensive tackles off the edge. He had the lateral agility to disengage from blocks and then sneak past the blocker for tackles. And, for lack of a better term, Ryan looked like a maniac on the gridiron. But it was not as if he was undisciplined and failing to execute assignments. It was a controlled insanity. And it turned him into one of the Big Ten’s best linebackers.

With 27 tackles-for-loss and 7.5 sacks through just his first two seasons, even bigger things were expected from Ryan last season as a redshirt junior. However, any opportunity for Ryan to build upon his first two years ended in the spring when he tore his ACL. Like the athletic freak of nature that he is, Ryan was able to have surgery and fully rehab his knee in six months. This allowed Ryan to make his debut in Michigan’s sixth game of the season in mid-October against Penn State. To no one’s surprise, Ryan was a lesser version of his pre-injury self. He did not quite have the same explosiveness or burst, which limited his effectiveness on the field. In eight games, Ryan recorded only 30 tackles, 4.5 tackles-for-loss, and no sacks. It was not the year anyone expected from Ryan, but no one expected him to suffer such a serious knee injury in the spring.

Consequently, this is one of the two reasons why Ryan is not the safest pick to be the Big Ten’s best linebacker in 2014. Although it would be unfair to say that there is an alarming concern that Ryan will never fully regain the athleticism and agility he possessed prior to tearing his ACL in the spring of 2013, there still is a doubt that Michigan fans will never again see the same player they saw terrorize Big Ten offenses in 2012. The second reason is the uncertainty of Ryan’s move from strong-side linebacker in a 4-3 under—where he has spent the past three seasons—to middle linebacker in a 4-3 over. It is unknown just how quickly Ryan will be able to adjust to this new role.

However, I believe that Ryan will be better than ever in this new role. As the middle linebacker in a 4-3 over, he will be the most protected of all three linebackers in this scheme. It will be James Ross III and Desmond Morgan that more likely will have to deal with offensive linemen releasing into the second level. This will allow Ryan to go into seek-and-destroy mode—in which he flourishes—to plug holes and shoot through the gaps. And Ryan will benefit from having a larger defensive line in front of him this season than Michigan’s linebackers last year. He should be involved in more plays this season, and it would not be a surprise in the least he exceeded 100 tackles and 10 tackles-for-loss this season. He likely will be a monster for Michigan this season, which is why I would wager that he will be the Big Ten’s best linebacker in 2014.

What do you think? Do you agree with our list? Do you think that Jake Ryan will be the best linebacker in the Big Ten in 2014? Or do you think it will be someone else? And were there any glaring omissions from this list? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below. Next week, we will begin previewing the Big Ten’s best in the secondary.