photo AnnArborGIFHeader_zps02670880.gif

Posts Tagged ‘Big Ten’

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.

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

Thursday, July 17th, 2014


Big-Ten-position-rankings-header-LB

This is the seventh 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 the defensive line have been covered. This week, it is time to preview the linebackers. 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.

10. Michael Rose, Nebraska | RS Sophomore – 5’11”, 240 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks QBH
2013 39 27 66 6.0 0 2
2012 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 39 27 66 6.0 0 2
(247 Sports)

(247 Sports)

Last week, Tom Dienhart of BTN.com—a notable media outlet—published his Big Ten linebacker unit rankings for 2014. Which school had the best set of linebackers according to Dienhart? Nebraska. If a person took only a quick peek at the most basic defensive stats, an argument could somewhat be substantiated that the Huskers do indeed have the best linebacker crew in the conference. Nebraska returns all three linebackers who were starters by the end of last season, and those three combined for 205 tackles, 18 tackles-for-loss, and five sacks. They also contributed to a rushing defense that allowed only 3.78 yards per carry, which was fifth in the Big Ten. And, finally, all three have been praised for their athletic ability and speed. If these were the only metrics and attributes that determined the skill of a linebacker, then Dienhart decision to select Nebraska as the Big Ten school with the best set of linebackers would be understandable.

The problem, though, is that those are not the only metrics and attributes. I was shocked—yes, shocked—when Dienhart put Nebraska at the top of that list. Why? A deeper dig into the numbers reveals that Nebraska’s rushing defense was actually quite poor last season. Its yards-allowed-per-carry figure is very misleading. In college football, sacks and sack yardage are tallied as carries and rushing yardage. It is silly. Because of this, basic statistics suggest that college teams with a superb pass-rush have a better run defense than they actually do. Nebraska is the perfect example. The Huskers were tied for seventh in the nation and first in the Big Ten in sacks per game. However, when these sacks are excluded, Nebraska’s yards-allowed-per-carry figure rises from 3.78 to 4.60 and is sixth in the conference. Further, the Huskers’ Rushing Defense S&P+ ranking, which takes an advanced look at a team’s rushing defense, was 84th in the nation and the worst in the Big Ten. Yes, even worse than Illinois and Purdue. While some of this must be attributed to Nebraska’s defensive linemen, including pass-rushing extraordinaire Randy Gregory, much falls on the shoulders of Nebraska’s linebackers. So Dienhart can continue to be fascinated with Nebraska’s linebackers’ tackle totals and athleticism, but, until they can prove they are not members of the worst rush defense in the conference, they are not part of the best linebacker crew in the Big Ten. Sorry, Dienhart.

Nonetheless, this does not mean that there is no talent there. Middle linebacker Michael Rose has the potential to be a budding star for Nebraska. As a redshirt freshman last season, Rose started only seven games. In those starts, he tallied 62 tackles, five tackles-for-loss, and one pass breakup. Accordingly, Rose averaged 8.86 tackles per game in his seven starts, which would have been the fifth-best in the conference if he had started the entire season. Further, Nebraska’s rushing defense actually improved in the final five weeks of the year—all of which Rose started. In those last five contests, the Huskers allowed only 4.09 yards per carry once sacks were excluded. This is not an elite number, but it would have been just shy of the fourth-best in the Big Ten. Rose’s presence helped solidified Nebraska’s linebacker corps. And his impact should be even greater in 2014 as the starter for an entire season with another offseason of development under his belt. Rose may not be able to rectify all of Nebraska’s rush-defense woes, but he could be a breakout star next season.

9. James Ross III, Michigan | Junior – 6’1″, 225 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks QBH
2013 46 39 85 5.5 1.5 1
2012 21 15 36 2.5 0.5 0
Career Totals 67 54 121 8.0 2.0 1
(MGoBlue.com)

(MGoBlue.com)

James Ross III is listed at No. 9 by himself, but the space here will be dedicated to both Ross III and fellow Michigan linebacker Desmond Morgan. Ross III and Morgan were members of a Michigan defense that eroded as the season progressed. Early in the season, the Wolverines’ defense was stout. Through the first five games, Michigan had allowed only seven offensive touchdowns, which was one of the best marks nationally. However, Michigan’s offense self-destructed midway through the year, resulting in an endless supply of tackles-for-loss allowed and three-and-outs, and it forced Michigan’s defense to spend more minutes on the field than desired. The defense could save the offense’s behind only so many times each game before it wore down. By season’s end, the defense was a shell of its former self.

Despite this, Ross III and Morgan turned in respectable seasons. As a sophomore in his first season as a full-time starter, Ross III was Michigan’s second-leading tackler, notching 85 stops, 5.5 tackles-for-loss, and 1.5 sacks. He was the only Wolverine to average over seven tackles per game, and his 7.08 stops per game are tied for the fourth-most among returning Big Ten linebackers. He also added two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, and two pass breakups. On the other hand, Morgan’s junior season eerily resembled his sophomore campaign. After recording 81 tackles, 5.5 tackles-for-loss, a half-sack, and two pass breakups in 2012, Morgan had 79 tackles, 4.5 tackles-for-loss, and three pass breakups in 2013. Morgan also generated a few turnovers last year, forcing a fumble, recovering a fumble, and intercepting a pass one-handed to jumpstart a second-half rally against Connecticut.

Together, Ross III and Morgan spearheaded a solid rushing defense. The Wolverines allowed the fifth-fewest yards per carry in the Big Ten once sacks were excluded and ranked 33rd nationally in Rushing Defense S&P+. This may not seem applause-worthy until one realizes how undersized and injured Michigan’s defensive line was. During the season, nose tackle Ondre Pipkins tore his ACL, and nose tackle Quinton Washington was sidelined for reasons unknown. This forced Jibreel Black to be inserted at nose tackle despite weighing only 285 pounds. Also, Brennen Beyer, who weighs only 250 pounds, started at strong-side defensive end in a 4-3 under scheme, which essentially made him a defensive tackle. Accordingly, Michigan’s defensive linemen were tossed around like rag dolls, and it forced Michigan’s linebackers to eat blocker after blocker. So, given these circumstances, it is quite remarkable that Ross III and Morgan did what they did.

Next season, both Ross III and Morgan likely will be two of the top 10 linebackers in the Big Ten, or at least near it. The reasons why Ross III is slotted at No. 9, while Morgan remains unranked, are that Ross III has more potential and should benefit more from Michigan’s transition to a 4-3 over scheme. Entering last year, Ross III was tabbed as a potential breakout star. Notwithstanding his smaller size, Ross III possesses amazing football instincts and the athleticism to capitalize on them. However, he works better in space and struggles to get off blockers because of his smaller stature. With Michigan’s defensive line unable to keep gaps clean for him, Ross III did not have the impact many expected him to have. This fall, Ross III will shift to strong-side linebacker in Michigan’s 4-3 over. In this spot, he should have more of an opportunity to use his instincts to read the play and his speed to shoot into the backfield for more tackles-for-loss. Conversely, Morgan’s transition from the middle to the weak side should see him continue to eat blocks as offensive guards should be able to release to the second level without much trouble. While Morgan’s thick build will allow him to remain effective in these situations, it would not be surprising to see his production decline from the past two seasons. This is why Morgan just missed the cut, while Ross III made it.

8. Kevin Snyder, Rutgers | Senior – 6’3”, 235 lbs.
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks QBH
2013 46 50 96 7.5 2.0 3
2012 12 18 30 7.0 2.0 0
2011 13 27 40 2.5 1.0 1
Career Totals 71 95 166 17.0 5.0 4
(Keith Freeman, The Daily Targum)

(Keith Freeman, The Daily Targum)

Rutgers had a very substandard defense last season, finishing 73rd nationally in total defense, 80th in scoring defense, and 91st in Defensive S&P+. But this was mostly the fault of a horrendous secondary that allowed Rutgers to be ranked 120th in passing yards allowed, 100th in passing efficiency defense, and 99th in Pass Defense S&P+, not the fault of a surprisingly solid linebacker unit. And one of those linebackers was Kevin Snyder. Snyder manned the middle of the field for the Scarlet Knights in his first season as a starter last year and made his presence known. He was the team’s second-leading tackler with 96 stops, which would have been the third-most among returning linebackers if he was in the Big Ten last season. Further, Snyder is not shy about introducing himself to the quarterback or the running back in the opponent’s backfield. He had 7.5 tackles-for-loss and two sacks just one year after he recorded seven tackles-for-loss and two sacks as a reserve in 2012. Snyder has proven himself to be one of the few solid talents on a lackluster defense.

The one area where Snyder makes his impact felt the most is preventing the run. Notwithstanding Rutgers’ poor ranks in total defense, scoring defense, and pass defense, the Scarlet Knights actually were quite terrific at defending the run. They were fourth in the nation in rushing defense, allowing only 100.77 rushing yards per game. They were fifth in the nation in rushing yards allowed per carry (3.10). Once sacks are removed, Rutgers allowed only 3.82 yards per carry, which would have been the third-best in the Big Ten, just behind excellent rush defenses in Michigan State and Wisconsin. And, lastly, Rutgers finished 22nd nationally in Rushing Defense S&P+. Although the advanced statistics suggest that Rutgers’ rushing defense was one of the five best in the nation as the basic statistics do, it was still quite stingy. While much of this credit belongs to Rutgers defensive tackle Darius Hamilton, who is No. 9 in my Big Ten Defensive Line Rankings, Snyder deserves a big chunk of it for his production and organization of the front seven as the middle linebacker.

However, there are two concerns about Snyder’s game that must be addressed as the 2014 season approaches. The first is how Snyder and Rutgers’ front seven handle the transition from the AAC to the Big Ten. As I wrote when breaking down Hamilton last week, the offensive lines in the AAC are much smaller in stature than the behemoths in the Big Ten. Also, there are more offenses in the Big Ten that prefer to line up in power formations and run the ball down a defense’s throat than in the AAC. It will be interesting to see how much this affects Snyder’s performance, especially if his defensive line cannot keep the gaps as clean as they did last season against weaker competition. The second concern is Snyder’s ability as a defender against the pass. While many of Rutgers’ struggles in pass defense are due to the secondary’s awfulness, Snyder and his fellow linebackers are not free from blame. They play a vital role in the back seven, and their lack of aid in that area is a giant red flag. If Rutgers wants to enjoy some success in its inaugural Big Ten season, Snyder must be better when dropping into coverage. This is why a man with 96 tackles that was a key cog of one of the better rushing defenses in the nation is not higher on this list.

7. Matt Robinson, Maryland | 5th-yr Senior – 6’3”, 240 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks QBH
2013 43 30 73 10.0 0.5 0
2012 21 5 26 1.0 0 0
2011 24 12 36 2.0 0 0
2010 18 11 29 0 0 0
Career Totals 106 58 164 13.0 0.5 0
(Karl Merton Ferron, The Baltimore Sun)

(Karl Merton Ferron, The Baltimore Sun)

Whereas the first three Big Ten linebackers on this list have shown their worth as run defenders, Maryland’s outside linebacker Matt Robinson has shown his as a defender against the pass. Robinson’s skills as a coverage linebacker are no surprise because he started his collegiate career as a safety. In fact, as a true freshman in 2010, Robinson played all 13 games and even started his first career contest at safety. He made seven more starts at the position over the next two years, but missed large chunks of both seasons due to injuries. Nonetheless, when Robinson recovered, bulked up, and transitioned down from safety to outside linebacker in preparation for the 2013 season, his coverage skills were still intact.

The Terrapins’ pass defense was below average by any metric one uses—57th nationally in passing yards allowed, 64th in passing efficiency defense, and 64th in Passing Defense S&P+. But one man cannot shut down an entire passing offense—unless he is Charles Woodson, of course. Alas, Robinson is no Woodson. However, this does not mean that Robinson did not provide excellent coverage in the middle of the field, especially against slant routes. This is evidenced by the four pass breakups he notched last season. Further evidence of Robinson’s prowess as a coverage linebacker can be seen by looking at how opposing tight ends and slot receivers performed when he missed two games with a shoulder injury. With Robinson absent, Virginia tight end Jake McGee had his best game of the season with eight receptions for 114 yards, while Wake Forest slot receiver hauled in 11 throws for 122 yards. Maryland may have issues in other spots critical to its passing defense, but Robinson is a strength in coverage in between the hash marks.

Although Robinson was one of only three Terrapins with double-digit tackles-for-loss last season, tallying a smooth 10 of them, his presence in the rushing defense leaves much to be desired. Some have praised Robinson for his run support, including those who have watched more Maryland football than I have, but I remain somewhat skeptical. Last season as a full-time starter at linebacker, Robinson made only 73 tackles. The total number may not seem like it should invoke uneasiness, but Robinson was involved in only 9.13 percent of Maryland’s tackles. For context, every other linebacker on this list that started for a full season was involved in between 11 and 17 percent of his team’s tackles. Then, it is even more troubling when one realizes that 17 of Robinson’s 73 tackles were in one contest against North Carolina State. Accordingly, Robinson had only 56 tackles in his other 10 starts. Hmm.

Why was Robinson not more involved in Maryland’s rush defense? Was it a consequence of Maryland’s 3-4 scheme? Or was Maryland’s strategy to send stud outside linebacker Marcus Whitfield, who recorded 15.5 tackles-for-loss, towards the line of scrimmage while dropping Robinson back into coverage? Either way, Robinson still needs to prove he can flow to the ball more consistently and make more plays at the line of scrimmage. With Whitfield gone after graduating last season, Robinson should slide into Whitfield’s role and do just that.

6. Mike Hull, Penn State | 5th-yr Senior - 6’0”, 232 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks QBH
2013 44 34 78 4.5 0.5 0
2012 34 24 58 5.0 4.0 0
2011 6 12 18 1.5 0 0
2010 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 84 70 154 10.5 4.5 0
(Mara Ticcino, Collegian)

(Mara Ticcino, Collegian)

For decades, Penn State has been a football factory that has pumped out excellent linebacker after excellent linebacker. There was Dennis Onkotz, Shane Conlan, LaVar Arrington, and Paul Posluszny, all of whom were two-time first-team All-Americans. Between the four of them, they won three Chuck Bednarik Awards and two Dick Butkus Awards, which are given to the nation’s best defensive player and best linebacker, respectively. There have been nine other Penn State linebackers that have been named a first-team All-American once. And then there are numerous others who were named second-team All-Americans or had successful NFL careers. Because of this, Penn State was bestowed with the moniker “Linebacker U.”

For the upcoming season, there does not appear to be a linebacker on the Penn State roster that will contend for All-American honors like those that played in State College before him. But the one that has the best chance to do it is Mike Hull. Last season was Hull’s first year as a full-time starter at middle linebacker. However, he started only eight games because he suffered a minor knee injury early in the season that sidelined him for two games and forced him to see only limited action in another two. Nonetheless, Hull was at his healthiest in the Nittany Lions’ eight conference games. In Big Ten play, Hull posted 73 tackles, 4.5 tackles-for-loss, a half-sack, a forced fumble, and two pass breakups. His 9.13 tackles per conference game were the highest on the team and are the best among returning Big Ten linebackers. Additionally, Hull compiled these stats for a defense that was considered one of the 25 best overall and one of the 10 best against the run according to advanced metrics. Hull did not earn any all-conference honors for his production, likely due to the injury, but was named to Athlon Sports’ preseason All-Big Ten first team and Phil Steele’s preseason All-Big Ten second team for 2014.

Yet, Hull will face a new challenge this fall. Last year, Hull benefited enormously from defensive tackle DaQuan Jones’ presence on the defensive line. Jones was a monster. Not only did he penetrate into the backfield for 11.5 tackles-for-loss, he also had the ability to consume double-teams without losing ground. Accordingly, this allowed the Penn State linebackers, including Hull, to surge freely into the gaps without the obstruction of an offensive lineman for easy tackles at the line of scrimmage. This season, Hull will not have such a luxury as Jones now is in the NFL. Although Penn State returns its two starting defensive ends, both of whom are talented, there is lots of uncertainty regarding who will replace Jones inside. It seems likely that, no matter who the replacement is, he will be inferior to Jones. This will make life harder for Hull as the middle linebacker. It may be more difficult for Hull to have a clean path to ball-carrier to make stops. This could lead to a dip in his statistics. But, given that Hull is a senior product of Linebacker U, it may be best to give him the benefit of the doubt.

What do you think so far? Do you agree with our rank of the five players listed above? Who should have been ranked higher: James Ross III or Desmond Morgan? Should both Ross III and Morgan have been included in the top 10? Was there anyone missing from this list in your opinion? Who do you think will be in the top five? Please post your comments below as we will reveal tomorrow who will be the five best linebackers in the Big Ten in 2014.

2014 opponent preview: Minnesota

Wednesday, July 16th, 2014


2014 Opponent Preview - Minnesota

We have already previewed the two easiest teams on Michigan’s schedule, Appalachian State and Miami (Ohio). On the docket today is the third-easiest, and the first Big Ten opponent on the schedule, the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

Overview

Schedule
Date Opponent
Aug. 28 Eastern Illinois
Sept. 6 Middle Tennessee State
Sept. 13 at TCU
Sept. 20 San Jose State
Sept. 27 at Michigan
Oct. 11 Northwestern
Oct. 18 Purdue
Oct. 25 at Illinois
Nov. 8 Iowa
Nov. 15 Ohio State
Nov. 22 at Nebraska
Nov. 29 at Wisconsin

Minnesota is on an upward swing in Jerry Kill’s fourth season. The Gophers have gone from 3-9 to 6-7 to 8-5 the past three seasons, and if they can improve their record again this fall — a tall order, to be sure — Kill will have done something that hasn’t been done since the 1940s — improve Minnesota’s record for three straight seasons. Minnesota’s legendary coach, Bernie Bierman, was the last to do it from 1945-48. Glen Mason had a chance to achieve the feat twice during his tenure, but each time fell back to earth. He did, however, reach 10 wins in 2003, and Kill will hope to parlay the momentum he has built into a similar outcome.

Kill did get a nice vote of confidence in the form of a new contract that will bump his salary up from $1 million per year to $2.3 million through 2018. Now that he has begun the process of raising expectations, the schedule doesn’t do him any favors.

Minnesota faces both Michigan and Ohio State from the Big Ten East and a killer November that has the Gophers closing the season with Iowa, Ohio State, at Nebraska, and at Wisconsin. The non-conference slate is manageable with home games against Eastern Illinois, Middle Tennessee, and San Jose State, and a road trip to TCU.

Last season, the Gophers breezed through the non-conference portion of the schedule, topping UNLV, New Mexico State, Western Illinois, and San Jose State by an average of three touchdowns. But Iowa and Michigan outscored Minnesota 65-20 in back-to-back weeks. The Gophers then reeled off four straight over Northwestern, Nebraska, Indiana, and Penn State — their first four-game Big Ten winning streak in 40 years — before dropping their final three to Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Syracuse in the Texas Bowl. Aside from the Iowa and Michigan games, Minnesota held its own even in its losses. They trailed Wisconsin just 13-7 at halftime before losing 20-7 and trailed Michigan State just 7-3 at the half before falling 14-3. A last-minute touchdown surrendered to Syracuse kept the Gophers from reaching nine wins.

Offense

Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2013 Stats
QB Mitch Leidner 6’4″, 237 48-78 for 619 yds, 3 TD, 1 INT; 89 rush, 477 yds, 7 TD
RB David Cobb 5’11″, 229 1,202 yds (5.1 avg), 7 TD
WR Drew Wolitarsky 6’3″, 226 15 rec. for 259 yds, 1 TD
WR Donovahn Jones 6’3″, 200 10 rec. for 157 yds, 0 TD
WR Isaac Fruechte 6’3″, 202 13 rec. for 154 yds, 0 TD
TE Maxx Williams 6’4″, 250 25 rec. for 417 yds, 5 TD
LT Ben Lauer 6’7″, 315 4 starts (4 career starts)
LG Zac Epping 6’2″, 318 13 starts (34 career starts)
C Tommy Olson 6’4″, 306 4 starts (15 career starts)
RG Josh Campion 6’5″, 317 13 starts (26 career starts)
RT Jonah Pirsig 6’9″, 320

Minnesota’s offense ranked 85th nationally with an average of 25.7 points per game, 107th in total offense (343.3 yards per game), and 117th in passing (148.1 ypg). The bright spot was the running game which ranked 38th with an average of 195.2 rushing yards per game. With last year’s most-experienced quarterback, Phillip Nelson, gone, the running game will once again be Minnesota’s calling card on offense.

David Cobb rushed for over 1,200 yards last season (Nam Y. Huh, AP)

David Cobb rushed for over 1,200 yards last season (Nam Y. Huh, AP)

Senior David Cobb is one of the best running backs in the conference. Our very own Drew Hallett ranked him seventh-best in his Big Ten position rankings. He came out of nowhere to rush for 1,202 yards on 5.1 yards per carry in 2013, becoming the first Gopher to eclipse 1,000 yards since 2006. He was held to just 22 yards on seven carries against Michigan, but had six 100-yard games, including against Michigan State.

Cobb isn’t alone in the backfield as senior Donnell Kirkwood and junior Rodrick Williams return. Williams averaged 5.5 yards per carry a year ago. In addition, a pair of freshman look to make noise. The nation’s seventh-ranked running back in the 2014 class, Jeff Jones, and redshirt freshman, Berkley Edwards (Braylon’s brother), join the crowded group, though Jones may not be academically eligible this fall. Edwards, at 5’9″, 190, provides a change of pace to Cobb and Williams.

With Nelson gone, the man who supplanted him by the end of 2013 looks to grab the reigns. Redshirt sophomore Mitch Leidner threw just 78 passes for 619 yards and three touchdowns last season, about a third of that came in the bowl game in which he completed 11-of-22 for 205 yards and two scores. He also saw extensive action against Michigan, completing 14-of-21 for 145 yards, a touchdown, and an interception. He was much more of a running quarterback last season, rushing 102 times for 407 yards and seven scores.

The receiving corps is young, led by tight end Maxx Williams, Drew’s second-best tight end in the conference this fall, who caught 25 passes for 417 yards and five touchdowns a year ago. Last year’s leading wide receiver, Derrick Engel, is gone, but sophomores Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones and senior Isaac Fruechte will need to step up. The three will need to improve on last season’s combined total of just 38 receptions for 570 yards and one touchdown. The Gophers do have 6’3″, 190-pound freshman Melvin Holland coming in who could see some early playing time.

Experience isn’t an issue with the offensive line. Of the nine linemen that started a game last season, seven return, and those seven started a combined 55 games in 2013 and 124 in their careers. Left guard Zac Epping is the most experienced of the bunch, having started 34 games over the last three years. While none of Minnesota’s linemen rank among the Big Ten’s best, and the line as a whole won’t be the best, it should be

Defense

Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2013 Stats
DE Theiren Cockran 6’6″, 255 30 tackles, 10.0 TFL, 7.5 sacks
DT Cameron Botticelli 6’5″, 281 23 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 1.0 sacks
DT Scott Ekpe 6’4″, 293 19 tackles, 1.0 TFL
DE Michael Amaefula 6’2″, 249 19 tackles, 1.0 TFL
OLB De’Vondre Campbell 6’5″, 238 41 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 1 FF
MLB Damien Wilson 6’2″, 249 78 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 1 sack
OLB Jack Lynn 6’3″, 238 5 tackles, 1.0 TFL
CB Eric Murray 6’0″, 195 52 tackles, 1 TFL, 10 PBU, 1 FR
CB Derrick Wells 6’0″, 201 17 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 INT, 3 PBU
FS Cedric Thompson 6’0″, 208 79 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 INT, 2 FR
SS Antonio Johnson 6’0″, 209 69 tackles, 1 TFL, 0.5 sacks, 1 INT

Minnesota’s defense was a halfway decent unit last season, ranking fourth in the Big Ten and 25th nationally in scoring defense (22.2 points per game), sixth in the Big Ten and 43rd nationally in total defense (373.2 yards per game), and fifth in the Big Ten and 35th nationally in pass defense (215.1 yards per game). The Gophers also led the Big Ten and ranked 15th nationally in red zone defense, allowing opponents to score just 74 percent of the time. With seven starters returning, that’s a good defense to build on.

Theiren Cockran had the third-most sacks in the Big Ten last season (Kevin Tanaka, AP)

Theiren Cockran had the third-most sacks in the Big Ten last season (Kevin Tanaka, AP)

However, the main loss is a big one in nose tackle Ra’Shede Hageman, who was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons in the second round of the NFL Draft. He led Minnesota with 13 tackles-for-loss in 2013 and also recorded two sacks. Defensive tackle Roland Johnson, who added 5.5 tackles-for-loss, has also departed, leaving a big hole in the middle of the defense. Senior Cameron Botticelli is a lock to start at one position after recording 5.5 tackles-for-loss and one sack a year ago, while junior Scott Ekpe should get the nod at nose tackle.

Both defensive ends return, most notably junior Theiren Cockran, who led the Gophers and ranked third in the conference with 7.5 sacks in 2013. The other is senior Michael Amaefula, who had 19 tackles and one for loss while starting all 13 games.

Two of the top three linebackers are gone, but middle linebacker, senior Damien Wilson, returns. He was Minnesota’s second-leading tackler last season with 78, and had the third-most tackles-for-loss with 5.5. Junior De’Vondre Campbell is in line to start at weakside after starting three games last season. The SAM linebacker will likely be redshirt sophomore Jack Lynn, who played in just three games and notched five tackles a year ago.

The strength of Minnesota’s defense this fall should be its secondary, despite the loss of cornerback Brock Vereen, who was drafted by the Chicago Bears in the fourth round. The other starting corner from last season, Eric Murray, led the team with 10 pass breakups, which ranked sixth in the Big Ten. Just a junior this fall, Murray could be poised for a breakout year. On the other side will be a battle between a pair of players who suffered injuries last season, junior Briean Boddy-Calhoun, who tore his ACL in Week 2, and senior Derrick Wells, who was hampered most of the season with a shoulder injury.

Both safeties are back, senior Cedric Thompson and junior Antonio Johnson. Thompson led the team with 79 tackles last season while picking off one pass and recovering two fumbles. Johnson was fourth with 69 tackles and notched half a sack and one pick. Junior Damarius Travis also has experience, having started two games last season and recording 28 tackles and four pass breakups.

Special Teams

Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2013 Stats
PK Ryan Santoso 6’6″, 245
P Peter Mortell 6’2″, 192 43.3 avg, 21 in-20
KR Marcus Jones 5’8″, 173 25 ret, 24.9 avg., 1 TD
PR Marcus Jones 5’8″, 173 11 ret, 10.5 avg., 1 TD

Kill has to replace kicker Chris Hawthorne, who made 14-of-18 field goals. The leading candidate is redshirt freshman Ryan Santoso, who was the seventh-best kicker in the 2013 class per ESPN. Punter Peter Mortell is a nice weapon to have back after ranking third in the Big Ten with a 43.3-yard average last season. The former walk-on earned a scholarship following that performance. Defensive back Marcus Jones and safety Antonio Johnson will handle the return duties. Jones ranked sixth in the Big Ten in kick returns last season, averaging 24.9 yards per return.

Outlook

Kill has built the team with the kind of strengths that work in the Big Ten — a good running game and stout defense — but he’ll be hard-pressed to improve on last year’s record. The move to the Big Ten West means battling with Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Iowa for the division title, two of which they lost to last season. But just how good this team is will depend on how Leidner develops as a passer and whether he can get production out of his unproven receiving corps. The first two months of the season are where the Gophers will have to rack up wins because if not, once November hits, they might need to steal one or two to become bowl eligible.

What it means for Michigan

Not to overlook Utah, but Michigan should be either 4-0 or 3-1 heading into the start of conference play, depending on the outcome of the Notre Dame game, and Minnesota very well could be as well. That didn’t mean much for the Gophers last season, as they cruised through non-conference play before losing to Iowa 23-7 and then Michigan 42-13. In all fairness, they were playing with heavy hearts after Kill suffered a seizure and couldn’t travel with the team to Ann Arbor, leaving defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys to fill in. Maybe that affected the team’s performance, or maybe not, but hopefully Kill will be able to make the trip this season. Michigan has owned the series, winning the last six and 22 of the last 23, and this shouldn’t be any different.

Big Ten football position rankings: Defensive line (part two)

Thursday, July 10th, 2014


Big Ten position rankings header-DL

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 defensive linemen 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 defensive line rankings was posted yesterday. It revealed who is in the bottom half of the Big Ten’s top-10 defensive linemen. If you have not had the chance to read it yet, I recommend that you do so before proceeding. Read it? Great! Let’s unveil who will be the five best defensive linemen 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.

5. Noah Spence, Ohio State | Junior – 6’3”, 252 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks QBH
2013 24 28 52 8.0 14.5 4
2012 7 5 12 1.0 1.0 0
Career Totals 31 33 64 9.0 15.5 4
(Adam Cairns, The Columbus Dispatch)

(Adam Cairns, The Columbus Dispatch)

Although this was written before Part One of my 2014 Big Ten Defensive Line Rankings was posted, I would be willing to bet that some feathers may have been ruffled when Michigan State defensive end Shilique Calhoun was ranked at No. 6 on this list. Some, especially Spartan fans, would argue that Calhoun will be the best defensive player in the Big Ten. Last season, he recorded 37 tackles, 14 tackles-for-loss, 7.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries, one interception, and a national-best three defensive touchdowns. This stat line earned Calhoun a spot on the All-American second team and the Smith-Brown Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year honor among other accolades.

However, what separated Calhoun from the rest of a deep pool of talented Big Ten defensive linemen were his takeaways and defensive touchdowns. These were more the consequence of luck than ability. This should not discredit what Calhoun accomplished in 2013, but it does not mean he will recover as many fumbles or score as many touchdowns in 2014. In actuality, the odds of this reoccurring are very low. This, coupled with the observation that Calhoun struggles when locked one on one with NFL-caliber offensive tackles, leads to the conclusion that Calhoun is overrated and should underwhelm given his lofty expectations. Accordingly, Calhoun will not be one of the five best in a very talented group of Big Ten defensive linemen next season.

The man who swiped Calhoun’s spot at No. 5 is Ohio State defensive end Noah Spence. Spence arrived in Columbus in 2012 with heaps of hype. He was a consensus five-star prospect and listed at No. 5 in 247 Sports’ 2012 composite national rankings. Spence was so highly-regarded because he had freakish athletic ability as an edge rusher. After spending his freshman season as a reserve, Spence demonstrated last year why scouts slobbered over him in high school. He registered 50 tackles, 14 tackles-for-loss, 7.5 sacks, one forced fumble, and two pass break-ups in 13 contests. Notice that this was 13 more tackles and the same number of tackles-for-loss and sacks as Calhoun. And Spence did all of this in one less game than Calhoun.

Spence also is one spot ahead of Calhoun because he dramatically improved over the course of the season. Spence became more explosive and dangerous off the edge, whereas Calhoun sputtered down the stretch. In Spence’s final six games, he accumulated 24 tackles, eight tackles-for-loss, and 4.5 sacks. In Calhoun’s final five games, he had only 15 tackles, three tackles-for-loss, and one sack. Spence seemed to really find his rhythm as a starter by season’s end against Big Ten competition while Calhoun thrived against only inferior opponents.

However, Spence is not without faults. His two-game suspension to open the 2014 campaign must be addressed. Prior to Ohio State’s meeting with Clemson in the Orange Bowl, Spence tested positive for a small amount of ecstasy. It was enough to be handed a three-game suspension. The first game was served in the Orange Bowl; the next two will be served the first two weeks this fall. Not only will the suspension limit the production Spence can generate this season, it may even cause him to lose the rhythm he had at the end of last year.

Additionally, Spence is extremely undisciplined at defensive end. This is his flaw for having been gifted with such athletic ability. He has a knack for overrunning plays, especially against the run, rather than executing his assignments and containing when necessary. Offenses have been able to exploit his aggressive tendencies for big gains. It will be interesting to see if Spence will be smarter this season and realize that there is more to defensive football than rushing the passer. But very few in the Big Ten can rush the passer like Spence. Whereas Calhoun struggles to beat top offensive tackles on his own merit, Spence does not have that problem with his athletic ability. Accordingly, Spence should produce better statistics than Calhoun this season, even if he must do it in a fewer number of games like in 2013.

4. Carl Davis, Iowa | 5th-yr Senior – 6’5″, 315 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks QBH
2013 11 31 42 4.0 1.5 1
2012 6 8 14 1.5 0 0
2011 0 2 2 0 0 0
2010 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 17 39 56 5.5 1.5 0
(Brian Ray, The Gazette)

(Brian Ray, The Gazette)

Iowa defensive tackle Carl Davis’ impact on the defensive line is dissimilar to the others’ on this list. Much of the analysis when discussing the other defensive linemen in these rankings has been centered on the number-of-tackles and sacks those players have registered. However, if the analysis is limited to only those statistical categories, Davis easily would be overlooked. Last season, Davis produced only 42 tackles, four tackles-for-loss, 1.5 sacks, and a pass break-up. That is it. Further, he generated no turnovers whatsoever, failing to tally a single forced fumble, fumble recovery, or interception. A quick glance at Davis’ statistical profile likely would elicit an apathetic response from an uninformed observer.

Yet Davis was one of the best defensive tackles in the Big Ten last season. The key is to dig into Iowa’s defensive numbers as a team. In 2013, Iowa had one of the best defenses in the nation. The Hawkeyes finished ninth nationally in scoring defense, sixth in total defense, 19th in rushing defense, and ninth in passing defense. Although these basic statistics do not account the game’s tempo or the level of competition, even advanced statistics agree that Iowa had one of the stingiest defenses, especially against the run. The Hawkeyes were seventh nationally in rushing defensive S&P+ and 14th in adjusted line yards, which compares the rushing yards allowed per carry to what is statistically expected and then adjusts for quality of the opponent. Further, opponents struggled to penetrate Iowa’s rush defense for touchdowns. Iowa was the last team in the country to allow a rushing touchdown—not allowing one until its seventh game—and conceded eight all season—tied for the second-fewest in the nation.

So what was Davis’ role in all of this? One look at his game film and the picture becomes clear. Davis may not have been the one making the bone-crushing tackles, sacking the quarterback, or forcing turnovers, but he was the one who made it all possible for his teammates. Davis—using his 6’5”, 315-pound frame—consumed double teams at the line of scrimmage over and over again. This created space for Iowa’s trio of senior linebackers to surge through the gaps and make the plays that appear on the stat sheet. Evidence? Those three starting linebackers combined for 322 tackles, 35.5 tackles-for-loss, and 11.5 sacks. And none of it would have been possible without Davis executing his assignment in the middle play after play.

Davis will continue to have the same type of impact in 2014. He will be back in the middle fighting double teams along with fellow defensive tackle Louis Trinca-Pasat, who just missed the cut on this list, which will open holes for Iowa’s crew of linebackers. However, Davis may want to try to add a few more tackles-for-loss and sacks to his stat line this season. Iowa will be breaking in three new starters at linebacker, and it seems unlikely that these newcomers will produce at a similar rate as Iowa’s three seniors last year. Nonetheless, Davis’ impact as a space-eater is sufficient to be No. 4 on this list. Even if you do not notice Davis’ presence when you watch Iowa, NFL scouts certainly will. They currently rank Davis as the second-best defensive tackle in the 2015 draft class and project him as a first-round pick. See? There is much more to defensive line play than tackles-for-loss and sacks.

3. Michael Bennett, Ohio State | Senior – 6’2”, 288 lbs.
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks QBH
2013 18 24 42 11.5 7.0 1
2012 6 5 11 1.0 1.0 0
2011 13 4 17 5.0 3.0 1
Career Totals 37 33 70 17.5 11.0 2
(Greg Bartram, USA Today Sports)

(Greg Bartram, USA Today Sports)

As Iowa’s Carl Davis has demonstrated, a defensive tackle does not need to make plays to boost his own stats to be effective, but it certainly does not hurt to do so either. No Big Ten defensive tackle made more plays on his own accord last season than Ohio State’s Michael Bennett. In 13 starts, he totaled 42 tackles, 11.5 tackles-for-loss, seven sacks, three forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries. Bennett was one of only three Big Ten defensive tackles to register double-digit tackles-for-loss and is the only one of those three to be back this season. Further, Bennett’s seven sacks were tied for the sixth-most in the conference and just 2.5 off the lead. And no other Big Ten defensive tackles came within two sacks of his total. Bennett accomplished this by using his impressive acceleration and quickness to knife his way into the backfield. His burst surprised offensive linemen and left them unable to contain him. Accordingly, Bennett was the best pass-rushing defensive tackle in the conference.

Bennett’s role in Ohio State’s pass rush did not end there, though. As the season wore on, opponents began to recognize his ability to slice through offensive lines and make stops in the backfield. They attempted to neutralize his effectiveness by double-teaming him more frequently. However, what they failed to realize was that this left Ohio State’s talented defensive ends, Joey Bosa and Noah Spence, with one-on-one matchups on the edge. Bosa and Spence capitalized on the opportunities Bennett provided for them, using their speed and skill to blow past most of the Big Ten’s offensive tackles. Consequently, the Buckeyes finished seventh nationally and led the conference in sacks per game (3.00). By season’s end, Ohio State’s pass rush had become one of the most dangerous in the country, and it was because Bennett made plays for himself and facilitated chances to his fellow defensive linemen.

However, if there is one area where Bennett can improve, it would be his run-stopping ability. At 6’2” and 288 pounds, Bennett is not near the space-eater that Davis is. It is much tougher for Bennett to fight off double teams and plug holes against the run. There were too many times last season when Bennett’s pad level would elevate, and a double team would force him out of the area to open a hole for the running back. It was a key reason why the rushing yards Ohio State allowed per carry once sacks were removed (4.29) were just so-so. To be fair, Bennett held his ground plenty, too. Notwithstanding his limited size for a defensive tackle, he has incredible strength and generates power in a flash when his pad level remains down. When he did this, the Buckeyes’ ends and linebackers swarmed to the football to make the tackle. But Bennett needs to complement his excellent pass-rushing skills by stopping the run more consistently in 2014. If he can do so, he will solidify his status as the best defensive-tackle prospect in the 2015 NFL Draft.

2. Randy Gregory, Nebraska | RS Junior – 6’6”, 245 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks QBH
2013 40 26 66 19.0 10.5 18
2012 (Arizona Western CC) 0 0 0 0 0 0
2011 (Arizona Western CC) 21 61 82 20.5 9.0 ?
Career Totals 61 87 148 39.5 19.5 18
(Joe Robbins, Getty Images)

(Joe Robbins, Getty Images)

In high school, Randy Gregory had a plan to play Big Ten football. But the plan did not involve Nebraska in any way, shape, or form. The native of Fishers, Indiana, had planned to stay in-state to play football when he signed his letter of intent with Purdue in 2011. However, when Gregory tried to enroll at Purdue, he was declared academically ineligible and forced to spend at least one year in junior college to remedy his grades. To Gregory, this was a minor road bump. In his mind, he would spend time at Arizona Western, where he would dominate the competition, before transferring back to Purdue for the remainder of his collegiate career.

Everything was going according to plan until Gregory broke his left leg in the 2012 opener at Arizona Western after recording 82 tackles, 21 tackles-for-loss, and nine sacks in 2011. Gregory recognized that the coaching staff that recruited him to Purdue in 2011 was on the hot seat and may not be in West Lafayette the following season. He realized that he needed to open up his recruitment to other schools in case the Purdue staff was canned and the new staff was not be interested in a junior college player recovering from a broken leg. That is when the Huskers came calling. Gregory took an official visit to Nebraska and wanted to commit on the spot. He decided to wait until he had talked with the Purdue staff first to notify them of his intentions. But then the Purdue staff was fired, and he never heard from the Boilermakers again. So Gregory committed to Nebraska, and the Huskers could not be happier.

In his first season at Nebraska, Gregory exploded onto the scene and became one of the Big Ten’s premier pass-rushers. While starting in 10 of Nebraska’s 13 games, Gregory led all Big Ten defensive linemen in tackles (65), tackles-for-loss (16), and sacks (9.5). He also added a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, and a 33-yard interception return for a touchdown for the Huskers. What was more impressive about Gregory’s performance was his consistency. He assisted on at least one tackle-for-loss in each of Nebraska’s final 12 games. He was never a player that would disappear from long periods of time. Gregory made his presence felt every game because he had a knack for fighting off blockers and then using his remarkable closing speed to get to the quarterback. Offensive tackles could keep him out of the pocket for only so long until he used his athleticism to bring down a quarterback or running back in the backfield. At the end of the season, Gregory was named to the All-Big Ten first team and even projected by some to be the first overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft.

You are probably wondering how a player that some consider to be the first overall pick in next year’s draft to be only No. 2 on this list. Well, there are two red flags. First, Gregory needs more size. It was reported that he played at around 240 pounds last season. While this certainly benefited his pass-rushing ability as a speed demon on the perimeter, it left him quite ineffective as a run-stopper. Gregory needs to add at least 15 to 20 pounds to his frame to become more of a polished, all-around defensive end. Second, Gregory will be the only Nebraska defensive lineman that opponents will worry about next season. Gregory’s pass-rushing partner from last year, Avery Moss, who complemented Gregory very well, was banned from campus until at least 2015 for violating a condition of his sanctions stemming from a 2012 incident during which he exposed his genitals to a student worker. With Moss no longer there to attract some attention away from Gregory, Gregory may see more double teams than he ever has before. He still will be one of the elite defensive linemen in the Big Ten, if not the nation, but the lack of help he will have from his teammates on the defensive line slide him behind the next fellow.

1. Joey Bosa, Ohio State | Sophomore – 6’5”, 285 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks QBH
2013 29 15 44 13.5 7.5 6
Career Totals 29 15 44 13.5 7.5 6
(Jerry Lai, USA Today Sports)

(Jerry Lai, USA Today Sports)

Given some of the names that are on this list, it may be a surprise to some that Ohio State strong-side defensive end Joey Bosa will be the best defensive lineman in the Big Ten in 2014. But, given the potential he has always possessed, it should not be. In high school, Bosa was a high four-star prospect and ranked No. 37 in 247 Sports’ 2013 composite national rankings. He was recruited heavily, earning scholarship offers from Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Florida State, Michigan, Notre Dame, and Wisconsin among others. If Bosa had not committed to Ohio State about ten months before National Signing Day, he very likely would have had many more offers than he received. Nonetheless, it was clear when Bosa arrived on Ohio State’s campus last summer that he had the potential to be special.

Last season, Bosa stepped right in and started 10 games for the Buckeyes as a true freshman. He got off to a slow start in the first half of the season, which is no surprise for a true freshman. Bosa was trying to get his feet wet and get a feel for what college football is really like. However, near the midpoint of the 2013 season, Bosa had acclimated himself to college football. Accordingly, he went full throttle. After recording only 18 tackles, four tackles-for-loss, and two sacks in the Buckeyes’ first eight contests, Bosa made 26 tackles, 9.5 tackles-for-loss, and sacked the quarterback 5.5 times in the remaining six contests. He not only demonstrated that he had the strength to hold up at the point of attack and bull rush, but also had the speed and moves to beat offensive tackles to the edge. It is rare to see a defensive lineman have this array of moves and abilities. And Bosa displayed this as a true freshman.

Next season, Bosa should  become an unstoppable monster. It is expected that Bosa will make a leap of some sort as a true sophomore. What Bosa accomplished as a true freshman was more about his pure physical abilities and talent. As a sophomore, he will have a year of experience under his belt as well as a much better understanding of the mental aspects of the Ohio State’s defense and the game of college football itself. This progression should scare the living daylights out of the rest of the Big Ten.

Plus, unlike Nebraska’s Randy Gregory, Bosa will have some help on his defensive line. Bosa will be lined up alongside weak-side defensive end Noah Spence and defensive tackle Michael Bennett. Not only should Spence and Noah be expected to be two of the top five defensive linemen in the Big Ten next season, they are projected to be future first-round draft picks. With this much talent on the defensive line, opponents will not be able to afford to double team either of the ends. The double teams likely will be focused on Bennett, which will clear space for Bosa and Spence to attack the offensive tackles one on one. And, while Spence is a tremendous player, Bosa will be the one that shines the brightest. Expect Bosa to lead all Big Ten defensive linemen in tackles-for-loss and sacks next season as he transforms in to the Big Ten’s best defensive lineman.

Do you agree with our list? Or did we get it wrong? Will Ohio State’s Joey Bosa be the best defensive lineman in the Big Ten next season? Or will it be Nebraska’s Randy Gregory? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below. Next week, we will preview the other position that contributes to a defense’s front seven: the linebackers.

Big Ten football position rankings: Defensive line (part one)

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014


Big Ten position rankings header-DL

This is the sixth 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 at each offensive position have been covered. This week, it is time to begin previewing the defense, starting with the defensive line. 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.

10. C.J. Olaniyan, Penn State | 5th-yr Senior – 6’3”, 252 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks QBH
2013 28 22 50 11.0 5.0 4
2012 6 9 15 1.0 1.0 0
2011 3 0 3 0 0 0
2010 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 37 31 68 12.0 6.0 4
(Gene J. Puskar, AP)

(Gene J. Puskar, AP)

I will begin this post by declaring that I have committed a great injustice by limiting these rankings to only the Big Ten’s best defensive linemen. Okay, that may be a bit over the top. But there is no doubt that the position at which the Big Ten has the most top-end talent and depth is defensive line. The Big Ten is flooded with NFL talent here. First-round talent, too. What I should have done is split the defensive line preview into two separate weeks, so certain defensive ends and defensive tackles that did not make this list would receive the praise and attention they deserve. However, given how I organized this series’ structure, there is only enough time to dedicate one week to the defensive line.

For example, Minnesota defensive ned Thieren Cockran is one of the most underrated players in the Big Ten. Last season, Cockran surged onto the scene in his first year as a full-time starter. He is one of just eight returning Big Ten linemen that had double-digit tackles-for-loss in 2013. His 7.5 sacks were tied for the second-most in the Big Ten. And his four forced fumbles were tied for the most in the conference. Despite all of this, Cockran was snubbed by the Big Ten coaches from their All-Big Ten team; they did not even reward him with an honorable mention. If there is any Big Ten defensive player that deserves some recognition for his accomplishments, it is Cockran.

Yet, Cockran just missed the cut on this list. As I clarified above, the purpose of this list is to rank who will be the best in 2014, not necessarily who was the best last season. I have two worries about Cockran. First, he padded his stats against inferior competition. Half of his 10 tackles-for-loss and three of this 7.5 sacks were against floundering New Mexico State and FCS foe Western Illinois. Second, Cockran no longer will have former Minnesota nose tackle and second-round NFL draft pick Ra’Shede Hageman eating up double teams in the middle. Big Ten offenses will game plan around Cockran because no other Gophers defensive lineman poses a legitimate threat. Cockran is a skilled defensive end, but he does not have the talent or presence to make opponents pay the price all by himself.

Accordingly, Penn State defensive end C.J. Olaniyan has filled the No. 10 spot rather than Cockran. Olaniyan produced similar statistics to Cockran. Olaniyan finished with 50 tackles, 11 tackles-for-loss, five sacks, three forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, and an interception. It could be said that Olaniyan was more involved with Penn State’s rush defense while Cockran was more of a pass-rushing threat. Nonetheless, looking only at their total numbers, there is not much of a discrepancy.

However, what separates the two are that Olaniyan produces more against Big Ten competition and will have more help on the defensive line this fall. In conference play last season, Olaniyan recorded 35 tackles, eight tackles-for-loss, and four sacks. Cockran? Only 15 tackles and 4.5 tackles-for-loss. It is clear which one performs better against the cream of the crop. Further, despite losing defensive tackle and 2013 All-Big Ten first-team selection DaQuan Jones to the NFL, Olaniyan still has defensive end Deion Barnes to help relieve the pressure. Barnes slumped last season, but was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2012 for a reason. Barnes has talent and should be able to keep some of the attention off of Olaniyan—at least more than any Minnesota defensive lineman will for Cockran. Therefore, Olaniyan should have more of an impact on the field than Cockran in 2014.

9. Darius Hamilton, Rutgers | Junior – 6’4″, 260 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks QBH
2013 20 28 48 11.5 4.5 4
2012 4 13 17 1.5 0 1
Career Totals 24 41 65 13.0 4.5 5
(Nelson Chenault, USA Today Sports)

(Nelson Chenault, USA Today Sports)

You may be wondering to yourself, “Drew, are you telling me that a former consensus five-star recruit that blossomed as a true sophomore last season is only No. 9 on this list?” Yes, this is exactly what I am telling you. I cannot stress enough just how deep the Big Ten’s defensive line corps will be this fall. Darius Hamilton was one of the most sought-after recruits in the 2012 class. He reportedly had scholarship offers from the likes of Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU, Michigan, Oklahoma, Penn State, South Carolina, USC, and Wisconsin. But Hamilton spurned all of them to stay within his home state of New Jersey and attend Rutgers.

After servicing as a reserve as a true freshman in 2012, Hamilton slowly lived up to his potential throughout his first season as a starter last year. He posted 48 tackles, 11.5 tackles-for-loss, 4.5 sacks, three pass break-ups, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. These are splendid stats, but the key is to focus on how Hamilton finished the season. In Rutgers’ final four games, he registered 19 tackles, 6.5 tackles-for-loss, and 3.5 sacks. A sample size of four games—with three against AAC opponents—is too small to extrapolate to a full season in the Big Ten. Nonetheless, it would be foolish to presume that these performances were just anomalies given Hamilton’s raw talent.

Further, Hamilton did more than just boost his individual numbers down the stretch. He also anchored one of the stingiest run defenses last season. The Scarlet Knights were fourth in the nation in rushing yards allowed per game (100.77) and fifth in the nation in rushing yards allowed per carry (3.10). Rutgers’ rush defense was not predicated on forcing stops behind the line of scrimmage; Rutgers was only 45th nationally in team tackles-for-loss. Rather, the Scarlet Knights relied on their defensive tackles to occupy multiple offensive linemen and plug holes at the line. It was quite effective given the results.

But this strategy will not be as successful in the Big Ten this fall unless Hamilton gains a solid chunk of weight. Last year, he played at 240 pounds, which is incredibly light a for a three-tech. He still was able to survive, but only because he faced the smaller offensive lines of the AAC. Hamilton will not be so fortunate against the mammoth offensive lines of the Big Ten. Currently, Hamilton is listed on the roster at 260 pounds, and it has been reported that he will add an extra ten pounds. This would give Hamilton better odds to tussle with Big Ten offensive linemen, but he still will not have the luxury of a larger tackle lined up alongside of him. No Rutgers defensive lineman is listed with a weight above 280 pounds. Accordingly, Hamilton will be forced to combat double teams, and there may not be much he will be able to do to prevent them from escorting him from the premises. Thus, Hamilton sits at No. 9 on this list, even if he is projected to be one of the first ten defensive tackles selected in the 2016 NFL Draft.

8. Frank Clark, Michigan | Senior – 6’2”, 270 lbs.
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks QBH
2013 19 24 43 12.0 4.5 7
2012 16 9 25 9.0 2 0
2011 3 7 10 0.5 0 0
Career Totals 38 40 78 21.5 6.5 7
(Carlos Osorio, AP)

(Carlos Osorio, AP)

Michigan fans have been waiting for half of a decade for the next elite pass-rushing defensive end to don the maize and blue. In 2009, Brandon Graham was brilliant on the field for Michigan despite receiving little assistance from his defensive brethren. He tallied 63 tackles, 10.5 sacks, and became just the fourth Wolverine to surpass 25 tackles-for-loss in a season in school history. He was the lone standout for a defense that finished only 82nd and 77th nationally in total and scoring defense, respectively. For his efforts, Graham was selected with the 13th pick overall in the 2010 NFL Draft.

Since then, Michigan has not been close to having a defensive lineman replicate Graham’s production. In the past four seasons, no Michigan defensive lineman has notched more than 12.5 tackles-for-loss or 5.5 sacks. For context, a Big Ten defensive lineman has had no less than six sacks in a season 21 times in that same span. Michigan fans hope that this lack of production from the defensive end spot will come to a close soon. In fact, they are encouraged that this drought will finally end this season.

Enter: Frank Clark. Last summer, like this summer, Michigan fans were optimistic that Clark would have a breakout season in the fall. Hype was rampant. Praise was never-ending. It seemed like there was a new quote from the coaches or rumor complimenting Clark and his athletic ability. Fans saw glimpses of this ability, especially during an eight-game span in the middle of the season. During this stretch, he had 37 tackles, 11 tackles-for-loss, 4.5 sacks, two fumble recoveries, and a defensive touchdown. He was a force to be reckoned with as his combination of strength and agility was too much for offensive tackles to handle. Because most of the games during this stretch were during conference play, Clark was named to the All-Big Ten second team.

However, Clark’s season was marred by inconsistency. He would vanish from games just as often as he had an intimidating presence. He opened the campaign with a very slow start—a start that caused fans to question whether the preseason hype was deserved. In the first three contests, Clark made only four tackles and one tackle-for-loss. Then, Clark settled into his aforementioned eight-game groove, which caused many to believe that Clark had put his inconsistency issues behind him. But Clark was shut out in Michigan’s final two games against Ohio State and Kansas State, during which he managed only two tackles and little else.

So how will Clark finally transform into the next Brandon Graham in 2014? Or will he continue to disappear for entire games? The answer lies somewhere in the middle. Clark is one of the most physically gifted defensive ends in the conference. Offensive linemen will continue to have trouble contained Clark as he forces his way to the quarterback. He also will benefit from having a fully healthy Jake Ryan at linebacker behind him. Ryan’s prowess as a pass-rusher is well known, but his ACL injury limited him last season. With Ryan at 100 percent, offenses would be remiss to focus their pass protection solely on Clark. Additionally, another offseason under the tutelage of defensive coordinator Greg Mattison should help Clark further learn from his mental miscues and somewhat cure his inconsistency. But there is little chance that these errors will be completely remedied. Consequently, Clark will not be the next Graham. But the first Michigan defensive lineman with more than 12.5 tackles-for-loss and 5.5 sacks since 2009? It would be a stunner if Clark did not hit both marks.

7. Andre Monroe, Maryland | 5th-yr Senior – 5’11”, 275 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks QBH
2013 25 17 42 17.0 9.5 1
2012 0 0 0 0 0 0
2011 15 5 20 7.5 5.0 0
2010 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 40 22 62 24.5 14.5 1
(Mitch Stringer, USA Today)

(Mitch Stringer, USA Today)

I have repeated over and over again that the Big Ten is littered with NFL talent along the defensive line. According to NFL Draft Scout, there are 19 Big Ten defensive ends or defensive tackles that are ranked in the top 15 at their respective position in their respective draft class. For context, a defensive lineman ranked in the top 20 at their respective position will be an NFL Draft pick. So, not only will all 19 of these Big Ten defensive linemen likely be NFL draft picks, they likely will be selected in one of the first five rounds. Nine of the 10 players that made this list are projected to be no worse than a fourth-round draft pick. The lone exception: Maryland defensive end Andre Monroe.

One may not find Monroe on any NFL team’s draft board, but this does not mean that Monroe lacks talent. In 2011, he was a freshman All-American according to multiple media outlets when he totaled 7.5 tackles-for-loss and five sacks as a reserve in just nine games. Although Monroe missed the 2012 season due to a significant knee injury he suffered during fall camp, he returned as strong as ever last year. Monroe finished with 42 tackles, 17 tackles-for-loss, 9.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, and a pass break-up in 13 games. His 17 tackles-for-loss and 9.5 sacks were fifth and sixth in the ACC, respectively. This output is impressive from a lineman that was the five-tech in Maryland’s 3-4 defensive scheme. Generally, a five-tech in such a scheme will have a difficult time knifing his way through the offensive line to generate a pass rush. But Monroe did just that, demonstrating he can be effective at stopping the run and pressuring the quarterback.

So why is Monroe not projected to be an NFL Draft selection? Size. Monroe is listed only at 5’11”, and many NFL scouts do not believe that his production will translate to a much bigger NFL. But the purpose of this exercise is to rank who will be the best players in the Big Ten in 2014, not the best future professionals. In spite of his physical limitations, Monroe has an array of pass-rushing moves. And he will have more an opportunity to show them off this fall. Monroe will transition from the five-tech to the outside, where he will have a clearer path on the edge to rush the quarterback. Even with the move, it is difficult to project that Monroe will have more sacks in the Big Ten this season than the 9.5 he had in the ACC last year. However, there is little doubt that Monroe will be one of the better defensive ends in the conference despite having little chance to play on Sundays like the others on this list.

6. Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State | RS Junior – 6’4”, 257 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks QBH
2013 20 17 37 14.0 7.5 18
2012 4 2 6 2.5 1 5
2011 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 24 19 43 16.5 8.5 23
(Gregory Shamus, Getty Images)

(Gregory Shamus, Getty Images)

The sound you hear in the distance that is slowly rising in volume is a stampede of Michigan State fans charging at me for slotting defensive end Shilique Calhoun at No. 6 and outside the top five. They have a fair argument. Last season, in his first full year as a starter, Calhoun had one of the most productive campaigns of any defensive player in the Big Ten. He was tied for second in the conference with 7.5 sacks and tied for sixth with 14 tackles-for-loss. Although there were other Big Ten defenders with a similar number of sacks and tackles-for-loss, what made Calhoun’s statistical profile so sparkly were his takeaways. He forced two fumbles, recovered four fumbles, and intercepted a pass. He then converted three of these into defensive touchdowns—the most by any player in the nation. And Calhoun did all of this while starting on a defensive line that allowed the second-fewest rushing yards per game in the nation (86.6) and the third-fewest rushing yards per carry (2.85).

It was an excellent season for Calhoun, and everyone took notice. Calhoun earned second-team All-American honors from Walter Camp, the Associated Press, SI.com, USA Today, and Athlon Sports. He was the recipient of the 2013 National Defensive Performer of the Year by the College Football Performance Awards. He was one of six finalists for the Ted Hendricks Award, which is given to the nation’s best defensive end. He was named the Smith-Brown Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year. He also was selected to the All-Big Ten first team by both the coaches and the media. Ultimately, Calhoun was one of the most, if not the most, decorated Big Ten defensive players last season. With all of these accolades in hand, the NFL took notice as well. Calhoun could have been a third-round-or-better selection in the NFL Draft this past spring. Instead, he opted to return for his redshirt junior season and now is projected to be one of the first players taken the 2015 NFL Draft.

Yet Calhoun sits here at No. 6. Why? In three words: He is overrated. This is not to say that he is not a skilled defensive end, but he is not as talented as many claim him to be. What made Calhoun’s statistical profile stand out so much were his takeaways and three defensive touchdowns in the first two games. While this is a notable feat, it is more of a reflection of good luck and fortunate bounces than his ability. Ability is forcing an opposing player to fumble the football. Luck is seeing that fumble bounce and roll towards you, so you can pick it up. Will Calhoun be so fortunate to once again recover the second-most fumbles in the nation this fall? Doubtful.

If Calhoun is unable to use fumble recoveries and defensive touchdowns to boost his resume, then he will need to rely on his ability to create stops by racking up tackles, tackles-for-loss, and sacks. However, he had only 37 total tackles and more than three tackles only three times in 14 contests last season. This was because Calhoun’s game was more about rushing the passer the stuffing the run. This is fine, except when one looks at Calhoun’s game tape against Iowa, Michigan, Ohio State, and Stanford’s NFL-caliber offensive tackles. When he went one-on-one against those tackles, Calhoun was rendered ineffective. He was unable to disengage from the offensive tackles and create plays by himself. It generally was only when defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi used stunts to get Calhoun into space or when Michigan’s leaky offensive line slid away from Calhoun that he made an impact.

To be clear, this is not to say that Calhoun is subpar or not a Big Ten-caliber defensive end. Calhoun had a very productive first full season as starter as a redshirt sophomore. With another offseason of development and coaching under Narduzzi, coupled with his size and athleticism, Calhoun could transform into the player many expect him to be in 2014. But I would caution that this very well may not be the case and to expect what many would consider an underwhelming season for what many project to be a top-10 pick in the next NFL Draft. And, for any Michigan State fans that want to call me a Michigan homer for Calhoun’s rank, just wait until we reveal my top five tomorrow.

What do you think so far? Do you agree with our rank of the five players listed above? Is Michigan’s Frank Clark too high or too low at No. 8? Will Michigan State’s Shilique Calhoun duplicate his 2013 campaign this fall? Or will his production slip? Who do you think will be in the top five? Please post your comments below as we will reveal tomorrow who will be the five best defensive linemen in the Big Ten in 2014.

2014 Big Ten football position rankings: Offensive line (part two)

Thursday, July 3rd, 2014


Big Ten position rankings header-OffensiveLine

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 offensive linemen 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 offensive line rankings was posted yesterday. It revealed who is in the bottom half of the Big Ten’s top 10 offensive linemen. If you have not had the chance to read it yet, I recommend that you do so before proceeding. Read it? Great! Let’s unveil who will be the five best offensive linemen 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.

5. Jack Allen, Michigan State | RS Junior – 6’2”, 300 lbs
Starts Games Played
2013 12 12
2012 12 13
2011 0 0
Career Totals 24 25
(Mark Cunningham, Getty Images)

(Mark Cunningham, Getty Images)

Wretched. There really is no other adjective to describe Michigan State’s offense in its first two games of the 2013 season. Actually, that is untrue. Pitiful, woeful, pathetic, and dismal would have worked just fine, too. It was almost as if the Spartans’ offense had forgotten that its purpose was to gain yards and score more points than its opponent. In those first two contests, Michigan State faced two dregs of the FBS in Western Michigan and South Florida—teams that combined for a 3-21 record last season. They were awful in all facets of the game. And, yet, MSU’s offense could muster only an average of 281 total yards per game, 3.99 yards per play, and 9.5 points per game against them. It was so deplorable, in fact, that Michigan State’s defense actually outscored its offense in these first two weeks, 28-19. These offensive performances—or lack thereof—sent Spartans fans into a worried tizzy.

In Michigan State’s third game against Youngstown State, the offense began to remember what it was supposed to do on the football field, tallying 547 total yards and 55 points. These numbers may have been compiled only against an FCS opponent, but it certainly was a step in the right direction after the appalling displays seen in the first two weeks. Much of the credit for this offensive turnaround was assigned to quarterback Connor Cook, who replaced Andrew Maxwell and made his first career start against Youngstown State. Cook undoubtedly was worthy of some of this praise as Michigan State thereafter discovered its offensive identity, running its way through the Big Ten to a Rose Bowl victory. But there is another Spartan who deserves credit for MSU’s offensive 180. In fact, he may be more responsible for the turnaround that initiated in the third week than Cook. His name is Jack Allen.

Allen, who started 12 of 13 games and was named a Freshman All-American by media outlets in 2012, was penned as the starting center for the 2013 season. However, he was sidelined for the first two contests against Western Michigan and South Florida with turf toe. It was not until the third week against Youngstown State when Allen made his season debut. Is it a coincidence that Michigan State’s offensive U-turn just so happened to occur right when Allen returned to the gridiron? I think not.

Allen’s inclusion in the starting lineup transformed Michigan State’s offensive line into one of the best in the Big Ten. One reason why Cook always looked so poised and collected in the pocket was because the offensive line kept his jersey free of grass stains. The Spartans finished in the top 20 nationally in both sacks allowed per game (1.21) and sacks-allowed rate (4.10 pct.). Allen’s pass blocking provided Cook copious amounts of time to go through his progressions and make the correct read.

Allen’s run blocking was not too shabby either. Michigan State’s rushing attack may not have averaged many yards per carry—only a middle-of-the-pack 4.28—but it was not predicated on efficiency. The Spartans wanted to line up in power formations and run it down the defense’s throat over and over again. And that is what they did with Allen’s assistance. Allen repeatedly opened holes for running back Jeremy Langford, springing Langford to a 1,422-yard, 18-touchdown campaign.

For Allen’s efforts and production, he was placed on the All-Big Ten second team by the media and received an honorable mention from the coaches. He has received further recognition entering the 2014 season. Not only was Allen named to the Rimington Trophy—which is given to the nation’s best center—preseason watch list, he was anointed to Phil Steele’s preseason All-Big Ten first team. None of this should be a shock. Barring injury, Allen will be the Big Ten’s best center in 2014.

4. Jack Conklin, Michigan State | RS Sophomore – 6’6″, 330 lbs
Starts Games Played
2013 13 14
2012 0 0
Career Totals 13 14
(Mike Carter, USA Today Sports)

(Mike Carter, USA Today Sports)

The foregoing sections explains how Jack Allen was the most important offensive lineman to Michigan State’s success last season and that he will be the best center in the Big Ten this fall. But it does not insinuate that Allen will be Michigan’s best offensive lineman for a second straight season. There is another Spartan who has been lost in the shadows throughout his career. Next season, though, he will have no choice but to emerge into the spotlight and become an elite offensive tackle in the Big Ten. Say, “Hello,” to Jack Conklin.

Just two years ago, despite having the physical attributes that college coaches want from offensive line prospects, Conklin did not field a single scholarship from an FBS program. Not one. In fact, a quick peek at Conklin’s 247 Sports profile reveals that he did not receive a single star from any of the four major recruiting services. He was a consensus zero-star recruit. It was not because he underwhelmed on the football field; Conklin dominated the opposition. It was because recruiters and scouts were unsure how to gauge these performances when he was punishing only players who were a foot shorter and at least 100 pounds less than him. Conklin was a victim of the vastly inferior high school competition he faced. With no scholarship offers in tow entering the spring of 2012, Conklin was on the verge of heading to prep school for one last chance to finally seize the attention of an FBS program. Then, Michigan State called.

Head coach Mark Dantonio offered Conklin a spot on Michigan State’s roster for the 2012 season with a promise that he would be on scholarship no later than the following January. Conklin accepted the offer enthusiastically and went to work in East Lansing immediately. He redshirted his first season at Michigan State, as most offensive linemen do, but MSU’s coaches realized they might have found a true gem as they watched him practice on the scout team.

When the 2013 season rolled around and Conklin was eligible to play, he was thrust into the starting lineup at right tackle for the Spartans’ first three games before starting the final 10 contests at left tackle. The only game Conklin did not start was at Notre Dame—MSU’s only loss of the season. Conklin thrived immediately on the gridiron. As a redshirt freshman, he was the starting left tackle for an offensive line that was one of the best in the Big Ten. Michigan State’s offensive numbers were discussed already in Allen’s section, so there is no need to rehash them here. But there is one statistic that must be stated: Conklin did not allow a single sack in his 13 starts last season. His remarkable first season earned him a spot on many Freshman All-American teams.

In 2014, much more will be expected of Conklin. Michigan State lost three starters on the offensive line, leaving Conklin and Allen as the only holdovers. Although the new starters are not completely green, the Spartans will need Conklin to develop into a leader at left tackle. They need him to be one of the best left tackles in the conference. Conklin has the benefit of having played only one season thus far. As a player who is entering only his redshirt sophomore season, there still is more room for Conklin to grow—a scary thought for the rest of the Big Ten. Relying on the chip that he has on his shoulder, Conklin should develop into one of the best tackles in the Big Ten this season. This is why Phil Steele has him on his preseason All-Big Ten second team. It is also why Conklin finally will have the attention he has wanted for so long and deserves.

3. Jason Spriggs, Indiana | Junior – 6’7”, 307 lbs.
Starts Games Played
2013 12 12
2012 12 12
Career Totals 24 24
(Pat Lovell, USA Today Sports)

(Pat Lovell, USA Today Sports)

To continue the theme of underrated Big Ten offensive linemen who have not received their fair share of credit, let’s study Indiana’s Jason Spriggs. Like most of Indiana’s recruits, Spriggs was a generic three-star recruit who received little to no hype. Other than the Hoosiers, Spriggs only reported offers were from schools in the MAC. So he had a choice: Indiana or the MAC? For a high school kid raised in the Hoosier State, it was an easy selection.

It did not take very long for Spriggs to make his presence known in Bloomington. Whereas most offensive linemen redshirt their freshman season to develop physically, Spriggs started as a true freshman in Indiana’s season opener in 2012. In fact, he started in all 12 games, setting a school true freshman record for an offensive lineman. And Spriggs demonstrated why there was no need for him to redshirt. In 961 snaps, he led the team with 80 knockdowns and surrendered just two sacks. Further, he was a starting tackle for an offense that led the conference in passing yards per game (311.2), was second in total yards per game (442.0), and fourth in scoring offense (30.8). Spriggs’ impressive debut was rewarded with Freshman All-American nods and an honorable mention on the All-Big Ten team.

However, it was last season when Spriggs really bloomed, even if few others took notice. The Hoosiers had one of the most explosive offenses in the nation, let alone the Big Ten. Nationally, Indiana finished 16th in scoring offense (38.4), ninth in total offense (508.5), 30th in rushing offense (201.8), and 17th in passing offense (306.7). IU was one of only six schools to rank in the top 30 in all four of these categories. It was a record-setting season for the Indiana offense. And it could not have been done without Spriggs solidifying the line in all 12 of his starts at left tackle. The Hoosiers were a team that preferred airing out the football to grinding it out on the ground. Yet, Indiana ranked 15th in the nation and second in the Big Ten in sacks-allowed rate, allowing a sack on only 3.93 percent of IU’s drop backs. If one of the main responsibilities a left tackle has is to protect his quarterback’s blind side, then there are very few left tackles who executed their job better than Spriggs in 2013.

This fall, Indiana will transition from a two-quarterback, hybrid offense to a full passing spread with quarterback Nate Sudfeld after dual-threat quarterback Tre Roberson transferred. In all likelihood, the Hoosiers will drop back to pass even more this year than they did last season. Accordingly, Indiana will rely even more upon Spriggs to hold down the left side of the offensive line in pass protection. The great news for Indiana is that all of the starting offensive linemen from last season return, so Spriggs will not need to worry about building new chemistry. His comfort level will be at an all-time high. This, coupled with the talent Spriggs had displayed in 24 starts in two seasons, should allow Spriggs to contend for a slot on the All-Big Ten first team in 2014.

2. Rob Havenstein | 5th-yr Senior – 6’8”, 327 lbs
Starts Games Played
2013 13 13
2012 14 14
2011 1 13
2010 0 0
Career Totals 28 40
(247 Sports)

(247 Sports)

Wisconsin right guard Kyle Costigan was included in this top-10 list of who will be the best offense linemen in the Big Ten in 2014. He was ranked at No. 9 in Part One yesterday. But Costigan will not even be the best player on the right side of Wisconsin’s offensive line. Right tackle Rob Havenstein will be. To start, Havenstein is one of the most experienced offensive linemen in the conference. He has participated in 40 games in his career, starting 28 of them and 27 in the past two seasons. Because of this experience, we know what to expect from Havenstein in 2014. And what we expect is for Havenstein to be the one of the best road graders in the conference.

In Havenstein’s two full seasons as Wisconsin’s starting right tackle, the Badgers have pulverized opponents into submission with their ground game. Running behind Havenstein, Wisconsin averaged 236.4 rushing yards per game in 2012 and 283.8 yards per game in 2013. Both of these averages were among the 15 best nationally each year. Wisconsin’s rushing offense was so productive because of its explosiveness. Last season, the Badgers averaged 6.62 yards per carry, which was the second-best in the nation. Speedy running backs Melvin Gordon and James White played a huge role in generating these averages, but they needed the space to make their cuts past defenders. This burden fell on Havenstein, and he delivered. Havenstein did more than move the line of scrimmage a yard or two. Rather, he escorted defensive linemen completely out of the picture, which allowed Gordon to dazzle and dance. Without Havenstein, Wisconsin likely would not have had two 1,400-yard rushers last season.

What makes Havenstein such a devastating run blocker is his size. Listed at 6’8” and 327 pounds, Havenstein is the largest offensive lineman in terms of height and weight in these rankings. And the mind-blowing thing is that he has lost 53 pounds in Madison just to get to his “svelte” 327 pounds. Havenstein uses his size and body mass well to get under a defensive lineman’s shoulder pads and drive him backwards. Opposing defensive ends have tried countlessly to thwart Havenstein’s run blocking, but very few have succeeded. And the ones who have not succeeded? They generally find themselves on their back.

However, any man who sheds 53 pounds to reach a current playing weight of 327 pounds probably does not have much speed, agility, or lateral quickness. Accordingly, Havenstein has had issues with his pass blocking. Although Wisconsin finished 17th nationally in sacks allowed per game, it was only because Wisconsin attempted so few passes. In actuality, the Badgers’ pass blocking was only mediocre as its sacks-allowed rate of 5.23 percent was only the 54th-best in the nation. Until Havenstein can drop a few more pounds and increase his lateral quickness, defensive ends will continue to utilize the speed rush to beat Havenstein to the outside.

But this is why Havenstein plays right tackle and not left tackle. While the right tackle should still be adequate in pass protection, which Havenstein is, the right tackle’s main job is to pave the path for the running backs. Only one person in the Big Ten does it better than Havenstein. Consequently, Phil Steele named him to his preseason All-America fourth team and All-Big Ten first team. With potential Heisman contender Gordon and three starting offensive linemen returning, including Costigan, Havenstein should be the best offensive lineman for one of the best rushing attacks in the country yet again.

1. Brandon Scherff, Iowa | 5th-yr Senior – 6’5”, 320 lbs
Starts Games Played
2013 13 13
2012 7 7
2011 3 10
2010 0 0
Career Totals 23 30
(AP)

(AP)

Every single season, the Big Ten seems to have at least one offensive lineman who will be drafted in the first round of the upcoming NFL Draft. Michigan’s Taylor Lewan in 2014. Wisconsin’s Travis Frederick in 2013. Iowa’s Riley Reiff and Wisconsin’s Kevin Zeitler in 2012. Wisconsin’s Gabe Carimi in 2011. Iowa’s Bryan Bulaga in 2010. Do you see where this is going? This year, no one will need to look very hard to find the next Big Ten offensive lineman who will be a sure-fire first-rounder. All one needs to do is glance over at Iowa City to find left tackle Brandon Scherff—a projected top-10 pick in the 2015 NFL Draft and the Big Ten’s best offensive lineman bar none.

Scherff has the entire package as a prototypical NFL left tackle. At 6’5” and 320 pounds, he has the size. With 23 starts at left tackle under his belt, he has the experience. But, most importantly, Scherff has demonstrated that he excels at both run blocking and pass blocking, which cannot be said for most of the offensive tackles in the Big Ten. To see just how impressive Scherff is as a road grader, one has to look at much more than just Iowa’s rushing stats. The Hawkeyes tend to pound the football with heavy, power formations. With so many players scrunched up next to the ball before it is snapped, there is less of an opportunity for Iowa’s running backs to break into the open field. Accordingly, Iowa’s yards per carry suffer. But one look at Scherff run blocking on film is all one needs to see how dominant he is.

Scherff may be an even better pass-blocker than run-blocker, too. As the left tackle, Scherff must have the lateral quickness, agility, and strength to compete against the opponent’s best pass-rushers. Yet, very few of them have been able to reach the Iowa quarterback with Scherff standing post on the blind side. In 2013, Scherff’s only full season as a starter, Iowa allowed the fewest sacks per game (1.15) in the conference. Further, even after adjusting for Iowa’s tendency to run the football, the Hawkeyes finished 12th nationally and led the Big Ten in sacks-allowed rate (3.61 pct.). If opposing defenses want to bring down Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock in 2014, they should try to take a different approach than attack Scherff.

As the anchor of what should be a splendid Iowa offensive line next season, Scherff should add to the collection of awards, honors, and accolades he earned in 2013. He already has been named to Phil Steele’s preseason All-America second team and All-Big Ten first team. Scherff will contend for first-team All-American honors and be a heavy favorite for the Rimington-Pace Offensive Lineman of the Year award—given to the Big Ten’s best offensive lineman. Scherff also will have a fantastic opportunity to be a finalist for the Outland Trophy—given to the nation’s best offensive lineman. All of these honors are within Scherff’s grasp. And then he will take his talents to the NFL, where he will be one of the first players selected in 2015, just like the Big Ten’s best offensive linemen before him.

Do you agree with our list? Or did we get it wrong? Will Iowa’s Brandon Scherff be the best offensive lineman in the Big Ten next season? Or will someone else surprise the conference and overtake him? Please tell us your thoughts by leaving comments below. With this post published, we have completed our rankings of who will be the best Big Ten players at each offensive position. Next week, we will transition to the other side of the ball by rankings the best defensive linemen.

2014 Big Ten football position rankings: Offensive line (part one)

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014


Big Ten position rankings header-OffensiveLine

This is the fifth installment of Maize and Go Blue’s series that ranks the best Big Ten football 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 quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends have been covered. This week, I rank the last offensive position: offensive linemen. 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.

10. Kaleb Johnson,  Rutgers | Senior – 6’4”, 305 lbs
Starts Games Played
2013 13 13
2012 13 13
2011 11 11
Career Totals 37 37
Kaleb Johnson

(ScarletKnights.com)

If one was to say that the Rutgers offensive line struggled mightily last season, that person still would be sugarcoating it. Rutgers’ offensive line faltered in all facets of run and pass blocking. The Scarlet Knights managed to post only 129.5 rushing yards per game and 3.70 rushing yards per carry. These averages ranked 100th and 98th in the nation, respectively. Additionally, the offensive line allowed 46 tackles-for-loss, excluding sacks. This means Rutgers lost yardage on 11 percent of its running plays. Yikes. Pass blocking was not much better either. Opposing defenses broke through the line to sack Rutgers’ quarterback 2.69 times per game and 7.28 percent of the time. These were ranked 102nd and 90th in the nation, respectively. It does not matter how one tries to shake it down. The message is clear: Rutgers had one of the worst offensive lines nationally in 2013.

So how in the world did Rutgers’ left guard Kaleb Johnson crack this list? Well, if anyone will understand how Johnson finds himself here, it would be Michigan fans. In 2013, fans of the Wolverines saw Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan, who later would be drafted with the 11th pick of the 2014 NFL Draft by the Tennessee Titans, anchor arguably the worst offensive line in school history. Lewan was not at fault, though. The majority of the blame fell to the underwhelming performances of the interior linemen. No matter how talented Lewan was, his talent alone was not enough to compensate for the deficiencies of his fellow linemen.

Johnson found himself in a similar situation last season, too. Johnson is not as talented as Lewan, who was considered to be the Big Ten’s best offensive lineman last year, but he is no slouch either. Johnson has started 37 games in his career, including 11 as a true freshman, and has showcased his versatility with starts at both tackle spots and left guard. While it is nice to be versatile, it is more important to good. And Johnson is good. He has the accolades to prove it. In 2011, he was named a Freshman All-American as a right tackle. The following season, he flipped over to left tackle and was placed on the All-Big East second team. Then, last season, he moved inside to left guard and, once again, earned second-team honors—this time in the AAC. Johnson also contemplated leaving Rutgers early and declaring for the NFL Draft as a projected fourth- to seventh-round pick, but opted to return for his senior season. And Johnson did all of this despite being a member of a putrid Rutgers offensive line.

Not much should change in 2014 when Johnson makes his Big Ten debut. Rutgers returns its entire starting offensive line from last season. While continuity along the offensive line generally yields positive results, it is unclear if this will be the case for the Scarlet Knights given last year’s issues. But Johnson will be a stud whether or not his fellow returning linemen improve. Phil Steele named Johnson to his preseason All-Big Ten first team for 2014, and Johnson remains a projected NFL Draft selection for 2015. So, when the Scarlet Knights’ offense takes the field, keep an eye out for Johnson at left guard because he likely will be one of the two best offensive guards in the Big Ten this fall.

9. Kyle Costigan, Wisconsin | 5th-yr Senior – 6’5”, 315 lbs
Starts Games Played
2013 12 13
2012 9 12
2011 0 3
2010 0 0
Career Totals 21 28
(Scout.com)

(Scout.com)

The top offensive guard in the Big Ten will be Wisconsin’s Kyle Costigan. This would have seemed ludicrous a tad more than two years ago. When he enrolled at Wisconsin, Costigan was not even an offensive lineman. Instead, he began his collegiate career as an unheralded defensive tackle. Costigan competed in only three games at the position as a redshirt freshman in 2011 before he suffered a season-ending foot injury. However, when he returned the following spring, Costigan switched over to the offensive line. He impressed the coaching staff as a right guard and took hold of the starting job four games into the 2012 season. The rest is history.

Costigan has been a key cog of a dominant Wisconsin offensive line the past two seasons. He started 21 of 27 possible contests. He missed three starts as a backup early in 2012 and another three due to injury thereafter. During this stint, Costigan has proven to be a splendid run blocker and helped Wisconsin deploy a lethal rushing attack. In 2012, the Badgers averaged 236.4 yards per game—the 13th-best nationally—and 5.21 yards per carry—the 18th-best nationally. Last season, Wisconsin upped these averages despite the departure of Heisman contender Montee Ball to the NFL. In fact, Wisconsin ranked in the top 10 for both rushing yards per game (283.8) and rushing yards per carry (6.62). It did not hurt the Badgers that few of its running plays failed to gain positive yardage. Only 8.9 percent of them ended behind the line of scrimmage. Although the talent Wisconsin had at running back played a significant role in producing these figures, they never would have had the room to run without Costigan.

There are still two worries about Costigan’s play, though. First, Costigan has room to improve his pass blocking. Last season, Wisconsin’s protection of its quarterback was just so-so. The Badgers allowed a sack 5.23 percent of the time they dropped back to pass—54th in the nation. Offensive tackles may be more responsible for the quarterback’s well-being, but Costigan is not free from blame. He must be better in 2014. Second, Costigan has been hampered by injuries. He has played through considerable pain after dislocating his right kneecap two seasons ago. He admitted there is permanent damage that will never be repaired. This is why he is projected not to be an NFL Draft pick in 2015. Scouts fear his leg would not endure more than a few seasons. But it should last this season, and, accordingly, Costigan likely will be the best offensive guard in the conference.

8. Brandon Vitabile, Northwestern | 5th-Yr Senior – 6’3”, 300 lbs.
Starts Games Played
2013 12 12
2012 13 13
2011 13 13
2010 0 0
Career Totals 38 38
(Matthew Holst, Getty Images)

(Matthew Holst, Getty Images)

Brandon Vitabile is one of the most experienced offensive linemen in the Big Ten. This season, Vitabile will have the opportunity to join the select club of offensive linemen with 50 career starts under their belt. It is a rare milestone because not many offensive linemen can complete the transition from high school to college quick enough—physically and mentally— to break into the starting lineup as a true or redshirt freshman and then remain healthy throughout their career. Yet, Vitabile has done just this. In the spring prior to his redshirt freshman season in 2011, Vitabile impressed the coaches so much that they moved three-year starting center Ben Burkett to offensive guard to accommodate him at center. Vitabile has not missed a start since in three seasons, earning 38 straight. Thus, if he starts every contest this fall, Vitabile will have no less than 50 career starts and cross the notable threshold.

Vitabile has the opportunity to accomplish this feat because he has proven himself to be one of the best centers in the Big Ten. Prior to the 2012 season, Vitabile was named to the preseason watch list for Rimington Award—given to the nation’s best center—as a redshirt sophomore. It did not take long for him to demonstrate that he deserved to be on that list. He was the stalwart of one of the better offensive lines in the Big Ten. The Wildcats finished fourth in the conference in rushing yards per game (225.5) and yards per carry (4.93), assisting running back Venric Mark in registering a 1,366-yard, 12-touchdown season. Plus, Vitabile and his fellow linemen allowed the fewest sacks per game among Big Ten schools (1.23) and allowed a sack on only 3.80 percent of Northwestern’s drop backs—second-best in the conference. Vitabile’s sophomore campaign could not have been much better.

However, Vitabile’s junior campaign could not have been much worse in 2013. This was not because Vitabile’s performance declined. His individual performance was just as solid as it was in 2012. In fact, it was even better. Last season, Vitabile received honorable mention on the All-Big Ten teams by the coaches and the media. Rather, his junior campaign could not been much worse because, no matter how well Vitabile played, his teammates on the offensive line constantly erred. And, as we learned while discussing Rutgers’ Kaleb Johnson and Michigan’s Taylor Lewan, no individual can be an entire offensive line by himself. Unfortunately, for Vitabile and Northwestern, the Wildcats’ ranking in categories like rushing yards per carry and percentage of sacks allowed plummeted. And there was nothing Vitabile could do about it.

For the upcoming season, there still are many lingering questions about Northwestern’s offensive line. But Vitabile is not one of them. He will be the rock of the Wildcats’ offensive line for the fourth straight season. Accordingly, he has been named to the preseason watch list for the Rimington Award for the third straight year and to Phil Steele’s preseason All-Big Ten second team. Further, NFL scouts project Vitabile to be the fifth-best center for the 2015 NFL Draft. So, even if the rest of Northwestern’s line continues to struggle and make mistakes, know that Vitabile will be doing all he can in the middle as one of the Big Ten’s best two centers.

7. Donovan Smith, Penn State | RS Junior – 6’5”, 322 lbs
Starts Games Played
2013 11 12
2012 9 10
2011 0 0
Career Totals 20 22
(Justin K. Aller, Getty Images)

(Justin K. Aller, Getty Images)

Penn State’s left tackle Donovan Smith should be the most intriguing Big Ten offensive lineman to watch next season. Smith appears to be the perfect—and popular—sleeper pick to enter the upper echelon of the conference’s linemen. He has the physical attributes at 6’5” and 322 pounds. Although two more inches would do him wonders, he still is a big boy that defenders have problems circumventing. His size allows him to excel at pass blocking, even if Penn State’s protection of its quarterback was only average last year. Smith also has the experience. He has picked up 20 starts at left tackle in his first two seasons on the gridiron. And Smith has the accolades. He was a four-star recruit in high school. As a redshirt freshman in 2012, he was selected to at least one Big Ten All-Freshman team. He then followed that up by receiving honorable mention on the All-Big Ten team by both the coaches and media as a redshirt sophomore. It would seem Smith has the potential to make the All-Big Ten first team next year.

Yet, there are a few red flags that must be accounted for before Smith is anointed as one of the Big Ten’s best. First, Smith’s run blocking must be more consistent. There are times when Smith flashes what he is capable of, like when he bottled up Nebraska’s Randy Gregory—a projected top-10 pick in the 2015 NFL Draft—last season. But there are also times when he loses focus and fails to use the proper technique, which results in him not driving opposing defensive linemen off the line of scrimmage. With the proper technique, Smith could be a beast at run blocking given his size.

Second, Smith must cope with lots of new personnel in Penn State’s offense in 2014. The biggest area of concern will be the Nittany Lions’ dearth of experienced offensive linemen. Smith will be the only healthy returning starter on the offensive line for Penn State. Originally, the Lions were supposed to have two returning starters, but left guard Miles Dieffenbach tore his ACL in spring practice and will miss the entire year. It will be interesting to see how playing with four new starters on the line will affect Smith’s performance this season. Will it cause his performance to suffer as he tries to build chemistry with the fresh faces lined up next to him? Or will Smith still be able to perform at an All-Big Ten level even if his fellow linemen cannot live up to the standard set by last year’s starters? Plus, Smith will be adjusting to all of this while trying to learn new head coach James Franklin’s offense and schemes.

The best prediction is that Smith is still one year away from becoming an elite left tackle in the Big Ten. It just seems there will be too many obstacles preventing him from putting it all together and fulfilling his potential: lapses of concentration, flawed technique, inexperienced teammates on the offensive line, and a brand-new offensive system. Smith still will be one of the better left tackles in the conference and will display glimpses of what makes him so special. But All-Big Ten first team? Wait until 2015.

6. Taylor Decker, Ohio State | Junior – 6’7”, 315 lbs
Starts Games Played
2013 14 14
2012 0 4
Career Totals 14 18
(Brooke Lavalley, Columbus Dispatch)

(Brooke Lavalley, Columbus Dispatch)

In last season’s opener against Buffalo, Taylor Decker made his first career start at right tackle for Ohio State. Yet, it was not the type of performance one dreams about when he imagines his first career start. Decker was converted into a turnstile for the afternoon as Buffalo’s Khalil Mack beat him not once, not twice, but three times for sacks. It was a shaky first start for Decker, and it worried Ohio State fans that Decker was not ready for the challenge.

However, we learned quickly that Mack—later selected with the fifth pick of the 2014 NFL Draft—was not a typical MAC-level player and that Decker definitely was ready for the challenge. Decker started all 14 games at right tackle for what was arguably the best offensive line in the Big Ten last season. The Buckeyes had the most efficient rushing attack in the nation. Ohio State averaged 308.6 rushing yards per game, which was the fifth-best in the nation. But, most importantly, no team in the nation averaged more yards per carry than the Buckeyes (6.80). Further, it was extremely rare for Ohio State to lose yardage when running the football. The offensive line allowed a tackle-for-loss on only 5.55 percent of Ohio State’s non-sack running plays, which was one of the best marks in the nation. Much of the credit for this production belongs to dual-threat quarterback Braxton Miller and former running back Carlos Hyde, but a good chunk of it also belongs to Decker and his fellow offensive linemen.

Next season will be a different challenge for Decker, though. Decker’s four fellow starters on the offensive line last year all graduated, leaving him as the only holdover. Ohio State’s offensive line will be very inexperienced in 2014. Among the five projected starting linemen for the Buckeyes next season, there are 15 combined previous starts. Fourteen of those belong to Decker. And, yet, although Decker proved his mettle at right tackle, he will be flipping to left tackle, where he has no previous collegiate experience, for the 2014 campaign.

The biggest question about Decker is whether he has the ability to defend Miller’s blind side. Decker’s struggles versus Mack in the opener already have been noted, but the entire line underwhelmed at pass blocking last season. The Buckeyes allowed only 1.57 sacks per game, but this statistic is flawed because they did not drop back to pass very often. The truth is that Ohio State allowed a sack on 6.70 percent of its called passes, which was the 80th-best rate in the nation. Although some of these sacks were the result of Miller dancing around in the pocket and trying to make a play, this was a poor rate for a line with the experience Ohio State’s had last season. Can Decker—who is not the fastest or most agile offensive lineman—improve that sacks-allowed rate with the help of four brand-new starters? It seems dicey. This is why Decker—a talented run-blocker who is projected to be one of the first 10 offensive tackles selected in the 2016 NFL Draft—just missed the cut for the top five on this list.

So what do you think? Do you agree with the rank of the names on this list so far? Will a Michigan offensive lineman surprise everyone and become one of the Big Ten’s best in 2014? And who do you think will be in the top five? Please post your comments below as we will reveal tomorrow who will be the five best offensive linemen in the conference this upcoming season.

Stauskas, McGary, Robinson headed to NBA’s Western Conference

Friday, June 27th, 2014


2014 NBA Draft(Getty Images)

In last year’s NBA Draft, Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr became the first Michigan basketball players to be drafted in the first round since Jamal Crawford was picked eighth in the 2000 draft. On Thursday night, Nik Stauskas and Mitch McGary followed suit, giving the Michigan basketball program multiple first round picks in back-to-back drafts for the first time in program history.

Stauskas was selected eighth overall by the Sacramento Kings and McGary was taken 21st by the Oklahoma City Thunder. Glenn Robinson III missed out on the first round, but was drafted 40th overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves, marking the first time since 1990 that Michigan has had three or more players taken in the same draft.

The Kings finished 13th out of 15 teams in the Western Conference last season with a record of 28-54. They were lead by a trio of big-time scorers, center Demarcus Cousins (22.7 points per game), point guard Isaiah Thomas (20.3 ppg), and small forward Rudy Gay (20.1 ppg). No other player on the roster averaged in double figures. Last year, Sacramento selected another shooting guard, Kansas’ Ben McLemore, but he averaged just 8.8 points per game and shot just 32 percent from three-point range. There was some talk prior to the draft that the Kings were looking to shop McLemore, but that didn’t happen. So now we’ll see how the Kings plan to use them both.

A scroll through the Kings message boards shows that the pick is met with mixed feelings. For one, the Kings were one of the worst defensive teams in the league and Stauskas isn’t known for his defense. But in all fairness, it’s probably a safe bet to assume that most Kings fans haven’t seen Stauskas play very much. Sacramento ranked 27th in the league in three-point shooting and Stauskas will help that immediately. He’ll also stretch the floor for Cousins inside.

In the days leading up to the draft, it became apparent that McGary would be selected somewhere in the 20s. Oklahoma City and Charlotte both seemed to value the big man, and when it came time for the Thunder to make their first of two first-round picks, they snatched him despite the fact that he played only eight games during his sophomore season and is coming off of back surgery.McGary OKC

It’s a great fit and situation for McGary as Oklahoma City finished second in the Western Conference last season behind San Antonio and lost to the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals in six games. They went 59-23 on the season and were led by small forward Kevin Durant (29.6 ppg) and point guard Russell Westbrook (26.7 ppg). McGary will join Serge Ibaka (12.1 ppg) and center Steven Adams (3.9 ppg) and could be seen as a replacement for Kendrick Perkins, who may be done in Oklahoma City. Perkins is coming up on the final year of his contract, in which he is due $9 million. He played just 19.5 minutes per game last season and averaged just 3.2 points and 5.4 rebounds. McGary can fill that “glue-guy” role off the bench immediately, provided his back fully heals.

Robinson, meanwhile, gets a good opportunity to learn the ropes of NBA play for a team that isn’t stacked with talent, but isn’t quite a bottom-feeder either. Minnesota finished 10th in the Western Conference last season with a 40-42 record. The Timberwolves ranked third in the league in scoring (106.9 ppg), but 26th in defense (104.3). Robinson is a good defender and can help in that regard. They were led by power forward Kevin Love, who averaged 26.1 points and 12.5 rebounds per game, though there’s a good chance he’ll be traded. Minnesota also had double-digit scorers in shooting guard Kevin Martin (19.1 ppg), center Nikola Pekovic (17.4 ppg), and small forward Corey Brewer (12.3 ppg).

Robinson is highly unlikely to crack the starting lineup in 2014, but will have a chance to continue his development while coming off the bench. Minnesota drafted a pair of small forwards in last year’s draft as well, UCLA’s Shabazz Muhammad and Purdue’s Robbie Hummell, who averaged 3.9 and 3.4 points per game during their rookie seasons, respectively. Robinson will join UCLA point guard Zach LaVine, who was the Timberwolves’ first-round selection.

The last time Michigan had three players taken in the same draft was 1990 when Rumeal Robinson (10th), Loy Vaught (13th), Terry Mills (16th), and Sean Higgins (54th) were selected. Michigan is the first Big Ten school to have three players taken in the same draft since Ohio State in 2007. Michigan is also the first Big Ten program to have multiple players taken in back-to-back drafts since Michigan State in 2000 and 2001.