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Posts Tagged ‘Iowa’

Big Ten Media Days: Word clouding the Big Ten coaches

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014


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

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

Brady Hoke – Michigan

Hoke

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

Urban Meyer – Ohio State

Urban

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

Mark Dantonio – Michigan State

Dantonio

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

Bo Pelini – Nebraska

Pelini

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

James Franklin – Penn State

Franklin

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

Gary Andersen – Wisconsin

Andersen

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

Pat Fitzgerald – Northwestern

Fitzgerald

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

Kirk Ferentz – Iowa

Ferentz

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

Kevin Wilson – Indiana

Wilson

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

Jerry Kill – Minnesota

Kill

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

Randy Edsall – Maryland

Edsall

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

Tim Beckman – Illinois

Beckman

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

Kyle Flood – Rutgers

Flood

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

Darrell Hazell – Purdue

Hazell

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

Big Ten Media Days primer

Sunday, July 27th, 2014


B1G Media Days(@B1GFootball)

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

Overview

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

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

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

The schedule - Monday, July 28

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

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

The schedule - Tuesday, July 29

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

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

2014 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: 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.

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.

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: Tight ends (part one)

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014


Big Ten position rankings header-TE

This is the fourth 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. I have already covered who will be the best Big Ten quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers. This week, I rank the last offensive skill position: tight end. Here is Part One:

Previously
Quarterbacks: Part One, Part Two.
Running Backs: Part One, Part Two.
Wide Receivers: Part One, Part Two.

10. Matt LaCosse, Illinois | Senior – 6’6”, 245 lbs
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 20 237 3 11.9 45 19.8
2012 3 32 0 10.7 12 2.9
2011 1 11 0 11.0 11 1.1
Career Totals 24 280 3 11.7 45 8.5
(Chris Howell, Herald-Times)

(Chris Howell, Herald-Times)

The Big Ten is a conference that has a longstanding reputation for playing football with a “three yards and a cloud of dust” mentality. It is a mentality that often involves multiple tight ends and jumbo formations. However, most of the Big Ten, like the rest of college football, is transitioning—or has transitioned already—away from this towards the spread offense, whether it is a read-option spread or a passing spread. These modern offenses want to spread out their fastest, nimblest, and best athletes and give them the ball in space to expose defenses.

Yet, most tight ends do not fit these criteria. When lined up adjacent to an offensive tackle, tight ends fail to spread out the defense horizontally, bringing more defenders inside the box. When they line up in the slot, most do not have the speed or athleticism to make plays in space, even if their size makes them desirable targets in the middle of the field. Accordingly, a residual effect of this offensive transition is the de-emphasis of the importance of most tight ends, and thus, makes filling out a top 10 of the best tight ends in the Big Ten a challenging exercise.

Nonetheless, the list will start with Illinois’ Matt LaCosse. LaCosse will be a senior in 2014 and should have his best season in what has been a relatively quiet collegiate career. LaCosse played in 33 games in his three seasons at Illinois, but did not become a factor in Illinois’ passing game until last year. And, even then, he was not much of a factor. LaCosse was targeted 29 times, recording a target rate of 6.7 percent. This was only the sixth-highest target rate on the roster. LaCosse did make the most of his opportunities, though. Although LaCosse was not explosive, and to be fair, most tight ends are not, he caught 20 passes for 237 yards, 11.85 yards per catch, and three touchdowns. It was a big step in the right direction for a tight end that had caught only four passes total the previous two seasons.

LaCosse should take another step in the right direction in 2014, although a breakout year should not be presumed. LaCosse should benefit from Wes Lunt taking the reins of Illinois’ offense at quarterback. Nathan Scheelhaase was more of a pocket passer than a dual threat, but Lunt better fits the mold of quarterback offensive coordinator Bill Cubit desires for his passing spread. This means airing it out even more. Consequently, LaCosse should be targeted more frequently this season than last, even if he still is splitting snaps with fellow senior tight end Jon Davis. The Fighting Illini lost their four most-productive wide receivers to graduation. The only returning Illinois player with more than 300 receiving yards last year is running back Josh Ferguson. There are question marks abound at wide receiver and very few answers for Illinois. Someone must replace that production. Even though tight ends rarely were featured in Cubit’s offenses at Western Michigan, LaCosse likely will have a more prominent role this season and should be one of Lunt’s favorite targets.

9. Adam Breneman, Penn State | Sophomore – 6’4”, 235 lbs
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 15 186 3 12.4 68 16.9
Career Totals 15 186 3 12.4 68 16.9
(John Beale, AP)

(John Beale, AP)

No Big Ten school will rely more on its tight ends to produce this season than Penn State. The Nittany Lions have no apparent perimeter threats at outside receiver. They said goodbye to arguably the best wide receiver in the Big Ten in Allen Robinson, who declared early for the NFL Draft after leading the conference in targets (150), receptions (97), and receiving yards (1,432). Wideout Brandon Felder departed, too, after recording 28 catches for 312 yards and three touchdowns his senior season. Unfortunately, for Penn State, there is very little experience remaining at wide receiver. No other Nittany Lion wide receiver had more than 20 catches or 250 receiving yards last year. There may be some talented freshmen waiting in the wings, but it seems unlikely they will make an immediate impact. However, Penn State has three very talented players returning at tight end and will need them to replace the production that Robinson and Felder provided.

Two of those tight ends will be competing for the second spot on the depth chart. Those players are Adam Breneman and Kyle Carter. Breneman was considered a top-50 prospect nationally and one of the two best tight ends in the 2013 class. He actually had loftier rankings until he suffered an ACL injury entering his senior season of high school. Nonetheless, Breneman was expected to recover and contribute as soon as he arrived on campus in State College. Although he had a slow start as a true freshman, he began to impress by the end of the year. Breneman caught a touchdown in each of his of final three contests and finished the season with 15 receptions for 186 yards.

On the other hand, Kyle Carter is a tight end that has proven more on the field despite much lower recruiting accolades. Carter was a generic three-star recruit when he signed his letter of intent with Penn State in 2012. Yet, as a true freshman, he was the second-best receiver on the team with 36 receptions for 453 yards and two touchdowns. For his efforts, Carter was a consensus first-team Freshman All-American and named to the All-Big Ten first team by the media. However, last season, Carter did not have quite the same impact. He posted only 18 catches for 222 yards and one touchdown. This was the result of a new quarterback under center in then-freshman Christian Hackenberg, the presence of Breneman, and the emergence of Jesse James—who will be discussed later.

Ultimately, both Breneman and Carter will see significant playing time this season. It is not as if the loser of this competition will be stuck to the bench all season, especially when Penn State may need its tight ends to compensate for its deficiency at wide receiver. So, while either Breneman or Carter could be No. 9 in these rankings, the edge goes to Breneman because of his potential. Although Carter has had better numbers, Breneman has the tools to be special. In his limited playing time last season, Breneman recorded a 78.9-percent catch rate while averaging 12.40 yards per catch. These are excellent numbers and a rare combination for a tight end. They suggest that Breneman is a tight end that either can make defenders miss after catching the ball near the line of scrimmage or has superb hands down the field. Additionally, Breneman seems to have better chemistry on the field with Hackenberg, which is no surprise when the two were roommates last year. Breneman is a solid bet to be one of the Big Ten’s best tight ends in 2015 and 2016. However, No. 9 is a good spot for him in 2014 when he will be Penn State’s second-string tight end and have his targets cannibalized by Carter and James.

8. Justin Sinz, Purdue | 5th-Yr Senior – 6’4”, 251 lbs.
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 41 340 4 8.3 28 28.3
2012 4 48 1 12.0 16 4.0
2011 3 25 0 8.3 9 2.1
2010 0 0 0 N/A N/A N/A
Career Totals 48 413 5 8.6 28 11.5
(247)

(247)

Purdue’s offense was an abomination last season. There were 123 college football teams in the FBS division last year. Yet, the Boilermakers were ranked in the bottom five nationally in scoring offense (No. 119), total offense (No. 119), and rushing offense (No. 122). There were very few positives to glean from Purdue’s offensive woes. One of them, though, was the production of its tight end, Justin Sinz.

Sinz was the safety valve for Purdue’s quarterback, whether it was for then-freshman Danny Etling or then-senior Rob Henry. Purdue’s quarterbacks struggled with their accuracy all season, completing a miserable 55.2 percent of their passes. Due to their inability to throw pinpoint passes to their wide receivers, Etling and Henry often would check down to Sinz near the line of scrimmage. Accordingly, Sinz had the second-most targets on the roster and the fourth-most among Big Ten tight ends with 55. Because most of these throws were check downs, Sinz caught a high percentage of them—74.5 percent to be exact. This allowed Sinz to lead the Boilermakers with 41 receptions last season, turning them into 340 yards and four touchdowns, and be one of the more productive tight ends in the Big Ten.

Notwithstanding his productivity in 2013, Sinz was the beneficiary of a broken offense more than anything else. Purdue could neither run the football nor throw it down the field. So one of the very few options the Boilermakers had to move the football was Sinz near the line of scrimmage. And, when Sinz did catch the football, he did very little with it. He averaged only 8.29 yards per catch, which was one of the lowest such averages among Big Ten tight ends. Further, only one of his 41 receptions gained 25 yards or more. The last term anyone would use to describe Sinz’s game is playmaker.

The best case scenario for Sinz in 2014 is that Etling, who received decent praise as a high-school recruit, makes a sophomore leap with the help of an offensive line that cannot be any worse than last year. If Etling is allowed more time in the pocket, Sinz may be able to get open down field and make more plays rather than acting solely as a safety valve near the line of scrimmage. However, there is very little reason to be optimistic about Purdue’s offense next season. The outlook is similarly dreadful to last year. This means Sinz could load up on receptions again even if little excitement happens after the catch. But Sinz may split snaps with senior tight end Gabe Holmes, who was the starter before missing most of 2013 with a wrist injury. Fewer targets in the same caliber offense? Sinz very likely may see a dip in his production in 2014.

7. Jake Butt, Michigan | Sophomore – 6’6”, 250 lbs
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 20 235 2 11.8 37 18.1
Career Totals 20 235 2 11.8 37 18.1
(MGoBlue.com)

(MGoBlue.com)

Next on the list is Michigan’s Jake Butt—a man with a last name that could not be more fitting for his position. Similar to Penn State’s Adam Breneman, Butt is a young tight end that has the tools and potential to be a special player down the road. In fact, it initially appeared that Butt would be able to fulfill much of this potential as a sophomore in 2014. As a true freshman last year, Butt’s playing time increased once Michigan shifted starting tight end Devin Funchess to wide receiver. Soon thereafter, Butt found his groove, catching 13 passes for 168 yards and two touchdowns in the last five contests. His highlight of the season was against archrival Ohio State when he set career highs for receptions (five) and receiving yards (85) while adding a touchdown. It was the first glimpse of what could be a future All-Big Ten tight end. And there was some talk that Butt could do it this year with Funchess remaining on the perimeter and no other experienced receivers returning for Michigan.

However, an unfortunate and unlucky incident eliminated that talk swiftly. In February 2014, Butt tore his ACL while participating in conditioning drills. When the injury occurred, there was speculation about whether he would heal in time for this season like Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan did last year or would need to sit out for all of 2014. As of now, according to head coach Brady Hoke, all signs point to Butt making his return in late September or early October. The best guess would be that Butt would miss Michigan’s four non-conference contests and make his season debut on September 27, 2014, in the Wolverines’ Big Ten opener versus Minnesota.

While there are reports that Butt already is running and ahead of schedule in his rehab, there still are lots of questions about how effective Butt will be when he returns. Will Butt still have the same athleticism, agility, and strength in his leg to produce at a high level for Michigan? And, even if Butt’s knee is fully recovered, will he mentally have recovered from the injury? There are times when athletes are mentally conscious of their prior injury when they return, which prevents them from playing instinctively and causes them to play hesitant. The odds are that Butt will be fine, physically and mentally, when he suits up. Nevertheless, Butt still likely will play no more than nine games this season. It is difficult to rank a player high than No. 7 when it is known he will miss a portion of the season with a significant injury, even if he comes back stronger than ever.

6. Ray Hamilton, Iowa | Senior – 6’5”, 250 lbs
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 8 95 0 11.9 21 7.3
2012 2 20 0 10.0 20 1.8
2011 1 15 0 15.0 15 1.5
Career Totals 11 130 0 11.8 21 3.8
(Brian Ray, Hawkeyesports.com)

(Brian Ray, Hawkeyesports.com)

Since Kirk Ferentz became Iowa’s head coach prior to the 1999 season, the Hawkeyes have had an influx of talent at tight end. There has been Dallas Clark, who was a consensus All-American and the John Mackey Award winner in 2003. There also has been Brandon Myers and Tony Moeaki, who were named to the All-Big Ten first team in 2008 and 2009, respectively. Then, there was Erik Jensen and Scott Chandler, who, in addition to the Clark, Myers, and Moeaki, were selected in the NFL Draft.

Unsurprisingly, Iowa has made tight ends a staple of its offense. Just look at C.J. Fiedorowicz last season. Fiedorowicz was an all-around tight end that not only was a solid blocker, but an above-average receiver. He earned the third-most targets on the roster with 44 and converted them into 30 receptions for 299 receiving yards and a team-high six touchdowns. Although Fiedorowicz was not an explosive tight end, which is not a trait common in many players stuck in offensive coordinator Greg Davis’ system, he was a beast near the end zone. All six of his touchdown receptions were in the red zone. For his performance, Fiedorowicz was handed All-Big Ten first-team honors and chosen in the NFL Draft.

Next on the list of Iowa tight ends under Ferentz to forward this legacy is senior Ray Hamilton. Despite being a four-star recruit that committed to Iowa over high-major programs, Hamilton was overshadowed the past three seasons by Fiedorowicz. While Fiedorowicz shined in the spotlight, Hamilton stuck to the dirty work in the trenches with his nasty blocking as Iowa’s backup tight end. Consequently, Hamilton was more of a sixth offensive lineman on the field than receiver. He caught only 11 passes for 130 yards in his first three seasons. But, with Fiedorowicz off to the NFL, it is finally time for Hamilton to demonstrate why he was so highly regarded in high school. Although his receiving skills may not be to the same standard as Fiedorowicz’s, as the starting tight end this season, Hamilton should be targeted much more frequently this season than he ever has. Further, there is strong potential for Hamilton to be a touchdown magnet in the red zone. All in all, Hamilton should be a key member of Iowa’s aerial attack, especially when the Hawkeyes do not have a standout wide receiver.

However, there is one wild card in this picture. His name is Jake Duzey. Unlike Hamilton, Duzey does not fit the mold of the traditional Iowa tight end. Duzey has shown more ability as a receiver, but struggles with the blocking element of the position. It remains to be seen just how much Iowa will try to utilize Duzey’s skill set this season. Duzey could be a dynamic threat in the passing game for the Hawkeyes, which would cut into Hamilton’s targets and relegate Hamilton back into a blocking tight end. But, in the past, Ferentz has shied away from relying on tight ends that cannot block because his offense emphasizes the power running game. This is even the case for his No. 2 tight end, which is used almost exclusively for blocking in Iowa’s scheme. Will Ferentz and Davis add some creativity to their offense to get Duzey more involved? Or will Duzey struggle to get on the field because he cannot block effectively? These are questions to keep an eye on as Iowa’s season progresses. But, either way, expect one of Hamilton or Duzey to make a sizeable contribution for the Hawkeyes this season, just like every other Iowa tight end before them.

What do you think so far? Do you agree with where the foregoing players have been ranked? What about Michigan’s Jake Butt? Do you believe he is ranked too high, too low, or just right? Who do you think will the best tight end in the Big Ten in 2014? Please let us know in the comments below because, tomorrow, we will reveal who will be the five top tight ends in the conference.

2014 Big Ten football position rankings: Running backs (part one)

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014


Big Ten position rankings header-RB

Last week, we introduced Maize and Go Blue’s series that will rank the best Big Ten football players at each position in 2014. Each week until Michigan’s season opener in late August, one position will be previewed. The analysis provided will be thorough and in-depth, not just a brief summary, so each position preview will be split into two parts. I kicked off the series last week by ranking the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten. If you missed it, you can catch up with Part One and Two here. This week, I take a look at the quarterbacks’ buddies in the backfield: the running backs.

10. Mark Weisman, Iowa | 5th-yr Senior – 6’0”, 240 lbs
Rushing Yds YPC Rush TDs YPG Rec Yds Rec TD
2013 975 4.3 8 75.0 41 0
2012 815 5.1 8 81.5 90 1
2011 0 0 0 NA 0 0
Career Totals 1,790 4.6 16 77.8 131 1
(Iowa Athletic Communications)

(Iowa Athletic Communications)

The Big Ten will have a deep stable of running backs this upcoming season, making the cuts for this list particularly difficult. One running back that was a candidate for this spot was Rutgers’ Paul James. In 10 games last year, James earned 156 carries for 881 yards, an above average 5.65 yards per carry, and nine touchdowns. James actually was well on his way to a much better season, rushing for 573 yards and six touchdowns in his first four games, before missing several weeks with a leg injury. James is a back who can raise eyebrows in his Big Ten debut, but health concerns and a lackluster Rutgers offensive line kept him off the list.

This created a duel for the final spot between Iowa’s Mark Weisman and Penn State’s Zach Zwinak. Weisman and Zwinak had very similar numbers last season. Weisman posted 226 carries for 974 yards—4.31 yards per carry—and eight touchdowns, while Zwinak had 210 carries for 989 yards—4.71 yards per carry—and eight touchdowns. Not only were their statistics similar, their running styles are similar, too. Both are built like fullbacks, listed at 6’0” or 6’1” and 240 pounds. Both compensate for their lack of agility and lateral quickness with their strength and ability to push the pile forward consistently. Neither has the breakaway speed to be a touchdown threat on any given play, but they are scoring machines once they are in the red zone. All 20 of their combined touchdown runs last year were no longer than 12 yards. They are bulldozers. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Despite having fewer rushing yards, yards per carry, and touchdowns than Zwinak in 2013, Weisman has the edge here in 2014. Weisman always starts the season on a strong note. In 2012, he totaled 98 carries for 623 yards, 6.36 yards per carry, and eight touchdowns in his first four games of extensive action. The next year, in the first five contests of the season, he recorded 119 carries for 615 yards, 5.17 yards per carry, and three touchdowns. Early in the season, Weisman is at full strength and uses his power to punish defenses.

However, Weisman was unable to maintain his power throughout the course of the 2012 and 2013 seasons. After the first four to five games of each season, his carries began to have diminishing returns. In 2012, Weisman produced only 3.12 yards per carry in Iowa’s final six games, two of which he missed due to an ankle injury. In 2013, Weisman managed only 3.36 yards per carry in the Hawkeyes’ final eight contests. His body could not handle the sustained beatings he took week in and week out, and wore out by the end of the year. For Weisman to remain effective for an entire season, he must share the load.

Weisman finally will have that opportunity. For the first time in what feels like an eternity, Iowa has a talented and, most importantly, healthy corps of running backs. Fellow Iowa backs Jordan Canzeri and Damon Bullock will take much of the pressure off of Weisman. This may mean fewer carries for Weisman, but he will be as much of an effective bruiser at the end of the season as he generally is at the start. This will not drop Weisman below Zwinak on this list either because Zwinak also shares carries with two other running backs at Penn State. Additionally, Zwinak will be lined up behind an offensive line with only one returning starter, while Weisman will be lined up behind arguably the Big Ten’s best offensive lineman in Brandon Scherff. Then, once Iowa’s commitment to pounding the rock under head coach Kirk Ferentz is considered, all signs point to Weisman having his best season yet in Iowa City.

9. Corey Clement, Wisconsin | Sophomore – 5’11”, 210 lbs
Rushing Yds YPC Rush TDs YPG Rec Yds Rec TD
2013 547 8.2 7 68.4 9 0
Career Totals 547 8.2 7 68.4 9 0
(Jeff Hanisch, USA Today Sports)

(Jeff Hanisch, USA Today Sports)

There are very few places in the nation where a second-string running back can produce a 1,000-rushing-yard season, but one of those places certainly is Wisconsin. Since 2009, only four times has a school had two running backs each gain 1,000 yards on the ground. To be clear, this is not two 1,000-yard rushers, but two 1,000-yard running backs. Quarterbacks are excluded. Of those four times, Wisconsin is the only school to achieve the feat twice, doing it in 2010 and 2013, while Alabama and Kent State both accomplished it in 2012. Further, in 2010, Wisconsin was only four yards away from having a third running back top 1,000 yards. Absurd. With the evolution of the read-option and advanced passing schemes, this type of production from the depths of the running back position nearly is extinct in this day and age. Currently, there are only two locations where it remains alive and well. One is Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The other is Madison, Wisconsin.

In the offseason, last year’s starting running back, James White, graduated, taking his 221 carries, 1,444 rushing yards, and 13 rushing touchdowns with him. Accordingly, Melvin Gordon, whom we will discuss a bit later on this list, was promoted from second string to the top of the depth chart. Given Wisconsin’s inclination to run the football and even feed the backup tailbacks, there are about 125 to 175 carries available for the Badgers’ second-string running back this fall. Enter: Corey Clement.

Last season, as a true freshman, Clement capitalized on the few touches he received as Wisconsin’s third-string running back by showcasing his speed and big-play ability. Despite toting the rock only 67 times in 11 games, he still gained 547 yards. In fact, Clement’s 8.16 yards per carry were the best in the Big Ten among players who averaged a minimum of four rush attempts per game played. Additionally, Clement crossed the goal line seven times for touchdowns. His touchdown rate of 10.45 percent was the second-best in the conference among those who averaged four carries per game played, behind only Nebraska’s Imani Cross. Do not forget that Clement did all of this with only 67 carries. Imagine what he can do with 100 more carries behind an offensive line that returns four starters.

Yet, despite this glowing report and the situation Clement will enter in 2014, he is only No. 9 in these rankings. Why? His 547 rushing yards and 8.16 yards per carry are a mirage to a certain extent. He received almost all of his carries when Wisconsin already had secured a victory. Of Clement’s 67 carries last season, 65 were in the second half and 64 were when Wisconsin led by no less than 15 points. At that point, the opposing defense had either little left to fight for or had substituted in the second-stringers. Clement has yet to prove he can be effective against a first-string defense in a competitive contest. If he cannot, Wisconsin will not feel pressured to continue to feed him the ball regularly. Instead, those carries will be allocated to Gordon. This is why Clement sits so low on this list, even though he likely will be part of the third Wisconsin running back duo in the past five seasons to have each member rush for 1,000 yards in the same year.

8. Josh Ferguson, Illinois | RS Junior – 5’10”, 195 lbs
Rushing Yds YPC Rush TDs YPG Rec Yds Rec TD
2013 779 5.5 7 64.9 535 4
2012 312 4.2 0 31.2 251 0
2011 52 3.7 0 17.3 14 0
Career Totals 1,143 5.0 7 45.7 800 4
(Pat Lovell, USA Today Sports)

(Pat Lovell, USA Today Sports)

If there is one running back that has been unfairly left off of multiple preseason All-Big Ten lists or Big Ten running back rankings, it is Illinois’ Josh Ferguson. He is one of the best all-around running backs in the conference, and, yet, no one seems to notice. The reasons for his exclusion are not difficult to decipher. Illinois had the third-worst rushing offense in the Big Ten last season, averaging only 139 yards per game and 4.06 yards per carry. Naturally, as the starting running back, much of the blame for these woes is shifted to Ferguson. His 779 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns are viewed as not being enough for Illinois to have a successful ground game. Fans and media alike want to see Ferguson up those rushing statistics before they consider him to be one of the better Big Ten running backs.

However, Ferguson’s rushing totals are down not because he was ineffective, but because he had so few opportunities to run the football. Last year, Illinois was one of only three Big Ten teams that attempted more passes than runs. Naturally, Ferguson did not have as many carries as the other starting tailbacks in the Big Ten. In fact, Ferguson’s average of 11.75 carries per game was the second-fewest among starting running backs in the conference. Yet, he performed very well when given the opportunity. Ferguson’s 5.52 yards per carry was more than solid and the eighth-best among Big Ten players with a minimum of 100 carries last year. Ferguson actually was the one bright spot in Illinois’ ground game in 2013. The reasons why Illinois struggled running the ball were its reliance on the pass and then-starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase earning the second-most carries on the team despite averaging only 2.40 yards per carry. Ferguson does not deserve the blame here.

Further, not only is Ferguson much better at running the football than a quick glance at his numbers would indicate, he is by far the best receiving tailback in the conference. Last season, in offensive coordinator Bill Cubit’s first year at Illinois, Ferguson led all Big Ten running backs in receptions (50), receiving yards (535), and receiving touchdowns (four). No other Big Ten running back approached those totals. The second-most catches by a Big Ten running back was 39; the second-most receiving yards by a Big Ten running back was 382. Ferguson is a completely different breed of running back.

Ferguson’s ability to make plays with both his feet and his hands propelled him to 1,314 yards from scrimmage, 6.88 yards per carry or reception, and 11 total touchdowns last season. These are the statistics that one of the best running backs in the Big Ten produces. Expect him to do it again in Year 2 of Cubit’s passing spread offense. Not only will Ferguson continue to catch three to six passes out of the backfield every week, he will see more carries, too. No longer will Ferguson need to worry about his quarterback cannibalizing his rush attempts. With pocket passer Wes Lunt replacing the graduated Scheelhaase, Scheelhaase’s carries will be given to Ferguson, not Lunt. These additional carries will give Ferguson the chance to generate 1,500 yards from scrimmage next season. Ferguson would be one of the best playmakers in the Big Ten, even if he does it a bit differently than his running back-brethren.

7. David Cobb, Minnesota | Senior – 5’11”, 225 lbs
Rushing Yds YPC Rush TDs YPG Rec Yds Rec TD
2013 1,202 5.1 7 92.5 174 0
2012 8 8.0 0 8.0 3 0
2011 57 5.7 0 19.0 0 0
Career Totals 1,267 5.1 7 74.5 177 0
(Hannah Foslien, Getty Images)

(Hannah Foslien, Getty Images)

Entering the 2013 season, David Cobb was an unknown commodity. In high school, Cobb was an unheralded recruit to say the least. According to 247’s Composite Rankings for the 2011 class, he was ranked outside the top 1,000 nationally and the No. 72 running back. With these (lack of) recruiting accolades, very little was expected of Cobb once he arrived on campus at Minnesota. And Cobb produced very little in his first two seasons, running the ball only 11 times for 65 yards and zero touchdowns. Cobb seemed to be a running back who would ride the pine most of his career except during garbage time.

However, when Minnesota’s starting running back  Donnell Kirkwood went down with an ankle injury in the season opener, it gave Cobb the opportunity to share meaningful snaps with second-string running back Rodrick Williams, Jr. Cobb capitalized on the opportunity and slowly began to assert himself as the best tailback on the roster. By the second half of the season, Cobb was Minnesota’s go-to back, earning no less than 17 carries in each of the Gophers’ final seven games. During that seven-game stretch, he had 169 carries for 828 yards, 4.90 yards per carry, and two touchdowns, and posted five games with 100 yards rushing. Cobb did not do it with speed, but with a physical running style that slammed away three to six yards at a time. By the later stages of games, defenses were worn out, as his yards per carry jumped from 4.40 in the first half to 5.69 in the second half. With this surge in the second half of the season, Cobb finished with 237 carries, 1,202 rushing yards, and seven touchdowns, and became Minnesota’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Amir Pinnix in 2006.

Cobb is no longer an unknown commodity. He now is one of the better tailbacks in the Big Ten and will have a splendid chance to duplicate last season’s performance. Minnesota has established an offensive identity under head coach Jerry Kill that it will pound the football, pound the football, and pound it some more. This will not change next year. In the offseason, quarterback Philip Nelson transferred to Rutgers, where he then was dismissed from the program due to legal troubles, thrusting Mitch Leidner into the starting role. Leidner is a rudimentary passer, but a skilled runner for a quarterback. Working behind an offensive line that loses only one starter from last year, the Gophers will once again rely on Cobb and Leidner to carry the offense each week. Although there is the possibility that Cobb will have less room to work with because defenses will stack the box against Minnesota, Cobb’s running style still likely will allow him to churn out four to five yards each play en route to another 1,000-yard season.

6. Venric Mark, Northwestern | 5th-Yr Senior – 5’8”, 175 lbs
Rushing Yds YPC Rush TDs YPG Rec Yds Rec TD
2013 97 3.1 0 32.3 48 0
2012 1,366 6.0 12 105.1 104 1
2011 104 6.9 1 8.0 4 0
2010 63 7.9 0 4.8 43 0
Career Totals 1,630 5.8 13 38.8 199 1
(Dave Stephenson, Icon SMI)

(Dave Stephenson, Icon SMI)

There is no Big Ten running back more difficult to rank on this list than Venric Mark. There are rational arguments for him to be the second-best running back in the conference. There are also rational arguments for him not to even be in the top 10. Let me explain. In 2012, Mark put together a wonderful season. In 13 games played, he accumulated 226 carries for 1,366 yards, 6.04 yards per carry, and 12 rushing touchdowns. His 1,366 rushing yards were the third-most in the Big Ten that season. He also added 104 yards through the air and a receiving touchdown. Mark was a scatback that thrived in the read-option offense with Kain Colter and used his elusive speed to gain yards in a flash. Mark has proven that he has the ability to be an elite running back not only in the Big Ten, but also the nation.

However, it is unknown if we will ever see the 2012 version of Mark again. He was plagued with injuries all of last season that rendered him ineffective. A hamstring injury limited Mark in Northwestern’s season opener against California and forced him to miss the next three non-conference games. Mark then returned for the conference opener against Ohio State. But, one week later, he suffered a broken ankle against Wisconsin which sidelined him for the remainder of the 2013 season. Mark finished with only 97 rushing yards and lots of questions about his health for 2014. Because Mark sat out Northwestern’s spring practice to continue rehabbing his ankle, very few of those questions have been answered.

So where to rank Mark for 2014? Will he return from his injuries with a vengeance and take the Big Ten by storm like he did in 2012? Or will he still be hampered by the lower-body injuries he suffered in 2013? The odds are in Mark’s favor that he will be ready to go for Northwestern’s opener in Week 1. Yet, even if so, Mark will be splitting carries with Treyvon Green, who filled in for Mark last year with 736 rushing yards and eight touchdowns. Green will not be relegated to the bench just because Mark is back. Plus, there will be less read-option for Mark with Trevor Siemian at quarterback. Mark will not have the same space to operate without the speedy Colter by his side and may see his production suffer consequently. All scenarios are realistic, so I split the difference and listed Mark at No. 6. Although it is hard to discount a player who was on the All-Big Ten second team in 2012, no player recovering from a serious ankle injury can be considered one of the top five tailbacks in this year’s Big Ten.

Part Two of Maize and Go Blue’s preview of the best Big Ten running backs in 2014 will be posted tomorrow. We will unveil the five top running backs in the conference. Which running back do you think will be No. 1? Do you agree or disagree with the ranks of the five running backs listed in Part One? Do you think a Michigan running back will be in the top five? Do you think a Michigan running back should be in the top 10? Please let us know in the comments.

Countdown to kickoff: 85 days

Friday, June 6th, 2014


Countdown to kickoff-85

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

Thursday, June 5th, 2014


Big Ten position rankings header_edited-1

The dog days of summer are upon us, which means we are just a few short months away from the start of a brand new college football season. Although summer is the time for vacations and fun in the sun, it is also the time to learn in advance what you will see on the football field each and every Saturday this fall. Therefore, it is time to rank the best Big Ten players at each position for the 2014 season.

This is the first time Maize and Go Blue has previewed the Big Ten position by position. We are introducing these lists because we are striving to provide you the most comprehensive Michigan and Big Ten football preview in the Michigan blogosphere. To accomplish this, one position will be previewed weekly until Michigan’s first game week. The preview for each position will be very thorough and broken into two parts. The first will rank the Big Ten players I believe are No. 6 through No. 10 at their respective position; the second part will list the top five Big Ten players at their respective position. The criteria for these rankings are past performance as well as potential for the upcoming season only. Ultimately, the purpose of this series is to preview the most impactful Big Ten players in 2014, not recap the best returning players from last season.

It is important to note that not every single Big Ten player will be ranked in this series. Only the best 10 players at each position in the Big Ten will be listed and previewed, not all of them. There is no doubt that some valuable veterans will be excluded from these lists. And I am sure a few freshmen will burst onto the scene from out of nowhere, too. Nonetheless, by the time this series is completed, you will know which Big Ten players you should be paying the most attention to this fall.

With that said, let’s begin with the most important position in football: the quarterbacks.

10. Jake Rudock, Iowa | RS Junior – 6’3″, 208 lbs
Passing Yds Pass TDs INTs Comp % Rush Yds Rush TD
2013 2,383 18 13 59.0 218 5
Career Totals 2,383 18 13 59.0 218 5
(Charlie Litchfield, The Register)

(Charlie Litchfield, The Register)

The list of the Big Ten’s best quarterbacks starts with somewhat of a surprise. Although no one considers Jake Rudock to be an elite Big Ten quarterback, many believe he is closer to the top than the bottom. It is not difficult to understand why. Rudock exceeded all expectations in his first season as starter in 2013, greatly improving upon Iowa’s putrid passing attack in 2012. He completed 59 percent of his passes for 2,383 yards and 18 touchdowns, throwing 11 more touchdown tosses than Iowa did the previous season.

Rudock also broke Iowa’s prototypical mold for a quarterback. Most Iowa quarterbacks are statue pocket-passers, but not Rudock. He scrambled for 218 yards and five touchdowns. This may not seem like much in the age of the dual threat, but he was the first Hawkeye quarterback to exceed 100 rushing yards since 2006. Then, to add a cherry on top, Rudock led Iowa to an overachieving 8-5 record. This success, in addition to a strong offensive line and the return of No. 1 receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley, has raised fans’ expectations for Rudock this fall.

However, these expectations must be tempered. There are red flags that cannot be ignored. One is Iowa’s offensive scheme. Offensive coordinator Greg Davis tends to call passing plays with receiver routes that break off before the first-down marker. This prevents Rudock from picking up big chunks of yards through the air frequently. He becomes more of a game manager than a playmaker. This is why Rudock posted only 6.9 yards per attempt in 2013—the worst among all Big Ten quarterbacks who averaged at least 15 attempts per game. Unless Davis installs new packages or becomes more aggressive with his calls, Rudock’s arm will be constrained, and Iowa’s aerial attack will become stagnant.

Rudock can mitigate this if he is secure with the football, but this leads to another red flag: decision-making. He led the Big Ten with 13 interceptions last year; his interception rate was 3.76 percent—the fourth-worst among Big Ten passers with no less than 100 attempts. Not only is Rudock careless with his throws, he does it at the most critical moments. Six of his 13 interceptions were in the fourth quarter. No other Big Ten quarterback was picked more than three times in the final frame. It is possible that Rudock’s poor decisions could be attributed inexperience and first-year jitters, and he could overcome them next season with the help of the pieces around him. But this combination of red flags should make the public wary about touting a leap into the upper echelon of Big Ten quarterbacks for Rudock.

9. Trevor Siemian, Northwestern | 5th-yr Senior – 6’3″, 210 lbs
Passing Yds Pass TDs INTs Comp % Rush Yds Rush TD
2013 2,149 11 9 59.7 33 0
2012 1,312 6 3 58.7 48 1
2011 256 3 1 61.5 19 0
Career Totals 3,717 20 13 59.4 100 1
(Jose Carlos Fajardo, McClatchy-Tribune)

(Jose Carlos Fajardo, McClatchy-Tribune)

While some may be surprised that Rudock is so low on this list, some will be just as shocked to see Trevor Siemian in the top 10. Siemian did not produce eye-popping numbers last season. He completed 177 of his 296 attempts (59.8 percent) for 2,149 yards, 11 touchdowns, and nine interceptions. He also was not a threat with his feet nor will he ever be.

This is no surprise, though. Siemian’s performance suffered for various reasons that were not in his control. This is not to say that he is completely faultless. It is to say that he could do only so much. Siemian could not control the countless injuries to his teammates, especially the ones at running back. The Wildcats’ two most explosive ground threats, Venric Mark and Kain Colter, were plagued with ailments all year. Northwestern’s offense was forced to be more one-dimensional, and the passing game struggled against the added defensive attention. Siemian could not control his playing time either. He was mired in a two-quarterback system used by head coach Pat Fitzgerald to utilize Colter’s legs. While the system gave more touches to a dangerous threat in Colter, it threw Siemian out of his rhythm and caused him to constantly look over his shoulder. There was nothing Siemian could do to change it.

It will all be different for Siemian in 2014. For the first time in his career, he will have the reins to the Northwestern offense all to himself. There will be no more rotating series. There will be no more looking over his shoulder. Siemian will thrive in this new capacity. He has shown glimpses of this in the past. He threw for 259 yards and three touchdowns against Syracuse, 245 yards and two touchdowns against Ohio State, and a monster 414 yards and four scores against Illinois last season. Further, Mark has recovered from his injuries and will be healthy in the backfield. The energy defenses must expend to contain Mark will open up the passing attack for Siemian. Expect Siemian to post some solid numbers this year as he tries to lead Northwestern back to a bowl game after a disappointing 2013 season.

8. Joel Stave, Wisconsin | RS Junior – 6’5″, 225 lbs
Passing Yds Pass TDs INTs Comp % Rush Yds Rush TD
2013 2,494 22 13 61.9 -22 0
2012 1,104 6 3 58.8 -51 0
Career Totals 3,598 28 16 61.1 -73 0
(Badger Nation)

(Badger Nation)

Joel Stave has never been accustomed to job security. In 2012, he was entrenched in a three-way battle with Danny O’Brien and Curt Phillips to be Russell Wilson’s successor. Stave lost initially as O’Brien was tabbed as the Week 1 starter. But Wisconsin’s offense sputtered with O’Brien, tallying only 23 points combined in its second and third games of the season. So the Badgers made the switch to Stave in Week 4, and he proved it was the correct move. Wisconsin never scored less than 27 points and won four games in his first five starts.

Stave did not need to be a superstar. He just needed to keep defenses honest and prevent them from stacking the box against Wisconsin’s thunderous three-headed rushing attack of Montee Ball, James White, and Melvin Gordon. He did not disappoint, averaging 9.3 yards per attempt while throwing only three interceptions. The job was his.

Yet, in his sixth start of 2012, Stave suffered an injury to his left shoulder that caused him to miss the rest of the season with the exception of one attempted pass in the bowl game. It also caused Stave to lose his grip on the quarterback job. Entering the 2013 season, Stave once again found himself in a quarterback battle. This time, it was just he and Phillips duking it out. Stave won the job and was named the Week 1 starter. It was a solid, albeit not superb, campaign for Stave. He started all 13 games and completed 61.9 percent of his passes for 2,494 yards, 22 touchdowns, and a league-high 13 picks. His completion rate was near the Big Ten ceiling, while his 7.4 yards per attempts were in the middle of the pack. It was a season off of which Stave could build for 2014.

But, for the third straight year, Stave finds himself in another quarterback controversy. In the Capital One Bowl last season, Stave suffered an injury to his other shoulder. The injury was sufficiently serious to keep him sidelined for a portion of spring camp. This was not optimal for a quarterback who wants to correct his mistakes and better understand second-year head coach Gary Andersen’s offense. Plus, Stave’s absence meant more practice reps for Tanner McEvoy—a dual-threat quarterback who better fits the offense Anderson implemented at his previous stop at Utah State. Andersen still claims that the job is Stave’s to lose, and Stave likely will hold onto it. Nonetheless, Gordon will be the star of the Badgers’ offense, not the quarterback. Therefore, even if Stave wins the job, he likely will not have as productive of a season as the seven quarterbacks above him on this list.

7. Nate Sudfeld, Indiana | Junior – 6’5″, 232 lbs
Passing Yds Pass TDs INTs Comp % Rush Yds Rush TD
2013 2,523 21 9 60.2 -34 1
Career Totals 2,523 21 9 60.2 -34 1
(Jay LaPrete, AP)

(Jay LaPrete, AP)

Wisconsin is not the only Big Ten school with a quarterback competition for 2014. Another is Indiana. However, the loser of Indiana’s competition will not hold the clipboard all year like the loser in Wisconsin will. Last season, the Hoosiers deployed a two-quarterback system. Contrary to the widely-accepted philosophy that a team with two quarterbacks has zero quarterbacks, Indiana’s two-quarterback system sprouted one of the most lethal offenses in the nation, let alone the Big Ten. Indiana was the only Big Ten school to average over 300 passing yards per game; its average of 7.8 yards per attempt was the second-best in the conference. It would be a surprise if head coach Kevin Wilson deviated from this approach in 2014 because both featured quarterbacks return.

One is Nate Sudfeld. Sudfeld assumes the role of the traditional, drop-back passer in Indiana’s two-quarterback system. The Hoosiers relied upon Sudfeld the most last season as he received the majority of the snaps under center. At first glance, it appears Sudfeld is one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten. He completed 60.2 percent of his passes for 2,523 yards, 21 touchdowns, and nine interceptions last season; his 7.8 yards per attempt were the third-best among Big Ten quarterbacks that averaged no less than 15 tosses per game. Not too shabby for a quarterback who rotated series during the year.

However, a deeper dive into Sudfeld’s numbers reveals that he wilts against talented competition. Last season, Sudfeld was absolutely superb against unranked opponents. He completed 65.8 percent of his passes, averaged 229.3 passing yards per game, and threw 18 touchdowns to only five picks against unranked foes. His astounding average of 9.7 yards per attempt against unranked teams was by far the best in the conference. Sudfeld picked these inferior teams apart.

This was not the case against superior competition. In four games against ranked opponents, Sudfeld completed only 52.3 percent of his passes, averaged 172.3 passing yards per game, and threw four picks to three touchdowns. The yards he averaged per attempt almost halved to a hideous 5.2. Although not all ranked teams have talented defenses, quarterbacks usually find themselves in spots that require riskier decisions to beat ranked opponents. Given the risk, it is no surprise when these decisions flop, and subsequently, the quarterback has a worse stat line. But no other Big Ten quarterback had a statistical decline this steep when facing ranked competition. It indicates that this is more about Sudfeld than an overall talent disparity between Indiana and upper-level Big Ten teams. There is a flaw or a weakness in his game that becomes exposed when competing against ranked teams. Unless Sudfeld fixes it this season, he may find himself losing snaps to the next quarterback on this list.

6. Tre Roberson, Indiana | RS Junior – 6’0″, 203 lbs
Passing Yds Pass TDs INTs Comp % Rush Yds Rush TD
2013 1,128 15 4 60.1 423 5
2012 368 2 1 66.0 133 3
2011 937 3 6 57.0 426 2
Career Totals 2,433 20 11 59.7 982 10
(Alan Petersime, AP)

(Alan Petersime, AP)

Tre Roberson is the other Hoosier competing to be Indiana’s starting quarterback. Whereas Nate Sudfeld is the statue in the pocket, Roberson is the speedy dual-threat quarterback with the arm to back up his legs. Although Sudfeld took more snaps last season, Roberson has the potential to take an already-potent offense to the next level this fall. In 2013, Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson limited Roberson’s touches. Roberson had less than 15 touches—carries or passes attempted—in half of Indiana’s 12 games. Wilson did not seem to have the trust in Roberson he had in Sudfeld.

Yet, when Roberson did receive more touches and developed a rhythm, not only was he a playmaker, he was efficient, too. He completed 60.1 percent of his passes for 1,128 yards, 15 touchdowns, and only four interceptions. Roberson’s completion rate was essentially identical to Sudfeld’s. His passing touchdown rate was significantly higher than Sudfeld’s—10.87 percent to 6.52 percent, respectively. His yards per attempt were also higher than Sudfeld’s. His interception rate was only a tad worse than Sudfeld’s. But Roberson made up for any minor difference between he and Sudfeld’s passing stats by averaging 4.98 yards per carry en route to 423 rushing yards and five rushing scores.

Although Sudfeld is a more-than-competent Big Ten quarterback, Roberson is a game-changer. His ability to run the read-option out of Wilson’s pistol formation opens running lanes and passing windows for the Hoosiers. Just look at the only two games this season in which he had more than 30 touches. Roberson turned 34 total touches into 338 total yards and four touchdowns against Michigan. In the season finale against Purdue, he had a career-high 58 touches and posted 427 total yards and six touchdowns. It is hard to give full credit to any performance against poor Purdue, but it showcased the talent and potential Roberson possesses. He needs to see more snaps this season, especially in Indiana’s bigger contests. But it seems Wilson will use the two-quarterback system and defer more to Sudfeld once again. This is why Roberson, who could be a dark horse Big Ten Player of the Year, is only at No. 6 and not listed in tomorrow’s Part Two.

Tomorrow, Part Two of Maize and Go Blue’s preview of the best Big Ten quarterbacks in 2014 will be posted, revealing the five top quarterbacks in the conference. Which quarterback do you think will be No. 1? Do you agree or disagree with the ranks of the five quarterbacks listed in Part One? Or was there someone left off the list that should be there? Let us know in the comments below.