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Posts Tagged ‘Iowa’

Big Ten power rankings: Preseason

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014


Power Rankings_header

Three days from now we’ll be settling into our seats at the Big House or our favorite couch or chair getting ready to watch the Maize and Blue run out of the tunnel, leap up and touch the banner, and begin their quest toward a Big Ten championship. The bad news is that we all still have to make it through three more days. Welcome to our first Big Ten Power Rankings of the season, where we rank each team in the conference. Since no games have been played yet, this week’s power rankings are essentially predictions of where each team should be ranked. Beginning next week, and continuing throughout the season, the power rankings will be reflective of each team’s performance in the game(s) they have played.

As the dawn of college football season draws ever nearer, the Big Ten finds itself facing low expectations once again. Largely considered a three-team league, the Big Ten suffered a huge blow with the news that Heisman Trophy candidate Braxton Miller would miss the entire 2014 campaign.

Now, teams on the brink of breaking through have to step up and help the Big Ten resurface as a power conference. Gone are the days when the automatic bid to the Rose Bowl would give the Big Ten a chance to shine on the national stage, because now the four-team playoff will act as the means by which conference strength is measured. Teams like Iowa, Nebraska and Michigan have to take that next step and give the conference the boost it needs to send a representative into that playoff.

If the Big Ten gets left out of the playoff this season, it will set the tone for a format that figures to rule the sport for the foreseeable future. At least six teams have a realistic shot at winning the Big Ten, and the conference needs each of them to perform in 2014.

East Division
1. Michigan State
Last Week: N/A This Week: Friday vs Jacksonville State, 7:30pm, BTN

The defending Big Ten champions became heavy favorites to repeat in 2014 after Ohio State’s Braxton Miller went down for the season. Michigan State lost plenty of talent to the NFL, but that defense still figures to be the best in the league.

2. Ohio State
Last Week: N/A This Week: Saturday vs Navy, 12pm, CBS Sports Network

Miller’s season-ending injury put a damper on Ohio State’s championship aspirations, but Urban Meyer’s team is still strong enough to compete for the first Big Ten East Division championship. The Nov. 8 game in East Lansing is the biggest speed bump on the Buckeyes’ road to Indianapolis.

3. Michigan
Last Week: N/A This Week: Saturday vs. Appalachian State, 12pm, ESPN2

If Michigan finishes outside the top three in the division, then things need to change in Ann Arbor. Four straight years of strong recruiting has left Brady Hoke with a talented enough roster to win nine or more games. An underrated defense should give Michigan a chance in all 12 games.

4. Penn State
Last Week: N/A This Week: Saturday vs UCF, 8:30am, ESPN2

The Nittany Lions still can’t play in a bowl game this season, but new head coach James Franklin managed to hang on to talented quarterback Christian Hackenberg and a team that won seven games last year. Penn State could make a big splash in the standings on Oct. 25 when Ohio State visits Happy Valley, one of the hardest places for visiting teams to win at night.

5. Indiana
Last Week: N/A This Week: Saturday vs Indiana State, 12pm, ESPNews

Much like they were last year, the Hoosiers are expected to be a group led by an elite offense. Unfortunately, the Big Ten is a difficult conference to win without a strong defense, and the Hoosiers gave up 38.8 points per game last season, good for 117th in college football.

6. Maryland
Last Week: N/A This Week: Saturday vs James Madison, 3:30pm, BTN

Maryland joins the Big Ten after a mediocre 7-6 record in the ACC last year. The Terrapins’ 85th-ranked offense will have a tough time scoring enough points in the Big Ten against defenses like that of Michigan State and Michigan, so don’t expect Maryland to compete for a division title in year one.

7. Rutgers
Last Week: N/A This Week: Thursday at Washington State, 10pm, FoxSports1

A 2-6 finish to the 2013 season will set the tone for Rutgers’ first season in the Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights lost six games by double digits last year during an average year in the ACC, so the powerful Big Ten East could be a rude awakening in 2014.

West Division
1. Wisconsin
Last Week: This Week: Saturday vs LSU, 9pm, ESPN

With Ohio State moving over to the East Division, Wisconsin sits firmly in the driver’s seat to represent the West in Indy this year. Melvin Gordon became the top Heisman candidate in the Big Ten after Miller’s injury and should lead a prototypical Wisconsin running attack that will tear apart opposing defenses.

2. Iowa
Last Week: N/A This Week: Saturday vs Northern Iowa, 12pm, BTN

Iowa played good enough defense in 2013 to win the Big Ten and play in the Rose Bowl, but an inconsistent offense held the team to an 8-5 overall record. If the Hawkeyes post another top-10 defensive effort this season, they could find themselves matching up with Michigan State in Indianapolis in a low-scoring game.

3. Northwestern
Last Week: N/A This Week: Saturday vs Cal, 3:30pm, ABC

Every season Northwestern looks primed for a breakout, but this year their talent is nowhere near the level of teams like Wisconsin or Iowa. The Wildcats lost four games by one possession last season, so they were close to living up to the preseason hype. But the loss of Venric Mark and a tough conference schedule will make things tough on Northwestern this year.

4. Nebraska
Last Week: N/A This Week: Saturday vs Florida Atlantic, 3:30pm, BTN

The nation is expecting big things out of Nebraska after finishing a disappointing finish to the conference season last year. If this offense can rush for over 200 yards per game again this season, it has a chance to put the Cornhuskers in the hunt for the title.

5. Minnesota
Last Week: N/A This Week: Thursday vs Eastern Illinois, 7pm, BTN

Minnesota was one of the quietest surprises in the country last season, starting 8-2 before three hard-fought losses to end the year. This season will be a real test for the Gophers as they try to build off of what they started in 2013 and break a decade-long streak of irrelevance.

6. Illinois
Last Week: N/A This Week: Saturday at Youngstown State, 12:05pm, BTN

It could be another tough year for Illinois after finishing 4-8 with just one conference win last season. After a nonconference schedule that features three easy wins, the Fighting Illini will only be favored in one conference game: at home against the Purdue team they beat in 2013.

7. Purdue
Last Week: N/A This Week: Saturday vs Western Michigan, 12pm, ESPNU

2013 was an abomination for Purdue, as it went 1-11 with a six-point victory over a division 1-AA opponent. Illinois was the only team that Purdue was within 10 points of beating. It won’t get any easier for the Boilermakers in conference this year.

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

Thursday, August 14th, 2014


Big-Ten-position-rankings-header-Coaches

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

Previously

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

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

(Michael Conroy, AP)

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

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

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

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

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

(AP)

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

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

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

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

(Scott Boehm, Getty Images)

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

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

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

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

(Bruce Thorson, USA Today Sports)

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

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

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

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

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

(Charlie Neibergall, AP)

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

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

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

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

2014 Big Ten football position rankings: Return specialists

Friday, August 8th, 2014


Big-Ten-position-rankings-header-ReturnSpecialists

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

Previously

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

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

(Denny Medley, US Presswire)

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

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

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

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

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

(Tim Fuller, US Presswire)

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

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

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

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

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

(G. Fiume, Getty Images)

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

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

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

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

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

(Anthony Souffle, Chicago Tribune)

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

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

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

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

(Tom Ciszek, NJ Sports Photo)

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 31st, 2014


Big-Ten-position-rankings-header-Safeties

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

Previously

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

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

(Lincoln Star Journal)

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

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

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

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

Nam Y. Huh, AP)

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

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

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

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

(Brian Ray, Hawkeyesports.com)

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

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

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

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

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

(Matthew O’Haren, USA Today Sports)

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

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

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

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

(Robert Hendricks)

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

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

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

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

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

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.