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Posts Tagged ‘Michigan State’

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 one)

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014


Big Ten position rankings header-DL

This is the sixth installment of Maize and Go Blue’s series that ranks the best Big Ten players at each position for the upcoming season. Each week until Michigan’s opener, one position will be previewed, looking at the players who will excel in 2014, not necessarily the ones who did so in previous seasons. The analysis provided is thorough and in-depth, so each position preview will be split into two parts. The best Big Ten players at each offensive position have been covered. This week, it is time to begin previewing the defense, starting with the defensive line. Here is Part One:

Previously
Quarterbacks: Part One, Part Two.
Running Backs: Part One, Part Two.
Wide Receivers: Part One, Part Two.
Tight Ends: Part One, Part Two.
Offensive Line: Part One, Part Two.

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

(Gene J. Puskar, AP)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Nelson Chenault, USA Today Sports)

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

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

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

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

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

(Carlos Osorio, AP)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Mitch Stringer, USA Today)

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

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

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

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

(Gregory Shamus, Getty Images)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 3rd, 2014


Big Ten position rankings header-OffensiveLine

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

Previously
Quarterbacks: Part One, Part Two.
Running Backs: Part One, Part Two.
Wide Receivers: Part One, Part Two.
Tight Ends: Part One, Part Two.
Offensive Line: Part One.

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

(Mark Cunningham, Getty Images)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Mike Carter, USA Today Sports)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Pat Lovell, USA Today Sports)

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

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

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

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

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

(247 Sports)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(AP)

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

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

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

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

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

New in Blue: Tight end Chris Clark

Thursday, June 19th, 2014


Chris Clark(247 Sports)

Chris Clark – TE | 6-6, 247 | Avon, Conn. – Avon Old Farms
ESPN: 4-star, #3 TE Rivals: 4-star, #4 TE 247: 4-star, #2 TE Scout: 5-star, #1 TE
Other top offers: Alabama, Auburn, FSU, Georgia, Ohio State, Miami, South Carolina

Michigan seems to be gaining momentum on the recruiting trail, as just a day after picking up a commitment from 2016 quarterback Messiah deWeaver, the Wolverines got the nod from one of the top tight ends in the country, Chris Clark. After visiting Ohio State on Tuesday and Michigan State on Wednesday, the Avon, Conn. star pledged his commitment to Michigan on his visit this afternoon and announced it on Twitter.

Clark is rated four stars by Rivals, 247, and ESPN and five stars by Scout. Scout considers him the top tight end and 26th-best overall prospect in the 2015 class. 247 ranks him the second-best tight end and 101st overall prospect. ESPN has him as their third tight end and 108th-best overall prospect, while Rivals ranks him fourth and 146th, respectively. All but Rivals are in agreement about his height (6’6″) and weight (247-pounds). Rivals lists him six pounds heavier.

Scout lists Clarks’s strengths as blocking ability, hands, concentration, and size, and his weaknesses as downfield threat and elusiveness. Scout’s Brian Dohn had high praise for Clark.

“Clark is a complete tight end who can block, get out and catch the ball and also be a factor in the red zone,” said Dohn. “He has very good hands and is a red-zone threat. He does a nice job running routes and he is a big, physical player. He also embraces the blocking portion of the game, and does a good job getting off the line of scrimmage cleanly. All around, Clark is a complete tight end who should havea big impact quickly in college.”

Make no mistake about it, this is a big pick up for Hoke and staff. Clark held offers from nearly every major program in the country, including Alabama, and Michigan’s three main rivals, Ohio State, Michigan State, and Notre Dame. He originally committed to North Carolina on March 16, but decommitted less than a month later and promptly visited Michigan and Ohio State.

On May 4, Clark tweeted that he would make his announcement at The Opening on July 8, but his visit to Michigan today, during which he met with quarterback commitment Alex Malzone, was enough to get him to end his recruitment a few weeks earlier. He’s the only current commit that will participate in The Opening, an invite-only competition for elite prospects at the Nike World Headquarters in Oregon, but he will join a pair of former commits — George Campbell and Shaun Crawford — as well as several targets.

Clark is the eighth member of the 2015 class and the only tight end. When he gets to Michigan next year — assuming his commitment holds through signing day — he will join a talented group that includes fellow four-stars Jake Butt and Ian Bunting and three star Khalid Hill. For what it’s worth, Devin Funchess was a three-star, though it’s a stretch to consider him a tight end at this point.

New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier likes to utilize tight ends, so the success Hoke and staff have had recruiting the position the past few years bodes well for the future. Clark has also said that he will do some recruiting for Michigan to try to lure other top prospects to join him in Ann Arbor.

2014 Big Ten football position rankings: Wide receivers (part one)

Thursday, June 19th, 2014


Big Ten position rankings header-WR

This is the third installment of Maize and Go Blue’s series that ranks the best Big Ten football players at each position for the upcoming season. Each week until Michigan’s opener, one position will be previewed, looking at the players who will excel in 2014, not necessarily the ones who did so in previous years. The analysis provided in these posts will be thorough and in-depth, so each position preview will be split into two parts. I have already covered the best Big Ten quarterbacks and running backs. This week, I rank the top wide receivers. Here is Part One:

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

10. Dontre Wilson, Ohio State | Sophomore - 5’10”, 185 lbs
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 22 210 2 9.5 32 15.0
Career Totals 22 210 2 9.5 32 15.0
(Dan Harker, TheOzone.net)

(Dan Harker, TheOzone.net)

Last week, I confessed that making the cuts for the best running backs in the Big Ten was challenging. This week, I admit once again that making the cuts for the best wide receivers in the Big Ten was taxing. But, this time, it is for a completely different reason. Whereas proven tailbacks were excluded from the top 10 because the Big Ten has a deep stable of ball carriers, there were too many question marks at wide receiver to easily fill a top 10. This is no surprise when eight of the nine Big Ten wideouts with the most receiving yards last season graduated or declared early for the NFL Draft. Therefore, speculation regarding which returning receivers will become the best of the Big Ten is rampant.

One candidate was Iowa’s Kevonte Martin-Manley. Martin-Manley led the Hawkeyes in receptions and receiving yards each of the past two seasons. Plus, among the Big Ten’s returning receivers, he has the eighth-highest target rate (19.1 pct.). However, despite being Iowa’s leading receiver, Martin-Manley averaged only 479.5 receiving yards per season and a subpar 10.42 yards per catch in 2012 and 2013. His production is limited by Iowa’s conservative offense, which relies on the run and short receiver routes. This will not change next season, which is why Martin-Manley missed the cut notwithstanding his extensive experience.

Two dark horses that almost appeared on this list were Purdue’s DeAngelo Yancey and Rutgers’ Leonte Carroo. Both proved to be big-play threats last season as each averaged over 17 yards per catch. Yancey was more involved in the Boilermakers’ passing game, earning a team-high 70 targets, while Carroo needed only 27 receptions to score nine touchdowns. Both should be the top wideout on their respective roster next year, but failed to make this list because they have unreliable quarterbacks. Presumed starters Danny Etling for Purdue and Gary Nova for Rutgers completed only 55.8 and 54.5 percent of their passes, respectively, in 2013. Accordingly, neither Yancey nor Carroo had a catch rate, which calculates the percentage of passes a receiver catches that are thrown towards him, higher than 53 percent. This is well below average. It is hard-pressed to see either Yancey or Carroo as top-10 wide receivers if their quarterbacks cannot throw accurate passes to them, but the potential is evident.

This paves the way for Ohio State H-back and slot dot Dontre Wilson to enter the top 10. Wilson was a highly-coveted all-purpose back in high school, ranked in the top-100 nationally and top-five at his position according to 247 Sports’ composite rankings. As soon as he signed his letter of intent with Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes, it seemed every scout and recruiting analyst compared him to Meyer’s former star at Florida, Percy Harvin. Because of his speed, agility, and versatility, Wilson is believed to the perfect fit for the “Percy Position” that Harvin inspired. This means he will line up at receiver, tailback, and in certain hybrid spots where he can catch passes or take pitches from quarterback Braxton Miller. Wilson test drove this role as a true freshman last season, catching 22 passes for 210 yards and two touchdowns in limited snaps. This season, however, he will be a permanent fixture on the field. With his explosiveness and better understanding of Meyer’s offense, a season similar to Harvin’s sophomore campaign—59 catches, 858 receiving yards, and four receiving scores—may be on the horizon.

9. Tony Lippett, Michigan State | 5th-yr Senior – 6’3”, 190 lbs
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 44 613 2 13.9 48 43.8
2012 36 392 2 10.9 46 30.2
2011 4 44 0 11.0 15 3.1
2010 0 0 0 N/A N/A N/A
Career Totals 84 1,049 4 12.5 48 12.6
(Jeff Gross, Getty Images)

(Jeff Gross, Getty Images)

In 2012, Michigan State’s passing attack was in disarray. Then-starting quarterback Andrew Maxwell completed only 52.5 percent of his passes, averaged a ghastly 5.8 yards per attempt, and threw only 13 touchdowns to nine interceptions. However, much of the blame for these troubling numbers lied at the feet, or should I say hands, of Maxwell’s receivers, not his. His receivers somehow managed to drop an astounding 66 passes that season. While drops are not a statistic kept or tracked by the NCAA, it is safe to assume this was among the worst in the nation. And, with all of MSU’s receivers returning for the 2013 season, there were question marks abound regarding whether this position group could recover.

After a shaky start to the 2013 campaign, the Spartans’ wideouts demonstrated that they would not allow another season to “slip” away. This included Tony Lippett, who stepped into the role as MSU’s No. 2 wideout behind Bennie Fowler. Lippett grabbed 66.7 percent of the passes thrown in his direction, which is the fourth-best among returning Big Ten wide receivers. Lippett’s high catch rate allowed him to shine as Michigan State’s season hit the home stretch. In his final six games, he averaged 4.17 receptions and 70.5 receiving yards per game, calculating to 16.92 yards per catch. And, during this six-game span, Lippett never recorded less than three catches or 62 yards in a contest. By season’s end, he had 44 receptions for 613 yards and two touchdowns and became starting quarterback Connor Cook’s most reliable target. With Fowler gone due to graduation, it only makes sense that Lippett likely will be promoted to MSU’s No. 1 wideout in 2014.

However, this does not mean there will be a wide gap between Lippett and the No. 2 wide receiver. In fact, there likely will not be much of a gap between Lippett and the No. 3 wideout. With Cook under center, Michigan State shares the wealth well among its top three receivers. In 2013, Fowler led MSU with a target rate of 18.7 percent, while Macgarrett Kings’ target rate was 17 percent and Lippett’s 16 percent. In 2014, with Fowler’s departure, Lippett and Kings will see slight upticks in their target rate, but it is unlikely either will earn near a quarter of their team’s targets like others in the Big Ten. Instead, Aaron Burbridge or Keith Mumphrey—who are both quality veterans—will step in as the No. 3 wideout and increase his target rate to above 15 percent. This is fantastic news for a Spartans offense that desires to remain balanced and keep opposing defenses guessing. But it will limit Lippett’s production as a No. 1 wideout—no matter how high his catch rate is. He will be the reliable receiver who averages four to five receptions per game, but not the one who takes over games.

8. Kenny Bell, Nebraska | 5th-yr Senior – 6’1”, 185 lbs
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 52 577 4 11.1 42 44.4
2012 50 863 8 17.3 74 61.6
2011 32 461 3 14.4 50 35.5
2010 0 0 0 N/A N/A N/A
Career Totals 134 1,901 15 14.2 74 47.5
(Eric Francis, Getty Images)

(Eric Francis, Getty Images)

Nebraska’s Kenny Bell is one of the few well-known Big Ten wide receivers still hanging around. If anything, Bell seems like one of those seniors who has been playing college football for eight years and will never graduate. This is because he put himself on the map as one of the Cornhuskers’ best wideouts as soon as he stepped on the gridiron as a redshirt freshmen. In each of his first two years, Bell led Nebraska in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns. The second of those two years was his breakout season. As a sophomore in 2012, he tallied 50 catches and finished second in the Big Ten in receiving yards (863) and touchdown receptions (eight). His 17.26 yards per catch were the third-best in the conference, too. Consequently, he was named to the All-Big Ten second team, while other media outlets placed him on the first team. Bell undoubtedly was Nebraska’s No. 1 option at wide receiver and expected to be once again the following season.

However, this was not the case. Instead, Bell reverted to the No. 2 wideout as Quincy Enunwa became Nebraska’s leading receiver in 2013. Bell did not have an awful season by any means, recording 52 receptions, 577 yards, 11.10 yards per catch, and four touchdowns. But Enunwa posted 51 grabs, 753 yards, 14.76 yards per reception, and a Big Ten-best 12 touchdown catches. And, if any further evidence was needed, Enunwa had a higher target rate than Bell, finishing with the fourth-best rate in the Big Ten at 26.8 percent.

The reason for Bell’s statistical dip was the result of losing star quarterback Taylor Martinez to a serious case of turf toe and being burdened with an inconsistent tandem of Ron Kellogg III and Tommy Armstrong, Jr. to replace him. Bell piled up his numbers his first two seasons with Martinez on the throwing end of those passes. They oozed chemistry. But that was lost once Martinez was sidelined for the remainder of the season. And Bell struggled to find a groove with either of Martinez’s replacements, especially Armstrong, Jr., who completed only 51.9 percent of his attempts. Accordingly, Bell caught only 59.1 percent of the balls thrown towards him and saw six yards shaved off his average per catch.

This season, Bell will once again be the undisputed No. 1 receiver on Nebraska now that Enunwa has graduated. And, generally, a receiver with Bell’s career numbers would be higher on this list, especially given how watered down the Big Ten’s wide receiver class is this year. But there are two concerns that dropped his rank to No. 8. First, Bell has no supporting cast at wide receiver. The next best returning wideout is Jordan Westerkamp, who had only 20 catches and a target rate of seven percent as a freshman last year. Although this likely means a boost in targets for Bell, it also means defenses will be rolling over their coverages to his side of the field. Can Bell still get open? Likely. He is an above-average wideout.

But will the football still be thrown to him accurately in tighter coverage? This raises the second concern. Nebraska’s starting quarterback will be Armstrong, Jr. in 2014. Armstrong, Jr. likely will improve from a subpar freshmen season which saw him unexpectedly thrown into the fire. He has had the entire offseason to train, knowing he would be the starter in the opener. But will it be enough for him to a competent passer? Not certain. Armstrong, Jr. is a dual-threat quarterback with noted accuracy and technique issues. If Armstrong, Jr. does not work out those kinks, it will hamper Bell’s production and impact as a wide receiver. Because there is so little faith in Armstrong, Jr.’s arm, Bell is much lower on this list than most people would think.

7. Tony Jones, Northwestern | 5th-yr Senior – 6’0”, 195 lbs
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 55 630 4 11.5 47 52.5
2012 29 335 4 11.6 42 25.8
2011 0 0 0 N/A N/A N/A
2010 11 157 1 14.3 45 19.6
Career Totals 95 1,122 9 11.8 47 34.0
(Mike McGinnis, Getty Images)

(Mike McGinnis, Getty Images)

For the past three years, Northwestern has run a hybrid, two-quarterback offense. Why? It was tailored to the skill set of Kain Colter. Colter was one of the most versatile offensive players not only in the Big Ten, but also the nation. He demonstrated an ability to flash speed, haul in the football, and pass accurately with zip. So Northwestern implemented an offense that attempted to showcase all three of his talents, lining him up at running back, wide receiver, and quarterback. When Colter was at running back or wide receiver, Northwestern ran more of a passing spread, hoping to get Colter and its other playmakers the ball in space. When Colter was at quarterback, the Wildcats emphasized the read-option, utilizing his speed and agility to keep defenders on ice skates. It was a unique strategy to fully tap into one player’s talents.

However, when Colter was at quarterback, the passing offense was put on the shelf to a certain extent. Yes, Colter still would throw occasionally to keep the defense honest, but the wide receivers were out there to block for Colter and Northwestern’s running back, who usually was Venric Mark.

Further, with this two-quarterback system, the Wildcats’ passing quarterback, Trevor Siemian, was forced to frequently rotate series and struggled to develop a rhythm with his wideouts. It was a tough situation for Northwestern’s aerial attack. And the situation was not made any easier last year when the offense was shorthanded as offensive player after offensive player, including Colter and Mark, dropped with injuries.

Yet, despite all of this, Northwestern wide receiver Tony Jones put together a fine campaign last year. T. Jones was a constant option for Siemian all year with a target rate of 22.3 percent. Not only was this tops on the Wildcats last season, it also is the fifth-highest among returning Big Ten wideouts. Additionally, T. Jones did a splendid job bringing in those passes from Siemian. His catch rate was 68.8 percent, which is the third-highest among returning Big Ten wide receivers that had a minimum target rate of 10 percent last year. T. Jones’ ability to not only consistently get open, but also not drop passes led to his best season yet. He finished with a team-high 55 receptions, 630 receiving yards, 11.45 yards per catch, and four touchdowns.

And it will only get better for T. Jones in 2014. Colter graduated, which means there will be only one quarterback taking the snaps for Northwestern next year: Siemian. Accordingly, Northwestern will be transitioning their offense from a hybrid, two-quarterback system to a passing spread. One of the beneficiaries from this transition will be T. Jones. Although his target rate, catch rate, and yards per carry should remain stagnant, expect large spikes in his targets, receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns because Northwestern will air the ball out much more this season. The averages will remain the same, but his volume numbers should increase. This should result in T. Jones’ best season as a Wildcat. However, he is only ranked No. 7 because of the next player on this list.

6. Christian Jones, Northwestern | Senior – 6’3”, 225 lbs
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 54 668 4 12.4 36 55.7
2012 35 412 2 11.8 47 31.7
2011 16 195 0 12.2 39 15.0
Career Totals 105 1,275 6 12.1 47 33.6
(Hans Pennink, AP)

(Hans Pennink, AP)

Tony Jones is not the only Northwestern wide receiver with the last name of Jones expecting a similar bump in his performance in 2014. Enter: Christian Jones. C. Jones and T. Jones are not related, but they certainly have formed quite the duo at wideout for the Wildcats.

Eerily, C. Jones’ numbers are extremely similar to T. Jones in 2013. C. Jones had 77 targets to T. Jones’ 80. C. Jones had 54 catches to T. Jones’ 55. C. Jones had 668 receiving yards to T. Jones’ 630. And C. Jones had four touchdown catches to T. Jones’ four. The slight differences in their statistics are that C. Jones was a bit more explosive and more sure-handed with his catches, while T. Jones got open a tad more often. But, in a nutshell, they were almost the exact same player.

So why is C. Jones ranked above T. Jones in these power rankings? What is the difference that will give C. Jones the edge in 2014? It is C. Jones’ size and playmaking ability. C. Jones is 6’3” and 225 pounds, while T. Jones is 6’0” and 195 pounds. C. Jones’ added size and strength makes him a bigger target for Siemian and allows him to use his body to box out cornerbacks while running routes more effectively.

Further, C. Jones has a tendency to make the bigger plays. In 2013, C. Jones tallied 40 catches for a first down, 17 that gained 15 or more yards, and five that covered at least 25 yards. On the other hand, T. Jones went past the first-down marker only 31 times and gained 15-plus yards only 11 times, but did have five 25-plus-yard catches, too. C. Jones also came up bigger on crucial third-down plays. All 13 of C. Jones’ third-down receptions earned a first down, but T. Jones failed to move the chains on three of his 14 third-down grabs. Ultimately, both receivers should have similar statistics yet again next season. Nonetheless, someone has to have the edge on this list.

However, although C. Jones should be one of the most reliable receivers in the Big Ten next season with his high target rate and catch rate, he did not crack the top five for the same reason T. Jones did not: the other receiver named Jones. Because they are such similar players, each cannibalizes the other’s opportunities. And, while C. Jones is a bit more of a playmaker than T. Jones, neither is rather explosive. None of the two have topped an average of 13 yards per reception each of the past two seasons. Odds are that, because they are so similar, neither will be able to crack 70 catches or 1,000 receiving yards. They would need to be more of a game-breaker, which is a featured trait among the Big Ten’s top five wideouts.

Part Two of Maize and Go Blue’s preview of the best Big Ten wide receivers in 2014 will be posted tomorrow. We will reveal the five top wideouts in the conference. Which wide receiver do you think will top the list? Do you agree or disagree with Nos. 10 through 6 thus far? Do you think a Michigan wideout should be in the top five? If so, which rank? Please let us know in the comments.

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

Thursday, June 12th, 2014


Big Ten position rankings header-RB

This week, as part of our preview series, we at Maize and Go Blue are ranking the Big Ten’s best running backs in 2014. Part One of the running back preview was posted yesterday; it ranked the running backs that I believe are No. 6 through No. 10 at their respective position in the conference. If you have not had a chance to read Part One yet, I encourage that you do so before reading Part Two herein. With that said, it is time to reveal who will be the five best running backs in the Big Ten this upcoming season.

Previously: Quarterbacks part one, part two.

5. Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State | Sophomore - 6’0”, 225 lbs
Rushing Yds YPC Rush TDs YPG Rec Yds Rec TD
2013 262 8.7 2 37.4 23 1
Career Totals 262 8.7 2 37.4 23 1
(Jay LaPrete, AP)

(Jay LaPrete, AP)

To the displeasure of Michigan fans, Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott cracks the top five. Many will be annoyed because Elliott is only a true sophomore and spent most of his freshmen season competing only on special teams. In their eyes, he should be much lower because other Big Ten running backs have already proven they are capable of 1,000-yard seasons. This is all true, but the purpose of this exercise is to rank the best Big Ten running backs in 2014, not those from previous seasons. Michigan fans may not want to admit it, but Elliott is a prime candidate to be one of the Big Ten’s breakout players this fall.

A breakout sophomore season for Elliott should surprise no one. In his first season in Columbus, he provided glimpses of the talent that made him a U.S. Army All-American in high school. He did not see many snaps at running back, earning only 30 carries, but he showcased his potential despite the small sample size. Elliott demonstrated the acceleration, top-end speed, and vision scouts raved about while he was in high school. His 8.73 yards per carry were the highest of any Big Ten player with more than 200 rushing yards last season. This may have been inflated by a 57-yard dash he had, but nine of his 30 attempts still were 10 yards or longer. It is proof that Elliott is more than just a running back that can move the chains. He also is a home-run threat.

It just remains to be seen if Elliott can remain a big-play threat against first-string Big Ten defenses. Similar to Wisconsin’s Corey Clement, 29 of Elliott’s 30 rushes last year were in the second half and when the Buckeyes led by more than 14 points. Further, nearly half of his carries were against Florida A&M, an FCS school, when he gained 162 yards and scored both of his rushing touchdowns. Although it is promising for Ohio State that Elliott prospered in garbage time and against inferior competition, he has not yet been truly tested.

In all likelihood, though, Elliott is too talented to fail in his current situation. Head coach Urban Meyer’s spread offense relies on a two-prong rushing attack with Heisman contender Braxton Miller as the focal point. Defenses know they must contain Miller first. Otherwise, they will spend their entire afternoon staring at the back of his uniform as he races away. This opens running lanes for the tailback. Just look at Carlos Hyde the past two seasons, during which he totaled 393 carries for 2,491 yards, 6.34 yards per carry, and 31 rushing scores. Guess who is the favorite to succeed Hyde as the starter? Elliott. He will have running room for days. Elliott may not bruise his way to first downs like Hyde did, but he will be a threat to score on every play. Expect Elliott to become a household name in 2014 as a 1,200-yard, 14-touchdown year is not out of the question.

4. Jeremy Langford, Michigan State | 5th-yr Senior – 6’0”, 205 lbs
Rushing Yds YPC Rush TDs YPG Rec Yds Rec TD
2013 1,422 4.9 18 101.6 157 1
2012 23 2.6 0 2.6 0 0
2011 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 1,445 4.8 18 39.1 157 1
(Al Goldis, AP)

(Al Goldis, AP)

Head coach Mark Dantonio arrived in East Lansing prior to the 2007 season. He established quickly that he likes to execute a power-running offense that predominantly features one back. Accordingly, Michigan State has had a recent run of 1,000-yard rushers since Dantonio took the job. In 2007 and 2008, there was Javon Ringer with 1,447 and 1,637 rushing yards, respectively. In 2010, Edwin Baker ran for 1,201 yards. In 2012, it was Le’Veon Bell with 1,793 rushing yards after falling just 52 yards shy of 1,000 the previous season. And, in 2013, Jeremy Langford upheld the new tradition with 1,422 rushing yards.

Initially, it was not clear if Langford would join the 1,000-yard club. He may have been the early front-runner to be the starter, but there were concerns. Langford was looked over by most major college football programs as a high-school recruit. Michigan State and Colorado were the only schools in Power 5 conferences to offer him a scholarship. Did he have the raw talent to be a starter? No one really knew because Langford had seen very little live action in his first two seasons, carrying the ball only nine times. To be safe, Dantonio moved Riley Bullough from linebacker to running back in the preseason. When the first depth chart was released during fall camp, Langford and Bullough were listed as co-starters. Ultimately, Dantonio decided to give the first crack in Week 1 to Langford. Smart move.

After a relatively quiet first five games, Langford found his groove and established himself as one of the best running backs in the Big Ten. He broke a school record by gaining at least 100 rushing yards in eight straight games, including the Big Ten Championship Game. In these eight games, Langford ran the ball 197 times for 1,027 yards and 5.21 yards per carry. He also scored 13 rushing touchdowns during this stretch, finding the end zone in seven of those eight contests. What made Langford so effective was his patience. He will never be the fastest, most athletic, or strongest running back, but he found open space because he waited for his blocks to be set before selecting the correct hole. This propelled him to 1,422 rushing yards—third-best among Big Ten returners—and 18 rushing scores—by far the best in the Big Ten—last season. Despite the early doubts, Langford turned in one of the most productive seasons every by a Michigan State running back.

However, there is more to being a running back than picking up four to five yards every play. Because Langford does not have top-end speed or acceleration, he does not have the ability to make big plays. His 4.87 yards per carry were not even among the 20 best in the Big Ten. He also posted a 20-plus-yard run only 2.74 percent of time. For comparison, the next three players on this list had a 20-plus yard run 10.69, 7.28, and 6.05 percent of the time in 2013. The very best running backs have the capability to make big plays. So, while Langford likely will slowly pick his way through the trenches for another 1,350- to 1,500-yard season with the help of 300 carries, he could not be above the next three on this list.

3. Tevin Coleman, Indiana | Junior – 6’1”, 210 lbs
Rushing Yds YPC Rush TDs YPG Rec Yds Rec TD
2013 958 7.3 12 106.4 193 0
2012 225 4.4 1 18.8 49 0
Career Totals 1,183 6.5 13 56.3 242 0
(Doug McSchooler, AP)

(Doug McSchooler, AP)

It is no secret that Indiana is recognized for its spread offense and aerial attack. The Hoosiers have led the Big Ten in pass attempts three of the past four seasons and likely will do it for the fourth time in five seasons this fall. But this does not mean that they are without talent at running back. In fact, Indiana actually has one of the best tailbacks in the conference in Tevin Coleman.

As a sophomore in 2013, Coleman quietly pieced together a sensational season. He tallied 131 carries for 958 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. At first glance, this may not seem quite impressive given his failure to eclipse the 1,000-yard threshold when the Big Ten had seven 1,000-yard rushers. But Coleman fell short of 1,000 yards only because he had far fewer rushes than those that did gain 1,000 yards.  His lack of carries can be attributed to playing in an offense committed to the pass, splitting already limited carries with then-senior tailback Stephen Houston, and missing the final three games of the season with an ankle injury. There was little Coleman could do alter the first two sets of circumstances, but the injury robbed him of a quarter of his season and prevented him from being named to an All-Big Ten team.

A deeper dive into Coleman’s numbers reveals the significance of his impact as a playmaker in the Big Ten. First, Coleman averaged 7.31 yards per carry—the second-best among all returning Big Ten players that had no less than 100 rushes. Second, he rattled off 14 runs of at least 20 yards in only 131 attempts. This means he had a gain of 20 yards or more 10.69 percent of the time—the best among Big Ten players with a minimum of 100 carries. Third, Coleman notched 12 rushing touchdowns. While this would have been commendable if accomplished in a full season, he hit the mark in just nine games. His touchdown rate of 9.16 percent was the highest in the conference among those with at least 100 rushes. And, finally, seven of Coleman’s 12 rushing scores were longer than 20 yards, while six were longer than 40 yards. All of these statistics convey the same message: Coleman is one of the most electric ball carriers in the Big Ten.

But, whereas Jeremy Langford must be ranked no higher than No. 4 because he rarely breaks plays open, Coleman cannot crack the top two because he lacks the sufficient number of touches. Even if Coleman’s carries were extrapolated to a full 12-game season, he still would have had only about 175 attempts last year. If he wants to challenge the next two players on this list for the title as the conference’s best running back, he needs at least 200 carries. No less. While Coleman will benefit from Houston’s graduation, being the featured back will not cut it in Indiana’s passing attack. The Hoosiers set up the run with the pass rather than vice-versa like most teams. This will limit Coleman’s carries and place a ceiling on his potential. If Indiana wants to eradicate barriers placed on Coleman, it must make him a focal point of the offensive game plan in 2014.

2. Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska | Senior – 5’9”, 195 lbs
Rushing Yds YPC Rush TDs YPG Rec Yds Rec TD
2013 1,690 6.0 9 130.0 232 2
2012 1,137 5.0 8 81.2 178 2
2011 150 3.6 3 11.5 11 0
Career Totals 2,977 5.4 20 74.4 421 4
(Jamie Sabau, Getty Images)

(Jamie Sabau, Getty Images)

There are two players that clearly will be the best running backs in the Big Ten. Heck, they are two of the best in the nation. There is very difference between them regarding their innate ability and the statistical production. They both are incredible ball carriers that will put up huge numbers and entertain fans through the nation, let alone the Midwest. No one doubts it. Rather than consider these two backs as No. 1 and No. 2 in the Big Ten, it is best they be referred to as No. 1a and No. 1b. Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah is No. 1b.

Abdullah has been one of the Big Ten’s best for two seasons now. He put himself on the map in 2012 with a 1,137-yard, eight-touchdown campaign. He then followed it up in 2013 with even better numbers. His 282 carries were the second-most in the Big Ten. His 1,690 rushing yards were the most in the conference, and his average of 130 rushing yards per game was the sixth-best in the nation. He also increased his efficiency, upping his yards per carry to just north of six, and his scoring, posting nine rushing touchdowns. And Abdullah achieved all of this while Nebraska cycled through three quarterbacks for a variety of reasons. Abdullah delivered week in and week out, rushing for a minimum of 100 yards in 11 of 13 contests and for no less than 85 yards in any of them. Accordingly, Abdullah was named to the All-Big Ten first team and a semifinalist for the Doak Walker Award. He also had the opportunity to be selected in the NFL Draft this past spring, but chose to return to Nebraska for one final season.

Abdullah has a wonderful chance to be the nation’s top back in 2014, but there are a few red flags that may hinder those odds. One is Nebraska trying to paste together a brand-new offensive line. The Huskers do return one starter in guard Jake Cotton, but they lost five offensive linemen to graduation. This is a devastating hit. It may take time for the offensive line to build chemistry, giving Abdullah more trouble than he can handle in the backfield. Plus, even if the line becomes cohesive, Abdullah may still see his prime touchdown chances cannibalized by his teammate Imani Cross. Cross had about 200 carries less than Abdullah last year, but still scored more touchdowns on the ground with 10 to Abdullah’s nine. Eight of Cross’ 10 touchdowns were in the red zone. There is a question as to whether Cross will continue to be rewarded for Abdullah’s work between the 20-yard lines.

While these concerns are relatively minor and likely will not affect Abdullah’s performance next season significantly, there is one that is too big to ignore. Abdullah has a fumbling problem. A bad one. In his first three seasons, Abdullah has fumbled the football 20 times, losing 15 of them. He was a bit better with his ball security last year, but still coughed it up five times. This is way too many. Abdullah has all of the tools to be the nation’s best running back: the speed, agility, footwork, strength, vision, instincts, etc. But, because he cannot maintain his grip on the football, he will not even be the best running back in his own conference.

1. Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin | RS Junior – 6’1”, 207 lbs
Rushing Yds YPC Rush TDs YPG Rec Yds Rec TD
2013 1,609 7.8 12 123.8 10 0
2012 621 10.0 3 44.4 65 1
2011 98 4.9 1 32.7 0 0
Career Totals 2,328 8.1 16 77.6 75 1
(Morry Gash, AP)

(Morry Gash, AP)

Melvin Gordon will be the best running back in the Big Ten next season. Not only will he be the best ball carrier in the conference, Gordon may be on the verge of a really, really special season. Whereas Ameer Abdullah is considered No. 1b in the Big Ten because he has a few red flags, Gordon is No. 1a because he has no red flags. Everything appears to have fallen into place for Gordon to have the best season of his career. And, when one considers what Gordon has accomplished the past two years, something special is on the horizon.

As a redshirt freshman in 2012, Gordon was Wisconsin’s third-string running back behind future NFL draft picks Montee Ball and James White. Despite this, Gordon still earned 62 carries for 621 yards and three touchdowns. In case you did not pick on the math immediately, he averaged an unheard of 10.02 yards per carry. Yes, he averaged a first down every single time he rushed the football. And, unlike teammate Corey Clement or Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott last season, Gordon did not pad his stats by playing snaps exclusively in garbage time or against the dregs of college football. He did some of his damage against ranked opponents, including a nine-carry, 216-yard breakout performance against Nebraska in the Big Ten Championship game. It was only a sign of things to come.

Last season, Gordon was promoted to the second spot on the depth chart and split most of the carries with White. The result? Gordon recorded the second-most rushing yards in the Big Ten with 1,609 on just 206 carries. He averaged 7.81 yards per carry. Yes, this may have been a dip from his 10.02 yards per carry in 2012, but this average was the best in the nation among all running backs with at least 200 carries and third among all rushers with a minimum of 100 carries. His yards per carry were so high because he led the Big Ten with 50 runs that were 10 yards or longer, which accounted for just shy of a quarter of all of his carries. Gordon also had no trouble using his combination of speed, size, and agility to reach the end zone. He scored 12 rushing touchdowns. Six of those were longer than 20 yards, and an astonishing three of them were longer than 60 yards. It was such a successful season for Gordon that some NFL executives claimed that he would have been a first-round pick in the most recent NFL Draft. And Gordon was not even the starter.

This is why 2014 can be so special for Gordon. He already has proven that he is one of the most explosive running backs in the country. His yards per carry speak for themselves. And Gordon has done all of this while splitting carries as the No. 2 or No. 3 running back on Wisconsin’s depth chart. Not anymore. White graduated after last season. Thus, for the first time in his career, Gordon will be the feature back. Although new backup Clement likely will see over 100 snaps in the backfield, Wisconsin may feed the ball to Gordon about 300 times this season. If one applies Gordon’s yards per carry to a potential 300-carry season, Gordon may be well on his way to a 2,000-yard, 18-touchdown season in Madison. Plus, he will have the luxury of running behind an offensive line that returns four starters from the line sprung him for over 1,600 rushing yards last year. With all of the pieces fitting together perfectly for Gordon, not only will he likely be a candidate to be the best running back in the nation, let alone the Big Ten, he will be a serious contender to win the most prestigious award given to the nation’s best college football player, the Heisman Trophy.

Do you agree with our list of the best Big Ten running backs in 2014? Where did we mess up? Who are your top five Big Ten running backs for this fall? Please let us know in the comments below. Next week, I will rank and preview the conference’s best wide receivers. Keep checking in to Maize and Go Blue as we continue to preview the 2014 football season daily.

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

Friday, June 6th, 2014


Big Ten position rankings header_edited-1

Yesterday, we introduced Maize and Go Blue’s series that will rank the best Big Ten football players at each position in 2014. One position will be previewed each week in preparation for Michigan’s season opener in late August. These position previews will be thorough and in-depth, so the preview for each position will be split into two parts. Part One of the Big Ten’s best quarterbacks was the first post of the series. It ranked the quarterbacks whom I believe are No. 6 through No. 10 at their position in the Big Ten. If you have not read it yet, I recommend that you do so before continuing below. On that note, let’s find out who are the five best quarterbacks in the Big Ten. Here is Part Two:

5. C.J. Brown, Maryland | 6th-Yr Senior – 6’3″, 210 lbs
Passing Yds Pass TDs INTs Comp % Rush Yds Rush TD
2013 2,242 13 7 58.9 576 12
2011 842 7 6 49.4 574 5
2010 0 0 0 NA 12 0
Career Totals 3,084 20 13 55.4 1,162 17
(Jeff Vest, Icon SMI)

(Jeff Vest, Icon SMI)

After spending his first five seasons in the ACC, C.J. Brown will play his sixth and final season in the Big Ten. Not very often do we have sixth-year seniors in college athletics, but this is what happens when you have the injury misfortune that Brown has had. As a redshirt freshman, Brown suffered a fracture in his right shoulder that forced him to sit out the last 11 games of the season. Then, two years later, he tore his ACL in a non-contact drill in the preseason and missed the entire 2012 season. Because of the nature of his injuries and number of games missed, Brown petitioned that he receive a medical redshirt for a sixth year of eligibility. The NCAA granted his petition, allowing Brown to remain a Terrapin as Maryland relocates from the ACC into the Big Ten.

Brown is a dual-threat quarterback who can be a handful for defenses when healthy. Do not let the fact that his name was not as prevalent in the press as other ACC quarterbacks like Jameis Winston or Tahj Boyd fool you into thinking any differently. In 2013, Brown played 11 games, missing only two contests with a concussion. In those 11 games, Brown completed 58.9 percent of his passes for 2,242 yards, 13 touchdowns, and seven picks. He accumulated these numbers efficiently. He averaged eight yards per attempt—the highest by a Maryland quarterback since 2007—and maintained one of the lowest interception rates in the ACC (2.48 percent).

Yet, Brown causes more damage with his feet than his arm. Although he threw for only 13 touchdowns, which is relatively low, he compensated by add 12 rushing touchdowns to the scoreboard. His 12 rushing scores were tied for the fourth-most among all ACC players last season, including the running backs. Further, Brown’s rushing touchdowns did not result solely from quarterback sneaks and draws inside the ten-yard line. He actually is quite dangerous in the open field. Four of his rushing touchdowns were longer than 20 yards; the longest was a 49-yarder. Maryland provides Brown plenty of opportunities to break one, too. He earned almost 13 carries per game en route to 576 rushing yards and 4.1 yards per carry. If Brown finds open lanes, it can be a long day for the opposing defense.

There is a red flag, though, but it may relate to Brown’s injuries. There is a concerning disparity in Brown’s numbers in games against non-conference and conference foes last year. In five non-conference contests, he eviscerated the competition. He averaged 248.7 passing yards per game, completed 65 percent of his passes, averaged 10.1 yards per attempt, and threw nine touchdowns to two picks. On the other hand, in six conference contests, Brown averaged only 167 passing yards per game, completed 54.1 percent of this tosses, averaged 6.3 yards per attempt, and threw more picks than scores. Plus, his rushing yards per carry dropped from five to 3.4 against conference foes. The question is whether this decline should be attributed to improved competition accustomed to Brown’s tendencies or the concussion he suffered in the heart of ACC play. It is most likely the latter, but this is something on which to keep an eye. All in all, Brown likely will join Tre Roberson, Devin Gardner, and Braxton Miller as the most dynamic Big Ten quarterbacks. Brown just needs to remain healthy to do it.

4. Christian Hackenberg, Penn State | Sophomore – 6’4″, 220 lbs
Passing Yds Pass TDs INTs Comp % Rush Yds Rush TD
2013 2,955 20 10 58.9 -68 4
Career Totals 2,955 20 10 58.9 -68 4
(Evan Habeeb, USA Today Sports)

(Evan Habeeb, USA Today Sports)

In terms of pure NFL talent and potential, there is no better quarterback in the Big Ten than Christian Hackenberg. In fact, other than Jameis Winston, there may be no better NFL quarterback prospect in the nation than Hackenberg. He oozes NFL potential. At six-foot-four and 220 pounds, Hackenberg has the size and build that NFL executives desire in their franchise quarterback. He also has a big arm and clean release that allows him to complete deep outs without needing to put extra oomph into his them. He possesses all of the tools needed to have a long professional career. He exhibited them last season, putting together one of the best seasons a true freshman can have. Hackenberg completed 58.9 percent of his passes for 2,955 yards, 20 touchdowns, and 10 picks, and annihilated several school freshman records in the process. NFL personnel are giddy to see how Hackenberg nurtures and grows his professional potential during his sophomore season.

However, the point of this exercise to preview the Big Ten’s best players for 2014, not for the NFL Draft years down the road. Hackenberg certainly has the ability to be the best quarterback in this conference, but he may be headed for a sophomore slump instead. Hackenberg lost his superstar safety blanket in Allen Robinson, who arguably just had the best two-year stretch by any wide receiver in Penn State history. Last season, Robinson led the Big Ten with 97 catches and 1,432 receiving yards, accounting for 46 percent of his team’s production. With Robinson’s departure, it is unclear how Penn State will fill the void. The Nittany Lions’ three returning wideouts combined for only 35 catches and 398 receiving yards in 2013, and none of the four wideouts Penn State landed in its 2014 recruiting class are expected to make an instant impact. There is no sure candidate to move into the featured role on the perimeter. Penn State may be loaded at tight end, which will help alleviate the problem, but Hackenberg’s performance very well may dip next season unless a wide receiver or two elevates their game.

The problems do not end there for Hackenberg. He also must worry about a shaky, inexperienced offensive line. Penn State returns only two starting offensive linemen from last season, but that was before one of them—Miles Dieffenbach—tore his ACL in spring practice. With only one healthy returning starter on the offensive line, albeit his left tackle, Hackenberg may not have the time and protection he needs to make the throws he wants. And this is all happening while he tries to learn a new offensive system after head coach and quarterback guru Bill O’Brien left Penn State in the offseason for the Houston Texans. Hackenberg has all the talent in the world—possibly the most of any quarterback in the Big Ten—but circumstances out of his control may cause him to slump in 2014.

3. Connor Cook, Michigan State | RS Junior – 6’4″, 219 lbs
Passing Yds Pass TDs INTs Comp % Rush Yds Rush TD
2013 2,755 22 6 58.7 76 1
2012 94 1 1 52.9 -3 0
Career Totals 2,849 23 7 58.4 73 1
(AP)

(AP)

Early last season, Michigan State’s quarterback situation appeared to be in shambles. In the preseason, four candidates vied to be tabbed the starter—Andrew Maxwell, Connor Cook, Tyler O’Connor, and then-true freshman Damion Terry. Yet, when the season opener arrived, none had separated themselves from the pack. Maxwell was the named the starter for Week 1, but it was only a formality. Multiple quarterbacks saw live game action the first few games as the competition spilled over into the season. It was not until Week 3 when Cook finally wrestled away the job and became the starter.

There will be no such mess this year. After leading Michigan State to its best season in over two decades, Cook is the clear-cut starter. Initially, there was not much about him that stood out. He was nothing more than a game manager. In his 10 regular-season starts, Cook averaged only 204.5 passing yards per game, and his completion rate exceeded 60 percent only four times. If there was one thing that did stand out, it was his ball security. Only four of his 277 pass attempts during those 10 starts resulted in picks, equating to a stellar interception rate of 1.44 percent. Cook’s dearth of costly errors allowed Michigan State’s emerging rushing attack and elite defense to win games comfortably.

Then, in the postseason, Cook demonstrated that he could be much more than a game manager when his team needed him to be. Facing top-five foes Ohio State and Stanford in the Big Ten Championship Game and Rose Bowl, respectively, the Spartans needed him to be the best quarterback on the field. Cook delivered. He averaged 318 passing yards per game, 8.4 yards per attempt, and threw five touchdowns while completing 60.5 percent of his passes. It was the first time all season that Cook threw for more than 300 yards, and he accomplished the feat in back-to-back games against the toughest teams he had seen all year. It was the sign of a quarterback who can produce on the biggest of stages.

Now, the question is whether Cook can repeat his postseason display week after week this season. It seems possible. Michigan State returns its star running back Jeremy Langford, who rushed for 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns, and a solid corps of wide receivers. The biggest concern is the Spartans’ offensive line. Last season, Cook was so calm and poised in the pocket because his jersey remained fresh from grass stains. The Spartans’ offensive line allowed only 1.21 sacks per game—tied for the 14th-best in the nation. However, Michigan State lost three starters there. If the Spartans cannot reload at the position, Cook may be pressured into making the mistakes he did not make in 2013. Nonetheless, Cook is a safe bet to be one of the better quarterbacks in the Big Ten. However, the offense likely will rely more on pounding the rock with Langford than airing it out with Cook, which is why Cook falls behind the next two quarterbacks on this list.

2. Devin Gardner, Michigan | 5th-Yr Senior – 6’4″, 218 lbs
Passing Yds Pass TDs INTs Comp % Rush Yds Rush TD
2013 2,960 21 11 60.3 483 11
2012 1,219 11 5 59.5 101 7
2011 176 1 1 47.8 53 1
2010 85 1 0 70.0 21 1
Career Totals 4,440 34 17 59.7 658 20
(Gregory Shamus, Getty Images)

(Gregory Shamus, Getty Images)

To the surprise of many, Michigan head coach Brady Hoke repeatedly claimed throughout the spring that Devin Gardner was in a quarterback competition with Shane Morris. After the Michigan spring “game,” during which Gardner struggled, Hoke stated the battle between Gardner and Morris was close and would continue into the summer and preseason camp. This news left media and fans speculating as to whether Morris could actually pass Gardner on the depth chart before August 30th.

In a word: no. Unless Gardner injures himself in fall camp, he will be the starter in Week 1 and for all of 2014. It is foolish to bench a fifth-year senior quarterback who just had one of the best statistical seasons in school history. Gardner totaled 3,443 yards and 32 touchdowns in 2013—both figures are the second-most by a Michigan quarterback in a single season. His 2,960 passing yards were the second-most ever by a Wolverine, too. They were also the second-most in the Big Ten last season.

Gardner did this efficiently, too. His 8.6 yards per attempt were the highest in the Big Ten—this number actually improved to 8.8 in conference play—and he maintained his place in the Michigan record books as the quarterback with the highest career efficiency rating.

Gardner showed off his legs as well, becoming one of only two Big Ten quarterbacks to rush for double-digit touchdowns (11) last year. And he did all of this without any sort of assistance from the ground game and behind arguably the worst Michigan offensive line ever. Gardner is a playmaker that can go off for 350 total yards and three touchdowns amid total and utter chaos on any given Saturday. Heck, he did it five times in 12 starts last year. This is how one of the Big Ten’s best quarterbacks plays, not someone wearing a headset on the sideline or shifting out to wide receiver.

This does not mean Gardner is without faults. It is quite evident that Gardner has trouble with his decision-making and taking care of the football. Last season, with the entire weight of the offense on his shoulders, he understandably tried to force too many plays and locked onto his No. 1 receiver too often. This led to 11 interceptions. Although only three of those were in his final eight starts, there were too many other passes that should have been intercepted that were dropped (see: Northwestern). It does not help that Gardner also has a tendency to hold the ball like a loaf of bread when he scrambles. Consequently, he fumbled the ball 11 times, losing six of them—both of which were the worst in the nation. At this point of his career, it seems unlikely that Gardner will remedy this problem.

There are question marks around Gardner, too. How will an offensive line that allowed the most tackles-for-loss in the nation last season hold up after losing two tackles in Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield to the NFL? Will a running back finally emerge to take some of the load off of Gardner? Who will step up at wide receiver behind Devin Funchess? How quickly will Gardner learn and execute new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier’s system? They are all valid questions, but Gardner has already proven that he can be one of the most productive quarterbacks even when everything else is breaking down around him, including his own body. So, if these questions are answered in a positive light and Gardner is not forced to take a beating on every single play, well, that is a terrifying thought for the rest of the Big Ten.

1. Braxton Miller, Ohio State | Senior – 6’2″, 215 lbs
Passing Yds Pass TDs INTs Comp % Rush Yds Rush TD
2013 2,094 24 7 63.5 1,068 12
2012 2,039 15 6 58.3 1,271 13
2011 1,159 13 4 54.1 715 7
Career Totals 5,292 52 17 59.3 3,054 32
(Andrew Weber, USA Today Sports)

(Andrew Weber, USA Today Sports)

Although the placement of the previous nine quarterbacks on this list can be argued to no end, there is no debate at the top. Braxton Miller is the clear choice as the Big Ten’s best quarterback. Miller has terrorized defenses the past two years in Urban Meyer’s spread offense and undoubtedly will do it one last time as a senior in 2014. He does this because he is the most explosive quarterback in the Big Ten. He was the only one the conference to throw for more than 2,000 yards (2,090) and rush for more than 1,000 yards (1,068) in 2013. His 8.2 yards per pass attempt were the second-best in the Big Ten; his 6.3 yards per carry were by far the best among Big Ten quarterbacks.

In addition to yards, Miller has quite the knack for putting points on the scoreboard. His 36 total touchdowns—24 passing, 12 rushing—were a league best, and he did not even play a full season. Miller will never be the quarterback who can stand in the pocket and make all of the throws, even though he has improved his accuracy each season. But it does not matter. His playmaking ability is the reason why he is the two-time Big Ten Player of the Year.

Miller is not superhuman, though. He is fairly durable given his smaller stature, but he is very vulnerable to being on the wrong end of some vicious hits because Ohio State runs him so frequently. Accordingly, Miller has been knocked out of several games throughout his career, although the injuries usually are minor. However, a knee injury he suffered early against San Diego State not only kept him on the sidelines for the remainder of that contest, but also for the following two games. Miller missed enough time that backup Kenny Guiton attempted 109 passes last season. With Guiton gone, the Buckeyes no longer have the luxury of a rock-solid backup in case Miller goes down for a substantial period of time once again. Miller needs to have his healthiest season yet, but he likely will miss snaps at some point. The question is just how many.

Miller also must cope with personnel changes. Miller may not have the same protection he had last season as Ohio State replaces four starters on the offensive line. Generally, the Buckeyes reload at all positions, but their offensive line recruiting has been somewhat spotty in terms of maintaining depth. If the replacements struggle to perform to expectations, Miller may not have the same number of opportunities to make big plays like he did in 2013. Additionally, Miller’s rushing numbers may dip with the departure of bulldozing running back Carlos Hyde to the NFL.

Hyde, who topped 1,000 rushing yards last year, opened up holes for Miller because defenses had to pick their poison when Ohio State ran the read-option. Until one of Ohio State’s young, talented running backs proves he is worthy of such attention, defenses will focus on containing Miller. Nonetheless, even with these changes, it would be a surprise if Miller did not have another season with 3,000 total yards and 30 touchdowns. This is why he is the Big Ten’s best quarterback, the favorite to win his third straight Big Ten Player of the Year Award, and a Heisman Trophy contender.

Do you agree with our list of the best Big Ten quarterbacks in 2014? Where did we go wrong? Please let us know in the comments below. With the Big Ten’s quarterbacks ranked and previewed, we next will take a look at their teammates in the backfield: the running backs. Keep checking in to Maize and Go Blue as we continue to preview the 2014 football season each day until August 30th arrives.

Countdown to kickoff: 85 days

Friday, June 6th, 2014


Countdown to kickoff-85

Comparing returning production throughout the Big Ten

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014


maryland(Rob Carr, Getty Images)

As we count down the days and weeks until Michigan opens its season against Appalachian State on Aug. 30, we’re going to kick off our season preview series. The position previews and projections, opponent previews, Big Ten position rankings, staff roundtables, and mailbags that follow will carry us through the sports wasteland that is the summer. So as you take your summer vacations, enjoy cookouts and golf outings, and work on your tan, make sure to check in daily to get your maize and blue fix.

To get things started, we broke down the returning production from each team in the Big Ten. Michigan State won the conference last season, but will that success translate into 2014? Purdue went winless in conference play; are the Boilermakers headed for the same fate this fall? Michigan suffered a losing record in Big Ten play; do the Wolverines have any chance of winning their division this year?

While returning production certainly doesn’t answer any of those questions, it can be a strong indicator of how good or bad each team will be. Rather than simply looking at the number of returning starters, we broke down the yards gained, touchdowns scored, and tackles made by each of those returning starters in order to quantify the results and compare each team. Here are the results:

Offense

Returning offense
Team Percent Returning 2013 Total Off. Rank
Maryland 97.5 77
Iowa 92.8 85
Michigan State 90.9 81
Purdue 82.5 121
Penn State 76.4 43
Rutgers 74.4 96
Northwestern 71.9 73
Michigan 68.6 87
Indiana 67.3 9
Nebraska 66.5 59
Minnesota 65.9 107
Ohio State 59.8 7
Wisconsin 57.0 18
Illinois 34.3 46
Returning scoring offense
Team Percent Returning 2013 Scoring Off. Rank
Maryland 94.4 83
Michigan State 91.3 63
Iowa 89.3 79
Rutgers 86.9 77
Penn State 84.4 69
Purdue 80.6 121
Indiana 72.2 16
Northwestern 71.1 83
Michigan 63.8 46
Nebraska 59.5 48
Wisconsin 57.7 27
Minnesota 57.4 85
Ohio State 53.7 3
Illinois 40.0 60

As you can see, one of the conference newcomers, Maryland, has the most production returning in terms of both total offense and scoring offense. In fact, with nine starters returning on offense, the Terrapins lost only 204 receiving yards, seven rushing yards, and three touchdowns. In addition, Maryland returns three linemen that started all 13 games last season and have two others that have a combined 12 career starts. This is an offense that could make some noise this fall.

Iowa and Michigan State both return around 90 percent of both their total offense and scoring offenses from units that were pretty similar statistically in 2013. Iowa returns 100 percent of its passing and rushing yards while losing 21 percent of its receiving production and 31.6 percent of its receiving touchdowns from tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz. Michigan State returns all of its rushing production from running backs and all but one receiver, Bennie Fowler, who made up 21 percent of last season’s receiving yards and six of 17 receiving touchdowns.

Purdue, Penn State, and Rutgers make up numbers four through six in both categories, however, one of these is not like the others. While Purdue ranked 121st nationally in total offense and Rutgers 96th, Penn State was a respectable 43rd. The Nittany Lions have quarterback Christian Hackenberg back with a year under his belt and 100 percent of the running back production. The main loss is receiver Allen Robinson, who accounted for 108 more receiving yards than all returning receivers combined.

Northwestern and Michigan are pretty similar in terms of returning production. Northwestern has slightly higher returning numbers in both categories, but where the Wildcats ranked a few spots higher nationally in total offense, Michigan was much more adept at finding the end zone. Michigan returns 44 touchdowns compared to just 33 for Northwestern. Nebraska, which has the fifth-lowest returning production in the conference also returns 44 touchdowns from a scoring offense that was just two spots behind Michigan’s last season.

Indiana returns 67.3 percent of its total offense and 72.2 percent of its scoring offense from the Big Ten’s second-best unit. The Hoosiers have more touchdowns returning (70) than any other team in the conference even with the loss of their top two receivers, Cody Latimer and Kofi Hughes, and top tight end, Ted Bolser, who combined for 22 touchdown grabs.

Ohio State was the Big Ten’s best offense in 2013, and despite having the third-lowest total offense and second-lowest scoring offense returning, the Buckeyes still have 65 touchdowns coming back, which is second only to Indiana. In addition, OSU lost 74.3 percent of last season’s starting offensive line and 87.7 percent of career starts along the line — and that includes the addition of Alabama transfer Chad Lindsay.

Wisconsin lost a lot of production from running back James White, but the Badgers do have leading running back Melvin Gordon back. The big loss was at receiver where Wisconsin lost its top four pass catchers, including White.

Defense

Returning defense
Team Percent Returning 2013 Total Def. Rank
Maryland 82.6 44
Indiana 79.1 123
Rutgers 77.8 74
Michigan 77.6 41
Northwestern 76.1 89
Illinois 75.8 112
Penn State 67.4 49
Minnesota 66.1 43
Nebraska 66.5 39
Purdue 63.3 105
Ohio State 60.3 47
Michigan State 50.1 2
Wisconsin 49.9 7
Iowa 44.4 6

The top three defensive teams in the Big Ten last season — Michigan State, Iowa, and Wisconsin — are the three that lost the most defensive production in terms of tackles, tackles, for loss, sacks, and interceptions. Iowa and Wisconsin both lost virtually their entire linebacker corps. For Iowa, that made up its top three tacklers, two of the top three in tackles-for-loss, sack leader, and interception leader. For Wisconsin, it was two of the top three tacklers, three of the top four in tackles-for-loss, and two of the top three in sacks. Michigan State’s lost production was more spread out among the entire defense rather than one position group. Ohio State also lost its top three tacklers and most of its defensive backfield, though the Buckeyes do return probably the most experienced and talented defensive line in the Big Ten.

Just like on the offensive side, Maryland leads the way in returning production with a whopping 82.6 percent returning. The Terps lost just four players that had double-digit tackles, although one, linebacker Marcus Whitfield, was the team leader with 15.5 tackles-for-loss and ranked second with nine sacks. Only Ohio State returns more sacks (34) than Maryland (25).

Indiana returns the second-most defensive production, but unlike its offense, the Hoosier defense was downright horrendous. It ranked 123rd nationally, so even with 13 of their top 14 tacklers back, they have a lot of work to do, especially since one of those lost was the team tackle-for-loss and sack leader.

Rutgers and Michigan both return the same amount of defensive production, but Michigan’s defense was a respectable 41st, while Rutgers’ was 33 spots lower. Both have solid linebacker groups returning. Northwestern and Illinois are right behind, but both ranked in the bottom third nationally in total defense.

Penn State, Minnesota, and Nebraska make up spots seven, eight, and nine, all with 66 to 67 percent production returning. In addition, all three were pretty similar in terms of total defense in 2013, ranking 49th, 43rd, and 39th, respectively. Penn State lost its leading tackler, linebacker Glenn Carson, and its leader in tackles-for-loss, defensive tackle DaQuan Jones. Minnesota lost quite a bit of production from its defensive backfield and its key cog in the middle of the line, while Nebraska lost three of the top four from its secondary.

Conclusion

When both offense and defense are combined, Maryland has far and away the most coming back, while Wisconsin has the least. Here’s the comparison chart.

Comparison chart

While it’s impossible to draw conclusions about this season’s performance based on these numbers alone, they can be used as part of the overall picture. In the days and weeks to come, these numbers will be expanded on in our individual opponent previews, position rankings, and other season preview content. Stay tuned.

Drew’s mailbag: The rival Michigan needs to beat, Crawford’s crazy courtship

Thursday, May 22nd, 2014


Below is another installment of Drew’s Mailbag, which will run every two weeks throughout the offseason, answering any questions you may have regarding Michigan athletics. You can submit your questions to Drew on Twitter (@DrewCHallett) or via email (drew.maizeandgoblue@gmail.com).

Which [rivalry game] do you want the most if [Michigan football] can [win] only one? – Josh (@josh_muhleck)

Why only one? Shouldn’t Michigan expect to beat all three of Notre Dame, Michigan State, and Ohio State next season? This is Michigan, fergodsakes. The leaders and best. The champions of the West. Michigan does not accept anything but first place. Etcetera, etcetera. Yada yada yada.

Okay. Now that that is out of my system, let’s be realistic. The truth is that it is highly unlikely that Michigan will defeat all three of Notre Dame, Michigan State, and Ohio State in the fall. The Wolverines are staring up at all three rivals at the moment. The Buckeyes are 24-2 in two seasons under Urban Meyer. The Spartans have won at least 11 games three of the past four seasons, which includes earning an outright Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl victory last year. The Fighting Irish are one year removed from an appearance in the national championship game. And this has all happened while Michigan has managed to have only one season with more than eight wins since 2007. The task of beating all three of its rivals is difficult enough when Michigan is at its peak, having done it only twice since 1991. Not even the biggest Michigan homer can expect the Wolverines to pull it off this year given the current state of these four programs.

To make matters worse, Michigan does not even have the luxury of hosting one of its rivals at Michigan Stadium this season. Instead, the Wolverines must face all three of Notre Dame, Michigan State, and Ohio State on the road for the first time in school history. This is a nightmare scenario for a program that has struggled on the road against quality competition. Michigan has lost its last 10 true road games against teams ranked in the AP Top 25. The last road win against such a foe was against No. 2 Notre Dame in 2006. Notre Dame, Michigan State, and Ohio State likely will be ranked in the AP Top 25 when Michigan steps on the gridiron with them. The idea that Michigan will end this extended road drought by sweeping them is ludicrous. Michigan fans should consider just one win versus its rivals this year as progress.

If Michigan can beat just one rival this fall, the pick should be the one in Columbus (Detroit News)

If Michigan can beat just one rival this fall, the pick should be the one in Columbus (Detroit News)

With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s break down which rival Michigan fans should most want the Wolverines to beat this season:

Notre Dame: Nothing would be sweeter than getting the last word in a rivalry that has all but disintegrated. Notre Dame stuck it to Michigan by notifying athletic director Dave Brandon just minutes before the two teams kicked off in 2012 that the Fighting Irish were putting the rivalry on pause after 2014. This was a shock to Michigan. Earlier that summer, Michigan and Notre Dame jointly announced that there would a two-year hiatus in 2018 and 2019 to allow the schools to schedule some new, fresh competition. It was supposed to be a short recess, not a permanent vacation.

Yet this fall will be the last Michigan-Notre Dame clash for the foreseeable future. Michigan reportedly has locked in its premium non-conference opponents through 2023. None are Notre Dame. With the Big Ten adding a ninth conference game to the slate in 2016, Michigan likely will not seek to add a second premium non-conference opponent. And Notre Dame’s affiliation with the ACC limits its availability. Therefore, a win in September would give Michigan bragging rights over the Fighting Irish for the next decade or two.

Nonetheless, Notre Dames is a non-conference rival. It always is enjoyable to watch Michigan’s quarterbacks torch the Fighting Irish, but the wins have no impact on its goal to win a Big Ten championship. Yes, wins against Notre Dame provide the Wolverines an added boost heading into the conference season. However, the significance of those wins pales in comparison to Michigan’s wins against conference rivals, Michigan State and Ohio State. Plus, unlike MSU and OSU, Michigan has had Notre Dame’s number recently, winning six of the last eight meetings. While Michigan would like to make it seven of the last nine, a win here is not nearly as important is would be later in the season.

Michigan State: In 2007, after a fourth-quarter, comeback win against Michigan State, then-Michigan running back Mike Hart claimed that Michigan State was Michigan’s “little brother.” Yet, since those infamous words were spoken, Michigan State has had the upper hand on Michigan. The Wolverines have suffered defeat in five of the six meetings against MSU that followed. Michigan has not had this much trouble with its in-state rival since before Bo Schembechler first arrived in Ann Arbor in 1969.

Accordingly, Michigan State has seen its stock rise to levels it has not experienced in decades. The Spartans are piling up wins, conference championships, and even their first Rose Bowl victory since 1988. Whether Michigan fans want to acknowledge it or not, Michigan State has become a Big Ten power under Mark Dantonio. Even recruits are taking notice as some of Michigan’s top high school talent has begun to favor the Spartans over the Wolverines. This is a trend that Michigan needs to stop in its tracks instantly. The first step to doing so is to beat the Spartans in East Lansing this season.

However …

Ohio State: No matter how compelling an argument one can make that Michigan State is the most important game on Michigan’s schedule this season, no game is more important than “The Game.” A rival against whom Michigan has had a poor six-year stretch does not replace the rival with whom Michigan has created college football’s best rivalry as the most important on the schedule. Sorry. No chance. Yes, a Michigan win against Michigan State would be quite significant for U-M’s future prosperity, but it will never define an entire Michigan season like a win against Ohio State does.

So, if Michigan can beat only one rival this season, it is Ohio State. No ifs, ands, or buts. Of course, I would not mind if Michigan shocked the world and beat all three.

Should we consider [Michigan football commit] Shaun Crawford as good as gone? –Bill (@BillOffer)

Not yet. Initially, when it was confirmed that 2015 four-star defensive back Shaun Crawford had visited Notre Dame last weekend, it looked grim for Michigan. Brady Hoke has a well-publicized policy that discourages current commits from visiting other schools. The policy is simple, even if it has been misinterpreted repeatedly:

If a Michigan commit visits another school, the staff will no longer guarantee the prospect a spot in the class. This does not mean that Michigan will banish the prospect from being a member of its recruiting class, though, as some have claimed. In most cases, Michigan still will want that prospect to be in its class and “re-commit” as soon as he is sure he does not want to take anymore visits. But Michigan may look at other prospects to fill the new vacancy. Nothing is guaranteed. That is the risk of taking visits.

Despite a wandering eye, Crawford shouldn't be considered gone just yet (247 Sports)

Despite a wandering eye, Crawford shouldn’t be considered gone just yet (247 Sports)

With Crawford’s visit to Notre Dame, his spot in Michigan’s class was no longer guaranteed. Although this does not result in an automatic decommitment, most Michigan commits who visit elsewhere tend to decommit because their spot is no longer guaranteed anyway. However, multiple outlets reported that Crawford wanted to remain a Michigan commit despite his wandering eye. It appeared he still favored the Wolverines, but did not want to be forced out by a policy he felt was hypocritical. But Crawford had yet to speak with Hoke about visiting elsewhere. Once Crawford had that conversation with Hoke, I expected that Crawford would decommit and that it would be the beginning of the end.

Yet, according to Rivals’ Josh Helmholdt ($), Crawford stated that he spoke with the Michigan staff on Tuesday night and still is a Michigan commit. Crawford also told Helmholdt that he will continue to look at other schools, which includes a trip to Ohio State soon. It appears that Crawford has gotten what he wanted: to remain a Michigan commit while looking around.

This is good news for Michigan. If Michigan had forced Crawford to decommit, the odds of him recommitting would have been slim to none. Crawford likely would have become frustrated with Hoke’s no-visit policy and disillusioned with the idea of playing football for him in Ann Arbor. Instead, Crawford maintains his commitment with Michigan, which indicates the Wolverines still are the leader for his services. Of course, this could change down the road if Notre Dame, Ohio State, or even Miami (FL) persuades him to make a switch. But this is the life of recruiting. And the odds of this happening would have been much higher if Crawford had decommitted from Michigan.

Plus, Crawford is a commit Michigan wants to keep. Most recruiting services consider Crawford to be in the top 100 of the 2015 class or just outside of it. He is a talented player from the state of Ohio that grew up a Michigan fan. This is not the type of recruit that Michigan can afford to lose right now, especially when Michigan has already lost two other top-50 commits from the 2015 class in running back Damien Harris and wide receiver George Campbell. At the moment, Michigan does not appear to have lost Crawford, but this will be a recruitment we will need to keep our eyes on the next few months.

If you have any questions related to Michigan athletics that you want answered in the next mailbag, please tweet them to @DrewCHallett on Twitter or email them to drew.maizeandgoblue@gmail.com.