photo AnnArborGIFHeader_zps02670880.gif

Posts Tagged ‘Michigan Wolverines’

Big Ten Media Days primer

Sunday, July 27th, 2014


B1G Media Days(@B1GFootball)

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

Overview

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

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

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

The schedule - Monday, July 28

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

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

The schedule - Tuesday, July 29

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

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

2014 opponent preview: Indiana

Sunday, July 27th, 2014


2014-Opponent-Preview-Indiana

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

Overview

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

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

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

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

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

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

Offense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Special Teams

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

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

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

Outlook

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

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

What it means for Michigan

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

New in Blue: Wide Receiver Brian Cole

Saturday, July 26th, 2014


Brian Cole(Jeff Schrier, MLive)

Brian Cole – WR | 6-2, 190 | Saginaw, Mich. – Heritage
ESPN: 4-star, #8 ATH Rivals: 4-star, #7 ATH 247: 4-star, #2 ATH Scout: 4-star, #5 WR
Other top offers: Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Tennessee

Michigan’s annual BBQ at the Big House kicked off with a bang on Saturday afternoon with the commitment of the state of Michigan’s top-rated prospect, wide receiver Brian Cole. Cole announced his commitment shortly after 1 p.m. EST via Twitter.

Cole is a consensus four-star recruit in the 2015 class and rated in the top 150 nationally by each of the four major recruiting services. 247 Sports ranks Cole the highest, listing him as the No.2 athlete in the class and 42nd overall. Rivals has him as the seventh-best athlete and 106th-best overall prospect, while Scout lists him as the fifth-best receiver, and ESPN has him as the eighth-best athlete and 137th-best overall prospect.

Heading into his senior year of high school, Cole already has ideal size. All four sites list him at 6’2″, while there is some disagreement about his weight. 247 and Rivals list him at 190-pounds, ESPN at 199, and Scout at 210. Regardless, by the time he shows up in Ann Arbor around this time next year, he’ll have the size to contribute immediately. And while he could play defensive back, Michigan has been recruiting him at receiver all the way.

Scout’s Allen Trieu had this to say about Cole: “Good sized kid who carries his 200-plus pounds very well. Shows very good ability in space and change of direction for a bigger kid. He is a good open field runner with legitimate speed. He has played a lot of tailback and safety, but shows good natural hands and ball skills. Having not played as much receiver, refining his route running is key but he has the tools to project to multiple positions in college.”

As the top-rated prospect in the state, this was thought to be a head-to-head battle between Michigan and Michigan State all along, even though he also held an offer from Ohio State. He had been considered a Michigan State lean up until this weekend. But when word broke earlier in the week that he would be on campus over the weekend and fellow in-state commit, quarterback Alex Malzone, would be with him, it was a good sign for the Maize and Blue.

Cole is the first wide receiver in the 2015 class, but joins the last commitment Michigan received, tight end Chris Clark, as highly-rated pass-catchers in the class. He’s the ninth commitment so far, the fifth on the offensive side of the ball, and is now the highest-rated commit in the class.

With dozens of other recruits on campus this weekend for the BBQ at the Big House, Cole may not be the only commitment of the weekend. Stay tuned for more updates.

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

Friday, July 25th, 2014


Big-Ten-position-rankings-header-CB

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

Previously

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

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

(AP)

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

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

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

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

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

(Jonathan Quilter, Columbus Dispatch)

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

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

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

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

(Jason Plotkin, The York Daily Record)

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

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

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

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

(Rick Osentoski, USA Today Sports)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Gary A. Vasquez, USA Today Sports)

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 24th, 2014


Big-Ten-position-rankings-header-CB

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

Previously

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

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

(Meghan White, The Daily Northwestern)

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

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

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

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

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

(Bruce Chapman, Winston-Salem Journal)

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

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

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

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

(Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images)

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

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

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

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

(Jim Davidson, The Ozone)

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

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

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

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

(Amanda Snyder, Minnesota Daily)

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

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

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

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

The five greatest eras of Michigan football

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014


The following story was written for our annual Michigan football season preview magazine, In the Huddle: Michigan by Lindy’s Sports. However, due to the abrupt closing of their primary Midwest distributor in June, they were unable to publish the Michigan, Ohio State, or Notre Dame magazines this year. 

One hundred and thirty-five years ago, Michigan football was born. On May 30, 1879, the first official University of Michigan football team participated in its first game against Racine College. The game was played in Chicago, Illinois, and was attended by 500 spectators. Michigan’s Irving Kane Pond scored the contest’s only touchdown, leading Michigan to a 1-0 victory. Yes, touchdowns were worth just a single point in 1879.

Things have changed a bit for Michigan football since that historic day in May 1879. On August 30, 2014, the Wolverines will kick off their 135th season against Appalachian State. The game will be played in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and attended by more than 110,000 spectators. It is highly probable more than one touchdown will be scored, and, when they are, they will be worth six points, not a measly one.

Despite these variations, there has been one relative constant the past 135 years: Michigan’s stature in college football. Since competing against Racine College in 1879, Michigan has established itself as one of the most storied college football programs. No school has more all-time wins than Michigan. Only one school has a higher all-time winning percentage than Michigan, and it is only by six one-hundredths of a percentage point, too. The Wolverines also have 11 national championships, 23 undefeated seasons, 42 conference titles, 43 bowl appearances, three Heisman Trophy winners, and 129 first-team All-Americans. These are the numbers of a program that has been the cream of the crop for multiple stretches of time. Therefore, let’s reflect on the five eras of Michigan football that made it one of the most prestigious programs in the nation.

1901-05: The “Point-a-Minute” Era

1901 Michigan team

After the 1900 season, Michigan head coach Langdon Lea resigned. Needing a new coach for the following season, Michigan’s athletic director, Charles A. Baird, extended an offer to Fielding H. Yost, which Yost accepted. When Yost first arrived in Ann Arbor, he famously ran up State Street and proclaimed to a reporter, “Michigan isn’t going to lose a game.” Yost delivered on his guarantee.

In Yost’s first season, Michigan achieved a perfect 11-0 record, won the inaugural Rose Bowl, and claimed the program’s first national championship. Yet this is not even Michigan’s most impressive feat. En route to a perfect record, Michigan outscored all of its opponents by a 550-to-0 margin. In fact, one week, the Wolverines scored 22 touchdowns in 38 minutes of play against Buffalo. The game was so out of hand that Buffalo quit with 15 minutes still left to play. And Buffalo was not the only Michigan opponent to surrender early. Michigan’s 1901 campaign remains of the most dominant seasons, if not the most, in college football history. It also ushered in the “Point-a-Minute” era.

From 1901 to 1905, Yost’s squads were known as the “Point-a-Minute” teams. Why? Michigan’s offense was so proficient that it scored 2,821 points those five seasons, averaging nearly one point scored for every minute of play. Accordingly, the Wolverines did not suffer a single loss in their first 56 games under Yost, compiling a 55-0-1 record. They won national championships in 1901, 1902, 1903, and 1904. They also were in line to capture their fifth consecutive national title in 1905, defeating their first 12 opponents by a 495-to-0 margin. But the University of Chicago upset Michigan, 2-0, in the season finale and handed Yost his first loss at Michigan. The loss marked the end of Yost’s “Point-a-Minute” teams and arguably the most dominant dynasty in college football.

1922-26: The End of Yost’s Reign

1925 Michigan team

Two decades later, Yost still was the coach at Michigan. After the “Point-a-Minute” era, Michigan continued to be successful under Yost, but conference championships were few and far between. However, the Wolverines returned to their championship-winning ways as the sun began to set on Yost’s tenure as Michigan’s coach.

In 1922 and 1923, Michigan did not lose a single game. In 1922, Michigan went 6-0-1, winning a share of its second Big Ten championship since 1906. The following season, the Wolverines were a perfect 8-0-0 and locked up their sixth national championship under Yost. Yost then retired as coach to focus on his duties as Michigan’s athletic director. However, his replacement, George Little, left Michigan after one season. Yost decided to return to his old post on the sideline for one last stint. Why? He saw an opportunity to revolutionize the game.

In 1925 and 1926, Michigan had quarterback Benny Friedman and receiver Bennie Oosterbaan. During those times, teams did not throw the football unless they were desperate for a big play. Instead, teams committed their entire offense to running the football. But this changed with Friedman and Oosterbaan. Friedman displayed passing skills that no previous quarterback ever had, while Oosterbaan became the prototype for an athletic, finesse receiver who could be a downfield threat. Together, they excited audiences weekly as Friedman connected with Oosterbaan for passing touchdown after passing touchdown. Accordingly, the duo became known as “The Benny-to-Bennie Show.”

Not only was their “show” exciting, it was quite productive, too. Friedman and Oosterbaan led Michigan to back-to-back conference championships in 1925 and 1926. In fact, Yost called his 1925 squad “the greatest football team I ever coached” and “the greatest football team I ever saw in action.” He even thought that the 1925 team was better than his “Point-a-Minute” teams. However, the 1925 squad failed to win a national title because it lost to Northwestern, 3-2, in the middle of a heavy rainstorm. They were the only three points Michigan allowed all year. After the 1926 season, Yost retired as Michigan’s coach for the second time. This time, it would stick. Yost’s reign over college football ended. 

1930-33: Kipke’s Kingdom

Michigan 1933

But Michigan’s reign over college football did not end with Yost’s second retirement. In 1929, acting as Michigan’s athletic director, Yost hired Harry Kipke as Michigan’s new coach. Kipke used his first season to mold Michigan into the program he wanted to take into battle. By his second season in 1930, Michigan once again was ready to fight as a college football powerhouse.

In 1930 and 1931, Michigan was a serious championship contender, but a few slipups here and there cost Kipke and the Wolverines their chances. In 1930, the Wolverines posted an 8-0-1 record and their first undefeated season since 1923. Michigan shared a piece of the Big Ten championship with Northwestern, but a scoreless draw against Michigan State prevented Michigan from earning the national crown. Next season, Michigan’s defense was a force with which to be reckoned. The Wolverines shut out eight of their 10 foes and allowed only 27 points all year. But 20 of those points were allowed in one game. The result was a 20-7 loss to Ohio State. Although Michigan’s 8-1-1 record was sufficient to capture its second straight Big Ten title, the Wolverines were one mistake away from a national championship yet again.

But Michigan rectified its errors in 1932 and 1933. In 1932, there were no losses or ties to foil Michigan’s national championship dreams. The Wolverines finished with a perfect 8-0-0 record. Michigan rode its defense to the program’s seventh national title and Kipke’s first. The Wolverines shut out six of their eight opponents and allowed only 13 points all year. In 1933, Michigan went 7-0-1. The Wolverines’ only blemish was a scoreless stalemate against Minnesota. Nonetheless, unlike the 1930 campaign, Michigan had done enough to be crowned the national champion for the second straight season. Overall, from 1930 to 1933, Kipke was king, leading Michigan to a 31-1-3 record, four straight Big Ten championships and back-to-back national titles.

1947-50: The Mad Magicians

Michigan 1947

Fritz Crisler became Kipke’s successor in 1938. Crisler made his mark on the Michigan program early in his tenure. When he first arrived in Ann Arbor, Crisler presented Michigan with the famous winged football helmet. Supposedly, he wanted his players to wear the winged helmet, so his quarterback could locate his receivers downfield. Nonetheless, the winged helmet has become one of the iconic symbols of Michigan football. But it was not until the end of his tenure when Crisler made his biggest contribution not only to Michigan, but to all of college football.

Prior to 1947, teams played their best players on both offense and defense. However, in 1941, the NCAA implemented a new rule that allowed players to enter or leave at any point during the game. Crisler took advantage of this rule in 1947 when he divided his team into “offensive” and “defensive” specialists. This became known as “two-platoon football” and would forever change how the game of football would be played.

With specialized units on both offense and defense, Michigan mastered both sides of the line of scrimmage. This was especially the case on offense. Michigan deployed seven different formations and an array of trick plays. There were double reverses, buck-reverse laterals, crisscrosses, quick-hits, and spins. These plays, along with the Wolverines’ endless substitutions, created a level of deception and chaos that no one had ever seen on the gridiron. Accordingly, the media nicknamed the 1947 team the “Mad Magicians.”  The Mad Magicians won both the Big Ten and national championship. Crisler retired after the season, but two-platoon football propelled the Wolverines to three more Big Ten titles and another national title the following three years.

1969-78: The Ten-Year War

OSU-Michigan banner

Michigan versus Ohio State. Maize and Blue versus Scarlet and Gray. It is arguably the greatest rivalry in all of sports. And this was never more the case than when it was Bo Schembechler versus Woody Hayes. When Michigan hired Schembechler prior to the 1969 season, the Wolverines were a shell of their former selves. They had endured multiple losing seasons the previous two decades and had wandered into mediocrity. On the other hand, Hayes had transformed the Buckeyes into a juggernaut and one of the best college football programs in the nation.

In Schembechler’s first meeting against Hayes in 1969, no one outside the Michigan locker room expected the Wolverines to win. Ohio State rode a 22-game winning streak into the matchup, which included a 50-14 rout over Michigan the previous season. Some even considered the Buckeyes to be the best team of all-time. The Wolverines did not care. Michigan jumped out to a 24-12 halftime lead and held on to upset Ohio State by the same score with the help of seven OSU turnovers. Not only was Michigan’s victory considered one of the most historic upsets in college football, it ignited the heated “Ten-Year War.”

Under Schembechler and Hayes, respectively, Michigan and Ohio State were by far the two best Big Ten teams from 1969 to 1978. Michigan’s record against non-Ohio State teams those seasons was 91-11-2. Ohio State’s record against non-Michigan teams those seasons was 84-15-2. Consequently, both schools always were looking ahead to their rivalry showdown in the regular-season finale because they knew that outcome would determine the Big Ten champion, the Big Ten’s representative in the Rose Bowl, and, in some cases, the national champion. Despite winning only two of the first seven matchups, Michigan beat Ohio State three straight times from 1976 to 1978 to win the Ten-Year War with a 5-4-1 record. During this run, the Wolverines clinched at least a share of eight Big Ten championships and appeared in five Rose Bowls. The Ten-Year War brought Michigan football back from the dead and raised its rivalry with Ohio State to an unprecedented level.

Since the Ten-Year War, Michigan has had some very successful stretches of success. From 1988 to 1992, the Wolverines won five straight Big Ten titles. Then, from 1997 to 2000, Michigan claimed its 11th national championship in 1997, three Big Ten titles, and four straight bowl victories. But those teams did not exude the superiority and dominance that Michigan did in those earlier eras. Those earlier eras made Michigan football what it is today. And, on August 30, 2014, Michigan hopes to begin a new one that tops all of them.

Predicting Michigan: The secondary

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014


Predicting-Michigan-Secondary

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Michigan(Rick Osentoski, USA Today Sports)

Greg Mattison owns all of the tools to turn what was a shaky secondary in 2013 into a strength of the defense during his fourth season under Brady Hoke at Michigan.

Last season Michigan’s tendency to surrender the big play allowed teams to hang around before eventually costing the Wolverines in a late comeback by Penn State in Happy Valley. This unit has all the tools to shut down Big Ten receivers, but a few key players need to make major spring adjustments.

The Starters

Blake Countess was the clear-cut top defensive back for Michigan during the 2013 season, snatching a team-high six interceptions and taking on opponents’ best receivers every week. But this is an important offseason for the redshirt junior, as his ability to turn when the ball is in flight stands between him being a good defender and perhaps becoming one of the best in the conference. Countess often got beat despite tight coverage because he was looking at the receiver rather than finding the ball. If he can make an adjustment to look for the pass while staying in front of his man, offensive coordinators might stop throwing his way.

Countess was joined in 2013 by Raymon Taylor, who made 12 starts and grabbed four interceptions of his own as a junior. Big Ten quarterbacks were much more willing to throw at Taylor last season, and he was largely outmatched by most of the tougher receivers. Taylor is likely to start at cornerback, so his improvement through the offseason is one of the most important factors in improving the defense as a whole.

If Countess ends up playing the majority of his minutes at nickelback it will make room for talented sophomore Jourdan Lewis, who caught two interceptions during the spring game and sparked a buzz among the defensive coaches during the early spring. Much like Taylor and Countess, Lewis is around 5’10″ and 175 pounds. He played a limited role as a freshman, but did appear in eight games and batted down two passes.

Jarrod Wilson is ready to become the full-time starter at safety after picking up two interceptions and 50 tackles as a sophomore. Wilson gives the Michigan secondary an aggressive ball hawk that loves to support the running game. Mattison takes advantage of the junior’s versatility to send him into the backfield when he’s not dropping back in coverage.

The other safety position appears to be wide open for a cast of younger players trying to earn a starting job. Dymonte Thomas spent some time in the secondary as a freshman, but Delano Hill took most of the first-team snaps during the spring game. One of these sophomores will separate themselves during the offseason, but they are both in the running heading into fall camp.

Career Stats – Countess
Year Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF P Def INT
2011 30 14 44 0 1.5 1 6 0
2012 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
2013 26 20 46 0 2.0 0 4 6
Totals 56 34 90 0 3.5 1 10 6
Career Stats – Taylor
Year Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF P Def INT
2011 1 1 2 0 0 0 0 0
2012 33 12 45 0 0 0 1 2
2013 61 25 86 0.5 1.5 0 9 4
Totals 95 38 133 0.5 1.5 0 10 6
Career Stats – Lewis
Year Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF P Def INT
2013 14 3 17 0 0 0 2 0
Totals 14 3 17 0 0 0 2 0
Career Stats – Wilson
Year Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF P Def INT
2012 4 4 8 0 0 0 0 0
2013 28 22 50 0 2.0 0 2 2
Totals 32 26 58 0 2.0 0 2 2
Career Stats – Thomas
Year Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF P Def INT
2013 5 2 7 0 0 0 0 0
Totals 5 2 7 0 0 0 0 0
Career Stats – Hill
Year Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF P Def INT
2013 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 0
Totals 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 0

Veteran Depth

Michigan developed an abundance of depth at the cornerback position during 2013 as Mattison used a packed rotation while trying to find players that could hang with Big Ten receivers. Though many of his combinations faltered, Michigan now boasts plenty of corners to make the spring competition more productive.

Senior Delonte Hollowell hopes to play the most important role of his career in 2014 as he tries to crack the lineup behind a host of younger players. Hollowell has played sparingly at cornerback throughout his Michigan career, including four times as a backup last season. The Detroit native contributes predominantly on special teams and will need a strong offseason to stay in the mix for a secondary position.

The perfect scenario for Michigan’s defense would include sophomore Channing Stribling stepping up during camp and earning a major role in the secondary. Stribling offers the Wolverines a weapon that many of the other cornerbacks lack: Size. At 6’2″, the sophomore is equipped with the tools to defend some of the biggest and most dominant receivers in the Big Ten if he can earn a spot in the rotation before August 30.

Career Stats – Hollowell
Year Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF P Def INT
2011 5 1 6 0 0 0 0 0
2012 1 3 4 0 0 0 0 0
2013 1 1 2 0 0 0 0 0
Totals 7 5 12 0 0 0 0 0
Career Stats – Stribling
Year Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF P Def INT
2013 14 2 16 0 0 1 0 0
Totals 14 2 16 0 0 1 0 0

Newcomers

Michigan fans are eagerly awaiting Hoke’s most prized recruit as a head coach: Jabrill Peppers. The five-star defensive back owns the talent to step on campus and start at cornerback right away, and Mattison will likely give him every opportunity to do so. Though the early comparisons to Charles Woodson are premature, Peppers arrives at Michigan with as much talent as any recruit in recent memory and could greatly improve the defense single-handedly. In Drew’s latest mailbag last week, he projected Peppers to start the season as a reserve nickelback, but eventually snag the starting strong safety spot. The ideal situation would be if Hill or Thomas can win the spot and Peppers gets his feet wet at nickelback, but if Peppers does beat out the other two, he’ll be well on his way to living up to the hype.

2014 opponent preview: Utah

Monday, July 21st, 2014


2014-Opponent-Preview-Utah

Last week we previewed the team that we feel will be the third-easiest on Michigan’s schedule this fall, the Minnesota Golden Gophers. It followed our previews of Appalachian State and Miami (Ohio). Today, we’re taking a look at the fourth-easiest opponent, the Utah Utes.

Overview

Schedule
Date Opponent
Aug. 28 Idaho State
Sept. 6 Fresno State
Sept. 20 at Michigan
Sept. 27 Washington State
Oct. 4 at UCLA
Oct. 16 at Oregon State
Oct. 25 USC
Nov. 1 at Arizona State
Nov. 8 Oregon
Nov. 15 at Stanford
Nov. 22 Arizona
Nov. 29 at Colorado

In our Minnesota preview, we touched upon the upward trajectory in which Jerry Kill has the program headed. Utah, on the other hand, is going the other way. After taking over from Urban Meyer following a 12-0 2004 campaign, Kyle Whittingham rebuilt the program and went from 7-5 to 8-4 to 9-3 to 13-0 in four consecutive seasons. The latter included a 25-23 win in the Big House and a Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama. And while there was nowhere else to climb, the Utes continued their success with back-to-back 10-3 seasons in 2009 and 2010. But Whittingham’s squad went 8-5 in 2011 and 5-7 in each of the past two years, leaving one to wonder whether Whittingham’s early success was more due to Meyer’s recruits than his own coaching acumen.

A closer look into last season shows that Utah wasn’t quite as bad as the record indicates. The Utes took care of business against an FCS foe, Weber State, 70-7, and Pac-12 bottom-feeder Colorado; won rivalry games against 9-5 Utah State and on the road against 8-5 BYU; and upset Stanford, 27-21. But it was the losses that show how close the team was to a much better season. Utah lost to Oregon State by three, 51-48; knocked on the UCLA redzone with a chance to tie in the final minute; and gave up a 12-point fourth-quarter lead to Arizona State. Coming close doesn’t count for anything, but it does show that a couple of bounces going the right way could have turned a 5-7 season into an 8-4 one with a bowl game. Of course, there was still a 23-point loss to Oregon, 11-point loss to Arizona, 16-point loss to USC, and 12-point loss to Washington State, so before we read too much into the close losses, let’s take a look at what this year’s team presents.

Offense

Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2013 Stats
QB Travis Wilson 6’7″, 240 133-237 for 1,827 yds, 16 TD, 16 INT; 81 rush, 386 yds, 5 TD
RB Bubba Poole 6’1″, 197 607 yds (4.1 avg), 2 TD
WR Dres Anderson 6’2″, 190 53 rec. for 1,002 yds, 7 TD
WR Kenneth Scott 6’3″, 208
WR Delshawn McClellon 5’9″, 169 9 rec. for 195 yds, 0 TD
TE Westlee Tonga 6’4″, 252 2 rec. for 28 yds, 0 TD (injured for season, Week 4)
LT Jeremiah Poutasi 6’4″, 320 12 starts (22 career starts)
LG Junior Salt 6’2″, 315 12 starts (12 career starts)
C Siaosi Aiono 6’2″, 305 8 starts (8 career starts)
RG Salesi Uhatafe 6’4″, 315
RT Isaac Asiata 6’4″, 310 4 starts (4 career starts)

After ranking 66th nationally in scoring offense (29.2 points per game), 76th in total offense (397 yards per game), 72nd in rushing offense (160.8 yards per game), and 62nd in passing offense (236.3 yards per game), Whittingham demoted offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson to running backs coach and hired former Wyoming head coach Dave Christensen to run the offense. Christensen served as offensive coordinator at Missouri from 1997-2008, where he built one of the most dynamic offenses in the country. He had some success at Wyoming in his first head coaching gig, being named Mountain West Coach of the Year in 2011, but was fired after a 5-7 season in 2013. Back at offensive coordinator, he’ll have the task of replacing five starters and turning a middling offense into a potent one.

Dual-threat quarterback Travis Wilson had highs and lows last season and will look for consistency under new offensive coordinator Dave Christensen (Tom Smart, Utah Sports Information)

Dual-threat quarterback Travis Wilson had highs and lows last season and will look for consistency under new offensive coordinator Dave Christensen (Tom Smart, Utah Sports Information)

It all starts with junior quarterback Travis Wilson, who had his share of struggles last season — six interceptions in the loss to UCLA and 16 on the season — but put together a fantastic performance against Stanford’s stingy defense, completing over 67 percent of his passes for 234 yards and two touchdowns. For the season, he completed just 56.1 percent of his passes for 1,827 yards, 16 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions. He also added 386 yards rushing and five touchdowns on 4.8 yards per carry. At 6’7″, 240, he’s a big guy, which aids his running ability. But it doesn’t make him any less susceptible to injuries. He missed parts of games last season with a shoulder injury and missed the final three games after suffering a concussion against Arizona State. If he is fully healthy this fall, Wilson will benefit from the tutelage of Christensen, who guided the likes of Brad Smith and Chase Daniel at Missouri.

Wilson has one playmaker to throw to in Dres Anderson, but the other three of Utah’s top four pass catchers from 2013 are gone. Anderson caught 53 passes for 1,002 yards and seven touchdowns. He had 100-yard receiving games in four of the first five and caught touchdowns in five of the first six. He ranked 12th nationally with 18.9 yards per catch, but only two (Texas A&M’s Mike Evans and LSU’s Odell Beckham Jr.) of the 11 in front of him had more yards.

Kenneth Scott missed last season after suffering an ankle injury in the first quarter of the season opener, and his return will be a welcome sight. The former four-star recruit caught 32 passes for 360 yards and three touchdowns as a redshirt sophomore in 2012. Sophomore Delshawn McClellon is a safe bet to be the third receiver. He played in six games as a true freshman, mostly on special teams, but saw action at receiver against Oregon, and is said to be the fastest player on the team. Junior college transfer Kaelin Clay could also factor in at the position. Fifth-year senior tight end Westlee Tonga missed most of 2013 with an injury, but has been around for a while and will likely replace Jake Murphy, who caught 25 passes for 417 yards and five scores a year ago.

Last year’s leading rusher, Bubba Poole, returns after rushing for 607 yards and two touchdowns on 4.1 yards per carry. Kelvin York, who led the Utes with six touchdowns, but rushed for just 463 yards, is gone, as is the next-best running back, Lucky Radley. That leaves Poole as the only returning running back with more than 100 yards rushing or 15 carries. But he’s not guaranteed to start. That’s because Utah got a junior college transfer, Devontae Booker, who could win the job. He rushed for 1,472 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2012 at American River College before sitting out 2013 to become academically eligible to transfer to Utah. Even with a year off, Booker was the star of spring practice.

The offensive line has to replace center Vyncent Jones and left guard Jeremiah Tofaeono, but does have some experience returning, notably Jeremiah Poutasi. The 6’6″, 320-pound junior started all 12 games at left tackle last season and started 10 games at right tackle in 2012. He’ll likely remain on the left this fall. Junior Salt has the next-most career starts returning, having started all 12 games at right guard a year ago. He will move over to the left side to pair with Poutasi. Siaosi Aiono started eight games at right tackle last season but will slide to center this fall to replace Jones. Replacing him at right tackle will be sophomore Isaac Asiata, who started the final three games a year ago. Finally, redshirt freshman Salesi Uhatafe will get the nod at right guard after winning the job in the spring.

Defense

Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2013 Stats
DE Nate Orchard 6’4″, 255 50 tackles, 9.0 TFL, 3.5 sacks
DT Viliseni Fauonuku 5’10″, 285 14 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks
DT Sese Ianu 6’2″, 290 8 tackles
DE Hunter Dimick 6’3″, 270 30 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 1 FF
OLB Uaea Masina 6’0″, 222 7 tackles
MLB Jason Whittingham 6’2″, 240 81 tackles, 5 TFL, 1 sack, 4 PD, 1 FF
OLB Jared Norris 6’2″, 237 64 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 2 PD, 2 FF
CB Davion Orphey 6’0″, 185 33 tackles, 5 PD
CB Reginald Porter 5’11″, 181 10 tackles, 1 FR, 1 PD
FS Eric Rowe 6’1″, 201 69 tackles, 1 TFL, 0.5 sacks, 7 PD
SS Brian Blechen 6’2″, 215 (injured)

Just like the offense, Utah’s defense hovered around the middle of FBS. It ranked 73rd in scoring defense (28 points per game), 61st in total defense (397.7  yards per game), 20th in rush defense (130.3 yards per game), and 111th in pass defense (267.3 yards per game). The rush defense was the obvious strength and the pass defense the weakness, and with only five starters returning, Whittingham has his work cut out for him.

The best player of the defense is defensive end Nate Orchard. The senior was named honorable mention All-Pac-12 in 2012 and fueled Utah’s upset of Stanford last fall with two sacks and two forced fumbles. While Utah has to replace both interior linemen, Orchard is a very good player to build a line around. The other end is redshirt sophomore Hunter Dimick, who started four games a year ago and recorded 30 tackles, 2.5 for loss, and two sacks. Utah State transfer Jason Fanaika could also make some noise and push Dimick for the spot.

Three-year starting safety Eric Rowe has great size and speed and could play either free safety or corner this fall (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

Three-year starting safety Eric Rowe has great size and speed and could play either free safety or corner this fall (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

On the inside, Tenny Palepoi, who led the line with 53 tackles, 9.5 for loss, and 4.5 sacks last season, is gone, as is LT Tuipulotu, who tallied 42, three, and 1.5. Redshirt junior Viliseni Fauonuku played in seven games and started one, recording 14 tackles and two sacks. He earned one of the starting tackle spots in spring practice. Senior Sese Ianu should start at the other tackle spot after missing spring ball with an injury. He played in 10 games last season and made eight tackles.

While Utah does return three of the top four linebackers from last season, it’s a unit that is in trouble. Last year’s top linebacker, Trevor Reilly, is gone. He led the Utah defense with 100 tackles, 16 for loss, and 8.5 sacks and was drafted by the New York Jets in the seventh round. To make matters worse, Jacoby Hale, who started four games in 2013 and was in line to start this fall, tore his ACL in spring practice, and Miami transfer, Gionni Paul, who was also slated to start, broke his foot in the spring. Paul is likely to return at some point this season, but probably not by the Michigan game.

The good news for Whittingham is that he has his nephew, Jason Whittingham, to build around. The redshirt junior middle linebacker started the first 10 games a year ago before an injury kept him out of the last two, but he still finished second on the team with 81 tackles and added five for loss and one sack. He earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors. Jared Norris started seven games last fall and should get the nod at the rover position. He finished fifth on the team with 64 tackles in addition to two sacks. The third starting linebacker will likely be Uaea Masina, who contributed seven tackles on special teams as a true freshman last year. After that, defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake will have to find some depth.

The secondary has solid experience at safety in the form of free safety Eric Rowe and hybrid linebacker Brian Blechen. The former started all 12 games last season and finished third on the team with 69 tackles and second with seven passes defended. He was a first-team freshman All-American in 2011, and with 35 games of starting experience, he’s the leader of the secondary. The latter missed 2013 with a medical redshirt, but started nine games in 2012 (eight at strong safety and one at rover) and led the team in tackles per game. Like Rowe, Blechen was a freshman All-American in 2010, and he was also named honorable mention All-Pac-12 in 2011 and 2012.

While Rowe and Blechen form an experienced safety unit, Utah has to replace both cornerbacks. There’s a chance Rowe could play corner this fall, which would certainly help on the edge. He split time between the two positions in the spring. Senior Davion Orphey enters fall camp looking to prove himself for one starting job. He tallied 33 tackles and five passes defended a year ago while starting eight games. His performance in fall camp could determine whether Rowe stays at safety or switches to corner. Reginald Porter is the other starting corner and is the second-fastest defensive back (4.43) behind Rowe (4.39). He started two games last season and recorded 10 tackles. The nickel back is redshirt sophomore Justin Thomas, who notched 25 tackles, three for loss, and two passes defended while starting four games in 2013.

Special Teams

Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2013 Stats
PK Andy Phillips 5’10″, 207 17-of-20, Long 51
P Tom Hackett 5’11″, 187 43.4 avg, 27 in-20
KR Dres Anderson 6’2″, 190 11 ret, 21.1 avg.
PR Geoff Norwood 5’8″, 175 27 ret, 8.6 avg.

Both kicker Andy Phillips and punter Tom Hackett return. Phillips hit 17-of-20 field goals as a redshirt freshman last season, earning honorable mention All-Pac-12 and third-team freshman All-American honors. He was a member of the U.S. Ski Team from 2007-11 and had never played football before walking onto the team in 2012. Hackett led the Pac-12 with a punt average of 43.4 yards and set a school record for punt yards in a season (3,300). In his first two seasons, he has downed 42 percent of his punts inside the 20, 18 percent inside the 10, and just seven percent have resulted in touchbacks.

Dres Anderson averaged 21.1 yards per kick return last season, which would have ranked seventh in the conference if he had enough returns to qualify. Fellow receiver Geoff Norwood ranked fourth in the Pac-12 in punt returns, averaging 8.6 yards per return.

Outlook

As long as injuries don’t strike again, the defense should carry the team at least until Christensen’s offense takes hold. The starting 11 should be experienced and talented enough to form an impressive unit, but the concerns are depth. The defense should be able to keep the Utes in most games, especially early on. Wilson is a fun player to watch and should provide some fireworks under Christensen’s guidance. The key will be eliminating the mistakes that plagued him in 2013. If he can cut down on the mistakes and continue his relationship with Anderson, and if either Poole or Booker can break out, the offense could be pretty dangerous. But that’s a lot of ifs.

A tough schedule that sees the Utes face 10 teams that went bowling last season and travel to Michigan, UCLA, Arizona State, and Stanford will keep Whittingham’s squad from making a run in the conference. But this is certainly a team that should break a two-year bowl drought. Six or seven wins should be expected and anything above that will be seen as an impressive season.

What it means for Michigan

Utah opens with Idaho State and Fresno State, both at home, before traveling to Ann Arbor. The former went just 3-9 last season, but the latter went 11-2 and is projected to challenge for the Mountain West title. However, the Bulldogs do have to replace two players who were taken in the first 53 picks of the NFL Draft, quarterback Derek Carr and receiver Davante Adams. Fresno State will be a test for Utah, but the Utes should be 2-0 heading into Ann Arbor, and they get a bye week between the Fresno State game and the Michigan game.

Michigan, meanwhile, will be coming off what should be a drubbing of Miami (Ohio) and should be either 3-0 or 2-1, depending on the outcome of the Week 2 trip to South Bend. The Utes will provide a good test for Michigan with their stout defense and good quarterback-receiver combo, but Michigan’s defense will have had three games to work out any early-season kinks and should be strong enough to shut down Utah’s offense. Don’t expect a blowout, but don’t expect a nail-biter either.

Predicting Michigan: The linebackers

Sunday, July 20th, 2014


Predicting-Michigan-LB

Ryan-Morgan(Gregory Shamus, Getty Images)

PreviouslyQuarterbacksRunning BacksWide ReceiversTight EndsOffensive Line

Despite the overall struggles of the defense for the majority of the 2013 season, the linebacking corps laid a solid foundation for Greg Mattison and carried the bulk of the load between a mediocre defensive line and frustrating secondary.

The unit took a huge blow during the 2013 offseason when its leader, Jake Ryan, tore his ACL and figured to miss the majority of the year. Ryan astonished the trainers by returning against Penn State on October 12, one week short of seven months after suffering the injury. The captain made an immediate impact by recording his first tackle for loss of the season.

Mattison will surely look to his linebackers to lead the defensive turnaround this season. Three of the most talented players on the Michigan roster will start for this unit and set the tone for an otherwise unproven defense.

The Starters

Ryan is a lock to start the season at middle linebacker for Michigan, coming off a year in which he won his second straight Roger Katcher Award for best Michigan linebacker despite missing the first five games of the season. He made the move from strong-side linebacker in the spring as a way to put the best player in the middle of the defense. Brady Hoke said that teams were able to run plays away from him and take him out of the play last season. The move to the middle will keep that from happening.

During his last full season, 2012, Ryan was clearly the most talented defensive player on the team, leading the team with 88  tackles, 16 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. The fifth-year senior has five forced fumbles and over 150 tackles in his Michigan career.

Alongside Ryan will be senior Desmond Morgan, perhaps the most consistent linebacker from a year ago. Morgan started all 13 games for Mattison and held the unit together during Ryan’s absence. Morgan snagged a critical interception at Connecticut to help Michigan escape a major upset bid and recorded 79 tackles to bring his career total up to 223.

The final piece to the starting linebacking corps will be James Ross III, who emerged as one of the best young players on the team in 2013. Ross played in 12 games as a sophomore, missing only the Ohio State game in which the defense allowed 393 yards on the ground. Ross recorded 85 tackles last season and will be crucial in the run-stopping game at strong-side linebacker.

Career Stats – Ryan
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF FR INT
34 99 56 155 7.5 31.5 5 3 0
Career Stats – Morgan
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF FR INT
36 107 116 223 2.5 14.0 1 2 1
Career Stats – Ross III
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF FR INT
25 67 54 121 2.0 8.0 2 1 0

Veteran Depth

A pair of juniors emerged from camp as potential contributors to the linebacker rotation after strong springs. Joe Bolden was one of the names that coaches talked about having an incredible off-season in early April, and he took first-team snaps at weak-side linebacker during the spring game. Morgan will almost certainly retain his starting position after a third fantastic season in a row, but Bolden has a chance to make a major impact after racking up over 50 tackles in 2013.

Bolden is joined by classmate Royce Jenkins-Stone in his battle to crack the starting lineup. Jenkins-Stone took most of the snaps at strong-side linebacker during the spring game, but he will almost certainly play behind Ross when the season begins. The junior has played just one game at linebacker in each of the last two seasons and hopes to play a more important role in 2014.

Sophomore Ben Gedeon played in six games at linebacker as a true freshman last season, but saw extended action against Ohio State, recording six tackles and a sack, flashing the potential he showed as a consensus four-star recruit. He’ll see increased action this fall rotating in for Morgan.

Career Stats – Bolden
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF FR INT
26 44 41 85 3.0 8.0 0 1 0
Career Stats – Jenkins-Stone
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF FR INT
25 5 6 11 0 0 0 0 0
Career Stats – Gedeon
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF FR INT
13 9 10 19 1.0 1.0 0 0 0

The Newcomers

Linebacker was a major focus for Brady Hoke during the 2014 recruiting process as he brought in three freshman to provide some added depth. Four-star Michael Ferns enrolled early and has been working with the coaches throughout the offseason. Ferns totaled over 130 tackles in each of his final three years in high school and gives Hoke an option behind Ryan on the inside.

Three-stars Jared Wangler and Noah Furbush will also join the defense in 2014 after committing to Michigan last summer. Wangler has a strong chance to see the field as a freshman as he offers help in the pass coverage game and spent much of his high school career in the secondary. Furbush could also earn some playing time with a strong summer, though the outside linebacking core is crowded.

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.