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

Thursday, August 14th, 2014


Big-Ten-position-rankings-header-Coaches

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

Previously

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

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

(Michael Conroy, AP)

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

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

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

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

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

(AP)

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

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

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

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

(Scott Boehm, Getty Images)

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

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

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

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

(Bruce Thorson, USA Today Sports)

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

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

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

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

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

(Charlie Neibergall, AP)

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 31st, 2014


Big-Ten-position-rankings-header-Safeties

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

Previously

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

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

(Lincoln Star Journal)

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

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

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

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

Nam Y. Huh, AP)

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

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

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

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

(Brian Ray, Hawkeyesports.com)

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

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

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

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

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

(Matthew O’Haren, USA Today Sports)

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

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

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

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

(Robert Hendricks)

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

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

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

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

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

Big Ten Media Days: Word clouding the Big Ten coaches

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014


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

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

Brady Hoke – Michigan

Hoke

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

Urban Meyer – Ohio State

Urban

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

Mark Dantonio – Michigan State

Dantonio

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

Bo Pelini – Nebraska

Pelini

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

James Franklin – Penn State

Franklin

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

Gary Andersen – Wisconsin

Andersen

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

Pat Fitzgerald – Northwestern

Fitzgerald

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

Kirk Ferentz – Iowa

Ferentz

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

Kevin Wilson – Indiana

Wilson

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

Jerry Kill – Minnesota

Kill

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

Randy Edsall – Maryland

Edsall

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

Tim Beckman – Illinois

Beckman

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

Kyle Flood – Rutgers

Flood

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

Darrell Hazell – Purdue

Hazell

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

Big Ten Media Days primer

Sunday, July 27th, 2014


B1G Media Days(@B1GFootball)

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

Overview

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

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

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

The schedule - Monday, July 28

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

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

The schedule - Tuesday, July 29

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

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

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

Thursday, July 17th, 2014


Big-Ten-position-rankings-header-LB

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

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

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

(247 Sports)

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

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

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

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

(MGoBlue.com)

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

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

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

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

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

(Keith Freeman, The Daily Targum)

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

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

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

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

(Karl Merton Ferron, The Baltimore Sun)

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

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

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

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

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

(Mara Ticcino, Collegian)

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 10th, 2014


Big Ten position rankings header-DL

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

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

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

(Adam Cairns, The Columbus Dispatch)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Brian Ray, The Gazette)

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

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

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

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

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

(Greg Bartram, USA Today Sports)

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

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

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

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

(Joe Robbins, Getty Images)

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

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

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

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

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

(Jerry Lai, USA Today Sports)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 19th, 2014


Big Ten position rankings header-WR

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

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

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

(Dan Harker, TheOzone.net)

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

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

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

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

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

(Jeff Gross, Getty Images)

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

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

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

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

(Eric Francis, Getty Images)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Mike McGinnis, Getty Images)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Hans Pennink, AP)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Countdown to kickoff: 74 days

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014


Countdown to kickoff-74(Melanie Maxwell, AnnArbor.com)

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

Thursday, June 12th, 2014


Big Ten position rankings header-RB

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

Previously: Quarterbacks part one, part two.

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

(Jay LaPrete, AP)

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

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

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

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

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

(Al Goldis, AP)

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

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

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

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

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

(Doug McSchooler, AP)

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

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

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

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

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

(Jamie Sabau, Getty Images)

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

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

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

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

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

(Morry Gash, AP)

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

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

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

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

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

Countdown to kickoff: 85 days

Friday, June 6th, 2014


Countdown to kickoff-85