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Posts Tagged ‘Northwestern’

Big Ten Media Days: Word clouding the Big Ten coaches

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014


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

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

Brady Hoke – Michigan

Hoke

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

Urban Meyer – Ohio State

Urban

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

Mark Dantonio – Michigan State

Dantonio

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

Bo Pelini – Nebraska

Pelini

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

James Franklin – Penn State

Franklin

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

Gary Andersen – Wisconsin

Andersen

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

Pat Fitzgerald – Northwestern

Fitzgerald

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

Kirk Ferentz – Iowa

Ferentz

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

Kevin Wilson – Indiana

Wilson

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

Jerry Kill – Minnesota

Kill

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

Randy Edsall – Maryland

Edsall

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

Tim Beckman – Illinois

Beckman

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

Kyle Flood – Rutgers

Flood

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

Darrell Hazell – Purdue

Hazell

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

Big Ten Media Days primer

Sunday, July 27th, 2014


B1G Media Days(@B1GFootball)

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

Overview

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

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

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

The schedule - Monday, July 28

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

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

The schedule - Tuesday, July 29

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

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

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

Thursday, July 24th, 2014


Big-Ten-position-rankings-header-CB

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

Previously

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

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

(Meghan White, The Daily Northwestern)

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

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

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

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

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

(Bruce Chapman, Winston-Salem Journal)

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

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

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

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

(Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images)

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

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

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

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

(Jim Davidson, The Ozone)

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

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

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

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

(Amanda Snyder, Minnesota Daily)

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 18th, 2014


Big-Ten-position-rankings-header-LB

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

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

5. Quinton Alston, Iowa | Senior – 6’1”, 232 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks QBH
2013 5 7 12 0 0 0
2012 2 3 5 0 0 0
2011 4 3 7 0.5 0 0
Career Totals 11 13 24 0.5 0 0
(Rob Howe, Scout.com)

(Rob Howe, Scout.com)

“Quinton who?” This likely is how many of you responded when you saw Iowa middle linebacker Quinton Alston’s name at No. 5 on this list. To those not following the Big Ten program residing in Iowa City, Alston is a complete unknown. In his first three seasons at Iowa, he was a reserve in 28 of the 29 games in which he participated and made only 24 total tackles. So why is a linebacker like Alston with such a bare resume in this top five? Because Alston is one of my biggest Big Ten sleepers for this fall.

Last season, Iowa trotted out one of the best all-around defenses in the nation. Both basic and advanced statistics agreed with this assessment. According to basic statistics, the Hawkeyes were sixth in national defense, ninth in scoring defense, 19th in rushing defense, and 17th in passing efficiency defense. According to advanced formulas, they were eighth in Defensive S&P+, seventh in Rushing Defense S&P+, and 13th in Passing Defense S&P+. These high rankings can be attributed in large part to Iowa’s trio of senior linebackers—James Morris, Anthony Hitchens, and Christian Kirksey. They were forces to be reckoned with in terms of their production. Last year alone, they combined for 322 tackles, 35.5 tackles-for-loss, 11.5 sacks, six forced fumbles, and six interceptions. They were the heart and soul of Iowa’s defense and propelled it to an elite level.

However, Iowa fans may not miss them as much as they anticipate. One significant reason why Morris, Hitchens, and Kirksey produced the statistics they did was due to the strength of Iowa’s defensive line. Nothing makes a linebacker look better than having a clean route to the gap he must fill. Last season, defensive tackles Carl Davis—a projected first-rounder—and Louis Trinca-Pasat held their ground against double teams every game. This allowed Iowa’s linebackers to plug holes at the line of scrimmage before offensive linemen could release to the next level. It also allowed Iowa’s linebackers to rack up the number of tackles they did. So, in a way, Morris, Hitchens, and Kirksey earned much of the credit for Davis, Trinca-Pasat, and the rest of the defensive line’s work.

This season, Davis and Trinca-Pasat return, as well as a third full-time starter along the defensive line, so there is little reason to think that Iowa’s new crop of linebackers will not be able to replace Morris, Hitchens, and Kirksey’s production for the most part. Enter: Alston. Just like those before him, Alston should be able to remain clean as Iowa’s defensive line wins the battle at the line of scrimmage. Plus, despite being a backup for his first three seasons, Alston has received heavy praise from his coaches for his ability and leadership. According to them, the only reason why Alston did not start the past two seasons was Morris and Hitchens. However, with both gone, Alston will be the one that finally will be in the spotlight. You may not have heard Alston’s name before you read this piece, but you will hear it plenty once the season begins.

4. Steve Longa, Rutgers | RS Sophomore – 6’1″, 220 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks QBH
2013 51 72 123 7.5 3.0 2
2012 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 51 72 123 7.5 3.0 2
(Mark Sullivan, MyCentralJersey.com)

(Mark Sullivan, MyCentralJersey.com)

Yes, I know what you are thinking: “Drew, are you telling me that there are two—TWO—Rutgers linebackers in this top 10?” Yes, this is what I am telling you. Yesterday, I claimed that Rutgers linebacker Kevin Snyder will be the eighth-best Big Ten linebacker next season. Today, I slot Rutgers linebacker Steve Longa at No. 4. Longa surprised folks with a splendid redshirt freshman campaign last year. Initially, Longa was not even supposed to be a linebacker. He was recruited by Rutgers as a safety and had practiced at linebacker for only a few months before the Scarlet Knights’ season opener. And, yet, it did not take very long for Longa to burst onto the scene. Longa recorded 123 tackles, which were the most on his team, the third-most in the AAC, and are the most among returning Big Ten players. He was consistent week in and week out, making at least seven tackles in 11 of 13 games and a minimum of 10 tackles in eight games. In addition, he registered 7.5 tackles-for-loss, three sacks, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, and four pass breakups. Longa was simply a playmaker in his first season on the field.

As I detailed in yesterday’s breakdown of Snyder, Longa was a member of a linebacker unit that was surprisingly exceptional against the run. Rutgers ranked fourth nationally in rushing defense (100.77 yards allowed per game) and fifth in yards allowed per carry (3.10). Even after removing sacks from those numbers, the Scarlet Knights rush defense still ranked up there with Michigan State and Wisconsin. To be fair, very few teams tried to run against Rutgers because they wanted to exploit one of the worst passing defenses. Offenses averaged only 32.45 carries per game against Rutgers, which was tied for the ninth-fewest against any defense in the country. Nonetheless, the yards-allowed-per-carry numbers speak for themselves: Rutgers—led by Longa, Snyder, and defensive lineman Darius Hamilton—could stop the run very well.

Next season, Longa will be featured as Rutgers’ weak-side linebacker rather than at middle linebacker. Given Longa’s size, listed at 6’1” and 220 pounds, this will suit him much better as Rutgers enters the Big Ten. His smaller stature could have given him serious problems if he was forced to take on larger Big Ten offensive linemen in the middle of the play—heck, it still might. However, on the outside, he will be shifted away from lead blockers and allowed to use his speed and agility to dart his way into the play to make tackles. It remains to be seen if Longa can post another 100-tackle season against a bigger and more competitive Big Ten. It also remains to be seen if Longa can improve his coverage skills, given just how abysmal Rutgers was in the back. Nonetheless, Longa still will only be a redshirt sophomore this fall. It will be a treat to see how much he improves in just his second year ever playing the linebacking position. He has the potential to really blossom next season. Yes, even at Rutgers. This is why you should not be surprised to hear that he is on Phil Steele’s preseason All-Big Ten first team.

3. Taiwan Jones, Michigan State | Senior – 6’3”, 252 lbs.
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks QBH
2013 38 29 67 7.0 0 1
2012 19 19 38 5.5 1.0 1
2011 3 15 18 0.5 0.5 0
Career Totals 60 63 123 13.0 1.5 2
(Danny Moloshok, AP)

(Danny Moloshok, AP)

If there is one thing college football fans have learned the past few seasons, it is that they should never doubt the caliber of Michigan State’s defense with head coach Mark Dantonio and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi in East Lansing. Yes, it was only last week when I declared that Michigan State defensive end Shilique Calhoun is overrated, but this does not mean I believe he is untalented or negatively impacting his team. In the past three seasons, Michigan State has been second, fifth, and sixth nationally in Defensive S&P+. And the Spartans have achieved this each year despite needing to replace key defensive players every season. So, when I see that their top two linebackers from 2013, Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, have graduated, I do not expect their defense to fall into a tailspin. Rather, I just expect the next linebacker in the queue to step up and become an All-Big Ten player.

Taiwan Jones will be that player in 2014. In the past two seasons, Jones has flashed his talent in stretches while spending his time at the Star linebacker position—essentially a hybrid on the outside. If there is one skill he has demonstrated in that time, it is that he is a dominant run-stopper that fills gaps effectively and is extremely difficult to block. In 2012, in 13 games, mostly as a reserve, he made 38 tackles, 5.5 of which were for a loss, sacked the quarterback once, and broke up three passes. Jones then followed that up with 67 tackles and seven tackles-for-loss as a full-time starter last season. It may seem odd that a full-time starting linebacker with fewer than 67 tackles is in the top three of this list. But low tackle numbers are to be expected when you are lined up alongside Bullough and Allen, who combined for 174 stops last season. So do not let Jones’ tackle totals fool you: Jones is a great talent at linebacker.

With Bullough and Allen gone, and the wizardry of Narduzzi still present, Jones will have a senior sendoff that a player of his caliber deserves. Jones will be leaving the Star spot to succeed Bullough at middle linebacker. As the middle linebacker, Jones will be the centerpiece of Michigan State’s defense, the one who organizes the defense, and the one who calls out the offense’s play. Further, in the middle, Jones will be involved in more plays and will have more opportunities to display his run-stuffing ability. Accordingly, the number of tackles he records this fall should skyrocket. The number may not surpass the 100-stop threshold, but it would be a surprise if he had less than 85 tackles and five tackles-for-loss in 2014. With this type of production on a defense that likely will remain one of the best in the conference—and possibly the nation—yet again, Jones should be recognized as one of the best linebackers in the Big Ten next year.

2. Chi Chi Ariguzo, Northwestern | 5th-yr Senior - 6’3″, 235 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks QBH
2013 62 44 106 6.0 2.0 3
2012 56 35 91 10.5 3.0 2
2011 14 18 32 1.5 0 1
2010 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 132 97 229 17.0 5.0 6
(Rafi Letzter, The Daily Northwestern)

(Rafi Letzter, The Daily Northwestern)

The Big Ten linebackers listed in these rankings thus far have been one-dimensional. Most have demonstrated that they are at their best when plugging holes the line of scrimmage, while some thrive when dropping back into coverage. But, because of the large exodus of Big Ten linebackers in the offseason, very few returning linebackers in this conference have proven they excel at all aspects of linebacking: finding the ball-carrier, pressuring the passer, and playing proper pass defense. One of these linebackers, though, is Northwestern’s Chi Chi Ariguzo.

Since Ariguzo became a fixture in the starting lineup in 2012, he has been one of the most versatile linebackers in the Big Ten. He has quite the knack for placing his helmet on the opponent’s ball-carrier. He made 91 tackles and 10.5 tackles-for-loss in 2012, which was the third-most and most on the Northwestern roster, respectively. Then, in 2013, Ariguzo achieved a 100-tackle season with 106 stops, including six for a loss. His average of 8.83 tackles per game that season were the fifth-most in the Big Ten. Ariguzo achieved these numbers because he can diagnose the offense’s play quickly and attack accordingly.

However, Ariguzo is not the type of linebacker that impacts the game only with tackles and tackles-for-loss. He also has been a turnover machine. In his past two seasons as a starter, Ariguzo has intercepted six passes, recovered five fumbles, and forced a fumble as well. The number that stands out the most is his six interceptions—and seven pass breakups. They indicate three things about Ariguzo’s splendid pass defense: (1) he gets the proper depth on his drops into coverage; (2) he knows how to bait the quarterback into throws that he can undercut; and (3) he has the hands to complete the play by making the interception. While his five fumble recoveries are nothing to scoff at, they are more the result of good luck or being in the right place at the right time rather than a reflection of his skill. Nonetheless, over the course of his two years as a starter, at both outside linebacker spots no less, Ariguzo averaged 98.5 tackles, 8.25 tackles-for-loss, 2.5 sacks, 2.5 fumble recoveries, three interceptions, and 3.5 pass breakups per season. Most linebackers would kill for one season with these numbers. Ariguzo has averaged them in a two-year span. It speaks to the versatility and production Ariguzo brings to this Northwestern program.

What is even more impressive about Ariguzo is that he has been able to do this with little assistance from his teammates. In his two years as a starter, Northwestern’s defense has been average at best. In 2012, the Wildcats finished 50th nationally in Defensive S&P+, 63rd in Rushing Defense S&P+, and 53rd in Passing Defense S&P+. In 2013, they finished 56th, 57th, and 73rd in the country, respectively. A review of Ariguzo’s game film reveals that he frequently needed to evade or fight through unblocked offensive linemen to make the plays he did. Unlike others on this, Ariguzo’s defensive line did not give him a clean path to ball-carriers.

And this should be the case once again in 2014. Nonetheless, he still will produce at an elite level because he has demonstrated an ability to play well in tight spaces and make plays when in coverage. At this point, Ariguzo is one of the few known commodities the Big Ten has at linebacker. We know what to expect from him. And what we expect is for Ariguzo to be the best all-around linebacker in the conference that stuffs all columns of the stat sheet. However, he does not quite have the potential for a monster season like the next linebacker on this list, which is why Ariguzo is ranked at No. 2.

1. Jake Ryan, Michigan | 5th-yr Senior – 6’3”, 235 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks QBH
2013 23 7 30 4.5 0 2
2012 56 32 88 16.0 4.5 2
2011 20 17 37 11.0 3.0 0
2010 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 99 56 155 31.5 7.5 4
(Gregory Shamus, Getty Images)

(Gregory Shamus, Getty Images)

Northwestern’s Chi Chi Ariguzo likely is the safest bet to be the Big Ten’s best linebacker in 2014. However, if you asked any follower of the Big Ten who will be the best at that position next season, the answer would be a near-consensus: Michigan’s Jake Ryan. Ryan was only a generic three-star recruit in high school, but rumors leaked during his redshirt season in 2010 that he had crazy athleticism and the potential to be a star. Michigan fans saw glimpses of this during his redshirt freshman campaign in 2011. Ryan had only 37 tackles in 13 games, but what intrigued fans of the Wolverines were his 11 tackles-for-loss. As Michigan’s strong-side linebacker in a 4-3 under scheme, Ryan was lined up as a quasi-defensive end and had a knack for knifing into the offensive backfield for big plays. This was never more evident than in Michigan’s Sugar Bowl victory against Virginia Tech when Ryan had four tackles-for-loss. It was a breakout performance for Ryan and left Michigan fans to wonder what they would see from him as a redshirt sophomore.

What Michigan fans saw was one of the best linebackers in the Big Ten. In 2012, Ryan blossomed into a star. He led the Wolverines in tackles (88), tackles-for-loss (16), sacks (4.5), and forced fumbles (four). His 16 tackles-for-loss were the third-most in the Big Ten. His four forced fumbles were tied for the most in the conference and tied a Michigan single-season record. Ryan’s unorthodox style left opposing offenses spinning in circles trying to find ways to prevent him from pitching his tent in the backfield. He had the speed to beat tight ends and offensive tackles off the edge. He had the lateral agility to disengage from blocks and then sneak past the blocker for tackles. And, for lack of a better term, Ryan looked like a maniac on the gridiron. But it was not as if he was undisciplined and failing to execute assignments. It was a controlled insanity. And it turned him into one of the Big Ten’s best linebackers.

With 27 tackles-for-loss and 7.5 sacks through just his first two seasons, even bigger things were expected from Ryan last season as a redshirt junior. However, any opportunity for Ryan to build upon his first two years ended in the spring when he tore his ACL. Like the athletic freak of nature that he is, Ryan was able to have surgery and fully rehab his knee in six months. This allowed Ryan to make his debut in Michigan’s sixth game of the season in mid-October against Penn State. To no one’s surprise, Ryan was a lesser version of his pre-injury self. He did not quite have the same explosiveness or burst, which limited his effectiveness on the field. In eight games, Ryan recorded only 30 tackles, 4.5 tackles-for-loss, and no sacks. It was not the year anyone expected from Ryan, but no one expected him to suffer such a serious knee injury in the spring.

Consequently, this is one of the two reasons why Ryan is not the safest pick to be the Big Ten’s best linebacker in 2014. Although it would be unfair to say that there is an alarming concern that Ryan will never fully regain the athleticism and agility he possessed prior to tearing his ACL in the spring of 2013, there still is a doubt that Michigan fans will never again see the same player they saw terrorize Big Ten offenses in 2012. The second reason is the uncertainty of Ryan’s move from strong-side linebacker in a 4-3 under—where he has spent the past three seasons—to middle linebacker in a 4-3 over. It is unknown just how quickly Ryan will be able to adjust to this new role.

However, I believe that Ryan will be better than ever in this new role. As the middle linebacker in a 4-3 over, he will be the most protected of all three linebackers in this scheme. It will be James Ross III and Desmond Morgan that more likely will have to deal with offensive linemen releasing into the second level. This will allow Ryan to go into seek-and-destroy mode—in which he flourishes—to plug holes and shoot through the gaps. And Ryan will benefit from having a larger defensive line in front of him this season than Michigan’s linebackers last year. He should be involved in more plays this season, and it would not be a surprise in the least he exceeded 100 tackles and 10 tackles-for-loss this season. He likely will be a monster for Michigan this season, which is why I would wager that he will be the Big Ten’s best linebacker in 2014.

What do you think? Do you agree with our list? Do you think that Jake Ryan will be the best linebacker in the Big Ten in 2014? Or do you think it will be someone else? And were there any glaring omissions from this list? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below. Next week, we will begin previewing the Big Ten’s best in the secondary.

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

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014


Big Ten position rankings header-OffensiveLine

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

10. Kaleb Johnson,  Rutgers | Senior – 6’4”, 305 lbs
Starts Games Played
2013 13 13
2012 13 13
2011 11 11
Career Totals 37 37
Kaleb Johnson

(ScarletKnights.com)

If one was to say that the Rutgers offensive line struggled mightily last season, that person still would be sugarcoating it. Rutgers’ offensive line faltered in all facets of run and pass blocking. The Scarlet Knights managed to post only 129.5 rushing yards per game and 3.70 rushing yards per carry. These averages ranked 100th and 98th in the nation, respectively. Additionally, the offensive line allowed 46 tackles-for-loss, excluding sacks. This means Rutgers lost yardage on 11 percent of its running plays. Yikes. Pass blocking was not much better either. Opposing defenses broke through the line to sack Rutgers’ quarterback 2.69 times per game and 7.28 percent of the time. These were ranked 102nd and 90th in the nation, respectively. It does not matter how one tries to shake it down. The message is clear: Rutgers had one of the worst offensive lines nationally in 2013.

So how in the world did Rutgers’ left guard Kaleb Johnson crack this list? Well, if anyone will understand how Johnson finds himself here, it would be Michigan fans. In 2013, fans of the Wolverines saw Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan, who later would be drafted with the 11th pick of the 2014 NFL Draft by the Tennessee Titans, anchor arguably the worst offensive line in school history. Lewan was not at fault, though. The majority of the blame fell to the underwhelming performances of the interior linemen. No matter how talented Lewan was, his talent alone was not enough to compensate for the deficiencies of his fellow linemen.

Johnson found himself in a similar situation last season, too. Johnson is not as talented as Lewan, who was considered to be the Big Ten’s best offensive lineman last year, but he is no slouch either. Johnson has started 37 games in his career, including 11 as a true freshman, and has showcased his versatility with starts at both tackle spots and left guard. While it is nice to be versatile, it is more important to good. And Johnson is good. He has the accolades to prove it. In 2011, he was named a Freshman All-American as a right tackle. The following season, he flipped over to left tackle and was placed on the All-Big East second team. Then, last season, he moved inside to left guard and, once again, earned second-team honors—this time in the AAC. Johnson also contemplated leaving Rutgers early and declaring for the NFL Draft as a projected fourth- to seventh-round pick, but opted to return for his senior season. And Johnson did all of this despite being a member of a putrid Rutgers offensive line.

Not much should change in 2014 when Johnson makes his Big Ten debut. Rutgers returns its entire starting offensive line from last season. While continuity along the offensive line generally yields positive results, it is unclear if this will be the case for the Scarlet Knights given last year’s issues. But Johnson will be a stud whether or not his fellow returning linemen improve. Phil Steele named Johnson to his preseason All-Big Ten first team for 2014, and Johnson remains a projected NFL Draft selection for 2015. So, when the Scarlet Knights’ offense takes the field, keep an eye out for Johnson at left guard because he likely will be one of the two best offensive guards in the Big Ten this fall.

9. Kyle Costigan, Wisconsin | 5th-yr Senior – 6’5”, 315 lbs
Starts Games Played
2013 12 13
2012 9 12
2011 0 3
2010 0 0
Career Totals 21 28
(Scout.com)

(Scout.com)

The top offensive guard in the Big Ten will be Wisconsin’s Kyle Costigan. This would have seemed ludicrous a tad more than two years ago. When he enrolled at Wisconsin, Costigan was not even an offensive lineman. Instead, he began his collegiate career as an unheralded defensive tackle. Costigan competed in only three games at the position as a redshirt freshman in 2011 before he suffered a season-ending foot injury. However, when he returned the following spring, Costigan switched over to the offensive line. He impressed the coaching staff as a right guard and took hold of the starting job four games into the 2012 season. The rest is history.

Costigan has been a key cog of a dominant Wisconsin offensive line the past two seasons. He started 21 of 27 possible contests. He missed three starts as a backup early in 2012 and another three due to injury thereafter. During this stint, Costigan has proven to be a splendid run blocker and helped Wisconsin deploy a lethal rushing attack. In 2012, the Badgers averaged 236.4 yards per game—the 13th-best nationally—and 5.21 yards per carry—the 18th-best nationally. Last season, Wisconsin upped these averages despite the departure of Heisman contender Montee Ball to the NFL. In fact, Wisconsin ranked in the top 10 for both rushing yards per game (283.8) and rushing yards per carry (6.62). It did not hurt the Badgers that few of its running plays failed to gain positive yardage. Only 8.9 percent of them ended behind the line of scrimmage. Although the talent Wisconsin had at running back played a significant role in producing these figures, they never would have had the room to run without Costigan.

There are still two worries about Costigan’s play, though. First, Costigan has room to improve his pass blocking. Last season, Wisconsin’s protection of its quarterback was just so-so. The Badgers allowed a sack 5.23 percent of the time they dropped back to pass—54th in the nation. Offensive tackles may be more responsible for the quarterback’s well-being, but Costigan is not free from blame. He must be better in 2014. Second, Costigan has been hampered by injuries. He has played through considerable pain after dislocating his right kneecap two seasons ago. He admitted there is permanent damage that will never be repaired. This is why he is projected not to be an NFL Draft pick in 2015. Scouts fear his leg would not endure more than a few seasons. But it should last this season, and, accordingly, Costigan likely will be the best offensive guard in the conference.

8. Brandon Vitabile, Northwestern | 5th-Yr Senior – 6’3”, 300 lbs.
Starts Games Played
2013 12 12
2012 13 13
2011 13 13
2010 0 0
Career Totals 38 38
(Matthew Holst, Getty Images)

(Matthew Holst, Getty Images)

Brandon Vitabile is one of the most experienced offensive linemen in the Big Ten. This season, Vitabile will have the opportunity to join the select club of offensive linemen with 50 career starts under their belt. It is a rare milestone because not many offensive linemen can complete the transition from high school to college quick enough—physically and mentally— to break into the starting lineup as a true or redshirt freshman and then remain healthy throughout their career. Yet, Vitabile has done just this. In the spring prior to his redshirt freshman season in 2011, Vitabile impressed the coaches so much that they moved three-year starting center Ben Burkett to offensive guard to accommodate him at center. Vitabile has not missed a start since in three seasons, earning 38 straight. Thus, if he starts every contest this fall, Vitabile will have no less than 50 career starts and cross the notable threshold.

Vitabile has the opportunity to accomplish this feat because he has proven himself to be one of the best centers in the Big Ten. Prior to the 2012 season, Vitabile was named to the preseason watch list for Rimington Award—given to the nation’s best center—as a redshirt sophomore. It did not take long for him to demonstrate that he deserved to be on that list. He was the stalwart of one of the better offensive lines in the Big Ten. The Wildcats finished fourth in the conference in rushing yards per game (225.5) and yards per carry (4.93), assisting running back Venric Mark in registering a 1,366-yard, 12-touchdown season. Plus, Vitabile and his fellow linemen allowed the fewest sacks per game among Big Ten schools (1.23) and allowed a sack on only 3.80 percent of Northwestern’s drop backs—second-best in the conference. Vitabile’s sophomore campaign could not have been much better.

However, Vitabile’s junior campaign could not have been much worse in 2013. This was not because Vitabile’s performance declined. His individual performance was just as solid as it was in 2012. In fact, it was even better. Last season, Vitabile received honorable mention on the All-Big Ten teams by the coaches and the media. Rather, his junior campaign could not been much worse because, no matter how well Vitabile played, his teammates on the offensive line constantly erred. And, as we learned while discussing Rutgers’ Kaleb Johnson and Michigan’s Taylor Lewan, no individual can be an entire offensive line by himself. Unfortunately, for Vitabile and Northwestern, the Wildcats’ ranking in categories like rushing yards per carry and percentage of sacks allowed plummeted. And there was nothing Vitabile could do about it.

For the upcoming season, there still are many lingering questions about Northwestern’s offensive line. But Vitabile is not one of them. He will be the rock of the Wildcats’ offensive line for the fourth straight season. Accordingly, he has been named to the preseason watch list for the Rimington Award for the third straight year and to Phil Steele’s preseason All-Big Ten second team. Further, NFL scouts project Vitabile to be the fifth-best center for the 2015 NFL Draft. So, even if the rest of Northwestern’s line continues to struggle and make mistakes, know that Vitabile will be doing all he can in the middle as one of the Big Ten’s best two centers.

7. Donovan Smith, Penn State | RS Junior – 6’5”, 322 lbs
Starts Games Played
2013 11 12
2012 9 10
2011 0 0
Career Totals 20 22
(Justin K. Aller, Getty Images)

(Justin K. Aller, Getty Images)

Penn State’s left tackle Donovan Smith should be the most intriguing Big Ten offensive lineman to watch next season. Smith appears to be the perfect—and popular—sleeper pick to enter the upper echelon of the conference’s linemen. He has the physical attributes at 6’5” and 322 pounds. Although two more inches would do him wonders, he still is a big boy that defenders have problems circumventing. His size allows him to excel at pass blocking, even if Penn State’s protection of its quarterback was only average last year. Smith also has the experience. He has picked up 20 starts at left tackle in his first two seasons on the gridiron. And Smith has the accolades. He was a four-star recruit in high school. As a redshirt freshman in 2012, he was selected to at least one Big Ten All-Freshman team. He then followed that up by receiving honorable mention on the All-Big Ten team by both the coaches and media as a redshirt sophomore. It would seem Smith has the potential to make the All-Big Ten first team next year.

Yet, there are a few red flags that must be accounted for before Smith is anointed as one of the Big Ten’s best. First, Smith’s run blocking must be more consistent. There are times when Smith flashes what he is capable of, like when he bottled up Nebraska’s Randy Gregory—a projected top-10 pick in the 2015 NFL Draft—last season. But there are also times when he loses focus and fails to use the proper technique, which results in him not driving opposing defensive linemen off the line of scrimmage. With the proper technique, Smith could be a beast at run blocking given his size.

Second, Smith must cope with lots of new personnel in Penn State’s offense in 2014. The biggest area of concern will be the Nittany Lions’ dearth of experienced offensive linemen. Smith will be the only healthy returning starter on the offensive line for Penn State. Originally, the Lions were supposed to have two returning starters, but left guard Miles Dieffenbach tore his ACL in spring practice and will miss the entire year. It will be interesting to see how playing with four new starters on the line will affect Smith’s performance this season. Will it cause his performance to suffer as he tries to build chemistry with the fresh faces lined up next to him? Or will Smith still be able to perform at an All-Big Ten level even if his fellow linemen cannot live up to the standard set by last year’s starters? Plus, Smith will be adjusting to all of this while trying to learn new head coach James Franklin’s offense and schemes.

The best prediction is that Smith is still one year away from becoming an elite left tackle in the Big Ten. It just seems there will be too many obstacles preventing him from putting it all together and fulfilling his potential: lapses of concentration, flawed technique, inexperienced teammates on the offensive line, and a brand-new offensive system. Smith still will be one of the better left tackles in the conference and will display glimpses of what makes him so special. But All-Big Ten first team? Wait until 2015.

6. Taylor Decker, Ohio State | Junior – 6’7”, 315 lbs
Starts Games Played
2013 14 14
2012 0 4
Career Totals 14 18
(Brooke Lavalley, Columbus Dispatch)

(Brooke Lavalley, Columbus Dispatch)

In last season’s opener against Buffalo, Taylor Decker made his first career start at right tackle for Ohio State. Yet, it was not the type of performance one dreams about when he imagines his first career start. Decker was converted into a turnstile for the afternoon as Buffalo’s Khalil Mack beat him not once, not twice, but three times for sacks. It was a shaky first start for Decker, and it worried Ohio State fans that Decker was not ready for the challenge.

However, we learned quickly that Mack—later selected with the fifth pick of the 2014 NFL Draft—was not a typical MAC-level player and that Decker definitely was ready for the challenge. Decker started all 14 games at right tackle for what was arguably the best offensive line in the Big Ten last season. The Buckeyes had the most efficient rushing attack in the nation. Ohio State averaged 308.6 rushing yards per game, which was the fifth-best in the nation. But, most importantly, no team in the nation averaged more yards per carry than the Buckeyes (6.80). Further, it was extremely rare for Ohio State to lose yardage when running the football. The offensive line allowed a tackle-for-loss on only 5.55 percent of Ohio State’s non-sack running plays, which was one of the best marks in the nation. Much of the credit for this production belongs to dual-threat quarterback Braxton Miller and former running back Carlos Hyde, but a good chunk of it also belongs to Decker and his fellow offensive linemen.

Next season will be a different challenge for Decker, though. Decker’s four fellow starters on the offensive line last year all graduated, leaving him as the only holdover. Ohio State’s offensive line will be very inexperienced in 2014. Among the five projected starting linemen for the Buckeyes next season, there are 15 combined previous starts. Fourteen of those belong to Decker. And, yet, although Decker proved his mettle at right tackle, he will be flipping to left tackle, where he has no previous collegiate experience, for the 2014 campaign.

The biggest question about Decker is whether he has the ability to defend Miller’s blind side. Decker’s struggles versus Mack in the opener already have been noted, but the entire line underwhelmed at pass blocking last season. The Buckeyes allowed only 1.57 sacks per game, but this statistic is flawed because they did not drop back to pass very often. The truth is that Ohio State allowed a sack on 6.70 percent of its called passes, which was the 80th-best rate in the nation. Although some of these sacks were the result of Miller dancing around in the pocket and trying to make a play, this was a poor rate for a line with the experience Ohio State’s had last season. Can Decker—who is not the fastest or most agile offensive lineman—improve that sacks-allowed rate with the help of four brand-new starters? It seems dicey. This is why Decker—a talented run-blocker who is projected to be one of the first 10 offensive tackles selected in the 2016 NFL Draft—just missed the cut for the top five on this list.

So what do you think? Do you agree with the rank of the names on this list so far? Will a Michigan offensive lineman surprise everyone and become one of the Big Ten’s best in 2014? And 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 offensive linemen in the conference this upcoming season.

2014 Big Ten football position rankings: Tight ends (part two)

Thursday, June 26th, 2014


Big Ten position rankings header-TE

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 tight ends in the Big Ten this upcoming season. The players listed are whom we believe will be the most successful in 2014, not necessarily the players who have had the most success in previous years. Part One of our tight end rankings was posted yesterday. It revealed who is in the bottom half of the Big Ten’s top 10 tight ends. If you missed yesterday’s post, I encourage you to read it before proceeding. With that said, let’s unveil who will be the five best tight ends 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

5. Dan Vitale, Northwestern | Junior – 6’2”, 225 lbs
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 34 382 3 11.2 53 31.8
2012 28 288 2 10.3 41 22.2
Career Totals 62 670 5 10.8 53 26.8
(Nuccio DiNuzzo, Chicago Tribune)

(Nuccio DiNuzzo, Chicago Tribune)

Dan Vitale is not your typical Big Ten tight end. So much so, in fact, that the position he plays at for Northwestern is not even referred to as “tight end.” Instead, the position is called “superback.” Whereas generic Big Ten tight ends mostly put their hand in the dirt next to an offensive tackle, the superback is a hybrid between a tight end, wide receiver, and fullback that lines up all over the field. Sometimes the superback will be lined up as an additional offensive lineman in a goal-line formation. Other times he will be in the slot or in the backfield adjacent to the quarterback. To fulfill all of these responsibilities, generally, the superback must be smaller, more athletic than the prototypical tight end. Ultimately, the key to being an effective superback in Northwestern’s spread offense is to be versatile. This is what makes Vitale such a dangerous tight end in the Big Ten.

Northwestern’s staff previously has said that finding a superback is problematic because there is a set of narrowly defined criteria that player must fit to be a superback. Yet, the Wildcats appear to have found one in Vitale. He improved upon a promising finish to his freshman campaign in 2012 to become Northwestern’s third-best receiver in 2013. He registered a target rate of 15.9 percent, which not only was the third-highest on the team, but also the third-highest among all Big Ten tight ends. With this share of balls thrown in his direction, Vitale tallied 34 receptions and 382 receiving yards—the second- and fourth-most among returning Big Ten tight ends, respectively. He also scored three touchdowns, all of which were in the red zone. And Vitale generated these numbers while his fellow offensive teammates were dropping one by one with injuries.

Vitale should replicate his sophomore season in 2014. He again will be the third receiving option behind Northwestern’s outside receivers Christian and Tony Jones. Vitale will not be the playmaker either of the Joneses is, but he should a number of passes thrown at him between the hash marks and in the red zone. If anything, Vitale’s statistics will receive a boost. As noted in previous entries in this series of position rankings, Northwestern will ditch a hybrid offense for the passing spread now that Kain Colter has graduated and Trevor Siemian is the full-time quarterback. There will be more passes thrown in this system, which likely means more targets, receptions, and receiving yards for Vitale. Plus, unlike last year, Northwestern’s offense should be a full strength in terms of its health, which maximizes the unit’s potential. Although the most noticeable flaw in Vitale’s game is his blocking, which is no surprise given he needs to be smaller than most tight ends to have the versatility Northwestern desires for its superbacks, his talent as a receiver is sufficient to overcome it and put him in the top five of this list.

4. Jeff Heuerman, Ohio State | Senior – 6’5”, 255 lbs
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 26 466 4 17.9 57 33.3
2012 8 94 1 11.8 35 7.8
2011 1 25 0 25.0 25 2.5
Career Totals 35 585 5 16.7 57 16.3
(Joe Robbins, Getty Images)

(Joe Robbins, Getty Images)

Ohio State always has had talent at the tight end position. However, under Jim Tressel, tight ends were vastly underutilized as receivers. In the last five years of the Tressel era, the Buckeyes’ starting tight ends averaged only 13.4 receptions and 157.4 receiving yards per season. This is unsurprising when the tight end was the fourth or fifth option in the passing game, at best. Under Tressel, tight ends were not receivers, but glorified offensive linemen. They may have seen the field often because Tressel was keen on deploying power formations. But the tight end’s role was to block and block only, while the wide receivers garnered almost all of the targets.

This is no longer the case. When Urban Meyer took over, he realized the skill and potential the tight ends at Ohio State had as ball-catchers. Meyer did not let this go to waste and ensured these tight ends would be assets in the aerial attack. There is no better example than Jeff Heuerman’s first year as OSU’s starting tight end last season. His target rate—at 10.3 percent—may not have been large step above tight ends’ rates under Tressel, but Meyer made certain Heuerman would be a threat. Heuerman caught 72.2 percent of the passes thrown at him, hauling in 26 of them. The last Buckeyes tight end to catch that many balls in one season was Ben Harstock’s 33 receptions in 2003. It had been over a decade since a tight end had made the impact Heuerman did on Ohio State’s offense.

Unlike most Big Ten tight ends, Heuerman was a playmaker and a vertical threat. He averaged 17.92 yards per catch—the most by any Big Ten player with a minimum of 20 receptions—to total 466 receiving yards. Half of his receptions gained at least 15 yards, and eight gained no less than 25 yards. Further, three of Heuerman’s four touchdowns were outside the red zone, and two covered more than 40 yards. This is unheard of for a Big Ten tight end, especially at Ohio State. When people discuss the explosiveness of Meyer’s spread offense, usually, quarterback Braxton Miller, the running backs, or the wide receivers are mentioned. But it is about time that Heuerman became a part of that discussion.

There is little reason to think that Heuerman will not be just as much of a weapon this season as he was last season. Ohio State loses some key pieces offensively, but it should reload and have the offense humming in no time, especially with Miller returning for his senior year. Devin Smith is expected to replace Corey Brown, who caught 63 passes for 771 yards last year, as the No. 1 receiver. The question then is whether slot dot Dontre Wilson or Heuerman become the second option. If it is Heuerman, he could post the best numbers of any Big Ten tight end this season. But expect him to remain the third option as Wilson is promoted to the No. 2 spot. Heuerman should still post similar statistics to last season and be one of the best playmaking tight ends in the conference. Nonetheless, as the likely third option, Heuerman cannot jump ahead of the next three tight ends, who all will be the best receivers on their respective teams.

3. Jesse James, Penn State | Junior – 6’7”, 257 lbs
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 25 333 3 13.3 58 27.8
2012 15 276 5 18.4 42 25.1
Career Totals 40 609 8 15.2 58 18.4
(Joe Hermitt, The Patriot)

(Joe Hermitt, The Patriot)

It was mentioned in Part One, when discussing Adam Breneman, that no Big Ten school will rely more on its tight ends to produce this season than Penn State. The Nittany Lions have no known commodities at outside receiver after losing arguably the Big Ten’s best wideout in Allen Robinson and solid contributor Brandon Felder. There always is a chance that one of their young, inexperienced wideouts surprises as a legitimate No. 1 receiver, but the best odds are that the deep group of talented tight ends will have little choice but to pick up the slack.

While Breneman and Kyle Carter duke it out to be the backup tight end, there is little doubt that Jesse James will be the best of the bunch in 2014. James contributed as a freshman in 2012, posting 15 receptions for 276 yards and five scores—the second-most touchdown receptions on Penn State. However, he was overshadowed by Carter’s sensational season for which Carter was named a first-team freshman All-American. But Carter suffered a wrist injury near the end of the 2012 season and has not fully gotten back on track. This provided James the opportunity to assume the role as Penn State’s starting tight end in 2013. And he did not let it slip through his fingers.

Last season, James started all but one contest at tight end. Along the way, he earned the third-most targets on the roster with 39 passes thrown his way. But his target rate was only 10.1 percent because Robinson was a vacuum as the top receiver not only on Penn State, but in the conference. Nevertheless, James still caught 25 passes for 333 yards—the second-most on Penn State—and three touchdowns. His average of 13.32 yards per catch was one of the better averages among Big Ten tight ends, demonstrating he was more than a safety valve for quarterback Christian Hackenberg. What made James such a great target was that he was one of the tallest tight ends at 6’7”, flashed commendable speed, and had solid hands. These physical attributes, coupled with the opportunity to start, helped him turn in a fine 2013 campaign and allowed him to grab hold of the starting job entering next season.

Even though James had worse statistics across the board than Ohio State’s Jeff Heuerman last season, James is above him on this list because, unlike Heuerman, he will be the top option for Hackenberg in the passing game. Hackenberg has the potential to be a starting NFL quarterback and will need quality targets to whom to throw to showcase his skills. James is the only returning receiver that had more than 20 receptions or 300 receiving yards last year. With so many questions about Penn State’s perimeter threats at receiver, James will be the best and most comfortable target Hackenberg has. Notwithstanding new head coach James Franklin’s refrain from involving tight ends in his passing attack at Vanderbilt, he will realize that he needs to get the football in the hands of his best players. For Penn State, it is James. Expect James’ targets and production to skyrocket next season accordingly, even as he shares snaps with Breneman and Carter.

2. Maxx Williams, Minnesota | RS Sophomore – 6’4”, 250 lbs
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 25 417 5 16.7 50 32.1
Career Totals 25 417 5 16.7 50 32.1
(Troy Taormina, USA Today Sports)

(Troy Taormina, USA Today Sports)

There are quality Big Ten tight ends littered throughout this list, but any debate about which one will be the best in the conference begins and ends with the following two candidates. One of those candidates is Minnesota’s Maxx Williams. Yet, if this conversation happened prior to last season, Williams’ name never would have been uttered. Arriving at Minnesota in 2012, Williams was an average three-star recruit that decided to commit to his home-state school. It was not as if he had much of a choice either as his only reported offer was from the Gophers. Williams proceeded to redshirt his first season at Minnesota. With little recruiting attention and no playing time prior to the 2013 season, Williams garnered no hype or expectations.

But Williams quickly became a critical component of Minnesota’s offense last season. He was one only two receiving threats with which opposing defenses concerned themselves—the other being wideout Derrick Engel. Williams had the second-most targets on the team and recorded a target rate of 15.7 percent. Despite not having the most balls thrown in his direction, Williams led Minnesota in receptions (25), receiving yards (417), and touchdowns catches (five). And he did this in just his first season on the gridiron. Williams was so productive as a redshirt freshman because of his explosiveness and playmaking ability. He averaged 16.68 yards per catch, which was the second among Big Ten tight ends behind only Ohio State’s Jeff Heuerman. Additionally, Williams blocked well, too. In an offense that emphasized pounding the ball with both its quarterback and running back, Williams became an effective mauler on the line of scrimmage. By season’s end, he was named a third-team freshman All-American and demonstrated he was possibly the best tight end in the conference.

However, there is one red flag that prevents Williams from topping this list: Minnesota’s offensive system. The Gopher love to run the ball, run the ball, and run the ball some more. Last season, Minnesota had 586 rushes to 267 passes attempted. Less than one-third of Minnesota’s plays were runs. With Minnesota so focused on gaining yards on the ground, there were fewer chances for Williams to catch passes relative to other tight ends. And it does not appear Minnesota’s offensive philosophy will shift towards a more balanced attack. If anything, it will further shift the other way. Quarterback Philip Nelson transferred before he was dismissed from Rutgers, leaving Mitch Leidner as the full-time starter for 2014. However, Leidner’s best skill is his ability to run, while he struggles with his accuracy. If Leidner cannot prove that he can test defenses vertically with his arm, the Gophers will pound the rock even more with Leidner and running back David Cobb. It is too bad, too, because Williams very likely would have produced the best numbers for any tight end in the Big Ten as Minnesota’s clear-cut No. 1 receiver if given the amount of targets the next tight end on this list will see.

1. Tyler Kroft, Rutgers | RS Junior – 6’6”, 240 lbs
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 43 573 4 13.3 42 44.1
2012 3 59 1 19.7 42 5.4
Career Totals 46 632 5 13.7 42 26.3
(Matt Cashore, USA Today Sports)

(Matt Cashore, USA Today Sports)

Tyler Kroft did not play in the Big Ten last season, but, if he did, he would have been the best tight end in the conference. Not only did Kroft lead Rutgers in almost every receiving category last season, he would have topped most of these categories among Big Ten tight ends, too. Kroft was targeted 69 times. This would have been by far the best among Big Ten tight ends as the next closest was Wisconsin’s Jacob Pedersen with 58. However, Pedersen did edge out Kroft’s target rate of 17 percent with a 17.2-percent rate because Rutgers attempted more passes than Wisconsin. Nevertheless, Kroft’s 43 receptions and 573 receiving yards would have been first among Big Ten tight ends. And his four touchdown receptions were only two behind the best mark, which was held by Indiana’s Ted Bolser and Iowa’s C.J. Fiedorowicz. No Big Ten tight end made more of an impact on his team’s offense than Kroft did.

Kroft should be able to further the gap between him and the rest of the Big Ten tight ends this season when he makes his Big Ten debut. Some of the tight ends that would have nipped at his heels in 2013—Pedersen, Bolser, and Fiedorowicz—graduated after last season. Others, like Ohio State’s Jeff Heuerman, have the talent, but will not be the featured option, while some like Minnesota’s Maxx Williams will be the top receiver, but will be penalized by his team’s run-heavy offensive philosophy.

Kroft, though, seems to have all the puzzle pieces set in place in 2014. He has all of the physical tools to be an All-Big Ten tight end. He has a broad frame at 6’6” and 240 pounds that allows him to be an above-average blocker and a broad target for his quarterback, Gary Nova. His combination of size and speed helps him not only to be a safety valve for Nova near the line of scrimmage, but also to be a vertical threat in the passing game. Additionally, Rutgers will execute a balanced offensive attack that has about a 50-to-50 run-to-pass ratio. As the No. 1 target in Rutgers’ passing game, Kroft likely will have more balls thrown in his direction than any other Big Ten tight end. This is especially the case when the Scarlet Knights just lost their two best wide receivers in Brandon Coleman and Quron Pratt to graduation. Rutgers will need Kroft to produce even more this season than last season. Given that Kroft would have been the Big Ten’s best tight end last year, it is safe to assume that Kroft will earn that honor in his Big Ten debut if Rutgers needs him to increase his numbers this year.

What do you think? Did we get the list right? Will Tyler Kroft distinguish himself from the rest of the Big Ten’s tight ends as the best of the pack? Or will another tight end be crowned as the conference’s best? Please let us know in the comments below. Next week, we will rank the last offensive position we have yet to tackle in this series: the offensive line.

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

Thursday, June 19th, 2014


Big Ten position rankings header-WR

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

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

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

(Dan Harker, TheOzone.net)

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

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

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

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

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

(Jeff Gross, Getty Images)

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

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

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

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

(Eric Francis, Getty Images)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Mike McGinnis, Getty Images)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Hans Pennink, AP)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014


Big Ten position rankings header-RB

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

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

(Iowa Athletic Communications)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Jeff Hanisch, USA Today Sports)

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

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

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

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

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

(Pat Lovell, USA Today Sports)

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

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

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

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

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

(Hannah Foslien, Getty Images)

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

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

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

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

(Dave Stephenson, Icon SMI)

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 5th, 2014


Big Ten position rankings header_edited-1

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

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

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

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

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

(Charlie Litchfield, The Register)

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

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

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

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

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

(Jose Carlos Fajardo, McClatchy-Tribune)

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

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

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

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

(Badger Nation)

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

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

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

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

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

(Jay LaPrete, AP)

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

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

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

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

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

(Alan Petersime, AP)

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

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

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

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

 

Comparing returning production throughout the Big Ten

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014


maryland(Rob Carr, Getty Images)

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

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

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

Offense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defense

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

Comparison chart

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