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Posts Tagged ‘Northwestern’

Introducing our new ticket partner, We Know Tickets

Monday, August 18th, 2014


WeKnowTickets Logo

With less than two weeks remaining until the 135th edition of Michigan football gets underway, we would like to introduce our new ticket partner. We Know Tickets is a ticket reseller that offers tickets to sporting events, concerts, and theater events. I like them as a partner because in addition to fantastic customer service they donate a portion of their proceeds to a good cause, Restoration Gateway, which helps “restore peace and heal wounds among the vulnerable children and war-torn people of Northern Uganda.”

We Know Tickets is a great place to buy tickets to Michigan games this season, with a large inventory for each game and low prices. At the time of this posting, here are the lowest prices available for each game:

Current Ticket Availability (as of Aug. 18)
Game Lowest Price $ Below Face Value Qty Available at Lowest Price
Season Tickets $692 2
Appalachian State $39 $31 4
Notre Dame (away) $457 Sold Out 1
Miami Ohio $24 $46 4
Utah $42 $28 4
Minnesota $39 $41 2
Rutgers (away) $131 $24 4
Penn State $109 $97 (singles only) 6
Michigan State (away) $154 Sold Out 7
Indiana $37 $43 2
Northwestern (away) $64 $26 4
Maryland $21 $49 2
Ohio State (away) $220 ($22 over) 1

In addition to the face value prices listed above, Michigan charges a $6 service fee per ticket and a $10 order charge. Our partners at We Know Tickets are offering a special discount code to our readers that will remove the fees they charge. When you check out, simply type ‘goblue‘ into the Discount Code box and you’ll receive 10% off your order.

We Know Tickets is also sponsoring our Five-Spot Challenge this season. The first week’s questions will be posted next Monday, so stay tuned for that. Click on their logo above, or on any of the game links in the table above to visit We Know Tickets, browse their collection, and purchase tickets to any game you want to attend.

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

Friday, August 15th, 2014


Big-Ten-position-rankings-header-Coaches

This week, as part of our summer-long preview of Michigan football in 2014, we at Maize and Go Blue are ranking who will be the top head coaches in the Big Ten this upcoming season. This may be bending the definition of “position,” but this series has already listed who will be the best offensive, defensive, and special-teams players in the Big Ten in 2014. The head coaches included in this top 10 are whom we believe have been the best coaches recently and will be next season, not necessarily those who have had the best overall careers. Yesterday, we revealed the Big Ten head coaches ranked No. 6 through No. 10. If you missed it, we encourage you to catch up here. Done? Perfect! On that note, let’s unveil who will be the five best head coaches in the Big Ten this fall.

Previously

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

5. Gary Andersen, Wisconsin | Overall Record: 39-35 (6 yrs) – Record at Wisconsin: 9-4 (1 yr)
Big Ten Records Overall W/L Big Ten W/L Standing Bowl
2013 9-4 6-2 2nd (Leaders) Capital One (L)
Career Totals 9-4 6-2   0-1
(Brian Ebner, AP)

(Brian Ebner, AP)

Of all the head coaches in the Big Ten, Wisconsin’s Gary Andersen probably is the toughest to peg. Until this past season, Andersen had no experience coaching in a Power Five conference. He made his head-coaching debut at Southern Utah, a Division I-AA program, in 2003. He departed after the season to become an assistant at Utah—before it joined the Pac-12—where eventually he was promoted to defensive coordinator. He held that position when the Utes’ undefeated squad upset Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl. Andersen utilized that success to land the head-coaching gig at a floundering Utah State program. The Aggies had not won more than seven games in a season since 1979. Andersen’s first two years there were no different, but, thereafter, he took Utah State to unforeseen heights. The next two seasons, the Aggies totaled an 18-8 record, which included a program-best 11 wins in 2012. No longer was Utah State some bottom-of-the-barrel program. It now was a legitimate “mid-major” power.

Andersen’s achievements in college football’s lower levels were noticed after 2012 as Power Five schools with head-coaching vacancies came calling. One such school was Wisconsin, whom former head coach Bret Bielema had stunned by ditching the Badgers for Arkansas in the SEC. Bielema left behind a Big Ten powerhouse that won a share of the conference crown and appeared in the Rose Bowl each of his final three seasons in Madison. With Bielema no longer in the picture, someone needed to step in and maintain Wisconsin’s success; Andersen was tabbed to be that person. He did well in his first season with the Badgers last year, too. Although their streak of Big Ten championships ended, Andersen coached them to a 9-4 record and national rank of 19th in the F/+ Combined Ratings—a set of rankings which combines two advanced statistical algorithms. It was an encouraging sign that Wisconsin experienced little drop-off with Andersen holding the reins.

Yet this will be the season that really tests whether Andersen deserves to be considered one of the five best coaches in the Big Ten. While Wisconsin will benefit from possessing what should be one of the nation’s most explosive rushing attacks and a weak conference slate, the Badgers still must replace their entire starting front seven on defense and find answers—any answer—for their depleted receiving corps. The talent and depth that has bolstered Wisconsin in years past does not seem to be quite there in 2014. This means that Andersen’s coaching ability will need to be at the top of its game because Wisconsin will not be able to afford as many errors. Then, after the season, we will be able to evaluate Andersen’s performance and finally peg exactly where he should fall on this list.

4. James Franklin, Penn State | Overall Record: 24-15 (3 yrs) – Record at Penn State: 0-0 (0 yrs)
Record at Vanderbilt Overall W/L SEC W/L Standing Bowl
2013 9-4 4-4 4th (East) BBVA Compass (W)
2012 9-4 5-3 4th (East) Music City (W)
2011 6-7 2-6 T4th (East) Liberty (L)
Career Totals 24-15 11-13   2-1
(Matthew O'Haren, USA Today Sports)

(Matthew O’Haren, USA Today Sports)

James Franklin has been a collegiate head coach for only three seasons, but he has taken the nation by storm in that short span. Franklin made his head-coaching debut at Vanderbilt in 2011. Vanderbilt always has been one of the toughest coaching jobs in America due to its small enrollment, academic focus, and SEC membership. Since 1982, the Commodores had recorded only one winning season—a 7-6 record in 2008—prior to Franklin’s arrival and consistently found themselves near the bottom of the F/+ Combined Ratings. They were perennial losers, a team SEC powerhouses viewed as an automatic conference win. But Franklin changed all of that the instant he stepped on the Vanderbilt campus.

Under Franklin, the Commodores were no longer pushovers. In his first season in 2011, he coached Vanderbilt to a 6-7 record and only its second bowl appearance since 1982. The record was not flashy, but, unlike previous seasons, Vanderbilt actually was competitive against its tougher opponents, losing to Georgia, Arkansas, and Florida by a combined 13 points. It is no surprise that advanced statistics really liked what the Commodores offered in 2011, ranking them 39th in the F/+ Combined Ratings just one year after placing 101st. It was significant progress in just one season with Franklin in charge, but he was not finished. In each of the next two seasons, the Commodores posted a 9-4 record and no less than four SEC victories. The last time they had a nine-win season? 1915. And Vanderbilt just accomplished the feat two years in a row. In three seasons at Vanderbilt, Franklin tallied 24 wins overall, which tied the best three-year stretch in school history. Franklin’s stint at Vanderbilt was an overwhelming success as he was able to achieve things there that no one had done in decades and decades.

This translated into instant stardom for Franklin and made him a hot commodity as the coaching carousel spun and spun. Initially, it seemed like Franklin would remain at Vanderbilt for a fourth season. But, then, Penn State coach Bill O’Brien left Happy Valley for a shot at the NFL with the Houston Texans. The Nittany Lions, hoping to appease its disappointed fan base with a popular hire, traveled into SEC territory and persuaded Franklin to join them in the Big Ten. Since then, Franklin and Penn State have torched the recruiting trail. According to 247 Sports, Penn State already has 19 commits in the 2015 class, 12 of which are four-stars, and the sixth-best class in the nation. While Franklin’s recruiting prowess certainly has been noted, the real question is how Franklin will do on the sidelines in his first season at Penn State. The Nittany Lions still are dealing with the scholarship reductions and postseason ban handed to them in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Will Franklin continue to be a star and have immediate success at Penn State like he did at Vanderbilt? Or will the lack of talented depth at multiple positions be too much to overcome? My guess: Franklin’s star may not shine as bright after a 2014 season that will be a tougher challenge than most expect.

3. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern | Overall Record: 55-46 (8 yrs) – Record at Northwestern: 55-46 (8 yrs)
Big Ten Records Overall W/L Big Ten W/L Standing Bowl
2013 5-7 1-7 6th (Legends)
2012 10-3 5-3 3rd (Legends) Gator (W)
2011 6-7 3-5 5th (Legends) Meineke Car Care (L)
2010 7-6 3-5 T7th Ticket City (L)
2009 8-5 5-3 T4th Outback (L)
2008 9-4 5-3 T4th Alamo (L)
2007 6-6 3-5 T7th
2006 4-8 2-6 T8th
Career Totals 55-46 27-37   1-4
(US Presswire)

(US Presswire)

Similar to Penn State’s James Franklin, Pat Fitzgerald has built his coaching reputation by transforming what has traditionally been a down-in-the-dumps football program with lofty academic standards and limited resources into a respectable one. In 2006, Fitzgerald, a former All-American linebacker at Northwestern, was promoted by his alma mater from an assistant to head coach. Prior to Fitzgerald assuming the top spot on its coaching staff, Northwestern had managed an eight-plus-win season only three times since it had joined the Big Ten in 1953. Yet it took the Wildcats only the first seven seasons of Fitzgerald’s tenure to accomplish the same feat, recording nine wins in 2008, eight in 2009, and a program-best 10 in 2012. Not every season has been such a triumph for Fitzgerald’s Wildcats, but no longer are they an easy out for Big Ten opponents.

For example, many may question Fitzgerald’s spot at No. 3 on this list following Northwestern’s underachieving 2013 campaign. Entering last season, the Wildcats were projected to build off their 10-win season in 2012 and possibly contend for a Big Ten championship. However, after sweeping its four non-conference foes, Northwestern suffered one bad break after the other. There was quarterback Kain Colter’s bobbled snap on fourth-and-one as Northwestern was driving for a game-winning score late in the fourth quarter against Ohio State. Then, there was the Hail Mary the Wildcats allowed to Nebraska on the final play of the game to lose by three points. There was also the hurried field goal Michigan somehow managed to kick before time expired to force overtime, which led to Northwestern losing in the third extra frame. And none of this bad luck even accounts for the countless number of Northwestern players that went down with injuries all season. Essentially, everything that could go wrong went wrong. Should Fitzgerald be responsible for some of this? Possibly. But most of the reasons why Northwestern had a 5-7 record last season were out of his control.

This is why Fitzgerald still is considered one of the best coaches in the Big Ten. He put Northwestern in a position to potentially contend for a Big Ten title before bad karma struck and struck hard. Do you know how many other coaches could put Northwestern in such a position? Very, very few. Fitzgerald very likely would experience much more success and more wins if he chose to leave Northwestern for a blue-chip, top-of-the-line college football factory that has exponentially more resources. But he has chosen to stay in Evanston and sustain Northwestern’s new reputation as a respectable program. This fall, even after the recent news that playmaker Venric Mark will transfer and top wideout Christian Jones suffered a season-ending knee injury, the Wildcats still have an outside shot at winning what will be a weak Big Ten West. And this is all possible because of Fitzgerald.

2. Urban Meyer, Ohio State | Overall Record: 128-25 (12 yrs) – Record at Ohio State: 24-2 (2 yrs)
Big Ten Records Overall W/L Big Ten W/L Standing Bowl
2013 12-2 8-0 1st (Leaders) Orange (L)
2012 12-0 8-0 1st (Leaders)
Career Totals 24-2 16-0   0-1
(Bradley Leeb, USA Today Sports)

(Bradley Leeb, USA Today Sports)

There is no doubt that Urban Meyer has the best resume of any head coach in the Big Ten and one of the best in the nation.  Meyer won at an astonishing level at each of his first three stops. When he was first hired as a head coach by Bowling Green in 2001, he took over a program that went 2-9 the previous season. But this did not prevent the Falcons from earning 17 wins in Meyer’s two seasons at the helm. Meyer then moved to the Mountain West Conference to become Utah’s head coach. Just like at Bowling Green, he was there for only two seasons. This time, though, Meyer coached the Utes to a 22-2 record and two conference championships, including an undefeated season and Fiesta Bowl victory in 2004. Meyer experienced the same type of success once he departed for Florida prior to 2005 and joined the “big leagues,” so to speak. In his six years with the Gators, he compiled a 65-15 record, three 13-win seasons, and two BCS national championships (2006 and 2008). In just a short decade, Meyer’s status skyrocketed from being a nobody to being considered one of the best coaches in the country.

After a one-year “reprieve” from college coaching in 2011 to “spend more time with his family,” Meyer dove back into it by taking the head job at Ohio State. The Buckeyes needed a new coach to guide the program after Jim Tressel resigned amid NCAA violations resulting from a tattoo-parlor scandal that saw the NCAA allege that Tressel had knowingly withheld information to maintain his players’ eligibility. Meyer decided he was the man to replace Tressel as the face of the prestigious program. His first two seasons have seen him win just like he has at every other stop he had as a head coach. The Buckeyes won their first 24 contests under Meyer and achieved a perfect season in 2012. Their only two losses were to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game and Clemson in the Orange Bowl last season. Given Ohio State’s current recruiting and Meyer’s astounding track record of winning, Ohio State does not seem like it will be slowing down any time soon.

Accordingly, you are probably wondering why Meyer is at No. 2 on this list rather than in the top spot given the accolades he has received throughout his head-coaching career. Once again, the purpose of this list is to rank who will be the best head coaches in 2014, not necessarily the ones who have had the best careers. There is no doubt that Meyer has had the best career among Big Ten coaches. No other Big Ten coach can claim winning a national championship, let alone two. And no other Big Ten coach can claim to have won 24 consecutive contests at any point of their head-coaching career. Nonetheless, there is another Big Ten coach who has been more impressive than Meyer recently, turning a mediocre program into a consistent contender despite having far less to work with in the cupboard.

1. Mark Dantonio, Michigan State | Overall Record: 82-46 (10 yrs) – Record at Michigan St: 64-29 (7 yrs)
Big Ten Records Overall W/L Big Ten W/L Standing Bowl
2013 13-1 8-0 1st (Legends) Rose (W)
2012 7-6 3-5 4th (Legends) Buffalo Wild Wings (W)
2011 11-3 7-1 1st (Legends) Outback (W)
2010 11-2 7-1 T1st Capital One (L)
2009 6-7 4-4 T6th Alamo (L)
2008 9-4 6-2 3rd Capital One (L)
2007 7-6 3-5 T7th Champs Sports (L)
Career Totals 64-29 38-18   3-4
(AP)

(AP)

Before Mark Dantonio left Cincinnati to assume command of the Michigan State football program in 2007, the Spartans were in a funk. Since the 1987 season, which had been the last time they had participated in the Rose Bowl, the Spartans had managed to win more than eight games only once—a 10-2 record in in 1999 with Nick Saban as head coach. Not only was Michigan State failing to win enough games to contend for conference championships, it also was struggling mightily against its premier rival Michigan. During that two-decade span, the Spartans were only 5-15 against the Wolverines from Ann Arbor. Accordingly, Michigan State was looked down upon by the Big Ten’s best, seen only as a middle-of-the-pack program that caused a minor inconvenience.

When Dantonio first arrived in East Lansing, there was not much to write home about. In his first three seasons at Michigan State, Dantonio’s Spartans put together only a 22-17 record, even though they did beat Rich Rodriguez-led Michigan twice. It was unclear whether Dantonio could take them to the top. It is not fuzzy anymore. In the past four seasons, Michigan State has been one of the best programs in the Big Ten. The Spartans have attained a 42-12 record and 77.8-win-percentage in those four years, which is second in the Big Ten only to Ohio State in that span, and won at least 11 games in three of those years. This increase in wins has brought the Spartans a share of two Big Ten championships—their first since 1990—and their first Rose Bowl victory since 1987. The Spartans now are surging under Dantonio.

So why is Dantonio slotted in the top spot ahead of Meyer? Michigan State’s win against Ohio State in the 2013 Big Ten Championship Game could be used as evidence, but let’s move that to the side for a minute. In the past four seasons, both Michigan State and Ohio State have 42 wins. Ohio State has a better winning percentage only because it has two fewer losses. It is that close. And, yet, Dantonio has achieved this with either loads of recruiting gems or less talented players than Ohio State. From 2009 to 2013, Michigan State’s recruiting classes’ average national ranking was 30.6 according to 247 Sports. Ohio State’s? 7.6. The Buckeyes have had much more raw talent at their disposal than the Spartans, but this has not stopped Dantonio, with the help of defensive wizard Pat Narduzzi, from putting out an equivalent product. No, Meyer has not been at Ohio State for the past four years, but he had much more to work with the moment he stepped foot in Columbus. And, despite this, Michigan State is on the same playing field as Ohio State, which is why Dantonio currently is the best head coach in the Big Ten.

So what do you think? Do you agree or disagree with our list? Is Mark Dantonio currently the best head football coach in the Big Ten? Or should that honor belong to Urban Meyer? And what about Brady Hoke? Does he deserve to be in the top five? Please leave your thoughts below in the comments section.

2014 opponent preview: Northwestern

Tuesday, August 12th, 2014


2014-Opponent-Preview-NW

Our last two opponent previews have been about the new kids on the block, Rutgers and Maryland. Today, we take a look at one of the old guards, the Northwestern Wildcats, who we feel will be the fifth-toughest opponent on Michigan’s schedule. Previously, we previewed Appalachian State, Miami (Ohio), Minnesota, Utah, Indiana, Rutgers, and Maryland.

Overview

Schedule
Date Opponent
Aug. 30 California
Sept. 6 Northern Illinois
Sept. 20 Western Illinois
Sept. 27 at Penn State
Oct. 4 Wisconsin
Oct. 11 at Minnesota
Oct. 18 Nebraska
Nov. 1 at Iowa
Nov. 8 Michigan
Nov. 15 at Notre Dame
Nov. 22 at Purdue
Nov. 29 Illinois

A year ago at this time, there was a lot of excitement surrounding the Northwestern program that many assumed was ready to take the next step forward. The Wildcats were coming off a 10-win season and a bowl victory and started the 2013 season ranked for the first time in over a decade. A 4-0 start got Northwestern to 16th in the country heading into a Big Ten opener against fourth-ranked Ohio State. ESPN College GameDay was there for the nationally televised primetime battle.

Instead of pulling off a program-building upset, its was the beginning of the end for Pat Fitzgerald’s 2013 squad. Northwestern held a 30-27 lead midway through the fourth quarter, but Ohio State scored two touchdowns in the final five minutes to steal the win. From there, the Wildcats lost seven straight, including two in overtime before finishing the season with a  37-34 win over Illinois. Instead of building on the 10-win 2012 season, Northwestern cut its win total in half at 5-7.

Then came the offseason and the circus came to town. Departing quarterback Kain Colter led a unionization push that Fitzgerald strongly opposed. It led to a team vote and brought the nation’s media to Evanston in search of a story that could forever change the landscape of college athletics. Instead of simply focusing on improving through the offseason, Fitzgerald had to keep his players focused on football despite all of the distractions and visions of grandeur. By many accounts, the situation galvanized the team, but while the vote came and went, the result has yet to be announced and could become a distraction once again this fall when the National Labor Relations Board releases the outcome.

If the process really did bring the team together, and if Fitzgerald can keep his team focused through the NLRB ruling, the expectations from last season could come to fruition this fall. Seventeen starters return from last year’s team, including nine on offense, and the Wildcats don’t have to deal with Ohio State or Michigan State this season. Could Northwestern make a run at the Big Ten West title? Let’s take a closer look.

Offense

Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2013 Stats
QB Trevor Siemian 6’3″, 210 178-298 for 2,149 yds, 11 TD, 9 INT
RB Venric Mark 5’8″, 175 97 yds (3.1 avg), 5 rec, 48  rec. yards
SB Dan Vitale 6’2″, 225 34 rec, 382 rec. yds, 3 rec. TD
WR Tony Jones 6’0″, 195 55 rec. for 630 yds, 4 TD
WR Christian Jones 6’3″, 225 54 rec. for 668 yds, 4 TD
WR Cameron Dickerson 6’3″, 235 11 rec. for 125 yds, 1 TD
LT Paul Jorgenson 6’6″, 295 12 starts (13 career starts)
LG Geoff Mogus 6’5″, 295 11 starts (11 career starts)
C Brandon Vitabile 6’3″, 300 12 starts (38 career starts)
RG Matt Frazier 6’4″, 290 4 starts (4 career starts)
RT Eric Olson 6’6″, 290 0 starts (0 career starts)

Last season, Northwestern’s offense stormed out of the gate averaging 41.3 points per game in the 4-0 start. A 30-point performance in the loss to Ohio State was good as well, but the offense took a nose dive from there. The Wildcats failed to score more than 24 points in any of its next six games — all losses — and averaged just 13.7 points in that stretch. The 37 points put up in the finale against Illinois brought Northwestern’s season average to 26.2 points per game, which ranked 83rd nationally. The total offense ranked 73rd (399.6 yards per game), rush offense ranked 62nd (172.4 yards per game), and pass offense ranked 71st (227.2 yard per game). That’s a far cry from the way the first five games of the season went and offensive coordinator Mike McCall will have to find a way to sustain the offense through Big Ten play if the Wildcats want any chance of competing.

The major change will be handing the reigns of the offense completely to fifth-year senior quarterback Trevor Siemian, who has spent the past two seasons splitting time with Colter. The do-everything Colter was a freak athlete playing quarterback to keep defenses off balance while Siemian is your more traditional true quarterback with less big-play ability, but also more stable. In 2013, Siemian completed 59.7 percent of his passes for 2,149 yards, 11 touchdowns, and nine interceptions. In that Ohio State game, he completed 13-of-18 for 245 yards, two touchdowns, and a pick and he capped the season with a 414-yard, four-touchdown game against Illinois.

Venric Mark returns from injury as one of the most explosive running backs in the Big Ten

Venric Mark returns from injury as one of the most explosive running backs in the Big Ten

While the offense loses the mobility of Colter, it still has one of the Big Ten’s most electric running backs, Venric Mark. The 5’8″, 175-pound senior was plagued by injuries last season and played in just three games as a result. But when he was healthy in 2012, Mark rushed for 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns on six yard per carry, earning second team All-Big Ten honors. Drew rated Mark the sixth-best running back in the Big Ten this fall, though it likely would have been higher if not for the questions about his health.

Mark isn’t alone in the backfield, however. Fellow senior Treyvon Green picked up the slack in Mark’s absence last season, leading the Wildcats with 736 rushing yards and eight touchdowns while averaging 5.4 yards per carry. At 5’10″, 215, Green is a much bigger back than Mark and creates a nice one-two punch. Then there’s redshirt sophomore Stephen Buckley, who saw limited action in nine games last season and averaged 5.3 yards per carry. In the one game he saw a full workload, he rushed for 99 yards on 17 carries against an Iowa defense that held Michigan to just 60 rushing yards on 29 carries.

Like the backfield, a lot of production returns at receiver, but the one thing the group lacks is explosiveness. Five of the top six receivers from a year ago return, but the only Wildcat that caught at least 10 passes and averaged a respectable yards per catch — Rashad Lawrence (14.9) — is gone. Senior Christian Jones, who led the team with 668 yards and four touchdowns on 54 catches, averaged just 12.4 yards per catch. Fellow senior Tony Jones led the team in receptions (55), finished second in yards (630), and also had four scores, averaged just 11.5 yards per catch. Don’t get me wrong; they’re a good receiving duo — Drew ranked them the sixth- and seventh-best receivers in the Big Ten this fall — but they lack the big-play ability that Stefon Diggs and Deon Long have.

There are a couple of contenders to complement them. USC transfer Kyle Prater, who has been hampered by injuries since he’s been in Evanston, and Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler were both highly-ranked recruits and if at least one of them can pan out, Siemian will have plenty of options to work with. McCall and Fitzgerald have stated their intention to spread the ball around a lot more this season and superback Dan Vitale, who caught 34 passes for 382 yards and three touchdowns in 2013, will also get plenty of targets. Finally, there’s junior Cameron Dickerson, who caught just 11 passes for 125 yards and a touchdown last season but is expected to take on a bigger role in the passing game this fall.

The offensive line has a chance to be among the Big Ten’s best with everyone returning. All 60 starts from last season are back with 100 combined career starts between them. The anchor of the line is fifth-year senior Brandon Vitabile, an honorable mention All-Big Ten performer a year ago who has started 38 straight games. Drew ranked Vitabile as the eight-best offensive lineman in the conference this fall. Last year’s left tackle, Jack Konopka, who has 25 career starts, may be the odd man looking in as he has been replaced by fifth-year senior Paul Jorgensen, who moves over from right tackle to help protect Siemian. Rising redshirt sophomore Eric Olsen will likely take the spot Jorgensen vacated at right tackle, while Konopka will be the top backup to both of them. At guard, redshirt juniors Geoff Mogus (11 career starts) and Matt Frazier (four) will start on the left and right, respectively.

Defense

Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2013 Stats
DE Dean Lowry 6’6″, 265 33 tackles, 7 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 2 INT, 1 FR
DT Sean McEvilly 6’5″, 290 9 tackles, 2 TFL, 2 QBH
DT C.J. Robbins 6’5″, 285 3 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 0.5 sacks, 1 PD
DE Deonte Gibson 6’3″, 260 22 tackles, 7 TFL, 3 sacks, 2 QBH, 2 PD
SAM Drew Smith 6’1″, 215 31 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 3 QBH
MLB Collin Ellis 6’2″, 230 78 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 0.5 sacks, 3 INT, 9 PD
WLB Chi Chi Ariguzo 6’3″, 235 106 tackles, 6 TFL, 2 sacks, 4 INT, 6 PD
CB Nick VanHoose 6’0″, 190 61 tackles, 5 TFL, 8 PD
CB Matthew Harris 5’11″, 180 36 tackles, 5 PD
S Ibraheim Campbell 5’11″, 205 73 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 sack, 4 INT, 9 PD
S Traveon Henry 6’1″, 200 77 tackles, 4 TFL, 1 INT, 2 PD

Fitzgerald came to Northwestern promising a tough, hard-nosed defense just like he was as a linebacker for the Wildcats in the mid-1990s. But last season, Northwestern got pushed around, and while some of that can be pinned on the offensive meltdown in the second half of the season, the defense just wasn’t put to par. It ranked 69th nationally in scoring defense (27.1 points per game), 89th in total defense (423.4 yards per game), 68th in rush defense (167.7 yards per game), and 101st in pass defense (255.8 yards per game).

Senior Ibraheim Campbell is a ball-hawking safety (Michael Bojda, The Daily Illini)

Senior Ibraheim Campbell is one of the top safeties in the conference (Michael Bojda, The Daily Illini)

Fitzgerald’s defensive coordinator, Mike Hankwitz, played at Michigan and was a part of the 1969 Big Ten championship team in Bo Schembechler’s first season. He then served as a graduate assistant for Bo from 1970-72 before moving on. He has been a defensive coordinator since 1982 and has been at Northwestern since 2008.

His first order of business this season will be finding a replacement for the production lost by defensive end Tyler Scott’s departure. Scott led the team with 10 tackles for loss and six sacks and was a second team All-Big Ten selection. The good news is that juniors Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson and redshirt sophomore Ifeadi Odenigbo, a former four-star recruit, are talented and experienced. The three combined for 20.5 tackles for loss and 13 sacks in 2013. The interior of the line is where the questions lie. Former four-star Greg Kuhar, now a redshirt sophomore, worked his way into the rotation late last season and will be needed to play an increased role this fall. Seniors Sean McEvilly and Chance Carter are the presumed starters, but Kuhar and redshirt junior C.J. Robbins are pushing them with good spring performances.

Similar to the situation on the line, the linebacker corps has to replace its most productive player from 2013, but does have solid talent and experience returning. Damien Proby led the team with 112 tackles in addition to five tackles for loss and a sack, but will be replaced by either junior Drew Smith or senior Jimmy Hall. Hall, a converted safety, tallied 36 tackles and an interception last year, while Smith contributed 31 tackles, 4.5 of which went for loss. The returning starters are seniors Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis, who were second and third on the team in tackles last season with 106 and 78, respectively. Ariguzo had six tackles for loss, two sacks, and a team-high four interceptions, while Ellis had 5.5 tackles for loss, half a sack, and three picks.

Northwestern’s secondary was pretty bad a year ago, but has some good playmakers and enough experience returning that it could be a strength this season. Senior safety Ibraheim Campbell is one of the Big Ten’s best. Drew ranked him the fourth-best safety in the league. He recorded 73 tackles, 2.5 for loss, one sack, and four interceptions last season. His safety mate is junior Traveon Henry, who excels in run support. He notched 77 tackle, four for loss, and one pick. There will be some competition at corner. Redshirt junior Nick VanHoose has 22 career starts and should have one of the spots locked up. Sophomore Matthew Harris started the final five games of last season and will battle with Daniel Jones, who started the season opener in 2013 but blew out his knee and missed the rest of the year, and sophomore Dwight White.

Special Teams

Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2013 Stats
PK Arthur Omilian 5’11″, 160
P Chris Gradone 6’2″, 190 37.8 avg, 5 In-20, 1 TB, 1 50+
KR Matthew Harris 5’11″, 180 21 ret, 23.0 avg
PR Venric Mark 5’8″, 175 15 ret, 18.7 avg., 2 TD (in 2012)

While Northwestern has returning starters all over the offense and defense, the Wildcats have to replace a very good kicker. Jeff Budzien made 87.3 percent of his field goal attempts the last three years (48-of-55) and if you throw out his 2011 season, he converted 93.3 percent (42-of-45) in 2012 and ’13. He won the Bakken-Andersen Big Ten Kicker of the Year award both years. But now his reliability is gone and Fitzgerald has to find someone to replace him. That will be a battle between redshirt freshman Hunter Niswander and redshirt junior Arthur Omilian. The former was the 12th-ranked kicker in the 2013 class, while the latter served as Budzien’s backup last season. Punter Brandon Williams is also gone, but he averaged just 36 yards per punt. Junior Chris Gradone, who handled punting duties for the final three games last season, will assume the role.

The return game will be led by Mark and Harris. When healthy in 2012, Mark was a first team All-America punt returner, averaging 18.7 yards per  return with two touchdowns. He was less explosive on kick returns, averaging just 19.8 yards, but he’ll still share the job with Harris, who averaged 23 yards per kick return in 2013.

Outlook

Injuries really hurt Northwestern last season, but in reality, the 5-7 record very easily could have been 8-4 plus a bowl game. The Wildcats lost to Iowa in overtime, Nebraska on a last-second Hail Mary, and Michigan in overtime after the Wolverines converted an improbably last-second field goal in regulation. Five wins should be guaranteed right off the bat — the first three against California, Northern Illinois, and Western Illinois and the last two against Purdue and Illinois. Then they’ll have to fight for wins against a tough middle slate. Mark’s return and more stability at quarterback should certainly help avoid the offensive pitfalls of last season and the overall depth on defense should help them finish games better than they did a year ago. Anywhere between a 6-6 and 9-3 regular season is doable and it will all depend on whether Siemian and Mark can stay healthy.

What it means for Michigan

Michigan has to travel to Evanston for a second straight season, but that’s not as bad as having to travel to East Lansing two years in a row. Michigan always has strong fan support in Chicago, so the environment isn’t as tough. But Michigan and Northwestern have essentially played as evenly as it gets the past two years. A case could certainly be made that Northwestern outplayed Michigan in both despite Michigan winning both, as both required near miracles in the closing seconds of regulation. That’s great motivation for Fitzgerald’s squad. Another close one this year is probably a safe bet.

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

Thursday, July 31st, 2014


Big-Ten-position-rankings-header-Safeties

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

Previously

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

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

(Lincoln Star Journal)

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

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

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

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

Nam Y. Huh, AP)

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

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

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

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

(Brian Ray, Hawkeyesports.com)

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

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

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

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

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

(Matthew O’Haren, USA Today Sports)

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

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

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

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

(Robert Hendricks)

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

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

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

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

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

Big Ten Media Days: Word clouding the Big Ten coaches

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014


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

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

Brady Hoke – Michigan

Hoke

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

Urban Meyer – Ohio State

Urban

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

Mark Dantonio – Michigan State

Dantonio

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

Bo Pelini – Nebraska

Pelini

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

James Franklin – Penn State

Franklin

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

Gary Andersen – Wisconsin

Andersen

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

Pat Fitzgerald – Northwestern

Fitzgerald

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

Kirk Ferentz – Iowa

Ferentz

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

Kevin Wilson – Indiana

Wilson

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

Jerry Kill – Minnesota

Kill

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

Randy Edsall – Maryland

Edsall

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

Tim Beckman – Illinois

Beckman

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

Kyle Flood – Rutgers

Flood

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

Darrell Hazell – Purdue

Hazell

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

Big Ten Media Days primer

Sunday, July 27th, 2014


B1G Media Days(@B1GFootball)

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

Overview

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

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

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

The schedule - Monday, July 28

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

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

The schedule - Tuesday, July 29

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

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

2014 Big Ten football position rankings: Cornerbacks (part 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.