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

Thursday, July 10th, 2014


Big Ten position rankings header-DL

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

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

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

(Adam Cairns, The Columbus Dispatch)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Brian Ray, The Gazette)

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

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

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

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

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

(Greg Bartram, USA Today Sports)

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

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

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

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

(Joe Robbins, Getty Images)

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

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

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

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

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

(Jerry Lai, USA Today Sports)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014


Big Ten position rankings header-OffensiveLine

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

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

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

(ScarletKnights.com)

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

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

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

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

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

(Scout.com)

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

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

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

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

(Matthew Holst, Getty Images)

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

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

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

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

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

(Justin K. Aller, Getty Images)

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

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

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

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

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

(Brooke Lavalley, Columbus Dispatch)

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

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

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

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

So what do you think? Do you agree with the rank of the names on this list so far? Will a Michigan offensive lineman surprise everyone and become one of the Big Ten’s best in 2014? And who do you think will be in the top five? Please post your comments below as we will reveal tomorrow who will be the five best offensive linemen in the conference this upcoming season.

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

Thursday, June 26th, 2014


Big Ten position rankings header-TE

This week, as part of our summer-long preview of Michigan football in 2014, we at Maize and Go Blue are ranking who will be the best tight ends in the Big Ten this upcoming season. The players listed are whom we believe will be the most successful in 2014, not necessarily the players who have had the most success in previous years. Part One of our tight end rankings was posted yesterday. It revealed who is in the bottom half of the Big Ten’s top 10 tight ends. If you missed yesterday’s post, I encourage you to read it before proceeding. With that said, let’s unveil who will be the five best tight ends in the Big Ten this fall.

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

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

(Nuccio DiNuzzo, Chicago Tribune)

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

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

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

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

(Joe Robbins, Getty Images)

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

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

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

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

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

(Joe Hermitt, The Patriot)

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

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

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

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

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

(Troy Taormina, USA Today Sports)

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

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

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

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

(Matt Cashore, USA Today Sports)

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

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

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

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

2014 Big Ten position rankings: Wide receivers (part two)

Friday, June 20th, 2014


Big Ten position rankings header-WR

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 wide receivers 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 wide receiver rankings was posted yesterday. It revealed who is in the bottom half of the Big Ten’s top 10 wideouts. If you have not had an opportunity to read it yet, I encourage you do so before proceeding. On that note, let’s unveil who will be the five best wide receivers in the Big Ten this fall.

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

5. Deon Long, Maryland | Senior - 6’0”, 195 lbs
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 32 489 1 15.3 47 69.9
2012 (Iowa Western) 100 1,625 25 16.3 90 135.5
2011 (New Mexico) 47 809 4 17.2 80 80.9
Career Totals 179 2,923 30 16.3 90 100.8
(Tim Drummond, The Diamondback)

(Tim Drummond, The Diamondback)

Deon Long—a fifth-year senior—will play his final season of collegiate football in 2014, but he took the road less traveled to be here. Long did not start his career at Maryland. In high school in Washington, D.C., he committed to West Virginia, but exited four months after he enrolled. He wanted to be a Terrapin, but a provision in his scholarship release prevented such a move. So Long transferred to New Mexico instead, where he led the Lobos with 47 receptions, 809 receiving yards, and four touchdowns as a redshirt freshman in 2011. But Long was not satisfied at New Mexico, so he enrolled at Iowa Western, a junior college, with the hopes he would be able to transfer to a top FBS program. In his one season at Iowa Western, he led the NJCAA in receptions (100), receiving yards (1,625), and touchdowns (25) and captured the 2012 NJCAA national championship. Long became the No. 1 junior college recruit nationally as his performance swung open doors at the likes of Florida, Nebraska, and Illinois. But Long committed to the one place he had wanted to be for years: his home-state school, Maryland

It did not take very long for the former junior college star to make his mark in College Park. Long established himself as Maryland’s No. 2 receiver in his first seven games of 2013. In those contests, he was thrown at 55 times for a target rate of 24.66 percent—the third-highest among returning Big Ten receivers. Generally, more targets mean more receptions, and it was no different for Long. He caught 32 balls and never hauled in fewer than three in any of his first seven games. In addition to consistently getting open, Long exhibited the explosion which made him the best junior college player in the nation the previous year. Long averaged 15.28 yards per reception—the sixth-most among returning wideouts in the conference—and gained at least 15 yards 15 times. Through those first seven games, Long had 32 catches for 489 yards and one score, and appeared to be on his way to a 1,000-yard campaign.

However, in that seventh game against Wake Forest, Long broke his right leg, fracturing his tibia and fibula. It was a significant injury that forced him to miss the remained of the 2013 season. This is why Long’s statistical totals from last season are not impressive. But his averages paint a different picture. When Long is healthy, he is one of the best and most explosive wideouts in this conference. He may not have been completely healthy during spring practices, participating in drills only, but there is no doubt he will be full throttle when fall camp rolls around. Expect Long, who will once again be teamed up with underrated, dual-threat quarterback C.J. Brown, to finish his journeyman career on the highest of notes and near 1,000 receiving yards this season. Yet, he is only No. 5 on this list because he will not be Maryland’s No. 1 wideout—a player we will discuss further down.

4. Devin Smith, Ohio State | Senior – 6’1”, 197 lbs
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 44 660 8 15.0 90 47.1
2012 30 618 6 20.6 72 51.5
2011 14 294 4 21.0 40 22.6
Career Totals 88 1,572 18 17.9 90 40.3
(Andy Lyons, Getty Images)

(Andy Lyons, Getty Images)

For the majority of his career at Ohio State, Devin Smith has been a one-trick pony. His trick: speed. Very few Big Ten wide receivers, if any, are faster than Smith. He is a speed demon. Have you ever heard the terms “track speed” and “football speed” thrown around when people discuss a football player’s physical abilities? Smith has track speed. So much so, in fact, that he actually spent one season sprinting with the Buckeyes’ track and field team. With this speed, Smith is able to repeatedly run past the secondary and get behind the defense for big plays. Just look at his yards per catch in his first two years. As a true freshman in 2011, Smith averaged an insane 21 yards per catch and needed only 14 catches to score four touchdowns. The following season, he averaged a 20.6 yards per catch, which was almost two yards per catch better than any other Big Ten receiver who averaged a minimum of two receptions per game. There is no deep threat in the Big Ten more dangerous than Smith.

In 2013, Smith began to round out his game. As quarterback Braxton Miller’s No. 2 option, he no longer relied solely on his speed to get open. Rather, he began to run better routes for short and intermediate gains. This caused his yards per catch to sink to a still-above average 15 as a junior, but he became more of a target for Miller. Accordingly, Smith set personal bests with 73 targets, a 21-percent target rate, and 44 receptions. This meant more chances for Smith to increase his production. He finished with career highs for receiving yards (660) and touchdown receptions (eight) in 2013. Smith still showcased his blazing wheels. Six of his eight touchdowns were longer than 20 yards. Half of them were longer than 40 yards. Nevertheless, Smith slowly redefined himself.

With the exit of Ohio State’s leading receiver from last season, Corey Brown, Smith will become the No. 1 wideout on the Buckeyes’ depth chart in 2014. This is an envious position in head coach Urban Meyer’s potent offense which amasses yards and points in a hurry. There is little doubt that Meyer will look to utilize Smith’s speed to land quick scoring strikes on opposing defenses. But, to be one of the best ball catchers in the conference, Smith will need to prove he has what it takes to be an all-around wideout. He needs to show he can run crisp routes. He needs to show he can move the sticks on critical third downs. He needs to show he can find open space in a crowded red zone. And he needs to show he can do this over and over again, especially since there are no other outside wide receivers nipping at his heels. It would be a surprise if Smith does not live up to the challenge.

3. Shane Wynn, Indiana | Senior – 5’7”, 167 lbs
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 46 633 11 13.8 68 52.8
2012 68 660 6 9.7 76 55.0
2011 19 197 0 10.4 32 16.4
Career Totals 133 1,490 17 11.2 76 41.4
(David Snodgress, Herald-Times)

(David Snodgress, Herald-Times)

Last season, Indiana had one of the most prolific offenses in the nation, let alone the Big Ten. The Hoosiers were ninth in the country in total offense and one of only 12 schools to average over 500 total yards per game. While Indiana was no slouch when it came to running ball (see: Tevin Coleman), the engine of its offense was its aerial attack. No Big Ten school attempted more passes than Indiana in 2013. Additionally, Indiana’s passing game was efficient, notching 7.8 yards per pass attempt. This was second in the conference behind only Michigan. Accordingly, the Hoosiers were the only Big Ten school to average over 300 passing yards per game.

The Hoosiers were so proficient through the air not only because it had two quality quarterbacks in pocket passer Nate Sudfeld and dual-threat Tre Roberson, but also because it had a wonderful cast of wide receivers. One of those cast members was slot receiver Shane Wynn. Wynn may be small in stature at only 5’7”, but he possesses many traits coaches want to see in their receivers. For example, he runs fantastic routes. Despite splitting targets with stud outside wideouts Cody Latimer and Kofi Hughes and quality tight end Ted Bolser, Wynn still was targeted 65 times. This was the result of running tight routes and finding ways to create space between him and the defender. Wynn also has quite the grip. He caught 70.77 percent of the passes that came in his direction. This is the highest catch rate among returning Big Ten wideouts that were targeted at least 10 percent of the time. But, most importantly, Wynn is fast, explosive, and nimble. He is able to use his athleticism not only to gain yards after the catch, but to also slip behind the defense and get open for longer throws. Consequently, Wynn accumulated 46 receptions for 633 yards, 13.76 yards per catch, and 11 touchdowns—second-most in the conference.

And Wynn should improve those numbers this season. Indiana already had a strong inclination to air out the football, but it appears it will do so even more in 2014. Last year, the Hoosiers utilized a two-quarterback system with Sudfeld and Roberson. When Sudfeld was in, the Hoosiers relied more upon a passing spread offense. When Roberson was in, the Hoosiers relied more upon the running game and called read-options for Roberson. However, Roberson recently decided to transfer to another program that will allow him to be the full-time starter. This means that Sudfeld will be the Hoosiers’ full-time starter and that the passing spread will be a permanent fixture this fall.

This would be pleasant news for any Indiana wide receiver. Yet it is especially great news for Wynn because he is the only returning Hoosier that had at least 20 receptions last year. All three other key Indiana ball catchers from last season—Latimer, Hughes, and Bolser—have departed. Wynn’s role in this offense will expand substantially as he will be the best receiver on a pass-happy team. Wynn’s targets, catches, and yards should all surge in 2014, and it would not be a surprise if he scores double-digit touchdowns for the second straight season.

The only red flag is that whether Wynn will be able to make the leap from the No. 3 receiver to the No. 1 wideout in one season, especially as a slot receiver. The concern is that the presence of Latimer and Hughes kept the defense’s attention off of Wynn, allowing him to work one on one underneath. With Latimer and Hughes gone, and two inexperienced players about to assume the starting outside receiver spots, Wynn may not be as productive as defenses devise their coverages to contain him. Nonetheless, Wynn should still be one of the best wideouts due to his role in this offense, but the foregoing concern prevents from jumping ahead of the next two players on this list.

2. Devin Funchess, Michigan | Junior – 6’5”, 230 lbs
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 49 748 6 15.3 59 57.5
2012 15 234 5 15.6 30 18.0
Career Totals 64 982 11 15.3 59 37.8
(Tony Ding, AP)

(Tony Ding, AP)

When Devin Funchess signed his letter of intent with Michigan in 2012, he had been recruited by head coach Brady Hoke as a tight end. Initially, some thought that Funchess may need to redshirt his first season in Ann Arbor because, at 6’5” and 230 pounds, he was too skinny to be an effective tight end. The worry was that Funchess would be abused when trying to block when he lined up with a hand in the dirt. However, as reports from fall camp leaked, the word was that Funchess’ athletic ability and receiving prowess was too good to keep off the field. Subsequently, Funchess turned in a solid season as a true freshman, recording 15 catches, 234 receiving yards and a team-high five touchdown receptions.

However, the concerns about Funchess being too skinny were true. He really struggled to block opposing defensive ends and outside linebackers and was a turnstile of sorts. Michigan hoped that Funchess would be able to add some weight to his frame in the offseason, so he could develop into an all-around tight end in 2013. Yet, Funchess reported to fall camp at the same weight he did the previous year. And, once again, Funchess struggled to perform his duties as a tight end in Michigan’s four non-conference games. Not only was his blocking a mess, he also managed only eight catches for 145 yards and one touchdown in those first four contests. If Funchess was going to be more effective, a change needed to be made.

In Michigan’s first conference game against Minnesota, Funchess lined up on the outside as a wide receiver for the first time in his career. The result? It was a career game for Funchess. He had seven grabs for 151 receiving yards and a touchdown. The apprehension of moving Funchess to the outside had always been that he would not be able to create separation against cornerbacks that were much quicker and shiftier than linebackers he lined up against as a tight end. However, Funchess demonstrated that was not a problem for him. And, with his imposing height and leaping ability, Funchess became a nightmare matchup on the outside for Big Ten defenses. In his final nine games as an outside receiver, Funchess recorded 35 catches for 603 yards, 17.23 yards per catch, and five touchdowns. Even though he was Michigan’s No. 2 target behind senior Jeremy Gallon, Funchess transformed into one of the Big Ten’s best wide receivers.

This season, Funchess will step into the No. 1 role with Gallon graduating and moving onto the NFL. Although some continue to list Funchess as a tight end, there is no doubt in Michigan’s mind that he is a wide receiver. And Funchess will terrorize opposing defenses on the outside even more so this season than he did last season. Quarterback Devin Gardner tends to lock onto his No. 1 receiver rather than make his progressions when throwing the football. This means that Michigan’s one or two best receiver see the vast majority of Gardner’s passes thrown in their direction. Last season, Gallon was targeted 37.1 percent of the time, while Funchess was targeted 24.9 percent of the time. With Funchess as the No. 1 option with no clear-cut No. 2 behind him, he should see his target rate skyrocket to about 35 percent. There is no limit to what Funchess can produce this season with that many balls headed towards him.

Actually, there is one limit: his hands. Funchess suffers from a bad case of the dropsies. He was targeted 92 times last season, but caught only 49 passes. This calculated to a catch rate of 53.26 percent. This is far below average and a major eyebrow-raiser. While some of the missed catches can be blamed on Gardner for inaccurate throws made while under heavy pressure, too many of those missed grabs were the result of Funchess simply letting the ball slip through his hands. If Funchess can correct this issue this upcoming season, he very likely could be the best wide receiver in the Big Ten. However, it is difficult to remedy a case of the dropsies, so he slides in at No. 2 behind the following Big Ten newcomer.

1. Stefon Diggs, Maryland | Junior – 6’0”, 195 lbs
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 34 587 3 17.3 66 83.9
2012 54 848 6 15.7 66 77.1
Career Totals 88 1,435 9 16.3 66 79.7
(Mitch Stringer, US Presswire)

(Mitch Stringer, US Presswire)

While Ohio State’s Devin Smith will be the most dangerous deep threat in the Big Ten next season, Maryland’s Stefon Diggs will be the most explosive all-around. As a high school recruit in 2012, Diggs was a consensus five-star prospect and considered to be one of the ten best players in his class. The reason he was held in such high regard was his athleticism and explosiveness. And Diggs demonstrated why as soon as he stepped on Maryland’s campus. As a true freshman, he led the Terrapins with 54 receptions, 848 receiving yards, and six touchdowns. Although Diggs did not have the most yards per catch on the roster, his average of 15.70 yards is an average playmaking wide receivers register. His performance as true freshman earned him an honorable mention on the All-ACC team.

Last season, Diggs was on pace to improve upon his impressive debut. In his first seven games of 2013, Diggs had the highest target rate on the team at 25.11 percent, earning 56 targets. He turned this into 34 receptions, 587 receiving yards, 17.26 yards per catch, and three touchdowns. He averaged 4.9 catches and 83.9 receiving yards per game. If Diggs had maintained these averages through Maryland’s final six games of the season, he would have hauled in about 63 passes for 1,090 yards. Instead, like his teammate Deon Long, he suffered a broken leg in the seventh game against Wake Forest that sidelined him for the remainder of the season. And, yet, despite missing half the season, the ACC media and coaches still selected Diggs as an honorable mention on the All-ACC team. There is little doubt that he would have been a member of the first team if he had not been struck with an injury.

In 2014, Diggs should be fully recovered. Some may be concerned that Diggs will lose some of his explosiveness as a consequence of the injury, but this would be more of a worry if he had torn a muscle, like an ACL, rather than break a bone. Plus, Diggs participated in 7-on-7 drills during Maryland’s spring practices, and all reports indicate that he has full use of his speed and athleticism. When training camp opens in College Park in August, Diggs will be 100 percent and ready to go.

And a 100-percent Diggs means he is the best wide receiver in the Big Ten. Diggs may not have the height, but he excels at every other skill or trait the best wide receivers possess. He is explosive, has top-end speed, runs great routes, is explosive, has solid hands, can beat defenders one on one on screens, can beat the secondary over the top, and is explosive. Did I mention Diggs is explosive? With underrated sixth-year quarterback C.J. Brown back for one more season, Maryland’s passing attack will be devastating in 2014. No one will be a bigger reason for this than Diggs. Expect Diggs to shine brightly on his new Big Ten stage and quickly assume the title as the best wideout in the conference.

So what do you think? Do you agree with out lists? Will Stefon Diggs be the best wide receiver in the Big Ten next season? Or will it be someone else? And what do you think about Devin Funchess’ rank at No. 2? Too high or too low? Please let us know in the comments below. Next week, we will rank the other pass catchers quarterbacks target: the tight ends.

New in Blue: Tight end Chris Clark

Thursday, June 19th, 2014


Chris Clark(247 Sports)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 19th, 2014


Big Ten position rankings header-WR

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

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

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

(Dan Harker, TheOzone.net)

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

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

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

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

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

(Jeff Gross, Getty Images)

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

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

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

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

(Eric Francis, Getty Images)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Mike McGinnis, Getty Images)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Hans Pennink, AP)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 12th, 2014


Big Ten position rankings header-RB

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

Previously: Quarterbacks part one, part two.

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

(Jay LaPrete, AP)

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

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

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

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

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

(Al Goldis, AP)

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

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

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

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

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

(Doug McSchooler, AP)

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

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

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

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

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

(Jamie Sabau, Getty Images)

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

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

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

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

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

(Morry Gash, AP)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 6th, 2014


Big Ten position rankings header_edited-1

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

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

(Jeff Vest, Icon SMI)

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

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

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

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

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

(Evan Habeeb, USA Today Sports)

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

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

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

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

(AP)

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

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

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

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

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

(Gregory Shamus, Getty Images)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Andrew Weber, USA Today Sports)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Countdown to kickoff: 85 days

Friday, June 6th, 2014


Countdown to kickoff-85

New in Blue: Running back Ty Isaac

Thursday, June 5th, 2014


Ty Isaac(USA Today Sports)

Ty Isaac – RB | 6-3, 225 | Joliet, Ill. – Joliet Catholic
ESPN: 4-star, #13 RB Rivals: 5-star, #4 RB 247: 4-star, #5 RB Scout: 5-star, #7 RB
Other top offers: USC, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Auburn, Clemson, Michigan State, Georgia, Notre Dame

Michigan missed out on a key transfer earlier this spring when Alabama center Chad Lindsay chose Ohio State, but the Wolverines landed an even bigger transfer today when USC running back Ty Isaac announced via Twitter that he would sign with Michigan.

If the name sounds familiar, it should. Michigan was one of the finalists  to land Isaac before he decided to attend Southern Cal in the 2013 recruiting class. At USC, the Joliet, Ill. native rushed for 236 yards on 40 carries — an average of 5.9 yards per carry — and two touchdowns during the 2013 season as a true freshman. He also caught four passes for 57 yards. Isaac battled for playing time in a crowded backfield that included senior Penn State transfer Silas Redd. When he got extended playing time against California on Nov. 9, Isaac showed what he is capable of, rushing for 87 yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries.

(David Cleveland, AP)

(David Cleveland, AP)

Isaac announced his transfer in mid-May because of a longing to be closer to his mother, who is dealing with medical complications related to a procedure. Under NCAA rules, a player can receive a hardship waiver in these types of circumstances, which would make him eligible to play right away instead of sitting out a year. However, in 2012, the NCAA refined the rule to institute a 100-mile radius from the immediate family member’s home. Ann Arbor is approximately 250 miles away, so it would be up to the NCAA to grant leniency in this case.

Illinois, which is much closer to his home, was the other top contender for his services. He visited there last week before making a trip to Ann Arbor earlier this week. Notre Dame, which was also a finalist to land Isaac coming out of high school was initially not approved by USC since the Trojans play the Irish. Ohio State also sought approval to contact him, but it was for naught.

“I decided that I’m going to transfer to Michigan,” Isaac said this morning. “I had a good visit there, and it’s just the place where I feel the most comfortable. I didn’t want to drag all of this out and see a ton of schools. Michigan was in my final three when I committed to USC, and the reasons I liked Michigan are still very much in place.”

If the NCAA grants him the ability to play this fall, Isaac will battle for the starting job with Derrick Green and DeVeon Smith, who were also members of the 2013 class. Rivals rated Green the top running back in the class, Isaac fourth, and Smith 37th. Scout had Green first, Isaac seventh, and Smith 11th, while 247 Sports had Isaac fifth, Green eighth, and Smith 15th.

If Isaac does have to sit out the 2014 season, he will be able to take a redshirt and still have three years of eligibility remaining, which would put a year of separation between he and the other two.

During his senior year at Joliet Catholic in 2012, Isaac rushed for more than 1,500 yards and 22 touchdowns, but missed some games due to injury. As a junior in 2011, he racked up 2,629 yards and 45 touchdowns, including a 515-yard, six-touchdown performance in the Illinois Class 5A state championship game.

He is the first transfer Michigan has landed since quarterback Steven Threet transferred from Georgia Tech in 2007. Threet then transferred to Arizona State two years later.