photo AnnArborGIFHeader_zps02670880.gif

Posts Tagged ‘Penn State’

Big Ten power rankings: Preseason

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014


Power Rankings_header

Three days from now we’ll be settling into our seats at the Big House or our favorite couch or chair getting ready to watch the Maize and Blue run out of the tunnel, leap up and touch the banner, and begin their quest toward a Big Ten championship. The bad news is that we all still have to make it through three more days. Welcome to our first Big Ten Power Rankings of the season, where we rank each team in the conference. Since no games have been played yet, this week’s power rankings are essentially predictions of where each team should be ranked. Beginning next week, and continuing throughout the season, the power rankings will be reflective of each team’s performance in the game(s) they have played.

As the dawn of college football season draws ever nearer, the Big Ten finds itself facing low expectations once again. Largely considered a three-team league, the Big Ten suffered a huge blow with the news that Heisman Trophy candidate Braxton Miller would miss the entire 2014 campaign.

Now, teams on the brink of breaking through have to step up and help the Big Ten resurface as a power conference. Gone are the days when the automatic bid to the Rose Bowl would give the Big Ten a chance to shine on the national stage, because now the four-team playoff will act as the means by which conference strength is measured. Teams like Iowa, Nebraska and Michigan have to take that next step and give the conference the boost it needs to send a representative into that playoff.

If the Big Ten gets left out of the playoff this season, it will set the tone for a format that figures to rule the sport for the foreseeable future. At least six teams have a realistic shot at winning the Big Ten, and the conference needs each of them to perform in 2014.

East Division
1. Michigan State
Last Week: N/A This Week: Friday vs Jacksonville State, 7:30pm, BTN

The defending Big Ten champions became heavy favorites to repeat in 2014 after Ohio State’s Braxton Miller went down for the season. Michigan State lost plenty of talent to the NFL, but that defense still figures to be the best in the league.

2. Ohio State
Last Week: N/A This Week: Saturday vs Navy, 12pm, CBS Sports Network

Miller’s season-ending injury put a damper on Ohio State’s championship aspirations, but Urban Meyer’s team is still strong enough to compete for the first Big Ten East Division championship. The Nov. 8 game in East Lansing is the biggest speed bump on the Buckeyes’ road to Indianapolis.

3. Michigan
Last Week: N/A This Week: Saturday vs. Appalachian State, 12pm, ESPN2

If Michigan finishes outside the top three in the division, then things need to change in Ann Arbor. Four straight years of strong recruiting has left Brady Hoke with a talented enough roster to win nine or more games. An underrated defense should give Michigan a chance in all 12 games.

4. Penn State
Last Week: N/A This Week: Saturday vs UCF, 8:30am, ESPN2

The Nittany Lions still can’t play in a bowl game this season, but new head coach James Franklin managed to hang on to talented quarterback Christian Hackenberg and a team that won seven games last year. Penn State could make a big splash in the standings on Oct. 25 when Ohio State visits Happy Valley, one of the hardest places for visiting teams to win at night.

5. Indiana
Last Week: N/A This Week: Saturday vs Indiana State, 12pm, ESPNews

Much like they were last year, the Hoosiers are expected to be a group led by an elite offense. Unfortunately, the Big Ten is a difficult conference to win without a strong defense, and the Hoosiers gave up 38.8 points per game last season, good for 117th in college football.

6. Maryland
Last Week: N/A This Week: Saturday vs James Madison, 3:30pm, BTN

Maryland joins the Big Ten after a mediocre 7-6 record in the ACC last year. The Terrapins’ 85th-ranked offense will have a tough time scoring enough points in the Big Ten against defenses like that of Michigan State and Michigan, so don’t expect Maryland to compete for a division title in year one.

7. Rutgers
Last Week: N/A This Week: Thursday at Washington State, 10pm, FoxSports1

A 2-6 finish to the 2013 season will set the tone for Rutgers’ first season in the Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights lost six games by double digits last year during an average year in the ACC, so the powerful Big Ten East could be a rude awakening in 2014.

West Division
1. Wisconsin
Last Week: This Week: Saturday vs LSU, 9pm, ESPN

With Ohio State moving over to the East Division, Wisconsin sits firmly in the driver’s seat to represent the West in Indy this year. Melvin Gordon became the top Heisman candidate in the Big Ten after Miller’s injury and should lead a prototypical Wisconsin running attack that will tear apart opposing defenses.

2. Iowa
Last Week: N/A This Week: Saturday vs Northern Iowa, 12pm, BTN

Iowa played good enough defense in 2013 to win the Big Ten and play in the Rose Bowl, but an inconsistent offense held the team to an 8-5 overall record. If the Hawkeyes post another top-10 defensive effort this season, they could find themselves matching up with Michigan State in Indianapolis in a low-scoring game.

3. Northwestern
Last Week: N/A This Week: Saturday vs Cal, 3:30pm, ABC

Every season Northwestern looks primed for a breakout, but this year their talent is nowhere near the level of teams like Wisconsin or Iowa. The Wildcats lost four games by one possession last season, so they were close to living up to the preseason hype. But the loss of Venric Mark and a tough conference schedule will make things tough on Northwestern this year.

4. Nebraska
Last Week: N/A This Week: Saturday vs Florida Atlantic, 3:30pm, BTN

The nation is expecting big things out of Nebraska after finishing a disappointing finish to the conference season last year. If this offense can rush for over 200 yards per game again this season, it has a chance to put the Cornhuskers in the hunt for the title.

5. Minnesota
Last Week: N/A This Week: Thursday vs Eastern Illinois, 7pm, BTN

Minnesota was one of the quietest surprises in the country last season, starting 8-2 before three hard-fought losses to end the year. This season will be a real test for the Gophers as they try to build off of what they started in 2013 and break a decade-long streak of irrelevance.

6. Illinois
Last Week: N/A This Week: Saturday at Youngstown State, 12:05pm, BTN

It could be another tough year for Illinois after finishing 4-8 with just one conference win last season. After a nonconference schedule that features three easy wins, the Fighting Illini will only be favored in one conference game: at home against the Purdue team they beat in 2013.

7. Purdue
Last Week: N/A This Week: Saturday vs Western Michigan, 12pm, ESPNU

2013 was an abomination for Purdue, as it went 1-11 with a six-point victory over a division 1-AA opponent. Illinois was the only team that Purdue was within 10 points of beating. It won’t get any easier for the Boilermakers in conference this year.

Introducing our new ticket partner, We Know Tickets

Monday, August 18th, 2014


WeKnowTickets Logo

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 15th, 2014


Big-Ten-position-rankings-header-Coaches

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

Previously

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

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

(Brian Ebner, AP)

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

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

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

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

(Matthew O’Haren, USA Today Sports)

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

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

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

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

(US Presswire)

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

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

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

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

(Bradley Leeb, USA Today Sports)

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

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

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

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

(AP)

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 31st, 2014


Big-Ten-position-rankings-header-Safeties

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

Previously

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

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

(Lincoln Star Journal)

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

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

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

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

Nam Y. Huh, AP)

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

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

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

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

(Brian Ray, Hawkeyesports.com)

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

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

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

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

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

(Matthew O’Haren, USA Today Sports)

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

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

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

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

(Robert Hendricks)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014


Big-Ten-position-rankings-header-Safeties

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

Previously

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

11. Jabrill Peppers, Michigan | Freshman – 6’1”, 202 lbs
(247 Sports)

(247 Sports)

Okay, I am cheating. The parameters of this 2014 Big Ten Position Rankings series indicate that only the Big Ten players who will be among the 10 best at their respective position shall be ranked. However, an exception must be made for Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers, whom you just may have already heard a bit about here and there.

No incoming Big Ten freshman has received more hype, praise, acclaim, etc. than Peppers. For good reason, too. Peppers was the highest-rated 2014 prospect to commit to a Big Ten school. According to 247 Sports’ national composite rankings, Peppers is the third-best recruit in his class; there were no other Big Ten commits in the top 20. Further, Peppers is the highest-rated prospect to commit to the Wolverines since the creation of online recruiting services. Michigan earned commitments from No. 4 overall LaMarr Woodley and No. 5 overall Prescott Burgess in 2003 and No. 5 overall Ryan Mallett in 2007. But never before has Michigan been graced with a top-three prospect.

“But, Drew, how can you place Peppers on this list when he has not even played a single snap of college football yet? How do you know he will not be a bust?” Have you seen his highlights? Have you seen his physique? Have you seen his speed? Peppers is a physical specimen. Or, as fellow Michigan writer Bryan Mac penned perfectly at MGoBlog, Peppers “is basically a glitch in the physics engine.” Even an unnamed assistant coach at USC claimed that the only two high-school football players he had seen with a body like Peppers are Adrian Peterson and Patrick Peterson. That is some fine company. At 6’1” and 202 pounds, with his unbelievable burst, speed, and athleticism, everything about Peppers’ game should translate to the college level. He will be a playmaker the instant he steps on the field for the Wolverines.

However, the questions Michigan fans are asking are where and how often Peppers will play as a true freshman this season. Earlier this month, head coach Brady Hoke indicated Peppers would begin at nickelback, where Michigan previously has positioned its young, talented defensive backs for them to get their feet wet. Yet Peppers is listed in these rankings as a safety, not a cornerback. Michigan needs its best talent on the field as much as possible, and the Wolverines are already set at cornerback with Blake Countess, Raymon Taylor, and Jourdan Lewis as the starters. On the other hand, there is a vacancy at strong safety with Thomas Gordon’s departure. While Delano Hill and Dymonte Thomas currently are competing for that job, it seems like the perfect spot for the versatile Peppers to make the biggest impact. I have projected that Peppers will be Michigan’s starting strong safety by Big Ten play, where he should flourish and be considered one of the best 10 safeties in the Big Ten. Still, until Hoke makes that move official, Peppers must remain out of the top 10.

10. Michael Caputo, Wisconsin | RS Junior – 6’1”, 212 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 36 27 63 3.0 0 3 0
2012 8 2 10 0 0 0 0
2011 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 44 29 73 3.0 0 3 0
(Jeff Hanisch, USA Today Sports)

(Jeff Hanisch, USA Today Sports)

Wisconsin strong safety Michael Caputo is a pseudo-linebacker who shortly became a linebacker before reverting back to a pseudo-linebacker. Got all of that? No? Okay, let me explain. Last season, Caputo was the Badgers’ full-time starter at strong safety. However, despite being listed as a safety, he played more of a hybrid position, where he acted as a linebacker who could cover more than anything else. Accordingly, Caputo was Wisconsin’s second-leading tackler with 63 stops, 36 of which were solo, and three tackles-for-loss. Unsurprisingly, And, unsurprisingly, his impact was most felt in Wisconsin’s rushing defense, which allowed the fourth-fewest sack-adjusted yards allowed per carry nationally.

This does not mean that Caputo did not contribute to Wisconsin’s passing defense, which was 19th in the nation in sack-adjusted passing yards allowed per attempt, though. In fact, he played a vital role in it, which was exemplified by his absence in the regular-season finale against Penn State. Caputo missed most of the game due to concussion-like symptoms. Without him on the field, the Badgers allowed a talented but true freshman quarterback to complete 70 percent of his passes for 339 yards, 11.3 yards per attempt, and four touchdowns. Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda admitted afterwards how much Wisconsin’s passing defense missed Caputo, acknowledging that there were certain coverages and schematic adjustments that only Caputo did. Caputo may have only had three passes defended all season, but he was a key element to Wisconsin stopping the opponent’s aerial assault.

However, this season will be an interesting test for both Caputo and the Badgers. Wisconsin must replace the entire front seven on defense. Wisconsin tried to mitigate this by shifting Caputo from strong safety to linebacker in the offseason, thinking that Caputo’s play already resembled that of a linebacker. The problem was that Wisconsin had even more inexperience behind Caputo at safety, so Wisconsin moved him back to his original spot.

Even though Caputo will be comfortable with the position he is playing, lining up alongside two returning starters at cornerback, it is unclear just how much Caputo will miss his old partners in crime in the front seven. As aforementioned, Caputo made his biggest contribution stopping the run. But how effective will he be with an entirely new front-seven in front of him? How much did he benefit from the presence of the prior defensive front-seven? Will he not be able to make the same number of stops or have the same type of impact this year? These are the questions that must be answered and the reasons why Caputo, a returning starter from a very good defense, is only No. 10 on this list.

9. Ryan Keiser, Penn State | 5th-yr Senior – 6’1″, 208 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 26 12 38 2.0 1.0 11 3
2013 3 2 5 0 0 0 0
2013 2 4 6 0 0 0 0
2013 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 31 18 49 2.5 1.0 11 3
(247 Sports)

(247 Sports)

Safety Ryan Keiser is Penn State’s version of Jordan Kovacs. In high school, Keiser was a two-time member of the PA Football News Class AAA all-state first team but received little interest from FBS programs. In fact, Keiser was so under-recruited that he was considered a zero-star prospect by 247 Sports. With no scholarship offers in hand, Keiser chose to walk on to the football team at his in-state school, Penn State. He spent his first few seasons in State College doing whatever he could to get on the football field. He became Penn State’s holder and became a fixture on other special-teams units. But it was not until last season when Keiser proved he was much more than a special-teams star.

In 2013, Keiser began the season as a reserve defensive back for Penn State. He earned some playing time earlier in the year, which included an outstanding performance against Kent State, during which he had four tackles, a sack, an interception, and three pass breakups. Keiser continued to perform well and impress the Penn State coaching staff. Accordingly, he made his first career start against Michigan before starting the final four games of the season at free safety. Keiser finished with 38 tackles, two tackles-for-loss, one sack, three interceptions, and eight pass breakups. His 11 passes defended were the ninth-most in the Big Ten, which is even more impressive than usual because he started only about half of the season. Further, although Keiser had only 38 tackles all season, 23 of those were in his final four starts. If that average had been extrapolated over the course of the entire season, he would have had 69 tackles, which would have been the third-most on the team. By the end of the year, Keiser had demonstrated that he has a knack for being a ball-hawk and is not a liability in run support.

However, there is a reason why Keiser was a walk-on coming out of high school. This is a total shocker, but Keiser is not the most athletically gifted player. There are times when Keiser can be vulnerable over the top because he does not have the speed to keep pace with some of the Big Ten’s faster receivers. This can be seen even on plays where Keiser makes a positive impact. For example, Keiser made the game-clinching interception in the end zone in overtime against Illinois. However, the tape reveals that he had been beat initially. The only reason why Keiser made the pick was because fellow safety-cornerback Adrian Amos tipped the ball, allowing a recovering Keiser to snatch it out of the air. Nonetheless, Keiser, like Kovacs at Michigan before him, has proven that walk-ons can make an enormous impact at safety. Expect Keiser to have his best season in his first and only year as a full-time starter and be a member of one of the better pass defenses in the Big Ten.

8. R.J. Williamson, Michigan State | RS Junior – 6’0”, 205 lbs.
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 17 27 44 3.0 0 2 1
2012 19 8 27 1.0 0 4 2
2011 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 36 35 71 4.0 0 6 3
(Natalie Kolb, The State News)

(Natalie Kolb, The State News)

The power of Pat Narduzzi will strike again. In each the past three seasons, Michigan State has had a top-10 passing defense according to the S&P+ rankings, including the best pass defense the last two years. And Narduzzi and Michigan State have been able to maintain this level of excellence despite losing key pieces to the NFL or graduation each year. This past offseason, three-year starter and All-Big ten first-team selection Isaiah Lewis graduated and moved on to the NFL. If this were any other defense, fans and media alike would be concerned about who would replace Lewis and his production at strong safety. However, because of the reputation Michigan State’s defense has earned the past few years under Narduzzi, everyone expects the next man in line to step up without a hitch.

The next man in line: R.J. Williamson. Williamson saw extensive action last season as Michigan State’s de facto starting nickelback. As the nickelback, Williamson did not produce overwhelming numbers because he played fewer snaps than Michigan State’s other four starting defensive backs. Nevertheless, Williamson was no slouch. He registered 44 tackles, three tackles-for-loss, an interception, and two pass breakups. Williamson also performed very well in the one game in which he played the majority of the snaps, recording 10 tackles in a start versus Notre Dame and seven tackles and a pass breakup after Lewis was ejected for targeting in the first quarter against Northwestern. And, of course, Williamson did all of this for a defense that ranked second nationally in total defense, third in passing yards allowed per game, second in sack-adjusted passing yards allowed per attempt, and first in passing efficiency defense.

In 2014, Williamson is the front-runner to replace Lewis at strong safety. The competition for the spot is not over yet, though. Williamson reportedly left the door open after he had some sloppy moments during spring drills. Even Narduzzi has said that Williamson has all of the ability, but “we have to keep him consistent, and he’s got to do his job all the time.” Nevertheless, it would be a surprise if anyone other Williamson started at strong safety for Michigan State this season. He has the experience, prior production, and size—6’0” and 205 pounds—to complement free safety Kurtis Drummond perfectly. There are various other reasons why Williamson will mitigate much of damage resulting from Lewis’ departure, but, ultimately, all that needs to be said is that very few defensive coordinators get more out of their players than Narduzzi. Narduzzi will wield his magical powers once again and transform Williamson into one of the better safeties in the Big Ten.

7. Sean Davis, Maryland | Junior – 6’1″, 200 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 62 40 102 1.5 0.5 5 2
2012 8 5 13 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 70 45 115 1.5 0.5 5 2
(Andrew Shurtleff)

(Andrew Shurtleff)

There are a few different terms that may be used to describe Maryland free safety Sean Davis’ game. Wrecking ball. Bullet train. Missile. Wreaker of havoc and punishment. Last season, Davis was the full-time starter at free safety for the first time in his career as only a true sophomore. And, in his first campaign as the starter, he laid wood, and he did it often. He led Maryland and was eighth in the ACC with 103 tackles, averaging 9.56 tackles per game over the final nine contests of the season. Davis produced such gaudy tackle numbers because of his full-out attacking style. Once Davis diagnosed the play in front of him, whether it was a run or a short completion, he charged downhill instantly, weaving his way through traffic to deliver a bone-crushing hit. If you look at his highlights from last season, you notice just how often he sticks the ball-carrier and drives them backwards. Davis is a very physical player that can make his presence felt with just one jarring hit.

However, Davis, as the free safety, struggled as the last line of Maryland’s defense. Maryland was 57th nationally in passing yards allowed per game, 64th in passing efficiency defense, and 64th in Passing Defense S&P+. This indicates that the Terrapins’ pass defense was just an average outfit. Yet Maryland actually was worse on passing downs. Passing downs are defined as second down with eight or more yards to go and third or fourth down with five or more yards to go. In these situations, the Terps were only 84th-best in the country. It did not help that Maryland allowed 71 completions that gained at least 15 yards, which would have been the third-worst in the Big Ten. Simply, Maryland’s pass defense was not that great when it could not generate a pass rush.

Much of these woes fell on Davis. Yes, he has a knack for making aggressive plays as evidenced by his two interceptions and three pass breakups. However, a look at his highlights indicates that his two interceptions were the result of two awful throws by the quarterback into no man’s land. They were not the result of an instinctual free safety who read the quarterback to undercut the intended receiver. The problem is that, when Davis did try to make plays in pass coverage, too often he was too aggressive and did not execute his assignment correctly. There is nothing wrong with being an aggressive, attacking free safety. But it can become an issue when that free safety continually allows big plays to get behind him. If Davis can rectify these mistakes and pick his spots better when to be uber-aggressive, he could be one of the best safeties in the Big Ten. But it would be a surprise to see that development this season.

6. Jarrod Wilson, Michigan | Junior - 6’2″, 205 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 28 22 50 2.0 0 2 2
2012 4 4 8 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 32 26 58 2.0 0 2 2
(Matthew O, USA Today Sports)

(Matthew O’Haren, USA Today Sports)

Although there is much debate among Michigan fans about who will start for the Wolverines at strong safety, there is no such debate at free safety. After having a bit of an up-and-down campaign last year, Jarrod Wilson is Michigan’s unquestioned starter there. As a true sophomore, Wilson played well right out of the gate last season. He started the first seven games, during which he accumulated 33 tackles and four passes defended, including two interceptions. He was on pace for a very solid season statistically and was the back line of a defense that had been commendable until allowing Indiana’s up-tempo offense to explode for 47 points.

However, for reasons unknown, head coach Brady Hoke removed Wilson from the starting lineup prior to Michigan’s next game against in-state rival Michigan State, inserting converted cornerback Courtney Avery in his place. Michigan’s pass defense deteriorated thereafter, and it definitely was not a coincidence. In their first seven games with Wilson as a starter, the Wolverines allowed only 6.60 passing yards per attempt. In their final six games, they allowed 7.48 passing yards per attempt. Some of the discrepancy can be explained by Michigan facing better passing offenses later in the season than the likes of Central Michigan, Akron, and Connecticut. But there is no better example of Wilson’s importance in Michigan’s pass defense than against Ohio State, a game in which he barely played because of a broken hand. The Buckeyes completed only six of their 15 pass attempts against the Wolverines, but still managed to gain 133 passing yards for an excellent 8.9 yards per attempt. This fell on Michigan’s safeties—Thomas Gordon and Josh Furman—who were routinely beat deep. Does this happen if Wilson is healthy and starting? We will never be certain, but the answer likely is “no.”

This season, unless injured, there is no chance Wilson will be replaced by anyone behind him on the depth chart. He will have a full season to exhibit that he has great instincts in the back of Michigan’s secondary. Not only will he continue to make smart, athletic plays in coverage, he will continue to take the right angles to make tackles near the line of scrimmage. Also, with some starting experience under his belt, Wilson should not be as prone to mental errors as—like his untimely pass interference penalty in the fourth overtime against Penn State. Wilson should fulfill the potential he had as a four-star recruit and become a solid, boring free safety this fall. Although “boring” has a negative connotation, given the big plays Michigan allowed at the end of 2013 while playing roulette with its safeties, boring should be refreshing for Michigan. And, if Wilson demonstrates he is more than boring and defends more passes in the secondary, he will have an argument that he is one of the five best safeties in this conference.

What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with Part One of our 2014 Big Ten Safeties Rankings? Should Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers be in the top 10? Should Michigan’s Jarrod Wilson be in the top five? Is there a blatant omission from the top 10? And what would your top five be? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below. Tomorrow, we will reveal who will be the five best safeties in the Big Ten this upcoming season.

Big Ten Media Days: Word clouding the Big Ten coaches

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014


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

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

Brady Hoke – Michigan

Hoke

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

Urban Meyer – Ohio State

Urban

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

Mark Dantonio – Michigan State

Dantonio

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

Bo Pelini – Nebraska

Pelini

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

James Franklin – Penn State

Franklin

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

Gary Andersen – Wisconsin

Andersen

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

Pat Fitzgerald – Northwestern

Fitzgerald

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

Kirk Ferentz – Iowa

Ferentz

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

Kevin Wilson – Indiana

Wilson

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

Jerry Kill – Minnesota

Kill

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

Randy Edsall – Maryland

Edsall

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

Tim Beckman – Illinois

Beckman

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

Kyle Flood – Rutgers

Flood

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

Darrell Hazell – Purdue

Hazell

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

Big Ten Media Days primer

Sunday, July 27th, 2014


B1G Media Days(@B1GFootball)

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

Overview

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

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

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

The schedule - Monday, July 28

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

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

The schedule - Tuesday, July 29

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

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

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

Friday, July 25th, 2014


Big-Ten-position-rankings-header-CB

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

Previously

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

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

(AP)

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

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

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

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

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

(Jonathan Quilter, Columbus Dispatch)

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

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

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

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

(Jason Plotkin, The York Daily Record)

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

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

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

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

(Rick Osentoski, USA Today Sports)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Gary A. Vasquez, USA Today Sports)

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 17th, 2014


Big-Ten-position-rankings-header-LB

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

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

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

(247 Sports)

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

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

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

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

(MGoBlue.com)

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

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

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

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

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

(Keith Freeman, The Daily Targum)

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

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

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

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

(Karl Merton Ferron, The Baltimore Sun)

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

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

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

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

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

(Mara Ticcino, Collegian)

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014


Big Ten position rankings header-DL

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

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

10. C.J. Olaniyan, Penn State | 5th-yr Senior – 6’3”, 252 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks QBH
2013 28 22 50 11.0 5.0 4
2012 6 9 15 1.0 1.0 0
2011 3 0 3 0 0 0
2010 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 37 31 68 12.0 6.0 4
(Gene J. Puskar, AP)

(Gene J. Puskar, AP)

I will begin this post by declaring that I have committed a great injustice by limiting these rankings to only the Big Ten’s best defensive linemen. Okay, that may be a bit over the top. But there is no doubt that the position at which the Big Ten has the most top-end talent and depth is defensive line. The Big Ten is flooded with NFL talent here. First-round talent, too. What I should have done is split the defensive line preview into two separate weeks, so certain defensive ends and defensive tackles that did not make this list would receive the praise and attention they deserve. However, given how I organized this series’ structure, there is only enough time to dedicate one week to the defensive line.

For example, Minnesota defensive ned Thieren Cockran is one of the most underrated players in the Big Ten. Last season, Cockran surged onto the scene in his first year as a full-time starter. He is one of just eight returning Big Ten linemen that had double-digit tackles-for-loss in 2013. His 7.5 sacks were tied for the second-most in the Big Ten. And his four forced fumbles were tied for the most in the conference. Despite all of this, Cockran was snubbed by the Big Ten coaches from their All-Big Ten team; they did not even reward him with an honorable mention. If there is any Big Ten defensive player that deserves some recognition for his accomplishments, it is Cockran.

Yet, Cockran just missed the cut on this list. As I clarified above, the purpose of this list is to rank who will be the best in 2014, not necessarily who was the best last season. I have two worries about Cockran. First, he padded his stats against inferior competition. Half of his 10 tackles-for-loss and three of this 7.5 sacks were against floundering New Mexico State and FCS foe Western Illinois. Second, Cockran no longer will have former Minnesota nose tackle and second-round NFL draft pick Ra’Shede Hageman eating up double teams in the middle. Big Ten offenses will game plan around Cockran because no other Gophers defensive lineman poses a legitimate threat. Cockran is a skilled defensive end, but he does not have the talent or presence to make opponents pay the price all by himself.

Accordingly, Penn State defensive end C.J. Olaniyan has filled the No. 10 spot rather than Cockran. Olaniyan produced similar statistics to Cockran. Olaniyan finished with 50 tackles, 11 tackles-for-loss, five sacks, three forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, and an interception. It could be said that Olaniyan was more involved with Penn State’s rush defense while Cockran was more of a pass-rushing threat. Nonetheless, looking only at their total numbers, there is not much of a discrepancy.

However, what separates the two are that Olaniyan produces more against Big Ten competition and will have more help on the defensive line this fall. In conference play last season, Olaniyan recorded 35 tackles, eight tackles-for-loss, and four sacks. Cockran? Only 15 tackles and 4.5 tackles-for-loss. It is clear which one performs better against the cream of the crop. Further, despite losing defensive tackle and 2013 All-Big Ten first-team selection DaQuan Jones to the NFL, Olaniyan still has defensive end Deion Barnes to help relieve the pressure. Barnes slumped last season, but was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2012 for a reason. Barnes has talent and should be able to keep some of the attention off of Olaniyan—at least more than any Minnesota defensive lineman will for Cockran. Therefore, Olaniyan should have more of an impact on the field than Cockran in 2014.

9. Darius Hamilton, Rutgers | Junior – 6’4″, 260 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks QBH
2013 20 28 48 11.5 4.5 4
2012 4 13 17 1.5 0 1
Career Totals 24 41 65 13.0 4.5 5
(Nelson Chenault, USA Today Sports)

(Nelson Chenault, USA Today Sports)

You may be wondering to yourself, “Drew, are you telling me that a former consensus five-star recruit that blossomed as a true sophomore last season is only No. 9 on this list?” Yes, this is exactly what I am telling you. I cannot stress enough just how deep the Big Ten’s defensive line corps will be this fall. Darius Hamilton was one of the most sought-after recruits in the 2012 class. He reportedly had scholarship offers from the likes of Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU, Michigan, Oklahoma, Penn State, South Carolina, USC, and Wisconsin. But Hamilton spurned all of them to stay within his home state of New Jersey and attend Rutgers.

After servicing as a reserve as a true freshman in 2012, Hamilton slowly lived up to his potential throughout his first season as a starter last year. He posted 48 tackles, 11.5 tackles-for-loss, 4.5 sacks, three pass break-ups, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. These are splendid stats, but the key is to focus on how Hamilton finished the season. In Rutgers’ final four games, he registered 19 tackles, 6.5 tackles-for-loss, and 3.5 sacks. A sample size of four games—with three against AAC opponents—is too small to extrapolate to a full season in the Big Ten. Nonetheless, it would be foolish to presume that these performances were just anomalies given Hamilton’s raw talent.

Further, Hamilton did more than just boost his individual numbers down the stretch. He also anchored one of the stingiest run defenses last season. The Scarlet Knights were fourth in the nation in rushing yards allowed per game (100.77) and fifth in the nation in rushing yards allowed per carry (3.10). Rutgers’ rush defense was not predicated on forcing stops behind the line of scrimmage; Rutgers was only 45th nationally in team tackles-for-loss. Rather, the Scarlet Knights relied on their defensive tackles to occupy multiple offensive linemen and plug holes at the line. It was quite effective given the results.

But this strategy will not be as successful in the Big Ten this fall unless Hamilton gains a solid chunk of weight. Last year, he played at 240 pounds, which is incredibly light a for a three-tech. He still was able to survive, but only because he faced the smaller offensive lines of the AAC. Hamilton will not be so fortunate against the mammoth offensive lines of the Big Ten. Currently, Hamilton is listed on the roster at 260 pounds, and it has been reported that he will add an extra ten pounds. This would give Hamilton better odds to tussle with Big Ten offensive linemen, but he still will not have the luxury of a larger tackle lined up alongside of him. No Rutgers defensive lineman is listed with a weight above 280 pounds. Accordingly, Hamilton will be forced to combat double teams, and there may not be much he will be able to do to prevent them from escorting him from the premises. Thus, Hamilton sits at No. 9 on this list, even if he is projected to be one of the first ten defensive tackles selected in the 2016 NFL Draft.

8. Frank Clark, Michigan | Senior – 6’2”, 270 lbs.
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks QBH
2013 19 24 43 12.0 4.5 7
2012 16 9 25 9.0 2 0
2011 3 7 10 0.5 0 0
Career Totals 38 40 78 21.5 6.5 7
(Carlos Osorio, AP)

(Carlos Osorio, AP)

Michigan fans have been waiting for half of a decade for the next elite pass-rushing defensive end to don the maize and blue. In 2009, Brandon Graham was brilliant on the field for Michigan despite receiving little assistance from his defensive brethren. He tallied 63 tackles, 10.5 sacks, and became just the fourth Wolverine to surpass 25 tackles-for-loss in a season in school history. He was the lone standout for a defense that finished only 82nd and 77th nationally in total and scoring defense, respectively. For his efforts, Graham was selected with the 13th pick overall in the 2010 NFL Draft.

Since then, Michigan has not been close to having a defensive lineman replicate Graham’s production. In the past four seasons, no Michigan defensive lineman has notched more than 12.5 tackles-for-loss or 5.5 sacks. For context, a Big Ten defensive lineman has had no less than six sacks in a season 21 times in that same span. Michigan fans hope that this lack of production from the defensive end spot will come to a close soon. In fact, they are encouraged that this drought will finally end this season.

Enter: Frank Clark. Last summer, like this summer, Michigan fans were optimistic that Clark would have a breakout season in the fall. Hype was rampant. Praise was never-ending. It seemed like there was a new quote from the coaches or rumor complimenting Clark and his athletic ability. Fans saw glimpses of this ability, especially during an eight-game span in the middle of the season. During this stretch, he had 37 tackles, 11 tackles-for-loss, 4.5 sacks, two fumble recoveries, and a defensive touchdown. He was a force to be reckoned with as his combination of strength and agility was too much for offensive tackles to handle. Because most of the games during this stretch were during conference play, Clark was named to the All-Big Ten second team.

However, Clark’s season was marred by inconsistency. He would vanish from games just as often as he had an intimidating presence. He opened the campaign with a very slow start—a start that caused fans to question whether the preseason hype was deserved. In the first three contests, Clark made only four tackles and one tackle-for-loss. Then, Clark settled into his aforementioned eight-game groove, which caused many to believe that Clark had put his inconsistency issues behind him. But Clark was shut out in Michigan’s final two games against Ohio State and Kansas State, during which he managed only two tackles and little else.

So how will Clark finally transform into the next Brandon Graham in 2014? Or will he continue to disappear for entire games? The answer lies somewhere in the middle. Clark is one of the most physically gifted defensive ends in the conference. Offensive linemen will continue to have trouble contained Clark as he forces his way to the quarterback. He also will benefit from having a fully healthy Jake Ryan at linebacker behind him. Ryan’s prowess as a pass-rusher is well known, but his ACL injury limited him last season. With Ryan at 100 percent, offenses would be remiss to focus their pass protection solely on Clark. Additionally, another offseason under the tutelage of defensive coordinator Greg Mattison should help Clark further learn from his mental miscues and somewhat cure his inconsistency. But there is little chance that these errors will be completely remedied. Consequently, Clark will not be the next Graham. But the first Michigan defensive lineman with more than 12.5 tackles-for-loss and 5.5 sacks since 2009? It would be a stunner if Clark did not hit both marks.

7. Andre Monroe, Maryland | 5th-yr Senior – 5’11”, 275 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks QBH
2013 25 17 42 17.0 9.5 1
2012 0 0 0 0 0 0
2011 15 5 20 7.5 5.0 0
2010 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 40 22 62 24.5 14.5 1
(Mitch Stringer, USA Today)

(Mitch Stringer, USA Today)

I have repeated over and over again that the Big Ten is littered with NFL talent along the defensive line. According to NFL Draft Scout, there are 19 Big Ten defensive ends or defensive tackles that are ranked in the top 15 at their respective position in their respective draft class. For context, a defensive lineman ranked in the top 20 at their respective position will be an NFL Draft pick. So, not only will all 19 of these Big Ten defensive linemen likely be NFL draft picks, they likely will be selected in one of the first five rounds. Nine of the 10 players that made this list are projected to be no worse than a fourth-round draft pick. The lone exception: Maryland defensive end Andre Monroe.

One may not find Monroe on any NFL team’s draft board, but this does not mean that Monroe lacks talent. In 2011, he was a freshman All-American according to multiple media outlets when he totaled 7.5 tackles-for-loss and five sacks as a reserve in just nine games. Although Monroe missed the 2012 season due to a significant knee injury he suffered during fall camp, he returned as strong as ever last year. Monroe finished with 42 tackles, 17 tackles-for-loss, 9.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, and a pass break-up in 13 games. His 17 tackles-for-loss and 9.5 sacks were fifth and sixth in the ACC, respectively. This output is impressive from a lineman that was the five-tech in Maryland’s 3-4 defensive scheme. Generally, a five-tech in such a scheme will have a difficult time knifing his way through the offensive line to generate a pass rush. But Monroe did just that, demonstrating he can be effective at stopping the run and pressuring the quarterback.

So why is Monroe not projected to be an NFL Draft selection? Size. Monroe is listed only at 5’11”, and many NFL scouts do not believe that his production will translate to a much bigger NFL. But the purpose of this exercise is to rank who will be the best players in the Big Ten in 2014, not the best future professionals. In spite of his physical limitations, Monroe has an array of pass-rushing moves. And he will have more an opportunity to show them off this fall. Monroe will transition from the five-tech to the outside, where he will have a clearer path on the edge to rush the quarterback. Even with the move, it is difficult to project that Monroe will have more sacks in the Big Ten this season than the 9.5 he had in the ACC last year. However, there is little doubt that Monroe will be one of the better defensive ends in the conference despite having little chance to play on Sundays like the others on this list.

6. Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State | RS Junior – 6’4”, 257 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks QBH
2013 20 17 37 14.0 7.5 18
2012 4 2 6 2.5 1 5
2011 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 24 19 43 16.5 8.5 23
(Gregory Shamus, Getty Images)

(Gregory Shamus, Getty Images)

The sound you hear in the distance that is slowly rising in volume is a stampede of Michigan State fans charging at me for slotting defensive end Shilique Calhoun at No. 6 and outside the top five. They have a fair argument. Last season, in his first full year as a starter, Calhoun had one of the most productive campaigns of any defensive player in the Big Ten. He was tied for second in the conference with 7.5 sacks and tied for sixth with 14 tackles-for-loss. Although there were other Big Ten defenders with a similar number of sacks and tackles-for-loss, what made Calhoun’s statistical profile so sparkly were his takeaways. He forced two fumbles, recovered four fumbles, and intercepted a pass. He then converted three of these into defensive touchdowns—the most by any player in the nation. And Calhoun did all of this while starting on a defensive line that allowed the second-fewest rushing yards per game in the nation (86.6) and the third-fewest rushing yards per carry (2.85).

It was an excellent season for Calhoun, and everyone took notice. Calhoun earned second-team All-American honors from Walter Camp, the Associated Press, SI.com, USA Today, and Athlon Sports. He was the recipient of the 2013 National Defensive Performer of the Year by the College Football Performance Awards. He was one of six finalists for the Ted Hendricks Award, which is given to the nation’s best defensive end. He was named the Smith-Brown Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year. He also was selected to the All-Big Ten first team by both the coaches and the media. Ultimately, Calhoun was one of the most, if not the most, decorated Big Ten defensive players last season. With all of these accolades in hand, the NFL took notice as well. Calhoun could have been a third-round-or-better selection in the NFL Draft this past spring. Instead, he opted to return for his redshirt junior season and now is projected to be one of the first players taken the 2015 NFL Draft.

Yet Calhoun sits here at No. 6. Why? In three words: He is overrated. This is not to say that he is not a skilled defensive end, but he is not as talented as many claim him to be. What made Calhoun’s statistical profile stand out so much were his takeaways and three defensive touchdowns in the first two games. While this is a notable feat, it is more of a reflection of good luck and fortunate bounces than his ability. Ability is forcing an opposing player to fumble the football. Luck is seeing that fumble bounce and roll towards you, so you can pick it up. Will Calhoun be so fortunate to once again recover the second-most fumbles in the nation this fall? Doubtful.

If Calhoun is unable to use fumble recoveries and defensive touchdowns to boost his resume, then he will need to rely on his ability to create stops by racking up tackles, tackles-for-loss, and sacks. However, he had only 37 total tackles and more than three tackles only three times in 14 contests last season. This was because Calhoun’s game was more about rushing the passer the stuffing the run. This is fine, except when one looks at Calhoun’s game tape against Iowa, Michigan, Ohio State, and Stanford’s NFL-caliber offensive tackles. When he went one-on-one against those tackles, Calhoun was rendered ineffective. He was unable to disengage from the offensive tackles and create plays by himself. It generally was only when defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi used stunts to get Calhoun into space or when Michigan’s leaky offensive line slid away from Calhoun that he made an impact.

To be clear, this is not to say that Calhoun is subpar or not a Big Ten-caliber defensive end. Calhoun had a very productive first full season as starter as a redshirt sophomore. With another offseason of development and coaching under Narduzzi, coupled with his size and athleticism, Calhoun could transform into the player many expect him to be in 2014. But I would caution that this very well may not be the case and to expect what many would consider an underwhelming season for what many project to be a top-10 pick in the next NFL Draft. And, for any Michigan State fans that want to call me a Michigan homer for Calhoun’s rank, just wait until we reveal my top five tomorrow.

What do you think so far? Do you agree with our rank of the five players listed above? Is Michigan’s Frank Clark too high or too low at No. 8? Will Michigan State’s Shilique Calhoun duplicate his 2013 campaign this fall? Or will his production slip? 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 defensive linemen in the Big Ten in 2014.