photo AnnArborGIFHeader_zps02670880.gif

Posts Tagged ‘Penn State’

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.

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

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014


Big Ten position rankings header-OffensiveLine

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

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

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

(ScarletKnights.com)

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

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

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

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

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

(Scout.com)

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

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

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

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

(Matthew Holst, Getty Images)

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

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

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

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

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

(Justin K. Aller, Getty Images)

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

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

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

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

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

(Brooke Lavalley, Columbus Dispatch)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 26th, 2014


Big Ten position rankings header-TE

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

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

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

(Nuccio DiNuzzo, Chicago Tribune)

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

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

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

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

(Joe Robbins, Getty Images)

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

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

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

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

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

(Joe Hermitt, The Patriot)

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

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

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

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

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

(Troy Taormina, USA Today Sports)

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

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

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

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

(Matt Cashore, USA Today Sports)

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014


Big Ten position rankings header-TE

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

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

10. Matt LaCosse, Illinois | Senior – 6’6”, 245 lbs
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 20 237 3 11.9 45 19.8
2012 3 32 0 10.7 12 2.9
2011 1 11 0 11.0 11 1.1
Career Totals 24 280 3 11.7 45 8.5
(Chris Howell, Herald-Times)

(Chris Howell, Herald-Times)

The Big Ten is a conference that has a longstanding reputation for playing football with a “three yards and a cloud of dust” mentality. It is a mentality that often involves multiple tight ends and jumbo formations. However, most of the Big Ten, like the rest of college football, is transitioning—or has transitioned already—away from this towards the spread offense, whether it is a read-option spread or a passing spread. These modern offenses want to spread out their fastest, nimblest, and best athletes and give them the ball in space to expose defenses.

Yet, most tight ends do not fit these criteria. When lined up adjacent to an offensive tackle, tight ends fail to spread out the defense horizontally, bringing more defenders inside the box. When they line up in the slot, most do not have the speed or athleticism to make plays in space, even if their size makes them desirable targets in the middle of the field. Accordingly, a residual effect of this offensive transition is the de-emphasis of the importance of most tight ends, and thus, makes filling out a top 10 of the best tight ends in the Big Ten a challenging exercise.

Nonetheless, the list will start with Illinois’ Matt LaCosse. LaCosse will be a senior in 2014 and should have his best season in what has been a relatively quiet collegiate career. LaCosse played in 33 games in his three seasons at Illinois, but did not become a factor in Illinois’ passing game until last year. And, even then, he was not much of a factor. LaCosse was targeted 29 times, recording a target rate of 6.7 percent. This was only the sixth-highest target rate on the roster. LaCosse did make the most of his opportunities, though. Although LaCosse was not explosive, and to be fair, most tight ends are not, he caught 20 passes for 237 yards, 11.85 yards per catch, and three touchdowns. It was a big step in the right direction for a tight end that had caught only four passes total the previous two seasons.

LaCosse should take another step in the right direction in 2014, although a breakout year should not be presumed. LaCosse should benefit from Wes Lunt taking the reins of Illinois’ offense at quarterback. Nathan Scheelhaase was more of a pocket passer than a dual threat, but Lunt better fits the mold of quarterback offensive coordinator Bill Cubit desires for his passing spread. This means airing it out even more. Consequently, LaCosse should be targeted more frequently this season than last, even if he still is splitting snaps with fellow senior tight end Jon Davis. The Fighting Illini lost their four most-productive wide receivers to graduation. The only returning Illinois player with more than 300 receiving yards last year is running back Josh Ferguson. There are question marks abound at wide receiver and very few answers for Illinois. Someone must replace that production. Even though tight ends rarely were featured in Cubit’s offenses at Western Michigan, LaCosse likely will have a more prominent role this season and should be one of Lunt’s favorite targets.

9. Adam Breneman, Penn State | Sophomore – 6’4”, 235 lbs
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 15 186 3 12.4 68 16.9
Career Totals 15 186 3 12.4 68 16.9
(John Beale, AP)

(John Beale, AP)

No Big Ten school will rely more on its tight ends to produce this season than Penn State. The Nittany Lions have no apparent perimeter threats at outside receiver. They said goodbye to arguably the best wide receiver in the Big Ten in Allen Robinson, who declared early for the NFL Draft after leading the conference in targets (150), receptions (97), and receiving yards (1,432). Wideout Brandon Felder departed, too, after recording 28 catches for 312 yards and three touchdowns his senior season. Unfortunately, for Penn State, there is very little experience remaining at wide receiver. No other Nittany Lion wide receiver had more than 20 catches or 250 receiving yards last year. There may be some talented freshmen waiting in the wings, but it seems unlikely they will make an immediate impact. However, Penn State has three very talented players returning at tight end and will need them to replace the production that Robinson and Felder provided.

Two of those tight ends will be competing for the second spot on the depth chart. Those players are Adam Breneman and Kyle Carter. Breneman was considered a top-50 prospect nationally and one of the two best tight ends in the 2013 class. He actually had loftier rankings until he suffered an ACL injury entering his senior season of high school. Nonetheless, Breneman was expected to recover and contribute as soon as he arrived on campus in State College. Although he had a slow start as a true freshman, he began to impress by the end of the year. Breneman caught a touchdown in each of his of final three contests and finished the season with 15 receptions for 186 yards.

On the other hand, Kyle Carter is a tight end that has proven more on the field despite much lower recruiting accolades. Carter was a generic three-star recruit when he signed his letter of intent with Penn State in 2012. Yet, as a true freshman, he was the second-best receiver on the team with 36 receptions for 453 yards and two touchdowns. For his efforts, Carter was a consensus first-team Freshman All-American and named to the All-Big Ten first team by the media. However, last season, Carter did not have quite the same impact. He posted only 18 catches for 222 yards and one touchdown. This was the result of a new quarterback under center in then-freshman Christian Hackenberg, the presence of Breneman, and the emergence of Jesse James—who will be discussed later.

Ultimately, both Breneman and Carter will see significant playing time this season. It is not as if the loser of this competition will be stuck to the bench all season, especially when Penn State may need its tight ends to compensate for its deficiency at wide receiver. So, while either Breneman or Carter could be No. 9 in these rankings, the edge goes to Breneman because of his potential. Although Carter has had better numbers, Breneman has the tools to be special. In his limited playing time last season, Breneman recorded a 78.9-percent catch rate while averaging 12.40 yards per catch. These are excellent numbers and a rare combination for a tight end. They suggest that Breneman is a tight end that either can make defenders miss after catching the ball near the line of scrimmage or has superb hands down the field. Additionally, Breneman seems to have better chemistry on the field with Hackenberg, which is no surprise when the two were roommates last year. Breneman is a solid bet to be one of the Big Ten’s best tight ends in 2015 and 2016. However, No. 9 is a good spot for him in 2014 when he will be Penn State’s second-string tight end and have his targets cannibalized by Carter and James.

8. Justin Sinz, Purdue | 5th-Yr Senior – 6’4”, 251 lbs.
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 41 340 4 8.3 28 28.3
2012 4 48 1 12.0 16 4.0
2011 3 25 0 8.3 9 2.1
2010 0 0 0 N/A N/A N/A
Career Totals 48 413 5 8.6 28 11.5
(247)

(247)

Purdue’s offense was an abomination last season. There were 123 college football teams in the FBS division last year. Yet, the Boilermakers were ranked in the bottom five nationally in scoring offense (No. 119), total offense (No. 119), and rushing offense (No. 122). There were very few positives to glean from Purdue’s offensive woes. One of them, though, was the production of its tight end, Justin Sinz.

Sinz was the safety valve for Purdue’s quarterback, whether it was for then-freshman Danny Etling or then-senior Rob Henry. Purdue’s quarterbacks struggled with their accuracy all season, completing a miserable 55.2 percent of their passes. Due to their inability to throw pinpoint passes to their wide receivers, Etling and Henry often would check down to Sinz near the line of scrimmage. Accordingly, Sinz had the second-most targets on the roster and the fourth-most among Big Ten tight ends with 55. Because most of these throws were check downs, Sinz caught a high percentage of them—74.5 percent to be exact. This allowed Sinz to lead the Boilermakers with 41 receptions last season, turning them into 340 yards and four touchdowns, and be one of the more productive tight ends in the Big Ten.

Notwithstanding his productivity in 2013, Sinz was the beneficiary of a broken offense more than anything else. Purdue could neither run the football nor throw it down the field. So one of the very few options the Boilermakers had to move the football was Sinz near the line of scrimmage. And, when Sinz did catch the football, he did very little with it. He averaged only 8.29 yards per catch, which was one of the lowest such averages among Big Ten tight ends. Further, only one of his 41 receptions gained 25 yards or more. The last term anyone would use to describe Sinz’s game is playmaker.

The best case scenario for Sinz in 2014 is that Etling, who received decent praise as a high-school recruit, makes a sophomore leap with the help of an offensive line that cannot be any worse than last year. If Etling is allowed more time in the pocket, Sinz may be able to get open down field and make more plays rather than acting solely as a safety valve near the line of scrimmage. However, there is very little reason to be optimistic about Purdue’s offense next season. The outlook is similarly dreadful to last year. This means Sinz could load up on receptions again even if little excitement happens after the catch. But Sinz may split snaps with senior tight end Gabe Holmes, who was the starter before missing most of 2013 with a wrist injury. Fewer targets in the same caliber offense? Sinz very likely may see a dip in his production in 2014.

7. Jake Butt, Michigan | Sophomore – 6’6”, 250 lbs
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 20 235 2 11.8 37 18.1
Career Totals 20 235 2 11.8 37 18.1
(MGoBlue.com)

(MGoBlue.com)

Next on the list is Michigan’s Jake Butt—a man with a last name that could not be more fitting for his position. Similar to Penn State’s Adam Breneman, Butt is a young tight end that has the tools and potential to be a special player down the road. In fact, it initially appeared that Butt would be able to fulfill much of this potential as a sophomore in 2014. As a true freshman last year, Butt’s playing time increased once Michigan shifted starting tight end Devin Funchess to wide receiver. Soon thereafter, Butt found his groove, catching 13 passes for 168 yards and two touchdowns in the last five contests. His highlight of the season was against archrival Ohio State when he set career highs for receptions (five) and receiving yards (85) while adding a touchdown. It was the first glimpse of what could be a future All-Big Ten tight end. And there was some talk that Butt could do it this year with Funchess remaining on the perimeter and no other experienced receivers returning for Michigan.

However, an unfortunate and unlucky incident eliminated that talk swiftly. In February 2014, Butt tore his ACL while participating in conditioning drills. When the injury occurred, there was speculation about whether he would heal in time for this season like Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan did last year or would need to sit out for all of 2014. As of now, according to head coach Brady Hoke, all signs point to Butt making his return in late September or early October. The best guess would be that Butt would miss Michigan’s four non-conference contests and make his season debut on September 27, 2014, in the Wolverines’ Big Ten opener versus Minnesota.

While there are reports that Butt already is running and ahead of schedule in his rehab, there still are lots of questions about how effective Butt will be when he returns. Will Butt still have the same athleticism, agility, and strength in his leg to produce at a high level for Michigan? And, even if Butt’s knee is fully recovered, will he mentally have recovered from the injury? There are times when athletes are mentally conscious of their prior injury when they return, which prevents them from playing instinctively and causes them to play hesitant. The odds are that Butt will be fine, physically and mentally, when he suits up. Nevertheless, Butt still likely will play no more than nine games this season. It is difficult to rank a player high than No. 7 when it is known he will miss a portion of the season with a significant injury, even if he comes back stronger than ever.

6. Ray Hamilton, Iowa | Senior – 6’5”, 250 lbs
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 8 95 0 11.9 21 7.3
2012 2 20 0 10.0 20 1.8
2011 1 15 0 15.0 15 1.5
Career Totals 11 130 0 11.8 21 3.8
(Brian Ray, Hawkeyesports.com)

(Brian Ray, Hawkeyesports.com)

Since Kirk Ferentz became Iowa’s head coach prior to the 1999 season, the Hawkeyes have had an influx of talent at tight end. There has been Dallas Clark, who was a consensus All-American and the John Mackey Award winner in 2003. There also has been Brandon Myers and Tony Moeaki, who were named to the All-Big Ten first team in 2008 and 2009, respectively. Then, there was Erik Jensen and Scott Chandler, who, in addition to the Clark, Myers, and Moeaki, were selected in the NFL Draft.

Unsurprisingly, Iowa has made tight ends a staple of its offense. Just look at C.J. Fiedorowicz last season. Fiedorowicz was an all-around tight end that not only was a solid blocker, but an above-average receiver. He earned the third-most targets on the roster with 44 and converted them into 30 receptions for 299 receiving yards and a team-high six touchdowns. Although Fiedorowicz was not an explosive tight end, which is not a trait common in many players stuck in offensive coordinator Greg Davis’ system, he was a beast near the end zone. All six of his touchdown receptions were in the red zone. For his performance, Fiedorowicz was handed All-Big Ten first-team honors and chosen in the NFL Draft.

Next on the list of Iowa tight ends under Ferentz to forward this legacy is senior Ray Hamilton. Despite being a four-star recruit that committed to Iowa over high-major programs, Hamilton was overshadowed the past three seasons by Fiedorowicz. While Fiedorowicz shined in the spotlight, Hamilton stuck to the dirty work in the trenches with his nasty blocking as Iowa’s backup tight end. Consequently, Hamilton was more of a sixth offensive lineman on the field than receiver. He caught only 11 passes for 130 yards in his first three seasons. But, with Fiedorowicz off to the NFL, it is finally time for Hamilton to demonstrate why he was so highly regarded in high school. Although his receiving skills may not be to the same standard as Fiedorowicz’s, as the starting tight end this season, Hamilton should be targeted much more frequently this season than he ever has. Further, there is strong potential for Hamilton to be a touchdown magnet in the red zone. All in all, Hamilton should be a key member of Iowa’s aerial attack, especially when the Hawkeyes do not have a standout wide receiver.

However, there is one wild card in this picture. His name is Jake Duzey. Unlike Hamilton, Duzey does not fit the mold of the traditional Iowa tight end. Duzey has shown more ability as a receiver, but struggles with the blocking element of the position. It remains to be seen just how much Iowa will try to utilize Duzey’s skill set this season. Duzey could be a dynamic threat in the passing game for the Hawkeyes, which would cut into Hamilton’s targets and relegate Hamilton back into a blocking tight end. But, in the past, Ferentz has shied away from relying on tight ends that cannot block because his offense emphasizes the power running game. This is even the case for his No. 2 tight end, which is used almost exclusively for blocking in Iowa’s scheme. Will Ferentz and Davis add some creativity to their offense to get Duzey more involved? Or will Duzey struggle to get on the field because he cannot block effectively? These are questions to keep an eye on as Iowa’s season progresses. But, either way, expect one of Hamilton or Duzey to make a sizeable contribution for the Hawkeyes this season, just like every other Iowa tight end before them.

What do you think so far? Do you agree with where the foregoing players have been ranked? What about Michigan’s Jake Butt? Do you believe he is ranked too high, too low, or just right? Who do you think will the best tight end in the Big Ten in 2014? Please let us know in the comments below because, tomorrow, we will reveal who will be the five top tight ends in the conference.

New in Blue: Offensive tackle Grant Newsome

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014


Grant Newsome

Grant Newsome – OT | 6-7, 290 | Lawrenceville, N.J. – The Lawrenceville School
ESPN: 4-star, #25 OT Rivals: 4-star, #21 OT 247: 4-star, #22 OT Scout: 4-star, #20 OT
Other top offers: Alabama, LSU, Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State, S. Carolina, Wisconsin

On the heels of last week’s big announcement that USC running back Ty Isaac was transferring to Michigan, Brady Hoke picked up another big offensive talent in four-star offensive tackle Grant Newsome this morning. Despite holding offers from a number of major programs, including Alabama and LSU, Newsome narrowed his list down to two, Michigan and Penn State, and visited both last week. This morning, he tweeted a statement that announced that his decision had been made.

Newsome is ranked pretty similarly among the four recruiting services. All rate him a four-star and Scout ranks him the highest as the No. 20 offensive tackle, while ESPN has him the lowest at No. 25. As far as national rankings are concerned, 247 Sports ranks him the highest at No. 192, while Rivals has him at 199, Scout at 215 and ESPN at 235. They’re all pretty much in agreement about his size as well. Three of the four list him at 6’7″, while 247 has him an inch shorter. Rivals lists his weight as 280, but the other three have him at 290.

Scout lists Newsome’s strengths as explosion, feet, and size, and his areas for improvement as body control and balance, flexibility, and technique.

“Newsome is athletic, strong in pass protection and can get to the second level quickly in the running game,” wrote Scout’s Brian Dohn. “He is good drive blocking and does a nice job in pass protection. He has good length and is able to protect the edge, but does need to refine his technique. Newsome also gets to the second level quickly.”

Newsome is the second offensive lineman in Michigan’s 2015 class, joining Jon Runyan Jr., and is the seventh total commit in the class. With a heavy emphasis on recruiting linemen in the past few classes, Hoke will be able to give Newsome a redshirt and allow him to spend a couple of years learning the tricks of the trade before he’s thrown into action. That’s a good thing.

Michigan now has about eight scholarships remaining in the class, a number that could always go up between now and signing day, and should be set at offensive line.

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

Friday, June 6th, 2014


Big Ten position rankings header_edited-1

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

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

(Jeff Vest, Icon SMI)

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

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

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

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

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

(Evan Habeeb, USA Today Sports)

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

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

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

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

(AP)

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

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

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

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

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

(Gregory Shamus, Getty Images)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Andrew Weber, USA Today Sports)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comparing returning production throughout the Big Ten

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014


maryland(Rob Carr, Getty Images)

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

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

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

Offense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defense

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

Comparison chart

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

Big Ten power rankings: Week 10

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014



As the Big Ten regular season wrapped up on Sunday Michigan was able to sit back and relax having wrapped up the outright conference title by three games and the number one seed in this week’s tournament. The Wolverines will face the winner of the last two teams they faced to close the season, Illinois and Indiana, in the quarterfinals on Friday. The rest of the tournament bracket can be found here

As the conference heads to Indianapolis to battle it out for the automatic NCAA Tournament berth, we took another look at the power rankings.

1. Michigan (23-7, 15-3)  Even
Last week: Mar. 4 W at Illinois 84-53, Mar. 8 W vs Indiana 84-80
This week: BTT quarterfinals Friday vs (8) Indiana or (9) Illinois 12pm ESPN/ESPN2

Michigan finished off an incredible conference season by outlasting Indiana on senior night. Jordan Morgan went out with a bang, recording his first double-double of the season and keeping the Wolverines alive early with critical offensive rebounds. The Big Ten outright champions earned the top seed in the conference tournament after running away from the pack and finishing three games ahead of second-place Wisconsin and Michigan State. 

2. Nebraska (19-11, 11-7) • Up 1
Last week: Mar. 5 W at Indiana 60-50, Mar. 9 W vs #9 Wisconsin 77-68
This week: BTT quarterfinals Friday vs (5) Ohio State or (12) Purdue 2:25pm ESPN/ESPN2

In its biggest game of the season Sunday, Nebraska beat Wisconsin to finish the year with a league-best 15-1 home record. Incredibly, the preseason pick to finish dead last in the Big Ten earned a first-round bye in the conference tournament and landed just one game out of second place. 

3. Wisconsin (25-6, 12-6) • Down 1
Last week: Mar. 5 W vs Purdue 76-70, Mar. 9 L at Nebraska 68-77
This week: BTT quarterfinals Friday vs (7) Minnesota or (10) Penn State 6:30pm BTN

Bo Ryan’s Badgers had their eyes set on a prize outside the Big Ten: A No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. A nine-point loss to Nebraska seemingly eliminated Wisconsin from that discussion, but it still earned the second seed in the conference tournament after an 8-1 finish.

4. Michigan State (23-8, 12-6) • Up 3
Last week: Mar. 6 W vs #24 Iowa 86-76, Mar. 9 L at Ohio State 67-69
This week: BTT quarterfinals Friday vs (6) Iowa or (11) Northwestern 8:55pm BTN

Michigan State looked like it was back on track after a win over Iowa on senior night. However, a loss to Ohio State in the regular season finale dropped the Spartans to just 5-7 in their last 12 games and 1-2 since sending a healthy starting lineup back on the court.

5. Ohio State (23-8, 10-8) • Up 3
Last week: Mar. 9 W vs #22 Michigan State 69-67
This week: BTT first round Thursday vs (12) Purdue 2:25pm BTN

At the beginning of the conference schedule, Sunday’s Michigan State-Ohio State game looked like a potential shootout for the regular season championship. In reality, the game meant very little to the final Big Ten standings. But Aaron Craft did get a win on senior night, and the Buckeyes just barely managed to finish above .500 in the conference.

6. Illinois (18-13, 7-11) • Down 1
Last week: Mar. 4 L vs #12 Michigan 53-84, Mar. 8 W at #24 Iowa 66-63
This week: BTT first round Thursday vs (8) Indiana 12pm BTN

John Groce’s team could’ve thrown in the towel after a nine-game losing streak planted it firmly in last place. Instead, the Illini rallied and won four of their last five games, all of which were against NCAA Tournament hopefuls (Minnesota is the only non-lock at this point).

7. Minnesota (19-12, 8-10) • Up 2
Last week: Mar. 9 W vs Penn State 81-63
This week: BTT first round Thursday vs (10) Penn State 6:30pm ESPN2

Minnesota put itself into a very tough position heading into the final weekend of the regular season. Losses in nine of 14 games put Minnesota on the outside of the tournament bubble looking in with just a home game against Penn State left. The Gophers did what they had to do, blowing out the Nittany Lions 81-63, but it still may not be enough.

8. Iowa (22-11, 9-9) • Down 2
Last week: Mar. 6 L at #22 Michigan State 76-86, Mar. 8 L vs Illinois 63-66
This week: BTT first round Thursday vs (11) Northwestern 8:55pm ESPN2

Near the midway point of the season, Iowa was ranked in the top 10 of the AP poll and competing for a Big Ten championship. After five losses in its final six games, this team is reeling at the worst possible time. Iowa drew a favorable matchup in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, facing a Northwestern team that it beat by 26 points — twice.

9. Indiana (17-14, 7-11) • Down 5
Last week: Mar. 5 L vs Nebraska 60-70, Mar. 8 L at #12 Michigan 80-84
This week: BTT first round Thursday vs (9) Illinois 12pm BTN

The preseason top-25 Hoosiers know there’s only one route to the Big Dance now: winning the conference tournament. Indiana dropped its last two games to land in the No. 8 slot in Indianapolis and a matchup against the streaking Fighting Illini.

10. Penn State (15-16, 6-12) • Even
Last week: Mar. 6 W at Northwestern 59-32, Mar. 9 L at Minnesota 63-81
This week: BTT first round Thursday vs (7) Minnesota 6:30pm ESPN2

Minnesota waxed Penn State in the final road game for the Nittany Lions, but they still managed to finish the conference season with a 6-6 record in the final 12 games after losing the first six. Penn State drew a rematch against the Gophers in the first round Thursday — a chance to strengthen its NIT resume.

11. Northwestern (13-18, 6-12) • Up 1
Last week: Mar. 6 L vs Penn State 32-59, Mar. 9 W at Purdue 74-65
This week: BTT first round Thursday vs (6) Iowa 8:55pm ESPN2

Northwestern quietly earned a big road win on Sunday to stay out of the cellar and finish 11th in the Big Ten. The Wildcats held much higher expectations after a 5-5 start, but a seven-game losing streak put any hopes of contending quickly to rest.

12. Purdue (15-16, 5-3) • Down 1
Last week: Mar. 5 L at #9 Wisconsin 70-76, Mar. 9 L vs Northwestern 65-74
This week: BTT first round Thursday vs (5) Ohio State 2:25pm BTN

Matt Painter’s team sure hit rock bottom this season. After nearly dethroning the first-place Michigan Wolverines two weeks ago, Purdue had its heart ripped out and lost its three final games. The Boilermakers finished the season by losing 11 of 13 games, including the final six.

Stauskas, Beilein earn top honors, Wolverines re-enter top 10

Monday, March 10th, 2014


Big Ten champs celebration

Nik Stauskas became Michigan’s second straight Big Ten Player of the Year the conference announced on Monday evening. The sophomore was voted the top honor by both the coaches and media, following Trey Burke who won the award a year ago. Stauskas has averaged 17.4 points, 3.5 assists, and 3.3 rebounds per game this season with 13 games of 20 or more points. He is the only Big Ten player to rank in the top 10 in field goal percentage (48.9), three-point percentage (45.8), and free throw percentage (81.1).

Stauskas was also a unanimous selection to the All-Big Ten first team and named to the Sporting News All-America second team.

In addition, John Beilein was named Big Ten Coach of the Year by the media, becoming the first Michigan coach to win the award since Bill Frieder in 1985. Johnny Orr also accomplished the feat in 1974 and ’77. Nebraska’s Tim Miles was awarded the honor by the coaches.

Caris LeVert was named to the All-Big Ten second team  after averaging 13.4 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 2.7 assists per game. Glenn Robinson III garnered honorable mention honors, averaging 13.2 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 1.3 assists per game. Derrick Walton Jr. was named to the all-freshman team, averaging 8.1 points, 2.9 assists, and 2.9 rebounds per game. This is the fourth straight season the Wolverines have had a player on the all-freshman team (Robinson III in 2013, Burke in 2012, and Tim Hardaway Jr in 2011).

Below are the full All-Big Ten teams as selected by both the coaches and the media.

All-Big Ten first team
Coaches Media
Name School Name School
Nik Stauskas* Michigan Nik Stauskas* Michigan
Roy Devyn Marble Iowa Roy Devyn Marble Iowa
Gary Harris Michigan State Gary Harris Michigan State
Terran Pettaway Nebraska Terran Pettaway Nebraska
Frank Kaminsky Wisconsin Frank Kaminsky Wisconsin
All-Big Ten second team
Coaches Media
Name School Name School
Yogi Ferrell Indiana Yogi Ferrell Indiana
Caris LeVert Michigan Caris LeVert Michigan
Adreian Payne Michigan State Adreian Payne Michigan State
D.J. Newbill Penn State D.J. Newbill Penn State
Sam Dekker Wisconsin Aaron Craft Ohio State
All-Big Ten third team
Coaches Media
Name School Name School
Noah Vonleh Indiana Noah Vonleh Indiana
Aaron White Iowa Aaron White Iowa
Aaron Craft Ohio State Drew Crawford Northwestern
LaQuinton Ross Ohio State Tim Frazier Penn State
Tim Frazier Penn State Sam Dekker Wisconsin
All-Big Ten honorable mention
Coaches Media
Name School Name School
Rayvonte Rice Illinois Rayvonte Rice Illinois
Glenn Robinson III Michigan Glenn Robinson III Michigan
Keith Appling Michigan State Will Sheehey Indiana
Denzel Valentine Michigan State Keith Appling Michigan State
Andre Hollins Minnesota Denzel Valentine Michigan State
Shavon Shields Nebraska Andre Hollins Minnesota
Drew Crawford Northwestern DeAndre Mathieu Minnesota
A.J. Hammons Purdue Shavon Shields Nebraska
Ben Brust Wisconsin LaQuinton Ross Ohio State
A.J. Hammons Purdue
Ben Brust Wisconsin
Josh Gasser Wisconsin
Traevon Jackson Wisconsin
All-Big Ten all-freshman team Sportsmanship Award honorees
Name School Name School
Kendrick Nunn Illinois Joseph Bertrand Illinois
Noah Vonleh Indiana Will Sheehey Indiana
Derrick Walton Jr. Michigan Mike Gesell Iowa
Kendall Stephens Purdue Jon Horford Michigan
Nigel Hayes Wisconsin Denzel Valentine Michigan State
All-Big Ten defensive team Austin Hollins Minnesota
Name School Shavon Shields Nebraska
Gary Harris Michigan State Drew Crawford Northwestern
Aaron Craft Ohio State Lenzelle Smith Jr. Ohio State
Shannon Scott Ohio State Tim Frazier Penn State
A.J. Hammons Purdue Travis Carroll Purdue
Josh Gasser Wisconsin Ben Brust Wisconsin
*Unanimous selection

Michigan also moved back into the top 10 in both polls, checking in at No. 8 in the AP Poll and No. 9 in the USA Today Coaches Poll. It is the first time the Wolverines have been in the top 10 since the first week of February when they reached 10th.

Wisconsin’s loss to Nebraska on Sunday dropped the Badgers below Michigan, to 12th and 13th. Michigan State remains at 22nd in both polls for the second straight week, while Ohio State moves back in at 24th in both. Iowa dropped out.

As for Michigan’s non-conference opponents, Arizona dropped one spot to fourth in both polls, fell to seventh and sixth, and Iowa State is still 16th in both.

The full national rankings are below.

AP Poll Coaches Poll
Rank Team Rank Team
1 Florida (29-2) 1 Florida (29-2)
2 Wichita State (34-0) 2 Wichita State (34-0)
3 Villanova (28-3) 3 Villanova (28-3)
4 Arizona (28-3) 4 Arizona (28-3)
5 Louisville (26-5) 5 Louisville (26-5)
6 Virginia (25-6) 6 Duke (24-7)
7 Duke (24-7) 7 San Diego State (27-3)
8 Michigan (23-7) 8 Virginia (25-6)
8 San Diego State (27-3) 9 Michigan (23-7)
10 Kansas (23-8) 10 Kansas (23-8)
11 Syracuse (27-4) 11 Syracuse (27-4)
12 Wisconsin (25-6) 12 Cincinnati (26-5)
13 Cincinnati (26-5) 13 Wisconsin (25-6)
14 Creighton (24-6) 14 Creighton (24-6)
15 North Carolina (23-8) 15 North Carolina (23-8)
16 Iowa State (23-7) 16 Iowa State (23-7)
17 Oklahoma (23-8) 17 Saint Louis (26-5)
18 Saint Louis (26-5) 18 Oklahoma (23-8)
19 Memphis (23-8) 19 Memphis (23-8)
20 New Mexico (24-6) 20 New Mexico (24-6)
21 Connecticut (24-7) 21 Connecticut (24-7)
22 Michigan State (23-8) 22 Michigan State (23-8)
23 Virginia Commonwealth (24-7) 23 Southern Methodist (23-8)
24 Ohio State (23-8) 24 Ohio State (23-8)
25 Southern Methodist (23-8) 25 Virginia Commonwealth (24-7)