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Posts Tagged ‘Wisconsin’

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

Friday, August 15th, 2014


Big-Ten-position-rankings-header-Coaches

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

Previously

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

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

(Brian Ebner, AP)

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

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

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

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

(Matthew O’Haren, USA Today Sports)

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

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

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

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

(US Presswire)

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

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

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

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

(Bradley Leeb, USA Today Sports)

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

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

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

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

(AP)

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014


Big-Ten-position-rankings-header-Safeties

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

Previously

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

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

(247 Sports)

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

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

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

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

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

(Jeff Hanisch, USA Today Sports)

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

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

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

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

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

(247 Sports)

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

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

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

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

(Natalie Kolb, The State News)

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

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

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

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

(Andrew Shurtleff)

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

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

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

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

(Matthew O’Haren, USA Today Sports)

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

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

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

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

Big Ten Media Days: Word clouding the Big Ten coaches

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014


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

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

Brady Hoke – Michigan

Hoke

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

Urban Meyer – Ohio State

Urban

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

Mark Dantonio – Michigan State

Dantonio

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

Bo Pelini – Nebraska

Pelini

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

James Franklin – Penn State

Franklin

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

Gary Andersen – Wisconsin

Andersen

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

Pat Fitzgerald – Northwestern

Fitzgerald

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

Kirk Ferentz – Iowa

Ferentz

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

Kevin Wilson – Indiana

Wilson

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

Jerry Kill – Minnesota

Kill

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

Randy Edsall – Maryland

Edsall

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

Tim Beckman – Illinois

Beckman

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

Kyle Flood – Rutgers

Flood

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

Darrell Hazell – Purdue

Hazell

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

Big Ten Media Days primer

Sunday, July 27th, 2014


B1G Media Days(@B1GFootball)

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

Overview

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

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

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

The schedule - Monday, July 28

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

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

The schedule - Tuesday, July 29

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

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

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

Friday, July 25th, 2014


Big-Ten-position-rankings-header-CB

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

Previously

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

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

(AP)

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

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

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

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

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

(Jonathan Quilter, Columbus Dispatch)

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

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

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

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

(Jason Plotkin, The York Daily Record)

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

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

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

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

(Rick Osentoski, USA Today Sports)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Gary A. Vasquez, USA Today Sports)

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 3rd, 2014


Big Ten position rankings header-OffensiveLine

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

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

5. Jack Allen, Michigan State | RS Junior – 6’2”, 300 lbs
Starts Games Played
2013 12 12
2012 12 13
2011 0 0
Career Totals 24 25
(Mark Cunningham, Getty Images)

(Mark Cunningham, Getty Images)

Wretched. There really is no other adjective to describe Michigan State’s offense in its first two games of the 2013 season. Actually, that is untrue. Pitiful, woeful, pathetic, and dismal would have worked just fine, too. It was almost as if the Spartans’ offense had forgotten that its purpose was to gain yards and score more points than its opponent. In those first two contests, Michigan State faced two dregs of the FBS in Western Michigan and South Florida—teams that combined for a 3-21 record last season. They were awful in all facets of the game. And, yet, MSU’s offense could muster only an average of 281 total yards per game, 3.99 yards per play, and 9.5 points per game against them. It was so deplorable, in fact, that Michigan State’s defense actually outscored its offense in these first two weeks, 28-19. These offensive performances—or lack thereof—sent Spartans fans into a worried tizzy.

In Michigan State’s third game against Youngstown State, the offense began to remember what it was supposed to do on the football field, tallying 547 total yards and 55 points. These numbers may have been compiled only against an FCS opponent, but it certainly was a step in the right direction after the appalling displays seen in the first two weeks. Much of the credit for this offensive turnaround was assigned to quarterback Connor Cook, who replaced Andrew Maxwell and made his first career start against Youngstown State. Cook undoubtedly was worthy of some of this praise as Michigan State thereafter discovered its offensive identity, running its way through the Big Ten to a Rose Bowl victory. But there is another Spartan who deserves credit for MSU’s offensive 180. In fact, he may be more responsible for the turnaround that initiated in the third week than Cook. His name is Jack Allen.

Allen, who started 12 of 13 games and was named a Freshman All-American by media outlets in 2012, was penned as the starting center for the 2013 season. However, he was sidelined for the first two contests against Western Michigan and South Florida with turf toe. It was not until the third week against Youngstown State when Allen made his season debut. Is it a coincidence that Michigan State’s offensive U-turn just so happened to occur right when Allen returned to the gridiron? I think not.

Allen’s inclusion in the starting lineup transformed Michigan State’s offensive line into one of the best in the Big Ten. One reason why Cook always looked so poised and collected in the pocket was because the offensive line kept his jersey free of grass stains. The Spartans finished in the top 20 nationally in both sacks allowed per game (1.21) and sacks-allowed rate (4.10 pct.). Allen’s pass blocking provided Cook copious amounts of time to go through his progressions and make the correct read.

Allen’s run blocking was not too shabby either. Michigan State’s rushing attack may not have averaged many yards per carry—only a middle-of-the-pack 4.28—but it was not predicated on efficiency. The Spartans wanted to line up in power formations and run it down the defense’s throat over and over again. And that is what they did with Allen’s assistance. Allen repeatedly opened holes for running back Jeremy Langford, springing Langford to a 1,422-yard, 18-touchdown campaign.

For Allen’s efforts and production, he was placed on the All-Big Ten second team by the media and received an honorable mention from the coaches. He has received further recognition entering the 2014 season. Not only was Allen named to the Rimington Trophy—which is given to the nation’s best center—preseason watch list, he was anointed to Phil Steele’s preseason All-Big Ten first team. None of this should be a shock. Barring injury, Allen will be the Big Ten’s best center in 2014.

4. Jack Conklin, Michigan State | RS Sophomore – 6’6″, 330 lbs
Starts Games Played
2013 13 14
2012 0 0
Career Totals 13 14
(Mike Carter, USA Today Sports)

(Mike Carter, USA Today Sports)

The foregoing sections explains how Jack Allen was the most important offensive lineman to Michigan State’s success last season and that he will be the best center in the Big Ten this fall. But it does not insinuate that Allen will be Michigan’s best offensive lineman for a second straight season. There is another Spartan who has been lost in the shadows throughout his career. Next season, though, he will have no choice but to emerge into the spotlight and become an elite offensive tackle in the Big Ten. Say, “Hello,” to Jack Conklin.

Just two years ago, despite having the physical attributes that college coaches want from offensive line prospects, Conklin did not field a single scholarship from an FBS program. Not one. In fact, a quick peek at Conklin’s 247 Sports profile reveals that he did not receive a single star from any of the four major recruiting services. He was a consensus zero-star recruit. It was not because he underwhelmed on the football field; Conklin dominated the opposition. It was because recruiters and scouts were unsure how to gauge these performances when he was punishing only players who were a foot shorter and at least 100 pounds less than him. Conklin was a victim of the vastly inferior high school competition he faced. With no scholarship offers in tow entering the spring of 2012, Conklin was on the verge of heading to prep school for one last chance to finally seize the attention of an FBS program. Then, Michigan State called.

Head coach Mark Dantonio offered Conklin a spot on Michigan State’s roster for the 2012 season with a promise that he would be on scholarship no later than the following January. Conklin accepted the offer enthusiastically and went to work in East Lansing immediately. He redshirted his first season at Michigan State, as most offensive linemen do, but MSU’s coaches realized they might have found a true gem as they watched him practice on the scout team.

When the 2013 season rolled around and Conklin was eligible to play, he was thrust into the starting lineup at right tackle for the Spartans’ first three games before starting the final 10 contests at left tackle. The only game Conklin did not start was at Notre Dame—MSU’s only loss of the season. Conklin thrived immediately on the gridiron. As a redshirt freshman, he was the starting left tackle for an offensive line that was one of the best in the Big Ten. Michigan State’s offensive numbers were discussed already in Allen’s section, so there is no need to rehash them here. But there is one statistic that must be stated: Conklin did not allow a single sack in his 13 starts last season. His remarkable first season earned him a spot on many Freshman All-American teams.

In 2014, much more will be expected of Conklin. Michigan State lost three starters on the offensive line, leaving Conklin and Allen as the only holdovers. Although the new starters are not completely green, the Spartans will need Conklin to develop into a leader at left tackle. They need him to be one of the best left tackles in the conference. Conklin has the benefit of having played only one season thus far. As a player who is entering only his redshirt sophomore season, there still is more room for Conklin to grow—a scary thought for the rest of the Big Ten. Relying on the chip that he has on his shoulder, Conklin should develop into one of the best tackles in the Big Ten this season. This is why Phil Steele has him on his preseason All-Big Ten second team. It is also why Conklin finally will have the attention he has wanted for so long and deserves.

3. Jason Spriggs, Indiana | Junior – 6’7”, 307 lbs.
Starts Games Played
2013 12 12
2012 12 12
Career Totals 24 24
(Pat Lovell, USA Today Sports)

(Pat Lovell, USA Today Sports)

To continue the theme of underrated Big Ten offensive linemen who have not received their fair share of credit, let’s study Indiana’s Jason Spriggs. Like most of Indiana’s recruits, Spriggs was a generic three-star recruit who received little to no hype. Other than the Hoosiers, Spriggs only reported offers were from schools in the MAC. So he had a choice: Indiana or the MAC? For a high school kid raised in the Hoosier State, it was an easy selection.

It did not take very long for Spriggs to make his presence known in Bloomington. Whereas most offensive linemen redshirt their freshman season to develop physically, Spriggs started as a true freshman in Indiana’s season opener in 2012. In fact, he started in all 12 games, setting a school true freshman record for an offensive lineman. And Spriggs demonstrated why there was no need for him to redshirt. In 961 snaps, he led the team with 80 knockdowns and surrendered just two sacks. Further, he was a starting tackle for an offense that led the conference in passing yards per game (311.2), was second in total yards per game (442.0), and fourth in scoring offense (30.8). Spriggs’ impressive debut was rewarded with Freshman All-American nods and an honorable mention on the All-Big Ten team.

However, it was last season when Spriggs really bloomed, even if few others took notice. The Hoosiers had one of the most explosive offenses in the nation, let alone the Big Ten. Nationally, Indiana finished 16th in scoring offense (38.4), ninth in total offense (508.5), 30th in rushing offense (201.8), and 17th in passing offense (306.7). IU was one of only six schools to rank in the top 30 in all four of these categories. It was a record-setting season for the Indiana offense. And it could not have been done without Spriggs solidifying the line in all 12 of his starts at left tackle. The Hoosiers were a team that preferred airing out the football to grinding it out on the ground. Yet, Indiana ranked 15th in the nation and second in the Big Ten in sacks-allowed rate, allowing a sack on only 3.93 percent of IU’s drop backs. If one of the main responsibilities a left tackle has is to protect his quarterback’s blind side, then there are very few left tackles who executed their job better than Spriggs in 2013.

This fall, Indiana will transition from a two-quarterback, hybrid offense to a full passing spread with quarterback Nate Sudfeld after dual-threat quarterback Tre Roberson transferred. In all likelihood, the Hoosiers will drop back to pass even more this year than they did last season. Accordingly, Indiana will rely even more upon Spriggs to hold down the left side of the offensive line in pass protection. The great news for Indiana is that all of the starting offensive linemen from last season return, so Spriggs will not need to worry about building new chemistry. His comfort level will be at an all-time high. This, coupled with the talent Spriggs had displayed in 24 starts in two seasons, should allow Spriggs to contend for a slot on the All-Big Ten first team in 2014.

2. Rob Havenstein | 5th-yr Senior – 6’8”, 327 lbs
Starts Games Played
2013 13 13
2012 14 14
2011 1 13
2010 0 0
Career Totals 28 40
(247 Sports)

(247 Sports)

Wisconsin right guard Kyle Costigan was included in this top-10 list of who will be the best offense linemen in the Big Ten in 2014. He was ranked at No. 9 in Part One yesterday. But Costigan will not even be the best player on the right side of Wisconsin’s offensive line. Right tackle Rob Havenstein will be. To start, Havenstein is one of the most experienced offensive linemen in the conference. He has participated in 40 games in his career, starting 28 of them and 27 in the past two seasons. Because of this experience, we know what to expect from Havenstein in 2014. And what we expect is for Havenstein to be the one of the best road graders in the conference.

In Havenstein’s two full seasons as Wisconsin’s starting right tackle, the Badgers have pulverized opponents into submission with their ground game. Running behind Havenstein, Wisconsin averaged 236.4 rushing yards per game in 2012 and 283.8 yards per game in 2013. Both of these averages were among the 15 best nationally each year. Wisconsin’s rushing offense was so productive because of its explosiveness. Last season, the Badgers averaged 6.62 yards per carry, which was the second-best in the nation. Speedy running backs Melvin Gordon and James White played a huge role in generating these averages, but they needed the space to make their cuts past defenders. This burden fell on Havenstein, and he delivered. Havenstein did more than move the line of scrimmage a yard or two. Rather, he escorted defensive linemen completely out of the picture, which allowed Gordon to dazzle and dance. Without Havenstein, Wisconsin likely would not have had two 1,400-yard rushers last season.

What makes Havenstein such a devastating run blocker is his size. Listed at 6’8” and 327 pounds, Havenstein is the largest offensive lineman in terms of height and weight in these rankings. And the mind-blowing thing is that he has lost 53 pounds in Madison just to get to his “svelte” 327 pounds. Havenstein uses his size and body mass well to get under a defensive lineman’s shoulder pads and drive him backwards. Opposing defensive ends have tried countlessly to thwart Havenstein’s run blocking, but very few have succeeded. And the ones who have not succeeded? They generally find themselves on their back.

However, any man who sheds 53 pounds to reach a current playing weight of 327 pounds probably does not have much speed, agility, or lateral quickness. Accordingly, Havenstein has had issues with his pass blocking. Although Wisconsin finished 17th nationally in sacks allowed per game, it was only because Wisconsin attempted so few passes. In actuality, the Badgers’ pass blocking was only mediocre as its sacks-allowed rate of 5.23 percent was only the 54th-best in the nation. Until Havenstein can drop a few more pounds and increase his lateral quickness, defensive ends will continue to utilize the speed rush to beat Havenstein to the outside.

But this is why Havenstein plays right tackle and not left tackle. While the right tackle should still be adequate in pass protection, which Havenstein is, the right tackle’s main job is to pave the path for the running backs. Only one person in the Big Ten does it better than Havenstein. Consequently, Phil Steele named him to his preseason All-America fourth team and All-Big Ten first team. With potential Heisman contender Gordon and three starting offensive linemen returning, including Costigan, Havenstein should be the best offensive lineman for one of the best rushing attacks in the country yet again.

1. Brandon Scherff, Iowa | 5th-yr Senior – 6’5”, 320 lbs
Starts Games Played
2013 13 13
2012 7 7
2011 3 10
2010 0 0
Career Totals 23 30
(AP)

(AP)

Every single season, the Big Ten seems to have at least one offensive lineman who will be drafted in the first round of the upcoming NFL Draft. Michigan’s Taylor Lewan in 2014. Wisconsin’s Travis Frederick in 2013. Iowa’s Riley Reiff and Wisconsin’s Kevin Zeitler in 2012. Wisconsin’s Gabe Carimi in 2011. Iowa’s Bryan Bulaga in 2010. Do you see where this is going? This year, no one will need to look very hard to find the next Big Ten offensive lineman who will be a sure-fire first-rounder. All one needs to do is glance over at Iowa City to find left tackle Brandon Scherff—a projected top-10 pick in the 2015 NFL Draft and the Big Ten’s best offensive lineman bar none.

Scherff has the entire package as a prototypical NFL left tackle. At 6’5” and 320 pounds, he has the size. With 23 starts at left tackle under his belt, he has the experience. But, most importantly, Scherff has demonstrated that he excels at both run blocking and pass blocking, which cannot be said for most of the offensive tackles in the Big Ten. To see just how impressive Scherff is as a road grader, one has to look at much more than just Iowa’s rushing stats. The Hawkeyes tend to pound the football with heavy, power formations. With so many players scrunched up next to the ball before it is snapped, there is less of an opportunity for Iowa’s running backs to break into the open field. Accordingly, Iowa’s yards per carry suffer. But one look at Scherff run blocking on film is all one needs to see how dominant he is.

Scherff may be an even better pass-blocker than run-blocker, too. As the left tackle, Scherff must have the lateral quickness, agility, and strength to compete against the opponent’s best pass-rushers. Yet, very few of them have been able to reach the Iowa quarterback with Scherff standing post on the blind side. In 2013, Scherff’s only full season as a starter, Iowa allowed the fewest sacks per game (1.15) in the conference. Further, even after adjusting for Iowa’s tendency to run the football, the Hawkeyes finished 12th nationally and led the Big Ten in sacks-allowed rate (3.61 pct.). If opposing defenses want to bring down Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock in 2014, they should try to take a different approach than attack Scherff.

As the anchor of what should be a splendid Iowa offensive line next season, Scherff should add to the collection of awards, honors, and accolades he earned in 2013. He already has been named to Phil Steele’s preseason All-America second team and All-Big Ten first team. Scherff will contend for first-team All-American honors and be a heavy favorite for the Rimington-Pace Offensive Lineman of the Year award—given to the Big Ten’s best offensive lineman. Scherff also will have a fantastic opportunity to be a finalist for the Outland Trophy—given to the nation’s best offensive lineman. All of these honors are within Scherff’s grasp. And then he will take his talents to the NFL, where he will be one of the first players selected in 2015, just like the Big Ten’s best offensive linemen before him.

Do you agree with our list? Or did we get it wrong? Will Iowa’s Brandon Scherff be the best offensive lineman in the Big Ten next season? Or will someone else surprise the conference and overtake him? Please tell us your thoughts by leaving comments below. With this post published, we have completed our rankings of who will be the best Big Ten players at each offensive position. Next week, we will transition to the other side of the ball by rankings the best defensive linemen.

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: Running backs (part two)

Thursday, June 12th, 2014


Big Ten position rankings header-RB

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

Previously: Quarterbacks part one, part two.

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

(Jay LaPrete, AP)

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

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

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

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

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

(Al Goldis, AP)

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

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

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

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

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

(Doug McSchooler, AP)

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

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

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

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

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

(Jamie Sabau, Getty Images)

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

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

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

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

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

(Morry Gash, AP)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014


Big Ten position rankings header-RB

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

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

(Iowa Athletic Communications)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Jeff Hanisch, USA Today Sports)

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

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

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

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

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

(Pat Lovell, USA Today Sports)

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

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

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

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

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

(Hannah Foslien, Getty Images)

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

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

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

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

(Dave Stephenson, Icon SMI)

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 5th, 2014


Big Ten position rankings header_edited-1

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

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

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

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

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

(Charlie Litchfield, The Register)

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

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

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

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

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

(Jose Carlos Fajardo, McClatchy-Tribune)

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

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

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

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

(Badger Nation)

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

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

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

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

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

(Jay LaPrete, AP)

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

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

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

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

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

(Alan Petersime, AP)

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

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

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

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