Big Ten: Adolphus Washington

BALTIMORE -- The game wasn’t supposed to go quite like this.

Ohio State was supposed to pummel Navy for four quarters on Saturday. It was supposed to immediately show life could go on without injured quarterback Braxton Miller, that it could look like a Big Ten contender no matter what. It was supposed to resume last season’s dominating red zone offense right off the bat.

[+] EnlargeEzekiel Elliott
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyDespite Ezekiel Elliott's touchdown, Ohio State showed its offense has a lot of room for growth.
It wasn’t supposed to show up on ESPN’s “Upset Alert” midway through the fourth quarter.

“Best thing about it,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said, “is it’s in the rear-view mirror.”

Yes, the Buckeyes moved on with the eventual 34-17 win, finishing with a solid fourth quarter. But it was clear from their faces on the sideline that this opener didn’t go quite as expected. Navy led at halftime, 7-6, and trailed by just a field goal early in the fourth.

Defensive lineman Donovan Munger stood off to the side, staring up at the huge video screen while biting his lower lip throughout the fourth quarter. His teammates didn’t crack a smile, even when the Buckeyes broke off a nice run. And there seemed to be no sense of relief, no sense of accomplishment, until that final whistle sounded and bass blared from the locker room.

It’s not quite time to hit that shiny, scarlet panic button. But maybe it’s time to reassess where this team is right now. Neither Meyer nor offensive line coach Ed Warriner was pleased with the line’s performance in the first half -- 19 rushes, 66 yards, 3.5 yards per carry – and it still has a while to go to meet last season’s performance.

With nine new starters on offense, four of whom are on the offensive line, the Buckeyes aren’t quite sure what their identity is yet.

“I think we’re still figuring it out,” running back Ezekiel Elliott acknowledged. “We got a lot of weapons and we spread the ball around. I think we’re going to keep developing.”

That wasn’t supposed to be how Ohio State’s opener transpired. This was supposed to be the easy W, not a dogfight. It was supposed to be a comfortable victory, not one that put the sea of scarlet at M&T Bank Stadium on edge. The good news for Ohio State is that two-touchdown fourth quarter will act as a huge boost to the team’s confidence. And it showed this can turn into a good team. But, on Saturday afternoon, did this really look like a squad that’s anywhere near as good as Big Ten rival Michigan State?

Even the defense, which boasted the nation’s No. 9 run defense last season, showed some cracks. Navy’s triple-option is certainly a unique scheme, but 370 yards and 5.9 yards per carry are also some pretty big numbers. That’s more than Navy averaged last season (325.4 yards per game, 5.5 ypc). Again, that -- allowing more than Navy’s average -- wasn’t entirely expected.

“They gained a lot more yards than what we wanted,“ defensive tackle Adolphus Washington said. “But, at the end of the day, the best team won.”

There is some good here. J.T. Barrett looked much more comfortable in the second half and went 4-of-4 for 130 yards and two scores. He also added 39 yards rushing. But, after that sluggish first half in a conservative scheme, it’s clear this offense is still a work in progress.

Big offensive plays were difficult to come by in those first two quarters. But, in the end, those plays saved the Buckeyes. Devin Smith took a pass 80 yards for a score in the third to give OSU a lead it wouldn't relinquish. A relieved Ohio State crowd exchanged high-fives, the band played on, and Brutus the Buckeye streaked down the sideline.

Navy’s good, but Ohio State was supposed to better. Much better. If not for those big gains -- or finding a handful of plays that worked to perfection in the fourth -- this outcome could’ve been different.

Without Miller, question marks swirled around this team before the opener. After its performance against Navy, there’s one big question remaining: Is the real Ohio State the one that struggled through two or three quarters -- or shined especially in one?

Washington smiled when posed that question. He leaned against the wall, grinned and simply said: “Definitely that last quarter.”

We’ll see. Win or lose, Week 1 wasn’t supposed to go like this. But, with that victory in the rear-view mirror, maybe the Buckeyes can parlay that success and challenge the cream of the Big Ten. Just like they’re supposed to.

Preseason position preview: DL

July, 16, 2014
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You want to win in the Big Ten? Then you'd better have a strong defensive line.

Being stout up front and strong enough to stop the run has long been a staple of success in this league. This year, several stars return at defensive end, including Nebraska's Randy Gregory, Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun, Ohio State's Joey Bosa and Noah Spence, Maryland's Andre Monroe and Minnesota's Theiren Cockran. Things are a little more undecided at defensive tackle, though Iowa's Carl Davis and Ohio State's Michael Bennett could be early round NFL draft picks.

Let's continue our position preview series with the guys holding down the fort in the defensive trenches:

Best of the best: Ohio State

I've already pegged this as the best overall position group in the Big Ten, so naturally the Buckeyes take the top spot here. The star power is immense with Bosa and Spence on the end and Bennett and Adolphus Washington inside. There are some question marks about depth, especially early on as Spence is suspended for the first two games of the season. Jamal Marcus transferred, and Tracy Sprinkle -- who at best would have provided some rotation help -- has been kicked off the team pending the resolution of his legal problems. The good news is that some incoming recruits could help right away, and when Ohio State's starting four is all together, it will be tough to stop.

Next up: Michigan State

Few teams can match the pair of defensive ends that the Spartans can line up. Calhoun is the Big Ten's reigning defensive lineman of the year, and he was a first-year starter last year who should continue to improve. On the other side, Marcus Rush has started 40 of the past 41 games and done everything asked of him. He's one of the most underrated players in the league. Michigan State has to replace both starting defensive tackles from last season, but there are several players ready to contribute, including Joel Heath and Damon Knox. Highly rated recruit Malik McDowell could work his way into the mix as well. And there are other stars waiting in the wings, like Demetrius Cooper.

Sleeper: Michigan

The Wolverines were decent but nothing special on the defensive line last season. But they have some interesting pieces to work with this year. Start with a pair of seniors on the edges in Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer. Elsewhere on the line are a several talented young players who have seen a lot of snaps early in their careers, such as Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley, Willie Henry and Matt Godin. Many of these players were highly rated recruits, and if they can live up to their potential and bring the level of play back up near Brady Hoke's first year as head coach, this is a group that can make some noise.

Problem for a contender: Wisconsin

Like several other positions for the Badgers, this one was hit hard by graduation, as stalwarts like Beau Allen, Ethan Hemer, Pat Muldoon and Tyler Dippel have all moved on. There is still some promise here, as Warren Herring gives the team a big body inside and redshirt freshman Chikwe Obasih provides reason for excitement. Fifth-year senior Konrad Zagzebski will need to make his presence known. The group could have a little more speed than in years past, but no team lost more experience on the defensive front than Wisconsin.

Big Ten Monday mailbag

June, 16, 2014
Jun 16
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Welcome to another edition of the Monday mailbag. Adam is on vacation this week, so I'm going to attempt to fill his Friday slot as well as my usual Wednesday 'bag this week. But I need questions to pull that off, so make sure to send them here or hit us up on Twitter.

To your queries ...

Aaron from Washington, Iowa, writes: I feel like Ty Issac signing at Michigan hasn't gotten as much attention as it should have. I feel like Michigan's RBs could have a huge year if the pieces fall into place. Your thoughts?

Brian Bennett: Isaac, who transferred from USC, is potentially a big boost for the Wolverines. But it remains to be seen whether Isaac will receive a waiver from the NCAA to become immediately eligible. He's from Shorewood, Illinois, which isn't exactly next door to Ann Arbor. The NCAA, though, has been pretty lenient on waiver cases of late, so we'll see. We should also have learned by now to exercise caution with hyped transfers. Remember all the hoopla about Kyle Prater transferring from USC to Northwestern, or DeAnthony Arnett going to Michigan State from Tennessee? Neither has had much of an impact yet in the Big Ten, though there's still time.

There is absolutely no doubt that Michigan has to improve its rushing attack after averaging just 3.3 yards per carry last season. Derrick Green should be better as a sophomore, especially with a more streamlined body. De'Veon Smith is pushing him. New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier is emphasizing the north-south running game, and the Wolverines simply can't win at a high level without it. The question, of course, is whether the offensive line can coalesce and create enough holes for the back to plow through. If not, it won't matter who is carrying the ball.


Dale from Los Angeles writes: I'm a firm believer that certain units of Big Ten teams may look impressive during the season, but it is only because they are playing against Big Ten opponents. For instance, according to the numbers, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa all had top-20 rush defenses in 2013. But look at the bowl performances. MSU held their opponents to 2.85 yards per carry, but Stanford ran for 4.5 ypc against MSU. South Carolina ran for 3.44 ypc against Wisconsin's 3.22 average. LSU ran for 4.31 ypc against Iowa's 3.51 average. Ohio State's rushing D performed the worst relative to their average ypc allowed, as Clemson ran for more than 5 yards per carry and more than 2.2 yards/carry above the average OSU opponent. As soon as they played real teams, the shine rubbed off these so called "elite" rush defenses.

My question is: I know you guys (and most college football analysts) think Ohio State's D-line is the best unit in the Big Ten. But how do you think they measure up nationally? I think Clemson's line is head and shoulders better, considering that this Tigers front blew up Ohio State's allegedly great offensive line for five sacks and 10 (10!!) tackles for loss in the Orange Bowl. Is Ohio State's D-line even in the nation's top 20?

Brian Bennett: It's always going to be tough to compare college football teams directly against one another statistically across conferences because they all play such different schedules. Also remember that no team plays elite competition every week; statistical measures like yards per carry allowed are always going to be boosted by games against weak nonconference opponents, league bottom-feeders, heavy passing teams, etc. It would be surprising if a team like Michigan State didn't give up more rushing yards than its season average against a team like Stanford, which had one of the nation's better ground games last year and features a powerful attack that is unlike most FBS teams.

It also works in reverse. You mentioned, for example, Wisconsin's game against South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl. The Badgers rushed for 293 yards and for 6.8 yards per carry in that game, numbers that were way above the Gamecocks' season defensive averages. Does that mean that South Carolina's defense was overrated? What about the impact on Big Ten defenses that had to face Wisconsin?

There's very little question about the talent on Ohio State's defensive line. You've got two of the top returning defensive ends in the league in Joey Bosa and Noah Spence (when he returns from suspension). Defensive tackle Michael Bennett is being projected as a first-round NFL draft pick. Adolphus Washington is also extremely skilled, and there is promising depth behind the starters. The Buckeyes could have three or four first-round picks on that unit this fall. That's why everyone is so high on that defensive line, though, of course, the group still needs to prove it on the field against the best of the best.


Jerry D. from Dublin, Va., writes: I am amazed at the lack of coverage you are giving Maryland, unless it's some kind of negative press. Maryland finished 7-5 last year with a severely crippled team. Maryland will shock the Big Ten when Ohio State crosses the Mason-Dixon and loses to the Terps. Then the other heavyweight, Michigan State will be "blacked out" by the nighttime atmosphere at Byrd Stadium. Not the biggest stadium in the country, but can be one of the loudest! Go Terps!

Brian Bennett: Love your optimism, Jerry. A couple of things -- for one, it's the summer time, and things are pretty slow everywhere. There hasn't been a lot of news out of College Park in a while. Maryland doesn't officially even join the Big Ten (along with Rutgers) until July 1, at which time we hope to have some more coverage of the Terps. Maryland fans have also been very quiet -- we haven't heard much from you guys on Twitter on in the mailbags. I think Randy Edsall has an interesting team on his hands and one that can make some noise if it can stay healthy. It's a pretty simple equation around here: The more you win and have an impact on the league, the more we're going to talk about you.


Xavier from Paoli, Ind., writes: I would love to know why Indiana offensive players don't get any respect. I get IU won five games last year, but you can't blame the offense that was ninth in the nation. Nate Sudfeld and Tevin Coleman are two of the top players at their respective positions. Nate Sudfeld threw for 21 TDs and 9 INTs in 322 attempts last year. Only Connor Cook and Joel Stave threw for more TDs, but Stave threw four more INT's and attempted 336 passes and Cook attempted 380 passes. Coleman rushed for 958 yards in nine games and averaged 7.8 yards a carry, which was tied for eighth in the nation with Carlos Hyde. I truly think both should be getting more respect than they do, because they get just about zero. Maybe they need to put on a Michigan or Ohio State jersey to get it?

Brian Bennett: We're well aware of Indiana's offensive prowess, Xavier, and we mention those guys a lot around here. We're doing some statistical projections in the next few days, and the Hoosiers will be well represented. If you're talking about national respect, it's all about winning games. When a team has been out of the postseason since 2007, like IU, it becomes pretty irrelevant nationally. Its games don't receive spotlight broadcast times, and individual accomplishments get overlooked. Indiana needs to pull off a couple of Big Ten upsets for its players to get noticed nationally. Sudfeld and Coleman need to deliver in games against Ohio State, Michigan State and other top contenders.


Cameron from San Diego writes: Brian, the Big Ten's ban on FCS schools makes sense for the most part. No self-respecting Ohio State team should be playing Florida A&M. I know there is a bit more of a gray area with matchups like Minnnesota-NDSU and the like. But one that I think absolutely needs to be played that I don't think I've ever heard anyone mention is Rutgers-Princeton in 2019. That's right -- the 150th anniversary of college football. From what I hear there are no talks about it. I don't even know if anybody knows or cares, but I think it would be perfect! It needs to happen! It would be a great thing for the Big Ten to capitalize on as well.

Brian Bennett: Fun idea, Cameron. The Ivy League has steered clear of playing FBS teams in recent years. But this is one FBS-FCS matchup I could support, if only for the historical celebrations and ceremonies that could come with it.
Last week, Brian Bennett explained why he believes Ohio State's defensive line is the Big Ten's top position group coming out of spring practice. The Buckeyes return an excellent mix of depth and talent as players like Michael Bennett, Noah Spence, Joey Bosa and Adolphus Washington all are back.

Not surprisingly, Bennett's post generated some spirited responses from fan bases who believe different position groups merit top billing. Well, here's your chance to show what you think.

Today's poll question is simple: What is the Big Ten's top position group coming out of spring ball?

SportsNation

What is the Big Ten's strongest position group coming out of the spring?

  •  
    22%
  •  
    38%
  •  
    26%
  •  
    14%

Discuss (Total votes: 7,299)

The candidates ...

Michigan State's defensive line: Defensive end Shilique Calhoun became a superstar in 2013, leading the Big Ten in forced fumbles and recording 7.5 sacks. Underrated senior Marcus Rush returns opposite Calhoun, and there's good depth with Lawrence Thomas and Demetrius Cooper, who stood out in the spring game. There are more questions inside but Joel Heath looked promising this spring.

Nebraska's running backs: All-America candidate Ameer Abdullah leads an impressive group after rushing for 1,690 yards and nine touchdowns during a spectacular junior season. The Huskers boast experience with Imani Cross, who has 17 career touchdowns, along with talented younger players like Terrell Newby and Adam Taylor.

Ohio State's defensive line: The Buckeyes return three of the Big Ten's top six sack masters from 2013 in Spence, Bosa and Bennett. They have speed on the edge and athleticism inside, and they can plug in some space eaters like Tommy Schutt and Chris Carter.

Wisconsin's running backs: A year after producing the top single-season rushing tandem in FBS history -- Melvin Gordon and James White -- Wisconsin has another talented pair in Gordon and Corey Clement. Gordon, a Heisman Trophy candidate entering his redshirt junior season, rushed for 1,609 yards and averaged 7.8 yards per carry last fall. Clement looked great in limited work, and recruit Taiwan Deal enters the mix this fall.

Big Ten Monday mailbag

May, 5, 2014
May 5
5:00
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The Monday mailbag is back. I'll have another installment on Wednesday, which will be my last one before I go on vacation. So make sure to get your questions for that one in now by sending them here or hitting us up on Twitter.

For now, I like the way you work it. I got to 'bag it up:


Charlie from Chicago writes: Which incoming freshman will make the biggest impact this season?

Brian Bennett: It's a good question, Charlie, and one I imagine we'll revisit more closely this summer. The guys who arrived in January and went through a full spring practice have a leg up, so players such as Ohio State linebacker Raekwon McMillan, Michigan wide receiver Freddy Canteen and Penn State receiver De'Andre Thompkins leap immediately to mind. I'm excited to hear about the players who get to campus this summer, such as Michigan State defensive tackle and recruiting drama champion Malik McDowell, Minnesota running back Jeff Jones and Maryland offensive tackle Damian Prince. There are a lot of candidates, but for now my money remains on incoming Michigan cornerback Jabrill Peppers.


Will from Obetz, Ohio, writes: OK, I was just looking over the 2015 B1G team schedules and saw Wisconsin's crossover games. ... I really hope the West can have someone keep up with the Badgers over that very weak schedule. They play no one.

Bennett: Will, the Badgers have the same 2015 crossover opponents as they do this season: Rutgers and Maryland. It does seem like Wisconsin caught a major break or that Jim Delany owed Barry Alvarez a favor with those schedules. In reality, though, we don't know how competitive Rutgers and Maryland will be, and you could argue that Indiana -- which has been to recent bowl games far, far less frequently than the two newest members -- would make for an easier crossover. Wisconsin has a great opportunity to make some noise the next two seasons, particularly with its openers against LSU (in 2014) and Alabama (2015). And then things go the opposite way in 2016, as the Badgers open Big Ten play at Michigan, at Michigan State and vs. Ohio State in three consecutive weeks.


Brian from Omaha writes: People are quick to deride the B1G West as the new Big 12 North. Why? The B1G West/B1G would be lucky to be the Big 12 North/Big 12 from the 1996-2010 era from an on-the-field standpoint. The old Big 12 produced three national champions and four Heisman Trophy winners, with one each from Nebraska. If the B1G West/B1G matches that haul in the next 14 years, it would be an improvement, or the apples-to-apples comparison, of the B1G from 1996-2010 (two national champs and three Heisman trophies).

Bennett: Some fair points, there, Brian (great name, by the way). I think most of the B1G West/Big 12 North comparisons come in regard to the relative strength between the other division in the conference -- the Big 12 South was so clearly deeper and more competitive overall than the North over the course of that era, and some fear the same thing will be the case with the Big Ten East because of Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan and Penn State. But there is no dominant team in the West right now, like Nebraska was for a long stretch during its Big 12 days. In fact, the West has a chance to be really balanced, especially if Iowa plays up to its capabilities, Northwestern bounces back, Minnesota continues its upward trend, etc. If you offered the Big Ten the scenario of having one legitimate playoff contender in the West every year but that the division would be weaker than the other side, I think the conference would be more than happy to take that.


Dale from Los Angeles writes: Brian, you predicted that Ohio State's defensive line will be the premier unit in the Big Ten this year. I think your selection is an unintended indictment of the Big Ten, and demonstrates just how poor the Big Ten is relative to the other major conferences. Football Study Hall used advanced metrics to rank every defensive line in the country for 2013. Ohio State's line was ranked 96th. It's absolutely pathetic that the Big Ten's best unit in 2014 was among the worst, most overrated units in the country last year. The Big Ten is truly at an all-time low if you can't identify a group with more promise than the OSU D-line. Sadly, though, I think you're right that this lowly unit may be the class of the Big Ten. The gap continues to expand between the B1G and the more premier conferences.

Brian Bennett: Football Study Hall is always an interesting read, and I love the application of advanced stats. But here's one case where I don't think the numbers add up. I don't believe Ohio State had the best defensive line in the Big Ten last season, but there's no way it was No. 96 in the FBS. The Buckeyes were really good against the run and had strong pass rushers. They had their lapses and could stand to get better. But don't forget that key players on that line included a true freshman (Joey Bosa) and two true sophomores (Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington). They're only going to get better, and the depth and skill level on this line is extremely promising for 2014.


Mike from Huskerville writes: Interesting read on your best position group in the B1G. Any chance you would be willing to give your thoughts on the best of each position group in the league? I.E. best OL, best LB's etc.? Thanks and GBR.

Brian Bennett: Mike, we usually do position group rankings for the whole league close to the start of the season. The one position group that I think is the most interesting to rank right now is offensive line. Ohio State held the top spot there in the past two seasons, in my opinion, but the Buckeyes lost four senior starters from last year's group. Several potential contenders have major question marks right now at offensive line, including Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan. Wisconsin usually just reloads there, but still has to replace some good players. Michigan State lost three starters and is searching for the kind of depth it had in 2013. Nebraska is replacing a ton of experience. Could Iowa, led by Brandon Scherff, take the title of best offensive line? What about Minnesota's underrated group? It will be really interesting to see how such an important position group in this league shakes out this summer and fall.
Now that spring practice has played out in the Big Ten, we thought we'd try to identify the best overall position group on any team in the league.

Had we done this exercise last year, we might have chosen the Michigan State secondary, a.k.a., the "No-Fly Zone." Ohio State's offensive line would have ranked highly as well, along with Wisconsin's running backs, Iowa's linebackers and Indiana's receivers.

This season, there is once again some stiff competition. The Badgers' running backs are still impressive, with Corey Clement joining the cast in a bigger role with Melvin Gordon. Nebraska's backs are also strong, with Ameer Abdullah and Imani Cross. You could make a case for Michigan State's defensive line, even with two new starting tackles, simply because of the sheer talent of Shilique Calhoun and underappreciated senior Marcus Rush. Other units that could be very strong include Iowa's offensive line, Michigan's linebackers and Maryland's receivers, if healthy.

[+] EnlargeJoey Bosa
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsDefensive end Joey Bosa made an instant impact as a freshman and helped transform Ohio State's defensive line into the Big Ten's most formidable unit.
But my vote for the Big Ten's best position group goes to Ohio State's defensive line.

It's not a crew that is swimming with All-Americans and award winners, though defensive end Noah Spence and defensive tackle Michael Bennett both made second-team All-Big Ten last season. Still, for sheer talent and depth, it's hard to beat the Buckeyes' defensive front four.

Start with Joey Bosa, who had an outstanding true freshman season with 7.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss in 2013. He should be even better with a year of experience under his belt, and he's one of the top candidates for Big Ten defensive player-of-the-year honors as a sophomore. At the other end spot is Spence, who finished second in the Big Ten in sacks with eight last fall. The junior will have to serve two more games of his three-game suspension to start the season, but Jamal Marcus showed he can fill in adequately after he had six tackles in a strong Orange Bowl performance.

The Buckeyes aren't huge in the middle with Bennett and Adolphus Washington, who both are listed at 288 pounds. But both are very athletic. Bennett started his career at defensive end, and Washington looked like possibly the best player on the line last spring until he moved back and forth in the fall. The junior has finally found a home at tackle.

"I've picked up about 40 pounds since the end of my senior year of high school," he told ESPN.com. "The defensive end spot became so much harder for me to move and carry all that weight. But I've still got my speed in closer quarters with bigger guys who are much slower than me, so I've still got my advantage."

Washington said that "basically, it's all defensive ends on the field," when Ohio State starts its preferred four. That athleticism can do some major damage.

"We've got guys that can pass rush from any spot on the field, and that’s dangerous," Bennett said. "Who are you going to double team? We all have the mindset that if you’re single-blocked, you should get to the quarterback, and we all have the ability to do that."

New position coach Larry Johnson took over from Mike Vrabel this winter, and the former longtime Penn State assistant wants to rotate guys in much more than his predecessor did. The Buckeyes should have the luxury of depth, especially when Spence returns. Tommy Schutt and the 340-pound Chris Carter can help plug the middle, while Steve Miller, Tracy Sprinkle, Michael Hill, Tyquan Lewis and Purdue transfer Rashad Frazier should all contribute in some form. Jalyn Holmes and Dylan Thompson are 2014 signees who could add even more reinforcements.

Ohio State led the Big Ten in sacks last season and finished third in rush defense despite some soft spots at linebacker. The defensive line returns every player of significance from 2013 and has a lot of young players with room to improve.

"I didn't know we could grow as much as we have this spring," Bennett said.

That's a sobering thought for everyone else, and it's another reason why the Buckeyes' defensive line should be the best position group in the Big Ten.

Ohio State spring wrap

April, 28, 2014
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Spring workouts are in the books and the long offseason has arrived. But before diving into summer and the painful wait for football to return, we’re taking a look back at the developments from March and April and sneaking a peek at what to expect in the fall from Ohio State.

Three things we learned in the spring

  • The rebuilding job in the secondary is progressing: The spring game didn’t leave all that much to truly evaluate, but in workouts leading up to it, the Buckeyes showed their dedication to becoming more aggressive defending the pass by playing virtually every snap in press coverage. Led by senior cornerback Doran Grant, there’s enough talent on hand to play that style.
  • The spread has its hybrid weapon: The inevitable comparisons with Percy Harvin might still be premature, but Urban Meyer does appear to have somebody he believes can fill that vaunted role in his offense. Dontre Wilson’s shift to becoming a full-time receiver with occasional appearances as a rusher produced a prolific camp and raised the bar for him after largely playing a decoy role as a freshman.
  • The defensive line is loaded: There surely isn’t a deeper, more athletic defensive line in the Big Ten than what the Buckeyes are bringing back, and Noah Spence, Joey Bosa, Adolphus Washington and Michael Bennett might have a case to be considered among the nation’s most terrifying starting units. The quartet was so disruptive during spring practice, Meyer held them out of the spring game to help ensure there might be something to evaluate on offense.
Three questions for the fall

  • How far has Braxton Miller come mentally?: The two-time defending Big Ten player of the year had nothing to prove physically, so the shoulder surgery that kept him out of spring practice wasn’t that big of a deal. If anything, it might be a blessing that he used all the extra mental reps to take his game to a higher level in terms of reading defenses and making better decisions.
  • Will the offensive line come together?: Meyer only named two starters coming out of spring, and considering he had four established seniors in the lineup at this time a year ago, that level of uncertainty is no doubt a bit uncomfortable for the Buckeyes. Taylor Decker and Pat Elflein offer a nice foundation, but Ohio State needs to settle on three more regulars quickly to develop some chemistry.
  • Is Darron Lee ready for the big time?: After emerging as a surprising starter on the first day of camp, the converted high school quarterback kept that job at linebacker all the way until the end of spring. The sophomore has no shortage of athleticism and has filled out to 225 pounds, but he’ll have big shoes to fill for a unit that must replace all the production Ryan Shazier left behind.
One way-too-early prediction

The rise of Tom Herman’s star in the coaching profession is not exactly a secret, but after one more prolific season guiding the Ohio State offense, he’ll be off to lead his own team. Herman has the personality to be the face of a program, and his thirst for knowledge and ability to learn under Meyer for three years will make him an ideal candidate for a major program with an opening next winter.


COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Urban Meyer is always trying to find new ways to motivate his players.

Last spring, he had a banner put up in the Ohio State field house reading “The Chase …” in reference to the Buckeyes’ championship pursuits. Meyer said he thought about changing the display for the 2014 offseason. In the end, though, he stuck with the same one.

“We didn’t accomplish it,” Meyer told ESPN.com. “We chased it but didn’t catch it. So the chase is still on.”

Ohio State, of course, nearly made it to its desired finish line. After going 12-0 for the second straight season under Meyer, the Buckeyes just needed to beat Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game to clinch a date with Florida State for the BCS national title. Instead, they fell 34-24 to the Spartans and closed the year on a two-game losing streak with a 40-35 setback against Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteUrban Meyer says Ohio State is still trying to finish "The Chase."
So the chase continues, albeit with a much different-looking team in the 2014 starting gate. Gone is four-fifths of the offensive line that formed the backbone of the Big Ten’s top-scoring offense the past two seasons. Also gone are reigning Big Ten running back of the year Carlos Hyde and top receiver Corey “Philly” Brown, as well as the two biggest stars on defense -- linebacker Ryan Shazier and cornerback Bradley Roby -- who opted to enter the NFL draft.

Experience is lacking in many key areas, but Meyer is ready to let some talented youngsters loose, including true freshmen. In retrospect, he wishes he had done so last year, when defensive end Joey Bosa and receiver Dontre Wilson were the only first-year players to make a big impact until safety Vonn Bell started in the Orange Bowl.

“We redshirted too many last year, and that was our fault,” he said. “There was a misunderstanding, and we just didn’t do a good job, especially on defense. When they show up on campus, we need to get them ready to play.”

This spring, early enrollees Raekwon McMillan (linebacker), Curtis Samuel (tailback) and Johnnie Dixon (receiver) were all heavily involved and have secured roles in the fall. Redshirt freshman are also at or near the top of the depth chart at strongside linebacker (Darron Lee and Chris Worley) and cornerback (Gareon Conley and Eli Apple), while true sophomores like safety Cam Burrows and tailback Ezekiel Elliott could force their way into the starting lineup.

“When you talk about inexperience, that’s a good thing right now,” said Chris Ash, who was hired from Arkansas as co-defensive coordinator to help fix Ohio State’s pass defense. “There aren’t a lot of habits that we have to change to fit what we’re trying to do. We don’t have older guys that are comfortable with where they’re at in their careers.”

An already young offense became even greener this spring because of injuries to three senior leaders: tight end Jeff Heuerman, receiver Evan Spencer and quarterback Braxton Miller. The Buckeyes will no doubt look a lot different when Miller returns from shoulder surgery. During the 15 spring practices, the two-time defending Big Ten player of the year often stood behind the offense and wore a camera on his head so coaches could go over what he was seeing on the field.

“We're exhausting every avenue and even inventing different avenues to make sure he's engaged and getting mental reps,” offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. “We're doing the best we can with a bad situation. He has embraced it and is working his tail off, making sure he’s getting the most out of it.”

Herman says the Buckeyes should be more explosive on the perimeter this season, with guys like Wilson, Dixon, junior college transfer Corey Smith, sophomore Michael Thomas and freshman Jalin Marshall at receiver and a stable of athletic tailbacks. The safeties are longer and quicker than they have been in the past, and the defensive line -- which could be one of the nation’s best -- will have four starters who all used to be defensive ends.

The objective is clear: more speed. To that end, Meyer has hammered a new mantra in the players' heads: “4 to 6, A to B.” That means play hard for four to six seconds and get from point A to point B as quickly as possible. It's hard to interview an Ohio State player these days without hearing the phrase.

“That’s all he’s been preaching this spring.” defensive tackle Adolphus Washington said. “He said he’s not really worried about technique and all that stuff. It’s just about playing hard, because if you play hard, effort makes up for mistakes.”

Washington said the defense was greatly simplified this spring, with only about four or five different calls to learn. Aggressiveness trumped scheme.

“The culture of Ohio State is to go hard, not trick you,” Meyer said. “I just felt like there was too much stuff last year, instead of just going hard.”

By moving faster and playing harder, the Buckeyes hope to overcome their youth and track down what they've been hunting. They have been tantalizingly close.

“We’re still on a chase,” Washington said. “We’ve just got to finish it.”

Big Ten Monday mailbag

April, 21, 2014
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I've got less than a week left in my 30s. No time for pithy intros. Hit me:

Chris from Augusta, Maine, writes: Michigan fans are clamoring for success. It seems like the main thing holding them back are the lines. The '13 O-line haul was one of the better recruiting position groups I can remember across the country with guys like Kyle Kalis, Kyle Bosch, Patrick Kugler, LTT (Logan Tuley-Tillman), David Dawson, etc. And, quality guys on the D-line like Ondre Pipkins, Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley, Bryan Mone, Lawrence Marshall, Henry Poggi, etc. are there. So, it seems like the solutions to the problem are all in place; they are just young and/or developing. When will these two position groups develop enough to make Michigan become a 10-win type team again and actually return to being a regular conference contender?

Brian Bennett: Some good points, Chris. Our microwave society doesn't allow for a lot of patience anymore, but developing players in the trenches almost always takes time. Brady Hoke and his staff inherited a program that didn't have much depth at all on the offensive line. Michigan was playing a three-man front on defense, so a transition was expected. On the flip side, you could argue that Hoke is now entering Year 4, and his highly ranked recruiting classes have yet to yield many superstars. It's not impossible for young players to contribute early on the lines -- look at what Noah Spence, Adolphus Washington and especially Joey Bosa did as true freshmen on Ohio State's defensive front the past two seasons.

But there's also a reason why coaches like Mark Dantonio often redshirt as many guys on the lines as possible. Michigan has some intriguing talent on the D-line -- Charlton, in particular, looked like a beast this spring -- while the O-line is still stacked with redshirt freshmen and sophomores. If those players can develop, the Wolverines could turn both areas into a strength in a year or two, assuming fans can wait that long.


Nick from East Lansing, Mich., writes: To preface this, I recently graduated from MSU, had season tickets and loved the football program, so this isn't coming from jealousy. It seems the tone from you, Adam, and Spartans fans in general that people believe the offense will carry the Spartans this year. I just don't see their offense being that good. Looking back at the championship game and the Rose Bowl, MSU was very lucky that their offense didn't cost them those games. Cook made quite a few poor decisions that hit defenders in the hand. If they had held on to those balls, MSU's season does not end the way it did. It seems that because MSU won those games, people are willing to forget how close the offense was to losing those games. The MSU offense will be better than at the start of last year, but I believe it is more likely to be in the bottom half of the B1G than the top.

Brian Bennett: Nick, it sounds like you are scarred emotionally from 2012. Look, no one is saying Michigan State will suddenly become a run 'n' gun team that wins a bunch of shootouts. Even if it had that kind of offensive skill, Dantonio doesn't want to play that way. But the fact is the offense returns almost all of its production from last season, when it averaged close to 30 points per game in Big Ten play. There's every reason to believe that side of the ball can hold its own or even carry the team at times if a more inexperienced defense needs a few games to jell.

Connor Cook admitted to me that he got lucky last year that some of his passes weren't picked off, but he was also a first-year starter who should make better decisions this year because of his experience. The tight ends should become more of a weapon for the team and provide some safety valves. If the offensive line can come together, this can be a very good offense, perhaps even as good as the one from 2011 that averaged 31 points per game and finished third in the Big Ten in scoring en route to a Legends Division title.

And lastly, I find your characterization of last season's final two games to be off base. The Spartans scored 34 points in the Big Ten championship game vs. Ohio State and then put up 24 against an outstanding Stanford defense, one that was No. 4 in the FBS against the run coming into the game. Michigan State scored more points against Stanford than Oregon or UCLA did. That's more than just "lucky."


Patrick D. via Twitter writes: Who sees more snaps at QB for #IUFB in 2014? Tre Roberson or Nate Sudfeld?

Brian Bennett: This might be the toughest mailbag question of the year. No joke. Indiana's quarterback situation is one of the most confounding ones I've ever seen, and even coach Kevin Wilson can't figure out who should start or play more. It's clear at this point that both Sudfeld and Roberson will play again in 2014, and the Hoosiers might just ride the hot hand. Wilson told me that Sudfeld may look a little better at times in practice, but Roberson can't truly shine in a practice setting because his elusiveness doesn't factor in when coaches call plays dead once a defender gets near a quarterback. If forced to guess, I'll pick Sudfeld for the most snaps, since he just looks like a future NFL quarterback and he played a lot more than Roberson last season. But this is what you'd call a constantly evolving situation, and the good news for Indiana is it somehow works.


Nick H. via Twitter writes: Thoughts on the Minnesota quarterback situation? Does Mitch Leidner stay the starter through the full year or does Chris Streveler dethrone him?

Brian Bennett: I'm more bullish on Leidner than most, including Rittenberg. I see a big, strong guy who can really run and should improve as a passer, and Leidner's improved leadership skills this offseason should serve him well. Yet there's no question that Minnesota's passing game needs to take a giant leap forward, and the disappointing performance in the Gophers' spring game did nothing to change that opinion. Jerry Kill has proved that he's not afraid to play more than one quarterback, and by running so much, Leidner will be more at risk for injury. So while I expect him to remain the starter, it wouldn't surprise me to see someone else under center at key times in 2014.


Tom from North Jersey writes: We all know Rutgers has gaps to fill to catch up to most of the Big Ten teams on the field, but based on your time with the Big East blog, what improvements do they need to make to catch up?

Brian Bennett: My last season covering the Big East was 2010, and I haven't followed Rutgers in great detail in the interim simply because there's little time to pay attention to teams outside the Big Ten. But from what I've seen and what I remember about the Scarlet Knights, I think the first major upgrade has to come at quarterback. Rutgers has consistently been able to field pretty good defenses but only occasionally has been dangerous on offense, and shaky quarterback play has been a big reason why. There's an open competition for that job this spring, though Gary Nova has a huge experience edge. The hiring of Ralph Friedgen as offensive coordinator is a reason for optimism, and if anybody can fix Nova, it's Friedgen. Rutgers will also need more depth and talent on both lines in order to compete on a weekly basis in the Big Ten.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Urban Meyer seemed to be guarding a secret, and it couldn’t be deciphered by reading between the lines.

The Ohio State coach joked about being a little bored by his spring game, expressed some frustration about the lack of offensive execution and stressed that there was plenty of work to do at a few key positions heading into the offseason.

But the truth about how good his third team at Ohio State might be was tucked away on the sidelines, leaving little to truly evaluate between them as the Gray beat the Scarlet 17-7 on Saturday at the Horseshoe. And based on the number of players he held out of the spring-closing scrimmage, it might be a safe bet that Meyer is actually feeling pretty good about what he has returning in the fall.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesThe spring game didn't say much about Urban Meyer's Buckeyes. And he seems fine with that.
“There were guys out there who will either never play or they’re not ready to play now,” Meyer said. “Like, [Ohio State sports information director] Jerry [Emig] hands me stats, I’m not sure what to do with these. I don’t care.

“... We all know what we saw out there. It’s not the Ohio State Buckeyes.”

Exhibition games rarely provide much of a reliable gauge for how good a team might truly be, and in the case of the Buckeyes, that might have been by design.

Braxton Miller was already on the shelf as he finishes up his recovery from offseason shoulder surgery. Having the two-time defending Big Ten player of the year and a three-year starter at quarterback out of the equation obviously changes the complexion of the Ohio State offense. Cardale Jones was productive enough throughout camp to win the backup job, but his 14-of-31 passing performance Saturday was yet another reminder of the importance of having a healthy Miller to lead the attack.

Meyer indicated there was some uncertainty about his receiving corps after the spring game, but he had enough faith in Devin Smith and Dontre Wilson that he didn’t feel the need to press either of them into action over the weekend -- aside from a cameo appearance by the latter in a race against students at halftime.

And after watching what could be one of the most talented defensive lines in the country terrorize a rebuilding offensive line throughout camp over the last month, Meyer certainly didn’t need to see any more from Noah Spence, Joey Bosa, Michael Bennett or Adolphus Washington to boost his confidence heading into the summer, adding to the list of starters who effectively were allowed to take the day off.

Cornerback Doran Grant was largely an observer as well, though he did make an appearance to win the halftime derby and became the “fastest student” on campus. Projected first-team guard Pat Elflein was a scratch, and presumptive starting running back Ezekiel Elliott only touched the football three times. Tight end Jeff Heuerman was on crutches after foot surgery, but he’ll be back in time for the conditioning program next month.

So while the game itself left little worth remembering aside from what appeared to be marked improvement and depth in the secondary and another handful of mesmerizing catches from Michael Thomas, there were actually clues littered around Ohio Stadium that Meyer is poised to unleash his most talented team since taking over the program in 2012 and rattling off 24 consecutive wins.

The trick was knowing where to look.

“[The spring game] was a chance to see some young guys [who] really haven’t played, and to be quite honest, I’m not sure how much they will play,” Meyer said. “This is a chance for a lot of guys in our program who work very hard, and to be able to get some guys play or catch a pass in Ohio Stadium or whatever, in the big picture it’s the right thing to do.

“It’s a great thrill for a lot of people.”

The real thrills, of course, don’t come for a few months. And based on the amount of players who didn’t get to actually step between the lines on Saturday, Meyer might not-so-secretly have plenty to be excited about by fall.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- His speed made him appealing as an outside pass rusher. His size made him an option on the inside. A willingness to play either role provided no shortage of flexibility.

That same versatility, though, also left Adolphus Washington without a spot he could truly claim as his own in his first two seasons at Ohio State.

[+] EnlargeAdolphus Washington
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesAdolphus Washington is getting comfortable as a full-time defensive tackle this spring at Ohio State.
Coaches surely could keep shuffling the 6-foot-4, 288-pound Washington around the defensive line to plug any hole that popped up, capitalizing on Washington’s unique ability to effectively play anywhere on the line.

Instead, they carved out a place the junior can finally call home, a position where he can focus his energy this spring, where he can unleash his immense potential and turn it into the kind of production that has been anticipated since the moment he arrived on campus.

“I’m inside for good,” Washington said. “I think it will definitely help out now that I’m playing just one position.”

Washington expressed a few concerns initially about staking himself to just one spot at the three-technique for the Buckeyes, worrying briefly about the number of double-teams he would face on the interior as opposed to firing off the edge at defensive end.

But those fears quickly were replaced by surging confidence, both a product of another tear through spring practice, splitting those blocking schemes that caused his concern, and the validation that he can still be a disruptive force against the pass in the role new defensive line coach Larry Johnson has tabbed for him.

Washington has already proven capable of inflicting damage on opposing quarterbacks without the benefit of learning and fine-tuning his craft at one position, but the glimpses have largely been fleeting so far. He finished last season with 36 tackles and four tackles for loss, but he tallied only two sacks, and an early injury opened the door for Joey Bosa to replace him in the starting lineup at end -- a gig Washington never got back.

In some ways, that left Washington a bit adrift after leaving spring practice a year ago looking like the player with the highest ceiling on Ohio State’s deep, talented defensive front. But Johnson has brought him in from the cold, identifying all the tools that made Washington such a tantalizing prospect and figuring out the best way to put them to work instead of spreading them around.

“I think, because of his ability to rush the passer, you always want a three-technique who is going to get a lot of one-on-ones, a guy who has the ability to rush the passer,” Johnson said. “He’s 285, 290 [pounds], and that’s big enough to play inside. So you take a skilled guy who has rushed on the edge and then bring him to the inside against a guy at the guard position, it gives you a different edge on the inside.

“That’s why I’m excited about him. He’s got great hips and can rush the passer, so there should be some great things coming from him.”

The Buckeyes have had that expectation for Washington, and even without as much individual production as planned last season, there’s been no reason to lower their hopes.

And now that Washington has gotten over some early fears about settling down, the commitment between him and Ohio State might be trouble for the guys trying to block him.

“Honestly, the double-teams [were a concern], because I used to watch and Michael Bennett used to tell me about them, and you’ve just got to get your pads lower, you’ve got to fire off the ball,” Washington said. “So, I was like, 'Well, I can do that.' If that’s all it takes, I can do that.

“At first I was kind of nervous or scared about [the position], but now I’ve got a hold of it.”

This time, he might actually be able to hang around and get comfortable with it.
We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the defensive lines.

Illinois: This is a significant concern for the Illini, especially after the recent departure of Houston Bates, who started last season at the Leo (defensive end/outside linebacker) spot. Illinois also loses its other starting defensive end, Tim Kynard. The team will rely heavily on junior-college players such as Jihad Ward and Joe Fotu, but it also needs holdovers like Dawuane Smoot and Paul James III to step up on the perimeter. Illinois returns more experience inside with Austin Teitsma and Teko Powell, but there should be plenty of competition, especially with the juco arrivals, after finishing 116th nationally against the run.

Indiana: The anticipated move to a 3-4 alignment under new coordinator Brian Knorr creates a different dynamic for the line this spring. Indiana must identify options at the all-important nose tackle spot, and possibilities include sophomores Ralphael Green and Darius Latham, both of whom are big bodies. Nick Mangieri had a nice sophomore season and should be in the mix for a starting job on the perimeter (end or outside linebacker), while David Kenney could be a good fit as a 3-4 end. Defensive end Ryan Phillis is the team's most experienced lineman, and Zack Shaw also has some starting experience.

Iowa: This group should be the strength of the defense as Iowa returns three full-time starters -- tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat, and end Drew Ott -- as well as Mike Hardy, who started the second half of the season opposite Ott. End Dominic Alvis departs, but Iowa brings back almost everyone else from a line that allowed only eight rushing touchdowns in 2013. Junior Darian Cooper could have a bigger role and push for more playing time inside, and Nate Meier provides some depth on the perimeter after recording two sacks in 2013. Iowa is in good shape here.

Maryland: The Terrapins employ a 3-4 scheme and appear to be in good shape up front, as reserve Zeke Riser is the only rotation player to depart. Andre Monroe leads the way at defensive end after an excellent junior season in which he led Maryland in both sacks (9.5) and tackles for loss (17). Quinton Jefferson started at defensive end last season and recorded three sacks. There should be some good competition this spring at nose tackle between Keith Bowers and Darius Kilgo, both of whom had more than 30 tackles last season. The challenge is building greater depth with players such as end Roman Braglio.

Michigan: If the Wolverines intend to make a big step in 2014, they'll need more from the front four, which didn't impact games nearly enough last fall. Michigan's strength appears to be on the edges as veteran Frank Clark returns after starting every game in 2013 and recording a team-high 12 tackles for loss. Brennen Beyer, who started the second half of last season, is back at the other end spot, and Michigan has depth with Mario Ojemudia and Taco Charlton. There are more questions inside as Willie Henry, Chris Wormley and others compete for the starting job. Young tackles such as Henry Poggi and Maurice Hurst Jr. also are in the mix, and Ondre Pipkins should be a factor when he recovers from ACL surgery.

Michigan State: The Spartans return the best defensive end tandem in the league as Shilique Calhoun, a second-team All-American in 2013, returns alongside Marcus Rush, one of the Big Ten's most experienced defenders. Joel Heath, Brandon Clemons and others provide some depth on the perimeter. It's a different story inside as MSU loses both starters (Micajah Reynolds and Tyler Hoover), as well as reserve Mark Scarpinato. Damon Knox, James Kittredge and Lawrence Thomas, who has played on both sides of the ball, are among those who will compete for the starting tackle spots. If Malik McDowell signs with MSU, he could work his way into the rotation.

Minnesota: Defensive tackles like Ra'Shede Hageman don't come around every year, and he leaves a big void in the middle of Minnesota's line. The Gophers will look to several players to replace Hageman's production, including senior Cameron Botticelli, who started opposite Hageman last season. Other options at tackle include Scott Ekpe and Harold Legania, a big body at 308 pounds. Minnesota is in much better shape at end with Theiren Cockran, arguably the Big Ten's most underrated defensive lineman. Cockran and Michael Amaefula both started every game last season, and Alex Keith provides another solid option after recording five tackles for loss in 2013.

Nebraska: Other than MSU's Calhoun, Nebraska returns the most dynamic defensive lineman in the league in Randy Gregory, who earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in his first FBS season. If the Huskers can build around Gregory, they should be very stout up front this fall. Nebraska won't have Avery Moss, suspended for the 2014 season, and players such as Greg McMullen and junior-college transfer Joe Keels will compete to start opposite Gregory. The competition inside should be fascinating as junior Aaron Curry and sophomore Vincent Valentine both have starting experience, but Maliek Collins came on strong at the end of his first season and will push for a top job.

Northwestern: It will be tough to get a clear picture of this group in the spring because of several postseason surgeries, but Northwestern should be fine at defensive end despite the loss of Tyler Scott. Dean Lowry, Ifeadi Odenigbo and Deonte Gibson all have significant experience and the ability to pressure quarterbacks. Odenigbo, who had 5.5 sacks as a redshirt freshman, could become a star. The bigger questions are inside as Northwestern must build depth. Sean McEvilly is a solid option but must stay healthy. Chance Carter and Max Chapman are among those competing for starting jobs at tackle.

Ohio State: A total mystery last spring, the defensive line should be one of Ohio State's strengths in 2014. Noah Spence and Joey Bosa could become the Big Ten's top pass-rushing tandem, and the Buckeyes have depth there with Jamal Marcus, Adolphus Washington and others. Returning starter Michael Bennett is back at defensive tackle, and while Joel Hale might move to offense, there should be enough depth inside with Tommy Schutt, Chris Carter and Washington, who could slide inside. Nose tackle is the only question mark, but new line coach Larry Johnson inherits a lot of talent.

Penn State: Like the rest of the Lions defense, the line struggled at times last season and now much replace its top player in tackle DaQuan Jones. The new coaching staff has some potentially good pieces, namely defensive end Deion Barnes, who won 2012 Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors but slumped as a sophomore. Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan could form a dangerous pass-rushing tandem, but they'll need support on the inside, where there should be plenty of competition. Austin Johnson will be in the mix for a starting tackle spot, and early enrollees Tarow Barney and Antoine White also should push for time. Anthony Zettel provides some depth on the perimeter.

Purdue: The line endured a tough 2013 campaign and loses two full-time starters (tackle Bruce Gaston Jr. and end Greg Latta), and a part-time starter (end Ryan Isaac). Competition should be ramped up at all four spots this spring. Senior end Ryan Russell is the most experienced member of the group must take a step this offseason. Evan Panfil and Jalani Phillips will push for time at the end spots, along with Kentucky transfer Langston Newton. The group at tackle includes Ryan Watson and Michael Rouse III, both of whom started games in 2013.

Rutgers: Keep a close eye on this group in the spring as Rutgers begins the transition to the Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights lose two starters in end Marcus Thompson and tackle Isaac Holmes, as well as contributor Jamil Merrell at tackle. Darius Hamilton provides a building block on the inside after recording 4.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2013, and end Djwany Mera is back after starting throughout last season. David Milewski played tackle last year, but both he and Hamilton likely need to add weight for their new league. Rutgers has some talent in the younger classes and needs players such as Sebastian Joseph, Kemoko Turay and Julian Pinnix-Odrick to emerge.

Wisconsin: Linebacker Chris Borland is the biggest single departure for the Badgers' defense, but the no position group loses more than the line. Wisconsin must replace several mainstays, most notably nose tackle Beau Allen, who performed well in the first year of the 3-4 set under coordinator Dave Aranda. Senior Warren Herring will step in for Allen after three years as a reserve. Konrad Zagzebski is a good bet to fill one of the end spots, but there will be plenty of competition with players such as Jake Keefer, James Adeyanju, Arthur Goldberg and Chikwe Obasih.
Tags:

Purdue Boilermakers, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Penn State Nittany Lions, Big Ten Conference, Michigan State Spartans, Northwestern Wildcats, Indiana Hoosiers, Illinois Fighting Illini, Ohio State Buckeyes, Michigan Wolverines, Wisconsin Badgers, Iowa Hawkeyes, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Maryland Terrapins, C.J. Olaniyan, Ryan Phillis, Louis Trinca-Pasat, DaQuan Jones, Konrad Zagzebski, Tyler Hoover, Larry Johnson, Micajah Reynolds, Warren Herring, Aaron Curry, Ra\'Shede Hageman, Harold Legania, Beau Allen, Austin Teitsma, Ryan Russell, Marcus Rush, Sean McEvilly, Lawrence Thomas, Dominic Alvis, Deion Barnes, Chance Carter, Max Chapman, Zack Shaw, Bruce Gaston Jr., Shilique Calhoun, Deonte Gibson, Michael Amaefula, Damon Knox, Darian Cooper, Jalani Phillips, Joel Hale, Jake Keefer, Anthony Zettel, Houston Bates, Tyler Scott, Carl Davis, Noah Spence, Nick Mangieri, Greg McMullen, Arthur Goldberg, Randy Gregory, Ryan Isaac, Tommy Schutt, Adolphus Washington, Ifeadi Odenigbo, Vincent Valentine, Jamal Marcus, Teko Powell, Greg Latta, Ryan Watson, James Kittredge, Tim Kynard, Mark Scarpinato, Chris Carter, Ralphael Green, Chikwe Obasih, Malik McDowell, David Kenney, Dawuane Smoot, Darius Latham, Nate Meier, Dean Lowry, Joey Bosa, Dave Aranda, Evan Panfil, Cameron Botticelli, Theiren Cockran, Avery Moss, Michael Rouse III, Drew Ott, Scott Ekpe, Antoine White, Alex Keith, Paul James, Joe Keels, Tarow Barney, Jihad Ward, Maliek Collins, Langston Newton, Joe Fotu, Andre Monroe, B1G spring positions 14, Quinton Jefferson, Keith Bowers, Darius Kilgo, Roman Braglio, Marcus Thompson, Isaac Holmes, Jamil Merrell, Djwany Mera, David Milewski, Sebastian Joseph, Kemoko Turay, Julian Pinnix-Odrick, James Adeyanju

DE Bosa's breakout sets table for 2014

December, 17, 2013
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- As the self evaluation is delivered in hindsight, Joey Bosa almost makes it seem like a miracle he was even able to get on the field.

The freshman defensive lineman didn’t set any expectations for himself, because he had no idea what life was going to be like in college.

[+] EnlargeJoey Bosa
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsJoey Bosa had a stellar freshman season with 6.5 sack and six QB hurries.
Brutally honest and quick to the point, his assessment of the guy who showed up on campus over the summer was he “wasn’t really a good player.”

Physically gifted for his young age and certainly somebody Ohio State was excited about down the road, all of the preseason attention was on a pair of pass-rushing talents in the class above him, which again helped keep the pressure down and the goals seemingly nonexistent.

But if his rapid development into one of the best young linemen in the Big Ten has taken him by surprise or maybe come a little easier than he thought it would, Bosa does bristle at the suggestion. It hasn’t been the product of a miracle, and it has not happened by accident.

“Definitely wouldn’t say it came easy,” Bosa said. “In the beginning, I wasn’t really a good player and it took a lot of hard work and pushing through a lot of stuff to get where I am.

“It’s good to see that all my hard work is being rewarded with something.”

The honors are piling up now as Freshman All-American awards flood in from across the country after his breakout campaign, tributes which might have exceeded expectations even if Bosa had decided to set any before his first season with the program.

He wasn’t expected to be a starter on the completely rebuilt defensive line, with Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington tabbed as the next great stars up front heading into their sophomore seasons. Among the heralded 2013 recruiting class, much of the focus centered on the game-breaking talent of hybrid weapon Dontre Wilson, the bright future for safety Vonn Bell or the possibility of a pair of touted linebackers cracking the lineup at a thin position on defense.

Instead, Bosa wound up making the biggest impact of them all, ultimately supplanting Washington in the starting lineup, forming a terrifying tandem with Spence on the way to 12.5 tackles for a loss and 6.5 sacks -- and by the middle of the season, providing him and the coaching staff with a chance to upgrade their evaluations.

“I think you get opportunities,” defensive line coach Mike Vrabel said in October in the middle of Bosa’s rise. “You start out with five opportunities, ten opportunities, 15, whatever those opportunities are. He was a player that took advantage of those opportunities and went from 20 or 25 snaps to 50, 55, 60.

“Now he's a starter for us. We've got to have him in there, he's a difference maker.”

He’s also just getting started for the Buckeyes, and they’ve got plenty of time to get even more out of Bosa now that he’ll actually have some expectations moving forward.

Ohio State could have its entire front seven back next fall if linebacker Ryan Shazier decides to hold off on the NFL for another season, but either way it will be building around a defensive line that appeared to speed through the learning curve this fall. While that was a collective effort by the Buckeyes, it’s not a stretch to tie Bosa’s smooth individual transition to the overall improvement, and it’s not all that difficult to pinpoint when things changed for him.

“Probably the Northwestern game [was the turning point],” Bosa said. “It was my first time really making some plays, scored a touchdown, was player of the game.

“But I’m not really focused on individual accomplishments, so I just hope to finish this season strong.”

Whether or not Bosa can accomplish that goal in the Discover Orange Bowl, there will certainly be no hiding from the expectations ahead of his sophomore season now.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

December, 11, 2013
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The weather outside is frightful. But your emails are so delightful. Well, except for the guy who sent me repeated missives in all caps about how Braxton Miller should have been suspended for the Big Ten championship game. Dude, give it a rest.

Anyway, on to the mailbag:

Scott M. from Charlotte, N.C., writes: Will we ever know why Ohio State felt two carries were plenty for Carlos Hyde in the fourth quarter? The game turned in the third quarter because of the bruiser. Braxton Miller is the driver of the car but those two calls late in the game were just awful. How anyone can say I have third-and-three for the game and my 230 pound, 7-yards-a-rush running back will not touch the ball really needs to look at themselves in the mirror.

Brian Bennett: Should Carlos Hyde have gotten more than 18 carries against Michigan State? Probably. But don't forget that the Spartans defense specializes in loading the box and daring teams to throw deep. Plus, Miller was the more effective runner of the two most of the night and finished with more yards and yards per carry than Hyde.

The fourth quarter began with an Ohio State punt. Then Michigan State drove for a field goal. On Ohio State's first real possession of the fourth, Hyde ran for four yards on second-and-10, setting up a passing situation on third down. Miller then threw an incomplete pass. The series you're talking about started with 7:36 left. The Buckeyes had Miller run it on third and fourth down, and he was stuffed both times. Urban Meyer said it was his call to give the ball to Miller on fourth-and-2.

And it's hard to fault him for that. We're talking about the two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year who ran for 142 yards vs. Michigan State. A running quarterback is one way to counter the Spartans defense. It didn't work out, mostly because Pat Narduzzi called the right blitz and Denicos Allen made a great play. After that, Michigan State scored a touchdown to go up by 10 points, and the the time to run the ball was over for Ohio State.

Bottom line is you have to be successful passing the ball to beat the Spartans. And Ohio State went 8-for-21 for 101 yards through the air.

Tommy B. from Savannah, Ga., writes: Brian, as a Buckeye fan it's crazy for me to think that after the 2011 6-7 disaster that I'd be so disappointed after the team would go 24-1 under Urban Meyer so far. I'd almost forgot what it felt like to lose on a Saturday (emphasis on almost, it felt terrible in case you were wondering). The problem has obviously been complete inconsistency with the defense. They have big name veteran stars with gaudy numbers and at times (including in the B1G title game) they've been dominant. But in the Michigan game and for some big game-changing plays against MSU they've had complete breakdowns. They have the talent to be better than they are. In your opinion, what's the problem? Fickell? Key injuries (Bryant)? Fickell? Youth in key positions? Fickell?

Brian Bennett: It's a good question. The place we thought Ohio State's defense might be vulnerable to start the year was up front because of all the youth there. Yet that was arguably the strength of the defense, with guys like Michael Bennett, Joey Bosa, Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington. The problem really seemed to be at the linebacker positions other than Ryan Shazier and at safety, especially when Christian Bryant got injured. Michigan State exposed the Buckeyes' safeties early on last Saturday.

It's kind of hard to believe that Ohio State would find itself so thin at linebacker. The Buckeyes recruited some highly-regarded defensive backs last year, but guys like Vonn Bell didn't have much of an impact this season. They're still young, so that's to be expected, but it was disappointing that some of the more veteran players didn't have great seasons (relatively speaking, because Ohio State did go 12-0).

The Buckeyes' defensive coaches all have strong track records, so I have a hard time believing it's simply a coaching issue. But Ohio State clearly needs to develop better depth in its back seven, especially if Shazier decides to leave for the NFL.

Randy from Waukesha, Wis., writes: I just learned that Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis won an award for the national best walk-on player-of the-year in CF! Did I miss your guys' article on this? If not please tell us more..... B1G can use all the kudos it can get, especially at this time of the year!

Brian Bennett: Yes, Abbrederis won the Burlsworth Trophy, which is award to the best player who started his career as a walk-on. We didn't write a post about it, mainly because there are seemingly thousands of college football awards now, but we did tweet it. Abbrederis was a slam-dunk choice for that award, and it's hard to believe he ever was a walk-on. He'll be on an NFL roster next fall.

King from Los Angeles writes: I agreed with you about the silliness of the coaches' poll. I am a Huskers fan and I do not believe we deserved a top 25 ranking even though Bo thinks so. I think they should change the way coaches vote by making a rule that you cannot vote for your own team. That could take away all the biases. What do you think?

Brian Bennett: That would only solve part of the problem, as there still would be inherent conflicts of interest involving teams in a coach's own conference, his opponents, friends, etc. The good news is it won't matter at all as part of the national championship provess next year, so the coaches can be as silly as they want to be. And given how little most coaches want to deal with the hassle, I'm not sure why there should even be a coaches' poll next year.

Greg from Lansing, Mich., writes: In giving conferences more power on selecting bowl match-ups should we just assume Ohio State/Michigan will always occupy the better bowl games? (If they aren't already in the play-off).

Brian Bennett: I can understand why there's a feeling in some quarters that Ohio State and Michigan get preferential treatment from the league office. But the truth is that the biggest brand-name schools already get preferential treatment from bowls. Is there any reason why Michigan at 7-5, should be in the Big Ten's No. 3 non-BCS bowl this year? Or why Ohio State went to the Gator at 6-6 in 2011? Only one: drawing power.

What the new system will basically do is allow the leagues more input on the process so as to avoid teams going to the same destination over and over again and to create better matchups. Had it been in place this year, however, I doubt we'd see Nebraska going back to Florida for a rematch with Georgia. Bowls are always going to want big-name teams as long as they are businesses. But better matchups and fresher destinations should help fans.

Greg from Atlanta writes: As an Iowa fan living in Georgia, I'm wondering how an 8-4 Georgia team gets ranked and an 8-4 Iowa team doesn't? Now, I'm not saying Iowa deserves a ranking, because 4 wins shouldn't get you in the top 25. But, Georgia lost to Vandy and needed double OT to beat Ga Tech. They also struggled with teams they should have throttled and fell far below expectations. Iowa played two teams tough that will both play in BCS bowls. Is this just more bias against the Big Ten? If so, will that bias ever go away?

Brian Bennett: I don't think this is a case of anti-Big Ten bias as much as it is probably pro-SEC sentiment. Iowa is a tough case and a team I debated putting in my final Top 25 for a while before ultimately deciding against it. Barely. The Hawkeyes' four losses are all highly respectable -- Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Northern Illinois. But you shouldn't get credit for just losing to good teams. Iowa's best wins are over Minnesota, Michigan and Nebraska, with two of those on the road. Very solid, but not spectacular.

Georgia's in a similar boat in terms of "good" losses, including Clemson and Missouri. The Dawgs also lost on the road to Auburn thanks to a miracle play at the end. They have also beaten South Carolina and LSU, two wins better than anything Iowa can claim, and the team was decimated by injuries this season.

I think the Hawkeyes are good, and they have some nice momentum after winning their final three games. That's why I'm really looking forward to seeing how they play against LSU. Iowa definitely ends the season in the Top 25 with a win over the Tigers in the Outback. And given the wide-open nature of next year's West Division, at least on paper, Iowa could emerge as one of the preseason favorites in that division in 2014.

Huge test coming for OSU defensive line

September, 26, 2013
9/26/13
11:00
AM ET
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The clues started popping up in the form of ferocious pass-rushing ends who were dominating spring practice.

By the time training camp and the start of the season rolled around, a couple new bodies were added into the rotation, and Ohio State was starting to show signs that what was thought to be a potential problem was about to be solved.

[+] EnlargeJoey Bosa
Jason Mowry/Icon SMITrue freshman Joey Bosa has been pressed into action and has performed admirably.
Now with four games under their belt, the Buckeyes are reasonably certain that an entirely rebuilt defensive line has gone from possible weakness to legitimate strength.

But even with all the information they’ve compiled -- dating to the end of last season and through an impressive start outside of Big Ten play -- all No. 4 Ohio State really has at this point is a hypothesis. The true test is coming Saturday, with No. 23 Wisconsin and its powerful rushing game visiting Ohio Stadium to provide a more concrete answer about just how good the Buckeyes are up front.

“They have not received the challenge yet like this one,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “This will be the biggest challenge to this point, maybe the rest of the year, for our defensive front seven.

“I know we’ve had conversations about this outfit before, because the run game is real. You can get embarrassed real fast if you're not gap-sound and handling your business.”

The Buckeyes went about their nonconference business with ruthless efficiency and relative ease, relaxing some of the concerns about filling the void left by three graduated seniors and a junior who left early for the NFL draft. But given the level of competition a largely inexperienced unit has faced compared to what it will encounter in the trenches against the Badgers, it’s difficult to reach much of a conclusion until after this weekend’s prime-time matchup.

Ohio State hasn’t been at full strength on the line yet either, with Adolphus Washington missing two games due to a groin injury that has kept him from forming what appears to be a terrific tandem with fellow sophomore Noah Spence. Defensive tackle Michael Bennett was held out of last week’s blowout over Florida A&M, and Ohio State has yet to get a snap out of Tommy Schutt at the position this season due to a preseason foot injury. Those issues have pressed a true freshman into an expanded role at end, where Joey Bosa has shined, and it also forced Meyer to move offensive lineman Chase Farris back over to defense to provide more depth and talent on the interior alongside veteran Joel Hale.

But even with those limitations, the way the Buckeyes have played might give them a bit of extra credit, considering they still rank No. 9 in the nation against the rush and No. 13 in total defense, which also represents marked improvement from some early struggles a year ago in Meyer’s first season with the program. But those numbers haven’t come against teams that can block as physically or run as dangerously as the Badgers, and the nation’s third-ranked rushing attack is the measuring stick that counts for a defense looking to live up to the proud tradition of the Silver Bullets.

“I know people are going to say that it's going to come down to making tackles and stopping big plays and things like that,” defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said. “But if we do a great job up front, we'll be in good shape. If we don't do a great job up front, we'll have a tough time.

“That doesn't mean the back seven don't have to play well. The linebackers and [secondary] are every bit a part of stopping and fitting that run and being a part of that effort as the front seven. But those guys up front are where the game is won and lost.”

Testing a hypothesis doesn’t get much easier than that.

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