Big Ten: Bernard Taylor

Certain position groups define certain leagues, and in the Big Ten, offensive line always will be one of those groups. The big uglies are typically a beautiful sight for many Big Ten fan bases, so we figured we would kick off our preseason position previews with the offensive line. Taking a page from our friends on the ACC blog, we are changing up the preview format so it's not so exhaustive (no more 14-team lists).

Let's get started, shall we?

Best of the best: Wisconsin

It's close between rivals Wisconsin and Iowa for the top spot, and though the Hawkeyes boast the league's best individual lineman in left tackle Brandon Scherff, the Badgers get the nod for their overall group. If healthy, Wisconsin's 2014 line should start resembling the more dominant units for which the program is famous. There should be better depth than in recent years as five players with at least five starts are back, led by veteran right tackle Rob Havenstein. Kyle Costigan, Dallas Lewallen and Tyler Marz add experience, and Wisconsin has two talented young centers in sophomore Dan Voltz and freshman Michael Deiter.

Next up: Iowa

There is no minimizing Scherff's return as he would have been a top 20 pick in the NFL draft, according to coach Kirk Ferentz, if he elected to skip his senior season. The freakishly strong senior anchors Iowa's line, which returns two other starters in center Austin Blythe and guard Jordan Walsh. Right tackle Andrew Donnal has plenty of experience as a reserve. The other guard spot remains competitive, although Sean Welsh emerged from the spring as the starter. Iowa's overall depth is a bit shaky, but if the top line holds up, it should have little trouble pounding the ball with Mark Weisman and co., and protecting quarterback Jake Rudock.

Possible sleeper: Indiana

If you read the blog regularly, and especially this post, you won't be surprised by this selection. I strongly considered the Hoosiers for one of the top two spots, but want to see how guard Dan Feeney looks after missing all of last season with a foot injury. Feeney, a freshman All-American in 2012, rejoins a group that includes veterans Jason Spriggs, Bernard Taylor and Collin Rahrig, a former walk-on who now has 24 starts at center and guard. After an injury-plagued 2013 season, Indiana's line could take another big step and possibly become the Big Ten's most complete unit.

Problem for a contender: Ohio State

The bad news is Ohio State loses four starters from the Big Ten's best line in 2013. The good news is Ohio State typically reloads up front and boasts one of the nation's top line coaches in Ed Warinner. No matter your outlook, the Buckeyes' line will be a position to watch when camp kicks off. Ohio State can't afford to lose senior quarterback Braxton Miller, who has taken a beating at times the past two years. Junior Taylor Decker moves from right tackle to the left side and will lead the group. Guard Pat Eflein showed promise filling in for Marcus Hall late last season and will occupy a starting spot. Darryl Baldwin and Antonio Underwood have been with the program longer than any other linemen, but are only now positioned to start. The Buckeyes helped their depth by adding Alabama graduate transfer Chad Lindsay at center.
Like most true freshman, Indiana offensive tackle Jason Spriggs entered his first preseason camp with measured expectations.

"I thought I was going to be redshirted," Spriggs told ESPN.com, "just like all the other freshmen."

It was a reasonable assumption, but one that in recent years often has proven incorrect at Indiana. The Hoosiers in 2011 played 32 freshmen (16 true, 16 redshirt), the most in the FBS. Last season, they played 11 true freshmen and five redshirt freshmen. IU had just eight seniors on its 2012 roster, tied for the fewest in the country.

Offensive line typically is the position group where freshmen are least likely to see the field. Most come to college lacking the physical development to stand their ground against Big Ten defense.

But Indiana's offensive line hasn't been immune from the youth movement. The Hoosiers play fast on offense, and their linemen grow up fast, too.

Spriggs started all 12 games last season, setting a team freshman record. But he didn't reach the milestone by himself: fellow true freshman Dan Feeney also started every game at right guard.

The Hoosiers opened the season with two true freshmen (Spriggs and Feeney) and two true sophomores (Bernard Taylor and Peyton Eckert) on their starting offensive line, flanking fifth-year senior center Will Matte. Both Taylor and Eckert had cracked the starting lineup in the third week of their freshman year in 2011. When Taylor went down with an injury midway through last season, he was replaced by a redshirt sophomore (Collin Rahrig) who had made eight starts as a redshirt freshman.

"Getting in the mix early on takes away a lot of the nervousness and the worry of thinking about what it's like," Spriggs said.

Indiana's line remains one of the Big Ten's youngest. But because of the fast-tracking, the Hoosiers are among the league's most experienced groups. They also could be one of the best.

"We’re striving to be the No. 1 O-line in the Big Ten," Spriggs said. "And I think that's actually going to happen this year."

Indiana wasn't far off in 2012, despite its youth. The Hoosiers finished second in the Big Ten in total sacks allowed (17). When pass attempts were factored in, IU led the Big Ten, surrendering one sack every 31.8 pass attempts. Indiana led the league in passing by a wide margin, and the line recorded five games with no sacks allowed and two others with just one sack allowed.

Although Matte departs, Indiana brings back its other four starting linemen as well as two others with starting experience.

"We have everybody returning," Spriggs said, "and I feel like the trust is a lot better than last year. Last year, we had me and Feeney and the rest of the freshmen coming in, nobody really knew where we stood. During the season, I was still learning everything, flying by the seat of my pants.

"Now everybody's been in the same room for at least a year, so that's going to help out a lot."

Spriggs got his opportunity when projected starting tackle Charlie Chapman sustained a concussion in camp. Feeney simply outplayed the competition into a top spot at the end of camp.

The 6-foot-4, 305-pound Feeney didn't surrender a sack all season, while the 6-7, 280-pound Spriggs led Indiana with 80 knockdowns. Both earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors and made several all-freshman teams, including ESPN.com's.

"It was pretty crazy, playing against people so big and knowing the Big Ten is known for having such big, talented linemen," Feeney said. "I definitely had to adjust to the size of people and the speed. But I felt like I transitioned well."

Taylor came to Indiana targeting a starting job early in his career. But he also was realistic about his development.

"When I got here, I felt like I wasn't ready," he said. "But when coach throws you in there, you're not going to say no. You've just got to step it up and do it. I was in the same boat as Jason. I ended up getting thrown in there.

"But we've all grown together because we're with each other every day."

The linemen are together on the practice field, in the weight room and even away from Memorial Stadium. Feeney lives with Eckert and center Jake Reed, Taylor lives with tackle Ralston Evans and Spriggs lives with center Wes Rogers and tackle Jacob Bailey. Spriggs and Feeney roomed together last year.

"When you're with somebody that long," Spriggs said, "working and striving to get better, you start trusting everybody."

Matte is the lone starter lost from an offense that finished second in the Big Ten in yards and put up 49 points against Ohio State, the most the Buckeyes had allowed since 1994. The Hoosiers boast three experienced quarterbacks as Tre Roberson returns to the mix, as well as arguably the Big Ten's top receiving corps.

IU's linemen prioritized the run game this spring, as the team finished 10th in the Big Ten in rush yards (1,570) and last in attempts (399). If the Hoosiers achieve better balance, stay a step ahead of defenses and more effectively translate all those yards into points, their goal of becoming the Big Ten's best line could come true.

"We talk about that all the time," Taylor said. "It's our No. 1 agenda."
Earlier today, we revealed a handful of our top freshmen from 2011. Now it's time to unveil the entire Big Ten All-Freshman team from the season.

Some positions were easier to find players than others, but this crew should be worth watching in years to come. Both true freshmen and redshirt freshmen were considered for the team.

Without further ado ...

OFFENSE

QB: Braxton Miller, Ohio State
RB: Donovonn Young, Illinois
RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
WR: Kenny Bell, Nebraska
WR: Kevonte Martin-Manley, Iowa
TE: Jon Davis, Illinois
OL: Travis Jackson, Michigan State
OL: Bernard Taylor, Indiana
OL: Michael Heitz, Illinois
OL: Brandon Vitabile, Northwestern
OL: Tyler Moore, Nebraska

DEFENSE

DL: Marcus Rush, Michigan State
DL: Ryan Russell, Purdue
DL: Michael Bennett, Ohio State
DL: Ben Perry, Minnesota
LB: Ryan Shazier, Ohio State
LB: Jake Ryan, Michigan
LB: Desmond Morgan, Michigan
CB: Bradley Roby, Ohio State
CB: Blake Countess, Michigan
S: Mark Murphy, Indiana
S: Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern

SPECIAL TEAMS

K: Matt Wile, Michigan
P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State
KR: Raheem Mostert, Purdue
PR: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska

There were some tough choices, and several positions had more candidates than others. Cornerback, for example, featured several promising freshmen contributors. Michigan State's Tony Lippett and Penn State's Adrian Amos were close to making the cut. Indiana quarterback Tre Roberson is another player meriting mention, although Miller deserved the nod at quarterback.

Not surprisingly, it was a struggle to fill out the offensive line as most freshmen linemen don't see the field. Like we did with the general All-Big Ten team, we didn't assign positions for the O-line and simply picked the best five players. It also was a bit unusual not to have a full-time freshman place-kicker. Michigan's Wile handled kickoffs and some punting, but Brendan Gibbons kicked field goals for the Wolverines.

Big Ten afternoon news roundup

September, 19, 2011
9/19/11
3:30
PM ET
A few items for you on a murky Monday in Chicago:
  • Wisconsin starting right tackle Josh Oglesby will have an MRI on his left knee today. Despite Oglesby's chronic knee issues, Badgers coach Bret Bielema is optimistic that the senior won't miss much time and possibly not even a single game."All the preliminary indications have been very, very positive," Bielema said. "... Very good chance he will play this week, if not, for sure next week as long as the MRI comes back all clean."
  • More good news on the health front, as Nebraska star cornerback Alfonzo Dennard will participate in practice today. Dennard has missed the first three games and the second half of camp with a pulled muscle in his leg. He warmed up for Saturday's game against Washington, but coach Bo Pelini had no intention of playing the senior. "He is doing a lot better," Pelini said Monday. It's critical Nebraska regains Dennard's services for next week's Big Ten opener against Wisconsin and sizzling quarterback Russell Wilson. "In my opinion, there isn't a better corner in the country," Pelini said. "I think he is that good."
  • Vincent Smith entered the season labeled as Michigan's third-down back, but the 5-foot-6 junior has put himself in position for a bigger role. Although Fitz Toussaint and Michael Shaw remain listed as co-starters at running back on the depth chart, Michigan coach Brady Hoke said Smith "has earned that right" to compete for the top job. Smith has rushed for 132 yards on only 12 carries this season.
  • Indiana's depth chart for this week's road game against North Texas lists three freshmen offensive linemen as starters. Bernard Taylor, Collin Rahrig and Peyton Eckert are listed as the No. 1 left guard, right guard and right tackle, respectively. All three started ahead of veteran players Saturday against South Carolina State. Although Indiana put up 38 points, it also drew 11 (11!) false start penalties. Having such a young line undoubtedly contributed to so many yellow hankies. The Hoosiers will need a more disciplined performance from their young players on the road.

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