Big Ten: Brandon Scherff

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.
Our crew of Big Ten reporters will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. They'll have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which one is right.

Another sign of the impending season arrived today with the start of the preseason award watch lists. These largely meaningless lists began with two of the biggies, the Maxwell (nation's top player) and Bednarik (nation's top defender), both of which included groups of Big Ten players. With 76 names on the Bednarik list and 74 on the Maxwell list, some are wondering if anyone didn't make the rundowns. But believe it or not, there are some possible snubs.

Today's Take Two topic: Which Big Ten players could have been included on the Maxwell and Bednarik watch lists?

Take 1: Adam Rittenberg

Let's begin with the Maxwell. Most of the reasonable Big Ten options are covered here (and some less than reasonable ones), but Indiana running back Tevin Coleman deserves some love. Coleman might have to lap the field to actually win the Maxwell, but you can't tell me there are 70 better offensive players than the Hoosiers junior. He's not Melvin Gordon, but his statistics in only nine games -- 7.3 yards-per-carry average, three rushes of 60 yards or more, five rushes of 50 yards or more, 141.7 all-purpose yards per game -- are reminiscent of the Badgers star. Coleman will get more touches this season as Stephen Houston departs, and he plays behind one of the Big Ten's best offensive lines.

Indiana ultimately needs to upgrade its defense to gain national hype for its team and its individual stars. But if Coleman builds on 2013, he'll be noticed. He scored at least once in every game he played last season and contributes in a variety of ways.

[+] EnlargeHull
Rich Barnes/USA TODAY SportsPenn State's Mike Hull is underappreciated nationally.
The Big Ten's Bednarik contention is heavy with Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan players. Although I still need to see more from Michigan's Frank Clark, I have no major issues with these inclusions. But I'm going to stump for Wisconsin cornerback Sojourn Shelton and Penn State linebacker Mike Hull. Wisconsin recorded only nine interceptions last season, but four came from Shelton, who entered the starting lineup as a true freshman and led the team in both picks and passes defended (11). The Badgers lose three NFL draft picks on defense but retain a potential big-time playmaker in Shelton.

Penn State linebackers seldom struggle to gain the spotlight, but Hull, a fifth-year senior, has gone under the radar a bit, in part because of injury. He's one of the league's most experienced defenders and has been labeled the quarterback of the defense by new coordinator Bob Shoop. New coach James Franklin came away impressed with Hull this spring. A breakout season could be on tap, and if so, Hull will be in the mix for All-Big Ten honors and potentially more.

Take 2: Brian Bennett

First off, let's put the word "snub" in quotes. We must acknowledge that these preseason watch lists are outdated and silly, and they really mean nothing when it comes to the final awards. And it has been the case in the past that the reason a notable player didn't "make" the list was because his school simply forgot to nominate him.

But it's early July, and we need something to talk about, right? I thought the Maxwell list did a pretty good job including the biggest offensive stars in the Big Ten. I agree with Adam that Coleman has a chance to put up some major numbers, along with quarterback Nate Sudfeld and receiver Shane Wynn. But Indiana has to get itself on the national radar before its players reap the rewards.

What about Iowa's Brandon Scherff? We already know he's "a freak," and he's a likely first-round pick and a possible All-American next year. Offensive linemen never win and rarely even get mentioned for these awards, and that's a shame.

The Bednarik list is exhaustive. As much as I like players such as Michigan State's Kurtis Drummond and Penn State's Jordan Lucas, I can't envision any scenario in which they actually win this award. But if there were players missing from this list for the Big Ten, I think it's a pair of defensive ends: Maryland's Andre Monroe and Minnesota's Theiren Cockran. Monroe had 17 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks in the ACC last year, and it wouldn't require much improvement for him to be among the national leaders in those categories this season. Similarly, Cockran is a gifted athlete who had 7.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss in 2013.

Both are dark horse candidates for Big Ten defensive player of the year, which should qualify them for the Bednarik watch list. Not that anyone should lose much sleep over it.
I returned home from California to find Phil Steele's college football preview magazine waiting for me. Today comes another indicator of the upcoming season: Bruce Feldman's annual "freaks" list. The list is what it sounds like: the freakiest athletes around college football.

Two Big Ten players make the group of 20: Iowa left tackle Brandon Scherff at No. 2 and Purdue running back/returner Raheem Mostert at No. 10.

Although Scheff looks like a prototype offensive lineman these days, he played quarterback and also stood out in both baseball and basketball at Denison High School in Iowa. His mix of athleticism and brute strength has longtime Iowa strength coach Chris Doyle calling him "the best we've ever had." That's high praise considering the players who have come through the Hawkeyes' program.

Scherff recently hang-cleaned 437 pounds.

From the story:
He can Jerk 400 pounds over his head, vertical jump 31 or 32 inches and run his first 10 yards in 1.58 to 1.60 seconds, according to the coach. (For comparison's sake on the 10-yard split, Auburn star Greg Robinson clocked a 1.68 at the NFL combine while Michigan's Taylor Lewan -- an old Freaks list guy -- timed his in 1.64, and he ran the fastest 40 among O-linemen in Indy officially at 4.87.).

Mostert's freakishness was on display throughout the spring, as he cemented himself as the Big Ten's top sprinter by winning titles in the 100 and 200 meters at the outdoor track and field championships. He won both events at the Big Ten's indoor championships earlier this year.

The former Boilers wide receiver led the FBS in kick returns in 2011, averaging 33.5 yards per runback with four of 71 yards or longer. He moved to running back last season and pushed for significant playing time during spring practice.

Two good selections for the "freaks" list.

Who else belongs? Send us your suggestions and why.

Big Ten's lunch links

June, 23, 2014
Jun 23
12:00
PM ET
Back from vacation. Nice to link up again.
Last week, we finished up our series looking at the most indispensable players for each Big Ten team. Now, we're interested in your opinion. Who is the most indispensable player is in the entire league.

As we mentioned over and over again at the top of those posts, indispensable doesn't necessarily translate into "best." It means the players who would be hardest to replace between now and the start of the season if they got hurt/suspended/shrunk by Rick Moranis, etc. That could be because of their value to the team or because of a lack of depth at their position.

SportsNation

Who is the most indispensable player in the Big Ten in 2014?

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    30%
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    29%
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    20%
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    9%
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    12%

Discuss (Total votes: 8,988)

We gave you two from each team during the series. Now we want you to pick one of these five candidates:
  • Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State: The Buckeyes got to see what life without Miller would look like this spring while he was recovering from shoulder surgery. They hope that was merely a drill. The senior is the two-time, defending Big Ten offensive player of the year, and backups Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett have no real experience. Without Miller, Ohio State could easily fall from national championship contender to Big Ten also-ran.
  • Christian Hackenberg, QB, Penn State: Hackenberg threw for nearly 3,000 yards as a true freshman and will again be the focal point of the Nittany Lions' offense this season. There's also a severe lack of experience behind him, with Penn State likely needing to turn to true freshman Michael O'Connor or a walk-on should something unfortunate happen to its young star.
  • Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska: The Cornhuskers' defense simply wouldn't be the same without Gregory, who led the Big Ten in sacks (10.5) and tied for second in tackles for loss (17.5) last season. With the other defensive end position a little bit of a question mark and young players being counted on at tackle, Gregory's tremendous pass-rushing skills are a necessity for Nebraska to contend for the West Division title and beyond.
  • Connor Cook, QB, Michigan State: After finally finding some stability at quarterback, the last thing the Spartans want to do is go through another carousel at the position. Tyler O'Connor and redshirt freshman Damion Terry could provide decent replacement options. But Cook's poise and confidence helped take Michigan State to another level last season -- a Rose Bowl-winning level.
  • Brandon Scherff, LT, Iowa: The Hawkeyes know how to develop offensive linemen, so they'd probably find someone to fill Scherff's shoes. But how well? The senior enters the season as the best lineman in the Big Ten and is integral to everything Iowa wants to do on offense. Losing the likely 2015 first-round NFL draft pick for any significant stretch this season would likely reverberate throughout Kirk Ferentz's team this fall.

Which of these players is the most indispensable to his team's fortunes in 2014? Vote now in our poll.
Few preseason prognosticators create as much excitement around their summer picks as Phil Steele.

The college football guru packs a tremendous amount of information and research into his preseason magazines. And Steele has released his choices for the 2014 All-Big Ten team, which you can find here.

[+] EnlargeStefon Diggs
Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY SportsMaryland receiver Stefon Diggs could make an immediate impact in the Big Ten.
Some thoughts on the selections:

Steele sees newcomers Maryland and Rutgers bringing some talent into the league quickly, as he has two Terrapins (wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long) and two Scarlet Knights (guard Kaleb Johnson and linebacker Steve Longa) on the first team. ... A mild surprise on the first team is Michigan State linebacker Taiwan Jones, who will attempt to take over the middle spot from Max Bullough this year. ... The first-team defensive line is absolutely loaded, with Nebraska's Randy Gregory, Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun, and Ohio State's Michael Bennett and Joey Bosa. Iowa's Carl Davis and Minnesota's Theiren Cockran were relegated to second-team status. ... Speaking of the second team, Steele puts Northwestern wide receiver Kyle Prater there, apparently expecting big things at long last from the former USC transfer. ... Steele also has Ohio State's Dontre Wilson and Devin Smith breaking out as second-team All-Big Ten receivers. ... Penn State fans might be a bit miffed to see Christian Hackenberg as only the third-team quarterback. Michigan State's Connor Cook is Steele's choice for second-team QB, with Braxton Miller obviously No. 1. ... Michigan State leads the way with five players on Steele's first-team offense and defense. Ohio State has four, while Wisconsin, Nebraska and Michigan each have three.

Steele also has released his preseason All-America team, which includes some familiar Big Ten names. Here's a quick rundown:

First team:

Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon

Ohio State DT Michael Bennett

Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun

Second team:

Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah

Iowa OT Brandon Scherff

Nebraska DE Randy Gregory

Ohio State DE Joey Bosa

Iowa PR Kevonte Martin-Manley

Third team:

Ohio State QB Braxton Miller

Maryland WR Stefon Diggs

Michigan WR Devin Funchess

Iowa DT Carl Davis

Michigan LB Jake Ryan

Michigan State CB Trae Waynes

Michigan State S Kurtis Drummond

Illinois PR V'Angelo Bentley

Indiana LS Matt Dooley

Fourth team:

Michigan State RB Jeremy Langford

Ohio State TE Jeff Heuerman

Wisconsin OT Rob Havenstein

Northwestern RB/KR Venric Mark
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Let's explore Jake Rudock's football smarts, shall we? You already know about the book smarts, at least if you've been paying attention.

Anything written or said about Rudock notes that he's a brain. The Iowa junior quarterback is a microbiology/premed major and an academic All-American who, before making his Hawkeyes debut last fall, broke down his organic chemistry class for a group of reporters whose chosen profession had steered them as far away from classes like organic chemistry as possible. He mentioned stereoisomers and other head-spinning terms.

Most football players want nothing to do with team doctors. Rudock, who wants work in pediatric medicine, picks their brains and hopes to shadow some of them. It doesn't hurt that Iowa's Kinnick Stadium is located across the street from University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, one of the nation's 50 largest public hospitals. Rudock wants to volunteer there in pediatrics this summer.

"He's a very bright guy who has taken classes that I certainly can't tutor for him," Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis told ESPN.com. "I'm not sure anybody on our team or staff could tutor for him."

[+] EnlargeJake Rudock
AP Photo/Ann HeisenfeltJake Rudock's smarts in the classroom started to translate on the field in 2013, something Iowa hopes continues this season.
But enough about Rudock's academic aspirations and achievements. Iowa fans care mainly about the 12 exams that await Rudock this season, his second as the team's starting quarterback.

If Rudock excels on the field like he does in the chem lab, more tests could come for a Hawkeyes team with high expectations in 2014.

"He's a really intelligent guy," Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said. "He's a football-intelligent guy, too. Sometimes there's not always a correlation. In his case, he's good both ways."

Rudock's football wisdom should help as Iowa expands its offense in Davis' third season. Iowa averaged nearly five more plays per game in 2013 than it did in 2012, and Davis intends to further ramp up the tempo and broaden the playbook.

There's little Davis can throw Rudock's way that Rudock hasn't seen before. He operated from numerous formations as a quarterback for Florida prep powerhouse Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas.

"We'd go three receivers wide," Rudock said. "Then we'd run the veer out of the gun, the option under center, zone schemes, lead schemes, pulling guards, pulling guard and tackle, all that stuff. We used a lot of different screens, all that good stuff."

Bryan Baucom, the offensive coordinator at St. Thomas Aquinas, adds a few more to the list: classic pro set, shotgun empty, Oklahoma-style wishbone.

"If it was invented," Baucom said, "we were running it."

Rudock ran it well, setting a host of records at St. Thomas Aquinas, including career touchdown passes (73), single-season passing yards (2,827), career completion percentage (64 percent) and, most important, career victories (31). Davis didn't recruit Rudock to Iowa but was impressed watching how his high school moved seamlessly from a spread formation to two backs to something else.

Iowa might not be known for multiplicity on offense, but things could be changing with Davis calling plays and Rudock calling signals.

"He's pretty comfortable with a bunch of different ways to play the game," Davis said.

Rudock's comfort level showed this spring after a season where he put up first-year starter numbers: 2,383 pass yards, 18 touchdowns, 13 interceptions, 59-percent completions. He had highlights, like a game-winning touchdown strike to C.J. Fiedorowicz in overtime against Northwestern, but also plenty of mistakes.

Being good but not great might seem alien to a high achiever like Rudock. But he not only put in the work to improve, but embraced the grind.

"In the classroom, it all doesn't just come to me," he explained. "Just like in football, it all doesn't just come to you. You have to put the effort to watch that film, meet with coaches, try to further understand things and not just understand the first layer but the second and third tiers."

Baucom never remembers yelling at Rudock because the quarterback knew right away if he missed a read or a coverage. Rudock started practicing with the Aquinas varsity as a freshman after his junior-varsity season concluded. The strong-minded, skinny quarterback was a "great huddle guy," Baucom recalled, who teammates easily followed.

"He's a smart kid, down-to-earth kid, never too high, never too low," Baucom said.

How even-keeled is Rudock? Consider how he reacted to the news that Iowa first team All-Big Ten left tackle Brandon Scherff would return for his senior season even though he likely would have a first-round pick in the NFL draft.

"I remember finding out and being like, 'Well, that's good,'" Rudock said.

Well, that's good? No primal scream? No backflip?

"It was more a sigh of relief," Rudock said. "It makes you feel safer back there."

Rudock should feel fairly safe as Iowa's starter, but the coaches also see a role for C.J. Beathard, who appeared in five games last season and stood out in spring ball. Davis came away "extremely pleased" with Beathard this spring, noting his big arm and his lateral quickness.

Iowa historically has been a one-quarterback team, but Beathard could be used in a package of plays built around the zone read.

"I wouldn't rule it out," Ferentz said.

The competition shouldn't faze Rudock. Few things do.

"If you're not working, somebody else is," he said, "so it's important not to ever be satisfied with where you're at."

Rudock committed to Iowa in July before his senior year of high school, picking the Hawkeyes ahead of Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota, among others. When Miami hired Al Golden that December, the new Hurricanes coach pursued Rudock, but the quarterback stayed firm with his pledge.

He hasn't looked back.

"He knows what he wants to do with his life," Baucom said. "He had a plan in place and he's following that plan. He wanted to go to one of the top medical schools, That’s why he picked Iowa. He wanted to play Division I football. He accomplished that."

It doesn't take a microbiology major to identify the next item in Rudock's plan -- a Big Ten championship.
Summer's almost here, but we're still looking forward to the fall. With that in mind, we're looking at the most indispensable players on each Big Ten team.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Scherff
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsBrandon Scherff is the Big Ten's best offensive lineman and he powers Iowa's offense.
By indispensable, we don't necessarily mean best. We mean the players who would be hardest to replace between now and the start of the season if they got hurt/suspended/stuck on a broken cruise ship, etc. That could be because of their value to the team or because of a lack of depth at their position.

We'll pick two players from each team, usually offense and defense, but not always. In our second installment, we turn to the Iowa Hawkeyes:

Brandon Scherff, LT, Sr.

This one's pretty much a no-brainer. While the Hawkeyes have some nice depth on their offensive line and are one of the best in the business at developing offensive linemen, Scherff should enter the season as the best lineman in the Big Ten. He's integral to the entire Iowa offense in protecting quarterback Jake Rudock and paving room in the running game. We saw how the offense slowed to a halt after Scherff got injured late in the 2012 season. The Hawkeyes would likely be able to weather his absence better this season, but they sure don't want to find out what life is like this year without the potential 2015 NFL first-round pick.

Desmond King, CB, Soph.

Here's another case where a choice for most indispensable is probably not among the best two players on the team. If we were simply going that route, defensive tackle Carl Davis would likely appear here. But Iowa has built depth along the defensive line, while King -- who excelled as a freshman in 2013 -- is a guy the Hawkeyes really can't afford to lose right now. There are some major question marks elsewhere in the secondary after the graduation of B.J. Lowery. Three relatively unproven players -- Maurice Fleming, Sean Draper and Greg Mabin -- are battling it out for the other starting corner spot. Though King is just a sophomore, he's clearly a star in the making and one of the few anchors right now for the defensive backfield.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

May, 16, 2014
May 16
4:00
PM ET
Happy weekend to you. Follow us on Twitter.

To the inbox ...

Jared from Nebraska writes: As a big Husker fan, I was obviously excited to see Ameer Abdullah return for his senior season. My worry is though that he might not have as good of a year this year. If I was an opposing defensive coordinator, I would load the box and blitz to stop the run and make Tommy Armstrong Jr. pass knowing that he has had some interception troubles and NU has only one solid WR. Now if I thought of this I'm sure the coaches actually hired to this position have as well. Wouldn't this make it very hard for Abdullah to have the senior season he is looking for?

Adam Rittenberg: Jared, Abdullah obviously needs Nebraska to pose a passing threat, and he would benefit from Armstrong's improvement in the program. But keep in mind that Abdullah rushed for 1,690 yards in 2013 with Armstrong as a new starting quarterback for most of the season. If Armstrong develops, Abdullah should have room to run. The key area to me is whether a somewhat new-look offensive line holds up. Although Quincy Enunwa is a big loss at receiver, I think the Huskers will be all right if players such as Jordan Westerkamp, Jamal Turner and Taariq Allen continue to take steps this offseason.

Could Abdullah's numbers go down? Sure. But I don't think the opposing strategy against him changes too much from 2013 to 2014.

 




 

Pete from Cincinnati writes: I think the odds are good that the Big Ten will have a top-10 pick next year. If I had to pick one player based on what I saw last year, I'd pick Calhoun. Awesome talent. But the reason I think the odds are good is because there are several candidates who could make it, including Scherff and Gregory. Here's a sleeper pick: Iowa's Carl Davis. Like Gregory, if he continues to improve on pace with last year, he'll have a very big year .

Adam Rittenberg: Really good point, Pete. I agree that having more candidates with the potential to make the top 10 improves the Big Ten's chances considerably. There's no doubt Shilique Calhoun, Randy Gregory and Brandon Scherff all are on the NFL radar, and all play positions where you see quite a few top-10 draft picks. Good call on Carl Davis from Iowa. He's a big body at defensive tackle and could become a dominant player this season. He would have to boost his sacks and tackles for loss numbers and become a truly disruptive player to rise that high.

 




 

Brett from Alliance, Ohio, writes: What about Noah Spence? I saw a mock draft with him in the top 15. If he repeats his production from 2013 could he go first round?

Adam Rittenberg: It's possible, Brett, although some would ask whether Spence is the best defensive end on his own team. After the way Joey Bosa ended his freshman season, he could be the one rocketing up draft boards, albeit for 2016, not 2015. It's certainly a good situation for Ohio State to have, as Spence and Bosa combined for 15.5 sacks last season. But you're right. If Spence has a big junior year, he could be in the first-round mix.

 




 

John from Phoenix writes: Your B1G Must Strike East-Midwest Balance article was very enlightening. One quote grabbed my attention regarding the "New B1G." Barry Alvarez said, "Our fans have to accept it." I respond: You're wrong Mr. Alvarez, the fans don't have to accept it. They can walk. Ever heard of the NFL? I found the Alvarez statement arrogant and reveals how Jim Delany and the rest of the money-mongers running the B1G take fan loyalty for granted. In closing, Adam, do you believe the B1G is in danger of losing fans while chasing the money on the East Coast? I am a Husker alumnus, so I will always follow my team to some extent, but my interest in college ball is waning, and sacrificing product in favor of TV money may be the last straw.

Adam Rittenberg: John, I think it's important the Big Ten doesn't take its fans for granted. The league must listen to its fans and not alienate them while going forward with its expansion and building the brand in a new region. Although I understand your frustration, you mentioned that you'll always follow Nebraska to a degree. Many Big Ten fans will do so with their teams. College football remains incredibly popular, and while there might not be league loyalty there still is school loyalty. The Big Ten is cognizant of the declining game attendance in college football and wants to upgrade the stadium experience for its fans. But this sport is driven by TV money, and that's why the Big Ten is making these moves.

 




 

Kenny from Cincy writes: I read the Michigan-Notre Dame article about the series being dead. Can you give me some inside information on why? I know U-M made it seem like ND was "chickening out." But is U-M at fault too? Do you think both programs' recent struggles may factor into the equation (rather have an easy win than a maybe)? I feel like the main reason, money, is involved but I feel like they both stand to make lots more off of a rivalry.

Adam Rittenberg: Michigan has made it pretty clear that it wanted to continue the Notre Dame series in some form. Michigan added series like Arkansas and UCLA, and games like Florida, after Notre Dame pulled out of the 2015-17 games. Several factors fueled Notre Dame's decision: the schedule agreement with the ACC; the desire to keep playing rivals USC, Navy and Stanford; and a desire to play more often outside the Midwest. But the ACC pact really was the driving force. You bring up the two programs' recent struggles. That's an interesting point because beating Michigan or beating Notre Dame doesn't mean what it used to. Plus, the ability to play more of a national schedule could help both teams as they target playoff spots.
Go ahead and blame the Big Ten blog. Since it launched in July 2008, the Big Ten hasn't had an NFL draft pick in the top 10. The Big Ten also hasn't had a team appear in the national championship game.

So yes, it's all my/our fault.

Here's the good news: if you believe the really early forecasts for the 2015 draft, the Big Ten's top-10 drought soon will end. USA Today's first mock draft for 2015 has Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory not only going in the top 10, but at No. 1 overall.

[+] Enlargenebraska
Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY SportsA USA Today 2015 NFL mock draft has Nebraska's Randy Gregory as the No. 1 overall pick.
That would be a bit ironic, since the Big Ten's last top-10 pick also went No. 1 overall (former Michigan offensive tackle Jake Long in 2008).

ESPN's Todd McShay isn't as high on the Big Ten or Gregory, but he does predict, at least for now, that the Big Ten will produce a top-10 pick next spring.

McShay's first mock draft for 2015 features Iowa offensive tackle Brandon Scherff at No. 7 overall. Scherff opted to return to Iowa for his senior season rather than enter the draft, where Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said he likely would have been a mid to late first-round selection. It will be interesting if Scherff follows the path of another Iowa tackle who chose to stay in school, Robert Gallery, the No. 2 overall pick in 2004.

Gregory is at No. 28 in McShay's mock, although the Nebraska standout certainly has top-10 potential if he builds on a terrific 2013 season. He is definitely attracting the attention of NFL personnel evaluators.

Another top-10 candidate is Michigan State defensive end Shilique Calhoun, who comes in at No. 12 in McShay's mock. Calhoun shined in his first year as a starter, leading the Big Ten with four fumbles recovered and recording 14 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks.

Ohio State defensive tackle Michael Bennett rounds out McShay's mock draft at No. 32 overall.

Two questions for you: Will the Big Ten's top-10 drought end next year? And, if so, who will end it?

Send your responses here.
Everybody is a draftnik this week, and we're putting our own Big Ten spin on things. Rather than looking at the players leaving the league -- don't worry, we'll do that, too -- we're speculating on how a draft within the conference would play out.

To recap: All current Big Ten players are eligible to be drafted (incoming recruits are not). The teams will pick in reverse order of regular-season finish last year. Picks are based on factors like position need, remaining eligibility, scheme, previous players lost in the draft.

Check out the first half of the first round here. It gets a bit messy with teams swiping each other's top players, but that makes it fun.

Now, for the final seven picks ...

Pick No. 8: Penn State

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesConnor Cook's Rose Bowl-winning resume makes him a popular choice in the second half of the first round of the Big Ten draft.
Adam Rittenberg says the Lions select ... Michigan State QB Connor Cook

The offensive line is Penn State's shakiest position group, but Christian Hackenberg (selected No. 5 by Rutgers) leaves a massive hole at quarterback. Cook, a pro-style signal-caller with a big arm and more experience than Hackenberg, makes a lot of sense as he fits the system and comes off top performances in the Big Ten championship game and the Rose Bowl.

Brian Bennett says the Lions select ... Ohio State OT Taylor Decker

Penn State does need help on the offensive line, but it can afford to be patient. Decker was playing as well as any Ohio State offensive lineman late last season, when he was only a redshirt freshman. He can come to State College and offer help now and for the next three years, seeing the Lions through probation.

Pick No. 9: Minnesota

Rittenberg says the Gophers select ... Maryland WR Stefon Diggs

Minnesota loses some star power on defense, but I expect coordinator Tracy Claeys to produce a solid unit. The bigger issue is boosting a pass offense that ranked 115th nationally last season. Diggs comes off an injury-shortened season, but he's an explosive playmaker with 88 career receptions and two years of eligibility left. He would complement promising young wideouts like Drew Wolitarsky.

Bennett says the Gophers select ... Nebraska WR Kenny Bell

The Gophers might just be a downfield receiving threat away from being actual division contenders. Bell is a senior but offers two things Jerry Kill wants: leadership and toughness as a blocker. Bell would also deliver some explosiveness while guiding Minnesota's young wideouts along.

Pick No. 10: Iowa

Rittenberg says the Hawkeyes select ... Indiana LT Jason Spriggs

Brandon Scherff (selected No. 1 by Purdue) is a major loss for Iowa, which now needs a replacement to anchor its offensive line. Spriggs might not be as big a name as Scherff, but he has quietly started the first 24 games of his college career and earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors the past two seasons. He also has two years of eligibility left.

Bennett says the Hawkeyes select ... Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon

True, Iowa has about 37 tailbacks right now. But the pure speed and playmaking ability of Gordon is tough to pass up here, especially for an offense seeking more home-run plays. Plus, he originally committed to the Hawkeyes, so this is a way for them to finally get Gordon in black and gold.

Pick No. 11: Nebraska

Rittenberg says the Huskers select ... Ohio State DE Joey Bosa

Running back Ameer Abdullah (selected No. 6 by Maryland) is a significant loss, but the Huskers have good depth behind him. They need a replacement for All-Big Ten end Randy Gregory (selected No. 4 by Indiana), and Bosa, who ended his freshman season in beast mode, is an easy choice. He should keep the expectations high for the Huskers' defensive front seven. And he has at least two seasons left.

[+] EnlargeDevin Funches
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsDevin Funchess would give Nebraska an athletic, versatile playmaker in the passing game.
Bennett says the Huskers select ... Michigan WR/TE Devin Funchess

Nebraska doesn't seem to have a lot of gaping holes but could use a playmaker in the passing game after losing Bell (selected No. 9 by Minnesota). Funchess would make a nice safety valve for Tommy Armstrong and is a destroyer of red zone defenses. Tim Beck lobbies hard for this pick and would get two years to deploy Funchess in a variety of ways.

Pick No. 12: Wisconsin

Rittenberg says the Badgers select ... Ohio State DL Michael Bennett

Like Nebraska, Wisconsin has lost an elite running back (Melvin Gordon, selected No. 7 by Michigan), and like the Huskers, the Badgers have enough to get by without him. Wisconsin has an even bigger need to upgrade its defensive front seven after losing six starters to graduation. Bennett, a junior who could play either line spot and had seven sacks last season, is a really good fit for Wisconsin.

Bennett says the Badgers select ... Michigan State QB Connor Cook

The passing game remains a sore spot for Wisconsin, and no clear starter under center emerged this spring. Cook knows how to run a pro-style offense and would have two years left in Madison.

Pick No. 13: Ohio State

Rittenberg says the Buckeyes select ... Michigan QB Devin Gardner

Well, this should be interesting. Ohio State needs a quarterback after losing Braxton Miller to Northwestern (pick No. 3), and there aren't too many proven options out there. The Buckeyes likely can get by with a one-year player to allow younger guys to develop. Gardner is a good fit in a true spread offense, and he showed at times last year that he can put up huge numbers.

Bennett says the Buckeyes select ... Indiana QB Tre Roberson

I had Rutgers snagging Miller earlier in the first round. Roberson might be the closest facsimile to Miller in the league right now, a guy with good wheels who can also sling it around the field. He has plenty of game experience and two years of eligibility left.

Pick No. 14: Michigan State

Rittenberg says the Spartans select ... Iowa QB Jake Rudock

OK, the quarterback swapping is getting a little silly, but Michigan State needs one after losing Cook (selected No. 8 by Penn State), and Rudock brings experience to the Spartans backfield. Rudock comes from a pro-style system at Iowa and should take another step this season. Plus, he has two years of eligibility left.

Bennett says the Spartans select ... Ohio State S Vonn Bell

You can't convince me that Mark Dantonio wouldn't go defense first in a draft like this. And I think the prospect of a stud defensive back would prove too hard for him to resist. Bell showed real promise in his brief exposure last year with the Buckeyes and has three years left to help fortify the No-Fly Zone.
So there's this little event called the NFL draft that begins Thursday night in New York. First you've heard of it? Don't fret. There has been virtually no buildup.

Like every year, we'll recap the Big Ten's draft performance, but we're admittedly more focused on the players still in the conference. That's why we're bringing back our version of a mock draft, where we select current Big Ten players to help current Big Ten teams. We did this last year and it was a lot of fun.

Here's how it works: All current Big Ten players are eligible to be drafted (incoming recruits are not). The teams will pick in reverse order of regular season finish last year, just like the NFL. Big Ten newcomers Rutgers and Maryland will pick based on their 2013 records in other leagues, so they will select fifth and sixth, respectively.

We're also making picks based on several factors. It's not simply about selecting the best overall player. What does a team need based on its personnel and schemes? Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller might not be the best fit for a non-spread offense. Also, eligibility matters as some teams might want to build for the future and make a real push in 2015 or 2016 rather than this fall.

Things get a bit messy as once a player gets drafted, it creates a hole on his former team. But that's all part of the draft debate.

Our first seven first-round picks are below. We'll finish up the first round a little later.

Pick No. 1: Purdue

Adam Rittenberg says the Boilers select ... Iowa LT Brandon Scherff

[+] EnlargeBrandon Scherff
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsBrandon Scherff is one of the Big Ten's best linemen and would be a great fit for a lot of teams.
Purdue's priority is line play, and while both fronts need help, I like the potential more on defense. The offensive line must improve significantly for Purdue to have any chance this fall, and it's why the Boilers need Scherff, a first-team All-Big Ten selection who could have been a first round draft pick if he had declared. Even though Scherff is a senior, he makes Purdue better immediately.

Brian Bennett says the Boilers select ... Ohio State DE Joey Bosa

Let's face it: Purdue is in a major rebuilding effort and won't be contending any time soon. So eligibility matters here. Bosa is a true sophomore who could offer the Boilermakers three more years of high-end production and the big-time pass rush the Boilermakers haven't had in a while. I say a defensive end goes first in both the NFL (Jadeveon Clowney) and imaginary Big Ten drafts.

Pick No. 2: Illinois

Rittenberg says the Illini select ... Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun

I thought about Braxton Miller as Illinois needs a quarterback, but I have enough faith in coordinator Bill Cubit to find the answers. Illinois' defense was the big problem in 2013, especially the line. Calhoun, a junior, provides a significant playmaking presence after recording 7.5 sacks, a league-high four forced fumbles and 14 tackles for loss last fall.

Bennett says the Illini select ... Calhoun

As bad as the Illini were against the run last year, they could probably use a defensive tackle even more. But since I don't see a lot of surefire, dominant run-stuffers in the league right now, Calhoun is a solid pick here for a defense-hungry team. Tim Beckman is in win-now mode, so eligibility isn't as big of a factor here.

Pick No. 3: Northwestern

Rittenberg says the Wildcats select ... Ohio State QB Braxton Miller

I thought about going offensive line here, as Northwestern really struggled up front in 2013. But Miller is simply too good a fit for a spread offense that needs a major jolt after finishing 10th in the Big Ten in scoring (26.2 ppg). The return of running back Venric Mark plays a role here, too, as the Miller-Mark speed combination would be extremely tough to stop.

Bennett says the Wildcats select ... Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg

Sure, Miller is probably a better fit for Northwestern's preferred offensive style than Hackenberg, but I just can't see Hackenberg -- who has three years of eligibility left after an outstanding freshman season -- falling lower than third in this draft. Mick McCall would be more than happy to build his offense around this young stud.

Pick No. 4: Indiana

Rittenberg says the Hoosiers select ... Nebraska DE Randy Gregory

Gregory nearly began his college career in the Hoosier State at Purdue before heading to a junior college and then to Nebraska, where he dazzled in his first season, recording 19 tackles for loss, a league-high 10.5 sacks and 18 quarterback hurries. It's no secret Indiana needs stars on defense, especially up front.

Bennett says the Hoosiers select ... Gregory

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Nabil K. Mark/Centre Daily Times/Getty ImagesChristian Hackenberg doesn't fit the offensive style of all the Big Ten teams, but his future might be the brightest of all the league's QBs.
As much as Kevin Wilson loves offense and quarterbacks, I could see him being tempted by Miller (or even somehow trading up to get Hackenberg). But he knows as well as anyone that Indiana is desperate for playmakers on defense. Gregory would fit in extremely well in the Hoosiers' new 3-4 and might be enough to get them over the hump and into a bowl game immediately.

Pick No. 5: Rutgers

Rittenberg says the Scarlet Knights select ... Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg

I considered going defensive line here as Rutgers needs to bulk up there, but a difference-maker at quarterback takes precedence. Hackenberg looks like a future NFL player and has three seasons of eligibility remaining, which would be huge for a Rutgers program transitioning to the Big Ten.

Bennett says the Scarlet Knights select ... Ohio State QB Braxton Miller

Though Miller only has one year of eligibility left, snagging him at No. 5 for a team with major quarterback issues is a coup for the Scarlet Knights. Kyle Flood might need to reach a bowl game to feel safe about his job in 2015, so why not roll with the two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year?

Pick No. 6: Maryland

Rittenberg says the Terrapins select ... Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah

Yes, I know Maryland returns a lot of options at running back, but none brings Abdullah's consistency, production and leadership. He'll stay on the field for a unit ravaged by injury and bring the toughness for a program transitioning to a physical league.

Bennett says the Terrapins select ... Michigan State CB Trae Waynes

The Terps are pretty solid on offense, assuming everyone comes back healthy. Will Likely had an impressive spring at one cornerback spot, but the other starting job is up for grabs. Waynes could instantly solidify that secondary and the junior could potentially lock down one side of the field for two years for Randy Edsall.

Pick No. 7: Michigan

Rittenberg says the Wolverines select ... Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon

Offensive line would be my preference here but there isn't a guaranteed difference-maker available. Fortunately, Gordon doesn't need much room to do some special things with the ball in his hands. He gives Michigan's shaky run game a true big-play threat, and the combination of Gordon and Derrick Green could turn out very well.

Bennett says the Wolverines select ... Iowa offensive tackle Brandon Scherff

Brady Hoke would run to the podium to turn in this pick if Scherff was still on the board. He only has one year of eligibility left, but the Hawkeyes' left tackle could add much-needed stability and leadership to a Wolverines offensive line with all kinds of question marks.

Big Ten Monday mailbag

May, 5, 2014
May 5
5:00
PM ET
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.
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- There was nothing ordinary about Brandon Scherff and Carl Davis when each set gargantuan foot on Iowa's campus four summers ago. The two Hawkeye linemen expect to leave the program the same way.

Iowa prides itself as a developmental program, taking the undersized and overlooked and turning them into overachievers. Rarely do the Hawkeyes get recruits who, at least physically, look like finished products.

"Carl and Brandon were two of the bigger guys we've ever had come to campus as freshmen," coach Kirk Ferentz said.

Both men supplemented their size with rare athletic ability. Scherff played quarterback and tight end for most of his high school career. He lettered in baseball, basketball and tennis and earned all-state honors in track, winning a state title in shot put as a sophomore. Scherff played solely offensive line, the position Iowa pegged him to play, as a senior at Denison (Iowa) High School.

By the time he reported for his first college practice, he looked the part: 6-foot-5 and 310 pounds.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Scherff
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsBrandon Scherff wants to be the nation's top offensive lineman.
Scherff might have been listed as the biggest freshman on Iowa's 2010 roster, but the actual title belonged to Davis, a 6-5, 340-pound defensive tackle from Detroit. Like Scherff, Davis also had lettered in basketball and track as a high school standout.

"We actually toyed with the idea of playing both those guys their first year," Ferentz said. "It was in their best interests to redshirt, and that's what happened."

Nearly four years later, Scherff and Davis anchor the offensive and defensive lines for a promising Iowa team that always has considered line play its lifeblood. Ferentz's best Hawkeye teams -- 2002, 2003, 2004, 2009 -- all had first-team All-Big Ten selections on both lines. His tenure is largely defined by linemen from both the offense (Eric Steinbach, Robert Gallery, Bruce Nelson, Bryan Bulaga, Marshal Yanda, Riley Reiff) and defense (Adrian Clayborn, Colin Cole, Mitch King, Matt Roth, Jonathan Babineaux).

Scherff and Davis want to add their names to the list.

"My goal," Scherff told ESPN.com, "is to be the best offensive lineman in the nation."

He enters his senior season as the Big Ten's most decorated offensive lineman and the favorite to win the Rimington-Pace Offensive Lineman of the Year award. Scherff, who has started at left tackle the past two seasons, is the only first-team All-Big Ten offensive lineman from 2013 to return this fall.

If Scherff had opted to skip his senior season, his name could have been called Thursday night at Radio City Music Hall. Ferentz thinks the left tackle likely would have been a first-round pick -- "Late teens to mid-20s, in that range" -- if he had declared for the NFL draft.

The coach puts Scherff in the company with three other standout Hawkeye tackles: Gallery, Bulaga and Reiff. Both Bulaga and Reiff left early and were drafted No. 23 overall in the 2010 and 2012 drafts, respectively. Gallery stayed for his senior season and was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2004 draft.

"He just enjoys everything about being a college football player," Ferentz said. "We have our whole lives to work. You only get a limited window to be a college student or, in their case, a college athlete. And that's a pretty good window. In Brandon's case, he likes his life. And he's going to have a great life in the pros and somebody is going to be really lucky to have him.

"You can't pay enough for what he has."

Scherff enjoys his teammates and the hunting and fishing trips he takes during the summer. He says of the NFL, "It's work up there." And it can wait another year.

"I'm not worried about [the NFL] anymore," he said. "I came back because I think I can improve a lot: my pass game, run game, playing smart, playing faster, pretty much all the aspects of football."

[+] EnlargeDavis
Matthew Holst/Getty ImagesCarl Davis' development could take a leap this season.
While Scherff refines his game, Davis' development could take a leap this season. Injuries and conditioning limitations impeded his progress early in his Iowa career -- he had just 16 tackles in his first two seasons. But he earned second-team all-conference honors last fall after recording 42 tackles, including 4.5 for loss and a sack.

Down to 315 pounds, Davis boosted his endurance as a junior.

"He probably jumped up 30, 40 snaps," defensive coordinator Phil Parker said. "You don't like to play 80 snaps a game, but if he can give us 60, 65 good plays, that's obviously going to help."

Davis calls 60 snaps "a good start," but he wants to push himself to his limit and not just stay on the field but impact games.

"I need to be a catalyst," he said. "When we're on those third downs and everybody is tired, I need to be able to make those tackles for loss, those sacks, deflect a pass, just step up big."

Davis embraces a leadership role on a defense that loses all three starting linebackers, including co-captains James Morris and Christian Kirksey. Along with linebacker Quinton Alston, he keeps things loose at practice and seeks out struggling teammates.

If a coach blasts a player, Davis is the one telling him, Look, he wants you to get better. Let's pick it up and go. We're fine.

But when it comes to his own game, Davis sets a higher bar.

"I put a lot of pressure on myself because I want to be the greatest, honestly, to be in this program," Davis said. "I want to be one of the best guys in the country."

Like Scherff, Davis wants to be extraordinary. If both add their names to Iowa's elite lineman lineage, the Hawkeyes could be, too.
With spring practice now in the rear-view mirror, your faithful Big Ten reporters thought it would be a good time to share some of our thoughts from the spring that was. Between us, we saw 10 of the 14 Big Ten teams in person this spring and we followed all of them as closely as possible.

So this is a chance to share our impressions and observations. We'll start today with the West Division, where Adam got an up-close look at Illinois, Iowa, Northwestern and Wisconsin.

[+] EnlargeKirk Ferentz
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsIowa coach Kirk Ferentz has a legitimate contender for the Big Ten title.
Brian Bennett: Adam, I'm intrigued by Iowa and you went to see the Hawkeyes -- and even got into practice! Sounds like this team has a little more speed and explosiveness. How does it compare to the Iowa teams we've seen in the past, and is this a legit Big Ten contender?

Adam Rittenberg: Well, it was actually a portion of practice, but I'll take what I can get at Fort Ferentz. This is a legitimate Big Ten contender, in large part because of the schedule but also because of the team it returns. I just didn't get the sense Iowa has many major problems. AIRBHG is off torturing baby seals. The linebacker thing is worth monitoring, but Quinton Alston would have started for most teams last year. Kirk Ferentz's best teams are strong up front, and Iowa looks very solid along both lines with Brandon Scherff, Carl Davis and others.

The young wide receivers really intrigue me, especially Derrick Willies, who blew up in the spring scrimmage. Iowa hasn't had difference-makers at receiver for some time. The offense had a spike in plays last year, and coordinator Greg Davis wants to go faster and be more diverse, even incorporating backup quarterback C.J. Beathard into the mix. That intrigues me. So you've got solid line play, more weapons on offense and a cake schedule. Indianapolis-bound? It's possible.

BB: When it comes to winning Big Ten titles, Wisconsin has been far more successful than its new West brethren in the last five years. Yet the Badgers lost a whole lot of valuable seniors, especially on defense. You went to Madison. How's the revamped defense looking, and is there anyone who can catch the ball from whoever starts at QB?

AR: Fascinating team. Quarterback competitions are nothing new in Mad City, but the sheer number of questions at UW stands out. It feels like coach Gary Andersen should be going into his first year, not his second. Kenzel Doe had a nice spring at slot receiver, but Wisconsin will need help from its five incoming freshmen. The uncertainty at receiver could benefit Tanner McEvoy in the quarterback competition as Andersen wants a second rushing threat on the field (or sometimes a third when Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement play together).

I didn't get a great read on the offensive line because of injuries, but the defensive front seven will be a big story all season. So many position changes. Linebacker Derek Landisch is the leader, but who are the top playmakers? Cornerback Sojourn Shelton could be one, and the coaches really like young defensive ends Chikwe Obasih and Alec James. I really liked linebacker Leon Jacobs last summer and could see him emerging. Like Iowa, Wisconsin has a favorable schedule, but we're going to find out how good Andersen and his staff really are this season.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Siemian
Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY SportsQuarterback Trevor Siemian has taken charge at Northwestern.
BB: You also spent some time at Northwestern, whose spring was dominated by the union issue. With all those distractions and the many injuries this spring, did you get any sense whether the Wildcats can bounce back from last year's highly disappointing 5-7 campaign?

AR: If the team stays focused and aligned, not to mention healthy, the answer is yes. Northwestern spun the two-quarterback deal well for a while, but it's always better to have one QB and a clear identity on offense. It has that with Trevor Siemian, who looked good this spring, and a scheme that should rely more on the pass. Wide receiver is a strength as Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler shined at the slot. I'm interested to see how running back Venric Mark's role changes without Kain Colter on the field.

The defense could be the best in Pat Fitzgerald's tenure. Improved recruiting is paying off in the secondary as several redshirt freshmen, including safety Godwin Igwebuike, enter the mix. Defensive tackle is the big concern and overall D-line health, but the defense wasn't the reason Northwestern went 5-7. It should keep the team in most games.

BB: The last West team you saw was Illinois. Did anything you witnessed convince you the Illini can get to a bowl in 2014?

AR: I'm still thawing out from a frigid March night at Chicago's Gately Stadium. Illinois has a chance to sustain its momentum on offense. The line should be solid, quarterback Wes Lunt has a plus arm and Josh Ferguson is a big-time threat. Continued improvement at wide receiver is key as newcomers Geronimo Allison and Mike Dudek impressed. The defense still needs a lot of work, but T.J. Neal has helped fill Jonathan Brown's role, and linemen D.J. Smoot and DeJazz Woods stood out. Illinois needs more numbers in the front seven to firm up a run defense that really struggled last year.

BB: Overall, did anything you saw change your opinion on the West Division race? I'm pretty high on Nebraska and think their defensive front seven could be pretty special. I still think Minnesota will be a factor, but the lack of visible progress in the passing game (granted, the spring game debacle there means little in the big picture) was disappointing. For me, the jury's out on Wisconsin and Iowa is a big-time dark horse. What say you?

AR: Iowa is beyond dark-horse status. A veteran team took a big step last year and is poised to take another with a favorable schedule. Wisconsin likely will be the popular pick to win the division, but I have too many doubts right now. Nebraska is the wild card to me. Can we trust a Huskers team that will be better on defense? Minnesota might be a better team with a worse record because of its schedule. Northwestern could be a factor if it gets past the union distraction.

There's no alpha dog here. Should be a wild ride.

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