Big Ten: Brian Linthicum


The headline might be the most shocking of the Big Ten season, and it's devastating to Michigan State fans waking up after Christmas.

MSU's team plane touched down Wednesday night in Los Angeles as the team begins its final preparations for its first Rose Bowl appearance in 26 seasons. But the Spartans will be without starting middle linebacker and two-time captain Max Bullough, who has been suspended for the game for an unspecified violation of team rules.

Spartans coach Mark Dantonio announced the suspension shortly after midnight ET, calling it "extremely disappointing for all parties involved." Bullough didn't travel with the team to California.

"Max will forever remain a Spartan and valued member in this team's achievements," Dantonio said in a prepared statement.

Details are scarce at this point, and we'll have updates on the story as it develops.

Bullough was arrested in 2011 after an incident at a Colorado bar alongside former Spartans tight end Brian Linthicum, but he since has had no known off-field issues. He's a two-time first-team All-Big Ten selection and a third-team All-America selection who led the nation's No. 1 defense this year. He's a third-generation Spartan whose grandfather, Hank, played on Michigan State's first Rose Bowl team in 1953. This is an awful way for his career to end.

Just a complete shocker, and an ominous start to MSU's week in California.

More to come ...
Le'Veon Bell's surroundings have changed at Michigan State.

[+] EnlargeLe'Veon Bell
Reese Strickland/Getty ImagesLe'Veon Bell is expecting 15-20 carriers per game this season as the Spartans' starting running back.
The quarterback who handed him the ball the past two seasons, Kirk Cousins, is gone. The wide receivers who sparked the passing attack -- B.J. Cunningham, Keshawn Martin and Keith Nichol -- also have departed, along with top tight end Brian Linthicum. Bell's top backfield competitor, Edwin Baker, made an early jump to the NFL draft.

When it comes to Michigan State offensive skill players who made contributions last season and remain on the roster, Bell's name is at the top of a very short list. The junior was the Spartans' top rusher in 2011 with 182 carries (no returning player has more than 30). He was the Spartans' third-leading receiver in 2011 with 35 receptions (no returning player has more than 12).

With so many unknowns elsewhere, Bell will be the focal point of an offense based more around one of the team's mottos: pound green pound.

"I definitely feel like we'll be more of a running team this year," Bell told ESPN.com. "We've got me and Larry [Caper] in the back, an experienced offensive line, not proven receivers yet, so we've got to get those guys more comfortable. We have a lot of things on our shoulders."

Bell and Caper, the team's leading rusher in 2009, will receive the bulk of the carries this fall. Michigan State used both backs on the field more toward the end of last season. Given Bell's versatility and significant question marks at receiver, the pattern should continue this fall.

"We need to get our best guys on the field," Bell said, "having two running backs out there, splitting me out because I can come out of the backfield and catch the ball, too, or line me up in the slot. I feel real comfortable with it. I get the chance to really showcase what I can do."

Bell has recovered from an offseason hamstring injury that caused his listed weight (244 pounds) to be a bit higher than his actual playing weight (236). His sturdy frame seems to lend itself to being a bell-cow back, but Bell hasn't logged more than 20 carries in a game and expects 15-20 carries per game this season.

While that number might sound low to some Spartans fans, when factored in with Bell's increased role as a pass-catcher out of the backfield, it should be sufficient. Unlike Baker in 2011, Bell isn't setting any specific statistical goals, but he'll have a chance to record some big numbers.

"I'll get a lot of touches," Bell said.

Although Bell is entering only his third year in the program, he recognizes the added responsibility on his shoulders. Spartans coach Mark Dantonio appeared to call out Bell early this spring for a complacent approach. Bell quickly rectified his situation, and Dantonio shouldn't have to worry this fall.

"I'm helping out younger guys at the position and make sure everyone knows the plays," he said. "I have to learn every position this year, so when I'm out at receiver or wherever I may be, I know what I'm doing.

"I've got to be a leader."
When you think Big Ten football, what usually comes to mind is big, corn-fed Midwestern players and bruising offenses. The kind of place that would be perfect for a tight end.

But the 2011 season was a little lackluster for that position in the league, at least as far as the passing game goes. Sure, Northwestern's Drake Dunsmore and Wisconsin's Jacob Pedersen were Mackey Award semifinalists, but those two and Michigan State's Brian Linthicum were the only two tight ends in the conference to record more than 25 catches. Some guys we expected to have big years, like Nebraska's Kyler Reed, Minnesota's Eric Lair and Indiana's Ted Bolser, were nearly invisible on the stat sheet. And there was certainly no one who rose the level of recent Big Ten stars like Dallas Clark, Matt Spaeth, Travis Beckum, Lance Kendricks or Dustin Keller.

[+] EnlargeJacob Pedersen
AP Photo/Matt SaylesJacob Pedersen led the Big Ten's tight ends with eight touchdown catches last season.
Dunsmore, who won the league's inaugural Kwalick-Clark tight end of the year award, and Linthicum have both graduated. Yet 2012 is shaping up as a potentially big season for tight ends across the league.

Some of it has to do with changing offenses and playcallers who love utilizing the tight end. Urban Meyer made a star out of Aaron Hernandez at Florida and could do the same with Jake Stoneburner, who started off blazing hot last year before the Ohio State offense forgot about him. With the Buckeyes searching for playmakers, expect Stoneburner to be utilized heavily in 2012.

"Seeing Hernandez make all those plays makes someone like me pretty happy," Stoneburner told Adam Rittenberg last month. "It's something I've been waiting for since I graduated high school, being able to go out there knowing you're going to get the opportunity to get the ball more than once or twice a game. "

Bill O'Brien coached Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski as offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots, which featured the tight end as much as anybody in football. Now O'Brien is at Penn State, where tight ends have mostly been an afterthought. That will change quickly.

"That’s a very important part of what we’re going to do offensively,” O’Brien told reporters in March. “Obviously, the last two years in New England taught me a lot about the use of a tight end, multiple tight ends.”

At Iowa, new offensive coordinator Greg Davis is raving about sophomore C.J. Fiedorowicz, a 6-foot-7, 265-pounder who began to emerge late last season as a weapon. With an uncertain running game and an excellent passer in quarterback James Vandenberg, Fiedorowicz could follow in the footsteps of Clark and Tony Moeaki as breakout Hawkeyes tight ends. Coincidentally, Iowa's new offensive line coach is Brian Ferentz, who coached the tight ends with the Patriots last year.

“You’ll see the tight ends playing outside sometimes,” Davis told the Des Moines Register during spring practice. “Used to seeing them in motion, but there will be motion in wide receiver sets in some situations because they’re tough match-ups.”

Wisconsin returns one of the best tight ends in the country in Pedersen, who had led Big Ten tight ends with eight touchdown catches a year ago. Bret Bielema is also excited about the depth at the position, with veterans Brian Wozniak and Sam Arneson, redshirt freshmen Austin Traylor and Austin Maly and Pittsburgh transfer Brock DeCicco. Given the inexperience at receiver outside of Jared Abbrederis, the Badgers could look to throw to their tight ends even more this season.

Indiana's Bolser had only 14 catches last year, but he was one of the stars of the spring for the Hoosiers. An improved passing game should help him become more of a factor. Purdue likes the depth it has at tight end, led by Gabe Holmes and Crosby Wright.

“A year ago it was one of the leanest positions on our football team," Boilers coach Danny Hope told reporters in the spring, "and now I think going into the season that the tight end position is going to be one of our strengths.”

Reed's numbers dropped last year, but he still led Nebraska with an average of 17.1 yards per catch. He and fellow senior Ben Cotton form a nice tandem of targets for Taylor Martinez. Michigan State must replace Linthicum but is optimistic about 6-foot-5, 280-pound Dion Sims, who practiced this spring with a cast on his hand. Sims could provide a safety valve for new quarterback Andrew Maxwell early on as the Spartans break in some green receivers.

Minnesota's Moses Alipate will at least be a curiosity as a former quarterback who grew to 290 pounds. Michigan needs Brandon Moore or someone else to step in for Kevin Koger, while Illinois' Jon Davis could have a different role in the team's new spread offense after a promising freshman campaign. Whoever replaces Dunsmore for Northwestern should get a lot of touches.

Tight ends could play an important part of many Big Ten teams' attacks this fall. Just as it should be.

Michigan State spring wrap

May, 11, 2012
5/11/12
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2011 record: 11-3
2011 conference record: 7-1 (Legends Division champions)
Returning starters: Offense: 5; Defense: 8; kicker/punter: 2

Top returners

DE William Gholston, DE Marcus Rush, LB Denicos Allen, LB Max Bullough, LB Chris Norman, CB Johnny Adams, CB Darqueze Dennard, S Isaiah Lewis, RB Le'Veon Bell, LT Dan France, C Travis Jackson

Key losses
QB Kirk Cousins, DT Jerel Worthy, WR Keshawn Martin, WR B.J. Cunningham, S Trenton Robinson, RB Edwin Baker, TE Brian Linthicum

2011 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Le'Veon Bell* (948 yards)
Passing: Kirk Cousins (3,316 yards)
Receiving: B.J. Cunningham (1,306 yards)
Tackles: Max Bullough* (89)
Sacks: Denicos Allen* (11)
Interceptions: Isaiah Lewis* and Trenton Robinson (4)

Spring answers

1. Defensive depth: Michigan State returns eight starters off one of the best defenses in the country, and the coaching staff might have been most excited this spring about guys who didn't play much last year. Linebackers Darien Harris and Taiwan Jones, defensive ends Joel Heath and Shilique Calhoun and defensive back Trae Waynes all had impressive practices and showed that they're ready to contribute and push the starters. The Spartans won't have much drop off if their first-stringers need a break or get injured. That gives this defense a chance to be scary good in 2012.

2. The Bell tolls: Le'Veon Bell asserted himself at the end of last year as the team's top tailback, overtaking Edwin Baker. And after appearing to get called out by coach Mark Dantonio for being complacent early in the spring, he turned in some dominant efforts. At 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds, he's a rumbling freight train with surprising nimbleness in the open field. Do not be surprised to see him emerge as a superstar back this season if he remains focused.

3. O-line on the way up: Michigan State mixed and matched on the offensive line early last season because of injuries and inexperience. By the end of the season, the group was playing well. This spring, the line features six players who have started and much more maturity. That's one reason why Bell excelled this spring, as the Spartans' power running game looked much better. This figures to be the best and deepest O-line in Dantonio's tenure, and the offense could lean more on the ground attack while the passing game finds its wings.

Fall questions

1. Catching on: The top receivers coming out of spring were redshirt freshman Andre Sims Jr., little-used sophomore Keith Mumphery and Jeremy Langford, who made the switch from running back in the middle of spring practice. In other words, there's a dire lack of experience at the position that Keshawn Martin, B.J. Cunningham and Keith Nichol patrolled so well. Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett was cleared by the NCAA for immediate eligibility on Thursday, and that should help. The Spartans are also going to need Tony Lippett and Bennie Fowler -- their two veterans even though both lack much receiver experience themselves -- to get healthy and for some true freshmen to make an impact. If there's a glaring concern for this year's team, it's definitely at this spot.

2. Maxwell's house: Michigan State feels confident that Andrew Maxwell, a fourth-year junior who sat behind Cousins the past three seasons, can make a smooth transition into the starting quarterback job. But Maxwell doesn't have much game time under his belt, and we won't know whether he can bounce back from adversity until it happens on the field this fall. It didn't help that he missed the last couple weeks of spring practice with a knee injury. The Spartans need him to stay healthy, or else they will have to turn to redshirt freshman Connor Cook. And a new quarterback could struggle with such a green receiving group.

3. Worthy replacements: Jerel Worthy skipped his senior season and wound up as a second-round NFL draft pick after an All-America campaign. The Spartans have a host of players looking to replace him at defensive tackle, with Vanderbilt transfer James Kittredge stepping up late in spring practice to assume the No. 1 reps. Depth won't be an issue, but it remains to be seen whether any of his successors have the kind of game-changing ability that Worthy brought when he was fully engaged. Nothing boosts a defense quite like a disruptive force in the middle of the line. We know the Spartans' defense will be good. Can it be great without a player like Worthy up front?
Few position groups in the Big Ten lost more production after the season than Michigan State's wideouts.

Gone are the Spartans' top three targets: B.J. Cunningham, a first-team All-Big Ten selection, along with the speedy Keshawn Martin and key veteran Keith Nichol. The personnel losses at both receiver and tight end (Brian Linthicum, Garrett Celek) combined with a new starting quarterback (Andrew Maxwell) create some serious question marks for the passing game.

But help is on the way. Super Moon Bad Moon is coming back to East Lansing.

That's right, former Spartans great Andre "Bad Moon" Rison is headed back to Michigan State to complete his degree. While there, he'll serve as a student assistant coach. Rison is second on Michigan State's career chart in receiving yards (2,992). He played 17 NFL seasons, made five Pro Bowls and was a four-time All-Pro selection. Rison spent the past two seasons as a high school head coach in his hometown of Flint, Mich. He'll assist Spartans receivers coach Terry Samuel beginning this summer.

Rison's presence should really help Keith Mumphery, Bennie Fowler, DeAnthony Arnett, Tony Lippett and the rest of Michigan State's receiving corps. Arnett, who also hails from Flint, has to be excited to work with Rison.

From Mlive.com:
"This is an opportunity of a lifetime for me and I know I'll be able to help Michigan State's receivers better their game," said Rison. "I have a lot of experiences in college, the NFL and through my coaching that I can pass along. I am really looking forward to coaching with Mark Dantonio because he cares about the right things, the fundamentals of the game."

Although Michigan State can't get the 45-year-old Rison to suit up, his arrival should boost a group that really needs it heading into a season with lofty expectations.
Several Big Ten players who didn't hear their names called in New York during the weekend still received some good news about their football futures. As soon as the NFL draft concluded, the undrafted free agent scramble began.

Here's an initial list of Big Ten UFA signings. Every Big Ten squad except Indiana had a player signed through free agency. We'll be sure to post more as they become official.

ILLINOIS
IOWA
MICHIGAN
MICHIGAN STATE
MINNESOTA
NEBRASKA
NORTHWESTERN
OHIO STATE
PENN STATE
PURDUE
WISCONSIN

Several players seem to be in good situations, whether it's playing for their hometown team (Kinnie, Netter) or near a family member (Lynn, whose dad, Anthony, coaches running backs for the Jets). It's still shocking to see Brewster on this list rather than the draft one. I'm also surprised Moye, Wiggs, Linthicum and Dimke didn't get drafted.

Other Big Ten players have tryouts with NFL squads, such as Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa (Tampa Bay), Minnesota wide receiver Da'Jon McKnight (Minnesota Vikings), Indiana offensive lineman Chris McDonald (Miami, Green Bay) and Minnesota safety Kim Royston (Minnesota Vikings).
By all accounts, Andrew Maxwell had been impressive in his first spring as Michigan State's projected starting quarterback.

Unfortunately for Maxwell, his spring could be coming to an early end after he sprained his right knee in Saturday's scrimmage. Spartans coach Mark Dantonio told reporters before today's practice that Maxwell suffered the injury when he fell while backing away from the defense. Teams go to great lengths to protect quarterbacks in practice -- most quarterbacks aren't allowed to be hit -- but noncontact injuries like this one do occur at times.

Maxwell hasn't been ruled out for Michigan State's spring game on April 28, but he will miss some time and be re-evaluated next week. While it's certainly better to have this injury occur in the spring than in the summer or fall, Michigan State's first-team offense needs as much time as it can get with Maxwell. The Spartans are replacing their top three wide receivers (B.J. Cunningham, Keshawn Martin and Keith Nichol) and their top tight end (Brian Linthicum) from the 2011 team.

The Spartans lack depth at quarterback and have only one other scholarship player, redshirt freshman Connor Cook, on the field this spring. Cook will take most of the first-team reps this week and could play quarterback for both teams in the spring game.

Coach Mark Dantonio put a positive spin on the situation, telling reporters, "The reality is, if it had to happen, you'd rather [Maxwell] do it than Connor. Connor needs the work. He's the true freshman. Andrew's been in the system for three years and he'll be ready to go."

The coaches don't need to see what Maxwell can do in practice, but his absence places added importance on the summer for the offense to come together.
ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper has produced another set of top 5 lists , which examine the top prospects at each position as April gets closer. The scouting combine is all wrapped up, and pro day fever is upon us as players rise and fall on the draft boards.

Let's see where Big Ten players rank in Kiper’s rundowns.

No. 1 fullback: Bradie Ewing, Wisconsin
No. 5 tight end: Brian Linthicum, Michigan State
No. 2 offensive tackle: Riley Reiff, Iowa
No. 5 offensive tackle: Mike Adams, Ohio State
No. 4 guard: Kevin Zeitler, Wisconsin
No. 1 center: Peter Konz, Wisconsin
No. 3 center: David Molk, Michigan
No. 5 center: Mike Brewster, Ohio State
No. 3 defensive end: Whitney Mercilus, Illinois
No. 5 defensive tackle: Jerel Worthy, Michigan State
No. 2 outside linebacker: Lavonte David, Nebraska
No. 2 kicker: Philip Welch, Wisconsin
No. 4 kicker: Derek Dimke, Illinois
No. 5 punter: Eric Guthrie, Iowa

Thoughts: Center was undoubtedly the Big Ten’s strongest position in 2011, so it's not surprising to see three players in the top 5. Brewster’s stock seemed to drop a bit during the season and in the pre-draft events, while Molk improved his position and Konz appears to have made the right choice in bypassing his senior season. Linthicum and Adams are two players who helped their cause in pre-draft events, and David also has put himself in a good position. David's Nebraska teammate, cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, has seen his stock drop after being pegged as a likely first-round pick several months ago.

I'm surprised not to see Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins and Penn State defensive tackle Devon Still on the list (although Still is pictured in the story). Cousins appeared to show well at the combine and should find himself in that next mix of quarterbacks behind Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. It wouldn't surprise me to see Cousins drafted ahead of Brock Osweiler and potentially Brandon Weeden. Still, the 2011 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, hasn't received as much hype as I thought as a potential first-round pick.

I might favor Dimke over Welch after the way Dimke ended his career, but Kiper has been high on Welch for some time.

It'll be interesting to see how these lists change after all the pro days are complete.

Big Ten lunchtime links

March, 14, 2012
3/14/12
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There's always a siren singing you to shipwreck.
We've had 2012 mock NFL drafts seemingly since this draft class was in elementary school. But all the projections and prognosticating lacked one essential ingredient: the testing process.

That happened this past week at the NFL combine in Indianapolis, so now evaluators have a better sense of who are the legitimate prospects and who might be questionable.

ESPN's own draft expert, Mel Kiper Jr., offered his risers and fallers after the combine dust settled, and they included a few notable Big Ten names. Among those Kiper said helped themselves in Indy were:
Michigan State QB Kirk Cousins: "Not great in any one area, but solid across all of them, and Cousins has intangibles that evaluators love. I can see him safely into the second round now, where before a third-round grade was a better bet. A good week for him."

Nebraska LB Lavonte David: "Really encouraging for David's stock that he got his weight to 233 and still showed off plenty of athleticism, including a 4.56. He could be a solid second-rounder now and is a tackling machine."

Not everyone had the best showings in the combine. Here are the Big Ten products Kiper says he has questions about after the combine:
Ohio State RB Dan Herron: "I like Herron, but thought he needed to make a splash here given the missed time in 2011. That didn't happen, confirming a late-round grade."

Penn State DT Devon Still: "He derives a lot of value from being able to jump into a 3-4 or 4-3, but still has been sliding on my board. He needs to show more explosiveness, because he's not a great penetrator."

Nebraska CB Alfonzo Dennard: "Solid everywhere, but not great in any one area, Dennard is a good prospect who didn't test great, limiting the chances he goes in Round 1."

Kiper adjusted his new Big Board based on the combine performances, and now only two Big Ten players appear in his list of top 25 prospects, and they're both offensive linemen: Iowa's Riley Reiff (No. 8) and Wisconsin's Peter Konz (25).

Kiper also has his new list of top 5s by position , and there has been some serious movement in his tiers. Still, the Penn State All-American and Big Ten defensive player of the year, now does not even rank in Kiper's list of the top 5 defensive tackles. Michigan State's Jerel Worthy is No. 5.

Offensive line appears to be the strength for the Big Ten in this draft. Kiper lists Reiff as the No. 2 offensive tackle, with Ohio State's Mike Adams No. 4. The Big Ten owns the center list, with Konz, Michigan's David Molk and Ohio State's Mike Brewster ranking 1-2-3, respectively. (Molk moved ahead of Brewster with his combine showing, which comes as no surprise to Molk.) Wisconsin's Kevin Zeitler is rated as the No. 3 guard.

Elsewhere, Kiper has Wisconsin's Bradie Ewing as the No. 1 fullback, Michigan State's Brian Linthicum as the No. 5 tight end and Nebraska's David as the No. 2 outside linebacker. Dennard did not crack the list at corner, and Illinois' Whitney Mercilus is nowhere to be found on the defensive ends chart. Kiper says Michigan State's Cousins is the No. 6 quarterback in this draft.

Colleague Todd McShay has five Big Ten players in his new top 32 list : Reiff (10th), Adams (23rd), Worthy (25th), Konz (27th) and Still (28th).

Don't worry, though. We still have pro days, private workouts and nearly two full months of evaluations before the draft begins.
Our postseason rankings of each position group from the 2011 Big Ten season took a short hiatus last week as signing day madness placed its grip on all of us.

Never fear, though, as the rankings are back in full force today, moving on to the receivers and tight ends as we round out our offensive skill positions.

We're looking for depth and not solely star power at the top here. This is how the preseason rankings looked. Some of these groups were undoubtedly hurt by inexperienced or underachieving quarterbacks, so we had to figure out how to weigh their performances in that light. Let's see how the list shakes out after the year ended:

1. Michigan State: The Spartans had the best combo at wideout with seniors B.J. Cunningham, a physical deep threat and No. 1 receiver, and Keshawn Martin, a speedster who could do all sorts of different things in the offense. Together, they combined for 2,083 receiving yards and 16 touchdown catches. Keith Nichol provided a solid third option who made the catch of the year in the Big Ten, if not all of college football, against Wisconsin. Tight end Brian Linthicum had 364 yards receiving and played a key role in the Outback Bowl win over Georgia.

2. Wisconsin: Depth? Hardly. But the Badgers got the most out of their front-line players. Starting wideouts Nick Toon and Jared Abbrederis combined for 1,859 yards yard and 18 touchdowns. Eight of tight end Jacob Pedersen's 30 catches went for touchdowns. And don't underestimate the importance of the receivers and tight ends in the Wisconsin running game.

3. Northwestern: The Wildcats' wideouts likely would have put up better numbers if Dan Persa had stayed healthy all season. As it stood, Northwestern still got another outstanding year out of Jeremy Ebert (75 catches, 1,060 yards, 11 TDs). Kain Colter, when he wasn't playing quarterback or running the ball, managed 466 receiving yards. Demetrius Fields and Christian Jones were among the other contributors. First-team All-Big Ten tight end Drake Dunsmore was the team's No. 2 pass-catcher with 455 yards and six scores.

4. Iowa: Marvin McNutt was good enough to elevate this entire group. He led the Big Ten in receiving yards, finishing with 82 catches for 1,315 yards and 12 scores. Keenan Davis contributed 50 catches for 713 yards. But Davis and Kevonte Martin-Manley didn't help enough after strong starts to the season. Iowa didn't get a lot of production in the passing game out of its tight ends, either, with C.J. Fiedorowicz leading the way at 16 catches.

5. Michigan: The Wolverines didn't have any receivers finish in the top 10 in the league in the key categories, but what they had was a fairly deep group that knew how to go up and get Denard Robinson's throws. Though Roy Roundtree's numbers went way down from 2010, Junior Hemingway (699 receiving yards) emerged as a big-time playmaker. Jeremy Gallon came up with some key plays in huge spots as well. Tight end Kevin Koger gave Robinson a reliable safety valve and was a key cog in the offense.

6. Illinois: At first glance, A.J. Jenkins' tremendous numbers (90 catches, 1,276 yards, eight TDs) would make you think the Illini deserve to be ranked higher. But Jenkins did most of his work in the first half of the season; like the rest of the Illinois offense, his stats fell off a cliff in the second half. And he didn't have much assistance, as Spencer Harris and Darius Millines combined to record only half his number of catches. Jon Davis was the team's third-leading pass-catcher at tight end.

7. Purdue: It was quantity over star power for the Boilermakers, whose top four pass catchers — Justin Siller, Antavian Edison, O.J. Ross and Gary Bush — all had at least 29 receptions and 300 yards. Edison led the way with 584 yards. Tight ends Crosby Wright and Gabe Holmes combined for 29 catches. Purdue needs more playmaking ability from the tight end spot, something the team tried to address in this recruiting class.

8. Penn State: Evaluating the Nittany Lions receivers is tricky because the quarterback play was so inconsistent. Derek Moye was once again one of the most dangerous deep threats in the league, but a foot injury and an overall inability to get him the ball limited his production to 654 yards and only three scores. Justin Brown, who will likely be the team's go-to guy in 2012, put up good stats, while Devon Smith got a chance to flash his speed and averaged 16.1 yards per catch. The tight ends were rarely used in the passing game; expect that and a whole lot more to change under Bill O'Brien.

9. Nebraska: The Huskers must improve their overall passing game to take the next step as a program, and that includes a receivers group that had an up-and-down season in 2011. The good news is that Kenny Bell emerged as a potential star as a redshirt freshman. But Brandon Kinnie and tight end Kyler Reed failed to build on strong 2010 campaigns and were invisible for large stretches. Nebraska must hope Quincy Enunwa and Jamal Turner develop to go along with Bell.

10. Indiana: No one was more disappointing at this position in 2011 than the Hoosiers, whom we had pegged at No. 4 in our preseason list. DaMarlo Belcher, who led the league in receptions in '10, got himself booted off the team in midseason. Injuries hit the group hard as well. Kofi Hughes paced the group with 536 yards and found the end zone three times. Tight end Ted Bolser made only 14 receptions. We expected more from a Kevin Wilson offense.

11. Minnesota: Jerry Kill made finding playmakers at receiver a top priority in this recruiting class, and it's easy to see why. Da'Jon McKnight had a decent season (51, 760 and 4). After that, though, things dropped off quickly and the Gophers lacked players who could stretch the field. Tight end Eric Lair managed fewer than one-third the amount of catches he had in 2010.

12. Ohio State: Injuries, inexperience and suspensions combined to make this a difficult year for Buckeyes' receivers. No one had more than 14 catches all season, and no one topped 300 receiving yards. Things would have gone better if DeVier Posey hadn't been suspended for all but two regular-season games. Devin Smith showed potential as a true freshman, including his game-winning grab against Wisconsin. Tight end Jake Stoneburner scored seven times, but most of those came early in the year.
The North team recorded a 23-13 win against the South in Saturday's Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., and several Big Ten players contributed to the victory.

Big Ten players factored in all the scoring for the North squad. Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson and Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins both fired touchdown passes, and Purdue kicker Carson Wiggs connected on three field goal attempts, including a 28-yarder that helped seal the win with 4:11 left. The North starting offensive line featured four of five players from the Big Ten.

Other than Illinois receiver A.J. Jenkins and Illinois left tackle Jeff Allen, all of the Big Ten players in the game competed for the North squad.

Wilson started for the North and led three offensive series, two of which resulted in points. He finished the game 4 of 7 passing for 45 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Cousins was the third quarterback from the North squad to see the field and fired a 41-yard touchdown pass to Arizona State's Gerell Robinson early in the third quarter. Cousins finished the game 5 of 11 passing for 115 yards with a touchdown and an interception.

Wiggs connected on field goal attempts of 27, 28 and 32 yards and missed a 37-yard try in the closing minutes.

Other Big Ten notables:
  • Michigan State safety Trenton Robinson had two tackles and a fumble recovery
  • Ohio State wide receiver DeVier Posey had a 33-yard reception
  • Nebraska linebacker Lavonte David had four tackles
  • Penn State defensive end Jack Crawford had three tackles
  • Michigan defensive tackle Mike Martin had three tackles
  • Illinois wideout A.J. Jenkins had a 26-yard reception
  • Michigan State tight end Brian Linthicum had a 9-yard reception
  • Penn State cornerback D'Anton Lynn had two tackles
  • Wisconsin punter Brad Nortman averaged 43.7 yards on three attempts and also had one kickoff, while Wiggs had five kickoffs.
  • Ohio State running back Dan Herron had six carries for 14 yards and two receptions for 4 yards
  • Wisconsin long-snapper Kyle Wojta had one tackle
  • Wisconsin fullback Bradie Ewing had one carry for 1 yard

North team starters included: Wilson, Ewing, Linthicum, Ohio State left tackle Mike Adams, Ohio State center Mike Brewster, Wisconsin guard Kevin Zeitler, Penn State guard Johnnie Troutman, Crawford, Martin and Robinson. Jenkins and Allen both came off the bench for the South squad.
Pre-draft season is right around the corner, and the nation's premier all-star game, the Senior Bowl, takes place Jan. 28 in Mobile, Ala.

The Senior Bowl on Wednesday announced the 24 Big Ten players who will be participating in this year's game. Eight Big Ten squads are sending players to Mobile.

Here's the full list (part of which had been revealed earlier):

IOWA
MICHIGAN
MICHIGAN STATE
NEBRASKA
OHIO STATE

PENN STATE
PURDUE
WISCONSIN


*injured and will not participate in game

It's a strong contingent that features the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year (Still) and 21 all-conference selections.
Let's put a final bow on bowl season with our choices for the 2011 Big Ten All-Bowl team. As usual, some positions had more than enough worthy selections, such as defensive line, while other positions -- safety, offensive line -- left us scrambling a bit.

Despite a 4-6 bowl performance by the Big Ten, the league had some nice individual performances.

Here's the bowl squad ...

OFFENSE

QB: Russell Wilson, Wisconsin: Though he threw a costly interception late, Wilson completed 19 of 25 passes for 296 yards and two touchdowns in the Rose Bowl loss to Oregon. That performance was good enough for him to finish the season with the NCAA record for pass efficiency.

RB: Akeem Shavers, Purdue: With leading rusher Ralph Bolden injured, the Boilermakers needed another back to step up. Shavers responded with a career high 149 yards on 22 carries in the Boilermakers' 37-32 Little Caesars Bowl victory over Western Michigan.

[+] EnlargeWisconsin's Montee Ball
Kelvin Kuo/US PRESSWIREMontee Ball racked up 164 yards on the ground and scored his 39th TD of the season in the Rose Bowl.
RB: Montee Ball, Wisconsin: Ball carried 32 times for 164 yards against Oregon, and his touchdown gave him 39 on the season, tying Barry Sanders' Football Bowl Subdivision record. Ball was quieted late as the Ducks' defense made adjustments against the running game.

WR: Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin: Like Wilson, Abbrederis had a costly second-half turnover, but his overall performance stood out in the Rose Bowl. The sophomore had four receptions for a team-high 119 yards and a touchdown and also had 227 return yards in the game, including a 60-yard kickoff runback.

WR: Junior Hemingway, Michigan: He only had two catches in the Allstate Sugar Bowl win over Virginia Tech, but both went for touchdowns. He caught the first one in traffic then juked his way toward a 45-yard score. He made a leaping grab near the back of the end zone for the second one.

TE: Brian Linthicum, Michigan State: The senior picked a good time to have a career day, coming up with seven catches for 115 yards against Georgia plus a catch on a two-point conversion. He took a tight end screen pass 50 yards during the fourth quarter for the longest play of his career.

OL: Peter Konz, Wisconsin: Konz made his first appearance since Nov. 13 and didn't look rusty after rehabbing a dislocated ankle. The All-Big Ten selection keyed a Badgers offense that racked up 212 rush yards, 23 first downs and 508 total yards against Oregon. Konz performed well in what turned out to be his final game as a Badger.

OL: Dennis Kelly, Purdue: The Boilers' offensive line overpowered Western Michigan in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, and Kelly, a mainstay at left tackle during his career, helped lead the charge. Purdue racked up 265 rush yards on 56 attempts and steamrolled the Broncos despite not having top running back Bolden (knee).

OL: David Molk, Michigan: A foot injury in warmups wasn't going to keep Molk from playing his final game with the Wolverines. The Rimington Trophy winner, who some thought wouldn't return to the field, missed only one series and did his part for the Michigan offense in its win against Virginia Tech.

OL: Jeff Allen, Illinois: Allen keyed an Illinois offense that showed some life in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl after fading down the stretch of the regular season. He helped the Illini rush for 178 yards, while UCLA had only one sack in the game.

OL: Kevin Zeitler, Wisconsin: Like Konz, Zeitler delivered a typical performance in Pasadena and helped Ball and the ground game get going. Wisconsin's physical play along the offensive line gave Oregon problems for most of the game.

DEFENSE

[+] EnlargeWilliam Gholston and Aaron Murray
J. Meric/Getty ImagesWilliam Gholston seemed unstoppable in Michigan State's win over Georgia in the Outback Bowl.
DL: William Gholston, Michigan State: The sophomore announced himself as a likely breakout star in 2012 with a huge performance against Georgia in the Outback Bowl. Gholston had five tackles for loss, including two sacks, plus a fumble recovery in the Spartans' victory.

DL: Whitney Mercilus, Illinois: The nation's sacks leader went out with a bang before declaring for the NFL draft. Mercilus registered 1.5 sacks in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl win over UCLA, tying him with Simeon Rice for the school single-season record of 16. He finished with three tackles for loss and gave the Bruins offense fits.

DL: Mike Martin, Michigan: The Wolverines repeatedly stuffed Virginia Tech in the red zone, and Martin was a big reason why. The senior had 10 tackles and 0.5 sacks while helping control the interior of the defensive line.

DL Mike Daniels, Iowa: The Hawkeyes defense showed up in the Insight Bowl, and Daniels led the way with five tackles, including three tackles for loss and two sacks. Oklahoma came into the game having allowed just nine sacks all season, but Daniels had two in the first half.

LB: Lavonte David, Nebraska: Though the Huskers lost to South Carolina, David had his usual brilliant game. He finished with 11 tackles and two sacks in the losing effort to cap a terrific career.

LB: Joe Holland, Purdue: The senior delivered in his final game as a Boiler, recording team highs for tackles (9), tackles for loss (2) and pass breakups (3) against Western Michigan. Holland was always around the ball and spurred a play-making Purdue defense in Detroit.

LB: Ian Thomas, Illinois: Like Holland, Thomas had a big performance in his final collegiate game as Illinois held UCLA to seven points through the first 59 minutes. Thomas finished with seven tackles, including two for loss and a sack, as well as a pass breakup against the Bruins.

CB: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State: He got burned on a long pass in the first half but made up for it with two second-half interceptions, including one he returned 38 yards for a touchdown, in the win against Georgia. Dennard tied the Michigan State bowl record with the two picks.

CB: Terry Hawthorne, Illinois: Hawthorne's 39-yard interception return for a touchdown in the third quarter gave Illinois its first lead against UCLA. It marked the second pick-six of Hawthorne's career and the first since 2009. He also had five tackles, including 1.5 for loss.

S: Jordan Kovacs, Michigan: Kovacs capped a breakthrough season in the Allstate Sugar Bowl with a a team-high 11 tackles in the win against Virginia Tech. He helped limit the Hokies to just one touchdown on six red zone possessions and finished the season with 75 total tackles.

S: Brian Peters, Northwestern: Peters made a nifty interception against Texas A&M, his Big Ten-leading fifth pick of the season, and added seven tackles against the Aggies. He finished his career with 12 interceptions, the third-highest total in team history.

SPECIAL TEAMS

K: Brendan Gibbons, Michigan: Gibbons nailed all three of his field goal attempts, including the 37-yarder in overtime to win the game for the Wolverines.

P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State: Sadler was big in the field position battle against Georgia. He averaged 50.1 yards on eight punts, placing four of them inside the 20-yard line.

KR: Raheem Mostert, Purdue: Mostert returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown in the win over Western Michigan. It marked the longest kick return in Purdue bowl history and helped Mostert finish the season as the nation's leading return man (33.5 ypr).

PR: Venric Mark, Northwestern: Not too many choices around the Big Ten, but Mark broke off a 47-yard return in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. He also had a two-yard rushing touchdown in the game.

Michigan State gave the Big Ten a much-needed bowl win with a thrilling 33-30 triple-overtime win over Georgia in the Outback Bowl.

Here's an instant analysis:

How the game was won: Defense was king to start the day, but we saw both offenses catch some fire in the second half. After being outscored 16-0 in the first half, the Spartans outscored Georgia 27-11 in the second. Michigan State survived quarterback Kirk Cousins' third interception of the day to start overtime, then Georgia's Blair Walsh missed a 42-yard field goal attempt. Spartans kicker Dan Conroy won the game in triple overtime with a 28-yard field goal.

Turning point: Walsh's missed field goal attempt on Georgia's first possession in overtime kept Michigan State alive and allowed it to score in the next two overtime periods.

Stat of the game: The teams combined for 68 rushes for 124 yards.

Player of the game: Michigan State wide receiver Brian Linthicum had a spectacular day catching the ball. He hauled in seven catches for 115 yards, and his 50-yard reception in the fourth quarter helped set up a touchdown that gave Michigan State its first lead of the day.

Unsung hero of the game: Fifth-year senior wide receiver/holder Brad Sonntag saved the Spartans on two huge kicks. He snagged a low one on the tying extra point to send the game into overtime and grabbed a high one for the winner.

Best call: With 3:30 left in the fourth quarter, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio challenged a play ruled a catch by Georgia's Marlon Brown. Even with pass interference being called on the play, a completion would have left the game clock at 3:30, but if it was incomplete, the clock would have had 13 seconds added. The play was overturned, 13 seconds were added, and Michigan State eventually scored its tying touchdown with 19 seconds remaining.

Second-guessing: Georgia coach Mark Richt has often been criticized for being too conservative, and it almost cost him, as he ran just two plays after Bacarri Rambo's interception before sending Walsh out for the 42-yard field goal attempt on Georgia's first overtime possession. Walsh missed, and Michigan State eventually won in triple overtime ... after a Walsh kick that was blocked.

What it means: Michigan State ends its five-game losing streak in bowl games and gives Dantonio his first bowl win as the Spartans' head coach. With 11 wins and a bowl win, Michigan State should be overflowing with confidence heading into the offseason. This likely will make the Spartans a top-10 team to open the 2012 season. For Georgia, this loss will sting for a while. The conservative play calling late and the missed field goal likely will be brought up a lot with this team. The Bulldogs should return a talented team that will have it near top-10 status, though.

Record performance: Brandon Boykin's stellar 92-yard punt return is the longest play in Outback Bowl history. Less than two minutes earlier, Aaron Murray's 80-yard touchdown pass to Tavarres King stood as the longest play in the bowl's 26-year existence. It was also a career-long pass for Murray and a career-long reception for King. Also, King's 205 receiving yards were a Georgia school record.

Record performance 2: Walsh's eight points on kicks made him the SEC's all-time leading scorer with 411 points.

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