Big Ten: Bruce Gaston
The two moments during one of Purdue's practices in March encapsulated the defensive tackle's prodigious potential and how far he still must go to maintain that level of play.
Boilermakers coach Darrell Hazell isn't big on hyperbole. He answers questions directly and succinctly, but the Jim Tressel disciple doesn't heap undue praise upon a player, especially an unproven one. Still, Hazell can’t hide his excitement about the 6-4, 315-pound sophomore this spring.
"The most exciting football player on our team right now," Hazell told ESPN.com. "He's got uncommon quickness. He's got unbelievable power. He can be very disruptive.
"He's really special."
For now, he's an interesting player -- from his backstory, to his path to Purdue, to his conditioning challenges as a Boiler, to his versatility, to his confidence.
"When we line up in one-on-one, I don't lose," Howard said. "And as far as the run game as far as my get-off, me being the big, explosive athlete that I am, I am aware of the things I can do.
"I just want to continue to humble myself and get better."
Alrighty then ...
Howard, a New Jersey native from what he calls a rough background, didn't start playing football until his junior year in high school. He inherited his size from his father, a 6-foot-8, 330-pound giant who, according to Ra'Zahn, had a scholarship offer to Ohio State before taking "the street route."
Howard played his junior season at Winslow Township High School in southern New Jersey before moving north to Asbury Park, N.J., where he earned all-state honors and led Asbury Park High School to a state championship in 2011. Howard recorded 31 tackles for loss and 12 sacks as a senior.
He committed to Towson a few months later, where his cousin, Marcus Valentine, played defensive tackle and served as a co-captain. But in an effort to boost his stock and his grades, Howard attended a prep school, Atlanta Sports Academy in Dawsonville, Ga., where he "just blew up."
Former LSU defensive tackle Brandon Washington coached Howard at Atlanta Sports Academy, telling him he had the ability to take over games.
"I got bigger and stronger, of course, and I just got better offers," Howard said. "I got better as a defensive tackle."
One recruiting service rated Howard as the nation's No. 4 defensive tackle. His suitors included Tennessee, Penn State and Mississippi State.
So why did he pick Purdue? His jersey offers a clue. Howard wears No. 93, the same number as former Purdue's standout defensive tackle Kawann Short, a three-time All-Big Ten selection and a second-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft.
"He's one of the reasons I committed here," Howard said. "I had watched a lot of his film. Originally coming out of prep school, I was going to go to Tennessee, but when I came here and met him, it was like a dream come true."
Despite his late introduction to the sport, Howard is somewhat of a football film junkie. He studies defensive linemen such as Timmy Jernigan, Anthony Johnson and Adrian Clayborn, picking up moves and nuances to evolve his game. In his mind, he's making up for lost time.
At prep school, Howard played the 5-technique, the 4-technique, nose guard and even a bit of defensive end. He spent most of the spring playing nose guard at Purdue.
"Ra'Zahn, he might be the most talented person on the defense," Boilers senior defensive end Ryan Russell said. "I've seen a lot of players come through and I've had great tackles, Bruce Gaston and Kawann Short. I definitely think his talent level is up there with them."
The challenge is keeping that talent on the field. Howard was pushing 350 pounds when he arrived at Purdue. He trimmed down to 315 by spring practice and, according to Hazell, is now south of 310.
Howard recorded four tackles, including a sack, in six games last season. Hazell expects much more from him this fall.
"I saw flashes last year," Hazell said. "You saw the power more so than the quickness. Now you’re seeing the power along with, he ran stride for stride with a back down the line on a toss play. He just put his foot in the ground and redirected."
Asked about his sprint struggles at practice and whether there would be a different result in preseason camp, Howard smiled.
"I'm going to have the same ability, of course, but I'm going to be much faster," he said. "I'm going to be around 303, 305, more cut-up."
With size, speed, power, confidence and, potentially, fitness, Howard could be the man to provide a spark for a Purdue defense that desperately needs one.
"He's a different cat," Hazell said. "He really is."
Here are the Big Ten players who were invited, broken down by position:
Running backs (2)
Wide receivers (8)
- Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin
- Corey Brown, Ohio State
- Kain Colter, Northwestern
- Quincy Enunwa, Nebraska
- Bennie Fowler, Michigan State
- Jeremy Gallon, Michigan
- Cody Latimer, Indiana
- Allen Robinson, Penn State
Offensive linemen (8)
- Conor Boffeli, Iowa
- Ryan Groy, Wisconsin
- Taylor Lewan, Michigan
- Corey Linsley, Ohio State
- Spencer Long, Nebraska
- Jack Mewhort, Ohio State
- Michael Schofield, Michigan
- John Urschel, Penn State
- Chris Borland, Wisconsin
- Jonathan Brown, Illinois
- Max Bullough, Michigan State
- Anthony Hitchens, Iowa
- Christian Kirksey, Iowa
- James Morris, Iowa
- Ryan Shazier, Ohio State
- Ricardo Allen, Purdue
- Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State
- Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Nebraska
- Isaiah Lewis, Michigan State
- Bradley Roby, Ohio State
- Dez Southward, Wisconsin
- Brock Vereen, Minnesota
It's a strong list of players, but were there any snubs. Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez, Michigan State linebacker Denicos Allen and Iowa cornerback B.J. Lowery jump out right away as missing, though Martinez has injury (and position) concerns, while Allen's small frame means he'll have to prove to scouts he can play at the next level.
I'm also a bit surprised not to see Indiana's Ted Bolser on this list; he's not a traditional blocking tight end, but his receiving skills would seem to translate to the NFL. Only nine kickers and punters were invited to Indy, yet it's a little disappointing that Purdue's Cody Webster and Northwestern's Jeff Budzien weren't included in the specialists.
Others who could have gotten an invite include Purdue defensive tackle Bruce Gaston, Ohio State guard Andrew Norwell and Nebraska defensive back Ciante Evans.
That doesn't mean those guys won't play in the NFL. But their path to the league might be a little more winding.
It definitely isn’t what the Purdue faithful had hoped for under first-year coach Darrell Hazell, but from an honest perspective this seems to be the kind of year expected of Purdue. The Boilermakers appear to be at least a few years from a bowl berth.
Offensive MVP: This is kind of like picking out the brightest pastel or the sweetest lemon drop. Purdue really hasn’t shown much on the offensive side of the ball (or the defensive side of the ball, for that matter), but we’ll go with a bit of positivity and potential for this MVP and say freshman quarterback Danny Etling. The early enrollee made his debut for the Boilermakers against Northern Illinois, and though the 55-24 loss wasn’t the result they wanted, Etling showed some promise. He threw for 241 yards and two touchdowns, but his two interceptions and 49 percent completion rate weren’t exactly MVP material. He followed that up with a lesser performance against Nebraska, but still, there’s hope for the young QB -- maybe not this year, but someday.
Defensive MVP: Senior defensive tackle Bruce Gaston. Six games in, with 27 tackles, he’s just one tackle shy of his 2012 total. Gaston has also accounted for a team-high 4.5 tackles for loss and a team-high three sacks, which ties him for sixth in the Big Ten. Gaston seems to be one of the few bright spots on a very dull Purdue defense.
WEEK 2/SEASON RECORD
Brian Bennett: 10-2, 22-2 (.917)
Adam Rittenberg: 10-2, 21-3 (.875)
Let's look back at the predictions made by us and by guest picker Nick Schmit from West Des Moines, Iowa.
Eastern Michigan at Penn State
- Bennett's pick: Penn State 35, Eastern Michigan 9
- Rittenberg's pick: Penn State 31, Eastern Michigan 10
- Actual score: Penn State 45, Eastern Michigan 7
- 20-20 hindsight: A pretty strong start as we both came relatively close on the final score. Penn State exceeded my rush yards prediction of 175, ending up with 251. Christian Hackenberg had only one passing touchdown, not three, as Brian had predicted, while Lions wideout Allen Robinson had the lone touchdown grab, not two.
- Bennett's pick: Purdue 45, Indiana State 17
- Rittenberg's pick: Purdue 38, Indiana State 14
- Actual score: Purdue 20, Indiana State 14
- 20-20 hindsight: We both came close on Indiana State's score but expected much more from Purdue's offense against an FCS foe. Akeem Hunt had one return touchdown, one shy of my total touchdowns prediction for him. Boilers defensive tackle Bruce Gaston had a big game with two sacks, but not the forced fumble I had predicted.
- Bennett's pick: Iowa 31, Missouri State 13
- Rittenberg's pick: Iowa 38, Missouri State 10
- Actual score: Iowa 28, Missouri State 14
- 20-20 hindsight: Not bad on the score predictions, especially Brian's. Iowa eclipsed Brian's forecast of 200 rush yards with 296. Quarterback Jake Rudock had two touchdowns, as I predicted, but they came on the ground, not through the air.
- Bennett's pick: Wisconsin 56, Tennessee Tech 7
- Rittenberg's pick: Wisconsin 63, Tennessee Tech 3
- Actual score: Wisconsin 48, Tennessee Tech 0
- 20-20 hindsight: Another predictable result, although neither of us is giving Dave Aranda's defense enough credit, as Wisconsin posted its second consecutive shutout. As I predicted, the Badgers sent running backs James White, Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement into the end zone all afternoon. They combined for four rushing touchdowns.
- Bennett's pick: Michigan State 30, South Florida 10
- Rittenberg's pick: Michigan State 34, South Florida 3
- Actual score: Michigan State 21, South Florida 6
- 20-20 hindsight: We clearly overestimated Michigan State's offense, which continues to sputter at an alarming rate. Three quarterbacks played for the Spartans, as Brian predicted, but none threw for touchdowns. Jeremy Langford made me look good with a touchdown run, but Riley Bullough didn't get there. And no, neither of us pegged defensive end Shilique Calhoun for two more scores.
- Bennett's pick: Cincinnati 42, Illinois 27
- Rittenberg's pick: Cincinnati 28, Illinois 17
- Actual score: Illinois 45, Cincinnati 17
- 20-20 hindsight: A big swing in a miss here as Nathan Scheelhaase and the Illini made us look really dumb (it's not that hard). At least I had Scheelhaase for a first-quarter touchdown pass to Josh Ferguson (48-yarder), and Brian had him eclipsing 300 pass yards (he finished with 312).
- Bennett's pick: Ohio State 45, San Diego State 20
- Rittenberg's pick: Ohio State 41, San Diego State 13
- Actual score: Ohio State 42, San Diego State 7
- 20-20 hindsight: I'll take a bow for the score prediction, although we both underestimated Ohio State's defense in Week 2 with cornerback Bradley Roby back in the fold. Roby didn't have an interception as Brian thought, as two other cornerbacks (Armani Reeves and Doran Grant) collected picks. Dontre Wilson scored his first touchdown as a Buckeye, making my prediction come true, but Braxton Miller went down early with a knee injury.
- Bennett's pick: Nebraska 49, Southern Miss 24
- Rittenberg's pick: Nebraska 42, Southern Miss 17
- Actual score: Nebraska 56, Southern Miss 13
- 20-20 hindsight: A decent set of score predictions, although we both expected Nebraska to have more problems on defense. Taylor Martinez came two touchdowns shy of Brian's prediction (5), while Ameer Abdullah finished 86 yards and one touchdown shy of my forecast for him (200 yards, three touchdowns).
- Bennett's pick: Indiana 28, Navy 20
- Rittenberg's pick: Indiana 34, Navy 23
- Actual score: Navy 41, Indiana 35
- 20-20 hindsight: Our faith in Indiana's supposedly improved defense cost both of us, as the Hoosiers' offseason prep for Navy's tricky offense didn't translate to the game field. Nate Sudfeld found Kofi Hughes for a touchdown pass, as Brian predicted, but it came in the second quarter, not the fourth. Hoosiers running back Tevin Coleman had only one touchdown run, not two.
- Bennett's pick: Northwestern 31, Syracuse 23
- Rittenberg's pick: Northwestern 28, Syracuse 20
- Actual score: Northwestern 48, Syracuse 27
- 20-20 hindsight: Our predictions likely would have been different if we knew Kain Colter had been cleared to play. Colter shredded Syracuse early on and Trevor Siemian fired three touchdown passes but only one to Dan Vitale, not two as I predicted. Northwestern had two fourth-quarter takeaways, but the game was already over by then.
- Bennett's pick: Minnesota 37, New Mexico State 20
- Rittenberg's pick: Minnesota 34, New Mexico State 21
- Actual score: Minnesota 44, New Mexico State 21
- 20-20 hindsight: Neither of us pegged Aggie Vision to be such a delightful experience (Casa de Autos? Yes, please), as the game's outcome never was really in doubt. Brian correctly predicted Minnesota would score a defensive touchdown, as linebacker Aaron Hill returned a fumble 50 yards in the fourth quarter. I had Gophers quarterback Philip Nelson for two passing touchdowns, but his only score came on the ground.
- Bennett's pick: Michigan 27, Notre Dame 24
- Rittenberg's pick: Michigan 24, Notre Dame 21
- Actual score: Michigan 41, Notre Dame 30
- 20-20 hindsight: Both of us expected a lower-scoring game, although Brian's prediction of a Blake Countess interception against Tommy Rees in the fourth quarter turned out to be spot on. Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner and wide receiver Jeremy Gallon connected for three touchdowns, not the two that both Brian and I forecast.
Finally, let's see how our guest picker performed
Penn State 28, Eastern Michigan 13
Purdue 28, Indiana State 21
Iowa 34, Missouri State 10
Wisconsin 70, Tennessee Tech 3
Michigan State 35, South Florida 10
Cincinnati 31, Illinois 21
Ohio State 42, San Diego State 6
Nebraska 51, Southern Miss 17
Indiana 41, Navy 31
Northwestern 42, Syracuse 20
Minnesota 33, New Mexico State 21
Notre Dame 27, Michigan 24
Not bad overall, as Nick missed on the same two games we did, in addition to the Notre Dame-Michigan contest. He had strong score predictions like Ohio State-San Diego State, Nebraska-Southern Miss and Minnesota-New Mexico State. Nick underestimated Penn State's offense and, like most of us, overestimated Michigan State's ability to score points.
Is Ohio State or Michigan the Big Ten's best team? Michigan made its case Saturday night against Notre Dame, while Ohio State's bigger tests await in Weeks 5 and 6 (Wisconsin and Northwestern). For now, we're keeping the Buckeyes at No. 1, but we'll need to see a strong performance this week on the road against Cal's high-powered offense.
Northwestern and Wisconsin held steady, and both Nebraska and Penn State looked better in Week 2. Illinois is the big mover after Saturday's dominant win against Cincinnati, while Indiana, Michigan State and Iowa fall. There's some separation after the top six, and Nos. 7-9 really could appear in any order.
These are consistent with our rankings in the ESPN.com power poll.
Here's one last look at the previous Big Ten rankings.
To the rundown …
1. Ohio State (2-0, last week: 1): Braxton Miller's knee injury created some tense moments in Columbus, but Ohio State fans settled down and settled in to the smooth sounds of Kenny G (Guiton, that is). One of the nation's best backup quarterbacks torched San Diego State for three touchdowns as a Buckeyes team that sleepwalked through the second half in Week 1 took charge from the get-go. Ohio State's young defense will be tested much more this week by the "Bear Raid" offense at Cal.
2. Michigan (2-0, last week: 2): Debate the Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry all you want, but it mattered a lot for quarterback Devin Gardner and the Wolverines. Gardner proved he's a big-game quarterback and triggered an impressive offensive performance against Notre Dame's physical defense. Although Michigan's defense had some issues, it made timely plays against the Irish. The Wolverines have the look of a BCS bowl team and possibly a Big Ten champion.
3. Northwestern (2-0, last week: 3): Week 1 was all about survival for Northwestern. Saturday night, the Wildcats showed why they should contend for the Legends Division title this season. Quarterbacks Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian had their way with Syracuse's defense, and wideout Tony Jones had a huge night as Northwestern easily improved to 2-0. The Wildcats should be 4-0 in three weeks when Ohio State visits Evanston, and star running back Venric Mark should be healthy by then.
4. Wisconsin (2-0, last week: 4): The run game has been dominant, the defense suffocating and the competition level horrendous. What do we make of these Badgers after two not surprisingly dominant performances against lowly Massachusetts and Tennessee Tech? Wisconsin deserves credit for handling its business with few if any mistakes, recording back-to-back shutouts to open a season for the first time since 1958. Quarterback Joel Stave looks comfortable. But the competition goes up -- way, way up -- this week at Arizona State.
5. Nebraska (2-0, last week: 5): The Huskers defense doesn't deserve the "Blackshirts" label quite yet, but at least the unit avoided less-flattering terms for a week. Cornerbacks Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans set the tone for a rebound performance with pick-sixes in the first quarter, and junior-college transfer Randy Gregory applied pressure all game. The defense needs a better performance this week against UCLA, potentially the only team that can beat the Huskers during the first two months of the season.
6. Penn State (2-0, last week: 6): After a rough start, freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg settled down in his Beaver Stadium debut. He also got a ton of help from the run game, which had struggled in the opener but broke out for 251 yards and five touchdowns. Tackle DaQuan Jones triggered a suffocating Lions defense, which will be tested much more this week when Blake Bortles and Central Florida visit Happy Valley.
7. Minnesota (2-0, last week: 8): Although Aggie Vision was the real highlight Saturday night, Minnesota provided a few of its own in an easy win against New Mexico State. The Gophers continue to find creative ways to score, adding a special teams touchdown and a defensive touchdown in a 44-21 romp. Despite being short-handed at running back, Minnesota got the ground game going behind Rodrick Williams (148 yards, 1 TD), David Cobb (56 yards, 1 TD) and quarterback Philip Nelson (122 rush yards, 1 TD). The Gophers have another tuneup this week before their first real test Sept. 21 against San Jose State.
8. Michigan State (2-0, last week: 7): Can Shilique Calhoun play quarterback? The sophomore defensive end has been Michigan State's best offensive weapon in the first two games, scoring one more touchdown than the entire Spartans offense. Michigan State's defense has added a dynamic playmaking element early this season. Unfortunately, the problems on offense only seem to be worsening and the quarterback situation is anyone's guess right now.
9. Illinois (2-0, last week: 11): Surprise, surprise, the Illini are unquestionably on the rise. Few saw it coming, but Illinois walloped Cincinnati behind another impressive performance by quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and the offense. One of the nation's worst offenses has surged under coordinator Bill Cubit, scoring 87 points in the first two games. Linebacker Mason Monheim and the defense rebounded nicely after a shaky Week 1 effort. Can the Illini pull off another upset this week against Washington at Chicago's Soldier Field?
11. Iowa (1-1, last week: 10): Some Iowa fans undoubtedly felt better about their team after last week's loss to Northern Illinois than Saturday's win against FCS Missouri State. The Hawkeyes had just seven points through the first 37 minutes before Mark Weisman (180 rush yards, 2 TDs) took over down the stretch. Quarterback Jake Rudock showed good mobility but also threw a pick-six. Iowa faces a must-win this week as it hits the road to face rival Iowa State.
12. Purdue (1-1, last week: 12): The Boilers got a win Saturday, but they won't win many more if they don't clean up their problems on offense. If Purdue can't punch the ball into the end zone against Indiana State from inside the 5-yard line, what's going to happen against Big Ten defenses? Defensive tackle Bruce Gaston had a big day, but the Boilers need many others to elevate their play as Notre Dame visits Ross-Ade Stadium this week.
They have yet to coach Gaston in a game for the Boilers. The only full-pads, full-go assessment opportunity they've had with the senior took place in the last two weeks of spring practice, when he Gaston returned after his rehab from thumb surgery.
"We were a different football team," Hazell, the Boilers' first-year head coach, told ESPN.com. "Different football team, not defense. I didn't realize how good he was. When he came back, we had to scheme him on offense. That's how good he was."
Hudson, Purdue's defensive coordinator, is still figuring out the pieces as he constructs his first defense in West Lafayette. But he knows where to start, thanks to Gaston.
"The man in the middle, no doubt about it," Hudson said. "He is The Guy. He's our Derek Jeter. In baseball, you better be good up the middle. When I grew up [in Cincinnati], it was [Pete] Rose and Joe Morgan and Johnny Bench up the middle. They were tough.
"We've got to be strong up the middle in our defense, and he's the closest one to the ball, so it starts with him."
Gaston relishes the responsibility. He spent the past three seasons understudying Kawann Short, a three-time All-Big Ten selection and a second-round pick of the Carolina Panthers in April's NFL draft. The 6-foot-2, 310-pound Gaston also has been around long enough to share a line with Ryan Kerrigan, the 2010 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and a first-round pick in the 2011 draft.
He has been around elite players. After recording two forced fumbles and 5.5 tackles for loss as a junior, Gaston wants to be one in his final season at Purdue.
"I’m a senior now, I know a lot," said Gaston, who has 17 career tackles for loss, four sacks, three fumbles recovered and a blocked kick. "The young guys, they really don't know much what to do against some of the guys who have been here. They expect for me to be a leader. The way I am, I present those qualities, and they expect me to follow those qualities, be a leader, be a dominant player on defense and help us get to the next level.
"It’s my obligation to pay back. My tribute to the university, really."
Gaston brings personality to a Boilers defense that surrendered 31.2 points per game last season and more than 500 yards in five contests. Like Short, who continues to motivate his teammates with encouraging text messages, Gaston makes communication a priority in practices and meetings.
Yelling is easy, according to Hudson, who adds that most who do it don't know what they're talking about. Gaston, meanwhile, is more of a "conversationalist."
"He'll talk to anybody," Hudson said. "He’ll try to reach out to the young guys and give them advice, but he also is involved in the development of the older guys. I like that he's bought into everything that Coach Hazell has laid out for us on this road to where we're going.
"He'll be a big voice in how we move forward and develop."
Gaston understands the value of the defensive tackle position -- "What we do affects the rest of the play," he said -- and has a long list of areas to improve, from keeping his pad level lower to creating a better burst off of the snap to taking a quicker step and a more agile step to reach the second level.
Hudson sees parallels between Gaston and Jay Ross, a Buffalo Bills defensive tackle who Hudson coached at East Carolina. The two are similar in size, and Gaston boasts a strong speed-to-power ratio.
"Anybody that's over 300 pounds and can bend and wiggle like him, and then has very good strength, it's a good combination of things," Hudson said. "Is he going to be like a five-tool guy in baseball? Maybe. Now he’s got to develop 'em and become an exceptional player."
Gaston still has his left hand in a cast, and while he doesn't know when it will be removed, the injury is healing at "an exceptional rate." He doesn't expect to be limited from a technique standpoint.
The bigger question with Gaston, like many larger defensive tackles, is durability. How many plays can he remain on the field this season? Purdue needs him out there more than in past years, especially because of the attention he'll command without Short flanking the other side.
Hazell hopes new defensive line coach Rubin Carter, a former All-American nose tackle at Miami who went on to play 12 seasons for the Denver Broncos' celebrated "Orange Crush" defense, can keep Gaston in the game.
"[Carter] played nose guard for the Broncos for all those years when there were no rules," Hazell said. "They were high-lowing him. So he understands, 'Get back in.' That's what Bruce needs right now, a little bit of get-back-in-the-game mentality when you feel a little nicked up.
"That's a good match."
Gaston's chief goal as a senior is crystal clear: to dominate. He won't spend time overanalyzing it. He knows it will take greater consistency and durability to achieve.
And he'll know when it's happening.
"It's almost a feeling of euphoria," he said. "It's like when you’re lifting, the endorphins, the relief, it just feels good. You're truly in the moment, you're helping a team, all of it.
"All good things."
Penn State offensive lineman John Urschel will speak on behalf of the players at the kickoff luncheon on July 25. Urschel, who's a Big Ten medal of honor winner and a brilliant guy, should deliver one whale of a speech. I can't wait to hear it.
Here's the full lineup:
Tim Kynard, Sr., DL
Corey Lewis, Sr., OT
Nathan Scheelhaase, Sr., QB
Mitch Ewald, Sr., K
Greg Heban, Sr., S
Kofi Hughes, Sr., WR
Christian Kirksey, Sr., LB
James Morris, Sr., LB
Brett Van Sloten, Sr., OL
Devin Gardner, Jr., QB
Thomas Gordon, Sr., S
Taylor Lewan, Sr., LT
Max Bullough, Sr., LB
Darqueze Dennard, Sr., CB
Blake Treadwell, Sr., OG
Ra’Shede Hageman, Sr., DT
Donnell Kirkwood, Jr., RB
Brock Vereen, Sr., S
Quincy Enunwa, Sr., WR
Ciante Evans, Sr., CB
Taylor Martinez, Sr., QB
Kain Colter, Sr., QB
Venric Mark, Sr., RB
Tyler Scott, Sr., DE
Jack Mewhort, Sr., OT
Braxton Miller, Jr., QB
Bradley Roby, Jr., CB
Glenn Carson, Sr., LB
John Urschel, Sr., G
Malcolm Willis, Sr., S
Ricardo Allen, Sr., CB
Bruce Gaston, Sr., DT
Gabe Holmes, Sr., TE
Jared Abbrederis, Sr., WR
Chris Borland, Sr., LB
James White, Sr., RB
Some quick thoughts:
- This looks like a very solid lineup. You've got the three headliner quarterbacks -- Braxton Miller, Taylor Martinez and Devin Gardner -- as well as Northwestern's Kain Colter and Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase. While only five QBs total is a low number, there are so many quarterback battles in the league that it makes sense this year. There are also several other star players, like Michigan's Taylor Lewan, Wisconsin's Chris Borland and Jared Abbrederis, Northwestern's Venric Mark and Michigan State's Max Bullough and Darqueze Dennard.
- You may have heard a roar from the media when it was announced that Ohio State was bringing Bradley Roby. The star cornerback is one of the most engaging and fun interviews around. Let's hope he shows his full personality in Chicago. Good to see Ohio State bringing high-profile players, including two non-seniors, though this may well end up being the final year for Roby and -- possibly -- Miller. We'd love to see Nebraska's Kenny Bell in attendance, but he's an underclassman and the Huskers have a pretty good group. Martinez has slowly started to warm up to the public spotlight, and it will be interesting to see how he handles the glare of media day.
- Should we read anything into Michigan State not bringing Andrew Maxwell? The quarterback is a fifth-year senior and a very polished public speaker, after all, but he is in the midst of a position battle. Maybe the Spartans simply didn't want the quarterback competition to overtake the conversation.
- This is Scheelhaase's second straight year at the event, and his inclusion probably signals that he's got a firm grip on the starting QB job. I'm a little surprised not to see the Illini bring Jonathan Brown. But Corey Lewis, who has battled back from multiple knee injuries and was granted a sixth year of eligibility, is a tremendous story.
- The guy I'm most disappointed not to see on the list? It's got to be Penn State's Allen Robinson, the best receiver in the league. He's only a junior, but it would have been nice for him to get some more national exposure. At least Urschel can fill up any reporter's notebook. All in all, it should be a vastly different experience for the Penn State contingent this year compared to last year's insanity.
What do you think of the lineup?
His eponymous preseason magazine claims to be the most accurate guide in the marketplace, and to his credit Steele did correctly forecast Nebraska and Wisconsin to make the Big Ten title game last season. You can find his preseason all-conference teams -- which go four deep on offense and defense -- on his blog here.
There are the obvious first-team choices, like Ohio State's Braxton Miller at quarterback, Northwestern running back Venric Mark, Penn State receiver Allen Robinson, Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan and Nebraska guard Spencer Long on offense. (Steele goes with 12-man units on both offense and defense, with three receivers and two running backs on offense and four linebackers on defense). He chose Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah for the first team, with Ohio State's Carlos Hyde and Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon as his second-team backs. Incoming Michigan true freshman Derrick Green makes an appearance on the fourth team.
Steele has Taylor Martinez as his second-team quarterback, followed by Michigan's Devin Gardner on the third team. I'm surprised to see Ohio State's Devin Smith at second-team receiver, ahead of teammate Corey Brown, who only made the third team but was more productive than Smith last year and much better this spring. Steele also puts Wisconsin's Jacob Pedersen and Iowa's C.J. Fiedorowicz as his first- and second-team tight ends, ahead of Penn State's Kyle Carter. I question that choice.
On defense, there are the no-brainer first-team selections you'd expect: Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier, Michigan State linebacker Max Bullough, Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland, Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby and Michigan State corner Darqueze Dennard. Steele's first-team defensive line is Michigan State's Marcus Rush, Northwestern's Tyler Scott, Minnesota's Ra'Shede Hageman and Purdue's Bruce Gaston, while Illinois' Jonathan Brown rounds out the four-man linebacker crew. The first-team defense includes four Michigan State players (safety Isaiah Lewis is the other) and three Buckeyes (safety Christian Bryant joins Shazier and Roby).
Penn State's Deion Barnes -- the reigning Big Ten freshman of the year -- only makes the second team at defensive end. I think I'd rather have him than the steady Rush. Steele also chooses Ohio State defensive end Adolphus Washington for the second team and fellow Buckeyes sophomore Noah Spence for the fourth team, though both have the potential to do more than that. Surprisingly, Steele also has Ohio State's Curtis Grant -- a guy with a lot to prove -- as a second-team linebacker.
Ohio State leads the way with six selections on the first-team offense and defense, followed by Michigan State with those four defenders. Nebraska, Northwestern and Wisconsin have three first-team picks each. Michigan has only two total players on Steele's first two teams, with Jeremy Gallon a second-teamer at receiver. Iowa and Indiana do not have any first-team selections on offense or defense, though the Hawkeyes' Jordan Cotton was named first-team kick returner.
That has been arguably the conference's deepest and strongest position in the past two years, filled with stars like Devon Still, Mike Martin, Jerel Worthy, Jordan Hill, Kawann Short and Johnathan Hankins, to name a few. In an otherwise slow NFL draft for the league, the Big Ten saw four defensive tackles get selected last month, including two underclassmen (Hankins and Akeem Spence). In 2012, the conference had five defensive tackles get drafted.
That's why it's notable that, heading into the 2013 season, the Big Ten has no established stars on the defensive interior. Several schools lost top players to either graduation or the draft, including Ohio State (both starters, Hankins and Garrett Goebel are gone), Penn State (Hill), Purdue (Short), Michigan (Will Campbell), Indiana (Adam Replogle and Larry Black Jr.), Illinois (Akeem Spence and Glenn Foster), Nebraska (Baker Steinkuhler), Northwestern (Brian Arnfelt) and Michigan State (Anthony Rashad White).
That's a big talent drain for one position. None of the returning defensive tackles in the league have ever made first- or second-team All-Big Ten. The top veteran tackles in the conference look like this (in alphabetical order):
- Beau Allen, Wisconsin, senior: An underrated player, the 330-pound Allen has what you'd call a low center of gravity, with calves that look like a normal man's thighs. He's a big reason why the Badgers were able to keep teams from running the ball effectively up the middle last year.
- Bruce Gaston, Purdue, senior: Overshadowed at times by Short, Gaston has the ability to disrupt things up front as well and will be asked to do more this season. He was slowed by injuries last year.
- Ra'Shede Hageman, Minnesota, senior: As athletically gifted as any Big Ten D-tackle, the 6-foot-6, 310-pound Hageman started to figure things out last season and had a strong spring. He looks like a guy who can take his game to the elite level if he stays focused and driven.
- DaQuan Jones, Penn State, senior: The 330-pounder is hoping to break out as a senior the way Hill and Devon Still did the past two years. He's been more of a run-stopper than a big-time playmaker so far in his career.
- Quinton Washington, Michigan, senior: He moved into a starter's role last year and will be the most experienced tackle on the Wolverines following Campbell's graduation. With the Michigan coaching staff's expertise on defensive line play, he could take a step forward this year.
All of those guys have been solid contributors, but hardly superstars. They're also all seniors, so maybe they'll go out with a bang.
Or maybe it's younger guys who emerge as the next wave of great Big Ten defensive tackles. Iowa's Carl Davis had a huge spring game and has always had talent but not health. Injuries have also held back Nebraska's Thad Randle and Ohio State's Michael Bennett. Michigan State's Lawrence Thomas, Michigan's Ondre Pipkins, Nebraska's Aaron Curry and Penn State's Austin Johnson could be on the rise. Recruiting and developing stud defensive tackles may be one of the hardest things to do in football, however.
On paper, the Big Ten defensive tackle situation looks to be down from the past couple of years. But new stars are sure to step forward in the fall. Several of them will have to do if the league's recent strong tradition at the position is to continue.
We're taking a page from our friends at the ACC blog and examining whether certain Big Ten teams will be contenders or pretenders in the 2013 season. The series does not include Ohio State, Michigan or Nebraska -- three teams that, in our view, have earned the "contender" label entering the fall. For each team, we'll make a case for why they're contenders and pretenders and provide our final verdict. We invite you to vote on whether a team is a contender or a pretender or send us your thoughts for mailbags here and here.
Next on our list: the Purdue Boilermakers.Akeem Hunt had a standout spring and no longer looks like just a track star. The Boilers have some nice options at the skill position with him and guys like Raheem Mostert, Gary Bush and Dolapo Macarthy at receiver. Kawann Short is gone, but Bruce Gaston and Ryan Russell are still strong anchors for the defensive line. If healthy, both can be among the best at their position in the Big Ten. And Purdue should be very good in the secondary, led by cornerback Ricardo Allen. A lot will have to go right, but maybe this is the year the Boilermakers actually fulfill that sleeper status.
Why they're pretenders: Purdue looked completely out of its league last year against Wisconsin, Michigan and Penn State, and it lost some of its top players in Short, cornerback Josh Johnson, quarterback Robert Marve and receiver Antavian Edison. The quarterback situation is unclear right now, as it appears to be a two-man race between Rob Henry and Danny Etling. Henry is experienced but has never shown a great throwing arm, while Etling is a true freshman. The Boilers once again look to have some major issues at linebacker, a position that Hazell will have to shore up through recruiting. There is also bound to be an adjustment period for a new coaching staff. The biggest obstacle to Purdue contending, though, might be the schedule: three tough nonconference games (at Cincinnati, Notre Dame and Northern Illinois) combine with a Big Ten slate that sees the Boilers open conference play at Wisconsin, vs. Nebraska, at Michigan State and vs. Ohio State. An 0-4 start in Big Ten play is a real possibility.
Verdict: We liked the Hazell hiring and think he will do good things in West Lafayette. But with the coaching transition, the potential of a freshman starter at quarterback and a challenging schedule, we just don't think that will happen this year. Getting back to a bowl should be the goal in 2013. Purdue is a pretender.
- Could Wisconsin run the spread with three tight ends? Examining the Badgers' wide receivers.
- Enrolling early has helped Danny Etling in his quest to win the Purdue quarterback job. Bruce Gaston has made his presence felt since he returned from injury this spring.
- While overall athletic donations are down at Penn State, gifts to the football program more than quadrupled. Some former Nittany Lions are trying to catch on at Marshall. A look at Year 2 for previous Penn State coaches.
- Braxton Miller is making progress as a leader. Predictions for Ohio State's spring game.
- Traveon Henry and Jimmy Hall are vying to win a starting safety job at Northwestern.
- Nebraska is putting its defense together one piece at a time. Sam McKewon and Jon Nyatawa break down the Huskers' spring in this podcast.
- Minnesota has some options at middle linebacker. Receiver Jamel Harbison is looking to bounce back after an injury derailed his 2012 season.
- Mark Dantonio analyzes Michigan State's QB picture at the midway point of the spring -- and Andrew Maxwell is still in the lead.
- Jeremy Gallon is hoping to fulfill big expectations as Michigan's No. 1 receiver. Denard Robinson probably doesn't have a future as a baseball pitcher.
- A closer look at the Iowa secondary this spring.
- Indiana wrapped up its final practice in pads before the spring game. Defense will be key for the Hoosiers this year (subscription required).
- Illinois is trying to clean up its mistakes on defense. Tim Beckman is hoping to build some spring momentum.
OK, so Purdue isn't hiring that Rubin Carter to coach its defensive line. But a man by the same name will guide Ryan Russell, Bruce Gaston and the other linemen this fall as first-year coach Darrell Hazell is completing his coaching staff.
Carter spent last season coaching defensive line at FCS Towson University, but he brings extensive experience at both the college and NFL levels. He has coached defensive linemen for three NFL teams -- Denver, Washington and the New York Jets -- as well as in college for New Mexico (2009-11), Temple (2004-05), Maryland (1997-98), San Jose State (1995-96) and Howard (1989-93). Carter also served as head coach at Florida A&M from 2005-07.
A former All-America nose tackle at Miami, Carter played 12 seasons for the Denver Broncos and was part of the famous "Orange Crush" defenses.
Hazell appears to have made a very good choice with Carter, who will oversee a group that underachieved in 2012 and loses its biggest piece in tackle Kawann Short. Carter's extensive experience around the country also should aid Purdue's recruiting efforts. He'll be the third defensive line coach the players have had in as many seasons, so it'll be important to make the transition as smooth as possible.
Carter's hiring would complete Purdue's staff, but Hazell likely will have one more vacancy as offensive line coach Jim Bollman reportedly is headed to Michigan State to become offensive coordinator there. Neither Purdue nor Michigan State has confirmed or denied Bollman's reported move to East Lansing.
This was one of the stronger position groups for the league throughout the season. You can see how we ranked them in the preseason here. You need both star power and depth to rate high, especially on units like these.
Here we go ...
2. Penn State (Preseason: 4): The Nittany Lions made up for the loss of 2011 defensive player of the year Devon Still quite nicely. Jordan Hill was playing as well as any league defensive tackle at the end of the year. Deion Barnes won freshman of the year honors for his havoc-inducing work off the edge. Penn State also had solid depth behind the starters and led the league in sacks.
3. Michigan State (Preseason: 2): The Spartans fielded the best defense in the Big Ten and were the toughest team to run against, and the defensive line was a big reason why. There was always a feeling that the linemen, especially William Gholston, could have created a few more negative plays. But overall, the line was really strong, with more depth and balance than sheer superstar power.
4. Wisconsin (Preseason: 8): The Badgers lacked a dominant pass rusher but were very stout up front and hard to run against. Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer did an excellent job of controlling the middle of the line of scrimmage, while David Gilbert and Brendan Kelly cleaned things up on the outside.
5. Northwestern (Preseason: 10): The Wildcats were one of the pleasant surprises among league defensive lines. They had the third-best rushing defense in the league and ranked fifth in sacks. Tyler Scott had a breakout year at defensive end, while Brian Arnfelt was an underrated defensive tackle. Quentin Williams had a pick six in the bowl game victory.
6. Michigan (Preseason: 7): This was a perfectly solid defensive line but not one that often grabbed your attention. Will Campbell finally fulfilled most of his promise as a starting defensive tackle, and Craig Roh was predictably reliable as a senior. But this unit lacked a dynamic playmaker, which is evident in the Wolverines' decent but not outstanding sack and rush-defense numbers.
7. Minnesota (Preseason: 12): A recent sore spot for the Gophers turned into more of a strength in 2012. Ra'Shede Hageman put his huge body to great use at defensive tackle, while D.L. Wilhite got off to a great start and finished with nine sacks. Minnesota's defense also had to carry a heavy load down the stretch as the offense struggled to stay on the field.
8. Nebraska (Preseason: 6): The Huskers' defensive line had its moments, and end Eric Martin emerged as a fearsome pass-rusher. Baker Steinkuhler's late-season injury hurt as he was playing really well inside, and Cam Meredith did his best to hold his ground there. But the memory of Wisconsin completely flattening Nebraska in the Big Ten title game prevents me from ranking this group any higher.
9. Purdue (Preseason: 3): We expected much more out of this group, with talents like Kawann Short, Bruce Gaston and Ryan Russell. And perhaps we are unfairly judging their performance because the unit struggled with injuries throughout the year. Still, Purdue was steamrolled by teams like Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Oklahoma State and simply didn't get enough out of its front four on a consistent basis.
10. Illinois (Preseason: 5): If there was a strength for the 2012 Illini -- and after a 2-10 season, we're not sure there was one -- it had to be the defensive line. Yet like Purdue, we expected more from a group that included athletes like Akeem Spence and Michael Buchanan, though they would have had to be superhuman to change their team's course.
11. Iowa (Preseason: 9): We feared for the Hawkeyes' youth in the preseason, but this group held together pretty well most of the year. The low ranking is in some ways a reflection of other teams playing better than expected. Yet Iowa's defensive line seemed to wear down late in the season, and the lack of any true studs was reflected in a Big Ten-worst 13 sacks in 12 games.
12. Indiana (Preseason: 11): The 2012 Hoosiers actually improved over 2011 on the defensive line but still finished last in the league in rush defense. Adam Replogle and Larry Black Jr. gave Indiana something to work with in the middle as two of the defense's rare veterans. But as it showed in the crucial Wisconsin game, this group still has a long way to go.