Big Ten: C.J. Fiedorowicz

C.J. Fiedorowicz was named to the All-Big Ten first team by the league coaches last season and was drafted at the start of the third round by Houston last month.

Most teams might struggle to replace a three-year starting tight end with Fiedorowicz's talent. Then again, most teams don't have Iowa's tight end tradition.

[+] EnlargeRay Hamilton
Stephen Mally/Icon SMIRay Hamilton will get his chance in the tight end spotlight for Iowa this fall.
From the just-retired Dallas Clark to Tony Moeaki to Scott Chandler and others, the Hawkeyes have thrived at producing top-flight tight ends under Kirk Ferentz. ESPN.com's recent Position U series ranked Iowa No. 2 among all programs for the title of Tight End U, and the school has had much more recent success at that spot than the No. 1 team on the list, Miami.

So it shouldn't come as a big surprise that Iowa isn't sweating the loss of Fiedorowicz too much. Plenty of others are ready to carry on the tradition.

"We're going to miss him," senior Ray Hamilton told ESPN.com. "But that just means more opportunities for the rest of us. And we've got the talent, from top to bottom."

Ferentz can still call on a deep stable of capable tight ends, beginning with Hamilton. He mostly sat behind his close friend Fiedorowicz the past three seasons, yet Hamilton was a highly-ranked recruit himself with offers from several marquee programs coming out of Strongsville, Ohio. He has 11 catches for 130 yard in his career, but often he has been asked to come in as a blocking tight end.

"The coaches had a role for me every game, each year, and I came in to do my job, which was to raise hell every play I was in there," he said. "I did a lot of run blocking, which was all right because I love blocking. There's no better feeling than moving a grown man off the ball against his will. That's all that matters."

That role doesn't come with as much glory as, say, catching six touchdown passes, as Fiedorowicz did a year ago. But the 6-foot-5, 252-pound Hamilton has performed his job well.

"Ray’s always been one of those underappreciated guys in some ways at times, even by us," Ferentz told reporters this spring. “He made a lot of clutch plays during the season. He makes them during practice. He’s a pretty good all-around tight end, in our opinion.

"We’re losing a pro guy, and when you lose a pro guy, it’s not fair to measure it ... to a guy who hasn’t played. The good news is, I think, that Ray has improved his game, and I thought he was pretty good last year.”

With Fiedorowicz gone, Hamilton could be looking at a starting role, along with more targets from quarterback Jake Rudock.

"I haven't really proven too many times that I can catch a pass and then do something with it," he said. "So I'm anxious to go out there and catch some balls, try and break some tackles and make some plays for this team."

He's not the only tight end capable of those things. Junior Jake Duzey is the leading returning pass-catcher in the group and had the memorable 85-yard touchdown reception at Ohio State last season. Sophomore George Kittle, Hamilton said, "may be even faster than Duzey," while junior Henry Krieger-Coble "has some of the best ball skills and hands you're going to find."

That depth gives Ferentz and offensive coordinator Greg Davis options. They used those to their advantage in the second half of last season while breaking out a three-tight end look, starting with the Ohio State game.

"That's a blast for us," Hamilton said. "There's no better feeling than having three guys from your own position group on the field at the same time and moving the ball down teams' throats."

Hamilton is embracing the leadership role with the group as its only senior. The tight end tradition at Iowa is one reason he chose to go there, and he's mindful of keeping that torch lit. Maybe he'll be the next guy to enter the spotlight. If not, he'll continue to play his role.

"I just love blocking, period," he said. "I love getting down and nasty with it. That's just the kind of player I am."

There will always be room on the Hawkeyes for a guy like that.
The biggest non-game on the American sporting calendar is all done, as the 2014 NFL draft wrapped up Saturday afternoon in New York. After arguably its worst draft in the modern era in 2013, the Big Ten performed better this year with 30 picks. Still, the league finished fourth among conferences in selections, trailing the SEC (49), ACC (42) and Pac-12 (34).

After a big Friday night with six second-round selections -- including four in a row -- and six third-round selections, the Big Ten's momentum slowed a bit Saturday in the final four rounds. The league had only one sixth-round pick and only four in the seventh round.

Let's start the breakdown by listing Big Ten draftees by round (with comments below). Maryland and Rutgers players aren't included here because neither group competed in the Big Ten (Terrapins CB Dexter McDougle went in the third round; Rutgers had no players drafted).

FIRST ROUND (4)
[+] EnlargeTaylor Lewan
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyTaylor Lewan was the first Big Ten player selected, going 11th overall to the Tennessee Titans.
Analysis: Click here for my first-round thoughts

SECOND ROUND (6)
Analysis: Hageman ends up in a really good spot with the Falcons. Although Latimer had an excellent pre-draft performance, it wasn't surprising to see him end up in the middle of the second round. Hyde waited longer than many anticipated, but he enters a great situation with a team that loves to play power football. Robinson joins a new-look Jaguars passing attack featuring quarterback Blake Bortles and wideout Marqise Lee.

THIRD ROUND (6)
Analysis: Everyone had Southward going before Borland, right? Borland, the 2013 Big Ten defensive player of the year, had an exceptional college career, but concerns about his height and perhaps his injury history moved him down the draft boards. The Iowa Effect shows up here as both Fiedorowicz and Kirksey were swept up by teams that respect what the Hawkeyes do. What does it say that Michigan's offensive line struggled mightily in 2013 but had two tackles drafted in the first three rounds? Those young Wolverines linemen had better step up this fall.

FOURTH ROUND (4)
Analysis: Some really good pickups in this round, especially White, who will fit in very well with New England's offense. Although James Morris received the most accolades among Iowa's linebackers at the college level, both Kirksey and Hitchens were mid-round selections, while Morris went undrafted and signed with New England as a free agent. As a Chicago Bears fan, I love the Vereen pick. He's a smart, athletic versatile player who knows from his older brother what it takes to succeed in the NFL.

FIFTH ROUND (5)
[+] EnlargeJared Abbrederis
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsJared Abbrederis isn't venturing far from Madison as he was drafted by the Green Bay Packers.
Analysis: Like his teammate Borland, Abbrederis had a much longer wait than expected but lands in a very familiar spot with Green Bay. I think he's a steal and will surprise people with his ability to make plays despite less-than-ideal measurables. Pamphile had a fairly quiet college career but is seen as a project and could develop into a better pro. Urschel is another player who lacks the ideal physical traits sought in the NFL, but could make up for it with exceptional intelligence.

SIXTH ROUND (1)
Analysis: Enunwa complemented his superb blocking skills with big-play ability in the pass game as a senior. He's a good value for a Jets team that needs to boost the league's 31st-ranked pass offense.

SEVENTH ROUND (4)
Analysis: All four players could be very good values. Bolser is an athletic tight end who had 15 career touchdown catches. Allen showed versatility as a senior, transitioning to a 3-4 scheme. Gallon heads to a Patriots team that has had success with smaller, productive receivers. Bryant likely would have been selected higher if not for major leg and ankle injuries last season.

Here are the draft picks per B1G team:

Ohio State: 6
Wisconsin: 5
Michigan: 3
Penn State: 3
Nebraska: 3
Iowa: 3
Purdue: 2
Minnesota: 2
Indiana: 2
Michigan State: 1

The big surprise is a Michigan State team that dominated Big Ten play and won the Rose Bowl had just one player selected, as standout linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen didn't have their names called. Only four teams -- LSU, Alabama, Notre Dame and Florida State -- had more selections than Ohio State. Illinois, which led the Big Ten in draft picks last season (4) and had 18 picks between 2009-13, had no selections. Northwestern also went without a draft pick for the second straight year.

Curious about the Big Ten's undrafted free-agent signings? Check back in a bit as we take a look.

Big Ten's lunch links

May, 6, 2014
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We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. The wide receivers and tight ends are up next.

Illinois: The Illini are looking for more from this group after losing top target Steve Hull, who exploded late in the season to finish just shy of 1,000 receiving yards. While running back Josh Ferguson (50 catches in 2013) will continue to contribute, Illinois could use a boost from Martize Barr, who arrived with high expectations but only had 26 receptions last fall. Another junior-college transfer, Geronimo Allison, could make an impact beginning this spring, but there's some mystery at wideout. Illinois looks more solid at tight end with seniors Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse.

Indiana: Despite the somewhat surprising early departure of All-Big Ten selection Cody Latimer, Indiana should be fine here. Shane Wynn is the veteran of the group after recording 633 receiving yards on 46 catches last season. Kofi Hughes and Duwyce Wilson also depart, so Indiana will be leaning more on Nick Stoner and Isaiah Roundtree. The Hoosiers have high hopes for early enrollee Dominique Booth, a decorated recruit who could fill Latimer's spot on the outside. Productive tight end Ted Bolser departs and several players will compete, including early enrollee Jordan Fuchs.

Iowa: Almost all the wide receivers are back from a group in which none eclipsed more than 400 receiving yards in 2013. Balance is nice, but separation could be nicer for the Hawkeyes this spring. Kevonte Martin-Manley is the most experienced wideout and has 122 career receptions. Tevaun Smith also returns, and Iowa fans are excited about big-play threat Damond Powell, who averaged 24.2 yards on only 12 receptions last season. Iowa loses its top red-zone target in tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz and will need Jake Duzey to deliver more Ohio State-like performances.

Maryland: When the Terrapins get healthy, they might have the Big Ten's best wide receiving corps. Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, both of whom sustained broken legs against Wake Forest last season, have the ability to stretch the field as both averaged more than 15 yards per reception before the injuries struck. Leading receiver Levern Jacobs also returns, alongside junior Nigel King and sophomore Amba Etta-Tawo, who averaged more than 16 yards per catch in 2013. Marcus Leak, who started seven games in 2012, rejoins the team after a year away. The Terps are unproven at tight end after losing Dave Stinebaugh.

Michigan: There's a reason why some Michigan fans want Devin Gardner to return to wide receiver for his final season. The Wolverines are thin on the perimeter after losing Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo. Redshirt sophomores Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh are both candidates to start, and Dennis Norfleet could be the answer in the slot. But there's plenty of opportunity for younger players like Drake Harris, an early enrollee. Michigan's best pass-catching option, Devin Funchess, is listed as a tight end but plays more like a receiver. The Wolverines will be without their second-string tight end, Jake Butt, who suffered an ACL tear in winter conditioning.

Michigan State: Remember all the justified angst about this group a year ago? It has pretty much gone away as the Spartans wideouts rebounded nicely in 2013. Bennie Fowler departs, but MSU brings back its top two receivers in Tony Lippett and Macgarrett Kings, who showed explosiveness down the stretch last fall. Aaron Burbridge had a bit of a sophomore slump but provides another option alongside veteran Keith Mumphery, who averaged 16.6 yards per catch in 2013. Josiah Price leads the tight end group after a solid freshman season.

Minnesota: Here's a group to watch during spring practice, particularly the wide receivers. Minnesota has proven it can run the ball and defend under Jerry Kill, but the passing game was putrid in 2013, ranking last in the Big Ten and 115th nationally. Youth is partly to blame, and while the Gophers still lack experience, they can expect more from promising players like Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones. Senior Isaac Fruechte provides a veteran presence. Minnesota looks solid at tight end with sophomore Maxx Williams, the team's receiving yards leader (417) in 2013.

Nebraska: The Huskers lose a significant piece in Quincy Enunwa, who led the team in receiving yards (753) and had three times as many receiving touchdowns (12) as anyone else in 2013. Kenny Bell is set to recapture the No. 1 receiver role, which he had in 2012, and comes off of a 52-catch season as a junior. Nebraska must build around Bell this spring with players like the mustachioed Jordan Westerkamp, who had 20 catches as a freshman, including a rather memorable one to beat Northwestern. Will Jamal Turner turn the corner this offseason? Juniors Sam Burtch and Taariq Allen also return. Cethan Carter started six games at tight end last fall and should take over the top spot there as Jake Long departs.

Northwestern: The passing game fell short of expectations in 2013, but there's reason for optimism as Northwestern returns its top three pass-catchers in Tony Jones, Christian Jones and Dan Vitale. The two Joneses (no relation), who combined for 109 catches in 2013, lead the receiving corps along with junior Cameron Dickerson. Speedy Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler provides a playmaking spark, possibly at slot receiver. Vitale, who had a somewhat disappointing sophomore season, has All-Big Ten potential at the superback (tight end) spot. Although Northwestern rarely plays true freshmen, superback Garrett Dickerson, Cameron's brother, could see the field right away.

Ohio State: A group that drew heavy criticism from coach Urban Meyer two springs ago is stockpiling talent. Devin Smith is the familiar name, a big-play senior who has started each of the past two seasons and boasts 18 career touchdowns. Ohio State must replace top wideout Corey Brown and will look for more from Evan Spencer. Michael Thomas has stood out in practices but must translate his performance to games. This could be a breakout year for H-back Dontre Wilson, who averaged nine yards per touch as a freshman. Buckeyes fans are eager to see redshirt freshmen Jalin Marshall and James Clark, and incoming players like Johnnie Dixon could make a splash right away. Ohio State returns an elite tight end in Jeff Heuerman.

Penn State: The Lions have very different depth situations at receiver and tight end. They're looking for contributors on the perimeter after losing Allen Robinson, the Big Ten's top wide receiver the past two seasons, who accounted for 46 percent of the team's receiving production in 2013. Brandon Felder also departs, leaving Geno Lewis as the likeliest candidate to move into a featured role. Richy Anderson also returns, but there will be plenty of competition/opportunity at receiver, a position new coach James Franklin targeted in recruiting with players like Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall. Things are much more stable at tight end as the Lions return three talented players in Jesse James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman.

Purdue: If you're looking for hope at Purdue, these spots aren't bad places to start. There are several promising young players like receiver DeAngelo Yancey, who recorded a team-leading 546 receiving yards as a freshman. Cameron Posey also had a decent freshman year (26 catches, 297 yards), and Danny Anthrop averaged 18.4 yards as a sophomore. A full offseason with quarterbacks Danny Etling and Austin Appleby should help the group. Tight end also should be a strength as Justin Sinz, who led Purdue with 41 catches last season, is back along with Gabe Holmes, who returns after missing most of 2013 with a wrist injury.

Rutgers: The good news is tight end Tyler Kroft returns after leading Rutgers in both receptions (43) and receiving yards (573) last season. Kroft will immediately contend for All-Big Ten honors. Things are murkier at wide receiver, where top contributors Brandon Coleman and Quron Pratt both depart. Leonte Carroo took a nice step as a sophomore, averaging 17.1 yards per catch and enters the spring as the frontrunner to become the team's No. 1 wideout. Ruhann Peele is another promising young receiver for the Scarlet Knights, who boast size with Carlton Agudosi (6-foot-6) and Andre Patton (6-4).

Wisconsin: The quarterback competition will gain more attention this spring, but Wisconsin's receiver/tight end situation could be more critical. The Badgers lose Jared Abbrederis, their only major threat at receiver the past two seasons, as well as top tight end Jacob Pedersen. Players like Jordan Fredrick and Kenzel Doe must translate their experience into greater production, and Wisconsin will look for more from young receivers like Alex Erickson and Robert Wheelwright. Help is on the way as Wisconsin signed five receivers in the 2014 class, but wideout definitely is a position of concern right now. Sam Arneson is the logical candidate to step in for Pedersen, but there should be competition as the Badgers lose a lot at the position.
Tags:

Purdue Boilermakers, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Penn State Nittany Lions, Big Ten Conference, Michigan State Spartans, Northwestern Wildcats, Indiana Hoosiers, Illinois Fighting Illini, Ohio State Buckeyes, Michigan Wolverines, Wisconsin Badgers, Iowa Hawkeyes, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Football Recruiting, Maryland Terrapins, Jacob Pedersen, C.J. Fiedorowicz, Devin Smith, Tony Jones, Tony Lippett, Corey Brown, Jeremy Gallon, Duwyce Wilson, Keith Mumphery, Justin Sinz, Kevonte Martin-Manley, Evan Spencer, Gabe Holmes, Kofi Hughes, Jared Abbrederis, Kyle Carter, Nick Stoner, Jordan Fredrick, Sam Arneson, Matt LaCosse, Ted Bolser, Steve Hull, Kenzel Doe, Christian Jones, Jamal Turner, Shane Wynn, Josh Ferguson, Kenny Bell, Devin Funchess, Josiah Price, Cody Latimer, Drew Dileo, Quincy Enunwa, Stefon Diggs, Jordan Westerkamp, Aaron Burbridge, Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson, Jesse James, MacGarrett Kings, Austin Appleby, Michael Thomas, Adam Breneman, Tevaun Smith, Isaiah Roundtree, Isaac Fruechte, Drake Harris, Cameron Dickerson, Dominique Booth, Jalin Marshall, Jake Duzey, Danny Etling, Allen Robinson, Dan Vitale, Danny Anthrop, Martize Barr, Damond Powell, Dontre Wilson, James Clark, Robert Wheelwright, Donovahn Jones, Drew Wolitarsky, Taariq Allen, Richy Anderson, Sam Burtch, Chris Godwin, Garrett Dickerson, Johnnie Dixon, Saeed Blacknall, Alex Erickson, Maxx Williams, Geronimo Allison, Cethan Carter, Cameron Posey, DeAngelo Yancey, Geno Lewis, Brandon Felder, Brandon Coleman, B1G spring positions 14, Jordan Fuchs, Miles Shuler, Levern Jacobs, Nigel King, Amba Etta-Tawo, Dave Stinebaugh, Marcus Leak, Tyler Kroft, Quron Pratt, Leonte Carroo, Ruhann Peele, Carlton Agudosi, Andre Patton

The 2014 NFL scouting combine is all wrapped up, and the countdown to the draft has begun. Monday, we looked at how Big Ten offensive players performed in the key drills. Now it's time to see how the defenders -- linemen, linebackers and defensive backs -- fared in their testing. Here are the full results for each participant.

TOP PERFORMERS

[+] Enlarge Ryan Shazier
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteRyan Shazier finished first in the vertical jump among linebackers at the NFL scouting combine.
Overall (all positions)

  • Ohio State CB Bradley Roby finished seventh in the 40-yard dash at 4.39 seconds.
  • Ohio State C Corey Linsley tied for second in bench-press repetitions with 36; Minnesota DT Ra'Shede Hageman tied for 10th with 32.
  • Ohio State LB Ryan Shazier ranked first in the vertical jump at 42 inches; Nebraska CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste finished second at 41.5 inches.
  • Shazier ranked sixth in the broad jump at 10 feet, 10 inches; Jean-Baptiste tied for 10th at 10-8.
  • Penn State WR Allen Robinson tied for ninth in the 20-yard shuttle at 4.0 seconds.
  • Robinson tied for ninth in the 60-yard shuttle at 11.36 seconds; Wisconsin WR Jared Abbrederis finished 12th at 11.39 seconds.
By position (linemen, linebackers, cornerbacks, safeties)

Safeties: Minnesota's Brock Vereen finished second in the 40-yard dash (4.47 seconds), first in bench-press repetitions (25), tied for 10th in vertical jump (34 inches), tied for 10th in broad jump (9 feet, 9 inches), second in three-cone drill (6.9 seconds) and second in 20-yard shuttle (4.07 seconds); Michigan State's Isaiah Lewis finished 11th in the 40-yard dash (4.6 seconds), tied for seventh in bench-press repetitions (15), tied for third in vertical jump (36.5 inches), fourth in broad jump (10 feet, 2 inches), tied for seventh in three-cone drill (7.05 seconds) and 11th in 20-yard shuttle (4.47 seconds).

Linemen: Minnesota's Hageman tied for third in bench-press repetitions (32), tied for seventh in vertical jump (35.5 inches) and tied for 14th in broad jump (9 feet, 6 inches).

Linebackers: Iowa's Anthony Hitchens finished 15th in the 40-yard dash (4.74 seconds), tied for 11th in bench-press reps (23) and tied for seventh in three-cone drill (7.15 seconds); Michigan State's Max Bullough tied for first in bench-press reps (30), finished 15th in three-cone drill (7.22 seconds) and tied for 13th in 20-yard shuttle (4.3 seconds); Wisconsin's Chris Borland finished fifth in bench-press repetitions (27), 14th in three-cone drill (7.18 seconds) and 12th in 20-yard shuttle (4.27 seconds); Ohio State's Shazier tied for eighth in bench-press reps (25), finished first in vertical jump (42 inches), first in broad jump (10 feet, 10 inches), fifth in three-cone drill (6.91 seconds) and ninth in 20-yard shuttle (4.21 seconds); Iowa's James Morris tied for 14th in vertical jump (34.5 inches) and seventh in three-cone drill (6.94 seconds); Iowa's Christian Kirksey tied for fifth in broad jump (10 feet, 2 inches).

Cornerbacks: Ohio State's Roby tied for fourth in 40-yard dash (4.39 seconds), tied for seventh in bench-press reps (17), tied for sixth in vertical jump (38.5 inches), tied for ninth in broad jump (10 feet, 4 inches) and tied for fifth in 20-yard shuttle (4.04 seconds); Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard tied for 13th in 40-yard dash (4.51 seconds) and tied for 13th in bench-press reps (15); Nebraska's Jean-Baptiste finished first in vertical jump (41.5 inches) and tied for third in broad jump (10 feet, 8 inches); Purdue's Ricardo Allen finished ninth in 20-yard shuttle (4.15 seconds).

There were some good performances from Big Ten defenders, particularly from the Ohio State pair of Shazier and Roby, but also from Minnesota's Vereen and Nebraska's Jean-Baptiste, who both likely helped their draft stock. On offense, Penn State's Robinson certainly stood out, along with Michigan tackle Taylor Lewan and Iowa tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz.

Check out all of ESPN.com's NFL draft coverage here.
The 2014 NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis is more than halfway over, and testing results have been recorded for quarterbacks, running backs, tight ends, wide receivers, offensive linemen and specialists. As we do every year around this time, let's check in on how the Big Ten contingent is performing at the site of the Big Ten championship game (Lucas Oil Stadium).

Note: These are results through Sunday.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Lewan
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesMichigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan was one of several Big Ten players who increased their stock at the NFL combine over the weekend.
TOP PERFORMERS

Overall

  • Nebraska WR Quincy Enunwa is tied for 14th in the 40-yard dash at 4.45 seconds.
  • Ohio State C Corey Linsley is tied for second with 36 bench-press repetitions at 225 pounds.
  • Minnesota DT Ra'Shede Hageman is tied for 10th in bench-press repetitions with 32.
  • Penn State WR Allen Robinson is tied for eighth in the vertical jump at 39 inches; tied for eighth in the broad jump at 10 feet, 7 inches; seventh in the 20-yard shuttle at four seconds and sixth in the 60-yard shuttle at 11.36 seconds.
  • Michigan State WR Bennie Fowler is ninth in the broad jump at 10 feet, 6 inches; 12th in the 60-yard shuttle at 11.52 seconds.
  • Wisconsin WR Jared Abbrederis is 14th in the 3-cone drill at 6.8 seconds; 12th in the 20-yard shuttle at 4.08 seconds and seventh in the 60-yard shuttle at 11.39 seconds.
By position

Running backs: Wisconsin's James White is tied for fourth in bench-press reps with 23; Ohio State's Carlos Hyde is tied for 13th with 19.

Wide receivers: Enunwa is tied for 11th in 40-yard dash and seventh in bench-press reps with 19; Indiana's Cody Latimer is first in bench-press reps with 23; Rutgers' Brandon Coleman is tied for second in bench-press reps with 21; Michigan's Jeremy Gallon is tied for 13th in bench-press reps with 15; Robinson is sixth in vertical jump, tied for third in broad jump, seventh in 20-yard shuttle and sixth in 60-yard shuttle; Fowler is tied for fifth in broad jump, 15th in 20-yard shuttle and 12th in 60-yard shuttle; Abbrederis is 12th in 3-cone drill at 6.8 seconds, 11th in 20-yard shuttle and seventh in 60-yard shuttle.

Tight ends: Iowa's C.J. Fiedorowicz is sixth in the 40-yard dash (4.76 seconds), fifth in bench-press reps (25), tied for 11th in vertical jump (31.5 inches), tied for sixth in broad jump (9 feet, 8 inches), first in 3-cone drill (7.1 seconds) and 20-yard shuttle (4.26 seconds); Wisconsin's Jacob Pedersen is tied for 13th in the 40-yard dash (4.89 seconds), 11th in 3-cone drill (7.55 seconds), seventh in 20-yard shuttle (4.4 seconds) and tied for second in 60-yard shuttle (12.19 seconds).

Offensive linemen: Michigan's Taylor Lewan is first in 40-yard dash (4.87 seconds) and broad jump (9 feet, 9 inches), tied for 11th in bench-press reps (29), tied for third in vertical jump (30.5 inches), fourth in 3-cone drill (7.39 seconds), ninth in 20-yard shuttle (4.49 seconds); Michigan's Michael Schofield is sixth in 40-yard dash (5.01 seconds), 13th in 3-cone drill (7.62 seconds) and 11th in 20-yard shuttle (4.57 seconds); Linsley is tied for second in bench-press reps; Penn State's John Urschel is tied for eighth in bench-press reps (30), tied for fifth in vertical jump (29 inches), ninth in 3-cone drill (7.55 seconds) and tied for sixth in 20-yard shuttle (4.47 seconds); Ohio State's Jack Mewhort is tied for 14th in bench-press reps (28); Wisconsin's Ryan Groy is tied for seventh in broad jump (9 feet), eighth in 3-cone drill (7.49 seconds) and tied for sixth in 20-yard shuttle (4.47 seconds); Iowa's Conor Boffeli is seventh in 3-cone drill (7.44 seconds) and 13th in 20-yard shuttle (4.61 seconds).

Defensive linemen (bench-press only): Hageman is tied for third with 32 repetitions.

Workouts and testing for defensive linemen and linebackers takes place Monday, followed by the defensive backs on Tuesday. We'll have more updates as the results come in, but you should check out ESPN.com's full combine coverage here.
The NFL scouting combine -- also known as the world's most dissected job interview session -- began Wednesday in Indianapolis, and workouts begin Saturday. The hopefuls include 36 players from Big Ten schools, 38 if you count Maryland and Rutgers.

[+] EnlargeKain Colter
Jerry Lai/USA TODAY SportsFormer Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter will work out as a receiver at the NFL scouting combine.
Here are some of the top storylines to watch as the league's contingents run, lift, jump and shuttle for NFL executives:

  • How many first-rounders can the Big Ten produce? Last year was arguably the worst draft in league history, as only one player -- Wisconsin's Travis Frederick -- heard his name called on opening night, and not until the 31st pick. The conference should definitely do better in the first round this year, with Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan and Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard widely viewed as locks to go early. Some others could work their way into the first round with strong showings in Indy, including Minnesota defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman (whose physical-freak traits should translate well into workouts), Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby, linebacker Ryan Shazier and running back Carlos Hyde and Penn State receiver Allen Robinson.
  • Speaking of Robinson, he's one of eight Big Ten players who will work out as a receiver, and that group includes ultra-productive college wideouts such as Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis, Michigan's Jeremy Gallon and Indiana's Cody Latimer. This is viewed as a deep draft for receivers in general, so the Big Ten contingent will have to post good times in the 40 and other drills to stand out.
  • One player who will work out as a receiver is Northwestern's Kain Colter, who primarily played quarterback in college. Colter, of course, has been in the news because of his fight to unionize college football players. How will NFL general managers and executives view the stance taken by Colter, who should interview extremely well? And how will he perform as a wide receiver in drills?
  • Linebacker is probably the strongest group the Big Ten will send to Indianapolis, which is fitting because that was the best position group in the league in 2013. Many scouts already love Wisconsin's Chris Borland, but his height could remain an issue for some. I think his overall athleticism should shine through this weekend and relieve some of those questions. Michigan State's Max Bullough has excellent height and size, but faces some concerns over his lateral quickness and probably even more regarding his Rose Bowl suspension. Will Bullough publicly reveal the reason for his suspension? It will also be fun to see how Iowa's standout trio of James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens compares in their testing.
  • Lewan figures to go in the top 15, but he does have some character issues to address in his interviews. Speaking of offensive linemen, how healthy is Nebraska All-American guard Spencer Long after his season-ending knee injury? Ohio State's Jack Mewhort was a great leader for the Buckeyes but must show he's athletic enough to play tackle in the NFL. And after interviewing Penn State's John Urschel, will some team ask him to skip his playing days and just run their front office?
  • Iowa tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz earned rave reviews at the Senior Bowl. While he wasn't hyper-productive in the passing game with the Hawkeyes, some team easily could fall in love with his size and athleticism and make him an early-round pick.
  • Defensive back is another deep group from the Big Ten, with seven players invited. Dennard simply needs to not hurt his stock, and Roby could improve his after a good, but not great, junior season. Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste will be intriguing with his 6-foot-3 frame, especially after the success of the Seattle Seahawks' tall defensive backs. Guys such as Michigan State's Isaiah Lewis, Minnesota's Brock Vereen and Purdue's Ricardo Allen are viewed as late-round picks at this point; they need to make an impression and not lose any more ground in the eyes of scouts.


All these questions and more will begin to be answered this weekend.
The official invite list for the 2014 NFL combine is out, and 36 Big Ten players will try to impress pro scouts during workouts in Indianapolis from Feb. 22-25. In case you were wondering, that's fourth most among conferences behind the SEC (71 invitees), the ACC (48) and the Pac-12 (45).

Here are the Big Ten players who were invited, broken down by position:

Quarterbacks (0)

Running backs (2)

Wide receivers (8)

Tight ends (2)

Offensive linemen (8)

Defensive linemen (2)

Linebackers (7)

Defensive backs (7)

Specialists (0)

Breakdown
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.
National signing day is less than 48 hours away, and Big Ten fan bases are preparing to officially welcome the 2014 class. My interest in recruiting has increased during the years, but I likely will never reach the mania of many fans.

[+] EnlargeWilliam Gholston
Zuma Press/Icon SMIWilliam Gholston played three seasons for Michigan State, recording 142 tackles and 10 sacks.
The reason: There have been so many examples of supposed top recruits who go bust, and under-the-radar guys who become stars, especially in a largely developmental league like the Big Ten. Recruiting evaluation is an inexact science.

As we prepare for the faxes to roll in, especially from the Big Ten prospects in the ESPN 300, it's always interesting to take a look back at how the top Big Ten recruits from four years ago performed. There wasn't an ESPN 300 back in 2010, just an ESPN 150, which included 15 Big Ten players. Some became stars, some never got started and others haven't closed the book on their college careers.

Let's take a closer look (positions listed according to ESPN recruiting profiles):

Top 50

  • No. 12: Demar Dorsey, S, Michigan -- Although Dorsey signed with Michigan, he was denied admission to the school. He had a checkered past but reportedly was given no specific reason for the denial. Dorsey appeared headed to Louisville but never made it and played for Grand Rapids Community College in 2011. He planned to transfer to Hawaii in 2012 but never played for the Warriors.
  • No. 42: William Gholston, DE, Michigan State -- Gholston played three seasons for the Spartans, recording 142 tackles, including 30 for loss and 10 sacks. He started 24 games and stood out in bowl wins against Georgia and TCU. After a big performance in the 2012 Outback Bowl, Gholston appeared on several preseason watch lists but underachieved at times during the 2012 campaign. He skipped his final season and was a fourth-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft.
Nos. 51-100

  • No. 56: Rod Smith, RB, Ohio State -- Smith redshirted the 2010 season and has been in a reserve role the past three seasons, playing briefly at linebacker in 2012. He has 83 career rushes for 448 yards and four touchdowns. Smith once again will compete for the starting job this fall.
  • No. 66: Khairi Fortt, LB, Penn State -- He played two years for Penn State, recording 50 tackles, including 6.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks, before transferring to Cal in 2012 when the NCAA imposed sanctions on PSU. Fortt sat out the 2012 season because of injury and had 64 tackles (3.5 for loss) in nine games last season before suffering an arm injury. He declared for the NFL draft last month.
  • No. 70: Dakota Royer, DE, Penn State -- Royer didn't play at linebacker in his first two seasons, moved to tight end after spring ball in 2012 and moved back to linebacker early in camp. He then decided to walk away from football, remained on scholarship and graduated in May.
  • No. 80: James Louis, WR, Ohio State -- Louis redshirted the 2010 season and then opted to transfer from Ohio State to Florida International. He never played for FIU and is no longer listed on the roster.
  • No. 82: C.J. Fiedorowicz, TE, Iowa -- He appeared in every game during the past four years and started the past two-and-a-half seasons, earning first-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches as a senior in 2013. Fiedorowicz had 91 career receptions for 899 yards and 10 touchdowns, including six this past season.
  • No. 88: Evan Hailes, DT, Penn State -- Hailes redshirted in 2010 and played two games in 2011, recording two tackles. A series of blood clots, which first surfaced in the spring of 2011, ended his career in 2012. He remained with the team in a coaching role.
[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallThe reviews have been mixed for Devin Gardner, who passed for 2,960 yards and 21 touchdowns in 2013.
Nos. 101-150

  • No. 112: Rob Bolden, QB, Penn State -- Bolden in 2010 became the first freshman quarterback in 100 years to start a season opener at Penn State. He made 16 starts in two years at Penn State but transferred to LSU after the NCAA imposed sanctions on the program in 2012. Bolden has yet to play for the Tigers and has one season left.
  • No. 118: Miles Dieffenbach, C, Penn State -- Dieffenbach redshirted in 2010 and didn't play in 2011 before starting 23 games the past two seasons at left guard. He'll likely enter the 2014 campaign in the same spot.
  • No. 128: Devin Gardner, QB, Michigan -- Gardner appeared in 12 games as a reserve quarterback in his first two seasons before alternating between wide receiver and quarterback in 2012, starting the final four games under center. He started 12 games at quarterback in 2013 and passed for 2,960 yards and 21 touchdowns, delivering several huge performances and also some duds. Gardner, who received a medical redshirt for the 2010 season, returns for his final year this fall.
  • No. 131: Darryl Baldwin, DE, Ohio State -- Baldwin worked as a reserve defensive lineman in 2011 before moving to offense in the spring of 2012. He played mostly special teams in 2012 and backed up left tackle Jack Mewhort the past two years. Baldwin could move into a starting role in his final season.
  • No. 137: Corey Brown, WR, Ohio State -- After recording just 22 receptions in his first two seasons, Brown emerged as the Buckeyes' top option in the passing game as a junior and senior. He combined to record 123 catches for 1,440 yards and 13 touchdowns and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors in 2013 from the coaches.
  • No. 147: Andrew Rodriguez, G, Nebraska -- Rodriguez played mostly in a reserve role for his first three seasons and then started every game as a senior in 2013, alternating between right tackle and right guard for an injury-plagued Husker line. He earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors from both the coaches and the media.
  • No. 148: C.J. Olaniyan, DE, Penn State -- After redshirting in 2010, Olaniyan recorded 18 tackles and a sack during his first two seasons. He started every game last fall at defensive end and led Penn State in both sacks (5) and forced fumbles (3), recording 11 tackles for loss, an interception and a fumble recovery. He'll enter his final season projected as a starter.

More misses than hits in the group, although several players still could finish their college careers as stars.
The North team lost 20-10 to the South in the Senior Bowl on Saturday, but it was still a good day for many Big Ten draft hopefuls.

[+] EnlargeJames White
Dan Sanger/Icon SMIJames White was one of a few Wisconsin players who stood out at the Senior Bowl.
Wisconsin seniors in particular grabbed the spotlight in Mobile, Ala. Former Badgers tailback James White led all rushers with 11 carries for 62 yards and had the game's only rushing score, a 1-yard, fourth-quarter plunge that also was his team's lone touchdown. White added five catches for 15 yards, showing the versatility that made him a standout for four years in Madison. After he was long overlooked in college, it's good to see White getting a chance to shine on his way toward the NFL.

White's teammate, former Badgers tight end Jacob Pedersen, led the North squad with 46 receiving yards on four catches. Meanwhile, ex-Wisconsin star Chris Borland wrapped up a terrific week of practice with a team-best eight tackles, including a tackle for a loss and his signature play: the forced fumble.

Borland was named the most outstanding linebacker at the Senior Bowl on Friday. He appeared to answer any lingering concerns about his height and should be drafted within the first two or three rounds in April.

One Wisconsin star didn't play in the game, as receiver Jared Abbrederis tweaked a hamstring late in the week and flew home to recover. That opened a spot for Michigan State's Bennie Fowler, who contributed two catches for 19 yards on Saturday.

Iowa's Christian Kirksey finished second on the North team with six tackles, including 1.5 for loss. He received positive reviews for his play all week. His former Hawkeyes teammate, tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz, did not record a catch but was credited with two tackles. Fiedorowicz was named the most outstanding tight end at the Senior Bowl on Friday, and his impressive physical attributes should make him attractive to teams on draft day.

Other Big Ten players who collected stats included:

  • Nebraska cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste finished with four tackles and a pass breakup.
  • Illinois linebacker Jonathan Brown had four tackles.
  • Wisconsin defensive back Dez Southward made two tackles.
  • Penn State's DaQuan Jones and Minnesota's Ra'Shede Hageman each collected just one stop but drew praise for their work in stuffing the run.
  • Michigan State safety Isaiah Lewis, another late addition to the team, registered one pass breakup.

The North team also featured Big Ten offensive line products Jack Mewhort (Ohio State) and Michael Schofield (Michigan).
The football world has descended on Mobile, Ala., this week as the top senior college prospects gear up for the Reese's Senior Bowl on Saturday. Be sure to follow ESPN.com's coverage of practices and the game itself as players audition before NFL coaches, general managers and other personnel types.

Here are a few takeaways after reading some of the Senior Bowl coverage:

  • [+] EnlargeRa'Shede Hageman
    Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY SportsMinnesota defensive lineman Ra'Shede Hageman has impressed scouts this week at the Senior Bowl practices.
    Minnesota defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman has impressed a lot of folks in Mobile and strengthened his case to be a first-round pick in May's draft. Hageman blossomed as a senior for the Gophers, earning first-team All-Big Ten honors, and has shined alongside other defensive linemen like Pitt's Aaron Donald (who won the Outland Trophy, Bednarik Award, Nagurski Trophy and Lombardi Award). At 6-foot-6 and 318 pounds, Hageman has a unique frame and unique abilities that are showing up right now.
  • Kain Colter played mostly quarterback at Northwestern, but his cameos at wide receiver underscored his ability to excel at the position. He's playing exclusively at wideout during Senior Bowl week and has caught the eye of the ESPN Scouts Inc. crewInsider, which sees him as a slot receiver who compares in some ways to another former Big Ten quarterback-turned-NFL-receiver, one-time Indiana star Antwaan Randle El.
  • Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland is another player generating buzz. Borland's height continues to be a topic of discussion, but as he did throughout a decorated Badgers career, he's getting it done on the field in impressive fashion. The Zach Thomas comparison is being made, and some also liken Borland to former Boston College standout Luke Kuechly, who has transitioned very well to the pro level with the Carolina Panthers.
  • While everyone continues to talk about Richard Sherman, another cornerback with a similar build to Sherman stood out at Monday's practice. Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who like Sherman began his college career at wide receiver, impressed onlookers with his length in press coverageInsider. NFL Media's Gil Brandt described Jean-Baptiste as "like a clone of Richard Sherman." At 6-3 and 215 pounds, Jean-Baptiste is part of the new wave of larger cornerbacks.
  • Iowa tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz has drawn praise from Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage and others following some good practices. Fiedorowicz has told reporters in Mobile that there's more to his game than he displayed at Iowa, where he was used primarily as a blocker before emerging to record 75 receptions his final two seasons. His size has always jumped out, and he's showing how well he can catch passes this week.

There's much more to come from Mobile, so be sure to follow all of our Senior Bowl coverage.

Offseason to-do list: Iowa

January, 10, 2014
Jan 10
2:30
PM ET
The interminable offseason is upon us, and we're taking a look at three things each Big Ten team must do in the coming months before the games begin again in late August.

Up next: the Iowa Hawkeyes.

1. Locate linebackers: The good news is Iowa historically finds them, but the Hawkeyes are replacing an exceptional group in James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens. The three combined for 322 tackles, 25.5 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, six forced fumbles, six interceptions and four fumble recoveries last season. Iowa's linebackers were the biggest reason for the upgrade on defense, and it will be very important to see development from younger players like Travis Perry and Reggie Spearman.

2. Create more explosion plays: Iowa's offense established more of an identity in Year 2 under coordinator Greg Davis, but as Davis noted last month, "We have a hard time creating the big run, the big throw." Iowa averaged just 5.3 yards per play in 2013, which ranked 10th in the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes lose only one offensive skill-position starter (tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz) and must do a better job maximizing players like Damond Powell, who averaged 24.2 yards per reception and ranked fourth on the team in receiving despite limited work.

3. Improve in red zone, short yardage: It's tough to explain how an Iowa team with a big, physical offensive line and a powerful running back in Mark Weisman struggles so much to grind out the tough yards. Iowa scored only 27 touchdowns on 53 trips inside the red zone in 2013, and ranked last in the league in fourth-down conversions (5-of-17). Predictable play calls could be to blame, but Iowa should improve in this area as all the running backs return along with three starting linemen, led by left tackle Brandon Scherff.

More to-do lists
The Big Ten is off to a rocky start in the postseason. Our predictions are faring slightly better, but there are five games to go.

We made our picks for the first two Big Ten bowls last week and both went 1-1. The overall season race remains all square.

New Year's Day will feature Nebraska in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, Iowa in the Outback Bowl, Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl and Michigan State in the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO. Ohio State wraps up the Big Ten bowl slate Friday in the Discover Orange Bowl.

Let's get started.

TAXSLAYER.COM GATOR BOWL
Nebraska vs. Georgia; 11 a.m. ET Wednesday; Jacksonville, Fla.

Brian Bennett's pick: Nebraska should be as healthy as it has been since midseason, and I expect the Huskers to put together a pretty good showing. Ameer Abdullah will enjoy coming back to the south with 130 rushing yards and two scores. Ultimately, though, the Nebraska defense has no answer for Todd Gurley, who churns out 175 yards and three scores, and a late Tommy Armstrong Jr. interception seals it for the Dawgs for the second straight year. … Georgia 31, Nebraska 23

Adam Rittenberg's pick: Motivation could be a factor in this one as both teams had much higher aspirations this season. Neither has its starting quarterback, although Nebraska has played without Taylor Martinez a lot longer than Georgia has without Aaron Murray. But the Bulldogs remain explosive on offense with running back Gurley, who gashes Nebraska for 140 yards and two touchdowns. The Huskers lead early and get another big game from Abdullah, but they commit two costly second-half turnovers and Georgia rallies behind Gurley and Hutson Mason. … Georgia 34, Nebraska 27

OUTBACK BOWL
Iowa vs. LSU; 1 p.m. ET Wednesday; Tampa


Rittenberg's pick: LSU has more speed and overall talent, but I really like Iowa's chances as the Hawkeyes typically play well in bowls and have walked a very similar path to the 2008 season, which ended with an Outback Bowl win against an SEC foe (South Carolina). The Iowa defense does enough against an LSU team that no longer has star quarterback Zach Mettenberger. LSU leads early thanks to Odell Beckham Jr. and its return game, but Iowa keeps things close and has a big fourth quarter on offense. Jake Rudock fires the winning touchdown to C.J. Fiedorowicz in the final minute. … Iowa 20, LSU 17

Bennett's pick: Iowa brings some momentum into this game and a defense that's really playing well against a new LSU quarterback. So don't count the Hawkeyes out. I even think Iowa will be the more motivated team and will jump on the Tigers early with a couple of nice scoring drives. But I'm just not sure the Hawkeyes have the speed and athleticism to counter Les Miles' team. LSU pulls off the late win this time, with Jeremy Hill scoring the go-ahead touchdown in the final minute … LSU 24, Iowa 20

CAPITAL ONE BOWL
Wisconsin vs. South Carolina: 1 p.m. ET Wednesday; Orlando, Fla.


Bennett's pick: Do we see the Wisconsin that was so good during most of the season, or the Badgers who went out with a whimper on Senior Day? I think it will be the former, as a large senior class is highly motivated to make up for that loss to Penn State and to get over the bowl hump. The running game led by James White and Melvin Gordon will help neutralize South Carolina's pass rush, and neither have to worry about being decapitated by Jadeveon Clowney, who spends the second half dreaming of sports cars. Chris Borland forces a Connor Shaw fumble on the Gamecocks' final drive to go out on top. … Wisconsin 20, South Carolina 17

Rittenberg's pick: The Badgers aren't a good team when playing from behind and relying heavily on quarterback Joel Stave to make big plays. Fortunately, Wisconsin jumps ahead early in this one behind Gordon, who breaks off some big runs in the first half. It will be close throughout but the Badgers hold a 2-1 edge in turnover margin, and respond well after the Senior Day debacle against Penn State. Clowney has a ho-hum ending to his college career, while Borland and a decorated senior class finally get a bowl win. Gordon's second touchdown in the final minutes proves to be the difference. … Wisconsin 24, South Carolina 21

ROSE BOWL GAME PRESENTED BY VIZIO
Michigan State vs. Stanford; 5 p.m. ET Saturday; Pasadena, Calif.

Rittenberg's pick: By far the toughest game to call, I've gone back and forth all week on my pick. I went with Michigan State in the Big Ten championship because it had more experience on that stage than Ohio State did. Once again, I'm going with the team more accustomed to this particular spotlight. I love this MSU team, but Stanford is playing in its fourth consecutive BCS bowl game. The Spartans aren't simply happy to be here, but they'll make a few costly mistakes against a sound Cardinal team. Max Bullough's absence isn't too significant, but Stanford capitalizes on strong field position from Ty Montgomery and picks off two Connor Cook passes, the second in the closing minute as Michigan State drives for the winning score. … Stanford 21, Michigan State 17

Bennett's pick: The loss of Bullough is huge for the Spartans. But I think the Spartans defense can still hold up well enough. The real key will be whether Cook can play nearly as well as he did in the Big Ten title game, because there likely won't be much running room for Jeremy Langford. Cook won't throw for 300 yards again, but he will do just enough damage and toss two touchdowns. There's every reason to pick Stanford after the Bullough suspension, but Michigan State just seems like a team of destiny to me. … Michigan State 17, Stanford 16

DISCOVER ORANGE BOWL
Ohio State vs. Clemson; 8:30 p.m. ET Friday; Miami Gardens, Fla.


Bennett's pick: The potential loss of Bradley Roby and Noah Spence is devastating news for a Buckeyes' defense that was already going to be under the gun in this game. The Big Ten just can't prepare you for the type of speed and playmaking ability Clemson has at receiver, and Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins will end their Tigers career in a big way while connecting for three scores. Ohio State finds lots of success running the ball with Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde, getting a combined 250 yards and four touchdowns out of them, but the Buckeyes just can't match Clemson score for score. … Clemson 38, Ohio State 35

Rittenberg's pick: Another tough one to call, as I don't like Ohio State's injury situation, especially against Clemson's big-play receivers. How motivated are these Buckeyes? Often times teams that fall just shy of the national title game don't bring it in their bowl. Still, I've seen too many ACC teams fall flat on their faces when the lights are brightest, and Ohio State has been strong in BCS bowls over the years. Ohio State has the edge at both head coach and quarterback in this game, as I expect Miller to perform well both with his arm and his legs. Both offenses show up, but I'll take the running team with Urban Meyer at the helm. Hyde turns in a big fourth quarter as Ohio State rallies late. … Ohio State 41, Clemson 38

SEASON RECORDS

Bennett: 81-18

Rittenberg: 81-18

Season report card: Iowa

December, 27, 2013
12/27/13
1:00
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The regular season is all wrapped up, and we're passing out grades to each Big Ten team for offense, defense, special teams and overall performance. Iowa didn't post its 2012 report card on the refrigerator but can feel much better about its marks this fall.

Here's how Kirk Ferentz's crew fared.

Offense: B-minus

The Hawkeyes offense received a failing grade last season and had plenty of its fans dropping F-bombs, but the unit made tangible strides this fall. Iowa wasn't a juggernaut, finishing eighth in the Big Ten in yards and ninth in points, but it found an identity behind second-year coordinator Greg Davis. The running backs finally managed to stay healthy and formed a nice power game behind a good offensive line. Sophomore Jake Rudock stabilized the quarterback spot despite taking no game snaps before the season kicked off.

Iowa played to its strengths, namely a talented group of tight ends led by red-zone threat C.J. Fiedorowicz. Rudock spread the ball well, and backs Mark Weisman, Damon Bullock and Jordan Canzeri all had their moments. The Hawkeyes lacked explosiveness at times but didn't beat themselves as much as they did in 2012.

Defense: A

[+] EnlargeChristian Kirksey
Matthew Holst/Getty ImagesIowa's defense was built around a strong linebacker group that included Christian Kirksey (20).
A rock-solid defense led by one of the nation's best linebacker groups helped Iowa flip its record from 4-8 to 8-4 this fall. The unit's gains weren't as dramatic as those on offense, but Iowa improved to No. 7 nationally in total defense, 11th in both points allowed and pass yards allowed, and 17th in rush yards allowed. Iowa tied with No. 1 Florida State in fewest rushing touchdowns allowed (5) and fewest plays of 20 yards or longer allowed (30).

Senior linebackers James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens led the way, combining for 10 takeaways. Each ranked among the Big Ten's top 10 tacklers. They played behind a defensive line that Ferentz called the team's most improved unit. Senior cornerback B.J. Lowery led the secondary with three interceptions and 16 pass breakups.

Special teams: B-minus

Punt returner Kevonte Martin-Manley sparked Iowa's kicking game with two touchdowns and a league-leading 16.2-yard average. Otherwise, the Hawkeyes' special teams were decent but not spectacular. Kicker Mike Meyer connected on 16 of 21 field-goal attempts but missed three tries inside the 40-yard line. Fake punts continue to burn Iowa as Michigan State successfully executed one, leaving Ferentz to consider scrapping the punt return team altogether.

Overall: A-minus

Iowa had a lot to smile about this season after a forgettable 2012 campaign. The Hawkeyes went 5-1 in Legends Division play, regained their crunch-time mojo in wins against both Northwestern and Michigan and restored some of the principles that characterized Ferentz's best Iowa teams. Their losses all came against ranked opponents, and they competed well in every game. Much like the 2008 team, these Hawkeyes got Iowa back on track and have set the program up for even better things next season.

More report cards

Indiana
Northwestern
Ohio State
Nebraska
Penn State

Michigan
Minnesota
Illinois
Purdue

Bowl could springboard Iowa offense

December, 24, 2013
12/24/13
1:00
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After a season in the wilderness of transition, Iowa's offense found itself this fall. The next step is to find out what it could be.

The possibilities are exciting for a unit that will lose only three starters and bring back valuable pieces at running back, line and quarterback. While Iowa's offense might not make as dramatic a jump as it did this season -- when it vaulted from 114th nationally to 79th -- it certainly could move into the top half of the Big Ten.

"We have a good understanding of what the identity is," offensive coordinator Greg Davis told ESPN.com this week. "We're a zone, slant team with the tight ends that tries to use play-action. The players understand how we need to play, and that's how we try to go about game-planning."

Davis had three objectives for the offense entering the fall: play faster by incorporating a no-huddle element; maximize the strength at tight end by using two or three on the field together in many sets; and create more explosive plays.

Although few would confuse Iowa with Baylor, the Hawkeyes achieved the first objective by improving their tempo. Senior tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz became the team's top red-zone threat (six touchdown catches), while Jake Duzey emerged during Big Ten play with 16 receptions and Ray Hamilton had eight. Iowa recorded 41 offensive plays of 20 yards or longer, including eight passes of 40 yards or longer, though Davis admits, "We have a hard time creating the big run, the big throw."

[+] EnlargeJake Rudock
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsJake Rudock stepped in as starting quarterback and provided stability, if not eye-popping numbers.
But the Hawkeyes created some progress after floundering in Davis' first season at the helm. The outlook was bleak for a unit that finished near the bottom of the FBS in so many categories, couldn't keep its running backs healthy and had no quarterbacks with game experience on the roster. Sophomore Jake Rudock performed the best in practices, but as Davis knows, things change when the hitting begins.

"He's an extremely bright person, he takes courses I can't spell the name of," Davis said of Rudock, a microbiology and premed major. "We ask a lot of our quarterback at the line. We thought he would handle all that, but we didn't know for sure. There's still that apprehension going into the year."

Rudock's numbers hardly jump off the page (2,281 pass yards, 18 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, 60.2 percent completions), but he steadied the ship and helped the Hawkeyes more than he hurt them. Although Rudock left the regular-season finale against Nebraska with a knee injury, he'll be ready for next week's Outback Bowl clash against LSU.

"He's a real even-keeled guy," Davis said. "Sometimes it's hard to tell if he threw an interception or a touchdown. That serves him well playing quarterback."

Iowa's offense in 2012 essentially consisted of two ball-carriers in Mark Weisman (159 attempts) and Damon Bullock (135 attempts) and three pass-catchers in Kevonte Martin-Manley (52 receptions), Keenan Davis (47) and Fiedorowicz (45). The touches were spread around much more this season.

Four Hawkeyes have more than 60 rushes, including Jordan Canzeri, who missed all of last season with a knee injury. Seven players have 12 or more receptions, including Tevaun Smith, who led Iowa in catches during conference play with 21, and Damond Powell, a junior-college transfer who averages 24.2 yards per reception.

"The more guys you can depend on, the harder it is for the defense," Davis said. "That's what we've tried to do."

The bowl game is a final exam of sorts, and Iowa faces an LSU defense ranked 20th nationally despite having only three seniors on the two-deep. Davis went against LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis during the early to mid 1990s when Davis coached in the SEC and calls the Tigers a "huge challenge."

It's also a huge opportunity for Iowa, not just for now but for the future. Aside from Fiedorowicz, guard Conor Boffeli and right tackle Brett Van Sloten, Iowa returns every other starter, including standout left tackle Brandon Scherff, who recently announced he's passing up the NFL draft for one more year in Iowa City.

"With two years under their belt," Davis said, "we have an opportunity to take another step going into 2014."

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