Big Ten: Damian Prince
Problem position: Offensive line
Why offensive line was a problem in 2014: The Terrapins got pushed around too often up front, averaging just 121.8 rush yards per game (12th in the Big Ten) and surrendering 37 sacks, tied with Illinois for the second most in the Big Ten. Only Penn State's offensive line struggled more than Maryland's, which had decent experience but struggled with consistency. The Terrapins eclipsed 200 rush yards against both Iowa and Rutgers, but had just 168 combined yards against Ohio State, Wisconsin, Penn State, Michigan State, and Stanford.
How it can be fixed (solutions on the roster): Maryland has recruited well to the offensive line, and could see a talent upgrade in 2015 despite losing three starters. Redshirt freshman Derwin Gray seems likely to start at one of the tackle positions, especially if Moise Larose doesn't return following a year-long suspension. Junior Michael Dunn started at both tackle spots last season, and also could slide inside to guard. Damian Prince, who headlined Maryland's 2014 recruiting class, should push for major playing time. Starting guard Andrew Zeller returns, and there will be competition on the interior with Evan Mulrooney, Brendan Moore and others.
How it can be fixed (potential help from 2015 recruiting class): The string of top offensive line recruits to pick Maryland continued when Quarvez Boulware, a four-star guard from Washington D.C., committed the Terrapins this month. Maryland also hoped to add Isaiah Prince, but he's heading to Alabama. Boulware and E.J. Donahue could compete for time as freshmen at the interior line positions. The Terps went heavy with interior line recruits this year, Ellis McKennie among them.
Early 2015 outlook: The talent already in the program gives Maryland's offensive line a chance to be much better in 2015. Larose's return would be big, as he started at left tackle as a freshman and provide some insurance as Gray and Damian Prince develop. There should be more competition for the interior spots, and center will be a position to watch as Moore, Mulrooney, and others vie for the starting job. The line's development becomes even more critical as Maryland turns to a new starting quarterback.
1. Stabilize quarterback situation: This is a concern for most Big Ten teams outside of Michigan State and Penn State. At Maryland, the job looks set to go to rising senior Caleb Rowe, who pushed C.J. Brown in the first half of last season. But Rowe suffered a torn left ACL -- for the second time -- in an October practice. He’ll likely remain limited in the spring, an unfortunate development for the Terps. Junior Perry Hills and sophomore Shane Cockerille continue to develop and Maryland appears in the market for a graduate transfer QB, but Rowe is the best bet to take the reins in August. He completed 63 percent of his throws in 2014 and saw significant playing time as a sophomore in 2013. Consistency for Rowe is a concern. And despite his injury, this spring rates as an important time for him to grow in Mike Locksley’s offensive system.
2. Rebuild front seven: Have you seen what’s happening in the Big Ten East? Maryland fared well in its first season as a part of the league, posting a 5-1 road record before it ran out of gas late in the season. But more difficult challenges are coming as programs in every direction sink huge investments into football. Chief among the Terps’ concerns is a need to build a defensive system to compete against the innovative offenses of their division rivals. Coordinator Brian Stewart fielded a unit that ranked 12th in the Big Ten in yardage allowed, and the front seven needs a total replacement. Andre Monroe was a star pass rusher. Cole Farrand, L.A. Goree and Darius Kilgo were active near the line of scrimmage. Maryland features a solid secondary, headlined by star cornerback Will Likely, but the defensive backs can’t do their jobs well without support up front.
3. Continue to upgrade talent: Coach Randy Edsall has done well in recruiting. He beat traditional powers for receiver Stefon Diggs, Likely, offensive tackle Damian Prince and defensive end Jesse Aniebonam. More, please. Maryland sits among a hotbed of talent in comparison to the home ground of most Big Ten programs. It can recruit head to head against Penn State, evidenced by the pledge in this class of defensive tackle Adam McLean. Facility improvements are on the way. Yes, Edsall has created momentum in recruiting, and his teams have improved every season since his arrival in 2011. All signs point toward continued success in collecting talent. We’ll know more, though, in two weeks when the 2015 class is complete.
For the early enrollees, some over-the-top praise and projections of early impacts might keep going through April. Around July and media days, the optimism from coaches about their talented, athletic, mature-for-their-age freshmen usually gets a second wind.
But then reality hits when training camp arrives, and with just two weeks until the season starts, by now it's pretty easy to tell if the hype was legitimate and time to start picking out a handful of newcomers truly capable of making a splash right away this fall.
At Ohio State, the indicators were there on the opening day of camp when linebacker Raekwon McMillan and versatile offensive weapon Curtis Samuel were thrown in with the veterans instead of the rookies during split-squad workouts. A stronger suggestion arrived when they were the first two players to have their black stripes removed to be considered bonafide Buckeyes.
Congrats to Curtis Samuel and Raekwon McMillan for being the first 2 freshmen to get their black stripes removed! pic.twitter.com/OZg6314sZ9— Urban Meyer (@OSUCoachMeyer) August 10, 2014
At Michigan State, the confirmation comes straight from the head man. When the midway point of camp arrives and Mark Dantonio is still willing to include players such as defensive tackle Malik McDowell and linebacker Chris Frey in his two-deep, it's safe to assume those two will be on the field.
The same is true elsewhere around the league, with Minnesota praising its new talent at wide receiver or Maryland tinkering with five-star lineman Damian Prince's position presumably to ease his transition to the lineup at guard. Sometimes it's not quite as obvious, with Michigan coach Brady Hoke trying to temper expectations about defensive back Jabrill Peppers -- although the occasional first-team reps that he's received according to coordinator Greg Mattison might have spilled the secret.
Sure, there's still time for the hype machine to dial back up. There are some overmatched opponents to play during the first month of the season, and more than just the surefire impact freshmen will get to see the field and raise expectations for what they are capable of providing.
But by now, coaches have typically seen enough to get a reasonably good idea of who can help their team right away. And if there are names which haven't been mentioned much lately, it's probably safe to hold off on getting to know them until next season.
- Ohio State's planned home-and-home with North Carolina in 2017-18 has been cancelled. No money exchanged hands. Could this be an opening for a neutral-site game Urban Meyer suggested at media days might be in the works?
- What is James Franklin Time? A look at the new work week for Penn State.
- The linebacker unit remains unsettled for Michigan State. Details from Mike Griffith after an open practice for the Spartans.
- A look at the captains for Rutgers this season.
- Even Maryland's defense had to concede that the offense has been looking good in camp.
- Indiana safeties coach Noah Joseph is still looking for more consistency from his unit.
- Ross Douglas is on the move for Michigan again, this time moving to wide receiver.
- There is speed to burn in the Minnesota secondary, where a former state-champion sprinter is adding depth in the defensive backfield.
- Purdue is shaking things up at practice and keeping players on their toes.
- Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst called the football program "stable" under Bo Pelini and talks about his priorities for the coach.
- Wisconsin is looking to fill critical leadership roles on defense, and Gary Andersen still feels like the Badgers have something to prove.
- Iowa safety John Lowdermilk finds himself as one of the most experienced players on the team, now charged with bringing along some younger guys and helping turn them into contributors.
- An interesting look at potential attendance problems for Northwestern and two possible solutions in the future.
- Illinois is keeping things light at camp, and cooling coach Tim Beckman down in the process.
- Check out what Ralph Friedgen had been up to before diving back into coaching. Maybe he made the wrong choice.
We've been talking about this moment since November 2012. Rarely, have the Terrapins and Scarlet Knights been mentioned as contenders in their new league. But change comes fast in college football.
It could happen here, too. On this historic day as the Big Ten goes from 12 to 14, here are six reasons to believe that Maryland and Rutgers, as a pair and individually, can experience success in the Big Ten:
- The Big Ten just isn't that good. You've heard about this, right? The league last played for a national championship seven years ago and hasn't won a title since January 2003. It has performed poorly of late against the major-conference competition and went 2-5 in bowls last season, though Michigan State did win the Rose Bowl – the Big Ten's second triumph in Pasadena since New Year's Day 2000. How does any of this impact Maryland and Rutgers, expected by many to finish 6-7 in the Big Ten East Division? It means no conference foe is unbeatable. It means there's hope.
- For a while, at least, they're going to get noticed. Rutgers has long operated in the shadow of pro sports in its region, while Maryland football played second fiddle amid the ACC basketball buzz. The Big Ten figures to change some of that. The Terps have already benefited in recruiting from the move. Rutgers needs to capitalize on the attention to make a dent in a deep pool of New Jersey prep talent. You want excitement? Check out Rutgers' Big Ten opener, Sept. 13, when Penn State visits for the first meeting in the series since 1995. Expect Maryland's first Big Ten home game, three weeks later against Ohio State, to equally move the needle.
- The Terps are trending up. Coach Randy Edsall took Maryland from a two-win team in 2011 to six in 2012 and seven last year. The Terrapins remained an average program in the ACC, but Edsall and his staff have begun to stack the pieces in place, notably on offense, to make a move in the Big Ten. For quarterback C.J. Brown, the time is now to make a mark in the new league. Brown, from Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania, is a dual threat who knows the Big Ten style. He works well with coordinator Mike Locksley, an innovative offensive mind. Meanwhile, Maryland's incoming class, bolstered by the impending move, ranked 50th nationally, featuring home grown star Damian Prince at offensive tackle.
- Deon Long and Stefon Diggs are healthy. Diggs, a junior, and the senior Long form perhaps the best receiving duo in the Big Ten. Both wideouts suffered leg fractures on Oct. 19 in the Terps' 34-10 loss at Wake Forest. Long broke the fibula and tibia in his right leg; Diggs broke the fibula in his right leg, triggering a stretch of four Maryland losses in five games before a regular season-ending win at North Carolina State. Long and Diggs returned for spring practice and appear on track to torment even the best of secondaries in the Big Ten this fall.
- Gary Nova is back at the helm. This could go either way, depending on whom you ask at Rutgers. But we say it's good for the Scarlet Knights to go through a transformation such as this in with a steady hand at quarterback. Nova has started 28 games and ranks third in school history with 51 touchdown throws. He was benched in favor of Chas Dodd after winning five of 10 starts in 2013, but Nova has won consistently, dating to his unbeaten days as a starter at Don Bosco Prep. To help his cause, Rutgers returns five starters on the offensive line and its top four rushers.
- There's new energy on the Rutgers defense and strength up the middle. Joe Rossi, the 35-year Rutgers defensive coordinator promoted this offseason from special teams coach, offers a new start for a unit that endured struggles last season. Its strength comes against the run, which figures to suit Rutgers better in the Big Ten than it did in the AAC. And through the core of its defense, tackle Darius Hamilton, middle linebacker Kevin Snyder -- who switched spots with linebacker Steve Longa -- and safety Lorenzo Waters form a backbone of veteran leadership.
You can read the first installment here. To recap, the participants included Northwestern QB Clayton Thorson, ranked No. 157 in the 2014 class; Penn State WR Chris Godwin, one of the top 25 receivers in the class; Michigan LB Jared Wangler, one of 11 linebackers invited to the UA Game; Iowa WR Jay Scheel, one of two four-star players in the Hawkeyes’ class; and Maryland LB Jesse Aniebonam, the second-best prospect in the state behind OL Damian Prince.
Here’s what the freshmen had to say:
Outside of your team, what B1G freshmen are you most looking forward to watching and/or playing against?
Thorson: Hmmm. Trying to think. So there’s obviously Raekwon McMillan at Ohio State. I know we don’t play them this season, but I heard he’s a great player, so it’ll be fun going against him in future years. And it’s just guys like Zack Darlington; he’s at Nebraska at quarterback and I’ve gotten to know him over the past the few months, so it’ll be cool to go against him. And, at Michigan State, Madre London and I played at the Semper Fi [All-American] Bowl together, and he’s a great athlete.
Wangler: I want to watch Byron Bullough for Michigan State. We played in this Michigan all-star game [‘Border Classic’ on June 14], and we got along pretty good. So I’m excited to see how he does. I know he’s got a good history -- his father and brother were successful for Michigan State -- so I feel like Byron is going to be successful, too.
Aniebonam: Big Ten-wise, that one guy -- Peppers, Jabrill Peppers -- he’s a solid athlete. I want to see how he does. He was in the Under Armour Game; we watched it right before our game [U.S. Army All-American Bowl] and he did pretty well. So, let’s see how he does at Michigan.
Why did you decide to commit to your school, and what do you think separates it from others in the conference?
Thorson: I always knew I wanted to play in the Big Ten. My family is from Ohio and Illinois, so I always just wanted to be around them so they could see me play – so that’s kind of how I narrowed it down. And then visiting different schools like Penn State, Illinois, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Iowa – after looking at all those schools, I decided Northwestern was the best fit for me. I jelled with the guys on the team, and the coaching staff is just awesome. I thought that was the best fit for me both academically and athletically.
Godwin: I chose Penn State because I felt really comfortable on campus and with the team. It was also the right fit for me academically and socially, and I think the tradition and fan base really separate it from other teams in the conference.
Wangler: Michigan has always been my dream school to go to, and there aren’t many universities out there that offer such a great degree and a great football experience. Plus, I feel really comfortable with Coach [Brady] Hoke and Coach [Greg] Mattison. It’s a great fit. It’s close to home, my dad played there. ... It’s almost too good to be true.
Scheel: Well, personally, it’s just been a dream to play there. So, really, any other school that decided it was going to offer me was nice, but it was always my dream to go to Iowa. I’ve only heard good things about them. Playing for Iowa is really an honor. And what makes them different is they’re not known for getting big recruits -- I know that -- but they take two- and three-star recruits and turn them into NFL players.
Aniebonam: Maryland just really stood out to me. Not just because it’s my hometown team and all my friends and family will be around me, but every time I went to the campus I was just pulled in and attracted to it more and more. If you asked me in the beginning of my junior season if I wanted to go to Maryland, I would’ve said, ‘Heck no.’ But it just grew on me; it just felt right. … [What separates Maryland] is they’re well-known -- but still underdogs. I think it’s a team that is going to be really watched because people want to know what happens here.
What are your expectations for this season -- and your career?
Thorson: The coaches always say to prepare each week as if you’re going to start the game, so I’m going to do that every week. I just want to get better at leading the team and knowing the playbook and everything. The Lord has a plan for me and, whether that’s starting this year or next year, whatever happens happens. I’m just really looking forward to getting on campus and playing with these guys.
Godwin: I would consider them goals more than expectations because I haven’t done anything yet. But, this season, my goal is to earn a starting spot by UCF then continually improve as a player and a teammate and, hopefully, be Big Ten freshman of the year. As a team, a goal of mine is to go undefeated, but who doesn’t want that, right?
Wangler: I expect to win. I think this next season we have a lot of people coming back and, after having kind of a mediocre season last year, I think we’re going to come out with a lot of hunger and the team is going to do a lot better. I think that’s going to set the pace for the four years after that. I feel like I’m going to have a successful career at Michigan.
Scheel: Personally, going in, I just want to get to know the playbook better and get to know the offense as soon as I can. I pretty much think I’m going to redshirt because starting right away might be difficult. If it does work, that’d be great. But I’m just trying to do my best. With my career, I’m trying to make a big impact on Iowa football, and I just want to have fun and get on the field.
Aniebonam: I just want to make a name for myself early. I want to get myself out there and really, really put my stamp on the school and into the minds of the coaches as early as I can. … Hopefully, that’ll come quick, but nothing is ever promised. You have to work.
Who'll end up as the most memorable player? And who'll see time right away? Adam Rittenberg, Brian Bennett and Josh Moyer joined Big Ten recruiting writer Tom VanHaaren in discussing the big questions surrounding the freshmen.
So let's get started ...
Based on talent, which freshman is too good to leave off the field?
VanHaaren: Peppers is the first name that comes to mind. Michigan doesn't really have anyone like him on the roster. His combination of size and speed, which he displayed at a recent track meet by running a 10.52-second 100-meter dash, is something that Michigan needs in the defensive backfield. I just don't see a scenario where a healthy Peppers doesn't see the field in some capacity.
Moyer: Everyone should be familiar with Peppers, so let's forget about him for a minute. Someone whom Buckeyes fans already know -- and whom other B1G fans should familiarize themselves with -- is linebacker Raekwon McMillan, who was rated as the top inside linebacker recruit in the nation. He's already enrolled, he's already impressed Urban Meyer, and he's already a physically imposing athlete. At 240 pounds, he's bigger than all but one of OSU's 10 other linebackers. Almost every scouting report you read on the guy describes him as a "thumper," and Meyer said three months ago that there'll be no redshirt for McMillan. He should make an impact early on.
Based on need, which freshman is a lock to start from Day 1?
Bennett: I'll go with Purdue's Gelen Robinson. He's following in the footsteps, sort of, of his dad -- Boilers basketball legend Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson. The younger Robinson was Purdue's most celebrated recruit in this class, but not just because of that name. He's also an outstanding athlete who should force his way onto the field from Day 1. He'll likely play outside linebacker, which is a position of need for Darrell Hazell's team. Heck, they need players everywhere, but particularly difference-makers on defense. Robinson will get every opportunity.
Rittenberg: It's hard for true freshman offensive linemen to step in immediately, but keep an eye on Maryland's Damian Prince, the nation's No. 26 prospect in the 2014 class. The recent suspension of potential starter Moise Larose creates a need at tackle, and both Prince and Derwin Gray both have a chance to win starting jobs this summer. Wisconsin will play several of its freshman wide receivers, and I could easily see a guy like Dareian Watkins entering the starting lineup. And let's not forget about Michigan State defensive tackle Malik McDowell. The Spartans lost a few pieces on the interior defensive line.
Moyer: Penn State wideout De'Andre Thompkins. In a normal year, he might be a redshirt candidate. He's incredibly athletic -- Bill O'Brien recruited him thinking he could be a two-way player and compete at nickelback -- but he's also a bit raw since he played mostly at running back in high school. He still needs to sharpen his routes but, between the scholarship reduction and the lack of experience at receiver this season, Thompkins will have to step up sooner rather than later. The early enrollee has already proven he's the fastest player on the roster, and he's taken reps as a return man. So he should play on Day 1, in some capacity.
When this freshman class graduates, who will be remembered as the best player?
Bennett: Peppers is the easy and safe choice here. Another possibility is Maryland's Prince. He's a mountain, and given the value of offensive tackles in the NFL, we could be hearing his name early in the 2017 or 2018 draft.
VanHaaren: It could very well be either Peppers or McMillan. It's tough to argue against those two just based off of talent and ability, and I would probably go with Peppers here. I saw him at the Under Armour All-America Game and coach Herm Edwards told me Peppers was the best high school prospect he had coached in the few years he had been coaching at the event. That's high praise for a former defensive back.
What redshirt freshman should fans keep an eye on?
Bennett: I trust the player development program at Michigan State. Guys there just seem to get better and better throughout their careers, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Defensive end Demetrius Cooper turned a lot of heads this spring and forced himself into the rotation, even with standout returning starters Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush ahead of him. Cooper was just a three-star recruit, according to ESPN, but the Spartans have made a living turning moderately-rated recruits into true college stars.
VanHaaren: I don't know if this is cheating or not because he's a sophomore, but I'm really interested to see what quarterback Wes Lunt does for Illinois. I put him here because he transferred and had to sit out the last season. I think he could be a big boost to that program if he can get things rolling offensively for the Illini.
Rittenberg: Iowa wide receiver Derrick Willies. Not only did he have a breakout spring for the Hawkeyes, but he's the type of receiver Iowa has lacked for a while: tall, fast and explosive. Iowa wants to ramp up the offensive tempo even more this season, which likely means the ball will be spread around more. Expect some big plays from Willies in his first game action.
Moyer: Minnesota running back Berkley Edwards. If it wasn't for an ankle injury early last season, he probably would've played. As it is, he'll definitely see the field this fall -- and he might see it quite a bit. Jerry Kill was asked earlier this spring if Edwards might get five to seven carries a game. "We'll see," Kill said, chuckling, to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "He might need more touches." Edwards is an exciting player who has a chance to break it anytime he touches the ball, and he could end up being an important change-of-pace back for the offense. Definitely worth watching.
By indispensable, we don't necessarily mean best. We mean the players who would be hardest to replace between now and the start of the season if they got hurt/suspended/decided to try out for "America's Got Talent." That could be because of their value to the team or because of a lack of depth at their position.
We'll pick two players from each team, usually offense and defense, but not always. Big Ten newcomer Maryland is up next.
The Terrapins returns plenty of experience at linebacker with three returning starters, but Robinson is the biggest difference-maker with his playmaking ability. As Maryland tries to replace Marcus Whitfield (15.5 tackles for loss, nine sacks, two forced fumbles last season), Robinson's presence will be critical. He recorded 10 tackles for loss, four pass breakups and a forced fumble as a junior, starting 10 games at outside linebacker after moving from safety last spring. Like many of his Maryland teammates, Robinson has battled several injuries in his career but showed last season how he can impact games when healthy. The Terps would miss Robinson's speed and production if he's not on the field this fall.
Sal Conaboy, C, Sr.
Almost any center who makes starts in each of his first three seasons will earn indispensable designation as a senior, and Conaboy is no exception. Maryland has some uncertainty at both the tackle and guard positions as junior-college tackle Larry Mazyck didn't qualify and Moise Larose was suspended by the school for a year. The Terrapins likely will be counting on young players, including blue-chip incoming recruits Damian Prince and Derwin Gray, for significant playing time. They certainly need Conaboy to stay on the field and provide leadership from the middle of the line. Conaboy started all 13 games last season, seven in 2012 and two in 2011, and made the Rimington Trophy preseason watch list. An academic All-ACC selection who serves on Maryland's leadership council, Conaboy provides stability for the line on an offense that boasts plenty of depth at the skill positions.
For now, I like the way you work it. I got to 'bag it up:
Brian Bennett: It's a good question, Charlie, and one I imagine we'll revisit more closely this summer. The guys who arrived in January and went through a full spring practice have a leg up, so players such as Ohio State linebacker Raekwon McMillan, Michigan wide receiver Freddy Canteen and Penn State receiver De'Andre Thompkins leap immediately to mind. I'm excited to hear about the players who get to campus this summer, such as Michigan State defensive tackle and recruiting drama champion Malik McDowell, Minnesota running back Jeff Jones and Maryland offensive tackle Damian Prince. There are a lot of candidates, but for now my money remains on incoming Michigan cornerback Jabrill Peppers.
Bennett: Will, the Badgers have the same 2015 crossover opponents as they do this season: Rutgers and Maryland. It does seem like Wisconsin caught a major break or that Jim Delany owed Barry Alvarez a favor with those schedules. In reality, though, we don't know how competitive Rutgers and Maryland will be, and you could argue that Indiana -- which has been to recent bowl games far, far less frequently than the two newest members -- would make for an easier crossover. Wisconsin has a great opportunity to make some noise the next two seasons, particularly with its openers against LSU (in 2014) and Alabama (2015). And then things go the opposite way in 2016, as the Badgers open Big Ten play at Michigan, at Michigan State and vs. Ohio State in three consecutive weeks.
Bennett: Some fair points, there, Brian (great name, by the way). I think most of the B1G West/Big 12 North comparisons come in regard to the relative strength between the other division in the conference -- the Big 12 South was so clearly deeper and more competitive overall than the North over the course of that era, and some fear the same thing will be the case with the Big Ten East because of Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan and Penn State. But there is no dominant team in the West right now, like Nebraska was for a long stretch during its Big 12 days. In fact, the West has a chance to be really balanced, especially if Iowa plays up to its capabilities, Northwestern bounces back, Minnesota continues its upward trend, etc. If you offered the Big Ten the scenario of having one legitimate playoff contender in the West every year but that the division would be weaker than the other side, I think the conference would be more than happy to take that.
Brian Bennett: Football Study Hall is always an interesting read, and I love the application of advanced stats. But here's one case where I don't think the numbers add up. I don't believe Ohio State had the best defensive line in the Big Ten last season, but there's no way it was No. 96 in the FBS. The Buckeyes were really good against the run and had strong pass rushers. They had their lapses and could stand to get better. But don't forget that key players on that line included a true freshman (Joey Bosa) and two true sophomores (Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington). They're only going to get better, and the depth and skill level on this line is extremely promising for 2014.
Brian Bennett: Mike, we usually do position group rankings for the whole league close to the start of the season. The one position group that I think is the most interesting to rank right now is offensive line. Ohio State held the top spot there in the past two seasons, in my opinion, but the Buckeyes lost four senior starters from last year's group. Several potential contenders have major question marks right now at offensive line, including Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan. Wisconsin usually just reloads there, but still has to replace some good players. Michigan State lost three starters and is searching for the kind of depth it had in 2013. Nebraska is replacing a ton of experience. Could Iowa, led by Brandon Scherff, take the title of best offensive line? What about Minnesota's underrated group? It will be really interesting to see how such an important position group in this league shakes out this summer and fall.
Illinois: This is another group that appears to be in significantly better shape now than at the start of coach Tim Beckman's tenure. The Illini lose only one full-time starter in tackle Corey Lewis, as four other linemen who started at least eight games in 2013 return. Senior tandem Michael Heitz and Simon Cvijanovic are two of the Big Ten's most experienced linemen, and guards Ted Karras also has logged plenty of starts. Right tackle appears to be the only vacancy entering the spring, as Austin Schmidt and others will compete.
Indiana: The Hoosiers have somewhat quietly put together one of the Big Ten's best offensive lines, and the same should hold true in 2014. Everybody is back, and because of injuries before and during the 2013 season, Indiana boasts a large group with significant starting experience. Jason Spriggs should contend for first-team All-Big Ten honors as he enters his third season at left tackle. Senior Collin Rahrig solidifies the middle, and Indiana regains the services of guard Dan Feeney, who was sidelined all of 2013 by a foot injury.
Iowa: The return of left tackle Brandon Scherff anchors an Iowa line that could be a team strength this fall. Scherff will enter the fall as a leading candidate for Big Ten offensive lineman of the year. Iowa must replace two starters in right tackle Brett Van Sloten and left guard Conor Boffeli. Andrew Donnal could be the answer in Van Sloten's spot despite playing guard in 2013, while several players will compete at guard, including Tommy Gaul and Eric Simmons. Junior Austin Blythe returns at center.
Maryland: Line play will go a long way toward determining how Maryland fares in the Big Ten, and the Terrapins will make the transition with an experienced group. Four starters are back, led by center Sal Conaboy, who has started games in each of his first three seasons. Tackles Ryan Doyle and Michael Dunn bring versatility to the group, and Maryland should have plenty of options once heralded recruit Damian Prince and junior-college transfer Larry Mazyck arrive this summer. Prince is the top Big Ten offensive line recruit in the 2014 class, according to ESPN RecruitingNation. New line coach Greg Studwara brings a lot of experience to the group.
Michigan: The Wolverines' line is under the microscope this spring after a disappointing 2013 season. Michigan loses both starting tackles, including Taylor Lewan, the Big Ten's offensive lineman of the year and a projected first-round draft choice. The interior line was in flux for much of 2013, and Michigan needs development from a large group of rising sophomores and juniors, including Kyle Kalis, Kyle Bosch, Jack Miller, Graham Glasgow, and Patrick Kugler. Both starting tackle spots are open, although Ben Braden seems likely to slide in on the left side. Erik Magnuson is out for spring practice following shoulder surgery, freeing up opportunities for redshirt freshman David Dawson and others.
Michigan State: The line took a significant step forward in 2013 but loses three starters, including left guard Blake Treadwell, a co-captain. Michigan State used an eight-man rotation in 2013 and will look for development from top reserves such as Travis Jackson (Yes! Yes!) and Connor Kruse. Kodi Kieler backed up Treadwell last season and could contend for a starting job as well. Coach Mark Dantonio said this week that converted defensive linemen James Bodanis, Devyn Salmon and Noah Jones will get a chance to prove themselves this spring. It's important for MSU to show it can reload up front, and the large rotation used in 2013 should help.
Minnesota: For the first time since the Glen Mason era, Minnesota truly established the line of scrimmage and showcased the power run game in 2013. The Gophers return starters at four positions and regain Jon Christenson, the team's top center before suffering a season-ending leg injury in November. Right tackle Josh Campion and left guard Zac Epping are mainstays in the starting lineup, and players such as Tommy Olson and Ben Lauer gained some valuable experience last fall. There should be good leadership with Epping, Olson, Marek Lenkiewicz and Caleb Bak.
Nebraska: Graduation hit the line hard as five seniors depart, including 2012 All-American Spencer Long at guard and Jeremiah Sirles at tackle. Nebraska will lean on guard Jake Cotton, its only returning starter, and experienced players such as Mark Pelini, who steps into the center spot. Senior Mike Moudy is the top candidate at the other guard spot, but there should be plenty of competition at the tackle spots, where Zach Sterup, Matt Finnin and others are in the mix. Definitely a group to watch this spring.
Northwestern: Offensive line struggles undoubtedly contributed to Northwestern's disappointing 2013 season. All five starters are back along with several key reserves, and coach Pat Fitzgerald already has seen a dramatic difference in the position competitions this spring as opposed to last, when many linemen were sidelined following surgeries. Center Brandon Vitabile is the only returning starter who shouldn't have to worry about his job. Paul Jorgensen and Eric Olson opened the spring as the top tackles, and Jack Konopka, who has started at both tackle spots, will have to regain his position.
Ohio State: Like Nebraska, Ohio State enters the spring with a lot to replace up front as four starters depart from the Big Ten's best line. Taylor Decker is the only holdover and will move from right tackle to left tackle. Fifth-year senior Darryl Baldwin could step in at the other tackle spot, while Pat Elflein, who filled in for the suspended Marcus Hall late last season, is a good bet to start at guard. Jacoby Boren and Billy Price will compete at center and Joel Hale, a defensive lineman, will work at guard this spring. Ohio State has recruited well up front, and it will be interesting to see how young players such as Evan Lisle and Kyle Dodson develop.
Penn State: New coach James Franklin admits he's concerned about the depth up front despite the return of veterans Miles Dieffenbach and Donovan Smith on the left side. Guard Angelo Mangiro is the other lineman who logged significant experience in 2013, and guard/center Wendy Laurent and guard Anthony Alosi played a bit. But filling out the second string could be a challenge for Penn State, which could start a redshirt freshman (Andrew Nelson) at right tackle. The Lions have to develop some depth on the edges behind Nelson and Smith.
Purdue: The Boilers reset up front after a miserable season in which they finished 122nd out of 123 FBS teams in rushing offense (67.1 ypg). Three starters return on the interior, led by junior center Robert Kugler, and there's some continuity at guard with Jordan Roos and Justin King, both of whom started as redshirt freshmen. It's a different story on the edges as Purdue loses both starting tackles. Thursday's addition of junior-college tackle David Hedelin could be big, if Hedelin avoids a potential NCAA suspension for playing for a club team. Cameron Cermin and J.J. Prince also are among those in the mix at tackle.
Rutgers: Continuity should be a strength for Rutgers, which returns its entire starting line from 2013. But production has to be better after the Scarlet Knights finished 100th nationally in rushing and tied for 102nd in sacks allowed. Guard Kaleb Johnson considered entering the NFL draft but instead will return for his fourth season as a starter. Rutgers also brings back Betim Bujari, who can play either center or guard, as well as Keith Lumpkin, the likely starter at left tackle. It will be interesting to see if new line coach Mitch Browning stirs up the competition this spring, as younger players Dorian Miller and J.J. Denman could get a longer look.
Wisconsin: There are a lot of familiar names up front for the Badgers, who lose only one starter in guard Ryan Groy. The tackle spots look very solid with Tyler Marz (left) and Rob Havenstein (right), and Kyle Costigan started the final 11 games at right guard. There should be some competition at center, as both Dan Voltz and Dallas Lewallen have battled injuries. Coach Gary Andersen mentioned on national signing day that early enrollee Michael Deiter will enter the mix immediately at center. Another early enrollee, decorated recruit Jaden Gault, should be part of the rotation at tackle. If certain young players develop quickly this spring, Wisconsin should have no depth issues when the season rolls around.
You've heard from us. Now it's time for you to pick the player most likely to impact his team this season.
Here are the choices:
Chris Godwin, WR, Penn State: Godwin and other incoming wideouts have a chance to contribute right away, as Penn State brings back only one receiver (Geno Lewis) who had more than 15 receptions in 2013. Has good size and strength to transition to the college level.
Jeff Jones, RB, Minnesota: Has a proven player in front of him in 1,200-yard rusher David Cobb, but Jones is the most decorated recruit of the Jerry Kill era and adds another weapon to an offense that needs more of them.
Raekwon McMillan, LB, Ohio State: The top-ranked inside linebacker in the 2014 class (No. 13 overall), he plays a position of significant need for the Buckeyes, who lose All-American Ryan Shazier.
Jabrill Peppers, CB, Michigan: Highest-rated Big Ten player in the 2014 class (No. 2 overall by ESPN RecruitingNation). Could contribute on both sides of the ball as well as on special teams, and brings a playmaking presence to the Wolverines secondary.
Damian Prince, OT, Maryland: True freshmen rarely make an impact on the offensive line, but Prince isn't an ordinary freshman. Highest-rated offensive line recruit in the Big Ten -- No. 26 overall in the 2014 class -- and could help a Maryland offense transitioning to a more physical league.
Those are the choices. Time to vote.
You never quite know where the immediate contributors will come from. Here are five more first-year players to watch this season (in alphabetical order):
Dominique Booth, WR, Indiana: The Hoosiers' pass-friendly offense will need to restock its receiving targets after losing tight end Ted Bolser and wideouts Kofi Hughes and Duwyce Wilson to graduation and receiver Cody Latimer to the NFL. Booth, who's from nearby Indianapolis, has good size at a listed 6-foot and 196 pounds, and head coach Kevin Wilson never has been afraid to play true freshmen early.
Austin Hudson, S, Wisconsin: Hudson wasn't the most highly-recruited player, but he plays a position of serious need for the Badgers. Last year's starting safeties are both missing, as Dezmen Southward finished his eligibility and Tanner McEvoy will move back to quarterback, at least for the spring. Hudson is an early enrollee who could get acclimated early and possibly have the same kind of quick impact as Sojourn Shelton, who started as a true freshman at cornerback for Wisconsin in 2013.
Joe Keels, DL, Nebraska: The Cornhuskers have had good success of late with junior college defenders, including Lavonte David and Randy Gregory. Could Keels be the next in line? He was in high demand out of Highland Community College, and the Wisconsin native who flipped from Wisconsin to Nebraska this winter could, at the very least, provide more depth on a promising young front line for Bo Pelini.
Damian Prince, OT, Maryland: It's not often easy for offensive linemen to make a dent right away, but Prince isn't your average true freshman offensive lineman. Rated as the No. 26 player overall and the No. 3 tackle in the Class of 2014 by ESPN Recruiting Nation, Prince was the jewel of Randy Edsall's class this year. Edsall is looking to upgrade the offensive line talent as the Terrapins move into the Big Ten, and Prince might be too talented to redshirt.
Maryland coach Randy Edsall and offensive coordinator Mike Locksley can breathe a sigh of relief. Top uncommitted offensive tackle Damian Prince (Forestville, Md./Bishop McNamara), the No. 26-ranked player overall in the ESPN 300, signed with the Terrapins on Wednesday in a televised announcement on ESPNU.
There are still a ton of prospects on the board for Big Ten teams, so conference recruiting reporters Tom VanHaaren and Brad Bournival take a look at the best and worst case scenarios remaining for each team.
Best-case scenario: Illinois picked up an offensive line commit on Monday with Peter Cvijanovic (Great Barrington, Mass./East Coast Prep), which gives the Illini two offensive line commits. Despite having four wide receiver commits on board, it looks like the staff would take another receiver in this class.
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Strongest class: Penn State
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