Big Ten: Dan Feeney
Let's get started, shall we?
Best of the best: Wisconsin
It's close between rivals Wisconsin and Iowa for the top spot, and though the Hawkeyes boast the league's best individual lineman in left tackle Brandon Scherff, the Badgers get the nod for their overall group. If healthy, Wisconsin's 2014 line should start resembling the more dominant units for which the program is famous. There should be better depth than in recent years as five players with at least five starts are back, led by veteran right tackle Rob Havenstein. Kyle Costigan, Dallas Lewallen and Tyler Marz add experience, and Wisconsin has two talented young centers in sophomore Dan Voltz and freshman Michael Deiter.
Next up: Iowa
There is no minimizing Scherff's return as he would have been a top 20 pick in the NFL draft, according to coach Kirk Ferentz, if he elected to skip his senior season. The freakishly strong senior anchors Iowa's line, which returns two other starters in center Austin Blythe and guard Jordan Walsh. Right tackle Andrew Donnal has plenty of experience as a reserve. The other guard spot remains competitive, although Sean Welsh emerged from the spring as the starter. Iowa's overall depth is a bit shaky, but if the top line holds up, it should have little trouble pounding the ball with Mark Weisman and co., and protecting quarterback Jake Rudock.
Possible sleeper: Indiana
If you read the blog regularly, and especially this post, you won't be surprised by this selection. I strongly considered the Hoosiers for one of the top two spots, but want to see how guard Dan Feeney looks after missing all of last season with a foot injury. Feeney, a freshman All-American in 2012, rejoins a group that includes veterans Jason Spriggs, Bernard Taylor and Collin Rahrig, a former walk-on who now has 24 starts at center and guard. After an injury-plagued 2013 season, Indiana's line could take another big step and possibly become the Big Ten's most complete unit.
Problem for a contender: Ohio State
The bad news is Ohio State loses four starters from the Big Ten's best line in 2013. The good news is Ohio State typically reloads up front and boasts one of the nation's top line coaches in Ed Warinner. No matter your outlook, the Buckeyes' line will be a position to watch when camp kicks off. Ohio State can't afford to lose senior quarterback Braxton Miller, who has taken a beating at times the past two years. Junior Taylor Decker moves from right tackle to the left side and will lead the group. Guard Pat Eflein showed promise filling in for Marcus Hall late last season and will occupy a starting spot. Darryl Baldwin and Antonio Underwood have been with the program longer than any other linemen, but are only now positioned to start. The Buckeyes helped their depth by adding Alabama graduate transfer Chad Lindsay at center.
Indiana's offensive linemen are no exception. They don't seek out the spotlight. But it's time to recognize what they've been doing the past few years, because few seem to notice.
You might disagree, but I doubt you've actually paid attention to Indiana's line. Maybe because it's Indiana. Maybe it's because the Hoosiers run an up-tempo spread offense rather than a traditional, road-grading one that typically shines a brighter light on the five men up front. Whatever the reason, the Hoosiers line rarely gets much love.
But it's a huge reason why Indiana has had the Big Ten's No. 2 offense in each of the past two seasons. Despite two true freshman starters in 2012, Indiana led the Big Ten in fewest sacks allowed: one for every 31.8 pass attempts. Last season, the line overcame several major injuries -- IU started nine linemen and used seven different lineups -- and prevented sacks in six games. The offense averaged more than 300 pass yards and more than 200 rush yards for the first time in team history.
"When I came in with Coach [Kevin] Wilson, both of us having an offensive line background, we wanted to build a unit that has great flexibility, the ability to run the ball," Hoosiers offensive line coach Greg Frey told ESPN.com "Our goal, as it is with any offensive line, is to control the game. We’re going to pick up that third-and-1. If you need more time to throw, we're going to give you more time."
Strong offensive lines are normally stocked with veterans, but Indiana has excelled with youth. Five Hoosiers linemen have earned freshman All-Big Ten honors since 2011, including two in each of the past two seasons. Tackle Jason Spriggs and guard Dan Feeney both earned freshman All-America honors in 2012, when they set team freshman records by starting all 12 games.
Indiana lost Feeney to a foot injury days before the 2013 season and lost two other starters, Peyton Eckert and David Kaminski, to season-ending injuries in October. But others stepped up, players such as Collin Rahrig, a former walk-on who started 10 games at center, earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors. Ralston Evans, who suffered a major knee injury before the 2011 season and appeared in only one game in 2012, started all 12 games at right tackle last season.
"When we were at Michigan, coaches came up and said, 'Who the hell is this right tackle you’ve got?'" Frey said. "I said, 'Don't tell me. Tell him he did a good job.' These guys work hard. There’s a good culture there."
Indiana returns 130 career offensive line starts, most in the Big Ten and third most in the FBS behind Appalachian State and UTSA. Frey, who previously coached lines at Michigan, West Virginia and South Florida, thinks this could be his deepest group.
It's a close group, too, one that spends a lot of time together off of the field. If a Bloomington restaurant offers a food special, the Hoosiers' linemen are quick to find it.
Frey doesn't change his expectations for the line in 2014. They've always been high.
"The ability to be a leader or a presence on the team, that part of it changes," he said. "There’s some credentials there, a little bit of background, some personal expectations.
"We have more voices there who are respected."
But will the group gain respect? It will take more than yards and points.
"They realize the more you’re winning in college football, the more people know about you," Frey said. "Not that it matters in the grand scheme of things, but you'd like to see the fruits of their labor be recognized. Everybody likes to be recognized a little bit.
"Hopefully as we go on, that will naturally happen."
Indiana's offensive line tops my list of the Big Ten's most underrated position groups. Here are four others ...
Minnesota's secondary: Jay Sawvel does an excellent job with Minnesota's back four. Fourth-round draft pick Brock Vereen will be tough to replace, but safety Cedric Thompson had a good spring and Eric Murray could become an elite cornerback this season. Derrick Wells adds a playmaking presence at corner and Briean Boddy-Calhoun, who opened last season as a starting cornerback, returns from injury.
Penn State's running backs: Quarterback Christian Hackenberg grabs the headlines and justifiably so, but he'll need help in the backfield from a talented group of ball-carriers. How many people know Zach Zwinak has nearly 2,000 career rush yards? Bill Belton had an excellent spring and could be the offense's top playmaker, and junior Akeel Lynch has a nice speed-power mix.
Northwestern's receivers/tight ends: I've stumped for this group and while it hasn't quite blossomed, a two-quarterback system and a shift from a pass-heavy attack didn't help. Northwestern should be much more pass-heavy with Trevor Siemian as its sole signal caller. Christian Jones and Tony Jones are proven veterans, Rutgers transfer Myles Shuler fills a void in the slot and Kyle Prater is finally healthy. Tight end Dan Vitale is poised for a breakout season.
Maryland's linebackers: The Terps return three of four starters who combined for 233 tackles last season. Cole Farrand is a strong leader, and Matt Robinson provides a spark on the outside. Maryland will miss the disruptive Marcus Whitfield but returns five of its top six linebackers from 2013. If the group stays healthy -- a big if given Maryland's recent misfortune -- it could be very good.
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.
The in-season power rankings will have plenty of shuffling, but this version lacks much drama. In fact, today's rundown remains exactly as it was coming out of spring practice. Fortunately, there have been few major injuries/personnel developments to impact the way we see things.
There's no doubt about the top team, while Nos. 2-7 are very close.
In case you need a refresher before the games begin, here it is ...
1. Ohio State: Heisman Trophy candidate Braxton Miller will have more weapons around him, including dynamic freshman Dontre Wilson. We'll learn more about the development of Ohio State's young defensive front seven in back-to-back games against Wisconsin (Sept. 28) and Northwestern (Oct. 5). Although the Buckeyes could miss top running back Carlos Hyde, they'll have no trouble getting through non-league play.
2. Michigan: Is this the year for Michigan, or are the Wolverines still a season away? If Michigan can address the interior of both lines and keep quarterback Devin Gardner healthy, it should have an excellent chance to reach Indianapolis. Standout linebacker Jake Ryan should be back for the Big Ten stretch run.
3. Northwestern: Few are picking the Wildcats to win the Legends Division, but they return the core pieces from a 10-win team and should be even more potent on offense than in 2012. If Northwestern can gain at least a split against Ohio State and Wisconsin, it should make some noise in the division during the month of November.
4. Nebraska: Bo Pelini's team is right there with Michigan and Northwestern and once again could emerge as the Legends Division champion. We expect big things from Taylor Martinez and the offense, but everything hinges on a young defense that got shredded in the final two games of last season. Nebraska should reveal a lot about itself in a Week 3 home showdown against UCLA.
5. Wisconsin: The Badgers are among the nation's most fascinating teams, as a large group of veterans accustomed to winning Big Ten championships adjusts to a new coaching staff led by Gary Andersen. Wisconsin's run game once again should be exceptional, but the secondary and receiving corps look shaky. September road tests against Arizona State and Ohio State will show a lot about this team.
6. Michigan State: Again, we don't see much separating Michigan State from the next four teams ahead of it in the power rankings. The Spartans' defense might be the Big Ten's best unit. But there are still numerous questions on offense, starting with quarterback. Will Michigan State fare better in close games? The Spartans figure to be in plenty of nail-biters.
7. Penn State: The starting 22 is about as good as any in the Big Ten, and if Penn State can remain relatively healthy, it should record another impressive record this season. Depth remains the big question surrounding the sanctions-laden Lions, and the quarterback situation will be fascinating to watch as head coach Bill O'Brien tries to work his magic with an unproven signal-caller.
8. Minnesota: Year 3 has been a good one for Jerry Kill at previous coaching stops, and Minnesota could take another step forward if certain things go its way. The Gophers need better luck on the health front after struggling to keep their offensive line together in 2012. Minnesota should be solid on defense with tackle Ra'Shede Hageman leading the way, but it needs some offensive playmakers to emerge around sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson.
9. Indiana: The Hoosiers have tremendous depth at the offensive skill positions and should hold up on the line despite losing guard Dan Feeney (foot) for the season. The big question in Bloomington hasn't changed: Will the defense hold up enough to let the offense -- regardless of who plays quarterback -- outscore the opposition? IU can build some confidence with five home games to open the season.
10. Purdue: Rob Henry's long road back to the starting quarterback spot is complete, and the senior will lead the Boilers through a treacherous stretch to begin the season. Purdue has some solid pieces on both sides of the ball but must navigate the toughest schedule of any Big Ten team, which includes Cincinnati, Notre Dame and Northern Illinois in non-league play.
11. Iowa: The Hawkeyes certainly have a chance to rise up the rankings and can make a big statement by beating Northern Illinois in the opener on Saturday. They'll lean on a veteran linebacking corps and hope for big things from defensive tackle Carl Davis. Not surprisingly, Jake Rudock will start at quarterback, and he'll need help from a deep group of running backs hoping to steer clear of AIRBHG. Iowa should be better this year, but the division isn't getting any easier.
12. Illinois: No Big Ten team enters the season with more questions than Tim Beckman's Illini, and there are tests early on with Cincinnati and Washington in Weeks 2 and 3. The offense has a clearer vision under coordinator Bill Cubit, but the schedule isn't easy, and Illinois must clean up its play on both sides of the ball to make tangible strides.
Make that three returning starters.
The Hoosiers' line has suffered a significant blow as right guard Dan Feeney will miss the entire 2013 season after suffering a right foot injury in last week's scrimmage. Head coach Kevin Wilson said Tuesday that Feeney has a Lisfranc fracture and will undergo surgery.
Feeney and tackle Jason Spriggs both set team freshman records in 2012 by starting all 12 games. Feeney, an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection, didn't allow a sack in 935 snaps and finished second on the team in knockdowns with 54.
Indiana still has good depth up front and likely will turn to sophomore Jake Reed to fill Feeney's spot. But Feeney and Spriggs had been pegged by many to lead the line this fall. Feeney's absence could sting.
The 6-4, 310-pound Feeney has a redshirt year available and will retain three years of eligibility.
"I thought I was going to be redshirted," Spriggs told ESPN.com, "just like all the other freshmen."
It was a reasonable assumption, but one that in recent years often has proven incorrect at Indiana. The Hoosiers in 2011 played 32 freshmen (16 true, 16 redshirt), the most in the FBS. Last season, they played 11 true freshmen and five redshirt freshmen. IU had just eight seniors on its 2012 roster, tied for the fewest in the country.
Offensive line typically is the position group where freshmen are least likely to see the field. Most come to college lacking the physical development to stand their ground against Big Ten defense.
But Indiana's offensive line hasn't been immune from the youth movement. The Hoosiers play fast on offense, and their linemen grow up fast, too.
Spriggs started all 12 games last season, setting a team freshman record. But he didn't reach the milestone by himself: fellow true freshman Dan Feeney also started every game at right guard.
The Hoosiers opened the season with two true freshmen (Spriggs and Feeney) and two true sophomores (Bernard Taylor and Peyton Eckert) on their starting offensive line, flanking fifth-year senior center Will Matte. Both Taylor and Eckert had cracked the starting lineup in the third week of their freshman year in 2011. When Taylor went down with an injury midway through last season, he was replaced by a redshirt sophomore (Collin Rahrig) who had made eight starts as a redshirt freshman.
"Getting in the mix early on takes away a lot of the nervousness and the worry of thinking about what it's like," Spriggs said.
Indiana's line remains one of the Big Ten's youngest. But because of the fast-tracking, the Hoosiers are among the league's most experienced groups. They also could be one of the best.
"We’re striving to be the No. 1 O-line in the Big Ten," Spriggs said. "And I think that's actually going to happen this year."
Indiana wasn't far off in 2012, despite its youth. The Hoosiers finished second in the Big Ten in total sacks allowed (17). When pass attempts were factored in, IU led the Big Ten, surrendering one sack every 31.8 pass attempts. Indiana led the league in passing by a wide margin, and the line recorded five games with no sacks allowed and two others with just one sack allowed.
Although Matte departs, Indiana brings back its other four starting linemen as well as two others with starting experience.
"We have everybody returning," Spriggs said, "and I feel like the trust is a lot better than last year. Last year, we had me and Feeney and the rest of the freshmen coming in, nobody really knew where we stood. During the season, I was still learning everything, flying by the seat of my pants.
"Now everybody's been in the same room for at least a year, so that's going to help out a lot."
Spriggs got his opportunity when projected starting tackle Charlie Chapman sustained a concussion in camp. Feeney simply outplayed the competition into a top spot at the end of camp.
The 6-foot-4, 305-pound Feeney didn't surrender a sack all season, while the 6-7, 280-pound Spriggs led Indiana with 80 knockdowns. Both earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors and made several all-freshman teams, including ESPN.com's.
"It was pretty crazy, playing against people so big and knowing the Big Ten is known for having such big, talented linemen," Feeney said. "I definitely had to adjust to the size of people and the speed. But I felt like I transitioned well."
Taylor came to Indiana targeting a starting job early in his career. But he also was realistic about his development.
"When I got here, I felt like I wasn't ready," he said. "But when coach throws you in there, you're not going to say no. You've just got to step it up and do it. I was in the same boat as Jason. I ended up getting thrown in there.
"But we've all grown together because we're with each other every day."
The linemen are together on the practice field, in the weight room and even away from Memorial Stadium. Feeney lives with Eckert and center Jake Reed, Taylor lives with tackle Ralston Evans and Spriggs lives with center Wes Rogers and tackle Jacob Bailey. Spriggs and Feeney roomed together last year.
"When you're with somebody that long," Spriggs said, "working and striving to get better, you start trusting everybody."
Matte is the lone starter lost from an offense that finished second in the Big Ten in yards and put up 49 points against Ohio State, the most the Buckeyes had allowed since 1994. The Hoosiers boast three experienced quarterbacks as Tre Roberson returns to the mix, as well as arguably the Big Ten's top receiving corps.
IU's linemen prioritized the run game this spring, as the team finished 10th in the Big Ten in rush yards (1,570) and last in attempts (399). If the Hoosiers achieve better balance, stay a step ahead of defenses and more effectively translate all those yards into points, their goal of becoming the Big Ten's best line could come true.
"We talk about that all the time," Taylor said. "It's our No. 1 agenda."
Now that spring practice is over, we're starting a new series looking at the most indispensable players on each Big Ten team.
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 or suspended or joined the circus. It 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. Next up: Indiana.
Jason Spriggs, LT, So.
Spriggs stepped into the fire as a true freshman at arguably the most important offensive line position and held his own last season. Although Indiana had plenty of youth up front in 2012, the line excelled in pass protection, allowing just one sack every 31.8 pass attempts and finishing 33rd nationally in sacks allowed per game (1.42). Spriggs, who protected the blind side of all three IU quarterbacks, led the team with 80 knockdowns and allowed just two sacks in 961 snaps. Spriggs and guard Dan Feeney both set a team record by starting all 12 games as true freshmen. Both earned freshman All-America honors and honorable mention All-Big Ten honors. Feeney certainly could be here, too, but Spriggs played such a big role in pass protection. He would be a major loss for Indiana, which is relying on Spriggs and Feeney to form the foundation of the offensive line for years to come.
Greg Heban, S, Sr.
The Hoosiers' long-suffering defense will improve as younger, more talented players enter the program through upgrades in recruiting. But every unit needs some veteran leadership, and Heban provides it and much more from the safety position. Indiana loses significant pieces along the line, and while linebacker David Cooper could prove to be indispensable, the defense really needs Heban to stay on the field. He has started 22 games the past two seasons and last fall led Big Ten defensive backs in tackles per game (7.6), while tying for fifth in interceptions (3) and tying for 11th in passes defended (11). He's a natural playmaker for a secondary and a defense that still lacks them. Heban also can play safety, corner or the nickel spot. Indiana should have better overall depth on defense this season, but it can't afford to lose No. 9.
2012 conference record: 2-6 (fifth in Leaders Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 10; defense: 9; kicker/punter: 2
QB Tre Roberson, QB Cameron Coffman, QB Nate Sudfeld, WR Kofi Hughes, WR Shane Wynn, WR Cody Latimer, TE Ted Bolser, LB David Cooper, S Greg Heban, RB Stephen Houston
C Will Matte, DT Adam Replogle, DT Larry Black Jr.
2012 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Stephen Houston* (749 yards)
Passing: Cameron Coffman* (2,734 yards)
Receiving: Cody Latimer* (805 yards)
Tackles: Greg Heban* (91)
Sacks: Adam Replogle (5)
Interceptions: Heban (3)
1. Offensive depth: No Big Ten team returns as much offensive production as the Hoosiers, who bring back every key skill position player from 2012. They have three quarterbacks who played significant time last year, plus arguably the best corps of pass-catchers in Cody Latimer, Kofi Hughes, Shane Wynn and tight end Ted Bolser. Indiana seemed to find more contributors this spring, as Tevin Coleman pushed Stephen Houston at running back, Isaiah Roundtree thrived at slot receiver and wideout Ricky Jones came back from injury. This is an offense capable of being one of the very best in the Big Ten.
2. Let's get physical: Head coach Kevin Wilson stressed toughness and physicality all spring, even using the beginning part of practices for a "Big Ten period" where his offense lined up in more traditional power sets. The goal was to better prepare the defense to face those types of Big Ten attacks and to instill a physical mindset in his own running game. How well it worked won't be determined until the fall, but the approach should help the Hoosiers hold up better in the trenches.
3. Rahrig to go: The one semi-question mark on the offensive line was at center, where longtime starter Will Matte departed. But Collin Rahrig filled in ably this spring, suggesting a smooth transition. With promising rising sophomores Dan Feeney and Jason Spriggs getting a full offseason in the weight room, the offensive line could be a strength for Indiana this season.
1. Quarterback derby: Wilson went to great lengths this spring not to play favorites with his three quarterbacks, so much so that he didn't want to send just one out first for the spring game. But at some point, he'll have to choose between Tre Roberson, Nate Sudfeld and Cameron Coffman. Roberson needs to continue to get better as a passer, while Sudfeld and Coffman need to improve their mobility. Wilson is hoping one of them separates himself in fall camp. Ideally, he could redshirt Sudfeld or Coffman, but he could also risk losing one to transfer.
2. Defensive improvement: Indiana has ranked last in the Big Ten in defense in the last two years under Wilson, and that trend has to change if the Hoosiers want to get to a bowl game. The team only lost three senior starters from last year, but two were defensive tackles so there are questions up front. Several incoming recruits are expected to challenge for starting jobs right away on defense, which tells you both about the talent in that recruiting class and the need on the current roster.
3. Running the ball: Indiana led the Big Ten in passing offense last year but had a so-so running game. Leading returning ball carrier Stephen Houston has a knack for finding the end zone, yet he rushed for more than 50 fewer yards as a junior than he did as a sophomore. Indiana could get some more out of its quarterback run game this year but needs to be able to line up and run for crucial yards, especially in the red zone. A lot of that is on the guys blocking, too. "We will be a better offense when our offensive line and tight ends are tougher, and we run the ball," Wilson said.
For several minutes, the Hoosiers' starting offense -- normally a spread-you-out, up-tempo, pass-heavy attack -- suddenly morphs into a more classic Big Ten look. They will feature two running backs at times, go to multiple-tight-end sets at others and generally do away with all the fancy, modern stuff.
"It's a lot of what you're going to see week in and week out in the conference," defensive coordinator Doug Mallory said. "It's kind of the old 'We'll just line up and see if you can stop us.'"
That's not Wilson's preferred way of playing. But while Indiana knows its offense can move the ball effectively out of the spread, that doesn't necessarily help the defense get better. And there's no doubt that the defense has to improve for the Hoosiers to get out of the bottom tier of the league.
Indiana boasted the Big Ten's best passing offense last season while averaging more than 30 points per game. But the defense didn't progress as hoped, finishing last in the league in points and yards allowed for a second consecutive year as the team went 4-8.
"Our biggest disappointment as a defensive staff is that if we would have played reasonably well on defense, we could have had the program in a bowl," Mallory said. "That's something we want to get fixed."
Mallory and his staff are constantly emphasizing the need to play more physically this spring. The Hoosiers are hitting more during practice -- Tuesday's spirited session was chock-full of collisions -- and devoting more time to one-on-one battles.
The defense showed some much-needed toughness last year during back-to-back victories over Illinois and Iowa. Granted, those were two of the worst offenses in the league, but Indiana tackled well and made some big stops.
After that, though, the floor gave out as the Hoosiers yielded 163 points in their final three games, losing to Wisconsin, Penn State and Purdue.
"I think because we were inexperienced, guys weren't aware how long the season is," safety Greg Heban said. "We were getting tired, and once you get mentally tired, you lose physicality as a defense. That's something we've got to keep up the whole season."
Wilson hopes the Big Ten period of practice will help instill more of that toughness. Not only for the defense.
While IU was explosive in the passing game last season, its running game was just below average at just 130 yards per week. Wilson pointed out that the top five scoring teams in the country last year -- Louisiana Tech, Oregon, Oklahoma State, Baylor and Texas A&M -- all rushed for more than 200 yards per game.
"We will be a better offense when our offensive line and tight ends are tougher, and we run the ball," Wilson said. "When we get that going, our offense will become more balanced and score more points."
The Hoosiers are unlikely to suddenly start using fullbacks and power-I formations. They'll get some of their rushing yardage from their quarterback run game and catching defenses gearing up for the pass. But a better ability to run the ball strongly between the tackles will help them, especially in the red zone, where passing windows shrink.
An offensive line that started two true freshmen and two sophomores last year may not have been ready to play smash-mouth football. That might be changing.
"Last year, I was just learning," said Dan Feeney, who started all 12 games at guard last year as an 18-year-old. "Now that I have a little more experience, I feel like I can bring a little more to [the running game]. We're hitting on every play, but we've got to be even more physical than that. We've got to get downfield and finish blocks so our backs can go for 20-to-30-yard runs instead of just 10-to-15."
And if so, then maybe more of Indiana's practice installments will be considered true Big Ten periods.
As a reminder, these rankings are based solely on performance during the 2012 season. Star power matters, but depth often matters more, especially for a spot like offensive line. If you missed our preseason O-line rankings, check 'em out.
Let's begin ...
1. Ohio State (Preseason ranking: 5): Few position coaches in the country made a stronger impact in Year 1 than Ohio State line coach Ed Warinner. He took a talented group that had underachieved in 2011 and turned it into the powerful engine of the Buckeyes' revamped offense. Converted tight end Reid Fragel blossomed at tackle along with Jack Mewhort, while center Corey Linsley stepped forward in his first year as the starter. The Buckeyes received solid guard play, and the line came on strong during the Big Ten schedule, beating up opponents in the red zone. Ohio State led the league in scoring (37.2 ppg) and finished second in rush offense (242.2 ypg).
3. Penn State (Preseason ranking: 9): First-year coach Bill O'Brien called the offensive line a pleasant surprise during spring practice, and the group continued its upward trajectory during the season. Despite losing four starters from 2011 and needing to absorb a dramatically different system, Penn State's line came together around senior center Matt Stankiewitch. The Lions protected quarterback Matt McGloin and created room for several running backs, including Zach Zwinak, who surged late in Big Ten play. Stankiewitch, guard John Urschel and tackle Mike Farrell all received All-Big Ten recognition, as Penn State's offense proved to be one of the league's biggest surprises in 2012.
4. Northwestern (Preseason ranking: 8): Northwestern rarely has struggled to move the ball since installing the spread offense in 2000, but the run game had been lagging until this year. Although the Wildcats needed a featured back to take charge, as Venric Mark did in 2012, they also needed more from the offensive line, a group to which the coaches had recruited well. The line stepped forward in a big way as Northwestern finished 19th nationally in rushing. Guard Brian Mulroe earned second-team All-Big Ten honors, while tackle Patrick Ward was an honorable mention selection. The Wildcats didn't pass much but protected the pocket well, allowing a league-low 16 sacks.
5. Indiana (Preseason ranking: 12): Youth was our big concern with the Hoosiers before the season, but the line came together nicely despite throwing several unproven players into the fire. Indiana surrendered only 17 sacks despite passing the ball more than anyone else in the league -- and racking up more pass yards (3,734). Freshmen Jason Spriggs and Dan Feeney held their own, and center Will Matte anchored the unit. Indiana struggled at times to run the ball but performed well in the red zone.
6. Michigan (Preseason ranking: 2): The Wolverines' line had its moments, especially in pass protection, but Michigan struggled to generate a run game outside of quarterback Denard Robinson. Left tackle Taylor Lewan did his part in earning Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year honors, and his return for 2013 gives Michigan a big boost. Guard Patrick Omameh also earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches, but the line had some inconsistency against strong defensive fronts such as Notre Dame's and Michigan State's. Help is on the way as Michigan piled up elite offensive line prospects in its 2013 recruiting class.
7. Wisconsin (Preseason ranking: 1): If the Wisconsin line was graded on its three performances in the Hoosier State -- at Purdue, at Indiana and against Nebraska in the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis -- it likely would be at the top of the list. But the Badgers line only looked like a Badgers line for stretches this season. There were as many depressing performances (Oregon State, Michigan State) as dominant ones. The line repeatedly faced adversity, from the firing of line coach Mike Markuson after Week 2 to three different starting quarterbacks. To its credit, the group kept bouncing back. Tackle Rick Wagner, center Travis Frederick and guard Ryan Groy all earned All-Big Ten honors, and Frederick, like his predecessor Peter Konz, opted to skip his senior season and enter the NFL draft.
8. Purdue (Preseason ranking: 6): The Boilers' line ended up just about where we thought it would, in the middle of the pack. Purdue finished in the top half of the Big Ten in total offense (fifth), rushing offense (sixth) and pass offense (third), despite dealing with a quarterback rotation for much of the season. There were some issues in pass protection, especially early in the season. The line lacked star power but Robert Kugler's emergence at guard later in the season was a bright spot. Purdue has endured some ups and downs with several converted defensive linemen on the offensive front and could take a step forward in 2013.
9. Michigan State (Preseason ranking: 3): The Spartans had high hopes for their offensive line before the season, but things never really got on track. The season-ending loss of right tackle Fou Fonoti after two games really hurt, and other injuries cropped up throughout the fall. Although running back Le'Veon Bell racked up 1,793 rush yards, he made a lot of things happen on his own, and Michigan State struggled to convert red zone opportunities (44) into touchdowns (23). Guard Chris McDonald earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors.
10. Minnesota (Preseason ranking: 11): Notice a theme here about injuries? It continues with the final three teams on the list. Injuries hit Minnesota's offensive line especially hard, as the Gophers lost their top two centers in a win against Illinois and were constantly moving pieces around up front. The good news for Gopher fans is that the offensive line made significant strides for the bowl game against Texas Tech, as Minnesota racked up 222 rush yards. But the line had its struggles during Big Ten play, as Minnesota eclipsed 17 points just once in eight league games.
11. Iowa (Preseason ranking: 7): Like Michigan State and Minnesota, Iowa's offensive line endured several key injuries, losing two starters (Brandon Scherff and Andrew Donnal) in a blowout loss to Penn State at Kinnick Stadium. The line blocked well for Mark Weisman during his early season surge, but Iowa still finished with the league's worst rushing offense (123 ypg) and second worst total offense (310.4 ypg). Iowa also struggled to reach the red zone (38 opportunities) or convert those chances into touchdowns (league-low 18). Center James Ferentz and guard/tackle Matt Tobin both earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors.
12. Illinois (Preseason ranking: 10): No position group is absolved of blame for Illinois' offensive struggles, and the line certainly underachieved for the second consecutive season. The Illini finished last in the Big Ten in both scoring and total offense, and 11th in both rushing and pass offense. They allowed a league-worst 39 sacks, and Illinois failed to score more than 22 points in any Big Ten contest. Sure, injuries were a factor, but the Illini had two good building blocks in tackle Hugh Thornton, a likely NFL draft pick in April, and veteran center Graham Pocic. Thornton earned second-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches, while Pocic was an honorable mention selection. Despite the youth and a new system, this group should have been a lot better.
There were many impressive debuts this year in the league, and several players showed off promising potential. Here is our 2012 all-freshman squad, captained by freshman of the year Deion Barnes:
QB: Joel Stave, Wisconsin*
RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin*
RB: Imani Cross, Nebraska
WR: Aaron Burbridge, Michigan State
TE: Kyle Carter, Penn State*
TE: Devin Funchess, Michigan
TE: Dan Vitale, Northwestern
OL: Jack Allen, Michigan State*
OL: Jason Spriggs, Indiana
OL: Donovan Smith, Penn State*
OL: Austin Blythe, Iowa*
OL: Dan Feeney, Indiana
DL: Deion Barnes, Penn State*
DL: Adolphus Washington, Ohio State
DL: Noah Spence, Ohio State
DL: Dean Lowry, Northwesterm
LB: Mason Monheim, Illinois
LB: Joe Bolden, Michigan
LB: Mike Svetina, Illinois
LB: James Ross, Michigan
DB: Nick VanHoose, Northwestern*
DB: Frankie Williams, Purdue*
DB: RJ Williamson, Michigan State*
K: Taylor Zalewski, Illinois*
P: Drew Meyer, Wisconsin*
KR: Dennis Norfleet, Michigan
All-purpose: Josh Ferguson, Illinois*
* -- redshirt freshman
As you can see, we got creative again -- we had a 3-4 defense for our ESPN.com All-Big Ten team, and now we have a revolutionary 4-4-3 setup on our all-freshman defense. Why? Well, the pool for newbie defensive backs in this league was very shallow, so we preferred to recognize an extra linebacker instead of forcing the issue at DB. ... You might also notice our 12-man, three-TE offense. We believe the young tight ends in this league are extremely promising, and we didn't even include Penn State's Jesse James. Outside of Burbridge, there wasn't much production from freshman receivers. ... We left off some pretty good young offensive linemen who just missed the cut, including Minnesota's Josh Campion and Illinois' Ted Karras. ... Stave gets the nod over the Gophers' Philip Nelson even though he missed the final month with a broken collarbone. Nelson had a great game against Purdue but had some poor statistical outings down the stretch. ... Carter was the only freshman who also made our All-Big Ten team. ... Gordon showed what a high ceiling he has with his 200-plus yard performance in the Big Ten title game. He could be an absolute superstar.
BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
11:00 AM ET Nevada Louisiana-Lafayette 2:20 PM ET Utah State UTEP 3:30 PM ET 22 Utah Colorado State 5:45 PM ET Western Michigan Air Force 9:15 PM ET South Alabama Bowling Green
6:00 PM ET Marshall Northern Illinois 9:30 PM ET Navy San Diego State
12:00 PM ET Central Michigan Western Kentucky 8:00 PM ET Fresno State Rice
1:00 PM ET Illinois Louisiana Tech 4:30 PM ET Rutgers North Carolina 8:00 PM ET North Carolina State UCF
1:00 PM ET Cincinnati Virginia Tech 2:00 PM ET 15 Arizona State Duke 3:30 PM ET Miami (FL) South Carolina 4:30 PM ET Boston College Penn State 8:00 PM ET Nebraska 24 USC
2:00 PM ET Texas A&M West Virginia 5:30 PM ET Oklahoma 17 Clemson 9:00 PM ET Arkansas Texas
3:00 PM ET Notre Dame 23 LSU 6:30 PM ET 13 Georgia 21 Louisville 10:00 PM ET Maryland Stanford
12:30 PM ET 9 Ole Miss 6 TCU 4:00 PM ET 20 Boise State 10 Arizona 8:00 PM ET 7 Mississippi State 12 Georgia Tech
12:00 PM ET 19 Auburn 18 Wisconsin 12:30 PM ET 8 Michigan State 5 Baylor 1:00 PM ET 16 Missouri 25 Minnesota 5:00 PM ET 2 Oregon 3 Florida State 8:30 PM ET 1 Alabama 4 Ohio State
12:00 PM ET Houston Pittsburgh 3:20 PM ET Iowa Tennessee 6:45 PM ET 11 Kansas State 14 UCLA 10:15 PM ET Washington Oklahoma State