Big Ten: Dennis Kelly

The 2012 Big Ten players' poll marches on, and now it's time to get down and dirty. Dirtiest players, that is.

As a reminder, these interviews took place in recent weeks with 28 Big Ten players representing 11 teams. Big Ten blogger Brian Bennett, WolverineNation's Michael Rothstein, BuckeyeNation's Austin Ward and myself interviewed 2-3 players per team. The players agreed to answer five questions, on the condition of anonymity. While you can guess who said what about whom, we're not revealing any specifics.

After conducting two surveys about Big Ten coaches, we shift the focus to the players.

Here's Question No. 3: Who's the dirtiest player(s) in the Big Ten?

Results

Former Purdue offensive tackle Dennis Kelly -- 2 votes
Michigan State defensive end William Gholston -- 2 votes
Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland -- 2 votes
Illinois' offensive line -- 1 vote
Former Michigan State defensive tackle Jerel Worthy -- 1 vote
Iowa's offensive line -- 1 vote
Illinois center Graham Pocic -- 1 vote
Indiana center Will Matte -- 1 vote
Anyone on Michigan State's defense -- 1 vote
Anyone on Purdue -- 1 vote
Former Michigan center David Molk -- 1 vote
Nebraska defensive end Eric Martin -- 1 vote
Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o -- 1 vote
No one/don't know/declined to answer -- 12 votes

The overall results are a little disappointing because nearly half the group didn't offer a specific answer. While some players were hesitant, despite the anonymity of the poll, some honestly couldn't name a player or players they found to be overtly dirty. Michigan State did pretty well in the coaching poll questions, but the tables turned here as no team received more votes (individually or collectively) than the Spartans. While it's not surprising that linemen on both sides of the ball received votes, given the nature of play at the line of scrimmage, it's notable that Big Ten centers (current and former) racked up votes. It sounds like Big Ten defensive linemen are happy to see Purdue's Kelly gone to the NFL. One player who named Wisconsin's Borland said the Badgers' linebacker is more annoying than dirty. And finally, we know Notre Dame's Te'o doesn't play in the Big Ten, but we listed the answer provided to us.

Coming up Thursday: the toughest Big Ten stadium to compete in as an opposing player.

Previously

Part I: Big Ten coach you want to play for the most
Part II: Big Ten coach you want to play for the least
Earlier this week, I asked you to identify the Big Ten's strongest position group. Not surprisingly, running back ran away from the competition with 53 percent of the vote.

SportsNation

What is the Big Ten's weakest position group entering the season?

  •  
    59%
  •  
    14%
  •  
    19%
  •  
    8%

Discuss (Total votes: 4,366)

Can't blame you there. The Big Ten returns its top three running backs from 2011 -- Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball, Nebraska's Rex Burkhead and Penn State's Silas Redd -- along with a group of others (Michigan's Fitzgerald Toussaint, Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell) who should be very good. While it's a little surprising cornerback didn't receive more votes (9 percent), the results went mostly as expected.

Now it's time to select the position where the Big Ten is lacking the most. This vote could be a bit closer, although I have an idea of which position will pull away. Graduation losses and departures to the NFL hit certain positions harder than others. Some position groups, like safety, lacked star power in 2011 and might be a bit weak again this season.

The accompanying poll includes four choices. To refresh your memory, I've made a brief case for why each position could be the weakest in the league.

Wide receiver: League loses top seven pass-catchers from 2011, including first-round draft pick A.J. Jenkins (Illinois) and all first- and second-team All-Big Ten selections (Jenkins, Iowa's Marvin McNutt, Michigan State's B.J. Cunningham, Northwestern's Jeremy Ebert and Wisconsin's Nick Toon).

Offensive tackle: Not the strongest position in 2011, and league loses Iowa's Riley Reiff, a first-round draft pick, as well as Ohio State's Mike Adams and Illinois' Jeff Allen, both second-round picks. Also gone are Wisconsin's Josh Oglesby, Purdue's Dennis Kelly and Northwestern's Al Netter.

Safety: Arguably the Big Ten's weakest position in 2011, and the league loses first-team all-conference selections Trenton Robinson (Michigan State) and Brian Peters (Northwestern). Penn State's Nick Sukay and Wisconsin's Aaron Henry also are among those departing the league.

Center: The Big Ten loses Rimington Trophy winner David Molk of Michigan, as well as Wisconsin's Peter Konz, a second-round draft pick. Also gone are Nebraska's Mike Caputo and Ohio State's Mike Brewster, who shared second-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches.

Now it's time to vote. Make yours count.

Purdue spring wrap

May, 11, 2012
5/11/12
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2011 record: 7-6
2011 conference record: 4-4 (third place, Leaders Division) Returning starters: Offense: 9; Defense: 9; kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
DT Kawann Short, CB Ricardo Allen, QB Caleb TerBush, QB Robert Marve, QB Rob Henry, RB Akeem Shavers, RB Ralph Bolden, DE Ryan Russell, WR Antavian Edison, DT Bruce Gaston, OT Trevor Foy

Key losses
LB Joe Holland, S Albert Evans, LT Dennis Kelly, OG Nick Mondek, WR Justin Siller, K Carson Wiggs

2011 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Ralph Bolden* (674 yards)
Passing: Caleb TerBush (1,905 yards)
Receiving: Antavian Edison* (584 yards) Tackles: Joe Holland (94) Sacks: Kawann Short* (6.5) Interceptions: Ricardo Allen* (3)

Spring answers

1. Healthy QBs: After two years of dealing with injuries and inexperienced signalcallers, Danny Hope finally had enviable depth at the position this spring. With Robert Marve healthy, last season's starter Caleb TerBush a year wiser, and Rob Henry on the mend from a torn ACL, Purdue has three former starters at quarterback. Hope said the depth made for much improved offensive execution this spring, which should carry over into the fall. Now he just has to figure out whom to play and when, as it's likely more than one will see the field in the same game.

2. Defensive front and back set: The Boilermakers have a chance to be very good up front defensively, and it all starts with defensive tackle Kawann Short. He passed up the NFL draft, and could work his way into first-round status with a big senior season. Bruce Gaston returns along side him in the middle, and sophomore defensive end Ryan Russell looks like a future star after coming on strong at the end of last season. The secondary is also in great shape, with returning cornerbacks Ricardo Allen and Josh Johnson possibly forming the best tandem in the league, according to Hope. Nickel back Normondo Harris had a big spring game, and Max Charlot returns at safety. Purdue should have the ability to generate a pass-rush and defend the ball in the air.

3. More confidence: There's little doubt that there's more confidence in the air around West Lafayette. That comes from the team making -- and winning -- its first bowl game under Hope last season, and returning 18 offensive and defensive starters. This is Hope's deepest team, and it should be his best. Some are picking Purdue as a potential Big Ten sleeper, and the players believe that talk is justified.

Fall questions

1. Linebacker Who? While the defense looks stout up front and in the secondary, questions remain at linebacker. Joe Holland, the team's leading tackler a year ago, graduated. Dwayne Beckford missed the bowl game after a DUI arrest, and his status for the fall remains in flux. Will Lucas is the only returning starter guaranteed to suit up in September. There's talk of using some 3-4 looks under new defensive coordinator Tim Tibesar, who implemented his system in practices closed to the media this spring. Does Purdue have enough linebackers to make it work?

2. Offensive line chemistry: The Boilers' offensive line didn't get a lot of hype last season, but it produced two NFL draft picks in Dennis Kelly and Nick Mondek. Trevor Foy is moving from right to left tackle, and Kevin Pamphile and Rick Schmeig worked at multiple positions this spring. Purdue will mix in some new faces and some veterans in new places this fall, and how well that unit comes together will have a large say in how the offense flows.

3. X-factors on offense: Some things we simply don't yet know include the following: Can Ralph Bolden successfully return from knee surgery? If not, is Akeem Shavers a capable every-down back? What will happen to leading receiver Antavian Edison after his arrest on weapons charges this week? Will fellow wideout O.J. Ross make it back from academic suspension? Can kick returning dynamo Raheem Mostert make an impact at receiver? Purdue has a lot more options on offense than in the recent past, but there also remains a lot of question marks.

Big Ten lunch links

May, 10, 2012
5/10/12
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I haven't been judged by this many people since I forgot my canvas bags at Whole Foods.

Big shoes to fill: Purdue

February, 22, 2012
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As we count down the days before spring practice, we're taking a look at how each Big Ten team will replace key players on their depth charts. We're picking two departed players who left big shoes to fill and identifying who might be ready to do that filling.

Up next, Purdue.

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Dennis Kelly, LT

[+] EnlargeDennis Kelly
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesDennis Kelly started 37 consecutive games at left tackle for the Boilermakers.
Why: Purdue returns most of its skill players on offense but must fill gaps along the line, none bigger than at left tackle. Kelly started every game the past three seasons, a streak of 37 consecutive games protecting the quarterback's blind side. He also served as a co-captain last fall. Kelly is a big body at 6-foot-8 and 306 pounds, and his backup in 2011 was Trevor Foy, the team's starting right tackle. Purdue doesn't have many proven players at tackle entering spring practice. Although the Boilers return four quarterbacks with starting experience, they need someone to protect them.

Replacement candidates: Trevor Foy (6-7, 287, Jr.); Justin Kitchens (6-4, 275, Jr.); Jack De Boef (6-7, 284, So.)

The skinny: Kitchens moved from defensive line to offensive tackle last spring and started the first four games before moving behind Foy on the depth chart. Purdue could move Foy to the left side and move Kitchens into a starting role or given Kitchens a shot a succeeding Kelly. De Boef is a big body but lacks experience. It should be a very interesting spring along the offensive line.

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Joe Holland, LB

Why: No player has started more games for Purdue in the past four seasons than Holland, who started 48 of 49 games in his career. He led the team in tackles with 94 in 2011 and finished in the top three in tackles all four seasons. A co-captain last season, Holland finished second on the squad in both tackles for loss (10.5) and passes defended (9), recording an interception and 1.5 sacks. Although linebacker hasn't been the strongest position at Purdue, Holland's durability, leadership and production will be missed in 2012.

Replacement candidates: Nnamdi Ezenwa (6-2, 225, Sr.); Joe Gilliam (6-1, 211, So.); Mike Lee (6-2, 220, So.)

The skinny: Purdue should be fine at the other two linebacker spots with Dwayne Beckford and Will Lucas, but Holland leaves a void because he was always on the field. Gilliam appeared in 11 games last season and recorded seven tackles, while Ezenwa, listed as Holland's backup on Purdue's depth chart, had six tackles in five games. The Boilers didn't have a ton of linebackers see the field in 2011, so it'll be important for Lee and other younger 'backers to get up to speed this spring.

Spring preview: Leaders Division

February, 17, 2012
2/17/12
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After taking a look at the Legends Division outlook for spring practice, it's time to turn the focus to the Leaders Division.

Away we go ...

ILLINOIS

Start of spring practice: March 7
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • New faces in new roles: Tim Beckman and his assistants get their first chance to work with the players on the field. Beckman retained only one assistant (defensive line coach Keith Gilmore) from the previous staff, so it'll be important for the players and coaches to get acclimated. It's also a big spring for co-offensive coordinators Billy Gonzales and Chris Beatty, both of whom will be primary playcallers for the first time at this level.
  • The quarterbacks: Nathan Scheelhaase is a two-year starter, but he'll have to re-establish himself as the team's top option at quarterback. Reilly O'Toole received a decent amount of field time last season, and Illinois should have a competition under center in spring practice. Both men will have to learn a new offense and show good decision-making skills after combining to throw 12 interceptions last fall.
  • No Merci: All-American defensive end Whitney Mercilus is gone, and Illinois will be looking for his replacement this spring. The defensive line could once again be a strength for the Illini, especially with Gilmore back and an aggressive defensive coordinator in Tim Banks. It'll be interesting to see how the coaches use Michael Buchanan and Justin Staples, who played the "bandit" position in the previous scheme and boast speed but don't have typical defensive end size.
INDIANA

Start of spring practice: March 3
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • Juco fever: Indiana needs a quick fix on defense, and it hopes an influx of junior college players can provide one. Six juco players already are enrolled and will participate in spring practice, including five on the defensive side. It will be interesting to see how players such as defensive back Tregg Waters and linebackers Justin Rayside and Jacarri Alexander perform this spring as they compete to play right away.
  • New direction on offense: Coach Kevin Wilson wants to be more productive in the passing game, and he hired an offensive coordinator in Seth Littrell who can help in that area. Littrell guided an Arizona offense that last season ranked third nationally in passing (370.8 ypg) and 27th in pass efficiency (145.2). He'll try to help Tre Roberson, who Wilson said he thinks can elevate his game significantly as a passer despite throwing twice as many interceptions (six) as touchdowns (three) as a freshman.
  • Who has grown up: Indiana played 32 freshmen (16 true, 16 redshirt) in 2011, the most in the FBS. The early experience should pay off for several players, and Indiana needs them to grow up quickly during the spring. Roberson showed a lot of promise at quarterback, and safety Mark Murphy finished second on the team with 76 tackles. Keep an eye on players such as defensive end Bobby Richardson and receiver/returner Shane Wynn.
OHIO STATE

Start of spring practice: March 28
Spring game: April 21

What to watch:
  • Urban renewal: The mood has improved around Ohio State's program from the moment Urban Meyer stepped to the podium Nov. 28. After putting together his staff, signing an elite recruiting class and ticking off some of his Big Ten coaching colleagues, Meyer finally gets a chance to work with the players on the practice field. After a lackluster final season at Florida in 2010, Meyer says he's refreshed and recharged, and it'll be interesting to see how he attacks practices.
  • The new offense: Ohio State fans can't wait for a new offense after suffering through a 2011 season that featured some extremely questionable play-calling. Meyer's offensive system is well-known throughout college football, but the interesting thing this spring will be how Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman blend their ideas. Herman is a dynamic young coach who impressed a lot of folks at Iowa State. But Ohio State is a different animal, and expectations will be high for quarterback Braxton Miller and the unit.
  • Fickell back on defense: After spending last season as Ohio State's head coach, Luke Fickell returns to an assistant role on the defensive side. And for the first time, Fickell will be the Buckeyes' primary defensive playcaller. Ohio State's defense took a step back last season and will be looking to regain its traditional form. Fickell will work alongside co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers and look to identify some leaders to complement defensive lineman John Simon.
PENN STATE

Start of spring practice: March 26
Spring game: April 21

What to watch:
  • O'Brien's time: Much will be made of Penn State opening spring ball without Joe Paterno, but the real story is how critical these practices will be for new coach Bill O'Brien and his team. Penn State will be acclimating to new systems on both sides of the ball and a new coaching style from O'Brien and his assistant coaches, all but two of whom are from the outside. The learning curve will be accelerated for all involved, as Penn State needs to get a lot done in 15 workouts.
  • The quarterbacks: It's good that O'Brien has extensive experience coaching quarterbacks because no position needs a bigger upgrade at Penn State. The Lions struggled mightily under center last season and need a major boost beginning this spring. Can O'Brien get more out of Matthew McGloin and Rob Bolden, both of whom have seen extensive time in the Big Ten? How does Paul Jones factor into the mix? It'll be interesting to see how the signal-callers perform this spring.
  • Filling gaps on defense: Penn State should have one of the nation's best linebacker groups this season, but the Lions need to fill some holes on the line and in the secondary. Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Devon Still departs, and Penn State will be leaning on Jordan Hill and others to step up. A bigger concern is the secondary, which loses two multiyear starters at safety (Drew Astorino and Nick Sukay). Penn State also has a new defensive coordinator in Ted Roof, who will be looking for better results than he had at Auburn.
PURDUE

Start of spring practice: March 7
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • Another quarterback competition: Boilers coach Danny Hope loves having options at quarterback, and he'll once again get his wish during spring practice. Caleb TerBush, Robert Marve,Rob Henry and Sean Robinson all boast starting experience and will vie for the No. 1 job when workouts resume. Henry, who sizzled last spring and would have started the season if not for a torn ACL, has been cleared to participate in noncontact drills. Marve received an extra year of eligibility and will be in the mix. TerBush started every game last season.
  • Tisebar takes over: Purdue has a new defensive coordinator for the third consecutive season, as Tim Tisebar takes over this spring. Tisebar returns to college football after spending the past three seasons with the Canadian Football League's Montreal Alouettes. Hope hired Tisebar to help Purdue improve against the spread offense and the zone-read game. It will be interesting to see what spin Tisebar puts on the defense as the Boilers enter a pivotal season.
  • Offensive line depth: One of Purdue's strengths last season is a bit light on bodies following several departures. The Boilers need a left tackle to replace Dennis Kelly, and they also must increase depth on the interior line. Purdue already has moved tight end Robert Kugler to center, and Hope said earlier this month that several other tight ends could practice at offensive tackle during the spring.
WISCONSIN

Start of spring practice: March 17
Spring game: April 28

What to watch:
  • A revamped staff: Bret Bielema hired six new assistant coaches during the winter months, including offensive coordinator Matt Canada. The new coaches will have their first opportunity to work with players on the field this spring. It's important for both sides to acclimate, mainly because Wisconsin has had tremendous success the past two seasons and doesn't want the staff shakeup to throw things off course. Quarterback Russell Wilson made a seamless transition to the program last summer. Let's see if the new assistants can do the same in spring ball.
  • The quarterbacks: Speaking of Wilson, he departs Madison, leaving a major void under center. Jon Budmayr and Curt Phillips are coming off of major injuries, and while they're both making progress it could be tough to get a gauge on them this spring. Canada will spend much of his time working with Joel Stave and Joe Brennan, who need to get comfortable with Canada's adjustments to the offense and start establishing themselves as potential team leaders.
  • Reloading up front: Wisconsin will have to replace two All-American offensive linemen for the second consecutive year, and the Badgers lose three All-Big Ten selections up front (Peter Konz, Kevin Zeitler and Josh Oglesby). While the Badgers are built to reload, offensive line coach Mike Markuson has a lot of evaluating to do this spring. On the defensive line, Wisconsin loses two starters (Patrick Butrym and Louis Nzegwu) and will be looking for some difference-makers. End David Gilbert returns to the mix after missing most of last season with a broken foot.

Big Ten recruiting team wraps

February, 2, 2012
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National signing day is in the books, and it's time to evaluate the Big Ten teams and their classes. Although several potential Big Ten recruits are announcing their plans after signing day, most of the classes are complete.

Here's how ESPN Recruiting graded the Big Ten classes Insider.

Let's take a look at how teams filled their big recruiting needs:

ILLINOIS

The Illini have had a nice run at defensive tackle with 2011 NFL first-round draft pick Corey Liuget and Akeem Spence, who enters 2012 as a legitimate pro prospect. They solidified the interior line for the future with recruits like Teko Powell and Vontrell Williams.

INDIANA

It's no secret Indiana needs to make significant upgrades on defense, and coach Kevin Wilson looked to the junior college ranks for help. Indiana added six juco defenders, including cornerback Tregg Waters and linebacker Jacarri Alexander. These players give the Hoosiers a chance to get better in a hurry.

IOWA

Running back has again become a pressing need for Iowa with the departures of Marcus Coker and Mika'il McCall. While Iowa has lost running backs at an alarming rate, it also has developed young backs very well in recent years. The coaches hope to work their magic with Greg Garmon, who could be the most significant recruit of the 2012 class.

MICHIGAN

Arguably no staff in the country makes defensive line a bigger priority than Michigan, which has three coaches, including head man Brady Hoke, focused on the front four. The Wolverines lose standouts Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen from the 2011 line, but they addressed the situation in recruiting with pickups like defensive tackle Ondre Pipkins and defensive end Chris Wormley.

MICHIGAN STATE

Michigan State is creating a nice recruiting pipeline at the wide receiver position. The Spartans lose their top two wideouts from 2011 (B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin) but added several nice receiver pickups in the 2012, including Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett and four-star prospects Monty Madaris and Aaron Burbridge.

MINNESOTA

Quarterback MarQueis Gray returns, and Minnesota needed to get him some help in the passing game after the departure of Da'Jon McKnight. The Gophers added some excellent pickups at the wide receiver position in Andre McDonald and Jamel Harbison.

NEBRASKA

The Huskers were thin at linebacker in 2011 and lose standout Lavonte David to graduation. Nebraska coaches also have discussed the need to add more traditional linebackers to face Big Ten offenses. Big Red filled the need in the 2012 recruiting classes with players such as Michael Rose and Jared Afalava.

NORTHWESTERN

Defense has been Northwestern's downfall in the past two years, and the Wildcats need more difference-makers on that side of the ball. They likely landed one in end/linebacker Ifeadi Odenigbo, an ESPNU 150 prospect who is Northwestern's most decorated defensive recruit in recent memory. Odenigbo could help immediately as a situational pass-rusher.

OHIO STATE

No Big Ten team made a bigger impact at one position than Ohio State did along the defensive line. The Buckeyes, who were a bit thin up front in 2011, got a lot better with this class, which is headlined by ESPNU 150 prospects Noah Spence, Adolphus Washington, Se'Von Pittman and Tommy Schutt.

PENN STATE

Skyler Mornhinweg's decommitment stings a bit, as Penn State needs more quarterbacks in the mix, but the Nittany Lions also need more difference-makers at wide receiver and tight end. They helped themselves in the 2012 class with wide receiver Eugene Lewis, ranked as the nation's No. 34 wideout by ESPN Recruiting. Tight end Jesse James is another nice pickup.

PURDUE

Offensive line has been a position of stability for Purdue the past few seasons, but the Boilers lose two starters from the 2011 squad (Dennis Kelly, Nick Mondek) and will say goodbye to several more after 2012. Purdue had to reload up front, and the two highest-rated players in the 2012 class, according to ESPN Recruiting -- Jordan Roos and Cameron Cermin -- all play offensive line.

WISCONSIN

Quarterback is undoubtedly Wisconsin's top priority as Russell Wilson departs and Jon Budmayr and Curt Phillips battle back from major injuries. The Badgers needed a signal-caller in a small class and landed a decorated one in Bart Houston, a four-star prospect from California powerhouse De La Salle High School.
National Signing Day is barely a week away, and Big Ten teams will be stockpiling for the future (and, in some cases, the present). Today we'll take a look at the recruiting needs of each Big Ten team, starting with those in the Leaders division. These needs are based on current rosters and anticipated departures in the near future. And to save you some email time, we do realize teams have already addressed needs in compiling their 2012 classes.

Let's get started ...

ILLINOIS

Wide receiver: The Illini lose A.J. Jenkins, who accounted for 90 of the team's 226 receptions in 2011. No other Illinois player had more than 26 catches, so there certainly are opportunities for young players to emerge and make an immediate impact for the new coaching staff.

Linemen: Illinois loses two starters from an offensive line that struggled down the stretch of the regular season. It's important to build depth there going forward. Despite Whitney Mercilus' early departure to the NFL draft, the defensive line returns some talented players. Still, defensive end Michael Buchanan is entering his senior year, and defensive tackle Akeem Spence is a bona fide NFL prospect who could enter the draft with a strong 2012 campaign.

Safety: The Illini defense didn't have many weaknesses in 2011, but safety was a liability at times. The team returns experience for 2012, but will lose some key players after the season. An impact defensive back or two in the 2012 class would really help.

INDIANA

Defensive back: This has been a primary recruiting need for the past few seasons, and it remains a pressing concern after Indiana surrendered a league-worst 8.5 yards per pass and a league-high 26 passing touchdowns in 2011. Indiana needs impact players and depth among the back four to be able to limit Big Ten offenses.

Defensive front seven: Sense a theme here? Indiana needs defenders in the worst way, and the front seven is a huge piece to the puzzle. The Hoosiers return some experience at defensive tackle, but lose top linebackers Jeff Thomas and Leon Beckum. The coaches showed in 2011 that they're not afraid to play young players, and they need more contributors on the defensive side.

Quarterback: Starter Tre Roberson returns, but Indiana needs bodies here after Dusty Kiel and Ed Wright-Baker both opted to transfer earlier this month.

OHIO STATE

Offensive line: Three multiyear starters depart at center, left tackle and right tackle, so Ohio State's offensive line will have a very different look in 2012. The Buckeyes could use some immediate-impact linemen, like center Mike Brewster in 2008, and they'll look to build depth here.

Defensive end: Ohio State appears loaded at defensive tackle for 2012 and beyond, but the team needs some more pure pass-rushers on the edge. John Simon, who had four more sacks than anyone on the squad in 2011, will be a senior this coming season.

Wide receiver: The Buckeyes lacked reliable receiver options in 2011 and had their best wideout, DeVier Posey, for only three games because of suspension. Posey departs and Ohio State needs to build depth and increase competition in what should be a more wide-open offense under Urban Meyer.

PENN STATE

Quarterback: New coach Bill O'Brien might be the quarterback whisperer Penn State has waited for, but he also needs to upgrade the talent on the roster. Matthew McGloin and Rob Bolden both must make significant strides, and while Paul Jones is an intriguing player, we've yet to see him in a game. Penn State needs more options here.

Wide receiver: Top target Derek Moye departs, and Penn State returns only two players with decent but not great production in Justin Brown and Devon Smith. Brown looks like a potential impact player in 2012, but Penn State needs more options in the passing game.

Defensive back: Penn State loses all four starters, although returning players like Stephon Morris, Malcolm Willis and Adrian Amos have logged playing time. Still, the Lions need some more players here to build depth and increase competition.

PURDUE

Offensive line: This is one of few areas where Purdue loses a decent amount of production from 2011, as tackle Dennis Kelly and Nick Mondek both depart. Two more starters exit after the 2012 season, and Purdue wants to be a run-based offense. It's important to build some depth up front with the 2012 class.

Kicker: Purdue loses the bionic-legged Carson Wiggs, who did more than make field goals from ridiculous distances. He also kicked off and served as a backup punter, attempting 45 punts over the past two seasons. The versatile Wiggs leaves a major void, and Purdue must address the specialist spot.

Defensive back: The Boilers say goodbye to both of their starting safeties from the 2011 team. They also will lose starting cornerback Josh Johnson after the 2012 season, while Ricardo Allen might be an early entry candidate with a big junior year. While this isn't a pressing need right now, it could soon become one.

WISCONSIN

Quarterback: Russell Wilson saved Wisconsin in more than one way in 2011, and his departure is significant. The team's most experienced signal callers, Jon Budmayr and Curt Phillips, both are coming off of major injuries. Wisconsin typically doesn't play younger quarterbacks, but needs more options after a season where Wilson showed what the offense could be.

Wide receiver: The Badgers typically get by with 1-2 good wideouts and an excellent tight end or two, but they could use more depth at the receiver position. Top target Nick Toon departs, and Wisconsin is pretty thin at receiver aside from Jared Abbrederis.

Defensive speed: Oregon makes a lot of teams look slow, but the Rose Bowl spelled out what the Badgers must do to take the next step as a program. Wisconsin needs to upgrade its speed at all three levels of the defense, particularly the back seven, to prevent explosion plays. Michigan State also exposed Wisconsin's defense, so the need for speed certainly is there.
Let's put a final bow on bowl season with our choices for the 2011 Big Ten All-Bowl team. As usual, some positions had more than enough worthy selections, such as defensive line, while other positions -- safety, offensive line -- left us scrambling a bit.

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

Here's the bowl squad ...

OFFENSE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DEFENSE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SPECIAL TEAMS

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

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

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

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

2011 Big Ten Super Seniors

December, 29, 2011
12/29/11
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Borrowing an idea from our friends at the SEC blog, I wanted to recognize some of the best seniors in the Big Ten in 2011.

To spread the love around, the following list features one senior from each Big Ten team. I really looked for guys who saved their best for last, took their game to the next level and performed consistently all season. There are obviously more standout seniors than the ones mentioned below, but these players all deserve some recognition.

[+] EnlargeB.J. Cunningham
Mike Carter/US PresswireSpartans receiver B.J. Cunningham is one of several of ESPN.com's Big Ten Super Seniors.
Here's the list, in alphabetical order:

Michigan State WR B.J. Cunningham: He took the step from good (50 catches, 611 receiving yards, 9 TDs) to great (72 catches, 1,240 yards, 12 TDs) this season. He eclipsed 100 receiving yards in both games against Wisconsin and went for 154 yards on nine catches against Ohio State. His 17.2 yards-per-reception average was tops among the Big Ten's leading receivers. Cunningham became a very hard player to contain on the outside.

Nebraska LB Lavonte David: He played only two seasons in Lincoln but won't soon be forgotten. David didn't match his team record tackles total from 2010 (152) but still had 122 stops, the third-highest total in the Big Ten. He also become more of a difference-maker, making the critical plays for the Huskers in wins like Ohio State. David led Nebraska in tackles for loss (11) and finished second in sacks (3.5). He also had two interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.

Illinois WR A.J. Jenkins: The Illini offense disappeared in the second half, but Jenkins' accomplishments shouldn't go unnoticed. He went from a decent receiver to one of the best in the Big Ten, recording a league-best 82 receptions for 1,197 yards and seven touchdowns. Although Jenkins did much of his damage in the first six games, he still recorded six or more receptions in nine games and at least four catches in all 12 regular-season contests. He accounted for 53.3 percent of the team's receiving yards, the most nationally by eight percent.

Purdue LT Dennis Kelly: The offensive linemen deserve some love on this list, and Kelly stabilized Purdue's front five in his third season as a starter. Kelly started every game for the third consecutive season, giving him 37 career starts, and anchored a Purdue line that helped the team rank fifth in the league in rushing (181.6 ypg) and third in first downs (20.5 per game). Kelly finished his career as a bowl champion as Purdue captured the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl on Tuesday night.

Iowa WR Marvin McNutt: McNutt had been a productive pass-catcher for Iowa, but he took his game to the next level this season. The Big Ten's best receiver recorded 78 receptions for 1,269 yards and 12 touchdowns. He had eight 100-yard receiving performances and four games with multiple touchdown catches. McNutt also made the best catch of the Big Ten season against Michigan State on Nov. 12.

Northwestern S Brian Peters: It was a very rough year for the Wildcats' secondary, but it would have been even worse without Peters' contributions. He made by far the most big plays for the unit, recording four interceptions, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. Peters finished second on the team in tackles (85) and had four tackles for loss, four pass breakups and a sack.

Minnesota S Kim Royston: Talk about a player who made the most of his final opportunity. Granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, Royston turned in a terrific season, leading Minnesota and finishing third in the Big Ten with 123 tackles, 36 more than any other Gophers defender. Royston had an interception, two pass breakups and a sack. He recorded double digits in tackles in eight contests and provided leadership for a unit that needed it.

[+] EnlargeDevin Still
Jeffrey G. Pittenger/US PresswirePenn State defensive tackle Devin Still was more than a handful for opposing blockers in 2011.
Penn State DT Devon Still: Brian and I look like fools (yeah, it happens a lot) for leaving Still off of our preseason top 25 player rankings. But he wasn't nearly the same player in 2010 as he turned out to be this fall. The Lions star put it all together to win Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors. A disruptive force that put strain on every opposing offensive line, Still recorded 17 tackles for loss, tied for fourth in the Big Ten. He had 4.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery, and his stats hardly tell the full story. No Big Ten player better fits the definition of Super Senior.

Ohio State LB Andrew Sweat: It wasn't a typical year for Ohio State's senior class, as several key players missed chunks of the season because of suspensions. Sweat stepped up his play for a mostly young defense, though, and contributed 68 tackles, five tackles for loss, a forced fumble, an interception and three pass breakups. The Buckeyes sorely missed him in their final two games, when he sat out with head and elbow injuries.

Indiana LB Jeff Thomas: Youth was served all season at Indiana, which played more young players than any FBS team this season. But Thomas did his part on a flawed defense, leading the squad in both tackles (80) and tackles for loss (10.5). He added three pass breakups, a sack and a fumble recovery. The junior-college transfer has been one of few bright spots for Indiana's defense the past two seasons.

Michigan DE Ryan Van Bergen: Many Wolverines defenders benefited from a new coaching staff and a new scheme, but perhaps none more than Van Bergen. He led the team in both tackles for loss (12) and sacks (5) and finished second with three fumble recoveries. Van Bergen finished the season playing his best football, recording seven tackles for loss in the final three games.

Wisconsin QB Russell Wilson: He came to Madison as a senior and turned in one of the more memorable offensive performances in team history. Although Wilson had put up big numbers at NC State, he became a much more efficient quarterback with the Badgers, completing 72.5 percent of his passes with 31 touchdowns and only three interceptions in 284 attempts. He ranked second nationally in pass efficiency (191.6), trailing only Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III. Wilson earned consensus first-team All-Big Ten honors.

Big Ten lunchtime links

July, 14, 2011
7/14/11
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Anyone else as excited as I am for the return of "Breaking Bad" this weekend?
  • Some undrafted Indiana Hoosiers are still working out and hoping for a chance (subscription required).
  • Dennis Kelly is preparing for his final season on the Purdue offensive line, but getting a haircut isn't among his plans.

Big Ten mailblog

June, 30, 2011
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Another mailblog coming up Friday, so be sure and send your questions to Brian.

Let's get started ...

Caleb from Ashland, Neb., writes: Last week, Pac-12 blogger Ted Miller answered a question about why he thought the SEC has been so dominant and so hard to knock off it's perch. He talked about the culture of football in the SEC and how football is the most important thing to most of the fan bases in the conference. I am not sure I agree with this opinion as the Big Ten has a very storied football history and places like Nebraska, Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan has very, very dedicated fan bases and I would also label most schools in the B1G as football schools. So I would like to ask you the same question, why do you think the SEC has been the most dominant conference of the BCS era?

Adam Rittenberg: Caleb, I agree that football is king throughout much of the Big Ten and particularly for the fan bases you list. I would, however, agree with Ted that the obsession factor is greater in the SEC. Many SEC schools are in areas with no major pro sports teams. Their fan bases include everyone, not just alumni or folks with connections to the schools. Die-hard fans are the same everywhere, but the year-round focus on football throughout the entire conference -- not just in certain places -- seems to be greater in the SEC. Now does that make SEC football better? Maybe, but I think the recent population shifts and the number of elite recruits in the South and Southeast have had more to do with it. SEC teams have more to choose from in their backyards than their Big Ten counterparts. You don't have as many programs like Iowa and Wisconsin that boast successful track records on the field but face unique challenges in recruiting because of their locations.


Zach from Southgate, Mich., writes: Adam, I'm curious to know if other OSU fans are as conflicted as I am about the coming year. On one hand, I'd love to see the Buckeyes go 12-1, stick it in everyone's craw, and play in the Rose Bowl as Big 10 champs. But that would draw so much negative attention nationally! Maybe a subdued 8-4/9-3 season would be better to keep us out of the spotlight? But what if this is our last chance at BCS postseason glory for a couple of years if the NCAA cracks down with bowl bans? You can see why I'm torn!

Adam Rittenberg: Zach, I could be wrong, but I don't think many Buckeyes fans are torn about this. Fans should want to see their teams succeed at the highest level, especially in the fact of adversity. Ohio State is going to be a huge national story whether it goes 7-5 or 11-1. People want to see how the Buckeyes will respond to all the controversy, how young coach Luke Fickell handles himself and so forth. There's also the unknowns about potential NCAA penalties and who ultimately coaches the team in 2012 and beyond. But as a fan, you should want continued success because the spotlight will be there no matter what.


Andrew from DC writes: Regarding your choice for the top 5 offensive tackles in the league, I'm not going to criticize your choices, but I would bet a dollar (or a few of them) that Taylor Lewan is on that list at the end of the season. Kid is a beast with a year of experience under his belt now. As long as he can cut back on penalties, I see him finishing the season as one of the top 3 OTs in the B1G.

Adam Rittenberg: Lewan is an intriguing prospect. He's clearly talented and has the potential to be very good this season, but as you note, he has to show greater discipline and consistency. I probably would have included a few Big Ten tackles before Lewan -- Purdue's Dennis Kelly just missed the top 5 -- but the Michigan redshirt sophomore is a player to watch.


Scott from Orlando writes: Adam, I incredibly shocked that I'm yet to see any discussion on this topic, and if I've overlooked it, please point me in the right direction. With Tyrelle Pryor's departure from OSU, what are the implications on their Sugar Bowl victory over Arkansas? Now that he has left the program and reneged on his promise to return next year with a five game suspension, he was obviously an ineligible player, right? Is Ohio State going to have to give up their only BCS bowl victory over an SEC school? Is the NCAA going to come down harder on them since they allowed Tressel such lenience in handing out punishments instead of them??

Adam Rittenberg: Scott, it depends if the NCAA finds Pryor had committed violations beyond the memorabilia sales to Edward Rife. The NCAA knew about those before the Sugar Bowl and still allowed Pryor and his teammates to play. The recent investigation into Pryor and his use of cars could produce additional violations that might ultimately result in Ohio State vacating the Sugar Bowl win. But Pryor's "ineligibility" in relation to the original memorabilia sales violations was already known and didn't affect his status for the bowl. It's more likely the NCAA comes down hard on Tressel/Ohio State for Tressel's cover-up than any punishments he or the team handed out to players. Tressel not coming forward with information about the initial violations is the big issue.


Adam from Gilbert, Ariz., writes: Adam, How exactly does Wilson make Wisconsin better? He was decent, but nothing special in the weak ACC. He doesn't exactly fit Wisconsin's style of play and wasn't even wanted by NC State. I think his experience will help a little, but overall, i don't think it brings them any more wins...

Adam Rittenberg: Adam, Wilson did some pretty special things at NC State, and while the ACC might not win BCS bowls, there are some pretty good teams with NFL talent throughout that league. If you watched Wilson play, you'd see a quarterback who can make all the throws, who can extend plays and make things happen both inside and outside the pocket. And it wasn't that NC State didn't want him any more. Tom O'Brien just wanted him to commit to football this spring. Time will tell how Wilson fits in at Wisconsin, but he undoubtedly makes the Badgers a better team.
The preseason position rankings march on with the offensive lines. Team rankings are below, and we'll take a look at the individual rankings for tackles, centers and guards early next week.

Looking at the league landscape, offensive line could be a major strength throughout the Big Ten this season. Although standout players such as Outland Trophy winner Gabe Carimi and All-American Stefen Wisniewski depart, I see improved depth for several teams as well as quite a few multiyear starters.

Honestly, there aren't any bad lines in the league; just some with more question marks than others.

Let's get to the rundown.

1. Wisconsin: Talk about an ability to reload. The Badgers lose All-Americans Carimi and John Moffitt, plus the versatile Bill Nagy, and they still shouldn't take any steps backward. Injuries have allowed Wisconsin to build depth the past few seasons, and four of the five spots look extremely solid. Tackle Ricky Wagner, center Peter Konz and guard Kevin Zeitler lead a group that will block for the league's top running back tandem. Wisconsin's track record up front is impossible to ignore, and this year's line should continue the trend.

[+] EnlargeRiley Reiff
David Purdy/Getty ImagesWill arm length be an issue for former Iowa left tackle Riley Reiff in the NFL?
2. Iowa: The line is undoubtedly Iowa's biggest strength and should be one of the nation's elite units in 2011. Iowa returns starting experience at all five positions and should have decent depth. Left tackle Riley Reiff, projected as a first-round pick in the 2012 NFL draft, will enter the fall as a leading candidate for the Outland Trophy. James Ferentz is one of the league's top centers, and Markus Zusevics is poised for a big year at right tackle.

3. Ohio State: Depth is the only reason the Buckeyes' line isn't higher in the rankings. Ohio State boasts arguably the nation's top center in Mike Brewster, and first-team All-Big Ten tackle Mike Adams will be back after a five-game suspension to begin the season. The Buckeyes need big things from tackle Andrew Norwell during Adams' absence, and tackle J.B. Shugarts must play like a veteran. After struggling to put two sets of capable linemen on the field this spring, Ohio State has to find more depth in preseason camp.

4. Michigan: This is another group that could climb up the rankings by season's end. Center David Molk is a terrific piece to build around, and if gifted players like Taylor Lewan and Patrick Omameh continue to develop, Michigan's line will be a major strength. The concerns are Molk's ability to stay healthy and an adjustment to a new offensive system under Al Borges. The line did an excellent job of protecting Denard Robinson in 2010, allowing a league-low 11 sacks.

5. Illinois: The Illini flat-out punished opponents at the line of scrimmage on several occasions last season, and I really like the potential for the front five in 2011. The biggest reason? Left tackle Jeff Allen, one of the Big Ten's most experienced linemen. Allen and center Graham Pocic will contend for All-Big Ten honors, and if Corey Lewis gets healthy, this should be one of the league's top offensive lines.

6. Purdue: Expectations are high for a line that coach Danny Hope thinks will be Purdue's strength in 2011. Left tackle Dennis Kelly is an All-Big Ten candidate with NFL potential who has started the past 24 games. Center Peters Drey and tackle Nick Mondek help anchor the group. The big question is whether mammoth guard Ken Plue, a multiyear starter, can get out of Hope's doghouse to help lead the way. Plue will be pushed by James Shepherd this summer. The combination of experience up front and the return of running back Ralph Bolden bode well for the Boilers.

7. Northwestern: The Wildcats boast the nation's second most experienced line (137 combined career starts), but experience must start translating to production. This group still must prove it can spark a decent rushing attack after several years of decline. Left tackle Al Netter is an All-Big Ten candidate and center Ben Burkett enters his fourth season as the starter. If Northwestern gets more consistent play from right tackle Patrick Ward and others, it should be a solid group.

8. Penn State: This is a big year for Penn State's O-line, which has heard the criticism and has vowed to erase it in 2011. The tackle spots look solid with Quinn Barham and Chima Okoli, but Penn State needs to shore up the interior after losing Wisniewski, a mainstay for the past four seasons. If veterans like Johnnie Troutman and DeOn'tae Pannell step up and turn in consistent performances, the line should hold up nicely.

9. Nebraska: The Huskers ranked ninth nationally in rushing last season but have quite a few question marks up front. Center Mike Caputo is a building block and sophomore tackle Jeremiah Sirles is a returning starter, but Nebraska has little proven experience. The Huskers will benefit from a healthy Marcel Jones at right tackle, and Yoshi Hardwick adds depth. This could turn out to be a decent group, but the experience issue combined with a scheme change creates some uncertainty.

10. Michigan State: Not to put too much pressure on the line, but arguably no position group will have more influence on Michigan State's season. The Spartans must replace both starting tackles and their starting center, never an easy task. All-Big Ten guard Joel Foreman returns to lead the group, but Michigan State needs immediate contributions from unproven players. The coaches feel they've upgraded the athleticism up front by moving players like Dan France and Blake Treadwell over from the defensive side.

11. Minnesota: The Gophers boast a mix of veterans and youth, and it'll be interesting to see whether the group comes together this fall. Hopes are high for young tackles Eric Olson and Jimmy Gjere, but they'll need help from seniors like Ryan Wynn and Chris Bunders on the interior. Minnesota needs to regain its swagger as an elite rushing offense, and it starts up front this fall. This is a group that certainly has a chance to make strides.

12. Indiana: I like some of Indiana's individual pieces, but as a group, the Hoosiers must show they can create space for the running backs. Indiana switched to the pistol offense in hopes of sparking the ground game but produced barely 100 rushing yards a game in 2010 (112th nationally). The line allowed only 12 sacks and must continue to protect its unproven quarterbacks this fall, but getting the run game going is paramount. Returning starters Will Matte, Justin Pagan and Andrew McDonald give Indiana hope.
Offensive line experience doesn't guarantee gridiron success, but it certainly doesn't hurt.

Phil Steele recently compiled his annual list of career starts among offensive linemen throughout the FBS. Northwestern ranks second nationally with 137 combined starts, trailing only SMU (158). There's a big drop-off as the next Big Ten team comes in 40th in O-line experience (Purdue, 79 starts).

Northwestern returns four starters up front, including left tackle Al Netter and center Ben Burkett, both of whom are entering their fourth seasons as starters.

Here's a look at where the Big Ten offensive lines rank nationally in career starts entering 2011:
  • No. 2: Northwestern (137)
  • No. 40: Purdue (79)
  • T-43: Ohio State (77)
  • T-49: Wisconsin (74)
  • T-53: Indiana (71)
  • T-56: Michigan (70)
  • T-58: Illinois (69)
  • T-74: Minnesota (60)
  • T-77: Iowa (59)
  • T-81: Michigan State (57)
  • T-87: Penn State (52)
  • T-99: Nebraska (40)

I wouldn't get too giddy or concerned about these numbers. Minnesota had the nation's fourth-most experienced line in 2010 and went 3-9. Then again, both Wisconsin and Ohio State ranked in the top 20 in O-line experience and went on to share the Big Ten title.

Several things stand out about this year's list.
  • Northwestern needs its experience up front to translate to a better rushing attack. The Wildcats' inability to move the ball on the ground the past few seasons has put tremendous pressure on the quarterback position. While this has been a decent pass-blocking line, it must generate more push and give the team's running backs more daylight.
  • Purdue is another team relying on its offensive line to be a strong point in 2011. Left tackle Dennis Kelly is a nice anchor, and if the Boilers can stay healthy, they should be able to run the ball well with Rob Henry, Ralph Bolden and others.
  • Offensive line will be a group to watch for two league title contenders -- Michigan State and Nebraska. Both teams are solid elsewhere but could sink or swim depending on how their offensive fronts perform.
  • Although both Wisconsin and Iowa aren't among the leaders in offensive line experience, both teams have established a track record of producing elite lines. While Wisconsin must replace two All-Americans (Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt), I expect both the Badgers and Hawkeyes to be solid up front this fall.
Purdue on Monday bolstered its offensive line and announced its award winners for the spring session.

The Boilers signed tackle Matt Huene, who spent the past year at the U.S. Air Force Academy's prep school. He played for the Falcons' prep team, which plays top junior colleges, but decided to use his eligibility elsewhere and re-opened his recruitment. The 6-foot-6, 260-pound Huene was a standout lineman at Prospect High School in Mount Prospect, Ill., who battled back from a torn quadriceps in 2008 to play in 2009.
"We're excited to have Matt join us," Purdue coach Danny Hope said in a prepared statement. "We didn’t have a true offensive tackle talent sign with us back in February and he really fits the prototype at that position. He is also an excellent student. I’ve stated that I like to hold back a scholarship or two in the event an unsigned prospect comes along, and that is certainly the case with Matt."

Huene, who has four years of eligibility left, could enter the mix along the Boilers' line this season. Purdue returns both of its starting tackles (Dennis Kelly and Nick Mondek) but, like many teams, could use more depth up front.

Purdue also revealed its awards for spring practice.

Most improved (offense): QB Rob Henry, OT Justin Kitchens

Defensive MVP: LB Will Lucas, DT Kawann Short

Most improved (special teams): S Max Charlot

Newcomer: RB Akeem Shavers (offense), DE Ryan Russell (defense)

Pit Bull Award (player who exemplifies and sustains tenacity and intense play): RB Reggie Pegram (offense), S Albert Evans (defense)

Hammer Award (top hitter): S Logan Link (won for second straight spring)

Henry's inclusion is notable as he hopes to retain the starting job. Kitchens switched from the defene before the spring and appears to have made a smooth transition. This list also reveals the defensive playmakers Purdue will have in 2011. Players such as Lucas and Russell could play significant roles this fall.

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