Big Ten: Derrick Thomas
As a reminder, we're basing these mostly on last year's performance and who returns, along with potential for the 2012 season.
The top four groups could be very good, while the next five have question marks but potential. Even the bottom three groups have realistic opportunities to make strides this fall.
Let's get rolling ...
2. Ohio State: The defensive line has bigger names and more hype, but the secondary might turn out to be Ohio State's best unit in 2012. The Buckeyes bring back all four starters, including arguably the league's top cornerback tandem in Bradley Roby and Travis Howard. Expect Roby to take another big step as a sophomore. Hard-hitting safeties C.J. Barnett and Christian Bryant return, and Ohio State can go two- or three-deep at most positions.
3. Michigan: This group has come a very long way from the Rich Rodriguez era and should be the strength of Michigan's defense in 2012. Safety Jordan Kovacs is an excellent leader who blossomed in Greg Mattison's system last fall. The Wolverines also boast a promising cornerback tandem in J.T. Floyd and Blake Countess, and have good overall depth at both corner and safety.
4. Nebraska: While the Huskers lose the Big Ten's top defensive back in Alfonzo Dennard, they should have greater overall depth and the potential for new stars to emerge. Hard-hitting safety Daimion Stafford leads the group, and P.J. Smith provides a veteran presence at the other safety spot. Nebraska is loaded with options at cornerback, including the improved Andrew Green and juco arrival Mohamed Seisay. New assistant Terry Joseph should get a lot out of this group.
5. Purdue: The rankings already have mentioned some good cornerback tandems, and Purdue adds another in Ricardo Allen and Josh Johnson. They've combined for 48 career starts, and Allen has led the team with three interceptions in each of the past two seasons. Max Charlot returns at safety after recording 41 tackles in 2011, but there are some question marks around him.
6. Illinois: Terry Hawthorne rarely gets mentioned as one of the Big Ten's top defensive backs, but he should. The senior has been a natural playmaker throughout his career and will lead Illinois' secondary in 2012. Senior Justin Green brings experience to the other corner spot. Although the Illini return both of their starting safeties -- Steve Hull and Supo Sanni -- they need more consistency from that position this fall.
7. Wisconsin: The Badgers lose a key player at both cornerback (Antonio Fenelus) and safety (Aaron Henry), but they have a chance to improve upon last year's performance and rise up these rankings. They'll undoubtedly benefit from the return of cornerback Devin Smith from injury. Head coach Bret Bielema doesn't downplay what Smith's absence meant last season. The Badgers need more consistency out of projected starters Dezmen Southward and Marcus Cromartie.
8. Iowa: The Hawkeyes have a nice piece to build around in playmaking senior cornerback Micah Hyde, but they'll need more after a so-so season in 2011. Tanner Miller returns as a starter at safety, and hopes are high for junior B.J. Lowery at the other corner spot. Iowa's depth looks better at corner than it does at safety.
9. Penn State: Most see the secondary as Penn State's weak link, to which Malcolm Willis and Stephon Morris say, "Bring it on." Still, the Lions have questions to address after losing all four starters from the 2011 team. Morris, Willis and sophomore Adrian Amos all have been in the fire a bit, but Penn State needs them to take steps and remain on the field. Depth is a significant concern after the offseason departures of Curtis Drake and Derrick Thomas.
10. Minnesota: This is a bit of a projection pick, but I like Minnesota's potential to take a step forward in the secondary this fall. The biggest reason for optimism is cornerback Troy Stoudermire, who returns for a fifth year after missing most of last season with a foot injury. Stoudermire was on track for a big year before the injury. Cornerback Michael Carter had a strong spring and could finally reach his potential. The bigger concerns here come at the safety spots.
11. Northwestern: Three starters depart from a secondary that struggled to stop anyone and endured major communication breakdowns far too often in 2011. Northwestern is younger in the back four, but it also could be more talented this season. Sophomore safety Ibraheim Campbell comes off of a 100-tackle season, and cornerback Nick VanHoose impressed during the spring. A few veterans return, but the coaches can't be afraid to go with the youth movement here.
12. Indiana: The Hoosiers finished eighth in the Big Ten in pass defense last fall, but only because teams had their way with IU on the ground. Indiana surrendered a league-high 26 pass touchdowns and only recorded five interceptions. There's hope, though, as the Hoosiers return three starters, including top cover man Lawrence Barnett. If Mark Murphy and Greg Heban make strides, and some newcomers help right away, Indiana could be decent in the back four.
They decided to tell their teammates the truth. At least the truth according to those outside the program.
At the end of each workout in the spring and now in the summer, Willis and Morris gather the other Lions defensive backs.
The outside skepticism makes sense. Penn State loses all four starters from 2011: safeties Nick Sukay and Drew Astorino, and cornerbacks D'Anton Lynn and Chaz Powell. Although players like Willis, Morris and sophomore cornerback Adrian Amos have been very much in the mix -- they combined for 65 tackles, two interceptions and nine pass breakups in 2011 -- depth is a significant question mark, especially with the offseason departures of cornerbacks Derrick Thomas and Curtis Drake.
The Lions will need their young defensive backs to step up in a big way. And that's who Willis and Morris direct their message to following workouts.
"Every day we say that, these younger guys, they're hyped up, they're juiced up and they want to do extra work," Willis said. "Right after that, they want to go watch some film with us, or they want to go work on their footwork, just giving that extra effort and that extra attention to detail. It really shows me these guys want to be great this year."
Penn State's defensive fortunes could hinge on the secondary this season. While there are significant changes in State College, namely the arrival of new defensive coordinator Ted Roof and his "multiply aggressive" scheme, several elements remain the same.
The front seven, as usual, should be very strong. First-team All-Big Ten linebacker Gerald Hodges returns, along with Michael Mauti, back from a knee injury. Pete Massaro also returns at defensive end and joins a line featuring tackle Jordan Hill, end Sean Stanley, tackle DaQuan Jones and end Deion Barnes, an extremely promising redshirt freshman. The line and linebackers also both return their position coaches -- Larry Johnson and Ron Vanderlinden, the only two holdovers from the previous staff -- while the secondary has a new boss (John Butler).
Add in the new scheme, which includes some Cover 3 but not nearly as much as the system under Tom Bradley, and the secondary can be seen as one giant question mark.
"A lot of people say we're the weakest group on the team," Willis said. "We were like, 'We need to motivate these guys to let them know what people think.' Reading it is one thing on the Internet, but when somebody says it to your face, it has to hit a nerve. And you really have to be offended by it."
Willis and Morris are getting the desired result so far. Willis has been impressed with the way fellow safeties Stephen Obeng-Agyapong and Tim Buckley have approached the offseason. Obeng-Agyapong is projected to start alongside Willis, while Buckley saw some time with the first-team defense this spring.
"When I see the D-backs, I see a whole bunch of hard-working people," wide receiver Justin Brown said. "They're always out there trying to get better, trying to do one-on-ones, anything to help the defense.
"I don't see any weak link."
The first thing you'll notice is 13 offensive positions listed. Penn State can only have 11 players on the field at once, but as O'Brien explains in a news release, "We will be a multiple personnel grouping team, particularly at wide receiver and tight end." Translation: this isn't the old Penn State offense. Get ready for a lot of passing.
BO'B adds that aside from quarterback and a handful of other positions, Penn State will have competitions at most spots when camp kicks off in August.
O'Brien announced three position changes today: sophomore Adrian Amos moves from safety to cornerback, sophomore Kyle Baublitz moves from defensive end to defensive tackle; and redshirt freshman Anthony Zettel moves from defensive tackle to defensive end. The Amos move makes sense after Curtis Drake, who moved from wide receiver to cornerback this spring, left the program.
Four positions feature co-starters on the depth chart. They are:
- Middle linebacker: Glenn Carson (Jr.) or Khairi Fortt (Jr.)
- Right cornerback: Adrian Amos (So.) or Derrick Thomas (Jr.)
- Wide receiver: Allen Robinson (So.) or Shawney Kersey (Jr.)
- Left guard: Miles Dieffenbach (So.) or Mark Arcidiacono (Jr.)
All four should be interesting competitions, particularly the one at middle linebacker, where Carson started in 2011 and recorded 74 tackles and two forced fumbles. Fortt has shown promise at times, racking up 33 tackles, including six for loss, as a reserve last fall.
Some more notes and thoughts on the Lions' two-deep:
- Penn State has redshirt freshman Donovan Smith listed as the starting left tackle, while Adam Gress, one of the standouts of spring practice, checks in as the starting right tackle. The right side looks strong with Gress and John Urschel, but there are some question marks on the left side.
- Garry Gilliam is listed as one of the starting tight ends ("Y" position) ahead of promising freshman Jesse James, who impressed me while I was at practice in April. It's interesting to see redshirt freshman Kyle Carter listed ahead of junior Kevin Haplea at the other tight end spot ("F").
- Two secondary spots seem fairly set -- junior free safety Malcolm Willis and senior cornerback Stephon Morris -- while the others should be interesting to watch in August. Senior Jake Fagnano is a somewhat surprise starter at strong safety ahead of Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, while Amos and Thomas will compete at the right cornerback spot.
- Penn State's starting defensive line looks strong with Jordan Hill and DaQuan Jones at the starting tackle spots, and Pete Massaro and Sean Stanley at the starting end spots. The key is whether several former heralded recruits like Baublitz and C.J. Olaniyan, or promising young end Deion Barnes, bolster the depth up front.
- Bill Belton is listed as the No. 2 running back behind Silas Redd. Curtis Dukes isn't listed, but O'Brien confirmed last week that Dukes is rejoining the squad after clearing up some academic issues. The 6-1, 242-pound Dukes should be in the mix for a good chunk of carries.
- Justin Brown and Devon Smith, who had an off-field issue this spring, are listed at two of the starting wide receiver spots. Kersey is listed as Brown's backup, while the speedy Alex Kenney likely will push Smith.
- Anthony Fera handled the double duties of kicker and punter quite well in 2011, converting 14 of 17 field-goal attempts and averaging 42 yards per punt. He's once again listed as the starter at both spots entering camp.
- Amos and Belton are listed as the top two kickoff returners. Amos shared the role with primary returner Chaz Powell last fall. Brown is listed as the top punt returner, followed by Belton.
- Two young players worth watching are the men wearing jersey No. 18: James and Barnes.
Thoughts on the Penn State depth chart?
Basketball players Taran Buie and Tre Bowman also have been charged along with three others, including another Penn State student. State College police say the fight left one person with minor injuries. The incident took place on State Patty's day, a campus-wide celebration where drinking is often involved. The Centre Daily Times reports there were 234 arrests that day.
Both Thomas and Drake opened spring practice with the team earlier this month. Drake, a wide receiver, suffered a broken leg last week and will miss the rest of spring ball. Thomas, a cornerback, was suspended for the final nine games of last season for undisclosed reasons. We'll see if he faces discipline from the team.
Here are a few personnel nuggets of note ...
- All 13 players hospitalized in January with rhabdomyolysis have been medically cleared for spring practice, coach Kirk Ferentz said Wednesday. Ferentz said the group will be brought along slowly and closely monitored as they get up to speed.
- Six Hawkeyes players will miss the spring: wide receiver Marvin McNutt, defensive tackle Steve Bigach, safety Tanner Miller, linebacker Shane DiBona, tight end Austin Vier and fullback Brad Rogers. Vier has a serious back injury and Rogers is still being checked out after a heart ailment was detected in December. All the other players should be fine by the summer.
- Linebacker Tyler Nielsen will participate in spring ball but not live scrimmages.
- Ferentz said A.J. Derby is competing at quarterback alongside John Wienke and likely front-runner James Vandenberg.
- Safety Ray Vinopal, who started six games last season for the Wolverines, has left the program and returned home to Youngstown, Ohio, because of family reasons, coach Brady Hoke said Wednesday.
- Starting center David Molk has a hamstring injury and Rocko Khory is taking most of the reps with the first team.
- Several other players are limited, including cornerbacks Troy Woolfolk and J.T. Floyd and running back Michael Shaw, and Hoke doesn't think Michigan will be ready for a full-blown spring game on April 16.
- Like Michigan, Minnesota doesn't boast enough depth to have a full spring game on April 23, coach Jerry Kill said Wednesday.
- Safety Kim Royston, granted a sixth year of eligibility after missing all of last season with a broken leg, is medically cleared to practice Thursday. Kill said the coaches will be careful with Royston.
- Kill said all jobs are open and MarQueis Gray will need to earn the No. 1 quarterback spot.
- Kill talked about finding out who can handle football and academics at the same time this spring.
- Penn State updated its spring roster and there were a few interesting tidbits, including the official return of cornerback Derrick Thomas. The sophomore was suspended for most of last season but should figure into the plans for the secondary this fall.
- The (Harrisburg) Patriot-News' Bob Flounders details the Lions' offseason weight gains here, but what really stands out is redshirt freshman quarterback Paul Jones at 6-foot-3, 245. Wow. Maybe Daryll Clark won't be the biggest Penn State quarterback in recent memory.
Stanley faces charges of misdemeanor marijuana possession, while Thomas, his roommate, was named in a university police search warrant but has not been charged. Both players have missed Penn State's past two games, and coach Joe Paterno didn't elaborate on the reason, citing university policy.
Police charged Stanley on Sept. 27 and received a search warrant the next day.
From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
According to court documents, police seized various items from the players' residence at Nittany Apartments during a search last month. They include a marijuana blunt, a marijuana roach, at least two dime bags and an empty can of Four Loko malt beverage. Bags with marijuana stems and seeds and scented candles with marijuana ashes and residue were also seized during the search.
Stanley, a sophomore defensive end, has a preliminary hearing Nov. 17. He has recorded eight tackles, 1.5 for loss, in four games this season, starting one. Thomas, a redshirt freshman cornerback, recorded four tackles, an interception and two pass breakups in four games.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
If you haven't done it already, check out our signing day primer. As part of the story, I was asked to identify several Big Ten recruiting superlatives, including the league's best recruiter.
Former Illinois offensive coordinator Mike Locksley owned the title before he left to become New Mexico's head coach, and several Big Ten assistants could lay claim to the designation. Most of Michigan's staff is new to the league, so it's hard to judge their recruiting clout just yet. I settled on Penn State defensive line coach Larry Johnson, who has landed several top prospects from the Maryland/Washington, D.C., area and elsewhere.
Here's my list of top recruiters for each Big Ten team. Many of you follow recruiting as closely or more closely than I do, so please e-mail me your suggestions and votes and I'll post the responses later in the week.
Running backs coach Reggie Mitchell -- Illinois might have lost its pipeline to D.C. with Locksley's departure, but Mitchell continues to get the top players from the Chicago area. The team's recruiting coordinator has brought linebacker Martez Wilson and others to Champaign, and was instrumental in landing 2009 top prospects Terry Hawthorne and Kraig Appleton. The departure of O-line coach Eric Wolford hurts Illinois' recruiting, but co-defensive coordinator Dan Disch does well in Florida.
Wide receivers coach Billy Lynch -- The head coach's son is responsible for nearly half of Indiana's 2009 recruiting class. He recruits locally extremely well and last year brought running back Darius Willis to Bloomington.
Offensive line coach Reese Morgan -- Iowa has a tradition of recruiting and developing elite offensive linemen, and Morgan is a big reason why. He recruits the state extremely well and brought in players like Jordan Bernstine and Tyler Sash to go along with seven commitments for 2009. Assistant linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator Eric Johnson successfully recruits the surrounding states and has brought players like quarterback Marvin McNutt and Christian Ballard to Iowa City.
Quarterbacks coach Rod Smith and wide receivers coach Tony Dews -- As I stated earlier, it's a bit premature to make final determinations on Michigan's staff. Running backs coach Fred Jackson is a holdover and has recruited the Detroit area well in past years. But both Smith and Dews have distinguished themselves on the recruiting trail, luring top 2009 prospects like Tate Forcier, William Campbell and Craig Roh to Ann Arbor.
Running backs coach Dan Enos -- The former Spartans quarterback has played an instrumental role in upgrading the program's recruiting, which will play dividends Wednesday with a potentially program-changing class. Enos recruits the Detroit area extremely well and has brought in players like wideout Fred Smith and quarterback Kirk Cousins, as well as 2009 prospects like Edwin Baker, Larry Caper and Dion Sims.
Defensive line coach Tim Cross -- The team's associate head coach and lead recruiter played a key role in signing Minnesota's nationally ranked 2008 class, landing players like Troy Stoudermire and Keanon Cooper. Head coach Tim Brewster does much of the heavy lifting in recruiting, but Cross and co-defensive coordinator Ron Lee chip in as well.
Superbacks coach Adam Cushing -- He coaches a group rarely used in Northwestern's offense, but Cushing's contributions as a recruiter have been invaluable. Cushing serves as the team's recruiting coordinator and landed players like defensive end Vince Browne, safety David Arnold, linebacker Brett Nagel and top 2009 prospect Patrick Ward.
Co-defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Luke Fickell -- Several recruiters stand out on Jim Tressel's staff, but Fickell repeatedly lures top prospects from the Cleveland area and far-flung regions like Georgia and Florida. Quarterbacks coach Joe Daniels landed Terrelle Pryor last year, and wide receivers coach Darrell Hazell is a proven recruiter. Cornerbacks coach Taver Johnson is a rising star on the recruiting trail.
Defensive line coach Larry Johnson -- Johnson gets the nod after bringing in players like Aaron Maybin, Maurice Evans, Navorro Bowman and Jared Odrick. No assistant played a bigger role in Penn State's 2009 nationally ranked class than Johnson, who recruited Derrick Thomas and Darrell Givens, among others. No wonder Ron Zook wanted Johnson to join his staff at Illinois.
Defensive line coach Terrell Williams -- This is another mostly new staff to the Big Ten, and coach Danny Hope does much of the recruiting himself, but Williams has proven to be a major asset so far. Williams helped to land half of Purdue's incoming recruiting class, including top running back Al-Terek McBurse. He recruits Florida extremely well, which falls right in line with Hope's approach.
Offensive line coach Bob Bostad -- Health issues forced top recruiter Henry Mason away from the program in 2007, and his absence is missed. Head coach Bret Bielema has a strong reputation as a recruiter, and Bostad is doing a solid job early in his tenure. Bostad's fingerprints were all over Wisconsin's 2008 class, as he landed offensive lineman Peter Konz and others. Defensive line coach Charlie Partridge and defensive coordinator Dave Doeren are also solid recruiters.