Big Ten: Devon Still

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The past few years have brought historic changes at Penn State, from the men occupying the head coach's office to the names occupying the backs of the Nittany Lions' jerseys.

Yet until recently, Penn State's defensive line meeting room resisted renovation. It was one of few elements of the program that, in 2013, looked much like it did in 2005. Larry Johnson coached the group, as he had every season since 2000 (and, in some form, since 1996). And while the Lions' defense struggled for much of last season, the line still produced a first-team All-Big Ten performer, tackle DaQuan Jones, just as it did the previous five years.

[+] EnlargeSean Spencer
MCT via Getty ImagesNew defensive line coach Sean Spencer wants his guys attacking like 'wild dogs.'
But even the PSU defensive line couldn't evade the winds of change forever. After being passed over for Penn State's head-coaching job for the second time, Johnson in January declined a chance to remain with James Franklin's staff. Days later, he latched on at rival Ohio State.

Lions defensive linemen now take direction from a man known as Coach Chaos. You'll be able to hear Sean Spencer's voice from Row 80 of Beaver Stadium -- on game days. Spencer wants his Lions to be wild dogs, explaining, "The wild dog is the most efficient animal in the jungle in terms of hunting in a pack."

The 43-year-old dynamo with the "spastic" personality differs from that of his reserved, buttoned-down Penn State predecessor. But when it comes to standards, Spencer and Johnson are aligned.

"Traditionally, the D-line here has always been one of the elite in the country," Spencer told ESPN.com. "I know no other way but to have them rise to the expectations that I set forth and that they set forth for themselves. There's no excuse.

"I don't care who I've got out there. I expect to be dominant."

Spencer's message resonates with a group that, unlike others on a reduced roster, doesn't face dire depth challenges. The Lions return both starters at end -- Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan -- and veteran reserve Brad Bars, who missed all of last season with a ruptured Achilles' tendon.

Sophomore Austin Johnson moves into the lead tackle position and Anthony Zettel, a converted defensive end, has been a good fit at the 3-technique tackle spot.

"The D-line is probably our strength," Franklin said. "We have the most depth at that position. We've got about four deep at defensive end and probably two-and-a-half deep at D-tackle."

If the depth holds up, it will help Penn State use a larger rotation that Johnson typically used. Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said the Vanderbilt linemen he and Spencer coached last fall didn't average more than 40 snaps a game.

The coaches want to use five or six defensive ends, as Bars, junior Carl Nassib and redshirt freshman Garrett Sickels also are in the mix. A healthy rotation suits Spencer's wild dogs philosophy.

At Vanderbilt, he commissioned a painting of a Commodores football player blended with a dog, which he displayed in his office at Penn State this spring. He also took a giant dog bone to the field.

"Part of their survival is when they chase their prey down, for three to five miles they take turns biting at him," Spencer said. "One goes to the front, and when he gets tired, the next one comes. It's a really unique strategy in terms of the way they attack things. We rotate a lot of guys, so we just take turns nipping at quarterbacks and making plays in the backfield."

Vanderbilt recorded 28 sacks last season, which tied for fourth in the SEC. Spencer estimates 24 came solely from line pressure. He expects the same production at Penn State.

Defensive tackle has been Penn State's strongest position in recent seasons with players such as Jones, Devon Still, Jordan Hill and Jared Odrick. Although Zettel and Johnson aren't known outside Happy Valley, the coaches think that soon will change.

"Zettel has been been very, very disruptive this spring," Shoop said. "Austin Johnson falls in line of the beast D-tackles Penn State's had in the past. He's over 300 pounds, moves well, he's tough to move at the point of attack, got a big butt and legs."

Olaniyan led Penn State with five sacks last season, his first as a starter. Penn State looks for more from Barnes, the former Big Ten Freshman of the Year whose sacks and tackles for loss totals dropped by more than 50 percent from 2012 to 2013.

"What we're looking at is, how can we get him back to that?" Spencer said.

Spencer is pleased with Barnes' football knowledge and said all the linemen are asking "200- and 300-level questions" in meetings. Life without Johnson undoubtedly caused an adjustment -- "It's always tough to see somebody you call a family member leave," Olaniyan said -- but players quickly connected with Spencer, who lists relationship-building among his strengths.

"I grew up without a dad," said Spencer, whose father played for Michigan State in the 1960s. "Unfortunately, we don't have a relationship right now, and he's still alive. It's one of the things I'm least proud of, but at the same time, it made me who I am today. It made me have the ability to reach out to kids that probably are similar to me. I'm a little younger than Larry so they're not going to look at me as a dad, so to speak. They look at me as a big brother or an uncle.

"I think we've got some similarities in the way we care about our players, but I'm probably a little bit wilder than he is."

A little wilder and a little louder, but just as demanding.

"They both have the same philosophy as far as they want you to do everything perfect," Olaniyan said. "It's easy to embrace the new coaches when they have the same goal. We take pride as the Penn State D-line.

"Each game, we want everybody to see us as one of the best defensive lines out there. We want to be great."

At Penn State, some things never change.

Big Ten all-BCS-era team

January, 13, 2014
Jan 13
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The BCS is dead. RIP. As we memorialize the BCS era throughout ESPN.com today, we're selecting All-BCS teams from each conference. As a reminder, the BCS era lasted from the 1998 season through the recently completed 2013 season. To narrow our selections a bit, players had to play at least two seasons in the BCS era to be eligible. Nebraska players are part of our list even though the Huskers played in the Big 12 until 2011.

Here's our Big Ten All-BCS team.

Coach: Jim Tressel, Ohio State -- Tressel led Ohio State to the 2002 national title, the Big Ten's only championship in the BCS era, as well as seven Big Ten titles (one vacated).

OFFENSE

QB: Drew Brees, Purdue (1997-2000) -- He led Purdue to the 2000 Big Ten championship and finished his career with league records for passing yards (11,792), touchdown passes (90), total offensive yards (12,693), completions (1,026), and attempts (1,678). Brees won the Maxwell Award in 2000.

RB: Ron Dayne, Wisconsin (1996-99) -- The 1999 Heisman Trophy winner set the NCAA's career rushing record with 6,397 yards (not including bowl games). He won all the major national individual awards in 1999 and became the first player to repeat as Rose Bowl MVP.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesMontee Ball had 39 TDs for Wisconsin in 2011.
RB: Montee Ball, Wisconsin (2009-2012) -- The man nicknamed "MoneyBall" tied Barry Sanders' NCAA single-season touchdowns record with 39 in 2011 and set the mark for career touchdowns with 83. He won the Doak Walker Award as the nation's top running back in 2012.

WR: Braylon Edwards, Michigan (2001-04) -- The Big Ten's most recent Biletnikoff Award winner holds the league record for career touchdown receptions (39) and ranks fourth in career receiving yards (3,541). He's the only Big Ten receiver to record 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons.

WR: Lee Evans, Wisconsin (2000-03) -- Evans twice led the Big Ten in receiving yards, eclipsing 1,500 yards in 2001 before rebounding from an ACL tear to record 1,213 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2003.

TE: Dallas Clark, Iowa (1999-2002) -- Clark earned the John Mackey Award in 2002 after recording 43 receptions for 742 yards as Iowa went undefeated in the Big Ten.

OL: Greg Eslinger, Minnesota (2002-05) -- One of the more decorated Big Ten linemen in the BCS era, Eslinger won the Outland Trophy in 2005. He was a two-time first-team All-America selection and a three-time first-team All-Big Ten selection for one of the nation's top rushing offenses.

OL: Joe Thomas, Wisconsin (2003-06) -- Another Outland Trophy winner (2006), Thomas earned unanimous consensus All-America honors that year. He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in each of his final two seasons and was the No. 3 overall pick in the 2007 NFL draft.

OL: Dominic Raiola, Nebraska (1998-2000) -- In 1998, Raiola became the first Nebraska freshman offensive lineman to start a game in seven years. He went on to earn the Rimington Trophy as the nation's top center, first-team All-Big 12 honors in his final two seasons and consensus first-team All-America honors in 2000.

OL: Robert Gallery, Iowa (1999-2003) -- Gallery claimed the Outland Trophy in 2003 as well as first-team All-America honors. He twice earned first-team All-Big Ten honors as the anchor of a nationally elite offensive line.

OL: Jake Long, Michigan (2003-07) -- Although Long didn't win the Outland, he twice earned consensus first-team All-America honors (unanimous selection in 2007) and twice earned Big Ten offensive lineman of the year honors (beating out Thomas in 2006). Long was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 NFL draft.

DEFENSE

DE: LaMarr Woodley, Michigan (2003-06) -- Woodley claimed the Rotary Lombardi Award in 2006 as the nation's top lineman. A first-team All-American that season, he finished his career with 10 forced fumbles, tied for seventh on the Big Ten's career list.

DE: Ryan Kerrigan, Purdue (2007-10) -- Unlike most of the men on this list, Kerrigan never played for any BCS bowl teams at Purdue but still had a remarkable career that ended with unanimous consensus first-team All-America honors in 2010. The Big Ten defensive player of the year tied the NCAA record for forced fumbles (14) and recorded 33.5 sacks and 57 tackles for loss.

DT: Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska (2005-09) -- The most dominant defender in recent years finished fourth in Heisman voting in 2009 (should have been higher) and earned several awards, including the Bednarik, Nagurski and Outland. Suh finished his career with 24 sacks, 57 tackles for loss, four interceptions, three forced fumbles and 41 quarterback hurries.

DT: Devon Still, Penn State (2008-11) -- Penn State produced a string of outstanding defensive tackles including Still, the Big Ten's defensive player of the year in 2011. Still earned consensus first-team All-America honors after recording 17 tackles for loss.

LB: James Laurinaitis, Ohio State (2005-08) -- Laurinaitis won major national awards in each of his final three seasons, including the Nagurski Trophy in 2006. The two-time Big Ten defensive player of the year became just the third Ohio State player to earn consensus All-America honors in three seasons.

LB: Paul Posluszny, Penn State (2003-06) -- Posluszny is one of only two players (Pat Fitzgerald) to twice win the Bednarik Award as the nation's top defender. He became the first Penn State linebacker to twice earn AP All-America honors.

LB: LaVar Arrington, Penn State (1997-99) -- A freakishly athletic linebacker at Linebacker U., Arrington twice earned first-team All-Big Ten honors and won the Bednarik and Butkus Awards as a junior in 1999. He was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2000 NFL draft.

CB: Jamar Fletcher, Wisconsin (1998-2000) -- Fletcher claimed the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back in 2000, won Big Ten defensive player of the year honors that year and was a three-time first-team all-conference selection. He's tied for fourth in league history with 21 career interceptions and holds the league record for interception return yards (459).

CB: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State (2010-13) -- Dennard also claimed the Thorpe Award as he helped Michigan State to its first outright Big Ten title in 26 years and a Rose Bowl victory against Stanford. The two-time first-team All-Big Ten selection recorded 10 career interceptions and led the "No Fly Zone" Spartans secondary.

S: Tyrone Carter, Minnesota (1996-99) -- The only Big Ten safety to win the Thorpe Award, Carter also twice earned first-team All-Big Ten honors and earned unanimous All-America honors in 1999. He set the FBS record for career tackles by a defensive back with 528.

S: Mike Doss, Ohio State (1999-2002) -- A three-time first-team All-Big Ten selection, Doss earned unanimous consensus All-America honors in 2002 as Ohio State won the national title.

SPECIAL TEAMS

K: Mike Nugent, Ohio State (2001-04) -- Nugent won the Lou Groza Award as the nation's top kicker in 2004 and claimed consensus All-America honors in both 2002 and 2004. He holds the Big Ten record for consecutive made field goals with 24.

P: Brandon Fields, Michigan State (2003-06) -- His name is on the Big Ten's punter of the year award for a reason. Fields earned consensus All-America honors in 2004, earned first-team All-Big Ten honors three times and twice led the league in punting, tying for third in career average (45 ypp).

Returns: Ted Ginn, Ohio State (2004-06) and Steve Breaston, Michigan (2003-06) -- Ginn holds the Big Ten single-season records for kick return average (25.6 ypr) and career punt return touchdowns (6), while Breaston claims the league mark for career punt return yards (1,599) and is tied for third in punt return touchdowns (4).

It's tough enough putting together these teams for one season, much less 16 seasons. You can't please everyone, and many exceptional players didn't make the cut.

We decided to go with five offensive linemen rather than a center, two guards and two tackles, in order to recognize the best overall players in the trenches.

There was some debate for a second receiver alongside Michigan's Edwards, as the Big Ten hasn't exactly mass-produced superstars at the position. Several players had great seasons like Michigan State's Charles Rogers in 2002, but we put more stock into overall career output and went with Wisconsin's Evans, who led the league in receiving in 2001 and 2003.

Cornerback created some debate among Fletcher, Dennard and Ohio State's Malcolm Jenkins, also a Jim Thorpe Award winner. We faced another tough decision at safety between Ohio State's Doss and Iowa's Bob Sanders.

Surprisingly, the defensive tackle spot produced few bona-fide superstars. Nebraska's Suh, who played his entire career in the Big 12, was an obvious choice but a second choice proved to be tough.

Arguably the toughest choice came at kicker between Nugent and Iowa's Nate Kaeding. Both won Lou Groza Awards and set numerous records. We gave the nod to Nugent, but not by much.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Larry Johnson still remembers driving his van through the valleys of central Pennsylvania 18 years ago and sitting down to breakfast with Joe Paterno for a job interview.

[+] EnlargeLarry Johnson Sr.
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarLarry Johnson is doing his best to hold the Penn State team and recruiting class together.
The former high school coach spent weeks preparing what he might say to the man in the Coke-bottled glasses. And he smiled Friday afternoon when recalling it all and harkening back to that conversation.

"Not one football question," Johnson said. "He talked to me about life. ... I've never forgotten that. Sometimes, with coaches, it's not about the X's and the O's, it's about the people, and Coach Paterno saw that. And I'm grateful."

Johnson is the interim head coach at Penn State now, and his main duty these past few days hasn't revolved around game-planning at all -- but around those people and getting them past the departure of Bill O'Brien. He held a conference call Thursday with half the football team, and he said he'll host another call later on Friday. No player has yet voiced his desire to leave, Johnson said, and some already plan to arrive next week to hit the weight room early.

He's called up recruits -- he said they all have his number, too, if they want to chat one-on-one. At least one top recruit, ESPN 300 wideout De'Andre Thompkins has publicly stated that he remains true to his Penn State commitment.



Johnson has been charged with keeping this team together throughout another head coaching change, and he couldn't be blamed for feeling stressed or overworked.

So it was a little odd to hear him calmly address the media and refer to these last few days as "fun."

"Lost sleep, but it's been fun. It really has," Johnson said. "It's been a great deal of fun to mesh this thing together. My focus is on our players and to make sure there's a smooth transition for whoever gets the job."

Johnson said the top of his desk is an absolute mess, but that's only because the transition and short-term future of this program rests on his shoulders. He shook a few hands with TV reporters following a 12-minute interview, before briskly exiting the hallway door and climbing the stairs to his office. To do more work, undoubtedly.

He's the only coach left from the Paterno era, and he's long been a player favorite. Cincinnati Bengals DT Devon Still changed his Twitter avatar to a photo of Johnson and has spent the last 24 hours retweeting praise for the coach. He's not the only one.

It's clear, no matter what Johnson's role, that he's still incredibly important to this program.

"My reason for staying has been because of my players, I'll tell you that right now," Johnson said. "It has nothing to do with salary, money or title. When I tell a guy I'm going to be there, I believe that -- and I hope they believe that."

Johnson has long been known as the Nittany Lions' top recruiter, and it's been a surprise he hasn't yet wandered off from Happy Valley for a promotion elsewhere. He turned down a coordinator position with Illinois following the 2008 season, which would've basically doubled his salary. And then, in 2011, he declined to put his name in for Maryland's coordinator job.

His reason, according to the Harrisburg Patriot-News? He couldn't accept the gig after telling Penn State commits that he would be the one coaching them the next season.

Johnson said Friday that Penn State hasn't taken a step back -- not yet, anyway -- with O'Brien's departure. And he's right -- the extent of this impact on the Nittany Lions won't be known for weeks, maybe months. But, if PSU can get through this, Johnson will undoubtedly be a big reason for it. Even if he's not the next head coach.

"We got a great university, a great faculty, a great student body" he said. "Who wouldn't want to be a part of that?"

PSU DT Jones exceeding expectations

September, 10, 2013
9/10/13
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- DaQuan Jones doesn't blush at all from the praise. He's relaxed after peeling off his helmet, and any compliments seem to slide off his shoulders like sweat from a two-hour workout.

[+] EnlargeDaQuan Jones
Rob Christy/USA TODAY SportsDT DaQuan Jones lived up to the preseason hype and led the Nittany Lions in stops in the backfield and was fifth on the team in tackles.
The praise rolls on and Jones nods, but he's heard most of it before. Yes, he knows Gil Brandt rated him the top senior DT this season -- he found out on social media -- but that's a title he's not yet earned. Yes, he knows he leads the team in sacks (two), but he counters by saying the season's young.

But, every now and then, Jones is thrown off. You know, one reporter tells him, former cornerback Stephon Morris tweeted about how he should be a Heisman contender. Forget about Johnny Football and those billboard-grabbing quarterbacks.

"That's a bit too much," Jones said, shaking his head as if it were an insult. "That's for the skill guys."

Still, while the Heisman race might be a bit out of the humble senior's grasp, other awards like the Lombardi might just be within reach. After two games, he has five stops in the backfield. And, perhaps most impressively, he leads the Nittany Lions in tackles with 18. Only two players in the Big Ten -- Illinois LB Jonathan Brown and Iowa LB Anthony Hitchens -- have more. And Jones still has more solo stops than those two leaders.

"Seriously?" the defensive tackle asked Saturday, turning his head. "Man, that's crazy."

Crazy is right. On the field, Penn State's 318-pound defensive tackle -- who was 330-plus before laying off the local chicken-wing shop -- is focused like a prizefighter. He's friendly and gregarious after the game, like any other college student waiting to meet up with his family for a Saturday dinner, but he's another person on the field.

He talks with a slight lisp, not unlike Mike Tyson. It's a comparison others have drawn, and it's not a reach considering he constantly delivers knockout blows to the opposing line. He's mean, he's strong, and he's not a player the opposition looks forward to crossing.

"I like double teams better," he said matter-of-factly, as if he was asked his favorite ice cream flavor. "I'm a physical guy, and I like the contact. I don't shy away from them."

Added 240-pound tailback Zach Zwinak: "Even in our thud practices [where no one goes to the ground], he's definitely laid a few hits. He's a big boy."

In two games, Penn State has limited rushers to just 1.8 yards a carry and Jones has become the main ingredient in those three-and-outs. Against Syracuse, on three straight rushing plays to end the half, Jones came up with three straight tackles -- even when the Orange tried to avoid Jones by running off to the right on third down. (Jones happened to bring the ball-carrier down in the backfield for a one-yard loss, anyway.)

Trying to stop Jones is about as easy as about as trying to stop a run-away tractor trailer. You can try … but you'll probably get hurt in the process. Still, maybe that shouldn't be so surprising given the school's history at defensive tackle. Jones isn't an exception; he's really part of a trend.

He landed in Happy Valley months after the Miami Dolphins drafted Jared Odrick in the first round. He watched teammate Devon Still become a second-rounder in 2012 and then saw Jordan Hill head to the Seattle Seahawks in the third round this past offseason. Compare him to the past DT greats, say he's better, say he's worse -- but Jones is remaining level-headed.

"I want to be known for who I am," Jones said. "I didn't come here to live in anyone's shadows."

Jones is sincere and soft-spoken. When he says he's playing for fun and not awards, it's easy to believe him. He'll laugh when he talks about his pregame ritual with teammate Deion Barnes and how they'll just slap the back of each other's heads if one doesn't seem loose enough. And he'll narrow his eyebrows and softly glare, as if to say "Seriously?," when someone dishes out some praise. Part of the reason might just be because he doesn't yet believe himself that he's posted up some mind-boggling numbers.

Here's another: Last season, Jones started 11 games and finished the season with eight solo tackles and two tackles-for-loss. In Week 1 of this year, he already had eight solo tackles and three-tackles-for-loss.

"You know, it came up last week that somebody mentioned people were concerned about our interior defensive line play," defensive coordinator John Butler said. "But that's one of our strengths. DaQuan Jones is a great player. … DaQuan is very unselfish. If he keeps playing the way he's playing, he's going to have a long future playing football after Penn State."

Jones is as comfortable on the gridiron as he is off it. This is his final Penn State season and his last year as a college student, so he said he's going to enjoy it. And so far -- much to the chagrin of opposing offenses -- he sure has.
Bill O'BrienRandy Litzinger/Icon SMIBill O'Brien is excited about his team as he heads into his second season at Penn State.
The last time we saw Penn State, the Lions were celebrating a surprisingly strong finish to the 2012 season and saying farewell to a special senior class. Penn State since has turned the page and will begin spring practice Monday with a mix of familiarity and uncertainty. Bill O'Brien is not the "new coach" in Happy Valley anymore, and players have acclimated to O'Brien and his staff. But the Lions are looking for a starting quarterback for the second consecutive spring. They also must replace several outstanding defenders and fill holes on both lines. But the depth crisis many of us envisioned for the Lions when the NCAA sanctions came down last summer simply isn't there in State College.

ESPN.com caught up with O'Brien late last week to discuss spring ball.

What are some of the main objectives you're looking for when you get on the field again?

Bill O'Brien: The No. 1 objective offensively is to make sure we come out of this spring practice with improvement from the quarterback position. We won't name a starter coming out of the spring, but at least at the end of 15 practices we'll have a good idea of how well these guys are grasping the system, Tyler Ferguson and Steven Bench. So that's a big deal for us offensively.

And defensively, some new guys will be in there, and seeing how those guys do, whether it's Nyeem Wartman at linebacker or Jordan Lucas at corner or some other guys who are going to be playing a little bit more next year, how much they improve. And then we'll work our special teams every single day, so hopefully we'll find some core special-teams players this spring.

What's your message to Steven and Tyler going into the spring? You're not naming the starter, but what do you want to see out of them?

BO'B: [Thursday] I was talking to them, and I said, 'Look, I just want you guys to put your head down and go to work. Don't worry about what everybody else on the outside of the program thinks about your performance, whether it's in scrimmages or the Blue-White Game or whatever it is. Just try to get better every single day.' These are two really, really good kids. They're smart, they work hard at it, they're grasping it pretty well to this point. We're pretty excited about getting started with them. I don't want them to think about anything other than trying to improve and be as good a leader as they can be.

Will you have to change the offense for one or the other? Do they fit in with what you did last year?

BO'B: We'll definitely be different. We'll be different in many ways. Matt [McGloin] had certain strengths we tried to play to, no question about it. Our system is expansive enough that you can have different parts in there to take advantage of the talents of the quarterbacks who are playing. So we'll be a different offense than we were last year.

Anything specific on what might change with these two quarterbacks or areas you can draw out more?

BO'B: I'd rather not get into all of that, but I can tell you these are two guys who are big, they're strong, they're fast, they look to be accurate passers. We're just looking forward to working with them.

(Read full post)

Player of the Week: Big Ten

November, 26, 2012
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On an emotion-charged day when Penn State honored a senior who unfortunately couldn't play (linebacker Michael Mauti), another veteran defender turned in an unbelievable performance in his final game at Beaver Stadium. For his efforts, Lions defensive tackle Jordan Hill is the Big Ten Player of the Week.

Hill triggered Penn State's stout defensive effort in a 24-21 overtime win against Wisconsin on senior day. He recorded a career-high 12 tackles (8 solo), including three tackles for loss and two sacks. Hill had eight tackles, two for loss and a sack, in the fourth quarter and in overtime, stuffing Wisconsin star Montee Ball for a 1-yard gain on the Badgers' first play of the extra session. He also pressured Badgers quarterback Curt Phillips on a third-down pass that forced a long field-goal try, which Wisconsin missed.

Hill played through pain after aggravating a knee injury in the fourth quarter and was the biggest reason Penn State forced eight consecutive Wisconsin punts during the middle of the game.

"The only thing that was going through my mind every time I hit the field was, 'I'm not losing this game,'" Hill told reporters afterward. "When you set that type of goal, at least for me, it makes me play a lot better."

Hill called the win "a perfect ending to a bad beginning." Like Jared Odrick and Devon Still before him, Hill continued Penn State's great tradition at defensive tackle and locked up a spot on the first-team All-Big Ten squad.
Recognizing the best and the brightest from around the Big Ten in Week 13:
  • Ohio State's defense: After some early hiccups, Ohio State slammed the door on Michigan in the second half to secure a 12-0 season. The Buckeyes shut out Michigan in the final 30 minutes, allowing just eight yards in the fourth quarter and 60 in the second half (four first downs). Standouts included senior linebacker Zach Boren (9 tackles, 2 TFLs, 1 sack, 1 fumble recovery), linebacker Ryan Shazier (2.5 TFLs, one sack), space-eating defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins and safety Christian Bryant (one forced fumble, two pass breakups). Offense might have carried Ohio State early this season, but the Silver Bullets showed up when it counted.
  • Nebraska DE Eric Martin: If you hadn't noticed the Huskers senior before Friday, you likely know the name now. Martin was dominant in Nebraska's defense-driven win against Iowa, racking up seven tackles, three tackles for loss (one sack), a forced fumble and two quarterback hurries. His numbers don't fully illustrate how much he impacted the game, but he locked up a spot on the All-Big Ten team and possibly will be a first-team selection.
  • Northwestern QB Kain Colter: Like Indiana and Iowa, Illinois had no answer for the elusive Wildcats signal caller, who capped an excellent regular season with 88 rush yards and a touchdown on 14 carries. Colter threw only 11 passes but completed nine of them, three for touchdowns to three different receivers (Tony Jones, Tyris Jones and Paul Jorgensen). Colter's backfield mate Venric Mark also merits a mention (18 carries, 127 yards, TD).
  • Michigan State RB Le'Veon Bell: He's the mean, green wrecking machine of Michigan State's offense, which would be even more anemic without him. Bell once again showed Saturday why he's one of the nation's best running backs, racking up a career-high 266 yards and a touchdown on 35 carries. He routinely carried Minnesota defenders for extra yards. The junior is one of only three FBS players -- and the only one in a major conference -- to record three 200-yard rushing performances this season.
  • Penn State DT Jordan Hill: From Jared Odrick to Devon Still and now to Hill, Penn State's tradition of elite defensive tackles has continued. Hill, a sure-fire first-team All-Big Ten selection, finished his career with a flourish, recording 12 tackles, including three tackles for loss and two sacks, as Penn State beat Wisconsin in overtime. Despite battling a bum knee, Hill helped shut down Montee Ball and the Wisconsin offense after the first quarter. On a day when linebacker Michael Mauti couldn't play, Hill stepped up in a big way.
  • Purdue RB Akeem Shavers: He wasn't the only Purdue player to gash Indiana's defense in the Bucket game, but he was the most effective from start to finish. The senior stepped up in a big way, racking up 126 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries to go along with 99 receiving yards and two touchdowns. He scored three touchdowns in a span of 4:26 in the fourth quarter, starting with a 73-yard scoring reception. He's now responsible for Purdue's two longest pass receptions of the season.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

August, 24, 2012
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Less than a week till the season! Let's get to those questions ...

Ryan from Omaha writes: Nebraska's defense looks like a pretty solid group without any stars. Who do you think could be rising stars on the Huskers' defense? Could Mohammed Seisay end up being as big as a star as Lavonte David? After all, he is wearing the jersey number four.

Adam Rittenberg: I'm interested to see Seisay, Ryan, but there are others in the secondary who could take a step. Daimion Stafford has excellent potential at safety, and it looks like Ciante Evans is having a good camp. Who steps up at linebacker alongside Will Compton? Should be an interesting group to watch. I like the depth up front and have heard very good things about Eric Martin as he steps into a more featured role.



Jay from Arlington writes: You guys are massively underestimating Penn State. There schedule is entirely manageble and have a significant advantage in speed and athleticism over every team they play. Penn State should field the nation's top linebacking corps for the second straight year (5th time since 2005) along with the Big Ten's top D-line. At worst, they are upgrading both end positions. While the secondary loses 3 1/2 starters, they are upgrading every spot. Barring injury, the defense could be tops in the country. Offensively, we'll see, but what we will see from day one is an upgrade as the new staff is not afraid of tweaking its scheme to the players strengths and there is not a defense on their schedule that can run with them. Expect Penn State to reach at least ten wins and possible the best record in the league and to take home the real league crown.

Adam Rittenberg: Jay, love your optimism, and I agree that Penn State's defense can carry the Lions a long way this fall. The front seven will be very, very good, and potentially better than last year's front seven. I disagree on the secondary, though. Not much depth at all, and it's tough to replace all four starters, no matter who you are. Also, I'm still figuring out how Penn State will score points. The schedule certainly favors Penn State, but the non-league portion contains no gimmes (Ohio, Virginia, Navy and Temple). I just don't know if Penn State can expect to win every game 14-10 or 20-13. It's hard to keep winning with that formula, although Penn State was successful in the first part of 2011. To reach 10 wins, the Lions offense will have to exceed all expectations, and Penn State will have to be very tough on its home field, where it gets both Ohio State and Wisconsin. The road schedule isn't overwhelming.



Rick from Union City, Calif., writes: I grew up in B1G country and now live on the west coast. What really bothers me is the bad reputation the conference gets for its bowl record each year. B1G teams play their SEC counterparts on hostile turf in SEC country (games in Tampa and Orlando) and when B1G teams make the Sugar or Orange Bowls they too are played in the backyards of the SEC. And don't even get me started with the Rose Bowl...bring USC or UCLA to Ann Arbor or Columbus in the frigid cold in Jan. and see how they do with 100,000 plus fans cheering against them.

Adam Rittenberg: Rick, I hear ya, but the bowl locations aren't about to change. No one wants to come to the Midwest in late December or early January, so Big Ten teams, for the most part, will continue to play virtual road games in the bowls. While I could see a bigger-time bowl coming to a place like Lucas Oil Stadium in Indy, it would take time to put that even together. The thing is, the Big Ten has had success in these games in the past. The league's Capital One and Outback bowl records are bad. The Rose Bowl is another story and the Big Ten has to start doing better in Pasadena, but it's not as if the Big Ten hasn't won road bowl games before.



David from Bloomington, Ind., writes: Hi Adam,A couple questions about Michigan players. First about Denard Robinson: It seems he has the highest returning passer rating in the Big Ten. Why is this, like, never mentioned? It seems both highly relevant to Michigan's and the Big Ten's preseason outlook and contrary to the lazy company line about "He's a running back, hur-hur-hur." Second, about Taylor Lewan and your and Brian's player rankings: Both Lewan and Gholston are deservedly touted (putatively!) as future first round draft picks. I see that Gholston will rank decidedly higher than Lewan in your player rankings. And yet when Lewan and Gholston matched up last year in MSU's big win, Gholston **never once** defeated Lewan. I am curious, then, of the characteristics you use to separate these players' ranks.

Adam Rittenberg: Good note on Robinson being the Big Ten's top returning passer according to QB rating. He's just barely above Iowa's James Vandenberg even though Denard threw eight more interceptions and five fewer touchdown passes. I agree with you that it's lazy to say Robinson isn't a real quarterback, and it's also lazy to say he fades down the stretch. While he has had many of his biggest performances in September, look at what he did against Nebraska and Ohio State to finish out the regular season. He finished Big Ten play playing his best football. Now he didn't play well in the bowl game and got bailed out by Junior Hemingway, I don't think it's fair to say Denard doesn't show up in Big Ten games. As to the Lewan/Gholston question, we put a lot of emphasis on the way Gholston finished the season against Georgia in the Outback Bowl. He was absolutely dominant against a solid SEC team. Penn State's Devon Still used a big Outback Bowl performance to springboard himself to Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2011, and Gholston very well could do the same. It'll be a lot of fun to see Lewan and Gholston match up Oct. 20 in Ann Arbor, and Lewan certainly has the potential to rise up this list. But Gholston left us with a strong impression, and his talent level is obvious. That's why we have him higher.



Brandon from Las Vegas writes: Adam,From you and Bennet's over/under write-up:"Ohio State Over-under: 9 wins Adam's pick: Push. The Buckeyes will cruise through a soft non-league slate, but reality arrives in the Big Ten opener against Michigan State. Although a 10-win season certainly is within reach, I think Ohio State has a few stumbles in Big Ten play in its first go-around under Urban Meyer." I really think people are overestimating MSU and undersetimating OSU. That was a close defensive game last year. I don't see how OSU with an even better defense that will actually get some sideline rest, combined with an actual offense, doesn't beat a good defensive team but with new QB and Skill. My prediction, the OSU offense struggle to move the ball against one of the nations elite defences but Ohio State's is pretty good too. The sacks mount up, a key pick-6, and huge special teams play seals the deal for an upset in East Lansing. I'm thinking 11 wins, with the lone loss coming from a sleeper. Thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Brandon, while I agree Ohio State will be better on both sides of the ball this season, I still think Michigan State's defense poses some challenges for a Buckeyes offense going through some major transition. I also think the common belief that Michigan State will take major steps backward with Andrew Maxwell at quarterback is a bit off. The Spartans will be a different type of offense this year, more run-focused around junior Le'Veon Bell. The other thing is the game takes place in East Lansing, and Ohio State will be playing its first road game with the new offense. Communication could be a challenge for Braxton Miller & Co. Could your situation pan out Sept. 29? Absolutely. But I'm sticking with my Michigan State pick.



BRT from Swaziland writes: You're probably pretty bummed that you don't have any more over/unders to do, so here's one more: the icky/comical marriage of Canada's greatest musical icons, Avril Lavigne and Chad Kroeger--10 months. I'm loving the best case/worst case previews. They're very funny, and you should do a little more humor writing throughout the season. It would do most of your readership good to take things a little less seriously now and then.

Adam Rittenberg: I consulted my wife on this as she takes the over, just barely. She thinks they'll last 14 months, the same number of Carats on Avril's engagement ring. Glad you enjoyed the best case/worst case series, and you're absolutely right about more humor writing. We'll do more of it because it's fun, and the readership definitely could lighten up at times.

Big Ten chat wrap

August, 8, 2012
8/08/12
5:30
PM ET
Did you miss today's Big Ten chat? No worries. I'll bail you out again.

Here's the full transcript from our hour-long B1G gab fest. A lot of good questions about what's going on around the league.

Some highlights:
Warren W. from Old Forge, Pa.: Who's the toughest player to stop in the Big 10 in your opinion? And why?
Adam Rittenberg: Warren, this is almost always a defensive lineman -- Devon Still in 2011, JJ Watt and Ryan Kerrigan in 2010 -- and I think it will be again this season. Michigan State's William Gholston could fit into this category, as could Ohio State's John Simon and Johnathan Hankins, and Purdue's Kawann Short. Simon will be awfully difficult to contain with a better supporting cast around him.
Joe from Detroit: Adam, I'm a little worried about all the hype for Michigan. Is it too much pressure? I loved last year and Hoke but I feel like the team played over its head. I'd be happy with 8 or 9 wins but everyone is setting that up to be a disappointment.
Adam Rittenberg: Joe, I think you have some good perspective here. While it's natural to get excited about an 11-win season, a dynamic senior quarterback in Denard and certainly better days on the horizon, it's important to be realistic. Michigan's schedule is flat-out brutal, and last year's team overachieved a bit. The Wolverines easily could be a better team in 2012 that has a worse record (9-3, 10-2, etc). It's hard to temper fan excitement, but Brady Hoke does a good job of preventing his players from getting carried away with the hype.
Jason from Columbus: How long until Fickell leaves OSU for his own ship? I am guessing Hope will be done this year at Purdue. Any chance he could wind up there? Or do you think him making a mid-major stop first as a head coach. I think OSU hired a lot of hype (with an arachnoid cyst on his brain), and gave up on a guy in the middle of winning his Big Ten division. Sad.
Adam Rittenberg: Wow, rough chatter about Urban. As for Fickell, I've thought about this subject a lot -- when he leaves, will go go to a mid-major or a major program? I think he's good enough to make the jump immediately to a major-conference team. While he doesn't have any obvious ties to Purdue, he has Midwest/Big Ten roots, which always helps. I'd be surprised if Fickell stays at Ohio State more than two seasons. He'll be in demand for head-coaching vacancies every year. Also, I think Urban brought in Everett Withers with the assumption Fickell will move on soon.
A.J. from Madison: Adam, this is (as far as I know) Bielema's first major off-the-field issue in a while. Do you think he'll be able to lock it down, or will this bar fight stuff continue to be an issue going into September?
Adam Rittenberg: Interesting question, A.J. It should be easier for Bielema to get a handle on things during training camp and the season, when players are more occupied with team activities. The fight took place during the summer, when not much is going on. Bielema addressed it at the start of camp, and it'll be interesting to see what transpires as far as the police investigation. Like you said, Wisconsin hasn't had a lot of major off-field incidents in recent years, but this one is a concern if it's not properly addressed.
Mr. T. from Columbus: Is Taylor Martinez really going to be that improved with his "new" throwing mechanics or has he just been watching the Olympics to get tips from the shot putters?
Adam Rittenberg: Mr. T, talked with Taylor about this subject last week. He said his ankle injury suffered midway through the 2010 season really affected his throwing motion last year. His footwork was a mess, and he's drop his left shoulder and not throw across his body. The ankle is finally healed, and Martinez has a better idea of what he needs to do mechanically. We'll see how it pans out, but I don't think his passing motion will look nearly as bad as it did in 2011.

Thanks again for the questions, and my apologies to those whose submissions weren't selected. No chat next week, but beginning Aug. 22, my chat will take place every Wednesday at 3 p.m. ET. New time, so mark it down.

Big Ten mailblog

July, 10, 2012
7/10/12
6:00
PM ET
Wrapping up a surprisingly busy day with some questions and answers.

Warning: if you bring it, you better be prepared to receive it, too.

Daniel from Omaha writes: I'm not disputing Nebraska's ranking of #4 in your coaching jobs in B10 but Penn St #3? For the same reason you pointed out for NU, Penn St doesn't take a hit and you point to Bill Obrien's 1 yr of recruiting success? Bill Callahan had a Top Class in 2005, where's he at now? Go back to doing Subway commercials and the media needs to stop coddling OSU, Mich and PSU. How is Madison not better than 2 of those?

Adam Rittenberg: Wisconsin is not a better job than Michigan or Ohio State, Daniel. You won't find anyone credible that tells you otherwise. Maybe when the Badgers upgrade their woeful facilities, they'll be closer. But Wisconsin can never match Ohio State's and Michigan's recruiting clout or tradition. That's why the rankings are the way they are. Regarding Penn State, it's more than just O'Brien's recruiting class. Penn State has superior facilities, more tradition and a fan base that always puts football first. Has Penn State played to its potential as a member of the Big Ten? Absolutely not. But Penn State can be a national power again, and it has an easier path to the top than many schools because of the reasons I've outlined.

By the way, would love to be doing Subway commercials. I'd be ridiculously rich and wouldn't have to deal with The Woefully Uninformed.



Steven from Baltimore writes: I'm sorry Adam, but I'll have to disagree with your recent rankings on the best destinations to be a coach. The fact that you didn't significantly consider fan expectations threw off your rankings from reality. Let's compare two schools. School A's fans live and die for nothing but football, and accordingly complain about their coach's 9-win season. The other school's fans seem to enjoy more the culture of game day (singing a capella Build Me Up Buttercup, for a random example), as opposed to just the win/loss column. Wouldn't you like to write the same high quality articles as you always do, but get less angry fan mail (e.g. the Pac-12 blog)?

Adam Rittenberg: Well, Steven, judging by your email address (@wisc.edu), I'm going to guess you're a Penn State, Nebraska or Iowa fan who now attends Wisconsin. While Badgers fans do love their game-day festivities, they also can be critical. Ask Bret Bielema what it was like for him after the 2008 season. The bigger point, however, is that fan expectations, while important, aren't the overriding factor in determining the quality of a coaching job. Fan expectations don't matter much if you have subpar facilities and are located in an isolated region with few elite prospects. This sport is largely about recruiting, and it's why I played such a great emphasis on facilities and location along with recent success. Iowa's Kirk Ferentz, for example, has done very good work for the most part in a job that has some pluses and minuses. Iowa and Wisconsin are similar jobs with similar challenges, but Wisconsin's track record and ability to attract recruits because of its blossoming brand make it a slightly better job in my view.



Luke from Jessup, Iowa, writes: Adam, I was surprised that you didn't include pay when ranking your B1G coaching jobs. Was that simply an oversight, or do you really feel it's not about the money with these guys? I was looking back at 2011 B1G salaries and, at the time, Ferentz topped the B1G chart. While I'd like to believe he stays for all the right reasons, nearly $4M is better than a poke in the eye, isn't it? Outside of the big 2 (OSU & UM), which, in my humble opinion, are the only 2 true "dream jobs" in the conference, I think any one of those other coaches would at least take a hard look at moving for $4M. No? By the way, I'm not trying to be a homer here; I'm using Iowa as an example only because of Ferentz hefty salary.

Adam Rittenberg: Luke, fair question. Coaching candidates certainly want to be well-compensated, and Iowa has shown Ferentz the money over the years while the NFL continues to lurk. Head coaches also want to be able to retain and attract top assistants. But to me, salary is just one piece of the equation, and if I'm a coach, I want to be in a place where I can recruit at the highest levels and compete for national championships. Is Iowa that place? A coach has to be one heck of a recruiter to overcome some inherent obstacles (weak in-state talent pool, so-so facilities). Besides Ferentz's salary and the passion of Iowa fans, there aren't many elements of the program that scream "big-time" to me. Iowa will be a more attractive job when its facilities upgrades are completed and it can offer very competitive salaries, not just for the head coach but to his assistants.



Ben from Milwaukee writes: Adam, I know I am a biased source (Penn State alum) but how are the Nittany Lions not getting more buzz in the preseason by many so called "experts." They won 9 games last year with one of the worst offenses in college football that was based out of the 1960s. O'Brien's offense fits great for McGloin who is a 3rd year starter, one of the few in the B1G, and Silas Redd is a dark horse Heisman candidate. Penn State's front seven boasts a few All-American candidates in Gerald Hodges, Jordan Hill and Michael Mauti. I know the secondary is thin, and there is always transition with a new staff. But with OSU and Wisconsin at home this year is 10 or 11 wins that unreasonable?

Adam Rittenberg: Ben, you bring up some good points about Redd and the defense, but Penn State isn't getting more buzz because it went through a historic coaching transition, which typically brings about some speed bumps. The sense is Penn State will have some struggles with all the newness around the program. Although the offense can't get much worse, it could make more mistakes as it gets comfortable with a complex new scheme. Matthew McGloin could be a much better player this year, but most people will remain skeptical after watching him flounder for most of 2011. While the defensive front seven should be strong, Penn State loses Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Devon Still as well as several experienced defensive backs. You mention the schedule, and that's where Penn State could make some major noise. If the Lions can take advantage of a fairly easy start, limit mistakes and build confidence for the bigger games -- Ohio State, Nebraska, Wisconsin -- they could sniff the 10-win mark.



KJ from Ferndale, Mich., writes: I am guessing that you being the Michigan fan will rank Michigan Stadium #1? With that said, what do you think about my ranking, and I have been to every Big Ten Stadium sans Minnesota who didn't have one until recently.1. Beaver Stadium - You have to drive to Knoxville to find an equivalent.2. Camp Randall3. Spartan Stadium - When Sparty is winning, there is no better place to go for a game in the entire country. 4. Memorial Stadium5. The Shoe. 6. Kinnick Stadium. Vastly under-rated. 7. Michigan Stadium - Penn State pulled off a partial white out in 2009 so this ranking might be a little high. Nuff said. 8. Do the rest really matter?

Adam Rittenberg: Me being the Michigan fan? That's a good one. Without giving away too much, Michigan Stadium won't be occupying the No. 1 spot. While the recent renovations have helped, the Big House remains overrated in my book, especially when compared to other Big Ten stadiums. While your rankings seem borderline insane -- Memorial Stadium at No. 4? -- you'll probably be pleased to see where we have Michigan Stadium. Wolverines fans, not so much.



Mochila from Grand Rapids, Mich., writes: It was suggested that I submit this to you, which I wrote in one of the posts: "AR and BB don't have enviable jobs. No matter what they write, somebody is going to take exception to it. You said Meyer is a good coach? Fawnfestival. You mentioned Ohio State's recent issues? Hate carnival. You think Michigan's stadium is too quiet? lol, troll. Michigan State has to rebuild at QB? Ignoramus. 1 + 1 = 2? Go to skool, noob. ACC-Transfer-U? Adam is the anthropomorphism of the trivia game "You don't know Jack." Taylor Martinez is working on his throwing motion? You're just in love with the other schools. Didn't mention Iowa until now? No respect."So, my question is: do you enjoy being one of the B1G's bloggers?

Adam Rittenberg: Mochila, I do enjoy the job and feel very honored to be in this position. I realize how many folks would love to have this job, and understand that it's a lot more enjoyable than what most people do for work. That said, it's not nearly as glamorous as some believe it to be, and a lot of the behind-the-scenes responsibilities/tasks make it challenging. Dealing with criticism is part of the deal, and I learned that from the blog's infancy. If you can't take the heat, you can't do this job, period. You'll drown.

The comments section cracks me up most of the time. It's what you get with the anonymity of the Web. Do I really care what LivesWithHisMother thinks about my receding hairline or supposed biases toward one team or another? Not really. I enjoy dealing with the intelligent Big Ten fans out there -- of which there are many -- and try to limit my interactions with everyone else.



Sean from East Lansing, Mich., writes: In terms of my team, the Michigan State Spartans, I think that Dantonio has the potential to become a defining coach in Michigan State football history. He already has accomplished the rare feat of beating the hated Wolverines 4 times in a row and has put us back on the national map. I foresee buildings named after him in the future to stand alongside Duffy's football center and Munn arena. I can see it now... the Izzo Center next to Spartan Stadium and Dantonio field.

Adam from East Lansing, Mich., writes: Hey Adam,I think Dantonio has a chance to become a coach that defines MSU football. It's interesting to me that the coaches that have had success in the modern era (post WWII) at MSU all came from one coaching tree (Munn-Daugherty-Perles-Saban-Dantonio) with a former assistant under a successful MSU head coach becoming MSU head coach years later (except for Daugherty), and all of them had or have similar coaching styles (smash-mouth football). It could be argued that MSU is defined more by its most successful style of play, rather than by one particular coach, since again, its most successful coaches are all linked back to Munn. Also, Dantonio still has expectations yet to fulfill, and he has his age working against him, as he has already mentioned that he doesn't intend to coach into his 70s (I personally give him until he's 65 at the latest unfortunately, though I hope I'm wrong). He will ultimately be beloved, but he continued the styles that made the rest successful, so its more the style than one particular coach. And you know what? I think us at MSU are pretty happy and content with that.

Adam Rittenberg: Sean and Adam, I was thinking about this when finishing up Monday's post. Dantonio certainly is on his way toward being a defining coach for Michigan State. Perhaps the only thing that could hurt him, as Adam correctly points out, is longevity. He has accomplished a lot in his five seasons in East Lansing, but how long will he coach? He turned 56 in March, and he had his health scare a few years ago. It doesn't look like Coach D is slowing down or thinking of stepping aside any time soon, and his recent contract essentially keeps him at Michigan State as long as he wants to be there. How long would he need to coach to reach "defining" status? Another 7-10 years? More? Dantonio needs to keep winning and get Michigan State back to the Rose Bowl, but he's definitely building momentum toward it. My sense with Dantonio is it will come down to longevity. Adam's point about style of playing defining a program makes sense, and it's applicable to several Big Ten programs (i.e. Wisconsin).



Jon from Dublin, Ohio, writes: It's impossible to watch 18-22-year-olds 24/7. Should Urban Meyer and staff be applauded for its direct discipline or criticized that players are in trouble in the first place? This seems drastically different than at Florida.

Adam Rittenberg: Jon, I think Meyer deserves credit for setting a hard-line tone on how he'll handle off-field issues so far. But the real answer to your question won't be known for some time. The key for Meyer -- and all coaches -- is to limit player conduct issues as much as possible. The hope is his approach toward discipline will deter players from making bad choices off of the field, because believe me, people are already counting the number of arrests under Meyer's watch at Ohio State. Every coach has to be aware of the arrest counter.



Nic from Vermillion, S.D., writes: I find Nebraska's defining coach to not as black and white and some see it. Obviously Osbourne is king with his 255 wins, and 3 national titles, but none of that may have never happened without Devaney paving the way. Nebraska was a nobody in football until Devaney's tenure the led to to titles and 100+ wins and when he retired he handed the reigns to Osbourne who carried the momentum, while taking the AD job with Neb. You can almost argue Devaney is as defining in big red football as Osbourne. Its also like a past version of what Alveraz and Bilema are today.

Scott from Omaha writes: I think in most Nebraska fans' minds, Osborne and Devaney are tightly linked together, given that Devaney picked Osborne as his successor. Regarding either being the face of the program, most recent fans would probably pick Osborne, while the older ones would pick Devaney, since he was the one who really got things started. I don't think Osborne gets enough credit for keeping the program at a high level. Just think - the seniors at the end of his tenure as coach weren't even born when he assumed the head coach position. That's more than a caretaker role.

Adam Rittenberg: Good thoughts here, guys. As I stated in the post, Osborne is the face of Nebraska's program and always will be. But Devaney's accomplishments in getting the program back to a nationally elite level cannot be overlooked here at all. I mentioned longevity earlier and that's really the difference as Osborne's affiliation with Nebraska has lasted so many years.
We asked you Monday to weigh in on the Big Ten offensive player of the year race: specifically, which player had the best chance to challenge the 2011 winner, Wisconsin RB Montee Ball. As of noon ET today, it's a close race between Michigan QB Denard Robinson and Nebraska RB Rex Burkhead, with more than 6,300 votes cast.

It'll be interesting to see how the OPOY race unfolds, but I'm more interested in the candidate pool on the defensive side of the ball. The Big Ten always will be a defense-driven conference -- the league boasted six top-20 defenses in 2011 -- and the 2012 season presents an interesting group of standouts. There's not only a large pool of what I would describe as top contenders, but a nice group of secondary candidates as well. And as we've seen lately, a surprise player could emerge to win the award. Few pegged Penn State DT Devon Still to be the recipient entering the 2011 season.

Let's take a look at the top contenders:

William Gholston, DE, Michigan State, Jr., 6-7, 275


2011 statistics: 70 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery, 2 pass breakups
2011 awards: Second-team All-Big Ten (media and coaches)
Making a case: The freakishly athletic Gholston might be the Big Ten's most gifted player, and he appears ready for a huge junior season. Remember how Penn State's Still dominated the bowl game before his breakout 2011 season, which resulted in Big Ten defensive player of the year honors? Gholston delivered a similar performance in Michigan State's Outback Bowl win against Georgia, tying a team bowl record with five tackles for loss and recording two sacks and a fumble recovery. Don't be surprised if Gholston mirrors Still's route this coming fall. He boasts a unique combination of size and speed, and while he'll surely command more attention this year, he plays on a defense featuring several players who opponents must respect.

John Simon, DE, Ohio State, Sr., 6-2, 260

2011 statistics: 53 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, 7 sacks, 1 forced fumbles, 3 pass breakups
2011 awards: First-team All-Big Ten (coaches), second-team All-Big Ten (media), third-team AP All-America
Making a case: The term most often associated with Ryan Kerrigan, the 2010 Big Ten defensive player of the year, is motor. Kerrigan never took plays off and consistently outworked his opponents. The same holds true for Simon, who had new Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer calling him "Tebowish" after just a handful of spring practices. Simon's motor never stops, and he makes up for a lack of ideal size with his work ethic and knowledge of the game. Like Gholston, Simon should benefit from the players around him. Pegged as a future superstar by older teammates when he played as a true freshman, Simon is primed to live up to those expectations this fall.

Gerald Hodges, LB, Penn State, Sr., 6-2, 233

2011 statistics: 106 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 1 interception, 4 pass breakups
2011 awards: First-team All-Big Ten (coaches and media)
Making a case: Hodges showed last season that when healthy, he's one of the most dynamic players in the Big Ten. This spring, he looked like the best player on the field during Penn State's practices. He's moving to the strong side, a position where some of Penn State's best linebackers have played during their senior seasons. With Michael Mauti returning from injury, Glenn Carson back and several others in the fold, Penn State could have the league's top linebacking corps in 2012. Expect Hodges to take his game to the next gear, and he could have a season much like Navorro Bowman in 2009.

Kawann Short, DT, Purdue, Sr., 6-3, 310

2011 statistics: 54 tackles, 17 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, 2 blocked kicks, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery
2011 awards: First-team All-Big Ten (media), second-team All-Big Ten (coaches)
Making a case: The Big Ten recently has been a league of dominant defensive tackles, and two of them from Penn State, Jared Odrick and Still, have won defensive player of the year honors in the past three seasons. Purdue's Short looks like the next in line after a superb junior season that seemed to fly under the radar both regionally and nationally. He's consistently disruptive and also makes consistent plays in the backfield. Short has racked up 12.5 sacks and 29.5 tackles for loss in the past two seasons, so he has been good for a long time. After turning down a chance to turn pro -- he received a third-round grade from the NFL draft advisory board -- Short could have a huge senior season.

Chris Borland, LB, Wisconsin, Jr., 5-11, 250


2011 statistics: 143 tackles, 19 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, 5 forced fumbles, 2 interceptions, 5 pass breakups
2011 awards: First-team All-Big Ten (coaches and media)
Making a case: Like Short, Borland has been a consistent playmaker for multiple years with Wisconsin. The 2009 Big Ten freshman of the year returned from shoulder problems to turn in an incredibly productive 2011 season. Borland moved to middle linebacker last fall but still found ways to get in the backfield. His tackles for loss total marked the most for a middle linebacker in the FBS. Borland always has been strong against the pass and should help Wisconsin in that phase this fall. Along with Mike Taylor, Borland will lead the Wisconsin defense and look to add more numbers to a tremendously productive career.

Jonathan Brown, LB, Illinois, Jr., 6-1, 235

2011 statistics: 108 tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss, 6 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 interception, 2 fumbles recovered, 4 pass breakups
2011 awards: Second-team All-Big Ten (media)
Making a case: I put Brown in the same category with Gholston: an elite talent who could become a national superstar this coming season. Like Borland did in 2011, Brown will have to prove he can impact games at middle linebacker the way he did on the outside last season. Like Borland, Brown is an excellent blitzer who can get in a quarterback's face and wreak havoc in the backfield. He'll anchor the linebacking corps for an Illinois defense that should once again be strong in the front seven.

Others to watch
Dark horse candidates

While I can't include everyone at this early stage, there's a large and interesting group in the mix for this award. Should be a great race to watch.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- As Illinois' starting center for the past few seasons, Graham Pocic has mashed limbs with some of the nation's best defensive tackles.

Penn State's Devon Still, Purdue's Kawann Short, Michigan State's Jerel Worthy and Michigan's Mike Martin are among those who have lined up across from Pocic. But Pocic's toughest opponent is a man he never faces on Saturdays.

[+] EnlargeAkeem Spence
Michael Heinz/US PresswireAkeem Spence is following in the footsteps of several Illini turned NFL defensive linemen before him.
"I get to go against the best D-tackle in the conference every day [in practice]," Pocic said. "It's awesome."

Pocic is biased, but don't be surprised if his teammate, Akeem Spence, earns the same label from the NFL talent evaluators a year from now. Spence has been on the NFL radar for the past two seasons, earning a starting job as a redshirt freshman and starting all 26 games he has played at Illinois.

The 6-foot-1, 305-pound Spence built on his freshman-year numbers (45 tackles, 4 TFLs, 1 sack, 1 fumble recovery) by finishing fourth on the squad in tackles (69) last fall. He had 5.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery for an Illinois defense that finished seventh nationally in yards allowed and 15th in points allowed.

"His explosiveness off the ball, his strength, he's pretty athletic for his size," Pocic said. "He's just a powerful dude. If you're not ready when you go against him, he's going to get under you and make some plays in the backfield."

The Illini have had defensive linemen selected in the first round of the past two NFL drafts: tackle Corey Liuget in 2011 (No. 18 overall pick) and end Whitney Mercilus last week (No. 26 overall pick). Spence is already being mentioned as a top candidate to enter the NFL draft after his junior season this fall.

Asked last month how motivated he is to be Illinois' next elite next-level prospect, Spence's face lit up.

"I'm real motivated," he said. "I'm just working real hard, doing everything that they did, do everything right. When it's time to step up, I want to be that guy making a big sack, making a big tackle for loss, making a big turnover. That's what I'm working toward."

Spence remains in touch with Liuget, who he started alongside in 2010. Although they've had similar career arcs at the same position -- Spence actually has played more than Liuget did in his first two years -- they're different players.

"He's a lot taller than I am," Spence said.

Only two inches to be exact, but it makes a difference in the trenches.

"Corey was a little more agile and faster," Pocic said, "but Corey doesn't have the strength that Akeem has. Corey's probably a little more explosive, but Akeem's just so strong and physical inside. It's tough to deal with."

Like several other veteran defenders, Spence had concerns about the unit's direction after head coach Ron Zook's firing coordinator Vic Koenning's departure for North Carolina. He was relieved to learn the new scheme under coordinator Tim Banks closely resembles its predecessor. Illinois also retained defensive line coach Keith Gilmore, the lone holdover from the previous staff.

Spence will play mostly the 3-technique and 1-technique in Banks' scheme with some spot work out wide at the 5-technique.

"You're creating a culture of great defensive line play," Banks said. "Those kids want to uphold that standard. You talk about those guys [Liuget and Mercilus], they were just here. It's not like 10 years ago. Our guys know who they are. They say, 'If he can do it, I can do it.' There's been greatness in that room."

Spence wants to continue that legacy before he walks out the door.

Big Ten NFL draft roundup

April, 30, 2012
4/30/12
9:00
AM ET
After a historically slow start to the 2012 NFL draft, the Big Ten ended up having 41 players selected during the three-day event. It's a strong overall total, one behind the SEC, the league with the most picks (42). Michigan State, Iowa and Wisconsin led the way with six picks each, followed by four teams -- Illinois, Nebraska, Ohio State and Penn State -- with four selections. Michigan had three players selected, and both Purdue and Northwestern had two. Neither Minnesota nor Indiana had a player drafted this year.

Here's the full rundown:

ROUND 1 (four selections)


No. 23 overall: Iowa T Riley Reiff, Detroit
No. 26: Illinois DE Whitney Mercilus, Houston
No. 27: Wisconsin G Kevin Zeitler, Cincinnati Bengals
No. 30: Illinois WR A.J. Jenkins, San Francisco

ROUND 2 (seven selections)


No. 44: Illinois G Jeff Allen, Kansas City
No. 48: Illinois S Tavon Wilson, New England
No. 51: Michigan State DT Jerel Worthy, Green Bay
No. 53: Penn State DT Devon Still, Cincinnati
No. 55: Wisconsin C Peter Konz, Atlanta
No. 56: Ohio State OT Mike Adams, Pittsburgh
No. 58: Nebraska LB Lavonte David, Tampa Bay

ROUND 3 (three selections)


No. 68: Ohio State WR DeVier Posey, Houston
No. 75: Wisconsin QB Russell Wilson, Seattle
No. 82: Michigan DT Mike Martin, Tennessee

ROUND 4 (five selections)


No. 102: Michigan State QB Kirk Cousins, Washington
No. 121: Michigan State WR Keshawn Martin, Houston
No. 122: Wisconsin WR Nick Toon, New Orleans
No. 126: Nebraska DT Jared Crick, Houston
No. 132: Iowa DE Mike Daniels, Green Bay

ROUND 5 (six selections)


No. 141: Iowa G Adam Gettis, Washington
No. 149: Penn State G Johnnie Troutman, San Diego
No. 153: Purdue T Dennis Kelly, Philadelphia
No. 156: Iowa CB Shaun Prater, Cincinnati
No. 157: Wisconsin FB Bradie Ewing, Atlanta
No. 158: Penn State DE Jack Crawford, Oakland

ROUND 6 (seven selections)


No. 180: Michigan State S Trenton Robinson, San Francisco 49ers
No. 183: Michigan State WR B.J. Cunningham, Miami Dolphins
No. 191: Ohio State RB Dan Herron, Cincinnati Bengals
No. 194: Iowa WR Marvin McNutt, Philadelphia Eagles
No. 195: Purdue T Nick Mondek, Houston Texans
No. 197: Ohio State S Nate Ebner, New England Patriots
No. 207: Wisconsin P Brad Nortman, Carolina Panthers

ROUND 7 (nine selections)


No. 217: Iowa CB Jordan Bernstine, Washington
No. 224: Nebraska CB Alfonzo Dennard, New England
No. 227: Michigan C David Molk, San Diego
No. 230: Penn State LB Nate Stupar, Oakland
No. 233: Northwestern TE Drake Dunsmore, Tampa Bay
No. 234: Nebraska T Marcel Jones, New Orleans
No. 235: Northwestern WR Jeremy Ebert, New England
No. 238: Michigan WR Junior Hemingway, Kansas City
No. 250: Michigan State RB Edwin Baker, San Diego

POSITION BREAKDOWN

Wide receiver: 8
Offensive tackle: 5
Defensive tackle: 4
Guard: 4
Cornerback: 3
Defensive end: 3
Safety: 3
Center: 2
Quarterback: 2
Running back: 2
Linebacker: 2
Fullback: 1
Tight end: 1
Punter: 1

We'll post some of the free-agent signings later today, but first some thoughts and themes on the draft.
    [+] EnlargeMichigan State's Kirk Cousins
    AP Photo/Chris O'MearaWith Robert Griffin III on the roster, one has to wonder about Kirk Cousins' future in Washington.

  • Many had projected Cousins to be the first Big Ten quarterback off of the board, but Russell Wilson went ahead of him to Seattle. Cousins was one of the more intriguing third-day picks as he went to Washington, which selected Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III with the No. 2 overall selection. Griffin is the future of the Redskins franchise, and it leaves Cousins in a potentially tough spot on the depth chart. The selection surprised Cousins, who didn't know the Redskins were interested and told the Detroit Free Press, "I think Robert is in their immediate plans and the long-term hope for their fan base, but they wouldn't have selected me unless they believed in me."
  • The verdict on Ron Zook always seemed to be great recruiter, average coach, and this draft validated it. Illinois was the only Big Ten team with two first-round picks and had four of the first 48 overall selections, yet the team went 7-6 last season after a 6-0 start. Talent clearly wasn't the problem during Zook's tenure in Champaign. Defensive line coach Keith Gilmore is on a roll with back-to-back first-round picks (Corey Liuget and Mercilus). He has two more potentially big-time prospects (Akeem Spence and Michael Buchanan) this year.
  • The Houston Texans clearly like what they see from Big Ten country. After drafting Wisconsin defensive end J.J. Watt with the No. 11 overall pick last year, the Texans added Mercilus, Posey, Keshawn Martin, Crick and Mondek. Watt welcomed the group on Twitter, tweeting, "Big Ten takeover. Welcome to the Texans." The Cincinnati Bengals also had a nice Big Ten haul with Zeitler, Still, Prater and Herron.
  • Posey, who last week told me he had no idea where he'd be drafted, had to be pleased with a third-round selection after appearing in only three games last fall because of suspension. Teams didn't shy away from the Ohio State star too much because of his off-field issues. Posey's Buckeyes teammate, Mike Adams, meanwhile, appeared to pay a bit of a price for his off-field issues, falling to the late second round.
  • On the flip side, Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, the Big Ten's defensive back of the year in 2011, slipped all the way to the seventh round. Keep in mind some draft gurus, including ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr., once projected Dennard in the first round. But after being ejected from the Capital One Bowl, failing to impress in predraft events and getting arrested the weekend before the draft for allegedly punching a cop, Dennard plummeted to No. 224. At least he'll have no trouble getting motivated to prove himself.
  • Dennard wasn't the only Big Ten player selected later than expected. Michigan's David Molk, who called himself the best center in the draft, also fell to the seventh round. And Ohio State center Mike Brewster, a first-team All-Big Ten selection in 2010, didn't hear his name called at all. While Brewster's play slipped during his senior season, he seemed like a mid-round candidate.
  • Other players I expected to be picked earlier: Mercilus, David, Adams, Mike Martin, Cousins, Daniels, McNutt, Hemingway and Baker.
  • Some players I expected to be picked later: Jenkins, Allen, Russell Wilson, Tavon Wilson and Posey.
  • Although the Big Ten had more wide receivers drafted than any other position, only one (Jenkins) went in the first two rounds and only two, Jenkins and Posey, went in the first three rounds. With only two quarterbacks and two running backs drafted, none in the first two rounds, it's fair to question whether the Big Ten is producing enough elite-level offensive skill players. It will be interesting to see which Big Ten running backs can rise up the draft boards in 2013. Running back might be the league's strongest position group this coming season.
  • I'll be very interested to watch how Worthy and Still fare at the next level. Both men have first-round talent, but both seemed to slip to the second round because of questions about their motor. If they don't take plays off in the NFL, they both could be extremely disruptive for the Packers and Bengals, respectively.
  • Wisconsin had players selected in each of the first six rounds and had the Big Ten's lone fullback (Ewing) and punter (Nortman) selected in the draft.
  • Ohio State's Ebner was one of the more interesting third-day picks. He didn't play football at all in high school -- he starred in rugby -- and spent most of his Buckeyes career on special teams. His selection shows the premium some teams place on the third phase.
On the first day of the NFL draft, the Big Ten was like one of those players sitting in the green room waiting and waiting for his name to get called as everyone starts to feel really uncomfortable.

The first Big Ten player to go off the board was Iowa's Riley Reiff, who had been projected as high as the Top 10 or 15 in mock drafts just a few weeks ago. He went 23rd. According to ESPN Stats & Info, it matches the lowest-ever top pick from the league; Minnesota offensive lineman John Williams went No. 23 in 1968.

But after the long wait, the Big Ten had four of the final 10 picks of the first round, including a surprise second selection for Illinois. Let's review:

No. 23: Riley Reiff, OT, Iowa to Detroit Lions

Todd McShay video analysis here.

Quotable: “"Words can't describe how happy I am right now," Reiff said. "I'm super excited to be a Lion. I really can't put into words what I'm actually feeling, but I'm excited. The Lion are a great team, and there will be great seasons ahead."

My take: Reiff slipped pretty far from his original projection, but he was still the second offensive lineman drafted, as expected. And he ended up in a good situation, with a young team that appears to be on the rise. Detroit has five starters on the line, so he can learn for a year before potentially taking over for Jeff Backus.

No. 26: Whitney Mercilus, DE, Illinois to Houston

Todd McShay video analysis here.

Quotable: “When my name was called my emotions just flooded,” Mercilus said. “I was getting a little nervous, because I thought I might go a little higher, so I was really happy when I got the call. I can’t wait to go to work with the Houston Texans. From day one I want to go prove to them that they spent their money well on me.”

My take: Mercilus is another guy who could have gone higher, but ends up on a potential playoff team. With Mario Williams gone, he has a chance to step in right away and start at defensive end. If he plays with the same high motor and intensity he did last season with the Illini, he should be an effective pass-rusher, though he'll need to bulk up a little.

No. 27: Kevin Zeitler, OG, Wisconsin to Cincinnati

Todd McShay video analysis here.

Quotable: "I had a good senior year," Zeitler said. "I tried to put everything I had on the field. Once the draft process started, I just tried to prove to coaches, off the field I take it just as seriously as on the field. I try to improve every day, any way I can. I guess it stuck."

My take: The first-round selection capped a meteoric rise for Zeitler, who was an honorable mention Big Ten performer as a junior. He blossomed into an All-American as a senior, and he rocketed up draft boards late in the process. He might not excite Bengals fans, but he's one of the safest picks of the first round, and has a clear path to starting as a rookie.

No. 30: A.J. Jenkins, WR, Illinois, to San Francisco

Todd McShay video analysis here.

Quotable: "I was kind of caught off guard,” Jenkins said. “It’s just a blessing that I was taken in the first round by a great organization. I think it’s a perfect match. I can’t wait to go out to San Francisco, work with a great coach in Coach Harbaugh, and go to work with some talented players. It’s a great position to be in, and a great organization.

My take: This was the stunner of the first round, from a Big Ten perspective. Jenkins wasn't being projected as a first-rounder by anybody that I saw. But we witnessed Jenkins' explosive ability during the first half of last season, when he was one of the most productive receivers in the nation before Illinois' offense dropped off a cliff. As we saw in last year's playoffs, the 49ers desperately need help at receiver, so the pick makes sense. What doesn't make much sense: the Illini had two first-round picks (at least) on their roster last season, and lost their final six regular-season games.

So that was that for the first round and the Big Ten. Some very good players from the league are left on the board, including Michigan State's Jerel Worthy, Wisconsin's Peter Konz, Penn State's Devon Still, Nebraska's Lavonte David, and on and on and on.
The NFL draft begins Thursday night. You probably weren't aware of that, because the draft, like most things associated with the National Football League, gets very little media coverage. Ahem.

Luckily, Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett are stepping into this void to talk about the draft, and specifically the Big Ten prospects hoping to hear their name called over the long weekend.

Brian Bennett: Adam, we usually leave draft talk to people with better hair than us, like Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay. But let's give it a shot. You know the NFL is a different game when Iowa's Riley Reiff is widely expected to be the top player taken from the Big Ten. Reiff is an excellent player and terrific pro prospect, no doubt. But if you would have asked league fans to pick a most valuable player from the conference this season, Reiff probably wouldn't have cracked the Top 10.

Speaking of the Top 10, the Big Ten hasn't had a player selected in that range for the past three years and is likely to make it four this year. What, if anything, does that say about the talent the league has been producing? And is Reiff the first guy you would take from the conference if you had an NFL team? (I'll resist from making wisecracks about your Big Ten fantasy team management last year).

Adam Rittenberg: Hey now, Year 2 will be different, my friend. The Shorties are coming for you. The Big Ten's Top 10 drought is certainly noteworthy, and I think it stems in part from the league producing fewer elite pro-caliber quarterbacks and cornerbacks in recent years. It does surprise me that the Big Ten hasn't had a defensive lineman in the top 10 recently, as the league has been very strong at both line spots. I think that will change in 2013. As for Reiff, he was about as under-the-radar as an elite player could get during his time at Iowa. He certainly performed well, but you didn't hear much about him, even compared to previous Hawkeyes standout linemen like Bryan Bulaga. Reiff is a masher, though, and while some say he's not the most dominant tackle, he should be able to help an NFL team this coming season.

I'd want to start my team with a potential difference-maker on the defensive line. The Big Ten has plenty of options, but Illinois' Whitney Mercilus is a natural pass-rusher who can put up big numbers. Have Merci? Yes, please. What's your view of the Big Ten's defensive line crop entering the draft?

BB: We both agreed that the defensive line, especially on the interior, is where the league's true strength lay in 2011. I'm a bit surprised that some mock drafts don't have Michigan State's Jerel Worthy, who has the chance to be a major presence on defense, in the first round and that Penn State's Devon Still, who was wildly productive last season, is being projected as a second-rounder at best. I'd rather take one of those guys than roll the dice on Memphis' Dontari Poe, a combine wonder who did next to nothing in college. And though Michigan's Mike Martin is a little short by NFL standards, I have little doubt he'll be a productive pro.

[+] EnlargeIowa's Riley Reiff
Jeffrey G. Pittenger/US PRESSWIREIowa's Riley Reiff could be the first Big Ten player selected in the NFL draft.
I'm also interested in seeing how the centers get drafted. Wisconsin's Peter Konz, Michigan's David Molk and Ohio State's Michael Brewster were arguably the top three centers in the nation last year. Molk, of course, publicly said he's the best of the three, and he did win the Rimington Trophy. Konz likely will go first, but I will be fascinated to see who ends up having the best career.

You mentioned quarterbacks. What do you think about Michigan State's Kirk Cousins and Wisconsin's Russell Wilson as potential NFL players? And will Dan Persa get a shot somewhere?

AR: Cousins should be the first Big Ten quarterback off the board, and many projections have him going in the second round. He clearly improved his stock during the predraft process. While everyone raves about the character of both Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin -- and for good reasons -- Cousins, as we both know, certainly fits into the same category as those two. He's not the fastest or most athletic guy, but he's extremely smart and played in a pro-style system at Michigan State. He could end up being a solid pro quarterback.

The issue for both Wilson and Persa is size, Persa more so than Wilson. While Wilson boasts tremendous arm strength and athleticism, his height scares teams. He does a tremendous job of extending plays and can make all of the throws, but he'll have to prove himself as a consistent pocket passer in a league where everyone is really big and really fast. Looks like a midround selection. Whether or not Persa gets drafted at all will be interesting. The guy obviously has a ton of heart and tremendous leadership skills, but he's small and suffered a major injury at Northwestern. I think Todd McShay summed up the sentiment about Persa when he told the Chicago Tribune, "I want to like Persa, but as an NFL prospect, he is limited." Persa will find his way onto a roster, but he'll have a lot to prove.

We've read a lot of draft evaluations in recent weeks. Which Big Ten player could be a real steal for a team this weekend?

BB: The guy whom I think is really undervalued is Iowa's Marvin McNutt. I've seen him going as late as the fifth or sixth round, which seems (Mc)nuts to me. Sure, it's a deep draft for receivers, and McNutt might not have blazing speed. But we saw him make some absolutely spectacular catches last season, and he closed his career as the Hawkeyes' all-time leader in receiving touchdowns. He has good size and produced 1,300 receiving yards in what was clearly not a gimmicky, pass-happy offense. If I were a GM and he was sitting there in Round 4 or later, I'd happily grab him.

Two other guys I think can be big bargains for teams are Nebraska's Lavonte David and Ohio State's Mike Adams. Both are being projected as second-rounders for different reasons (David because of size, Adams for off-the-field issues in college), but I think both will have long and stellar careers. They'll bring first-round value without the price.

Who do you see as underrated, or possibly overrated, from the Big Ten in this draft?

AR: I would have put Wisconsin guard Kevin Zeitler in the underrated category, but it seems like teams have caught on to how good he can be. He'll likely be a late first-round pick. Same with Konz and maybe Adams. It baffles me why Devon Still isn't projected higher in the draft. Two others I'd put in the underrated category are Michigan's Martin and Iowa's Mike Daniels. You don't have to be Vince Wilfork to be an effective NFL defensive tackle. Both Martin and Daniels are smaller defensive tackles, but they're both extremely strong physical and play with sound fundamentals. Both men have been tutored by excellent defensive coaches, and the teams that select them will be inheriting very hard workers.

Two of the more intriguing Big Ten prospects are Ohio State receiver DeVier Posey and Nebraska defensive tackle Jared Crick. Posey, who I chatted with briefly last week in Columbus, played only three games last fall because of suspensions stemming from NCAA violations. He's clearly a gifted guy, but it'll be interesting to see how much the off-field issues and lack of playing time impact his draft position. Crick entered 2011 as an All-America candidate but missed most of the season with injury. He definitely can help an NFL team, but like with Posey, there are question marks.

OK, time to wrap up this draft discussion. What do you think the major story line regarding the Big Ten will be coming out of this weekend's festivities?

BB: I'll go out on a limb and say Reiff is not the first Big Ten player drafted, as someone reaches for Mercilus, Worthy or Konz first. And I think the other big stories will be with the quarterbacks, as Cousins is drafted in the second round and Wilson is picked higher than people expect. What are your predictions?

AR: I wouldn't mind if that someone landing Reiff or Mercilus is my Chicago Bears, but that's another debate. Worthy's selection will be fascinating, as his stock has been pretty volatile throughout the process. I think both Martin and Daniels go earlier than expect, while Wilson has to wait a while. It'll be fascinating to see where Molk ends up. No matter where he's selected, he'll feel overlooked. As a short guy myself, I'm definitely rooting for the vertically challenged (Molk, Wilson, Persa, Martin, Daniels etc.). Another story line: Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, whose draft stock already had dropped before his arrest over the weekend.

Should be a fun weekend.

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