Big Ten: Dezmen Southward

Wisconsin Badgers season preview

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
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Previewing the 2014 season for the Wisconsin Badgers:

2013 overall record: 9-4 (6-2 Big Ten)

Key losses: RB James White, WR Jared Abbrederis, TE Jacob Pedersen, OG Ryan Groy, DE Pat Muldoon, DT Beau Allen, LB Chris Borland, S Dezmen Southward

Key returnees: RB Melvin Gordon, OT Rob Havenstein, OG Kyle Costigan, OT Tyler Marz, CB Sojourn Shelton, S Michael Caputo

Instant impact newcomer: Safety Lubern Figaro. If you're from outside the Badger State, you're probably asking, "Who?" After all, Figaro was just a three-star recruit and enrolled over the summer -- but he's already projected to start in the opener. Part of the reason is reportedly an injury to safety Leo Musso, but Figaro has already done plenty to separate himself. In the first scrimmage this preseason, he returned a pick for a touchdown. DB Sojourn Shelton made an impact last season when he was a true freshman; now it looks as if it's Figaro's turn.

[+] EnlargeSojourn Shelton
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsSojourn Shelton and the Badgers' defense will have their hands full against teams in the West Division.
Projected starters

Offense: QB: Joel Stave, RS Jr., 6-5, 220; RB: Melvin Gordon, RS Jr., 6-1, 213; FB: Derek Watt, RS Jr., 6-2, 236; WR: Alex Erickson, RS So., 6-0, 196; WR: Reggie Love, RS So., 6-3, 214; TE: Sam Arneson, Sr., 6-4, 244; OT: Tyler Marz, RS Jr., 6-5, 321; OG: Dallas Lewallen, RS Sr., 6-6, 321: C: Dan Voltz, RS So., 6-3, 311; OG: Kyle Costigan, RS Sr., 6-5, 319; OT: Rob Havenstein, RS Sr., 6-8, 333

Defense: DE: Chikwe Obasih, RS Fr., 6-2, 268; DT: Warren Herring, RS Sr., 6-3, 294; DE: Konrad Zagzebski, RS Sr., 6-3, 277; OLB: Joe Schobert, Jr., 6-2, 240; ILB: Marcus Trotter, RS Sr., 6-0, 226; ILB: Derek Landisch, Sr., 6-0, 231; OLB: Vince Biegel, RS So., 6-4, 244; CB: Darius Hillary, RS Jr., 5-11, 188; CB: Sojourn Shelton, So., 5-9, 178; S: Michael Caputo, RS Jr., 6-1, 212; S: Lubern Figaro, Fr., 6-0, 179

Specialists: P: Drew Meyer, RS Jr., 6-3, 187; PK: Rafael Gaglianone, Fr., 5-11, 231

Biggest question mark: Can this front seven recover from so many key departures? Of the seven players who started in the Badgers' bowl game last season, only one returns. That leaves quite a few holes, especially when considering the departures of Big Ten defensive player of the year Chris Borland and two All-Big Ten honorable mentions (Beau Allen, Pat Muldoon). Wisconsin's front seven dominated in 2013, as they helped the Badgers rank No. 5 nationally in rush defense (102.5 yards per game) and No. 6 in scoring defense (16.3 points per game). Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is solid, but he's not a magician. Those defensive numbers will almost certainly drop from last season -- but just how much?

Most important game: Nov. 15 versus Nebraska. It's basically a three-team race in the West Division, so this is a must-win if Wisconsin wants a spot in the Big Ten championship game. There's no Ohio State or Michigan State on the schedule this season, so the Huskers and Iowa Hawkeyes are the teams to beat. Iowa is just as important, but that contest comes a week later, and that won't mean a thing if Wisconsin first can't get past this contest.

Upset special: Nov. 29 versus Minnesota. A lot could be on the line when the Badgers square off against Minnesota in the final game of the regular season. And, depending how Wisconsin's defense progresses, this could be an interesting one. Wisconsin's run defense is a wild card right now, and the Gophers could boast the second-toughest rushing attack on Wisconsin's schedule (outside of Nebraska). No team held Wisconsin to fewer points (20) last season than Minnesota, so there is some potential here. Plus, one has to think the Gophers will be able to manage better than a seven-point offensive effort this time around.

Key stat: Sure, everyone knows the departure of Jared Abbrederis will hurt Wisconsin. But the Badgers actually lost their top four targets, and only one (Jordan Fredrick) recorded catches in the double-digits. And he had just 10. Overall, Wisconsin lost 81 percent of its receiving production, as this year's returners had just 42 combined receptions last season compared with the 217 total catches.

What they're wearing: Wisconsin has come a long way since 2010, because it basically went from rotating between two uniform combinations to doing photo shoots with more than 20 combinations.

One possible new look includes an all-red, jersey-pant combo (not to be confused with Nebraska's all-red getup):

Team's top Twitter follows: Head coach Gary Andersen (@UWCoachAndersen) joined Twitter just a few weeks ago, but he pumps out unique tweets and is a great follow. The official Wisconsin football account (@BadgerFootball) tweets like crazy and is always on the ball. As far as players, running back Melvin Gordon (@Melvingordon25) is a no-brainer, while cornerback Sojourn Shelton (@SDS1_) definitely deserves a few more follows. There are quite a few good follows for your coverage needs -- besides us, of course -- including the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Jeff Potrykus (@jaypo1961) and SB Nation blog Bucky's 5th Quarter (@B5Q).

They said it: "No question there's a temptation to run him every time." – Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen on running back Melvin Gordon

Stats & Info projection: 9.29 wins

Wise guys over/under: 9.5 wins

Big Ten blog projection: Ten wins. Wisconsin has a lot of question marks, but it also has a lot of talent. The rushing offense should be one of the nation's best and, while this defense will undoubtedly take a step back from last season, it shouldn't free-fall with Dave Aranda at the helm. Wisconsin's schedule is pretty favorable, as it doesn't play any of the big names from the East, and it's possible it could be favored in every game from Week 2 on. Wisconsin's getting the benefit of the doubt here, but if it can manage a win against LSU in the opener, that bandwagon is going to get big in a hurry.
Tired of NFL draft rewind posts? Well, it's nearly over. And besides, not much else is happening in mid-May.

We're taking a closer look, roundtable-style, at the Big Ten's draft: how certain teams did, the risers, the falls and more. Noted draft hater Brian Bennett is somewhere in Italy, so Big Ten reporters Mitch Sherman, Josh Moyer and Austin Ward are kind enough to join me in breaking down the draft.

The draft roundtable is on the clock ...

[+] EnlargeRyan Shazier
Elsa/Getty ImagesRyan Shazier ended a three-year drought without a Buckeye in the first round.
Let's start off with individual teams you cover -- Nebraska (Sherman), Penn State (Moyer) and Ohio State (Ward), for those who need a refresher. What stood out to you most about each team's draft showing?

Moyer: Penn State had just three players drafted, so what really stood out to me was how divided the opinion was on Allen Robinson, who was picked up by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the second round. At times, he was a projected first-rounder. At other times, he wasn't projected to go until Day 3. Some lauded the Jags' pick; others labeled it a reach. Let me add my two cents: He's going to succeed in the NFL. I spoke with two former PSU and NFL wideouts, O.J. McDuffie and Kenny Jackson, and they both said last season that A-Rob boasts more physical skills than they ever did. That has to count for something.

Sherman: NFL organizations continue to rate Nebraska defensive backs highly. Cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste (second round to the Saints) was the 11th draftee from the secondary in the past 10 years. Since 2003, though, just two Nebraska offensive players, including new Redskins guard Spencer Long, have landed in the top three rounds. Receiver Quincy Enunwa, despite technical shortcomings, offers value to the Jets as a sixth-round pick. As expected, all others, including quarterback Taylor Martinez, had to take the free-agency route.

Ward: Ohio State has long been a pipeline for the next level, but it had actually been three years since it had produced any first-round picks until Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby on Thursday night. The Buckeyes followed that up with four more players being selected, which suggests the talent level is starting to get back to the level the program is accustomed to after going through a bit of a down stretch. It seems a bit backward that two guys from a beleaguered defense were the top picks while the record-setting offense wasn't represented until Carlos Hyde and Jack Mewhort were grabbed in the second round, but either way the Buckeyes appear to be back as a favored target for NFL organizations.

Turning our attention to the entire Big Ten, which player surprised you by how high he was drafted, and which player surprised you with how far he fell in the draft?

Rittenberg: I was a little surprised to see Michael Schofield go before the end of Day 2. We knew Michigan’s poor offensive line play wouldn’t impact Taylor Lewan, but I thought it might make teams hesitant about selecting Schofield. He’s a good player who enters a great situation in Denver. Another Big Ten offensive lineman on a struggling unit, Purdue’s Kevin Pamphile, surprised me with how early he went. I didn't see Darqueze Dennard, the nation’s most decorated cornerback on arguably the nation’s best defense last season, dropping to No. 24 overall. Wisconsin's Chris Borland and Ohio State’s Hyde went later than I thought they would.

Sherman: Long's rise to the third round surprised me after he missed the final six games of his senior season with a knee injury that kept him out of the combine and limited him at Nebraska's pro day. I pegged the former walk-on as a fifth- or sixth-round pick. And I thought Lewan might slip past the first 15 picks because of character questions from a pair of off-field incidents at Michigan. Conversely, I thought Borland’s exemplary résumé at Wisconsin might propel him into the top 50 picks. At No. 77 to the 49ers he's a steal.

Ward: There really weren't guys who made shocking jumps up the board in my mind, though Ohio State safety Christian Bryant sneaking into the seventh round was a feel-good story after he missed the majority of his senior season with a fractured ankle. The Big Ten also had a handful of first-round caliber players slide to the second day, so Minnesota's Ra'Shede Hageman, Indiana's Cody Latimer, Hyde or Penn State's Robinson all qualified as minor surprises -- and great values for their new teams.

Moyer: How many people thought Dezmen Southward would be the first Badger drafted? I sure didn't. The Atlanta Falcons scooped him up early in the third round, and they probably could've snagged him two rounds later. As far as guys who fell, I expected both Latimer and Dennard to go sooner. They didn't free-fall, but you kept hearing before the draft how those two improved their stock -- and then Latimer nearly fell to the third round, anyway.

[+] EnlargeJared Abbrederis
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsWisconsin WR Jared Abbrederis went in the fifth round to the Green Bay Packers.
Which Big Ten players will be the biggest sleepers/best values in the draft?

Ward: General managers and coaches might view running backs as easily replaceable in this new era in the NFL, but the league’s most recent champion offered another reminder of how important it is to have a productive rushing attack and an elite tailback. Hyde hasn’t proven anything at the next level yet, so comparing him with Seattle's Marshawn Lynch is a bit premature. But Hyde has all the physical tools to be a star, from his well-built frame to his often overlooked speed, and he's going to a team in San Francisco that has a system that will put him in position to thrive.

Rittenberg: Southward’s high selection surprised me, too, but the other four Wisconsin players -- Borland, Jared Abbrederis, running back James White and nose tackle Beau Allen -- all are good value pickups. White is an extremely versatile player who might never be a featured back but can block, catch passes and do whatever his coaches need. Allen gained great experience as a nose tackle last fall. I think the New York Jets get a sixth-round steal in Enunwa, whose blocking skills should help him get on the field. Big Ten coaches loved DaQuan Jones, who looks like a nice value pickup for Tennessee in the fourth round.

Sherman: I'll place Robinson (second round to Jacksonville) and Abbrederis (fifth to Green Bay) together in a category of undervalued Big Ten receivers. Perhaps it illustrates a general stigma about offensive skill players from the conference; throw second-rounders Latimer and Hyde into the discussion, too. NFL decision-makers might not respect the competition these players face on a weekly basis and count it against them in evaluations. If so, that’s a big problem for the Big Ten.

The Big Ten had eight more players drafted this year than in 2013, but its champion, Michigan State, had only one selection. What does this say about the league and its trajectory?

Sherman: After 2012, the Big Ten presumably had nowhere to go but up in producing quality prospects. The influx of Urban Meyer-recruited talent will soon impact the Big Ten in the draft. Same goes for Brady Hoke, even if he’s not making gains in the standings. Penn State and Nebraska, too, are upgrading their talent, so the trajectory figures to continue upward. As for Michigan State, it was young on offense and clearly better than the sum of its parts on defense, a testament to Mark Dantonio and Pat Narduzzi. The absence in the draft of Max Bullough and Denicos Allen caught me off guard.

Moyer: Having more picks shows the Big Ten is on the right track ... but it still has a long way to go. Yes, it improved on last year -- but it still finished behind the SEC (49), ACC (42) and Pac-12 (34) this year, in terms of players drafted. As far as Michigan State, I think their success serves as a reminder that the right coaching and the right schemes can still trump a roster full of NFL-caliber players. Penn State's success during the sanctions also helps to reinforce that.

Ward: It's another reminder of how well-coached the Spartans were a year ago, particularly in turning a defense that had just one player drafted into the nation’s best unit. Dantonio deserves another bow for the job he and his staff did a year ago, even if they didn’t have much to celebrate during the draft. The league does seem to be on the rise again in the minds of top athletes around the country with Meyer, Hoke and now James Franklin upping the ante on the recruiting trail. Those efforts should produce even better weekends than the one that just wrapped up.

Rittenberg: It says something when arguably the best Big Ten team in the past seven or eight years -- MSU had nine double-digit league wins plus the Rose Bowl triumph -- produces only one draft pick. Still, I think the arrow is pointed up after a horrendous 2013 draft. The Big Ten has struggled to produce elite prospects at both cornerback and wide receiver in recent years. This year, the league had three corners drafted in the first two rounds, and while I agree the Big Ten's wide receivers were undervalued, the league still produced five picks. The next step is obvious: generating better quarterback play as no Big Ten QBs were drafted this year.
The biggest non-game on the American sporting calendar is all done, as the 2014 NFL draft wrapped up Saturday afternoon in New York. After arguably its worst draft in the modern era in 2013, the Big Ten performed better this year with 30 picks. Still, the league finished fourth among conferences in selections, trailing the SEC (49), ACC (42) and Pac-12 (34).

After a big Friday night with six second-round selections -- including four in a row -- and six third-round selections, the Big Ten's momentum slowed a bit Saturday in the final four rounds. The league had only one sixth-round pick and only four in the seventh round.

Let's start the breakdown by listing Big Ten draftees by round (with comments below). Maryland and Rutgers players aren't included here because neither group competed in the Big Ten (Terrapins CB Dexter McDougle went in the third round; Rutgers had no players drafted).

FIRST ROUND (4)
[+] EnlargeTaylor Lewan
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyTaylor Lewan was the first Big Ten player selected, going 11th overall to the Tennessee Titans.
Analysis: Click here for my first-round thoughts

SECOND ROUND (6)
Analysis: Hageman ends up in a really good spot with the Falcons. Although Latimer had an excellent pre-draft performance, it wasn't surprising to see him end up in the middle of the second round. Hyde waited longer than many anticipated, but he enters a great situation with a team that loves to play power football. Robinson joins a new-look Jaguars passing attack featuring quarterback Blake Bortles and wideout Marqise Lee.

THIRD ROUND (6)
Analysis: Everyone had Southward going before Borland, right? Borland, the 2013 Big Ten defensive player of the year, had an exceptional college career, but concerns about his height and perhaps his injury history moved him down the draft boards. The Iowa Effect shows up here as both Fiedorowicz and Kirksey were swept up by teams that respect what the Hawkeyes do. What does it say that Michigan's offensive line struggled mightily in 2013 but had two tackles drafted in the first three rounds? Those young Wolverines linemen had better step up this fall.

FOURTH ROUND (4)
Analysis: Some really good pickups in this round, especially White, who will fit in very well with New England's offense. Although James Morris received the most accolades among Iowa's linebackers at the college level, both Kirksey and Hitchens were mid-round selections, while Morris went undrafted and signed with New England as a free agent. As a Chicago Bears fan, I love the Vereen pick. He's a smart, athletic versatile player who knows from his older brother what it takes to succeed in the NFL.

FIFTH ROUND (5)
[+] EnlargeJared Abbrederis
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsJared Abbrederis isn't venturing far from Madison as he was drafted by the Green Bay Packers.
Analysis: Like his teammate Borland, Abbrederis had a much longer wait than expected but lands in a very familiar spot with Green Bay. I think he's a steal and will surprise people with his ability to make plays despite less-than-ideal measurables. Pamphile had a fairly quiet college career but is seen as a project and could develop into a better pro. Urschel is another player who lacks the ideal physical traits sought in the NFL, but could make up for it with exceptional intelligence.

SIXTH ROUND (1)
Analysis: Enunwa complemented his superb blocking skills with big-play ability in the pass game as a senior. He's a good value for a Jets team that needs to boost the league's 31st-ranked pass offense.

SEVENTH ROUND (4)
Analysis: All four players could be very good values. Bolser is an athletic tight end who had 15 career touchdown catches. Allen showed versatility as a senior, transitioning to a 3-4 scheme. Gallon heads to a Patriots team that has had success with smaller, productive receivers. Bryant likely would have been selected higher if not for major leg and ankle injuries last season.

Here are the draft picks per B1G team:

Ohio State: 6
Wisconsin: 5
Michigan: 3
Penn State: 3
Nebraska: 3
Iowa: 3
Purdue: 2
Minnesota: 2
Indiana: 2
Michigan State: 1

The big surprise is a Michigan State team that dominated Big Ten play and won the Rose Bowl had just one player selected, as standout linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen didn't have their names called. Only four teams -- LSU, Alabama, Notre Dame and Florida State -- had more selections than Ohio State. Illinois, which led the Big Ten in draft picks last season (4) and had 18 picks between 2009-13, had no selections. Northwestern also went without a draft pick for the second straight year.

Curious about the Big Ten's undrafted free-agent signings? Check back in a bit as we take a look.
We're taking snapshots of each position group with every Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the defensive backs.

Illinois: The secondary returns mostly intact from 2013, as Illinois returns starters at both cornerback spots (V'Angelo Bentley and Eaton Spence), as well as Zane Petty, who started the final seven games at free safety. Taylor Barton, who opened last season as a starting free safety, also is back. Building safety depth is important this spring as Illinois must replace Earnest Thomas III. Barton will compete with Jevaris Little and others for playing time. The depth is much better at corner as Darius Mosely and Jaylen Dunlap both saw significant action as freshmen last fall.

Indiana: Like Illinois, Indiana returns a lot in the defensive backfield but must improve after struggling to stop opponents in 2013. The Hoosiers also lose only one starter in safety Greg Heban, a mainstay during the past four seasons. There's a lot of experience at cornerback with returning starters Tim Bennett (senior) and Michael Hunter (junior), along with reserve Kenny Mullen (senior). Decorated recruit Rashard Fant, who redshirted in 2013, will compete for significant playing time. Senior safety Mark Murphy will lead the secondary, and sophomore Antonio Allen could fill the other safety spot when he returns from an ACL tear. Building depth here always is a priority at IU.

Iowa: The situation isn't as dramatic as the linebacker spot, but Iowa still must replace two productive players in cornerback B.J. Lowery and safety Tanner Miller, who combined for six interceptions in 2013. Lowery is the more significant loss, as he had 19 passes defended and three forced fumbles. The good news is Desmond King looks like a budding star and he will move into the featured role Lowery occupied. Jordan Lomax, Sean Draper and others will compete to start opposite King. Strong safety John Lowdermilk returns after a solid junior season. Lomax also could play free safety and will compete there with Anthony Gair and Nico Law, who both appeared in all 13 games last fall as reserves.

Maryland: The back four aims for better results on the injury front and on the field in 2013. Maryland returns both starters at safety in Sean Davis, the team's leading tackler with 102 last fall, and Anthony Nixon, but there should be competition behind them with A.J. Hendy and Zach Dancel. The cornerback position is worth watching this spring as Dexter McDougle departs and Jeremiah Johnson remains limited by a toe injury. Will Likely has opened the spring as a starter, and Alvin Hill could rise up after recording 24 tackles last season.

Michigan: The secondary took a step back in 2013 and all jobs are open even though Michigan returns two veteran cornerbacks -- Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor -- and some experience at safety. Jabrill Peppers, the nation's No. 2 overall recruit according to ESPN Recruiting Nation, will play a major role for the Wolverines this fall, whether it's at corner, safety or nickel. Junior Jarrod Wilson started the first seven games of last season at free safety, and Dymonte Thomas is a good candidate to start at one of the safety spots. Michigan should expect more from this group in 2014.

Michigan State: Will opposing offenses invade the No Fly Zone in 2014? Not if Michigan State can fill several spots, none bigger than Darqueze Dennard's at cornerback. Dennard, a unanimous All-American and the Jim Thorpe Award winner, departs to the NFL, and junior Trae Waynes slides into the featured corner role after a promising sophomore season. The competition opposite Waynes heats up this spring as Ezra Robinson, Darian Hicks, Jermaine Edmondson and Arjen Colquhoun compete. Free safety Kurtis Drummond boasts 21 career starts and enters 2014 as one of the league's top safeties. RJ Williamson likely will fill Isaiah Lewis' spot at strong safety, and Demetrious Cox provides depth.

Minnesota: Like the Gophers' defensive line, the secondary loses a huge piece in Brock Vereen, who played both safety and cornerback last season. But there might be enough returning pieces to fill the void. Cornerback Eric Murray had a very solid first season as a starter, and Minnesota also brings back Derrick Wells and Briean Boddy-Calhoun, both of whom have starting experience. Leading tackler Cedric Thompson and Antonio Johnson finished last season as the starting safeties, and both are back. Senior Grayson Levine provides some experience in a reserve safety role.

Nebraska: An important spring awaits new defensive backs coach Charlton Warren, who must identify new starters at cornerback, safety and nickel. The Huskers are replacing Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who combined for eight interceptions, 18 passes defended and 15 tackles for loss in 2013. Safety Andrew Green, who made 10 starts in 2013, also leaves. The good news is cornerback Josh Mitchell had an excellent bowl game and will fill a starting spot. Leading tackler Corey Cooper also returns at safety. There's not much experience at corner other than Mitchell, and Daniel Davie, Auburn transfer Jonathan Rose and others will compete. Nebraska brings back more at safety with Harvey Jackson, who made three starts in 2013, and junior Charles Jackson.

Northwestern: That the Wildcats' secondary could be one of the team's biggest strengths seemed laughable three years ago, but it could be true this fall. All four starters return, led by safety Ibraheim Campbell, one of the Big Ten's most productive defenders (262 career tackles). The depth at cornerback looks strong as starters Nick VanHoose and Matt Harris return, along with Dwight White and Daniel Jones, who opened 2013 as a starter and is coming back from an ACL tear. Traveon Henry should start alongside Campbell, and there are some promising young safeties like Godwin Igwebuike.

Ohio State: Pass defense proved to be Ohio State's downfall in 2013, and the Buckeyes' secondary will be under the microscope this spring as new assistant Chris Ash steps in. Ohio State loses All-Big Ten cornerback Bradley Roby and will lean more on Doran Grant, who started opposite Roby in 2013. Ash also expects big things from Tyvis Powell, who will start at one of the safety spots. Safety Vonn Bell finally logged significant playing time in the Orange Bowl and could become a permanent starter as a sophomore. Veteran Ron Tanner and Cam Burrows also are in the mix at safety. There should be good competition to start opposite Grant, as Armani Reeves tries to hold off redshirt freshmen Gareon Conley and Eli Apple.

Penn State: After a season of moving parts and inconsistent plays, Penn State hopes for a more settled secondary. Adrian Amos, who alternated between cornerback and safety last season, will lead the group and brings plenty of experience. Jordan Lucas likely will start opposite Amos at cornerback after making strides toward the end of his sophomore season. PSU loses some leadership at safety with Malcolm Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong departing and will lean on Ryan Keiser and Jesse Della Valle, both of whom have starting experience. Converted wideouts Trevor Williams and Malik Golden provide depth at cornerback and safety, respectively.

Purdue: The rotation from 2013 returns almost completely intact, but Purdue loses a very big piece in cornerback Ricardo Allen, a four-year starter. Cornerback Frankie Williams enters his third year as a starter and will slide into Allen's featured role, while the competition for the other top corner spot will feature Antoine Lewis and Leroy Clark, among others. Purdue has plenty of experience at safety with Taylor Richards, who started every game in 2013, and Anthony Brown, who replaced the injured Landon Feichter and had 69 tackles. Feichter also is back from a broken leg.

Rutgers: This group is anxious to turn the page after a season filled with personnel issues and poor performance (Rutgers finished 120th nationally in pass defense). Senior safety Lorenzo Waters leads the group after recording 62 tackles and two forced fumbles in 2013. Johnathan Aiken will try to start opposite Waters at free safety, although he'll be pushed by Delon Stephenson and Tejay Johnson, who started three games last fall. Gareef Glashen started six games last season and seems likely to retain one of the top cornerback spots. There will be competition at the other between Anthony Cioffi and Nadir Barnwell, both of whom started games as true freshmen in 2013. The most intriguing player to watch is cornerback Ian Thomas, who returns to the team after quitting midway through last season, one that he began as a starter.

Wisconsin: The Badgers are relatively young at both secondary positions but boast far more experience at cornerback than safety. Junior Darius Hillary and sophomore Sojourn Shelton started all 13 games at cornerback last season. Peniel Jean adds even more experience at the position. Safety is much less settled as Dezmen Southward graduates, Michael Caputo shifts to linebacker and Tanner McEvoy returns to quarterback. Nate Hammon and Leo Musso both played in all 13 games last fall as reserves. Newcomers like Serge Trezy and Austin Hudson could compete for time when they arrive this summer.
Tags:

Purdue Boilermakers, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Penn State Nittany Lions, Big Ten Conference, Michigan State Spartans, Northwestern Wildcats, Indiana Hoosiers, Illinois Fighting Illini, Ohio State Buckeyes, Michigan Wolverines, Wisconsin Badgers, Iowa Hawkeyes, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Maryland Terrapins, Ian Thomas, Corey Cooper, Antoine Lewis, Mark Murphy, Jeremiah Johnson, Dezmen Southward, B.J. Lowery, Kurtis Drummond, Ibraheim Campbell, Peniel Jean, Doran Grant, Raymon Taylor, Tejay Johnson, Nick VanHoose, Blake Countess, Michael Hunter, Derrick Wells, Jordan Lomax, Kenny Mullen, Adrian Amos, Charles Jackson, Frankie Williams, Nate Hammon, Cedric Thompson, Tanner Miller, Dwight White, Harvey Jackson, Armani Reeves, Malik Golden, John Lowdermilk, Andrew Green, Darius Hillary, Traveon Henry, Daniel Jones, Demetrious Cox, Jermaine Edmonson, Ezra Robinson, Trevor Williams, Daniel Davie, Taylor Richards, Jarrod Wilson, RJ Williamson, Trae Waynes, Landon Feichter, Lorenzo Waters, Cam Burrows, Gareon Conley, Dymonte Thomas, Jesse Della Valle, Darius Mosely, Darian Hicks, Josh Mitchell, Eaton Spence, Antonio Allen, Zane Petty, Rashard Fant, Godwin Igwebuike, Sojourn Shelton, Nadir Barnwell, Matt Harris, Michael Caputo, Jonathan Rose, V'Angelo Bentley, Jevaris Little, Taylor Barton, Tyvis Powell, Arjen Colquhoun, Eric Murray, Sean Draper, Anthony Gair, Tim Bennett, Jabrill Peppers, Ryan Keiser, Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Austin Hudson, Jaylen Dunlap, Charlton Warren, Serge Trezy, B1G spring positions 14, Sean Davis, Anthony Nixon, A.J. Hendy, Zach Dancel, Dexter McDougle, Will Likely, Alvin Hill, Antonio Johnson, Grayson Levine, Ron Tanner, Leroy Clark, Johnathan Aiken, Delon Stephenson, Gareef Glashen, Anthony Cioffi

Let's look at what to expect this spring in the Big Ten's wild, wild West:

ILLINOIS

Spring start: March 5
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Toughening up on 'D': The Fighting Illini had one of the nation's worst defenses, especially against the run. Tim Beckman brought back defensive coordinator Tim Banks and hopes an extra year of maturity can help strengthen the front seven. Juco import Joe Fotu could win a starting job this spring, and Jihad Ward should help when he arrives in the summer.
  • 'Haase cleaning: Nathan Scheelhaase wrapped up his career by leading the Big Ten in passing yards last season. Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt likely takes over the reins, but backups Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey plan on fighting for the job, as well. Bill Cubit's offense should equal big numbers for whoever wins out.
  • Target practice: Whoever wins the quarterback job needs someone to catch the ball, and Illinois' top two receivers from '13 -- Steve Hull and Miles Osei -- both are gone. Junior college arrival Geronimo Allison will be counted on for some immediate help.
IOWA

Spring start: March 27 or 28
Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • A new big three: The Hawkeyes begin the process of trying to replace their three standout senior linebackers from last season: James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey. They were the heart of the defense in 2013, and now guys such as Quinton Alston, Reggie Spearman and Travis Perry need to make major leaps forward in the spring.
  • Develop more playmakers: Iowa was able to win the games it should have won last year, but struggled against those with strong defenses because of its lack of explosiveness. Sophomore Tevaun Smith and junior Damond Powell showed flashes of their potential late in the year at wideout. They need to continue to develop to give quarterback Jake Rudock and the offense ways to stretch the field.
  • Solidify the right tackle spot: The offensive line should once again be the team's strength, but the departure of veteran right tackle Brett Van Sloten means someone has to take on that role. Whether that's senior Andrew Donnal or redshirt freshman Ryan Ward could be determined this spring.
MINNESOTA

Spring start: March 4
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Mitch's pitches: Philip Nelson's transfer means redshirt sophomore Mitch Leidner enters spring practice as the No. 1 quarterback. He's a load to bring down when he runs, but Leidner needs to improve his passing accuracy after completing 55 percent of his passes in the regular season and only half of his 22 attempts in the Texas Bowl game loss to Syracuse. Added experience should help. If not, he's got some talented youngsters such as Chris Streveler and Dimonic Roden-McKinzy aiming to dethrone him.
  • Mitch's catchers: Of course, part of the problem behind the Gophers' Big Ten-worst passing offense was a lack of threats at receiver. Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones showed promise as true freshmen and should only improve with an offseason of work. It's critical that they do, or else Minnesota might have to count on three receiver signees early.
  • Replacing Ra'Shede: The Gophers only lost four senior starters, but defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman might be the most difficult to replace. The first-team All-Big Ten selection created havoc inside defensively, and there aren't many athletes like him floating around. Scott Ekpe could take many of Hageman's reps, but the defensive line overall will have to pick up the slack.
NEBRASKA

Spring start: March 8
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Tommy's turn: Sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr. entered the offseason as the clear No. 1 quarterback for the first time after taking over for the injured Taylor Martinez (and splitting some snaps with Ron Kellogg III) last season. Armstrong showed maturity beyond his years in 2013 but needs to continue developing as a passer and deepen his understanding of the offense. Redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton could push him in the spring.
  • Get the OL up to speed: Nebraska loses a lot of experience on the offensive line, including both starting tackles (Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale), plus interior mainstays Spencer Long, Andrew Rodriguez and Cole Pensick. The Huskers do return seniors Mark Pelini, Jake Cotton and Mike Moudy, junior Zach Sterup, plus three freshmen and a junior-college transfer who redshirted last year. A strong group of incoming freshmen may also contribute. Big Red usually figures it out on the O-line, but there will be a lot of players in new roles this season.
  • Reload in the secondary: The Blackshirts have plenty of experience in the front seven, but the defensive backfield has a new coach (Charlton Warren) and will be without top playmakers Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans. The safety spot next to Corey Cooper was a problem area last season, and the Huskers are hoping Charles Jackson takes a major step forward. Warren has talent to work with but must find the right combination.
NORTHWESTERN

Spring start: Feb. 26
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Trevor's time?: Trevor Siemian split reps with Kain Colter at quarterback the past two seasons, serving as sort of the designated passer. Siemian threw for 414 yards in the season finale against Illinois and has a clear path toward starting with Colter gone. That could mean more of a pass-first offense than Northwestern ran with Colter. Redshirt freshman and heralded recruit Matt Alviti also looms as an option.
  • Manning the middle: Northwestern brings back a solid corps on defense but lost middle linebacker Damien Proby, who led the team in tackles the past two seasons. Pat Fitzgerald has some options, including making backups Drew Smith or Jaylen Prater a starter or moving Collin Ellis inside. He can experiment and find the best match this spring.
  • Patch it together: The Wildcats' health woes from 2013 aren't over, as 11 players will be held out of practice for medical reasons, including star running back/returner Venric Mark. Add in that the school doesn't have early enrollees, and the team will be trying to practice severely undermanned this spring. The biggest key is to get through spring without any more major problems and to get the injured guys healthy for the fall.
PURDUE

Spring start: March 6
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Moving forward: Purdue players wore T-shirts emblazoned with the word "Forward" during winter workouts, and no wonder. They don't want to look backward to last year's abysmal 1-11 season. It's time to turn the page and get some positive momentum going in Year 2 under Darrell Hazell. Luckily, optimism abounds in spring.
  • Trench focus: The Boilermakers simply couldn't cut it on the lines in Big Ten play, and Hazell went about trying to sign bigger offensive linemen this offseason for his physical style of play. Both starting tackles and three starting defensive linemen all graduated, and no one should feel safe about his job after last season's performance. Kentucky transfer Langston Newton (defense) and early enrollee Kirk Barron (offense) could push for playing time on the lines.
  • Find an identity: What was Purdue good at last season? Not much, as the team ranked near the bottom of the country in just about every major statistical category. The Boilers found some good things late in the passing game with freshmen Danny Etling and DeAngelo Yancey, but Hazell must do a better job instilling the toughness he wants and locating playmakers.
WISCONSIN

Spring start: March 7
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Catching on: The biggest concern heading into the spring is at receiver after the team's only dependable wideout the past two seasons, Jared Abbrederis, graduated. Tight end Jacob Pedersen, who was second on the team in receiving yards last season, is also gone. The Badgers have struggled to develop new weapons in the passing game but now have no choice. Gary Andersen signed five receivers in the 2014 class but none enrolled early, so guys such as Kenzel Doe and Robert Wheelwright need to take charge this spring.
  • Stave-ing off the competition?: Joel Stave started all 13 games at quarterback last year, while no one else on the roster has any real experience under center. Yet the redshirt junior should face some competition this spring after the Badgers' passing game struggled down the stretch. Andersen likes more mobile quarterbacks and has three guys in Bart Houston, Tanner McEvoy and freshman early enrollee D.J. Gillins, who can offer that skill. Stave must hold them off to keep his job.
  • New leaders on defense: Wisconsin lost a large group of seniors, including nine major contributors on the defensive side. That includes inside linebacker and team leader Chris Borland, plus defensive linemen Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer, outside linebacker Brendan Kelly and safety Dezmen Southward. That's a whole lot of leadership and production to replace, and the process begins in earnest this spring.
The official invite list for the 2014 NFL combine is out, and 36 Big Ten players will try to impress pro scouts during workouts in Indianapolis from Feb. 22-25. In case you were wondering, that's fourth most among conferences behind the SEC (71 invitees), the ACC (48) and the Pac-12 (45).

Here are the Big Ten players who were invited, broken down by position:

Quarterbacks (0)

Running backs (2)

Wide receivers (8)

Tight ends (2)

Offensive linemen (8)

Defensive linemen (2)

Linebackers (7)

Defensive backs (7)

Specialists (0)

Breakdown
It's a strong list of players, but were there any snubs. Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez, Michigan State linebacker Denicos Allen and Iowa cornerback B.J. Lowery jump out right away as missing, though Martinez has injury (and position) concerns, while Allen's small frame means he'll have to prove to scouts he can play at the next level.

I'm also a bit surprised not to see Indiana's Ted Bolser on this list; he's not a traditional blocking tight end, but his receiving skills would seem to translate to the NFL. Only nine kickers and punters were invited to Indy, yet it's a little disappointing that Purdue's Cody Webster and Northwestern's Jeff Budzien weren't included in the specialists.

Others who could have gotten an invite include Purdue defensive tackle Bruce Gaston, Ohio State guard Andrew Norwell and Nebraska defensive back Ciante Evans.

That doesn't mean those guys won't play in the NFL. But their path to the league might be a little more winding.
The North team lost 20-10 to the South in the Senior Bowl on Saturday, but it was still a good day for many Big Ten draft hopefuls.

[+] EnlargeJames White
Dan Sanger/Icon SMIJames White was one of a few Wisconsin players who stood out at the Senior Bowl.
Wisconsin seniors in particular grabbed the spotlight in Mobile, Ala. Former Badgers tailback James White led all rushers with 11 carries for 62 yards and had the game's only rushing score, a 1-yard, fourth-quarter plunge that also was his team's lone touchdown. White added five catches for 15 yards, showing the versatility that made him a standout for four years in Madison. After he was long overlooked in college, it's good to see White getting a chance to shine on his way toward the NFL.

White's teammate, former Badgers tight end Jacob Pedersen, led the North squad with 46 receiving yards on four catches. Meanwhile, ex-Wisconsin star Chris Borland wrapped up a terrific week of practice with a team-best eight tackles, including a tackle for a loss and his signature play: the forced fumble.

Borland was named the most outstanding linebacker at the Senior Bowl on Friday. He appeared to answer any lingering concerns about his height and should be drafted within the first two or three rounds in April.

One Wisconsin star didn't play in the game, as receiver Jared Abbrederis tweaked a hamstring late in the week and flew home to recover. That opened a spot for Michigan State's Bennie Fowler, who contributed two catches for 19 yards on Saturday.

Iowa's Christian Kirksey finished second on the North team with six tackles, including 1.5 for loss. He received positive reviews for his play all week. His former Hawkeyes teammate, tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz, did not record a catch but was credited with two tackles. Fiedorowicz was named the most outstanding tight end at the Senior Bowl on Friday, and his impressive physical attributes should make him attractive to teams on draft day.

Other Big Ten players who collected stats included:

  • Nebraska cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste finished with four tackles and a pass breakup.
  • Illinois linebacker Jonathan Brown had four tackles.
  • Wisconsin defensive back Dez Southward made two tackles.
  • Penn State's DaQuan Jones and Minnesota's Ra'Shede Hageman each collected just one stop but drew praise for their work in stuffing the run.
  • Michigan State safety Isaiah Lewis, another late addition to the team, registered one pass breakup.

The North team also featured Big Ten offensive line products Jack Mewhort (Ohio State) and Michael Schofield (Michigan).

Big Ten early all-star invitations

December, 16, 2013
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Bowl season is just around the corner, and all-star season is just beyond the bowls. Invitations for several pre-draft events have gone out to seniors around the Big Ten.

This is not a final list, just an early rundown to give you an idea of who is going where to showcase their skills in front of the NFL folks.

REESE'S SENIOR BOWL (Jan. 25, Mobile, Ala.)
EAST-WEST SHRINE GAME (Jan. 18, St. Petersburg, Fla.)

The NFLPA Collegiate Bowl has announced only a few player confirmations (including former Wisconsin DE David Gilbert), but none yet from the Big Ten. We'll include Big Ten invites in our next update. The Texas vs. Nation game and Raycom College Football All-Star Classic will not take place this season.

Friday Q&A: Wisconsin's Tanner McEvoy

October, 18, 2013
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Tanner McEvoy was a star quarterback in junior college last season and signed with Wisconsin with every intention of competing for the Badgers' starting quarterback job. So of course now he is the team's starting safety, earning his first start last week vs. Northwestern. And he's 6-foot-6.

I recently caught up with McEvoy to talk about his unusual transition for this week's Friday Q&A:

So you're the starting safety for Wisconsin. Is there any way you could have ever imagined being described that way?

Tanner McEvoy: (Laughs.) No. I don't think anyone could have.

Can you walk us through how this whole thing happened and when this opportunity first came up?

TM: Well, it's kind of related to an injury. I hurt my wrist a bit [in preseason practice], and I had to get a screw in it. And that meant that I obviously couldn't take a snap. So they put me at receiver, and I was starting to make some strides in that area, but I realized it was just too much, trying to make catches with a cast and stuff. So my last shot, honestly, was when I talked to the coaches and they said they'd give me a shot over at safety. After a week or so, it started to click and we got more and more plays in. I guess that's kind of how that all started.

When you made the move, did you think you'd be playing at Ohio State and starting against Northwestern?

[+] EnlargeTanner McEvoy
Mike McGinnis/Getty ImagesA wrist injury prompted a position move for Wisconsin safety Tanner McEvoy, who still wants to try to play quarterback next season.
TM: I always had high hopes for myself. I always want to be the best I can be. I wanted to be on the field and I thought I could. That's why I went over there. So I thought I could get on the field pretty quick, and it seems like it has worked out for everyone.

What's been the biggest adjustment for you?

TM: Just offense/defense; it's been a pretty big adjustment. But playing free safety, I'm mostly a center fielder. Just trying to not let anything get past me and make plays on the ball. I think that's what I kind of bring to the table, just being a bigger person. I don't know how many 6-6 safeties there are this year, but it can't be a high number. So it's been fun. I'm just trying to get back there and make some plays.

I was impressed how physical you played, especially against Ohio State. Was that something you had to develop going to defense, or was it a mindset you already had?

TM: I've always kind of had that. Playing safety back in high school and wide receiver, it's a physical sport. You have to have that mindset at quarterback -- though maybe the NFL guys slide more. But I'm all for it. I like being physical. It's fun being the one hitting the person instead of getting hit, you know?

Being 6-foot-6, does that provide any advantages as a safety?

TM: I don't really have much to compare it to, because I've always been this height. But it is easier seeing the ball, I guess, come off the quarterback's hand and you can see the quarterback's eyes. And when the ball's in the air, I'm usually taller than the person I'm going against. So I guess that helps.

When did you feel like you started to get this position down?

TM: I only got a couple of snaps against Purdue, just kind of like third-and-longs. Then that week before Ohio State, we really got after it in practice. I think that's when I started coming into the role. That game, we started to rotate [safeties] every series.

Coming into the year, the secondary seemed to be a concern, as you had a lot of youth and inexperience back there. Things seem to be going well right now. How has that group developed throughout the season?

TM: We knew we had a great group back there. We've got some younger guys but we've got Dez [Southward], and he's an older guy who's kind of been there. We're starting to come into our own, and I think the whole defense is after that Northwestern win. I'm just looking forward to keeping this thing rolling.

You play this week at Illinois, a team that likes to pass the ball a lot. What challenges are you expecting in this game?

TM: They've got a lot of athletes on their team at the skill positions, and they do a bunch of stuff. So we've got to be prepared for everything they'll throw at us and kind of keep the same thing going as we had against Northwestern. Just keep rolling, and just try to make some more turnovers. That's kind of been our theme the last couple weeks. I'm trying to get my first pick. I know the rest of the DBs are, too. Sojourn [Shelton] has three. So we're trying to join the board. We can't leave him all alone.

When I talked to you this summer, you didn't seem to have any interest in switching positions. Was it ever hard to accept this move?

TM: With my injury, I realized it had to happen. I hate sitting on the bench and watching things. I really wanted to play. So I accepted it. Obviously, the first couple of minutes I was like, shoot, I'm not going to get to play quarterback. But that just comes with an injury. But then I changed my mindset and the coaches supported me, so we rolled with it like that.

Do you see this as a permanent move, or do you still think you can compete for the quarterback job next year?

TM: No, I still think I'm a quarterback. I still think the coaches think I'm a quarterback. And I'm looking forward to seeing how that plays out on that front. We'll see.

On an unrelated note, you redshirted at South Carolina two years ago. Ever go up against Jadeveon Clowney as a scout-team quarterback?

TM: Every day. I was the scout-team quarterback and it was Clowney's freshman year. And they had Melvin Ingram, who was a very good defensive player, too. I played against them every day.

Ever get steamrolled by those guys?

TM: No, they were actually all nice to me since I played quarterback, and I was friendly to them. They were nice and didn't try to kill me too bad. I can't say the same for our running backs or the receivers.

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 5

September, 30, 2013
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How much heartburn can one team and one fan base take?

That's one of the lingering questions from Week 5 for Wisconsin, which dropped another close game Saturday in a 31-24 loss to Ohio State. That's 10 defeats by seven points or less since the start of 2011 for the Badgers, who have done this so much that we're starting to see reruns.

Prime example: Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller's 40-yard touchdown pass to Corey Brown with one second to go in the first half covered the same distance as Miller's game-winning heave in the last half Wisconsin played in the Horseshoe, back in 2011. This time, safety Dezmen Southward was late in providing help after cornerback Peniel Jean peeled off, making an inexcusable mistake by letting a receiver get free in the end zone on the half's final snap.

“It’s basically a play that shouldn’t ever happen,” Southward said afterward.

[+] EnlargeGary Andersen
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsGary Andersen couldn't pull out a win for Wisconsin against Ohio State.
The Badgers also had two potential Ohio State turnovers negated by penalties, one on a face-mask call that didn't look like a face-mask violation on replay and the other on an illegal punt formation. Kicker Kyle French also missed a 32-yard field goal -- the same distance he was being set up for at Arizona State.

The late-game problems can't really be blamed on the head coach's late-game management. Gary Andersen had his team in position to win at Arizona State until the officials botched the final seconds. On Saturday, he elected to have his team punt on fourth-and-1 from its own 17 with under seven minutes left, while trailing by 14 points. At the time, that looked like a potential mistake. But Wisconsin got the ball right back and scored a touchdown with 2:05 left.

The Badgers then tried a pooch onside kick that Bradley Roby had to knock out of bounds. In retrospect, with all three timeouts remaining, Andersen could have just kicked off and potentially gotten better field position after his defense held for a three-and-out. But it was a totally understandable call to try to get the ball back on the road.

Meanwhile, every decision seems to continue working out for Urban Meyer in his 17-game winning streak. I thought Meyer was a little more conservative than normal on Saturday night. It was very surprising, for instance, to see him not go for it on fourth and 2 from the Wisconsin 45 in the first half, instead trying the lame "Let's-try-to-draw-them-offside" technique before punting. Ohio State also played it safe in the fourth quarter instead of going for the kill shot. Miller's wounded duck pass before the touchdown at the end of the half should have been picked off.

But the Buckeyes -- who scored only seven points in the second half -- again came away unscathed. They have become the anti-Wisconsin, having won six games by seven or fewer points since the start of last season.

Badgers fans have to wonder when their heartburn will finally be soothed.

Take that and rewind it back …

Team of the week: Ohio State. The Buckeyes got their first major challenge of the season and pulled through in a tough game against Wisconsin. The environment in the Horseshoe was electric from start to finish and included a visit from LeBron James and this amazing halftime show by TBDBITL (try not to be impressed by the formation around the 4:30 mark). Seventeen in a row and counting.

Worst hangover: Minnesota. The Gophers thought they had made progress in getting ready for the rigors of Big Ten play and that this year's 4-0 start meant more than last year's. Instead, they got manhandled by Iowa in game No. 5 just like last season, leading to questions about what really has changed for this program.

Big Man on Campus (offense): We usually don't single out players from teams who lost for this honor, but the best effort we saw this past weekend came from Wisconsin receiver Jared Abbrederis. Ohio State thought it could slow down the Badgers' only notable receiving threat by putting All-America cornerback Roby on him. Not close. Abbrederis finished with 10 catches for 207 yards and a touchdown. His Twitter handle is @abbrecadabra, and how he keeps getting so open might just be magic.

Big Man on Campus (defense): Iowa linebacker James Morris had an outstanding game against Minnesota, recording eight tackles, a sack and an interception and leading the defensive effort that limited the Gophers to just 165 total yards. "He plays the way I expect him to,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “He’s a complete football player. Nobody prepares any harder, works any harder. He does things you would hope anybody would do. And he backs it up every Saturday." Ohio State's Ryan Shazier and Wisconsin's Chris Borland also had standout games, but what else is new in this star-studded linebacker league?

Big Man on Campus (special teams): Ohio State punter Cameron Johnston placed all six of his punts inside the Wisconsin 20-yard line and five of those inside the 10, helping the Buckeyes maintain great field position most of the night. The Badgers managed just three return yards on punts. "Our punt team is solid, and that's probably the star of our special teams," Meyer said.

Fun with numbers (via ESPN Stats & Info): Ohio State’s Miller was 9-for-11 for 107 yards and had three of his four passing touchdowns off play-action Saturday. He has completed more passes off run fakes against Wisconsin (17) in his career than any other opponent. … Meanwhile, Badgers QB Joel Stave threw the ball 25 times without using play-action and completed just 13. It was only the third game in the last four seasons that a Wisconsin quarterback attempted at least 25 passes without a run fake; the Badgers have lost all three of them. … Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase has completed 21 passes that have gone for at least 20 yards. That's tops in the Big Ten and tied for eighth in the nation. … Remember how frustrating it was to watch Iowa continually come up short of the sticks on third down last season? That's not the case this year for the improved Hawkeyes. They're converting on 52.5 percent of their third-down tries, good for 13th best in the country. … Northwestern has scored 83 points off turnovers in four games, the most in the nation. … Purdue's opponents have committed just 12 penalties in five games, second fewest of any team in the FBS. The Boilers' penalty margin is the worst in the country, as they have committed 30 themselves for a minus-18 margin.

Big Ten lunchtime links

August, 12, 2013
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If that's true, if you don’t know who I am, then maybe your best course would be to tread lightly.

Wisconsin season preview

August, 6, 2013
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Today we're looking at Wisconsin, the three-time defending Big Ten champion, which enters a new era under coach Gary Andersen.

WISCONSIN BADGERS

Coach: Gary Andersen (30-31 overall, five seasons; 0-0 at Wisconsin, first season)

2012 record: 8-6 (4-4 Big Ten)

Key losses: RB Montee Ball, C Travis Frederick, OT Ricky Wagner, LB Mike Taylor, CB Devin Smith, DE David Gilbert

Key returnees: RB James White, RB Melvin Gordon, WR Jared Abbrederis, OL Ryan Groy, TE Jacob Pedersen, LB Chris Borland, S Dezmen Southward, DT Beau Allen

[+] EnlargeGary Andersen
AP Photo/David StlukaIf Wisconsin wants to win a fourth straight Big Ten title, it will have to do so under new coach Gary Andersen.
Newcomer to watch: Freshman CB Sojourn Shelton stood out in spring practice for a secondary that needs bodies after losing three starters from the 2012 team. Shelton is a natural playmaker who should see plenty of field time, potentially as a starter opposite Peniel Jean.

Biggest games in 2013: The Badgers face two significant road tests in their first five games as they visit high-powered Arizona State (Sept. 14) and Big Ten favorite Ohio State (Sept. 28). They also have home tests against Northwestern (Oct. 12) and Penn State (Nov. 30), and face rivals Iowa (Nov. 2) and Minnesota (Nov. 23) on the road.

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: The quarterback competition between Joel Stave, Curt Phillips and possibly Tanner McEvoy is worth watching in camp, but it's more important for Wisconsin to figure out its secondary before a Week 3 trip to Arizona State. Safety Dezmen Southward is the only returning starter, and the admissions denial of junior college transfer Donnell Vercher hurts the depth there.

Opposing quarterbacks undoubtedly will challenge Wisconsin's young corners, and players such as Jean, Shelton and Darius Hillary will need to grow up in a hurry. Andersen will address the secondary through recruiting, but he and his staff must simply hold the group together through Year 1.

Forecast: No team in the country faces a situation quite like Wisconsin's entering the 2013 season.

The Badgers are a veteran-laden team, led by a 25-member senior class that knows only how to win Big Ten championships. They're also a team in transition after going through an assistant-coach overhaul following the 2011 season and the surprising departure of head coach Bret Bielema three days after the 2012 Big Ten championship game.

Bielema often cited 2013 as "The Year" even before the start of the 2012 campaign. But he's not around to see it in Madison. Instead, the Badgers turn to Andersen, who brought Utah State back from the depths but now steps onto a much bigger stage.

Andersen will keep Wisconsin's proven power offense in place, and for good reason. The Badgers return two dynamic running backs in senior James White and upstart sophomore Melvin Gordon. They're not deep along the offensive line but boast valuable pieces such as versatile senior Ryan Groy. Wisconsin must find a top quarterback, and Joel Stave and Curt Phillips will compete with junior college arrival Tanner McEvoy in camp. A greater concern is who will complement standout receiver Jared Abbrederis in a passing attack that plummeted to 111th nationally last fall.

The bigger changes will come on defense, Andersen's area of expertise. Wisconsin will be the only Big Ten team operating primarily out of a 3-4 set, which Andersen thinks will be used 60 percent of the time. The Badgers boast an excellent centerpiece in All-Big Ten linebacker Chris Borland, one of the nation's more decorated defenders. They'll need big years from linemen Beau Allen, Brendan Kelly and others, and the secondary is the biggest question mark, as only one starter returns.

"All defenses come with challenges," Andersen said, "but we've done it enough to make it fit."

Wisconsin's path to a fourth consecutive Big Ten title won't be easy, as it visits Ohio State in Week 5 and plays rivals Iowa and Minnesota on the road.
Wisconsin's secondary, which was already a position facing some depth concerns this season, has suffered its second departure by a safety in about a week.

Last week, redshirt freshman Reggie Mitchell -- who had practiced as the team's starting free safety this spring -- was granted his release for an expected transfer to Pittsburgh. Now there is word that Donnell Vercher, a junior college transfer whom the Badgers signed in February to help shore up the safety spot, isn't coming to Madison after all.

According to a Fresno, Calif., TV report, Vercher was denied admission to Wisconsin and instead will play for Fresno State this season. Vercher, who had eight interceptions for Fresno City College last season, had committed to the Badgers right before signing day and was viewed as a potential challenger for a starting safety job.

So now there are even more questions for a Badgers secondary that returns only one starter: strong safety Dezmen Southward. The competition for the other safety spot figures to include junior Michael Trotter, who started three games last year but needs to raise his level of play; juco transfer T.J. Reynard, who signed with the Badgers just last month; and Jeff Lewis, who has reportedly moved from running back to safety to provide help.

I spoke with Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen on Monday and asked about the depth concerns in the secondary (before the Vercher news broke). Here's what he told me:

"Everybody has places where I guess they feel comfortable with the depth, and other places where they're a little bit concerned," he said. "Because Reggie departed, I don't think that makes me more overly concerned about the depth. It puts us in a situation kind of like the offensive line, where the depth is a little bit worrisome and we've got to be careful and smart. And I'd say the same thing about the safety position.

"The key thing at the safety position is to truly identify the two starters. As we came out of spring we had a starter, and we had some kids competing for the other spot. Reggie was one of those guys competing. Dez has the one locked down, which is as it should be. The other one is up in the air and we'll see how it goes. It is a concern, but it is what it is. We've all got some depth issues or concerns, and as we move forward, we'll do our best to clean it up."
Gary Andersen inherited a veteran-laden Wisconsin team that featured good depth at most positions with one obvious exception: the secondary.

The Badgers returned just one starting defensive back, safety Dezmen Southward, from last year's Big Ten championship squad. Andersen and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda knew they needed bodies in the back four and found a potential solution this spring in Reggie Mitchell.

A cornerback who moved to safety under the new staff, Mitchell drew praise from Andersen and Aranda for his performance this spring. Andersen last month told Sirius XM’s "College Sports Nation" that Mitchell "is going to lock down one of those safety spots."

But Mitchell won't be playing for Wisconsin this season. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and WPXI-TV in Pittsburgh are reporting that Mitchell has been released from his scholarship at Wisconsin. WPXI-TV reports Mitchell, a Pittsburgh native, will transfer to Pitt. Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph recruited Mitchell to Wisconsin while he was on the Badgers' staff.

I'm sure there's more to the story as Mitchell seemed to be in a good spot at Wisconsin, and we'll pass along information as it becomes available.

Mitchell's departure makes a thin Badgers secondary even thinner. The competition to start opposite Southward in camp should be ramped up. Andersen has brought in two junior-college defensive backs in Donnell Vercher and Tekeim Reynard. Junior Michael Trotter also could be in the mix at safety, and there are reports that running back Jeff Lewis has been moved to safety to help the depth there.

Lewis' move is a bit odd so late in his career, although Wisconsin clearly needs help at safety and should be OK at running back with James White, Melvin Gordon, Vonte Jackson and incoming freshman Corey Clement.
Our series looking at the most indispensable players on each Big Ten team is all wrapped up, and Monday we asked you to identify the league's most indispensable offensive piece for the 2013 season.

Let's turn the spotlight to the defense. As a reminder, by indispensable, we don't necessarily mean the best players, but the players who would be the hardest to place between now and the start of the season if they were hurt, suspended or vaporized.

Here are the nominees for defense (in alphabetical order):
  • SportsNation

    Who is the Big Ten's most indispensable defensive player?

    •  
      32%
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      7%
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      12%
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      35%
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      14%

    Discuss (Total votes: 3,208)

    Max Bullough, LB, Michigan State: The Spartans once again should have a nationally elite defense, and they're the only Big Ten team that had two defenders (Bullough and CB Darqueze Dennard) listed in its most indispensable capsule. But Bullough is undoubtedly the leader of the unit, as he plays an integral role in communicating calls and setting alignments. Bullough earned first-team All-Big Ten honors (coaches) last season and second-team honors as a sophomore in 2011. He has 223 career tackles, including 21 for loss, and has started the past 27 games. Although MSU doesn't have a major depth problem at linebacker, Bullough would be a significant loss because of all that he brings to the field.
  • Bruce Gaston Jr., DT, Purdue: It's hard enough to replace one standout interior lineman, as Purdue must do after losing Kawann Short, a second-round pick in April's NFL draft. The Boilers would have a tough time filling Gaston's shoes, too. He has started his first three seasons at Purdue, racking up 17 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and a blocked kick. Purdue's defense isn't "Big Ten strong" just yet, but the 6-2, 303-pound Gaston certainly fits the description. Given the question marks at linebacker and elsewhere on defense, the Boilers really need No. 90 on the field.
  • Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota: The Gophers have holes to fill at both linebacker and cornerback, so they'll need to be stout up front and that starts with Hageman. He always has had next-level potential and showcased it at times in 2012, when he recorded six tackles and 35 total tackles in 13 starts. Minnesota must be better against the run after finishing 72nd last season, and the 6-foot-6, 311-pound Hageman takes up a lot of room in the interior line. Although the Gophers need safety Brock Vereen and others to stay on the field, Hageman has the superstar potential the defense has lacked and would be a very tough piece to replace.
  • Ryan Shazier, LB, Ohio State: Put aside the fact Shazier earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in 2012 after recording 17 tackles for loss, five sacks, three forced fumbles, 11 pass breakups and an interception in a breakout sophomore season. He's also the only member of Ohio State's defensive front seven with meaningful starting experience. The Buckeyes lose all four starting linemen, and while there's optimism about talented younger players stepping into larger roles, there's more concern about the depth at linebacker. Ohio State needs Shazier's production, playmaking ability and leadership to bind the defense together at it chases a national championship this season.
  • Dezmen Southward, S, Wisconsin: Here's the thing about the Badgers. Yes, most of their coaches are new, but most of their players aren't. They return capable pieces at wide receiver, tight end, running back, quarterback and offensive line. All-Big Ten linebacker Chris Borland also is back, along with several veteran defensive linemen. But the secondary could be a major problem, especially if Southward, the lone returning starter from the 2012 team, can't stay on the field. Southward recorded 69 tackles, two interceptions and a forced fumble last season and will provide leadership for a new-look back four this season.

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