Big Ten: Garrett Goebel
2012 conference record: 8-0 (first, Leaders Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 9; defense: 4; kicker/punter: 1
Top returners: QB Braxton Miller, RB Carlos Hyde, WR Philly Brown, LT Jack Mewhort, C Corey Linsley, CB Bradley Roby, SAF Christian Bryant, SAF C.J. Barnett, LB Ryan Shazier
Key losses: RT Reid Fragel, WR Jake Stoneburner, DE John Simon, DE Nathan Williams, DT Johnathan Hankins, DT Garrett Goebel, FB/LB Zach Boren, LB Etienne Sabino, CB Travis Howard
2012 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Miller* (1,271 yards, 13 TDs)
Passing: Miller* (2,039 yards, 15 TDs, 6 INTs)
Receiving: Brown* (60 catches, 669 yards, 3 TDs)
Tackles: Shazier* (115)
Sacks: Simon (9)
Interceptions: Howard (4)
1. End game: The Buckeyes have to replace all four starters up front, and while the defensive line isn't quite as deep and is far from a finished product, the future looks pretty bright on the edge. Sophomores Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington were among the top prizes in Urban Meyer's first recruiting class with the Buckeyes, and that talent is already starting to shine through as they slide into first-team roles heading into the fall. Spence is a dynamic force with his ability to use speed to get to the quarterback, and Washington isn't exactly sluggish despite all the strength in his 293-pound frame. The two combined for seven sacks in the spring game, and the Buckeyes are expecting similar performances when it actually counts.
2. Air it out: Miller has proven what he can do with his legs, and Ohio State didn't really need to see him show them off in the spring. The emphasis was on continuing to develop the junior quarterback as a passer, which meant a heavy dose of play calls forcing him to put the ball in the air and a quick whistle if he tried to scramble. The results for Meyer were encouraging. His efficient, 16-for-25, 217-yard performance in the spring game showed a much more accurate delivery and better decision-making that hints at bigger things from the fifth-place finisher in last year's Heisman Trophy race.
3. Backfield stable: One thing that might keep Hyde from giving Meyer a 1,000-yard running back this season is all the teammates fighting to snag a few of his carries. The rising senior is the clear cut No. 1 to partner with Miller in the backfield, and Hyde didn't have to earn that job in the spring after piling up touchdowns last fall and finally tapping into his enormous potential as a rusher. But while he was watching some reps, Rod Smith, Bri'onte Dunn and Warren Ball all showed their upside this spring, which has the Buckeyes even toying with a diamond formation that gets three tailbacks on the field at the same time.
1. Filling out the front seven: Shazier is certainly a fine place for any defense to start, but the Buckeyes would obviously prefer if there were at least one other returning starter joining him in the front seven. There are high hopes again for junior Curtis Grant at middle linebacker, but he's been tabbed as a first-team guy before coming out of spring only to fizzle in the fall. Ohio State will need Grant and sophomore Joshua Perry to help lead the charge as it tries to add depth and talent at linebacker to stabilize a defense that will feature a lot of new faces.
2. Fresh blood: There wasn't a great option to fill Meyer's vaunted H-back position last fall, so the Buckeyes effectively had to put the hybrid spot, made famous by Percy Harvin at Florida, on the shelf. Jordan Hall's return from injury makes him a candidate to diversify the offense, but a handful of recruits the Buckeyes landed in Meyer's second class would could really take the spread to another level. Speed-burners such as Dontre Wilson or Jalin Marshall will be watched closely in August as they could become factors for the Buckeyes as early as September.
3. Something special: If the Buckeyes score as easily and often as it appears they might, maybe it won't matter who handles the kicking game. But Meyer has always taken pride in his special teams, and at this point there is still some uncertainty as Drew Basil is pressed into action as both a kicker and a punter. In the big picture, the changes on defense are far more critical -- but close games usually pop up along the way for teams trying to win a championship, and Basil might need to pass some tests for the Buckeyes.
But as soon as the draft ended Saturday, the free-agent signings began. And there were plenty around the Big Ten from all 12 squads.
Here's our first look list of free-agent signings or team tryouts from the conference. As a reminder, this is not a final list, and we'll have updates later on either here on the blog or on Twitter.
Here we go ...
C Graham Pocic, Houston Texans
DE Justin Staples, Cleveland Browns
DE Glenn Foster, New Orleans Saints
C Will Matte, Kansas City Chiefs (tryout)
DE Larry Black Jr., Cincinnati Bengals
DT Adam Replogle, Atlanta Falcons
WR Keenan Davis, Cleveland Browns
OL Matt Tobin, Philadelphia Eagles
QB James Vandenberg, Minnesota Vikings
WR Roy Roundtree, Cincinnati Bengals
S Jordan Kovacs, Miami Dolphins
LB Kenny Demens, Arizona Cardinals
DE Craig Roh, Carolina Panthers
OL Elliott Mealer, New Orleans Saints
OL Patrick Omameh, San Francisco 49ers
OL Ricky Barnum, Washington Redskins
LB Brandin Hawthorne, St. Louis Rams
(WR Darryl Stonum, dismissed before the 2012 season, signed with the Kansas City Chiefs)
CB Johnny Adams, Houston Texans
DT Anthony Rashad White, Pittsburgh Steelers
OL Chris McDonald, New England Patriots
CB Troy Stoudermire, Cincinnati Bengals
TE MarQueis Gray, San Francisco 49ers
CB Michael Carter, Minnesota Vikings
DE Eric Martin, New Orleans Saints
LB Will Compton, Washington Redskins
TE Ben Cotton, San Diego Chargers
TE/FB Kyler Reed, Jacksonville Jaguars
K Brett Maher, New York Jets
DE Cameron Meredith, Oakland Raiders
OL Patrick Ward, Miami Dolphins
DL Brian Arnfelt, Pittsburgh Steelers
LB David Nwabuisi, Carolina Panthers (tryout)
WR Demetrius Fields, Chicago Bears (tryout)
CB Travis Howard, Houston Texans
S Orhian Johnson, Houston Texans
FB Zach Boren, Houston Texans
TE Jake Stoneburner, Green Bay Packers
DE Nathan Williams, Minnesota Vikings
DL Garrett Goebel, St. Louis Rams
LB Etienne Sabino, New York Giants
OL Mike Farrell, Pittsburgh Steelers
CB Stephon Morris, New England Patriots
OL Matt Stankiewitch, New England Patriots
FB Michael Zordich, Carolina Panthers
CB Josh Johnson, San Diego Chargers
QB Robert Marve, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
RB Akeem Shavers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
CB Marcus Cromartie, San Diego Chargers
CB Devin Smith, Dallas Cowboys
S Shelton Johnson, Oakland Raiders
Asked to identify his top goal during spring practice, Washington made sure to give a nod to the man who showed him the way in 2012.
"To fill the shoes of John Simon," Washington told ESPN.com. "I know those are some big shoes to fill. I'm just working my hardest to try and do that."
But Simon maximized every ounce of talent he had during an exceptional Buckeyes career, earning respect from teammates, fans and coaches, including Urban Meyer, who put Simon in a select category of players he has coached (he hangs Simon's and Tim Tebow's jerseys in his office at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center). He attacked the weight room and practices the same way he did the game field on fall Saturdays, and everyone took notice, including a young defensive lineman from Cincinnati.
"His competitive spirit, that's the biggest thing," Washington said. "I'm pretty athletic, and I've got a lot of things God blessed me with to play football, but his competitive spirit is what I take away the most."
Washington is part of a new-look Buckeyes defensive line that must replace Simon and three other starters (tackles Johnathan Hankins and Garrett Goebel, and end Nathan Williams). As a true freshman, Washington appeared in 10 games, logging 156 plays and recording three sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss, a forced fumble and a blocked kick.
He recorded two of the sacks in Ohio State's final three games.
"My first game when I went out there, things were just lightning fast," Washington said. "But as the year went on, it kind of slowed down. Now I'm just out there playing, out there competing."
Washington has the size and skills to play both line spots but has been practicing this spring at defensive end. He'll likely start opposite fellow true sophomore Noah Spence, who logged 237 plays last season, the most among the Buckeyes' returning linemen.
"He's learning how to do some other things, like moving down inside at times and things that aren't as natural to him," defensive coordinator Luke Fickell told colleague Brian Bennett. "He's very athletic out on the edge, and he's getting a lot better in different situations and things we've asked him to do, like being one of the inside fit guys."
Spence and Washington headlined Meyer's first recruiting class at Ohio State, which included arguably the best defensive line haul in the country. They live in the same dorm as freshmen and have talked about getting a place together off campus for the next academic year. Washington said Spence will "probably be one of my best friends for life."
The two typically are mentioned in the same sentence when it comes to football, and they form the foundation for Ohio State's future along the D-line.
"Noah brings the athleticism and the speed," Washington said, "and I can bring the speed and the power. But Noah also has power. Noah's a lot stronger than he looks. We bring the same things."
Spence has drawn rave reviews for his play throughout the spring, and Washington seems to be making strides in recent weeks. Meyer, who describes Washington as a "wonderful person," said the lineman always grades high in terms of attitude and effort but lacked a chip on his shoulder.
"He's not an angry player," Meyer said. "The position he plays, you have to play angry. You can see that starting to come out these last three or four practices."
Ohio State's spring game has added meaning for Washington, who returns to his hometown and will take the field Saturday at Paul Brown Stadium. The defensive line will be in the spotlight as many are interested to see how the replacement project is going.
"We get reminded about it every day," Washington said. "We just go out there and try to show the guys returning on defense, Coach Meyer, Coach Fickell, that we can fill the shoes and be just like they were."
Washington already has a believer on the offense in a guy he often faces in practice.
"He's obviously got all the physical tools, he's blessed," Buckeyes left tackle Jack Mewhort said. "I see him coming along every day. That chip on his shoulder, people may have not have seen that before, but I can definitely see that more as spring ball goes.
"If he keeps going in the right direction, he's going to be a force to be reckoned with in this conference."
It's rare when a defensive line coach steps on the practice field and doesn't see a single starter from the previous season. How rare? According to Ohio State's athletics communications staff, the Buckeyes haven't had a complete overhaul of their starting defensive line since the 1985 season, when all three top spots had to be filled. Although Ohio State ended up starting four new linemen in 1998, it had a returning starter from 1997 (end Matt LaVrar) on the roster.
All four starters from the 2012 team -- ends John Simon and Nathan Williams, and tackles Johnathan Hankins and Garrett Goebel -- have moved on. The effort to replace them is arguably Ohio State's top offseason story line, as the Buckeyes could be a defensive line away from contending for a national title in 2013.
Vrabel is stressing three areas for the linemen this spring -- attitude, effort and toughness. If all three are achieved, Vrabel thinks the players can "let their God-given ability to take over."
The Buckeyes' linemen boast plenty of ability. Ohio State had arguably the nation's top defensive-line haul in the 2012 recruiting class, signing four ESPN 150 defensive linemen, three of whom -- Noah Spence, Adolphus Washington and Tommy Schutt -- saw the field as true freshmen. More help is on the way from the 2013 class with standouts like tackle Joey Bosa, an ESPN 150 selection. Two incoming line recruits, Tyquan Lewis and Tracy Sprinkle, enrolled early and are participating in spring ball.
But the group has only nine combined career starts, five from junior end J.T. Moore. Its career tackles leader, junior tackle Michael Bennett, has a whopping 28 stops in 21 games.
"The guys we've got have a little bit of experience with Adolphus and Noah and Tommy," Vrabel said. "Michael Bennett and Joel Hale, Steve Miller, those guys have been here, contributing and giving us some leadership. And Tracy and Tyquan are just trying to figure their way through this thing.
"We're learning every day."
Although Ohio State's defensive line undoubtedly will be younger, Vrabel also thinks it will be faster with players like Spence and Washington, who finished third on the team with three sacks in 2012. Again, talent isn't a problem, but the line needs leadership after losing two-time captain John Simon.
Head coach Urban Meyer challenged several of the older linemen at the start of the spring, saying, "Steve Miller's been here for a while. It's time to go play. Chris Carter, how long has he been here? At some point you can't redshirt anymore." At the very least, Ohio State needs the veterans to fill out the line rotation.
Ideally, they can take the reins.
"No one's going to replace what John Simon provided for this program," Vrabel said. "We can only hope that we find guys who are willing to lead, be the same person every day, be competitive, play with some toughness and play with some effort. We'll have guys step up."
Vrabel should get an accurate gauge on his group this spring because of the men they'll be lining up against. What the Buckeyes lack in defensive-line experience, they make up for on their offensive line, which returns four starters with 81 combined career starts.
"If we can compete against them," Vrabel said, "we feel like we're going to be OK."
Spence evidently has been competing well, impressing Buckeyes offensive line coach Ed Warinner with his edge-rushing speed.
Vrabel's return to his alma mater in 2011 generated tremendous excitement, and he made an immediate impact on the recruiting trail. But his coaching skills will be under the microscope as he works with a group that, for now, is Ohio State's biggest question mark.
"I'm a young coach, I'm new to this, so every day is a challenge," he said. "I enjoy it, I embrace the challenge and try to do my best."
Did you miss it? No worries. Check out the full transcript here.
Stephen from Washington: Adam, Thanks for the blog. I was wondering if you think any of this year's Wisconsin class could be starters or even getting some playing time? Thanks
Adam Rittenberg: Thanks, Stephen. I talked with Gary Andersen earlier today and he mentioned there's definitely an opportunity in the secondary, where Wisconsin loses three starters and could play 3-4 cornerbacks at a time under the new defensive scheme. Keep an eye on Sojourn Shelton, one of the early enrollees who will play in the secondary. Also, the addition of junior college quarterback Tanner McEvoy is a very interesting one. He's expected to compete right away.
Mark from Miami: With Michigan and Ohio State dominating the recruiting rankings, ss the B1G about to become the Big 2 and the little 12?
Adam Rittenberg: Mark, a lot of folks are making that assumption, and it makes sense as both Ohio State and Michigan are creating a gap in recruiting. I still look at the Big Ten in the past two decades and how much parity has existed. It's still about developing talent, but you have to be impressed with what Hoke and Meyer are doing on the trail. Whether it's Michigan beefing up on the lines or Ohio State improving its athleticism on defense, both programs are positioning themselves to compete for Big Ten and national titles most years.
Mochila from Grand Rapids, Mich.: Adam, you say Michigan State's recruiting class isn't as decorated as in recent years, but that's just because the class is smaller than it's been. If you look at the average recruit ranking on this class, it's the highest it's been since the 2009 top 20 class. Do you say that because they didn't have any huge name recruits like Gholston, Lawrence, or Burbridge? Terry's stock has risen quickly.
Adam Rittenberg: Mochila, you make some good points here, and I really don't want to fall into a trap that I hate -- saying a class isn't as good because it's smaller than other classes. I guess we're not hearing as much buzz about MSU this year, in part because Michigan is recruiting so well and Ohio State has elevated itself to a new level under Urban. The big-names factor isn't there as much for MSU since Rich Rodriguez left Ann Arbor. Terry certainly fits that category. I still think MSU is recruiting well.
Billy from Madison: If I'm a head coach in the B1G right now I'm hiring at least one coach who's spent his entire career recruiting Florida. Same with Texas and same with California. Thoughts?
Adam Rittenberg: Billy, I couldn't agree more. While I understand the need to focus close to home and recruit well within the state and the region, you can't be blind to the national trends. You have to focus your time and energy where the top recruits are, and there are more of them in those states. Having assistants with ties there is an absolute must.
Marco from DC: Please stop perpetuating the myth that OSU needs to overhaul the entire defensive line. Spence and Washingotn got a lot of reps towards the end of the season, on both running and passing downs; the staff is clearly comfortable with both guys. OSU needs a replacement for Hankins to show they can stop the run.
Adam Rittenberg: Marco, I'm not denying that Ohio State has the talent to survive these personnel losses, but Spence and Washington weren't full-time starters. Ohio State loses John Simon, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, as well as guys like Goebel and Williams who played a lot of football. It's not easy to overcome all those losses in one year, no matter how well you've recruited. Does it mean Ohio State will struggle up front? No. But that group is a question mark right now.
Thanks again for your questions during the abridged chat. If your question didn't make it, try again next time. Enjoy the rest of signing day!
Let's take a quick look back at the winners and losers of the early entries and how the decisions impact several teams going forward.
1. Biggest winner: Michigan. Almost everyone expected Wolverines left tackle Taylor Lewan to enter the draft after earning Big Ten Offensive Linemen of the Year honors and other accolades as a junior. Lewan had been projected by many as a top-15 pick, if not a top-10 pick, and his departure seemed like a foregone conclusion after he held up well against Jadeveon Clowney in the Outback Bowl. But Lewan delivered the biggest draft decision surprise -- and a delightful one for Michigan fans -- when he announced Jan. 9 that he'd return to Ann Arbor for the 2013 season. He provides a huge boost for a Wolverines offensive line that endured an up-and-down season and loses three starters. Lewan sought advice from former Michigan star tackle Jake Long, who opted to remain in school for his senior season and ended up becoming the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 draft.
3. Head-scratchers: Lewan's decision comes as a major surprise, as few saw him slipping below the middle of the first round in the draft. He could end up leading Michigan to a Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl berth as a senior, and improve his draft stock in the process, like Long did in 2007 when he earned unanimous All-America honors. But Lewan certainly is gambling a bit, as an injury or a drop in performance could hurt his future earning potential. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio reportedly was "taken aback" by Bell's decision to leave, and some thought Gholston would have benefited from another season after falling short of preseason expectations. But aside from Lewan, the players who left were mostly expected to leave.
4. The replacements
- Michigan State likely will look to a combination of backs, including Nick Hill and possibly some incoming recruits, to fill the massive production void left by Bell. Three players backed up Sims this fall -- Paul Lang, Andrew Gleichert and Derek Hoebing -- and recruit Dylan Chmura joins the mix. The Spartans are in better shape at defensive end with returning starter Marcus Rush, veteran reserve Denzel Drone and Shilique Calhoun, who performed well in the bowl win against TCU.
- The expected departure of defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins means Ohio State must replace all four starting defensive linemen from 2012. The Buckeyes have recruited well up front and must hope young interior linemen like rising sophomore Tommy Schutt and rising junior Michael Bennett can fill the gaps. Adolphus Washington played some tackle as a true freshman but seems to have a future at defensive end, while Joel Hale could help Schutt and Bennett replace both Hankins and Garrett Goebel.
- Wisconsin loses a standout junior center to the NFL draft for the second straight year as Travis Frederick departs. Redshirt freshman Dan Voltz likely will step in after backing up Frederick, unless Wisconsin decides to move Ryan Groy to center, where he started late in the 2011 season.
- Illinois must fill both defensive tackle spots after junior Akeem Spence declared for the draft. Austin Teitsma is projected to move into a starting role after recording 15 tackles as a reserve last fall. The Illini also need younger tackles like Teko Powell and Vontrell Williams to emerge as they try to build depth along the line, typically a strong point for the team.
Did you miss the chat? No worries, I've got the complete transcript for ya.
Ben from Columbus: Adam, which position group on the Buckeyes needs to have the best offseason? Which individual player?
Adam Rittenberg: Definitely the defensive line, Ben. It loses Big Ten DPOY John Simon, Johnathan Hankins, Nathan Williams, Garrett Goebel ... the list goes on. There's a lot of youth up front -- a lot of talent, too. That group really needs to grow up and make progress for Ohio State to compete for a national title in 2013.
Colin from Lansing: Regardless of how the B1G sets up the new divisions, do you agree that ALL regular-season finales should be against divisional opponents?
Adam Rittenberg: Colin, this is a good point brought up by several fans. There do seem to be too many cross-division matchups on the final Saturday because of the rivalries. If you put Michigan and Ohio State in the same division, it would solve that one. I think it's something the Big Ten must consider going forward.
Dale from Minneapolis: In terms of recruiting, is it important to look at a select player's recruiting rankings or what kind of offers that player is receiving?
Adam Rittenberg: Really good question, Dale. I'd definitely look at the offers more than the rankings, which can be all over the place depending on which service you use. Nebraska, for example, just landed an offensive line recruit (David Knevel) who also had an offer from Alabama. That's very significant in my view.
Mike from Paris, Ohio: Adam,There was recently an article on ESPN.com talking about the ACC vs. the Big Ten and which conference is in worse shape. in the article it talked about how both teams need to win some marquee games to help their repuation and how Wisconsin beating Stanford would be a big help.However, the BIg Ten is already 4-2 in their last 6 BCS games on the field (3-2 when you take away OSU) and it hasn't helped their reputation one bit. Why is that?
Adam Rittenberg: Hey Mike, I actually wrote that article. ... Although the Big Ten's recent BCS record isn't as lousy as it was from 2006-2008, the New Year's Day results have been particularly damaging. Going winless on Jan. 1, 2011, was really bad, and last year's results (only one win in triple overtime) weren't much better. The Big Ten rolls the dice a bit with putting so many bowl games on the same day -- it has lost the last two years, and that's why the league has taken some heat.
Jon from Colorado: If Alvarez can keep three of the five coaches being targeted (Miller, Strickland, Hammock, Partridge, and Herbert) how big of a coup is that? To me Herbert is one of if not the biggest loss of the offseason given what he has done for the strength program.
Adam Rittenberg: Herbert is outstanding, Jon. I'd say Miller and Strickland are the likeliest to remain, but if Wisconsin can get two of the other three -- Herbert, Hammock, Partridge -- it would be really big.
Thanks again for all your questions. If I didn't get to you, my apologies. Let's do it again soon.
But some NFL draft decisions are made for you. And when you're a virtual lock in the top 15 of the draft, you make the jump, no questions asked.
Hankins surprised no one Monday in announcing he'll forgo his senior season and enter the 2013 NFL draft. The Ohio State junior defensive tackle boosted his stock this season, eating up space and ball-carriers in the middle of the Buckeyes' defensive line. Many NFL draft prognosticators, including our own Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay, have Hankins as the first Big Ten player off the board in April.
Hankins won't help Ohio State try to win a national title in 2013, but he undoubtedly made the right call.
"I will always be grateful for the family I have gained here at Ohio State," Hankins said in a prepared statement. "I want to thank coach [Urban] Meyer, coach [Mike] Vrabel and strength coach [Mickey] Marotti for bringing the best out of me as a football player and person, and for their constant support. I also want to thank coach [Jim] Tressel and coach [Jim] Heacock for recruiting me and giving me an opportunity to be a part of this great school and great program."
Hankins added that he intends to finish his degree at Ohio State, which is great to hear. He started every game the past two seasons and finishes his career with 138 tackles (58 solo, 80 assists), including 16.5 tackles for loss and five sacks.
Although Ohio State expected Hankins to leave, his departure underscores some potential depth issues the team will have up front in 2013. Defensive end John Simon, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, moves on along with nose tackle Garrett Goebel and defensive end Nathan Williams.
The good news is Urban Meyer has recruited very well at defensive line, securing blue chippers Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington in his first class (both played this fall). Linemen like Michael Bennett, Steve Miller, Tommy Schutt and Joel Hale all should see increased roles in 2013. Ohio State also is bringing in several standout D-line recruits like ESPN 300 selections Joey Bosa and Michael Hill.
Ohio State has a lot of young talent along the defensive line, but the Buckeyes need those players to grow up in a hurry if they want to take another step forward on defense.
Strongest position: Running back (53 percent)
Weakest position: Wide receiver (59 percent)
Now it's time to explore position groups that could make the jump from good to great in 2012. Again, these aren't groups that are already playing at elite levels, but ones that could get there this coming season. Colleague Travis Haney provided the national view Thursday and included Ohio State's defensive ends among his "high-ceiling" groups .
I'd expand that to include Ohio State's entire defensive line. While All-America candidate John Simon anchors the group at end, and decorated incoming recruits Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington also play on the edge, the Buckeyes aren't too shabby on the inside, either. Junior tackle Johnathan Hankins, a potential first-round draft pick in 2013, is back in the fold alongside veteran Garrett Goebel and promising young players like Michael Bennett and Joel Hale. There's little doubt the Buckeyes' defensive line will take a big step in 2012.
Here are some other Big Ten groups that have high ceilings:
Illinois' defensive line: The Illini lose All-American Whitney Mercilus, but Michael Buchanan is ready to step into the lead pass-rusher role after a big spring. Akeem Spence is an underrated defensive tackle with legitimate pro potential, and Illinois returns experienced players like Justin Staples and Glenn Foster. Tim Beckman made an excellent move in retaining line coach Keith Gilmore from the previous staff.
Michigan's secondary: One of the nation's worst units a few seasons ago took a big step in 2011, and could take another one this fall. Michigan returns four players with starting experience, including safety Jordan Kovacs, the leader of the defense this fall. J.T. Floyd and Blake Countess form a very good cornerback tandem. Thomas Gordon gained valuable experience last year, and Michigan has recruited well to the secondary in recent years.
Northwestern's wide receivers: This has been a position of strength for Northwestern in recent years, but the Wildcats haven't had a group as deep as this one. Demetrius Fields leads the group, although Christian Jones might have the highest ceiling. Speedster Tony Jones returns from injury, while classmate Rashad Lawrence should be much improved as a junior. Cam Dickerson stood out this spring, and if USC transfer Kyle Prater gets his NCAA waiver, look out.
Michigan State's linebackers: The Spartans' front four once again figures to be among the Big Ten's top units, and the linebackers could get there, too. Max Bullough and Denicos Allen enter their junior seasons with a lot of game experience under their belts. Think Greg Jones-Eric Gordon, The Sequel. Chris Norman and Steve Gardiner add a veteran presence, and players like Taiwan Jones and TyQuan Hammock are in the mix as well.
Penn State's defensive line: A good group in 2011 could be even better this season. Jordan Hill anchors the line at defensive tackle, and Penn State gets a major boost by getting Pete Massaro back in the fold. If Massaro can stay healthy, he has a chance to provide the pass-rushing threat Penn State has lacked. The Lions have experience with senior end Sean Stanley and junior tackle DaQuan Jones, and they should be very excited about redshirt freshman end Deion Barnes.
Nebraska's wide receivers/tight ends: Brandon Kinnie is the only significant departure in the group, which should be a bigger part of the offense if quarterback Taylor Martinez continues to progress. Speedster Kenny Bell looks like a No. 1 wideout, and Quincy Enunwa should see his numbers increase. Tim Marlowe provides a veteran presence, and the Huskers have some talented young players in Jamal Turner and incoming freshman Jordan Westerkamp. Nebraska also brings back two senior tight ends (Ben Cotton and Kyler Reed).
Fickell will send a very young defensive line against Jacory Harris and the Hurricanes. Ohio State already was fairly green along the defensive front, but Wednesday's announcement that senior end Nathan Williams underwent arthroscopic knee surgery thrusts another young player into the spotlight.
Redshirt freshman J.T. Moore will start at defensive end in place of Williams, who will miss his second consecutive game and possibly more time after the clean-up procedure. Freshman Steve Miller will back up Moore.
Sophomore Johnathan Hankins is expected to start at right defensive tackle, and he'll be backed up by freshman Michael Bennett.
Ohio State's defensive line two-deep includes only one senior, backup nose tackle Evan Blankenship.
Ohio State will lean on junior linemen John Simon and Garrett Goebel, who have combined for 11 tackles, two sacks, 2.5 tackles for loss and two pass breakups in the first two games. Hankins and Moore both have shown flashes early on, but they'll need strong performances against Miami.
It's hard to know what to expect from Ohio State's offense in its first road game, although the return of running back Jordan Hall, who will start, should provide a boost.
The biggest key for the Buckeyes is rattling Harris, who threw four interceptions last year against Ohio State and has 39 interceptions in his career.
To do so, Ohio State needs its young defensive linemen to grow up fast.
- A quick recap of spring football in the Big Ten from USA Today's Erik Smith. Big Ten post-spring power rankings from National Football Post's Dave Miller.
- According to Ryan Mallett's father, Lloyd Carr encouraged Ryan to leave Michigan after the coaching change, Ian Rapoport writes in the Boston Herald.
- The Pac-12 follows the Big Ten's model in forming its own television network, George M. Thomas writes in the Akron Beacon Journal.
- Michigan State's season could hinge on its revamped offensive line, Dave Curtis writes in The Sporting News. The Spartans are expanding their national recruiting base, Matt Dorsey writes in the Detroit Free Press.
- Nebraska's assistants take a team approach toward recruiting, Brian Christopherson writes in the Lincoln Journal Star.
- Wisconsin loses a coveted tight end recruit to Florida, Jeff Potrykus writes in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Badgers quarterback Scott Tolzien defines himself by preparation, but the NFL lockout makes things tricky, Tom Mulhern writes in the Wisconsin State Journal.
- Iowa nets a surplus from its Insight Bowl trip, Scott Dochterman writes in The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette.
- John Simon and Garrett Goebel are among Ohio State defenders on the rise, O-Zone's Brandon Castel writes.
- Fringe Bowl Team breaks down Minnesota's recruiting needs for both offense and defense.
- Illinois running back Mikel Leshoure gets ready for a new number in the NFL, Bob Asmussen writes in The (Champaign) News-Gazette. It has been a rough week for former Illini running back Rashard Mendenhall.
- Kenny Guiton stood out to me among the quarterbacks. He put some nice zip on the ball in both individual and team drills, and he showed good mobility. Before team drills, Guiton worked in a group with Braxton Miller and Taylor Graham. Terrelle Pryor, wearing a yellow no-contact jersey, threw a few passes with a separate group. Pryor didn't do much with his footwork as he's recovering from clean-up surgery on his foot Monday.
- Miller definitely has mobility and created extra room for himself on a check down to Adam Homan. He followed it up with a nice throw to receiver Ryan Ross.
- Expect Ohio State's running backs to be more involved in the pass game this year. During one period, the offense lined up solely with running backs or tight ends out wide, and several backs looked good catching the ball. Rod Smith, who generated hype during bowl practice, beat linebacker Andrew Sweat for a catch during a goal line drill. Carlos Hyde delivered a nice hit on a defender after a reception. There's some really nice versatility in both size and style among the Buckeyes' backs. I don't think they'll miss Dan Herron too much during the first five games, but we'll see.
- Jim Tressel was very involved in the practice during the media viewing period. The coach lined up as a cornerback during some passing drills and gave pointers to the quarterbacks, running backs and tight ends.
- Former Buckeyes defensive backs Malcolm Jenkins, now of the New Orleans Saints, and Donald Washington, now of the Kansas City Chiefs, attended Tuesday's practice.
- There were several nice defensive plays: second-team cornerback Dionte Allen, a transfer from Florida State, had a diving interception of a Graham pass; linebacker Etienne Sabino "sacked" Guiton; linebacker Dan Bain broke up a pass to Carlos Hyde during goal line; and Adam Bellamy tipped a Guiton pass at the line of scrimmage. Allen could help Ohio State's secondary depth this fall.
- For those depth chart aficionados ... DeVier Posey and Corey Brown worked as the first-team wide receivers ... Christian Bryant and Orhian Johnson worked as the first-team safeties ... Travis Howard and Dominic Clarke worked as the first-team cornerbacks ... the first-team defensive line consisted of Nathan Williams and John Simon on the outside and Garrett Goebel and Johnathan Hankins on the inside.
- The wide receivers had some ups and downs. Chris Fields had a nice hit on two defenders after making a catch, and T.Y. Williams caught my eye with his impressive physique (6-5, 228).
Overall, I liked the tempo and the hitting. Tuesday marked only Ohio State's second practice in pads, but the players weren't holding much back.
I'll be watching all 11 preview shows and posting my thoughts right here.
Up first, Indiana and Ohio State.
- The Hoosiers practiced in shoulder pads and shorts, and head coach Bill Lynch is intentionally reducing the amount of hitting in this preseason (to keep his team fresher for the season), so the workout wasn't as revealing as most of the others should be.
- Wide receiver Damarlo Belcher is a huge target and made several routine catches in space. Indiana also seemed to be swinging the ball a lot to the running backs, including Trea Burgess and Zach Davis-Walker. "Against the nonconference opponents, they can win those games with this pass game," DiNardo said. Starting quarterback Ben Chappell was a bit shaky on some throws, but I'm not worried about him.
- The running backs didn't seem to have much room on the inside throughout the practice. A few backs did a nice job of bouncing to the outside. Freshman Matt Perez had a very nice run in team drills.
- Defensive tackle Tony Carter did a nice job of crowding the middle on one play, and linebacker Tyler Replogle had a nice hit against Darius Willis.
- I liked what I saw from Indiana's three junior college transfers on defense: linebacker Jeff Thomas and cornerbacks Andre Kates and Lenyatta Kiles. Kates has extremely fast feet, and Thomas brings good size to the table.
- Despite the losses of left tackle Rodger Saffold and veteran guard Pete Saxon, Griffith said Indiana's offensive line looked the best it has in years.
- Quarterback Edward Wright-Baker reportedly has fallen behind Dusty Kiel on the depth chart, but he looked good passing the ball in this practice.
- DiNardo brought up a good point about the need for Ohio State to have a dominant running back again, and how it will keep defenses guessing against quarterback Terrelle Pryor.
- Pryor definitely seemed different to me, both in his interview with the BTN crew and in the practice. He showed patience and footwork under pressure and fired a good pass to Dane Sanzenbacher in team drills. I also liked the way he yanked defensive lineman Garrett Goebel off the pile to help running back Dan Herron get out. Pryor seemed to be running hard during conditioning and talked about his new attitude toward meetings as he hopes to increase his leadership.
- Pryor had one big mistake, though, as safety Jermale Hines stepped in front of a pass to Jake Stoneburner and made the interception. Just a perfect read by Hines.
- Cameron Heyward just looks bigger than everyone else on the field (probably because he is). I particularly enjoyed watching Heyward go against All-Big Ten guard Justin Boren. Two All-America candidates right there. Everyone keeps calling Heyward a defensive end, but I saw him lining up inside several times during the practice. I'll keep going with the very vague "defensive lineman."
- The running backs and linebackers went against each other during a goal-line drill, and both sides had their moments. Herron absolutely trucked Dan Bain on one play, living up to his "Boom" nickname. Jaamal Berry scooted by his man, while Scott McVey made a nice stop against Carlos Hyde, who boasts good size and had mixed results in the drill.
- Running back Jordan Hall had some nice moments, including a burst up the middle in team drills.
- Some of the reserve wide receivers stood out. Sophomore James Jackson made a nice catch along the sideline, and senior Grant Schwartz showed the ability to create vertical separation.
- Defensive end Nathan Williams, currently sidelined with a knee injury, was in a stand-up position on one play, while the other three first-team linemen -- Heyward, John Simon and Dexter Larimore -- were down in a stance. You figure Ohio State will use Williams like it did Thaddeus Gibson in 2009.
- Berry had a good blitz pickup on one play, nearly leading to a big completion from Joe Bauserman to Taurian Washington.
- Linebackers Andrew Sweat and Dorian Bell showed good hitting and tackling skills.
No intelligent fan base should be celebrating, "We're No. 6!" Truth: your team's unit is probably a lot closer to No. 11 than No. 1. If a certain position group is stacked at the top, I'm open to including multiple teams tied for the No. 5 spot.
The criteria: past performance, 2010 potential, game-changing players and overall depth.
Let's get it started with the defensive line.
1. Iowa: The Hawkeyes' front four is not only the best in the Big Ten, but quite possibly the country (Rivals.com thinks so). Everyone knows about beastly defensive end Adrian Clayborn, but Broderick Binns can be just as effective on the other edge. Veterans Karl Klug and Christian Ballard solidify the middle. This group can flat out dominate games, as it showed last season against Penn State and Georgia Tech, and should be even better in 2010. My lone concern: depth.
2. Ohio State: You know a position group will be fine when three key contributors (Thaddeus Gibson, Doug Worthington, Todd Denlinger) depart and there's talk of even better days ahead. Cameron Heyward could be the Big Ten's most disruptive defensive player, as USC and Penn State learned last season, and there's a lot of optimism about young players like John Simon, Melvin Fellows and Garrett Goebel. Dexter Larimore brings experience to the interior line.
3. Penn State: Like Ohio State, Penn State can lose key players like Jared Odrick up front and not miss a beat. We should know better than to doubt veteran line coach Larry Johnson, who recruits and develops players better than just about anyone. Penn State has high hopes for defensive end Jack Crawford, and veteran tackle Ollie Ogbu also returns. Odrick leaves a major void in the middle, but the Lions expect big things from Devon Still if he can stay healthy.
4. Purdue: I'm taking a little leap of faith here, as Purdue has to get a lot better against the run. But the Boilers have a bona fide star in end Ryan Kerrigan, some experience with Gerald Gooden and Kawann Short, and they should benefit from coach Gary Emanuel's return to West Lafayette. Purdue is thin at defensive tackle after Mike Neal's departure to the NFL, but Kerrigan leads what should be a formidable pass rush after finishing third nationally in sacks in 2009.
5. Wisconsin: Here's a case where I feel great about one line position and nervous about another. Emerging star J.J. Watt leads a talented group of defensive ends -- ends, not tackles!-- that also features Louis Nzegwu and David Gilbert. The situation at tackle is a bit shakier because Wisconsin lost both starters from 2009, but Patrick Butrym boasts experience, and hopes are high for Jordan Kohout.
Up next: Linebackers
He might be the first college football star in history to gush about new facilities and not be referring to a weight room, a players' lounge or some other addition to the detached athletic complex.
"Being on campus, all these new facilities we got are great," he said last week. "You know, the new [student] union."
You mean college football players spend time on campus, at the student union, with other, um, students?
Apparently Heyward does. And he loves it.
"Everybody always tells me you're only in college once," he said. "And I want to make the most out of it."
Of course, his desire carries over to the football field, where he'll lead the Ohio State defense as a senior this fall.
He didn't have to come back and might have been a first-round pick in April's NFL draft had he chosen to declare after the 2009 season. Heyward recorded 6.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks as a junior, playing both defensive line positions, but his dominating performances against two of Ohio State's toughest opponents, USC and Penn State, suggested he was next-level ready.
In the end, another year at Ohio State and another year to sharpen his game brought him back to Columbus.
"Cam can be good," Buckeyes head coach Jim Tressel said. "He works so hard. Great person, excellent student. He's what a college player should be all about."
Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh elevated the national profile of defensive linemen last season, earning a trip to New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist. Could Heyward follow suit this year?
"I haven't watched much of [Suh], heard great things about him," Tressel said. "I'd like to think Cam can be that national kind of guy."
Heyward has lofty expectations for both himself and a defensive line that loses three starters but boasts plenty of young talent.
His strength and national ability are indisputable, but he wants to improve technically this fall. He played last season at 285 pounds, down from 290, and felt better with his movement. Despite being listed at 288 pounds, he still wants to get bigger and add some muscle mass before the fall.
"You always see these D-linemen, a little bit bigger than me," he said. "I want to try to fit the prototype, except be more."
Heyward attributed his improvement last season to an enhanced preparation routine and an adjusted defensive scheme that allowed him greater flexibility. He began coming to the film room early Monday mornings to study film, and he'd maintain his focus throughout the week. Although Heyward had started his first two seasons, he "wasn't as involved [in preparation] and didn't understand it as well."
By grasping the whole defense, Heyward became more comfortable playing end or tackle. He plans to once again fill in at both spots this fall.
"Inside, you have to be a little more careful of double teams," he said, "as opposed to the outside, it's mostly a pass rush, just squeezing around the block."
No matter where Heyward lines up this fall, double teams almost certainly will greet him.
"You know it's going to happen," he said. "I've just got to be ready for it. I've got to try to fight it, and other guys have got to step up as well. I'm not going to make all the plays, but I'll make as much as I can. That's going to leave a lot of 1-on-1s for [other] guys."
Fellow veteran Dexter Larimore returns at defensive tackle, but Ohio State will lean on less proven linemen like John Simon, Nathan Williams, Garrett Goebel, Solomon Thomas and Melvin Fellows. The Buckeyes need more depth up front, but Tressel knows he has a linchpin in Heyward.
"He's going to be a great leader for this team," Tressel said. "Obviously, we will count on him a lot on the field. He has a good knack of helping bring other people along. He's a real inclusive guy. He knows that we lost a great deal of personnel on that defensive front.
"His performance will be crucial for us, but his leadership will be just as important."
BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
12:00 PM ET Iowa Pittsburgh 12:00 PM ET Eastern Michigan 11 Michigan State 12:00 PM ET Western Illinois Northwestern 12:00 PM ET Southern Illinois Purdue 12:00 PM ET Bowling Green 19 Wisconsin 12:30 PM ET Maryland Syracuse 3:30 PM ET Utah Michigan 3:30 PM ET Rutgers Navy 4:00 PM ET Massachusetts Penn State 4:00 PM ET San Jose State Minnesota 4:00 PM ET Texas State Illinois 4:00 PM ET Indiana 18 Missouri 8:00 PM ET Miami (FL) 24 Nebraska