Big Ten: Graham Pocic

The super early start for preseason award hype continues today as the Rimington Trophy released its spring watch list. The Rimington Trophy, named for former Nebraska star Dave Rimington, goes to the nation's top college center.

Four Big Ten centers make this year's spring watch list.

They are:
All four players started portions of the 2012 season, although Pensick only transitioned to center late in the year. Northwestern's Vitabile is the most experienced of the bunch after starting the first 26 games of his college career.

The Big Ten loses a sizable group of good centers from 2012, headlined by Wisconsin's Travis Frederick, a first-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys in last month's NFL draft. Other key departures include Penn State's Matt Stankiewitch, Iowa's James Ferentz, Nebraska's Justin Jackson, Illinois' Graham Pocic, Michigan's Elliott Mealer, Indiana's Will Matte and Purdue's Rick Schmeig.

Penn State's Stankiewitch was a finalist for last year's award. Michigan's David Molk is the last Big Ten recipient of the Rimington Trophy, taking home the hardware in 2011.
Only 22 Big Ten players heard their names called during the 2013 NFL draft, the league's lowest total in nearly two decades (it had 21 draftees in 1994).

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 ...

ILLINOIS

C Graham Pocic, Houston Texans
DE Justin Staples, Cleveland Browns
DE Glenn Foster, New Orleans Saints

INDIANA

C Will Matte, Kansas City Chiefs (tryout)
DE Larry Black Jr., Cincinnati Bengals
DT Adam Replogle, Atlanta Falcons

IOWA

WR Keenan Davis, Cleveland Browns
OL Matt Tobin, Philadelphia Eagles
QB James Vandenberg, Minnesota Vikings

MICHIGAN

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)

MICHIGAN STATE

CB Johnny Adams, Houston Texans
DT Anthony Rashad White, Pittsburgh Steelers
OL Chris McDonald, New England Patriots

MINNESOTA

CB Troy Stoudermire, Cincinnati Bengals
TE MarQueis Gray, San Francisco 49ers
CB Michael Carter, Minnesota Vikings

NEBRASKA

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

NORTHWESTERN

OL Patrick Ward, Miami Dolphins
DL Brian Arnfelt, Pittsburgh Steelers
LB David Nwabuisi, Carolina Panthers (tryout)
WR Demetrius Fields, Chicago Bears (tryout)

OHIO STATE

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

PENN STATE

OL Mike Farrell, Pittsburgh Steelers
CB Stephon Morris, New England Patriots
OL Matt Stankiewitch, New England Patriots
FB Michael Zordich, Carolina Panthers

PURDUE

CB Josh Johnson, San Diego Chargers
QB Robert Marve, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
RB Akeem Shavers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

WISCONSIN

CB Marcus Cromartie, San Diego Chargers
CB Devin Smith, Dallas Cowboys
S Shelton Johnson, Oakland Raiders

B1G postseason position rankings: OL

February, 13, 2013
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The postseason position rankings march on with the group where it all begins: the offensive line. Traditionally one of the stronger positions throughout the Big Ten, the 2013 season brought mixed results. Several traditionally strong lines took a step back, while other groups surprised us.

As a reminder, these rankings are based solely on performance during the 2012 season. Star power matters, but depth often matters more, especially for a spot like offensive line. If you missed our preseason O-line rankings, check 'em out.

Let's begin ...

1. Ohio State (Preseason ranking: 5): Few position coaches in the country made a stronger impact in Year 1 than Ohio State line coach Ed Warinner. He took a talented group that had underachieved in 2011 and turned it into the powerful engine of the Buckeyes' revamped offense. Converted tight end Reid Fragel blossomed at tackle along with Jack Mewhort, while center Corey Linsley stepped forward in his first year as the starter. The Buckeyes received solid guard play, and the line came on strong during the Big Ten schedule, beating up opponents in the red zone. Ohio State led the league in scoring (37.2 ppg) and finished second in rush offense (242.2 ypg).

[+] EnlargeSpencer Long
Reese Strickland/US PresswireSpencer Long stood out on a Huskers offensive line that blocked for the Big Ten's top offense.
2. Nebraska (Preseason ranking: 4): Personnel losses didn't faze Nebraska in 2012, whether it was running back Rex Burkhead dealing with chronic knee issues or offensive lineman Tyler Moore transferring to Florida. The Huskers' line took a nice step, leading the way for the Big Ten's top offense. Guard Spencer Long earned first-team All-Big Ten honors and second-team AP All-American honors, and tackle Jeremiah Sirles received second-team All-Big Ten honors. Nebraska's walk-on tradition remained alive and well with Long, Justin Jackson and Seung Hoon Choi. The line blocked well no matter who was carrying the ball. The only knock against Nebraska, much like Ohio State, was its sacks allowed total (35).

3. Penn State (Preseason ranking: 9): First-year coach Bill O'Brien called the offensive line a pleasant surprise during spring practice, and the group continued its upward trajectory during the season. Despite losing four starters from 2011 and needing to absorb a dramatically different system, Penn State's line came together around senior center Matt Stankiewitch. The Lions protected quarterback Matt McGloin and created room for several running backs, including Zach Zwinak, who surged late in Big Ten play. Stankiewitch, guard John Urschel and tackle Mike Farrell all received All-Big Ten recognition, as Penn State's offense proved to be one of the league's biggest surprises in 2012.

4. Northwestern (Preseason ranking: 8): Northwestern rarely has struggled to move the ball since installing the spread offense in 2000, but the run game had been lagging until this year. Although the Wildcats needed a featured back to take charge, as Venric Mark did in 2012, they also needed more from the offensive line, a group to which the coaches had recruited well. The line stepped forward in a big way as Northwestern finished 19th nationally in rushing. Guard Brian Mulroe earned second-team All-Big Ten honors, while tackle Patrick Ward was an honorable mention selection. The Wildcats didn't pass much but protected the pocket well, allowing a league-low 16 sacks.

5. Indiana (Preseason ranking: 12): Youth was our big concern with the Hoosiers before the season, but the line came together nicely despite throwing several unproven players into the fire. Indiana surrendered only 17 sacks despite passing the ball more than anyone else in the league -- and racking up more pass yards (3,734). Freshmen Jason Spriggs and Dan Feeney held their own, and center Will Matte anchored the unit. Indiana struggled at times to run the ball but performed well in the red zone.

6. Michigan (Preseason ranking: 2): The Wolverines' line had its moments, especially in pass protection, but Michigan struggled to generate a run game outside of quarterback Denard Robinson. Left tackle Taylor Lewan did his part in earning Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year honors, and his return for 2013 gives Michigan a big boost. Guard Patrick Omameh also earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches, but the line had some inconsistency against strong defensive fronts such as Notre Dame's and Michigan State's. Help is on the way as Michigan piled up elite offensive line prospects in its 2013 recruiting class.

7. Wisconsin (Preseason ranking: 1): If the Wisconsin line was graded on its three performances in the Hoosier State -- at Purdue, at Indiana and against Nebraska in the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis -- it likely would be at the top of the list. But the Badgers line only looked like a Badgers line for stretches this season. There were as many depressing performances (Oregon State, Michigan State) as dominant ones. The line repeatedly faced adversity, from the firing of line coach Mike Markuson after Week 2 to three different starting quarterbacks. To its credit, the group kept bouncing back. Tackle Rick Wagner, center Travis Frederick and guard Ryan Groy all earned All-Big Ten honors, and Frederick, like his predecessor Peter Konz, opted to skip his senior season and enter the NFL draft.

8. Purdue (Preseason ranking: 6): The Boilers' line ended up just about where we thought it would, in the middle of the pack. Purdue finished in the top half of the Big Ten in total offense (fifth), rushing offense (sixth) and pass offense (third), despite dealing with a quarterback rotation for much of the season. There were some issues in pass protection, especially early in the season. The line lacked star power but Robert Kugler's emergence at guard later in the season was a bright spot. Purdue has endured some ups and downs with several converted defensive linemen on the offensive front and could take a step forward in 2013.

9. Michigan State (Preseason ranking: 3): The Spartans had high hopes for their offensive line before the season, but things never really got on track. The season-ending loss of right tackle Fou Fonoti after two games really hurt, and other injuries cropped up throughout the fall. Although running back Le'Veon Bell racked up 1,793 rush yards, he made a lot of things happen on his own, and Michigan State struggled to convert red zone opportunities (44) into touchdowns (23). Guard Chris McDonald earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors.

10. Minnesota (Preseason ranking: 11): Notice a theme here about injuries? It continues with the final three teams on the list. Injuries hit Minnesota's offensive line especially hard, as the Gophers lost their top two centers in a win against Illinois and were constantly moving pieces around up front. The good news for Gopher fans is that the offensive line made significant strides for the bowl game against Texas Tech, as Minnesota racked up 222 rush yards. But the line had its struggles during Big Ten play, as Minnesota eclipsed 17 points just once in eight league games.

11. Iowa (Preseason ranking: 7): Like Michigan State and Minnesota, Iowa's offensive line endured several key injuries, losing two starters (Brandon Scherff and Andrew Donnal) in a blowout loss to Penn State at Kinnick Stadium. The line blocked well for Mark Weisman during his early season surge, but Iowa still finished with the league's worst rushing offense (123 ypg) and second worst total offense (310.4 ypg). Iowa also struggled to reach the red zone (38 opportunities) or convert those chances into touchdowns (league-low 18). Center James Ferentz and guard/tackle Matt Tobin both earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors.

12. Illinois (Preseason ranking: 10): No position group is absolved of blame for Illinois' offensive struggles, and the line certainly underachieved for the second consecutive season. The Illini finished last in the Big Ten in both scoring and total offense, and 11th in both rushing and pass offense. They allowed a league-worst 39 sacks, and Illinois failed to score more than 22 points in any Big Ten contest. Sure, injuries were a factor, but the Illini had two good building blocks in tackle Hugh Thornton, a likely NFL draft pick in April, and veteran center Graham Pocic. Thornton earned second-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches, while Pocic was an honorable mention selection. Despite the youth and a new system, this group should have been a lot better.
Illinois on Wednesday announced a second hire for its offensive coaching staff as Tim Beckman selected Jim Bridge to oversee the Illini offensive line.

Bridge spent the past six seasons at NC State, the past two as the Wolf Pack's offensive line coach. He coached NC State's tight ends from 2007-2010 and needed a new post following the school's dismissal of Tom O'Brien.

Bridge replaces Luke Butkus, who left Illinois after just one season for a post at Florida International. He joins an offensive staff now led by coordinator Bill Cubit, who replaced the ousted Chris Beatty.

"Illinois is a great fit for me, personally, and Coach Beckman has assembled an outstanding staff," Bridge said in a prepared statement. "As a coach, you always look forward to competing in a premier conference like the Big Ten and at one of the nation's great academic institutions such as the University Illinois. I can't wait to get started with the members of our team and especially our offensive linemen."

Beckman and Bridge coached together on Urban Meyer's staff at Bowling Green in 2000, as Bridge coached tight ends and Beckman served as defensive coordinator. Bridge has coached tight ends or offensive line for most of his career and has made previous stops at Boston College, Eastern Michigan and The Citadel. His only previous Big Ten experience came as a graduate assistant at Ohio State in 2001.

He takes over an offensive line that underperformed in 2012 despite two veterans in Hugh Thornton and Graham Pocic. Several young linemen received extensive experience last fall, and Bridge will need to get the group back to the level it performed at for much of the 2010 season.
The Big Ten hands out awards for practically everything at the end of the regular season, but the league lacks a comeback player of the year honor.

If it did, Illinois' Corey Lewis would be the obvious choice.

Most probably didn't notice Lewis trotting on the field for Illinois' third offensive series last Saturday against Ohio State. Despite being 6-foot-6 and 310 pounds, Lewis, like most offensive linemen, often goes unnoticed. But when he lined up at right tackle for the Illini, it completed one of the longest and toughest journeys back to the game field that you'll ever hear about.

"Not five," Illinois coach Tim Beckman said when asked if he had ever seen a player return from five knee surgeries.

[+] EnlargeCorey Lewis
Photo/University of Illinois AthleticsIllinois offensive lineman Corey Lewis has come back from five knee surgeries to play.
That's how many Lewis has had to endure since tearing the ACL in his left knee for the first time in Illinois' spring game of 2010. He tore the same ACL two more times during workouts, needed another procedure when infection prevented a graft from healing in his leg, and underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee after overcompensating because of his left knee issues.

Yet all the setbacks never stopped Lewis from moving forward. And more than 1,000 days after he played his last game -- the 2009 regular-season finale at Fresno State -- he returned to the line at Ohio Stadium.

"When I did come on the field finally for my first rep in two and a half years, my heart was racing," Lewis told ESPN.com. "It was beating so fast. The adrenaline was going. It was just an exciting moment."

Lewis appeared in four games as a true freshman and played all 12 as a sophomore in 2009. Along with other talented young linemen like tackle Jeff Allen, Lewis looked to be part of the nucleus of Illinois' offensive line for years to come.

But everything changed once Lewis tore the ACL during a 2-minute drill segment in the spring game.

"I never thought I could be injured," he said. "I thought I was Superman. So it was rough for me. I always heard about people tearing their ACLs and going through stuff. I just never saw it happening to me. When it happened, it was just devastating."

The subsequent injuries proved to be even worse. Lewis' third ACL procedure, in March, was a low point.

Did he ever think about giving up the game?

"Stuff like that definitely creeps in the back of your head," Lewis said. "But I just looked at it like, I'm going to keep giving it a shot until all my years are up. What motivates me the most are my teammates.

"I didn't want football to be over for me."

He continued to attack his rehab, and by September, doctors cleared him to practice. Lewis hoped to return for Illinois' Oct. 27 game against Indiana but didn't get the final green light until last week.

The knee isn't quite 100 percent, Lewis said, but he's gaining more strength and more trust in it.

"You still have a little doubt at times because [the ligament tears have] happened multiple times, so that's in the back of your head," Lewis said. "But I think the more I keep playing, the more reps I get, the more I'll be able to trust it. That's the main thing, just knocking the rust off and being able to get back to my old ways.

"I'm only at like seven and a half months [since the last surgery], but over time, it will just continue to get better with the more I play."

Lewis intends to play a lot more at Illinois. Not just the rest of this fall, but he expects to return for a full season in 2013. He's seeking a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA.

After all he has been through, it'd be a crime if he doesn't get it.

"That's what college football is all about," Beckman said. "A lot of people don't understand what all he's been through in the last two years, through rehab, through medically, getting himself prepared to step back out there on the field after an injury. That's why I coach, so you get to see those experiences.

"The best experience I had was him running off the field [last Saturday] after that series, seeing the smile on his face."

Despite Illinois' loss to Ohio State, the congratulatory messages for Lewis streamed in after the game, many of which can be found on his Twitter page. Former teammates like Allen, now with the Kansas City Chiefs, and current teammates like Illini center Graham Pocic were among those who acknowledged Lewis.

"I just learned I'm not a quitter," Lewis said. "I'm a dedicated person. Once I signed here to play here, that was my main goal, to play again, to play for Illini Nation and to play for this team. I love football. That's why I wanted to be able to get back."

Big Ten lunchtime links

October, 12, 2012
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Let's get this one, birds on the bat.
Illinois could have beaten woeful Charleston Southern with its B or C team.

It did.

Tim Beckman's squad thrashed Charleston Southern 44-0 on Saturday despite missing a large group of key players. Starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase missed his second consecutive game with an ankle injury, and he was joined on the sideline by senior center Graham Pocic, who has a knee injury. Top running back Josh Ferguson (concussion), starting linebacker Houston Bates (leg) and projected starting safeties Steve Hull (shoulder) and Supo Sanni (knee) also sat out.

Making matters worse, starting wide receiver Darius Millines, already dealing with an ankle injury, played Saturday but spent the end of the game on the sideline with his left arm in a sling.

Illinois didn't need any of the players to crush Charleston Southern and received nice performances from several reserves, including quarterback Reilly O'Toole (5 TD passes) and linebacker Mason Mondheim (1.5 tackles for loss, 1 interception).

But the Illini need to get healthy in a hurry, first for this week's tricky test against Louisiana Tech and then next week as Big Ten play kicks off against Penn State.

As of Monday, Beckman isn't certain whether any of the players would be back this week. Some of them missed practice last week.

"I can't say that anybody for sure right now," Beckman said. "... That will be determined as we go through Tuesday, Wednesday."

Scheelhaase continues to practice and make some progress with the ankle, but Beckman isn't sure the three-year starter will return for Louisiana Tech.

"We're not going to put Nathan out there unless he can better this football team," Beckman said. "... We're not being cautious with anybody. He's just not ready."

Video: Illinois' Graham Pocic

August, 27, 2012
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video
Illinois offensive lineman Graham Pocic talks about the team's new offense.
The 2012 Big Ten players' poll marches on, and now it's time to get down and dirty. Dirtiest players, that is.

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

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

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

Results

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

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

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

Previously

Part I: Big Ten coach you want to play for the most
Part II: Big Ten coach you want to play for the least

Big Ten lunchtime links

August, 1, 2012
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Get well soon, Montee Ball.
It's time to jump back into our preseason position rankings with a look at the offensive line units.

On Friday, we ranked the top individual players at the position. These unit rankings reflect star power as well as depth. We're heavily weighing these on last year's performance, along with potential for the 2012 season.

Away we go:

1. Wisconsin: Sure, the Badgers lost two All-Americans (Kevin Zeitler and Peter Konz) from last year's line. But they've earned the benefit of the doubt for their ability to reload up front. Left tackle Ricky Wagner is an Outland Trophy candidate, and center Travis Frederick should be one of the best in the Big Ten. The key will be how the new-look right side with Rob Havenstein and likely Robert Burge moving into starting roles.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Lewan
Andrew Weber/US Presswire With top tackle Taylor Lewan returning, Michigan fields one of the best offensive lines in the Big Ten.
2. Michigan: The Wolverines might have the top tackle in the league with junior Taylor Lewan, and guard Patrick Omameh is a three-year starter. Senior Ricky Barnum is taking over for David Molk at center. Michael Schofield should be solid at right tackle, though the left guard spot remains a competition. It should be a strong starting group, though depth here is a major concern.

3. Michigan State: This could be the best offensive line Mark Dantonio has had in East Lansing. Six players who started games last year are back, and there will be depth and competition at several spots. Third-year starter Chris McDonald is one of the league's top guards, while tackles Dan France and Fou Fonoti are dependable.

4. Nebraska: The Cornhuskers lost three starters from last year's line, but much like Wisconsin, this is a group that usually reloads. Guards Spencer Long and Seung Hoon Choi provide nice building blocks, with Tyler Moore, Jeremiah Sirles and Andrew Rodriguez solidifying the tackle spots. The big question here is center and who will replace Mike Caputo.

5. Ohio State: The Buckeyes had their problems up front last year and now are implementing a new offensive system. Urban Meyer wasn't happy with the group's work ethic in January but felt much better about them by the end of spring. Jack Mewhort replaces Mike Adams at left tackle, while Andrew Norwell and Marcus Hall try to live up their potential at guard. Corey Linsley earned Meyer's praise for his work at center. Keep an eye on the right tackle spot, where former tight end Reid Fragel is now the first-stringer. But true freshman Taylor Decker is pushing him.

6. Purdue: Injuries kept the Boilers from building much cohesion this spring, but this can be a sturdy group when healthy. Three starters are back, with Trevor Foy moving from right to left tackle. This is an experienced bunch, but Danny Hope wants to see more dominance. Senior center Rick Schmeig should be a leader

7. Iowa: The Hawkeyes must replace three starters, including NFL draft picks Reilly Reiff and Adam Gettis. But Iowa usually fields good offensive lines, and hopes are high for this year's edition. The leader is center James Ferentz, who now will be coached by his older brother, Brian Ferentz. Much will depend on how players like Brett Van Sloten and Brandon Scherff develop.

8. Northwestern: The Wildcats lost two valuable starters in tackle Al Netter and Ben Burkett but return three-year starter Brian Mulroe at guard and promising sophomore center Brandon Vitabile. There should be good depth up front, but can the Wildcats generate a consistent rushing attack?

9. Penn State: The good news is that the Nittany Lions played better than expected last year on the offensive line. The bad news is four starters are gone, not to mention some potential transfers in the wake of the NCAA sanctions. There is still talent here, including guard John Urschel and tackle Donovan Smith. But the least experienced line in the league will have to learn a new offensive system.

10. Illinois: There was little excuse for the Illini O-line to play as bad as it did last year with standout players Jeff Allen and Graham Pocic in the mix. Pocic is back this year at center, though he might take some snaps at tackle as well. Young players like sophomore Simon Cvijanovic and redshirt freshman Ted Karras will need to come on. This unit should be improved, but it ranks low based on last year's finish.

11. Minnesota: Jerry Kill shuffled this group last year and played a lot of youngsters. It's still a relatively inexperienced unit, but there is hope for improvement. Junior left tackle Ed Olson has the best chance to be a star.

12. Indiana: Center Will Matte is one of the most experienced linemen in the league. But beyond him are several young players, including three true sophomores who started as freshmen last year. There's nowhere to go but up.
It's time to wrap up the offensive side of the ball in our preseason rankings of the best players by position in the Big Ten for 2012.

Remember that these rankings are weighed heavily on past performance while taking potential into account. We've already gone over all the skill players; now we turn to the guys who do the dirty work in the trenches to make those big plays possible. Our offensive linemen rankings will give an edge to tackles over interior players since those positions are harder to man.

Here's how we see the best Big Ten big uglies (we say that with love) right now:

1. Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan, junior: Lewan was a big key to the Wolverines' success last year, and if he continues to mature on and off the field, he could be an All-American. The 6-foot-8, 302-pounder is already being projected as a first-round pick in next year's draft.

[+] EnlargeRicky Wagner
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesDoes Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema have another Outland Trophy winner in left tackle Ricky Wagner?
2. Ricky Wagner, OT, Wisconsin, senior: Bret Bielema likes to point out that every left tackle who has started for him has won the Outland Trophy. Wagner has a chance to keep that going in his second year guarding the blind side for the Badgers. The 6-6, 322-pounder doesn't talk a whole lot, but he says a lot with his play. Some have projected him as a top-five pick in next year's draft.

3. Travis Frederick, C, Wisconsin, junior: Frederick was a second-team All-Big Ten performer last year, which doesn't fully denote his value. He started 11 games at guard, then moved to center for two games when Peter Konz was injured, including a start in the Big Ten championship game. Frederick will start the season at center this year, and if he makes as much improvement as Wisconsin linemen often do, he could be in line for national awards.

4. Chris McDonald, G, Michigan State: While the Spartans' offensive line went through some upheaval last season, McDonald provided an anchor. He started every game and played more snaps than any other lineman on the team, surrendering only one sack on the season. He has started 17 consecutive games at right guard and 26 overall.

5. Spencer Long, G, Nebraska, junior: Long is a former walk-on who didn't play in 2010 but started every game in 2011. And he made quite an impression, helping pave the way for the Huskers' powerful running attack. The 6-foot-4, 305-pounder is expected to be a leader on the Nebraska line this year.

6. James Ferentz, C, Iowa, senior: Ferentz is more than just the coach's son; he's one of the most valuable offensive linemen in the league. An honorable mention All-Big Ten performer last year, he started in all 13 games and played just about every offensive down for the second straight season. With some new starters moving into place on the line, Ferentz will need to be a leader this year, and we know he's got that in his genes.

7. Graham Pocic, C, Illinois, senior: Pocic is awfully big for a center at 6-7 and 310 pounds and likely projects as a guard at the next level. But he's doing a great job at his current position, starting the past 26 games for the Illini. He was named the team's offensive MVP this spring and looks poised for a big season.

8. Jack Mewhort, OT, Ohio State, junior: Mewhort moved around last year for the Buckeyes, starting at right and left guard while also playing some right tackle. He'll start at left tackle this season, taking over for NFL second-round pick Mike Adams. At 6-6 and 310 pounds, he's got ideal size for the position.

9. Patrick Omameh, G, Michigan, senior: Along with Lewan, Omameh is one of the leaders of Michigan's offensive line. He has started 29 consecutive games at right guard and is as dependable as they come.

10. Will Matte, C, Indiana, senior: Matte has been one of the bright spots for the Hoosiers the past few years. He started the first 32 games of his career before getting injured in Week 8 against Wisconsin last year. He was a frequent game captain in 2011 and will be counted on to help guide his young teammates.
The preseason awards watch lists parade continues today with two pretty big honors: the Outland and Bronko Nagurski trophies.

The Outland Trophy honors the best interior lineman in the country, and the Big Ten usually produces several great players in the trenches. So it's no surprise to see the league place 12 players on the preseason watch list, second only to the SEC's 19. Penn State's Devon Still was a finalist last year for the Outland Trophy, which went to Alabama's Barrett Jones. Jones will try to join Nebraska's Dave Rimington as the only two-time Outland winner this season.

Here are the Big Ten players on the Outland list:
Some very solid candidates here. Lewan, Short and Wagner are going to be on a lot of preseason All-America lists, and guys like Spence, Hankins and Hill look like major breakout candidates. Of course, no one was really talking that much about Still at this time last summer, so don't be surprised if someone not on this list emerges as a star. The Big Ten should be very good on the lines again this season, if this list is an indication. The three Outland finalists will be named Nov. 1.

The watch list for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy was also revealed. That award goes to the top defensive player in the nation. The Big Ten has 14 players on the list, again second only to the SEC's 19.
Again, there are some very strong candidates here. You get a sense of just how good Michigan State's defense can be this season with three Spartans on the list -- and linebacker Denicos Allen seems like a snub here for a fourth watch list member. Borland and Taylor were the league's top tacklers a year ago, while Simon, Short, Brown and Hodges should be among the best players at their positions in the country. The five Nagurski finalists will be announced Nov. 15.
The Big Ten produced only one major national award winner in 2011, as Michigan's David Molk took home the Rimington Trophy as the nation's top center.

Given that the Big Ten has produced two of the past four Rimington Trophy winners -- Molk and Penn State's A.Q. Shipley in 2008 -- you should pay extra attention to the preseason fall list for the award revealed Tuesday.

Six Big Ten centers appear on the list. The Big Ten has the second most candidates behind the SEC (10).

Here's the Big Ten contingent:
It's a pretty good group despite the league losing it's top two centers from 2011 (Molk and Wisconsin's Peter Konz).

Ferentz and Pocic look like the Big Ten's top candidates, but Frederick is a very intriguing name. The 6-foot-4, 328-pound Badgers junior started 11 games at left guard and two at center last season. He started two other games at center in 2009, becoming the first true freshman in team history to start a season opener on the offensive line. Frederick clearly has the ability and talent to play the position, and if he handles the transition well, he'll be right in the mix for the award.

Vitabile is one of eight sophomores on the preseason watch list.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

June, 8, 2012
6/08/12
4:30
PM ET
Hoping everyone has a great weekend. I'll be hanging out by the Michigan-Canadian border, eh.

Marcus Aurelius writes: Interesting that your list of potential reps on a playoff selection committee with Big 10 ties does not feature anyone with SEC connections (and other than Delaney-UNC, not many southern ties that I noticed). Is this indicative of the lack of movement North-South prior to Nick Saban (and Urban Meyer)? Seems very strange to me...

Adam Rittenberg: Former Iowa coach Hayden Fry is a Texas native who spent a lot of time in the Southwest Conference, but for the most part you're right. There's not a ton of transition between the North and South. Urban Meyer obviously has made the move recently, and other Big Ten coaches like Nebraska's Bo Pelini have spent time in the SEC, but along with Saban, they're all current coaches. As far as prominent former Big Ten coaches, most have been Midwest-based in their careers. That's an interesting trend you picked up.


Yooper from Minneapolis writes: Howdy Adam. Say, do the Badgers actually have a speed issue on the defense compared to the rest of the league, or is it just perception. Seems to me it's mostly perception and chatter based mainly on the RB against a team in Oregon that would've made many teams look slow. I didn't notice a speed problem the rest of the year, when one loss was due to a fortunate bounce, and one was due to a scrambling QB (tough for DBs to contain all day long). Anyway, wondering if you know if any stats back up the speed "issue"?

Adam Rittenberg: Yooper, I was just thinking about this. The games that raised issues about Wisconsin's speed on defense were the Rose Bowl and the two contests against Michigan State. Watching Wisconsin struggle against Keshawn Martin and others in the Big Ten title game, you had to be concerned about how they'd fare against Oregon, which has like 46 Keshawn Martins. I don't think you can dismiss the speed issue with Wisconsin, and the Badgers should continue to look for speed in all three areas of their defense. Now it'd also help to identify a premier pass-rusher like O'Brien Schofield and J.J. Watt. Pressuring the quarterback more will take pressure off of the secondary.


Jeff from St. Cloud, Minn., writes: Having lived out west, the talk about these 16 team super conferences is pretty hilarious. While in no way are the dollars even remotely similar, the WAC thought it was a great idea in the 90s....until the most notable members of the original WAC decided to hold a secret meeting at the Denver airport and agreed it was ridiculous that BYU and Utah should have to share revenue with Rice and San Jose State as well as travel all these great distances for conference games. The exact same thing is going to happen when Texas and Oklahoma are sharing a 16-team split with TCU and Iowa State. The powers-that-be in each of these "super conferences" are going to find an airport and in the span of an afternoon, we'll probably be back to the Southwest Conference and the Big 8. It is 100 percent inevitable. Hopefully the Big Ten doesn't get sucked in and in a perfect world, gets back to being TEN.

Adam Rittenberg writes: Jeff, thanks for sharing your perspective on this. The revenue-sharing component is fascinating when you're talking about potential superconferences. It's one of several reasons I think the Big Ten wants to stay at 12 -- not sure about ever going from 12 to 10. That said, the Big Ten has long made equal revenue-sharing a core pillar. Nebraska eventually will receive an equal share, and the Big Ten in my view will always keep this philosophy in place because it prevents the discord we saw recently in the Big 12. When Ohio State agrees to take the same cut as Northwestern, it says something about the league. It's the "all ships will rise" theory Ohio State AD Gene Smith talks about a lot. So even if the Big Ten became 16, I think it would do so with the idea all members would eventually get an equal cut of the pie.


Ed from Dallas writes: Hey Adam,Grew up in Illinois and all my childhood all's I wanted to do was be an Illini (unfortanely 5'11" guy that couldn't run or bench press my weight)so my dream was unreasonable...but it does lead me to my question...why can't The Illini recruit the top players from Illinois? They never have..whether it was Mike White, Ron Turner, Ron Zook or the current staff. I just saw the ESPN 150 and Illinois' top players are going to USC, LSU, Michigan, ND...everywhere but the Illini. Why is there no pride in Illinois HS football players in their state university? If the Illini just recruited their own state like Texas does they'd be a powerhouse.

Adam Rittenberg: Ed, while your concern has some validity, you can't say Ron Zook didn't recruit top players from Illinois. You remember Martez Wilson and Juice Williams? They were highly-touted guys coming out of Chicago. Other decorated in-state prospects included Rashard Mendenhall (Skokie), Josh Brent (Bloomington) and Graham Pocic (Lemont). Zook also landed recruits like wide receiver Chris James and defensive tackle Lendell Buckner who had hype coming out of high school but didn't really pan out in Champaign. I understand your frustration, especially with Illinois being the biggest school in the state. But Illinois hasn't been a traditional power like Ohio State, Michigan, Florida, Texas, LSU and Alabama. The team has to start winning more consistently to motivate top recruits to choose Illinois, especially since everyone in the Big Ten recruits the Chicago area. In-state recruiting has to be a big focal point for Tim Beckman and his staff, and they made a splash with quarterback Aaron Bailey out of Bolingbrook. But it's unrealistic to think Illinois will get every top player from within its borders.


Sam from New York writes: Hi Adam,Staying with the topic of Top Individual Seasons, why was Ron Dayne left out of the main list? I believe he should even be part of the national list, not just the Big Ten. He led UW to 2 straight Rose Bowls, capped off by sweeping all the major awards his senior year, and also broke Ricky Williams' career rushing yards record - which is still Dayne's to this day.

Adam Rittenberg: Sam, I think you're making the mistake of viewing this as a career achievement award rather than a list of exceptional seasons. Dayne certainly had two terrific seasons (1996 and 1999) that were under consideration for our top five, but ultimately he fell just a bit short of the top five. And honestly, if we were to include another running back's season in the top five, we would have gone with Larry Johnson in 2002, who averaged nearly 8 yards per carry. We had a similar situation with Dayne when we considered Purdue quarterback Drew Brees. We saw Brees as a once-in-a-generation player, and a Big Ten icon in recent years. But when you looked at his individual seasons and compared them with others in the past 50 years, they didn't quite stack up. Again, five seasons is not a big list, and this wasn't a career achievement rundown. We kept several Heisman Trophy winners off of the top five list.


Jason from Kansas City, Mo., writes: Adam,FYI-Nebraska fans aren't bitter about Michigan in 1997. That doesn't even make any sense. There's nothing to be bitter about as both teams can claim they won a national championship that year (unlike Penn St in 94). I really enjoy reading your blogs but comments like these tell me you still don't have a good feeling for the Nebraska fanbase. Please do some research next time before making assumptions about how Nebraska's fans feel.

Adam Rittenberg: Jason, maybe I overstated that a bit, but I did receive several emails from both Nebraska fans and Michigan fans before the teams met last season that suggested neither side was too pleased with a split national title. It might be more from the Michigan fans, some of whom feel the Wolverines should have been outright champions in '97. But you're not speaking for the entire Nebraska fan base when you say no one is better about the split title. My inbox says otherwise.


Nate from Clemson, S.C., writes: How would the conferences react to a modification of their own championship games? Would they be open to a requirement that would match up the 2 highest rated teams at the end of the season regardless of division? This would have had Alabama vs. LSU in the conference championship game and would have certainly knocked the loser out of contention for the championship game or perhaps a playoff. It seems that this would help bolster the B1G argument for the value of winning the conference championship.

Adam Rittenberg: Nate, this is an interesting point that several others have brought up. One problem with any playoff model that requires conference champions is what happens if there's a wave of upsets in the league title games. This also would favor a league like the Big 12, which as of the moment doesn't have a league championship game. Your plan obviously would help guarantee more exciting championship games and, in many cases, worthier league champions. I still think leagues would be hesitant to get rid of the division model, which would be the only way to do this (if you have divisions, you have to use their champions in the title game). But it's important for leagues to continue to re-evaluate divisions, make changes if necessary and consider the possibility of getting rid of the divisions altogether. No one wants to see Oregon-UCLA in the title game, and LSU-Georgia didn't really move the needle, either.

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