Big Ten: Greg Castillo
Best moment: Upset in Sparta
Two games after the shocking home loss to Central Michigan, things were looking up in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes went into East Lansing on a cold, wet Oct. 13 day and stunned Michigan State with a 19-16 double-overtime upset win. Growing legend Mark Weisman ran for 116 yards and scored the game-tying touchdown with 55 seconds to go, while Greg Castillo sealed the win in the second extra period with an interception off a tipped pass. That improved Iowa's Big Ten record to 2-0, putting it in first place of the Legends Division and 4-2 overall. No one could have guessed at that moment that the Hawkeyes would not win another game the rest of the year.
Worst moment: Housed at home by Penn State
Unfortunately for Iowa fans, the good vibes from that Michigan State win lasted only a week. That's because on Oct. 20, Penn State came to Kinnick Stadium and made itself right at home. The Nittany Lions utterly dominated the Hawkeyes that night, racing out to a 24-0 halftime lead and scoring 38 straight points before the Hawkeyes tacked on two meaningless fourth-quarter touchdowns. A bum ankle kept Weisman out of the starting lineup, and matters went from bad to worse when offensive linemen Brandon Scherff and Andrew Donnal were lost for the season with leg injuries. Iowa's ineffectual offense heard repeated boos from its own crowd. It was the first of six straight losses for the Hawkeyes, and maybe the ugliest.
These rosters will be updated in the coming days, but here are lists of confirmed attendees.
When: Jan. 26 Where: Mobile, Ala.
- Wisconsin RB Montee Ball
- Illinois G Hugh Thornton
- Ohio State OT Reid Fragel
- Wisconsin OT Rick Wagner
- Illinois DE Michael Buchanan
- Penn State DT Jordan Hill
- Purdue DT Kawann Short
- Ohio State DE John Simon
- Michigan State CB Johnny Adams
When: Jan. 19
Where: St. Petersburg, Fla.
- Purdue CB Josh Johnson
- Penn State LB Gerald Hodges
- Nebraska RB Rex Burkhead
- Iowa WR Keenan Davis
- Iowa C James Ferentz
- Michigan DT Will Campbell
- Illinois CB Terry Hawthorne
- Iowa CB Micah Hyde
- Michigan DE Craig Roh
- Penn State C Matt Stankiewitch
- Ohio State DE Nathan Williams
When: Jan. 19
Where: Carson, Calif.
- Wisconsin CB Marcus Cromartie
- Nebraska LB Will Compton
- Nebraska TE Ben Cotton
- Penn State DE Sean Stanley (classified as LB/DE)
- Penn State FB Michael Zordich (classified as RB/FB)
When: Jan. 19
Where: Montgomery, Ala.
- Michigan State DT Anthony Rashad White
- Iowa CB Greg Castillo
- Illinois CB Justin Green
- Michigan WR Roy Roundtree
- Iowa G Matt Tobin
- Iowa QB James Vandenberg
When: Jan. 11
Where: Tucson, Ariz.
- Brady Hoke says he and Mark Dantonio have some similarities. Michigan's athletic director downplays talk that Wolverines fans don't respect Michigan State. The Spartans have grudgingly earned Michigan's respect over time.
- Michigan State assistant Pat Narduzzi says officials need to take control of Saturday's game. Michigan hopes to buckle down against the Spartans' rushing attack.
- Ohio State players weigh in on the Big Ten's football struggles, the league's rise in basketball and the need to "step it up." Urban Meyer is seeing more fight from the Buckeyes defense.
- Nebraska assistant Rick Kaczenski has faith in defensive scheme. Huskers WR Kenny Bell will reunite with his good friend Kain Colter at Northwestern.
- Despite two stout defenses, the Penn State-Iowa game will be an offensive shootout, at least according to Lions QB Matt McGloin. Freshman TE Kyle Carter continues to stand out for Penn State. The latest on the Lions' running backs from assistant Charles London.
- The Big Ten Network's Dave Revsine goes inside the numbers for Week 8.
- Iowa is determined to push through its latest running back issue. Greg Castillo's Iowa teammates react to the firing of Castillo's father, Juan, as Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator.
- Northwestern has found a T-Magic replica to prepare for Saturday's game. BTN.com's Tom Dienhart checks in with Northwestern CB Nick VanHoose.
- Melvin Gordon's practice habits are holding him back at Wisconsin. Badgers LB Ethan Armstrong (knee) expects to play against Minnesota.
- Indiana prepares for Navy's wishbone offense, while Andy Graham writes the time for winning at IU is here. (subscription required). The Hoosiers look for a breakthrough W.
- Safety Landon Feichter steps up for Purdue's defense this season. Freshman Danny Anthrop makes his mark for Purdue on special teams.
Image No. 2: After forcing two overtimes behind the strength of its defense, Iowa seals a 19-16 win against Michigan State when sophomore defensive lineman Louis Trica-Pasat deflects an Andrew Maxwell pass, and cornerback Greg Castillo comes down with it for an interception.
If you predicted either of these things happening two months ago, you might put Miss Cleo out of business. Or just hop the first plane to Vegas.
Expectations for both Penn State's offense and Iowa's defense were tempered before the season.
Penn State had the nation's 110th-ranked scoring offense in 2011 and this summer saw its top running back (Silas Redd) and top receiver (Justin Brown) transfer to other schools. Rob Bolden, the team's opening-day starting quarterback in each of the past two seasons, also transferred. The Lions' leading returning receivers were a running back (Curtis Dukes) and a fullback (Michael Zordich), who each had five catches in 2011. Their leading returning rusher, Dukes (237 yards), missed spring practice for academic reasons -- the time when new coach Bill O'Brien installed his NFL-style scheme. Penn State had zero proven offensive weapons entering the season.
Iowa's defense also featured more no-names than usual. The Hawkeyes, who had four defensive linemen selected in the NFL draft the past two years, turned to two seniors with limited production (Steve Bigach and Joe Gaglione) and another coming off of a serious knee injury (Dominic Alvis) to lead their front four. Freshman and sophomore defenders filled Iowa's preseason depth chart, particularly at the line positions. "This is our youngest team," Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said at preseason media day.
Yet midway through the season, both Penn State's offense and Iowa's defense are two of the more pleasant surprises in the Big Ten. The two units have been instrumental in Penn State's and Iowa's 2-0 starts to league play, and they'll match up against each other Saturday night when the Lions visit Kinnick Stadium.
"I'm not really surprised at all," McGloin told ESPN.com "I knew we had the talent on this team, and guys who were willing to put in the work to get the job done and learn this offense. I'm not really surprised at what I've done, or what Kyle Carter has done, or Allen Robinson or [Zach] Zwinak or [Michael] Zordich or the line."
McGloin leads the Big Ten in passing average (249.8 ypg) and is tied for the league lead in touchdown strikes with 12, four more than he had all of last season as Penn State's primary quarterback. With 1,499 pass yards through the first six games, he needs just 73 more to eclipse his season total from 2011.
Robinson, who had a grand total of three receptions as a true freshman for Penn State last fall, leads the Big Ten in receptions per game (6.8) and touchdown receptions. Penn State's other offensive standouts include Carter, a redshirt freshman tight end with 23 catches for 279 yards; and Zwinak, who had three carries for seven yards last year and now leads the team in carries (68) and rush yards (320). Zordich, a senior fullback, is a more familiar name but someone who hasn't had much of a chance to contribute until this season (37 carries, 167 yards, 10 receptions).
"It's an NFL offense," McGloin said. "This offense definitely gives guys an opportunity to showcase their ability and gives them a lot more recognition."
O'Brien's arrival has modernized Penn State's offense. Iowa, meanwhile, hasn't gone through dramatic scheme schedules defensively, although secondary coach Phil Parker moved into the coordinator role in the offseason following Norm Parker's retirement.
The defense has been better than expected from the start, holding Northern Illinois to 12 first downs and 201 total yards in the season opener. Iowa has surrendered 17 points or fewer in five of six games and allowed fewer than 350 yards in five of six games. While Penn State's offense isn't the strongest unit on its team, Iowa's defense undoubtedly deserves the label as the Hawkeye offense is still finding its identity.
"We're making progress," Ferentz said. "We were hopeful that we could during the course of the season. Some weeks have been a lot better than others, obviously, but the group's growing."
The defensive line, a major area of concern in August, has been a strength. Gaglione boasts eight tackles for loss, four sacks and two forced fumbles, while other linemen like Trinca-Pasat (three tackles for loss, two quarterback hurries) and Bigach (one sack, one forced fumble) have contributed.
Iowa has surrendered just five rushing touchdowns in six games.
"I knew they were going to go in there and be a help to the defense," linebacker Christian Kirksey told ESPN.com. "Coach Ferentz always talks about the next man in. As soon as Joe Gaglione and Steve Bigach jumped in, they were just eager and hungry to help out the defense."
The linebackers also have done their part. Veterans James Morris and Kirksey have combined for two interceptions, two fumble recoveries, three sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss. Anthony Hitchens, a converted safety in his first season as a starting linebacker, leads the nation with 13 tackles per game (78 total).
"Iowa defense is built on one thing," Kirksey said. "Way back when Bob Sanders was here, way back when Adrian Clayborn was here, it was all still the same focus. We all grew around the tradition and we just took it to the field.
"We're a new group, but Iowa teaches the same lessons throughout the years."
McGloin sees it, too, calling the young Hawkeyes "a typical Iowa defense." O'Brien's system certainly isn't a typical Penn State offense, but that has been a good thing.
Although McGloin expected the unit to perform, his contributions as a rushing threat -- he had no rushing touchdowns in 2011 and just two in his career before this season -- are a bit of a surprise.
The only bad news: the discount double check is probably a thing of the past.
"I think I'm done with that," McGloin said, laughing. "That was just a one-time thing."
Team of the week: Iowa. Well, look at who's tied atop the Legends Division standings. Many people had written off the Hawkeyes after they lost at home to Central Michigan (a team which has followed up that upset in Iowa City by losing to Northern Illinois, Toledo and Navy, all by double digits). But give credit to the resiliency of Kirk Ferentz's team. On Saturday, Iowa outslugged Michigan State on the road and won in double-overtime 19-16. It wasn't a pretty game, but the Hawkeyes showed toughness and grit. Don't count them out of the Big Ten race just yet.
Best game: Hope you stayed up late to catch Ohio State's 52-49 win over Indiana, the Big Ten's version of Big 12 football. There were blocked punts, onside kicks, a 15-point Indiana rally in the final minutes, 1,059 total yards and way more tension than we usually associate with Buckeyes-Hoosiers matchups. You might have liked Iowa-Michigan State more if you enjoy, you know, actual tackling. But this kind of game is fun every once in a while, too.
Best play: The play of the day in the Big Ten happened around midnight, when Indiana's Nick Stoner leaped out of bounds to grab an onside kick and toss it back into the field of play. Stoner showed off the athleticism that allows him to star on Indiana's track team. D’Angelo Roberts recovered, and the Hoosiers went in for a score and two-point conversion for the game's final margin. Indiana's final onside kick was also brilliantly executed and conceived, but Ohio State's Corey Brown made a game-saving catch as he was all alone on his side of the field.
Big Man on Campus (Offense): Wisconsin's Montee Ball has had quite a career, so when he sets a career high, that's saying something. His 247 yards (on 29 carries) versus Purdue were a personal best. His three touchdowns also gave him 72 for his career, moving him past Ron Dayne as the Big Ten's all-time leading touchdown maker. He needs seven more to break the NCAA record. If he keeps playing like he did Saturday, he'll smash it.
Big Man on Campus (Defense): Michigan's Jake Ryan collected 11 tackles, including 3.5 for loss and a sack, and forced a fumble in the Wolverines' 45-0 annihilation of Illinois. We'd say he's playing like his hair is on fire, but his golden locks are so long it might take him a while to feel any follicular conflagration.
Big Man on Campus (Special teams): Iowa's Mike Meyer was 4-for-4 on field goals, including two in overtime and the 42-yard game winner against Michigan State. Meyer has made 14 out of 15 this year and has connected on his past 13 attempts. For a team that struggles to score, Meyer has been extra valuable.
Worst hangover: Michigan State. Adam and I are frantically going back through all our offseason blog posts and erasing the word "State" every time we picked Michigan State to win the Big Ten in 2012. At this point, the Spartans are not even guaranteed of making a bowl game, sitting at 4-3 with tough games left against Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Northwestern, plus a trip to Minnesota. How'd we miss so bad on the Spartans? Neither of us thought their offense would be this dreadful. And while their defense has been very good, it has had to be heroic to carry the entire team, and that's asking too much every week. Michigan State has somehow lost three home games this year after it had won 15 in a row at Spartan Stadium. The Notre Dame and Ohio State losses were forgivable to a degree. Losing to an Iowa team that had only 257 total yards and one touchdown? Not so much.
Strangest moment: There are helmet-to-helmet hits, and then there are, apparently, shoulder-to-decal hits. That's what happened in Saturday's Northwestern-Minnesota game. Wildcats safety Ibraheim Campbell collided with Gophers tailback Donnell Kirkwood so solidly that most of the gold "M" on one side of Kirkwood's helmet came off on the play. Campbell got the worst of that hit, but Northwestern got the 21-13 road win.
- Wisconsin RB Montee Ball: He's back. After a big finish last week against Illinois, Ball ran all over Purdue in Saturday's blowout 38-14 win at Ross-Ade Stadium. Ball racked up a career-high 247 rush yards and three touchdowns on 29 carries, highlighted by a 67-yard scoring dash early in the third quarter. The Badgers senior set the Big Ten career record for touchdowns and moved into third place on the NCAA's all-time list with 72. This fall definitely can still belong to Ball.
- Iowa's defense: We debated giving this to kicker Mike Meyer, who tied a career best with four field goals to continue a brilliant season. But Iowa's collective effort on defense won the game at Michigan State. Standouts included tackling machine Anthony Hitchens (15 tackles), defensive lineman Joe Gaglione (10 tackles, sack), linebacker Christian Kirksey (7 tackles, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble, 1 pass breakup), cornerback Greg Castillo (game-clinching interception) and linebacker James Morris (10 tackles, 1 tackle for loss). Iowa's defense has rebounded well from the Central Michigan debacle and put the team in a tie for first place in the Legends division.
- Northwestern RB Venric Mark: Where would Northwestern's offense be without Mark? The junior has come out of nowhere to put himself in the race for Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors. Mark scored a 26-yard touchdown on the first play from scrimmage against Minnesota and finished with a career-best 182 rush yards and two scores, 151 yards in the opening half. Mark had 213 all-purpose yards in the Wildcats' 21-13 win. He has four 100-yard rushing performances this season and eight rushing touchdowns.
- Michigan LB Jake Ryan: Aside from Penn State's Michael Mauti, no Big Ten defender is playing as well as Ryan right now. The Wolverines sophomore has blossomed during the past month and turned in another terrific performance against Illinois, recording team highs in tackles (11), tackles for loss (3.5) and sacks (1.5). He also had a forced fumble that led to a Michigan touchdown in the 45-0 win. Wolverines quarterback Denard Robinson (128 rush yards, 159 pass yards, 4 total TDs) also merits a mention after eclipsing the 10,000-yard mark for his career.
- Ohio State QB Braxton Miller: It's big news when Miller doesn't receive a helmet sticker. The sophomore continues to impress with both his feet and his arm. He had 23 carries for 149 yards and a touchdown and completed 13 of 24 passes for 211 yards with two touchdowns and an interception in a 52-49 win at Indiana. Although the interception was bad, Miller's passing numbers should have been a lot better as Devin Smith had some key drops. Running back Carlos Hyde merits a mention after his second consecutive 100-yard rushing performance (22 carries, 156 yards, 1 TD).
Team of the week: Michigan State. The Spartans' 17-13 win over Boise State wasn't a thing of beauty. They turned the ball over four times, committed way too many penalties and needed a late score to eke out a victory in a game they statistically dominated. But the bottom line is this: Michigan State beat a ranked nonconference team. No other Big Ten team can say that, and outside of possibly the Notre Dame games, no other league team will even get the chance to do so.
Game of the week: In a week when six of the 12 Big Ten games were decided by a touchdown or fewer, Northwestern's 42-41 win over Syracuse still stood out. The wild affair featured lots of big plays -- such as Venric Mark's 82-yard touchdown on a punt return, Chi Chi Ariguzo's 33-yard fumble return for a score and Ryan Nassib's 50-yard touchdown pass to Jeremiah Kobena on the final play of the third quarter. There were also enormous momentum swings, as the Wildcats went from up 35-13 to down 41-35 in a little more than a quarter. And of course, it had the great finish, as Northwestern drove for the winning touchdown with 44 seconds left when Trevor Siemian found Demetrius Fields from 9 yards out.
Best call: Trailing Northern Illinois 17-12 late in the fourth quarter, Iowa faced a third-and-9 from the Huskies' 23. All game long, Northern Illinois had blitzed on third downs and flustered quarterback James Vandenberg. This time, the Hawkeyes went with a running play. NIU brought the pressure as expected, and Iowa got seal blocks from Zach Derby, Brandon Scherff and Matt Tobin. Running back Damon Bullock ran untouched into the end zone for the game-winning score.
“I told Coach after, 'That was just a brilliant call,'" Bullock told reporters. "I wasn’t even expecting it. It was third down and I was ready to pass-block."
Big Man on Campus (offense): It's a tie between Michigan State's Bell, who had a superhuman performance against Boise State with 265 total yards on 50 touches, and Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez, who had a career day with 354 passing yards and five touchdowns. Both should be getting some Heisman attention after Week 1.
Big Man on Campus (defense): Minnesota safety Derrick Wells had two interceptions against UNLV, both of which set up field goals in the Gophers' 30-27 triple-overtime victory. Wells' second pick allowed Minnesota to kick the game winner in the third extra period. Honorable mention to Illinois' Michael Buchanan (a sack and an interception against Western Michigan) and Iowa's Joe Gaglione (three TFL's versus Northern Illinois).
Big Man on Campus (special teams): Northwestern's Mark averaged 67 yards on two punt returns and had that key touchdown. Special recognition to Iowa's Greg Castillo, who made a great play to down a punt on the 1-yard line and change field position late, and Purdue's Kawann Short, who blocked a field goal and an extra point against Eastern Kentucky.
Worst hangover: It's tough to choose between Penn State and Michigan. The Nittany Lions lost their opener to Ohio, adding to what has already been an extraordinarily difficult year. They could be looking at a long season with little letup in the schedule. As for the Wolverines, they were major underdogs against Alabama. But they were thoroughly clobbered in every aspect against the Crimson Tide, and Brady Hoke's pained facial expressions in the second half said it all. If injured starters Blake Countess and Taylor Lewan have to miss significant time, the Alabama loss could add to Michigan's hangover in a big way.
Strangest moment: We're not questioning Bill O'Brien's judgment, and he came to Penn State from the New England Patriots, an organization that knows something about moving players into unexpected roles. Still, it was awfully strange seeing All-Big Ten linebacker Gerald Hodges returning kicks and punts against Ohio. The 237-pounder looked awkward doing so and fumbled a punt return at his own 13 to set up a Bobcats field goal. That's not what cost Penn State the game, but it sure was a weird and totally surprising sight that we might not see again this season.
- Tim Beckman is taking his campaign to the streets of Champaign, getting the word out about the new era of Illinois football.
- Which true freshman running back will emerge for Iowa this year? A closer look at Hawkeyes cornerback Greg Castillo.
- Michigan has already beaten Alabama -- at least for highly rated defensive tackle recruit Henry Poggi.
- Michigan State defensive tackle Matt Ramondo is transferring back home to New Mexico State.
- Nebraska coach Bo Pelini opposes a playoff system of any sort. Walk-on quarterback Ryker Fyfe is a gem the Huskers must polish.
- The Big Ten is being flexible in the playoff debate, Teddy Greenstein writes.
- Northwestern's Jeremy Ebert continues to prove doubters wrong as he starts his career with the New England Patriots.
- Ohio State's Jake Stoneburner and Jack Mewhort have been suspended after a misdemeanor arrest. John Simon says the Buckeyes will be "playing for each other" in 2012.
- Penn State coach Bill O'Brien brought a powerful message to a fundraising event. A Philly receiver starred at a Nittany Lions skills camp and came away with a scholarship offer.
- Purdue coached up its fans at an event.
- Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez says the media should have a prominent role in selecting playoff participants.
- Weather could help the Big Ten derail the SEC. Too bad we'll never know.
- The Pac-12 did not take a formal position on playoffs at its meeting, but still favors conference champions and wants to protect the Rose Bowl.
Here are a few highlights from what Ferentz had to say:
-- Ferentz said several players had emerged over the course of the spring. He singled out the defensive line, which went into the spring as a real question mark because of its youth and inexperience. Ferentz said sophomore Louis Trinca-Pasat might have made the most progress.
"He was kind of on the ropes back in December, quite frankly," Ferentz said. "A young guy who really was starting to question where his heart was and how important it was to him, and it showed up in his performance. He was out there, he looked OK, but nothing to write home about.
"In the spring, he's really just quietly emerged, and by the second half of spring ball, he's playing as well as anybody on the field either side of the ball. So he's clearly taken some steps."
Ferentz also said Steve Bigach and Joe Gaglione played well in spring, while Darian Cooper and Riley McMinn showed the typical inconsistency of inexperience. But "the group as a whole, kind of took some steps forward," which is vitally important to the Hawkeyes' chances this season.
The other position group Ferentz praised for its improvement was the tight ends. He said Jake Duzey and Henry Krieger-Coble had good springs.
-- Offensive lineman Casey McMillan and receiver John Chelf suffered knee injuries that required surgery. But Ferentz thinks both will be back this summer. Defensive linemen Carl Davis and Dominic Alvis missed the spring with injuries but should be back by the first week of June. Linebacker Shane DiBona, coming off an Achilles injury, had a setback and will not play again in his career.
-- Running back Jordan Canzeri, who had an offseason ACL injury, wants to try to get back for this season. Ferentz said, "Everything is going fine, but that's touch and go, to say the least."
The two healthy tailbacks, De'Andre Johnson and Damon Bullock "improved pretty much each and every day," Ferentz said. But he's still understandably concerned about the depth there. In a lighter moment, someone asked Ferentz if he'd be open to accepting a graduate transfer, a la Danny O'Brien and Russell Wilson.
"I think I'd consider anything if we thought it would work," he said. "In fact, if you know of any running backs right now ..."
-- Iowa's leadership group for 2012 will be seniors Bigach, Greg Castillo, James Ferentz, Micah Hyde and James Vandenberg, juniors Casey Kreiter, James Morris, Brad Rogers and Brett Van Sloten, sophomores Kevonte Martin-Manley and Brandon Scherff and freshmen Quinton Alston, Austin Blythe and Jake Rudock.
-- Ferentz said "anywhere on defense," receiver and punter remain unsettled positions. The best news is that it's still early.
"We still have a lot of room for improvement, typical of any football team," Ferentz said. "But I think this team, especially with our youth and experience, we're going to see a lot of transition and a lot of things happening here between now and September. That's going to be fun to track, fun to watch. It's really in the players' hands how they want to approach it and how much they want to improve."
The Hawkeyes on Friday released their depth chart for the season opener against Tennessee Tech. Not too many surprises here.
A few notes:
- Only three spots list co-starters: Matt Tobin and Brandon Scherff at left guard, Matt Meyers and Jonathan Gimm at fullback, and Thomas Nardo and Dominic Alvis at defensive tackle. Alvis also is listed as a backup at defensive end behind Lebron Daniel. Fullback Brad Rogers, sidelined before the Insight Bowl with a heart issue, isn't listed on the two-deep.
- Redshirt freshman quarterback A.J. Derby seems to be stepping up his game, as he's listed as a co-backup with junior John Wienke.
- After starting last season at cornerback, Micah Hyde is listed as Iowa's starting free safety, ahead of Tanner Miller. Hyde also is a backup cornerback behind Greg Castillo. Junior Collin Sleeper is listed as the starting strong safety, while Jordan Bernstine is a backup at both strong safety and cornerback. There's not a ton of depth in the Iowa secondary, which could be a problem.
- Junior Jason White is listed as the backup running back behind Marcus Coker.
- Sophomore Christian Kirksey is listed as the starting weak-side linebacker ahead of classmate Anthony Hitchens.
- Iowa's return men for both kickoffs and punts are to be determined.
The Big Ten preseason position rankings have reached the home stretch as we take a look at the defensive secondaries. Although individual positions like center and defensive tackle could boast more star power, the Big Ten's overall strength in the secondary jumps out.
There's a lot to like about the Big Ten cornerbacks as nearly every team boasts experience and/or exciting young players. The Big Ten loses All-Conference safeties Tyler Sash and Jermale Hines but brings back quite a few solid contributors.
There's definite separation after the top four groups, while Nos. 5-9 are extremely close.
Here's the rundown (coming soon: cornerbacks and safeties rankings) ...
1. Penn State: The Lions' linebackers seem to be generating more preseason buzz, but I really like what Penn State brings back in the defensive backfield. There's plenty of experience with safeties Drew Astorino and Nick Sukay, and cornerbacks D'Anton Lynn and Stephon Morris. Penn State needs Sukay to regain the form he showed in the first half of 2010 before a torn pectoral muscle ended his season. Lynn is a bona fide All-Big Ten candidate. If Malcolm Willis, Chaz Powell and others solidify depth here, Penn State should have an elite secondary.
2. Ohio State: This is a group the Buckeyes rarely have to worry about, even after losing three starters. The good news is several key players return from injuries, including safeties Tyler Moeller, C.J. Barnett and Christian Bryant. Moeller should provide a major boost at the "star" position. The cornerback spots should be fun to watch as Travis Howard and Dominic Clarke fend off some challengers for the starting jobs.
3. Nebraska: Like Ohio State, Nebraska can rely on having an elite pass defense under the Pelini brothers, even after losing several standout players. All-American corner Prince Amukamara will be missed, but Alfonzo Dennard is ready for a starring role. Nebraska needs Ciante Evans to follow what Dennard did in 2010. The Huskers likely will use more linebackers this year, but they'll need to fill holes at safety as Austin Cassidy, Courtney Osborne and others are in the mix.
4. Wisconsin: The Badgers' secondary took a major step forward in Chris Ash's first season on the staff. The key is continued progress, continued playmaking and becoming a truly elite group like Ohio State and Nebraska. Wisconsin seems to have the pieces in place with veteran Aaron Henry at safety, as well as All-Big Ten selection Antonio Fenelus and Devin Smith at cornerback. The Badgers must fill the other safety spot, and speedster Shelton Johnson could fill in there.
5. Michigan State: The secondary triggered Michigan State's 2010 turnaround, improving from 112th nationally in pass defense in 2009 to 60th last season. After recording 17 interceptions last year, the Spartans must stick to their MAP motto -- Make A Play -- as they aim for a repeat championship this fall. Safety Trenton Robinson is among the league's most experienced defensive backs, and hopes are high for cornerback Johnny Adams, who had an excellent spring. The unit could hinge on young players like Darqueze Dennard, Isaiah Lewis and Tony Lippett.
6. Iowa: The bad news is Iowa loses veteran safeties Sash and Brett Greenwood from a defense that slipped to 84th nationally against the pass in 2010. The good news is All-Big Ten cornerback Shaun Prater returns along with playmaking junior Micah Hyde. Prater could be a shut-down corner this fall, and Hyde, whose pick-six won the Insight Bowl, could play either corner or safety. Iowa must build depth around them with Jordan Bernstine, Greg Castillo, Tanner Miller and others.
7. Purdue: One of the Boilers' big question marks entering 2010 turned out to be a pleasant surprise, and the secondary could be a big strength this fall. Here's a group that could make a move up these rankings by November. Cornerback Ricardo Allen is a budding superstar who recorded two pick-sixes last year. Safety Logan Link is always around the football, and Josh Johnson could take a significant step as he complements Allen.
8. Illinois: I'm tempted to rank Illinois a few notches higher, and if the Illini address several questions in the secondary, I'll gladly do so after the season. If safety Supo Sanni returns to form and both he and cornerback Terry Hawthorne stay healthy, this could be an excellent group. Tavon Wilson returns to his preferred position of cornerback and could have a big year, while Trulon Henry brings experience to the safety spot.
9. Northwestern: Given the question marks in the front seven, Northwestern needs its veteran secondary to step up. Players like cornerback Jordan Mabin and safety Brian Peters should answer the bell this fall. Both multiyear starters can make plays on the football and change games. There's good competition between David Arnold and Ibraheim Campbell at the other safety spot, while Jeravin Matthews emerged this spring to win the starting corner job opposite Mabin.
10. Michigan: I'll probably take some heat from Wolverines fans, who will point to the return of cornerbacks Troy Woolfolk and J.T. Floyd, the emergence of young players like Carvin Johnson and a defensive makeover under Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison. All of that could lead to better results, but Michigan still has fewer certainties in the secondary than do most teams on this list. This unit has been a disaster the past few years, and it'll take a lot of things to go right to get things back on track.
11. Minnesota: Linebacker looks like a strength for the Gophers' defense, but there are questions both up front and in the secondary. The secondary will need more help from a line that generated no pass rush in 2010, but the defensive backs must help themselves, too. Cornerback Troy Stoudermire had a good spring and adds a big hitter to the group. Minnesota really needs big things from safety Kim Royston, who wants to lead the way after receiving a sixth year of eligibility. Building depth around Stoudermire and Royston will be vital in preseason camp.
12. Indiana: Fixing this group is arguably the biggest challenge for new coach Kevin Wilson and co-defensive coordinators Mike Ekeler and Doug Mallory. Indiana simply hasn't had enough Big Ten-caliber defensive backs in recent years, and the results have been ugly. The Hoosiers surrendered a league-worst 27 touchdown passes in 2010 and finished 114th nationally in pass defense efficiency. Sophomore safety Greg Heban is a nice piece, but Indiana will need a boost from Lawrence Barnett, Lenyatta Kiles and others.
(And then there's Purdue, which didn't include a depth chart in its game notes for Notre Dame. Ugh.)
I've had the chance to review depth charts from those programs that released them today -- two-deeps from Illinois, Michigan State and Minnesota are coming soon -- and I checked in on several coaches' news conferences.
Here's what stood out:
- Even though Indiana will shift to a 3-4 defensive alignment this year, the depth chart lists a 4-3 with Darius Johnson and Fred Jones as the starting ends and Chad Sherer and Tyler Replogle flanking junior college transfer Jeff Thomas at linebacker.
- Interesting to see several veteran offensive linemen like Justin Pagan and Cody Faulkner listed as backups rather than starters. Junior Andrew McDonald steps into some big shoes at left tackle as Rodger Saffold departs to the NFL.
- The backup quarterback job remains open, as Dusty Kiel and Edward Wright-Baker are both listed as No. 2 behind Ben Chappell.
- Indiana expects big things from redshirt freshman Duwyce Wilson, listed as a starter at wide receiver, kick returner and punt returner.
- Sophomores Micah Hyde and Greg Castillo are listed as the starting cornerbacks. Shaun Prater doesn't appear on the depth chart after dealing with a leg injury in camp. Prater hasn't been officially ruled out for the Eastern Illinois game, but I wouldn't expect to see much of him on Saturday.
- James Ferentz is listed as the starting center, a spot where Iowa might be a little thin following Josh Koeppel's motorcycle accident Monday morning.
- Starting defensive end Broderick Binns is suspended for the opener, so Christian Ballard is listed as a possible starter at both end and tackle. Mike Daniels and Lebron Daniel are the next options behind Ballard.
- Sophomores Denard Robinson and Tate Forcier and freshman Devin Gardner are listed as co-starters at quarterback. Head coach Rich Rodriguez reiterated Monday that Gardner won't redshirt this fall.
- Vincent Smith and Michael Shaw are listed as co-starters at running back, with Michael Cox behind them.
- True freshman Carvin Johnson is listed as the starter at the spur position (safety/linebacker). Pretty big surprise here, and a testament to Johnson's work in camp.
- Senior James Rogers steps into Troy Woolfolk's starting cornerback spot opposite J.T. Floyd.
- Receivers Martavious Odoms and Kelvin Grady clearly showed enough in camp to be listed as starters or possible starters against Connecticut.
- Sophomore running back Arby Fields returned to practice Monday and wore a no-contact jersey after being sidelined with a shoulder problem. He's listed as a co-starter at running back with Jacob Schmidt and Stephen Simmons. Northwestern wanted a clear No. 1 running back to emerge in camp, but Fields' injury changed the plan.
- Junior Bryce McNaul is listed as the third top linebacker alongside returning starters Quentin Davie and Nate Williams. McNaul won the job in camp.
- Venric Mark is the only true freshman listed on the depth chart, both as a backup wide receiver and a co-starter at punt returner. I'll go out on a huge limb (sarcasm) and predict Mark will be the man on returns for the Wildcats very shortly.
- Junior defensive end Nathan Williams, a projected starter, will miss the Marshall game with a knee injury. He should be back shortly thereafter. Solomon Thomas will start in Williams' spot Thursday night.
- Starting cornerback Chimdi Chekwa (hamstring) is questionable for the Marshall game, but corner Devon Torrence (hamstring) should be fine.
- Sophomore C.J. Barnett's strong performance in camp lifted him ahead of Orhian Johnson on the Week 1 depth chart. Johnson missed a chunk of camp with an injury.
- Start salivating, Buckeyes fans, because running backs Jordan Hall and Jaamal Berry likely will handle kickoff returns against Marshall.
- Sophomores Kevin Newsome and Matt McGloin and freshman Robert Bolden are listed as co-starters at quarterback for the Youngstown State game.
- Sophomore Devon Smith's strong camp landed him a starting spot at both receiver and kick returner, and a backup role on punt returns.
- Redshirt freshman Garry Gilliam is listed as the starting tight end, as Andrew Szczerba likely will miss the opener with a back injury. Penn State obviously is thin here after losing Andrew Quarless and Mickey Shuler.
- Veterans Nate Stupar, Chris Colasanti and Bani Gbadyu are listed as the starting linebackers, with promising younger players like Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges right behind them.
- After a very impressive camp, freshman running back James White appears at No. 3 on the depth chart behind both John Clay and Montee Ball. White also is the No. 2 punt returner behind David Gilreath. His emergence likely will result in veteran Zach Brown redshirting the season.
- Senior Blake Sorensen likely will start at outside linebacker, as Mike Taylor continues to rehab after undergoing a second procedure on his knee in camp. Culmer St. Jean and Chris Borland are listed as the other starting linebackers.
- The starting cornerback spots remain open, as Niles Brinkley, Antonio Fenelus and Devin Smith will compete in practice this week.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Iowa junior cornerback Jordan Bernstine broke his ankle in practice Wednesday and will need surgery, according to a report in the Des Moines Register.
Bernstine's high school coach, Tom Mihalovich, who spoke to Bernstine's mother, told the newspaper that Bernstine sustained the injury during drills.
"He was one of the gunners going down in coverage," Mihalovich said of what he learned from Bernstine's mother. "I guess he was shuffling and rolled it over, snapped it pretty good."
Bernstine entered preseason camp as a starter after earning the top job in the spring. He appeared in 12 games as a reserve last fall and recorded 12 tackles and an interception.
The apparent loss of Bernstine thins Iowa's depth at cornerback, at least early in the season. Shaun Prater will be suspended for the Hawkeyes' first two games following a drunken driving arrest in February. Sophomore William Lowe and redshirt freshman Greg Castillo are the next men in at corner opposite standout Amari Spievey.
I'll try to confirm Bernstine's injury with Iowa this morning, so check back for updates.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
It seems like every Big Ten team names a leadership council these days, so the fact Iowa announced its 2009 version doesn't come as major news.
But what stands out about Iowa's leadership group is the inclusion of junior Adrian Clayborn.
The starting defensive end was arrested in March for assault causing injury after allegedly punching a taxi driver during a traffic jam in Iowa City on Jan. 18. Clayborn pleaded not guilty to the charge and participated in all of spring practice.
"Sometimes there are two sides to stories," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said at the start of spring ball. "Sometimes you have enough evidence in front of you where you're pretty sure something needs to be done and sometimes you don't. It's about as simple as that.
"Based on what I know right now, I can tell you pretty clearly I'm not sure what happened. I can tell you as far as Adrian goes, Adrian's been an exemplary student and citizen since he's been here. He's been a great team member, conducted himself above and beyond."
Clayborn's inclusion on the Iowa leadership group affirms where he stands with the team and suggests that his teammates fully expect him to be a major contributor this fall. When I sat down with Ferentz a few weeks ago, he singled out both Clayborn and fellow end Christian Ballard as leaders on the defensive line.
Here's the full list of Iowa's 13-man leadership group:
- Linebacker Pat Angerer
- Defensive end Broderick Binns
- Left tackle Bryan Bulaga
- Cornerback Greg Castillo
- Defensive end Adrian Clayborn
- Linebacker A.J. Edds
- Safety Brett Greenwood
- Wide receiver Marvin McNutt
- Tight end Tony Moeaki
- Linebacker Tyler Nielsen
- Safety Tyler Sash
- Quarterback Ricky Stanzi
- Quarterback James Vandenberg