Big Ten: Illinis Fighting Illini

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

 
 Matthew Emmons/US Presswire
 Tackle Alex Boone is one of four returning starters on the Buckeyes' offensive line.

All of the previous positions I ranked (quarterback, running back, wide receiver/tight end) matter little without sturdy offensive lines to block for them. And despite lingering questions about its speed, the Big Ten continues to churn out elite linemen. The league has had three offensive linemen selected in the top 5 of the NFL draft in the last two years, including former Michigan tackle Jake Long, the No. 1 overall pick in April. Several elite players return this fall, including Ohio State tackle Alex Boone and Penn State center A.Q. Shipley, but offensive lines should always be graded as a group. Four teams look very solid up front. The rest of the league? Not so much.

Here's the rundown:

1. Ohio State -- Led by Boone, who passed up NFL bucks for another national title push, the Buckeyes bring back four of five starters up front. Sophomore Bryant Browning emerged at right tackle in spring ball and joins a group that helped Beanie Wells finish 11th nationally in rushing last season. If the first-team unit stays healthy, the offense will surge this fall.

2. Penn State -- All five starters return to a unit that mirrored Ohio State in both sacks allowed and rushing production last season. Shipley and guard Rich Ohrnberger solidify the interior line along with Stefen Wisniewski, who last year became the first true freshman offensive lineman to start at Penn State since 1999. Hopes are high for whip-smart left tackle Gerald Cadogan.

3. Wisconsin -- The Badgers lost no starters and feature All-Big Ten candidates throughout the line. So why isn't this unit rated higher? Wisconsin finished 91st nationally in sacks allowed with 33 last season, a number that must go down with a new starting quarterback. Four-year starter Kraig Urbik and Andy Kemp form the league's best guard tandem, and sophomore left tackle Gabe Carimi held his own last fall after succeeding Joe Thomas.

4. Illinois -- If not for two vacancies, the Illini would be higher on the list. They allowed just 16 sacks last fall, the second fewest in the league, and had the Big Ten's top rushing attack. All-conference candidates Ryan McDonald and Xavier Fulton return. If Ryan Palmer solidifies the right tackle spot, this group will have a big season.

5. Michigan State -- Replacing all-conference left tackle Pete Clifford became a priority this spring, and Michigan State filled the gap with talented junior Rocco Cironi. If Cironi can effectively protect Brian Hoyer's blind side, the interior line should be solid with returning starters Roland Martin and Joel Nitchman. Depth is a concern, and several incoming freshmen could help.

6. Purdue -- Health is the biggest question for Purdue after mainstay Sean Sester, Zach Jones and Zack Reckman missed spring practice with injuries. Head-coach-in-waiting Danny Hope needs all three returning starters at full strength in camp. The all-important center spot could feature an intriguing competition, as freshman Andrew Brewer joins the mix with Cory Benton and Jared Zwilling.

7. Iowa -- A veteran group could definitely climb the list, but after hemorrhaging for 46 sacks last fall, significant improvement is needed. Guard Seth Olsen anchors the line in his third season as a starter. Though several other full-time or part-time starters return, Olsen's spot appears to be the only safe one entering preseason camp.

8. Michigan -- Strength coach Mike Barwis will try to work his magic with a group that returns only one starter, right tackle Stephen Schilling. A lot hinges on junior Mark Ortmann, who succeeds Long at left tackle. If Ortmann steps in smoothly and David Moosman locks up the center spot, the Wolverines might be fine. Coach Rich Rodriguez needs linemen who can fit in his system, and if need be, he'll look to incoming freshmen like Ricky Barnum.

9. Indiana -- The left side looks strong with Rodger Saffold and Pete Saxon, but there are questions elsewhere. A lot is riding on a talented group of sophomore linemen that includes potential starters Alex Perry and Mike Stark. Sacks were a problem at times last season, and the Hoosiers must generate a stronger rushing attack outside of quarterback Kellen Lewis.

10. Minnesota -- Of all the Gophers' problems last season, the offensive line wasn't one of them. Minnesota allowed a league-low 13 sacks and ranked third in pass offense. But the departures of left tackle Steve Shidell and center Tony Brinkhaus raise questions up front. Hopes are high for sophomore left tackle Dominic Alford, but a young group must build chemistry.

11. Northwestern -- The Wildcats lost mainstays at both center and left tackle, and right tackle Kurt Mattes is the only returning starter who secured his job. A lot is riding on three young players -- freshman left tackle Al Netter, sophomore left guard Keegan Grant and freshman center Ben Burkett. If those three step up, a veteran group of skill players will put up points.

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