Big Ten: James Ferentz

Iowa season preview

August, 20, 2013
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Can Iowa rebound from a down year or will Kirk Ferentz find himself on the hot seat again? A look at the 2013 Hawkeyes:

IOWA HAWKEYES

Coach: Kirk Ferentz (100-74 overall, 100-74 at Iowa)

2012 record: 4-8 (2-6 Big Ten)

Key losses: QB James Vandenberg, WR Keenan Davis, OG Matt Tobin, C James Ferentz, DL Joe Gaglione, CB Micah Hyde

Key returnees: RB Mark Weisman, WR Kevonte Martin-Manley, TE C.J. Fiedorowicz, OT Brandon Scherff, C Austin Blythe, LB Anthony Hitchens, LB James Morris, LB Christian Kirksey, S Tanner Miller

Newcomer to watch: WR Damond Powell. He was No. 83 on the ESPN Juco 100, and Iowa's passing game sorely needs a boost after averaging just 5.8 yards an attempt last season. (Only eight teams in the FBS fared worse than that.) It might take a few more weeks for Powell to get acclimated -- he arrived on campus only earlier this month -- but the speedy wideout could develop into a big-play threat. He averaged about 30 yards a catch at Snow College.

Biggest games in 2013: at Iowa State (Sept. 14), at Ohio State (Oct. 19), versus Wisconsin (Nov. 2), at Nebraska (Nov. 29)

[+] EnlargeJake Rudock
AP Photo/Matt QuinnanJake Rudock seems to have the inside track to be Iowa's quarterback in 2013.
Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Which quarterback will start this season, and can he be more effective than Vandenberg? It's a three-way race right now between Jake Rudock, Cody Sokol and C.J. Beathard, but Rudock appears to have the edge. Ferentz could name a starter later this week, and Rudock received most of the snaps during a Saturday scrimmage.

The good news for Rudock is there's really nowhere for this pass offense to go but up. Big plays were few and far between in 2012, and Rudock is at least a bit more used to offensive coordinator Greg Davis now. (Davis took over in February 2012.) The Hawkeyes finished No. 99 in pass offense last season with Vandenberg, and it would be a huge disappointment if Rudock didn't improve upon those numbers. Expectations at quarterback are low enough for Rudock to exceed them.

Forecast: Ferentz is coming off his worst season since 2000, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that a lot of question marks are surrounding this team. The Hawkeyes finished with the No. 114 offense last season and Iowa lost its best defensive player in Hyde.

Still, there is some hope for these Hawkeyes. If the running backs can remain healthy -- and that's a big if for Iowa -- the offensive line is strong enough to pave the way and greatly improve upon the team's dismal rushing performance from last year. And, despite the downright awful pass game, Iowa lost by a field goal or less in four games, so the potential's there to add more marks in the win column. The Hawkeyes just need to find a downfield threat and a playmaker or two.

On defense, the line needs to generate more of a pass rush, but the talent on the other side of the ball isn't a huge concern (certainly not on par with the passing game). With a strong group of three returning linebackers, the Hawkeyes should have one of the stronger groups of the conference.

Iowa isn't going to compete for a division title, but it should improve upon last year's record. Five or six wins isn't out of the question. But if Ferentz can't meet those numbers, the chatter about a pending pink slip -- prohibitive buyout or not -- is sure to start up again.
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.
Big Ten spring football is finally in full swing as Iowa on Wednesday became the 12th and final league team to hit the practice field. The return to the gridiron can't come a moment too soon for the Hawkeyes, who went 4-8 in 2012, their worst record since coach Kirk Ferentz's second season at the helm (2000). It has been another offseason of transition for Iowa as Ferentz welcomes three new full-time assistants (Chris White, Bobby Kennedy and Jim Reid) for a second consecutive year. Finding a quarterback tops Iowa's spring agenda, and the team also needs to identify a center and more playmakers on both sides of the ball.

ESPN.com caught up with Ferentz on Wednesday to discuss the spring.

What are the main objectives for you guys this spring?

Kirk Ferentz: Like any spring, you've got a lot of players on a lot of different levels. You've got experienced players, and we're certainly counting on them improving and developing into leaders. You've got younger guys who have played, and you're hoping they're ready to play more proficiently. And then you've got other guys who, in some cases, are special-teams guys who have a chance to become offensive and defensive role players, or guys who haven't been on the field yet. So you have a lot of layers of players at different levels. The biggest thing is trying to gauge where they're at, and at the same time, you're trying to find out what they can do and pull a team together. It's always a fun period and a really interesting period.

How has the transition on the staff this year gone so far, especially in relation to last year? You had quite a long period without any changes on your staff.

KF: Last year was probably a little more dramatic with two new coordinators. Norm [Parker] and Ken [O'Keefe] were here 13 years, so they were big departures. We've got Phil [Parker] and Greg [Davis] both in their second years, and they're both tremendous coaches. What's unusual is how long we were all together at one time. Usually staffs don't stay in one place for 13, 14 years. Normally they move to the next channel and you have a new group of folks coming in. So it's a natural series of transitions. The way I look at it, we've had six new members join the staff in the last two years, and it's a matter of pulling everything together. But I'm really excited about all the guys who have joined. They're outstanding coaches, and it looks like they're all going to be great fits here at Iowa. At the same time, I'm very appreciative of the guys who had been here and helped us move things.

Is the transition harder for the players or the new coaches?

KF: There's learning on both sides. The players to have learn their coaches, certainly, and the coaches have a lot to learn about the players. That can be a healthy thing, too. It's a clean slate and a fresh beginning for everybody. For players, it's a whole new opportunity.

Offensively, it wasn't what you were hoping for last year. Is it a total reset this year with some new faces, or are there some things you can continue from last year?

[+] EnlargeKirk Ferentz
Byron Hetzler/USA TODAY SportsThough Kirk Ferentz lost his starting quarterback and center, he said he's more optimistic about Iowa's offense than he was a year ago.
KF: It may be ironic. We feel more comfortable and more optimistic right now than we did a year ago about the offense. The part that's ironic is we lost a two-year starter at quarterback [James Vandenberg]. We had James play a lot at quarterback and James Ferentz played like 38 games at center, so you have two guys right in the middle of things who aren't going to be there. But I look around at other positions and we've got a lot of guys coming back who have played in the system and who I think are more capable now of playing at a higher level than they were a year ago. That's got us excited. That being said, we've got to find replacements for both Jameses. We've got to find a replacement for Keenan Davis and Matt Tobin, to start with. But I look at the group coming back and as recent as late last August, we didn't know if Damon Bullock could play in this conference successfully, and we had no idea Mark Weisman could run the ball. So I think we're a lot further down the road than we were even eight months ago, 10 months ago.

When you and Greg looked at things, did you identify areas to target for the spring?

KF: Greg came in, this was all new to him, the players were all new to him. His knowledge of our personnel is a lot more extensive than it was a year ago at this time. And that was one of the reasons I was so attracted to Greg in the hiring process, his ability historically to work with a lot of different types of players and different types of offenses. He wasn't married to one system. There's nothing like experience, and he's got a real good grip on who our players are, what they can do and what we can do to help them be more productive.

(Read full post)

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.
The college football postseason all-star games kick off in the next few weeks, so I thought it would be a good time to see who from the Big Ten is headed where. These games feature NFL draft hopefuls from around the sport, and we'll have full coverage of each contest, particularly the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala.

These rosters will be updated in the coming days, but here are lists of confirmed attendees.

SENIOR BOWL

When: Jan. 26 Where: Mobile, Ala.
EAST-WEST SHRINE GAME

When: Jan. 19
Where: St. Petersburg, Fla. NFLPA COLLEGIATE BOWL

When: Jan. 19
Where: Carson, Calif. RAYCOM COLLEGE FOOTBALL ALL-STAR CLASSIC

When: Jan. 19
Where: Montgomery, Ala. CASINO DEL SOL COLLEGE ALL-STAR GAME

When: Jan. 11
Where: Tucson, Ariz.

Big Ten lunchtime links

November, 7, 2012
11/07/12
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Rejoice: no more political ads!
Perhaps we've been looking at this Iowa running back "curse" thing all wrong.

It's true that the long list of calamities that have befallen Hawkeyes players at that position zoomed past the point of absurd a while ago (for a refresher, click here). AIRHBG, a term first coined by fan blog Black Heart Gold Pants that stands for Angry Iowa Running Back Hating God, has become such an accepted acronym that it now has its own web page, Twitter account and entry in the Urban Dictionary.

Superstitious types would be wise not to get on an elevator or cross a rickety bridge with the current starting Iowa tailback. Yet how can a position truly be cursed when the Hawkeyes keep finding ways to succeed there despite ridiculous obstacles?

So Adam Robinson gets kicked off the team in 2010. Freshman Marcus Coker steps in and rumbles for 219 yards in a bowl game. So Coker leaves the team after last season, and other options are sidelined in the offseason. Little-used Damon Bullock steps in and runs for 150 yards and the game-winning score against Northern Illinois in the opener.

[+] EnlargeIowa's Mark Weisman
David Purdy/US PRESSWIREWalk-on fullback Mark Weisman rushed for 113 yards and three touchdowns against Northern Iowa.
So Bullock suffers a concussion in the first half last week against Northern Iowa, while backup Greg Garmon hurts his elbow. Well, this one really gets crazy. Iowa turns to walk-on fullback Mark Weisman, and he responds with 24 carries for 113 yards and three touchdowns.

The question isn't really why the running backs are cursed in Iowa City. It's more like, how do the Hawkeyes keep finding these guys?

"First of all, you have to give credit to the players; they're the ones doing all the work," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "That part is where it all starts. Then [running backs coach] Lester [Erb] has done a great job with our backs in coaching and instructing them. So that's a credit to him."

Iowa would like to take credit for Weisman, but he all but fell into their laps from the sky. Or the Air Force, to be more precise.

The Buffalo Grove, Ill., product was very lightly recruited out of high school and primarily as a blocking fullback. But he still wanted to carry the ball, so that's why he decided to play at Air Force.

"They run the fullback a lot, and not many schools do that any more," he told reporters this week.

But Weisman wasn't quite prepared for the other differences at Air Force.

"He was tired of having guys bounce quarters off his bed," Ferentz said. "I don't know if just a story or a legend now at this point, but he got tired of sleeping on the floor. He figured out if he made his bed perfectly one time, he wouldn't have to go through that aggravation again if he slept on the floor."

Weisman left Air Force after just one semester and decided to walk-on at Iowa -- "I knew the tradition here," he said this week, apparently not in reference to AIRBHG.

Ironically, though, he picked a program that didn't run the fullback much. Ferentz said that his fullbacks have traditionally been "frustrated middle linebackers" or "a glorified guard position, really." The coaches didn't pay too close attention to Weisman last year as he sat out under NCAA transfer rules, but Ferentz said he stood out during spring practice this year and then had "an exceptional" August.

Still, the staff didn't start looking at Weisman as a main ball carrier until last week in practice. Then he became the main guy when Bullock and Garmon went down, a 6-foot, 225-pound wrecking ball that teammates have jokingly nicknamed "Juggernaut."

"Mark's kind of, hit the hole, and he's not really going to try to make a move," center James Ferentz told reporters. "He's going to try to run over guys."

With Garmon questionable and Bullock doubtful this week, Weisman should get his first start at running back. Backing him up is another walk-on, true freshman Michael Malloy, with junior fullback Brad Rogers behind them. Jordan Canzeri, who suffered a torn ACL this spring, but has been medically cleared to resume playing, may or not be ready yet.

Can Weisman keep this up?

"Would he be our go-to guy, our predominant back? I don't know," Ferentz said. "Only time will tell. But I think certainly he showed that he can do some things out there competitively and he brings a different tempo running the football, than everybody else. ... We are hardly out of the woods yet."

No one can ever feel too safe about the status of Iowa's running backs. But given how the Hawkeyes keep filling the position successfully, perhaps we should start considering it blessed, not cursed.

Video: Iowa center James Ferentz

August, 10, 2012
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video
Iowa center James Ferentz talks about his family reunion in Iowa City and the Hawkeyes' offensive line.

Big Ten lunchtime links

July, 30, 2012
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Just because you shot Jesse James does not make you Jesse James.
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.

Six B1G centers on Rimington Watch list

May, 24, 2012
5/24/12
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Six Big Ten centers have been named to the spring watch list for the Rimington Trophy

They are:
Michigan's David Molk won the award in 2011. The Big Ten was loaded at the center spot last fall, boasting players like Wisconsin's Peter Konz.

The SEC leads all conferences with nine players on the watch list, the Big Ten had six, while the ACC, Mountain West and Pac-12 have five players each.

Ferentz and Pocic appear to be the Big Ten's top centers, although Frederick, who started in place of the injured Konz late last season and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors at guard, is an interesting name to watch.
Iowa's version of a spring game was April 14, but that wasn't the end of the Hawkeyes' spring practice. The team held three more practices after the open workout, and head coach Kirk Ferentz put a bow on his team's spring drills with a news conference Tuesday.

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."

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