Big Ten: Jared Odrick

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The past few years have brought historic changes at Penn State, from the men occupying the head coach's office to the names occupying the backs of the Nittany Lions' jerseys.

Yet until recently, Penn State's defensive line meeting room resisted renovation. It was one of few elements of the program that, in 2013, looked much like it did in 2005. Larry Johnson coached the group, as he had every season since 2000 (and, in some form, since 1996). And while the Lions' defense struggled for much of last season, the line still produced a first-team All-Big Ten performer, tackle DaQuan Jones, just as it did the previous five years.

[+] EnlargeSean Spencer
MCT via Getty ImagesNew defensive line coach Sean Spencer wants his guys attacking like 'wild dogs.'
But even the PSU defensive line couldn't evade the winds of change forever. After being passed over for Penn State's head-coaching job for the second time, Johnson in January declined a chance to remain with James Franklin's staff. Days later, he latched on at rival Ohio State.

Lions defensive linemen now take direction from a man known as Coach Chaos. You'll be able to hear Sean Spencer's voice from Row 80 of Beaver Stadium -- on game days. Spencer wants his Lions to be wild dogs, explaining, "The wild dog is the most efficient animal in the jungle in terms of hunting in a pack."

The 43-year-old dynamo with the "spastic" personality differs from that of his reserved, buttoned-down Penn State predecessor. But when it comes to standards, Spencer and Johnson are aligned.

"Traditionally, the D-line here has always been one of the elite in the country," Spencer told ESPN.com. "I know no other way but to have them rise to the expectations that I set forth and that they set forth for themselves. There's no excuse.

"I don't care who I've got out there. I expect to be dominant."

Spencer's message resonates with a group that, unlike others on a reduced roster, doesn't face dire depth challenges. The Lions return both starters at end -- Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan -- and veteran reserve Brad Bars, who missed all of last season with a ruptured Achilles' tendon.

Sophomore Austin Johnson moves into the lead tackle position and Anthony Zettel, a converted defensive end, has been a good fit at the 3-technique tackle spot.

"The D-line is probably our strength," Franklin said. "We have the most depth at that position. We've got about four deep at defensive end and probably two-and-a-half deep at D-tackle."

If the depth holds up, it will help Penn State use a larger rotation that Johnson typically used. Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said the Vanderbilt linemen he and Spencer coached last fall didn't average more than 40 snaps a game.

The coaches want to use five or six defensive ends, as Bars, junior Carl Nassib and redshirt freshman Garrett Sickels also are in the mix. A healthy rotation suits Spencer's wild dogs philosophy.

At Vanderbilt, he commissioned a painting of a Commodores football player blended with a dog, which he displayed in his office at Penn State this spring. He also took a giant dog bone to the field.

"Part of their survival is when they chase their prey down, for three to five miles they take turns biting at him," Spencer said. "One goes to the front, and when he gets tired, the next one comes. It's a really unique strategy in terms of the way they attack things. We rotate a lot of guys, so we just take turns nipping at quarterbacks and making plays in the backfield."

Vanderbilt recorded 28 sacks last season, which tied for fourth in the SEC. Spencer estimates 24 came solely from line pressure. He expects the same production at Penn State.

Defensive tackle has been Penn State's strongest position in recent seasons with players such as Jones, Devon Still, Jordan Hill and Jared Odrick. Although Zettel and Johnson aren't known outside Happy Valley, the coaches think that soon will change.

"Zettel has been been very, very disruptive this spring," Shoop said. "Austin Johnson falls in line of the beast D-tackles Penn State's had in the past. He's over 300 pounds, moves well, he's tough to move at the point of attack, got a big butt and legs."

Olaniyan led Penn State with five sacks last season, his first as a starter. Penn State looks for more from Barnes, the former Big Ten Freshman of the Year whose sacks and tackles for loss totals dropped by more than 50 percent from 2012 to 2013.

"What we're looking at is, how can we get him back to that?" Spencer said.

Spencer is pleased with Barnes' football knowledge and said all the linemen are asking "200- and 300-level questions" in meetings. Life without Johnson undoubtedly caused an adjustment -- "It's always tough to see somebody you call a family member leave," Olaniyan said -- but players quickly connected with Spencer, who lists relationship-building among his strengths.

"I grew up without a dad," said Spencer, whose father played for Michigan State in the 1960s. "Unfortunately, we don't have a relationship right now, and he's still alive. It's one of the things I'm least proud of, but at the same time, it made me who I am today. It made me have the ability to reach out to kids that probably are similar to me. I'm a little younger than Larry so they're not going to look at me as a dad, so to speak. They look at me as a big brother or an uncle.

"I think we've got some similarities in the way we care about our players, but I'm probably a little bit wilder than he is."

A little wilder and a little louder, but just as demanding.

"They both have the same philosophy as far as they want you to do everything perfect," Olaniyan said. "It's easy to embrace the new coaches when they have the same goal. We take pride as the Penn State D-line.

"Each game, we want everybody to see us as one of the best defensive lines out there. We want to be great."

At Penn State, some things never change.

PSU DT Jones exceeding expectations

September, 10, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- DaQuan Jones doesn't blush at all from the praise. He's relaxed after peeling off his helmet, and any compliments seem to slide off his shoulders like sweat from a two-hour workout.

[+] EnlargeDaQuan Jones
Rob Christy/USA TODAY SportsDT DaQuan Jones lived up to the preseason hype and led the Nittany Lions in stops in the backfield and was fifth on the team in tackles.
The praise rolls on and Jones nods, but he's heard most of it before. Yes, he knows Gil Brandt rated him the top senior DT this season -- he found out on social media -- but that's a title he's not yet earned. Yes, he knows he leads the team in sacks (two), but he counters by saying the season's young.

But, every now and then, Jones is thrown off. You know, one reporter tells him, former cornerback Stephon Morris tweeted about how he should be a Heisman contender. Forget about Johnny Football and those billboard-grabbing quarterbacks.

"That's a bit too much," Jones said, shaking his head as if it were an insult. "That's for the skill guys."

Still, while the Heisman race might be a bit out of the humble senior's grasp, other awards like the Lombardi might just be within reach. After two games, he has five stops in the backfield. And, perhaps most impressively, he leads the Nittany Lions in tackles with 18. Only two players in the Big Ten -- Illinois LB Jonathan Brown and Iowa LB Anthony Hitchens -- have more. And Jones still has more solo stops than those two leaders.

"Seriously?" the defensive tackle asked Saturday, turning his head. "Man, that's crazy."

Crazy is right. On the field, Penn State's 318-pound defensive tackle -- who was 330-plus before laying off the local chicken-wing shop -- is focused like a prizefighter. He's friendly and gregarious after the game, like any other college student waiting to meet up with his family for a Saturday dinner, but he's another person on the field.

He talks with a slight lisp, not unlike Mike Tyson. It's a comparison others have drawn, and it's not a reach considering he constantly delivers knockout blows to the opposing line. He's mean, he's strong, and he's not a player the opposition looks forward to crossing.

"I like double teams better," he said matter-of-factly, as if he was asked his favorite ice cream flavor. "I'm a physical guy, and I like the contact. I don't shy away from them."

Added 240-pound tailback Zach Zwinak: "Even in our thud practices [where no one goes to the ground], he's definitely laid a few hits. He's a big boy."

In two games, Penn State has limited rushers to just 1.8 yards a carry and Jones has become the main ingredient in those three-and-outs. Against Syracuse, on three straight rushing plays to end the half, Jones came up with three straight tackles -- even when the Orange tried to avoid Jones by running off to the right on third down. (Jones happened to bring the ball-carrier down in the backfield for a one-yard loss, anyway.)

Trying to stop Jones is about as easy as about as trying to stop a run-away tractor trailer. You can try … but you'll probably get hurt in the process. Still, maybe that shouldn't be so surprising given the school's history at defensive tackle. Jones isn't an exception; he's really part of a trend.

He landed in Happy Valley months after the Miami Dolphins drafted Jared Odrick in the first round. He watched teammate Devon Still become a second-rounder in 2012 and then saw Jordan Hill head to the Seattle Seahawks in the third round this past offseason. Compare him to the past DT greats, say he's better, say he's worse -- but Jones is remaining level-headed.

"I want to be known for who I am," Jones said. "I didn't come here to live in anyone's shadows."

Jones is sincere and soft-spoken. When he says he's playing for fun and not awards, it's easy to believe him. He'll laugh when he talks about his pregame ritual with teammate Deion Barnes and how they'll just slap the back of each other's heads if one doesn't seem loose enough. And he'll narrow his eyebrows and softly glare, as if to say "Seriously?," when someone dishes out some praise. Part of the reason might just be because he doesn't yet believe himself that he's posted up some mind-boggling numbers.

Here's another: Last season, Jones started 11 games and finished the season with eight solo tackles and two tackles-for-loss. In Week 1 of this year, he already had eight solo tackles and three-tackles-for-loss.

"You know, it came up last week that somebody mentioned people were concerned about our interior defensive line play," defensive coordinator John Butler said. "But that's one of our strengths. DaQuan Jones is a great player. … DaQuan is very unselfish. If he keeps playing the way he's playing, he's going to have a long future playing football after Penn State."

Jones is as comfortable on the gridiron as he is off it. This is his final Penn State season and his last year as a college student, so he said he's going to enjoy it. And so far -- much to the chagrin of opposing offenses -- he sure has.
Bill O'BrienRandy Litzinger/Icon SMIBill O'Brien is excited about his team as he heads into his second season at Penn State.
The last time we saw Penn State, the Lions were celebrating a surprisingly strong finish to the 2012 season and saying farewell to a special senior class. Penn State since has turned the page and will begin spring practice Monday with a mix of familiarity and uncertainty. Bill O'Brien is not the "new coach" in Happy Valley anymore, and players have acclimated to O'Brien and his staff. But the Lions are looking for a starting quarterback for the second consecutive spring. They also must replace several outstanding defenders and fill holes on both lines. But the depth crisis many of us envisioned for the Lions when the NCAA sanctions came down last summer simply isn't there in State College.

ESPN.com caught up with O'Brien late last week to discuss spring ball.

What are some of the main objectives you're looking for when you get on the field again?

Bill O'Brien: The No. 1 objective offensively is to make sure we come out of this spring practice with improvement from the quarterback position. We won't name a starter coming out of the spring, but at least at the end of 15 practices we'll have a good idea of how well these guys are grasping the system, Tyler Ferguson and Steven Bench. So that's a big deal for us offensively.

And defensively, some new guys will be in there, and seeing how those guys do, whether it's Nyeem Wartman at linebacker or Jordan Lucas at corner or some other guys who are going to be playing a little bit more next year, how much they improve. And then we'll work our special teams every single day, so hopefully we'll find some core special-teams players this spring.

What's your message to Steven and Tyler going into the spring? You're not naming the starter, but what do you want to see out of them?

BO'B: [Thursday] I was talking to them, and I said, 'Look, I just want you guys to put your head down and go to work. Don't worry about what everybody else on the outside of the program thinks about your performance, whether it's in scrimmages or the Blue-White Game or whatever it is. Just try to get better every single day.' These are two really, really good kids. They're smart, they work hard at it, they're grasping it pretty well to this point. We're pretty excited about getting started with them. I don't want them to think about anything other than trying to improve and be as good a leader as they can be.

Will you have to change the offense for one or the other? Do they fit in with what you did last year?

BO'B: We'll definitely be different. We'll be different in many ways. Matt [McGloin] had certain strengths we tried to play to, no question about it. Our system is expansive enough that you can have different parts in there to take advantage of the talents of the quarterbacks who are playing. So we'll be a different offense than we were last year.

Anything specific on what might change with these two quarterbacks or areas you can draw out more?

BO'B: I'd rather not get into all of that, but I can tell you these are two guys who are big, they're strong, they're fast, they look to be accurate passers. We're just looking forward to working with them.

(Read full post)

Player of the Week: Big Ten

November, 26, 2012
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On an emotion-charged day when Penn State honored a senior who unfortunately couldn't play (linebacker Michael Mauti), another veteran defender turned in an unbelievable performance in his final game at Beaver Stadium. For his efforts, Lions defensive tackle Jordan Hill is the Big Ten Player of the Week.

Hill triggered Penn State's stout defensive effort in a 24-21 overtime win against Wisconsin on senior day. He recorded a career-high 12 tackles (8 solo), including three tackles for loss and two sacks. Hill had eight tackles, two for loss and a sack, in the fourth quarter and in overtime, stuffing Wisconsin star Montee Ball for a 1-yard gain on the Badgers' first play of the extra session. He also pressured Badgers quarterback Curt Phillips on a third-down pass that forced a long field-goal try, which Wisconsin missed.

Hill played through pain after aggravating a knee injury in the fourth quarter and was the biggest reason Penn State forced eight consecutive Wisconsin punts during the middle of the game.

"The only thing that was going through my mind every time I hit the field was, 'I'm not losing this game,'" Hill told reporters afterward. "When you set that type of goal, at least for me, it makes me play a lot better."

Hill called the win "a perfect ending to a bad beginning." Like Jared Odrick and Devon Still before him, Hill continued Penn State's great tradition at defensive tackle and locked up a spot on the first-team All-Big Ten squad.
Recognizing the best and the brightest from around the Big Ten in Week 13:
  • Ohio State's defense: After some early hiccups, Ohio State slammed the door on Michigan in the second half to secure a 12-0 season. The Buckeyes shut out Michigan in the final 30 minutes, allowing just eight yards in the fourth quarter and 60 in the second half (four first downs). Standouts included senior linebacker Zach Boren (9 tackles, 2 TFLs, 1 sack, 1 fumble recovery), linebacker Ryan Shazier (2.5 TFLs, one sack), space-eating defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins and safety Christian Bryant (one forced fumble, two pass breakups). Offense might have carried Ohio State early this season, but the Silver Bullets showed up when it counted.
  • Nebraska DE Eric Martin: If you hadn't noticed the Huskers senior before Friday, you likely know the name now. Martin was dominant in Nebraska's defense-driven win against Iowa, racking up seven tackles, three tackles for loss (one sack), a forced fumble and two quarterback hurries. His numbers don't fully illustrate how much he impacted the game, but he locked up a spot on the All-Big Ten team and possibly will be a first-team selection.
  • Northwestern QB Kain Colter: Like Indiana and Iowa, Illinois had no answer for the elusive Wildcats signal caller, who capped an excellent regular season with 88 rush yards and a touchdown on 14 carries. Colter threw only 11 passes but completed nine of them, three for touchdowns to three different receivers (Tony Jones, Tyris Jones and Paul Jorgensen). Colter's backfield mate Venric Mark also merits a mention (18 carries, 127 yards, TD).
  • Michigan State RB Le'Veon Bell: He's the mean, green wrecking machine of Michigan State's offense, which would be even more anemic without him. Bell once again showed Saturday why he's one of the nation's best running backs, racking up a career-high 266 yards and a touchdown on 35 carries. He routinely carried Minnesota defenders for extra yards. The junior is one of only three FBS players -- and the only one in a major conference -- to record three 200-yard rushing performances this season.
  • Penn State DT Jordan Hill: From Jared Odrick to Devon Still and now to Hill, Penn State's tradition of elite defensive tackles has continued. Hill, a sure-fire first-team All-Big Ten selection, finished his career with a flourish, recording 12 tackles, including three tackles for loss and two sacks, as Penn State beat Wisconsin in overtime. Despite battling a bum knee, Hill helped shut down Montee Ball and the Wisconsin offense after the first quarter. On a day when linebacker Michael Mauti couldn't play, Hill stepped up in a big way.
  • Purdue RB Akeem Shavers: He wasn't the only Purdue player to gash Indiana's defense in the Bucket game, but he was the most effective from start to finish. The senior stepped up in a big way, racking up 126 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries to go along with 99 receiving yards and two touchdowns. He scored three touchdowns in a span of 4:26 in the fourth quarter, starting with a 73-yard scoring reception. He's now responsible for Purdue's two longest pass receptions of the season.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

September, 28, 2012
9/28/12
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Some questions and answers before the weekend. Not surprisingly, a lot of you are weighing in on this story.

CK from Seattle writes: I'm going to call it right now Adam. B1G has a good bowl season (or at least better than recent years -- not saying much I know). Reason being the B1G teams seem to often play higher ranked teams and teams playing close to home. With our poor rankings this year, I imagine we'll have some more even matchups. That said -- Wisconsin has looked terrible, Michigan isn't impressive, MSU struggled against mediocre ND and Nebraska had a laugher in Cali. Verdict is still out on OSU. Well -- after saying that, I feel less confident, but still think we'll get better matchups this year.

Adam Rittenberg: CK, you very well could be correct. It's hard to envision the Big Ten keeping its streak of multiple BCS berths alive. Then again, I've thought the streak would end in the past, and it hasn't, as Big Ten teams and their massive fan bases remain so attractive to the big bowls. The matchups undoubtedly would be better and potentially more appropriate if the Big Ten only sends a team to the Rose Bowl. And if the Big Ten does well, I think the league will get credit because difficulty of bowl lineup doesn't seem to matter much with how leagues are perceived. That said, the Big Ten has to start winning Rose Bowls again. One victory in the past nine is pretty bad.




Dan from Austin, Texas, writes: As a proud PSU alum, it's tough to see the conference in this state. I agree with the premise you are attributing this to, however to understand why the talent pool is low, you have to understand what QBs in other markets are doing all year round. Look at how many Texas QBs are leading D1 programs around the country and starting in the NFL. The reason 7-on-7 leagues that were started about 10 years ago. You now have a generation of Texas QBs who have been able to have 2x to 3x more reps than QBs in the North.

Adam Rittenberg: I think 7-on-7 leagues are a factor, Dan, but spring football in the south might be a bigger one. Former Purdue coach Joe Tiller told me that from a talent standpoint, the recruits he landed from Texas and other states weren't way above those from the Midwest. But the fact that the Midwest kids didn't have spring football in high school made them less prepared to play college ball right away. "The southern states are really getting the edge," Tiller told me. "Florida with their spring practices and Georgia with their spring practices and Texas with their spring practices, those kids, I know when we recruited them to Purdue, they were just advanced players over the guys we were getting out of the Midwest. They weren’t necessarily more gifted naturally, but they were just advanced in the sense that they played so much more football." Tiller also noted that some southern states (Texas) have longer regular seasons than those in the Midwest, so players are playing more games before they arrive at college.




Steve from San Francisco writes: I can't agree with Earle Bruce, and not just because I went to Michigan. I think the quarterbacks in the league are not the problem. Look at Alabama. Greg McElroy and AJ McCarron have led them to National Championships and they are not NFL caliber quarterbacks. Maybe they will be backups for a while, but they aren't carrying those teams, it is the top-down talent around them -- strong defenses, speedy, large, wide open receivers, and huge, yardage-churning running backs. Go back to UM-Bama to start the season, McCarron's and [Denard] Robinson's numbers were eerily similar, and how close was the final score? McCarron missed a bunch of receivers too, he just happened to also have 3 running backs tearing up the field. The question is: will the Big Ten ever be able to pull enough talent in all schools so that every class has the depth to match the SEC and I think the answer is no. I wanted to go to Michigan, but I grew up in the north. Most of the talent these days is in the south. Why would they ever go to a place that is frozen in the winter when they could be in the sun with girls in bikinis? Yes, you get your one-offs, but it is all positions talent and depth where the Big Ten has lost its prestige.

Adam Rittenberg: Some good points here, Steve. Bruce also told me the running back position is down in the Big Ten, and while I don't necessarily agree with him there, the number of elite QB-RB combinations might not be as high as it should be. The wide receiver spot certainly has been down in the league, and I would also look at cornerback as a weakness in recent years. Everyone points to defensive line play and says that's where the SEC has the advantage, but I look at the linemen the Big Ten has produced in recent years -- J.J. Watt, Ryan Kerrigan, Cameron Heyward, Jared Odrick etc. -- and don't see a massive shortage. Maybe there's not as much depth in the Big Ten as there is in the SEC, but I don't think there's a dearth at defensive line. Your last point is spot on. The issues go beyond just one position, and it's hard for the Big Ten to recruit overall rosters that can match the best teams from the SEC.




Brutus from the Ninth Circle writes: Hey Adam, have a question about Penn State. With the departure of Paul Jones, I'm beginning to think that there are 2 key things going on. First, [coach Bill] O'Brien knows that he has to get the scholarships down to a certain level and he has to "trim the fat," if that's the right phrase. Second, every team has under-performers, so they would be the first to go. It seems to me that BOB is cleaning house to get to the levels that he needs to be at, protecting the core players, and lightening the load with players that are less critical. Jones was the 3rd string quarterback and way down the list on TE. Seems like a good call to let Jones go. Thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Brutus, I don't think O'Brien is running players off from Penn State. I think he's being honest with them about their futures, and he didn't see a future for Jones at quarterback for the Lions. I believe O'Brien when he said he saw Jones as a contributor at tight end, but ultimately Jones wanted to play quarterback, as he tweeted Wednesday night, and he couldn't do that at Penn State. It's probably too soon to how Jones would have fared as a tight end for PSU, and there are quite a few players ahead of him at that spot. While I don't think O'Brien will lie awake at night thinking about how he could have kept Jones in State College, I don't think he's thrilled to see Jones leave. As O'Brien said Thursday night, Jones just needed a fresh start.




Dylan from Nebraska writes: Adam, Is there a Big 10 team that could, with some help, still contend for a national title? Would a 1-loss Nebraska, or Michigan St team make it? Would an undefeated Minny or Northwestern make it?

Adam Rittenberg: It's very hard to envision any Big Ten team taking the field in Miami on Jan. 7. The problem is the Big Ten didn't do much of anything in the first four weeks to justify having a 1-loss team make the title game ahead of comparable squads from other conferences. Between Minnesota and Northwestern, I'd say Northwestern would have the better chance because it has a slightly stronger strength of schedule than the Gophers do. And while I've been impressed at what both teams have done, there's little to believe either squad will run the table, especially in the tougher division (Legends). UCLA, which beat Nebraska, already has a home loss to Oregon State, pretty much eliminating the Huskers. Maybe if Notre Dame runs the table and so does Michigan State, there would be a slight, slight chance. But it's hard to see a national title game without featuring a team from the SEC, which has won the past six championships.




Jesse from Lansing writes: Adam -- Coach Kill seems to be a great fit for Minnesota right now. He doesn't reek of that used car salesman attitude (all talk-no walk) that [Tim] Brewster brought to the U. I am really enjoying his matter-of-fact, tough-love gotcha style and the fact that he's more focused on developing his players than the previous regime. Points also for the consistency brought on by his loyal coaching staff. Say Kill is able to build back this program in the next 3-4 years, what are the chances another BCS program lures away him away? I would like to think he's happy here and would stick around for a while. The U administration has been more than generous in providing him the resources he needs to get the job done as well as the time (7-year contract, I believe). Still, Bill Snyder can't stay at Kansas State forever, and being a native Kansan, that would be another opportunity for him to say retire close to home.

Adam Rittenberg: Jerry Kill might not have been Minnesota's first or second choice, but the guy looks like the right choice for a long-suffering Gophers program. He has definitely paid his dues in coaching at the lower rankings, and he doesn't take this opportunity for granted. That said, he obviously has ties to the Kansas area. Ideally, Kill would build up Minnesota's program enough so a move to Kansas State would be more lateral than an obvious step up. I don't get the sense he's a guy who wants to keep moving around every few years, but I doubt you're the only Gophers fan who made the connection to the K-State situation. Kill won't make any move until he feels like he has built up the program sufficiently, which likely is still a few more years away.




Nick from Jacksonville, Fla., writes: Hi Adam. I am a die-hard, but very realistic Iowa Fan. Its probably taboo to make comparisons between the last 4 years of Hayden Fry's dismal career and where Kirk's career currently is. The reality is Hayden Fry recruiting significantly diminished after the Tavian Banks/Tim Dwight era which led to more losses. Ferentz had to completely rebuild Iowa. Over the last few years the talent, development has reduced with the losses increasing. Ferentz use to personally coach special teams and it showed. Since he stopped coaching them they have gone down hill ... quickly. I see him now more as a figure-head like Hayden Fry's last years. Do you see these comparisons as well? The angst is growing in Florida among the Iowa fans.

Adam Rittenberg: Nick, I can understand your frustration, and I doubt you're the only one making that comparison. While Iowa's program undoubtedly has lost momentum since 2009, I don't know if there has been a huge drop in talent. Iowa never was talented enough to overcome mistakes like running away from an onside kick or committing a dumb personal foul penalty in the closing seconds of a 2-point game. Most of Ferentz's teams have played smart, fundamentally sound football and often played above their collective talent level to win a lot of games. I don't think the 2012 Hawkeyes fit this description. It's fair to wonder if players are being developed as well as they used to in Iowa's program, but aside from a handful of recruiting classes (i.e. 2005), I haven't seen major differences in the types of players Iowa signs. I'm sure the facilities upgrades will help in recruiting, and I also think Ferentz has a lot left as a coach. But it's definitely a rough situation right now in Hawkeye Country.




Charlie from Ames, Iowa, writes: Adam, Just listened to your "Game of the Week" talk and noticed you said that Le'Veon Bell is the Big Ten's best running back. I think that's a little presumptuous to proclaim this early in the season. Based on a larger time scale (last year) and his performance in limited time this year, I'd still take Rex Burkhead. Now, I know what you're going to say. You're going to pull out the Brian Bennett card and base everything you think, do, and say on "body of work." But, this isn't directly about body of work, it's who you think is best based on all past performances and projected future performances. Although Bell will unquestionably, unless he gets hurt, finish the year with more yards than Burkhead, don't you think Burkhead deserves just as much mention for the Big Ten's best running back?

Adam Rittenberg: Charlie, my comment pertained strictly to this season. No one would argue -- aside from a few Northwestern fans -- that Bell has been the Big Ten's best running back this season. We've barely seen Burkhead, and he could turn out to be the league's top back, but he hasn't been to date this season because of the knee injury. Burkhead's overall career has been more impressive than Bell's, but I think Bell has closed the gap -- more because of what he has done lately, not because of any shortcomings with Rex's game. I will say this: Le'Veon Bell projects better to the NFL than any back in the Big Ten, including Burkhead and Montee Ball. If he keeps this up, he could be a potential first-round pick in next year's draft if he chooses to forgo his senior season.




Dave from Denver writes: Does Schlabach get paid by the SEC too?

Adam Rittenberg: Only in joy.
The best Big Ten defenses often boast standout tandems, as we've seen in recent years.

In 2008, Ohio State had linebacker James Laurinaitis and cornerback Malcolm Jenkins. In 2009, Iowa had defensive end Adrian Clayborn and linebacker Pat Angerer, while Penn State countered with defensive tackle Jared Odrick and linebacker NaVorro Bowman. In 2011, Nebraska had the league's top linebacker (Lavonte David) and the league's top defensive back (cornerback Alfonzo Dennard). Last season also featured standout tandems at Illinois, Wisconsin and other spots.

SportsNation

What will be the Big Ten's top defensive tandem in 2012?

  •  
    25%
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    6%
  •  
    3%
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    24%
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    42%

Discuss (Total votes: 4,442)

Who will be the Big Ten's top 1-2 punch on defense during the 2012 season?

There's no shortage of choices. Wisconsin returns the Home Improvement tandem of Tim Mike Taylor and Al Chris Borland, who combined for 293 tackles, four interceptions and eight forced fumbles in 2011. Michigan State's defense is led by end William Gholston and cornerback Johnny Adams, both of whom could be first-round draft picks in April. Penn State brings back first-team All-Big Ten linebacker Gerald Hodges and Jordan Hill, one of the league's top interior linemen. Purdue has the league's top defensive tackle back in the fold (Kawann Short), along with an experienced playmaking cornerback (Ricardo Allen). Illinois has a nice track record of producing defensive stars, and linebacker Jonathan Brown and end Michael Buchanan could be next in line.

The poll only affords us five options, so several potentially good tandems (Iowa's James Morris and Christian Kirksey) didn't make the cut. Some teams have one proven defensive standout (i.e. Ohio State's John Simon) but need a second to step forward. Still, the list is filled with familiar names who earned significant accolades in 2011.

Here's your chance to vote. Should be an interesting result.
Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which blogger is right.

Today's Take Two topic is this: Last season, defensive tackle was clearly the strongest overall position group in the Big Ten. What position will be the best throughout the league in 2012?

Take 1: Brian Bennett

[+] EnlargeWisconsin's Montee Ball
Kelvin Kuo/US PRESSWIREMontee Ball headlines a strong group of returning running backs in the Big Ten.
I'm tempted to go with linebacker, where some high-profile players and future stars are scattered throughout the conference. But my pick is running back.

There's some major star power at the position this year in the Big Ten, starting off with last year's Heisman Trophy finalist and record breaker, Wisconsin's Montee Ball. While Ball is the obvious choice for preseason offensive player of the year, he could get pushed by some other backs, including Nebraska's tough-as-nails Rex Burkhead, who ran for 1,357 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. Even with last year's No. 2 league rusher (Iowa's Marcus Coker) gone, the position is still stacked with guys like Penn State's Silas Redd, who we both think is primed for a huge season; Michigan's Fitz Toussaint, who ran for more than 1,000 yards despite not taking over lead rushing duties until the eighth game of the season; and Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell, who came on strong late last season and looks great this spring.

Purdue has some very capable runners in Akeem Shavers, Akeem Hunt and Doug Gentry, and Ralph Bolden is coming back from an ACL injury. Ohio State has a potentially strong group with Carlos Hyde, Jordan Hall, Rod Smith and freshman Bri'onte Dunn. Stephen Houston showed some good things for Indiana last year, and transfer Isaiah Roundtree had a big spring game. Minnesota is high on junior college import James Gillum. And don't forget James White at Wisconsin, who could start for most teams in the country.

Iowa, Illinois and Northwestern have some question marks at tailback. But overall, running back is where the Big Ten's bread will be buttered this season.

Take 2: Adam Rittenberg

A good choice, Bennett, as the Big Ten returns six of its top seven running backs and would have brought back all seven if not for Marcus Coker's transfer. But my experience covering this league has taught me to never overlook the defensive line. The D-line once again will be the Big Ten's strongest group in 2012.

Sure, the league loses standouts like Devon Still, Whitney Mercilus and Jerel Worthy. But you could substitute the names Aaron Maybin and Mitch King after the 2008 season, or Brandon Graham and Jared Odrick after 2009, or J.J. Watt and Corey Liuget after 2010. The Big Ten always finds ways to reload up front, and this year will be no different. There might not be as many familiar names as there are at running back, but that soon will change.

[+] EnlargeKawann Short
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesPurdue defensive lineman Kawann Short is a potential first-round NFL draft pick.
Let's start off with the top returning linemen, Ohio State's John Simon and Purdue's Kawann Short, both of whom earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in 2011. Both men will contend for All-America honors, and could be potential first-round picks in the 2013 class. Then you have a guy we're both excited about: Michigan State defensive end William Gholston. He's a physical freak, as you recently detailed, and has the potential to dominate games and become one of the nation's truly elite defenders in 2012. I'd also include Penn State defensive tackle Jordan Hill in this group of known commodities with the potential for very big things this season. Penn State's overall depth along the defensive line should be better this year.

Now for some lesser-known names who could have breakout seasons. Let's start at Illinois with defensive end Michael Buchanan and defensive tackle Akeem Spence. Buchanan is poised for a big year, as he showed in Illinois' spring game, while Spence is a next-level player who could follow Liuget's path this season. Speaking of defensive tackles, watch out for Ohio State's Johnathan Hankins, a very big man who can do very big things this season. The Buckeyes' heralded incoming freshmen should only bolster their line.

Michigan loses two standout linemen (Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen), but it's hard to imagine the Wolverines falling back much at all up front. Nebraska boasts good depth at the defensive end spot and could see a big year from a guy like Cameron Meredith.

While there are some question marks around the league, including an unproven line at Iowa, teams like Northwestern and Minnesota should be improved up front.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- New Penn State coach Bill O’Brien reiterates he has not watched and will not watch one frame of film from the team’s 2011 season.

That's not necessarily good news for Nittany Lions defenders Gerald Hodges and Jordan Hill. Both men could splice together some impressive highlight reels from last fall.

Hodges, an outside linebacker, earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches in his first full season as a starter, leading Penn State with 106 tackles, including 10 for loss and 4.5 sacks, and adding two forced fumbles and an interception. Hill was somewhat overshadowed by fellow Lions defensive tackle Devon Still, the Big Ten’s defensive player of the year, but he had a fine season in his own right, recording 59 tackles, including eight for loss and 3.5 sacks, to go along with a team-high three fumble recoveries and a forced fumble.

Both men could have bolted for the NFL draft, but both decided fairly early on that they'd return to Penn State and play for a coach who didn't care about what they had done in the past.

"I'm pretty sure [the coaches] heard about my style of play," Hodges told ESPN.com. "But I still feel it's my job to prove myself to them that I can play football, let them know as a man that I can play."

Hodges and Hill both are delivering the right messages this spring to the new coaching staff. O'Brien on Friday called Hodges "what you'd picture in a Penn State linebacker" and said Hodges has had one of the better springs on the squad. O'Brien told ESPN.com last week of Hill: "Excellent player, plays extremely hard and is technically sound."

The two seniors anchor a front defensive front seven that undoubtedly will be the team's strength in the first year of the new regime.

Both men have made position switches this spring that allow them to operate in more space. Hill is playing more at the 3-technique after spending most of last season at the nose (Still played the 3-technique). Rather than lining up over the ball, Hill is looking to shoot gaps between guards and tackles. Hill acknowledges the 3-technique is more of a glamor spot for defensive tackles.

At only 6-1, he’s able to keep his pads low and gain leverage against taller offensive linemen. He's also facing more 1-on-1 blocks, which he welcomes.

"You're playing against these big 6-7 guys, and they can’t reach you sometimes,” Hill said. "It's really an advantage at nose guard, too, because you're playing against 6-5, 6-6 centers and guards. They come at you on a double team, and if you're already at their hips, it's much easier."

Hill has played alongside elite defensive tackles throughout his time at Penn State. As a young player, he studied Jared Odrick, the Big Ten’s co-defensive player of the year in 2009 and a first-round pick in the 2010 draft. He spent last season lined up next to Still, a consensus All-American.

Although Hill is a different type of tackle than Odrick and Still, both of whom stand four inches taller, he took away traits from both. Odrick's motor never stopped, while Still’s drive in his final season made him a different player.

"It's definitely in the back of your head because you want to keep the defensive line moving, that tradition," Hill said. "As a defensive line, we're all one. If individual success comes from it, it’s because of the guys right next to me. Even with Dev's great success, he had an extraordinary year, [but] without Jack [Crawford], Eric [Latimore], me, that's not possible.

"It's the whole defensive line's effort."

[+] EnlargeGerald Hodges
Rob Christy/US PresswireGerald Hodges will move from weakside linebacker to the strong side in 2012.
Hodges, who began his Penn State career as a safety, moves from weakside linebacker to the strong side. Like Hill, Hodges' new position allows him to play more in space, a change he welcomes.

And like Hill, Hodges is aware of the tradition at his position at Linebacker U. He's not the first Penn State standout linebacker to shift to the strong side.

"Navorro [Bowman], Sean [Lee] and Paul [Posluszny], those guys, their last years they finally got to play strong side," Hodges said. "As guys' careers move to the end here, their last year, their last two years, they get moved to the strong side and are able to play out in space.

"It's something I take personally and something I take pride in."

Both Hodges and Hill have stood out this spring as Penn State absorbs a different defense under coordinator Ted Roof. Pass coverage will be a bigger emphasis for Hodges, who nearly picked off a short pass in a recent practice.

"Even though he had a great season last year, he's still hungry," middle linebacker Glenn Carson said. "He still wants to get better. That's the one thing that's going to make him a great football player."

Carson sees similar qualities in Hill.

"I'm seeing things from him on tape that you're just wowed by," Carson said. "He's an unbelievable athlete and just like Gerald, he's a hard worker. He's really hungry, chasing his dreams."

With Hodges and Hill leading the defense, Penn State can dream big in 2012.

Big Ten mailblog

March, 27, 2012
3/27/12
5:00
PM ET
Mail time. Let's do this.

Joel from Bismarck, N.D., writes: Last fall I seem to remember you saying that the league parity hurt its national perception. When it came to B1G basketball, however, it seemed analysts were touting its parity as an example of how strong the conference was (e.g., every team in the bottom half of the standings beat someone in the top half). My question is if you perceive different standards being used in the sports, and why do you think it is? Or is it less a matter of which sport is being analyzed but which league, and commentators will grab onto whatever stat they want to in order to reinforce their own perceptions (e.g., the B1G football teams underperform)?

Adam Rittenberg: Joel, while some analysts will apply different standards whenever it's convenient, there are some important differences between Big Ten football in 2011 and Big Ten basketball in 2011-12. For starters, the league had more nationally elite teams in basketball and two squads -- Ohio State and Michigan State -- considered legitimate Final Four contenders. Aside from Wisconsin, no Big Ten football team ever fit into this category in terms of national perception. Another difference is that football had one of the worst BCS programs (Indiana) and another (Minnesota) that looked like the worst early in the season. While Big Ten basketball had its doormats as well -- Nebraska and Penn State -- those teams also rose up to record some nice victories, even in league play.

Finally, one important difference is that basketball doesn't have one dominant conference like football does with the SEC, which happens to be the Big Ten's chief rival. I really think if another league was dominating college football -- Big 12, Pac-12, etc. -- the Big Ten's perception wouldn't be quite as bad as it is with the other bigwig conference winning championships year after year.


Dave from Delafield, Wis., writes: Adam,Thank you for your commentary on the atmosphere in Boston for the Wisconsin/Ohio State games.I've been to NCAA Basketball Tournament games and several bowl games, and I don't know how anyone that has personally attended both could possibly want a football playoff.The early rounds of the basketball tournament feature half-full arenas, and small numbers of fans from both teams, along with plenty of locals that tend to cheer for the underdog, or the team from the next town over. Unless a team is local or a great game takes place, there is just no electricity. I would hate to see a team that won a conference title, have what was a dream season end in a dull, half-full stadium, because fans are waiting until a bigger game to travel to, or because the game is a home game for a superior opponent. (Think of UCLA at Oregon last year in the Pac-12 title game.)No matter what round of the tournament it is, until the final game is played, there is always the next game. Syracuse players and fans didn't have long to celebrate their win against Wisconsin because they had to prepare for Ohio State. A bowl victory, no matter what bowl, is almost euphoric. It is what makes a good season great, and it sets the tone for the entire spring.

Adam Rittenberg: Totally agree, Dave. I remember covering the NCAA tournament first and second rounds in Minneapolis in 2009. First of all, college basketball in domed football stadiums is never good, especially when it's not even a regional round. The stadium was never going to be close to full. Although Michigan State played there, we had only one "local" team in North Dakota State, which played admirably in the first round but fell short. At that point, the dome pretty much emptied out and there was very little atmosphere for the remaining games.

Any football team strong enough to qualify for a playoff -- most likely a four-team deal -- should play in an atmosphere fitting the significance of the game. Even if it's on the road. I'd rather see a Big Ten team play in a packed SEC stadium for a playoff than watch the game at a neutral site in front of 35,000 people. The event deserves better.


Chris from New York writes: "He knows his strengths and doesn't try to coach everybody. He'll coach the defensive line, he'll coach the defense, but he's comfortable with his role and he's very good at his role." - Gerry Dinardo about Brady HokeHow come this exact sentence was such a nightmare for Rodriguez? What's the difference that Hoke gets it as a compliment and Rodriguez gets it as a major diss? Is it only success? If the offense struggled a lot this year would people be saying Hoke can't only pay attention to the defense?

Adam Rittenberg: Chris, I think there were different standards for Rodriguez, which could have been changed had he had more success on the field at Michigan. Rodriguez's work with Michigan's offense had little to do with his firing, as the Wolverines set records in his final season. But his handling of the defense, particularly when it came to hiring coordinators and assistants, ultimately led to his downfall in Ann Arbor. The perception that Rodriguez didn't care about the defense is false, but his decision-making regarding with the unit left much to be desired. Hoke should be held accountable if the offense struggles this fall, but the truth is the turnaround he and Greg Mattison facilitated on defense in 2011 helped the offense deal with some growing pains in its transition. And Michigan's offense still ranked second in the league in scoring and third in yards.


Misplaced Gopher from Fargo, N.D., writes: Adam, last year Minnesota football fans were presented a laundry list of reasons why the Gophers couldn't win in Jerry Kill's first year: physically unfit personnel, academic nonperformance, poorly chosen recruits (blaming the previous regime), personnel mismatched to the incoming system, lack of opportunity to coach. This year, coach Kill is making no attempt to keep expectations down. He is praising the players effusively, bragging about the incoming recruits, and he says that this year he's getting to coach the players instead of spending all his time teaching them how to hustle, how to behave, and how to play. Coach Kill seems to be building up the expectations of the 2012 Gophers. Why do you think he's doing this, and how much better can Minnesotans expect our team to be this year?

Adam Rittenberg: Two questions from North Dakota in the same mailblog -- nice! I don't know if Kill is inflating the expectations too much, Gopher. I think at times last season he talked too much about the problems with the previous regime and the uphill climb he faced. While much of what he said is true, his statements sounded like excuses after a while. Kill clearly is more comfortable after going through a full offseason, but he also has addressed the odd roster makeup, which still includes small senior and junior classes (not counting the juco arrivals). But it's natural for coaches to feel more comfortable after they're established, and after they bring in more of their own players. What should Minnesota fans expect this season? Definitely more than three or four wins. It's not unreasonable at all to expect the Gophers to get back to a bowl.


Jonathan from Athens, Ala., writes: RE: SEC Teams venturing away from the southeast to play games, don't let the facts get in the way of your agenda but Alabama played at Penn State last year and has a game scheduled in a few years at Michigan State. You claim that it's the SEC that keeps home and home games from happening. Got any facts to back that up with? I bet Urban Meyer would LOVE to play a Nick Saban team again, right? Make sure you have the ambulance ready for when Saban puts him back in the hospital. Maybe, just maybe it's that you guys don't want Bama to choke the football down your throat like we did Penn State and Michigan State recently. You're pathetic.

Adam Rittenberg: Jonathan, I should have noted that Alabama has been the exception in the SEC as far as scheduling Big Ten teams. The Tide deserve credit for being willing to venture to both State College and East Lansing, in addition to facing Michigan at a neutral site. But on the whole, how many other SEC teams would dare play a game in Big Ten territory? Florida certainly wouldn't. Vanderbilt is playing at Northwestern this year, but Vandy, while improving, isn't viewed as a premier program. The Big Ten and SEC both get heat for nonconference schedules, and both leagues are to blame for the lack of non-league games against one another. But if SEC teams play squads in the ACC and Pac-12, why can't they play more against the Big Ten? It'd be nice if more SEC programs follow Alabama's lead, just as it would be nice if more Big Ten programs followed Michigan State's lead.


Chip from Savannah, Ga., writes: My question for you is regarding OSU and PSU, why is everyone expecting OSU to have a much better season than PSU. They're both putting in new systems in regards to offense, but I think PSU's defense is still better than OSU's which is going to be both's stronger unit. I know you have a proven commodity in Meyer, but it still doesn't take away from the fact that they have to transition as well.

Adam Rittenberg: Both defenses should be strong, Chip, and while Ohio State's will be improved with more experience, I agree that Penn State's appears to have the stronger unit because of its strength at linebacker and in the front seven. One big omission in your note is quarterback Braxton Miller. While Penn State is still looking for a clear-cut starting quarterback, Ohio State knows Miller is its future. While Miller is far from a finished product, he showed impressive skills as a true freshman in 2011 and looks like an excellent fit for Meyer's offense. Both teams need to develop more options in the passing game and Penn State has a better running back in Silas Redd, but the quarterback play separates the two in my mind. Both programs are going through transitions, but Ohio State players are a little more accustomed to it after what happened last year. That's not saying Penn State won't be fine, but the coaching change in State College has been more dramatic because of the unique circumstances.


Mochila from Grand Rapids, Mich., writes: Adam, while you were out on vacation, Brian wrapped up the Postseason Top 25 players. I was wondering if you could explain your reasoning for why Still was placed ahead of Mercilus. For the record, I'm an MSU fan and have no horse in this race; I just thought Mercilus was more deserving given his absurd numbers, primarily in sacks, TFL, and fumbles forced. And for bonus points, what prompted your trip to Istanbul (as opposed to say, Hawaii), and what was your favorite part?

Adam Rittenberg: It was a tough call, Mochila, as both defenders had outstanding seasons. Brian and I actually differed on our Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year endorsements, as he picked Still and I picked Mercilus. As I pointed out then and as you point out in your note, Mercilus' numbers blow away the competition. That said, few positions on the football field are more significant than a dominant defensive tackle, and Still fit the description in 2011. You can't judge defensive tackles strictly by individual stats, as theirs rarely will stack up with those of the top defensive ends. The defensive tackles deal with more double teams, and their roles are more significant in run-stopping. Still was as good or better than another Penn State defensive tackle, Jared Odrick, in 2009. Odrick finished No. 2 in the countdown that year, and Still was deserving of his position in this year's rundown.
Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which blogger is right.

Today's Take Two topic is this: What has been the best assistant coaching hire in the Big Ten so far this offseason?

Take 1: Adam Rittenberg

[+] EnlargeLarry Johnson
AP Photo/Brandon WadeDefensive line coach Larry Johnson provides some continuity amid the recent upheaval surrounding the Penn State staff.
It's not an outside hire but rather an assistant retained from the previous staff. Penn State's Bill O'Brien made an excellent decision immediately after getting the job in keeping defensive line coach Larry Johnson on staff. Johnson has been Penn State's lead recruiter for years and one of the best in the Big Ten. As Penn State goes through a transition and enters an uncertain future, having Johnson on staff to spearhead recruiting should really help. Johnson recruits the talent-rich Washington D.C./Maryland/Virginia area well and is a known name with Pennsylvania high school coaches. He also has a strong record as a position coach developing defensive linemen like Tamba Hali, Aaron Maybin, Jared Odrick and, most recently, Devon Still. Johnson can help maintain some continuity on Penn State's defense, which isn't the unit that needs a serious upgrade on this team. Every assistant is evaluated as both a recruiter and as a talent-developer. Johnson excels at both, and he also can help O'Brien and Penn State through a historic transition.

Take 2: Brian Bennett

That's a good choice, Adam, and certainly an excellent decision by Bill O'Brien. I'm going to go with a guy who wasn't part of a program before but made a stellar addition: Everett Withers at Ohio State. Urban Meyer promised to bring in a top-notch staff, and Withers is the headliner of that group. He was the interim head coach at North Carolina last season and before that led some extremely talented and productive defenses for the Tar Heels. Withers has been a defensive coordinator in the Big Ten before (at Minnesota) and is regarded as one of the top teachers of defensive back play in the country. He's also a good recruiter whose ties to North Carolina played a big role in the Buckeyes landing linebacker Jamal Marcus in this class. When paired with holdover Luke Fickell -- another great call by Meyer -- Withers should help Ohio State reclaim its Silver Bullets legacy as one of the top defenses in the nation.
In 2009, Penn State's Jared Odrick impressed Big Ten coaches enough to earn their defensive player of the year award.

Last season, Illinois' Corey Liuget blossomed into a force on the interior line, finishing seventh in the league in tackles for loss and eighth in sacks.

Odrick became a first-round pick in the 2010 NFL draft, and Liuget figures to hear his name called among the first 10-20 selections in April.

Who's next in the Big Ten?

The Big Ten returns several players who could follow the legacies of Odrick and Liuget. Let's take a closer look at the group:

Leading candidates
  • Jared Crick, Nebraska (6-foot-6, 285, Sr.): Second-team AP All-American in 2010; consensus first-team All-Big 12; Rotary Lombardi Award semifinalist; led the Big 12 with 9.5 sacks, same total he recorded in 2009; 16 tackles for loss; 63 total tackles; recorded a tackle for loss in six of final seven games.
  • Mike Martin, Michigan (6-2, 299, Sr.): Second-team All-Big Ten (coaches); recorded 37 tackles, six tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks; has appeared in 36 games with 24 starts; Michigan's top NFL draft prospect for 2012; will be a focal point as Michigan reshapes its defense under new coordinator Greg Mattison.
  • Kawann Short (6-3, 305, Jr.): Honorable mention All-Big Ten in 2010; finished fourth in the league in both sacks (six) and tackles for loss (12.5); led Purdue with eight pass breakups and added two blocked kicks; as All-American Ryan Kerrigan departs, Purdue hopes Short can anchor the defensive line.
Keep an eye on ...
  • Mike Daniels, Iowa (6-1, 275, Sr.): Honorable mention All-Big Ten in 2010; finished second on the team in both sacks (four) and tackles for loss (11); started eight games after serving as a reserve in 2008 and 2009; will step into a leading role on a defensive line that loses three starters, including tackle Karl Klug.
  • Jerel Worthy, Michigan State (6-3, 305, Jr.): Honorable mention All-Big Ten in 2010; led Michigan State defensive linemen with 40 tackles; recorded four sacks, eight tackles for loss, three pass breakups, two quarterback hurries and a blocked kick.
  • John Simon, Ohio State (6-2, 270, Jr.): Honorable mention All-Big Ten in 2010; recorded 41 tackles, 8.5 for loss, three sacks, two fumble recoveries, two pass breakups; boasts tremendous strength and upside and will be looked to for leadership following the graduation losses of Cameron Heyward and Dexter Larimore.
  • Devon Still, Penn State (6-5, 311, Sr.): Led Penn State in both sacks (four) and tackles for loss (10); added 39 tackles and a pass breakup; hampered by injuries early in his career, Still was terrific in the Outback Bowl (3.5 tackles for loss) and could be finally blossoming into an elite defensive lineman.
OTHER NAMES TO WATCH
  • Baker Steinkuler, Nebraska
  • Patrick Butrym and Jordan Kohout, Wisconsin
  • Jack DiNardo, Northwestern
  • Akeem Spence, Illinois
  • Adam Replogle, Indiana
  • Brandon Kirksey, Minnesota
The 2010 Big Ten postseason player rankings (Top 25) are in the books. Wipe those tears away. A new rundown for 2011, which will include Nebraska players, isn't too far in the distance.

Let's begin to break down the rankings.

By team:

Ohio State: 6
Wisconsin: 5
Illinois: 3
Michigan State: 2
Iowa: 2
Indiana: 2
Michigan: 2
Penn State: 1
Northwestern: 1
Purdue: 1

Ohio State and Wisconsin dominated the rundown, and each team could have had more players (Brian Rolle, Montee Ball) on the list. Illinois had three players finish in the top eight, all juniors who declared for the NFL draft.

By position:

QB: 7
OL: 6
DL: 5
WR: 2
LB: 2
RB: 2
DB: 1

Some certainly will question the selections, but after several seasons where quarterback was a weakness in the Big Ten, the signal caller spot undoubtedly became a position of strength this season. Nearly every Big Ten team had a quarterback who improved -- in several cases, dramatically so -- upon his 2009 production. Even some of the quarterbacks who didn't make the rankings, like Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase and Minnesota's Adam Weber, really helped their teams this past season.

Looking back at the preseason Big Ten rankings, 14 of the 25 players selected also made the postseason rundown.

Several players ended up more or less where they were projected: Wisconsin's John Moffitt (preseason No. 15, postseason No. 14); Indiana's Tandon Doss (preseason No. 14, postseason No. 19) and Iowa's Ricky Stanzi (preseason No. 18, postseason No. 17). Other players made major moves up the board, like Wisconsin's J.J. Watt (preseason No. 25, postseason No. 2) and Illinois' Mikel Leshoure (preseason No. 24, postseason No. 7). And some players came from off the radar to soar up the rankings, like Illinois' Corey Liuget (preseason unranked, postesason No. 5).

Despite doing these rankings for several years, I'm still struggling to find the formula that best resonates. My rankings are subjective and not designed to please everyone, but the best criteria (NFL potential, college production, impact) is still open for debate. I'll definitely reach out to you folks for help before putting together the 2011 preseason rankings.

Who just missed the cut for the Top 25? It's tough to narrow down the pool to 25 names, and these 10 players were strongly considered for the rundown.
A few final notes and a request:
  • Not surprisingly, Terrelle Pryor's selection at No. 13 generated the most amount of feedback (mostly negative). It's interesting how many Ohio State fans came to Pryor's defense, arguing that the quarterback should have been rated higher. In hindsight, he could have been a few spots higher in the rankings, perhaps on par with Wisconsin's Scott Tolzien. But when it came to Ohio State's highest-rated player for these rankings, Dane Sanzenbacher was an easy choice. There's a reason why his teammates elected him as their MVP.
  • There also was grumbling about the three Illinois players in the top 10. I'd argue that all three were the best players at their respective positions, two by substantial margins (Leshoure and Liuget). We can certainly debate my selections, but I'll staunchly defend Liuget at No. 5. He was just as dominant, if not more so, than Penn State defensive tackle Jared Odrick, the 2009 Big Ten co-Defensive Player of the Year and my No. 2 player from 2009. Liuget's rise up the NFL draft boards is no accident, and if you don't think he should be at No. 5, you weren't watching the games.
  • For the second consecutive season, a defensive end on a losing team finished No. 1 in the rankings, as Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan followed Michigan's Brandon Graham in 2009. Both Kerrigan and Graham were ranked No. 10 in the preseason rundown.

Whether you liked my rankings or hated them, you have your own opinions. Send me your top 25 Big Ten players from 2010 and include a short rationale (150 words or less). I'll include the best ones in a post later this week.
The 2010 Big Ten postseason player rankings continue with ...

No. 5: Corey Liuget, DT, Illinois, Jr., 6-3, 300

[+] EnlargeCorey Liuget
Damen Jackson/Icon SMIIllinois defensive tackle Corey Liuget was a force to be reckoned with in 2010.
2010 numbers: Recorded 63 tackles and led team in tackles for loss (12.5), sacks (4.5) and quarterback hurries (10); added three pass breakups; finished eighth in the league in sacks and seventh in tackles for loss; earned second-team All-Big Ten honors from both the coaches and the media.

Preseason rank: Unranked in the preseason top 25 players

Why he's here: Liuget was the Big Ten's most disruptive interior defensive lineman, creating a ton of problems for opponents all year long. The Illinois junior was the closest thing to this season's Jared Odrick, the former Penn State star who won Big Ten co-Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2009. Illinois' defense made major strides under first-year coordinator Vic Koenning, and no player impacted games more than Liuget.

The Illini star got stronger as the year progressed, setting the tone for a huge second half with a career-high 11 tackles against Minnesota, the most for an Illinois defensive tackle since 1996. He recorded four or more tackles in seven of the final eight games and had at least one tackle for loss in 10 of Illinois' 13 games. Not surprisingly, Liuget declared for the NFL draft following the season and should be a first-round pick in April.

  • No. 6: Wisconsin LT Gabe Carimi
  • No. 7: Illinois RB Mikel Leshoure
  • No. 8: Illinois LB Martez Wilson
  • No. 9: Ohio State WR Dane Sanzenbacher
  • No. 10: Wisconsin QB Scott Tolzien
  • No. 11: Michigan State LB Greg Jones
  • No. 12: Ohio State CB Chimdi Chekwa
  • No. 13: Ohio State QB Terrelle Pryor
  • No. 14: Wisconsin G John Moffitt
  • No. 15: Michigan C David Molk
  • No. 16: Ohio State DE Cameron Heyward:
  • No. 17: Iowa QB Ricky Stanzi
  • No. 18: Michigan State QB Kirk Cousins
  • No. 19: Indiana WR Tandon Doss
  • No. 21: Penn State G Stefen Wisniewski
  • No. 22: Iowa DE Adrian Clayborn
  • No. 23: Wisconsin RB James White
  • No. 24: Ohio State LT Mike Adams
  • No. 25: Indiana QB Ben Chappell
I normally save my Big Ten awards endorsements for after the regular season, but one race has already been decided.

Purdue defensive end Ryan Kerrigan should be the 2010 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.

End of discussion.

[+] EnlargeRyan Kerrigan
Chuck Rydlewski/Icon SMIPurdue defensive end Ryan Kerrigan has made a strong case to be 2010 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.
Kerrigan leads the nation in tackles for loss (23.5) and ranks second in both sacks (11.5) and forced fumbles (5). With two forced fumbles last week against Michigan, Kerrigan increased his career total to 14, breaking the Big Ten mark of 13 shared by Simeon Rice and Bob Sanders and tying the FBS record shared by Terrell Suggs (Arizona State, 2000-02), Antwan Peek (Cincinnati, 2000-02) and Kenechi Udeze (Southern California, 2001-03).

The 6-4, 263-pound senior is soaring up the draft boards after recording at least one sack in eight games and at least two tackles for loss in seven contests this season.

"I've been around a lot of All-American players, and he's playing his position at a higher level than just about any player I've ever been around," Purdue coach Danny Hope said. "His numbers speak for themselves. If we're talking about performance in 2010, Ryan Kerrigan's the best defensive player in the Big Ten."

So why bring this up now? Won't the Big Ten awards recognize the best players?

Not always. Forgive me for lacking faith in the Big Ten media or the coaches to get this one right.

Let's look back to last year and the case of Brandon Graham.

The Michigan defensive end was the single most dominant player in the Big Ten. He led the nation in tackles for loss (26) and ranked 14th in sacks average (10.5, .88 per game). Graham had nine games with multiple tackles for loss and recorded two forced fumbles, two blocked kicks, a fumble recovery and a blocked punt return for a touchdown.

"For a guy as strong as he is and as fast as he is, he was virtually unblockable," Kerrigan told me this week. "You could really take a lot from his game and apply that to yours. I've really tried to do that. He's probably the best defensive end I've seen since I've been in college."

Despite Graham's incredible production, he wasn't named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, an award instead shared by Michigan State linebacker Greg Jones and Penn State defensive tackle Jared Odrick. Graham shared the Silver Football but was largely overlooked for postseason awards. Odrick also was named the league's Defensive Lineman of the Year by the coaches.

Why did Graham get snubbed? Simple. He played for a lousy defense on a losing team. It had nothing to do with his individual accomplishments.

That brings us back to Kerrigan. Purdue needs to win its last two games to reach a bowl, a tall order. And Purdue's defense ranks a middling 57th nationally in yards allowed and 70th in points allowed.

Kerrigan faces an uphill battle to be recognized because of Purdue's struggles. He was inexplicably left off of the lists of finalists for both the Rotary Lombardi Award and the Bronko Nagurski Trophy.

"Even though we don't have a winning record," Hope said, "we've had a chance to win some games against some of the best teams in the country, and a lot of it has to do with Ryan Kerrigan’s performance on defense, to keep our football team alive.

"That speaks volumes, more so than being a good player on a great team when a lot of things are going well.”

Kerrigan clearly has gained respect around the Big Ten. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, whose team faces Purdue this week, called Kerrigan "one of the premier players in the country, not just the conference."

Wisconsin defensive end J.J. Watt, Kerrigan's primary competitor for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, acknowledged Kerrigan on Twitter after last Saturday's games: "@RyanKerrigan94 jeeez man, you wanna save some sacks for the rest of us? Lol. congrats on the big game."

Kerrigan saw the tweet and holds the Wisconsin star in extremely high regard, saying Watt is "certainly deserving of any recognition he gets for the award as well." Although Kerrigan is about as selfless as they come about individual recognition, the possibility of being named the Big Ten's top defender isn't lost on him.

"That would be a great honor," he said. "With all the great players we have in this league, to be mentioned like that would certainly mean a lot to me."

I don't vote for the Big Ten postseason awards, but I implore the media members and the coaches to do the right thing this time.

Put No. 94 at the top of your ballots.

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