Big Ten: Jason Spriggs
Illinois: This is another group that appears to be in significantly better shape now than at the start of coach Tim Beckman's tenure. The Illini lose only one full-time starter in tackle Corey Lewis, as four other linemen who started at least eight games in 2013 return. Senior tandem Michael Heitz and Simon Cvijanovic are two of the Big Ten's most experienced linemen, and guards Ted Karras also has logged plenty of starts. Right tackle appears to be the only vacancy entering the spring, as Austin Schmidt and others will compete.
Indiana: The Hoosiers have somewhat quietly put together one of the Big Ten's best offensive lines, and the same should hold true in 2014. Everybody is back, and because of injuries before and during the 2013 season, Indiana boasts a large group with significant starting experience. Jason Spriggs should contend for first-team All-Big Ten honors as he enters his third season at left tackle. Senior Collin Rahrig solidifies the middle, and Indiana regains the services of guard Dan Feeney, who was sidelined all of 2013 by a foot injury.
Iowa: The return of left tackle Brandon Scherff anchors an Iowa line that could be a team strength this fall. Scherff will enter the fall as a leading candidate for Big Ten offensive lineman of the year. Iowa must replace two starters in right tackle Brett Van Sloten and left guard Conor Boffeli. Andrew Donnal could be the answer in Van Sloten's spot despite playing guard in 2013, while several players will compete at guard, including Tommy Gaul and Eric Simmons. Junior Austin Blythe returns at center.
Maryland: Line play will go a long way toward determining how Maryland fares in the Big Ten, and the Terrapins will make the transition with an experienced group. Four starters are back, led by center Sal Conaboy, who has started games in each of his first three seasons. Tackles Ryan Doyle and Michael Dunn bring versatility to the group, and Maryland should have plenty of options once heralded recruit Damian Prince and junior-college transfer Larry Mazyck arrive this summer. Prince is the top Big Ten offensive line recruit in the 2014 class, according to ESPN RecruitingNation. New line coach Greg Studwara brings a lot of experience to the group.
Michigan: The Wolverines' line is under the microscope this spring after a disappointing 2013 season. Michigan loses both starting tackles, including Taylor Lewan, the Big Ten's offensive lineman of the year and a projected first-round draft choice. The interior line was in flux for much of 2013, and Michigan needs development from a large group of rising sophomores and juniors, including Kyle Kalis, Kyle Bosch, Jack Miller, Graham Glasgow, and Patrick Kugler. Both starting tackle spots are open, although Ben Braden seems likely to slide in on the left side. Erik Magnuson is out for spring practice following shoulder surgery, freeing up opportunities for redshirt freshman David Dawson and others.
Michigan State: The line took a significant step forward in 2013 but loses three starters, including left guard Blake Treadwell, a co-captain. Michigan State used an eight-man rotation in 2013 and will look for development from top reserves such as Travis Jackson (Yes! Yes!) and Connor Kruse. Kodi Kieler backed up Treadwell last season and could contend for a starting job as well. Coach Mark Dantonio said this week that converted defensive linemen James Bodanis, Devyn Salmon and Noah Jones will get a chance to prove themselves this spring. It's important for MSU to show it can reload up front, and the large rotation used in 2013 should help.
Minnesota: For the first time since the Glen Mason era, Minnesota truly established the line of scrimmage and showcased the power run game in 2013. The Gophers return starters at four positions and regain Jon Christenson, the team's top center before suffering a season-ending leg injury in November. Right tackle Josh Campion and left guard Zac Epping are mainstays in the starting lineup, and players such as Tommy Olson and Ben Lauer gained some valuable experience last fall. There should be good leadership with Epping, Olson, Marek Lenkiewicz and Caleb Bak.
Nebraska: Graduation hit the line hard as five seniors depart, including 2012 All-American Spencer Long at guard and Jeremiah Sirles at tackle. Nebraska will lean on guard Jake Cotton, its only returning starter, and experienced players such as Mark Pelini, who steps into the center spot. Senior Mike Moudy is the top candidate at the other guard spot, but there should be plenty of competition at the tackle spots, where Zach Sterup, Matt Finnin and others are in the mix. Definitely a group to watch this spring.
Northwestern: Offensive line struggles undoubtedly contributed to Northwestern's disappointing 2013 season. All five starters are back along with several key reserves, and coach Pat Fitzgerald already has seen a dramatic difference in the position competitions this spring as opposed to last, when many linemen were sidelined following surgeries. Center Brandon Vitabile is the only returning starter who shouldn't have to worry about his job. Paul Jorgensen and Eric Olson opened the spring as the top tackles, and Jack Konopka, who has started at both tackle spots, will have to regain his position.
Ohio State: Like Nebraska, Ohio State enters the spring with a lot to replace up front as four starters depart from the Big Ten's best line. Taylor Decker is the only holdover and will move from right tackle to left tackle. Fifth-year senior Darryl Baldwin could step in at the other tackle spot, while Pat Elflein, who filled in for the suspended Marcus Hall late last season, is a good bet to start at guard. Jacoby Boren and Billy Price will compete at center and Joel Hale, a defensive lineman, will work at guard this spring. Ohio State has recruited well up front, and it will be interesting to see how young players such as Evan Lisle and Kyle Dodson develop.
Penn State: New coach James Franklin admits he's concerned about the depth up front despite the return of veterans Miles Dieffenbach and Donovan Smith on the left side. Guard Angelo Mangiro is the other lineman who logged significant experience in 2013, and guard/center Wendy Laurent and guard Anthony Alosi played a bit. But filling out the second string could be a challenge for Penn State, which could start a redshirt freshman (Andrew Nelson) at right tackle. The Lions have to develop some depth on the edges behind Nelson and Smith.
Purdue: The Boilers reset up front after a miserable season in which they finished 122nd out of 123 FBS teams in rushing offense (67.1 ypg). Three starters return on the interior, led by junior center Robert Kugler, and there's some continuity at guard with Jordan Roos and Justin King, both of whom started as redshirt freshmen. It's a different story on the edges as Purdue loses both starting tackles. Thursday's addition of junior-college tackle David Hedelin could be big, if Hedelin avoids a potential NCAA suspension for playing for a club team. Cameron Cermin and J.J. Prince also are among those in the mix at tackle.
Rutgers: Continuity should be a strength for Rutgers, which returns its entire starting line from 2013. But production has to be better after the Scarlet Knights finished 100th nationally in rushing and tied for 102nd in sacks allowed. Guard Kaleb Johnson considered entering the NFL draft but instead will return for his fourth season as a starter. Rutgers also brings back Betim Bujari, who can play either center or guard, as well as Keith Lumpkin, the likely starter at left tackle. It will be interesting to see if new line coach Mitch Browning stirs up the competition this spring, as younger players Dorian Miller and J.J. Denman could get a longer look.
Wisconsin: There are a lot of familiar names up front for the Badgers, who lose only one starter in guard Ryan Groy. The tackle spots look very solid with Tyler Marz (left) and Rob Havenstein (right), and Kyle Costigan started the final 11 games at right guard. There should be some competition at center, as both Dan Voltz and Dallas Lewallen have battled injuries. Coach Gary Andersen mentioned on national signing day that early enrollee Michael Deiter will enter the mix immediately at center. Another early enrollee, decorated recruit Jaden Gault, should be part of the rotation at tackle. If certain young players develop quickly this spring, Wisconsin should have no depth issues when the season rolls around.
Coach: Kevin Wilson (5-19, two seasons with Hoosiers and overall)
2012 record: 4-8 (2-6 in Big Ten, fifth in the Leaders Division)
Key losses: C Will Matte, DT Adam Replogle, DT Larry Black Jr., CB Antonio Marshall
Key returnees: QB Tre Roberson, QB Cameron Coffman, QB Nate Sudfeld, RB Stephen Houston, WR Shane Wynn, WR Kofi Hughes, OL Jason Spriggs, OL Collin Rahrig, DE Ryan Phillis, DE Zach Shaw, CB Brian Williams, S Greg Heban, LB David Cooper
Newcomer to watch: The Hoosiers don’t have many holes to fill on defense with eight starters returning, but they were hit hard right up the middle with both tackles up front moving on after last season. Wilson didn’t have to look far to find a potential stopgap with an ESPN300 player on the market in Indianapolis, and the signing of Darius Latham was a critical one for the Hoosiers both in terms of the caliber of player and because it came at a position of need.
Stepping in as a true freshman and making an impact in the Big Ten trenches is a tall order, but at 6-foot-5, 291 pounds, Latham at least has the frame to give himself a chance to help the Hoosiers right away.
Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Maybe it won’t matter who ultimately takes the first snap of the season for the Hoosiers. There are more than enough skilled targets to take advantage of in the passing game, an emphasis on being more physical should yield better results on the ground and Indiana has a coach who has proven his system will put up points.
But a three-man quarterback battle waged throughout training camp has left a pretty significant piece of the offensive puzzle undecided this month, and at some point Wilson is going to have to settle on a guy to lead his attack and point the Hoosiers in the right direction. It’s not like he doesn’t have options, and with each of the candidates bringing something valuable to the table, it’s understandable why Indiana has taken its time.
Roberson is a versatile athlete who can add mobility to the position, Coffman showed off his arm a year ago by throwing for more than 2,700 yards and Sudfield has turned some heads on the practice field this month. But they can’t all play, and sooner or later Wilson will have to make a decision.
Forecast: The buzz is building for a return to the postseason, and after going to just one bowl in the past 19 years and not winning one since 1991, the Hoosiers are definitely overdue.
But even with all the returning talent from a productive offense and a number of veterans back with a chance to improve a porous defensive unit from a year ago, the path to a winning record or even six wins isn’t exactly a smooth one for Indiana. It will benefit from playing eight games at Memorial Stadium, but the schedule wasn’t all that kind for the program within the Big Ten and aside from Indiana State, the games outside of the league are far from sure things.
The Hoosiers showed they could compete against some of the top teams in the conference a year ago, including a thrilling, high-scoring shootout against undefeated Ohio State that offered growing evidence of what Wilson’s attack could be capable of as he adds more talent and athleticism to the roster.
Without significant improvement on the other side of the ball, the Hoosiers will have a hard time making up much ground in the division. But if the defense is able to make a jump and take a little pressure off the offense and whoever winds up winning the quarterback job, a trip around the holidays could be within reach.
Make that three returning starters.
The Hoosiers' line has suffered a significant blow as right guard Dan Feeney will miss the entire 2013 season after suffering a right foot injury in last week's scrimmage. Head coach Kevin Wilson said Tuesday that Feeney has a Lisfranc fracture and will undergo surgery.
Feeney and tackle Jason Spriggs both set team freshman records in 2012 by starting all 12 games. Feeney, an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection, didn't allow a sack in 935 snaps and finished second on the team in knockdowns with 54.
Indiana still has good depth up front and likely will turn to sophomore Jake Reed to fill Feeney's spot. But Feeney and Spriggs had been pegged by many to lead the line this fall. Feeney's absence could sting.
The 6-4, 310-pound Feeney has a redshirt year available and will retain three years of eligibility.
"I thought I was going to be redshirted," Spriggs told ESPN.com, "just like all the other freshmen."
It was a reasonable assumption, but one that in recent years often has proven incorrect at Indiana. The Hoosiers in 2011 played 32 freshmen (16 true, 16 redshirt), the most in the FBS. Last season, they played 11 true freshmen and five redshirt freshmen. IU had just eight seniors on its 2012 roster, tied for the fewest in the country.
Offensive line typically is the position group where freshmen are least likely to see the field. Most come to college lacking the physical development to stand their ground against Big Ten defense.
But Indiana's offensive line hasn't been immune from the youth movement. The Hoosiers play fast on offense, and their linemen grow up fast, too.
Spriggs started all 12 games last season, setting a team freshman record. But he didn't reach the milestone by himself: fellow true freshman Dan Feeney also started every game at right guard.
The Hoosiers opened the season with two true freshmen (Spriggs and Feeney) and two true sophomores (Bernard Taylor and Peyton Eckert) on their starting offensive line, flanking fifth-year senior center Will Matte. Both Taylor and Eckert had cracked the starting lineup in the third week of their freshman year in 2011. When Taylor went down with an injury midway through last season, he was replaced by a redshirt sophomore (Collin Rahrig) who had made eight starts as a redshirt freshman.
"Getting in the mix early on takes away a lot of the nervousness and the worry of thinking about what it's like," Spriggs said.
Indiana's line remains one of the Big Ten's youngest. But because of the fast-tracking, the Hoosiers are among the league's most experienced groups. They also could be one of the best.
"We’re striving to be the No. 1 O-line in the Big Ten," Spriggs said. "And I think that's actually going to happen this year."
Indiana wasn't far off in 2012, despite its youth. The Hoosiers finished second in the Big Ten in total sacks allowed (17). When pass attempts were factored in, IU led the Big Ten, surrendering one sack every 31.8 pass attempts. Indiana led the league in passing by a wide margin, and the line recorded five games with no sacks allowed and two others with just one sack allowed.
Although Matte departs, Indiana brings back its other four starting linemen as well as two others with starting experience.
"We have everybody returning," Spriggs said, "and I feel like the trust is a lot better than last year. Last year, we had me and Feeney and the rest of the freshmen coming in, nobody really knew where we stood. During the season, I was still learning everything, flying by the seat of my pants.
"Now everybody's been in the same room for at least a year, so that's going to help out a lot."
Spriggs got his opportunity when projected starting tackle Charlie Chapman sustained a concussion in camp. Feeney simply outplayed the competition into a top spot at the end of camp.
The 6-foot-4, 305-pound Feeney didn't surrender a sack all season, while the 6-7, 280-pound Spriggs led Indiana with 80 knockdowns. Both earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors and made several all-freshman teams, including ESPN.com's.
"It was pretty crazy, playing against people so big and knowing the Big Ten is known for having such big, talented linemen," Feeney said. "I definitely had to adjust to the size of people and the speed. But I felt like I transitioned well."
Taylor came to Indiana targeting a starting job early in his career. But he also was realistic about his development.
"When I got here, I felt like I wasn't ready," he said. "But when coach throws you in there, you're not going to say no. You've just got to step it up and do it. I was in the same boat as Jason. I ended up getting thrown in there.
"But we've all grown together because we're with each other every day."
The linemen are together on the practice field, in the weight room and even away from Memorial Stadium. Feeney lives with Eckert and center Jake Reed, Taylor lives with tackle Ralston Evans and Spriggs lives with center Wes Rogers and tackle Jacob Bailey. Spriggs and Feeney roomed together last year.
"When you're with somebody that long," Spriggs said, "working and striving to get better, you start trusting everybody."
Matte is the lone starter lost from an offense that finished second in the Big Ten in yards and put up 49 points against Ohio State, the most the Buckeyes had allowed since 1994. The Hoosiers boast three experienced quarterbacks as Tre Roberson returns to the mix, as well as arguably the Big Ten's top receiving corps.
IU's linemen prioritized the run game this spring, as the team finished 10th in the Big Ten in rush yards (1,570) and last in attempts (399). If the Hoosiers achieve better balance, stay a step ahead of defenses and more effectively translate all those yards into points, their goal of becoming the Big Ten's best line could come true.
"We talk about that all the time," Taylor said. "It's our No. 1 agenda."
Now that spring practice is over, we're starting a new series looking at the most indispensable players on each Big Ten team.
By indispensable, we don't necessarily mean best. We mean the players who would be hardest to replace between now and the start of the season if they got hurt or suspended or joined the circus. It could be because of their value to the team or because of a lack of depth at their position.
We'll pick two players from each team, usually offense and defense but not always. Next up: Indiana.
Jason Spriggs, LT, So.
Spriggs stepped into the fire as a true freshman at arguably the most important offensive line position and held his own last season. Although Indiana had plenty of youth up front in 2012, the line excelled in pass protection, allowing just one sack every 31.8 pass attempts and finishing 33rd nationally in sacks allowed per game (1.42). Spriggs, who protected the blind side of all three IU quarterbacks, led the team with 80 knockdowns and allowed just two sacks in 961 snaps. Spriggs and guard Dan Feeney both set a team record by starting all 12 games as true freshmen. Both earned freshman All-America honors and honorable mention All-Big Ten honors. Feeney certainly could be here, too, but Spriggs played such a big role in pass protection. He would be a major loss for Indiana, which is relying on Spriggs and Feeney to form the foundation of the offensive line for years to come.
Greg Heban, S, Sr.
The Hoosiers' long-suffering defense will improve as younger, more talented players enter the program through upgrades in recruiting. But every unit needs some veteran leadership, and Heban provides it and much more from the safety position. Indiana loses significant pieces along the line, and while linebacker David Cooper could prove to be indispensable, the defense really needs Heban to stay on the field. He has started 22 games the past two seasons and last fall led Big Ten defensive backs in tackles per game (7.6), while tying for fifth in interceptions (3) and tying for 11th in passes defended (11). He's a natural playmaker for a secondary and a defense that still lacks them. Heban also can play safety, corner or the nickel spot. Indiana should have better overall depth on defense this season, but it can't afford to lose No. 9.
2012 conference record: 2-6 (fifth in Leaders Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 10; defense: 9; kicker/punter: 2
QB Tre Roberson, QB Cameron Coffman, QB Nate Sudfeld, WR Kofi Hughes, WR Shane Wynn, WR Cody Latimer, TE Ted Bolser, LB David Cooper, S Greg Heban, RB Stephen Houston
C Will Matte, DT Adam Replogle, DT Larry Black Jr.
2012 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Stephen Houston* (749 yards)
Passing: Cameron Coffman* (2,734 yards)
Receiving: Cody Latimer* (805 yards)
Tackles: Greg Heban* (91)
Sacks: Adam Replogle (5)
Interceptions: Heban (3)
1. Offensive depth: No Big Ten team returns as much offensive production as the Hoosiers, who bring back every key skill position player from 2012. They have three quarterbacks who played significant time last year, plus arguably the best corps of pass-catchers in Cody Latimer, Kofi Hughes, Shane Wynn and tight end Ted Bolser. Indiana seemed to find more contributors this spring, as Tevin Coleman pushed Stephen Houston at running back, Isaiah Roundtree thrived at slot receiver and wideout Ricky Jones came back from injury. This is an offense capable of being one of the very best in the Big Ten.
2. Let's get physical: Head coach Kevin Wilson stressed toughness and physicality all spring, even using the beginning part of practices for a "Big Ten period" where his offense lined up in more traditional power sets. The goal was to better prepare the defense to face those types of Big Ten attacks and to instill a physical mindset in his own running game. How well it worked won't be determined until the fall, but the approach should help the Hoosiers hold up better in the trenches.
3. Rahrig to go: The one semi-question mark on the offensive line was at center, where longtime starter Will Matte departed. But Collin Rahrig filled in ably this spring, suggesting a smooth transition. With promising rising sophomores Dan Feeney and Jason Spriggs getting a full offseason in the weight room, the offensive line could be a strength for Indiana this season.
1. Quarterback derby: Wilson went to great lengths this spring not to play favorites with his three quarterbacks, so much so that he didn't want to send just one out first for the spring game. But at some point, he'll have to choose between Tre Roberson, Nate Sudfeld and Cameron Coffman. Roberson needs to continue to get better as a passer, while Sudfeld and Coffman need to improve their mobility. Wilson is hoping one of them separates himself in fall camp. Ideally, he could redshirt Sudfeld or Coffman, but he could also risk losing one to transfer.
2. Defensive improvement: Indiana has ranked last in the Big Ten in defense in the last two years under Wilson, and that trend has to change if the Hoosiers want to get to a bowl game. The team only lost three senior starters from last year, but two were defensive tackles so there are questions up front. Several incoming recruits are expected to challenge for starting jobs right away on defense, which tells you both about the talent in that recruiting class and the need on the current roster.
3. Running the ball: Indiana led the Big Ten in passing offense last year but had a so-so running game. Leading returning ball carrier Stephen Houston has a knack for finding the end zone, yet he rushed for more than 50 fewer yards as a junior than he did as a sophomore. Indiana could get some more out of its quarterback run game this year but needs to be able to line up and run for crucial yards, especially in the red zone. A lot of that is on the guys blocking, too. "We will be a better offense when our offensive line and tight ends are tougher, and we run the ball," Wilson said.
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).
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.
There were many impressive debuts this year in the league, and several players showed off promising potential. Here is our 2012 all-freshman squad, captained by freshman of the year Deion Barnes:
QB: Joel Stave, Wisconsin*
RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin*
RB: Imani Cross, Nebraska
WR: Aaron Burbridge, Michigan State
TE: Kyle Carter, Penn State*
TE: Devin Funchess, Michigan
TE: Dan Vitale, Northwestern
OL: Jack Allen, Michigan State*
OL: Jason Spriggs, Indiana
OL: Donovan Smith, Penn State*
OL: Austin Blythe, Iowa*
OL: Dan Feeney, Indiana
DL: Deion Barnes, Penn State*
DL: Adolphus Washington, Ohio State
DL: Noah Spence, Ohio State
DL: Dean Lowry, Northwesterm
LB: Mason Monheim, Illinois
LB: Joe Bolden, Michigan
LB: Mike Svetina, Illinois
LB: James Ross, Michigan
DB: Nick VanHoose, Northwestern*
DB: Frankie Williams, Purdue*
DB: RJ Williamson, Michigan State*
K: Taylor Zalewski, Illinois*
P: Drew Meyer, Wisconsin*
KR: Dennis Norfleet, Michigan
All-purpose: Josh Ferguson, Illinois*
* -- redshirt freshman
As you can see, we got creative again -- we had a 3-4 defense for our ESPN.com All-Big Ten team, and now we have a revolutionary 4-4-3 setup on our all-freshman defense. Why? Well, the pool for newbie defensive backs in this league was very shallow, so we preferred to recognize an extra linebacker instead of forcing the issue at DB. ... You might also notice our 12-man, three-TE offense. We believe the young tight ends in this league are extremely promising, and we didn't even include Penn State's Jesse James. Outside of Burbridge, there wasn't much production from freshman receivers. ... We left off some pretty good young offensive linemen who just missed the cut, including Minnesota's Josh Campion and Illinois' Ted Karras. ... Stave gets the nod over the Gophers' Philip Nelson even though he missed the final month with a broken collarbone. Nelson had a great game against Purdue but had some poor statistical outings down the stretch. ... Carter was the only freshman who also made our All-Big Ten team. ... Gordon showed what a high ceiling he has with his 200-plus yard performance in the Big Ten title game. He could be an absolute superstar.
Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year
1. Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State: Just keeps on keepin' on. At this point, Miller might have to turn in two terrible performances in his last two games not to win this award.
2. Taylor Martinez, QB, Nebraska: Frustrating at times with his turnovers, Martinez has also become a master of the fourth-quarter comeback. He's the biggest reason why the Huskers are closing in on a Legends Division title.
3. Matt McGloin, QB, Penn State: Another strong and efficient game last week at Purdue (22-for-36, 321 yards, three touchdowns) has McGloin holding steady in this race. Now: Can he engineer a signature road win in Lincoln?
4. Venric Mark, RB, Northwestern: Off last week, Mark ranks second in the league in rushing and his 6.5 yards per carry is higher than every other top tailback in the conference.
5. Le'Veon Bell, RB, Michigan State: Bell had a big game against Nebraska last week, and the Big Ten's leading rusher is on pace for more than 1,600 yards if his team can get to a 13th game.
Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year
1. Michael Mauti, LB, Penn State: Mauti continues to lead because of his consistent play and because no one else has really jumped out to take away top contender status from him yet.
2. Jake Ryan, LB, Michigan: Ryan was all over the place last week at Minnesota, seemingly blowing up just about every play. He leads the league now with 12 tackles for loss.
3. Mike Taylor, LB, Wisconsin: You could make an argument for either Taylor or Chris Borland as Wisconsin's MVP, but Taylor is second in the league in tackles and third in TFLs. Wisconsin will need both this weekend at Indiana.
4. Tyler Scott, DE, Northwestern: Scott still leads the conference with seven sacks after a bye week and will need to come up big Saturday at Michigan.
5. Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State: Roby leads the conference in passes defended (18) and seems headed to All-Big Ten recognition. He also brings some swagger to the Buckeyes' defense.
Thompson-Randle El Freshman of the Year
1. Deion Barnes, DE, Penn State: Barnes has been a strong presence for the Nittany Lions all year long. The redshirt freshman has four sacks, a Big Ten-leading three forced fumbles and six tackles for loss.
2. Philip Nelson, QB, Minnesota: Nelson got a late start on the year but has been impressive in his three starts. If he can lead the Gophers to a bowl game and a strong finish, he'll get heavy consideration for this award.
3. Kyle Carter, TE, Penn State: An ankle injury kept Carter out of last week's game at Purdue, but before that he had been on a tear. For the year, Carter has 35 catches for 441 yards and two touchdowns in Bill O'Brien's tight-end-friendly offense.
4. Mason Monheim, LB, Illinois: Monheim gives Illini fans something to be excited about for the future, as he leads all Big Ten freshmen with 59 tackles.
5. Jason Spriggs, LT, Indiana: Spriggs has started all season at left tackle as a true freshman, and while he has room to improve, the Hoosiers have one of the best offenses in the league.
- Purdue QB Robert Marve has grown up a lot since his last trip to South Bend. BTN.com's Tom Dienhart checks in with Purdue star DT Kawann Short.
- Penn State top RB Bill Belton sits out practice Wednesday. Belton's likely replacement against Virginia, Derek Day, has maximized his opportunities. The Lions' new offense has been a great fit for TE Kyle Carter.
- Wisconsin standout WR Jared Abbrederis still has a walk-on's mindset. Badgers' defenders try to limit lapses late in practice.
- As first reported here, Ohio State and Penn State can be named official Leaders Division champs.
- Nebraska's Taylor Martinez has blended old and new to develop as a quarterback. Rex Burkhead sits out another practice, but CB Mohammed Seisay will play at UCLA.
- The Big Ten Network's Dave Revsine goes inside the numbers for Week 2 in the league.
- Michigan LT Taylor Lewan calls out the offensive line for an "embarrassing" performance against Bama. Brady Hoke has decided who will wear Bennie Oosterbaan's unretired No. 47 on Saturday.
- Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase is improving in his recovery from an ankle injury. An Illini tight end (Jon Davis) stole the spotlight from the running backs in the opener.
- Despite Northwestern's defensive struggles against Syracuse, coach Pat Fitzgerald tells Vanderbilt to "bring it" Saturday. Northwestern's "jet" team showed it can take flight.
- The opener was no fluke: Minnesota S Derrick Wells is a natural playmaker. Freshmen at Minnesota can attend Saturday's home opener for free. Jerry Kill is following the Glen Mason path of scheduling, Patrick Reusse writes.
- Ohio State tries to find the balance of how much to run talented QB Braxton Miller. More Buckeyes notes from their top beat guy.
- Jamie Samuelsen has some thoughts on Michigan, Michigan State and Twitter.
- Don't expect too many changes in Michigan State's secondary against Central Michigan. The Spartans receivers hope to broaden their roles in Week 2.
- Kinnick Stadium gives Iowa a big edge in its rivalry with Iowa State. Three story lines heading into Iowa-Iowa State.
- Indiana freshman offensive lineman Jason Spriggs has next-level talent (subscription required).
- Sporting News previews the Big Ten in 2012.
- After a rocky summer, Wisconsin's Montee Ball is grateful to be named a captain. Jordan Kohout is still helping out the Badgers as a volunteer coach.
- Michigan State offensive lineman Fou Fonoti, a juco transfer, has quickly gained the respect of his teammates. Spartans linebacker Denicos Allen is adjusting to the national spotlight. Michigan State's Larry Caper finds peace and perspective during the offseason.
- Illinois linebacker Jonathan Brown hopes to set a good example for his teammates this fall.
- Nebraska assistant Ron Brown likes his mix of running backs this season. Ciante Evans knows how important his position is to the Huskers' defensive scheme.
- Steve Greenberg writes that Iowa football has lost its luster, but not its leadership. Iowa got the jump in recruiting with lineman Austin Blythe and it paid off in the end.
- Some injury updates and other notes from Purdue. Boilers safety Landon Feichter is adjusting well to the new defensive scheme (subscription required).
- After a rough offseason, Penn State players are anxious to get things started. Lions receiver Christian Kuntz is back on the field with a big opportunity ahead of him. Matthew Pencek explores the hate for Lions QB Matt McGloin.
- Northwestern's defense is anxious to quiet its skeptics.
- Michigan AD Dave Brandon scheduled Appalachian State for payback purposes. Some more Wolverines notes from Brandon.
- His domestic case resolved, Storm Klein soon could be back in the mix at Ohio State. The Buckeyes' Chris Carter is pleased with his move to the defensive side.
- Minnesota's starting offensive line is four-fifths decided. Gophers incoming transfer Brian Bobek, formerly of Ohio State, didn't let his summer go to waste.
- Former Penn State QB Kevin Newsome is excited for his next opportunity, colleague Matt Fortuna writes. Another former PSU signal-caller, Rob Bolden, calls his trek to LSU "a blessing."
- Brent Yarina runs down the top five Big Ten defenders from the past five years.
- Indiana freshman Jason Spriggs is practicing with the starting offensive line because of injuries (subscription required).
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Jeff Thomas, LB
Replacement candidates: David Cooper (6-1, 230, incoming junior college transfer); Jacarri Alexander (6-1, 235, incoming junior college transfer); Jordan Wallace (5-11, 215, incoming freshman); Nick Mangieri (6-4, 230, incoming freshman).
The skinny: Wilson went looking for immediate help from the junior-college ranks this offseason, so expect Alexander and Cooper to push for starting roles right away. Both have excellent size for the position and just need to adjust to the major-college level. Wallace and Mangieri will be green, but Wilson showed no hesitation in throwing true freshmen into the fire last season.
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Andrew McDonald, LT
Why: McDonald was a two-year starter at left tackle, providing stability to an offense that saw lots of upheaval in 2011.
Replacement candidates: Charlie Chapman (6-6, 292, Jr.); Peyton Eckert (6-6, 295, Soph.); Bill Ivan (6-4, 282, Soph.); Dimitric Camiel (6-6, 290, incoming freshman); Jason Spriggs (6-6, 240, incoming freshman).
The skinny: The Hoosiers unfortunately aren't blessed with a plethora of experienced options at the tackle spot. Eckert started six games at right tackle as a true freshman and could make the switch to the left side this spring. Chapman was McDonald's backup last season but played only sparingly. It's quite likely that at least one of the true freshmen will crack the depth chart at one of the tackle positions. Camiel is a Texan who is Texas-sized, but who knows how quickly he can make the adjustment to Big Ten football.