Big Ten: Joe Bolden
1. Ohio State junior Armani Reeves is cutting his football career short due to concussions. The Buckeyes said Reeves would probably stop playing in early February. This weekend he told the Columbus Dispatch that head injuries started to affect his schoolwork and his personality during Ohio State’s run to national title last fall.
Reeves was the team’s top nickel back. Stepping away from football could not have been easy, but it’s a decision that is becoming more common for college athletes. Two Northwestern players, sophomore Dwight White and senior Collin Ellis, elected to end their playing careers early during the 2014 season. Their decisions are a good sign that better education about concussions is making players aware of the danger of trying to “tough it out.” It also speaks well for the universities that these players feel they have other options.
As more student-athletes start to carefully weigh the value of continuing their careers against potential long-term harm after an injury, it’s important that schools find ways to help their players understand options and have a plan in place to help those that decide to transition away from football. Reeves, for example, will keep his connection to the team by helping out as a student assistant coach.
2. Nebraska coach Mike Riley has one more spot to fill on his staff. It’s a position that the new coach says is crucial for him.
Riley is hunting for a member of the support staff who can help the Cornhuskers find walk-on talent from the state of Nebraska and foster relationships with local coaches. The Oregon State transplant doesn’t want to waste time waiting for his West Coast staff to develop those ties themselves. When instant success is expected, instinct credibility in the backyard is a must.
"We want this guy to be the expert. So when we have that meeting about local recruits, he knows the top-20 guys in Nebraska,” Riley told the Lincoln Journal Star. “I don't want guys leaving here and going to Iowa and being a good player. That might happen, but it won't happen without a fight."
That sounds like a less-than-subtle reference to Hawkeye defensive lineman Drew Ott, a Nebraska native who starred in Iowa’s front seven last fall.
The job opening isn’t a new idea. Most Big Ten programs have at least one member of its staff in charge of running camps and clinics, creating a connection to make sure their home field advantage extends to recruiting wars. The difference with Riley’s approach is, again, his transparency. Most schools hire their player personnel director without much public acknowledgement of who he is or what he’ll be doing. Riley and his staff have been refreshingly open when discussing their recruiting operations since landing in the Midwest in December. So far, it has served as good advertising for the new regime.
And now, onto the links...
- Penn State sent five former players to the NFL combine. Here's a look at some current Nittany Lions that could take their place next year.
- Spartan defensive back Montae Nicholson can cover a lot of ground in a hurry. The freshman leaped nearly eight yards in a sixth-place finish at the Big Ten indoor track championships this weekend.
- Former assistant John Settle is expected to return to Wisconsin to coach the Badgers' running backs.
- The intensity level at Michigan's first spring practices is noticeably higher than in the past, says linebacker Joe Bolden.
- Illinois staffer Ryan Cubit gets two years of probation for driving drunk in October.
- Purdue’s athletic budget got a nice boost over the weekend, which should lead to cheaper tickets for students.
- Maryland plans to switch to a 4-3 defensive front moving forward.
- Former Rutgers starter Raymond Pilch, now a police officer, helped save an infant's life last week.
- Minnesota holds it pro day Monday, a chance for several Gophers to separate themselves from draft competition.
- Hayden Fry, on the eve of his 86th birthday, told Iowa fans he’s still thawing from his many winters in Iowa City.
The exodus of high-profile run-stuffers leaves a large group of programs bunched together in the middle of the pack when evaluating the conference's linebacker units at the start of 2015. Most of those teams losing big-name players have good depth and a supporting cast to help fill the gaps. It may take time next fall to sort through which groups have weathered losses the best and which young players will rise to the occasion.
Best of the Best: Ohio State
No surprise here. The Buckeyes will be at the top of many of these position breakdown lists. Senior Joshua Perry returns to lead this athletic group. He finished a breakout 2014 season with a team-leading 124 tackles. Freshman Darron Lee started to emerge as a future star with the ability to make big plays late in the season, especially during an MVP performance at the Sugar Bowl. Raekwon McMillan and incoming freshman Justin Hilliard provide more young talent for a group that is still improving after a national championship this past fall.
Next up: Michigan State, Penn State
The Spartans, who had the country's stingiest rushing defense last year, will have at least one player named Bullough (junior Riley) in the second level of its defense next fall. That is historically a good sign for Michigan State. He joins senior Ed Davis, who won honorable mention All-Big Ten in 2014, to give the linebacker unit a sleeker, speedier look than on previous Mark Dantonio defenses. The departure of defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi leaves a little bit of uncertainty, but new coach Mark Snyder should help this unit remain a feared entity.
Penn State finished only a couple spots behind Michigan State in stopping the run. Hull is gone, but the majority of a deep unit returns. Starters Brandon Bell and Nyeem Wartman return for their second season in the lineup. Wartman finished second on the team last year with 75 tackles. The return of Ben Kline, who missed all of 2014 as part of an injury-riddled career so far, should also help the unit.
The Wolverines lose a natural ballhawk in Jake Ryan but shouldn't take a major step back after quietly having one of the better linebacker groups in the conference last year. Senior Joe Bolden is ready to take over for Ryan after making 102 tackles last year. Fifth-year senior Desmond Morgan missed almost all of 2014 with a hand injury, but he returns for his fourth season as a starter. Two defensive assistants with great track records coaching linebackers, D.J. Durkin and Greg Mattison, should help solve any issues Michigan has at the position.
Problem for a contender: Nebraska
The Cornhuskers are still struggling to get up to speed at linebacker in the Big Ten. Michael Rose-Ivey missed a full year after setting a Nebraska freshman record with 66 tackles in 2013. He will be back on the field, but the loss of two starters (Zaire Anderson and Trevor Roach) means that there is still work to be done in filling out the two-deep. Nebraska missed out on a good chance to add experience when South Carolina transfer Kaiwan Lewis chose Rutgers over the Cornhuskers in early February.
Our final question of the week: What was your favorite Big Ten moment of the season?
Brian Bennett: Take a bow, Melvin
Josh Moyer: Penn State fans celebrating the end of the postseason ban
It wasn’t the most important Big Ten moment of the 2014 season, but it’s still one I’ve never quite seen before – and probably never will again. After the NCAA announced the elimination of the bowl ban, along with other sanction reductions, PSU fans spilled into the streets of downtown Happy Valley and celebrated as if they just knocked off the top team in the nation. Two years of anger and frustration gave way to unbridled joy. Thousands sprinted to different venues on campus and just chanted, screamed and sang. Some even crowd-surfed on mattresses at the last stop. I’ve seen big fan celebrations before, but never for something that happened off the field. It was quite a sight.
Mitch Sherman: Mark Dantonio's answer to the Michigan disrespect
The seeds were planted long before Oct. 25, but when Michigan linebacker Joe Bolden drove a stake into the turf at Spartan Stadium, Michigan State reached its boiling point. It's rare that we get to see the reserved Dantonio stick out his chest, but the Spartans punctuated a 35-11 win over U-M with a Jeremy Langford touchdown run in the final 30 seconds. That was a message in response not just to the pregame stake-planting but years of disrespect. "I felt like we needed to put a stake in them at that point," Dantonio said after the game, also referencing the "little brother stuff" that has long brewed in this series. It was a great subplot, of which Michigan coach Brady Hoke, fittingly, was "not fully aware."
Austin Ward: Anthony Schlegel's takedown of a fan on the field
Leaving the stands and running on the field is pointless, dumb and dangerous right from the start. In case anybody had overlooked that last part, Ohio State assistant and former linebacker Anthony Schlegel offered a reminder that would have made The Rock proud. After a student had the bright idea to step on the turf at the Horseshoe during a September game against Cincinnati, he compounded it by getting a bit too close to the Ohio State sideline, where Schlegel popped out to plant him in the ground with an unforgettable body slam. The lesson, as always, is to stay in the seats.
Dan Murphy: Michigan-Ohio State moment of sportsmanship
Maybe it's all this Christmas music that has me feeling sappy, but the moment that keeps coming to mind (other than Melvin Gordon's insane performance against Nebraska) was shortly after J.T. Barrett's season-ending injury against the Wolverines. Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner made his way on to the field and offered some support to Barrett, who was still laid out on his back as trainers worked on his leg. At that point, it was the fourth quarter of a one-touchdown game between bitter rivals with a lot on the line -- a potential playoff berth for the Buckeyes and a last-ditch effort to save their coaching staff for the Wolverines. One of the worst moments of the year (Barrett's injury) was quickly followed by a great one. The quarterback's show of genuine solidarity was a reminder that these guys are human beings. Gardner fell short of expectations on the field this season, but it's far more appropriate that college football's lasting image of him will be that moment of sympathy.
Adam Rittenberg: Bust a move, Coach Kill
I'm tempted to go with Gordon in the snow against Nebraska, especially since I was there to witness history, but Jerry Kill gets my vote for his "old age" dance moves after Minnesota wins. Minnesota's rise under Kill has been one of the best Big Ten story lines in the past two seasons. Many wondered early in 2013 if Kill's coaching days soon would end because of his struggle with epilepsy, particularly seizures on game day. But the coach has his condition under control and continues to show why he's one of the best at getting the most out of his teams. You couldn't help but smile seeing Kill enjoy the wins by dancing in the locker room, surrounded by his joyous players. Those moments never get old.
The resources, support and tradition in Ann Arbor make it easier for Michigan than most programs to reroute itself in a positive direction. Expectations will always be high, but the current roster may not be built for an instant turnaround.
Here is where the rest of Michigan stands while its leaders search for a new head coach:
The big question mark is at quarterback. The only starter on offense who ran out of eligibility this season is Devin Gardner. His backup, Shane Morris, struggled in his one career start earlier this year. Brady Hoke never succeeded in recruiting or developing a program-changing quarterback. It doesn't appear there is a white knight on the way next year. Michigan's offense might be trending in the right direction, but without a talented quarterback in today's college football world it will take time for a new coaching staff to make the Wolverines competitive with the best in the Big Ten.
Defense: Michigan loses its top tackler, its two best pass-rushers and a veteran in the secondary this year. Hoke and coordinator Greg Mattison left a well-stocked defensive line with young players who had a chance to gain experience in 2014. Some of those young guys will need to take a step forward in producing more pressure to replace Brennen Beyer and Frank Clark.
The Wolverines' biggest loss on defense is Jake Ryan, their leader and middle linebacker. Junior Joe Bolden is equipped to step into Ryan's place after finishing this year with 102 tackles. The secondary returns a strong mix of experience and young talent, especially when five-star recruit Jabrill Peppers gets healthy. Hoke definitely leaves the Michigan defense better than he found it. This side of the ball is a conference championship-caliber unit.
Special teams: Punter Will Hagerup and kicker Matt Wile are both out of eligibility. Both Michigan return teams finished 11th in the conference in production but could get a boost from a healthy Peppers. Special-teams play didn't win any games for Michigan. It didn't lose any either. A new coach could make improvements here if he wants to focus his efforts on the third estate. He might be better served focusing on other issues to start.
Fan base: This season was the first time Michigan didn't lead the nation in home attendance in more than a decade. The student section was notably thinned throughout the regular season. Much of the fan angst was directed at former athletic director Dave Brandon, who alienated alumni, students and former players during his five years in office. The Michigan faithful are a confident bunch, but an impatient one as well. Hiring a big name would go a long way in reigniting hope among the fans.
Leadership: Dysfunction among the higher-ups in Michigan's athletic department is, as much as any other single cause, the reason why the last two coaches failed. Brandon's resignation helped clear out a large chunk of those problems.
The university has a new president and an interim athletic director, neither of whom has significant experience in leading a major athletics operation. Jim Hackett, the athletic director, is the former CEO of Steelcase and has inspired confidence during his first month on the job. It's not clear how long he'll be around, and it's still too early to make a judgment on how well equipped he is for the position. The administrative leadership for Michigan is a mystery right now, which is better than anything you could say about it a year ago.
Recruiting: Hoke's tumultuous final year took a major toll on Michigan's recruiting. When four-star tight end Chris Clark reneged on his commitment Tuesday, the class shrunk to six prospects planning to play for the Wolverines next season. That's the smallest group of committed players among any Power 5 conference team at this point.
Michigan has top-notch facilities and is a well-respected university. Hoke's staff could go head-to-head with anyone in the Big Ten when it came to recruiting. The next staff should be able to have the same success but probably won't have time to salvage the 2015 class.
The College Football Playoff rankings are coming out. Cue the Big Ten cries and anger. The 12-member playoff committee is meeting in Dallas -- so exciting -- and set to release on Tuesday its first list of 25 teams, the top four of which will eventually create matchups for our New Year’s Day semifinals. Let me remove some of the suspense for you: The Big Ten is going to be on the outside looking in. Michigan State figures to fit into the top 10, with Ohio State and Nebraska among the top 20. If you have a short memory, here’s what happened on Sept. 6. It looms large in the lack of respect this league receives nationally. All is not lost, though, as SEC and Pac-12 and Big 12 teams continue to knock each other from the top. Six weeks remain for one of the Big Ten’s top three teams to climb toward the top. It could happen.
What will happen next at Michigan? Just when you thought the season couldn’t get any worse for Brady Hoke and his team, Saturday happened. Not the 35-11 loss at Michigan State. That was expected. And hey, the Wolverines rushed for 61 yards -- 109 better than a year ago. But before the game, Michigan linebacker Joe Bolden drove a stake through the turf at Spartan Stadium. Not a good idea. Later, the Michigan Daily, the U-M student newspaper, gave up on the game. Ouch. So have the fans, especially the students, given up on the Wolverines? It will be interesting to see what happens in the seats at the Big House on Saturday as Indiana visits.
The Rutgers quarterback situation. The Scarlet Knights ranked as the top feel good story in the first half of the Big Ten season. Commonly picked to finish last in the East Division and miss a bowl game, Rutgers raced to a 5-1 start behind a solid defense and revitalized quarterback Gary Nova. But on Saturday at Nebraska, Nova went down with a knee injury late in the the first half as Rutgers -- instructed by coach Kyle Flood -- aggressively tried to drive the entire field, down 21-7 with one minute to play. Redshirt freshman Chris Laviano took over as Nova missed the second half. His status is uncertain for Saturday at home against Wisconsin. The rest of this season for Rutgers goes as Nova goes. It could win two more games and even push the Badgers if Nova is healthy. Without Nova, a crash-and-burn scenario is possible. Don't book the bowl trip yet.
On Wisconsin. Just like that, the Badgers are back. Sure, that loss at Northwestern still stings. But Wisconsin looked like a re-energized group in dispatching Maryland 52-7 on Saturday. And now, it’s got trips to Rutgers and Purdue before a big game in Madison on Nov. 15 against Nebraska opens the crucial three-game finish. It’s all out there for Gary Andersen’s team. With Melvin Gordon running the football and the quarterback situation apparently resolved, the Badgers are rounding into the team that ought to strike fear into the rest of the West -- and might just serve as the division’s best shot to beat Michigan State or Ohio State in Indianapolis.
The Under the Radar Bowl in Iowa City. Iowa and Northwestern sat out in Week 9, giving our short memories just enough time to forget about them. Not long ago, the Hawkeyes and Wildcats were contenders in the West. Then Iowa lost at Maryland, and Northwestern fell apart in the second half against Nebraska. The winner of this game remains in the mix, especially if it’s Iowa, which visits vulnerable Minnesota next week and gets Wisconsin and Nebraska at home to finish. But beware of Northwestern. It has won six of the past nine games in this series.
What's on your mind?
Adam Rittenberg: Wisconsin would gain national respect. Sure, some would point to LSU's personnel losses and potential weaknesses on offense entering the season. But coach Les Miles never has lost an opener in nine years with the Tigers, and his teams have performed especially well in these types of games -- openers at neutral sites against other major-conference teams. Wisconsin has far more question marks than LSU entering this game, and a win would quiet a lot of the skeptics (including yours truly) and put the Badgers in serious contention for a playoff spot, especially with a favorable Big Ten schedule on tap. LSU essentially is the home team in Houston. The Tigers should be very tough on defense. The expectation is that they'll win. A Wisconsin win would and should turn heads.
@ESPN_BigTen ? 4 next mailbag. After reading 5 biggest non-l games, if W beats LSU, would they get respect or would LSU get pass?— Matt Pacholski (@Mpachol) July 16, 2014
Eric from Troy, Mich., writes: Everyone seems to be harping on Michigan's offense for the coming season, but I think their real issue is on defense, a topic that doesn't get seem to get a lot of coverage. MSU (my alma mater) and OSU both basically scored at will last year. The Wolverines had 8 games where an opponent scored more than 21 points, and three games where they gave up 40+. But forget all that and just focus on the fact that Akron, a middle-of-the-road MAC team, put up 24 on them! Is there anything to suggest that UofM's defense will be better this year? And if not, how can anyone seriously believe they are going to contend for anything important?
Adam Rittenberg: I agree not enough criticism/analysis is focused on Michigan's defense. The unit looked awful at the end of the season, surrendering 73 points and 946 yards in the final two games (losses to Ohio State and Kansas State). I thought young quarterback Shane Morris played decently in a tough situation in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, but the defense didn't give Michigan a chance against K-State. What can we expect this fall? Michigan shuffled its defensive staff responsibilities, which includes coordinator Greg Mattison directly overseeing the linebackers and the secondary being split between Curt Mallory and Roy Manning. I think Michigan will be better in the back seven. There's good experience at linebacker with Jake Ryan, James Ross III, Desmond Morgan and Joe Bolden. The depth in the secondary might not be quite as strong but I expect big things from cornerback Blake Countess. The key is finding difference-makers up front. Will Frank Clark become a bona fide star? What about Mario Ojemudia, Brennen Beyer and Taco Charlton? Who steps up at defensive tackle? I don't expect Michigan to be a bad defense in 2014, but the line will determine whether it's average, better than average or very good.
Adam Rittenberg: A lot would depend on how the Big Ten performs in nonleague play and whether a Big Ten team runs the table at 13-0. I've written repeatedly that an undefeated team from a major conference won't be left out. The question is whether a one-loss Big Ten team could get in with two SEC teams. I think if Michigan State plays Oregon close and then goes on to sweep the Big Ten for the second straight year, it could get in at 12-1. Could Ohio State or Iowa or Wisconsin or Nebraska? Depends on what happens elsewhere. In terms of other conferences being left out with two SEC playoff teams, the Big 12 would top my list. Oklahoma might be the only realistic playoff contender entering the season. Maybe Baylor, too, but the Bears must visit the Sooners. I don't think a Big 12 team can afford a regular-season loss and still make the top four. I also think the ACC would be in major trouble if Florida State stumbles. There aren't many other genuine candidates. I like the SEC and Pac-12 to get at least one playoff team this year.
@ESPN_BigTen if 2 Sec teams make the playoff would the Big Ten be shut out? If not then which conference?— Paul Mosher (@Moshers07604) July 16, 2014
Daniel from Robbinsville, N.J., writes: Why hasn't more attention been paid to the addition of Ralph Friedgen in evaluating Rutgers for the upcoming season? His resume as an Offensive Coordinator is overwhelming and he has plenty of returning talent to work with.
Adam Rittenberg: I really like the hire, Daniel. Friedgen's priority will be getting quarterback Gary Nova on track for his final season. Nova had a really nice start to the 2012 campaign but struggled down the stretch and for most of 2013. Friedgen's success is not only with the scheme but in managing quarterbacks like Boomer Esiason, Frank Reich, Shawn Jones and Joe Hamilton. Rutgers' offense returns almost entirely intact and features some exciting pieces like running back Paul James, wide receiver Leonte Carroo and tight end Tyler Kroft. The key is generating consistent production and more explosive plays. It will be tough with this schedule, but Friedgen is proven.
@ESPN_BigTen Does Desmond King have what it takes to be 1 of the best shutdown corners in B1G this year? How much will he impact the IA D?— Caleb Simon (@HeyImSimonSays) July 16, 2014
Adam Rittenberg: I really like King's skill set and potential, and he'll have every opportunity to become a shutdown corner. Iowa has had a really nice run of them with Amari Spievey, Shaun Prater, Micah Hyde and B.J. Lowery. King, the first true freshman corner to start for Iowa since 2002, could be among the best as he continues to develop. He'll be matched up against top opposing wideouts this fall. His first test comes Sept. 20 when he'll likely go against Pitt wideout Tyler Boyd, who had 1,174 receiving yards as a freshman last season. I'm also interested to see how he fares against Maryland's threats -- possibly Stefon Diggs -- when the Hawkeyes visit the Terrapins on Oct. 18.
The hair had become his signature look and a sign of impending doom for ball carriers unlucky enough to see it up close during his destructive 2012 season. But the maintenance became too much.
Ryan made a rapid return to the field last season for the Wolverines. His 2013 debut came on Oct. 12 against Penn State, less than seven months after he tore the ligament in his right knee.
But something looked a little different about him, and it wasn’t just the short hair. That he managed to play in eight games, with five starts, qualified as a minor medical marvel. Yet Ryan did not record a sack or cause a turnover last year and produced just four tackles for loss. This came a season after he racked up 16 TFLs, 4.5 sacks and four forced fumbles as Michigan’s top defensive disrupter.
Like most players coming back from a major injury, Ryan said he was a bit tentative at times.
“It was more mental than anything, because you still never know what’s going to happen [with the knee],” he said. “The first couple of games, I was kind of shaky. I was starting to feel a lot better around the Ohio State game, getting back to 100 percent. Now, I’m there.”
Where Ryan is this spring is back at full strength, creating problems for the offense. Just at a different position.
Michigan shook up its linebacker lineup this spring in an effort to maximize its athleticism and playmaking. So Ryan moved to middle linebacker. James Ross III, who finished second on the team with 85 tackles last year as a sophomore, went from the weak side to Ryan’s old strongside slot. And Desmond Morgan shifted from the middle to the weak side.
“I think the coaches did a good job of analyzing where we best fit,” Ross said. “Now, we’ve got more athletic guys in space.”
That means Ryan is in a different space, one where he has a bit more responsibility. But so far, he says, the transition suits him.
“It’s been different, because now I’m blitzing up the middle,” he said. “And last year I was looking at the tight and now I’m reading the running back. But I like it a lot better because you’re in the mix of everything. It’s cool.”
Ross, at 225 pounds, will need to take on tight ends and says he has already had many spring battles with 265-pound Wolverines tight end A.J. Williams. Ross says he’s ready for the challenge.
“I’ve been able to hold my own through my whole career,” he said. “I’ve always been kind of a smaller guy, but I’m physical at the point of attack.”
Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is coaching the linebackers this season and will look to use them in a more aggressive, blitzing style. The Wolverines’ defense ranked eighth in the Big Ten in points allowed last year and had notable breakdowns at times, especially against Indiana and Ohio State.
Linebacker once again should be the best and deepest position on the defense, as the three veteran starters get support from juniors Joe Bolden and Royce Jenkins-Stone, sophomore Ben Gedeon and redshirt freshman Mike McCray.
Mattison wants to send his linebackers on pressures more in 2014, but they have to make sure they’re actually getting home on those calls. Only Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana and Purdue collected fewer sacks than Michigan during league play a year ago.
“He’s tried to stress the fact that when he calls a blitz, I need to be antsy -- grabbing that grass and being ready to go,” Ross said. “He said if I do my job, I could be hitting that quarterback pretty often.”
The same could go for Ryan, who likes some of the blitz packages from his new spot. So far, the early reviews from practice are encouraging.
“I see Jake being a real confident guy out there making plays all over,” Ross said. “He’s a real physical player. A big-time game-changer.”
The biggest boost for Michigan’s defense could be getting back the Jake Ryan from 2012. Minus the long hair, of course.
Illinois: The Illini lose an All-Big Ten player in Jonathan Brown but still have decent overall depth at linebacker. Mason Monheim started every game at middle linebacker in 2013, and Mike Svetina started all but one game at the star position. Both players return as juniors. Svetina will move into Brown's spot on the weak side, while the other position could be filled by T.J. Neal, who recorded 38 tackles last season. Ralph Cooper has logged significant reps as a reserve, and Eric Finney gives Illinois some flexibility after playing the star position (safety/outside linebacker).
Indiana: This becomes a more significant position under coordinator Brian Knorr, who plans to use a 3-4 alignment. Indiana should have enough depth to make the transition as it returns two full-time starters from 2013 -- David Cooper and T.J. Simmons -- as well as two part-time starters in Forisse Hardin and Clyde Newton, who started the final four games of his freshman season. Like Simmons and Newton, Marcus Oliver played a lot as a freshman and provides some depth. The key here will be converting all the experience into sharper, more consistent play.
Iowa: If you're of the mindset that Iowa always reloads at linebacker, you can rest easy this spring. If not, keep a very close eye on what happens as the Hawkeyes begin replacing one of the more productive linebacker groups in team history: James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens. There are high hopes for sophomore Reggie Spearman, who played in 10 games as a freshman last fall. Spearman, junior Travis Perry and senior Quinton Alston enter the spring as the front-runners to take over the top spots. The biggest challenge could be building depth behind them with Cole Fisher and others.
Maryland: The good news is the Terrapins return three productive starters from 2013 in Cole Farrand, L.A. Goree and Matt Robinson, who combined for 233 tackles, including 19 for loss. The bad news is Maryland loses its top playmaker at the position in Marcus Whitfield, who recorded nine sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss last season. But the overall picture is favorable, and the depth should be strong when Alex Twine and Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil return from their injuries. Young players such as Abner Logan (37 tackles in 2013) will push for more time.
Michigan: There are a lot of familiar faces in new positions as Michigan not only has shuffled the roles of its defensive assistant coaches, but also its top linebackers. Standout Jake Ryan moves from strong-side linebacker to the middle, while junior James Ross III moves from the weak side to the strong side and Desmond Morgan shifts from the middle to the weak side. Joe Bolden, who had 54 tackles last season, can play both outside and inside, and players such as Ben Gedeon, Royce Jenkins-Stone and Allen Gant add depth. The talent is there for a big year if the position switches pan out.
Michigan State: It won't be easy to replace the Big Ten's top linebacker tandem in Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, not to mention Rose Bowl hero Kyler Elsworth, but Michigan State has some promising options. Ed Davis appears ready to step in for Allen after recording four sacks as a sophomore. Junior Darien Harris and two redshirt freshmen, Shane Jones and Jon Reschke, will compete at middle linebacker. Returning starter Taiwan Jones is back at the star position, and Mylan Hicks should be in the rotation. Depth is a bit of a question mark here entering the spring.
Minnesota: The Gophers lose key pieces in all three areas of the defense, and linebacker is no exception as two starters (Aaron Hill and James Manuel) depart. Minnesota will lean on Damien Wilson, who started in 12 games at middle linebacker in his first season with the Gophers and recorded 78 tackles. Junior De'Vondre Campbell seems ready to claim a starting spot after backing up Manuel last season. There will be plenty of competition at the strong-side linebacker spot, as Nick Rallis, De'Niro Laster and others are in the mix. Jack Lynn is backing up Wilson at middle linebacker but could work his way into a starting spot on the outside with a good spring.
Nebraska: Optimism is building for the Blackshirts in 2014, thanks in large part to the returning linebackers. The three players who finished last season as the starters -- David Santos, Michael Rose and Zaire Anderson -- all are back, as Rose will lead the way in the middle. Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry also have starting experience and return for 2014. If younger players such as Marcus Newby develop this spring, Nebraska could have the Big Ten's deepest group of linebackers, a dramatic departure from the Huskers' first few years in the conference. Good things are happening here.
Northwestern: The top two playmakers return here in Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis, who combined for seven interceptions and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2014. Northwestern's challenge is replacing the leadership Damien Proby provided in the middle. Ellis has shifted from the strong side to the middle, and Northwestern has moved safety Jimmy Hall from safety to strong-side linebacker. Drew Smith and Hall will compete for the third starting spot throughout the offseason. Sophomores Jaylen Prater and Joseph Jones should provide some depth.
Ohio State: Coach Urban Meyer has made it clear that Ohio State needs more from the linebackers, so it's a huge offseason for this crew, which loses superstar Ryan Shazier. The Buckeyes return starters at the outside spots in Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry, although competition will continue throughout the spring and summer. Redshirt freshman Darron Lee surprisingly opened spring practice Tuesday working with Grant and Perry on the first-team defense. Camren Williams appeared in all 13 games as a reserve and will be part of the rotation, along with Trey Johnson. Meyer said last month that the incoming linebacker recruits won't redshirt, which means an opportunity for mid-year enrollee Raekwon McMillan.
Penn State: Linebacker U is looking for more bodies at the position after struggling with depth issues throughout 2013. The Lions lose leading tackler Glenn Carson but bring back two players, Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman, who started most of the season. The new coaching staff is counting on Hull to become a star as a senior. Brandon Bell, who appeared in nine games and recorded 24 tackles as a freshman, will compete for a starting spot along with Gary Wooten. Penn State hopes Ben Kline can stay healthy as he provides some experience, and incoming freshman Troy Reeder could enter the rotation right away.
Purdue: Expect plenty of competition here as Purdue loses leading tackler Will Lucas and must get more consistent play from the group. Joe Gilliam started for most of the 2013 season and should occupy a top spot this fall. Sean Robinson also brings experience to the field, and Ryan Russell could fill more of a hybrid linebacker/defensive end role this season. Redshirt freshman Danny Ezechukwu is an intriguing prospect to watch this spring as he aims for a bigger role. Ezechukwu is just one of several younger players, including decorated incoming recruit Gelen Robinson, who have opportunities to make a splash.
Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights return a good deal of production here with Steve Longa and Kevin Snyder, who combined for 219 tackles, including 15 tackles for loss and five sacks. Quentin Gause also is back after racking up 53 tackles (8.5 for loss) in a mostly reserve role last season. Gause likely will claim the starting strong-side linebacker spot as Jamal Merrell departs. The starting spots are seemingly set, so Rutgers will look to build depth with Davon Jacobs, who had 30 tackles as a reserve last season, and L.J. Liston, both sophomores.
Wisconsin: Do-it-all linebacker Chris Borland is gone, along with Ethan Armstrong and Conor O'Neill, so Wisconsin must replace three of its top four tacklers from 2013. Derek Landisch and Joe Schobert can be penciled in as starters, along with Michael Caputo, who played mostly safety last season but should slide into one of the outside spots. Marcus Trotter brings experience to the rotation. The spotlight will be on younger linebackers such as Vince Biegel, who had 25 tackles last season, as well as dynamic sophomore Leon Jacobs and Alec James, a decorated recruit who redshirted in 2013.
Ryan is the team's top returning defensive player, having led the Wolverines last year with 88 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and four forced fumbles. We named him to our 2012 All-Big Ten team and rated him No. 17 in our Big Ten postseason player rankings.
There have been success stories of athletes recovering quickly from torn ACLs. The most notable one is Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson, who led the NFL in rushing last season after suffering his ACL tear on Christmas Eve 2011.
"I know he will attack his rehabilitation just like he does everything else and will be back when he's ready," head coach Brady Hoke said in a statement.
Linebacker also looks to be Michigan's deepest position. Hoke told ESPN.com last week before Ryan's injury that "we feel a little stronger at that position" and that he expected great competition. Desmond Morgan, who started at weak side linebacker last year, had been working out at the middle linebacker spot to allow him and rising star James Ross to play at the same time. The Wolverines also have sophomores Joe Bolden and Royce Jenkins-Stone, senior Mike Jones and incoming freshmen Mike McCray II and Ben Gedeon to compete for snaps.
However, most of those guys -- with the exception of McCray -- profile more as middle or weak side linebackers, and lack the size to play the strong side spot that Ryan occupied. That puts more pressure on senior Cam Gordon -- Ryan's backup -- to play a bigger role. Gordon has appeared in 33 career games, and Hoke praised his winter workout efforts in his interview with ESPN.com last year. But Gordon has yet to show that he can be a star or a major disruptive force the way Ryan has been. Make no mistake about it: this is a big, big loss for Greg Mattison's defense.
The Wolverines have plenty of time to figure out some answers, but it remains to be seen if they can find anyone to fill the playmaking shoes of Ryan. It's the first real negative of the offseason for Michigan, which got great news when Taylor Lewan returned, when Devin Gardner got his extra year of eligibility, and of course on signing day.
Time will tell how well the team will fill in for Ryan, or whether he can return at all for 2013. But until then, the guy with the flowing golden locks and penchant for making impact plays will be sorely missed.
Next up: the Michigan Wolverines.
James Ross III, LB, sophomore, 6-foot-1, 225 pounds
It looks like Michigan's linebacking corps are in very good hands for the foreseeable future. Jake Ryan emerged as a star during his sophomore campaign, while rising junior Desmond Morgan and rising sophomore Joe Bolden should be mainstays in the rotation.
It's possible that Ross might have the highest ceiling of them all. He made two starts last year as a true freshman when Morgan was injured, and he made a team-high 12 tackles in the Nov. 17 win over Iowa. He showed lots of promise as a ball-seeking missile at weakside linebacker; a full offseason of weight training should help him be more prepared to shed blockers and go head-to-head with the Big Ten's most bullish running backs (guys like Mark Weisman and Carlos Hyde). It's going to be awfully hard to push Morgan out of the starting lineup, but a big spring by Ross could convince the coaching staff to move Morgan to middle linebacker.
Michigan has several players who could break out this spring, including some young linemen on both sides and those at receiver. But Ross might have the best combination of talent and opportunity, and steady spring progress from him would further empower what is arguably already the Wolverines' strongest position.
Just about every team boasted one standout linebacker last season, and many had multiple ones. That makes this list one of the tougher ones to date, and there's not a whole lot of separation between teams, especially in the middle. Star power matters, but depth is also important.
You can see how we ranked the linebackers entering the season here. Here's how we see things now:
1. Penn State (Preseason ranking: 2): We ranked the Nittany Lions second in the preseason, not knowing for sure how Michael Mauti would bounce back from his latest knee injury. Well, we picked him as our Big Ten defensive player of the year. Gerald Hodges was his usual brilliant self, especially when he switched into beast mode during league play. And the guy nobody talks about, Glenn Carson, also had a very solid season. Linebacker U., indeed.
2. Wisconsin (Preseason: 3): Mike Taylor and Chris Borland were so good and so consistent that we may have begun to take them for granted. Taylor collected 123 tackles, while Borland had 104, and the two combined for 25 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. The unsung member of the trio, Ethan Armstrong, added 93 stops. Once again, the linebackers were the strength of a very good Badgers defense.
3. Michigan State (Preseason: 1): Max Bullough was a first-team All-Big Ten performer who led the Spartans with 111 tackles. Denicos Allen didn't match his 2011 numbers but still managed 10 tackles for loss and three sacks. Sophomore Taiwan Jones surpassed Chris Norman late in the year to give the unit even more depth. This group may have lacked the truly huge, game-changing plays, but it's hard to ask for much more than what it provided all season.
4. Michigan (Preseason: 5): The Wolverines linebacking crew became the backbone of the defense in 2012. Jake Ryan turned into a star with his flair for the big play; he piled up 16 tackles for loss and four forced fumbles. Kenny Demens and Desmond Morgan were both solid, underrated players, and freshmen James Ross III and Joe Bolden helped give this group outstanding depth.
5. Northwestern (Preseason: 11): The Wildcats made the biggest jump from the preseason rankings, as all three starters (Damien Proby, David Nwabuisi and Chi Chi Ariguzo) collected at least 91 tackles. Ariguzo developed into a big-time playmaker, with 10.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions and four fumble recoveries. Proby and Nwabuisi were almost criminally underrated.
6. Ohio State (Preseason: 4): The Buckeyes had the most interesting stories at linebacker. Ryan Shazier emerged as a destructive force of nature, especially in the second half of the season. Zach Boren switched from fullback to linebacker midseason and made a surprisingly smooth transition. Etienne Sabino broke his leg but came back to finish the year. Storm Klein returned from a suspension to contribute a little. There were some weak spots and shaky moments here, but Shazier's sheer strength helped hold this group together.
7. Iowa (Preseason: 8): Stats alone would tell you that the Hawkeyes had one of the best linebacking corps around. First-year starter Anthony Hitchens was one of the top tacklers in the nation with 124 stops, while James Morris (113) and Christian Kirksey (95) also ranked among the league leaders in that category. But tackle numbers alone don't tell the whole story, and Iowa lacked the kind of high-impact plays from its linebackers that teams above it on this list produced.
8. Nebraska (Preseason: 7): The Huskers had their issues on defense, but it was hard to fault the play of Will Compton, who led the team with 110 tackles and three fumble recoveries. Alonzo Whaley, Sean Fisher and David Santos ably filled out the rest of the group, but Nebraska had trouble finding the right combination of speed and experience at linebacker.
9. Minnesota: (Preseason: 10): The Gophers were young in a lot of spots but not at linebacker, where experienced veterans like Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper led the way. Aaron Hill rounded out what was a solid, if unspectacular, corps that helped Minnesota make great strides on defense.
10. Illinois (Preseason: 6): Injuries were one reason why Jonathan Brown didn't blossom into the superstar we expected to see. He had 9.5 tackles for loss but played in only nine games. It says something about both the Illini linebackers and the defense as a whole that true freshman Mason Monheim led the team with 86 tackles. He and fellow first-year player Mike Svetina at least give Illinois some reason for optimism.
11. Purdue (Preseason: 9): Dwayne Beckford was kicked off the team in August, and things didn't get a whole lot better from there. Will Lucas led the group with 66 tackles, but it was a sign of Purdue's problems at linebacker that converted quarterback Sean Robinson started here. Improving the linebacker play should be a top priority for new head coach Darrell Hazell.
12. Indiana (Preseason: 12): Junior-college import David Cooper stepped right in and made an immediate impact, recording 86 tackles and nine behind the line of scrimmage. But the Hoosiers struggled to find consistent play elsewhere at the position. It's no coincidence that Kevin Wilson's latest recruiting class includes several potential linebackers.
Daniel from Ypsilanti, Mich., writes: Hey Adam, I think Lewans recent decision to continue at Michigan might have implications in Derrick Green's future commitment decision. You guys even stated that it makes a big difference in the Oline for next year. Do you think a five star RB might keep in mind the presence of a lineman like Lewan when deciding where to go? An All American lineman on an offense that would have an opening for early playing time sounds quite enticing for an RB does it not? Add to that Morris , who should be starting in the next couple years barring anything unforeseen, and it seems like the perfect fit for Green. What do you think?
Adam Rittenberg: Daniel, I think the Shane Morris factor would be a lot bigger than the Taylor Lewan factor for a player like Green, and the biggest factor is how well Michigan is recruiting at offensive line for the coming years. You don't make a decision like this based on one lineman who will only be there for your true freshman season. Morris, meanwhile, could be Green's quarterback for multiple years, and Michigan's offensive line recruiting efforts for 2013 are among the best in the nation. Michigan has five offensive line recruits in the ESPN 300 (all among the nation's top 160), including three of the nation's top seven guards. The future of Michigan's offensive line is a greater selling point to a running back like Green than the Lewan-led line in 2013.
Matt from Omaha writes: Adam,I have to say your final rankings for the B1G, while meaningless, struck a chord with me. All season you preached it's not about who you lost to, but who you beat. So how in the world, three teams that we beat are ranked in front of us-with virtually the same record (in Michigan's case worse), makes no sense. True, Nebraska did not acquit themselves well in the B1G title game. However, they played toe to toe with Georgia for 3 and 1/2 quarters before falling short. There is no shame in that for a team that nearly beat Alabama.
Adam Rittenberg: Matt, you correctly acknowledge the power rankings are meaningless because they are -- especially the Jan. 8 version -- despite all the ire they generate. Now refresh my memory: when did I say the power rankings were all about who you beat and not about who you lost to? The line I've reiterated time and again about the rankings is that they're a snapshot of how a team is performing right now. It's the ultimate what-have-you-done-for-me-lately thing. That's why Nebraska sits at No. 5. The Huskers ended the season poorly. I simply can't look past the Big Ten title game flop. To me, it really invalidated a lot of what Nebraska did in the regular season. Harsh? Maybe. But Nebraska lived a fairly charmed life down the stretch in Legends Division play, surviving turnovers and benefiting from calls and injuries. It received a seemingly favorable matchup in Indy (5-loss Wisconsin) and proceeded to lay a giant egg on the big stage. While Michigan also lost its final two games, it competed a lot better against Ohio State than Nebraska did and competed better in its bowl game than Nebraska did. Nebraska's head-to-head win on Oct. 27 might as well have happened decades ago, for power rankings purposes.
Yooper from Minneapolis writes: Hey Adam ... humor me with a way-too-early bold prediction for next year for the league's bowl record. It sure seems like most B1G teams outta see improvement next year, and even without OSU & PSU playing this year it could've easily been 4-3 had the UMs not blown games in the last minute. I'm gonna say 5-3 in bowls, and 3-1 on NYD, including a RB win...all of which sets the league up nicely to place someone in the first playoff the following year...what you got?
Adam Rittenberg: Yooper, you're a braver man than I am, as I can't offer a sensible prediction without knowing the bowl matchups. What if the Big Ten faces a 1-loss Oregon team in the Rose Bowl? Won't be easy to win it. I do think the Big Ten has a stronger chance of sending two teams to BCS bowls next season as Ohio State once again becomes eligible. Will that hurt the league's overall bowl matchups like it has in years past? Perhaps. But if teams like Michigan State, Michigan and Nebraska make strides in 2013, the league will be set up to post a better bowl mark. It's important to remember that that Big Ten's bowl lineup is never easy, and a .500 record is a pretty good performance in most seasons. I think there's a decent chance the Big Ten improves on this year's record. How much? Without seeing the matchups, I can't go there.
Derek from Chicago writes: I think everyone needs to chill out about how down the B1G actually is. As much as everyone likes to point at certain losses and say the B1G just can't compete on a national level, that simply isn't the case. A few consecutive years of some marquee losses is embarrassing, but the B1G isn't as far behind as people like to think in terms of competition. I am not a Wisconsin fan, but let's look at the Badgers here for a little perspective. The teams that went to the 2011 and 2012 Rose Bowls were without a doubt national championship-level teams, loaded with NFL talent, that would have competed with any team from the all-powerful SEC. This year's Rose Bowl team was mediocre at best, and only lost to a top-10 Stanford team by a touchdown. Not bad for a team that had no business being in the Rose Bowl. It's unfortunate that the B1G keeps losing these marquee national matchups, but the reality is that the B1G isn't actually down, it more just a string of bad luck that is easy to criticize. It's silly to say "the B1G just doesn't have the speed on the edges to compete Oregon," when we're just one score away from "Oregon just doesn't have the strength to compete with the B1G". (I use Oregon as an example, but feel free to insert SEC, Big 12, etc).
Adam Rittenberg: Derek, you make some good points here, and you challenge people to put the Big Ten's bowl performance into context. It's true that the Big Ten hasn't been that far away and has been hurt by unfavorable matchups and unfortunate circumstances (Ohio State/Penn State being ineligible this year). Ultimately, a league like the Big Ten needs to win more games -- Rose Bowls, other BCS bowls and the national title game. Wins like those have a way of making criticism go away. Wisconsin should have won the Rose Bowl after the 2010 season. It had a better team than TCU but didn't play better on that day. Wisconsin had no business losing three games with last year's team, led by Russell Wilson. That's not just bad luck or bad circumstances. You don't get credit for competing well year after year if the marquee wins don't start coming. The Big Ten needs to start winning some of these big games again if it wants any credit nationally.
Bill from Michigan writes: Adam - Spartan fan here. You guys do a great job but on your 5 defensive players to watch - trade S. Calhoun for Taiwan Jones. Nothing against Calhoun who does have a lot of potential, but Jones beat out a solid 3 yr starter (C. Norman) this year and just keeps getting better. He is my pick as a breakout performer. Will be interesting to see if either of us is right. Take care.
Adam Rittenberg: Bill, we probably should have explained it better, but those lists are meant to recognize players who aren't starters but will be soon and could make a big impact in 2012. We could have included Jones, and I came away impressed with what he did this season, but he already took a big step in moving into the starting lineup. He definitely could take things to another level next season, but it might be tough because Max Bullough and Denicos Allen both are back, and both are very productive as well. Shilique Calhoun, meanwhile, could take a spot where there's a need after Will Gholston's departure. I think we might both be right about these two, but Jones' accomplishments certainly should be recognized this year.
Sam from Fairfax, Va., writes: Adam, I think you missed the mark with which Michigan linebacker you chose in your "5 Defensive Players to Watch" column. Yes, Bolden should be good next year and play a decent amount of snaps, but there's a good chance that Desmond Morgan slides over from weak to middle linebacker this offseason. The two positions are similar enough in Michigan's defense that he should be able to pick it up fairly quickly, but he's never had good enough athleticism to really stand out at weakside linebacker. James Ross on the other hand does and is a much more natural fit for the position. I think Ross is your next star on the linebacking corps at Michigan, with Bolden needing more time to grow and getting fewer opportunities to shine.
Adam Rittenberg: Sam, thanks for the note. You're not the only Michigan fan I've heard from who is vouching for Ross ahead of Joe Bolden. The Morgan move would make sense for Ross to slide in at weakside linebacker, while Bolden could be used more as a fourth 'backer. Both players are talented and Michigan looks absolutely loaded at linebacker for years to come. It'll be interesting to see whether the Wolverines identify a difference-making defensive lineman to complement their strength at linebacker.
Bob from Crown Point, Ind., writes: Purdues of the world? That's your answer to Gino in Columbus?...c'mon Adam. Purdue is not that far removed from the strong football years under Tiller. Add in the history of Purdue basketball...both men and women's...and I think Purdue's athletic contributions to the Big Ten Conference should have been defended a bit stronger.
Adam Rittenberg: Bob, you have to put the reference in the proper context. I was explaining to Giro that the Big Ten's revenue sharing model allows programs with fewer resources, like Purdue, to have the same cut as programs with many more resources, like Ohio State. It had nothing to do with how many championships won or athletic contributions. From a pure revenue/resource standpoint, Purdue is near the bottom of the Big Ten. Purdue sponsors the fewest number of varsity sports (18) of any Big Ten institution. Not a knock, just a fact. Purdue has tradition in both football and men's basketball, and the Big Ten's revenue sharing model allows programs like Purdue, Minnesota, Northwestern and Indiana to receive the revenue to compete with some of the larger athletic programs in the conference.
As a reminder, these lists try to identify younger players (ideally non-starters) who showed flashes in 2012 and who will be in positions to make a greater impact this coming season. Examples from the 2012 season on the defensive side include Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier, Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan, Penn State defensive end Deion Barnes and Northwestern linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo. Players who earned All-Big Ten honors in 2012 aren't eligible for this list. We're looking for players who haven't come close to their ceilings yet.
Lastly, we realize a list of five excludes many promising players, but we had to cut it off somewhere.
Here we go (in alphabetical order) ...
Michigan LB Joe Bolden: A decorated 2012 recruit, Bolden enrolled early and immediately began impressing the coaching staff. The 6-foot-3, 222-pound Bolden saw the field in all 13 games as a true freshman, recording 31 tackles, including four for loss and a sack, to go along with a fumble recovery. Bolden likely will step into a starting role in 2013 as Michigan loses Kenny Demens to graduation. If Bolden takes a big step like Ryan did as a sophomore, Michigan could challenge Michigan State for which team boasts the Big Ten's top linebacking corps.
Penn State LB Mike Hull: Hull is definitely the most familiar name on the list, but after waiting his turn as a reserve, his number will be called much more in 2013. The 6-foot, 228-pound rising junior had starter-like numbers in 2012, recording 58 tackles, including five for loss and four sacks, to go along with an interception, two fumble recoveries, four pass breakups and a blocked kick. He's already one of the Big Ten's best special-teams players and should be among the league's top linebackers this coming season as Penn State must replace standouts Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti.
Nebraska LB David Santos: Bo Pelini and his staff have acknowledged the team's pressing need at linebacker after transitioning from the Big 12 to the Big Ten. Although finding a difference-making defensive lineman might be the Huskers' biggest desire, they still need help in their defensive midsection and should get more out of Santos. The 6-foot, 220-pound Santos appeared in 13 games as a redshirt freshman this season, recording 24 tackles, including two for loss, and a forced fumble. Nebraska needs leadership at linebacker following Will Compton's departure, and Santos looks ready to take on a bigger burden.
Ohio State DE Adolphus Washington: The Buckeyes have to reload along the defensive line after losing Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year John Simon and interior space-eater Johnathan Hankins, among others. Urban Meyer and his staff landed several elite defensive line recruits in their first class, including Washington, who appeared in 10 games as a true freshman and recorded three sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss, a forced fumble and a blocked kick. Along with classmate Noah Spence, Washington is expected to take on a bigger role in 2013 and could be a breakout performer.
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: Miller currently leads the conference in rushing (302 yards) and total offense and has had very little help. He's completing 67 percent of his passes and is averaging 6.9 yards per carry. Can he keep this up?
2. Le'Veon Bell, RB, Michigan State: Bell had arguably the single most impressive performance of the season with his 210-yards rushing, 50-touch, one Superman hurdle game against Boise State. He's the league's top running back and the best offensive player on the Big Ten's best team right now.
3. Denard Robinson, QB, Michigan: Robinson struggled against Alabama, which wasn't unexpected against that defense. He showed how dangerous he is with a 426-yard, four-touchdown day against Air Force. A great Big Ten season could lead him to the title.
4. Taylor Martinez, QB, Nebraska: Despite some problems in the UCLA loss, Martinez has improved his passing and will clearly be leaned on heavily in the Huskers' high-scoring offense. He leads the conference in passing yards, which is a stat you probably wouldn't have believed in the preseason.
5. MarQueis Gray, QB, Minnesota: Believe it or not, Gray leads the conference in passing efficiency, and he's fourth in total offense. He'll have to prove it against much better defenses, but with Montee Ball averaging less than 100 yards per game, the door is open for some other candidates right now.
Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year
1. Kawann Short, DT, Purdue: Short is tied for the league lead in sacks with three and was dominant against Notre Dame. He should be in the thick of this race all year.
2. Johnny Adams, CB, Michigan State: Though he gave up one long pass against Boise State, Adams has mostly been brilliant thus far and has forced opposing offenses to avoid his side of the field.
3. William Gholston, DE, Michigan State: Gholston has only one sack and somehow failed to register a tackle against Boise State. But he's been very active and will be a factor in this race all year while helping lead the league's top defense.
4. Travis Howard, CB, Ohio State: Howard is currently tied for the national lead with three interceptions, and while some of that is certainly being in the right place at the right time, he will be hard to ignore if he keeps up that absurd pace.
Thompson-Randle El Freshman of the Year
1. Deion Barnes, DE, Penn State: The redshirt freshman was touted as a strong pass-rusher and has thus far lived up to that billing with three sacks, tying him for the league lead.
2. Noah Spence, DE, Ohio State: The highly-touted true freshman has gotten a lot of early playing time for the Buckeyes, recording a sack and a pass break-up. He's only going to get better.
3. Joe Bolden, LB, Michigan: The Wolverines are playing a lot of true freshmen right now, and Bolden has become an important part of the defense. He was on the field in the fourth quarter when Michigan was clinging to a six-point lead over Air Force and has 11 tackles on the year.