Big Ten: Joe Bolden

Big Ten Wednesday mailblog

July, 16, 2014
Jul 16
5:00
PM ET
Coming at you on Hump Day. As a reminder, we're taking more of your Twitter questions for the mailblog, so keep sending them in! Find us on Twitter here.

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.


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.


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.



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. 
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Not long after he tore his ACL in spring practice last year, Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan cut off the long blonde locks that used to billow out of his helmet.

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.

[+] EnlargeJake Ryan
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesJake Ryan is looking forward to new challenges at middle linebacker.
“My showers were taking way too long,” Ryan said. “It was way too much to take care of that and the knee. You can’t have too much on your mind.”

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.
We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the linebackers.

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.

Michigan's Jake Ryan tears ACL

March, 20, 2013
3/20/13
1:15
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Michigan has suffered a huge setback early in spring practice, as the team announced Wednesday that junior linebacker Jake Ryan tore his ACL during Tuesday's practice.

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.

[+] EnlargeJake Ryan
Lon Horwedel/Icon SMIJake Ryan's knee injury leaves a hole in the Michigan defense that will be difficult to fill.
Michigan officials said Ryan is out "indefinitely." If there's any bright side to this injury, it's that it happened on March 19. Typical recovery time for torn ACLs is generally said to be between six to nine months. We don't know how severe Ryan's injury is -- whether it's a complete or partial tear, for instance, or whether there's damage to other ligaments -- but if he were to meet the most optimistic side of that recovery timetable, then he could possibly still come back and play for the Wolverines by midseason. But again, that's if everything goes perfectly.

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.

Spring breakout player: Michigan

March, 7, 2013
3/07/13
10:00
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Spring practice is kicking off around the Big Ten, and we’re taking a look at one potential breakout player for each team. We’re spotlighting players who could take a major step during spring ball, so those who have started multiple seasons or earned All-Big Ten recognition in 2012 aren’t eligible.

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.

B1G postseason position rankings: LB

February, 19, 2013
2/19/13
1:00
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It's time for another installment of our postseason position rankings, and today we're looking at one of the strongest groups in the Big Ten in 2012: the linebackers.

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.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

January, 11, 2013
1/11/13
4:30
PM ET
Weekend's here! Forgot how much I liked these.

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.
Earlier this week, Brian Bennett took a look at five Big Ten offensive players to watch during the 2013 season. Now it's time to spotlight five possible breakout defenders.

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.

[+] EnlargeShilique Calhoun
Mike Carter/USA TODAY Sports Shilique Calhoun could fill the starting defensive end spot that used to be belong to NFL-bound William Gholston.
Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun: Calhoun definitely is a projection pick, but he clearly made strides before the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl and delivered two tackles for loss, including a sack, and a quarterback hurry against TCU. The departure of William Gholston to the NFL draft frees up a starting spot opposite Marcus Rush that Calhoun could occupy in 2013. The 6-foot-4, 240-pound Calhoun saw action in all 13 games as a redshirt freshman this fall and should get bigger and stronger for a potentially big sophomore season.

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.
The Big Ten doesn't name an official all-freshman team, but that won't stop us from coming up with our own.

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:

Offense

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

Defense

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*

Specialists

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.

Big Ten awards race tracker: Week 3

September, 10, 2012
9/10/12
1:00
PM ET
Now that two games are in the books, it's time to begin our weekly look at how the two major player of the year awards (along with some other honors) are shaping up. Yes, it's ridiculously early, but it's never too early to see where things stand.

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.

Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett break down the race for Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2012. Of note, Iowa's Barkley Hill is mentioned as a possible candidate, but this video was shot before his season-ending knee injury.
It's Depth Chart Monday around the Big Ten as most teams revealed new or updated depth charts for their upcoming season openers. Indiana and Iowa released depth charts last week, while Nebraska's won't come out until later this week. A few more teams unveil new or updated depth charts Tuesday, and we'll break down those as they file in.

While we won't break down the depth charts each week of the season, the first installments always carry a bit more weight as players have jockeyed for position during camp.

Here are some notes and thoughts from what we learned today:

MICHIGAN

Depth chart (page 13)
  • Suspended players Fitz Toussaint and Frank Clark both are listed -- Toussaint is the starting running back, Clark as a backup weakside defensive end -- but their status for the opener against Alabama is yet to be determined. Coach Brady Hoke will make a decision soon. While it seems highly unlikely Clark will play, Toussaint's status will be a big story this week.
  • Roy Roundtree is listed as a starter at receiver despite missing a chunk of camp following knee surgery. Although Michigan has some decent other options at wideout, it really needs "Tree" on the field at JerryWorld. Speaking of receivers, backup quarterback Devin Gardner is listed as a third-string receiver and should see a bit of work there against the Crimson Tide.
  • Depth is a bit of a concern for Michigan entering the season, and it's the main reason why the Wolverines list 12 true freshman on the depth chart, four in backup roles. Expect freshmen like linebacker Joe Bolden and safety Jarrod Wilson to see plenty of field time.
  • As for position battles, Quinton Washington claimed a starting defensive tackle spot, moving Jibreel Black back to the end position. Will Hagerup and Matt Wile are listed as co-starters at punter, but Hagerup will get the starting nod against Alabama.
OHIO STATE

Depth chart
  • Regarding position battles, Reid Fragel, a converted tight end, claimed the starting right tackle spot ahead of freshman Taylor Decker. Travis Howard maintained his starting cornerback spot ahead of Doran Grant. The team's starting wide receivers entering the fall are Corey Brown, Devin Smith and Jake Stoneburner, a converted tight end. Ohio State's only unsettled position is tight end, where freshman Nick Vannett and sophomore Jeff Heuerman are listed as co-starters.
  • Like Michigan, Ohio State will have plenty of youth on the field this fall. Coach Urban Meyer lists 13 freshmen on the depth chart, including highly touted defensive linemen Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington, spring game star Michael Thomas at backup receiver and backup middle linebacker Camren Williams. The Buckeyes have three freshmen listed as backup offensive linemen, underscoring the depth issues there.
  • With projected starting running back Jordan Hall (foot) out at least a week, Ohio State will start Carlos Hyde at running back. Freshman Bri'onte Dunn will back up Hyde.
WISCONSIN

Depth chart (page 13)
  • The Badgers put out a depth chart last week but made a few changes, including junior Zac Matthias and sophomore Kyle Costigan being listed as co-starters at right guard. Costigan had been listed as the starter, but Matthias made a push late in camp.
  • Backup cornerback Peniel Jean will miss four to six weeks after fracturing his foot last week in practice and undergoing surgery. Redshirt freshman Darius Hillary moves into the No. 2 role behind Devin Smith and likely will be the team's primary nickel back.
  • Sophomore Kyle French is listed as the starter for both field goals and kickoffs (he only occupied the kickoffs role last week). Coach Bret Bielema said freshman Jack Russell (great name) also will see time as a kicker in Saturday's opener against Northern Iowa.
PENN STATE

Depth chart
ILLINOIS

Depth chart
  • Safeties Steve Hull and Supo Sanni, the projected starters, aren't listed on the two-deep. Earnest Thomas and Pat Nixon-Youman are listed in their places. Both Hull and Sanni are week-to-week with injuries. Coach Tim Beckman said both would practice this week and likely will be game-time decisions.
  • Illinois shuffled its offensive linemen between positions throughout camp, and there could be more changes before game day. But ... Graham Pocic is listed as the starting center after playing mostly guard in camp. Pocic has started the past 26 games at center. Redshirt freshman Ted Karras, who has recovered from a foot injury, is listed as the starting right guard.
  • Tim Kynard will start at defensive end in place of Justin Staples, who will serve a one-game suspension against Western Michigan. Offensive lineman Simon Cvijanovic also won't play Saturday for undisclosed reasons.
  • Illinois lists co-starters at both running back (Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson) and tight end (Jon Davis and Eddie Viliunas). Both Young and Ferguson should get plenty of carries against Western Michigan.
NORTHWESTERN

Depth chart (Page 7)
  • After a strong camp, Venric Mark will start at running back for Northwestern. The 5-foot-8, 175-pound Mark, who came to Northwestern as a return specialist, moved from wide receiver after the season. Mike Trumpy, who comes off of ACL surgery, is the backup, and Northwestern likely will spread the carries around. Treyvon Green has recovered from a scary neck injury midway through camp and will play at Syracuse.
  • USC transfer Kyle Prater is listed as a backup receiver. Northwestern will start Demetrius Fields, Christian Jones, Rashad Lawrence and Tony Jones at receiver against the Orange. Prater saw some time with the first-team offense in camp and will be part of the rotation, but he still seems to be lacking a step as he gets back into game shape.
  • The Wildcats have no unsettled starting spots, and while there are a number of young players on the depth chart, only two true freshmen, defensive end Dean Lowry and superback Dan Vitale, made the two-deep. Heralded incoming freshman defender Ifeadi Odenigbo likely will redshirt and isn't listed on the depth chart.
PURDUE

Depth chart (Page 6)
  • The Boilers have four unsettled starting spots, three on the offensive side. Juniors Kevin Pamphile and Justin Kitchens are battling at the left tackle spot, while juniors Devin Smith and Cody Davis are co-starters at right guard. Junior Gabe Holmes and fifth-year senior Crosby Wright are still competing for the top tight end spot. The lone unsettled spot on defense is at end opposite Ryan Russell, as Ryan Isaac and Jalani Phillips continue to compete.
  • No surprises in the starting backfield as Caleb TerBush, Robert Marve and Rob Henry are listed at quarterback in that order. It'll be interesting to see how Purdue uses Henry this year. It doesn't make much sense to waste his talents on the bench. No Ralph Bolden on the depth chart as the senior running back is still working his way back from the knee injury. The Akeems (Shavers and Hunt) will carry the rock against Eastern Kentucky.
  • The placekicking spot is also up in the air with three players -- Sam McCartney, Paul Griggs and Thomas Meadows -- in the mix to replace standout Carson Wiggs.

More depth chart fun comes your way Tuesday, so be sure and check in.
Our preseason position rankings keep on keeping on as we turn to the linebacker units. On Friday, we ranked the individual linebackers in the Big Ten for 2012. Remember that we are considering 2011 performance most heavily in these rankings.

The top three here are really strong, while several other teams have a chance to be really good at linebacker this season.

[+] EnlargeDenicos Allen sacks Denard Robinson
Mike Carter/US PresswireMSU's Denicos Allen piled up 10 sacks last season.
1. Michigan State: Remember when there were concerns about the Spartans' linebacker corps last August? Seems pretty silly now. All three starters are back from a standout unit in 2011 that included defensive quarterback Max Bullough, sack artist Denicos Allen and the underrated Chris Norman. Add in some promising youngsters like Darien Harris, and this has a chance to be one of the best linebacker groups in the entire nation.

2. Penn State: Linebacker U. took a hit when potential starter Khairi Fortt transferred to Cal. But don't feel too sorry for this Nittany Lions' unit, which still boasts All-Big Ten big hitter Gerald Hodges and veteran Michael Mauti, who just needs to stay healthy to be a star. Glenn Carson was sturdy in the middle as a starter last year as well. Experienced depth is the only real question.

3. Wisconsin: You'd be hard-pressed to find a better duo than Chris Borland and Mike Taylor, who finished one-two in the Big Ten in total tackles last season. Ethan Armstrong will likely fill out the trio, which gets rated this high because of sheer star power.

4. Ohio State: The Buckeyes' linebackers will be young but have loads of potential. Etienne Sabino is the lone true veteran of the group, while Ryan Shazier showed late last season that he has game-changing ability. Former blue-chip recruit Curtis Grant looks ready now to be a major contributor. The dismissal of Storm Klein did hurt the depth here, however.

5. Michigan: Here's a group that was very solid in 2011 and could be even better in '12. Senior Kenny Demens is the anchor who led the way last year as freshmen Jake Ryan and Desmond Morgan got their feet wet. Another rookie in Joe Bolden could bolster the crew this season.

6. Illinois: The Illini have a budding superstar in Jonathan Brown, who could challenge for Big Ten defensive player of the year honors if he builds on his breakout sophomore year. Houston Bates had a good redshirt freshman year and at 240 pounds can be force. The third spot will be more of a hybrid role, likely filled by safety Ashante Williams. Defensive end Michael Buchanan could play some standing up as well.

7. Nebraska: This is senior Will Compton's group to lead after Big Ten linebacker of the year Lavonte David took his superhuman tackling skills to the NFL. Alonzo Whaley and Sean Fisher will have to raise their games in David's absence. Juco import Zaire Anderson and riser David Santos are expected to push for playing time as well.

8. Iowa: James Morris and Christian Kirksey give the Hawkeyes two 100-tackle men at the position, and they should be better as juniors. But Iowa wasn't as good overall at linebacker in 2011 as it needs to be. Anthony Hitchens likely moves into a starting role at the other spot, and there isn't much in the way of seasoning for the backups.

9. Purdue: Linebacker has been just so-so the last couple of seasons for the Boilermakers. Dwayne Beckford is back after some off-the-field issues and should easily be the best player at the position. Will Lucas also started on the outside last year. There's not much other experience here, but with the defensive line and secondary projected to be strengths, Purdue doesn't need its linebackers to do more than their fair share.

10. Minnesota: The Gophers' defense wasn't very good last year, but the linebackers might have been the highlight. It's one of the few units with considerable experience this year, led by seniors Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper. Former Florida transfer Brendan Beal will try to make an impact after being hurt last year.

11. Northwestern: David Nwabuisi is a good tackler and leader for this crew, which nonetheless lacked many difference-makers in 2011. Is this where prized recruit Ifeadi Odenigbo makes an immediate impact?

12. Indiana: Linebacker was a sore spot for the Hoosiers last year, which led them to bring in two junior college transfers at the position. Both Jacarri Alexander and David Cooper looked good this spring and are ticketed to start right away. That also tells you something about the returning talent there for IU.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

April, 20, 2012
4/20/12
5:30
PM ET
Workin' for the weekend.

Joe from Tucson, Ariz., writes: I liked this quote from Meyer: "If you start throwing that term around [national championships] and you lose Game 2 or Game 4, then you lose your sting," he said. "Our job is to compete for a Big Ten championship every year."It seems you gave Brady Hoke a bum rap for saying that he should think about more than the B1G championship. And even more so when you ding Nebraska for talking about it without having won a conference championship in so long.

Adam Rittenberg: Joe, that's a fair criticism of my comment about Hoke. I was intrigued by Meyer's comments as he has won two national titles and comes from the nation's most dominant conference (SEC). He said the national championship "absolutely" is a goal, but not one that is discussed like the Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl are. It seems like the league-focused approach isn't confined to the Big Ten or to Brady Hoke. Hey, I'm just looking for reasons why the Big Ten hasn't won a title in a decade. It doesn't seem like the approach is flawed. As for Nebraska, when did I ding them for talking about the title? If anything, I like hearing the confidence out of the Huskers players. But it's worth pointing out they would be skipping some steps, like winning a conference title or making a BCS bowl, if they were to reach Miami in early January.


Casey from Madison, Wis., writes: Last year was a good year for Wisconsin on the Offensive side of the ball, but having watched the games, it was nerve racking watching even non-conference teams gain yards against the defense (only to usually be stopped just before the end zone). What can you say about the defense this year? Will they be better on third and 4th downs?

Adam Rittenberg: Casey, the key is generating a more consistent pass rush from the front four and not having to rely on blitzing linebackers. Although both Chris Borland and Mike Taylor can get to the quarterback, Wisconsin will be better off if several down linemen make strides during the offseason. David Gilbert will be an interesting player to watch when he returns from his injury, and both Brendan Kelly and Beau Allen have shown flashes as effective pass-rushers. No one expects another J.J. Watt to walk through the door, but Wisconsin will be looking for more from the front four on third downs this season. The secondary also must show better discipline in end-of-game situations.


Brendan from Chicago writes: What does Indiana need to do to be relevant in this league? When we get the coach who actually wants to coach Hoosier football, he dies. When we get the #1 ranked pro quarterback prospect, he backs out. When we get an easy schedule, we blow it. I just want a light at the end of the tunnel. Is Kevin Wilson legit, or is he just going to bail on us for the pros or another big name school if he takes Indiana out of the basement and into the front yard of the B1G?

Adam Rittenberg: It's tough being a Hoosiers football fan, Brendan. I completely agree with you about Terry Hoeppner. He was the guy Indiana had been waiting for since the Bill Mallory era. So tragic. To be relevant, Indiana has to start winning more Big Ten games. The Hoosiers came close in 2009, but they repeatedly couldn't get over the hump. Wilson signed a long-term deal with IU, and his intent is to be there and get the program on solid footing. His offense will appeal to recruits, and you're already seeing some strides made there. But with Indiana, as I've stated 10,000 times, it's all about the defense, which has struggled mightily in recent memory.


Brian from Seattle: Adam,When Brian interviewed Dantonio, he asked about Michigan. When MSU makes the college football main page, the headline starts with Michigan's resurgance. But when Brian interviews Hoke, no mention of MSU whatsoever. I get that Michigan is seeped in tradition and we are basically nobody. Still -- is it too much to expect a little equality in the media? We're on the winning streak. Ask them about us!

Adam Rittenberg: Brian, two things. We don't write the headlines outside of the blog. The blog post headline was "Depth, stability have Spartans on the rise." Secondly, not every Michigan State story will mention Michigan, and not every Michigan story will mention Michigan State. We've had numerous posts about both schools with no mention of one another. But they are rivals, and many project them as the Big Ten's top two teams entering the 2012 season. There's context in this case. Michigan is naturally going to get more attention because of its tradition, history, etc. -- as you point out. But Michigan State's accomplishments shouldn't be overlooked at the national level, even though I think they largely are. Dantonio's comment is relevant because it reflects the feelings of many Michigan State fans I hear from. They hear the noise about Michigan's resurgence, Brady Hoke, Denard Robinson, etc., and they're a little miffed at the fact Michigan State has been a better program the past four years is overlooked. Michigan State's success stands on its own, but in a year where both Michigan schools could be in the preseason top 10, the topic Bennett wrote about is relevant.


Matt S. from Iowa writes: Even though the Big Ten has taken a backseat to the SEC, is the Big Ten the most important conference to college football? With the fan bases that surround the programs and the amount of prestige associated with Big Ten programs.

Adam Rittenberg: Matt, the Big Ten and SEC are the two most important leagues, without a doubt. The SEC's success combined with the year-round fervor in that part of the country about college football probably gives the league a bit of an edge in importance, but the Big Ten remains extremely relevant and always will be because of the reasons you point out and others. You've got huge alumni bases, a rich football tradition, enormous stadiums and schools located in a populated region. You also have a very successful TV network (BTN). That said, leagues can improve their prestige by winning at the highest levels, which the Big Ten has struggled to do in recent years.


Dean from Columbus, Ohio, writes: Hi Adam,If college football is on the brink of 16-team superconferences, which is more important for the Big Ten......gaining access to the northeastern television markets or adding teams from states with growing populations in the south? No BCS league has a true hold on the northeast television markets as of now. At the same time, the Big Ten is the only major conference without any geographic representation in the fast-growing sun belt states. Will that become a major issue in the coming years?

Adam Rittenberg: Interesting question, Dean. I really feel the Big Ten would be expanding reluctantly by going beyond 12, unless Notre Dame has a change of heart. My sense is the Big Ten would look to the northeast before it looks to the south, as the league still would be seeking teams that fit its culture. There are more of these in the northeast than the south, and while they might not move the needle an incredible amount, they would sit well with the Big Ten presidents and so forth. I could also see a mix of northeast schools and one or two in the Sun Belt region. But again, in terms of what the league actually wants to do, 12 makes sense.


Ross from Granbury, Texas, writes: Adam,Can you give us three names of incoming freshman that you expect to contribute right away in the Big Ten and could possibly break into the All-Big Ten teams at the end of the year? Maybe even a few names of guys under the radar? Similar to what Ricardo Allen did for Purdue.

Adam Rittenberg: In terms of true freshmen (not redshirt), defensive linemen Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington could contribute right away for Ohio State. Look out for running back Greg Garmon at Iowa. And Joe Bolden could help Michigan improve its depth at linebacker. If defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo doesn't redshirt, he could be an impact player at Northwestern.

Top Big Ten newcomers in 2012

April, 3, 2012
4/03/12
10:00
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Spring practice is in full gear around the Big Ten, and that means optimism is also running high for the 2012 season on just about every campus.

A new season means new names and faces throughout the league, and this is the time to daydream about unlimited potential. So today we're taking a look at a few of the top newcomers (i.e., those who haven't played a down of Big Ten football before this season) to watch this fall:

DeAnthony Arnett, WR, Michigan State and Kyle Prater, WR, Northwestern: We put these two together because technically neither is yet eligible to play for his respective team in 2012. But the two transfers -- Arnett played at Tennessee last year, while Prater was at USC -- are both appealing to the NCAA for waivers to become immediately eligible, and both schools feel good about their chances of winning those cases. Each player fills a need; Michigan State lost its top three receivers from last year and desperately needs some experienced playmakers at the position, while Prater could step into the No. 1 receiver role that Jeremy Ebert left behind. Both could make a big impact on the season if they are able to see the field.

Noah Spence, DE, Ohio State: The top-rated recruit to sign with a Big Ten team in February, Spence was rated as the No. 4 overall prospect in the 2012 class. It's easy to see why, as he's a 6-foot-4, 245-pound athletic specimen who looks ready to chase after opposing quarterbacks from Day One. Urban Meyer said he doesn't plan to redshirt many freshmen and expects his defensive line recruits to contribute right away. If not Spence, then Se'Von Pittman, Adolphus Washington or Tommy Schutt could all make their presence known up front on defense as true freshmen.

Danny O'Brien, QB, Wisconsin: Let's see. Former ACC starting quarterback graduates and transfers to Wisconsin, where he's immediately eligible. Haven't we heard this story before? True, maybe O'Brien won't play at a superstar level like Russell Wilson did a year ago. But the former Maryland signal caller plugs a huge hole on the Badgers roster, as injuries and inexperience at quarterback threatened to derail an otherwise promising season. O'Brien won't arrive in Madison until later this spring, but he's likely to grab hold of the starting quarterback job right away and perhaps lead Wisconsin back to the Big Ten title game.

Joe Bolden, LB, Michigan: Our recruiting gurus loved Bolden when he signed with the Wolverines, and the early enrollee has already drawn praise from head coach Brady Hoke on the way he's practiced this spring. Don't be surprised to see him get major minutes at linebacker and possibly contribute on special teams.

James Gillum, RB, Minnesota: The junior college transfer ran for over 1,000 yards in each of his two seasons at Mississippi Gulf Coast, and he has the opportunity to start at tailback right away for a Gophers offense in search of more playmakers. The 5-foot-11, 204-pound Gillum already has many of the skills needed for a top-flight Big Ten running back but still must adjust to a higher level of play. If he pans out, he could pair with quarterback MarQueis Gray to form a dangerous Minnesota rushing attack.

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